Atomic truths exploded

Hiroshima's Shadow
January 8, 1999

Former nuclear bomber pilot Tim Garden rethinks the bombing of Hiroshima.

For the past half century, all our lives have been affected by the outcome of a single bombing mission that took place on August 6 1945 in the closing days of the second world war. The Enola Gay dropped the first operational atomic bomb over Hiroshima. As the early morning commuters emerged from their air-raid shelters, the aircraft was passing out of sight. Its 12 kiloton bomb was descending slowly by parachute to detonate only when it reached 1,900 feet above the centre of the city. At 08.15, about 83,000 people died, a further 53,000 were injured and 25 square miles of the city vanished. Three days later, Nagasaki suffered a similar fate, and on August 15 Emperor Hirohito broadcast his decision to negotiate for peace. Despite a continuing debate about the morality of nuclear weapons, most people believe that the nuclear destruction of two Japanese cities at least brought the war to a more rapid end, and thus saved the lives of perhaps a million American soldiers. Conventional bombing in Dresden and Tokyo had been more destructive, but had not been as decisive.

Hiroshima's Shadow is a book that convincingly questions these widely held beliefs. It is an astonishing volume. The contributors include six Nobel prize-winners, politicians, scientists, historians and those who survived the attacks. The key documentation from the period is reprinted. It is beautifully edited to produce a story that is gripping from start to finish. In his introduction, Joseph Rotblat remembers the good intentions of his fellow Manhattan Project scientists. They were racing to produce an atomic weapon before Germany so that they might deter a Nazi atomic attack. He recounts his horror at a dinner conversation with General Leslie Groves, the project director, who believed that the real purpose of their work was ultimately to subdue the Soviets. By the end of 1944, it was clear that the Germans had failed and had abandoned their atomic weapon project. Rotblat declined to continue work on the bomb and left the team. After a lifetime of trying to reduce the risks of nuclear war, he received the Nobel peace prize in 1995.

The first section of the book examines whether it was necessary to continue to develop the bomb and then use it against Japanese cities to shorten the war. While we cannot know how alternative histories would have played out, there is a surprising amount of evidence as to what the decision-makers really thought at the time. Without the determination and drive of General Groves, the bomb would not have been ready to test on July 16 1945, which was the first day of the Potsdam summit. President Truman could now afford to move slowly on encouraging Stalin to enter the war against Japan. From the recently declassified intercepts of the Japanese diplomatic telegrams, we can see Truman was aware the Japanese were close to surrender. By mid-July, the only sticking point was the status of the emperor after surrender.

Truman had delayed the summit to allow time for the atomic test. At Potsdam, the requirement for unconditional surrender by the Japanese was maintained and the entry of the Soviet Union into the war was agreed. On August 8, the Japanese ambassador in Moscow asked for a meeting with foreign affairs commissar Molotov with a view to seeking mediation for a ceasefire. Before he could start, Molotov read out the Soviet declaration of war. The Russian tanks were crossing the Manchurian border within a few hours. The next day, the Japanese war council met in Tokyo to discuss the options for surrender terms. As they were talking, a different, plutonium-based, atomic bomb was being dropped on Nagasaki. The war council could not agree on minimum conditions for a ceasefire. The divided views were presented to Emperor Hirohito, who made it clear that they must accept the terms of the Potsdam declaration. His minister of war helped draft the script for Hirohito's broadcast, and then went home to commit suicide. From the evidence, it seems clear that the use of the two atomic bombs contributed to the rapidity of the surrender, but the entry of the Soviets into the war was probably the major factor. In any event, the decision to negotiate a ceasefire had already been taken by the Japanese before they knew of either the atomic threat or Soviet intentions.

The book moves on from the story behind the ending of the war to examine how history has been rewritten. There were many reasons for pressing on with the Manhattan Project after Germany fell. So much money and effort had been invested and it was clear that postwar relations with the Soviet Union were not going to be easy. Yet the public rationale for the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was explicitly based on the argument that it had ended the war earlier and at less cost in human lives.

After the war, President Truman promoted the idea that, but for the atom bomb, an invasion of Japan would have been needed and that it would have cost the lives of 500,000 United States soldiers. Winston Churchill inflated this estimate to 1,200,000 Allied lives. Yet the official papers of the time show that the military planners were working on expected casualties of between 20,000 and 46,000. Barton Bernstein, who contributes the evidence for this great disparity in his chapter, concludes that Truman probably eventually came to believe his own myth.

The second part of the book examines how a consensus view was developed in the immediate postwar period. Henry Stimson, the wartime secretary of war, published a key article in Harper's Magazine in 1947 on how the decision to use the atomic bomb was made. The orchestration of this and other authoritative essays was done by Harvard's president, James Conant, who saw it as vital to rebut criticisms about the use of these weapons. There were hopes at the time that an international control regime for atomic weapons might be agreed with the Soviets under the Baruch plan. Conant believed that this was more likely to be achieved if the US was not having to deal with internal sentimental criticism over its use of atomic weapons against civilians.

There were those who questioned the decision to use the bomb, and the book devotes a section to what the editors call "The first critics". Mahatma Gandhi and Albert Camus join a number of thoughtful commentators who worry about the morality of such weapons and the implications for the future. These articles, produced so soon after the first experience of nuclear weapons, are remarkably prescient. The inevitability that the US would come to fear nuclear attack from its enemies in the future was already clear to many of the writers. Yet their dissenting views on the morality and on the longer-term implications of Hiroshima did not affect the US perspective over the years.

Fifty years later, the Enola Gay was to be the centrepiece of a commemorative display at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. Joining the Wright brothers' flying machine and rocks picked up by the first astronauts on the moon, the first nuclear bomber was to be shown at the National Air and Space Museum. Anyone who has been to the Smithsonian will know that it is a temple to the proud achievements of America. It is also a serious research institution, and the exhibit was to be accompanied by the history of the process that led to the aircraft's bombing mission, examples of the destruction caused and the effect on the cold war. Passionate attacks on the project came almost immediately from a number of different American sources. The Washington Post characterised the proposed display as "an anti-nuke morality play in which Americans were portrayed as ruthless racists hell-bent on revenge for Pearl Harbor". Other editorials picked up the theme, and Air Force veterans' associations and the American Legion made sure that congressmen were left in no doubt that the museum was promoting anti-American propaganda. General Paul Tibbets, the original pilot of the Enola Gay , suggested that the display should simply be the aircraft with a label that read: "This airplane was the first one to drop an atomic bomb". When the much-truncated display was opened on June 28 1995, it was claimed that "the aircraft speaks for itself".

This battle between American patriotism and historical accuracy claimed one casualty. The director of the museum, Martin Harwitt, resigned under congressional pressure. Yet those who wished to eliminate all the horrors of Hiroshima from the display awoke an interest in the historical truth. Hiroshima's Shadow is written to provide that truth. The reader is drawn back from the academic disputes in modern times to read the memories of those who were in Hiroshima in August 1945. Wilfred Burchett, an Australian war correspondent, tells the story of how he managed to smuggle himself into the city after the attack, and what he saw. His uncensored report, sent by Morse code to the Daily Express , told of the continuing deaths from an atomic plague (radiation sickness). He was not popular with US authorities.

It is always exciting to find a book that challenges the reader's assumptions. This is a book that has changed my views about the history of the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan. The evidence appears clearly to support the view that Truman and a number of his key advisers were more concerned about the coming power struggle with the Soviet Union than with the speedy defeat of Japan. This is an important distinction, but does not necessarily make Truman's decision wrong. We now know that nuclear weapons would have been developed by the Soviets whatever had happened. It may be that the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary for nuclear deterrence to operate throughout the cold war. If the atomic bomb had not been used in Japan, it would probably have been used in the Korean war with less predictable consequences. Certainly, the unique and awful power of the atom bomb was never in any doubt afterwards.

Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz have produced a great work that should be read by everyone who cares about historical truth, the morality of war and the workings of government. The book is remarkably low priced for such quality of production. It is a book to own.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is the author of Can Deterrence Last ?

Hiroshima's Shadow: Writings on the Denial of History and the Smithsonian Controversy

Editor - Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz
ISBN - 0 9630587 3 8
Publisher - The Pamphleteers Press
Price - £29.50
Pages - 584

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