A layman's guide to events at Hiroshima

A layman's account of the scientific and political events leading up to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

HIROSHIMA: The World's Bomb
Andrew J. Rotter
Oxford, hbk, $65

Review by Ron Tyrrell

This book describes in layman's terms the scientific and political background that led to the creation of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

On the eve of World War 2 leading scientists believed an atomic bomb to be feasible, and with the outbreak of hostilities they feared that Nazi Germany might secure mastery by the invention of such a weapon.

Only after Germany's defeat was it found that their nuclear research had been frustrated by decentralisation, scientific mishaps, the loss of eminent Jewish scientists, and the inability of Hitler and his cohorts to understand the physics involved.

The United States had the largest group of first-rate scientists, augmented by refugees from Germany, and the co-operation of Great Britain.

Their Manhattan project involved much research and experimentation, and the building of several gigantic plants to process the materials required for a bomb.

The availability of the first atomic bombs was too late for their intended use against Germany, and of interest are the arguments for and against, which led to their use against Japan.

The author explains that the use of poison gas and aerial bombing in World War 1, followed by Japanese atrocities in China, and the indiscriminate bombing of British, German and Japanese cities in World War 2 had created a climate for the involvement of civilians in an all-encompassing terror.

Americans remembered the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor and the Bataan death march, while, with the British, they wished to punish the Japanese for their treatment of prisoners of war and civilians, and all recalled the ferocity of the fighting on the islands of the Pacific, which led to a ready desire to use the bomb and end the war.

Despite the unease of some scientists, and an ignorance of the widespread effects of radiation, American political and military leaders felt Japan deserved the bomb.

For them, it would obviate a bloodbath and, in the face of Japanese government prevarication, it appeared a massive defence was being organised which would lead to much loss of life invading the home islands.

On the other hand, mainly being wise after the event, critics claimed Japan was ready to surrender but wished to clarify the status and position of the emperor, and that the populations of the two Japanese cities did not deserve such a fate.

The author has no compelling evidence that American political leaders authorised the use of atomic bombs to preclude the Soviet Union from taking part in the occupation of Japan.

However, Stalin ordered a crash programme to build a Soviet atomic bomb, made possible in 1949 with the aid of several communist spies who had been engaged on the Manhattan project.

The author concludes by showing how the bomb became The World's Bomb with a dangerous stand-off during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and an expansion of nuclear technology to include Great Britain, France, China, Israel, North Korea, India, Pakistan, South Africa (for a time), and possibly Iran.

He says it is not surprising the United Nations has struggled to control atomic energy since the waste from nuclear reactors may be used for peace or war and a fear exists that a rogue state, organisation, or individual may secure a bomb from a disintegrating country with atomic bombs in its possession.

- Ron Tyrrell is a Dunedin historian.

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