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Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

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Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War

334 pagine
5 ore
Aug 18, 2015


Most Americans believe that the Second World War ended because the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan forced it to surrender. Five Days in August boldly presents a different interpretation: that the military did not clearly understand the atomic bomb's revolutionary strategic potential, that the Allies were almost as stunned by the surrender as the Japanese were by the attack, and that not only had experts planned and fully anticipated the need for a third bomb, they were skeptical about whether the atomic bomb would work at all. With these ideas, Michael Gordin reorients the historical and contemporary conversation about the A-bomb and World War II.

Five Days in August explores these and countless other legacies of the atomic bomb in a glaring new light. Daring and iconoclastic, it will result in far-reaching discussions about the significance of the A-bomb, about World War II, and about the moral issues they have spawned.

Aug 18, 2015

Informazioni sull'autore

Michael D. Gordin is an associate professor of the history of science at Princeton University. He is the author of Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War.

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Five Days in August - Michael D. Gordin



How World War II Became a Nuclear War

Michael D. Gordin

with a new preface by the author

Princeton University Press

Princeton and Oxford

Copyright © 2007 by Princeton University Press

Published by Princeton University Press,

41 William Street,

Princeton, New Jersey 08540

In the United Kingdom:

6 Oxford Street, Woodstock,

Oxfordshire OX20 1TW

All Rights Reserved

Second printing, and first paperback printing with a new preface by the author, 2015

Paperback ISBN: 978-0-691-16843-2

The Library of Congress has cataloged the cloth edition as follows:

Gordin, Michael D.

Five days in August : how World War II became a nuclear war / Michael D. Gordin.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN-13: 978-0-691-12818-4 (alk. paper)

ISBN-10: 0-691-12818-9

1. Hiroshima-shi (Japan)—History—Bombardment, 1945. 2. Nagasaki-shi (Japan)—History—Bombardment, 1945. 3. Atomic bomb—United States—History. 4. World War, 1939–1945—Japan. 5. Capitulations, Military—Japan—History—20th century. I. Title.

D767.25.H6G67 2007

940.54'2521954—dc22     2006049337

British Library Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available

This book has been composed in Aldus

Printed on acid-free paper. ∞

Printed in the United States of America

10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2

For Katie

The world is what it is, that is, nothing much. Since yesterday, that is what everybody knows, thanks to the tremendous concert which the radio, newspaper, and information agencies have just started on this subject of the atomic bomb. We are informed, indeed, in the middle of piles of enthusiastic commentaries, that any city of average size can be totally razed by a bomb the size of a soccer ball.

— Albert Camus, 8 August 1945

In recent years, in classes and special lectures, I’ve had many occasions to describe to younger people the [Manhattan] project, the [atomic] bomb, and its use. I’ve found that at the start a very wide gap separates us. The first thing most of my listeners learned about World War II is that we won it. That is, so to speak, the last thing I learned about it. The first thing they learned about the atomic bomb is that we dropped one on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki. That is the last thing I learned about the project.

— Herbert F. York

… for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so …

Hamlet, II.ii



Preface to the Paperback Edition

WE TALK ABOUT nuclear weapons differently—differently from other weapons, differently from other topics military or civilian. Yet we talk differently in the same way. There has been a striking lack of variety in the rhetoric surrounding these devices in the seventy years since the atomic destruction, three days apart, of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during what people soon came to realize were ultimately the final days of the Second World War. The sameness calls for explanation, and astute observers have offered several for the unique status of nuclear weapons in contemporary cultures around the world: the awe-inspiring power of manipulating the atomic nucleus; the tremendous destruction these weapons can inflict; the overwhelming role they had played in structuring the global world order during the decades of Cold War; the taboo that some have identified in using them in conflict (rather, using them again in conflict). Each explanation captures a crucial aspect of how people discuss nuclear weapons, but each also has a temporal flatness, a constancy. We talk about nuclear weapons as a breed apart because this is what they are—distinctiveness is part of their essence, and they have always been this way.

Contemporary rhetoric provides ubiquitous evidence of the unique status of nuclear weapons. Consider, for example, the registers of politicians’ and activists’ speech on two issues: how they talk about organizations (states or non-state actors, for example) acquiring these weapons; and how they talk about what to do with the arsenals of those weapons that currently exist.

The first topic, nuclear proliferation, is intimately tied to nuclear weapons themselves—after all, a state cannot possess nuclear weapons without at some point having transitioned from not having them—yet it is difficult to find pundits describing the British (1952) or Soviet (1949) development of such weapons (let alone the American acquisition of nuclear weapons in 1945) as proliferation. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968 (entering into force in 1970), in fact demarcates the five nuclear powers (those above, plus France and the People’s Republic of China, which tested their first weapons in 1960 and 1964, respectively) as distinct from everyone else. The others risk legal sanction or invasion if they embark on nuclear projects. Of course, nuclear weapons are dangerous, and it is reasonable that the international community be concerned about an increasing abundance of massive destructive potential around the world. I raise the question of proliferation because there is manifestly far less concern about rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, and handguns, each of which have killed a lot more people since 1945 than nuclear weapons. (By contrast, the present debate about drones indicates that such a conversation can certainly emerge with conventional weapons, although even in this case there is perhaps something about the futuristic aspect of these devices that marks them as qualitatively different.)

The second topic has a similar structure. Over the past decade, various influential statesmen have begun to articulate a vision of a world without nuclear weapons. (The disarmament community has been imagining such a world since Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but only recently has the conversation come to be represented as a practical one.) Early into his first term as president of the United States, Barack Obama firmly expressed his commitment to the goal of a world without nuclear weapons in a speech in Prague. He is not alone; there are hundreds of other current and former decision makers in the apexes of power around the world rallying behind the slogan of Global Zero. There are many arguments for a serious political commitment to rid the planet of nuclear weapons, as well as strategic and security concerns pushing against it. I dwell on the direction of this discussion not to advocate one way or the other but merely to note that there is a conversation about global nuclear arsenals. We lack a similar intense push about explosive munitions that destroy cities and kill human beings but rely on solely chemical means. Nuclear weapons are a category apart.

The central argument of this book is that this way of thinking about nuclear weapons has a history. There was a time, early in the development of these armaments, when you could find a variety of alternative ways of considering their implications among the relatively small set of individuals who knew their potential. Today, there is a sharp line between conventional and unconventional weapons, and no category of the latter is more privileged, more feared, than the nuclear. Before nuclear weapons had been developed and shown to actually explode with enormous destructive force, such a crisp boundary between nuclear weapons and every other kind of aerial bomb did not exist. That border is a historical creation, and it has a birth date: late in the summer of 1945. Nuclear weapons acquired their aura of being special—a designation that will come up many times in the pages to follow—because of the particular circumstances of their use in the final stages of a global conflagration, not because of a transhistorical essence that inheres to these ingeniously-engineered lumps of metal and plastic.

This is a large story with large implications and a small cast of characters, most of them either Americans or foreign nationals working under the auspices of the United States military (many of them not physicists, although these scientists usually dominate histories such as this one). The restriction of the actors is not to posit that there were no other atomic projects, although of much smaller scale, under way among other belligerents during the war (there were, in Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan); rather, I confine the story largely to the Americans because the historical sources indicate very strongly that the particular valence that nuclear weapons now possess emerged out of this group of individuals and their contingent, local context. The task in the pages that follow, composed between 2004 and 2007 when the United States was again engaged in a technological war with civilian casualties halfway around the globe, is to demonstrate both how the special status of nuclear weapons was born, and then how it was extended elsewhere.

I argue that not everyone engaged in the planning, construction, and use of nuclear weapons thought of the weapons as a priori special. Some of the participants, to be sure, deemed them to be cataclysmic, awe-inspiring, world-altering devices, not least because they transformed what people at the time knew about the world and how they could act upon it. The phenomenon of nuclear fission was discovered in a laboratory in Berlin at the tail end of 1938, and for about half of the time between that moment and the nuclear devastation of two Japanese cities, most informed physical scientists did not know that weaponizing uranium would be possible (or practicable). After December 1942, with the first engineered nuclear reactor in Chicago, they realized it could be, and for those physicists, chemists, and engineers who took the idea of a chain reaction and built it into a bomb, there was hardly anything more special than this device. Their point of view is important, but it is only one perspective among several about these weapons.

The scientists, it bears recalling, were not responsible for deciding when or how nuclear weapons would be used. These were decisions made to some extent by politicians, but mostly—and this is crucial for the rest of the book—by military officers. The atomic bombs assumed the status they have in our culture not merely because they were atomic, but also because they were bombs. By following the mechanisms by which they were integrated into the military planning for ending the war (that is, forcing a surrender by the Japanese government), we arrive at a different understanding of where these devices came from and what they might mean to us today. I am by training and practice a historian of science, but this is a book primarily of diplomatic and military history, simply because the full history of the first nuclear war—of those five days in August when atomic bombs were an active part of aerial warfare—demands all those points of view.

Fundamentally, this book describes the local emergence of the nuclear-conventional boundary in the context of actually deploying the first two nuclear weapons in combat. The fact that the unique status that nuclear weapons possess today came into existence as a new way of thinking under particular circumstances—that it was the work of people and not of uranium’s properties alone—does not imply that the boundary is somehow unreal. Historical origins do not preclude real-world consequences, up to and including a sense of inevitability, of it-has-always-been-so. As noted above, many intelligent and well-informed individuals act today along lines dictated by the boundary, which means that the boundary makes a concrete difference in how we live in the world. That is a very pragmatic definition of reality, and it is one I subscribe to. As we do, at present, live in a global system structured by nuclear weapons, we would do well to understand how it came to be that way and not otherwise.

Michael D. Gordin

May 2015


AS A MEMBER OF one of the last generations to come of age in the Cold War, I have found myself contemplating the atomic bomb more times than I like to remember. A consequence of the ubiquity of the atomic bomb in my thoughts and the thoughts of those around me is the large number of people I am fortunate enough to thank for their assistance. The topics raised in this book are still very difficult ones, and I am grateful for all those who shared their views, criticisms, and observations with me.

My first debt of gratitude goes to those who provided me with the time and resources to make this study possible. The History Department at Princeton University granted me time to complete the research and write this book, and the Society of Fellows at Harvard University generously supported me during that process. Special thanks are due to Diana Morse at the Society of Fellows, who made my stay there so enjoyable.

A project of this sort would not have been possible without the assistance of numerous individuals in libraries ranging from Princeton to Cambridge to Washington, DC. Joel Burlingham, Don Simon, and their associates at Princeton’s Article Express office expended an inordinate amount of time and effort helping to assemble the diversity of primary and secondary sources employed throughout these pages; they have my deepest gratitude. The staff at the Seeley G. Mudd Library and Firestone Library at Princeton; the Widener Library, Houghton Library, and University Archives at Harvard; the Manuscripts Room at the Library of Congress; and the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, have provided invaluable assistance and access to materials at all stages of the research and writing of this book. Their efforts are sincerely appreciated.

Norman Ramsey, one of the major figures in these pages, was kind enough to meet with me in January 2001 to discuss his time with the Manhattan Project. His consideration and generosity with his time and memories played an important role in moving this project forward.

Many friends and colleagues have discussed the topics raised in these pages in depth over the past two years, and some have read through the text of part or all of this book. I am very grateful to Elizabeth Baker, Bernard Bailyn, Angela Creager, Amy Finkelstein, Peter Galison, Sheldon Garon, David Holloway, Christina Jiménez, Scott Johnson, Matthew Jones, William Chester Jordan, David Kaiser, Michael Kimmage, Stephen Kotkin, Michael Mahoney, Sean Malloy, Ishani Maitra, Paul Miles, Robert S. Norris, Dan Rodgers, Sam Schweber, Bruno Strasser, and Alex Wellerstein for their suggestions and comments. Two leading scholars of the atomic-bomb decisions, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa and Barton J. Bernstein, read this manuscript for Princeton University Press and offered detailed and insightful comments. Barton Bernstein in particular has spent countless hours sharing his expertise on matters relating to the end of World War II, and I am especially grateful to him for his support and encouragement. I should note that neither Bernstein nor any of my other interlocutors agrees completely with the account in these pages. I thank them all for their criticisms, especially those that I considered heavily but still disagree with. I alone am responsible for the account that follows.

Princeton University Press has been more than usually helpful in the process of bringing this book to publication, and the entire staff has my thanks. In particular, my editor, Brigitta von Rheinberg, has intervened repeatedly to make this a richer and more readable text. Her enthusiasm and acute historical sensibility have been invaluable.

Finally, I would like to thank Katie Peterson, whom I came to know well only after I was already consumed by this project; I expect she will be enormously glad that the work is now complete. These pages have been shaped by her more than she knows.



FIGURE 1.1 Western Pacific theater, summer 1945. Source: Modified from Carl W. Hoffman, The Seizure of Tinian (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1951), rear flap.

FIGURE 1.2 (opposite page) Map of major B-29 target cities in the Japanese Home Islands (with the exception of Kokura, not depicted, which lies on the northern tip of the southern island of Kyushu). Reproduced from Wesley Frank Craven and James Lea Cate, The Army Air Forces in World War II, Volume 5: The Pacific: Matterhorn to Nagasaki, June 1944 to August 1945 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953), frontispiece.

Chapter 1


THE SECOND WORLD WAR ENDED SUDDENLY. On 6 August 1945, an atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima, Japan; on 8 August, the Soviet Union declared war on the Japanese Empire and began early the following morning a staggeringly successful steamroller advance across Manchuria; and on 9 August, a second atomic bomb destroyed much of the Japanese city of Nagasaki. As the story is usually (and frequently) told, this triumvirate of shocks so stunned the Japanese imperial inner circle, and especially Emperor Hirohito, that he unprecedentedly intervened in war-planning deliberations and moved for conditional surrender on 10 August. (The momentous meeting took place on 9 August; the Nagasaki blast occurred in the middle of it.) Back in Washington, U.S. President Harry S. Truman and his cabinet considered the offer, and Secretary of State James Byrnes penned a response insisting that the Japanese surrender be unconditional—Allied war terms since the late President Franklin Roosevelt had enunciated them at the Casablanca Conference in 1943. On 14 August, the Japanese acceded, and the emperor broke his traditional silence and announced the surrender over the radio the following day. The first (and to date only) nuclear war was over.1 Sudden indeed.

The end of the war clearly came suddenly for Japan. This is a book about how it was equally sudden for the Allies as well, and in particular for the Americans. Coming to grips with the suddenness of the war’s end forces a complete reassessment of how, when, and why the atomic bomb was dropped—the very issues that have engaged so many Americans for the last sixty years. For the generations who have grown up with the truism that the bomb ended the war, thinking in terms of suddenness may seem hard to swallow.2 Millions of Americans have been taught the history of the atomic bomb as if it were self-evident, from the beginning, that nuclear weapons would by their very nature compel the Japanese to surrender. Echoing this common perception, Manhattan Project veteran Edward Teller wrote that Hiroshima changed the course of history.3 We are so familiar with such announcements of the transformation of the world through the nuclear blasts at Hiroshima and (although far less often invoked) Nagasaki that the claim seems to us natural, beyond question. We think of nuclear weapons as transformative because, quite simply, they are such, and always were. It was, supposedly, obvious to all concerned in summer 1945 that these weapons were special, epoch-making, and revolutionary, not just to the Japanese who suffered the consequences of atomic bombing, but also to the Americans involved in the decision to conduct it.4

Yet there is something glaringly amiss with this standard picture. No one in 1945 possessed the ability to foretell the future (not surprisingly). The principal American politicians, military figures, and scientists expressed much skepticism at the time over whether the bomb would in fact work. Even the definition of what it meant for the bomb to work changed dramatically over the course of a few days. At first, work meant to explode. After Hiroshima, work meant shortening the war by a few months (say, before the scheduled November invasion of the southern Japanese island of Kyushu). Only after 14 August did work mean end the war. The war was not over until the Japanese government decided that it was; the Allies could engage in various gambits to achieve this goal, but only the Japanese possessed the power to make any of those gambits work. It is by looking backward into World War II, and not forward into the Cold War, that we can really begin to evaluate what was unique to these weapons, and what belonged to a longer process of gradual escalation.

Almost nobody before 14 August thought that two bombs would be sufficient: if the first bomb did not cause surrender, the American decision makers reasoned, then many would be required, at the very least a third bomb before the end of August, and likely several others before the scheduled invasion.5 In examining attitudes toward the bomb before the detonation over Hiroshima, and then after Nagasaki but before surrender—five days in August—the historical evidence shows that a sizable group of decision makers did not believe the bomb would have the power to end the war immediately. On the contrary, the sudden surrender of the Japanese caught Washington rather off-guard, unprepared for demobilization or the economic shocks of peace. A dramatic consequence such as surrender demands an extraordinary cause, and American scientists, politicians, and journalists found that cause in the first postwar days by retrospectively emphasizing the atomic bomb to the exclusion of all other factors. Only the nuclear was special enough.6

The use of the atomic bombs against Japanese cities in the final days of World War II still generates enormous interest and controversy, primarily because of concerns over the moral justification of these actions.7 As usually presented, the debate about whether the atomic bombings were justified conflates two separate issues: military justification and moral justification. As the story here unfolds, it will become very clear that the issue of military justification is moot. Because so many military planners and influential politicians considered the atomic bomb to be, at least in some degree, an ordinary weapon—certainly special, even unique, in some senses, but decidedly not in the senses we appreciate today—dropping one or several of them merited no more justification than the inception of firebombing campaigns, napalm, or other local decisions made largely in the field: that is, little to no justification. The issue of military justification of the atomic bombings simply did not appear as a live question for Truman or his advisers.

Of course, the reason this topic generates vehemence from both critics and defenders of the atomic bombings stems directly from the other question: moral justification. Any assessment of morality in wartime, in terms of both the goals of the war and the means (strategies or weapons) used to achieve it, depends on political values, religious beliefs, moral judgments, and—crucially—context. World War II was the most brutal conflict the world has ever seen, swallowing in its maw approximately fifty-five million lives. The litany of clear-cut crimes against humanity even only in the Pacific theater, thus excluding the Holocaust and setting aside for the moment the status of the atomic bombings, is staggering: the rape of Nanjing, the torture and slaughter of prisoners of war, the Bataan death march, the forced prostitution of Korean comfort women, the aggressive firebombing of civilian populations, and so on. By the time the Americans began to consider the potential utility of the atomic bomb, they had already for years experienced increasing brutality, bloodshed, mayhem, and dehumanization, and experienced them routinely. This context should be central in any attempt to frame the question of the morality of atomic bombing, let alone in any answer.

Without context, the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, were only combinations of fissionable material, electrical components, conventional explosives, and metal. All the social and physical infrastructure of political decisions, military calculations, long-distance bombers, and the late stages of a seemingly eternal war provided the tools for contemporaries to think about the atomic bombs. The bombs might be considered special or unique for a variety of intellectually valid reasons: the introduction of the mechanism of nuclear fission into warfare; the scale of the design of the bomb; radioactivity; American monopoly on the weapon; the fact that an equivalent destruction to an atomic bombing created through conventional raids, and the number of planes needed to cause it, was so much greater; and so on. In each instance, the line between a quantitatively different bomb (a bigger blast) and a qualitatively different bomb (a revolution in warfare) is a matter of judgment; it is a claim about when a change in degree turns into a change in kind. The American scientists, politicians, and soldiers who participated in the atomic bombings made assessments of

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