Hiroshima: The World's Bomb

March 13, 2008

The first person to "split" an atom was Ernest Rutherford, a New Zealander. Enrico Fermi, an Italian, was first to split uranium, although he did not quite understand what had occurred. That mystery, called nuclear fission, was solved by Lise Meitner, an Austrian exile working in Sweden. The possibility of a nuclear chain reaction was worked out by two Germans who had escaped to Britain. All these discoveries were prerequisites to the bombing of Hiroshima. The atom bomb, in other words, is a "world bomb".

Andrew Rotter takes that idea further, arguing that the willingness to use the atom bomb was conditional on an evolution of morality and military strategy that occurred alongside advances in physics. For cities to be bombed from the air, moral standards had first to be stretched to accommodate technological possibility. For instance, to justify the firebombing of Tokyo, General Curtis LeMay argued that Japanese children were making shell fuses and were, therefore, combatants. This moral erosion was not distinctively American; the British, Germans, Italians, Russians and Japanese walked together on the road to perdition.

The central point of Rotter's book is that responsibility for Hiroshima does not rest exclusively with the US. He makes the point that, in 1940, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, Britain and France all had nuclear weapons programmes. America was rather late to join the race. Rotter also argues that every one of those countries would have used the Bomb during the war, given the opportunity to do so.

This argument is hardly new. The international character of the Bomb is widely known and already well told. So, too, is the tale of moral decline; only a few authors on the fringes seriously maintain that atomic atrocity was peculiarly American. Rotter has taken well-established views and dressed them in new clothes. He has performed that task well; this book is informed and coherently argued. Those new to the debate will find it an engaging synthesis. It did not need to be written, but its presence is welcome.

The "world bomb" theme is Rotter's attempt to claim new territory in an already crowded field. The idea is intriguing, but it falls short. Unfortunately, its inadequacies are crucial, since they obscure some important nuances. The team that devised the bomb was undoubtedly international, but its construction was peculiarly American. Only the US could have invested £2 billion on a theory while simultaneously conducting a world war on many fronts. This unique capability gave the US a brief monopoly in atomic power that she used to serve her distinct purposes. "It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler's crowd or Stalin's did not discover this atomic bomb," Harry Truman remarked on hearing of the first successful test. "It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful." He meant, of course, useful for America.

Rotter stretches the "world bomb" idea by arguing that atomic weapons are today possessed by nine countries and coveted by others. It is, however, difficult to see how proliferation makes for a "world bomb".

The atomic scientists definitely wanted a world bomb. The Hungarian Eugene Wigner wrote: "Should atomic weapons be developed, no two nations would be able to live in peace ... unless their military forces were controlled by a higher authority." That is a far cry from what we have today. The Bomb was developed by the world, but it is used today by individual countries to suit their individual purposes. That's what makes it still so very dangerous.

Hiroshima: The World's Bomb

By Andrew J. Rotter
Oxford University Press
368pp
£16.99
ISBN 9780192804372
Published 28 February 2008

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