The Bomb

On 16 July 1945 J. Robert Oppenheimer said “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” He was quoting the Bhagavad Gita, but his sentiment is understood. He, along with many of the scientists on the Manhattan Project, believed that the creation of a weapon so totally destructive would literally end wars, for fear of the weapons’ power. Did Oppenheimer or Einstein or Teller believe that The Bomb would ever be used? That’s a question for dead men and philosophers. The fact is that The Bomb was created… and on a hot day in July 1945 in the New Mexico dessert, the world was forever changed.

It’s rather impolite, I feel, to look back on history and criticise a situation that’s almost impossible to fully comprehend. Episode 13 of Season 5 of The West Wing makes reference to Truman’s decision. President Bartlett argues “some terrible choice have had to be made in this room, none more agonizing than Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” For a fictional character, he has a point. Imagine, just for a second, sitting in the Big Chair and having to decide to use the one weapon you knew could end the war, but at what cost? Are American lives the most important, or do you carry a humanist view that all lives are important. Bartlett goes on to explain how the Japanese, on Okinawa, knew they couldn’t win so they made a concerted effort to kill as many Americans and possible, resulting in the death of over 250,000 souls… American, Japanese and civilians… making the argument that the dropping of The Bomb actually saved lives. On the other hand lies the argument that, after the Potsdam Conference, Roosevelt simply wanted Stalin to know that the US had The Bomb (and more importantly were wiling to use it) so that the Russians would behave.

Both are valid arguments. Did the dropping of The Bomb save lives? Absolutely. Did Roosevelt want a way to keep the Russians in check? Of course. In the case of the Potsdam Conference, Truman proved that The Bomb wasn’t simply an empty threat to the Japanese Empire… the United States had the technology and was willing to use it, should the need arise. Of course, Truman created a situation he never could have envisioned in the process: a world in which the technology existed to destroy the entire Earth several times over.

At the end of the episode Bartlett argues, “It’s telling that the physicists involved in the creation of these weapons became the most fervid opponents of their use. Einstein, Oppenheimer, Szilard. Hans Bethe wrote: ‘If we fight a war and win it with H-bombs, what history will remember is not the ideas we were fighting for, but the methods we used to accomplish them. These methods will be compared to the warfare of Genghis Khan, who brutally killed every last inhabitant of Persia.’ “

Was Truman right to drop The Bomb? I feel certain that HE felt he was right, considering the information he had available and the situation at the time. History tends to make questions of this magnitude easier to answer… but it’s important to remember the context. History doesn’t exist in a bubble… every act has consequences, no matter how small. Was Truman right to drop The Bomb? I don’t know… and I loathe to criticise a man when I’ve not stood in his shoes. It’s certainly true that aftermath, and technological and international impact, was massive. I think Hans Bethe is right, particularly in this instance: history remembers the use of The Bomb and it’s aftermath, and much of Truman’s presidency has been classified by his use of The Bomb… but history often forgets the circumstances, and the further removed we get from the situation, the more people are going to remember the outcome, rather than the reasons.


West Wing reference: 5×13- “The Warfare of Ghenghis Khan”


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: Nobody…Except The American People Themselves | Luxated History

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