Hiroshima: The World's Bomb; Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan; The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945

In This Review

Hiroshima: The World's Bomb

By Andrew J. Rotter
Oxford University Press, 2008
384 pp. $29.95

Atomic Tragedy: Henry L. Stimson and the Decision to Use the Bomb Against Japan

By Sean L. Malloy
Cornell University Press, 2008
248 pp. $26.95

The Nuclear Taboo: The United States and the Non-Use of Nuclear Weapons Since 1945

By Nina Tannenwald
Cambridge University Press, 2008
472 pp. $85.00

The literature on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki continues to grow. It moved some time ago beyond both the orthodox insistence that using the bomb was the necessary means to conclude a brutal war and the revisionist claim that the true aim was to gain advantage in the coming confrontation with the Soviet Union. In practice, given the availability of the weapon, the state of the war, and the growing tension in relations with Moscow, the default position favored the bomb's use. The tougher call would have been to argue for restraint.

Rotter provides a readable account of the political and scientific contexts in which the bomb was developed and used and of some of the aftermath. He seeks originality by stressing the international cast of characters implicated in the bomb's development and the countries that subsequently built their own -- so that Hiroshima's bomb becomes the world's bomb. As a unifying theme, this is a bit contrived. Malloy manages more originality. He approaches the decision to use the bomb from the perspective of a key player, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, who had a record of opposition to indiscriminate attacks on civilians, evident misgivings about the prospective use of the atomic bomb, and concern about the implications of its use for future peace and security. When the time came for a determination, Stimson was 78, tired and unwell, and faced with many urgent decisions. Opinions and assumptions were fluid about the reliability of the bomb and its likely effects on the Japanese leadership, the possibility of a conditional Japanese surrender, the costs and dangers of an invasion, and the potential impact of the bomb's use on wider international relations. Stimson was unhappy with the resulting decision, but Malloy claims that he contributed to a "brutal and tragic act" by failing to pay attention to the details of the targeting, not doing enough to push the diplomatic track, and not insisting on keeping to the fore the potential long-term consequences.

Malloy also quotes an April 1945 memo from Stimson to President Harry Truman warning of the possibility of these weapons' eventually being constructed in secret and used for surprise attacks. Malloy describes this memo as prescient, which normally means having accurate knowledge of future events. But in fact, the most striking thing about nuclear weapons since 1945 is that they have not been used. Tannenwald has done more than most to develop the concept and describe the workings of the "nuclear taboo," which has led to what previous generations might have considered to be an unnatural restraint demonstrated by successive generations of political leaders. She notes that the bombing of Hiroshima, with its demonstration effect and Asian victims, was a factor inhibiting the bomb's use in the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Her book demonstrates how through these wars and on to the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the taboo took root and was institutionalized in U.S. policy. But as Tannenwald warns, this taboo does not constitute a full delegitimization of nuclear weapons, and whether the inhibition would continue to work in, say, Israel or Pakistan in the face of an existential threat is a much trickier question.