Paul Ham’s HIROSHIMA NAGASAKI
I rank Paul Ham as the best Australian historians currently writing. Each of his books; Kokoda, Vietnam: The Australian War and now this book are each meticulously researched and written in a very clear and accessible way. Paul Ham also tells the story from both sides. In Kokoda not only did he tell the Australian story of the entire campaign but he also told us the Japanese story. And in Vietnam he put the war in its context both in Australia and globally. For Hiroshima Nagasaki he combines both these approaches.
The first half of the book is about putting the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan in their context. Ham goes through the attitude towards strategic bombing of cities in the Second World War and the disregard this strategy had to civilian casualties. In fact, Ham argues, civilian casualties formed a crucial part of the strategy. There is also no evidence that the tactic of strategic bombing of cities ever achieved their objective, in Germany or Japan. As shown by The Blitz bombing of cities strengthened civilian resolve rather than dissolved it and the US’s own evaluation of the strategy also showed it had little impact on the overall war.
Ham also examines the politics of 1945 and debunks the myth that has been created about World War Two that the bombs were dropped to prevent an American invasion and the casualties that would have resulted. Many history books of the war site estimated casualty figures of between 500,000 and 1 million. Ham shows through cabinet meeting minutes that the estimates that Truman were given were between 30,000 & 100,000. The figures of 500,000- 1 million came well after the war ended when the dropping of the two bombs was trying to be justified.
One factor of many, Ham argues, in the dropping of the bombs was the Soviet Union. Following the fall of Berlin and Victory in Europe the Cold War between America and the Soviet Union had already begun in earnest. Publicly the United States position was that they welcomed Soviet involvement in the Pacific theatre but privately the US wanted to finish the war themselves. Rather than the atomic bombs being instruments of war they were in fact instruments of diplomacy and the US hoped by demonstrating them on Japan they could bend the Soviet Union in negotiations over the break up of Asia and Europe in the post-war world. But Ham is careful to point out that there were a variety of factors at play, not just one, and each factor influenced the other so to point to one reason for the bombs being dropped is impossible, reckless and a disservice to history.
The dropping of the bombs also had no impact on Japan’s decision to surrender. Again through minutes of meetings Ham shows that the Japanese War Council believed the Soviet Union would help broker surrender terms with the Americans and it was only when the Soviets invaded Manchuria that they realized this was impossible. 66 cities had already been destroyed in Japan through conventional bombing; the destruction of two more cities meant little. When the dynasty of the Emperor was assured, Japan finally surrendered.
Ham writes about the development of the bombs, the first test and their eventual use on Japan. I found it fascinating that before the first test in New Mexico the scientists and the military had no real idea what was going to happen. The Governor of New Mexico was put on alert in case he had to declare a State of Emergency and there was the very real possibility that the test could have backfired and wiped America out. (That would make a very interesting alternative history novel!)
Ham also recounts the story of both aircrews that dropped bombs on Hiroshima and then Nagasaki. He also recounts in grizzling detail what happened on the ground in both cities; the horror, the fires, the horrendous injuries, the sickness and the almost total death and destruction. He reconstructs the moment the bombs were dropped and the immediate aftermath as well as the hidden horror to come, radiation poisoning. A side effect the Americans denied existed.
This book was everything I wanted in a history book. It was thoroughly readable and enlightened my understanding of what led up to and what happened after two atomic bombs were dropped on Japan. Paul Ham has carved through the mythology that has been built around the bombs and told both sides of a significant and horrific event in human history with care, passion and humility.
Entry filed under: Book Reviews. Tags: atom bomb, atomic bombs on japan, australian historians, books, hiroshima, hiroshima nagasaki, japan, manhattan project, nagasaki, nuclear bomb, politics, second world war, world war two.