On this day 62 years ago, Imperial Japan suffered the first of what were to be two atomic bombs dropped on its cities: Hiroshima, the first city ever attacked with a nuclear weapon, and three days later, Nagasaki. Many feel that what we did was contrary to the American spirit and that it was barbarous in the extreme. I do not.
The dropping of the two “special weapons,” as the Japanese Imperial Military council called them, hastened the end of World War II and convinced an utterly implacable enemy that we would do whatever was needed to achieve the goal of the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan. It took the Voice of the Crane, His Imperial Majesty Hirohito, to override his council, and accept the Allied terms for unconditional surrender after the second atomic bomb decimated Nagasaki.
Six years and four days earlier, Albert Einstein had sent a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt that became the inspiration for the Manhattan Project. For better or worse, this letter changed the world:
Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard, which has been communicated to me in manuscript, leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. Certain aspects of the situation which has arisen seem to call for watchfulness and, if necessary, quick action on the part of the Administration. I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations:
In the course of the last four months it has been made probable – through the work of Joliot in France as well as Fermi and Szilard in America – that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium, by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new radium-like elements would be generated. Now it appears almost certain that this could be achieved in the immediate future.
This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely power- ful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.
The United States has only very poor ores of uranium in moderate quantities. There is some good ore in Canada and the former Czechoslovakia while the most important source of uranium is Belgian Congo.
In view of the situation you may think it desirable to have more permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America. One possible way of achieving this might be for you to entrust with this task a person who has your confidence and who could perhaps serve in an unofficial capacity. His task might comprise the following:
a) to approach Government Departments, keep them informed of the further development, and put forward recommendations for Government action, giving particular attention to the problem of securing a supply of uranium ore for the United States;
b) to speed up the experimental work, which is at present being carried on within the limits of the budgets of University laboratories, by providing funds, if such funds be required, through his contacts with y private persons who are willing to make contributions for this cause, and perhaps also by obtaining the cooperation of industrial laboratories which have the necessary equipment.
I understand that Germany has actually stopped the sale of uranium from the Czechoslovakian mines which she has taken over. That she should have taken such early action might perhaps be understood on the ground that the son of the German Under-Secretary of State, von Weizsäcker, is attached to the Kaiser-Wilhelm-Institut in Berlin where some of the American work on uranium is now being repeated.
Yours very truly,
Brigadier General Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the plane that dropped the first atomic bomb, was adamant that the decision to drop the bomb as the correct one. In a 1994 statement, he wrote about the rampant historical revisionism that had clouded (and still is) one the last decisions made by American leaders in the Second World War:
A number of people and veterans organizations have asked me to comment on the subject of the Enola Gay, the care afforded her by the Smithsonian Institution together with their treatment of the atomic mission in general.
From my point of view, the matter has been politicized, and, as a result, mishandled. Those whose business it is to create, mold, manipulate and utilize public opinion have done so as a matter of self-serving interest. Consequently, history has been denigrated; the Enola Gay has been miscast and a group of valiant Americans have had their role in history treated shamefully. I am an airman, a pilot. In 1945, I was wearing the uniform of the US Army [Air Forces] following the orders of our commander-in-chief. I was, to the best of my ability, doing what I could to bring the war to a victorious conclusion-just as millions of people were doing here at home and around the world. Each of us — friend and foe alike — were doing the dictates of our respective governments. I recruited, trained and led the members of the 509th Composite Bomb Group. We had a mission. Quite simply, bring about the end of World War II. I feel I was fortunate to have been chosen to command that organization and to lead them into combat. To my knowledge, no other officer has since been accorded the scope of the responsibilities placed on my shoulders at that time.
As for the missions flown against Japan on the 6th and 9th of August, 1945, I would remind you, we were at war. Our job was to win. Once the targets were named and presidential approval received, we were to deliver the weapons as expeditiously as possible consistent with good tactics. The objective was to stop the fighting, thereby saving further loss of life on both sides. The urgency of the situation demanded that we use the weapons first – before the technology could be used against us.
During the course of the half century that has elapsed since the use of the atomic weapons, many scribes have chronicled the flight of the Enola Gay with nothing but descriptions of the destructive nature of our atomic weapons. Few such narratives have been objective. Indeed, I suggest to you that few, if any of the articles, books, films or reports have ever attempted to discuss the missions of August 6th and August 9th, 1945 in the context of the times. Simply stated the Enola Gay and the 509th Composite Bomb Group have been denied a historically correct representation to the public. Most writers have looked to the ashes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; to find answers for the use of those atomic weapons. The real answers lay in thousands of graves from Pearl Harbor around the world to Normandy and back again. The actual use of the weapons as ordered by the President of the United States was believed to be the quickest and least costly (in terms of lives lost) way to stop the killing. I carried out those orders with the loyal support of the men of the 509th Composite Bomb Group and the United States military at large. Our job was to serve. Our sworn duty was to God, country and victory.
Today, on the eve of the 50th Anniversary of the end of World War II, many are second-guessing the decision to use the atomic weapons. To them, I would say, “STOP!” It happened. In the wisdom of the President of the United States and his advisors at the time, there was no acceptable alternative but to proceed with what history now knows as Special Bombing Mission No. 13. To those who consider its proper presentation to the public, I say; “FULL SPEED AHEAD!” We have waited too long for all the wrong reasons to exhibit this aircraft. Too many have labeled the atomic missions as war crimes in an effort to force their politics and their opinions on the American public and to damn military history. Ironically, it is this same segment of society who sent us off to war that now wish to recant the flight of the Enola Gay.
Those of us who gained that victory have nothing to be ashamed of neither do we offer any apology. Some suffered, some died. The million or so of us remaining will die believing that we made the world a better place as a result of our efforts to secure peace that has held for almost 50 years. Many of us believe peace will prevail through the strength and resolve of the United States of America.
Paul W. Tibbets