h i s t o r y j on at h a n m i r s k y
Did the Bomb End the War? Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and their Aftermath
By Paul Ham (Doubleday 628pp £25)
agasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing
By Craig Collie (Portobello 338pp £20)
On 6 August 1945, the first of the only two atomic bombs ever used in warfare exploded 1,900 feet above Hiroshima. The sudden drop in air pressure squeezed people’s eyeballs out of their sockets. Ground temperature reached 4,000°C, over twice the temperature at which iron melts. Tens of thousands of human beings were ‘burned, decapitated, disemboweled, crushed and irradiated’. The detonation of the ‘gadget’ – as the scientists who built the bomb called it – above one of the city’s main hospitals killed all the patients, nurses and doctors there. Three days later a plutonium bomb, almost twice as powerful as the one dropped on Hiroshima, exploded 1,640 feet above Nagasaki, leaving a vast white scar and killing 39,000 people, far fewer than the 78,000 dead at Hiroshima. The blast streaked through the sewers of the Shiroyama National Elementary School, killing 1,400 of its 1,500 pupils. Nagasaki’s entire medical system ‘ceased to exist’. Eight and a half thousand schoolchildren were killed. All the geisha houses and brothels were wiped out, but 94 per cent of the city’s industrial workers survived.
In both cities, as Paul Ham shows in his comprehensive and horrifying account, people continued to die for years afterwards from radiation sickness, while others were permanently disfigured by ghastly burns. After reports of these lasting effects began to leak out – American censors obscured them for at least a decade – US officials feared that ‘Jap propaganda’ would prompt Americans to feel sympathy for the Japanese ‘martyrs’. An American doctor, who worked at a hospital near where the weapons had been developed, commented:
may get burned and you may have a little redness, but in a couple of days you may have a big blister and a sloughing of the skin.
This cruelty pales in comparison to the titanic lies uttered by American officials – especially President Truman – in the immediate aftermath of the two bombings and for years afterwards. These lies were repeated so often that to this day many Americans believe them. For some time, Ham relates, the New York Times played a shameful part in this deceit (the Washington Post, however, was sceptical about the official claims).
It is not true, for example, that the bombs saved the million or more US lives that might have been lost had there been an invasion of Japan. The maximum number of American deaths forecast by US Army Chief of Staff George C Marshall was 31,000. In any event, as Ham shows,
the invasion plans had been deemed undesirable long before the Hiroshima bomb exploded. It is a lie that the bombs were dropped on industrial and military sites: the few that existed lay far from the blasts. It is a lie that the bombs forced the Japanese government to surrender: deliberations, which had included the emperor, began after the firebombing of major Japanese cities – as brutal as the raids on Germany – earlier that year. These killed many more people than the atomic bombs – 100,000 died in Tokyo after a single raid. This campaign continued even after the Nagasaki bombing. The cause of the surrender, writes Ham, was the Russian invasion of Manchuria. Even the war-crazed samurai members of the government, who contemplated a coup to keep fighting the war to the last man, feared the Red Army would swallow up too much Japanese territory. The Americans, too, wanted to end the war before the Russians seized large swathes of East Asia.
The core of Ham’s disclosures, though with little of his tremendous detail, has been revealed in Gar Alperovitz’s books and articles stretching back over forty years, which are cited only once in Ham’s text and minimally in his footnotes. There is no mention, either, of the American anthropologist Earle Reynolds, who was sent to Japan in 1951 to study the effects of radiation. Unlike his colleagues who cared little about what they found, Reynolds (whom I knew well) was
The thing is these people got good and burned – good thermal burns … A lot of these people … don’t notice it much. You
Nagasaki’s moment of impact a u g u s t 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 11