Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Hiroshima mon amour: nobody read the subtitles


Eight years after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima at exactly 8.15am on August 6, 1945, Australia's first contribution to the nuclear arms race, the Rum Jungle mine south of Darwin, started producing uranium.

The mineral was for British bombs but by 1958 some English, fed-up with the threat of self-destruction, staged a march against nuclear weapons between Trafalgar Square and the atomic research establishment in Aldermaston​.

The march was on the Movietone News and my father, the Rum Jungle personnel manager responsible for keeping the mine and its purpose-built town Batchelor secure from external threat, was exercised by the spectre of Darwin wharfies taking direct action.

Of course, nothing happened. But in the years ahead, Aldermaston marches became set pieces and nuclear weapons and nuclear protests proliferated across the world.


On the 70th anniversary of Hiroshima's devastation, it is somehow unsettling to recall how the nuclear issue transmogrified from being perceived as a weapon that saved American lives into a malignant force of assured mutual destruction before coming to rest this year as the acceptable resolution of problems with Iran.

For many growing up in Hiroshima's shadow, the word nuclear was shorthand for an unspoken fear.

Images and stories both harrowing and horrific, somehow came to outweigh the bomb as the harbinger of victory: The blistered bodies of survivors haunted; so too did the illnesses of Australian POWs at Nagasaki; the pride in the Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett​'s unapproved visit to Hiroshima on the day they signed the surrender on the USS Missouri to break his world scoop "The Atomic Plague" somehow brought it closer to home; so too did On The Beach, Hollywood's apocalypse film written by Nevil Shute and set in Melbourne starring Gregory Peck and Fred Astaire; there were the unintentionally funny "duck and cover" films made by the US and Britain to help citizens under nuclear attack and, finally, the Cuban missile crisis of 1962.

By then Australians had started marching too as uranium exports became intertwined with nuclear weapons and nuclear power.

They took to the streets on Palm Sundays (a nod to same day Aldermaston protests) or on Hiroshima days. Marches in the 1960s and 1970s attracted similar-sized crowds of angry spectators but when the French blew up the Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand as part of their Pacific nuclear program response to opposition hundreds of thousands demonstrated around Australia in 1986.

Yet participation in marches in recent times has increasingly shrivelled although nuclear problems loom as large as ever for many.

Curiously some 1000 leading researchers in artificial intelligence in Buenos Aires last week signed a letter calling for a ban on offensive autonomous weapons, also known colloquially as "killer robots" warning they would play a dangerous role in driving the next revolution in warfare.

Among the scientific jeremiahs were physicist Stephen Hawking, SpaceX and Tesla chief executive Elon Musk, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, and Skype co-founder Jaan Tallinn and the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky.

It was not the first time eminent scientists coalesced to warn government about arms and the man.

Perhaps the most famous precedent was the Einstein-Szilárd letter.

Written to US President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the eve of the Second World War, the scientists that time around were advocating a global arms race.

The German-born physicist Albert Einstein and the Hungarian physicist, Leó Szilárd, both of whom had fled Europe for the US, sent their letter in 1939 alerting the American leader of the possibility of Germany developing atomic bombs. Before any one could say brighter than 1000 suns, Roosevelt gave the nod for what became the Manhattan Project and Hiroshima's eventual destruction.

Damien Murphy is a Herald journalist


  1. Exploding the American myth of Hiroshima
    Did history's first atomic bomb, dropped on Japan 70 years ago today, really end World War II?
    The worst US bombings of Japanese cities began in the spring of 1945, marked by the firebombing of Tokyo on March 9-10 that killed an estimated 120,000 Japanese. So total was the destruction of more than 60 large cities by August that Japan's leaders had long accepted that massive amounts of urban deaths were part of the country's patriotic duty.

    In fact, the US had to search for an undestroyed city large enough to fully demonstrate the power of its doomsday weapon, before the Boeing B-29 Superfortress Enola Gay dropped the world's first nuclear bomb on Hiroshima on August 6, according to historian Ward Wilson of the Rethinking Nuclear Weapons Project.

    Seventy years on, many in the US still agree with their government's argument that the Hiroshima bomb - and Nagasaki's on August 9 - brought the Japanese to surrender, ended the Pacific war, saved the lives of half a million US troops at risk in the planned October/November land invasion and spared the lives of tens of thousands of Japanese civilians.


  2. But some are starting to question the idea that Hiroshima alone moved Japan's Emperor Hirohito and his military to unconditional surrender on August 15.

    US historian Tsuyoshi Hasegawa argues that the chief precipitating factor was the surprise Soviet invasion of Japan-held Manchuria early on August 9.

    "There was no emergency meeting after Hiroshima," Wilson says.

    "It was treated as just the latest in the firebombings of Japanese cities." Hasegawa, a professor at University of California at Santa Barbara, who speaks Russian and Japanese and who witnessed the firebombing of Tokyo as a child, lays out the timeline in his 2005 book, "Racing the Enemy".

    The Japanese Supreme War Council did not convene in response to the Hiroshima bombing, but swung into immediate action on August 9 to consider surrender terms after "shock and crisis upon learning that Russia had declared war and invaded," Wilson explains.

    The US dropped the second nuclear bomb on Nagasaki the same day, but Hasegawa argues that it had little effect on the surrender decision.

    "What has been most [feared] has finally come into reality," he cites Kawabe Torashiro, Japan's deputy chief of staff, describing the inner circle's reaction to the Soviet invasion to a US interrogator in1949.


  3. On August 10, 1945, Hirohito declared: "It seems obvious that the nation is no longer able to wage war, and its ability to defend its own shores is doubtful."

    Five days later, Japan surrendered unconditionally, renouncing its pursuit of favourable terms after rejecting the July 26 Potsdam Declaration's US-British demand for unconditional surrender. It had hoped to keep its imperial system, its military and as much territory as possible while avoiding prosecution for war crimes by trying to convince the Soviet Union, treaty-bound to neutrality until 1946, to mediate a favourable settlement with the US in exchange for Asian territory.

    Although its navy and air force were practically destroyed, Japan's military leaders felt in a strong negotiating position, as armed civilians and ground troops were prepared to inflict heavy casualties on the US during the expected autumn land invasion.

    But despite Tokyo's diplomatic overtures, Stalin was preparing to invade Japan as agreed in February 1945 at the three-power Allied conference in Yalta.

    "The Soviet entry into the war played a greater role than the atomic bombs in inducing Japan to surrender," Hasegawa writes in "Racing the Enemy".

  4. Similar interpretations have been put forward by US historians like Gar Alperovitz, who first mooted the idea in the late 1960s, Martin Sherwin and Richard Rhodes.

    Hiroshima and Nagasaki set the fearful tone for the Cold War and provoked lasting debate about the morality and strategic necessity of president Harry Truman's decision to drop the bombs.

    Pulitzer-prize winning historian Herbert Bix of New York's Binghamton University argues that Truman was keen to send a warning to the Soviets. Others quote a letter Truman wrote later to a church organisation, saying the bomb was revenge for Pearl Harbour.

    "When you have to deal with a beast, you have to treat him as a beast," he wrote.

    An estimated 60,000 to 80,000 Japanese died in Hiroshima the day the bomb fell, and around 40,000 in Nagasaki. Tens of thousands died or suffered from exposure to the bomb and radiation in following years.

    Truman repeatedly insisted the bombs were needed to end the war in the Pacific and save half a million US military lives. Most Americans still see it that way, even though World War II military commanders have said that number was exaggerated.

    Anti-nuclear campaigner Wilson says the storyline persists because it reduces US guilt, and "fits our national mythology of Yankee ingenuity, that we build devices that change the world".

    He also says the international shock at the world's first atomic bombs "had a way of turning the entire sympathy toward Japan" after the country's wartime aggression.

    "It's a useful idea for presenting Japan as a peaceful, unaggressive country."
    Pat Reber
    Deutsche Presse-Agentur