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Reviewed by:
  • The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb
  • Robert James Maddox
Michael Kort , The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007. 456 pp. $45.00.

This is an indispensable book for libraries, scholars, and laypeople interested in the Hiroshima debate. In addition to offering a penetrating analysis of the subject, Michael Kort presents a generous array of original source materials, allowing the reader to make independent judgments on a number of disputed issues. The volume is based on [End Page 147] an impressive amount of archival research and demonstrates a mastery of the secondary literature. Kort is even-handed throughout, but does not back away from exposing some of the shabbier formulations that Hiroshima revisionists have fobbed off as scholarship.

The first part of the Columbia Guide consists of a seven-chapter narrative overview that ranges from an essay on the historical controversy over Hiroshima (including the Enola Gay fiasco at the Air and Space Museum in 1995), through the decision-making processes in both the United States and Japan during the spring and summer of 1945, to a final chapter placing the issue within the broader context of the Cold War and after. This section could stand on its own as an excellent introduction to the subject.

In Part II, titled "Key Questions and Interpretations," Kort analyzes the historiography on ten specific questions that have caused the most disagreements over the decades. "Was Japan ready to surrender before the use of the atomic bomb against Hiroshima? If not, would it have surrendered without the bombing of Nagasaki?" (p. 82) is one example. Another asks "Which event contributed more to Japan's surrender: the use of atomic bombs or the Soviet declaration of war on Japan?" (p. 107). In addition to providing insightful views on these issues, Kort cites appropriate primary sources found elsewhere in the volume. This enables the reader to make far more informed judgments than would be possible if presented with mere snippets of documents, which usually is the case.

What makes the Columbia Guide truly invaluable is the generous selection of primary source materials, many printed in their entirety. These are organized into seven categories: American civilian documents; American military documents; MAGIC diplomatic summaries (decryptions of messages between the Japanese Foreign Ministry and Japanese embassies abroad); Japanese government and military documents as well as diary entries of Japanese officials; Japanese surrender documents; the "United States Strategic Bombing Survey Summary Report" (a postwar survey which concluded that Japan was on the verge of surrender and would have done so even if the bombs had not been dropped and the Soviet Union had not entered the war); and "Interrogations of Japanese Officials" (most of which contradict the "Summary Report"); and "Statements of Japanese Officials on World War II" compiled by the U.S. Army. Reading these documents provides a feel for what officials on both sides were saying and writing that is difficult to convey second-hand.

Neither Kort's analytical essays nor his compilation of primary source materials will end debate on many of the issues with which he grapples. On a number of important matters, however, his book absolutely demolishes some of the more fanciful claims that have been made over the years. By far the most important of these is the assertion that the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering in the spring and summer of 1945 and would have done so if only the United States had given them an assurance that they could retain their sacred emperor. President Harry S. Truman and his advisers, this version goes, were fully aware of the situation but deliberately refused to extend such an assurance because they wanted the war to continue until nuclear bombs could be used. The "real" purpose of the bombs, according to this argument, [End Page 148] was not to defeat an already defeated Japan but to enable the United States to practice "atomic diplomacy" toward the Soviet Union.

Scholars of the subject have long known that the "early surrender" thesis is pure fiction.

Those who have perpetrated this myth most often point to the MAGIC intercepts as corroboration. After using the word "surrender...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1531-3298
Print ISSN
1520-3972
Pages
pp. 147-149
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-04
Open Access
No
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