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Elaine Tyler May on: American Reaction to Hiroshima and Nagasaki
Q: At the end of World War II Americans were excited about peace, obviously. But was there a sour note because of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?

ETM: There was a sour note. I think there was a sense of shock and horror that greeted the dropping of the bombs in Japan. On the other hand, the primary emotion that was expressed around the country was joy that the war was over, and celebrations of course, tremendous celebration and ecstasy that all those years of horror and death and destruction would come to and end, and the soldiers would come home, and peace would prevail. But there was definitely a sense of shock and terror that the Americans had unleashed something totally new and unheard of with this weapon. And what did it mean for the fate of the world? What did it mean for the country? What did it mean in a moral sense, that the United States had used this weapon of mass destruction and dropped it on cities and killed civilians by the many, many thousands? And Americans had a very, very tough time absorbing the reality of that.

Q: How did the knowledge that America had used an atomic bomb on two Japanese cities impact the collective American psyche.

ETM: Well, what scholars have found about those early years of the atomic age is a combination of many emotions that were seeping into American consciousness. There was, within the first few months and years after the original recognition of what these weapons had done, a sense of terror that this was the beginning of the end; that it was a feeling of doomsday. We may be happy today because the war is over, but we have unleashed something that we really cannot know what it's going to do to us and to the world. The scientists largely led the national consciousness on this by their own sense of mixed feelings and ambivalence about what they had achieved.

Not immediately but with time, as the scientists came out with their own sense of doubt and concern about what they had unleashed, Americans also wondered whether this was the right thing to do. Certainly in the beginning, it seemed clear to almost anyone that this ended the war, it had to be done, and in the long run it was the right thing to do. Doubts, of course, emerged soon after that. And even those who recognized that it marked the end of the war and they were most happy about that, questioned whether this was the right way to end the war. And could it have been done without that kind of mass death and destruction and devastation?

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