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Countdown to Hiroshima

Shockwave: The Countdown to Hiroshima by Stephen Walker, 352pp £20
Another war history book, this time with tie-in to Japan and a manga reviewed a few weeks ago.
This is a countdown to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. It is as far as possible entirely factual, being based on written records and personnel involved in the American program, and survivors on the Japanese side. Even though one knows what is going to happen, this is an account that is hard to put down. In the prologue, two lovers spend some time together in a beautiful garden in Hiroshima, a few hours before the bomb is dropped. Then we are taken to the Trinity bomb test, three weeks earlier. The book describes the personalities of the leading players, both the military officers and scientists on the American side, and the Japanese diplomats, some of whom were trying to secure a negotiated peace. The technology of the bombs and their complex fuzing is described in detail.
The scale of the Manhattan Project and the arrangements for bomb delivery is staggering. It’s often quoted that it cost two billion dollars (at 1945 prices), but when one reads that the 509th Group used up a whole set of expensive B-29 bombers just in practicing bombing runs and the special diving turn, and then they just ordered up a second set, and that they had their own base at Tinian island, one starts to see where the money went. No effort and no expense was spared to get it done as quickly and securely as possible.
As to the morality of it all, it came towards the end of a brutal war in the Pacific, in which neither side paid much attention to the rules of warfare. On the American side, only the scientists entertained any second thoughts about the morality of what they were doing. On the Japanese side, while some officials wanted a negotiated peace, they were afraid of the fanatics in the war cabinet who wanted to resist on the main islands to the end, insisting that death was better than dishonour, and that surrender was unmentionable.
Only when the Japanese cabinet had seen the results of two atomic bombs was the Emperor able to over-rule the fanatics and agree a surrender. Even then it was a conditional surrender, with the Japanese allowed to keep their Emperor, rather than the unconditional surrender the Americans had in mind (and which was imposed on Germany).
The Russians were also an important element. They fobbed off Japanese diplomatic efforts towards a negotiated peace, planning to switch allegiance and grab as much Eastern and Japanese territory as they could, before the war ended. The Americans and British, alarmed by Soviet advances in eastern Europe, were keen to impress the Russians with the power of their new bomb.
The effect of the bomb on the population of Hiroshima was, of course, horrible. One eye-witness describes seeing a stream of blackened monsters with tattered flesh and swollen lips, that had once been human, streaming out of the city. Of the prologue scene, the young man was seriously injured, his beautiful girlfriend was never seen again, and the garden was destroyed.
(As a coda, while it’s not mentioned in the book, a visit to Bletchley Park reveals that the codebreakers had decrypted the cargo manifests of cargo submarines travelling between Germany and Japan. They include neatly a ton of uranium shipped to Japan. The Americans must have wondered what it was for….)

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