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  • Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War
  • Harold Dorn (bio)
Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War By Michael D. Gordin. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. Pp. xv+209. $24.95.

On the sixth of August 1945 the city of Hiroshima was destroyed by an atomic bomb. Two days later the Red Army attacked and overwhelmed the Japanese Kwantung Army in Manchuria; and on the ninth of August a second bomb struck Nagasaki. Three weeks previously, U.S. intelligence had learned from intercepted signals that the Japanese government had informed the Russians that the emperor “desires from his heart that [the war] may be quickly terminated.” Around the same time (mid-July), when President Harry Truman received Joseph Stalin’s assurance at the Potsdam Conference that the Red Army attack was forthcoming, he noted: “Fini Japs when that comes about.” And the following day he wrote to his wife: “I’ve gotten what I came for—Stalin goes to war August 15 . . . I’ll say that we’ll end the war a year sooner now.” The war was rapidly winding down and its end was near.

In those early days of August, the atomic bomb figured prominently in American war planning. It was rightfully regarded as a special weapon. Two billion dollars had been spent on the Manhattan Project, and Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been preserved as pristine targets to display the atomic bomb’s full effect. Two days after the successful test of the bomb, Truman noted in his diary: “Believe Japs will fold up before Russia comes in . . . I am sure they will when Manhattan [the bomb] appears over their homeland.”

In Five Days in August, Michael Gordin attempts to construct a revisionist account of the ending of the war that is in contrast with this “standard picture”—the “typical history” as “usually presented.” Against the evidence that Truman expected a quick end of the war, Gordin makes an unsubstantiated claim that “the sudden surrender of the Japanese caught Washington rather off-guard.” Without any citation, and in the face of Truman’s statement, Gordin asserts that “[a]lmost nobody before 14 August thought that two bombs would be sufficient” (p. 7). And against clear evidence that the bomb was regarded in the highest circles of the American government as a very special weapon, Gordin asserts, again without citation and without clarification of a confusing statement, that “many military planners and influential politicians considered the atomic bomb to be, at least in some degree, an ‘ordinary’ weapon—certainly special, even unique, in some sense, but decidedly not in the senses we appreciate today” (p. 6).

When the bomb was used three weeks later, Truman justified it militarily on the grounds that it forestalled an invasion of Japan and ended the war without additional casualties (“think of the kids that won’t be killed!”). He also justified it morally and legally on the grounds that Hiroshima (he claimed) was a military target. The entangled issues of military, legal, and [End Page 812] moral justifications have been hotly debated in the “typical history.” Gordin strives for originality by rephrasing the issues. He separates the military and moral justifications for using the bomb: “the issue of military justification of the atomic bombings simply did not appear as a live question for Truman or his advisers” (p. 7). And he says nothing about any legal justification. Telford Taylor, who was chief American prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials, judged the attack on Nagasaki to have been a war crime on the grounds that, since Japan was already beaten, the second bomb served no military purpose; see Nuremberg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy (1970), p. 143: “The rights and wrongs of Hiroshima are debatable, but I have never heard a plausible justification of Nagasaki. It is difficult to contest the judgment that Dresden and Nagasaki were war crimes.”

It is questionable whether the military, legal, and moral issues can be properly separated. The historian is obligated to make a careful review of those reputed separations and not casually postulate them. Though Gordin has read extensively, his method is...


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