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Kenneth B. Pyle examines history around Hiroshima in new book

July 3, 2024

There is a longtime debate among historians as to whether or not they should refrain from making moral judgments on controversial issues. August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, is one of those moments that made it difficult to refrain from judgment, according to Jackson School Professor Emeritus Kenneth B. Pyle.

In his newest book, “Hiroshima and the Historians: Debating America’s Most Controversial Decision” (Cambridge University Press, June 2024), Pyle seeks to explore why there is so much dispute over the Hiroshima decision.

He wrote “Hiroshima and the Historians” over the course of five years, but developed its contents for close to 30 years teaching an honors seminar on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “I found the Hiroshima decision sparked a strong interest among my American students,” Pyle said. “That is, they wonder why we are the people who used this terrible weapon and caused such suffering?” 

In 2013, Pyle also presented a lecture on this topic during the university’s annual Griffith and Patricia Way Lecture

“Using the Hiroshima decision as an example, I go pretty deeply into the nature of what historians do,” Pyle said in an interview with the Journal of Japanese Studies earlier this year. “I wrote it for a general audience and have tested it on people who are not specialists. They find it quite fascinating because virtually every American has some kind of interest or even opinion about the question; Americans generally are troubled by this. So that’s the way the book evolved over a long period of time.”

According to Pyle, the overall lesson of “Hiroshima and the Historians” is not only about the Hiroshima decision, but the nature of the historian’s craft. “Historians are committed to the pursuit of truth, a quality to be prized in these days of disinformation, ‘alternative facts’, etc.,” Pyle said. 

The cover of Kenneth Pyle's newest book “Hiroshima and the Historians: Debating America’s Most Controversial Decision”

At the University of Washington, Pyle’s work has focused on the ways in which history impacts contemporary international relations, specifically in modern Japan. He taught for over 50 years and served two terms as director of the Jackson School of International Studies from 1978-1988. 

Pyle was also the founding editor of the Journal of Japanese Studies and has written numerous books and articles during his career. He has been honored by the Japanese government with the Order of the Rising Sun and was the recipient of the Japan Foundation’s 2008 Special Prize in Japanese Studies and a private audience with the emperor and empress in the palace.