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Issue #1546      9 May 2012

Hiroshima and Nagasaki

by Paul Ham

Published by Harper Collins 2011

Paul Ham is a distinguished Australian military historian who has written important books about Kokoda and Vietnam1 before his latest on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This book is excellently researched and well worth reading for those interested in the closing days of the war with Japan. Anti-nuclear weapons campaigners will also find much valuable information in this impressive book.

The dominant but false perception that the US dropped the two bombs to save Allied lives is carefully examined and dismissed. The truth is nearer to what the CPA and the peace movement have always asserted – that a key factor was consideration of post war geo-strategic advantage, in other words to intimidate the Soviet Union.

The other reason for unleashing atomic bombs on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was callous inhumane scientific experimentation. These features are outlined well in Ham’s book.

Victims of the bombs were incinerated. Many thousands of others were maimed and scarred. Thousands were exposed to carcinogenic substances from the initial blast and the subsequent fallout.

US doctors who knew how to treat radiation sickness did not share this knowledge with their Japanese colleagues and instead studied the victims as scientific specimens, on occasions even snatching bodies from grieving relatives at funerals.

Post war Japanese society shunned the victims, the Hibakusha, and left them without medical attention or compensation for over 40 years.

None of the main players in this terrible, heart wrenching tragedy showed much humanity or honour. The US scientists, military and politicians come out as heartless and cruel, while the Japanese military and political system was no better in the dying days of WW2.

The then US President, Harry S Truman, and the coterie of politicians around him are distinguished by their cold heartedness and lack of remorse.

Some scientists do come out better. Scientist Leo Szilard organised a petition urging the President not to use the bomb on Japan after the tests in Nevada. However, the numbers who signed were small and it was quickly dismissed by the military and the Truman administration.

Some US military commanders also had reservations. Ham mentions Halsey, Leahy and even Macarthur. Macarthur’s aide Brigadier General Bonner Fellers described US conventional and atomic bombing as “one of the most ruthless and barbaric killings of noncombatants in all history.” [p482]

Ham shows how the Japanese administration was wracked with internal conflicts and, although faced with inevitable defeat, was unable to move decisively to protect their citizens and negotiate peace.

Ham argues that there were no villains in this episode, just good honest people coping as best they could with the hand that life had dealt them at that time.

There is clearly a counter view – that the dropping of the bombs is a crime against humanity and in a just world the perpetrators would have been prosecuted. President Truman and his Secretary of State James Byrnes would be singled out, as the decision to drop the bombs was their ultimate responsibility.

Ham does comment: “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 civilization, if we accept that Japanese atrocities warranted an American atrocity in return.” [p487]

Paul Ham’s drawback is that he accepts Western views of Stalin and the Soviet Union. For example, he writes: “Stalin’s aggression and indifference to the right of self determination of nations caught in Soviet-occupied territory forced a tougher line from Truman; the bomb raised the President’s volume, a little more.” [p237]

This implies that Stalin was responsible for Truman’s use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki which is utter nonsense. Truman was determined to use the bomb regardless and was determined not to share US nuclear secrets.

Despite this weakness, Paul Ham offers a detailed account of both the US and Japanese sides of the dropping of the atomic bombs which is comprehensive and readable and provides a good understanding of the issues.

He also provides an excellent summary of the steps that led to making of the bomb, the breakthroughs in physics, mathematics and related fields as well as the huge technical advances that were achieved through the concentration of some the greatest minds of the 20th Century in the Manhattan project.

The book is a great resource for all those interested in the issues around the first and hopefully last dropping of atomic bombs on innocent civilians.

1. A recent documentary on the ABC TV based on his book was a measured assessment of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam War. It was sufficiently objective for Gerard Henderson, the well known right-wing columnist, to condemn Ham as a “lefty”.

* Denis is the National Organiser for the CPA. He is a well known anti-nuclear activist and has been a member of Sydney’s Hiroshima Day Committee for around 30 years.

Hiroshima and Nagasaki by Paul Ham is available at most good bookshops. It is not currently available at the CPA bookshop.  

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