Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War.
Michael D. Gordin (Princeton: Princeton UP, 2007) ISBN 978-0-691-12818-4, xv + 209 pp, $24.95.
Every August, media sources briefly remind us of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the subsequent end of World War II, sound bites that feed the perception that atomic weapons ended the war. Almost as frequently it seems, historians feel compelled to identify (create?) and mine new niches and interpretations of this period of history. Indeed, the cover blurb of this work promises that it casts various legacies of the atomic bomb in a “glaring new light.”
Michael Gordin’s central theses are that the popular notions that atomic bombs were responsible for ending the war and that it was known that two such bombs would suffice are erroneous, and posits that the notion of atomic bombs as “special” was a consensus that was constructed after they were used. Part of his argument is that at the time of their use many military, scientific, and political figures were not at all convinced that nuclear weapons would work and, even if they did, considered them no more than equivalent to conventional weapons, hardly likely to bring a sudden close to the war.
This book is a quick read: Of its 209 pages of text nearly 50 pages are endnotes. The text comprises seven chapters. Curiously, I apparently missed any explanation of what five days Gordin has in mind in the title; my guess is August 6-10, the period from the Hiroshima bombing to when the Japanese considered conditional surrender. Chapter 1 serves as an introduction, setting out Gordin’s desire to frame his narrative as a military history. The remaining chapters are organized in pairs, and respectively deal with the timing of why the bombs were used when they were, the place from which they were deployed, and then an “apotheosis” of how “this unusual-yet-ordinary weapon” was turned into an extraordinary one in the postwar world.
Chapter 2 sets the context of the spring of 1945, reviews statistics of bombing missions, describes internal politicking in the US State Department, and emphasizes how the coincidence of the timing of atomic bomb development and the Potsdam Declaration rendered it a perfect shock strategy. Chapter 3 examines the issue of target selection and corresponding military orders. Much emphasis appears in this chapter on what Gordin terms the “two-bomb myth”–that the US knew in advance that two bombs would be sufficient to induce surrender. Over years of extensive reading on the history of the Manhattan Project, I do not recall ever seeing an explicit reference to the notion that two bombs would suffice; indeed, it is well-known that Hanford and Oak Ridge were capable of producing bombs on an extensive scale. This chapter also includes a brief discussion of some of the relevant scientific history and concepts, but this is marred by a number of errors: it is stated that reactors require enriched uranium to produce plutonium; we are told that Fat Man was named after Sidney Greenstreet’s character in The Maltese Falcon, and Gordin asserts that radiation safety was a very marginal aspect of the Manhattan Project.
Chapter 4 describes the history of Tinian island, its seizure by the Marines in July 1944, the development and training of the 509th Composite Group, Project Alberta, and the Hiroshima strike. Chapter 5 describes post-Hiroshima reaction in the US, preparations made for more atomic drops, and how invasion plans were modified to utilize atomic bombs. All of this is to argue that atomic bombs were becoming “normalized.” Gordin emphasizes this, but in the chaos of surrender negotiations set against the possibility of a coup in Japan the only prudent course would have been to maintain air attacks and keep revising the enormously intricate invasion preparations until the situation clarified. This chapter opens with a deconstruction of President Truman’s announcement of the Hiroshima bombing, criticizing it for “conventionalizing” the atomic bomb by comparing it to a conventional bomb. But what else would one do in such circumstances?
Chapter 6 chronicles how the uncertainty that made a third atomic bombing a probability was “effaced from memory” and how the bomb became elevated to a special, unique status. Chapter 7 traces the legacies of Cold War atomic warfare strategies. An interesting point made in this chapter is how quickly public fears of nuclear annihilation, and war planning based on extensive use of atomic bombs, took hold, far out of any realistic proportion to the actual number of weapons available. Gordin closes with a reassertion of his fundamental thesis that war planners, journalists, and scientists worked hard to make atomic bombs into extraordinary “shocks” in the hopes of persuading the Japanese government to unconditionally surrender and that this shock interpretation subsequently became naturalized as a result of standard-procedure decisions and public-relations campaigns.
In the end, I was left asking “What is new here?” Indeed, Gordin often refers readers to existing literature for more extensive treatments of various topics. That the war continued for nearly a week after Nagasaki, that the Russian declaration of war was perhaps even more shocking to the Japanese government than the atomic bombs, and that General Groves built the Manhattan Project to produce weapons on a vast scale will all be well-known to readers familiar with this history. The misconception that “the bombs ended the war” seems a flimsy edifice on which to attempt to build a new interpretation of the dawn of the nuclear age.
Finally, a disturbing aspect of this book is the cover art, a photograph of a Bell VB-13 “Tarzon” bomb. Development of this radio-guided bomb began in February 1945 and it saw some use in Korea but it had nothing to do with the Manhattan Project and was apparently never configured as a nuclear weapon.
Department of Physics,
Alma College, Alma, MI 48801