One of the most useful concise works of historical reference on my shelves is a volume called The Columbia Guide to the Cold War by Michael Kort. In just 350 pages it gives an objective account of the principal episodes and the leading personalities of the Cold War, summarises the historians' debate on the subject, and provides an invaluable annotated bibliography of primary and secondary sources.
Professor Kort has just produced a companion volume called The Columbia Guide to Hiroshima and the Bomb. Most valuable is its inclusion and analysis of a large amount of primary source documents. Any journalist or commentator, or anyone else, writing about this terrible historical episode ought to refer to this book. From my observation, there is no issue of recent history that has attracted so much commentary not informed by primary sources. Here, for example, is Greenpeace UK's disarmament campaigner, one Dominick Jenkins, concocting in The Guardian a series of assertions about the A-bomb decision, and alleged objections to it by President Truman's commanders, that have no historical warrant at all.
I notice incidentally that The Guardian, or rather its "Comment is Free" site, has lately taken a contribution from a bizarre figure called Justin Raimondo, expounding the merits of the isolationist presidential campaign of Congressman Ron Paul. On his own palaeo-libertarian anti-war web site in the US, Raimondo has gone a little further than the Greenpeace critique of the A-bomb decision, by openly regretting that the US and its allies won the Pacific War. Here's what he says:
The great horror is that this heinous deed [Hiroshima] was committed against Japan, a civilization as far removed from our own as the streets of New York are from the African savannas. It's at times like these that I tend to believe the wrong side won the war in the Pacific.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians died horrifying deaths at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a historical and not an ethical judgement, we can say with a very high degree of probability that a conventional assault on Japan would have resulted in a far higher death toll. (One of Japan's principal wartime officials, Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal Marquis Kido Koichi, later testified that in his view the August surrender prevented 20 million Japanese casualties.) And Imperial Japan, responsible as it was for such atrocities as the Bataan death march and the Rape of Nanking, had to be defeated such that it would pose no threat of resurgent militarism and imperialism a generation or so later. That last sentence seems to me an obvious truth, but my own occasional excursions on "Comment is Free" suggest that in that parallel universe Mr Raimondo may count as a prophet.
UPDATE: I've corrected an error in attribution that I originally made in this post. There were varying estimates within the Japanese leadership of the consequences of fighting on rather than surrendering after Nagasaki. Kido Koichi spoke of 20 million casualties, not - as I had said - 20 million deaths. The estimate of 20 million deaths was stated by Admiral Takijiro Onishi to Soemu Toyoda, Chief of the Naval General Staff, and Yoshijiro Umezu, the Army Chief of Staff.