Would You Have Dropped the Atomic Bomb? Sixty years ago tomorrow, the crew of an American B-29 bomber dropped the first of two atomic bombs on Japan. Madeleine Brand talks with Mark Straus, editor of the magazine Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which published the responses of historians, physicists and diplomats who were asked if they would or would not have used atomic weapons to end the war with Japan.
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Would You Have Dropped the Atomic Bomb?

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Would You Have Dropped the Atomic Bomb?

Would You Have Dropped the Atomic Bomb?

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On August 6th, 1945, a B-29 flew over Hiroshima, Japan, and dropped the first of two atomic bombs that would kill some 200,000 Japanese. Within days Japan surrendered and World War II was over. Now, 60 years later, questions remain over the decision to use atomic weapons. This month a magazine called Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists created a special issue devoted to those questions. They asked historians, physicists and diplomats this: If the decision had been yours alone to make, would you have dropped the bomb? Joining us from Chicago is the editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and it's Mark Strauss.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Strauss.

Mr. MARK STRAUSS (Editor, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists): Hello. Thank you for having me.

BRAND: You recruited a variety of people to write essays trying to answer this question, and let's start with people who agreed with President Truman that it was the right thing to do.

Mr. STRAUSS: Yes. We published seven essays and four of our authors had answered no and, as you know, two had answered yes, and one abstained, arguing that the question was actually moot. The two who argued in favor of dropping the bomb were Thomas Donnelly, a defense specialist at the American Enterprise Institute, and Richard B. Frank, who's an award-winning historian who wrote a book on the downfall of the Japanese empire.

BRAND: And what were their arguments?

Mr. STRAUSS: Well, Thomas Donnelly observed that war is not necessarily murder, but by definition it does involve killing. And victory requires killing enough of the enemy to make them stop killing us. And, therefore, in his view, the atomic bombs were a means to that end. Richard B. Frank makes the case that dropping the atomic bombs were, in effect, the best worst option because if we hadn't dropped the bombs, not only would thousands of Americans have perished in an invasion of Japan but very likely millions of Japanese would have as well.

BRAND: And those who argued that they would not have used the atomic bomb against Japan, what did they say?

Mr. STRAUSS: Their arguments were, first of all, that it was immoral to target cities that had largely civilian populations. They also make the case that the bombs were not necessary to secure Japan's surrender, that Japan, for all intents and purposes, was already defeated, that the forthcoming entry of the Soviet Union into the Pacific war would all but guarantee their surrender. And they also have argued that the United States should have clarified its demands for unconditional surrender and made it clear early on that the US would have guaranteed the safety of the emperor because the Japanese were concerned that the emperor would have been executed for war crimes.

BRAND: And one of your writers says, `Actually this is the wrong question. The question should not be, "Would I have dropped the bomb?" but "Will we drop the bomb?"'

Mr. STRAUSS: And that was Mary Palevsky. And Mary is a historian. Her parents actually both worked on the Manhattan Project, and she did a book called "Atomic Fragments: A Daughter's Question," where she talked to the various physicists and those who were involved in the Manhattan Project. And it's a really very engaging and personal essay because it serves as the voice, as it were, of the Manhattan Project and I think the moral ambiguity that it represents. She felt that answering the question at this point would not change anything, but that we need to be looking forward instead and ask ourselves, `How can we stop another generation from asking the same question that confronts us 60 years later?'

BRAND: And what about you personally? Working on this project, has it changed your opinion?

Mr. STRAUSS: I have to admit that after reading these essays and talking to so many people, I find myself as ambivalent now as I was before. I think the one thing I know, though, with absolute certainty is that if I had made the decision to drop the bomb, I would have regretted it because of the world it created.

BRAND: Mark Strauss is the editor of Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The magazine's current issue asks: Would you have dropped the bomb? And thank you for joining us.

Mr. STRAUSS: Thank you.

BRAND: NPR's DAY TO DAY continues. I'm Madeleine Brand.

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