Cold War Statesmen Confront the Bomb: Nuclear Diplomacy since 1945

By John Lewis Gaddis; Philip H. Gordon et al. | Go to book overview

1
Introduction

ERNEST R. MAY

PRESIDENT Harry S. Truman is remembered, among many other things, for being the first -- and so far the only -- political leader to use nuclear weapons. Whether Truman had weighed the pros and cons or simply did not intervene to halt long-contemplated operations has been debated for decades. Whatever the case, after US aircraft dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Truman did order that the single remaining bomb not be used against a third Japanese city. In a diary note on a cabinet meeting held the day after the Nagasaki bombing, Secretary of Commerce Henry A. Wallace wrote that Truman 'said the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn't like the idea of killing, as he said, "all those kids".' 1

In his first major policy speech after the Japanese surrender, Truman said:

The discovery of the means of releasing atomic energy . . . may some day prove to be more revolutionary in the development of human society than the invention of the wheel, the use of metals, or the steam or internal combustion engine. Never in history has society been confronted with a power so full of potential danger and at the same time so full of promise for the future of man and for the peace of the world. 2

Winston Churchill, who was Britain's Prime Minister until just before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had had a hand in the highly secret atomic weapons programme from its inception, five years before Hiroshima. He was thus far ahead of Truman, who had not been told of the programme until April 1945, when the death of Franklin Roosevelt made him President instead of VicePresident. Yet Churchill's expression of awe matched Truman's. When told of the immense yield of the test bomb exploded at Alamogordo, New Mexico, a month before Hiroshima, Churchill said, 'This atomic bomb is the Second Coming in wrath.' 3 Nine years later, after the far more powerful hydrogen bomb had been proof-tested, Churchill said in his last great speech in the House of Commons:

A curious paradox has emerged. Let me put it simply. After a certain point has been passed, it may be said, the worse things get the better. The broad effect of the latest developments is to spread almost indefinitely and at least to a vast extent the area of

-1-

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