The Atomic Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

The Selection of the Target

Some of the most frequent queries concerning the atomic bombs are those dealing with the selection of the targets and the decision as to when the bombs would be used.

The approximate date for the first use of the bomb was set in the fall of 1942 after the Army had taken over the direction of and responsibility for the atomic bomb project. At that time, under the scientific assumptions which turned out to be correct, the summer of 1945 was named as the most likely date when sufficient production would have been achieved to make it possible actually to construct and utilize an atomic bomb. It was essential before this time to develop the technique of constructing and detonating the bomb and to make an almost infinite number of scientific and engineering developments and tests. Between the fall of 1942 and June 1945, the estimated probabilities of success had risen from about 60% to above 90%; however, not until July 16, 1945, when the first full-scale test took place in New Mexico, was it conclusively proven that the theories, calculations, and engineering were correct and that the bomb would be successful.

The test in New Mexico was held 6 days after sufficient material had become available for the first bomb. The Hiroshima bomb was ready awaiting suitable weather on July 31st, and the Nagasaki bomb was used as soon after the Hiroshima bomb as it was practicable to operate the second mission.

The work on the actual selection of targets for the atomic bomb was begun in the spring of 1945. This was done in close cooperation with the Commanding General, Army Air Forces, and his Headquarters. A number of experts in various fields assisted in the study. These included mathematicians, theoretical physicists, experts on the blast effects of bombs, weather consultants, and various other specialists. Some of the important considerations were:

  1. The range of the aircraft which would carry the bomb.
  2. The desirability of visual bombing in order to insure the most effective use of the bomb.
  3. Probable weather conditions in the target areas.
  4. Importance of having one primary and two secondary targets for each mission, so that if weather conditions prohibited bombing the target there would be at least two alternates.
  5. Selection of targets to produce the greatest military effect on the Japanese people and thereby most effectively shorten the war.
  6. The morale effect upon the enemy.

These led in turn to the following:

  1. Since the atomic bomb was expected to produce its greatest amount of damage by primary blast effect, and next greatest by fires, the targets should contain a large percentage of closely-built frame buildings and other construction that would be most susceptible to damage by blast and fire.
  2. The maximum blast effect of the bomb was calculated to extend over an area of approximately 1 mile in radius; therefore the selected targets should contain a densely built-up area of at least this size.
  3. The selected targets should have a high military strategic value.
  4. The first target should be relatively untouched by previous bombing, in order that the effect of a single atomic bomb could be determined.

The weather records showed that for five years there had never been two successive good visual bombing days over Tokyo, indicating what might be expected over other targets in the home islands. The worst month of the year for visual bombing was believed to be June, after which the weather should improve slightly during July and August and then become worse again during September. Since good bombing conditions would occur rarely, the most intense plans and preparations were necessary in order to secure accurate weather forecasts and to arrange for full utilization of whatever good weather might occur. It was also very desirable to start the raids before September.