BOOK REVIEW News Weekly
Should America have dropped the Bomb?
, March 3, 2012
by Paul Ham
Hardcover: 640 pages
Reviewed by Bill James
Paul Ham is an Australian journalist and writer, whose previous book, Vietnam: The Australian War, I reviewed in the National Observer, Summer 2007/08.
At that time, I commended him for his honesty and balance, and the same can be said about the way in which he tells this history of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan on August 6 and 9, 1945.
The decision to use the nuclear devices has been a matter of controversy for the last 67 years.
Some commentators contend that the blasts, which killed over a hundred thousand immediately, and tens of thousands later as a result of injuries, burns and radiation, shortened the war and saved perhaps a million lives, both Japanese and Allied, that would have been lost in an invasion.
Others assert that it was a cynical political ploy, in which Japanese civilians, mainly women, children, the aged and the disabled, were sacrificed as an early Cold War demonstration to Stalin of the new and terrible weapon at America’s disposal.
Ham concludes that the decision was immoral and unjustified, but without slipping into the knee-jerk anti-American bigotry which often accompanies such a position.
The case he mounts is notable for its avoidance of the double standards and false moral equivalence typical of past Hiroshima Day commemorations in Australia and other Western countries, when any mention of either Japanese wartime atrocities, or the nuclear arsenals of communist nations such as the USSR and China, was sedulously avoided.
In brief, he argues that Japan was already effectively defeated and impotent; that an invasion was unnecessary, and would, anyway, have cost fewer lives than the number lost to the bombs; that the decision to use the A-bombs was largely a result of the inertia generated by the size and expense of the program which developed them; and that the Japanese surrender was driven by the USSR’s declaration of war and subsequent conquest of Manchuria, not by Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The book begins with the Yalta Conference of February, 1945, and introduces themes such as the Soviets’ perfidious behaviour in Europe and their ambivalence about declaring war on Japan.
This first chapter also looks back at Japan’s appalling war record of atrocities against subject civilians, and the emergence of a Japanese “peace party” (which was driven by reality rather than morality).
A number of simultaneous, intertwined themes are then followed through in the rest of the book.
There was the accession of Harry Truman to the presidency following the death of F.D. Roosevelt, his growing into the role, and his dealings with hardliners such as Secretary of State James Byrnes, and moderates such as War Secretary Henry Stimson.
There were also hardliners and moderates, both military and civilian, in the Japanese leadership, though both groupings tacitly accepted that the final decision lay in the hands of the emperor.
The most salient issue that emerged, apropos of both countries’ leaders, was that of unconditional surrender versus a compromise in the form of a undertaking to retain Hirohito as imperial figurehead.
Suspicion of the Soviets grew after Yalta, and was not helped by Potsdam, by which time the Americans were very ambivalent about the USSR’s joining the war against Japan.
Ham offers descriptions of everyday life in wartime Japan (Hiroshima and Nagasaki in particular), and the routines and activities of selected characters within them, particularly those who were students at the time whom he has been able to interview as adults.
Whatever their many privations, such as lack of food, the inhabitants of the two cities marvelled at their seemingly miraculous deliverance from the area bombing which was unleashed on most other major Japanese population centres as 1945 wore on.
And then there is the conception, gestation and birth of what is, from one perspective, the book’s central character: the atom bomb itself.
A whole chapter is devoted to the development of nuclear physics, beginning with a nod to pioneers such as Democritus and Dalton, and then describing the contributions of such well-known names as the Curies, Roentgen, Einstein, Rutherford, Oliphant, Heisenberg, Bohr and Fermi.
The Manhattan Project, dedicated to using all this accumulated knowledge to produce a nuclear weapon, was headed up by the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, under the overall military direction of General Leslie Groves.
The denouement, the two explosions, is narrated in detail from the point of view of both the American airmen who delivered the uranium “Little Boy” and the plutonium “Fat Man”, and the Japanese recipients on whom they impacted.
Ham’s will not be the last word on the subject of whether or not the bombs should have been used.
Although he makes a good case against their deployment, there are always dangers associated with cool, considered post hoc assessments using all the information later made available, with accompanying retrospective moral judgments, about urgent decisions made in the confused fog of war and politics long ago.
That being said, it must again be emphasised that Ham does not argue from a narrow, ideological, closed mind.
His account is documented, detailed, rational and responsible, as well as fascinating and horrifying.
It is difficult to imagine a better starting point from which to begin a serious consideration of this most challenging of historical issues.