The History of the Bomb.

Brian Downs.


In January 1939 two German physicists Otto Hahn and Lise Meitner showed that the atom could be split, releasing energy.  On 3rd August 1939, exactly one month before Britain and France went to war with Hitler’s Germany, President Roosevelt received a letter from Einstein informing him of Nazi Germany’s research into nuclear fission, which might lead to an extremely powerful bomb, although it would probably be too heavy to carry by air.

After some persuasion, two months later the President Roosevelt of still-neutral America directed General Edwin ‘Pa’ Watson: ‘Pa, action!’  These two words initiated the birth of the Manhattan project.

By 7th December 1944, the third anniversary of Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into the war against the Axis, it was evident that Germany had no time left to produce atomic weapons, and the Japanese, though still fighting hard, had no air force left and were unable to prevent the huge US bomber squadrons pulverising their cities.  Although some 5,000 US troops were being killed weekly, the Japanese were losing ten times as many. Besieged, Japan was obviously beaten.  Its merchant fleet destroyed, food supplies were low and the people starving.  Oil supplies were exhausted, the air force virtually grounded.  Nevertheless the Manhattan Project proceeded, and the A-bomb was successfully exploded in the New Mexico desert on 16th July, 1945, 2 months after Germany’s surrender.

Soon after the start of the project there had been some opposition from several top scientists and politicians who saw both ethical and pragmatic reasons to oppose such an indiscriminate, hugely destructive bomb.

At the end of 1944 General Le May, given orders to bomb the Japanese into surrender, was able to pulverise Japanese cities at low level without resistance. On 9th March 1945 more than 300 B-29s dropped 2,000 tons of incendiaries on Tokyo, and the resulting funeral pyre killed over 200,000 civilians (more than twice the number of victims later at Hiroshima) and destroyed a quarter million buildings.  General Le Moy pronounced himself ‘satisfied’ and ordered more such raids on four other major cities. 

Four cities were reserved untouched, designated as possible targets for the A-bombs: Kokura, Hiroshima, Niigata and Kyoto.  General Groves chose these cities as they were cities of historic significance, had a military connection, and were large enough to determine the full extent of the bomb damage.  Of these, Groves favoured Kyoto, with its population over a million, long history as the ancient Japanese capital, and a city of great religious significance.  But Stimpson preferred Hiroshima, and Truman agreed with him.

When Truman succeeded Roosevelt in April 1945 Byrnes informed him of the Manhattan project: ‘Mr President, we are perfecting an explosive agent great enough to destroy the whole world!’

At the Yalta Conference in February 1945, Stalin had promised to declare war on Japan, on condition that the USSR would have the Sakhalin and Kurile islands (then part of Japan), and that Outer Mongolia would remain in Soviet hands. Stalin also asked for a share of the occupation of Japan.  But Roosevelt died, and at the Potsdam Conference in July that year Truman was much cooler towards the Soviet Union.  He informed Stalin of the successful testing of the atom bomb, describing it vaguely as a new, powerful weapon.  Stalin seemed delighted at the time, but became angry later, after the bomb was dropped, as clearly the West’s new weapon had put an end to his dreams of expansion into Asia and even Japan.

Meanwhile, the Japanese viewed Truman as a far tougher president than Roosevelt.  Their own political power was greatly weakened.  General Tojo, ‘The Razor’, had been forced to resign the premiership by the Army Council, who actually ran the government. Suzuki took over as prime minister.  Two of his five-member inner cabinet were from the army, and every detail of life in the country had to be acceptable to the army.

In May 1945 Japan annulled its alliance with the (now defunct) German government and sought peace by applying via Moscow, as the Russians had not yet declared war against Japan.  These peace feelers were rejected, as the US and UK made it known that they were no longer interested.  Truman in particular wanted Japan’s surrender before the Russians entered the war, and saw the atom bomb as the means to achieve this (and also as a way of demonstrating to the Soviet Union the awesome power of the United States).  General Arisue, the Japanese Intelligence Chief, then tried to arrange peace talks directly with Washington, but in vain.

In America on 12th June, ‘peace scientists’ on the Manhattan project petitioned in the Frank Report for a demonstration of the A-bomb, to show the world its horrific power, but four days later the US government’s reply was: ‘There is no acceptable alternative to direct military use of the atom bomb’.

So on 6th August at 2.45 a. m. the Enola Gay, escorted by 3 weather planes and two supporting planes, took off from Tinian, in the North Mariana Islands.  The plane was overweight, carrying 7,000 gallons of fuel, twelve crew and a five-ton enriched uranium type atom bomb.  At 08.15 the bomb was released, and detonated at 1,890 feet above central Hiroshima.  The glowing fireball hundreds of feet wide had a temperature of fifty million degrees, as hot as the sun.  At ground level the temperature was several thousand degrees, starting fires more than a mile distant, and burning skin two miles away.  Over 80,000 people were killed instantly, those near the centre vaporised, leaving only a shadow on the ground.  Thousands of others were to die later of radiation sickness and other injuries. 

As they died, the politicians were still talking.  In Moscow on 8th August the Japanese ambassador Sato was bluntly told by Molotov that as from midnight the Soviet Union would be at war with Japan.  The next day, as thousands of Russian troops marched into Manchuria, the second atom bomb, made from the alternative energy source plutonium, was dropped on Nagasaki, causing 35,000 deaths.  Emperor Hirohito announced that Japan would surrender in accordance with the terms agreed at Potsdam, which allowed the Emperor to retain his prerogative as Sovereign Ruler.  Truman insisted that the Emperor’s authority would remain subject to the Allied Supreme Commander in Japan.  This was a sticking point in Japan for some days, but the unconditional capitulation came on 13th August.


Sources: 1.  Russia at war – 1941 – 1945.  Alexander Werth. 1964                                    2. Ruin From the Air.  Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan 1977.