Hiroshima: The World’s Bomb

By Andrew J. Rotter, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008). viii + 371 pp. $29.95. ISBN 978-0-19-280437-2.

(This review is reprinted from Teachers Clearinghouse for Science and Society Education Newsletter, Fall 2008, pp 23-25. Contact jlroeder@aol.com for subscription information.)

I have continued reading works about Oppenheimer and Galileo ever since teaching a course focused on them called “A Humanistic Approach to Science” in December 1971. I was drawn to Rotter’s Hiroshima when I learned that the author begins by raising a series of questions that were for me a lingering after-effect of teaching that course:

  • “Was the bomb necessary to end the war?”
  • “Were both bombs needed?”
  • “In their absence, or with a decision not to use them, would it have taken a bloody American invasion of Japan itself to achieve surrender?”
  • “Would it have been enough for the United States to have modified its demand that Japan surrender unconditionally, perhaps by signaling that the imperial system, the kokutai, could be retained?”

Rotter deals with these questions, but not within the narrow scope of World War II alone. Because of the efforts of scientists across the world to probe the possibilities of energy from nuclear reactions, whether it be as part of the Manhattan Project or as part of a program in their own country, he sees the nuclear bomb dropped at Hiroshima as a product of the entire world--and hence “the world’s bomb.”

Rotter does this in the context of two other broad themes, the first of which is Michael Polanyi’s concept of “the republic of science,” which is based on a mutual authority of scientific opinion that is “established between scientists, not above them” (p. 12). The other theme is that of weapons that are so horrible that their use is justified by being able to hasten an end to a war and thus save lives that otherwise would have been lost through conventional fighting. In this category Rotter considers first chemical weapons, then massive bombing from the air, and, lastly, nuclear weapons. Starting with chemical weapons in World War I, these weapons violated the republic of science, as Fritz Haber, Otto Hahn, and James Franck in Germany secluded themselves from the free exchange of scientific information.

It was between the two world wars that air power matured and that nuclear fission, the basis of the first nuclear weapons, was discovered. Rotter describes the evolution of both, but particularly the latter, not only in England and, later, the United States, but also in Japan and Germany. Then he comes to what he regards as his “pivotal” fifth chapter: “The United States II: Using the Bomb.” He looks at the justifications for using the bomb in the context of President Roosevelt’s avowal of utter destruction of the Axis powers, a view which was continued by President Truman after Roosevelt’s death. Although Secretary of War Stimson, Undersecretary of State Grew, and Navy Secretary Forrestal drafted surrender terms that would open the opportunity for “a constitutional monarchy under the present dynasty” in 1945, Secretary of State James Byrnes’s fear that this would lead the Japanese to bargain for further concessions and Truman’s vow to live up to Roosevelt’s demand for unconditional surrender scuttled this. Other factors brought up for consideration were anti-Japanese feeling arising from the attack on Pearl Harbor, the desire to preclude the Soviets from playing a role in post-war Japan, and the desire to shorten the war and save American lives, but Rotter feels that the absence of any or all of these factors would have made no difference: “A kind of bureaucratic momentum impelled the bomb forward. . . . Truman and his advisors saw no reason not to drop [it]” (p. 170).

Rotter also considers alternatives:

  • A noncombat demonstration (recommended by the Franck report, written by the same James Franck who had worked on chemical weapons in World War I Germany)
  • Guaranteeing the continuance of the emperor to make surrender more attractive
  • Responding to Japanese peace-feelers
  • Relying on Soviet intervention
  • Continuing the blockade and conventional bombing of Japan.

Here Rotter quotes his graduate school advisor Barton Bernstein, who felt that the last of these (alone) was the most likely to have achieved Japanese surrender by 1 November 1945, and that with only 25-30% likelihood, although a combination might have achieved it with higher probability.

Although the Soviet Union had served notice of abrogating their neutrality pact with Japan after Germany had been vanquished, the Japanese “peace faction” continued to pin their hopes for a negotiated settlement of the war on working through the Soviets, knowing that the Americans had broken the Japanese codes and were listening. However, the continued attempts, by hardliners in the Japanese cabinet, to fight on meant that the cabinet did not speak with a unified voice. One reason the Japanese could keep fighting on, at least without unconditional surrender, is the damage they knew they could inflict on Americans seeking to invade their homeland. Even after the second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, a minority of what Rotter characterizes as the Japanese “Big Six” preferred to continue fighting or hold out for additional conditions rather than surrender unconditionally.

The primary figure on the Japanese side in bringing about the eventual surrender turned out to be the Emperor himself. Rotter also points out that, as many have not realized, Emperor Hirohito was not a figurehead. He sought to spur his people on after they had been demoralized by the firebombing of Tokyo in March 1945. But by summer, he sought a negotiated settlement that would guarantee continuance of his position. Though this would not normally be a condition of unconditional surrender, Rotter notes that it emerged as a condition for consideration after the bombs had been dropped, and it was accepted by the “Byrnes note,” which placed the authority of the Emperor under the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers.

The Cold War following the Japanese surrender ended the American monopoly on nuclear weapons and gave rise to a nuclear arms race between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. Rotter goes on to describe the arms race, noting that the Acheson- Lilienthal plan for an international Atomic Development Authority, which would have returned nuclear energy to the republic of science, never had a chance. Rotter also describes the development of nuclear weapons by Great Britain and France (who needed a new status symbol now that their colonial empires were crumbling), Israel and South Africa (who wanted their hostile neighbors to be concerned about their possible nuclear capability), China (which felt the need for its own nuclear weapons after the Korean War and subsequent crises in the Taiwan Strait), and India (which looked at nuclear weapons as a political and scientific status symbol as well as a deterrent against Pakistan, which developed nuclear weapons of its own).

Thus the nuclear bomb dropped on Hiroshima ushered in a new age of military weapons. It is encouraging to Rotter that they have not been used in warfare since World War II and that there is similar objection to using biological or chemical weapons. But, he writes, “That such weapons continue to exist, however . . . , suggests a more sobering reality” (p. 306). The greatest danger of their use is by terrorists, who perceive everyone else as waging an unjust war against them. This, coupled with the nuclear flirtations of North Korea and Iran, has led the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to move its doomsday clock from 11:53 to 11:55 p.m.

John L. Roeder
Physics, The Calhoun School
New York City

This contribution has not been peer refereed. It represents solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of APS.