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Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

Truman Presidential Museum and Library
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Reviewed by:
Brian Platt
George Mason University
November 2002

This site, operated by the Truman Museum in Independence, Missouri, displays more than 100 documents held at the Truman Museum relating to the use of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The site is actually only one part of the Truman Library and Museum’s main site, which contains online exhibits and primary documents relating to Truman and his presidency. The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb addresses Truman’s most significant and controversial act, and is a valuable resource for instructors and students studying the end of World War II and the discussions within the Truman administration leading up to the dropping of the atomic bombs.

The site is well organized and easy to use, with a main page that separates the documents by year or by category. For example, the category entitled “Building the Atomic Bomb“ contains ten documents generated by the “Interim Committee,” headed by Secretary of War Henry Stimson, on the use of nuclear weapons, as well as several documents relating to the creation of the bomb under the leadership of General Leslie Groves. There is also a “Truman and the Bomb“ folder that offers a discussion by Truman scholar Robert H. Ferrell on the end of the war and Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb. Additional site sections provide two sample lesson plans that use the site’s primary documents to guide students through the issues surrounding the use the bomb.

The site contains many of the documents that scholars use when debating the necessity or morality of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, such as minutes from important meetings, and memos from Truman’s key advisers. Other noteworthy documents include a notebook drawing of the atomic mushroom cloud by a scientist who observed the explosion of the test bomb in New Mexico, a copy of one of the “warning flyers“ dropped on some Japanese cities after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (used more as a tool of psychological warfare than as an actual warning), and a personal letter sent by Truman in 1946 to a Hollywood film director who, in Truman’s view, had misrepresented the decision to use the bomb in a movie. Most of these documents can be found elsewhere in print form, but the fact that these materials are photographs of the actual documents makes them particularly compelling for classroom use.

Instructors who use the site should be aware of its limitations. First, its focus is rather narrow: it addresses only the discussions within the Truman administration concerning the use of the atomic bombs. It does not discuss the broader historical context for their use, nor does it address the Japanese experience of the bombs. Second, as one might expect from a site curated by the Truman Museum, the site does not provide a forum for critical views on the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Indeed, upon examining the site, the reader would have little idea that it addresses what is arguably the most controversial decision of the 20th century. The site does, however, contain several documents that are often used by scholars who are critical of Truman and his motivations for using the bombs. For example, it contains entries from Truman’s diary that seem to suggest that Soviet entry into the war would make the atomic bombs unnecessary, as well as the 1946 U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey that argued that Japan would have surrendered without the use of the atomic bombs. Consequently, the documents on this site can be used to spark debates among students—provided that they are aware of the issues beforehand. The site should, therefore, be used in conjunction with other materials. For example, instructors might want to assign background readings on the subject (a short, balanced, and accessible book is J. Samuel Walker’s Prompt and Utter Destruction1), then ask students to contrast this site with other sites that express dissenting views of the use of the atomic bombs (see, for example, Atomic Bomb: Decision). Instructors might also follow up with primary materials that reveal the human consequences of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; many such materials can be found online.

1 Samuel Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).

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