Even in an age of human induced climate change, of terrorism and suicide-bombs, is there any symbol that better represents the self-destructive impulse of mankind than the atom bomb? The mushroom cloud? I am inclined to think not. The Doomsday Clock stands, as of January 14, 2010, at six minutes to midnight. While that is a minute further than it was in 2007, the clock has us eleven minutes closer to nuclear winter than we were at the end of the Cold War.
Though the existential threat born from the creation of nuclear weaponry cannot be overstated, their use has thus far been limited to a single month in 1945. On the 6th of August, the United States military dropped the first bomb on Hiroshima, with a second bomb hitting Nagasaki three days later.
These horrific and grotesque attacks have since been justified as necessary acts, crucial to either ensuring the surrender of Japan or establishing America’s nuclear dominance over the Soviet Union.
In his most recent book, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Paul Ham argues that both of these justifications are falsehoods. An Australian author and journalist, he has received acclaim as a writer of popular military history. Hiroshima, Nagasaki makes it very easy to see why. Paul Ham has succeeded in creating a text that is heavily detailed, without sacrificing readability. Discussions of the science involved in creating the bomb at Los Alamos are seamlessly interwoven with examinations of the American military leaders, and depictions of life in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
This synthesis provides the book with its power. Even though it is quite clear that ultimately the use of the atomic bombs was morally reprehensible and strategically unnecessary, it is heart wrenching to follow the horror-race each side is engaged in, as they attempt to outdo the monstrosities of the other – sometimes out of revenge and often out of the belief that only with one final morale-crushing and spirit-breaking blow, will the enemy withdraw.
There have been many books written about these events. Paul Ham’s contribution to the literature on the subject, however, should not be ignored. Not only does the book evidence meticulous research, it is also a thought-provoking and fascinating read.
I interviewed Paul Ham about Hiroshima, Nagasaki and some of the other projects in which he is involved.
Early on in Hiroshima Nagasaki, you mention that Truman was a strong believer in the importance of reading the history of war, as war is only preventable if you understand its causes. As a war historian yourself, do you agree with this position?
I would say that you can certainly learn a great deal about the errors and mistakes, and disaster of judgments by reading the history of war, but it doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the new kind of war you might be facing in new circumstances. So to adhere blindly to the lessons of the past does not necessarily prepare you for the future. I know this isn’t the black and white answer you are probably seeking, but for example [Truman] is facing a nuclear war in the Pacific, so what prepares him for that? And certainly one of the great problems with the US Army in the 20th century has been that it take lessons from the previous war and apply them to the next one. So we saw in the Vietnam War, for example, the commanders on the ground reading their history from the Second World War where they faced great big pitched battles across open spaces, frontlines, etcetera, while in Vietnam they were facing a guerilla war against an enemy who was everywhere and nowhere and underground, and they took the completely wrong strategy to a completely different war, with the most tragic consequences. So to conclude, in the broad terms – yes, there are lessons one can draw, but you shouldn’t blindly adhere to history as necessarily a guide to the future, but then again if we don’t learn from the past we are doomed to repeat it. I think the truth can be struck somewhere between those positions.
Throughout this book, you include examinations of the lives of individuals in Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the time. Why did you feel it important to take this approach?
The short answer is we must try to understand the past from the experiences of those who participated, whether they are US commanders and politicians, Japanese politicians, or indeed the ordinary people who were confronted with the consequences of those political decisions. And the people who were affected by the atomic bomb – as they call themselves the Hibakusha, the bomb-affected people, they don’t like being referred to as victims – they experienced the first nuclear weapon to be used against human beings in the world, and hopefully the last one, so their experiences are of obvious historical interest, but also of humane interest, how can we possibly understand the inhumanity of this weapon without talking to the human beings who survived it?
Not only do you write about the history of the atomic bomb’s development, but also of the science behind it. Did you find researching this aspect to be a particularly different process to the history?
Yes, because I am writing scientific history as opposed to political and military history, and a different approach is required – in so far as one needs to understand scientific concepts and how they were unraveled by some of the world’s greatest physicists – so I certainly had to get those chapters thoroughly looked over by a nuclear physicist [Reza Hashemi-Nezhad], so it demanded from me a different approach, I needed to get to grips with how you split the atom! And managed to synthesize that story into a chapter. It was a difficult job, it was very demanding, because my job is to bring history to a wider audience, and make it accessible. In writing history, one draws on all the expert sources that are available and in this case I used a nuclear physicist, as I say, to help me. And he, this is just a footnote or digression, he actually knew Otto Frisch, one of the pioneers in nuclear fission in Europe at the time of the bomb, so he had an almost two degrees of separation between himself and Los Alamos.
In the final chapters of your book you discuss the horror and concern of not only the international community and the American public, but also of many involved in the creation and deployment of the atomic bomb. Do you think they did not consider the repercussions of their actions at the time, or were they simply not prepared for how devastating its use would be?
To answer the latter point, they certainly realized how devastating it would be, they had done many studies on the extent of radiation, they understood how powerful the bomb would be, they certainly had scenarios on how it would impact upon a city. But this seemed, to my mind and to many of those at the time, to drive the project forward, they wanted to use the bomb, they wanted to use it on the heart of the city to show off its spectacular effects to the world, and certainly to the Japanese government, and also to the Russians I might add. So the scientists and those who built the bomb, there is little sign at the time of any of them experiencing regret at the human cost of this weapon. And in fact, in all of the minutes I have read of the target committee, of the interim committee meetings, of the scientific meetings, not one individual raised the ethical, moral, religious, or humane issues involved with destroying at least a city and then Nagasaki, this simply did not inform their discussions at all. Now lets be fairly blunt about it, they were engaged in a total racial war against a regime and indeed against a country they regarded as the enemy. The Japanese people were seen as the enemy and the American air force were just determined to take the war to Japanese civilians. So the whole mindset of the time was that this was a war against the Japanese people and we were going to destroy them. And not only that, we were going to destroy them because we wanted to break their morale completely. It failed. It failed because the civilian morale was not broken, as it was not broken in London during the Blitz, and there were countless examples, which would have told them that it wouldn’t win the war. But the point is, after the war, we saw coming out of the woodwork, the guilty men. One of whom, by the way, was Mark Oliphant, an Australian physicist who condemned himself as a war criminal after the war. And we saw a lot of physicists and scientists and those involved in the bomb suddenly becoming riddled with guilt at their complicity in the development of this weapon. But before the end of the war we do see it all, so it is an extraordinary about face in light of the realization of what they had done. But this rings hollow to me, they knew what they were doing, they knew the effects of this weapon, and it seems to me like pangs of guilt after the event.
I was particularly intrigued by the parts in the book where you were write about the German scientists who were for the bomb when it was going to be dropped on Nazi Germany, but hadn’t thought through it being dropped on anyone else, such as the Japanese.
I found that an extraordinary case of moral relativism. They don’t seem to have a coherent, absolute position on this. They are happy for the bomb to be dropped on German civilians and wipe them out, but when it came to Japan, the émigré physicists – of course from Jewish backgrounds and they were driven by understandable emotional concerns about the loss of their families in Germany, and in Nazi-occupied Europe – but they didn’t apply the same zealous intent when it came to destroying Japanese life, so what is their position?
Before the publication of your first book, Kokoda, you already had an established career as a journalist. Had it always been your intention to write war histories, or was this an interest that arose after you became a journalist?
It has always been my intention to write history. I studied economic history in London actually, at the London School of Economics, so my background is in financial journalism and, indeed, economic history. But one of my key interests at the London School of Economics was the relationship between conflict in war and economic collapse, indeed protectionism and the breakdown of trade. It is a slightly arcane subject for your readers perhaps, but it certainly drew me to the causes of war and how those causes play out historically. My books are for a general readership, so I don’t go into any of my academic arguments in them, but you will see in Vietnam for example, the interplay of the so-called dollars for diggers. Were we getting any commercial benefits out of being in Vietnam, and of course there were none. And the government went cap in hand to Washington several times throughout the sixties to ask for commercial payback, in the form of trade incentives, and the American government refused to give its biggest ally in Vietnam, any kind of commercial assistance. War as done through history is seen as a commercial relationship between allies and, indeed, when they have defeated their common enemy, they are both in there scraping over the spoils. So that dimension of war had been in my work throughout. Certainly I’m intrigued by war’s human cost, and the impact of war on human society and civilian life. I’m not some kind of military buff, I don’t have a Kalashnikov in my bedroom or a collection of Nazi memorabilia hanging around the house. I’m not that sort of war historian. I’m a historian of the human race, as most historians really are at the heart of things, and how people deal with such a calamity, such a catastrophe, as conflict. The book Vietnam is a good example of this as it is as much a military history as it is a social history of that pretty devastating decade of peace and love.
A television adaptation of Kokoda was released last year, and an adaptation of your second book, Vietnam, is to be released next year. Were you approached about having your work translated for screen or did these series arise from pitches you had made?
No, they approached me in both cases. For Kokoda I was a talking head amongst several others, but it was based on my book, which was very nice of them. And they did a great job. They honourably stuck to the format, the narrative, the history to use the correct term, and they were true to the spirit of the book. It is difficult in two by one hour to synthesize such a complex campaign. With Vietnam it is too vast, it is a one-hour documentary, which I present this time, so I will be the bloke narrating it to the viewer. In this case we just touch upon one aspect of the book, which is the relationship between Australia and America during the Vietnam War, and its slow and rather tragic unraveling throughout the sixties and early seventies to, probably, the nadir of our relations with America, part of the fact that we were their most vocal ally for fifteen years or so.
While your first two books had an Australian focus, Hiroshima Nagasaki is utterly international. Was this a conscious decision or was it simply the case that the subject caught your attention?
It was obviously in my mind for a very long time, because at university in Sydney I wrote an essay on the psychological effects of the cold war, of the possibilities of nuclear destruction and how this was affecting people psychologically. So it’s been in my mind like so many of these subjects, Vietnam for different reasons, Kokoda for different reasons that I wont go into now. But since you ask, I went to Japan to research Kokoda, to get the Japanese side of the Papuan campaign, what their intentions were. I learnt a great deal about the Japanese experience of the second world war, particularly the terror bombing, the fire bombing of Japanese cities, of which sixty six were smoldering ruins by July 1945, a month before the atomic bombs were used. It was that that I had considered writing a book about, because I felt we never really understood what kind of battle we took to the Japanese. But throughout my research I realized you couldn’t separate the terror campaign of incendiary firebombing of Japanese cities and the atomic bombs, because they were apart of a unified strategy to crush Japanese civilian morale and to shock the government into submission by wiping out all signs of Japanese urban life, pretty much, and certainly the factories and cottage industries in the urban areas. This made me decide that really you had to write about the entire destruction of Japan to properly convey how the war ended in the Pacific. So that is how it evolved, and that conscious work has been over the last ten years, since about 2001 when I went to Japan, but as I say, these themes have been in my head for many years.
Though it obviously did not end up being the case, were you concerned at any stage that you would not have anything new to say on the subject?
[Laughs] Yes, there has been quite a bit written on this subject, as you are aware. No. The answer to your question is that a few years ago I felt that there was nothing more to say about it, so that’s true, but when I say that, I mean in the early 2000s when I was just starting out, when I was thinking of writing about the terror bombing. The more I read though, about Hiroshima, Nagasaki, I found for the best part of 70 years we have been told an American fable, an American myth, and that the so-called orthodox history of the bomb was pretty much concocted – I wont go so far as to say fabricated – but manufactured by President Truman’s administration in 1947, where they published an article in Harper’s magazine justifying the bomb, because it avoided a land invasion of Japan and saved a million US lives, not to say Allied lives. This is plainly a false proposition. Because the invasion of Japan was never going to go ahead, it was shelved in early July, so you can’t after that, with hindsight, say it avoided a land invasion that wasn’t going to go ahead. The chiefs of staff in America were convinced of this. Why would they send hundreds of thousands of American soldiers to their deaths, assuming those figures were accurate and certainly military projections were much lower than that, but why would you do that against a nation that was surrounded by US ships and was completely blockaded, over which the US air force enjoyed total supremacy and were bombing in broad daylight without any ground fire from the Japanese, reeking havoc over the entire country. And why would you serve up to the Japanese Samurai warlords who were running the country, what they wanted, which was martyrdom, which was Armageddon, which was total destruction with honour, in the perverse reading of the Japanese military mind at the time, and Truman wasn’t going to do it. It was politically disastrous, the body bags coming home would have been intolerable after Okinawa – as one of his advisors said ‘ we don’t want a score of bloody Okinawas coming home’ – and they didn’t need to invade Japan, as any sentient American high official at the time knew. Even if to justify the bomb and buy into the orthodox reading, it was obvious the invasion wasn’t going to go ahead, so they were sort of shooting themselves in the foot, because if it wasn’t going to go ahead, then Truman’s 1947 justification of the bomb doesn’t hold water. This is just one reading of the many errors in the American narrative that this book uncovers. The other is that it was America’s least abhorrent choice. Well, they didn’t consider any other choice. This was a diabolically zealous enterprise, which everyone involved was determined to see realized. I can understand that there was a terrible momentum that had gripped the leaders of the country once they had tested the bomb, it had a fatal impulse that was almost inevitable, and although I think Truman was in many ways a great president, he certainly wasn’t strong enough or even had any inclination in turning this project around. But it was in my view, an atrocity – a premeditated carefully planned slaughter of non-combatants, as of course was the terror bombing of Japanese cities.
The final question has to be, of course, what’s next? Do you have a subject in mind for you next book?
I’m not at liberty to discuss it in any detail because of commercial sensitivities and all that, but I can say that I have several books planned, one of which has little to do with war at all, but one does involve prisoners of war, prisoners of the Japanese. People say to me, what about the prisoners? I yield to no one in my understanding of Japanese atrocities, having written Kokoda, I know exactly what they did in the Pacific, and this book will draw on a new narrative about exactly what happened. So it will be, in some ways, a counterbalance to the bomb. We’ll see the kind of things the Japanese inflicted upon our people, and both to my mind are grotesque atrocities against human life, and need to be considered as such and seen as such, as many commanders in America did at the time. I am talking about the bomb now, they did see it as a barbaric exercise. I am referring here to Admiral Leahy, Truman’s Chief of Staff, certainly General Eisenhower saw it as barbaric, General MacArthur and his staff saw it as an unconscionable act – of course MacArthur had his own egotistical reasons for opposing it, because he wanted to lead the land invasion and wear the laurels of victory – but the thing about the atomic bomb is that many people opposed it at the time, but they did so silently in their diaries and in their consciences, no one rose up and stood up against the department, they did so mostly after it had been used.
Hiroshima, Nagasaki is available now.
By Graham Hansen