This week (Aug. 6) in 1945, the world’s first atomic bomb exploded over its primary target, the Aioi Bridge in Hiroshima, Japan. President Harry Truman had authorized the use of an atomic bomb against Japan because he had been appalled by the casualties that the U.S. military had suffered fighting the Japanese in the Far East. The recent battle on the island of Okinawa, for example, had resulted in 50,000 Americans killed, and it was estimated that an invasion of the Japanese mainland would result in 1 million American casualties.
For Truman, the decision was simple. Dropping an atomic bomb on Japan, rather than ordering American G.I.s to storm Japan’s shores, would save countless American lives. He was right, although the bomb caused unprecedented physical destruction and — factoring in the effects of the radioactive fallout — more than 100,000 Japanese deaths, both soldier and civilian.
Truman claimed he never regretted for a second his decision to order the use of atomic weapons — a second one was dropped on Nagasaki three days later — but looking at his subsequent actions, that claim appears false.
Or at least debatable, because in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman reversed a trend that had been in place almost since the dawn of time — or at least since the dawn of war. He refused to cede authority over the future use of atomic, and later nuclear, weapons to the military decision makers.
With few exceptions, the history of war up until 1945 had been political deference to the military as to how, when, where and in what quantities military weapons should be used. There were Ulysses S. Grant’s bloody sieges in the Civil War. There was the devastation of the trench warfare in World War I — one day at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 resulted in 58,000 casualties. There were the bombing campaigns of World War II, in which tens of thousands died on any given mission. In sum, political leaders had both deferred to the military leaders and supported their decisions, even as those decisions involved increasingly destructive military weapons, from bayonets, to cannon balls, to bombs.
Truman changed the rules. Sobered by the staggering destructive power of atomic weapons, he reserved to himself all decision-making with respect to their use. He even refused to share with his war planners the specific circumstances under which he would allow their use.
That set a precedent that still applies today, not only in America but among the other countries that currently possess nuclear weapons. Politicians, not generals, control their use, which may be one reason why no atomic or nuclear weapons have been used in warfare since Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945.