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Two weeks after the bombs fell, the Allied armed services staged a magnificent surrender ceremony on a battleship in Tokyo Bay, with wave after wave of American warplanes flying overhead. But I wondered: How did they feel, the decision makers, when the celebration ended and the cheering stopped? What were the complicated emotions of these men, most of them never-complain, never-explain stoics of their generation, practiced in the art of denial?

Occasionally true feelings, or something like them, would slip out. In November 1945 J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chief scientist in charge of developing the bomb at the secret laboratories of Los Alamos, appeared in the Oval Office and cried out to President Truman, "Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands!" According to the president's account, Truman coolly dismissed Oppenheimer and instructed that "the cry-baby scientist" never be brought around to him again. Telling the story later, Truman would imitate Oppenheimer wringing his hands. "I told him the blood was on my hands—to let me worry about that," said Truman.

In later years, Truman liked to say that the decision to drop the atomic bombs was his and his alone. The reality was not so straightforward. Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves, who ran the Manhattan Project that built the bomb, once scoffed that Truman was "like a little boy on a toboggan" careening downhill—that he had little or no control over a process that was already well along when Truman took office and essentially unstoppable. Groves's jibe about Truman is not fair; as commander in chief, Truman did take responsibility, and if he was sometimes opaque or chose to look the other way, that does not distinguish him from other great presidents who were also politicians, notably his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Still, Truman was not the main actor in the story of how America (and its allies) and Japan came to end World War II.

Our story begins and ends with the man who oversaw the building of the atomic bomb and authorized the order to deliver it, FDR's and Truman's secretary of war, Henry L. Stimson. Stimson is today a largely forgotten figure. He was, in 1945, a rather antique Victorian with the blind spots and racial prejudices of his time and class. He was old and sick and sometimes absent or seemingly out of the loop as the war ground to its bloody end. And yet in the last act of a long career of public service, he found a way to face up to the conflicting demands of great power. He embodied and preached a philosophy that would make the United States, for all its flaws, the world's essential nation: the belief that American foreign policy should be a blend of realism and idealism. It should balance humanitarian and ethical values with cold-eyed power used in the national interest.

This balance is hard to achieve and maintain. At times, it is impossible. The effort almost killed Stimson in the summer of 1945. On the morning he brought Truman the first photos of Hiroshima, or what was left of it, after the first bomb fell, Stimson had a small heart attack. After he presented the president a month later with the first-ever plan to control nuclear weapons, he had a major heart attack. He was physically frail, to be sure, but his diaries show that he was also suffering from existential anguish.

Stimson signed off on the order to deliver the atomic bombs, and it was sent to Gen. Carl "Tooey" Spaatz, the army air forces commander assigned to lead the strategic bombing campaign in Operation Downfall, the final assault on the Japanese home islands. The low-key, almost diffident Spaatz was described by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower as "the best air commander I know." In Europe, Spaatz had been responsible for orders to drop thousands of tons of bombs at the cost not only of tens of thousands of civilians but also of thousands of soldiers and airmen, including many Americans. He quietly, dutifully, and expeditiously gave and carried out death-dealing orders. But that did not mean that he was not affected by what he was doing. On August 11, 1945, after Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed by atomic bombs—at his command—Spaatz wrote in his diary (self-consciously, awkwardly, as if he were testifying for the historical record—or before his Maker), "When the atomic bomb was first discussed with me in Washington, I was not in favor of it just as I have never favored the destruction of cities as such with all inhabitants being killed." Yet faced with the continued refusal of the Japanese to surrender, he recommended dropping a third atomic bomb on Tokyo, on an area already burned out by firebombs. And indeed, President Truman told America's British allies that he was resigned to dropping a third bomb—on Tokyo—just hours before he learned of Japan's surrender on the late afternoon of August 14 (August 15 in Japan).

Both Stimson and Spaatz followed a rigid code of duty; both agonized over the brutal means to what they saw as a just end. In this book, I draw on their diaries and papers, some given me by family members, to help tell what happened, as closely as possible and as it happened—in real time and in the present tense. I do not pretend that these records are precise road maps to the psyches of the people who kept them. Diaries, after all, are often written for posterity—as a record of the way people wish to be remembered. (Spaatz's diary for August 11, quoted above, may be a case in point.) But at important moments, the diaries and letters of Stimson and Spaatz are remarkably candid about the kinds of inner conflicts that can pull at men who are, outwardly at least, sure of themselves.

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