Hiroshima’s Shadow 2: the key turning point


The great fear of General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, was that World War Two would end before atomic bombs were ready to use.

He would would have been pilloried for having presided over a $2 billion boondoggle that used up valuable military resources with no visible result.

Hiroshima's Shadow 0_Stanley Goldberg, a contributor to Hiroshima’s Shadow, wrote that it was Groves, not President Truman or General Marshall, who gave the order to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We’re living with the consequences of the Hiroshima bombing to this day, and I’m reading Hiroshima’s Shadow to try to understand the reasons.

The reason Hiroshima was followed by a second bomb on Nagasaki, according to Goldberg, is that Groves wanted to use both a uranium bomb and a plutonium bomb.

This justified the whole Manhattan Project, not only the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility where the uranium bomb was made, but the one at Hanford, Washington, where the plutonium bomb was made.

I’ve long thought that, given the prior U.S. decision to bomb the cities of Germany and Japan, and given the availability of atomic bombs, the argument for using the new weapon was almost irresistible.

The real key turning points were the decision to develop an atomic bomb in the first place, which could easily not have been made, and the project’s success, which also might not have happened.

The United States in the 1940s was the only nation with the industrial, technical and scientific resources to carry out such a project.   If an atomic bomb had not been developed by the United States, it probably would not have been developed by any other country for decades, conceivably not ever.

Certainly the war-weary Soviet Union would not have tried to develop an atomic bomb and, lacking the hints given by its spies and the U.S. proof-of-concept demonstration, probably could not have done so.

The atomic bomb project would not have been undertaken if Albert Einstein had not been a friend of the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard and written a letter to President Roosevelt warning of the danger of a German atomic bomb.

Einstein and Szilard are examples of the tragic nature of history.  Both were highly intelligent and both acted  out of a good motive.  Yet the bombing of Hiroshima, which was a result of their actions, was something neither of them wanted.

General Groves

General Groves

Even given President Roosevelt’s decision to go ahead with the project, it might not have succeeded without the executive ability and determination of General Groves, and the way he made use of the fact that he had virtually unlimited authority that he could use in secret without accountability to Congress or anyone else.

He had no inhibitions about ordering corporate CEOs, military commanders and top government officials to divert resources for the Manhattan Project that they wanted to use for other war production.

The original estimate was that the project would cost $133 million.  By the time it was over, Groves had created a vast industrial empire nobody had foreseen, at a cost of $2 billion—equivalent to more than $25 trillion today.

I have no reason to doubt that Groves was motivated by patriotism as well as personal ambition.  But he also was well aware that his reputation and his career would have been ruined if the war had ended without the bomb being used.

One thing is certain,” Groves wrote to a friend after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.  We will not have the greatest congressional investigation of all time.”


In 1995, the Smithsonian Institution cancelled an exhibit on the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings because of protests by the Air Force Association, American Legion and others who thought the presentation was unpatriotic.

Hiroshima’s Shadow: the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy, edited by Kai Bird and Lawrence Lipschultz, is a collection of articles published in 1998 to review the issues and the history of the debate.

I thank Tanweer Akram of the Bertrand Russell Society for recommending the book.


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3 Responses to “Hiroshima’s Shadow 2: the key turning point”

  1. informationforager Says:

    Thank you very much for posting this information. I was unaware of this part of the story. I am going to get the book “Hiroshima’s Shadow: the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy.” I have seen the movie “The Fat Man and the Little Boy” which was my main and first introduction to the the history for me. It’s very fascinating to me what has occurred. I’m glad that decades after the fact people are still uncovering “the facts” and getting that story out to the public. Learning history is a lifetime activity.


  2. Bill Harvey Says:


    I was the staffperson on the NUCLEAR FREEZE campaign in Baltimore in the early 80s. A few years later I took a course with Stanley Goldberg at UMBC.

    I’d look beyond Groves’s role to the international situation: i. e., in light of the imminent end of the war with the Soviet army poised at the Elbe River and even possibly coming into the war against Japan, Truman and others believed it was imperative to push them back. War- politics by other means.

    And you are absolutely right on this point: the fire bombing of German and Japanese cities set the stage. It tells us a bit more about the way things is than I care to think about too much. Aerial warfare became one way things have gotten done ever since- from Vietnam (with LeMay and McNamara at the helm again) through Yugoslavia to Iraq (for 24 years now).

    I look to Gar Alperovitz, ATOMIC DIPLOMACY, on this topic. (GA must have been a classmate of yours at Wisconsin?)

    And a GREAT movie- from which you’ll learn nothing about the US decision- is Kurosawa’s RHAPSODY IN AUGUST (1991). A Hibakusha (survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki) grandmother of 4 has the kids over for the summer and straightens them and the entire family out on some historical and moral points. I just watched it for the 3rd time- the blessings of NETFLIX.

    Cheers, B


    • philebersole Says:

      Bill, Gar Alperovitz was an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin at the same time I was. His name sounds familiar. We would have hung out in the same circles. But I don’t have any specific recollection of him. Of course at my age there are a lot of things I don’t remember.


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