NEW YORK — Martin J. Sherwin, a leading nuclear weapons scholar who challenged support for the US bombing of Japan in “A World Destroyed,” and spent more than two decades researching lead physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer for Pulitzer Prize-winning Spent. “American Prometheus,” has died.

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Sherwin died Wednesday at his home in Washington, DC, according to his friend Andrew Hartman, a professor of history at Illinois State University. He was 84 years old and was battling lung cancer. Kai Bird, a close friend and co-author of “American Prometheus”, called him “probably the leading historian of the Atomic Age”.

“When we started working on ‘American Prometheus,’ he told me he had a lot of research, but there were some gaps,” Byrd told the Associated Press on Saturday. “When I went through all the ingredients I couldn’t find any gaps.”


Sherwin was a New York City native whose interest in nuclear research stemmed from his undergraduate years at Dartmouth College, when he spent summers in the West working a uranium mine. Sherwin’s relationship became frighteningly personal in the arms race between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. He was a junior officer in the Navy and was informed of plans to evacuate him from his base in San Diego to a remote location in Baja California, Mexico.

“The logic was to disperse military aircraft beyond the reach of Soviet missiles,” he wrote in last year’s “Gambling with Armageddon: Nuclear Roulette from Hiroshima to the Cuban Missile Crisis.” “Some junior officers – we are all bachelors – joked that Baja’s beaches ‘would be an idyllic place to die’.”

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He was best known for “American Prometheus” published in 2005 and the Pulitzer winner 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 undertook nuclear control. Advocated and opposed development. from the hydrogen bomb.

Sherwin began working on the book in the late 1970s with an hour of horseback riding on the mountain ranch in New Mexico where Oppenheimer once lived. He continued over the next two decades as he accumulated thousands of pages of research, from FBI files to private correspondence to interviews with those who knew Oppenheimer. Bird, whom he had befriended and eventually brought in for help in the 1990s, joked that Sherwin had been diagnosed with “biographer’s disease”, an inability to know when to stop research and begin writing. when was the time

Pulitzer judges cited Sherwin and Byrd for their “rich rise of mid-century America” ​​and called “American Prometheus” “a new and compelling portrait of a brilliant, ambitious, complex and flawed man, drawn from its major events.” deeply connected – 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 most of his career, Tufts University, where he founded the Center for Atomic Age History. At Princeton, he was an advisor to writer-journalist Eric Schlosser and mentored Katrina Vanden Heuvel, now editorial director and publisher of the liberal weekly The Nation, to which Sherwin was a contributor.

Sherwin’s first book, “A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacy”, came out in 1975 and was a Pulitzer finalist. The New York Times praised the book for its unprecedented scholarship on questions such as whether the US needed nuclear weapons to defeat Japan in World War II (President Truman’s decision to bomb Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Sherwin). The argument was based on intimidating the Russians) and why the US chose not to share its nuclear developments with the Soviet Union when they were allies in World War II.

In the mid-1990s, Sherwin was among consultants on a planned Smithsonian exhibition about the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Japan, which was canceled by veterans organizations and dozens of members of Congress objected to what they called. Anti-American prejudice. Instead, the Smithsonian only displayed the Enola Gay, the plane from which the US dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

“In the United States, the collective memory of World War II sees war as ‘our finest hour,'” he wrote in the 2003 edition of “A World Destroyed”.

“America without that image is unthinkable to most members of the generation that fought the war and to subsequent generations who have defined their view of the world and their political life as a reflection of this image.”

According to Kai Bird, he and Sherwin were working on a proposal for a new book, even though he had been crippled 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 that he could see for himself the devastation caused by the recently dropped atomic bomb.

“He sat on his story for a very long time, in 1975 when he interviewed one of the B-29 crew members,” Bird said. “He was really excited about it, and I’m trying to see if I can turn it into a book proposal. The day he died he was editing that proposal. Even That even when his body was giving, he was interested and his mind was alert.”