Review: Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham

Hiroshima Nagasaki [2011] – ★★★★★

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” M. K. Gandhi (attributed)

The Japanese collectively were to blame…Truman drew no distinction between civilian and soldier; mother and murderer; child and monster”; “America [sic] annihilated 100.000 persons, most of them civilians, at Hiroshima…and then…,in spite of the “universal horror”, repeated the performance at Nagasaki” [Paul Ham quoting, 2011: 420, 422].

Paul Ham is an Australian author and correspondent, and in his non-fiction book Hiroshima Nagasaki he presents a true account of what happened to the two Japanese cities in 1945, dispelling myths that still persist about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, including that the bombs were somehow “necessary”, or that their usage led to Japan’s surrender. Starting in winter 1945, when “Roosevelt and Churchill arrived bound by a private agreement…not to share with the Soviet Union…the development of an extraordinary new weapon” [Ham, 2011: 15], continuing to the secret development of the world’s first atomic bomb, and ending with the aftermath of the tragedy, the author goes into incredible depth about what happened in the final year of the war, demonstrating the situation through statistics, broader situation invoking key actors and through personal accounts. The result is a well-researched book about one of the most unbelievable and traumatic events in the world history. Since the scope of the book and the topic is so broad, I have decided to structure my review in the following manner: (i) Events leading up to the atomic bombings; (ii) Four myths and four corresponding realities; (iii) Immediate aftermath; and (iv) Long-term consequences.


The immediate aftermath of the dropping of the bomb at Hiroshima with the typical-for-nuclear-bomb “mushroom” cloud

After Pearl Harbour in 1941, the Bataan Death March of 1942, and the memories of the barbaric way the Japanese treated civilians and prisoners-of-war, the US government (and the public) understandably wanted blood. The allied forces were already firebombing cities and civilians savagely in terror attacks from the air that were even later equated with the Holocaust, as the one that occurred in Dresden, Germany, when 100.000 civilians were killed in one single night [Ham, 2011: 72]. This attack was initially championed by no other than Winston Churchill, who undoubtedly followed American Air Force General LeMay’s motto “bomb and burn them until they quit” [Paul Ham, 2011: 80]. Nearly every Japanese city was also bombarded and civilian targets in particular. However, terror(fire)-bombing was not very successful in defeating the enemy’s war machine. Paul Ham’s book then talks about the development of an atomic bomb in the US and the science that went into this endeavour, before talking about how the US government started choosing which cities in Japan to bomb through their atomic power. The most surprising thing for me to discover was that Kyoto had narrowly escaped the fate of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and only because Henry Stimson, American statesman, “visited Kyoto with his wife… in 1926 and it disturbed him to think that all its marvellous temples and cultural centres could be destroyed” [Paul Ham, 2011: 179]. The first atomic bomb landed on Hiroshima at 8: 15 AM local time on 6 August 1945, and the second atomic bomb followed and landed on Nagasaki at 11: 01 AM local time on 9 August 1945.


MYTH 1: The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “necessary”, with no other alternative being in existence

REALITY:  The US Committees were quick to set aside the so-called “alternatives” to the atomic bomb, including giving Japanese a warning, a demonstration, or “even attacking a genuine military target” [Paul Ham, 2011: 523]. The US government never seriously considered any other option, but the atomic bombing [2011: 424]. And this is despite the fact that “155 Manhattan project scientists registered their moral opposition to dropping the bomb without warning on a Japanese city”. However, these scientists were branded “crazy” by President Truman [Paul Ham, 2011: 354]. At the point when the bombs were dropped, Japan was already defeated at sea and in the air, and the Soviet Union was already in the occupied-by-Japan territories. Japan simply needed to be told that the Soviet Union declared the war, that their invasion was imminent and that the Emperor was to live. There was never any need for atomic bombs, which never forced Japan to surrender anyway (see Myth 4 below). The atomic bomb was “deployed to remove the reliance on the Russians” [2011: 224], says the author. “American insistence on unconditional surrender and the removal of the Soviet Union form the Final [Surrender] Declaration meant that the Japan continued fighting, believing that Russia was neutral to the conflict”. Had the US put the Soviet Union as the signatory to the Declaration to Japan and mentioned the Japanese royal line preservation (the death of the Emperor literary meant for the Japanese the “death” of the Japanese race), it is very likely the Japanese would have surrendered much sooner, and, of course, without the use of atomic bombs [Paul Ham, 2011: 594]. In fact, the books states that “Japan surrounded only after the Russians invasion and after the [US] effectively met Tokyo’s condition” [Ham, 2011: 532].

MYTH 2: The atomic bombs fell on “military units” “of strategic importance”

REALITY:  Hospitals and schools were the ones destroyed in Hiroshima, not “military targets”. In fact, the Hiroshima bomb “exploded directly above the Shima Hospital, in the centre of Hiroshima, instantly killing all patients, doctors and nurses”, and at the Honkawa National Elementary School, 400 children and 10 teachers were also killed instantly, among other establishments. Hiroshima’s military and factories were left almost without any damage, as well as the city’s port, where the majority of soldiers were at that time [Ham, 2011: 365]. Similarly, the atomic bomb that fell on Nagasaki destroyed much of the Christian community in the city centre, as well as hit the medical and educational districts of the city. Hospitals, schools and universities were destroyed [Ham, 2011: 18]. For example, the “Shiroyama National Elementary School saw 1400 out of 1500 children died instantly”, the Keiho Junior High School saw its 187 children perish, and, at the Yamazato School, 1300 died out of 1581 [Ham, 2011: 409]. The bomb at Nagasaki actually “missed its designated target – the Mitsubishi shipyards – and did little damage to the torpedo factory” [Ham, 2011: 458].

MYTH 3: The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “saved hundreds of thousands of American lives”

REALITY:  The book demonstrates convincingly how the American land invasion of Japan on its own was never an option for the American government [Ham, 2011: 529], so there was no “lives to be saved” through the atomic bomb. At worst, the Soviet army would have landed in Japan, but, even this case would not have materialised because Japan’s greatest fear would have been realised at that point, and at the mere threat of Soviet Union’s landing, Japan would have surrendered immediately (provided the Emperor lives, too). Moreover, Paul Ham showed that there were plenty of other ways “to save American lives”, including clarifying the terms of “unconditional surrender”, offering to demonstrate the bomb to the Japanese, encouraging the Soviet Union to enter the war earlier, and retaining the Soviet Union’s signature on the Potsdam Declaration to Japan [Ham, 2011: 530]. Ham demonstrates in his book how, rather than saving lives, the priority for America was “to end the war on its own terms” (without the involvement of the Soviet Union) and without any concessions offered to the Japanese [Ham, 2011: 531].

MYTH 4: The atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki “forced” Japan to surrender and effectively ended the World War II

REALITY: As the book states, nothing could be further from the truth. The atomic bombs never “shocked Japan into submission”, as the US government envisaged, “Tokyo did not surrender to protect the Japanese people from the weapon; [and] the leadership had shown not the slightest duty of care towards these “innocent lives” [Paul Ham, 2011: 538]. “The Emperor, the Cabinet…had barely mentioned the atomic bomb during their long discussions; if an external threat hastened their actions, it was the Soviet invasion” [Ham, 2011: 447]. This is what the author has to say: “not a shred of evidence supports the contention that the Japanese leadership surrendered in direct response to the atomic bombs. On the contrary, Tokyo’s…militarists shrugged as the two irradiated cities were added to the tally of 66 already destroyed…they barely acknowledged the news of Nagasaki’s destruction” and “no leaders considered modifying their conditional surrender offer” [Ham, 2011: 535]. The much greater worry for Japan was the threat of the Russian invasion and its declaration of war: “the Soviet invasion on 8 August crushed the Kwantung Army’s frontline units within days, and sent a crippling loss of confidence across Tokyo. The Japanese warlords despaired” [Paul Ham, 2011: 526].


Dr Michihiko Hachiya (centre), who was one of the first in Japan to realise that death and illness stem from radiation

After the two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and, as the US government started to prepare target lists for a third atomic bomb, the state of the two Japanese cities were becoming clearer. Hiroshima and Nagasaki had little to no medical supplies, their bomb shelters were poor and they lacked qualified medical staff (80% of doctors and nurses were killed in Hiroshima) [Paul Ham, 2011: 376]. The wounded and dying only increased after just two weeks. On 22 August, 160.000 was the number in Hiroshima, and 60.000 in Nagasaki. Most suffered from severe radiation sickness (that had terrible symptoms, from bleedings, diarrhoea and vomiting, to high fever, and the inflammation of the mouth and throat) and were dying, some quickly, others slowly and in agony over weeks and even months. Miscarriages were very common. No one really knew (doctors least of all) the true nature of the new and terrifying sickness that affected all. Japanese physician Dr Hachiya was one of the first to discover that it was not thermal burns that caused the majority of serious illness and death, but radiation (he counted red blood cells) – see my review of Dr Hachiya’s diary here.

After Japan’s surrender, in September 1945, the Pentagon shortlisted 66 Soviet cities of “strategic importance” for destruction, calculating that it would require “204 atomic bombs” and these bombs would “far exceed the power of the one that destroyed Hiroshima” [2011: 540]. The result of this nuclear raid, the Pentagon report stated, “would kill, wound or displace a population of 10.151.000” [ibid].


 “For nearly a decade, the world would hear nothing of the human repercussions of the atomic bombings. The occupying forces not only ignored the A-bomb survivors’ medical complaints; they refused to recognise their existence. American censors forbade media references to the atomic bomb or its effects”[Paul Ham, 2011: 496].

When Japanese doctors started talking about a radiation sickness affecting thousands and the death toll started rising (not falling after three weeks from the bombings), “the American government…sought to counter the Japanese reports, damning them as propaganda” [2011: 486], writes Paul Ham. American doctors did not share their valuable information about the dangers of the radiation with perplexed-by-the-mysterious-disease Japanese doctors who were at the loss of how to treat their patients. Instead, writes the author, American doctors were present at the site for mere “observation and testing of the A-bomb victims” [2011: 479]. In March 2009, Japanese authorities had [finally] acknowledged 235.569 people in Japan as “atomic bomb sufferers”, granting them health cover. Many suffer or suffered from leukaemia, and battled discrimination all their lives: “to Japanese society, they were untouchables, the people you did not employ or let your son or daughter marry”. Many were refused compensation, jobs, love, family…” [Paul Ham, 2011: 488].

Though at times quite difficult to read because of the subject matter, Hiroshima Nagasaki is still a very engaging book about the 1945 atomic bombings that dispels many still-prevalent myths surrounding the attacks. Paul Ham’s book about the final years of the World War II is a must-read for anyone interested in modern history and the events surrounding the development of the world’s first atomic bomb.


17 thoughts on “Review: Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham

  1. This sounds like an important book. I remember a 1960s Life Magazine photo spread featuring some of the survivors. There is one image in particular I can still see of a mother bathing her son who was born with severe birth defects; the suffering on both their faces is imprinted on my brain still, after all these years.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there were real individual people at the heart of this tragedy who were completely innocent and had the usual hopes and dreams that we all do – the fact that the bombs affected the yet unborn who then had to suffer and bear the burden for the rest of their lives is particularly horrendous.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Wow… so disturbing and yet necessary to understand. 😦 I have been reading about Japanese & Japanese-American experiences in WWII lately, so I will keep an eye out for this book, too.

    One excuse that I particularly dislike is “well, Japanese soldiers brutalized other Asians!” While it’s true the Japanese military committed heinous atrocities in China and Korea, it hardly justifies the US bombing civilians.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It is a great book and I highly recommend! And, yes, Paul Ham talks about the Japanese brutalities during the WWII, too, which are well-documented now, I think. But, I completely agree with you – there is definitely got to be a line drawn somewhere. Otherwise, people would just transform into the very Nazis or worse that they are fighting against. If every nation would start playing a game called “I will revenge [this or that action] a HUNDRED fold in my next attack”, I wonder what will be become to the world or even to our very understanding of being “human”.

      Yes, there was no justification for bombing civilians, but especially using an atomic bomb on them, when the American government knew full well about the nature of radiation and what it can do. I am a strong believer that an atomic bomb is a particularly heinousness weapon to use for a hundred reasons, including its sheer target area scope, capability to target thousands of INDIRECT and totally random victims for months AFTER the attack that already killed hundreds of thousands, the capability of prolonging tortuous deaths for months, affecting the yet unborn, etc., etc. No other weapon in the world has the potential to do such an extensive harm and for so long. I mean, gas chambers don’t seem to come close.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Born three years after the bombings, I lived through the Cold War for the next few decades with frequent nightmares about atomic and nuclear bombs detonating, obscene images of mushroom clouds and a sense of the immanent end of the world. This is the real Terror, not the one that Bush and his allies supposedly declared his War on, the ability of overly powerful nations to kill hundreds of thousands of innocent people while those who pressed the red buttons get to survive some sort of existence in underground bunkers.

    For those who have no sense of the impact of that nightmare scenario I can recommend two films that hugely impressed me: Peter Watkins’ monochrome pseudo-documentary The War Game (1966) which the BBC commissioned but never showed (it got a limited cinema release which I saw at the time), and Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli animé Grave of the Fireflies which is equally moving (but in a different way to the BBC film) and which is set during the Hiroshoma Nagasaki incidents.

    Also I will mention the graphic novel by Raymond Briggs When the Wind Blows which was animated by Jimmy Murakami in a 1986 film of the same name. Only those with a stone heart won’t be inclined to shed a tear or to curse the virtual despots and their supporters who still see the Bomb as a Good Thing.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with you, thanks very much for providing your point of view and experience (of the Cold War). I haven’t heard of The War Game and will have to check it out now asap, and yes, I wanted to include Grave of the Fireflies in my review – it is definitely the saddest, but also the most powerful animated film I have ever watched.

      25 August will also be 36 years since the death of Samantha Smith, the girl who, I am sure you know, wrote that famous letter to Yuri Andropov of the USSR and then became the Goodwill Ambassador. I don’t know why but I have been thinking about her these past days too, about her very small role in the Cold War and her untimely death. If leaders can still learn from something or someone it’s from the wisdom of children.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’d forgotten about Samantha Smith and had to refresh my memory about her; there was some mention of her in the UK media but naturally not as much as in the US—we were still in the throes of full-blooded Thatcherism, emboldened by her success in the so-called Falklands War earlier in 1982. What a tragic death after all that she’d achieved.

        Liked by 2 people

  4. I enjoy almost everything Paul Ham writes about. “1914” and “Kokoda” were very helpful in my understanding events of WW1 and WW2 respectively. I recently picked up “Hiroshima Nagasaki” and have it ready to read in my pile of books. Some great insights here with your review but in truth nothing that will spoil my enthusiasm to get to it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I hope you like the book, I certainly did! I find Paul Ham persuasive and engaging. I am still thinking whether to pick up the two books you mention, but his Vietnam: The Australian War also sounds interesting to me, even if it is from the Australian perspective. Unlike some other historians and journalists, I also find him more or less “balanced” in his choice of a subject matter. I mean we clearly have this Hiroshima Nagasaki book, but then he also wrote Sandakan where he shows the horrific Sandakan Death Marches conducted by the Japanese Army.

      Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s