The Real Story of the
Atomic Bombings and
(Thomas Dunne Books / St. Martin's Press)
In 1945, when the Japanese finally decided to throw in the towel, I complained to my scoutmaster that here we were stuck on some dinky lake in North Carolina while everyone else was dancing in the streets of cities great and small across America. I grouched that we were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The sun was fading swiftly over the fresh and lovely hills near Brevard, the air was filled with the humid calls of curlew, bob-white, and mountain jays. The night came on with the lung-enriching freshness, promising many noisy hours of crickets, bats, barn owls and the usual sounds of the great American countryside night. He thought it was a perfect time and place to celebrate a new future that (for once, he thought) would not demand that me and my buddies don a khaki uniform and go around sticking bayonets in other peoples' bellies or dropping bombs on their heads for some long-forgotten reason.
Since, in a few more years, Americans showed themselves to be willing to come up with yet another excuse to drop things down on foreigners or stick it to a few more distant members of the club of humanity, he was wrong: and I still fumed at my enforced absence from all the shenanigans in the street. The timing did make me party to a gorgeous albeit chilly evening, all of us unhappy campers sitting about a blazing campfire singing "My Country 'Tis of Thee" and "God Bless America."
At the time, and for a few years thereafter, we were assured that Great America's Scientific Genius Arsenal-Build had, with the coming together of Famous PhDs along with scientists run out of Europe combined to create the most rapid, enormous, omnivorous people-cook machine yet devised.
And that it had brought an especially bloody war to end, along with a relatively quick deliverance from further murder of an estimated possible 25,000,000 men women and children. It was the A-Bomb that saved us all and we should be damn grateful to those hidden away in the deserts of New Mexico and in the underground sports facilities of Chicago for bringing down the curtain on more orgies of cook-your-enemy (not at the stake as in other holy wars, but in the comfort of their own homes and kitchens and beds).
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It was only later, much later, that the truth --- the oft-cited victim in all wars --- came out; and those truths you can now find, as I did, laboriously and lovingly parsed out in this volume, laid out on the counter for us to hold on to and observe and file away as yet another proof that if you want to get involved in schemes of international mayhem, and if you expect to ever find out what had really gone down, you might have to wait for five or six or seven decades before the real stuff will be given to you without the honey-drip of propaganda, without all the tales that were supposed to make us content that between the ten major powers involved in this war, a huge number of innocents were sent posthaste to meet their makers.
Along the way, you will perhaps be as fascinated as I was to watch so many of one's favorite characters and prize myths be shredded as thoroughly as those that had been handed off to us when we were mere children coming to adulthood in what they used to acclaim as "The Home of the Brave."
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First, the biggest lie of them all. That the A-Bomb which was mailed off in its own special B-29 as a surprise peek-a-boo for the citizens of (first) Hiroshima, and (a week later) Nagasaki. This forced the Japanese to "sue for peace" (in the lingo of the times).
As my dear but never-one-to-mince-words father would have it, "Bullshit." All the time that radioactive dust was settling in those two cities, over the next fifty years to further poison the lives and hopes of the survivors of the blasts, the Emperor of Japan and his warlords were not in any way wringing their hands over the 200,000 who had lost their lives in these two blasts. Rather, they were terrified that the Russians (who decided at the last moment to join the fray) would move in quickly to "take Manchuria, Korea, Karafuto, but also Hokkaido."
This would destroy the foundation of Japan. We must end the war while we can deal [solely] with the United States.
Korechika Anami, War Minister, had known for more than a year that Japan was losing the war but --- being one of the "hardliners" on the Emperor's staff --- had assured his military peers that he was willing to fight this war to a bloody end on their own national turf.
Now, with the entry of Russia, he was forced to change his tune . . . which meant that he lost his soldier's faith and risked assassination (and he killed himself after giving in. It was known as hari-kari). (My friends and I in our war-games had a fine time screaming that as we jumped on imaginary bayonets.)
In all the Emperor's notes found relating to the last series of meetings before the declaration of surrender, the two cities were barely mentioned. It is even doubtful that the six top commanders worried that America was planning to continue to bomb each and every one of the large cities of Japan (the U. S. military estimated it could produce a new A-Bomb every ten days to continue to destroy the entire country until it was more or less rubble).
Even this extra frosting on the cake could not, according to Ham, have changed their minds. These military folk were of the highest rank . . . had never ever looked at the world from the lowly viewpoint of the poor or middle class of Nagasaki or Hiroshima. Only the Emperor's words made any difference (although scarcely attended to by the militants). "I would like to save my people's lives even at my expense. If we continue the war our homeland will be reduced to ashes. It is really intolerable for me to see my people suffering anymore."
It was only with Hirohito's radio broadcast announcing the surrender --- the first time the Emperor's voice had been heard by any of his subjects, ever --- that the nation had official notice that "a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is indeed incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives."
Ham's writing about the last days of the war, the countless back and forth waverings both in Tokyo and in Washington, coupled to the reader's fear that someone --- someone --- the aides to the Emperor, one of Truman's advisors, the quickly advancing Russians (already pouring into Manchuria) --- someone might derail the whole deal. It is this impossibility (we all know how it came out) that makes this book such a fine one. We know the outcome, but we also learn here for the first time know about the innumerable factors that could have come together and sabotaged the peace. It is this wire of tension that creates such a powerful story . . . one that kept me up for three nights in a row (and you know how I value my beauty sleep). I suspect, the book may well do the same to you.
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Thie style of Hiroshima, Nagasaki is no-nonsense --- at times elegant; never wasteful (of facts, of words, of resolution) . . . such that I defy anyone to willingly lay it down without regret. But --- then and only then --- with glee. For we know we can pick it up tomorrow.
Added to that are the other tantalizing details that are doled out and make one reel a bit in disbelief as we make our way through the 630 pages (more than 100 of them with supporting references with 10 appendices) as we find that:
- The fact that the bomb would kill tens of thousands --- possibly hundreds of thousands --- of civilians, including women, children, the very old, the very young --- had little effect on the minds of the American planners.
- Only one of the high officials, Henry L. Stimson, the Secretary of War, put in a plug for not bombing Kyoto. He and his wife had visited there in 1926, were struck by the beauty of the town, and he demanded that it be removed from list. He didn't talk of the need to protect innocents; he was only concerned with aesthetics.
- Even the avowed humanist J. Robert Oppenheimer downplayed the human losses. After the deed (of the two bombs) was done, he denied any suppositions that there would be something new, an egregious "radiation sickness" that would appear in weeks or months or even years after the bomb had been dropped. There is "every reason to believe . . . based on our experimental work and study, and . . . the results of the test in New Mexico," that "no appreciable radioactivity [existed] on the ground at Hiroshima . . . and what little there was decayed very rapidly."
- General Leslie Groves continued into 1946 to deny that facts being repeated by doctors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, "taking a toll of mounting deaths . . . in Hiroshima." According to Ham, Groves was "aghast at the possibility that 'Jap propaganda' would elicit American sympathy for the bomb casualties and martyr the nation that had brought war to the Pacific." It took over two decades for the hibakusha --- those exposed to radiation --- to begin to get some kind of relief from their own government. Officially, American military doctors were never allowed to intercede.
- Captain Kermit Beahan's airplane, the Bockscar, dropped the second bomb on Nagasaki on August 9. The crew looked back to see the "giant pillar of purple fire" rising behind them. The copilot, Captain Charles Albury, then turned and said to Beahan, "Well, Bea, that's a hundred thousand Japs you just killed." There was, it is reported, no response.