Who decided to drop the bomb?
Pedantry about atomic politics
The short answer to the question Who decided to drop the bomb on Hiroshima? is “President Truman.” That’s what people have been writing this last week, when talking about Oppenheimer, most notably Janan Ganesh in the FT. Trouble is, the short answer isn’t really good enough for something this big. So I’m going to give you the long answer.
This might seem pedantic, but the Presidential fallacy runs deep. A lot of political commentary amounts to “Look! Something happened. And this guy is President… It must have happened because of him!” That’s not quite what Ganesh is doing, to be clear, but it’s worth seeing the complexity behind the simple statement. Rather than speculate about counter-factuals, I’m just going to try and tell you how the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb.
Before I do, let me say, that I agree with this, from Ganesh, very strongly.
It is hard for some liberals to accept we owe our world to a failed haberdasher from Missouri: a mule-trader’s son, a figure of suave derision until, in his sixties, he became perhaps the most powerful human being who’ll ever live.
Truman is a superb example of a late bloomer and great President. Were it not for space considerations—and the fact that several excellent recent biographies exist—I would have written a lot more about him in my book.
This is the paragraph I am seeking to elaborate on—
The fact that J Robert Oppenheimer agonised over his part in the creation of the atomic bomb is not interesting. Was he meant to whistle to work? Harry Truman, to whom it fell to use the “gadget”, is the more dramatic figure, precisely because he made what might be the most history-altering executive decision since Pontius Pilate without much in the way of outward qualms.