When the president said yes to the bomb: Truman's diaries reveal no hesitation, some regret

President Harry S. Truman announces Japan's surrender on Aug. 14, 1945, a little more than a week after an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. <br>U.S. National Archives
President Harry S. Truman announces Japan's surrender on Aug. 14, 1945, a little more than a week after an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima.

President Harry Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki came with regret over the loss of life, but without hesitation.

Truman’s diaries, speeches and personal correspondence present a man who believed the bombs would end the war before Soviet intervention.

They also show how an early belief that the bombs would somehow only target combatants gives way to a later justification that the deaths of innocent Japanese lives was necessary to prevent more American fatalities.

Truman only learned of the atomic bomb’s existence after assuming the presidency. Truman inquired about the mysterious Manhattan Project years earlier, while heading a Senate committee to investigate war spending, but Secretary of War Henry Stimson refused to let him review it.

“He said that he now understood perfectly why it was inadvisable for me to have taken any other course than I had taken,” Stimson wrote in his diary on April 25, 1945, two days after Truman was fully briefed on the atomic bomb’s progress.

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The following excerpts come from documents collected by the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum:

Diary entry of Harry Truman, July 18, 1945

After a meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill:

“P.M. and I ate alone. Discussed Manhattan (it is a success). Decided to tell Stalin about it. Stalin had told P.M. of telegram from Jap emperor asking for peace. Stalin also read his answer to me! It was satisfactory. Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in. I am sure they will when Manhattan appears over their homeland. I shall inform Stalin about it at an opportune time.”

On Stalin:

“He said he wanted to cooperate with U.S. in peace as we had cooperated in War but it would be harder. Said he was grossly misunderstood in U.S. and I was misunderstood in Russia.

Diary entry of Harry Truman, July 25, 1945:

“We have discovered the most terrible bomb in the history of the world …”

“This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

“He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that but we will have given them the chance. “

“It is certainly a good thing that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb,” Truman said. “It seems to me the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful.”

Letter to Samuel Calvert, general secretary, Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, Aug. 11, 1945

In a response, after Calvert wrote that many Christians were deeply disturbed over the “indiscriminate destruction” caused by the atomic bombs:

“Nobody is more disturbed over the use of Atomic bombs than I am but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese in Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language they seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them.”

From a handwritten Truman speech draft, Dec. 15, 1945

Truman's feelings on his decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan:

“It was a decision to loose the most terrible of all destructive forces for the wholesale slaughter of human beings. The Secretary of War Mr. Stimson and I weighed that decision most prayerfully. The President had to decide. It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities and I still think they were and are.

“But I couldn’t help but think of the necessity of blotting out women, children and more combatants. We picked a couple of cities where war work was the principle industry and dropped the bombs. Russia hurried in and that war ended.”

Stars and Stripes researcher Catharine Giordano contributed to this report.

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