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Shattering the Myth of the Bomb : Hiroshima and Nagasaki didn't have to happen : THE DECISION TO USE THE ATOMIC BOMB, By Guy Alperovitz (Alfred A. Knopf: $32.50; 847 pp.) : HIROSHIMA IN AMERICA, by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell (Grosset/Putnam: $27.50; 425 pp.)

August 06, 1995|Jonathan Kwitny | Jonathan Kwitny's latest book is "Acceptable Risks" (Simon & Schuster)

Where Lifton and Mitchell quote a sentence fragment from a memo, Alperovitz quotes several paragraphs and then the reply to it. If Bess had cabled Harry to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home from Potsdam, Alperovitz's readers would be able to factor that in. I don't mean to knock such thoroughness, just label it. The years Alperovitz spent compiling these details were important. His book is surprisingly well-written and easy to read given what it is--but what it is means that he often has to slow down to the plodding pace of the people he's tracking.

Both books make an important point about the asserted life-saving benefits of the bomb. Truman--who was determined to get "unconditional surrender" from Japan as he had from Germany--rejected advice to offer to let Japan keep its emperor. That seems to have been the sticking point that blocked Japanese leaders who wanted to lay down arms earlier.

Yet Truman agreed to that very condition when Japan surrendered the day after the Nagasaki attack. Alperovitz calculates that 10,000 U.S. soldiers died in the Pacific in the three months Truman took to change his mind about the emperor.

Like the Lifton/Mitchell book, the Alperovitz book belongs on every library shelf, if only to be dropped on the foot of anyone who accuses Lifton and Mitchell of occasional flights of fancy or omitting some context. Between them, they pull back the veil from a 50-year black hole of history.

And yet--why did we use "that awful thing" (Eisenhower's words) to destroy two cities? Alperovitz, characteristically searching for the intellectual answer, says he can't find documentation to prove it, but clues suggest we dropped the bomb to obtain added clout in post-war diplomacy. "We simply do not have enough information to make that final judgment," Alperovitz laments--and if anybody has read it all, it's probably him.

To Lifton and Mitchell, the answer is murky not just because a smoking-gun memo is missing, but because the human mind is murky. "Hiroshima in America" leaves us with an uneasy sense that Truman and the hand-picked secretary of state he listened to, James Byrnes, never really grasped the meaning of their new toy. "In the end," Lifton and Mitchell say, "he decided to use atomic weapons on undefended cities because he was drawn to their power, and because he was afraid not to use them."

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