SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Nagasaki. It was the second time nuclear weapons were used in war and also the last. NPR's Geoff Brumfiel has the story of the bombing and why decisions made afterwards are still a problem today.
GEOFF BRUMFIEL, BYLINE: Less than 72 hours after an atomic bomb flattened Hiroshima, another plane took off from a tiny Pacific island. Its mission was to drop America's second nuclear weapon.
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Its initial target was the city of Kokura, which was an arsenal, had a large, built-up military arsenal surrounded by worker's housing.
BRUMFIEL: Alex Wellerstein is a historian at the Stevens Institute of Technology. Almost as soon as the bomber left the ground, it ran into trouble. Stormy skies separated it from one of its escort aircraft.
WELLERSTEIN: They also had problems with the plane. So it turned out that there were some problems with the fuel valves on this airplane, and it meant that they had a lot less fuel than they were intended to. So they were really on borrowed time.
BRUMFIEL: The bomber made its way to Kokura and found the city was completely obscured by clouds. They couldn't make the drop.
WELLERSTEIN: So they fly to Nagasaki, which was the secondary target. I mean, it's not that far away. When they get to Nagasaki, there's still clouds at Nagasaki.
BRUMFIEL: Fuel was now so low they couldn't get home with the bomb. They had to drop it either here or in the ocean. Wellerstein says the bombardier, Captain Kermit Beahan, had a decision to make, and it happened to be his birthday.
WELLERSTEIN: What are you going to be on your birthday - the guy who somehow figures out how to use the atomic bomb or the guy who had to drop it in the ocean?
TSUYOSHI HASEGAWA: There is a debate between the pilot and the bombardier. And they decided to drop the bomb on Nagasaki.
BRUMFIEL: Tsuyoshi Hasegawa is a professor emeritus at the University of California, Santa Barbara. The crew later claimed there was a gap in the clouds, but Hasegawa and others think that they probably dropped it blind. The bomb fell on a valley filled with schools, houses, churches. It killed 40 to 70,000 people - including Korean forced laborers and scores of Chinese and allied prisoners of war.
HASEGAWA: The atomic bomb was international. The victims were international.
BRUMFIEL: The plane - now nearly out of gas - limped to an airfield at Okinawa and made an emergency landing. When President Harry Truman learned that a second Japanese city had been bombed, he was shocked.
WELLERSTEIN: I'm not sure Truman actually understood that there were going to be two bombs ready to go at almost exactly the same time.
BRUMFIEL: And when he'd authorized the bombing of Hiroshima, he'd also given the military the green light to use more weapons as they became available. The day after Nagasaki...
WELLERSTEIN: He explicitly tells the military they cannot drop any more atomic bombs without his express permission. He withdraws that blank check that he had originally authorized.
BRUMFIEL: From then until today, U.S. policy is that nuclear weapons can only be used if there is an explicit order from the president. Elaine Scarry of Harvard University says that's not really the answer. Nuclear weapons are so powerful that no individual - whether it's a bombardier on his birthday or the president of the United States - should make the decision to use them.
ELAINE SCARRY: The idea that one person can, you know, initiate a launch that would kill, you know, tens of millions of people is just the opposite of anything that could be meant by governance.
BRUMFIEL: There are alternatives involving Congress, for example, and requiring a declaration of war. But right now, the weapons are ready to launch at the order of President Donald Trump. Geoff Brumfiel, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.