Martin J. Sherwin, a leading scholar of atomic weapons who in “A World Destroyed” challenged support for the U.S. bombing of Japan and spent more than two decades researching the pioneering physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer for the Pulitzer Prize-winning “American Prometheus,” has died.
Sherwin died Wednesday at his home in Washington, D.C., according to his friend Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University. He was 84 and had been battling lung cancer. Kai Bird, a close friend and the co-author of “American Prometheus,” called him “probably the preeminent historian of the nuclear age.”
“When we started working on ‘American Prometheus’ he told me he had lots of research, but a few gaps,” Bird told The Associated Press on Saturday. “When I began going through all the materials I couldn’t find any gaps.”
Sherwin was a New York City native whose interest in nuclear research dated back to his undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, when he spent a summer working at a uranium mine out West. Sherwin’s ties to the arms race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union became frighteningly personal during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis,. He was a junior officer in the Navy and was told of plans to evacuate from their base in San Diego to a remote location in Baja California, Mexico.
“The rationale was to disperse military aircraft beyond the reach of Soviet missiles,” he wrote in “Gambling With Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis,” which came out last year. “Some junior officers — all of us bachelors — joked that the beaches of Baja ‘would be a delightful place to die.’”
He was best known for “American Prometheus,” published in 2005 and winner of the Pulitzer for biography. The book was widely praised as a comprehensive and invaluable study of the so-called “father of the atomic bomb” who later had his telephones tapped and his security clearance revoked during the McCarthy era of the 1950s as he advocated nuclear containment and opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb.
Sherwin began working on the book in the late 1970s with an hours-long horseback ride to the mountainside ranch in New Mexico where Oppenheimer once lived. He continued over the next two decades as he accumulated tens of thousands of pages of research, from FBI files to private correspondence to interviews with those who knew Oppenheimer. Bird, whom he had befriended in the 1990s and eventually brought in to help, joked that Sherwin had come down with “biographer’s disease,” the inability to know when it was time to stop researching and begin writing.
Pulitzer judges cited Sherwin and Bird for their “rich evocation of America at midcentury” and called “American Prometheus” a “new and compelling portrait of a brilliant, ambitious, complex and flawed man profoundly connected to its major events — the Depression, World War II and the Cold War.”
Sherwin was also a popular teacher and lecturer who taught at Princeton University, George Mason University and, for much of his career, Tufts University, where he founded the Nuclear Age History Center. At Princeton, he was an adviser to the author-journalist Eric Schlosser and mentored Katrina vanden Heuvel, now editorial director and publisher of the liberal weekly The Nation, for which Sherwin was a contributor and served on the board of directors.
Sherwin’s first book, “A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies,” came out in 1975 and was a Pulitzer finalist. The New York Times praised the book for its unprecedented scholarship on such questions as whether the U.S. needed nuclear weapons to defeat Japan in World War II (Sherwin contended President Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki was based more on intimidating the Russians) and why the U.S. chose not to share its nuclear development with the Soviet Union when they were World War II allies.
In the mid-1990s, Sherwin was among the advisers for a planned Smithsonian exhibit about the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Japan that was canceled after veterans organizations and dozens of members of Congress objected to what they considered an anti-U.S. bias. Instead, the Smithsonian only displayed the Enola Gay, the plane from which the U.S. dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima.
“In the United States, the collective memory of World War II sees the war as ‘our finest hour,’" he wrote in a 2003 edition of “A World Destroyed.”
“America without that image is unimaginable to most members of the generation that fought the war and to those in subsequent generations who have defined their view of the world and their political lives as a reflections of this image.”
According to Kai Bird, he and Sherwin had been working on a proposal for a new book even though he was badly weakened by his cancer treatment. Sherwin wanted to tell the extraordinary but true story of a crew of B-29 bombers who were captured off the coast of Japan at the end of World War II and saved from execution by an English-speaking Japanese commander who brought them to Hiroshima so they could see for themselves the devastation from the recently dropped atom bomb.
“He had been sitting on his story for a very long time, back to 1975 when he interviewed one of the B-29 crew members,” Bird said. “He was really excited about this, and I'm trying to see if I can turn this into a book proposal. On the day he died he was editing that proposal. Even as his body was giving out, he was still interested and his mind was alert.”
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