Stanford history professor revives discussion of atom bomb

    Should Harry Truman’s 1945 decision to use atomic bombs to end the war against Japan be revisited?

    Stanford history professor and World War II expert Barton Bernstein explored this topic in his seminar with Palo Alto High School students Wednesday, April 7 in the Social Studies Resource Center.

    Bernstein is regarded as one of the more vocal scholars who has questioned the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan to end World War II.

    Bernstein started his lecture by asking students what it means to make a decision, and used the analogy of students’ decisions regarding which college to go to.

    Bernstein then highlighted the lack of documentation of the Truman administration’s formal deliberations regarding the decision to drop the bomb. Bernstein visited the Truman library for a week in search of documentation that would bring to light official, high-level government discussions on the topic.

    “I couldn’t find a single document that seemed to constitute the decision,” Bernstein said. “There were discussions of where, maybe when, but not whether.”

    Bernstein also discussed alternatives to atomic bombing, emphasizing the lack of desire on the part of the Truman administration to look for realistic alternatives to atomic bombing.

    “You pursue alternatives to something if you are trying to avoid something,” Bernstein said.

    According to Bernstein, the Truman administration had no desire to find an alternative.

    At the end of his talk, Bernstein said he hoped that he had imparted upon Paly students an important lesson about how to conduct historical thought. He explained that evidence is different for different people, and that most opinions are based on fragmentary evidence.

    Bernstein also emphasized historical humility.

    “You can know something, but there is always more to know,” Bernstein said.