Tag Archives: Paul Ham

The Book Group, Paul Ham and Hiroshima Nagasaki

Paul Ham, Hiroshima Nagasaki (HaperCollins 2011)

1hnBefore the Group meeting: I heard Paul Ham speak about this book at Gleebooks early last year. He described it as narrative history, aiming to tell the story of what happened in the lead-up to dropping nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and in the aftermath, paying attention to what the various players knew and understood as events unfolded, as opposed to their later accounts. He focused on the phrase ‘the least abhorrent alternative’ used by the US leadership after the fact. It encapsulates the official version of events that is not borne out by the records: in fact, he said, no other alternative was ever seriously considered. And, he said at that Gleebooks event, the record puts the lie to received wisdom that the atomic bombs saved as many as a million lives by bringing about an immediate Japanese surrender: the Japanese leadership in fact barely discussed the bombs at all, but were despertely alarmed by Russia’s entry into the Pacific War. Yet Ham dissociated himself from ‘revisionist’ histories that saw the US use of the bombs as knowingly unnecessary. I bought a copy of the book and was looking forward to reading it, so I was very glad that someone proposed it for the book group.

I finished it with days to spare before the meeting, but other demands on my time meant I didn’t get to write anything. I found it completely gripping – one night in bed, reading accounts of Hiroshima just after the bomb was dropped, I gasped involuntarily at least three times, interrupting the Art Student’s beauty sleep.

The meeting: There were nine of us, including one of the Founding Fathers who had been away for more than a year while finishing a degree, and the other Founding Father who has more or less moved to Darwin, but managed to be in town that night. The book generated a lot of discussion over soup, salad and sausages, with a backyard pond full of frogs as background music. I think it made a deep impression on each of us: it confronted us with our ignorance /amnesia about the Allies’ ‘terror bombing’ of Hamburg and Dresden, and of 60 Japanese cities including Tokyo; one guy who always wants us, as an all-male group, to talk about masculinity, found plenty of grist for that mill; there was rumination on the ‘anything can happen’ theme. Basically, we reminded each other of what was in the book rather than getting into controversy. One of us confessed to having bashed people’s ears about it over Christmas meals. Another said that a friend who hadn’t read the book dismissed it as being akin to the sloppy macho war histories produced by a Household Name (unnamed here because I haven’t read any of his work) – but none of us felt it matched that description. We did discuss briefly the absence of any exploration of the US’s insulting treatment of Japan in the decades leading up to Pearl Harbor, and wondered if we would have responded any differently from the Japanese people who were in thrall to the propaganda urging mass honorable suicide, or from the US people who cheered with no misgivings the mass killing wrought in their name. Someone said that he enjoyed books that were beautifully written; I felt that this is such a book, but he meant something different.

It was one of the best nights we’ve had in the group.

After the meeting: Geoffrey McSkimming, creator of the much-loved Cairo Jim–Jocelyn Osgood books for young people, once told me he has a rule that there need to be three good gags a page (Geoffrey, if you read this, please correct me if I misremember). Hiroshima Nagasaki keeps this rule, except it does it with interesting/devastating details or revelatory flashes rather than gags.

When I mentioned the three-gag rule at the meeting, someone mistook me to mean I loved the accumulation of facts and statistics, which he said (and I agreed) did sometimes become onerous. I was thinking rather of the kind of moment that strikes a spark of emotion or insight, or sets you googling to find out more about someone or something mentioned in passing. I decided to do a little test. I chose a page at random by tossing coins: 2 heads, 6 heads, 3 heads – page 263.


This is a key point in the narrative. The Allies have issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding that Japan surrender unconditionally or face ruin and destruction. The Japanese leadership consider it, but the hawkish, ‘samurai’ side carries the day, and the Prime Minister reluctantly issues a statement saying they ignore the declaration as beneath consideration – the Japanese concept is mokusatsu. This is interpreted in the West as a rejection of the ultimatum, and plans to drop the new bomb are greenlighted. All that is interesting in itself: the page is a good example of how the book’s narrative drive. But how about he three-gag rule? I think it holds up.

One: It may be idiosyncratic of me, but I find that parenthesis at the top of the page riveting. Arguably the most important meeting of the Japanese leadership and one of the two men arguing against suicidal defiance just happened to be absent. Can history really turn on such tiny hinges?

Two: Though the linguistic/cultural titbit about mokusatsu has been introduced on the previous page (along with the equally interesting haragei or ‘stomach art’), here the ‘gag’ is the tragic lost-in-translation effect of those US headlines hot on the heels of t he various literal versions of Suzuki’s words.

Three: The aphoristic punch of ‘The Japanese resolve to continue fighting was a depressing example of the triumph of hope over experience.’

It may not be up there with the page that tells us what the Hiroshima bombing crew did on their return to base, but it fits the rule.

It’s a solid book, with a hideous subject, based on original research and painstaking trawling through archives, and managing at the same time to be a lively, at times appalling read. It sits happily on my mental book shelf with Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds’ Drawing the global Colour Line, which gives some perspective on the lead-up to Pearl Harbor; Robin Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine, about Australian occupying forces stationed near Hiroshima after the war; and The Boneman of Kokoda, an example of an extraordinary individual’s way of living honorably with his part in Japan’s war history..


Along with about 30 other people, the Art Student and I heard Paul Ham talk at Gleebooks last night. It was one of the smallest Gleebooks turn-outs I’ve seen, and it’s hard not to think the subject may have had a bit of a deterrent effect: his new book Hiroshima Nagasaki. In fact it was a terrific talk. I’ll save whatever I have to say about his argument for when I read the book, which may be some little time. (He was on Lateline recently – here’s a link if you want his gist.)

What I want to note here is that he described what he does as Narrative History. I’m sure learned historians have many finely nuanced definitions of  that, but I liked his version, which is that it is history told without benefit of hindsight – that is, trying to get to the story as it was understood by the actors themselves. He is categorised as a revisionist historian, but objects, saying that the orthodox version (that the bombs were the ‘least abhorrent option’, that they saved a million US lives, that they brought about Japan’s unconditional surrender) is itself revisionist – a recasting after the event that distorts what actually happened on almost all counts.

Fortuitously, I have just been reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’s article in the Atlantic,  ‘Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?‘ I can’t recommend this article strongly enough for its eloquent challenge to received versions of history. The bit that chimed with Paul Ham’s talk, and with some reading and thinking I’ve been doing about massacres in Australia, was this, in reference to the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Battle of Gettysburg:

Speakers at the ceremony pointedly eschewed any talk of the war’s cause in hopes of pursuing what the historian David Blight calls ‘a mourning without politics’. Woodrow Wilson, when he addressed the crowd, did not mention slavery but asserted that the war’s meaning could be found in ‘the splendid valor, the manly devotion of the men then arrayed against one another, now grasping hands and smiling into each other’s eyes’. Wilson, born into the Confederacy and the first postbellum president to hail from the South, was at that very moment purging blacks from federal jobs and remanding them to separate washrooms. Thus Wilson executed a familiar act of theater—urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters.

Urging the country’s white citizens away from their history, while continuing to act in the spirit of its darkest chapters. Familiar indeed, but ne’er so well expressed.