Harry Truman Explains Why He Dropped the Bomb

In 1947, the then-president wrote to the editors regarding his decision to use atomic warfare during World War II.

August, 1945: President Harry Truman (left) receiving a report on the bombing of Japan from Secretary of War Henry Stimson (right) (Bettmann / Getty)

In Letters from the Archives, we'll highlight past Atlantic stories and the correspondence they received in order to exhibit what then-readers thought about culture, politics, foreign affairs, and everything in between.

In his December 1946 Atlantic article, “If the Atomic Bomb Had Not Been Used,” Karl T. Compton argued in support of the nuclear weapon by considering what might have been had the United States decided not to use it. Compton believed, “with complete conviction,” that the atomic bomb saved “perhaps millions” of American and Japanese lives. Without it, he asserted, the war would have continued.

Compton’s argument was grounded in three points: (1) all war is inhuman, (2) absent the bomb, Japanese soldiers would have continued to fight relentlessly, potentially to their own demise, and (3) Japanese surrender subsequently ended the war. It was not just the physical destruction that lead to peace, he said. “It was the experience of what an atomic bomb will actually do to a community, plus the dread of many more, that was effective.”

In addition, he wrote that the use of the bomb was inevitable: “No one of good conscience knowing, as Secretary Stimson and the Chiefs of Staff did, what was probably ahead and what the atomic bomb might accomplish could have made any different decision.”

The article provoked a response from President Harry Truman, who wrote in from the White House to emphasize his own role in the decision-making process. The letter was printed in the front of The Atlantic’s February 1947 issue:

The White House:
December 16, 1946
Dear Dr. Compton:—

Your statement in the Atlantic Monthly is a fair analysis of the situation except that the final decision had to be made by the President, and was made after a complete survey of the whole situation had been made. The conclusions reached were substantially those set out in your article.

The Japanese were given fair warning, and were offered the terms which they finally accepted, well in advance of the dropping of the bomb. I imagine the bomb caused them to accept the terms.

Sincerely yours,
Harry S. Truman

Almost 50 years later, in his piece “Was It Right?,” Thomas Powers reflected on Truman’s decision in the pages of The Atlantic. He wrote that the president and military officials chose to “skirt the question of whether killing civilians can be morally justified,” asking themselves instead, “Was it necessary?” This desensitized approach “eventually cast a moral shadow” over the administration when the death toll came back in the hundreds of thousands.

Months after the bombing, Powers reported, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director of the secret research project responsible for developing it, approached Truman in remorse: “Mr. President, I have blood on my hands,” he said. But the president, who had supposedly halted the use of another bomb because he didn’t like the idea of “killing all those kids,” stayed true to the sentiment he’d expressed in his letter:

“‘I told him,’ Truman said later, ‘the blood was on my hands—let me worry about that.’”