In this harrowing history of the nuclear destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Paul Ham presents the grisly, unadorned truth about the bombings, blurred for so long by postwar propaganda. He transforms what we thought we knew of one of the defining events of the 20th century.
Hiroshima Nagasaki seeks to understand the bloody acts to which German and Japanese aggression had impelled the Allies to resort. America used the atomic bomb on Japan, without warning, in an attempt to extract ‘unconditional surrender’ from a defeated foe, ‘manage’ Russian aggression, and avenge Pearl Harbor, as President Truman and Secretary of State James Byrnes said at the time.
The bomb achieved none of those goals - unless we accept that the destruction of two cities populated mostly by women, children and the elderly was proportionate punishment for Pearl Harbor. In the end, Tokyo surrendered with its sole condition, the Emperor’s life, intact. Russia continued to stamp and snort and foment communist revolution around the world – and would soon rush to join the nuclear arms race.
A-Bomb or invasion?
President Truman had always resisted the invasion of Japan regardless of whether the bomb worked. The prospect of several hundred Okinawas on the shores of Kyushu horrified him... The President was too smart a politician – with a genuine desire to protect American lives – to risk political suicide through the loss of so many young men against a regime that everyone in power in Washington knew, for all practical purposes, was defeated. In this context, the bomb was not a substitute for an invasion for the simple reason that Truman had no intention of approving one. He could not say this after the war, because that would have emasculated his claim that the bomb saved up to ‘a million’ lives.
Did the atomic bombs end the war?
Not a shred of evidence supports the contention that the Japanese leadership surrendered in direct response to the atomic bombs. On the contrary, Tokyo’s hard-line militarists shrugged as the two irradiated cities were added to the tally of 66 already destroyed, and overrode the protests of the moderates. They barely acknowledged the news of Nagasaki’s destruction. Nor would a nuclear-battered Japan consider modifying its terms of ‘conditional surrender’: the leaders clung stubbornly to that central condition – the retention of the Emperor – to the bitter end. In fact, state propaganda immediately after Hiroshima and Nagasaki girded the nation for a continuing war – against a nuclear- armed America.
‘Our least abhorrent choice’?
War Secretary Stimson claimed that America used the atomic bomb reluctantly – ‘our least abhorrent choice’ – suggesting that Washington and the Pentagon had wrestled painfully with alternatives. The facts demonstrate precisely the opposite. Everyone involved expected, indeed hoped, to use the bomb as soon as possible, and gave no serious consideration to any other course of action.
In this frame, a complete Japanese surrender at an awkward time – that is, after the bomb’s test and before the bombs arrived on Tinian Island – would have frustrated any hope of using the weapons. This is not to impute sinister motives to any man, whose heart and mind we may never truly know; simply to assert that Washington and the Pentagon were absolutely determined to use the two atomic bombs.
The ‘bomb-affected people’:
In 2009 I visited a nursing home in the suburbs of Hiroshima built exclusively for 'hibakusha', or 'the bomb affected people'. The patients were having lunch as we entered. The upward gaze of the ward seemed surprised by the sight of a Western visitor – ‘Is he here to study us?’ their eyes seemed to say. Some were psychologically damaged, mute, expressionless, with no outward physical signs of bomb exposure, only a dark and abiding memory. Others were severely deformed, their bodies twisted, desiccated and tiny, their faces scarred and wrenched in extreme directions. One or two waved from their wheelchairs, smiling. The effort lent a strange sense of hope – that nobody here took for granted the use of their hands or the movement of their lips. A source of happiness here is being able to smile.
"Ham is a splendid storyteller, a master of engrossing and exciting narrative. …[he] digs deeper, and brings back to life the figures who dominated this history, in a page-turner that could reach a wide audience." ―H. Bruce Franklin, Los Angeles Review of Books
"An eyewitness picture that leaves Dante's Inferno looking pale ... Well documented and stringently argued." ―Peter Lewis, Daily Mail (UK)
"A vivid, comprehensive, and quietly furious account ... Paul Ham brings new tools to the job, unearthing fresh evidence of a deeply disturbing sort. He has a magpie eye for the telling detail." ―Ben Macintyre, The Times (UK)
"Moral anger drives Mr. Ham ... Ordinary Japanese, Mr. Ham believes, were less emperor-worshiping fanatics than victims of an authoritarian elite that prolonged the war with no regard for their hardships." ―Alonzo L. Hamby, The Wall Street Journal
"The description of the immediate impact of the bombs, and the aftermath, is almost unbearably painful to read in its depiction of terror, destruction, death and human suffering, of the bodies vaporised, the burns inflicted, the courage of survivors and rescuers and their subsequent destruction by secondary radiation. Ham concludes that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not military targets: their destruction was not a strategic imperative, but a carefully planned slaughter of innocent civilians, a crime against humanity and an act of terror, by any definition." ―The Independent (Ireland)
"Ham presents a forceful argument that the bombing was excessive and unjustified… In this sweeping and comprehensive history, Ham details the geopolitical considerations and huge egos behind evolving theories of warfare… But most powerful are the eyewitness accounts of 80 survivors, ordinary people caught up in the events of war." ―Booklist (starred review)
"A provocative look at the closing days of the Japanese Empire and the long shadow cast ever after by the atomic bomb... A valuable contribution to the literature of World War II that asks its readers to rethink much of what they've been taught about America's just cause." ―Kirkus Reviews
"An absorbing read and thoroughly researched work, it is a must-read for those interested in the mortal aspects of total war and military strategy in general. Ham's work will be cited as an important addition to a debate that continues 70 years after the event." ―Publishers Weekly
"Comprehensive and horrifying." ―Jonathan Mirsky, Literary Review (UK)
"Provocative and challenging ... A voice that is both vigorous and passionate." ―Christopher Sylvester, Daily Express (UK)