What Is the Real Story of the Atomic Bombings?

America claimed the atomic bomb ended World War II and saved American lives. Journalist and historian Paul Ham calls that “a pack of lies”.

At the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, debate still rages over the decision to drop atomic bombs on inhabited cities. Paul Ham, an Australian journalist and historian, first published his provocative contribution to the debate in 2011. Hiroshima, Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath is a meticulously researched book with a compelling and riveting narrative. The controversial book has now been published in the US, where it’s certain to stoke furious debate, as well.

The impetus for this book was triggered, he says, by a “feeling things are not quite right, that we haven’t quite got the full picture. Because the histories that we have tend to be written by the victors… It was a feeling, a gut feel, that we hadn’t had the full story.”

Ham’s book challenges the view, widely perpetuated following the war and even today, that the atomic bombings played a key role in bringing World War II to a quick end, thereby saving Allied (and Japanese) lives. This rationale, says Ham, was articulated by US Secretary of War Henry Stimson in a February 1947 article published in Harper’s Magazine, when the US government was already on the defensive over its use of the bomb. It was a rationale that Ham describes as “a pack of lies”.

“The justification for the bomb has been that it avoided a million American lives. And this is just absolute fabrication, and a post facto justification for using the bomb. The invasion of Japan was effectively shelved in early July, two weeks before the bomb was tested. So it was never a case of either the bomb or invasion. But it’s convenient now to resurrect that bogus equation because it gives everyone a nice little feeling that we did it to save American lives…

The second [argument] is that this was done to shock the Japanese into submission, which is nonsense. They were going to fight on, and on, and on against a nuclear-armed America unless the life of [Japanese emperor] Hirohito was promised. Which it was, two days after Nagasaki. And the idea that they were bombing military targets? Well, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not military targets by August 1945. Their military effectiveness was completely removed. Hiroshima’s military factories were on the outskirts of the city… In Nagasaki, the bomb landed on its educational and Christian community and totally annihilated Nagasaki’s Catholics.”

Indeed, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, along with a handful of other Japanese cities – including Kyoto, Kokura, Niigata – had deliberately not been subjected to the regular American bombing raids which devastated other Japanese cities, because the US wanted to preserve them in order to assess the bomb’s destructive capability on a relatively undamaged urban setting.

What did finally end the Asian and Pacific war, says Ham, was the entry of Russia. Russia had a neutrality pact with Japan for most of the war, which was set to expire in early 1946 (and which the Allies had asked it to renounce early in order to support them against Japan). The US and England – already experiencing rising tensions with Russia (their erstwhile ally) over the administration of occupied Europe, and having successfully tested the atomic bomb – were now hoping to keep Russia out of the Pacific War in order to avoid the possibility of Russian expansionism in Asia.

The atomic bomb, some suggest, was intended not only to send a message to the Japanese but also to the Russians about America’s military power. In some ways, it had the opposite effect. Russia, fearful of losing out on the spoils in Asia if Japan surrendered, declared war early and attacked what was left of the Japanese army in China.

“The bombs were pretty much a side issue. [Japan] had already lost by July – 66 cities [were destroyed] by conventional bombardment. And so now they had two more cities destroyed. They didn’t have photographs of the bomb, they didn’t have TV footage, they just had flyers from America falling out of planes saying ‘your cities have been destroyed by an atomic bomb.’ They didn’t believe it at first, they just called it a ‘special bomb.’ Terrible rumours were coming out, but they just said okay, we will fight on. And they were girding themselves to fight on against a nuclear-armed America…

The Russian invasion of Japanese occupied territory in Manchuria destroyed the Kwantung Army, which was an elite Japanese army. And by that point the six old samurai who ran Japan from a Tokyo bunker realized the game was up. The Russians were striking them where it really hurt, which was against their soldiers, against their armed forces. And winning. Of course, Stalin had a vendetta against the Japanese for the loss of the 1905 Russo—Japanese War. You had this huge vengeance at play in Stalin’s mind. And the Japanese were terrified of becoming a communist satellite of Russia.”

War Against Civilians

A key theme of Ham’s book – and one of the lessons he says it holds for the present – is the futility, and abhorrence, of targeting civilians. It was something that both sides were guilty of in the Second World War, particularly through their use of aerial bombing raids. Ham recounts the horrific raids in tremendous detail. The strategy, he says, dates back to the '20s, when military strategists began predicting that future wars would be determined by savage, first-strike aerial attacks.

“[The] idea was this knockout blow, where rather than bother with infantry, we’ll just send waves of bombers over the heads of the infantry and we’ll strike where it matters most, where it hurts most – at the hearth, in the home, the wives, the children – and destroy the civilian fabric of society. And they’ll either all be dead or the survivors would rise up and oppose the regime which was inflicting this war, this pain on them.”

It was a strategy that was carried out first by the Germans (in Spain and then elsewhere in Europe) and Japanese (against China), but was then replicated by the Americans and British (against both Germany and Japan). And in all cases, he says, such attacks failed to accomplish any strategic goals beyond slaughtering unprecedented numbers of civilians. It offers a lesson for the present, as well.

“The destruction of civilian life is basically a war crime, firstly, and doesn’t win wars. Because the people will stand firm, the people will resist. I cannot imagine your country, my country, giving in to an air invasion of bombers. We would retreat to ghettos, we would cover ourselves in shelters, and we would stand firm and fight for our country. It didn’t work in Germany, it didn’t work in Japan, and it didn’t work in Britain.”

Ham describes the firebombing of both Germany and Japan in meticulous, brutalizing detail. His book outlines the 13 February 1945 bombing of Dresden:

That night, 796 RAF Lancaster bombers in two waves unloaded 650,000 incendiary bombs over Dresden. The aircraft met no ground fire; the city lay undefended. The pilots, some of whom felt affronted, even ashamed, by this lack of opposition, flew in low. The first wave dropped 4,000-pound high explosives that broke open the roofs of buildings like the tops of eggshells; 750-pound clusters of incendiaries followed. The second wave encountered not a city but a raging furnace. Billowing clouds of smoke and flame obscured the aiming points. So they firebombed the fireball… About noon the next day 311 US bombers joined the RAF over Dresden, the first US aircraft to participate in a civilian terror strike. It was a superfluous act of overkill. The pilots believed they were attacking a railway terminal. Instead, they pulverised whatever remained of the inner city. The rubble danced and the corpses fell to dust. Then, lest any sign of life dare show itself, scores of low-flying Mustang fighters strafed the smouldering ruin and mowed down dishevelled crowds on the river banks and in the gardens where a remnant of the Kreuzkirche children’s choir and some British prisoners of war had sought refuge.

That single night in Dresden 100,000-135,000 civilians died (40,000 were killed during the entire London Blitz). Similar attacks would follow on other German cities, and then on Japan.

“They attacked pretty much every city in Germany, with the express target of destroying civilian life. Let there be no doubt about what the intention was… this was a determined effort to destroy civilian morale. And more than 60 cities were left in smoking ruins with horrific casualties. The Americans then did the same to Japan, with even more horrifying results."

In the 9 March American bombing of Tokyo, half a million incendiary bombs were dropped, destroying 372,108 homes and killing roughly 110,000 civilians.

Amid such horrific destruction – often occurring night after night in cities across Japan – it’s perhaps not surprising that the intransigent Japanese military leadership refused to be moved by the destruction of Hiroshima (70,000 killed instantly, not counting those who died later from injuries or radiation) and Nagasaki (30,000 killed instantly). Japanese newspapers both denounced use of the bomb while also recounting tales of heroic Nagasaki workers staying at their posts during the bombing. The war ministry announced “Even though we may have to eat grass, swallow dirt and lie in the fields, we shall fight on to the bitter end, ever firm in our faith that we shall find life in death.” And Tokyo Radio issued calm instructions for how civilians could protect themselves against “the new bomb”.

“Here was the last testament of a delinquent regime beyond the reach of reason,” writes Ham. “The advent of nuclear war had manifestly not achieved the desired outcome; the atomic bomb had not shocked Tokyo into submission, as Washington intended (and later claimed). The nuclear bludgeon failed to deter the militarists… from their disastrous course. To them, another city had died in a country that had hitherto suffered the loss of more than 60.”

Yet many American military leaders also prioritized military strategy over humanitarian concerns. In his book, Ham describes meetings of the committee tasked with picking the bomb’s target: “not one of the committee men raised the ethical, moral or religious case against the use of an atomic bomb without warning on an undefended city. The businesslike tone, the strict adherence to form, the cool pragmatism, did not admit humanitarian arguments however vibrantly they lived in the minds and diaries of several of the men present. Total war had debased everyone involved.”

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