In this harrowing history of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, Paul Ham draws on extensive research and hundreds of interviews to show that the destruction of the civilian cities had little impact on the eventual outcome of the Pacific War.
In this gripping narrative, Ham demonstrates convincingly that misunderstandings and nationalist fury on both sides led to the use of the bombs. Ham also gives powerful witness to its destruction through the eyes of eighty survivors, from twelve-year-olds forced to work in war factories to wives and children who faced the holocaust alone. Hiroshima Nagasaki presents the grisly unadorned truth about the bombings, blurred for so long by postwar propaganda, and transforms our understanding of one of the defining events of the twentieth century.
The ‘bomb-affected people’:
‘They were called the hibakusha – literally, ‘bomb-affected people’… For years they existed in a nether world, the flotsam of official indifference and the jetsam of American experimentation. To Japanese society, they were untouchable, the people you did not employ or let your son or daughter marry. Many were refused compensation, jobs, love, family – shunned to the extremities of a community unable to bear the hideous after-effects of total war; their scars were painful reminders of the disgrace Japan had brought upon herself. A red-hot iron pressed against the bare skin would have had the same penetrating effect as the flashburn, searing deep into the flesh, according to Dr Tomin Harada. The resulting wounds took months to heal, leaving the victim’s face contoured in thick keloids – derived from the Greek word for crab claws – which had the segregating power of leprosy. The afflicted were refused entry to public baths in case they contaminated the water, and compelled to work in nocturnal jobs out of private shame and public revulsion.’
In 2009 I visited a nursing home in the suburbs of Hiroshima built exclusively for hibakusha… The patients were having lunch as we entered. The uptward gaze of the ward seemed surprised by the sight of a Western visitor – ‘Why 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, dessicated 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 takes for granted the use of their hands or the movement of their lips. A source of happiness here is being able to smile.
‘Our least abhorrent choice’?
As to [War Secretary] Stimson’s claim 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.
Did the atomic bombs end the war?
While the bombs obviously contributed to Japan’s general sense of defeat, 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 hardline 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.
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. He expected the naval blockade, the air war and – at least until mid-July – the Russians would together finish the job… 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 was, for all practical purposes, 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.
What did the A-Bomb achieve?
This book is less interested in finding villains than understanding the bloody acts to which German and Japanese aggression had impelled the Allies to resort…
The bomb gave America’s tooth-for-a-tooth sensibility the power to scatter a billion molars. They used it, without warning, in an attempt to extract ‘unconditional surrender’ from a defeated foe, ‘manage’ Russian aggression in Europe and Asia, and avenge Pearl Harbor, as Truman and Byrnes said. The bomb achieved none of those goals (unless two destroyed cities is accepted as proportionate punishment for Pearl Harbor): Tokyo surrendered with its sole condition [the Emperor’s life] intact and Russia continued to stamp and snort and foment communist revolution around the world – and would soon rush to join the nuclear arms race.
Taken together, or alone, the reasons offered in defence of the bomb do not justify the massacre of innocent civilians. We debase ourselves, and the history of civilisation, if we accept that Japanese atrocities warranted an American atrocity in reply.
“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.” ―Los Angeles Review of Books
“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.” ―The Wall Street Journal
“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] 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)
“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)
“An eyewitness picture that leaves Dante's Inferno looking pale . . . Well documented and stringently argued.” ―Peter Lewis, Daily Mail (UK)
“With more detail than the average textbook yet written in a way that pulls you in . . . this is essential for anyone remotely interested in history.” ―The Sunday Telegraph (Australia)