Once, Hiroshima was just a name on a list of cities

August 07, 2005|By Robert Ruby | Robert Ruby,SUN STAFF

ATOMIC BOMB

Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima

By Stephen Walker. HarperCollins. 352 pages.

It's easy to forget that, as cities go, Hiroshima was ordinary. People there lived without any special foreboding and experienced everything in normal, rich colors, not the grainy black-and-white of World War II newsreels. Unless you believe that long chains of circumstances are actually part of some higher power's detailed master plan, there was nothing inevitable about Hiroshima's becoming the first city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb.

In a troubling way, it was just one of those things.

The city to be targeted remained in play until a few hours before the American aircraft Enola Gay dropped the 9,700-pound bomb known as Little Boy 60 years ago on Aug. 6, 1945.

You could say a Japanese city eventually became the target because of events traceable to the West's failure to stop Japan's murderous adventures in China in the 1930s, or to the militaristic cult surrounding Japan's emperor. But the deciding factors that made Hiroshima the final choice were more mundane, as filmmaker turned author Stephen Walker recounts in Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima, a re-telling of largely familiar material.

On July 24, 1945, Gen. Leslie R. Groves, as head of the Manhattan Project, formally narrowed the number of potential targets for the first atomic bomb to four Japanese cities. He listed them in alphabetical order in a cable. They were Hiroshima. Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki. President Harry Truman cabled his approval a few hours later from Potsdam, Germany, for the first "special bomb" to be used against any of them.

"The responsibility taken by Mr. Truman," Groves reflected after the war, "was essentially, I think, the responsibility taken by a surgeon who comes in after the whole patient has been opened up and the appendix is exposed and half cut off and he says, `Yes, I think he ought to have out the appendix - that's my decision.' "

Truman's overriding concern was not if or where the bomb should be used but how many Americans might die if the war continued by conventional means. Okinawa had fallen to the Americans at the end of June only after three months of fighting and at the cost of 12,000 American lives. The land invasion of the home islands where the fighting would surely be more intense, was scheduled to begin Nov. 1.

Hiroshima's fate was sealed largely by topography and the weather forecast. Groves' Target Selection Committee believed that the hills around Hiroshima could amplify the bomb blast, like a band shell focusing the sound of an orchestra. As the minutes of the committee meetings recorded, Hiroshima also happened to be of a size that "could be extensively damaged": Its population numbered about 300,000 civilians, plus some 40,000 Japanese troops.

Aug. 6 proved to be nearly cloudless. Good flying weather. Good for photographing the bomb's effects.

Walker sketches many of the familiar protagonists on the American side of the drama as well as the lives of Japanese civilians and lesser members of the Manhattan Project. But there are better accounts - notable among them John Hersey's Hiroshima and Richard Rhodes' The Making of the Atomic Bomb - that are far more revealing about the scientific and military dramas.

One thing that has barely changed in 60 years is that the prospect of actually using nuclear weapons is almost impossible to think about. We think of their use, as the writer Thomas Powers points out, "the way one thinks of his own mortality: in flashes of great clarity - suddenly, vividly, intensely - and not for long,"

The old, dominating threat that the United States and the Soviet Union might use their weapons would now seem almost a relief. Nuclear weapons now are in many more hands; the weapons might also someday be acquired by a determined buyer. Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki, were ordinary cities. Whatever circumstances lead to the next such catastrophe - in 10 years, 50 years - it will be another of those events that after the fact will seem to have been both unforeseeable and inevitable.

Robert Ruby is The Sun's foreign editor.

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