Saturday, 30 June 2012


HarperCollins, 2011, 629 pages, $55 (hb)

Review by Phil Shannon

The very first victims of the atomic bomb dropped by the US Air Force on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 were all the patients, doctors and nurses of the hospital above which the bomb directly exploded, instantly killing the first of the 78,000 that were to die on that day.  In Paul Ham’s book on the atomic strikes on Hiroshima, and on Nagasaki three days later (35,000 dead in an instant), he argues that, just as these innocent civilians died, so too has the truth died about the real reasons for the nuclear bombing.

Successive US governments have claimed that the atomic annihilation of the two Japanese cities ended the war in the Pacific and saved up to a million US casualties that would otherwise have been suffered in a meat-grinding land invasion of Japan.  Through the (strictly private) words of the US political and military elite at the time, Ham shows that the nuclear strikes were militarily unnecessary.

By early 1945, US air superiority and its naval blockade had so strangled Japan’s economy and war machine that the White House and the Pentagon had ruled out a land invasion as, in just months, an economically stricken Tokyo would have been forced to surrender.  What made the US embrace the atom bomb was entirely political - Stalin’s Russia, until then the key asset in Europe against Nazi Germany, was now unwelcome to the allies after Hitler’s defeat and had to be kept out of Japan at all costs.

Washington wanted a post-war Asia-Pacific solely under American influence.  General Groves, who headed the $24 billion Manhattan Project which built the atomic bombs, saw that ‘Russia was our enemy and the [Manhattan] Project was conducted on that basis’.  His political masters agreed and to maximise the political payload of the atomic bomb many thousands of Japanese civilians had to die.

Spared the relentless fire-bombing of Japan were a handful of major cities reserved as potential nuclear targets, which, said Groves, should be ‘mostly intact, to demonstrate the awesome destructive powers of an atomic bomb’.  It would not do, decreed the Target Committee, if their civilians were given prior warning or if a demonstration blast were held in an uninhabited area.

Whilst Washington proceeded with its mushroom cloud message to Moscow, Japan’s warlords  merely shrugged as Hiroshima and Nagasaki were added to the 66 cities already destroyed through incendiaries.  What forced Tokyo to finally surrender to the US, says Ham, was its fear of the Red Army (then massing in Manchuria for an attack on Japan) plus Tokyo’s fear of a communist Japan.  Totalitarian Japan, like its ‘democratic’ capitalist peers, made no distinction between Stalin’s geo-political expansion and their own country’s domestic socialist forces.  Tokyo feared the Red Menace more than the atomic bomb.

A casing of lies has ever since surrounded the American nuclear weapons.  Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not, as was claimed, military targets and their bombing did not ‘shorten the agony of war’ for the US military (economic factors, not foot soldiers, would have proved decisive, in a matter of months).

The agony was, however, shifted to Japanese civilians, aided by a moral sleight-of-hand - ‘we have used [the atomic bomb] against those who have attacked us’, said President Truman, as if it was Japanese civilians who had bombed Pearl Harbour or committed the Japanese military’s ghastly war crimes in Asia.  “In a total racial war”, says Ham, allied governments and press fanned a view of all Japanese as sub-human vermin to be exterminated by indiscriminate terror from the air.

A censorship regime “every bit as rigorous as totalitarian Japan’s”, says Ham, was used to suppress reports of subsequent deaths and gross disfigurements from radiation poisoning.  When the facts of nuclear warfare became known, however, and US public support for the atomic bombing collapsed, Washington resorted to the lie that the decision to bomb had been ‘regrettable’ and a ‘painful last resort’.  Ham’s rigorous documentation of what went on behind closed doors shows, however, that the nuclear bombing was a “desirable outcome”, a “diabolically zealous enterprise”.

It is disappointing, then, that Ham fudges his conclusion.  His book is not about “finding villains”, he declares, but rather exploring “complexity”, the muddle of “thoughts, feelings, relationships that drive human history”.  Thus are the nuclear criminals in Washington offered refuge in Ham’s variant of the theory of history as chaos.

Although Ham deplores nuclear weapons, he argues that they were inevitable during the Cold War and are necessary now because we live in a dangerous world of rogue states and terrorists.  Such futile hand-wringing, and his non-committal stance in what he terms the “stifling debate” between the revisionists (the atomic bombs were a warning to Russia) and the orthodox (they avoided a million-casualty land invasion) sits lamely with the campaigning that still needs to be done to rid the world of these hideous weapons and their raw material - uranium.

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