Reflections on “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” by James Davidson

For Tuesday’s class, I read the article “The Decision to Drop the Bomb” by James West Davidson. In this article, Davidson examines the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Japan through three theoretical frameworks:

  1. Rational actor model
  2. Organizational process model
  3. Bureaucratic politics model

In this blog post, I will attempt to explain the theory behind each of these models, and provide illustrative examples for each.

According to Davidson, the rational actor model “treats the actions of governments and large organizations as the actions of individuals” (314). Common examples of rational actor theory in scholarship about the decision to drop the bomb are statements like ‘Truman decided to drop the atomic bomb’ or ‘Truman dropped the atomic bomb.’ The strengths of the rational actor model lie in that it does an excellent job of describing major events or decisions brought about by individuals, and subsequently stringing these decisions into a narrative. The weakness of the rational actor model is that this narrative is often over simplifies narratives. For example, the decision to drop the atomic bomb involved many military and civilian committees who made recommendations and decisions about how, when, where, and even why to drop the bomb. In addition, the rational actor model assumes that individuals make decisions based on logic only and does not leave any room for the irrationality of human emotion.

If the rational actor model were to be the ticking hands of a clock, Davidson likens the organizational process model to the “gears, springs, and levers” that make the clock tick (323). According to Davis, the organizational process model treats the actions of government “not as centralized acts and choices, but as the actions of bureaucracies functioning in relatively predictable patterns” (324). Davidson uses the military’s standard operating procedures as a paradigmatic example of predictable patterns. In addition, he argues that the strength of the rational actor model is that it allows for historians to understand the complexities and interrelations of governmental processes. In reference to the atomic bomb, this explains why the development of the bomb came slowly (committees to decide whether it was necessary, military security procedures, committees to decide whether to use the bomb and, if so, on who, etc.). I would argue that this same strength of the organizational process model can also be its drawback: If historians get too caught up in the intricacies of bureaucracy (akin to going down the rabbit hole), they might never make an argument about the event.

Finally, the bureaucratic politics model takes into account that “[p]owerful individuals or groups can often override the standard procedures of organizations as well as the carefully thought-out choices of rational actors” (327). Davidson argues that the death of President Roosevelt and the subsequent presidency of President Truman provides an excellent example for how bureaucracies and the well-thought-out decisions of individuals can be shifted by the politics of a particularly influential individual. To explain, President Truman had no prior knowledge of the Manhattan Project. As a result, for several months, Secretary Stimson found that he had great influence over President Truman’s thought and decisions regarding atomic bombs (328).

In his conclusion, Davidson argues that historians must use each of the three models to thoroughly understand the decision to drop the atomic bomb, and I personally agree with this argument. Ultimately, Davidson does an excellent job of explaining the three models and providing examples and analysis for each of the three. I will say that sometimes I found myself going back and rereading several passages the make sure I understand the theory behind each model before I delved into the specific examples, but this may be more the product of me sitting in a noisy airport and airplane than of his writing. Once I did so, however, I felt like I could apply each of these models/frameworks to novel situations. Finally, on a personal note, I found the opening pages of Davidson’s article to be a beautifully written narrative describing the testing of the atomic bomb, the decision to drop the atomic bombs, and the bombings themselves, and I would highly recommend reading them.


Davidson, James West, and Mark H Lytle. 2017. After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection. McGraw-Hill. Accessed September 13.

Word Count: 710


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