Racism And The Atomic Bomb
AUTHOR Major Myron L. Hampton, USMC
SUBJECT AREA Intelligence
TITLE: RACISM AND THE ATOMIC BOMB
THESIS: The decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan was not
racially motivated; if the atomic bomb had been available
prior to the defeat of Germany, the bomb would have been used
ISSUE: Nearly forty-five years after the end of World War II,
arguments are still being held on whether the United States
would have used the atomic bomb in the European theater.
History has recorded that the treatment of the Japanese and
any person of Japanese heritage by the American government,
public, and media was ten times as bad as the treatment
received by the German and Italian enemy. The U. S.
Legislative Branch, recognizing the woeful chapter in U. S.
history, has recently voted to give apologies and cash awards
to surviving Japanese American citizens who were interned in
camps during the war. Should an apology also be given to the
Japanese government for subjecting their country and people to
the horrendous weapon controlled by the United States,
especially when the United States was winning the war and in
complete control of the war effort? The causing of death to
thousands of women, children, elderly, etc., is not something
a country is proud of accomplishing, but in the case of all
wars, civilians will become casualties. Atomic power had been
discovered and the decision on whether to use this great
source of energy or not use it had to be made. President
Harry S. Truman made the decision.
CONCLUSION: There is no doubt that the Japanese and
everything that reminded the American public of Japan was
greatly despised. Japanese were considered to be less than
human. Although racial discrimination was blatant, the fact
still remains that the United States was equally committed to
defeating both enemies and with Winston Churchill's urging,
had established a defeat Europe first policy. If the atomic
bomb had been available prior to the surrender of Germany, it
would have been used in Europe, with the blessing of both
England and Russia.
RACISM AND THE ATOMIC BOMB
THESIS STATEMENT: The decision to drop the atomic bomb on
Japan was not racially motivated; if the atomic bomb had been
available prior to the defeat of Germany, the bomb would have
been used in Europe.
I. Background on World War II
A. Feeling of Populace Towards Germany and Italy
B. Feeling of Populace Towards Japan
1. Treatment of Japanese-American Citizens
2. Internment Camps
II. Development of the Atomic Bomb
A. Individuals Involved With the Project
B. Military and Civilian Concerns
C. Strategic and Tactical Concerns
III. Deployment of the Atomic Bomb
A. Theater Considerations
B. Target Considerations
C. Government Objectives
A. Political Ramifications
B. World Opinion
C. Comparison of European Bombing Raids and Japanese
D. Effect of the Bomb on the United States and Japan
RACISM AND THE ATOMIC BOMB
The atomic bomb was successfully tested on 16 July 1945,
and since its design, it has only been used twice. Both times
were in World War II and against the dreaded enemy, Japan.
The damage and the destruction caused by one bomb was the most
shocking sight the world had ever seen.
The surrender of Germany had taken place prior to the
development of the atomic bomb, but the question still exists
as to whether the bomb would have been used against
Europeans. Many individuals believe that the decision to use
the bomb against Japan was racially motivated and that the
American public would not have stood for the use of such a
horrific weapon against white Europeans.
This paper will attempt to prove that the decision to use
the atomic bomb against Japan was not racially motivated. It
is also my belief that if the bomb had been available to the
United States, it would have been used against Germany.
The culpability for starting WWII rests solely and
squarely on the shoulders of the Axis powers (Germany, Italy
and Japan). These three nations had visions of conquering the
world (Germany-Europe, Japan-Asia, Italy-Africa and whatever
Germany gave them) and dividing it between them. These
visions eventually led to the signing of the "Pact of Steel"
in September 1940.1
On 7 December 1941, Japan launched a successful surprise
attack on the U. S. Pacific Fleet located at Pearl Harbor,
Hawaii. The following day, war was declared on Japan by the
United States. In fulfilling their obligations under the
"Pact of Steel," Germany and Italy declared war on the United
States on 10 December 1941. The United States now found it-
self fighting wars in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.
From the onset of the war, the National Command Authority
had established a "Europe first" policy. The defeat of Hitler
and Mussolini was paramount. The country stood behind its
leaders and citizens volunteered for service in droves.
Unlike the Japanese, the Germans and Italians were
divided into two groups by the American public. Germans or
Nazis were people from Germany and Italians or Fascists were
people from Italy. The European connection between the United
States and the Axis powers was very strong, and America was
not ready to categorize all Germans or Italians as monsters.
This unwillingness to group the entire German and Italian
population as Nazis or Fascists led to the good German/Italian
and bad German/Italian theory. The human atrocities that were
being committed by the Nazis were not widely known or
publicized, thus there was no deep down hatred of the
German/Italian people. Besides, many Americans still had
relatives and friends in Germany and Italy, and it was
inconceivable that these people could be wicked.
Japan, on the other hand, was a different story. In the
entire history of the United States, no enemy has been as
detested as were the Japanese. This can be attributed to the
infamy of the attack on Pearl Harbor, coupled with reports of
Japanese atrocities, and the extraordinary fierceness of the
fighting in the Pacific. The American news media, Hollywood,
military leaders, and national leaders also played a large
role in fanning the flames of racism into the war effort.
One of the most famous WWII war correspondents of all
time, Ernie Pyle, told his millions of readers, in no
uncertain terms, that the enemy in Asia was different from the
enemy in Europe. Pyle wrote, "In Europe, we felt that our
enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people,
but out here, I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked
upon as something subhuman and repulsive; the way some people
feel about cockroaches and mice."2
The practice of perceiving the enemy as "Nazis" on one
hand and "Japs" on the other was common. This also left room
for the good German theory, but no room for a good Japanese
theory.3 Magazines, newspapers, radio broadcasts, etc.
hammered this idea home even further by constantly referring
to the "Jap" rather than "Japs." The denial of the pluralism
enforced the idea that all Japanese were alike and were the
enemy. Admiral William F. Halsey stated at a news conference
in 1944 that "the only good Jap is a Jap who's been dead for
six months," and he was not referring to combatants only.4
Halsey's comment was just a rephrasing of the popular wartime
slogan of "the only good Jap is a dead Jap." Rarely was the
phrase "the only good German is a dead German" referred to in
The hysteria that engulfed the West Coast after the
attack on Pearl Harbor was unbelievable. No rumor about
Japanese-Americans was deemed too wild to be believed.
Farmers were said to be growing tomatoes in arrow-shaped
patches that pointed the way for enemy pilots to California
defense plants. Japanese students were said to be pouring
into German language classes at U.C.L.A., supposedly to help
the Nazis. Japanese saboteurs were said to be quietly buying
up the land around the West Coast military installations.
Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox, said, "secret agents in
Hawaii had effectively helped Japan with their attack on Pearl
Harbor," though he knew the statement was untrue. Earl
Warren, then California Attorney General, and columnist Walter
Lippman fueled the paranoia by planting the idea that the lack
of sabotage indicated that the tightly disciplined Japanese-
American must be quietly planning some sort of massive,
coordinated strike. The stories are endless.5
The distinction between the two enemies and the
deep-seated racial bias of the American people will always be
documented with the events that occurred during the opening
months of 1942. During this period, the U. S. government
relocated approximately 120,000 Japanese-American citizens,
while taking no comparable action against German-Americans or
Italian-Americans. The relocation of only Japanese-Americans
is even more startling when it was a well known fact that the
German-American Bund (membership of 20,000) had demonstrated
and recruited on behalf of Hitler and the Nazi Party in the
United States prior to the outbreak of the war. There was no
evidence of any organized subversion by the Japanese community
prior to or after Pearl Harbor.6
Executive Order 9066, signed by President Franklin D.
Roosevelt, was the largest slap in the face received by
Japanese-American citizens during the war. This order
endorsed racism by the leading government official in the
nation. Persons of Japanese ancestry were uprooted from their
homes in California, Oregon, and Washington and interned in
camps located in the interior of the United States. Their
situation was similar to a POW's, but in their case, they had
done nothing wrong besides look differently. The policy of
the President was rarely questioned by legislators and, in
fact, was supported and upheld by the Secretary of War, the
U. S. Military establishment, the Department of Justice, the
U. S. Congress, and the Supreme Court.
The American people and government displayed racist
attitudes in their dealings with Japanese-Americans.
Nevertheless, the desire of the government to defeat the Axis
powers was equal in all respects. Remember, the "Europe
first" policy was being adhered to.
During WWII, a total of 16,112,566 Americans served in
all branches of the armed forces. Of this total, more than
400,000 would die and more than half a million would be
wounded.7 The country was ready to end the war on all
fronts as quickly as possible and would have used any weapon
at its disposal.
The idea of nuclear fission and controlling the enormous
power of the atom was a major project for many of the top
physicists in the world during the 1930's, especially when it
was discovered that the atom could be split. Without getting
too technical, scientists now believed that uranium-235 would
split when hit with a neutron, and the fission of one such
atom would release several free neutrons which would set off a
chain reaction.8 The task facing the scientists was how to
control this chain reaction.
Based on these scientific discoveries, Albert Einstein
informed President Roosevelt that research would soon make it
possible to harness this energy. In turn, technology would be
available to allow the United States to produce bombs of
tremendous power and capable of great destruction.9
Einstein was so convincing that Roosevelt authorized the
research at government expense and in 1942, turned the task of
creating an atomic bomb over to a secret department within the
Army Corps of Engineers. The project was headed by Major
General Leslie R. Groves and was code named "The Manhattan
For obvious reasons, the Manhattan Project was kept very
secret and many senior government officials had no idea the
project existed. The scientists working on the project were
well respected and renowned in their professions, men such as
Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Dr. Lise Meitner (a German who had
escaped Nazi Germany), Dr. Arthur H. Compton, Dr. Nils Bohr,
Dr. Ernest O. Lawrence, and Dr. Enrico Fermi served on the
committee. The government constructed two large plants to
produce the bomb and spent in excess of 2.5 billion dollars on
On July 16, 1945, the atomic bomb was successfully tested
in the desert of New Mexico. The new bomb had more power than
20,000 tons of TNT and 2,000 times the blast power of the
largest bomb used up until that time.10 The United States
now had in its arsenal of weapons the one weapon capable of
putting a quick end to WWII.
Frequent bombing raids and the use of fire bombs on large
populated cities was introduced by the Germans when they
executed air raids against London in December 1940 and May
1941. The concept was improved upon by the Allied forces by
increasing the number of aircraft, increasing the size,
tonnage, and number of incendiary bombs to be dropped, and
increasing the frequency of the raids. These changes in
tactics produced intense fire storms in the German cities
designated as targets and brought the war "up close and
personal" to the German population.
The city of Hamburg experienced three saturation
incendiary air raids during July 1943. On the 24th and 25th,
a raid was conducted and struck the west section of the city,
engulfing approximately 1 1/2 square miles and nearly 54 miles
of building frontage. On the 27th and 28th, a second raid was
conducted and struck the southeast section of the city. This
particular raid engulfed 5 square miles, approximately 133
miles of building frontage, and left an estimated 7,000
buildings on fire. The final raid was conducted on the 29th
and 30th in the southern section of the city and covered an
area of 2 square miles and destroyed an estimated building
frontage of 104 miles.11
The casualty picture for Hamburg will never truly be
known because in a fire storm, many of the victims simply
vanish into dust and ashes. Records indicate that approxi-
mately 55,000 people lost their lives in Hamburg. Of the
450,800 family apartments in the city, 253,400 were destroyed
or made unfit to live in and a total of 5.9 square miles of
buildings were totally destroyed.12
Another major fire bombing raid was conducted on the
cultural city of Dresden in the winter of 1945. The need for
the raid was questioned by a few people in the military chain
of command because the tide of the war had definitely turned
in favor of the Allies and the destruction of this city seemed
unnecessary. Unfortunately for Dresden, many military leaders
felt that Dresden was the vital communications center to the
German army and that if the Allies could knock out a single
key point, rail traffic would come to a halt for months.
Dresden also contained a large marshalling yard with large
numbers of rolling stock and an important bridge that gave it
access to the autobahn (important road network). The fact that
Dresden had a very large civilian population, enhanced by
approximately 200,000 refugees, had very little impact on the
decision to proceed with Operation Thunderclap.13
On the 13th and 14th of February 1945, Dresden was attacked
by 800 bombers belonging to the Allied forces. The first wave of
the attack was from 10-10:25 p.m., the second wave from 1:22-1:54
a.m., and the third wave from 12:15-12:25 p.m.14
The effect of Operation Thunderclap on the morale and will
of the German army and population was devastating. As it was
with Hamburg, the true casualty figures will never be known, but
some sources have estimated the death count to be as high as
250,000-400,000.15 Of the 220,000 dwellings, 90,000 were
totally destroyed and only 45,000 remained undamaged. The
bombing of Dresden proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the
Allies were committed to winning the war and would use any means
at their disposal.
The bombing policy that worked so effectively in Europe was
also conducted against the Japanese. Japan was constantly being
raided by American long-distance bombers and fighters in early
1945, but the damage being done by the conventional weapons did
not destroy the will of the Japanese people. Nagoya, with its
aircraft manufacturing center, and Tokyo, the military and
political fulcrum, were the two most frequently bombed cities.
July 1945 found hundreds of Japanese cities and towns burned,
charred, and totally destroyed. Still, the Japanese continued to
Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, was one of many who
felt the U.S. would be justified in using the atomic bomb. He
believed that the damage being caused by conventional weapons
was tremendous but that Japan would have to be shocked into
surrender. Stimson realized that thousands of civilians would
be killed in the explosion of the bomb, but he rationalized
that in the long run, many more American and Japanese lives
would be saved by using the bomb.16
The committee of scientists who worked on and eventually
developed the bomb also recommended that the weapon be used on
Japan. The committee felt that the devastating power of the
atomic bomb would best serve the purpose of the U. S. if it
was used on a target of military importance to the Japanese.
The scientists were adamantly against warning the Japanese of
the lethality of the atomic bomb and did not want to
demonstrate the effectiveness of the bomb on an uninhabited
island. Direct military use was the only way to end the war
as far as they were concerned.17
The final decision on whether to use the bomb or not
belonged to the President alone. President Truman had
considered the recommendations of his top advisors and
determined that the saving of American lives was his primary
concern, thus the war must come to an end. When writing about
his decision to use the bomb, Truman stated, "Let there be no
mistake about it, I regard the bomb as a military weapon and
never had any doubt that it should be used. The top military
advisors to the President recommended its use, and when I
talked to Churchill, he unhesitatingly told me that he favored
the use of the atomic bomb if it might aid to end the
On the 26th of July 1945, the United States, while
attending the Potsdam Conference, issued an ultimatum to Japan
to surrender unconditionally or suffer the effects of this new
weapon. The Japanese refused to surrender and vowed to
continue to fight. Upon hearing the Japanese reply, President
Truman decided to drop the bomb on or about 3 August 1945.
Four cities were selected as possible targets for the
bomb: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki. The criteria
for target selection was that each target should have a high
military strategic value, contain a large percentage of
closely built frame buildings that would be susceptible to
damage by blast and fire, and that the site be relatively
untouched by previous bombings.19
Hiroshima was an extremely important military center.
The 2nd Army Headquarters was located in the city and it
commanded the defense of all of Southern Japan. Hiroshima was
also a communications center, a storage point, and an assembly
area for troops. The population of the city at the time of
the attack was approximately 255,000 people.
Nagasaki was of great military value to Japan because of
the industries located in the city. Ordnance, ships, military
equipment, and various other war materials were produced in
Nagasaki and any interruption in the flow of these materials
would prove to be very detrimental to the Japanese war
effort. Nagasaki had a population of approximately 195,000
On 6 August 1945, the first bomb was dropped on
Hiroshima. The effects of the bomb almost blew the city off
the face of the earth. Buildings, houses, trees, telephone
poles, etc. collapsed as is they were made of paper. Fire
engulfed the city. Thousands of panic stricken people ran
through the streets in total shock. The lines of communi-
cation to the rest of Japan was totally severed. In the end,
66,000 people were killed and 69,000 injured.20
Three days later on 9 August 1945, the United States
dropped an even larger bomb on Nagasaki. The results were
similar to Hiroshima and the death and injury toll, although
lesser than Hiroshima, was still devastating. A total of
39,000 people were killed and 25,000 injured.21
Even the most ardent of Japanese war supporters could see
the writing on the wall and on 2 September 1945, the Japanese
officially surrendered. This event marked the end to the
greatest war in history.
The Japanese described the bombing as an inhuman act, but
for the most part, world opinion was favorable. When informed
of the powerful new weapon invented by the United States,
Joseph Stalin stated that he was glad to hear the news and
hoped the Americans "would make good use of it against
Japan." Winston Churchill was only glad that the United
States and not the Germans had been the first to discover the
secret of atomic power. The American public was ecstatic over
the fact that the war had come to an end and felt vindicated
for Pearl Harbor.
With the atomic bomb, the United States now found itself
in a position of power in the world political arena. The
relationship with Western Europe was solid, but the
relationship with Eastern Europe would be strained for years
to come. This was the beginning of the Cold War.
From the very start of research to the completion of the
Manhattan Project, the atomic bomb was to be used as a
military weapon. The United States was obsessed with beating
the Germans to the discovery of atomic power and its
properties because that knowledge in the hands of a madman
like Adolph Hitler would be catastrophic.
The atomic bomb was not produced or ready for use until
July 1945, three months after the surrender of Germany. Had
it been available to the U.S. prior to Germany's surrender,
there is no doubt that it would have been used in Europe.
The atomic bomb was always viewed as a weapon to be used
and not to show. The effects of the bombing raids on Hamburg
and Dresden were just as devastating as the attacks on
Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The destruction of the cities and the
numbers of people killed were comparable. The shocking factor
was that one bomb caused the destruction in Japan, whereas in
Europe, continuous bombing raids and multiple assets were
The fact that American lives could be saved by using the
atomic bomb was President Truman's primary concern in deciding
the drop the bomb. If he could have used it in Europe, Japan
might have seen the light and given up when the Germans were
defeated. The threat of having that awesome weapon dropped on
mainland Japan would have carried a lot of weight in helping the
Japanese decide on what course of action to follow. President
Truman had no love for Nazi Germany and would not have hesitated
to destroy the would-be master race.
Top military and civilian advisors were in favor of using
the atomic bomb as a military weapon. General Carl A. Spaatz,
Commander of U. S. Strategic Air Forces, summed up the military
perspective when he stated, "If we had had the atomic bomb in
Europe, it would have shortened the war six to eight months.22
The racial issue was real and there was no doubt that the
Japanese were more despised than their German and Italian
allies. Pearl Harbor may have had something to do with the
American sentiment. Another popular slogan heard during the war
was "Remember Pearl Harbor." Feelings may have been different if
the human atrocities that were being committed by the Germans
The racial discrimination that was incurred by Japanese-
American citizens was disgraceful, especially when the government
had no indications or proof of espionage. Fortunately, this
racial bias had no bearing on President Truman's decision and, as
previously stated, Germany would have felt the impact of the
atomic bomb if the war would have lasted a few months longer.
1Louis L. Snyder, The First Book of World War II (New
York, 1958), p. 12.
2John W. Dower, War Without Mercy (New York, 1986), p. 78.
3Ibid., pp. 78-79.
4Ibid., p. 79.
5John, Leo. "An Apology to Japanese Americans," Time,
6John W. Dower, War Without Mercy (New York, 1986), p. 79.
7James L. Stokesbury, A Short History of World War II (New
York, 1980), p. 380.
8Louis L. Snyder, The War, A Concise History (New York,
1960), p. 486.
9Ibid., p. 486.
10Leslie R. Groves, Lieut. General, U. S. Army, Ret., Now
It Can Be Told, The Story of the Manhattan Project (New York,
1962), p. 315.
11Anthony J. Mullaney, Fire and the Air War (Boston,
1946), pp. 99-100.
12Ibid., p. 100.
13Brigadier Peter Young, World War 1939-45, A Short
History (New York, 1966), p. 265.
14Alexander McKee, Dresden 1945: The Devil's Tinderbox
(New York, 1982), p. 137.
15Brigadier Peter Young, World War 1939-45, A Short
History (New York, 1966, p. 265.
16Louis L. Snyder, The War, A Concise History (New York,
1960), pp. 488-489.
17Ibid., p. 487.
18Ibid., p. 489.
19The Manhattan Engineer District, The Atomic Bombings of
Hiroshima and Nagasaki (N. Manchester, 1967), pp. 5-8.
20Ibid., p. 18.
21Ibid., p. 18.
22Louis L. Snyder, The War, A Concise History (New York,
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