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HIROSHIMA NAGASAKI: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath

By Paul Ham. 640 pp. St. Martin’s, 2014. $35.

Sometimes revisionist history is a revelation; sometimes it’s mere sensationalism. Unfortunately, this book is largely the latter. In essence, it argues that if Allied leaders had abandoned the “populist slogan” of “unconditional surrender” and simply promised to leave the emperor in power, Japan would have surrendered without nuclear devastation. This breathtaking—and demonstrably false—assertion sits atop “scholarship” that collapses like a house of cards.

Problems infest Hiroshima Nagasaki at every level of its presentation. Start with fundamentals. Ham declares that “at least 100,000” civilians died in Dresden. His numbers come from David Irving’s 50-year-old The Destruction of Dresden, whose highly inflated claims historians have long since demolished; the actual toll was closer to 25,000. Ham also asserts that by “early July 1945” the plan to invade Japan had been “set aside, if not yet completely cancel[ed]”—directly contradicting a passage he cites from my book Downfall. Even worse, Ham uses this “fact” to portray American leaders as duplicitous for later stating that they sought to avoid an invasion by dropping atomic bombs. Any Pacific War historian can assemble a devastating list of other examples.

Let’s move on to the two most conspicuous errors in Ham’s central thesis. “Unconditional surrender” hardly constituted a mere “populist slogan”; by 1945, it represented the indispensable legal foundation for reforming occupied Japan. Without it, the carefully engineered transition of the country from military dictatorship under the emperor’s aegis to democracy would have had to be sharply abridged or abandoned, leading to a very different postwar Japan.

Equally important, Japanese sources demonstrate that, prior to Hiroshima, Japan’s leaders not only never agreed to surrender, but never even agreed on the terms necessary to end the war. Their only authentic diplomatic initiative was to order Japan’s ambassador in Moscow, Sato Naotake, to seek Soviet mediation for a negotiated peace—an effort Sato relentlessly dissected as ineffectual. Sato repeatedly advised Foreign Minister Togo Shigenori that to be credible Japan’s initiative must incorporate specific terms for ending the war; Togo could not provide them because the Japanese government never identified them. Finally, when an exasperated Sato wired that the best terms Japan could obtain would be unconditional surrender with the sole reservation of preserving the imperial institution, Togo, in the name of the government, emphatically rejected the proposal.

Not that any of this deters Ham. By a process more like alchemy than historical inquiry, he transforms statements like Togo’s into “proof” that Japan would accept unconditional surrender in exchange for an American promise to retain the emperor. In reality, Japan’s leaders adamantly demanded that the old order retain substantive power. The best example comes with Japan’s first genuine message proposing to end the war: It declared that Japan would accede to the Allied terms in the July 1945 Potsdam Declaration “with the understanding that the said declaration does not comprise any demand which prejudices the prerogatives of His Majesty as Sovereign Ruler.” As both Japanese and American scholars have emphasized, this meant the emperor would have supremacy over the occupation commander and veto power over any occupation reform.

Quite possibly the most repugnant aspect of Ham’s work, however, is its moral hierarchy of victim-hood. War is hell, and the Pacific War embodied many of World War II’s most hellish aspects. But Ham individualizes Japanese suffering from atomic bombs in moving detail, while there is no remotely comparable treatment for Japan’s victims—even though for every Japanese noncombatant dead of all causes, including conventional or atomic bombing, about 18 noncombatants of other nations perished.

The one exception to Ham’s asymmetry of suffering is his silence on the huge death toll of Japanese in Soviet captivity—at least 62,000 helpless POWs and 180,000 civilians, totals which may equal or exceed the tolls from the atomic bombs. Why don’t these figures appear in Hiroshima Nagasaki? Perhaps because, like the many complexities and moral challenges at the close of the Pacific War that Ham ignores or distorts, they don’t support a narrative strong on emotion and weak on fact.

Serious revisionist history challenges accepted ideas to advance our understanding by pointing to new data or reconsidering flawed interpretations. Ham does neither credibly.


Originally published in the October 2014 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.