Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War


Most Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. Five Days in August boldly presents a different interpretation: that the military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb's revolutionary strategic potential, that the Allies were almost as stunned by the surrender as the Japanese were by the attack, and that not only had experts planned and fully anticipated the need for a third bomb, they were skeptical about whether the atomic bomb would work at all. With these ideas, Michael Gordin reorients the historical and contemporary conversation about the A-bomb and World War II.

Gordin posits that although the bomb clearly brought with it a new level of destructive power, strategically it was regarded by decision-makers simply as a new conventional weapon, a bigger firebomb. To lend greater understanding to the thinking behind its deployment, Gordin takes the reader to the island of Tinian, near Guam, the home base for the bombing campaign, and the location from which the anticipated third atomic bomb was to be delivered. He also details how Americans generated a new story about the origins of the bomb after surrender: that the United States knew in advance that the bomb would end the war and that its destructive power was so awesome no one could resist it.

Five Days in August explores these and countless other legacies of the atomic bomb in a glaring new light. Daring and iconoclastic, it will result in far-reaching discussions about the significance of the A-bomb, about World War II, and about the moral issues they have spawned.


The second World War ended suddenly. On 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan; on 8 August, the Soviet Union declared war on the Japanese Empire and began early the following morning a staggeringly successful steamroller advance across Manchuria; and on 9 August, a second atomic bomb destroyed much of the Japanese city of Nagasaki. As the story is usually (and frequently) told, this triumvirate of shocks so stunned the Japanese imperial inner circle, and especially Emperor Hirohito, that he unprecedentedly intervened in war-planning deliberations and moved for conditional surrender on 10 August. (The momentous meeting took place on 9 August; the Nagasaki blast occurred in the middle of it.) Back in Washington, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and his cabinet considered the offer, and Secretary of State James Byrnes penned a response insisting that the Japanese surrender be “unconditional”—Allied war terms since the late President Franklin Roosevelt had enunciated them at the Casablanca Conference in 1943. On 14 August, the Japanese acceded, and the emperor broke his traditional silence and announced the surrender over the radio the following day. The first (and to date only) nuclear war was over. Sudden indeed.

The end of the war clearly came suddenly for Japan. This is a book about how it was equally sudden for the Allies as well, and in particular for the Americans. Coming to grips with the suddenness of the war's end forces a complete reassessment of how, when, and why the atomic bomb was dropped—the very issues that have engaged so many Americans for the last sixty years. For the generations who have grown up with the truism that “the bomb ended the war,” thinking in terms of suddenness . . .

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