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Explain the reasons for the dropping of atom bombs on Japan and their short and long-term effects

Topics on this page
Reasons for Dropping the Atomic Bombs
Short-Term Effects
Long-Term Effects
Teaching Resources

Focus Questions: What were the reasons for the dropping of atom bombs on Japan and its short and long-term effects?

Atomic Cloud over Nagasaki
Atomic Cloud over Nagasaki

For a basic overview, go the The Atomic Bomb: Hiroshima and Nagasaki from TeachingHistory.org

Overview of the Atomic Bombings:

  • After the German Surrender on May 8th, 1945, or V-E Day, the allied effort moved its focus on securing Japan's unconditional surrender.
  • See here for info on some of the decisions that President Truman had on the table in dealing with ending the war with Japan, and some insights as to why he chose to order the bombings.

For a new interpretation, see Racing the Enemy: Stalin, Truman and the Surrender of the Japan, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, Harvard University Press, 2006.
  • Reviewing Japanese, Russian and American sources, Hasegawa contend that Russia's declaration of war on Japan right after Hiroshima was the the key to Japanese surrender.
  • Prior to Russia's intervention, Japan's leaders were prepared to fight on--not over fanaticism--but for strategic interests such as holding on to territory, avoiding war crime trials, and maintaining the imperial system.
  • Russia's entry negated those plans. The atomic bombing while adding urgency was not decisive in motivating Japan. (from G. Cook, "Why Did Japan Surrender?" Boston Sunday Globe, August 7, 2011, pp. K1, 3).

timeline2_rus.svg.pngThe Atomic Heritage Foundation has compiled a timeline of the preparations and events leading up to the Bombings, the events of the day of first bombing, August 6th, and up until Japanese officials signed terms of surrender on September 2nd.

Screen Shot 2017-02-21 at 10.27.35 AM.pngFor background on the building of the atomic bomb, go to AtomicArchive.com: Exploring the History, Science and Consequences of the Atomic Bomb , a website from the National Science Digital Library, National Science Foundation. Includes a timeline, biography of Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi's account of the Trinity Test, maps showing damage to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and gallery of photographs and historical footage.

primary_sources.PNGThe Office of Scientific and Technical Information has links to a number of government records, describing the various sites and tests that made up The Manhattan Project

Hiroshima Peace Bell
Hiroshima Peace Bell

Multimedia.pngLook at Voices of the Manhattan Project for interviews with some of those involved.

See here for a clip from the documentary Fog of War, were former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara remarks on the Fire-bombings of Japan and the dropping on the Atomic Bomb.

This Crash Course Video, talks about WWII in general, but the last few minutes (the start of the link, or approx. 9:02) are spent talking about the atomic bombs.

Decision to drop the Atomic Bomb

Atomic Bomb Documentary

Atomic Bomb Museum

Multimedia.pngClick here for Nagasaki Archive that includes photos and experiences of survivors in 3D using Google Earth.

Rotating_globe-small.gifClick here for a newspaper account of Tsutomu Yamaguchi a business man who is only known person to have survived both atomic bombings.

primary_sources.PNGCapturing the Atomic Bomb on Film from The New York Times includes atomic pictures from 1945 to late 1950s.

external image Red_apple.jpgEnola Gay presents a webquest about the decision to drop an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Students have to take different perspectives to decide if the dropping was of historical significance.external image 456px-Atomic_bomb_1945_mission_map.svg.png

external image 200px-Paperback_book_black_gal.svg.pngFor a modern day perspective on the consequences of nuclear weapons, see Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State, Gary Wills (Penguin, 2010).
In this book, Wills argues that a growing expansion of Presidential power has been centered around the threat of nuclear weapons and the development of a national security state.
  • "What he means is that presidents have taken unto themselves an ever-expanding range of powers that are not granted, and in some cases, explicitly prohibited, by the Constitution. Starting at the top are the de facto power to "declare" or wage war. . . ; to decide what information is secret, who gets to know about it, and how much they get to know; to enter into foreign alliances and agreements with little or no oversight; to suspend constitutional rights by executive order . . .; to ignore laws enacted by Congress in whole or in part by declaration of intent to do so in 'signing statements' and to spend money without, or contrary to, congressional authorization" (quoted in "How The Got Their Bloody Way," Thomas Powers, The New York Review of Books, May 27, 2010, p. 6).
    Replica of the Atomic Bomb
    Replica of the Atomic Bomb

Reasons for Dropping the Atomic Bomb

  • The government justification noted that the war was costing to many American lives, due to the military strategy of island-hopping to gain control of Japan and the perceived fanaticism of the Japanese people. Dropping the Atomic bomb was seen as a way to avoid losing American lives and bring an end to the lengthy and costly war that the Japanese were not ready to give up. The U.S. military was considering other options for ending the war with Japan, including a naval blockade, massive land invasion, and a softening of demands as a way to get Japan to surrender unconditionally.
  • Sent a message of American power to the world community. In particular, some theorists speculate that the message was intended for the Soviet Union to discourage them from attempting to establish control in the Pacific.
    • The decision to drop the atomic was hotly debated within the United States

  • An American propaganda poster from WWII
    An American propaganda poster from WWII
    Rotating_globe-small.gifOfficial U.S. policy during World War II represented racism towards the Japanese. This is evident in:
    • the creation of internment camps for Japanese-Americans
    • racist propaganda, including political cartoons
external image Red_apple.jpg
  • Check out this PBS lesson plan on exploring World War II through the use of political cartoons, including Dr. Seuss' depictions of the Japanese.
    • For more on Dr. Seuss and his use of racist imagery, see the book Dr. Seuss Goes To War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel by historian Richard Minear
    • Also see issues that were raised with the Dr. Seuss Museum in Springfield, MA. Historians and public figures alike were discontented that Seuss' earlier career as a political cartoonist is largely absent from the museum. This New York Times article contends that the sidestepping of Seuss' more questionable past does a disservice to museum-goers.
primary_sources.PNGThe U.S. War Department published this comic strip, called "How to Spot a Jap" for American soldiers serving in China during World War II.

primary_sources.PNGThe Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II features 77 primary source documents including one where President Truman expressed doubts about using the bomb 10 days before the first attack.

primary_sources.PNGPrimary Source Documents on the use of the bomb

lessonplan.jpgPrimary Source Activity- Truman's Press Release August 6, 1945

Multimedia.pngtimeline2_rus.svg.pngClick here for a timeline from NPR called "The Road to Hiroshima", an audio clip of Truman announcing the attack, and an audio recording of a survivor account given to Congress in 1982.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read an interview with a Hiroshima survivor. Click here to be connected to "Voice of Hibakusha" which contains testimonies from survivors.
external image Red_apple.jpgJudging Truman's Decision to Drop the Bomb.

Short term effects

  • 90,000-166,000 deaths in Hiroshima and 60,000-80,000 deaths in Nagasaki within four months of the bombings. Both bombs affected mostly civilian populations and not enemy combatants.
    • half of these deaths occurred on the days of the bombings as a result of the explosions
    • rebound blasts off the mountains surrounding the bombing sites caused additional damage to the initial explosions
    • rain containing radioactive materials fell following the explosions, causing radiation sickness
  • Japan surrendered on August 15, 1945, six days after the bombing of Nagasaki.
    • Click here for an interesting hidden history of Americn POW's who died in the nuclear blasts.
    • U.S. troops occupied Japan for the following year
primary_sources.PNGClick here and here for articles from the New York Times following the days after dropping the atomic bomb.
Aerial view of Hiroshima before the bombing
Aerial view of Hiroshima before the bombing
Aerial view of Hiroshima after the bombing
Aerial view of Hiroshima after the bombing

Long term effects

Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Satō, 1972
Japanese Prime Minister Eisaku Satō, 1972

Japan adopted the Three Non-Nuclear Principles, stating that Japan will never produce nuclear weapons or allow their introduction into Japanese territories.
  • Hiroshima After the Bombing
    Hiroshima After the Bombing
    • primary_sources.PNGRotating_globe-small.gifEisaku Sato's 1974 Nobel Lecture upon winning the Nobel Peace Prize details Japan's non-nuclear policy
  • The Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission was founded in 1948 by President Truman to study of the long-term impact of radiation on human populations
  • Long term cancer and birth defects
    • One study estimates that from 1950-2000, 46% of leukemia deaths and 11% of cancer deaths of bomb survivors were caused by radiation from the bombings
  • Left Japan with greatly diminished military capabilities
  • International protest to use of atomic bombs on people, especially civilian populations

Here is an article from the Office of the Historian, which discusses the United Sates occupation of Japan and it's reconstruction after the dropping of the bomb.

womens history.jpg
This article discusses the affect that the bombs had on women after the bombs, as a result of the nuclear radiation.
The Hiroshima Maidens, was a project that was undertaken to provide surgical reconstruction, plastic surgery, to 25 young women who had been disfigured by the bombs in 1955. This Canadian radio broadcast from 1957, discusses the project. This essay was written discussing the event in relation to the media, and the effects on the women.

primary_sources.PNGClick here to read Helen Keller's thoughts on the attack after visiting Hiroshima in 1948.

Click here to read about the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty from 1963, from the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry was be the first US secretary of state to visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, making him the highest sitting US official to do so at the time.
In May of 2016, President Barack Obama broke that record by becoming the first US President to visit the site.

Rotating_globe-small.gif2011 Poetry for Peace Contest presented living testimonies from 741 atomic bomb survivors from the United Nations Office of Disarmament Affairs.
Multimedia.pngClick here for a photo gallery called "Remembering Nagasaki."

The United States Office of the Historian offers this article on Atomic Diplomacy, which not only covers the decision to drop the atomic bombs and the aftermath, but also how the atomic bomb has been used in diplomatic conversations since then.

Teaching Resources

  • See here for a lesson plan from the Stanford History Education Group, with multiple accounts of the Bombings.
  • Another Lesson Plan, from the Truman Library, where students will take on the role of Truman's advisors and argue for a course of action.

The Race to Build the Atomic Bomb website details efforts by scientists and soldiers to complete the atomic bomb before and during World War II.
womens history.jpgClick here for a website that contains interviews with women who worked on the Manhattan Project. This article provides an overview of their involvement in building the atomic bomb, and offers links to other resources.

external image Test_hq3x.pngSample MCAS Test Question (2008)
Each of the following is contains a statement about the atomic bomb.
I. Dropping atomic bombs on Japan saved two million American lives.
II. Many scientists, including Enrico Fermi and J. Robert Oppenheimer, helped develop the first atomic bombs.
III. The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was delivered by the bomber named the Enola Gay.
IV. The code name for the project that developed the atomic bomb was the Manhattan Project.

Which of the statements is an opinion about the atomic bomb?
A. I
Correct Answer is A

Sample MCAS Test Question (2007)
Which of the following is the main reason President Harry Truman gave for ordering an atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima?
A. to show the world the horror of atomic bombs
B. to avoid a large number of American causalities in an invasion of Japan
C. to persuade communist China that it should stay out of the war
D. to demonstrate to Germany that the United States had an atomic bomb
Correct Answer is B