Research Project Plan: The Dawn of Nuclear Threat

Aaron Elfering

History 381


The Dawn of Nuclear Threat

Sixty years ago the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Japanese government surrendered to the United States and its allies. The nuclear age had begun with a literal ‘bang’ as the first military use of atomic weapons was demonstrated. With the material that follows, the National Security Archive has released the most comprehensive collection to date of declassified U.S. government documents on the atomic bomb and the end of World War II in the Pacific. Besides material from the files of the Manhattan Project, this compilation includes formerly top secret summaries and translations of Japanese communication intercepted under military programs. In addition, the collection includes translations from Japanese high level meetings and discussions in Tokyo, including the conferences when Emperor Hirohito gave the final decision to surrender to allied forces. The decision made by the U.S. to display its military superiority via the Atom bomb is painted with controversy, however, given the extensive intelligence that the U.S. Government had gathered about Japan at the time, following through with the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the correct choice.

  • Description of weapon capability as well as potential drawbacks as discussed by President Truman and high ranking military officers.

A. Memorandum discussed with the President, April 25, 1945
Source: Henry Stimson Diary, Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, Henry Lewis Stimson Papers (microfilm at Library of Congress).

President Truman learns about the Manhattan project and is brought up to speed by scientists and military strategists about its capabilities for ending conflict with Japan.

B.Untitled memorandum by General L.R. Groves, April 25, 1945
Source: Record Group 200, Papers of General Leslie R. Groves, Correspondence 1941-1970, box 3, “F”.

It is determined that President Truman favors the project and has become very intrigued by its possibility. Trusting the men in charge of the project, Truman gives the Manhattan Project his approval.

  • As it quickly became clear that Japan would be the established target, these documents, meeting minutes and briefings detail proposed delivery targets, delivery methods, command and other logistics (potential aftereffects are detailed as well).


 A. Notes on Initial Meeting of Target Committee, May 2, 1945, Top Secret
Source: RG 77, MED Records, Top Secret Documents, File no. 5d (copy from microfilm).

Military officers and nuclear scientists had met to discuss bombing techniques, selection of targets , and mission requirements.  The discussion of available targets included Hiroshima, the “largest untouched targets not on the 21st Bomber Command priority list.”


B. Memorandum from J. R. Oppenheimer to Brigadier General Farrell, May 11, 1945
Source: RG 77, MED Records, Top Secret Documents, File no. 5g (copy from microfilm)

Discussing the radiological dangers of a nuclear detonation, Oppenheimer explained the need for precaution to U.S. Generals.

C. Memorandum from Major J. A. Derry and Dr. N.F. Ramsey to General L.R. Groves, “Summary of Target Committee Meetings on 10 and 11 May 1945,” May 12, 1945, Top Secret
Source: RG 77, MED Records, Top Secret Documents, File no. 5d (copy from microfilm).

Scientists and officers held further breifings of mission requirements, detailing height of detonation, weather, possibilities for aborting the mission, target selection, including priority cities (“a large urban area of more than three miles diameter”) and psychological effect.

D.“Notes of the Interim Committee Meeting Thursday, 31 May 1945, 10:00 A.M. to 1:15 P.M. – 2:15 P.M. to 4:15 P.M.,” n.d., Top Secret
Source: RG 77, MED Records, H-B files, folder no. 100 (copy from microfilm) .

Discussion of several key Manhattan Project issues ranging from stages of development,  problems of secrecy, cooperation with “like-minded” powers, to the military impact of the bomb on Japan.  Interested in producing the “greatest possible psychological effect,” panel members agreed that the “most desirable target would be a vital war plant employing a large number of workers and closely surrounded by workers’ houses.”  Arguments are made  “that this target choice represented an uneasy endorsement of “terror bombing”–the target was not exclusively military or civilian; nevertheless, workers’ housing would include noncombatant men, women, and children”.

  • Alternative methods of resolution; Russia had poised itself to begin the invasion of Japan and the U.S. had managed to establish themselves in the south pacific to prepare for occupation. The United States had found themselves ready to use the bomb but unsure of how to go about first demonstrations after many members involved put forth their fears of creating a nuclear arms race. Ultimately deciding that using this new technology for the first time would have a resounding psychological effect on the rest of the world including the Russian government, with whom relations had grown more and more tense. By this time Japanese authority had still not shown any interest in peacemaking and only methods which would provide the quickest end to the conflict were being considered.

A. Memorandum from Arthur B. Compton to the Secretary of War, enclosing “Memorandum on ‘Political and Social Problems,’ from Members of the ‘Metallurgical Laboratory’ of the University of Chicago,” June 12, 1945, Secret
Source: RG 77, MED Records, H-B files, folder no. 76 (copy from microfilm).

Concerned with the long-run implications of the bomb, physicists had produced a report rejecting a surprise attack on Japan and recommended instead a demonstration of the bomb on the “desert or a barren island.”  Claiming that a nuclear arms race “will be on in earnest not later than the morning after our first demonstration of the existence of nuclear weapons,” the group saw international control as the alternative.  Ultimately it was decided that “atomic attack against Japan would ‘shock’ the Russians”, an effect that was becoming more and more desireable.

B. Memorandum from Acting Secretary of State Joseph Grew to the President, “Analysis of Memorandum Presented by Mr. Hoover,” June 13, 1945
Source: Record Group 107, Office of the Secretary of War, Formerly Top Secret Correspondence of Secretary of War Stimson (“Safe File”), July 1940-September 1945, box 8, Japan (After December 7/41).

An ambassador to Japan weighed in on the conditions of possible Japanese surrender, he stressed that it was extremely important that the United States declare its intention to preserve the current form of government headed by the emperor.  As he argued to President Truman, “failure on our part to clarify our intentions on the status of the emperor will insure prolongation of the war and cost a large number of human lives.”

C. Memorandum from Chief of Staff Marshall to the Secretary of War, 15 June 1945, enclosing “Memorandum of Comments on ‘Ending the Japanese War,'” June 14, 1945
Source: Record Group 107, Office of the Secretary of War, Formerly Top Secret Correspondence of Secretary of War Stimson (“Safe File”), July 1940-September 1945, box 8, Japan (After December 7/41)

The goals of ending the conflict are discussed, possible outcomes of alternative solutions and face-saving proposals for Japan, and the nature of the proposed declaration to the Japanese government, including the problem of defining terms of surrender. The author argued against “modifying the concept of unconditional surrender: if it is “phrased so as to invite negotiation” he saw risks of prolonging the war or a “compromise peace.””

D. Memorandum, “Timing of Proposed Demand for Japanese Surrender,” June 29, 1945, Top Secret
Source: Record Group 107, Office of the Secretary of War, Formerly Top Secret Correspondence of Secretary of War Stimson (“Safe File”), July 1940-September 1945, box 8, Japan (After December 7/41).

The decision to commit to the airstrike is now in effect providing the Japanese continue to refuse surrender. The weight of the impending Russian invasion is being felt by Japanese government.

  • The first nuclear strike and the beginning of the end to World War II. Detailings of the Atomic strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki as well as some of the immediate aftermath felt in both cities. Japan’s course of action and ultimate surrender under the pressure of the threat of Soviet Invasion as well as the devastating effects delivered by the nuclear strikes.

A. Memorandum from General L. R. Groves to the Chief of Staff, August 6, 1945, Top Secret
Source: RG 77, MED Records, Top Secret Documents, File no. 5b (copy from microfilm).

The day after the world’s first nuclear strike had been made, effects of the bomb are being measured and felt around the world. Early casualty counts report over 70,000 killed in the initial blast with aftermath numbers unknown. The desired psychological shock among other nations has been achieved. Still the weight of potential Soviet attack is brought to light.

B. Translation of intercepted Japanese messages, circa 10 August 10, 1945, Top Secret Ultra
Source: Record Group 457, Records of the National Security Agency/Central Security Service, “Magic” Diplomatic Summaries 1942-1945, box 18.

Five days and one more Atom bomb later, “the first Japanese surrender offer was intercepted shortly before Tokyo broadcast it.” Previous terms of surrender were agreed to with previously refuted terms involving the resignation of the Japanese emperor now no longer an issue.

Ultimately, the U.S. was able to avoid a full scale invasion of Japan which would have resulted in massive casualties. Despite powerful allies, top notch intelligence and military superiority, taking Japan would have proved virtually impossible. Time and time again attempts to negotiate peace with the Japanese empire proved futile ultimately leaving the U.S. with few options. In the end, the United States would demonstrate its technological power through one of the most aggressive and devastating attacks in world history, a regrettable but necessary action.


            After what seems like more reading than I’ve done in my entire life, I will admit, I’m very glad to have come to the end of this assignment; however, in retrospect I realize that was part of the point. The study of history on any level can be a daunting task and certainly not one for the book shy. Fortunately, I had the luxury of the internet at my fingertips for this project, as digging through the library of congress for declassified documents and excerpts from President Truman’s Journal was in no way an option for me. Ultimately I have the digital humanities field to thank for these digitized records, without the thankless, tedious work of some poor, bespectacled individual transcribing all of these notes and documents, this knowledge would be shamefully limited. Pouring through resources and attempting to find documentation about events that I knew had occurred/existed proved to be much more difficult than I had ever thought it would be despite concerning one of the best documented regiments in the world, the U.S. Government.

While the tremendous amounts of information available regarding WWII is helpful, I can’t help but feel that at the same time, the sheer volume of information is the biggest hurdle when researching topics like this. Big data can be a historian’s best friend or their worst enemy; I consider myself fairly adept at being able to find information that I need, especially when I know it exists, but in a library of congress situation where this information  can literally surround a person where does one start? Organization of big data is no small task and in a project such as this it becomes almost entirely necessary to find a few sources where this tremendous amount of information has been consolidated for you.

Relying on primary sources becomes a major issue at times, even when researching a relatively modern topic in history such as WWII. The further back in history and the more obscure the topic, the more difficult it is to dig up a firsthand account or documentation from official meetings. The allure of jumping to an article or website covering a topic as a secondary source is almost too sweet at times. Fortunately I had picked a tremendously well documented topic that was tied to a tremendously well documented organization. Without much of the digitization done by/of the Library of Congress/National Security Archive, it’s safe to say I wouldn’t know where to start with my research for this topic.

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