HIROSHIMA IN AMERICA Fifty Years of Denial By Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell Putnam. 406 pp. $25.95

THE WAY the Smithsonian tells the tale, it was all so simple. A gleaming silver plane flew over Hiroshima early one August morning. It dropped a massively powerful bomb. And that brought World War II to an end.

Except, as the growing mountain of Hiroshima books on both sides of the Pacific will attest, it is not that simple at all. In one view, the atomic bomb was a great savior that ended a long, bitter war, punished an evil aggressor and saved countless lives -- American, Japanese and East Asian. In another view, it was a great atrocity: a mass killer of women, children and the aged, a cynical Cold War gambit, the blinding dawn of a tense and troubled half-century known as the Atomic Age.

For most of the 50 years since the Hiroshima bomb, it has been fairly easy to identify the players on the two sides of this argument. Americans, in the main, tended to see the bomb as a justifiable and successful effort to use modern scientific genius to end a war that our country never wanted in the first place. The Japanese, together with anti-nuclear activists around the world, have repeatedly described the bomb as a war crime, perpetrated for all sorts of reasons other than hastening the peace. Indeed, largely because of the enormity of the death and destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Japanese for the better part of 40 years convinced themselves that they were the victims of a war they started. Rather strangely, these arguments are getting turned around--as reflected in many of the books reviewed here.

Today, America is full of debate about the necessity and the morality of dropping history's most powerful weapon on two crowded cities. In Japan, meanwhile, textbooks, museums and documentaries are making the connection more clearly than ever before between Japan's aggression at Nanjing, Pearl Harbor, etc. and Japan's suffering at Hiroshima.

Hiroshima in America offers a nice window into the thinking of those now challenging Harry Truman's decision. Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell delve into all the standard questions: Would Japan have surrendered even without the bomb? Would a small revision of the "unconditional surrender" requirement have brought a surrender? If not, could a U.S. invasion of Japan have ended the war with less overall destruction than the bomb caused? Should the United States have given Japan some demonstration of the new weapon's awesome force before dropping it on civilians? Did Truman drop the bomb to impress Joseph Stalin--that is, did he kill some 200,000 Japanese people in order to demonstrate American strength to the Soviets?

The basic thrust of Hiroshima in America is that Americans refuse to confront these questions. Lifton and Mitchell see "an effort . . . to justify the use of the bomb on ethical grounds, to hide its grotesque effects on people." They call this "a wrong turning" (why not just "wrong turn?"). Its result was that "Americans became entranced by the bomb, drawn to its destructive power."

This thesis is presented in a fairly tendentious way, particularly when the authors indulge themselves in a long psychoanalysis of Harry Truman. Still, the authors have one killer argument that sure seems to prove their point: The great Enola Gay controversy at the Smithsonian did in fact suggest that many Americans simply don't want to know what the A-bomb did to its victims. In fact, the best chapter of Hiroshima in America is the long and excellent history of the Smithsonian controversy. "The Smithsonian's failure of will," the authors conclude, "was a national one." JUDGMENT AT THE SMITHSONIAN Edited by Philip Nobile Marlowe & Co. 256 pp. Paperback $12.95

READERS WHO would like to see the the captions and explanatory material planned for the original version of the Smithsonian Exhibit--the version that so riled World War II veterans--will find the full text in a confusing jumble of a book called Judgment at the Smithsonian.

The volume was evidently thrown together in a rush, and it is hard to tell where the Smithsonian material starts and the accompanying commentaries end. In the Smithsonian text, there is no explanation of what pictures or exhibits each chunk of text was supposed to accompany. To read this book is like reading a few hundred captions without the photos they belong to. HIROSHIMA Why America Dropped the Bomb By Ronald Takaki Little, Brown. 208 pp. $19.95

THE HISTORIAN and ethnicist Ronald Takaki offers a briefer glance at the case against the bomb in his book Hiroshima. I saw a Japanese translation of the book in a Tokyo book store recently, with a big blurb describing the contents this way: "Truman dropped The Bomb to prove his manhood!"

That's a tad oversimplified, but in fact Takaki does try to make roughly this point. Truman was "determined not to do a sissy thing,' " he writes. He "wore his masculinity on his sleeve" and wanted to "practice masculine diplomacy." And, of course, "the atomic bomb symbolized virility."

Takaki's book on the bomb also includes a detailed and impressive chapter on Americans' racist attitudes toward Japan. But is this relevant to the A-bomb? From the start of the Manhattan Project, the target was Germany, and the weapon would very likely have been dropped on blond, blue-eyed Germans if the Nazis had not surrendered before the bomb could be completed. Takaki's argument on "racism" would be stronger had he addressed this flaw in the theory. TRUMAN AND THE HIROSHIMA CULT By Robert P. Newman Michigan State University Press. 272 pp. $xx

AN ENERGETIC defense of Harry Truman and of the Bomb is set forth in Robert P. Newman's Truman and the Hiroshima Cult. Unlike those on the anti- side of the argument, Newman knows that a good advocate must deal with his adversary's strongest arguments. His approach is to take on each of the basic questions raised by Truman's critics and shoot them down seriatim. This makes for a book that reads more like a courtroom brief than a history text.

Newman makes a particularly effective case on the burning controversy over whether the A-bomb was really necessary to force Japan's surrender. It was the military "bitter-enders" in Tokyo who were blocking a surrender, Newman says, and who wanted to fight on for months more. "The bomb created a situation in which the peace party and emperor could prevail." THE AGE OF HIROHITO In Search of Modern Japan By Daikichi Irokawa. Translated from the Japanese by Mikiso Hane and John Urda Free Press. xxx pp. $xx

ON THIS POINT, Newman gets strong support from the Japanese historian Daikichi Irokawa, whose The Age of Hirohito, newly available in English translation, amounts to a scathing attack on the late Emperor Hirohito and the Japanese military for starting the war and for carrying it on long after Japan had lost any hope of victory.

Irokawa estimates that 3 million Asians, 1.5 million Japanese, and 50,000 Americans could have been saved if the emperor had surrendered earlier than he did. The final capitulation, on Aug. 15, 1945, Irokawa argues, resulted from the two A-bombs and Russian entry into the war.

It has long been conventional wisdom in the United States that the Japanese refuse to admit or apologize for their own atrocities in World War II. This stereotype, widely repeated in American media in recent weeks, is out of date. Irokawa is one of many scholars these days whose view of Japan's conduct before and during the war is at least as critical as the basic American view.

To demonstrate to Americans that the old stereotypes don't apply any more, Columbia University historian Carol Gluck arranged for Irokawa's book to be published in English. The book is to some extent a general history of Hirohito's era (1926-1989), but it focuses on Irokawa's argument that "a closer examination of Japanese history during Hirohito's reign reveals that the emperor's responsibility {for the war} is irrefutable."

Irokawa writes with a passion that makes a lively but sometimes repetitive book. He attacks not only the emperor but also rival (he calls them "pro-Imperial") scholars. He also takes some swings at the United States, which downplayed Hirohito's role in the war for political reasons--that is, Washington decided he would serve as a useful tool of the postwar American occupation forces if he stayed on the throne. CHILDREN OF THE ATOMIC BOMB By James N. Yamazaki with Louis B. Fleming Duke University Press. 182 pp. Paperback? $16.95

JAMES N. YAMAZAKI'S memoir Children of the Atomic Bomb is the most soft-spoken and personal of the books here. A Japanese American, he recalls growing up in California at a time when any Japanese family were considered possible traitors. FBI agents came to investigate so often, he recalls, that his mother would simply announce, "F-san at the door."

Yamazaki subsequently went to Nagasaki as a doctor treating children suffering from burns and radiation poisoning caused by the A-bomb. His experiences are touching, and the reader can sense his own conclusion about the Bomb well before he states it: "Knowing what we now know, we cannot condone the use of nuclear weapons."n T.R. Reid is The Washington Post's Tokyo bureau chief. CAPTION: Two survivors of the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki on Aug. 9, 1945.