Delanie Tarvin: Walker’s Historiographical Update

In “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update,” J. Samuel Walker explores different perspectives regarding the use of atomic bombs against Japan during World War Two, explaining how and why the central concern shifted over time. Walker states that the initial central issue was whether or not the bomb was necessary to end the war with Japan immediately or if other options were available and just as good. Here Walker states the standard historical view of this issue. That is, that most scholars and former policymakers “held that the bomb obviated the need for an invasion of Japan, accelerated the conclusion of the war, and saved a vast number of American lives.”[1] Walker notes that there were people who disagreed with this, namely Herbert Feis; however, it is Gar Alperovitz’s Atomic Diplomacy that Walker notes as the work that caused an immense historiographical dispute by questioning the motives for using the bomb, and arguing political considerations weighed heavier than military ones. The controversy of Alperovitz’s claims, according to Walker, helped to shift the central concern from whether or not the bomb was necessary to “what factors were paramount in the decision to use the bomb” and why policymakers chose it over other alternatives.[2]


In addition to controversial views such as Alperovitz’s, Walker discusses how new information shifted the central historical question. For example, Truman’s diary notes and letters, per Walker, “muddied the historical waters,” revealing contradictory information that both supported the idea that Truman’s administration had political considerations and refuted them.[3] Additionally, scholars of the 1980s such as Rufus E. Miles, Jr. and Barton J. Bernstein cited recently opened records that refuted policymakers’ claims that the bomb saved 500,000 American lives that would have been lost from invading Japan. Findings such as these again shifted the central question to whether or not the bomb was necessary to save large numbers of American lives. With the new information that refuted this, many began to question policymakers’ motives and why they felt the need to exaggerate the number.


Walker ends by looking at current historical perspectives on why the bomb was used (up to the 1990s), the viability of the alternatives, and whether or not the U.S. practiced atomic diplomacy; additionally, he makes a few assertions of his own. In summary, so much is still unclear. The questions raised by people like Alperovitz and the finding of new sources such as Truman’s diary entries caused a lot of debate among scholars, but probably made us even more confused. According to Walker, “historians still need to sort out what was critical and what was not in the thinking of key officials,” and it’s still unclear whether or not the bomb shortened the war and saved lives; however, Walker does note that most scholars agree that there were alternatives, policymakers knew about these alternatives, and the bomb was not necessary to avoid invading Japan and to end the war quickly.[4] The only assertions Walker makes is that there are some issues that need more attention. These include the significance of the Trinity test, the role of scientists in the Manhattan Project, and the role of the Russian bomb project in Russian to U.S. relations.


Walker’s article is a true historiographical piece. He is not making his own assertions about the event; rather, he is explaining different scholarly views and how they influenced the central historical question. Walker approaches the topic by analyzing various assertions made my other scholars over time. He describes how new perspectives and new information influenced how people looked at the issue and how the central concern changed.


It is extremely easy to follow Walker’s points, as he is not arguing his own perspective; rather, he very clearly lays out a central issue, the varying perspectives and historical approaches to that issues, and how that issue changed over time. His writing is clear, and does a good job at removing his bias.



[1] J. Samuel Walker, “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update,” Diplomatic History, 14, no. 1 (Winter 1990): p. 98.

[2] Walker, p. 102.

[3] Walker, p. 104.

[4] Walker, p. 110.



J. Samuel Walker, “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historiographical Update,” Diplomatic History, 14, no. 1 (Winter 1990): p. 98.


Word Count: 653

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