Paul Ham, author of Hiroshima Nagasaki, answers Ten Terrifying Questions

The Booktopia Book Guru asks

Paul Ham

author of Hiroshima Nagasaki, Kokoda and Vietnam

Ten Terrifying Questions

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1. To begin with why don’t you tell us a little bit about yourself – where were you born? Raised? Schooled?

I was born in Sydney; raised in Sydney; and educated in Sydney (at The Scots College, Charles Sturt University and Sydney University) and London (The London School of Economics).

2. What did you want to be when you were twelve, eighteen and thirty? And why?

At 12, a novelist, because I wanted to write stories; at 18, a journalist, because I wanted to write ‘true’ stories; at 30, a historian, because I wanted to write histories.

3. What strongly held belief did you have at eighteen that you do not have now?

A belief in freedom, or ‘enlightenment’, being, to my mind, a faith in the capacity of human reason and resourcefulness ultimately to triumph over the forces of darkness, superstition, dogma and oppression.

4. What were three big events – in the family circle or on the world stage or in your reading life, for example – you can now say, had a great effect on you and influenced you in your career path?

My first reading of the novels and essays of George Orwell; seeing ‘Guernica’; and the Fall of the Berlin Wall.

5. Considering the innumerable electronic media avenues open to you – blogs, online newspapers, TV, radio, etc – why have you chosen to write a book? aren’t they obsolete?

I have chosen to write a book because it is the ideal medium for history. I don’t believe books are, or will ever be, obsolete. Their mode of delivery will simply change; but the ‘book’ will always be with us. Once an era passes, what do we have left to remember it by? Without ‘books’ – printed or electronic – the world will enter a new dark age.

6. Please tell us about your latest book, Hiroshima Nagasaki

This is a controversial history of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The book shows that the atomic bombs were part of a campaign of civilian destruction that ‘normalised’ their use – and had a strictly limited ‘military role’: they did not fall on ‘military targets’; they did not directly end the war; they did not ‘shock Japan into submission’; and they were not America’s ‘least abhorrent choice’. Japan surrendered chiefly as a result of the Russian invasion of Japanese-occupied territory and the crippling economic impact of the US Naval blockade.

(BBGuru: Publisher’s synopsis -

′Nobody is more disturbed,′ said President Truman, three days after the destruction of Nagasaki in 1945, ′over the use of the atomic bombs than I am, but I was greatly disturbed over the unwarranted attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor and their murder of our prisoners of war. The only language [the Japanese] seem to understand is the one we have been using to bombard them. When you have to deal with a beast you have to treat him as a beast. It is most regrettable but nevertheless true.′

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 100,000 instantly, mostly women, children and the elderly. Many hundreds of thousands more succumbed to their horrific injuries later, or slowly perished of radiation-related sickness. Yet the bombs were ′our least abhorrent choice′, American leaders claimed at the time – and still today most people believe they ended the Pacific War and saved millions of American and Japanese lives. Ham challenges this view, arguing that the bombings, when Japan was on its knees, were the culmination of a strategic Allied air war on enemy civilians that began in Germany and had till then exacted its most horrific death tolls in Dresden and Tokyo.

The war in Europe may have ended but it continued in the Pacific against a regime still looking to save face. Ham describes the political manoeuvring and the scientific race to build the new atomic weapon. He also gives powerful witness to its destruction through the eyes of eighty survivors, from 12-year-olds forced to work in war factories to wives and children who faced it alone, reminding us that these two cities were full of ordinary people who suddenly, out of a clear blue summer′s sky, felt the sun fall on their heads.)

Click here to order Hiroshima Nagasaki

7. If your work could change one thing in this world – what would it be?

Er…to accelerate the process of nuclear non-proliferation? Failing that (!), to remind people what actually happened in Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.

8. Whom do you most admire and why?

I most admire anyone who sincerely works to make the world a more civilised, democratic, beautiful and compassionate place.

9. Many people set themselves very ambitious goals. What are yours?

To write a few good books.

10. What advice do you give aspiring writers?

Sit down and write – and don’t stop.

Paul, thank you for playing.

6 Responses

  1. The only way we can understand what has happened (including what has just happened) is to examine what has happened leading to the event – down to the minutest of actions in the final lead up – and then to follow the consequences – linking them back to the pre-event moments. Simply living through an era – at the vagaries of censorship of political/military/media representations etc does NOT make us experts – except on the perceived mood. Up there with the making of secrets – the prime movers – hold those down here in disdain – fearful of our understanding and reaction! Ugh! The brilliance of historians of the ilk of Paul HAM is that we get the broad picture – of all sides – and a matching up of what is recorded – meetings, letters, conversations – and afterward diary entries – enabling us to shuffle all the “cards” into a coherent and chronological order of events – we can see those whose moral compasses wavered from the true north – whose actions can then be judged as less than worthy and indeed culpable! Paul HAM, John DOWER, Gavan DAWS – thank goodness for their scholarship!

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  2. 2. good answer.
    3. absolutely I have “a faith in the capacity of human reason and resourcefulness ultimately to triumph over the forces of darkness, superstition, dogma and oppression”

    But we also make life so difficult for ourselves by our thoughts. It is a fine line. Paul I wonder if you have read the letters between Gunter Anders and Claude Eatherly the Hiroshima pilot who gave the weather ‘all clear’ to drop the bomb.

    I was very affected by those letters as a 20 year old; particularly an idea there about how humanity has now created through science a greater capacity to destroy the world than we have the moral consciousness or feeling of remorse or sympathy to be able feel for the consequences of our actions..

    That’s a completely brutal paraphrase from a fabulous wee book. Simply put: one man dies we feel sadness; 2 men murdered a little more, 3 murders onwards and we are getting fairly numb and by 2202 killed…well that is pretty much the same as any number you could name from 5 dead bodies upwards more or less.

    It strikes me that there is an urgency to smother the ignorance in our modern society before our resourcefulness completely overtakes our human capacity to feel the wrongness inherent in many of our so-called advances. It is criminal how Claude Eatherly was locked away in an Asylum by the US and denied opportunities to apologise to the Japanese. I believe Mr Eathery had finally managed something to do with the establishment of a memorial there… ?

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  3. Good God people….you weren’t even alive when this happened….you are second gessing history. Remember Pearl Harbor is my life’s motto regarding this event on Hiroshima. I was alive and living the life in those war years. Make the Battan March then comment. I find people
    who don’t experience events like always second guess those who did and had to deal with them….Same with Auchwitz…..it happened folks. Learn from History and you won’t repeat it.

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  4. Wow, J. Bryan you couldn’t be more wrong, and I doubt you’ve read the book, which is an incredibly well researched and insightful look at something that still concerns the whole world. I can add that your conflation of different cultures at different times shows up your complete ignorance of the Japanese mindset at the end of the second world war, an ignorance that parallels that of the warmongers who dropped the bombs.

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  5. This has nothing to do with the monumental events of 1945, but I knew Paul Ham as a child (his mother, Shirley, was bridesmaid at my parents’ wedding), and although 4 or 5 years older than myself, he was always a thoughtful, considerate guy whom my parents both loved dearly (and I believe at times wanted to trade for me!). It would seem the years haven’t changed him much.

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  6. I am not convinced that Paul Ham was right about the impact of the bomb. The question was very complicated at the time. A lot of people in England and the USA thought Churchill was a war criminal for the bombing of Dresden and other German cities. Truman knew the same blame would fall on him, in spades, from some quarters and so he misrepresented it. He could have tried a demonstration bomb first, out in the Pacific. But there is an argument that civilian populations can always overthrow a governement that they won’t tolerate – history is full of examples – and that consequently the German and Japanese people carry ultimate responsibility for leaving governments in place that conducted the war. Ditto the Greek people today who voted in the series of governments that sent them broke, yet now they think the rest of the world owes them a living. Ditto the Arabs who are only just starting to wake up that they can rid themselves of corrupt dictators if they’re willing to risk enough for their own future.

    The Japanese couldn’t bear to look at people after the war who had been deformed by the A-bombs, but they didn’t turn in the same way against people with other war wounds. I think that is because (a) they were ashamed of the surrender that directly resulted from Hiroshima & Nagasaki, (b) they knew they had brought this on themselves and (c) they knew it was humiliatingly preferable to the alternative of being invaded by the Russians in revenge for the war of 1905 that was the start of aggressive Japanese nationalism on the world stage in the first place.

    The whole world was watching these events, and some may say that we didn’t need to wait for a smart academic on the make 65 years later to tell us what really happened.

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