Henry L. Stimson and The Bomb, or Why America and Britain Order their Uranium “To-Go”

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Despite the conception that Henry L. Stimson, Roosevelt and Truman’s Secretary of War, was a major proponent of using nuclear weapons against Japan at the end of World War II, in reality he was deeply troubled about America’s use of the atomic bomb, both in terms of loss of civilian life and implications of the bomb’s existence for life on our planet in the future. Source: TIME magazine, August 25, 1945.

The widely accepted idea that the use of atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a carefully considered calculus to save human lives — even the idea that Secretary of War Stimson accepted the situation as such at the time — comes into serious question in Sean Malloy’s Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb against Japan.

An article in Harper’s magazine, authored by Stimson in name but written by McGeorge Bundy in reality, circulated this idea that decision makers weighed human lives in order to determine the benefits of using the bomb. Malloy credits this article, titled simply “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” as being “stunningly effective at shaping public and scholarly understanding of the subject” (163).

“Without ever resorting to strident rhetoric, employing crudely racist caricatures of the Japanese, or expressing satisfaction at the vengeance delivered to a hated enemy,” the article established “only two choices — either an invasion or the use of nuclear weapons to induce surrender” and in doing so “presented a virtually unarguable case in favor of the bomb” (162).

Henry L. Stimson, Roosevelt and Truman's Secretary of War

Agony over President Truman’s choice to use the bomb may have contributed to Stimson’s heart attacks and overall poor health. Source: wikipedia.org; public domain image (U.S. government).

The reality was less cut-and-dry, according to Malloy. Of all of the intersecting factors that led to the use of the bomb, one of the most perplexing was Truman’s failure to make use of his “full arsenal of diplomatic threats and incentives” in the negotiations with Japan that could have encouraged an end to the war before any bombs were dropped.

Looking to the Potsdam Declaration, issued July 26, 1945, Malloy showed how Truman failed to include reassurance that the emperor could retain his position in a post-surrender peace, despite Stimson’s repeated advice that a declaration that included this condition would be far more persuasive than one without it. Truman also decided not to include the threat of Soviet involvement in the Pacific war, despite an agreement with Stalin to that effect, and Stalin was not asked to sign the Potsdam Declaration.

Malloy acknowledged that “neither the public threat of Soviet entry nor the lure of allowing the Japanese to retain the emperor after the war were diplomatic panaceas,” but the fact that they were available to Truman in July 1945 suggests that the decision to use the Bomb was more complicated than a simple calculation of human loss. If that had been the case, surely Truman would have used the tools available to him to push an earlier end to the war.

Uranium

Enriched uranium from the Y-12 National Security Complex Plant. Source: Wikipedia.org, public domain image.

Though primarily a biography of Henry L. Stimson, Malloy’s most interesting contributions are those in which Stimson plays only a supporting role. In April 1945, an Anglo-American task force ventured deep into the Soviet zone to the German town of Stassfurt to retrieve 1,100 tons of uranium ore, stored in rotting barrels near the town’s salt mine. The uranium, some packaged only in paper bags, was loaded by French and Italian men who had been working as prison laborers and driven by African-American soldiers to the Western zone, where it was unloaded by conscripted German civilians and shipped off to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, for processing.

Soldiers 1945

American soldiers under fire in Germany, 1945. The Stassfurt mission brought Anglo-American soldiers deep into the “Soviet zone” to secretly retrieve large quantities of Nazi uranium. Source: OldHickory30th.com, a website dedicated to photos, reports, maps, and other information related to the 30th Infantry Division.

Allied intelligence suggested that the Strassfurt ore was the largest supply of uranium in Europe and was several times larger than all the uranium stores in the Soviet Union. By rushing in to capture Nazi uranium stores before Soviet occupation, American and British forces demonstrated that a shared, international, cooperative approach to nuclear weapons that would include the Soviet Union was unthinkable, and, in fact, the Soviet Union was, four years before the development of a Soviet bomb, “America’s primary nuclear rival” (67).

Already in the spring of 1945, the nuclear arms race (though at the time, months before even the first American atomic test, a one-sided one) had begun.

Malloy, Sean L. Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb against Japan. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2008.

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