March 23, 2010
The ceremonies marking the 40th anniversary of Hiroshima's obliteration are over, and the ghostly figures of vaporized corpses that were stenciled on the sidewalks of scores of American cities have already begun to fade. What remains is a question, the same one that has gnawed at us from the first: Did the U.S. really have to drop the atomic bomb? Harry Truman, the man who gave the order, explained often and emphatically that he did so for the simplest yet most compelling of reasons: to end the war. Such surety seems comforting. Yet one thing last week's observances showed is that such a simple explanation remains unsettling. We continue to poke through the rubble of history, compelled to search for clues about why something so incomprehensible can seem so explainable. Nevertheless the United States elected to drop the atomic bomb to save American lives and to prevent Stalin from gaining potential territory in Japan.
There were without doubt persuasive military reasons for using the new weapon in the summer of 1945. The first day of fighting on Iwo Jima had cost more American casualties than D-day; on Okinawa, 79,000 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded. As the U.S. readied plans to invade the main islands, Japan was deploying up to 2 million soldiers and additional millions of "auxiliaries" who were clearly prepared to defend their homeland to the death. It was easy to believe estimates that an invasion would result in as many as a million American casualties, plus many more Japanese. The Bomb offered the chance of ending the war and saving lives. In addition, the Bomb, like any new weapon, had developed a constituency and a momentum of its own. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the charismatic master of Los Alamos, gave...