September 12th, 2017
Gar Alperovitz’s The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb is a prime example of ‘alternate histories’ in historical literature. These works intend to challenge the standard version of histories (narratives commonly believed by the general public) and illustrate plausible alternative explanations for why an event occurred, how it occurred, etc. With respect to Alperovitz’s novel, he challenges the conventional interpretations of the United States’ decision to drop two atomic bombs on Japan during World War II. Of course the conventional story is that the two weapons of mass destruction were justified because in doing so, America’s leaders were able to save hundreds of thousands, even millions of US Soldiers. However, Alperovitz argues that perhaps the intention was not so pure; the alternate history outlined in his novel suggests that another reason for the bombs that too few consider lies within a deeply political motivation. Alperovitz advocates the idea that President Truman and his administration actually chose to drop the bombs to send a threatening message to the USSR.
Critically, popular reviews of the novel seem to suggest that it was a commercial and critical success. However, a close inspection of even the arbitrary review website “goodreads.com” displays that while a majority of people enjoy Alperovitz’s work, there is a sizable faction that disagrees with the popular vote and finds flaw with the novel. After reading a variety of positive and negative reviews it appears that those who find the most pleasure in the novel do so because they are most fascinated with the concept of alternative history itself. They are excited by the novelty of exploring ideas that diverge from the norm. Conversely those who read the novel with a more historiographically critical mind often looked past the concept of alternate history and criticized the novel on the grounds that it provided a lack of primary source evidence, creating a lack of authority around the thesis. This critical view was supported by Michael Beschloss’ “Did We Need to Drop It?” in the New York Times. The article offers a brief synopsis of the novel and then continues to argue that Alperovitz lacks a strong, evidence-based argument and is deprived of a certain ‘shock value’ that his previous books contained.
Having only read the critiques of this novel, I have of course yet to form my own opinion. However, reading and analyzing these critiques has strongly helped me understand the impact that alternate histories can have on the general public. To an extent, these works in general can often be categorized as ‘popular history’- books along the lines of revisionist or what if histories. With respect to these types of novels, audience’s critical reading often becomes clouded by the novelty of conspiracy theories, and never before heard histories that writing these books for genuine historical purposes can often be a difficult task for authors.
Word Count: 473
Beschloss;, Michael R. “Did We Need to Drop It?” The New York Times. July 29, 1995. Accessed September 12, 2017. http://www.nytimes.com/1995/07/30/books/did-we-need-to-drop-it.html?pagewanted=all&mcubz=3.
Various Authors, https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/208706.The_Decision_to_Use_the_Atomic_Bomb,