In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hiroshima/Nagasaki

  • Introduction
  • Historical Background
  • General Overviews
  • The Manhattan Project
  • The American Decision to Drop the Bomb
  • The Japanese Decision to Surrender
  • Key Figures
  • The Cold War
  • The Effect on Military Strategy
  • Survivor Accounts
  • Morality of the Bombings
  • The Bombings in Literature
  • The Bombings in Film
  • The Atomic Bomb in American Culture
  • The Bombings and Historical Memory

Military History Hiroshima/Nagasaki
Travis J. Hardy
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0017


The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 August and 9 August 1945 represented the culmination of the struggle between Imperial Japan and the Allied powers during the Pacific War (1941–1945). The bombings spawned a vast literature; much of it dealing principally with accounts of the actual bombings and the accounts of those who survived the atomic blasts (known in Japan as the hibakusha). This initially narrow focus on the subject has been greatly broadened over the past several decades by academics. Beginning in the 1960s, historians began to link the atomic bombings to the beginning of the Cold War, whereas others produced works that focused on the transformative effects of the bombings on military strategy and the moral and ethical implications of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The existing body of literature also began to consider the legacy of the bombings through cultural studies as well as through extensive use of film and literature for both the Japanese and the American people. Major work has also focused on the key individuals responsible for the creation and decision to use the atomic bombs in 1945. Several central questions serve to unite the vast array of sources that exist on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. First, what motivated the United States to utilize the bombs? Second, what role did the bombs play in ending the Pacific War? Third, what have been the long-term consequences of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on a military, social, technological, and cultural level for the wider world since 1945? The wealth of material on Hiroshima and Nagasaki attests to the powerful pull that these two events continue to exert on historical memory and signals that no single narrative or approach in dealing with the topics of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been agreed upon.

Historical Background

The use of the atomic bomb can be linked to the unique circumstances of the Pacific War that differentiated itself from the European theatre in many important ways. General histories of the Pacific War generally fall within two camps, either placing the fighting in the Pacific within the broader context of the global struggle between authoritarian and democratic regimes or setting aside the Pacific conflict as a singular event different from the war in Europe. Major works also are often divided by focus on naval operations versus army operations and by emphasis on particular national experiences in the war. The Center of Military History 1948–1963 gives the standard history of American Army operations against Japanese forces focusing on the tactical level. Costello 1981 presents a broader picture of the Pacific by also including discussions of the war on the Asian mainland and the role of the British Commonwealth. Dower 1986 focuses on the idea of the Pacific War as a war about racial identity to attempt to explain why the Pacific conflict differed from the American and British war against Germany in terms of levels of violence. Ienaga 1978 presents a view of the war from the Japanese perspective that is designed to chronicle the social history of the war rather than the diplomatic or military side. Morison 1947–1962 complements the Center of Military History 1948–1963 by giving the most comprehensive account of American naval operations in the Pacific on both the strategic and tactical levels and setting the standard for official histories of the war. Spector 1985 presents a balanced synthesis of the vast existing literature on the Pacific War to give a full overview of the conflict from the diplomatic and military perspectives, but the author also introduces a strong element of social history in his discussion of American servicemen’s encounters with the foreign societies of Asia and the Pacific. Toland 2003 discusses the war in the Pacific in a more selective manner than those by Costello 1981 or Spector 1985 by focusing on the process by which Japan went to war in the Pacific and on specific elements of the American counteroffensives after 1942. Weinberg 1994 attempts to present the Pacific War as part of the larger global struggle between authoritarianism and democratic governments rather than as a separate conflict, only tied to the war in Europe in the most tenuous of manners.

  • Center of Military History, United States Army. United States Army in World War II. Vol. 2, The War in the Pacific. Washington, DC: Historical Division, Department of the Army, 1948–1963.

    This eleven-volume official history focuses primarily on American Army tactical operations in the southwest Pacific and the Philippines but suffers from varied quality of analysis and interpretation due to its multiple-author format.

  • Costello, John. The Pacific War 1941–1945. New York: Quill, 1981.

    A highly readable one-volume account of the Pacific War that eschews the dominant focus on the American role in favor of a broader view of a truly Allied war effort by highlighting the important role of the British Commonwealth in the Pacific and Asia.

  • Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race & Power in the Pacific War. New York: Pantheon, 1986.

    Explains the role of race and racial identity in the Pacific War from both the American and Japanese perspectives and demonstrates how this line of thinking was responsible for the willingness by both sides to commit extreme acts of violence on the other.

  • Ienaga, Saburō. The Pacific War: World War II and the Japanese, 1931–1945. New York: Pantheon, 1978.

    First published in Japanese in 1968, Ienaga chronicles the social effects on the war on both the citizens of Japan, as well as groups who lived under Japanese rule such as the Chinese and Koreans, and highlights the development of Japanese militarism in the 1930s.

  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II. 15 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1947–1962.

    Volumes Three through Eight and Twelve through Fourteen chronicle in exceptional detail the strategic policies and tactical actions of the United States Navy in fighting the Pacific War and established the official histories of the Pacific War as a crucial resources for scholars.

  • Spector, Ronald H. The Eagle against the Sun: The American War with Japan. New York: Vintage, 1985.

    A inclusive view of the multiple aspects of the Pacific War that successfully synthesizes the vast literature from the American perspective on the diplomatic, military, and social fronts but with less coverage of the British Commonwealth’s role.

  • Toland, John. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936–1945. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

    First published in 1970, Toland relies heavily on first-person accounts to reconstruct a political, diplomatic, and military history of the rise of Imperial Japan from the Japanese perspective with equal balance between involvement in Asia and in the Pacific.

  • Weinberg, Gerhard. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

    Attempts to present a holistic view of World War II in linking the wars in Europe and the Pacific. Highly successful in presenting a comprehensive overview of high-level strategy but lacks an equal discussion of tactical issues regarding the Pacific conflict.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.