Rent a hotel room for every journalist who has become a historian, and you would need to book half of the French Riviera. Among those who would deserve a waterfront suite is Evan Thomas, a news-magazine veteran who has written a shelf of superb biographies on figures as diverse as John Paul Jones and Sandra Day O’Connor, as well as chronicles about naval wars and the early days of the C.I.A. Road to Surrender, his latest book, is a vivid and freshly researched account, much of it told in the present tense, of the days before and after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It is superb, filled with just the sort of telling detail and stylish writing that distinguishes all of this writer’s work.

JIM KELLY: In your new book, you focus on the final weeks leading up to the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Yet you also look back on the years leading up to those fateful days, when the atomic-bomb project was code-named “S-1” and was underway even before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, in 1941. How was such a project kept so secret within the official—and gossipy—circles in Washington and London, and could a secret like that be kept today?

EVAN THOMAS: There was no Internet, authority was respected (back then), and, in wartime, people really did believe that “Loose lips sink ships.” Still, the Russians were able to steal crucial details about the bomb’s design by planting spies at the secret atomic lab at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

J.K.: So many Jewish scientists who fled Germany in the 1930s worked on the project. If Hitler had not been so madly hateful of Jews and that migration had not taken place, do you think he could have developed the bomb first? And why didn’t the Japanese ever work on developing the bomb? It was not exactly a secret among scientists that if you could somehow split the atom, you could create a massive explosion that would level a city.

E.T.: Hitler lost World War II on April 7, 1933—before it even began. That was the date that Nazis banned Jews from serving in the German civil service. Germany had a head start on developing an atomic bomb, but Hitler remained skeptical of what he called “Jewish science.” The Japanese tried but failed to create and build an atomic bomb. They lacked the industrial base and mastery of physics.

“Hitler lost World War II on April 7, 1933—before it even began. That was the date that Nazis banned Jews from serving in the German civil service.”

J.K.: You focus your narrative on three men: the aged Henry Stimson, secretary of war; General Carl “Tooey” Spaatz, the head of strategic bombing in the Pacific; and Japanese foreign minister Shigenori Togo, among the few officials in Tokyo who believed that Japan had lost the war and should surrender even before the bombs were dropped. Let’s start with Stimson, a devout Christian who had deep qualms about bombing cities and thus killing so many civilians. How do you think he squared using what he called “the dreadful” with his moral beliefs? After all, on the morning that he showed Harry Truman the first photos of a devastated Hiroshima, Stimson suffered a minor heart attack.

Henry Stimson, Harry Truman’s secretary of war at the time the U.S. dropped the atomic bombs in Japan, pictured at his desk in 1920.

E.T.: In his diary, Stimson also referred to the atom bomb as “the awful,” “the terrible,” and “the diabolical.” He was wracked with anxiety, fearing that science was outpacing human morality. (Sound familiar?) Stimson was a devout Christian. But he was a very early interventionist in World War II, because he believed that America should join Britain in standing up to the Nazis and the Japanese militarists. Stimson was a power guy with a hard side: if you get into a fight, he believed, finish it. This may sound hard to reconcile with Christian charity, but Stimson understood moral ambiguity—and the need to balance idealism and realism in American foreign policy, even if it gave him a heart attack.

J.K.: Spaatz is an interesting case, since he much preferred to drop the first bomb in an unpopulated area, such as Tokyo Bay, to show the Japanese just how powerful a weapon the U.S. now had in its arsenal. Why did he not prevail?

E.T.: As commander of strategic bombing in Europe, then in the Pacific, Spaatz had to take responsibility for killing many civilians. “Precision bombing” was America’s goal—aiming at military targets—but the technology was too primitive for it to work. In Japan, the jet stream kept blowing B-29s off target, so the Air Force started dropping incendiary bombs at low altitude.

Even with the atomic bomb, Spaatz wanted to minimize civilian death. But the United States only had two atom bombs initially, and it was too risky to aim at a specific military target, so the “aim point” was the middle of the city. Spaatz’s idea of dropping an A-bomb in Tokyo harbor was summarily rejected. And, ironically, it might have just created a radioactive tidal wave. The scientists did not fully understand radiation, and what they knew they did not share with military commanders like Spaatz.

“[War Secretary Henry] Stimson was a devout Christian … but he understood moral ambiguity, even if it gave him a heart attack.”

J.K.: It is hard to believe today, but even after the two bombs devastated Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the six members of the Japanese Supreme Council for the Direction of the War split three to three on surrendering. How did Togo manage to outmaneuver the war minister, who wanted to fight to the bitter end? And what maneuvering it was, given the fact that younger officers wanted to kill Togo, and a coup by diehards almost took place and might have succeeded if Emperor Hirohito had not grown sick of the militants’ fanaticism.

U.S. Army major general Carl Spaatz, the head of strategic bombing in the Pacific, and Japanese foreign minister Shigenori Togo.

E.T.: Foreign minister Togo, along with some mid-level officials, were finally able to persuade Emperor Hirohito to defy the military and make the seidan, the sacred decision to surrender. The militarists wanted to fight to the bitter and bloody end. Even after Japan had been hit by two atom bombs, War Minister Korechika Anami said at the Supreme War Council meeting, “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the whole nation died like a cherry blossom?”

Fortunately, by that time, the emperor was afraid that another atom bomb was on the way—this one aimed at Tokyo. Equally fortunate was this: in the wee hours of August 15 (August 14 in Washington), the hotheads went running through the palace looking for the recording of the emperor’s surrender speech in order to break it before it could be aired over national radio at noontime. But they couldn’t find the record. It was safely hidden in a room reserved for ladies-in-waiting to the empress.

J.K.: Harry Truman never shrank from the consequences of his actions, and even considered dropping a third bomb, this one on Tokyo itself. But he seems not to have fully understood what the toll would be. In his initial draft for his radio address after the bombing, he called Hiroshima “a purely military base” and said “we did not want to destroy the lives of women and children.” In his final speech, both “purely” and the reference to women and children are gone. Do you think it was only after the fact that he realized fully what he had wrought?

E.T.: On July 25, 1945, the evening of the day that Truman gave the order to drop atomic bombs “as made ready” on four Japanese cities, he wrote in his diary that he and Secretary of War Stimson agreed that the targets should be “soldiers and sailors” not “women and children.” The Hiroshima bomb did kill about 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers—but it also killed 50,000 to 60,000 civilians, most of them women and children. Did the president not know? Was he engaging in denial?

Wreckage following the atomic bombs’ explosions.

The best guess is some of both. Both Truman and Stimson focused on the fact that they had taken Kyoto, the ancient Japanese capital and center of Japanese culture, off the military’s target list. When Truman was shown the aerial photos of the destruction of Hiroshima, he took back control of the bomb from the military (too late for Nagasaki), in part because he didn’t want to kill “all those women and children.”

“Even after Japan had been hit by two atom bombs, War Minister Korechika Anami said … ‘Wouldn’t it be beautiful if the whole nation died like a cherry blossom?’”

J.K.: You have written many fine books of narrative history, and I know you admire the popular historian Walter Lord, the author of A Night to Remember, not only the finest book ever written about the Titanic but a masterpiece of storytelling. Do you know what sparked your early passion for writing history, and are there one of two other historians who influenced you in your youth?

E.T.: My father was Walter Lord’s editor, and Walter—a wonderful man—was a close family friend. When I was a boy, he taught me that history was fascinating, dramatic, and made by human beings—and was fun to write about. As a teenager I read Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower, about Europe on the eve of World War I, and wondered, Could I do that?

J.K.: Finally, no good writer ever really wants to get up every day and write, and more than ever distractions abound. Are there any tricks you have to keep yourself focused and inspired? And what do you like to do on your time off, assuming you have any, given your productivity?

E.T.: I do not suffer from writer’s block. Of the three to four years it takes for me to produce a book, only four to six months are spent on writing the basic manuscript. To me, that is the most thrilling part. My hobbies are deeply unoriginal: reading, golf, gardening, and chasing grandchildren with my beloved wife, Oscie—who is also my close collaborator on my books.

Road to Surrender: Three Men and the Countdown to the End of World War II, by Evan Thomas, is out now from Random House

Jim Kelly is the Books Editor at AIR MAIL