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The LeMay Leaflets: Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Anyone who has taken a history class is familiar with the atrocities that occurred during World War II. As technology advanced, new weapons provided opportunities for unheralded destruction. Hiroshima and Nagasaki are two devastating examples of what can occur when war partners with science, but how did we get to that point? What path led us to bringing the unimaginable to fruition? And more importantly, did we do the right thing?

The most important thing to understand is that the decision to use these weapons was not made lightly. Agonizing thought and calculations went into the decision to use the atomic bomb. Many factors played into this decision, but the main goal of the Allies was to minimize casualties. When Germany surrendered in May of 1945, relief flooded through Europe, but everyone was still anxious to end fighting in the Pacific. The Japanese Emperor, Hirohito, had rightly gained the reputation of being ruthless and cruel, and the prospect of continuing battle with Japan sounded agonizing. The Allies called for Japan to surrender, but their ultimatums were ignored. It quickly became clear that Japan was not going to give up without a fight. At this point, talks of using atomic weapons began. From President Truman’s point of view, the Allies had four options: each with a different death toll and different consequences.

The first option was to continue using conventional bombs on Japan, but this seemed like a futile effort. The Allies had been bombing Japan for the last three years, and Emperor Hirohito was more than willing to watch his citizens die without surrendering. Injury and casualty estimates were around 200,000 for the first year, but no one knew how long the war might last if the Allies used this strategy. Perhaps the Japanese would surrender in a year, perhaps they would surrender in five years. President Truman did not see this option as effective, and he did not want to continue killing large amounts of Japanese civilians with no tangible end to the war in sight.

The second option was to invade Japan, but President Truman thought this was even more risky. Japanese soldiers were driven by honor, and were unlikely to surrender. This difficult lesson was learned at the Battle of Okinawa, where 1 out of every 3 American soldiers lost their life. President Truman feared that a land invasion of Japan would only encourage Japanese soldiers to fight more fiercely for their homeland, and casualty estimates were in the millions. The Allies wanted to avoid this option at all costs.

The third option was to demonstrate the power of the atomic bomb on an unpopulated Japanese island. This was seen as a viable option, but it raised many concerns and was hotly debated. Who would Japan select to evaluate and analyze the demonstration? Would it be a scientist, a politician, or a group of both? Would the emperor heed this American warning? Would Japan be willing to communicate with the Allies? How much time would elapse before Japan made the decision to surrender?  Would Japan begin building its own nuclear weapons in that span of time? Would this demonstration even convince the Japanese to surrender? Beyond all the “what ifs” and unknowns, there were only two nuclear bombs in existence at the time, and it was unclear if the United States had the means or the resources to make more. President Truman was hesitant to use one of the only two atomic bombs in existence, especially without the guarantee of Japanese surrender. This option would not result in casualties, but it may not result in surrender either.

The fourth option was to use the atomic bomb on a populated area. While the first and second options were almost immediately eliminated, debate continued for days about the third and fourth options. There were pros and cons for each option, but the idea of actually using an atomic bomb on a populated city was a hard concept to come to terms with. Casualty estimates were in the hundred thousands, and it was likely that many of those casualties would be innocent civilians. After days of constant and prolonged debate, President Truman and the scientists and politicians of the interim nuclear advisory committee decided that using the atomic bomb on a populated city was the option most likely to guarantee an immediate surrender from the emperor of Japan, and therefore, in their opinion, the correct choice. The committee summed up their historic decision in a clear and concise statement:

 “We can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war.  We can see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

Once the decision was made to use the atomic bomb on a populated area, immediate work went into planning the operation. The target cities were carefully chosen based on criteria established by military, political, and scientific advisors. The first requirement was that the city needed to be fairly undamaged by prior bombings. That way, it could not be argued that the damage done to the city occurred in any other way besides nuclear destruction. Imperial Japan was notorious for spreading lies through propaganda, and the Allies wanted to ensure that there would be no doubt about how the destruction of the bombed city occurred. Secondly, the city needed to be dedicated to military production. Throughout the entire planning process, the lives of Japanese civilians were prioritized, and a military production city was chosen in hopes that empty factories could be bombed instead of residential areas. This criterion proved difficult though, because workers’ homes were often intermingled with industrial areas. The final stipulation was that the city could not be one of historical or cultural significance. The goal was to end the war, not destroy the culture of Japan. After evaluating these criteria, Hiroshima was selected as the first city to be bombed.

The next step was to warn Japanese civilians. Named after General Curtis LeMay, the LeMay Leaflets contained the following message:

“Read this carefully as it may save your life or the life of a relative or friend. In the next few days, some or all of the cities named on the reverse side will be destroyed by American bombs. These cities contain military installations and workshops or factories which produce military goods. We are determined to destroy all of the tools of the military clique which they are using to prolong this useless war. But, unfortunately, bombs have no eyes. So, in accordance with America’s humanitarian policies, the American Air Force, which does not wish to injure innocent people, now gives you warning to evacuate the cities named and save your lives. America is not fighting the Japanese people but is fighting the military clique which has enslaved the Japanese people. The peace which America will bring will free the people from the oppression of the military clique and mean the emergence of a new and better Japan. You can restore peace by demanding new and good leaders who will end the war. We cannot promise that only these cities will be among those attacked but some or all of them will be, so heed this warning and evacuate these cities immediately.”

The front of the leaflets featured the names of 12 Japanese cities, and a black and white picture of B-29 Superfortress Bombers dropping bombs, a scary and familiar sight for a Japanese civilian. The back of the leaflets had the above message written on them in Japanese.

Various leaflets with similar content were dropped on Japan throughout the war, but as word spread throughout the military that the government actually intended to use the atomic bomb, Air Force General LeMay ordered his pilots to ramp up the frequency of “leaflet bombings” on major Japanese cities. Although the leaflets were dropped on Hiroshima, Hiroshima was not one of the cities listed on the front of the leaflet as a possible target. The exact reason Hiroshima was not specifically listed is unknown, but it’s most likely because the target cities were unknown, except to a select few high-ranking officers and government officials. Even without knowing the specific city the atomic bomb was intended for, the hope was that Japanese civilians would heed the warnings and evacuate any cities involved in the manufacture of military goods since those cities were the most likely targets.

Although very few Japanese citizens were willing to outwardly oppose their government, they did regard the American leaflets as truthful, and many tried to leave major cities for the countryside. The Japanese government became so concerned about the effect the leaflets were having that they arrested anyone found in possession of an American leaflet.

By August 6, 1945, the day the atomic bomb obliterated Hiroshima, 5 million leaflets had been air-dropped into Japan. Despite multiple warnings, not everyone chose to evacuate. 75,000 people lost their lives instantly that day in Hiroshima. The death toll continued to climb as people succumbed to radiation poisoning. Three days later Nagasaki was bombed, immediately killing 40,000 people. In the days following the blast, another 100,000 people perished as a direct result of the atomic bombings. When all was said and done roughly 200,000 people lost their lives. Most of those lives lost were civilians.

Did we do the right thing? There is no good answer to this question. President Truman took full responsibility of his actions and understood the weight of the decision he had to make. In response to a telegraph from Senator Richard B. Russell encouraging the president to use as many atomic bombs as he could President Truman responded, “I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare, but I can’t bring myself to believe that because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in that same manner.  For myself I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation, and, for your information, I am not going to do it unless absolutely necessary.”

Right or wrong, President Truman believed this was a necessary evil.


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