Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

A Psychohistory of Truman's Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

Academic journal article The Journal of Psychohistory

A Psychohistory of Truman's Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb

Article excerpt

The American writer Ralph W. Emerson once mentioned that "there is properly no history; only Biography."1 His statement deserves attention in the sense that it indicates an inseparable relationship between historical events and the life histories of the political leaders who orchestrated these events.

In the case of a national leader who believes that he or she can alter history according to his or her will and actually puts such a will into practice, psychohistory, which investigates "the relationship of life histories to the historical moment,"2 may establish a more significant contribution in understanding those historical events than other sciences. The relationship between the life history of Harry S. Truman and "the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan"3 may provide an instructive example. Truman firmly believed that "men make history; history doesn't make the man."4 This study, using a psychohistorical perspective, intends to identify the relationship between the childhood experiences of Truman and his historical decision to drop the atomic bomb.


Although many believe Truman made the final decision to use the atomic bomb,5 some argue that he did not actually make that decision. The Hyde Park Aide-Memoire, written in September 1944, demonstrates that Winston L S. Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt had an agreement on the use of the atomic bomb: "when a 'bomb' is finally available, it might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese."6 In this regard, one of Truman's intimates argued: "Truman made no decision because there was no decision to be made. He could no more have stopped it than a train moving down a track."7

At that time, the atomic bomb had not been completed, so a final decision regarding its use was not possible. This led Roosevelt to raise "the question of whether... [the bomb] should actually be used against Japanese or whether it should be used only as a threat with full-scale experimentation [noncombat demonstration]"8 in a meeting held three days after that agreement. Roosevelt consented that the "subject could be postponed for quite a time, and [...] the matter did not now need to be discussed."9

In Memoirs Truman admitted: "The final decision of where and when to use the atomic bomb was up to me."10 Therefore, it is evident that he played a crucial role in making a decision on the use of the atomic bomb.


Historians suggest Truman's decision to use the atomic bomb was based on five major political factors:11 First, it would quickly end the war and minimize American casualties; second, it would obtain Japan's unconditional surrender; third, it would serve as retaliation for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor; fourth, it would secure military and psychological superiority over the Soviet Union; and fifth, it would justify the "two billions of dollars on the atomic venture."12 Although these factors exerted considerable influence on Truman's decision-making, they did not assure the inevitability of his decision.

Early Ending of the War

In 1946 the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that "Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated."13 Therefore, arguing that an early ending of the war justified the atomic bombing on Japan does not stand.

Achieving Japan's Unconditional Surrender

If the atomic bombs were used to achieve Japan's unconditional surrender, the demand for an unconditional surrender should have followed the dropping. But the Truman administration did not continue its efforts to persuade Japan to accept the terms of unconditional surrender. This can be readily confirmed through scrutinizing the historical process of Japan's surrender to U.S.

On July 17, 1945, through secret intercepting, the Truman administration already knew that "Japan Officially if not publicly' [had] accepted its defeat. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.