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Teaching Mr. Stimson

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For some time now, I have taught a mixed lecture and discussion class on the atom bomb, primarily by using Secretary of War Henry Stimson’s February 1947 Harper’s Magazine article “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb.” (note 1) As many EAA readers no doubt know, Secretary Stimson wrote this article in response to a request by Harvard University President James Conant, a distinguished scientist who had himself worked on the bomb and hence was worried about a number of Americans who criticized the use of this awful weapon on essentially civilian targets. (note 2) Stimson’s article attempted to explain in non-technical language why he felt it necessary to drop both the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. His aim, some have suggested, was not only to refute the bomb’s American critics and maintain American support for a Cold War nuclear arsenal, but also, perhaps, to deal with personal doubts that both he and President Conant could not help but have. (note 3)


1. Henry L. Stimson, “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb,” Harper’s Magazine, February 1947, 97–107. This article is reprinted in several anthologies. Hereafter “Stimson.”

2. John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” first printed in The New Yorker in August 1946, while it did not discuss the policy behind the bomb, was highly influential because it gave a vivid picture of the bomb’s horrors. Hiroshima (New York: Random House, 1985), was reprinted with an update by the author forty years later.

3. J. Samuel Walker, “The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Historical Update” in Hiroshima in History and Memory, Michael Hogan, ed., (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 23. As his title suggests, Walker provides several additional useful references, among them James G. Hersberg, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (New York: Knopf, 1993).