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A Biography of America

The Fifties

World War II is fought to its bitter end in the Pacific and the world lives with the legacy of its final moment: the atomic bomb. Professor Miller continues the story as veterans return from the war and create new lives for themselves in the '50s. The GI Bill, Levittown, civil rights, the Cold War, and rock 'n' roll are discussed.

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Program 23: The Fifties/From War to Normalcy

Donald L. Miller with Douglas Brinkley and Virginia Scharff


Miller: The end of World War II. Peace and prosperity. Whoever lived in a simpler age? Whoever thought they were living in a simpler age?

Brinkley: People that long for like the 1950s [laughter]. I mean, you hear that all the time, the nostalgia for… That’s when there was segregation in the South, Jim Crow, African Americans with no rights…

Scharff: Terrible underwear for women! [laughter]

Miller: Being cut from a junior varsity team…

Miller: Beneath the surface, the Cold War.

Brinkley: Look at the Cold War culture, when Averell Harriman used to say after World War II, “we want to come back to drink Coca-Cola and have normalcy of some sort.” Did we achieve that? Well, yes and no.

Miller: Today, on A Biography of America, “The Fifties.”

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Ernie Pyle’s War

[picture of Professor Miller]

Miller: After the German surrender, a jubilant Winston Churchill declared that the war in Europe was won by American mass production. Without disagreeing, the journalist Ernie Pyle put a different meaning on this. Pyle wrote that he hoped people would celebrate the victory with a sense of relief, not elation. For in high spirits, it was easy to forget the dead GIs.

“Dead,” he wrote, “by mass production…. Dead in such monstrous infinity that you come to hate them. To you at home they were columns of figures, or he is a near one who went away and just didn’t come back. You don’t see him, lying so grotesque and pasty beside the gravel road in France. We saw him. Saw him by the multiple thousands. That’s the difference.”

Pyle’s editors refused to publish his dispatch. It was too dark a verdict on total war by mass production. Pyle wrote this at sea, near Japan, where he had been sent for the final act of the war. On April 12, he learned via wireless that President Roosevelt had died of a stroke.

Young soldiers and sailors told him Roosevelt was the only President they’d ever known. To many of them, he was America. Six days later, Roosevelt’s successor, little-known Harry S. Truman of Independence, Missouri announced: “The nation is saddened again by the death of Ernie Pyle.” Pyle was killed by enemy fire the day he landed in the campaign to take Okinawa, which was to be a staging area for the invasion of Japan.


American forces had reached Okinawa, only 350 miles from Japan, by a two-pronged offensive. General Douglas MacArthur’s combined army and air wing advanced northward from the Solomon Islands, just north of Australia, toward the Philippines, which MacArthur had sworn earlier to liberate. The Navy and Marines, under Admiral Chester Nimitz, pressed westward through the Central Pacific, capturing, in brutal fighting, one tiny Japanese-occupied island after another, until they finally took the Mariana Islands. There in the Marianas, airfields were built for gigantic new weapons called B-29s — “Superfortresses” that would bring down fire and ruin on the wooden cities of Japan.

After MacArthur captured the Philippines, the invasion of Okinawa began on Easter Sunday, April 1st, 1944. It was the greatest combined land, air, and sea operation in history, and the bloodiest island fight of the pacific war. Over 200,000 people died, and there were more American casualties than D-Day, almost 50,000.

Japanese kamikaze, or suicide planes, each carrying one 500 pound bomb with only enough fuel for a one-way flight, crash-bombed into the naval support fleet, killing almost 5,000 seamen and sinking 30 ships. While on the ground, U.S. troops used flame-throwers, each carrying 300 gallons of napalm, against Japanese hidden in caves and underground shelters. The Japanese fought according to the ancient code of Bushido, “the way of the warrior.” It was total resistance, defiance to the last man, no surrender, no prisoners.

Japanese soldiers wrapped packs of explosives around their bodies and flung themselves against tanks. As Private E. B. Sledge wrote: “The only way you could get it over with was to kill them before they killed you.” It was kill or be killed. You killed in order to keep on living.

This merciless fighting was fed by inflamed racism. To the Japanese, who prided themselves on being genetically pure, uncontaminated by immigration, Americans were mongrelized brutes, devils and demons — while Japanese atrocities against American war prisoners, and their suicidal banzai charges, were seen by the Americans as signs of their barbarity.

Atrocity followed atrocity. In a break in the fighting, Sledge saw a Japanese soldier squatting on the ground in front of a machine gun. He was dead; the top of his head had been blown off. “I noticed this buddy of mine,” Sledge writes, “just flippin’ chunks of coral into his skull…. There was nothing malicious in his actions. This was just a mild-mannered kid who was now a twentieth-century savage.”

“How could American boys do this?” Sledge asked, and then answered, “If you’re reduced to savagery, anything’s possible. We were savages…. We had all become hardened. We were out there, human beings, the most highly developed form of life on earth, fighting each like wild animals.”



Fire Bombing over Japan

The guys in the B-29s over Japan were hardened too, only they were killing by remote control, pushing buttons. Here’s John Ciardi, the great American poet and humanist, who happened to be a gunner on a B-29 in the war. “We were in the terrible business of burning out Japanese towns. That meant women, and old people, and children. One part of me–a surviving savage voice–says, ‘I’m sorry we left any of them living.’ But then,” Ciardi adds, “your rationality tells you, ‘come on, this is the human race, let’s try to be civilized.'”

Under Air Force General Curtis LeMay — gruff, cigar-chopping, tough as nails — the 21st Bomber Command went on a mission of annihilation. LeMay was a 20th century William Tecumseh Sherman. “You’ve got to kill people,” he said, “and when you’ve killed enough, they stop fighting.” And that’s just about how it happened.

To avoid an invasion of Japan, LeMay wiped out Japan, or at least most of its urban culture. His specialty was low altitude fire bombing of densely packed workers’ housing. He used 100-pound oil-gel bombs, bombs in which the burning, gelatinized gasoline sticks on people and things and is almost impossible to put out.

LeMay’s incendiaries didn’t just set fires; they produced thermal hurricanes, storms that sucked the air out of people’s lungs. In just one raid, an estimated 100,000 people died in Tokyo, and a million in that same raid were injured. LeMay’s airboys inflicted damage of that scale on 65 other Japanese cities, killing nearly a million people. The only reason he didn’t bomb Nagasaki and Hiroshima was that his superiors wanted virgin targets to test the power of the atomic bomb.

The Atom Bomb

Those tests came in August, 1945, and they were terrifyingly successful. People who were alive one second were vaporized the next. People walked around in shock, with skin hanging from their body. And at one infirmary, when they ran out of medication, volunteers sterilized the wounds with salt water.

People were so damaged, one volunteer recalls, “We had to take brooms, dip them into salt water, and paint the bodies.” While the Japanese were fanatical earlier in the war in their sacrifice of lives, America’s countervailing fanaticism might have been technological. As historian Stephen Ambrose writes, in Japan “the bomber, long considered the ultimate in strategic might, had reached its moment of total and awful triumph.”

Philip Morrison, a scientist who helped invent the Atomic Bomb, later argued that the atom bomb was, in his words, “not a discontinuity. We were just carrying on more of the same,” he says, “only it was cheaper.” One bomb, one city. Morrison insists that it’s the cheapness of nuclear bombs that makes them so dangerous.

The legacy of World War II is a world cleansed of German and Japanese despotism. But the legacy of that despotism is the bomb. Good men like Morrison willingly hardened themselves and risked everything on the defeat of evil. F. Scott Fitzgerald claimed that the test of a first-rate intelligence is to hold two opposing ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function.

By that definition my father, who served in the war, was a genius. “Think of the survivors at Dachau cheering the American troops,” he would say; “and then think of Nagasaki. The war was insane,” in his words, “but we had to fight. No regrets.”

The Decision to Drop the Bomb

So the greatest war in the history of the world ended with the surrender of a government that boasted it would eat stones before it would give up. This isn’t the place to debate Truman’s decision to drop the atomic bomb. He did it, he says, to save American lives in an invasion of Japan. And that’s how most Americans saw it then, especially after they read about the fanatical Japanese resistance on Okinawa.

Had Americans not dropped the bomb, Japan might have surrendered before an invasion. But all the sound scholarship on this question can’t assure us that it would have happened. And what if Truman had not used the bomb and there had been an invasion, with lots of casualties, and people found out at this point that he had this big weapon all along? Truman could never have withstood that kind of protest.

But I have to ask: why Nagasaki, why that second bomb–and so soon after the first one? Philip Morrison, who was in the circle, says that from the beginning two bombs were ordered, so the Japanese would not think that we had only one bomb, and made them one at a time. Somehow, that doesn’t satisfy me. But Americans back then saw it differently.

In my old neighborhood, my mother tells me that people celebrated, honked their horns, and hugged each other when they heard of the word of Japanese surrender. That’s what the bomb meant to them: peace at last. The killing was over. Husbands and sons would come home.

It’s hard to imagine how much power and prestige America had in 1945. And here at the end of the war, you have this power that sacrificed so many of its young lives, sitting on top of the world, the only superpower in the world at that point. We had the bomb, the `Super-bomb’, that made us the only superpower until the Soviet Union later developed one.

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Bill Levitt and the American Dream

America also had this incredible economic abundance. We hadn’t been hit by the war; our cities hadn’t been pillaged, our cities hadn’t been bombed. We had this tremendous surge of economic prosperity that began in 1941 and ’42. And the GI Bill fed right into the mood of economic prosperity.

It was a bonanza, a social bonanza, one of the most important pieces of social legislation of the mid-20th century. It gave GIs the opportunity to do two things. It gave them money for education; it also provided money for down payments on homes. And they all wanted to marry, have children, and get into a decent American home.

The problem was, there was a terrible shortage of housing for returning veterans.

Film clip: “The U.S. Census estimates that three million families in America are living doubled up, a condition creating severe social difficulties, and even acute breakdowns in family life.”

Bill Levitt: “We believe that every family in the United States is entitled to decent shelter. We believe that private enterprise should provide that shelter insofar as it can…”

Bill Levitt was an amazing character. He’s kind of the Henry Ford of the middle of the 20th century. Where Ford mass-produced Model T cars, Levitt mass-produced homes. And as a veteran, during World War II a sea-bee, building air bases out on the Pacific, Levitt came up with his dream of building an idyllic community for lower-middle-class, striving, upward-bound American GIs, who he knew would come out of the war with some opportunity, with the GI Bill. And he was there to take advantage of it.

So what Levitt does is he goes out to Long Island, on a stretch of potato fields, and he builds his ideal community. By the time it was finished, he had a complete community, 80,000 people, about 17-18,000 houses. And the key thing with these houses is they were inexpensive, and they were well built.

They were sturdy like the old Model T Fords and they even were produced like the Model T Fords. They were mass-produced. Levitt broke down the whole process, as Adam Smith would do with the division of labor, and he broke down the building process into 27 components. And he trained a team to do each component.

“These are the 36 men who built this house. Another day, another 40 houses.” He even had one team that did nothing but bolt washing machines into the floor. He didn’t build foundations, so that saved a lot of the costs.

When the house was up it cost around eight thousand dollars, and all you needed for a down payment was about ninety dollars. And Levitt threw in a free television set and washing machine. So this was perfect. And this is the real beginning of true suburbanization.

It all emerges, almost eureka-like, suddenly in the early 1950s. There was just this explosion of suburban growth. There were a legion of books being produced in the 1950s that attacked the homogenization and blandness of suburbia; bland people living in bland houses led by bland presidents like Eisenhower. But to Americans at that time who lived in places like Levittown, this was a great step upward.

It was a realization of the American dream. That if you worked hard, you could make it, and you could provide security for your family through a home. There was the expectation of that.

Eisenhower and the Cold War

In 1952, Eisenhower is elected president, and in a sense, becomes the perfect American President for the 1950s. Here was the great war hero, the general who commanded the troops at D-Day, the Supreme Allied Commander. And for a lot of Americans he’s the perfect President, because this is an age when people don’t want to tamper with too much, when reform goes off the agenda.

And Eisenhower is doing other things that people want and feel they need. He’s building things like the St. Lawrence Seaway. He’s building a federal highway program. “The highway construction program initiated by Ike is the biggest peacetime enterprise ever undertaken. It will cost tens of…” “Ike’s defense policy affords the country the maximum protection…”

And he’s also building deterrence to the Soviet Union. This was the beginning of the Cold War, an ideological war against a common enemy, international Communism. All Americans are united in the fact that the outside menace is Communism, godless Communism.

“And see how it spreads. Some areas were gobbled up; some became Russian-dominated satellites. In Europe, and in Asia…”

And you have to understand Communism is not just a military threat. This is a system that is antithetical to everything Americans hold dear. All right, we come out of the war; we’re a tremendously prosperous nation. What’s the root of that prosperity? Capitalism.

Communism threatens that. We’re a God-fearing country. What does Communism stand for? Godlessness, okay.

So all the things that America was, an upwardly advancing, mobile, competitive, God-fearing, capitalist society, Russia isn’t. And I think it’s that feeling that we’re being faced by that common threat that brings Americans together and creates this orthodoxy, homogeneity, tribalism, whatever you want to call it. And it’s a glue that holds the culture together pretty strongly. And it can be in a sense pretty stifling for a lot of people, especially young people.

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A Teenage Culture Emerges

We never really had teenagers before. Teenagers were just young people. And it isn’t until the mid-1930s that over half of Americans are going to high school. They start to go to high school in great numbers during the Great Depression, because during the Great Depression there are no jobs.

Then when they start to graduate from high school the war comes along, and the first conscription law, the first draft law, provides that kids under the age of 19–they lowered it, eventually lowered it to 18–couldn’t serve in the Armed Forces. You can’t serve in the Armed Forces, you’re in high school, you don’t have a job, you’re a special class of people. Teenagers.

And teenage culture I think comes into real force in the 1950s. To the parents of young Americans, Levittown and places like that represented the American ideal. But a lot of young people found the culture conformist and stifling and started to break away from it a little bit.

A piece of technology allows this generational rift to get wider. And that little piece of technology isn’t the television, because daddy controls the television. That’s in the living room, okay, like the old radio had been. Now you’ve got a transistor radio that you can buy in a store, and the transistor just comes online in the 1950s.

Elvis Presley

All of a sudden, you could turn that dial any way you want. The time was right for Elvis. “We saw for the first time on television a young gentleman that we think is going to a lot of places in the entertainment field… we brought him back again. And here he is ladies and gentleman, Mr. Elvis Presley.”

The Elvis story is an interesting story. I mean, he changed the way we talked, he changed the way we walked, he changed the way we spoke, and he changed the beat of the country. And he made the music of the underclass the music of the world.

In a sense that makes him a revolutionary. And he truly was in that respect. Although a very innocent and almost unknowing revolutionary. Certainly he didn’t set out to be one.

He’s a poor kid from Tupelo, Mississippi whose father had worked in a munitions factory during World War II. They were just poor roustabouts looking for work, the whole family. And they headed for Memphis.

You’ve got to understand, Memphis is an interesting place. It’s a convergent point really for two immigration movements. The immigration of whites, of Scotch-Irish and Irish descent through the Appalachian Mountains and out into Mississippi.

We often call their music hillbilly music, okay? Rockabilly they often called it. At the same time lots of these people were living in Memphis.

And just below Memphis, all the way down from Memphis to Vicksburg, is a place called the Delta, the great cotton planting region of the South at the time of the Civil War. And Memphis is a cotton-exporting center. And there’s a lot of poverty in the Delta, but there’s rich music coming out of the Delta. Howling Wolf, and all the early greats like B.B. King, blues singers are coming out of there.

And they’re migrating to a place called Beale Street, which is almost an all-black entertainment section in Memphis. And Beale Street fascinates Elvis. And he and his friends started to go down there along with another — a couple of other white rebel kids. And then more and more of these kids started to go there.

And the interesting thing is that a lot of the black clubs wouldn’t let white kids in. They started to let them in, but they roped them off into a separate section. Then all of a sudden, the music gets going, the rope goes down and everybody’s out there dancing.

And that’s taboo. This is the solid south, the segregationist south. And Memphis is a bastion of segregation. So this is a strange city for a revolution like this to take place.

And a revolution it was, because people like Elvis were not only playing black music; but when Elvis hit it, and he hit it because he got hooked up with a guy named Sam Phillips. And Sam Phillips was an interesting kind of entrepreneur. He wasn’t a social revolutionary; he was out to make a little money. He was a record producer with Sun Records.

And he used to say to himself, “What I need, if I really want to make a lot of money in this section of the country is, I need a white kid that can sing like a black guy.” And Elvis happened to stumble into his studio one day and cut a record, That’s All Right Mama. And Phillips said, “There’s the guy, there’s the guy.”

And Elvis simply took off after that. And people are listening to his music. But get this, they’re white kids listening to his music, and the white kids are picking up also on the black music.

Catalysts for Civil Rights

But what’s happening in the south as well in the 1950s is there’s a groundswell that’s starting to take place. Individuals start to emerge, insurgents, North as well as South. Thurgood Marshall who takes this big case before the Supreme Court in 1954 wins the Brown v. Board of Education case, and opens up schools to integration. And that starts to change everything in the South.

There’s a theory in history that often very, very small events can trigger huge changes. Rosa Parks gets on a bus in Montgomery. Buses were like plantations in Montgomery, Alabama. In most of the South, the bus was divided into the white section and the black section.

But it was flexible in Montgomery, and it was all up to the plantation master, the bus driver. So the bus driver ruled. Rosa Parks sits on the bus one day and she’s sitting in a black section, a white guy gets on. He doesn’t want to sit next to a black person.

The bus driver turns around and says to Rosa Parks, who’s tired after a hard day as a seamstress, “You’ve got to move. Move another seat. Move up a little bit further.” She said, “I’m in the black section.”

She refuses to move, she’s arrested, and she starts a civil rights revolution in a sense. The court intervened at the end of the Montgomery bus boycott and declared that the Montgomery law segregating buses was unconstitutional. So there’s hope there, that the federal government’s on their side. And that creates this surge of resistance.

If you’re looking for the roots of the 1960s and the rebellion of the ’60s, you don’t go to 1968, to the zenith and peak of the movement, you go back to 1956, ’57, ’58, when all of this starts to germinate. I mean, there’s a tremendous undercurrent of dissent and disagreement in the `50s. You see it in popular music; you see it in popular literature with books like Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. You even see it in the academic community with books like John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Affluent Society.

You see it in the early works of C. Wright Mills, who’s criticizing the whole direction and bent of American prosperity, which ignores, as he says, “thirty percent of the Americans who happen to be poor.” And Rachel Carson writes The Silent Spring which becomes the foundation of the modern environmental movement. Louis Mumford starts to write a series of books about the city in history and technology in history, talking about our over-dependence on technology.

“The automobile industry has a formula…” Ralph Nader starts to question this, with the exhaust from cars and the safety of cars. General Motors comes out with the Corvair. “This is the sizzling Covair Monza spider, with a whopping 150 horsepower turbo air engine…”

The Corvair had a problem. It flipped; it flipped all the time. Nader starts exposing this. They start investigating him. All of a sudden you’ve got a movement for safety belts and safety control and things like this.

A northern housewife by the name of Betty Freidan from Smith College returned to Smith College reunion to do a couple of articles about what it’s like in college now in 1957 as opposed to what it was like when she went to school. She was aghast at what she saw; that these girls, highly trained, expensively educated, are just going to be off into a kitchen the day after they graduated, and there were no careers open to them. And she writes The Feminine Mystique. And that became a powerful inciter of the women’s movement in the 1960s.

In the popular mind, the `50s were all about boring conformity, the man in the gray flannel suit, bland suburbanization, resistance to anything that threatened the established order. But below the surface, there was something else, the seeds of the `60s, and the decade of social, cultural, and political upheaval.

You Decide: Was President Truman Correct in His Decision to Drop Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?


Few events in the annals of history are as controversial as the decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945. Yet, at the time, there was great relief among Americans troops and civilians alike. These two bombs were the final, awesome events of World War II.

“The dropping of the bombs stopped the war, saved millions of lives….”

– President Harry Truman, 1959.



“The atomic bomb had nothing to do with the end of the war at all.”

– Major General Curtis LeMay,
U. S. Army Air Force,
Sept. 20, 1945

You Decide: Was President Truman correct in his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Yes: What if you knew that the United States already had plans in place to invade Japan?

No: What if dropping the atomic bomb shortened the war and saved American lives?

Ending the War

By August, 1945, Japan’s main cities and key war industries were already seriously damaged or destroyed from the use of conventional bombs. Japan’s harbors were heavily mined, and it could no longer import sufficient food or fuel. A U. S. Strategic Bombing Survey team which went into Japan in 1945 estimated that the Japanese would have surrendered by November 1945 even without an invasion of their homeland.

“It wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

— Dwight D. Eisenhower, former U.S. president and
Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II, 1963


“It occurred to me that a quarter of a million of the flower of our young manhood was worth a couple of Japanese cities, and I still think they were, and are.”

— President Truman, late 1945.

President Truman and his top civilian and military advisors thought the war would be ended quickly if the atomic bomb were used. Using the atomic bomb, Truman said, would actually save the lives of more people than were killed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Some military estimates said American forces invading the Japanese mainland could suffer up to a million casualties. U.S. allies would also suffer heavy losses, and Japan would experience even higher losses. While the Japanese Navy and Air Force were virtually destroyed by August 1945, the Japanese Army still had five million men under arms.

According to some scholars, Japan’s military leaders did not plan to surrender in 1945. In January 1945, the Emperor approved a strategic plan that called for the defense of the homeland and the “final decisive battle” of the war. This included using thousands of remaining Japanese aircraft in kamikaze raids, where the pilots would crash their planes into American ships in suicide missions.

You Decide: Was President Truman correct in his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Yes: What if you knew that Truman was denied access to the advice of key scientists who had worked on the development of the bomb?

No: What if you knew that Truman’s top advisors and key military strategics urged him to use the bomb before the war ended?

The Development of the Bomb

The Manhattan Project was the code name of the top-secret effort to develop the atomic bomb. Very few Americans, other than those directly involved, knew of its existence. The remarkable story of the bomb’s development included differing opinions about whether the bomb, once developed, should be used in combat.

[The atomic bomb is] “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.”

— President Harry S. Truman

[The atomic bomb] “…was merely another powerful weapon in the arsenal of righteousness.”

— President Harry S. Truman

“President Truman, faced with one of the great moral decisions of human history, was denied access to the petitions of many American nuclear scientists who opposed the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima without warning.”

— U.S. government report, 1963.

Several key scientists on the Manhattan Project wanted to release a petition calling for a demonstration of the bomb’s power before it was used in combat. The group included Leo Szilard, who, with Enrico Fermi, devised the chain reaction system that made the atomic bomb possible. The petition never became public because General Leslie R. Groves, who headed up the Manhattan Project, had the scientists’ petition classified, and then made sure it was not shown to the president.

“If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos [where the bomb was developed] and of Hiroshima.”

— Manhattan Project scientist, J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1945

The United States spent $2 billion dollars developing the atomic bomb, and there was great pressure from some of President Truman’s top advisors and from Manhattan Project officials to get the bomb into production before the war in the Pacific was over.

You Decide: Was President Truman correct in his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Yes: Have you considered the perspective of those who were killed or maimed when the bombs were dropped?

No: Have you considered the perspective of an American soldier in 1945?

A young American soldier in 1945, waiting to invade Japan, had a fair probability of being killed or wounded during the invasion. He would not have known anything about the new weapon when it was used, other than that it was a “Super Bomb” that caused the Japanese to surrender.

“We all cheered and we hollered and we grabbed each other and we jumped up and down. Maybe this damn war’s gonna end and we won’t have to invade Japan. We all felt that way.”

— Victor Tolley, a Marine, on the bombing of Hiroshima
quoted in Studs Terkel, The Good War.

“We cheered … at the news that we wouldn’t have to invade Japan after all….the dominant emotion was relief.”

— Louis Harlan, a sailor stationed at Eniwetok,
quoted in his memoir, All at Sea.

For the Japanese residents who survived the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, they were living their lives one minute and then, in an instant, they found themselves amidst a moon-like landscape reduced to fire and ashes. As is the case with descriptions of war, statistics about the vast numbers of dead and injured can be numbing, impersonal, and difficult to grasp. But one or two stories from eyewitnesses can speak for many.

“When I became conscious, I found myself crushed by lots of plaster and timbers. I managed to crawl out. My mother could not be seen, but I heard her voice. She said she could not move because her legs were caught by a big pillar. I tried to pull out the broken pillar. I pushed….as hard as I could, but it was no use. I asked passers-by to help us, but they couldn’t because they were all injured and thoroughly occupied in trying to save themselves. When the fire came close to us, my mother said, ‘Don’t care about me. Hurry up. Run Away!’ Terribly broken-hearted, I said, ‘I’m sorry mum’.”

— Shoji Sawada, who later became a physics professor
at a Japanese university, recalls what it was like for
him, a thirteen-year-old boy who was awakened by the
explosion of the atomic bomb in the sky above Hiroshima.

“I was working outside with my shirt off. The heat rays from the explosion, about 3,300 Farhenheit, scorched my upper body. The heat rays vaporized some people, while burning others into charcoal-like remains.”

“I witnessed the shock wave from the explosion crush a pregnant woman against a wall and tear apart her abdomen. I could see her and her unborn baby dying. The blast instantly knocked down many homes and buildings as well. Mothers and children were trapped beneath the burning wreckage. They called out each other’s names, and the mothers would cry out, pleading for someone to save their children. No one was able to help them, and they all burned alive. The people who came to rescue the immediate survivors or clear away the rotting dead bodies contracted radiation sickness. They died later, one after the other….”

— Senji Yamaguchi, who was a 14-year-old boy working for the Mitsubishi
Arms Manufacturing Works just 10 blocks from ground zero in Nagasaki.

You Decide: Was President Truman correct in his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

Yes: What if dropping the bomb encouraged a dangerous and costly arms race with the Soviet Union?

No: What if dropping the bomb put the U.S. into a superior position with respect to the Soviet Union in the post-war world?


Preparing for the Post-War World

“…it was only in the last few months of the war that anyone thought of the diplomatic consequences of nuclear weapons.”

— Richard H. Rovere in Hiroshima Plus 20 (1965).


A group of scientists, including Nobel Prize winning physicist, James Franck, issued a report in June 1945, which said that use of the atomic bomb would lead to major problems with the Soviet Union and encourage an arms race that would make control of nuclear weapons very difficult. The report did not reach President Truman before the bomb was dropped.

“…we wanted to get through with the Japanese phase of the war before the Russians came in.”

— Top presidential advisor James F. Byrnes. Byrnes believed that using
the atomic bomb would keep the Russians from invading Japan
and avoid political complications in Asia once the war was over.


One of the first post-war results of the development of the atomic bomb was an arms race with the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union exploded its first nuclear device in 1949. By the early 1950s both the United States and the Soviet Union had substantial stockpiles of nuclear weapons. In 1952 the United States exploded the first Hydrogen Bomb (H-Bomb), a vastly more powerful nuclear weapon. The Soviet Union had the H-Bomb by 1953.

With what you now know, was President Truman correct in his decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

The Bomb -- A Never Ending Controversy

More than a half century after the nuclear age was born, the decision to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki remains a controversial subject and a major turning point in world history. Historians and others have spent considerable effort trying to uncover the full story of the development of the bomb and the decision to use it. Scientists, politicians, historians, and millions of ordinary citizens around the world know more about the true destructive power of nuclear weapons today than was true of all but a handful of people in 1945.

The man who made the decision to drop the bombs was the President of the United States, Harry S. Truman. He said, “I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.” The President called the development of the atomic bomb “the greatest achievement of organized science in history.”

There were other opinions in 1945. The American philosopher Lewis Mumford said that the very fact we had used such an awesome new bomb proved that mankind was “neither intelligent enough nor morally sound enough to be in charge of this weapon.” One of the leading scientists in the development of the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer, said, “If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos [where the bomb was developed] and of Hiroshima.”

The decision to use the atomic bomb will always remain a serious and extremely important topic in the history of the twentieth century. The world still lives with the results of that decision.

Nuclear weapons changed forever the meaning of war. Human beings have in their power the ability to end human life on this planet, not just defeat an enemy. Manhattan Project scientist Phillip Morrison has said:

“At the height of its mobilization in World War Two, the United States could manage to make six or eight hundred big bombers. They could visit a city and do big damage in one night. If these eight hundred came to a city several nights, they could do the damage of an atomic bomb. So, you could manage to knock off, with all your forces, a city a week. But now, a thousand cities in a night! It’s the numbers. It’s the cheapness.”
(Quoted in Studs Terkel, The Good War, 514-515).

Questions to Ponder

In August, 1945, the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

Few events in the annals of history are as controversial as the decision to drop atomic bombs on two Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in August 1945. Yet, at the time, there was great relief among Americans troops and civilians alike. These two bombs were the final, awesome events of World War II.


1. Is it fair to judge the decision makers and the bomb makers of 1945 by what we know about nuclear weapons today?


2. Were the deaths of those who died from the atomic bombs different from the millions of others who died in World War II?


3. What is different about warfare with atomic bombs (nuclear weapons) and conventional bombs that do not use a nuclear device?


4. What have we learned about nuclear war and nuclear weapons since 1945? Can you imagine one nation using nuclear weapons against another in some future war?


Alperovitz, Gar. The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb. New York: Vintage Books, 1996.

Frank, Richard B. Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire. New York: Random House, 1999.

Gerson, Joseph. With Hiroshima Eyes: Atomic War, Nuclear Extortion, and Moral Imagination. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1995.

Hersey, John. Hiroshima. [Originally published in 1946]. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.

Miller, Donald L. Lewis Mumford: A Life. New York & London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989; paperback, Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991.

Miller, Donald L. The Lewis Mumford Reader, New York: Pantheon Books, 1986; paperback, University of Georgia Press, 1992.

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986.


Ernie Pyle

Ernie Pyle Writes of a Dead Man and of Mules
Two famous excerpts from his Pyle’s diaries and photos of Pyle.

Ernie Pyle
A biography of Pyle with photographs and links.

Ernie Pyle on Okinawa Invasion

CNN – ‘Ernie Pyle’s War’
An excerpt from Ernie Pyle’s War, a book about the death of Ernie Pyle. Includes the quote, “Dead men by mass production… Dead men in such monstrous infinity…”


John Ciardi

John Ciardi
A brief biography of Ciardi.


Curtis LeMay

General Curtis Emerson LeMay
A biography of LeMay with a portrait.

Curtis E. LeMay
An account of the career of Curtis LeMay.

The American Experience | Race for the Superbomb | Richard Rhodes on: LeMay’s Vision of War
Historian Richard Rhodes account of LeMay’s vision of war.



The Atomic Bomb

Recollections of a Nuclear War
A photo of Morrison and an excerpt of an article written by him for Scientific American called “Recollections of a Nuclear War.”

ATOMIC BOMB: DECISION (Hiroshima-Nagasaki)
A page of links to documents pertaining to the decision to use the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


Harry S. Truman

Harry S. Truman
A biography and a portrait of Harry S. Truman.

Harry S. Truman Library & Museum site
The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum site. Provides links to a chronology of Truman’s life, letters, documents, Truman trivia, etc.

The American Experience/Presidents/Truman/Presidential Politics
An essay on Truman’s presidency, with links to other essays about him and to speeches and other documents.

Character Above All
An illustrated essay on Harry S. Truman with related links.

Harry Truman
Biographical information about Truman with links to the various stages of his life and career.


Truman on Ernie Pyle

CNN – ‘Ernie Pyle’s War’ – August 25, 1998
An excerpt from the book Ernie Pyle’s War, by James Tobin. Includes Truman’s quote, “The nation is quickly saddened again by the death of Ernie Pyle.”



Truman and the Potsdam Conference

Harry Truman and the Potsdam Conference
A history of The Potsdam conference. Provides links to some of Truman’s journal entries and letters related to the event.


Truman and the decision to drop the A-bomb

The Decision to Drop the Atomic Bomb
A page of links to folders containing documents, letters, articles, background information, etc., pertaining to the dropping of the atom bomb on Japan.

The Foreign Policies of Harry S. Truman
An outline of the foreign policies of Harry Truman.

Harry Truman
An outline of foreign affairs during Truman’s presidency. Includes atomic bomb diplomacy and provides photos and related links.


Bill Levitt

Levittown: Documents of an Ideal American Suburb
A history of Levittown, with links to original photos of ’50s Levittown, more information, etc.


Ray Kroc

Ray Kroc and the Fast Food Industry
An account of the history behind McDonald’s and the fast-food industry.



Dwight D. Eisenhower
A biography and a portrait of Eisenhower.

Eisenhower Center
A page of links related to Eisenhower.

The American Experience/Presidents/Eisenhower/Presidential Politics
An essay on Eisenhower’s presidency, with links to other essays about him and to speeches and other documents.

Character Above All
An illustrated biography of Eisenhower with links.


Eisenhower and the Interstate

Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956: Creating the Interstate System
A site about the creation of the interstate highway system and Eisenhower’s involvement, with photos and a link to more information about Eisenhower.


Elvis Presley

Online NewsHour: ELVIS — August 15, 1997
A review of the life and times of Elvis Presley, with photos and a link to a discussion on the legacy of Elvis.

Elvis Presley, Mississippi musician
A timeline of Elvis’s life, a list of his major works, photos, a biography, etc.


Martin Luther King, Jr.

A Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
An account of the contributions of Martin Luther King. Includes a chronology of important dates in his life, a list of his writings, etc.

Martin Luther King Jr.
A biography of Martin Luther King with a list of degrees and awards he attained as well as the text of his “I have a dream…” speech.


Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks: Standing Up for Freedom
A biography of Rosa Parks with photos.

Today in History: December 1
An illustrated history of Rosa Parks and the Civil Rights movement with related links.


Series Directory

A Biography of America


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