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David Kennedy: Why U.S. Leaders Never Questioned the Idea of Dropping the Bomb

His left hand resting on an inexpensive Gideon Bible, Harry S Truman took the presidential oath of office on April 12, 1945. It was an extra 13 days before he received his first substantial briefing on the U.S. effort to develop an atomic weapon--a process fast approaching its climactic stage after more than three years of colossal expense, toil and urgency. Neither Secretary of War Henry Stimson nor Leslie Groves, overseer of the vast atomic project, was in a particular hurry to get the new President's ear because they knew that all the important choices about the Bomb had already been settled. Their conversation with the President on April 25 proceeded accordingly. "Within four months we shall in all probability have completed the most terrifying weapon ever known in human history," Stimson told Truman. The meeting lasted just 45 minutes. None of the men questioned the assumption that the weapon would be used as soon as it was ready, and the sooner the better.

That assumption had animated the creation of the Manhattan Engineering District in the first place. It energized the near manic pace at which Groves ramrodded the project forward. It suffused all thinking about the Bomb's purpose, development and eventual detonation. It was never seriously challenged....

The discomforting truth is that Allied leaders strode unhesitantly into the atomic age. "I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used," Truman later wrote. "[N]or did I ever hear the slightest suggestion that we should do otherwise," Winston Churchill added. Nothing in the record contradicts them. Dropping the Bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, was among history's most notorious foregone conclusions....

In 1933 the U.S. War Department sponsored a design competition for a new kind of weapons system--the strategic bomber. While Germany, Japan and Italy bombed civilians in World War II, only the U.S. and Britain configured their forces and defined their war-fighting doctrines around the central element of a massive strategic air arm designed to carry the battle to the enemy's civilian society. In Europe the U.S. B-17 and B-24 bomber fleets made a considerable effort to restrict their attacks to high-value economic and military targets. But in the endgame of the war against Japan, long-range B-29 bombers systematically undertook fire-bombing raids that consumed 66 of Japan's largest cities and killed as many as 900,000 civilians--many times the combined death tolls of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The weapons that incinerated those two unfortunate cities represented a technological innovation with fearsome consequences for the future of humanity. But the U.S. had already crossed a terrifying moral threshold when it accepted the targeting of civilians as a legitimate instrument of warfare. That was a deliberate decision, indeed, and it's where the moral argument should rightly focus.