Some 240,000 people were killed directly, while many thousands more were made ill, dying later. The Empire of Japan surrendered unconditionally on Aug.15 because of the bombings and because the Soviet Union backed out of their treaty with Japan and was ready to invade from the north while the US prepared to do so from the south.
A recent poll by Quinnipiac University found that 61% of Americans believe that using the atomic bombs was the right thing to do, while 22% disagreed and 16% were undecided. It's no surprise that women, Democrats and young people were less likely to approve of the bombings than men, Republicans and older folks.
As an unabashed liberal, my first inclination is to believe that using such destructive weapons on civilian-filled cities is immoral. There is, however, a great deal to consider on this topic, and I don't disparage anyone who comes to a conclusion based on an examination of the evidence and reasoned thought -- whatever that conclusion may be. (Wikipedia has an entry on the issue that does a decent job briefly laying out the arguments on both sides.)
By the summer of 1945 it was clear that Japan could not win the war, yet Emperor Hirohito and his military commanders refused to surrender. The fighting in the Pacific went from island to island, with American forces closing in on the home islands and the Japanese employing desperate tactics, such as kamikaze pilots. After the US victory at Okinawa, plans were coming together for an invasion of Japan that was scheduled to begin on Nov. 1, 1945. Estimates were that the invasion, Operation Downfall, would bring unprecedented casualties on all sides -- possibly a million American soldiers, several million Japanese soldiers and millions more Japanese civilians.
In the end, President Truman decided that the US needed to drop the recently developed atomic bombs to hasten the end of hostilities and to save American lives, and today most in the US still see this as the right course of action. It seems, however, that some of the country's top military leaders -- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, General Douglas MacArthur, Admiral Chester Nimitz and others -- believed that the war had essentially already been won and that using the bombs was unnecessary. After meeting with Truman, Eisenhower later wrote:
During his recitation of the relevant facts, I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.I'm not saying it was an easy decision then or that it's an easy judgment today. I'm just saying that when top military people -- including a five-star general and future president -- clearly had misgivings about such drastic actions, those of us who don't agree that it was right and necessary aren't necessarily foolish or unserious or revisionists or lily-livered. Any way you slice it, the Japanese government and military of the period engaged in many abhorrent actions, and the steps taken to finally end the war were sorrowful days for all of humankind.