FORTY YEARS have passed since the end of the Japanese-American war, yet it continues to fascinate Japanese and Americans alike. These two books are the most recent additions to the ever-growing body of literature on the war.

A number of reasons account for the continuing interest in the war. For one thing, the way it began -- the Pearl Harbor attack -- and for another, the way it ended -- the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki -- were so unusual and mysterious as to give rise to all types of theories about the two countries' deception, trickery, or brutality.

If, as the record shows, few in the Roosevelt administration wanted war with Japan in 1941, while in Japan even the most extreme militarists were despairing of ever winning a war with the United States, why did the Japanese start it? If, in 1945, Japan was on the verge of collapse, why was it necessary for the Truman administration to drop atomic bombs?

These questions are not of merely antiquarian interest. As Japanese and Americans enter a period of trade friction and diplomatic readjustment, it is instructive to go back to the war and remind ourselves how miscalculation, indecisiveness, or lack of communication can exacerbate a crisis and bring misery to millions of people. Furthermore, the war is important as the point of departure for contemporary history. Japan today is the product of war, defeat, and the American occupation, while America's global military role and economic power also date from the war. To the extent that one seeks to understand the basic orientation of contemporary society, it is necessary to go back to its origins.

These two books reopen some old questions and raise new ones. Jonathan G. Utley, a historian at the University of Tennessee, presents a well researched narrative of American policy toward Japan prior to Pearl Harbor. Washington's "foreign policy managers," he writes, were keenly interested in avoiding war with Japan. They were led by Secretary of State Cordell Hull who, till the very end, sought to prevent a rupture in American relations with Japan while at the same time standing firm against the Japanese military's ambitious plans to conquer China and Southeast Asia. "Hull and company" believed they could achieve this by encouraging Japan's "moderates" to reassert themselves so that the two countries could once again cooperate to build a commercially open world order.

These efforts were frustrated, Utley shows, not only because the military in Japan refused to give in, but also because policy implementation by subordinate officials and by other governmental agencies often produced results at variance with Hull's intentions. He had to contend with the Army, the Navy, the Treasury, and many new bureaucracies Roosevelt created to mobilize the nation for war, each of which had its own ideas about what should be done. The result was to accentuate the ad hoc nature of decision- making in Washington. It was not that there was an eagerness, let alone a conspiracy, to bring on a war with Japan, but rather that through the accumulation of uncoordinated decisions and faits accomplis, which President Roosevelt did little to control or direct, the United States steadily narrowed the range of options available to itself and acceptable to Japan.

Lack of administrative cohesiveness, intra- bureaucratic rivalry, wishful thinking -- these are the very characteristics that historians have found among Japanese leaders as they stumbled their way to war in 1941. Utley's book shows that these traits were not Japan's monopoly. In fact, one of the most intriguing things about his narrative is the implication that in some respects Japan and the United States were not that different. Both sides wanted to avoid war, and they believed some compromise was possible till the very end; yet somehow they became victims of their own bureaucratic maze, creating a situation where, in late November 1941, both Japanese and American leaders realized that either a Japan-initiated war or an American-imposed peace would be the only alternative.

ESSENTIALLY the same conclusions emerge from Robert K. Wilcox's book. The author, a California journalist and novelist, describes the Japanese effort to develop atomic weapons during the war. Japan's scientists and engineers, many of whom had studied in the West, had up-to-date knowledge of nuclear physics and knew what was needed to cause uranium fission and make an atomic bomb. What knowledge they lacked could be sought clandestinely through Spanish spies in the United States. The Japanese also turned to Germany and looked all over Korea to obtain uranium.

There exist several accounts of Japan's wartime nuclear experiments, most of which the author has utilized. (Unfortunately, in citing Japanese sources, he misspells not a few names.) Although he supplements this information with data he has uncovered in American archives, the evidence he presents does not add much to what is already known about the Japanese atomic bomb project. Still, the book is valuable as it offers several intriguing hypotheses. For instance, Wilcox writes that it "seems likely" that the atomic bomb program was relocated toward the end of the war to Konan (Hungnam) in north Korea, which was seized by Soviet troops when Russia entered the war soon after the Hiroshima bombing. Also toward the end of the war, a German submarine, U-234, was sent to Japan, loaded with uranium. "My guess," Wilcox says, "is that the uranium was taken over by the War Department" when the submarine surrendered to American authorities after the German capitulation. President Truman presumably knew about the U-234 affair, so he must "almost certainly" have been aware of Japan's nuclear capability as he deliberated about using an American atomic bomb; the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings may have been intended to preempt a Japanese atomic attack on an American city.

All these conjectures will need to be substantiated when the still classified documents are opened to research, but at least Wilcox is justified in suggesting that Japan would have used atomic bombs, if they had been developed in time, whether against China or the United States. Recent revelations about the Japanese army's use of poison gas in China, or its "human experimentation" on American prisoners of war, show that there would have been little hesitation to employ whatever means were available to sustain the war effort.

In other words, those in Japan who point their finger of accusation at the United States for its use of atomic bombs cannot profess their total innocence. They have a tendency to consider themselves victims of war, somehow less implicated morally because they suffered atomic bombings. The book is a reminder that in war, scientists and military alike become involved in demonic acts. At that level, there is little distinction between nations.