The world entered into the era of atomic weaponry on August 6th and 9th 1945. Two tiny weapons

-Little Boy and Fat Man- were dropped on the Japanese towns of Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively.

The news of the destruction of Hiroshima was announced by President Truman in a broadcast a few hours after the U.S air force carried out the attack. In a subsequent address to the American people on August 10,1945, the President said, “Having found the bomb we have used it….We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.”  Mr.Truman continued to justify this act even when he was no longer in office. In “ Off the record -The Private Papers of Harry S.Truman “ ed. by Rober H.Farell, he mentions that America was at war and the atom bomb had to be used “to end the unnecessary slaughter on both sides”.

Such remarks inevitably lead one to believe that the atom bombs were used because there was no other recourse for compelling Japan to surrender and end World War II. However, in 1965, Gar Alperovitz, an American historian, made what is considered as a completely divergent scholarly opinion with the following statement, “My own view is that presently available evidence shows that the atomic bomb was not needed to end the war or to save lives.” He also mentions that General Eisenhower shared his opinion.

Effects of the Blasts

General Dwight Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander of the American forces in Europe during the Second World War and later President of the United States from 1953 to 1960. He has revealed that in July, 1945, when the U.S Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, informed him that the U.S Government was preparing to drop the atomic bomb on Japan he “voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary…”.

Regardless of the debate that the bombing gave rise to, the havoc it caused cannot be described. Facts state that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were instantaneously destroyed. Over 92 per cent of the 78,000 buildings in Hiroshima which lay within a radius of four kilometres from the spot on the ground directly below the explosion were blasted, burned and demolished.

In Nagasaki 36 per cent of the 51,000 buildings were similarly destroyed. Glass windows up to 27 kilometres and 19 kilometres from the blasts in Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively were found shattered.

Death and destruction were indiscriminate in the target areas : neither children nor women, young nor old, civilians nor soldiers, houses nor factories, hospitals nor schools were spared. Over 90 per cent of all victims were civilians. The death toll also included many foreigners including Allied Prisoners of War (American, Australian, British and Dutch soldiers numbering over 1,000), conscripted Korean workers, students, traders, clergy and consular personnel from Asian and European countries.

Besides these primary victims, there are secondary A-bomb victims who were affected by residual radiation. They comprise the early entrants looking for friends and relatives and the relief teams. There are also countless victims of radioactive fallout or “ashes of death” that descended on a wide area of the two cities and their suburbs within hours of the explosions.

The damage of conventional war is generally temporary. Atom bomb damage haunts not only individuals initially assaulted but its awesome power continues to affect succeeding generations.

Attack on Pearl Harbour

It is only after the formal entry of the United States into the Second World War in the aftermath of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7,1941, that substantial financial and technical resources for the construction of an atomic bomb were sanctioned.

This was a major undertaking. The highly secret project, code-named “Manhattan Engineering District finally came into existence on September 17, 1942. Brig.Gen.Leslie Groves of the U.S  Army was appointed to take charge of it.

The project required the setting up of a few large-scale plants and several smaller ones. In all, it incurred an expenditure of some two billion dollars. From the outset, extraordinary secrecy and security measures surrounded it. Even among the top scientists only a selected few were aware of the entire manufacturing process; this was a necessary precaution to guard against any leak of vital information.

Power of the New Weapon

The first atomic test was successfully carried out as planned in the early hours of July 16, 1945, at the Alamogardo desert in New Mexico. More than a year before, Niels Bohr, who headed an Institute of Nuclear physics which bore his name and figured among the well-known scientists associated with the Manhattan project, voiced his concern about the prospects such as weapon entailed. The new power, he visualized, would bring a competition between Allied nations for the manufacture of such weapons which would constitute a perpetual menace to human security. Bohr conveyed his feelings to President Franklin Roosevelt through one of the latter’s advisors. The same was conveyed to Winston Churchill through the British ambassador in Washington.

After being informed by Roosevelt that he should first discuss with Churchill, Bohr travelled to Great Britain to meet the British Prime Minister in person. The meeting which took place on May 16, 1944, was a failure. Bohr returned disappointed but did not give up hope. He wrote a detailed memorandum comprising seven pages and despatched copies to both President Roosevelt and Prime Minister Churchill. He pointed, inter alia, that, “ … a weapon of an unparalleled power is being created which will completely change all future conditions of warfare…Unless, indeed, some agreement about the control of the use of the new active materials can be obtained in due time, any temporary advantage, however great , may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human security…..”.

The memorandum was sent on July 3,1944. Soon after, on August 26, 1944, Roosevelt invited Bohr to discuss it. This discussion was positive. In the words of Margaret Gowing, historian and archivist, United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, “The President could not have been more friendly to the Professor or more open or frank in his discussions of the political problems raised by the bomb. He said an approach to Russia must be tried and that it would open a new era of human history….The President also agreed about the urgency of the whole business…..”.

In Defence of Niels Bohr

President Roosevelt, who was aware of the disastrous outcome of Bohr’s meeting with Churchill, was scheduled to meet the Prime Minister in Quebec on September 19, 1944. At the meeting, Churchill started criticising Bohr and insinuated that he was acting on behalf of the then Soviet Union. An impression that Bohr was unreliable somehow emerged. The necessity to keep a close watch over his activities was felt. Winston Churchill succeeded in casting aspersions on Bohr’s integrity to such an extent the Roosevelt’s confidence in Bohr was somewhat shattered.

As a result, Roosevelt, who only a month earlier had shown great interest in Bohr’s proposal, reluctantly set it aside. Churchill later told his scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell, how strongly he resented Bohr. However, Lord Cherwell and other scientists of renown defended Niels Bohr and foiled all attempts to humiliate him. Sir Henry Dale had in May 1944 described him as probably “ the first among all the men of all countries who are now active in any department of science”. For Margaret Gowing, “Bohr’s honour and integrity were of course as great as his prowess in physics”.

Whether the direction Bohr advocated could have averted the cold war and prevented a nuclear arms race or not, is anybody’s guess.

In early April 1945, Bohr started work on a new memorandum meant for the American President. However, due to Roosevelt’s sudden demise he was advised to hand it over to Dr.Vennevar Bush. The latter who agreed with the misgivings of Bohr forwarded the memorandum to the U.S Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, on April 25, 1945 along with a request for setting up an Advisory Committee to examine the whole issue.

The Advisory Committee, called the Interim committee, was set up on May 4,1945. Henry Stimson was its chairperson. At its first informal meeting on May 9,1945, Dr.Bush, distributed to the other members copies of Bohr’s and his own memoranda. When the Interim Committee formally met on May 31st, 1945, it discussed only how the A-bomb should be used. And the rest is history.


In 1987, I attended the Winter Institute at the George Washington University thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. I travelled to New Mexico and stayed at La Fonda Hotel. I paid a visit to the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory where the atom bomb was fabricated. In a peaceful and serene atmosphere, I watched a documentary in which Charlton Heston, the well-known actor, makes mention of the various ways in which nuclear energy is being used for peaceful purposes. Deep inside me somewhere a ray of hope for humankind glimmered.