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May 30, 1945

Part of front page of the San Pedro (CA) News Pilot, published 30 May 1945

Photo credit: copied from

Memorial Day. Myriads of War Graves Decorated, Multitudes More Predicted

Begun as a way to honor Civil War dead, the commemoration now called Memorial Day was long called Decoration Day from the practice of decorating the graves of war-dead. Memorial Day 1945 marked an uneasy time of mixed emotions. There was celebration, remembrance, and dread. World War II in Europe was over by three weeks and no more battle casualties would join the rows of crosses planted from North Africa to the beaches of Normandy and across France into Germany. But the war in the Pacific against Japan still raged. Many Americans who had fought in Europe feared they would be going to the other side of the globe to continue the fight against Japan rather than back to the States for a victorious homecoming.

Eleanor Roosevelt intended to pay a quiet visit to her husband Franklin’s fresh grave at Hyde Park, but found instead an overflowing crowd of well-wishers. Among the tributes to the fallen leader was a wreath sent by the current president, Harry Truman. It was laid on Roosevelt’s grave to honor the man who had led America longer than any other president and died within sight of victory.

Truman also sent a message to a “Salute to the GI’s of the United Nations” rally in Madison Square Garden. The new president emphasized the four essential human freedoms long articulated by Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The American Secretary of State and the Soviet Ambassador to the United States were in attendance. Each praised American-Soviet cooperation in the war and expressed hopes for a long-lasting peace.

On that Memorial Day in 1945 there was indeed hope that battlefields would become relics of the past, but a detailed letter on its way to Truman via Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, from an engineer working on the Manhattan Project (see June 11th entry in this timeline) contained a warning that various very secret projects being carried out in Tennessee, New Mexico and Washington would culminate in a new weapon with implications for the “inevitable destruction of our present day civilization.”

In what Stimson called the “letter of an honest man,” Oswald C. Brewster sent President Truman a profound analysis of the danger and unfeasibility of a U.S. atomic monopoly. Brewster was an engineer for the Kellex Corporation, which was involved in the gas diffusion project to enrich uranium; Brewster recognized that the objective was fissile material for a weapon. That goal, he feared, raised terrifying prospects with implications for the “inevitable destruction of our present day civilization.”

Once the U.S. had used the bomb in combat other great powers would not tolerate a monopoly by any nation and the sole possessor would be “be the most hated and feared nation on earth.” Even the U.S.’s closest allies would want the bomb because “how could they know where our friendship might be five, ten, or twenty years hence.” Nuclear proliferation and arms races would be certain unless the U.S. worked toward international supervision and inspection of nuclear plants.

Brewster suggested that Japan could be used as a “target” for a “demonstration” of the bomb, which he did not further define. His implicit preference, however, was for non-use; he wrote that it would be better to take U.S. casualties in “conquering Japan” than “to bring upon the world the tragedy of unrestrained competitive production of this material.”

This photo shows a couple of paragraphs from the Brewster letter which was kept secret until 2005.

Part of letter from O.C. Brewster to President Truman, written 24 May 1945

Photo source:  Harrison-Bundy Files relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), File 77: "Interim Committee - International Control."

In an accompanying 30 May 1945 hand-written note to General George C. Marshall, Stimson writes he wants Marshall to read it before the meeting of the Interim Committee at 10am on 31st May 1945.  The Interim Committee was organized in early May to guide the final conduct of the war and the post-war reconstruction; on 31st May its meeting was chaired by Stimson and ultimately it was led by Secretary of State Designate James Byrnes. The 18 pages of the minutes of this Interim Committee meeting were released in 2005 and can be read via the website listed in the Further Readings section below. Nowhere in these minutes does it appear that anyone on this committee had any misgivings about dropping an atomic bomb on a Japanese city and its ramifications, as had been described by Brewster in his letter.

In fact at their 1st June meeting the Interim Committee agreed that the Secretary of War should be advised that, while recognizing that the final selection of the target was essentially a military decision, the present view of the Committee was that the bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible; that it be used on a war plant surrounded by workers' homes; and that it be used without prior warning.

We highly recommend that you read the 31st May and 1st June minutes of the Interim Committee , and the 16th June memo from the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee, to better understand  some of the series of decisions that eventually led to A-bombs being used against Japan. See “Further Readings” below for where to find the originals of these documents.

To learn more about how an atomic bomb works and the Manhattan project read the 11th June entry in this 1945 timeline. To learn more about the actual A-bomb attacks on Japan read the 6th and 9th August entries.

Further readings:

The full text of the O.C. Brewster letter and the circumstances of its transmittal to Truman and the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson can be found here: .  Scroll down to find: Document 14: Letter, O. C. Brewster to President Truman, 24 May 1945, with note from Stimson to Marshall, 30 May 1945, attached, secret.

Source: Harrison-Bundy Files relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), File 77: "Interim Committee - International Control." explains the purpose and actions of the Interim Committee, which comprised mostly civilians (all men). Scroll down this detailed website to read documents 14, 18 and 25. are the minutes of the June 1st, 1945 meeting of the Interim Committee, whose main purpose was to consult with 4 leaders of major industrial companies already running some factories for the Manhattan Project.

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