Posts Tagged ‘Leslie R. Groves’


The President and the bomb

Friday, November 18th, 2016

I’m in the process of writing up something more substantial about nuclear weapons and the 2016 Presidential election, but I keep getting asked one thing repeatedly both in person, over e-mail, and online: “Are there any checks in place to keep the US President from starting a nuclear war?”  

What’s amazing about this question, really, is how seriously it misunderstands the logic of the US command and control system. It gets it exactly backwards.

Recent (November 17, 2016) Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: "Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs." Hat tip to Alexandra Levy (Atomic Heritage Foundation) for bringing this one to my attention.

A recent Tweet by the USAF expresses US nuclear doctrine in a nutshell: “Always on the ready is an understatement when you are providing #POTUS with the ability to launch ICBMs.” (November 17, 2016) Hat tip to Alexandra Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation for bringing this one to my attention.

The entire point of the US command and control system is to guarantee that the President and only the President is capable of authorizing nuclear war whenever he needs to. It is about enabling the President’s power, not checking or restricting him. As former Vice President Dick Cheney put it in 2008:

The president of the United States now for 50 years is followed at all times, 24 hours a day, by a military aide carrying a football that contains the nuclear codes that he would use and be authorized to use in the event of a nuclear attack on the United States.

He could launch the kind of devastating attack the world has never seen. He doesn’t have to check with anybody, he doesn’t have to call Congress, he doesn’t have to check with the courts.

This isn’t new; it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. This has been discussed since the 1940s. And yet, people today seem rather shocked to hear it, even very educated people.

To be sure, the official doctrine that I have seen on the Nuclear Command Authority implies that the President should be given as much advice as possible from the military, the Department of Defense, and so on. But nothing I have seen suggests that this is any more than advisory — and the entire system is set up so that once the President’s order is verified and authenticated, there are meant to be only minutes until launch.2

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

Diagram of the various US Nuclear Command, Control, and Communication (NC3) Systems, as of 2016. From Nuclear Matters Handbook (2016).

It isn’t entirely intuitive — why the President, and not someone else, or some combination of people? Why not have some kind of “two-man rule,” whereby two top political figures were required to sign off on the use before it happened? The two-man rule is required for commanders to authorize nuclear launches, so why not the Commander in Chief?

To understand why this is, you have to go back and look at the history of how this doctrine came about. Today we tend to discuss this in terms of the speed in which a retaliation would be necessary in the event of a crisis, but the debate wasn’t originally about expediency at all, but about an understanding of Constitutional power and the inherently political nature of the bomb. I see the debate about the (un-)targeting of Kyoto, in mid-1945, as the first place where some of these questions started to get worked out. Presidents generally do not pick targets in war. That’s a general’s job. (Like all things in history, there have, of course, been exceptions.) But when it came to the atomic bomb, the civilian branch of the executive government (personified here by the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson), demanded veto power over the targets. The military (here, General Leslie Groves) pushed back, asserting that this was a military matter. Stimson insisted, and eventually got the President’s personal ear on the matter, and that was that. Truman, for his part, while he did not authorize the actual bombing in any explicit way (he was shown the bombing order, but he did not issue it nor was his approval required, though he could have vetoed it), did, on August 10th, re-assert nuclear authority by prohibiting future bombing activity without his explicit permission.

General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) share a moment. Photo by Ed Westcott.

One can tell that the relationship between General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) was not exactly the smoothest. Photo by Ed Westcott.

From that point forward, the President made very explicit that his office was in charge of the atomic bomb and its uses, not the military. It was not a “military weapon,” which is to say, it was an inherently political weapon, one that needed to be handled by that most inherently political office, the Presidency. This became the framework for talking about domestic control over nuclear weapons in the 1940s, the civilian vs. military split. It was believed that only an elected civilian could make the call for this of all weapons. Truman himself put it to David Lilienthal in 1948:

I don’t think we ought to use this thing unless we absolutely have to. It is a terrible thing to order the use of something that, that is so terribly destructive, destructive beyond anything we have ever had. You have got to understand that this isn’t a military weapon. It is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses. So we have got to treat this thing differently from rifles and cannons and ordinary things like that.3

In the early days, this civilian-military split was actually enforced at a physical level, with the non-nuclear parts of the weapons kept by the military, and the nuclear parts (the pits) kept by the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. By the end of the Eisenhower administration, changes in doctrine, technology (sealed-pit weapons), and fears (e.g., a Soviet “sneak attack”) had led to 90% of the nuclear weapons transferred into the hands of the military, making the civilian-military distinction a somewhat theoretical one. Eisenhower also “pre-delegated” the authority to start nuclear war to several military commanders on the front lines, on the idea that they would not have time to call back to Washington should Soviet tanks start pouring into Western Europe. (So while the President is the only person who can authorize a nuclear attack, he can also extend that authority to others if he deems it necessary.)

The Kennedy administration, looking to assert more positive control over the beginning of a nuclear conflict (especially after the Cuban Missile Crisis, which raised the real possibility of a low-level misunderstanding “escalating” in times of uncertainty), requiring the weapons themselves to have sophisticated electronic controls (Permissive Action Links) that would prevent anyone without a coded authorization to use them. There is more to these stories,4 but I just want to illustrate a bit of what the “control” debate was really about: making sure the President, and only the President, was ultimately the one making decisions about the bomb.

A retired "nuclear football" suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

A retired “nuclear football” suitcase, from which the President can authorize a nuclear attack. Photo credit: Smithsonian Institute/Jamie Chung, via Wikimedia Commons.

I have been asked: would the officer carrying the “football” actually go forward with a nuclear attack, especially if it seems heedless or uncalled for? (The “nuclear football” is the special computer that, once the nuclear “codes” are inputted into it, somehow electronically starts the sequence of events that leads to the weapons being used.) Which I find lovably optimistic. The entire job of the person carrying the football is to enable the President to launch a nuclear attack. They would not presume to know the “big picture” of why the President was doing it — they are not a high-level military or policymaker. They are going to do their job; it is what they were chosen to do.

Would the military second-guess the President, and override the order? I mean, anything is possible — this has just never happened before, so who knows. But I am dubious. In 1973, Major Harold Hering was fired for asking, “How can I know that an order I receive to launch my missiles came from a sane president?” Not because it is a fireable offensive to imply that the President might not, at all times, be entirely capable of making such an order, but because to start to question that order would mean to put the entire credibility of the nuclear deterrent at risk. The entire logic of the system is that the President’s will on this point must be authoritative. If people start second-guessing orders, the entire strategic artifice breaks down.5

So is there any check on the President’s power to use nuclear weapons? Well, technically the US election process is meant to be that check — don’t elect people you don’t trust with the unilateral authority to use nuclear weapons. And this, indeed, has been a theme in numerous US elections, including the most recent one. It is one issue among many, of course.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

There is, of course, no big red button. There are lots of other, smaller buttons, though. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

Do I personally worry about an unhinged, unthoughtful President using nuclear weapons heedlessly? Sure, to some degree. But not as much as I worry about other damage that such a President will do to the country and the world (the environment, economy, social fabric, international order, and human rights are higher on my list of concerns at the moment). Which is to say, it’s on the list of things one might worry about (for any President, but certainly the next one), but it’s not my top worry. Ultimately I do have some faith, perhaps unearned, that even someone who is woefully under-educated about world affairs, strategic logic, and so on, will come to understand rather rapidly that it is in the United States’ best interests not to break the nuclear taboo.

The United States benefits from the taboo disproportionately: should the threshold for nuclear use be lowered, we would be the ones who would suffer the most for it, because we tend to put our cities and military forces and everything else in centralized, easy-to-take-out-with-a-nuke sorts of arrangements, and because we enjoy a powerful conventional military power as well. We have the luxury of a nuclear taboo, in other words: we don’t have to use nukes to get what we want, and indeed in many situations nukes are just not as useful as they might at first appear.

So only a true idiot would think that using nukes foolishly would actually be a useful thing, aside from the collateral damage, moral issues, and so on. Take from that what you will.

I am not interested in having political arguments (one way or the other) in the comments of this blog post — I am burned out on online political debates for the moment. If you want to have a political debate, have it elsewhere. I will only approve constructive, interesting, non-obvious comments. Trolls will be banned and blocked. We will be coming back to this topic again, don’t worry. (Or do.)

  1. “Transcript: Vice President Cheney on ‘FOX News Sunday’,” (22 December 2008). []
  2. Actual doctrine is understandably hard to get one’s hands on. The Nuclear Matters Handbook 2016, created by the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters, is an extremely useful resource in this respect. Chapter 6 is about the Nuclear Command and Control System, and describes the many procedures, organizations, and technologies used to provide “the President with the means to authorize the use of nuclear weapons in a crisis and to prevent unauthorized or accidental use.” []
  3. The context of this snippet, recorded in Lilienthal’s journals, is a meeting between the President, Lilienthal (Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission), and several military men and his cabinet. Lilienthal noted parenthetically that in the gap between the two “thats” in the second sentence, Truman looked “down at his desk, rather reflectively,” and that he (Lilienthal) “shall never forget this particular expression” when Truman said was not a “military weapon.” The military men, in Lilienthal’s account, then immediately began to talk about how important it was to get used to handling the bombs. General Kenneth Royall asked, “We have been spending 98% of all money for atomic energy for weapons. Now if we aren’t going to use them, that doesn’t make any sense.” Lilienthal’s commentary: “If what worried the President, in part, was whether he could trust these terrible forces in the hands of the military establishment, the performance these men gave certainly could not have been reassuring on that score.” Account of a conversation with Harry Truman and others on July 21, 1948, in David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Vol. 2: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), 391. []
  4. I gave a talk at the History of Science Society’s Annual Meeting in Atlanta a few weeks ago, on the topic of Command and Control systems and the ways they encode different visions of Constitutional authority and responsibility, and I am working to turn that into some kind of publishable paper. []
  5. There is an anecdote that is often repeated that states that Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger supposedly altered, on some level, the nuclear command authority during Watergate — telling his staff that he had veto power over any nuclear commands by Nixon. It is not something that has been historically substantiated, and, even if true, would technically have been un-Constitutional. It doesn’t mean it isn’t possible — but I find the whole thing, again, fairly dubious, and it certainly was not in line with the official regulations. There are instances (Stanislav Petrov, for example) of officers in nuclear situations not following regulations in an effort to avoid escalation. But they are by definition ad hoc, not to be relied upon. []

Solzhenitsyn and the Smyth Report

Friday, February 12th, 2016

The Smyth Report is one of the more improbable things to come out of World War II. It is one thing to imagine the United States managing to take nuclear fission, a brand-new scientific discovery announced in 1939, and to have developed two fully-realized industrial-methods of enriching uranium, three industrial-sized nuclear reactors (plus several experimental ones), and three nuclear weapons by the summer of 1945. That improbable enough already, especially since their full-scale work on the project did not begin until late 1942. What really takes it into strange territory is to then imagine that, right after using said superweapon, they published a book explaining how it was made. I can think of no other parallel situation in history, before or since.

The original press release about the Smyth Report, issued only a few days after the Nagasaki bombing. Truman himself personally made the final decision over whether the report should be issued. Source: Manhattan District History Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8.

The original press release about the Smyth Report, issued only a few days after the Nagasaki bombing. Truman himself personally made the final decision over whether the report should be issued. Source: Manhattan District History Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8.

I have written on the Smyth Report before, talking about the paradoxical mix of motivations that led to its creation: the civilian scientists wanted the American people to have the facts so they could be good citizens in a democracy, while the military wanted something that set the limits of what was allowable speech. Groves and his representatives (namely Henry Smyth and Richard Tolman) devised the first declassification criteria for nuclear weapons in deciding what to allow into the report and what not to. Groves was concerned about secret details, but not the big picture (e.g., which methods of producing fissile material had worked and how they roughly worked), which he thought would be too easy to learn from newspaper accounts. There were those even at the time who criticized this approach, since it is the big picture that might provide the roadmap to a bomb, and the details would emerge to anyone who started on that journey.

The Soviets, in any case, quickly translated the Smyth Report into Russian. The Russian Smyth Report is a very faithful and careful translation. The American physicist Arnold Kramish reviewed it in 1948, and noticed that the Soviets managed to produce a document that showed they were paying very close attention to the original — specifically, that they had multiple editions of the Smyth Report, and noticed differences. The first edition of the Smyth Report was a lithoprint created by the Army, and only around 1,000 copies were printed and released a few days after the bombing of Nagasaki. A spiffed-up edition was published by Princeton University Press, under the title Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, in September 1945. Most of the differences between the two editions are cosmetic, like using full names for scientists instead of initials. In a few places, there are minor additions to the Princeton University Press edition.1

Now you see it, now you don't... comparing the sections on "pile poisoning" in the original lithograph edition of the Smyth Report (top) and the later version published by Princeton University Press (bottom) reveals the omission of a crucial sentence that indicates that this problem was not merely a theoretical one.

Now you see it, now you don’t… comparing the sections on “pile poisoning” in the original lithograph edition of the Smyth Report (top) and the later version published by Princeton University Press (bottom) reveals the omission of a crucial sentence that indicates that this problem was not merely a theoretical one. (Note: the top image is a composite of a paragraph that runs across two pages, which is why the font weight changes in a subtle way.)

But there is at least one instance of the Manhattan Project personnel deciding to remove something from the later edition. The major one noted by Kramish is what was called the “poisoning” problem. In the lithoprint version of the Smyth Report that was released in August 1945, there was a paragraph about a problem they had in the Hanford piles:

Even at the high power level used in the Hanford piles, only a few grams of U-238 and of U-235 are used up per day per million grams of uranium present. Nevertheless the effects of these changes are very important. As the U-235 is becoming depleted, the concentration of plutonium is increasing. Fortunately, plutonium itself is fissionable by thermal neutrons and so tends to counterbalance the decrease of U-235 as far as maintaining the chain reaction is concerned. However, other fission products are being produced also. These consist typically of unstable and relatively unfamiliar nuclei so that it was originally impossible to predict how great an undesirable effect they would have on the multiplication constant. Such deleterious effects are called poisoning. In spite of a great deal of preliminary study of fission products, an unforeseen poisoning effect of this kind very nearly prevents operation of the Hanford piles, as we shall see later.

Reactor “poisoning” refers to the fact that certain fission products created by the fission process can make further fissioning difficult. There are several problematic isotopes for this. There are ways to compensate for the problem (namely, run the reactor at higher power), but it caused some anxiety in the early trials of the B-Reactor. The question of whether to include a reference to this was considered a “borderline” secret by Groves when Smyth was writing the report, but it got added in. Apparently someone had second thoughts after it was released, and so the sentence I’ve put in italics in the quote above was deleted from the Princeton University Press edition. The Russian Smyth Report claimed to be — and shows evidence of — having used the Princeton University Press edition as its main reference. However, that particular sentence about poisoning shows up in the Russian edition, word-for-word.2

"Atomic Energy for Military Purposes," first edition of the Soviet Smyth Report translation made by G.M. Ivanov and published by the State Railway Transportation Publishing House, 1946. Source.

“Atomic Energy for Military Purposes,” first edition of the Soviet Smyth Report translation made by G.M. Ivanov and published by the State Railway Transportation Publishing House, 1946. Source.

Kramish concluded:

I think it is significant in that here we have evidence that at least one Soviet technical man has screened the Smyth Report in great detail and it is very unlikely that some of the references which we have hoped “maybe they won’t notice” have not been noticed. With particular regard to the statement that fission product poisoning very nearly prevents the operation of the Hanford piles, we must realize that that information most certainly has been compromised.3

This serves as a wonderful example of a very common principle in secrecy: if someone notices you trying to keep a secret, you will serve to draw more attention to what you are trying to hide.

But who read the Russian Smyth Report? I mean, other than the people actually participating in the Soviet atomic bomb project. Apparently it was published and available quite widely in the Soviet Union, which is an interesting fact in and of itself. One imagines that the American works that were chosen to be translated into Russian and mass-published must have been pretty selective during the Stalin years; a report about the United State’s atomic energy triumphs made the grade, for whatever reason.

Solzhenitsyn's Gulag mugshot from 1953. Source: Gulag Archipelago, scanned version from

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag mugshot from 1953. Source: Gulag Archipelago, scanned version from

Which brings me to the event that got me thinking about the Russian Smyth Report again. For the past few years, on and off, I’ve been making my way through the unabridged edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It’s a long work, and historians take it with a grain of salt (it is not a work of academic history to say the least), but I find it fascinating, at times darkly humorous, at times shocking. Some of the chapters are skimmable (Solzhenitsyn has axes to grind that mean little to me at this point — e.g. against specific Soviet-era prosecutors). But occasionally there are just some really unexpected and surprising little anecdotes. And one of those involves the Smyth Report.

Timofeev-Ressovsky. Source.

Timofeev-Ressovsky. Source.

At one point, Solzhenitsyn talks about his time in the Butyrskaya prison, a “hub” for transferring Gulag prisoners between different camps, albeit one that it was (in Solzhenitsyn’s account) easy to get “stuck” in while they were figuring out what to do with you (and perhaps forgetting about you). Shortly after he arrived, he was approached by “a man who was middle-aged, broad-shouldered yet very skinny, with a slightly aquiline nose.” The man, another prisoner, introduced himself: “[I am] Professor Timofeyev-Ressovsky, President of the Scientific and Technical Society of Cell 75. Our society assembles every day after the morning bread ration, next to the left window. Perhaps you could deliver a scientific report to us? What precisely might it be?” He was none other than the eminent biologist and geneticist Nikolai Timofeev-Ressovsky, a victim of Lysenkoism who had taken up a post in Germany before the rise of the Nazis, been re-captured in the Soviet invasion, and thrown into prison. Timofeev-Ressovsky, though not a name that rolls of the tongue today, was one of the most famous Russian biologists of his time, and one of the world experts on the biological effects of ionizing radiation. And, true to form, he had organized a science seminar in his cell while in Butyrskaya.

Solzhenitsyn continued:

Caught unaware, I stood before him in my long bedraggled overcoat and winter cap (those arrested in winter are foredoomed to go about in winter clothing during the summer too). My fingers had not yet straightened out that morning and were all scratched. What kind of scientific report could I give? And right then I remembered that in camp I had recently held in my hands for two nights the Smyth Report, the official report of the United States Defense Department on the first atom bomb, which had been brought in from outside. The book had been published that spring. Had anyone in the cell seen it? It was a useless question. Of course no one had. And thus it was that fate played its joke, compelling me, in spite of everything, to stray into nuclear physics, the same field in which I had registered on the Gulag card.4

After the rations were issued, the Scientific and Technical Society of Cell 75, consisting of ten or so people, assembled at the left window and I made my report and was accepted into the society. I had forgotten some things, and I could not fully comprehend others, and Timofeyev-Ressovsky, even though he had been in prison for a year and knew nothing of the atom bomb, was able on occasion to fill in the missing parts of my account. An empty cigarette pack was my blackboard, and I held an illegal fragment of pencil lead. Nikolai Vladimirovich took them away from me and sketched and interrupted, commenting with as much self-assurance as if he had been a physicist from the Los Alamos group itself.5

What are the odds of all of this having happened? The Smyth Report itself was pretty improbable. The Soviets deciding to publish it themselves strikes me as unpredictable. That Solzhenitsyn would run across it in a camp seems entirely fortuitous. And finally, that Solzhenitsyn would be the one who would end up explaining it to Timofeyev-Ressovsky, an expert on the radiation effects, seems like a coincidence that a writer would abhor — it’s just too unlikely.

And yet, sometimes history lines up in peculiar ways, does it not? I am sure it never occurred to Smyth, or to Groves, that the report would end up being much-sought-after Gulag reading.

  1. On the publication history of the Smyth Report, see both H.D. Smyth, “The ‘Smyth Report’,” and Datus C. Smith, Jr., “The Publishing History of the ‘Smyth Report,'” both in Princeton University Library Chronicle 37, no. 3 (Spring 1976), 173-190, 191-203, respectively. For a copy of the lithograph version of the report, see the Manhattan District History, Book 1, Vol. 4, Chapter 8, Part 2. A scanned copy of the Princeton University Press edition is available on []
  2. “Несмотря на большое количество предварительных исследований продуктов деления, непредвиденный отравляющий эффект такого рода едва не заставил приостановить работы в Хэнфорде, с чем мы встретимся позднее.” A transcribed copy of the Russian Smyth Report can be found online here.) Cf. Henry D. Smyth, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (Princeton University Press, 1945), 135, and paragraph 8.15 in the lithograph edition. []
  3. Arnold Kramish to H.A. Fidler, “Russian Smyth Report,” (18 September 1948), in Richard C. Tolman Papers, Caltech Institute Archives, Pasadena, California, Box 5, Folder 4. []
  4. Solzhenitsyn recorded his “occupation” as “nuclear physicist” on his Gulag registration card on a whim, despite knowing nothing about nuclear physics. Elsewhere in the book he refers to nuclear physics as the kind of intellectual “hobby” that one who was not engaged with the world might think about, not realizing the horrors that lurked behind the curtain of Soviet society. The presence of nuclear themes in Solzhenitsyn’s work is probably fodder for a Slavic studies article. []
  5. Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, I-II, Thomas P. Whitney, trans. (New York: Harper and Row, 1974), 598-599. []

The Kyoto misconception

Friday, August 8th, 2014

This week we talk again of the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But if the military brass had its way in 1945, we would speak of Kyoto as well. Kyoto was spared because of a personal intervention: the US Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, did not think it should be bombed. This story has been told many times, often as an example of how thin a line there is between life and death, mercy and destruction. But there’s an angle to this story that I think has gone overlooked: how the debate about targeting Kyoto led President Truman to a crucial misunderstanding about the nature of the atomic bomb.

Toji pagoda, in Kyoto, today. Had the Little Boy bomb been dropped on Kyoto, it would have likely been destroyed, as it was less than 3,000 feet from the proposed "Ground Zero" point. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Toji pagoda, in Kyoto, today. Had the Little Boy bomb been dropped on Kyoto, it would have likely been destroyed, as it was less than 3,000 feet from the proposed “Ground Zero” point. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s start from the beginning. The first concrete discussions about what cities to target with the atomic bomb did not take place until the spring of 1945. On April 27, 1945, the first “Target Committee” meeting was held in the Pentagon. General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, was there at the beginning of the meeting, as was Brig. General Lauris Norstad of the US Army Air Forces. But the meeting was mostly presided over by Groves’ deputy, Brig. General Thomas Farrell. Among the scientists in attendance were John von Neumann and William Penney (but not Oppenheimer).

The basic decisions made at this meeting were regarding operational aspects of the bombing. The use of the atomic bomb would have to be done with visual targeting, not by use of radar. The weather had to be good — no easy thing to predict for Japan in the late summer. The targets should be “large urban areas of not less than 3 miles in diameter existing in the larger populated areas… between the Japanese cities of Tokyo and Nagasaki… [and] should have high strategic value.” A list of possible targets that met this criteria was given: Tokyo Bay, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kure, Yawata, Kokura, Shimosenka, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Sasebo. Of these, Hiroshima was noted as “the largest untouched target not on the 21st Bomber Command priority list.” Tokyo, on the other hand, was “now practically all bombed and burned out and is practically rubble with only the palace grounds left standing.” It was further noted that they had to take into account that the policy of the 20th Air Force was now “systematically bombing out” cities “with the prime purpose in mind of not leaving one stone lying on the other,” and that they would not likely reserve targets just for the Manhattan Project.1

1945-04-28 - Nordstad - Target Information

This list of targets was forwarded on the next day and someone — probably Groves — indicated that Hiroshima was target #1, Kyoto target #2, Yokohama target #3,  and that other targets of high interest included Tokyo Bay, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Sasebo.2 Why Kyoto? A target data sheet, compiled on July 2nd, gives some indication of its perceived strategic value. Kyoto, according to this summary, was a major rail connection between Osaka and Tokyo, had several major factories inside of it (producing “ordnance and aircraft parts” as well as “radio fire control and gun direction equipment”), and numerous “peace time factories [that] have been converted to war purposes.” It also had a new aircraft engine factory that could turn out an estimated 400 engines a month, which would make it the second largest such factory in Japan.3 It had a population of over a million people, of which a “sizeable proportion” of the workers commuted to war production plants. “Many people and industries are being moved here as other cities as destroyed,” another datasheet noted. Its construction was “typical Jap city” — lots of wooden residential houses, and thus very flammable.4

At the Second Meeting of the Target Committee, Kyoto increased in perceived importance. This meeting was held in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s office at Los Alamos on May 10-11, 1945, and was dominated by scientists in attendance. Along with discussing the ideal burst altitude of the bomb, calculated to destroy the largest amount of “light” buildings (e.g. housing), the scientists also discussed targets. At this point, the target list was #1 Kyoto, #2 Hiroshima, #3 Yokohama, #4 Kokura, and #5 Niigata. Aside from the aforementioned justifications (population size, industries), the committee report noted that:

From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significant of such a weapon as the gadget. … Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon.5

No surprise, perhaps, that the scientists would believe that there was strategic value in making sure that other intellectuals saw the effects of the atomic bomb.

Target map of Kyoto, June 1945, with atomic bomb aiming point indicated. This image is a composite of eight separate microfilm images from two maps (Kyoto North and Kyoto South) that I stitched together in Photoshop.

Target map of Kyoto, June 1945, with atomic bomb aiming point indicated. This image is a composite of eight separate microfilm images from two maps (Kyoto North and Kyoto South) that I stitched together in Photoshop. If you want the full uncropped version (7MB), you can get it here.

The plans to bomb Kyoto were serious enough to warrant the creation of a target map, showing the city with a 1.5 mile circle drawn around a starred aiming point — the roundhouse of the railway yards. Even today this is an easy target to find, visually, using Google Maps — it is the site of the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum today. One suspects that if Kyoto had been atomic bombed this site would have the same iconic status as the Genbaku Dome/Hiroshima Peace Memorial today.6

On May 15, 1945, a directive was issued to the US Army Air Forces requesting that Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Niigata be put on a list of “Reserved Areas” not to be bombed, so that they could be preserved as atomic bombing targets. Why Yokohama and Kokura was not put on the list as well at that time is not known to me, but presumably Yokohama was known to be a planned target, as it was ruinously firebombed on May 29th. (As an aside, the mushroom cloud from atomic bombing of Yokohama would probably have been visible from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, according to NUKEMAP3D.) Kokura was added to the “reserved” list on June 27.7

On May 30th, Groves had a morning meeting with Stimson to discuss the targeting decisions. In Groves’ later recollections, Stimson told Groves that on the matter of the bomb targeting, Stimson was “the kingpin” and that nobody else would overrule him. When Groves told him of the targeted cities, Stimson (again, in Groves’ later recollection), told him bluntly: “I don’t want Kyoto bombed.” Groves recalled Stimson telling him that Kyoto was a cultural center of Japan, the former capital of the country, “and a great many reasons” more why he didn’t want it bombed.8 Stimson had been having numerous meetings about the atomic bomb and the firebombing of Tokyo over these days — and was resistant to the new mass bombing tactics. On June 1, Stimson recorded in his diary a discussion he had with the commander of the US Army Air Forces, about the fact that the US policy was now one of mass destruction:

Then I had in General Arnold and discussed with him the bombing of the B-29’s in Japan. I told him of my promise from Lovett that there would be only precision bombing in Japan and that the press yesterday had indicated a bombing of Tokyo which was very far from that. I wanted to know what the facts were. He told me that the Air Force was up against the difficult situation arising out of the fact that Japan, unlike Germany, had not concentrated her industries and that on the contrary they were scattered out and were small and closely connected in site with the houses of their employees; that thus it was practically impossible to destroy the war output of Japan without doing more damage to civilians connected with the output than in Europe. He told me, however, that they were trying to keep it down as far as possible. I told him there was one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto.

Stimson went to President Truman with his concerns a few days later, on June 6th. His diary records the following exchange:

I told him I was anxious about this feature of the war for two reasons: first, because I did not want to have the United States get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities; and second, I was a little fearful that before we could get ready the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength. He laughed and said he understood. Owing to the shortness of time I did not get through any further matters on my agenda.

What was Truman laughing at? If Truman was a clever man, one might guess that it was the apparent contradiction between not wanting to “outdo Hitler in atrocities” but also wanting to make sure there was enough of Japan left to destroy to make an impression when the atomic bomb was ready. But Truman was not known as a clever man — he probably just thought it was amusing that we were becoming so successful at destroying Japan that we’d need to preserve a little more to destroy later.

Groves had not given up on targeting Kyoto, however. He repeatedly attempted to see if Stimson would budge. Kyoto was a rich target — more important than many of the others on the list. Why did Stimson insist on sparing Kyoto? The answer you find on the Internet is straightforward but a little glib: in the late 1920s, Stimson had been Governor-General to the Philippines, and had visited the city and loved it (and had perhaps been there on his honeymoon). Thus there was a personal connection. This is not present in most of the books on the bomb decision, oddly enough — the fact that Stimson opposed bombing Kyoto is mentioned, but other than noting it was a cultural capital, it is not probed much deeper. The historiography on Stimson’s decision is one about the moral underpinnings of it: Was Stimson trying to assuage guilt? Was he trying to preserve better postwar relations with the Japanese? There are competing interpretations, and not a lot of evidence to work from.9

Truman and Stimson, August 1945. Source: George Skadding, LIFE Magazine.

Truman and Stimson, August 1945. Source: George Skadding, LIFE Magazine.

Which brings us, at last, to what interests me the most here. I am not so interested in why Stimson spared Kyoto, or how scholars have interpreted that. What I am interested in is this: Stimson’s attempt to keep Kyoto off the target list for the atomic bomb went to the very top. The list of targets was not finalized until July 25th, 1945, when Stimson and Truman were both at the Potsdam Conference. There, Stimson told Truman for a final time why Kyoto had to be kept off. From Stimson’s diary entry from July 24th:

“We had a few words more about the S-1 program, and I again gave him my reasons for eliminating one of the proposed targets [Kyoto]. He again reiterated with the utmost emphasis his own concurring belief on that subject, and he was particularly emphatic in agreeing with my suggestion that if elimination was not done, the bitterness which would be caused by such a wanton act might make it impossible during the long post-war period to reconcile the Japanese to us in that area rather than to the Russians. It might thus, I pointed out, be the means of preventing what our policy demanded, namely a sympathetic Japan to the United States in case there should be any aggression by Russia in Manchuria.”

Stimson left the meeting thinking Truman completely understood the matter, and the final target order — with Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki (the latter added only then) — was sent out.

But what did Truman take away from this meeting? We can look at Truman’s own diary entry from July 25th:

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new.

He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful. 

This passage reflects an incredible misconception. Truman appears, here, to believe that Hiroshima was “a purely military” target, and that “soldiers and sailors” would be killed, “not women and children.” But of course every city on that list was inhabited primarily by civilians. And by the calculus of war being waged, every city on that list had a military connection — they produced weapons for the military.

This is not to say that there isn’t a distinction between the targets, just that it is slighter than Truman’s diary entry suggests. Stimson was probably trying to say that the cultural value of Kyoto outweighed its value as a strategic target. Stimson was no doubt aware that Kyoto had war industries inside of it, but thought these were worth overlooking. The lack of a large military base in Kyoto made it more of a “civilian” target in his mind than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But Truman seems to have come away from this discussion with the understanding that it was a stark contrast between a “civilian” target and a “military” one. As J. Samuel Walker has noted, if Hiroshima had been a more important military target, it likely would have already been bombed much earlier — the fact that it was still intact was in part a reflection of its lack of military presence.10

Statistics on "casualties among school children" at Hiroshima, from Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs, volume VI (July 1951).

Statistics on “casualties among school children” at Hiroshima, from Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs, volume VI (July 1951), page 25.

Am I reading too much into one diary entry? I don’t think so. Consider that after the second bomb was dropped, Truman issued a “stop” order on further atomic bombing, telling Secretary of Commerce (and former VP) Henry Wallace that “the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.'”11 Because both of those atomic bombs did kill a lot of civilians, and a lot of children in particular. In fact, as a postwar report explained, elementary schools were seen as a great data source on the mortality of the bombs because good records were kept “of the fate of the children.” So you get really gristly statistics about the percentage of schoolchildren killed at various distances from Ground Zero — something that really underscores that these “purely military” targets were a little less than “pure.” Sometimes these passages have been taken to argue that Truman really did wrestle with the moral issues, but I think they show something else: that he did not understand them until after the fact.12

As another bit of evidence along these lines, consider what Truman wrote to Senator Richard Russell on August 9th, before he received a detailed report of the damage at Hiroshima:

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 the 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 until it is absolutely necessary

My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan.

Does this look like a man who understands that he signed off an an order that was being used to obliterate Japanese elementary schools, or someone who really still believes that they are primarily destroying “military” targets exclusively?13

I think Truman came away from the discussions about Kyoto with a very incorrect understanding of what the atomic bomb targets were. I think he really, genuinely did not understand the degree to which civilians would compose the vast bulk of the casualties. How could he misunderstand this point? Because of the framing of the discussion, perhaps — Stimson really wanted him to agree with him that Kyoto was somehow a different category of target. Perhaps this is the greatest legacy of the Kyoto decision: it created what looked like a great moral distinction regarding the bomb, one which Truman thought he had taken a decisive stance on. But in the end it confused Truman as to the possible moral options (he was never presented with the question of whether a “demonstration” should be made, for example, or whether Japan should be given a direct warning first), and he chose one apparently under false pretenses.

I don’t think Stimson attempted to purposely mislead Truman, though. Rather, I think the root of Truman’s misunderstanding was that he was a very incurious man when it came to nuclear matters. He liked the idea of the bomb as a source of political power, but he didn’t really get into the details of how it was made or used, not in the way Roosevelt did, and not in the way Eisenhower would. He rarely questioned his advisors, rarely analyzed the issues with independent judgment, and he never grappled with the big ideas. There are many other examples of this from later in his Presidency as well. Despite having his name forever linked to the atomic bomb, one does not get the impression from even his own retrospective, self-justifying accounts that he really took the issues seriously, or even fully understood them. As a result of his lack of interest, and lack of attention, he never thought to ask how many civilians would die at Hiroshima — it doesn’t appear to him to have even been a consideration until after the damage was done.

  1. Notes on the Initial Meeting of the Target Committee [held on 27 April 1945]” (2 May 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  2. Lauris Norstad to Director, Joint Target Group, “Target Information” (28 April 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  3. Kyoto,” (2 July 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  4. Files from an envelope labeled “New Dope on Cities,” (14 June 1945, but with some files dated later), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 8, Folder 25, “Documents Removed From Groves’ Locked Box.” []
  5. J.A. Derry and N.F. Ramsey to L.R. Groves, “Summary of Target Committee Meetings on 10 and 11 May 1945,” in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  6. The map is found in an envelope labeled “Pictures,” dated 15 June 1945, in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 8, Folder 25, “Documents Removed From Groves’ Locked Box.” There was also a map of Niigata and aerial photos of Kokura and Kyoto in the envelope. []
  7. Reserved Areas” (27 June 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 8, Folder 25, “Documents Removed From Groves’ Locked Box.” []
  8. Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986), on 640-641. []
  9. See Jason M. Kelly, “Why Did Henry Stimson Spare Kyoto from the Bomb?: Confusion in Postwar Historiography,” Journal of American-East Asian Relations 19 (2012), 183-203, and Sean Malloy, “Four Days in May: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” The Asia Pacific Journal, Vol. 14-2-09, April 4, 2009. []
  10. J. Samuel Walker, Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs Against Japan (University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 61-62. Walker is one of the few authors I’ve seen who have pointed out the discrepancy in Truman’s understanding. I also appreciate that his book title properly refers to the use of “atomic bombs” (plural) as opposed to “the atomic bomb.” []
  11. From Wallace’s diary, quoted in Walker, page 86. []
  12. Bart Bernstein wrote an article in the late 1990s which discusses, among other things, the unreliability of Truman’s after-the-fact narratives about his feelings about this, including one completely false document that claims that Truman decided on Hiroshima and Nagasaki himself! The falseness of this is obvious to anyone who knows even a bit about this history, since Nagasaki was not the primary target for the August 9th run, but the secondary. See Barton J. Bernstein, “Truman and the A-Bomb: Targeting Noncombatants, Using the Bomb, and His Defending the ‘Decision’,” The Journal of Military History 62, no. 3 (July 1998), 547-570. []
  13. Truman’s public statements and press releases, as an aside, need to be carefully scrutinized before being taken as evidence of Truman’s point of view, since he did not write many of them. []