The Nation



The rush to the nuclear

The end of World War II needn't have been so terrible as to witness the birth of the bomb, says author Paul Ham

Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story

Behind the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath





In six decades the story behind the birth of the atomic age has lost none of fascination, in equal parts because the power of the nucleus was immediately put to such horrific use, and because its risks have still not been fully contained, in conflict or in peace.

While Australian journalist Paul Ham's book "Hiroshima Nagasaki" appears to offer nothing new as claimed, it's an enlightening analysis of those dangerous early years, drawn into a modern context.

Political gamesmanship, emboldened on the eve of victory, goes into overdrive with hundreds of thousands of lives at stake. A new world order emerges, split harshly between capitalism and socialism. Science advances in stumbles and surges to overcome ignorance and superstition. The mass media are taken for a ride, and enjoy it, drawing along a public that won't realise its gullibility for years.

Has anything changed since 1945?

This 600-page book leaves no aspect unexamined. It explains the Japanese history that formed the belligerent imperialist mindset of the 20th century and the culture that yielded yet again to feudal rule. It delves into the swiftly evolving physics that uncorked the tremendous explosive might of fission and fusion.

We find ourselves watching these two streams of history - ancient and modern - on a disastrous collision course.

Meanwhile from the streets of Hiroshima and Tokyo we hear the voices of the survivors Ham interviewed. They were youngsters at the time, on their way to school, playing at home, or child labourers in a torpedo factory. Their recollections infuse the book with a warming humanity that wards off the chill of the machinations, both foreign and domestic, dooming their families and friends.

Interspersed throughout are detailed vignettes of American politics behind the scrim of wartime secrecy. President Harry Truman comes off well, as usual, protected mainly by Ham's ready acknowledgement that Japan not only started the war but adopted bestial conduct on the front lines. US citizens knew all about the Rape of Nanking and the Bataan Death March and demanded vengeance.

The time for that was now at hand, and Truman was armed for revenge like no other leader in history. Nevertheless, there is no end to the debate as to whether the atomic bomb had to be used. Ham not only documents the pro and con sides thoroughly, he retraces the same territory with aggravating repetition. But this is surely the book's only serious flaw.

In the end he comes firmly down on the side of those who say the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was utterly without justification, and these voices include many wartime generals. Japan was blockaded, its supply lines strangled, meaning that the Allies didn't even need to launch a dreaded, costly invasion of the mainland, let alone unleash nuclear terror.

Ham convincingly claims that the atomic bombings of August 6 and 9 left Japan's warlords completely unfazed. American aircraft had already levelled 60 Japanese cities by then - what difference did two more make, regardless of the type of weapon used? They were only holding out for Soviet help in securing an honourable surrender.

In one of Ham's occasional startling flourishes of prose, "Tokyo anxiously awaited an answer from Moscow; the hours anticipated the freight of days, but no answer came."

And on the next page:

"The old samurai, in frock coats and winged collars, sitting at attention at the conference table at the government's well-stocked Tokyo shelter, continued to observe, in extremis, the ancient forms of deference and decorum of the warrior class; they lived in the shadow of the antique past, in darkened codes of 'honour' and 'sacrifice' in whose interests they were willing to destroy their nation and race. Throughout they acted in the thrall of the armed forces, who were deaf to the agonies of firestorm, hunger and homelessness. They heard only the dull, slow chime of the Imperial Will."

The fate of the imperial court overrode every other consideration. Surrender was only possible if it was protected. Allied officials begged their leaders to acquiesce in the interest of peace, but Truman was adamant that surrender could have no strings attached.

In this regard, if there is a true villain in this drama, it is US Secretary of State James Byrnes. It was he who manipulated Pacific strategy at the Potsdam Conference after the fall of Germany, shunning the pleas of War Secretary Henry Stimson.

Stimson "made one last tilt at retaining the original wording of the Potsdam Declaration, now moving toward its final draft. Byrnes had cut Stimson's critical sentence that offered the Japanese people 'a constitutional monarchy under the present dynasty'."

Ham points out that Byrnes did so at the recommendation of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who feared that Washington might be seen as condoning "emperor worship". But, he follows up: "It remains a mystery why the Chiefs did this, as they had previously stressed the vital role of the Emperor in quelling those very 'radical elements' at the surrender. The act smacked of political intervention."

Comments conditions

Users are solely responsible for their comments.We reserve the right to remove any comment and revoke posting rights for any reason withou prior notice.