Although Harry S. Truman always maintained that he held no reservations about his decision to use atomic bombs to end World War II, his actions following Hiroshima and Nagasaki indicate that the president immediately realized that the weapons had inflicted more horror and suffering than anyone could have imagined. He understood that the world had entered into a terrifying new era, and as commander in chief, he began immediately to impose unprecedented restraints on his military commanders and establish unquestioned presidential control over the use of atomic weapons.
When the Second World War ended, atomic weapons quickly became the dominant element of American military power in the Cold War era.
Truman’s military advisers believed that atomic bombs could be the linchpin of U.S. military strategy in confronting the Soviet Union. Given the primary role atomic bombs had in the American defense system, it is not surprising that the “nuclear option” was almost always considered by the U.S. military during times of crisis in the early Cold War years.
What is perhaps more surprising is that no nuclear weapons were ever used. The United States held a monopoly on nuclear weapon technology until late 1949, and when the Cold War erupted into deadly combat in Korea in June 1950, the United States held superiority in nuclear weapons over the Soviet Union at a ratio of 70 to 1.
At no time in recorded history did a nation enjoying such dominance in weaponry and firepower restrain itself from taking full advantage of the situation. The United States acted differently because of decisions made by President Truman.
Truman placed nuclear weapons under the control of a civilian government agency, the Atomic Energy Commission. He also made it clear to his military commanders that the president alone had the authority to order a nuclear strike.
Truman rejected advice from various military commanders that nuclear weapons be used or transferred to military control, and he steadfastly rejected use of atomic bombs against North Korean and Chinese targets throughout the Korean War. Following the dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur as commander of U.N. forces in Korea in the spring of 1951, many Americans supported the general’s call for an expanded war, even if it might lead to World War III and a nuclear confrontation. President Truman’s public approval, at this time, dropped to 25 percent.
Historians now look at the Truman administration and its foreign policies in a highly favorable light. Not only was the Republic of Korea (South Korea) saved, but a third world war was averted. In addition, Truman is credited with setting important precedents for future administrations: There would be undisputed civilian control of the military by the president, and the president alone would have the authority to order a nuclear strike.
In establishing these precedents, President Truman set a course that broke with practices employed by every previous U.S. president. In fact, Truman himself acted much differently after Hiroshima and Nagasaki by taking atomic bombs away from military commanders and placing himself in direct control of nuclear weapons.
Page 2 of 2 - Clearly, Truman understood that nuclear weapons presented world leaders with a situation never known before. He understood that the deployment and use of such a horrific weapon required the judgment of a nation’s leader in a wide international context, rather than that of a commander on the field of battle.
Historian John Lewis Gaddis has observed that during his administration, Truman reversed an ancient and fundamental pattern of human warfare: “that when weapons are developed, they will be used.”