Provocative and challenging, Paul Ham’s book strips away the cosy myth that the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the Second World War and saved a million lives. Ever since President Truman made this claim it has been the conventional wisdom but Ham, an Australian by birth and the Australia correspondent of The Sunday Times, disagrees and makes a compelling case for an alternative explanation of the Japanese surrender.
His book combines three things: a thrilling account of the bombing missions from the point of view of the US airmen who undertook them, a vivid depiction of the suffering that ensued on the ground and a polemical interpretation of the high politics and diplomacy (in Tokyo, Washington and Moscow) that led to the surrender. The first two elements are not new though Ham offers fresh, heart-rending testimony from the victims of the bombings. The third element, however, confronts orthodox opinion in a voice that is both vigorous and passionate.
Starting in December 1944, General Curtis LeMay’s XXI Bomber Command firebombed almost every Japanese city, killing around 130,000 people and injuring many more. “The entire population of Japan is a proper Military Target,” declared one US Air Force intelligence report. “There are no civilians in Japan.” The terror-bombing campaign did little harm to Japan’s infrastructure and did not persuade the population to revolt. It was, says Ham, “a moral and military failure”.
This begs the question whether the atomic bombings amounted to a similar failure. Following the Potsdam Conference the Japanese government initially pinned its hopes on diplomacy with the Russians, hoping that they might water down the American demand for unconditional surrender.
Once their hopes were dashed, the two factors that motivated their surrender to the Americans were, on the one hand, “the regime’s suffocating fear of Russia” and “the spectre of a communist Japan” and on the other, the US guarantee that the status of the emperor in a post-war Japan would be preserved, delivered by US Secretary of State James Byrnes in the so-called Byrnes Note after the bombings.
American plans for an invasion of the Japanese mainland had assumed battle casualties of only 31,000. Certainly the population had been exhorted to resist any American invasion. However, the idea that the US would have needed to undertake an invasion was a myth and Truman had no intention of approving any such invasion. The US naval blockade and the Russian invasion of Manchuria would have been enough to ensure a Japanese surrender come what may.
A cynic might argue that America’s real purpose in detonating the two atomic bombs was not to hasten the Japanese surrender but to demonstrate the awful destructive power of these weapons to the Soviet Union. But the bombings did have one modest beneficial effect. Cabinet Secretary Hisatsune Sakomizu, who knew his country’s war economy was wrecked, was able to argue to colleagues that the impossibility of fighting a nuclear-armed enemy “exonerated the military from the blame or responsibility of surrender” (Ham’s words).
Here is no disguising the fact that the American strategic bombing campaign against Japan was directed primarily at non-combatants. By any modern definition it was a war crime. LeMay chose “deliberate civilian annihilation” over “targeting the vestiges of Tokyo’s war machine”.
Did the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, an extension of that campaign, save many more lives than they destroyed? It seems unlikely. The hibakusha, or the “bomb-afflicted people”, were victims twice over. Stigmatised by the rest of Japanese society, which regarded them as reminders of national humiliation, they had to fight for government-paid medical assistance. Only as recently as 2009 were 235,569 recognised as atomic bomb sufferers and granted a 90 per cent subsidy of medical fees.