Scholar focused on atomic weapons, won Pulitzer Prize
The Associated Press

NEW YORK — 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 said 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 a base in San Diego to a remote location in Baja California, Mexico.

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 “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 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.

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.”