A review of Michael D. Gordin’s Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War (Princeton University Press, 2007)
The centrality of nuclear weapons to the Cold War is unquestioned. Indeed, the centrality of nuclear weapons in ending the Second World War is equally unquestioned. Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August overturns the neat package that is the former assertion and reassembles it in ways that should have a serious impact on the historiography of The Bomb.
Gordin’s basic idea is that the early atomic bombs were viewed as ‘special’ in an ex post facto way and not necessarily prior to their use against Japan in 1945. Indeed, in many ways the weapons were an extension of strategic bombing and viewed as ‘just a bigger bomb’ by the American military services, both in terms of physical effects and morally. The scientific community involved in bomb design and the military-industrial apparatus led by Groves did view the weapons as ‘special’. The policymakers, Truman particularly, tended towards the military view at first, then the scientific community’s view later on.
What is significant in relation to the Cold War is how Gordin takes shots at the anti-nuclear revisionist school led by Gar Alperowitz. When I was in graduate school in the early 1990s, the Alperowitz view (the United States dropped the atomic bombs to coerce Stalin and the Soviet Union, as much as using them as ‘shock and awe’ to end the Second World War) was under serious attack and is now thoroughly discredited. However, the Alperowitz view predominated during the latter half of the Cold War, especially in left-wing academia and particularly during the Soviet-supported anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s. Gordin reinforces a more level-headed and non-ideological view in “Five Days in August” and we can finally start to sort through and discard these older obsolete views.
The idea that the United States was a wantonly vicious nuclear power throwing its weight around as of August 1945 was already fatally undermined by David Rosenberg way, way back in the 1980s when he revealed that there were less than half a dozen weapons in various stages of assembly prior to 1949 and it was only Soviet and allied provocation during the Berlin Blockade and Korea that led to mass production and an expanded view of nuclear deterrence. Gordin pre-augments this argument by revealing that the vital base area for atomic operations in the Pacific, Tinian, was equipped and manned to handle many more weapons as they arrived from Los Alamos, and that a secondary assembly base at Okinawa was under construction. Indeed, Gordin estimates that there were fifteen trained crews for the Silverplate bombers and the assembly crews were prepared to handle more than fifty weapons. The fact that all of this infrastructure was dismantled and the units for the most part disbanded by late 1945 is of interest here.
One of the most fascinating aspects of “Five Days in August” is Gordin’s allusions to possible ‘tactical’ use of atomic bombs for the invasion of Japan, if it had occurred. This only receives passing mention in the book but it is interesting to note that in my own work on nuclear weapons and their tactical use looked at the earliest expression of that in Korea in 1950-51 when Canadian, British, and American operations research and doctrine specialists worked out doctrine for use if the weapons were used tactically in Korea. It was General George C. Marshal who “was cautiously in favor of suspending individual atomic missions to allow for tactical usage of the bombs in support of the planned November invasion of southern Kyushu. Two different witnesses recalled Marshall after the war thinking out loud about using nine bombs to support the beach landings, two for each of the three invading armies to clear the beachheads, and then one additional bomb to destroy Japanese reserved at each site.” Not unlike the exercises held at Camp Gagetown, West Germany, or in Nevada in the 1950s….
I particularly am intrigued by how Gordin skewers left-wing shibboleth after shibboleth. I quote: “Thus the more ‘special’ the atomic bomb is, the easier it is for those who wish to deny the import of the actions of Japanese soldiers and government officials during the war to do so. In this case the very success of the “shock strategy”-created to persuade the Japanese government that atomic bombing was something qualitatively different-has lingered to contaminate open discussion of the memory of World War II in the Japanese public sphere.” This was, in essence, permitted to happen because of the centrality of Japan in the containment of Communism in Asia in the 1950s. One wonders who really won the war: ”What was ‘revisionist’ in the United States became orthodoxy in Japan.”
My only concern about the book is that it is seriously ‘inside baseball’ for us scholars that love nuc stuff but the intricate arguments surrounding The Bomb then and now require substantial background knowledge that cannot be assumed with our students. Perhaps that in itself is a good thing and permits us, as I mentioned earlier, to cull out the obsolete and ideologically-driven arguments from within academia. Gordin has given us some provocative new ways of looking at these events. We should use them.