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America and World War II, Global War

Battle of Leyte Gulf, conquered territory, Atlantic Charter, Soviet armies, Robert Oppenheimer

Ever since 1941, when Roosevelt and Churchill issued the Atlantic Charter outlining war goals, the president had considered the war’s conclusion. At wartime conferences, Allied leaders looked ahead to the war’s end. In January 1943, for instance, Britain and the United States met at Casablanca, Morocco, and agreed not to lay down arms until certain conditions were met: Germany, Italy, and Japan had to surrender unconditionally, give up all conquered territory, and renounce the ideologies that spurred aggression. At subsequent meetings, the Allied leaders reiterated this pledge and also considered postwar occupation plans and divisions of territory. However, the Western powers and the USSR did not trust one another and disagreed on the postwar future of nations on the Soviet border.

In 1944 the war in the European theater reached a climax. On the eastern front, Soviet armies had pushed Germany out of the USSR. A turning point had come in early 1943 at Stalingrad, where about 200,000 German troops surrendered to Soviet troops. The USSR then moved into Poland and the Balkans, and pushed the Allies to open a second front in Western Europe. The Allied armies, under General Dwight D. Eisenhower, prepared a huge invasion of western France. On June 6, 1944, known as D-Day, thousands of vessels and aircraft carrying British, Canadian, American troops crossed the English Channel and landed on the Normandy coast of France.

Allied armies, led by General George S. Patton, smashed through German lines and started for Paris. Another Allied army invaded southern France and pressed northward. On August 25, 1944, the Allied forces liberated Paris after four years of Nazi rule. The Germans continued to fight in eastern France. Hitler launched a last, desperate offensive, the Battle of the Bulge, in December 1944. The offensive failed, and German armies were forced to retreat. Allied armies entered Germany in March 1945, while the Soviets moved toward Berlin from the east. Germany surrendered on May 8, 1945. The war in Europe was over.

The treacherous Pacific war—a great land, air, and sea battle—continued. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan conquered the Philippines, Malaya, the Dutch East Indies, and Burma. Troops from the United States, Britain, Australia, and New Zealand tried to stop the Japanese advance, which reached its peak in the spring of 1942. The turning point of the Pacific war came in June 1942, at the Battle of Midway. The American victory at Midway ended the Japanese navy’s hope of controlling the Pacific. The United States then began a long counteroffensive and recaptured Pacific islands that the Japanese had occupied. In October 1944 the United States finally smashed the Japanese fleet in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in the Philippines.

But Japan refused to surrender. The United States wanted to end the war with unconditional surrender from Japan. It also wanted to avoid more battles like those in Iwo Jima and Okinawa, where U.S. casualties had been heavy. These factors spurred U.S. plans to use the atomic bomb.

The United States in late 1941 established a secret program, which came to be known as the Manhattan Project, to develop an atomic bomb, a powerful explosive nuclear weapon. The aim of the project, directed by physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, was to build an atom bomb before Germany did. After Roosevelt’s death in April 1945, Harry S. Truman became president and inherited the bomb-development program. At this point, the new weapon had two purposes. First, it could be used to force Japan to surrender. Second, possession of the bomb would enable the United States, and not the USSR, to control postwar policy.

Should the United States use the bomb to finally end the war with Japan? What were American options in 1945? One option was to invade Japan, which Truman believed would cost half a million American lives. Some historians have since estimated the likely loss of life at 25,000 to 46,000, although these figures probably cover just the first stage of a projected November invasion. A second option was not to demand unconditional surrender but to negotiate with Japan. A third alternative was to let a Soviet invasion end the war against Japan, which would have diminished U.S. influence in postwar policy. Scientists who developed the bomb debated what to do with it. Some found it wrong to drop the bomb without warning and supported a demonstration explosion to convince Japan to surrender. In Oppenheimer’s view, this course of action was too uncertain and risky; only the shock of using the bomb on a Japanese city would force Japan to surrender. President Truman agreed.

On August 6, 1945, the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. In minutes, half of the city vanished. According to U.S. estimates, 60,000 to 70,000 people were killed or missing as a result of the bomb. Deadly radiation reached over 100,000. On August 8, the USSR declared war on Japan. On August 9, the United States dropped an even more powerful bomb on Nagasaki. According to U.S. estimates, 40,000 people were killed or never found as a result of the second bomb. On September 2, the Japanese government, which had seemed ready to fight to the death, surrendered unconditionally.

Should the United States have used the bomb? Critics of the decision decry the loss of life. They contend that any of the alternatives was preferable. Others assert that only the bomb, used in the way that it was, could have ended the war. Above all, they argue, it saved countless American lives. American GIs, who had been shipped halfway around the world to invade Japan after Germany surrendered, were elated. The bomb also precluded a Soviet invasion of Japan and gave the United States the upper hand in the postwar world. “Let there be no mistake about it,” Truman later wrote, “I regarded the bomb as a military weapon and never had any doubt that it should be used.”

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