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Hiroshima and Nagasaki – Have We Forgotten the Lessons?

September 30, 2012

Would-be members of the nuclear arms club wanting to remind themselves of what Mutually Assured Destruction is likely to mean for their citizens would do well to read Hiroshima Nagasaki, Paul Ham’s account of the first and only use of nuclear weapons in war, and their terrible consequences.

It’s one of the disturbing books I have ever read. Not just because of the horrific eyewitness accounts of the survivors on the ground. Also because it brings one face to face with the brutalised attitudes of the victors and vanquished leading to an event that carried off over 150,000 people through the initial blasts and the radiation poisoning that followed.

I have read other accounts of the downfall of Japan in World War 2 – Nemesis by Max Hastings being chief amongst them. But Ham places Hiroshima and Nagasaki in a perspective that keeps bringing me back to the present day.

The first striking fact is that the development of the bomb did not just involve a tight group of engineers in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Over 100,000 people were employed in manufacturing the first three devices at a cost of $2 billion – the equivalent of $22 billion in today’s money.

Clearly Pakistan and North Korea, both of which covertly developed their nuclear arsenal, did not do so from a standing start, as did the Manhattan team. Yet the massive development effort reminds us that you don’t create a nuclear bomb with just a few scientists in an underground bunker.

Only a tiny minority of the 100,000 had any idea about what they were building. Such was the power of the state in imposing secrecy that Congress knew nothing about the project. Nor did the workers. They only knew what they were employed to manufacture – not the overall nature of the end product.  In 1943, Harry Truman, then a Senator leading a commission of inquiry into war expenditure was informed by Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, as Ham relates:

not to inquire further into the cost of building a series of mysterious factories around America.  ‘I am one of the group of two or three men in the world who know about it,’ Stimson had said. ‘It’s part of a very important secret development.

‘That’s all I need to know,’ Truman had replied. ‘You don’t need to tell me anything else.’

The project remained a secret until Truman, by then the President, announced to the world that America had dropped the bomb on Hiroshima.

Think for a minute of a project of this size and scope remaining under the public radar today, blessed (or cursed) as we are by the internet. Imagine any western legislature today giving a blank cheque to a government to spend S22 billion on a secret project, and a senior member of that legislature meekly accepting that he should not be privy to a spend of that size.

Also imagine a workforce of 100,000 working under conditions of strict secrecy, with not a tweet or a leak giving the slightest hint to a watching world. In China perhaps, but surely not in the America or Britain, the two major partners in the Manhattan Project. Which reminds us how very different those countries – in conditions of war – were to the America and Britain we know today.

I also find it almost impossible to imagine a nation today becoming so numbed by the casualties suffered by its own side and that of the enemy that the policy of area bombing carried out against Germany and Japan should take place with so little effect on the consciences of the decision makers.

It’s easy to forget that even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Allies’ overwhelming air superiority, and the deliberate policy of wiping out cities regardless of civilian casualties, had reduced Japan, and Germany before it, to smouldering ruins. Area bombing had reduced much of Japan to ashes. One incendiary raid on Tokyo produced 100,000 deaths – more casualties than either of Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.

By the time of the nuclear holocaust, Japan was already ruined, starving and blockaded – incapable of offensive action. According to Ham, by July 1945, American bombing raids “had firebombed 66 cities, destroyed 2,510,000 Japanese homes and rendered 30% of the urban population homeless.” The official record of the US Army Air Force states that US bombers “killed outright 310,000 Japanese, injured 412000, and rendered 9.200,000 homeless.” All this had happened before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Truman always publicly justified dropping the bomb on the grounds that it would end the war quickly, and thus save hundreds of thousands of American lives that would otherwise be lost in an invasion of mainland Japan. As Ham demonstrates through the evidence presented in the book, this was a lie. Truman had already decided that an invasion would not be necessary. The major motivation appeared to be that he and his advisors wished to deprive the Soviet Union from having a say in the future of the region. Russia entered the war against Japan at the last moment.

At the “Big Three” conference between the UK, Britain and the USSR at Potsdam in July, Truman outwardly encouraged Stalin to enter the war. But while the conference was in progress he learned that the first nuclear device had been successfully tested in New Mexico. He then realised that America could win the war without the Russians, so he privately did nothing to hasten the date of Russia’s entry into the war.

Stalin, meanwhile, had spies at Los Alamos who kept him in touch with the progress of the Manhattan project. This prompted him to bring forward the date of the Russian declaration of war. The downfall of Japan had become a race for the spoils.

In Japan, the ruling elite had known for months that they could not win the war. But equally, they would not accept the Allied demand for unconditional surrender. As Ham shows, they clung to the hope that they could win concessions in return for surrender. The critical condition was the retention of the Emperor as the head of state after the war. For that principle they were prepared contemplate the total destruction of the country in a land invasion. In the month preceding Hiroshima, the two sides inched towards the ultimate capitulation.

Despite Emperor Hirohito’s reference to the Bomb in his surrender address to the nation, he was using its deployment as a face-saving mechanism. Accounts of discussions within the ruling elite show that it was not the driver for surrender. The fear of a Russian invasion of Northern Japan – and the possibility that part of the country would be turned into a communist vassal – were what tipped the balance.

Only when America gave assurances of the continuation of the Imperial system did Japan surrender. For the empire’s military leaders, the Bomb was merely a continuation of the obliteration of their country that had begun via conventional means months before. Moreover, the Emperor communicated Japan’s surrender before the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, by which time it was too late to recall the aircraft.

Thus pride and unwillingness to lose face on the Japanese side, and an ignorance by the Allies of the samurai culture that was prepared to see the annihilation of their nation for the sake of the Imperial ideal, resulted in the twin holocausts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Do Israel and the US have any better insight into the mindset of the Iranian regime today?

Ham believes that Truman’s underlying motivation for the use of the Bomb on Japan the realisation that post-war, America’s main rival would be the Soviet Union. Stalin’s land grabs in Europe, contrary to previous agreements with Roosevelt and Churchill, convinced Truman that he was not to be trusted. The bomb would be a demonstration of America’s new power, and would serve to curtail Stalin’s further territorial ambitions.

It’s hard to believe now that after the war, there was a powerful lobby in the US favour of sharing the nuclear secrets with Russia in return for agreements over limitation of their use in war and cooperation in developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes. Prompted by the military and members of his cabinet who believed that Stalin could never be trusted, Truman turned down the proposal.

Little did he realise how quickly the Soviets would catch up – assisted by the espionage of Klaus Fuchs, one of the scientists at Los Alamos. By 1949, Russia also had the bomb, and the stage was set for fifty years of nuclear rivalry.

And then there were the casualties. When the survivors started dying of radiation sickness, the US sent teams of doctors and scientists to the stricken cities – not to assist those suffering from awful burns injuries, cancers and collapsing immune systems – but to examine the patients and collect data which, presumably, would assist in planning the response to a future nuclear conflagration.

At the same time, under the direction of the US authorities, the post-war Japanese media downplayed the effects of the radioactive fall-out, and the government did little to assist the survivors – not even recognising publicly that radiation-related illness actually assisted. Only in 1957 were the victims recognised as casualties of war, and not until 2009 did the Japanese government agree to provide unconditional medical relief to the 235,569 survivors of the attacks. By this time the average age of the survivors was 75.9 years.

Ham’s narrative is fast-paced and compelling. It encompasses cynicism, posturing and a fatal warping of values on both sides; a sense of revenge on the US side for the attack on Pearl Harbour, and a callous disregard for human suffering by the Japanese High Command; racial contempt on both sides; suffering even more hideous than that of the victims of firebombing; and the legacy of the bombings – a paranoia-fuelled and immensely expensive arms race that endured until the collapse of Soviet communism.

One could question the proportionality of the revenge for the deaths of 2,386 Americans that lead to over 150,000 deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, just as one could compare the death toll from 9/11 with the subsequent deaths of civilians and combatants in Afghanistan and Iraq. But revenge is rarely symmetrical.

Today, especially in the Middle East, the arms race is alive and well, if we are to believe those who claim that Iran is developing nuclear weapons. If Iran succeeds, there will be condition of mutually assured destruction between it and Israel, and perhaps a triangular standoff between Iran, Israel and other Arab countries that will attempt to develop their own atomic arsenals.

Other axes of confrontation are already in place. India and Pakistan. China and India. North Korea and South Korea, with the South sheltering under the American nuclear umbrella. America and China. Russia and China. China and Japan, the latter also benefiting from US assurances. And finally, between the original rivals America and Russia.

Personally, I am convinced that within the next thirty years we will again witness a nuclear detonation, probably sparked by conflict for resources. I don’t believe that the detonation will kick off a global conflict. I hope that it will be sufficient to remind both combatants and non-combatants for another few decades that such an event “should never happen again”.

It’s hard to imagine that any nation or government could press the nuclear button in the certain knowledge that equal or greater destruction would be wreaked on their own side. But I also have no doubt that if Japan or Nazi Germany had acquired the bomb before the US they would have used it. Even if they acquired it in the knowledge that the US already had the Bomb, they would have had no compunction in bringing about the extinction of their own countries – for that indeed was the mindset both of the Nazi leadership and of the samurai of Japan in the death throes of their war efforts.

Would Israel risk its own destruction? Would the Islamic Republic of Iran? Those are the calculations playing out today both in the Middle East and among the atomic superpowers.

We are in a very dangerous time. Within a few years, nobody who witnessed Hiroshima and Nagasaki will still be alive. Paul Ham does us an important service in preserving the voices of nuclear holocaust, and in reminding us how uncivilised the civilised can be.

  1. Andrew Oliver permalink

    Very interesting and extremely well written. Thank you!

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