I’ve been corresponding with Barton Bernstein in the last couple of weeks in connection with the article I published in International Security. Bernstein is the dean of why-Japan-surrendered scholarship. He’s been studying just this one question for years and literally knows almost everything there is to know about it.
His letters were remarkably kind and cordial considering I’m an independent scholar and he doesn’t know me. I don’t think he’ll ultimately like the view I’ve taken; he’ll find the position I’ve taken too radical a departure from the existing scholarship.
But I was impressed. And it occurred to me that the scholarship about the end of the war with Japan is remarkably cordial, considering what a hot-button issue nuclear weapons are (or once were). People tend to lose their sense of calm when talking about nuclear weapons. Yet this area of historical scholarship, which has such an important bearing on how nuclear weapons are viewed, is remarkable for its civility. (Read, for instance, the H-Diplo roundtable discussion of Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s Racing the Enemy.)
I believe that much of this civility is Bernstein’s work. By treating all comers with civility, he engenders a sense of joint searching after truth, rather than partisan war. Every hotly disputed public issue (global warming jumps to the front of my mind but there are a score of others) should have a Barton Bernstein: damping down, by his example, the worst excesses of polemical debate and promoting the best sorts of persuasion (using reason rather than overheated rhetoric). Focusing carefully on facts and promoting good scholarship. Would that there were more Barton Bernsteins.