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The "Second Coming in Wrath": August 6, 1945

When Harry Truman became president following Roosevelt’s death, he learned for the first time that the United States had been working on a new, secret weapon. Among the refugees from Europe were a number of physicists, including the German Jew Albert Einstein, the Italian Enrico Fermi, and the Hungarian Leó Szilárd. These physicists had warned President Roosevelt that German scientists were working on the concept of uranium fission to produce a bomb that could wipe out large sections of cities. To beat the Germans, the United States commenced the Manhattan Project. In centers throughout the country, this top-secret project worked to master the splitting of the atom. On December 2, 1942, Fermi and other physicists had produced the first self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction. By 1944, J. Robert Oppenheimer, at the laboratories at Los Alamos, New Mexico, had developed the first atomic bomb. On July 19, 1945, this atomic bomb was successfully exploded at Los Alamos. The United States now possessed a weapon that the broken but desperate might of Japan could not withstand. In a message to Churchill, Truman declared, “this is the Second Coming in wrath.”

Albert Einstein (left) with J. Robert Oppenheimer

A committee of high officials and atomic scientists recommended to Truman that, if Japan did not agree to an unconditional surrender, an atomic bomb should be exploded without warning, and as soon as possible, over Japan. Meeting at Potsdam, Germany, with Allied leaders, Truman, on July 25, sent an order to the Army Air Force division on Saipan: if Japan does not surrender by August 3, drop two atomic bombs on the Japanese mainland as soon as practicable.

On July 26, Truman, Churchill, and the Combined Chiefs of Staff at Potsdam gave Japan an ultimatum. “We call upon the government of Japan to proclaim now the unconditional surrender of Japanese armed forces, and to provide proper and adequate assurances of their good faith in such action.” Japan must surrender all lands she had conquered since 1895 and must allow Allied occupation of Japan until “a peacefully inclined and responsible government” be established. If this ultimatum is refused, said the Allies, “the alternative for Japan is prompt and utter destruction.” No assurance was given to the fulfillment of Japan’s one remaining demand — that the Emperor Hirohito (whom the Japanese considered divine) remain on the throne.

President Truman (center), with British prime minister Atlee (left) and Josif Stalin at Potsdam

Japan’s reply to the Potsdam ultimatum was the laconic, “no comment.” The Japanese government had no inkling of the new power the United States held to fulfill the Allied threat.

On the morning of August 6, 1945, Colonel Paul W. Tibbets and his crew boarded the B-29 bomber, the Enola Gay, for an expedition over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Tibbets knew his plane carried a new sort of bomb but of its nature be knew nothing. He and his men knew it as “The Gimmick.” Just before 9:15 a.m., Captain Robert Lewis, on board the Enola Gay, wrote in his log, “There will be a short intermission while we bomb our target.” Then they dropped the bomb. A tremendous shock followed. The sky was suffused with the light of many suns, the blinding dawn of a new and terrible day. Lewis’ next entry was merely, “My God.”

Paul Tibbetts waving from the cockpit of the Enola Gay

Truman, hearing the news, rejoiced. “This is the greatest thing in history,” he chirped.

The atomic bomb that struck Hiroshima destroyed the second Japanese army but also leveled four square miles of the city and killed 60,175 people — soldiers, men, women, the old, and children; the innocent with the guilty. In subsequent days, weeks and months, many more would die of radiation poisoning. Three days later, the United States dropped the second atomic bomb, this time on nearby Nagasaki, a city with no military significance. Nagasaki was the Catholic center of Japan; ground zero was near the Catholic cathedral. Thirty-six thousand civilians died in this terror bombing.

The bombings had their desired effect. On August 14, the Emperor Hirohito, long an advocate of peace, surrendered. The formal act of unconditional surrender was signed aboard the U.S.S Missouri on September 2, 1945. The Second World War was finished.

The American people, for the most part, greeted the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with enthusiasm; the terrible ordeal of war was over, no more sacrifice of our men was required. But some voices protested. Hanson Baldwin, writing in the New York Times, declared, “We are the inheritors of Genghis Khan and of all those in history who have justified the use of utter ruthlessness in war.” On August 29, the influential Protestant journal, the Christian Century, declared: "The atomic bomb was used at a time when Japan’s navy was sunk, her air force virtually destroyed, her homeland surrounded, her supplies cut off, and our forces poised for the final stroke . . . Our leaders seem not to have weighed the moral considerations involved. No sooner was the bomb ready than it was rushed to the front and dropped on two helpless cities . . . The atomic bomb can fairly be said to have struck Christianity itself . . . The churches of America must dissociate themselves and their faith from this inhuman and reckless act of the American Government.”

Like their countrymen, American Catholics, for the most part, approved of the bombings, but some Catholics vociferously condemned them. Hiroshima and Nagasaki, said Commonweal, “are names for American guilt and shame.” In the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day made a play on the president’s name: “Mr. Truman was jubilant,” she wrote:

Truman announces Japan’s surrender, August 14, 1945

"President Truman. True man; what a strange name, come to think of it. We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true Man. Truman is a true man of his time in that he was jubilant. He was not a son of God, brother of Christ, brother of the Japanese, jubilating as he did. He went from table to table on the cruiser which was bringing him home from the Big Three conference, telling the great news; 'jubilant' the newspapers said. Jubilate Deo. We have killed 318,000 Japanese. That is, we hope we have killed them, the Associated Press, on page one, column one of the Herald Tribune, says: 'the effect is hoped for, not known.' It is to be hoped they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers — scattered, men, women and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain on the hills of Easton. Jubilate Deo. President Truman was jubilant. We have created. We have created destruction."

And, far away, in Rome, Pope Pius XII, as we have noted, had contemplated such terror bombings and condemned them. “More than once, to our great distress,” he had said in the course of the war, “the laws which bind civilized people together have been violated; most lamentably, undefended cities, country towns and villages have been terrorized by bombing, destroyed by fire, and reduced to ruins; unarmed citizens, even the sick, helpless, old people and innocent children have been turned out of their homes, and often killed.” On August 7, the Vatican’s newspaper, L‘Osservatore Romano, summed up the war and made a dire prediction. “This war,” it said, “provides a catastrophic conclusion. Incredibly this destructive weapon remains a temptation for posterity, which, we know by bitter experience, learns so little from history.”

A Commemoration of Terror

The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though greeted with welcome by many at the time, inspired much soul-searching in later years. The sense of horror, fear, and pity elicited by the events found its expression in art — often in very troubling forms. One such work was the Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, composed by the Polish composer, Krzysztof Penderecki, in 1960.

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