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Countdown to Hiroshima 66 Years Ago: Was the Bomb Necessary?

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Sixty-six years ago at the end of July and early August, U.S. policymakers and President Truman made fateful decisions that meant the use of two atomic bombs against Japanese cities was almost inevitable -- virtually unstoppable. Then film footage and other evidence of the true effects of the bomb were suppressed for decades. We've been living with the nuclear after-effects ever since, from Hiroshima to Fukushima.

Related to publication of my new book and e-book Atomic Cover-up, on that film's suppression, here's a daily record of what transpired leading up the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. It raises questions about the decision to drop the new weapon over two large cities, killing mainly women and children. (For more, including video of some of the suppressed footage, see my personal blog.) Of course this only scratches the surface of the history, and the debate, and you are encouraged to join in.

August 1, 1945

--Truman wrote a letter to his wife Bess last night talking about the atomic bomb (but without revealing it): "He [Stalin] doesn't know it but I have an ace in the hole and another one showing -- so unless he has threes or two pair (and I know he has not) we are sitting all right." And today he gives a letter to Stalin, which confounds the Soviet leader. Earlier, Stalin had promised to declare war on Japan around August 7. Now Truman writes that more consultation is needed. Truman had pushed for the entry, writing in his diary "fini Japs" when that occurs even without use of The Bomb. Now that he has the bomb in his "pocket" he apparently hopes to stall the Soviets.

--Truman has also approved his statement on the use of the bomb, brought to him last night in Germany by a courier, drafted by Secretary of War Stimson and others, and ordered it released after first drop. A line near the start has been added explicitly depicting the vast city of Hiroshima as a "military base." The president, and the drafters of the statement, knew was false. An earlier draft described the city of Nagasaki as a "naval base" and nothing more. There would be no reference to radiation effects whatsoever -- it was just a vastly bigger bomb.

--The "Little Boy" atomic bomb is now ready for use on the island of Tinian. Under the direction of the lead pilot, Paul Tibbetts, practice runs have been completed, near Iwo Jima, and fake payloads dropped, with success. Truman's order had given the okay for the first mission later this day and it might have happened if a typhoon, of a different sort, was not approaching Japan.

August 2, 1945

--Early today, Paul Tibbets, pilot of the lead plane, the Enola Gay (named after his mom) on the first mission, reported to Gen. Curtis LeMay's Air Force headquarters on Guam. LeMay told him the "primary" was still Hiroshima. Bombardier Thomas Ferebee pointed on a map what the aiming point for the bomb would be -- a distinctive T-shaped bride in the center of the city. "It's the most perfect aiming I've seen in the whole damned war," Tibbets said. But the main idea was to set the bomb off over the center of the city, which rests in kind of a bowl, so that the surrounding hills would supply a "focusing effect" that would lead to added destruction and loss of life.

--President Truman finally left the Potsdam conference in Germany and set sail for home.

--Japanese cables and other message intercepted by the United States showed that they were still interested in enlisting the Soviet's help in presenting peace terms but were undecided on just what to propose. The Russians, meanwhile, were just five days from declaring war on Japan.

August 3, 1945

--On board the ship Augusta steaming home for USA after Potsdam meeting, President Truman, Joint Chiefs chairman Admiral Leahy, and Secretary of State James F. Byrnes enjoy some poker. Byrnes aide Walter Brown notes in his diary that "President, Leahy, JFB [Byrnes] agreed Japan looking for peace. (Leahy had another report from Pacific.) President afraid they will sue for peace through Russia instead of some country like Sweden."

Leahy would later question decision to use the bomb, writing: "[T]he use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender.... [I]n being the first to use it, we...adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children."

--Our "Magic" intercepts show Japan monitoring the Soviets' military buildup in the Far East (prelude to the declaration of war in four days). Also, Japanese still searching for way to approach Molotov to pursue possible surrender terms before that happens. Another Magic intercept carried the heading, "Japanese Army's interest in peace negotiations." War Department intel analysts revealed "the first statement to appear in the traffic that the Japanese Army is interested in the effort to end the war with Soviet assistance." A segment of Prime Minister Togo's message declared: "The Premier and the leaders of the Army are now concentrating all their attention on this one point."

--Soviet General Vasilevskii reports to Stalin that Soviet forces ready for invasion from August 7.

August 4, 1945

--Hiroshima remains the primary target, with Kokura #2 and Nagasaki third.

-- On Tinian, Paul Tibbets, pilot of the lead plane, the Enola Gay, finally briefs others in the 509th Composite Group who will take part in the mission at3 pm. Military police seal the building. Tibbets reveals that they will drop immensely powerful bombs, but the nature of the weapons are not revealed, only that it is "something new in the history of warfare." When weaponeer Deke Parsons says, "We think it will knock out almost everything within a three-mile radius," the audience gasps. Then he tries to show a film clip of the recent Trinity test -- but the projector starts shredding the film.

Parsons adds, "No one knows exactly what will happen when the bomb is dropped from the air," and he distributes welder's glasses for the men to wear. But he did not relate any warnings about radioactivity or order them not to fly through the mushroom cloud.

--On board the ship Augusta, President Truman relaxed with one of the bomb drop's biggest booster, Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes. Truman's order to use the bomb had simply stated that it could be used any time after August 1 so he had nothing to do but watch and wait. The order included the directive to use a second bomb, as well, without a built-in pause to gauge the results of the first and the Japanese response--even though the Japanese were expected, by Truman and others, to push surrender feelers, even without the bomb, with Russia's entry into the war on August 7.

Greg Mitchell's new book (also out as an e-book) is "Atomic Cover-Up: Two US Soldiers, Hiroshima & Nagasaki, and The Greatest Movie Never Made." He also co-authored, with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America.