The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update

Scholarly debate over the use of the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki has remained quite active in the decades following the end of World War II. James Walker’s article “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update” revisits the historical event over four decades later. In the article, Walker does not outline an argument of his own, but rather traces the evolution of scholarly opinion on the subject by comparing and contrasting the arguments made by some of the top historians in the field.

Walker discusses that debate over the use of the bomb came quickly, and central to this debate was the question of whether this use was truly necessary to end the war in a rapid manner. Early on, many writers were quick to denounce the necessity of the bombs, countering the claims made by policymakers and initially supported by many scholars. The first extensive research of the subject done by Herbet Feis evaluated and supported the notion that the bombs were not absolutely necessary, though he still argued that use of the bombs remained justified for military reasons.

In 1965, Gar Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy reopened the debate by directly challenging Feis’s findings. Alperovitz agreed that while not necessary for victory, the bombings were the product of political motivations, not military. This revisionist approach generated a great deal of backlash from various scholars, yet it had a profound impact on the direction taken while researching the use of the atomic bombs. The central question being asked shifted away from whether or not the bombs were necessary to end the war. Instead, two new questions began to dominate the discussion: What factors drove the decision to use the bomb, and what made this use more appealing to policymakers instead of the available alternatives?

As new, previously unopened sources became available, scholars continued to debate, as well as include new points of research such as the impact the bombs had on U.S.-Soviet relations. Other subjects were revisited, such as the morality of the decision and how many lives were realistically saved, which according to Walker only helped to muddle the overall consensus among scholars. One of the few views to remain static was that of Alperovitz, who changed very little of his original analysis in a 1985 update of Atomic Diplomacy.

In the tail end of his writing, Walker touches on what he believes are areas that merit more attention from scholars. This includes the meaning of the Trinity shot, not in terms of its heavily explored scientific and symbolic implications, but rather what impact it had on policy. Walker also suggests that the moral and political obligations of scientists involved in the Manhattan Project should be further explored, as well as the role the Russian’s own bomb project had in U.S.-Soviet relations.

As discussed in the article, there has been a general consensus among scholars regarding some of the main aspects of the decision to use the atomic bomb, despite disagreements in more specific areas. Nonetheless, as more information has come to the surface, new questions continue to arise.  Given the complex and intriguing nature of the beginning of the atomic age, it is likely to remain a topic of perpetual study and debate.






WALKER, J. SAMUEL. “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update.” Diplomatic History 14, no. 1 (1990): 97-114.
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