Five Day in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War
By Michael D Gordin
Princeton University Press, 2007, 226 pp.
The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb
By Michael Kort
Columbia University Press, 2007, 464 pp.
Views on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been shaped by both the startling destructive effect and the immediate political effect. This led to a continuing controversy about whether the political effect (Japan's surrender) was a consequence of the destructive effect or could have been achieved without it. Gordin's thesis is that the Americans surprised themselves as much as the Japanese. Those responsible for the decision to use the bomb did not fully appreciate that this was something much more than a more powerful version of existing weapons. A short and accessible account of the decision-making and tactical considerations that preceded the bomb's use is welcome, but Gordin's thesis is overstated. Many in the military were skeptical about whether an atomic bomb could add much to the destructive capacity they had already perfected, and the politicians dared not depend on its ending the war, so they pursued all other available strategies as well. But the scientists and politicians closest to the project well understood the fearsome nature of the weapon if it worked as advertised.
For those who want to explore further, an excellent place to start is Kort's guide to the debate on Hiroshima. In addition to lucid and careful summaries of the issues, a particular virtue of this book is the substantial and well-chosen collection of documents from American and Japanese sources.