Hiroshima and Spinning the Atom: America, Britain, and Canada Proclaim the Nuclear Age, 6 August 1945

By Kirstein, Peter N. | The Historian, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

Hiroshima and Spinning the Atom: America, Britain, and Canada Proclaim the Nuclear Age, 6 August 1945


Kirstein, Peter N., The Historian


WHEN THE MANHATTAN Project accelerated from theoretical physics to the actual engineering phase of the atomic bomb, Washington policy makers were determined to gain a propaganda advantage. Although no one knew precisely when the atomic bomb would be introduced into the Pacific War, senior civilian and military elites had resolved that, once that fateful decision was executed, they would inundate the American public and the international community with extremely positive and jingoistic justifications for the cataclysmic arrival of the nuclear age. In the United States, nuclear propaganda preparations began during the Roosevelt administration and intensified during the first months of the Truman presidency. The United States carefully orchestrated with the United Kingdom and Canada the release of multiple statements extolling the magnificence of the new epoch. When the atomic bomb destroyed Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and World War II became a nuclear war, senior leaders of all three countries delivered five carefully coordinated announcements on that same day.

In the United States, the many drafts of presidential and secretary of war statements initially recognized the global peril of nuclear weapons' proliferation. As the day of atomic bombing approached, however, the drafts increasingly envisioned that America would enjoy a prolonged atomic monopoly and barely mentioned the need for international arms control. Starting in 1945, the proposed public rhetoric of the drafts became wartime propaganda, increasingly less reflective, and more exterminationist in substance. This aggressive language was consistent with a brutal and merciless war in which entire populations of burning cities were uprooted or wholly destroyed as if they were combatants.

Almost a year before the first atomic bomb detonated in the air over Hiroshima on Japan's Honshu Island, the Roosevelt administration was preparing official statements that would accompany the first fission bomb attack in the air over Japan. (1) As early as 18 September 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered a nuclear warfare option against Japan when he privately told visiting British Prime Minister Winston Churchill that "after mature consideration," Japan should endure a nuclear "bombardment [that] will be repeated until they surrender." (2)

While the historiography of atomic bomb announcement preparations includes only the Truman administration, documents contained in the National Archives reveal that the process developed rapidly during the last months of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency. Several records from the Roosevelt years reveal a growing preoccupation within the administration about managing the dissemination of information on the development and use of the atomic bomb when it became likely that the Pacific War was to turn into a nuclear war.

Among the key players in the administration were Vannevar Bush and James B. Conant. Bush was director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development (1941-1946), president of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and, later, member of the eight-person Interim Policy Committee on Atomic Energy (Interim Committee). Conant, on leave from his presidency at Harvard, was chair of the National Defense Research Committee and would serve on the Interim Committee. (3) In their joint memorandum to the Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson on 19 September 1944, Bush and Conant recommended establishing a process of informing a global audience that nuclear weapons were under development. They did not promote a propaganda statement of triumphalism, but a "detailed history" of the Manhattan Project that was to provide "scientific facts" and credit those atomic scientists involved in the A-bomb project. (4) The two scientists urged the Roosevelt administration to announce the development of the atomic bomb even if the Pacific War were to end before the weapon could be deployed.

Expressing concerns about nuclear proliferation, they wanted to dispel the illusion that an indefinite American monopoly was possible. …

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