Review: Atomic Salvation by The Honourable Austin Asche, Queen’s Counsel, Companion of the Order of Australia (generally expressed QC, AC)

August 04, 2020


This book is a reminder of something we may not wish to be reminded of. But facts are inexorable, and no history of the Second World War could possibly be complete without reference to the final act.

The dropping of the Atom Bomb on Hiroshima in 1945, and the resultant immediate or protracted deaths of vast numbers of men, women and children remains a horrifying incident in a horrifying conflict between nations. Invariably the agonised call arises, “Was there no alternative?”

Tragically, there was not. We would like to think otherwise. But this book makes it clear. Any delay, any alternative decision would have resulted in far greater loss, far greater agony, to both sides.   

The situation in 1945 was obvious and the end result was fairly certain. But to reach that end result there seemed a certainty of enormous losses all round.

The Japanese, after a series of victories and achievements which few could have predicted, were now on the defensive. The greater material strength of America and her allies was finally beginning to tell. But there was to be no surrender. The Japanese soldier was bound to a tradition, nurtured over hundreds of years, that, whatever the odds against them, they would die rather than give up. “Death with honour” rather than ignominious capitulation. This was already manifest in the various successes achieved by the Allies in attacks on enemy-held positions, – attacks which succeeded only after heavy losses to the victors, and the virtual annihilation of all defenders.

This philosophy of “resistance to the end” was as much imbued in the civilian population of Japan as it was with the military. The Allies faced the very real prospect that final conquest would be achieved only by house to house resistance, with resultant heavy losses on both sides. And for how many years?

This was the reality faced before the bomb. The book makes clear the enormous devastation awaiting friends and enemies alike.

This was the justification for the Bomb. Its potential for wholesale destruction obviously shocked at least some Japanese leaders into a re-assessment of the traditional values. There remained the diehards, and the balance of power remained uncertain until the intervention of the Emperor. Only then did the Japanese nation accept the humiliation and defeat it would otherwise never have contemplated. But the result was the saving of millions of lives on both sides.

There was one special urgency to the immediate end of hostilities. Large numbers of Allied troops had been taken prisoner in the early years of the War, many had already died under the harsh conditions imposed, and it was clear that all would have perished under those same conditions if the war had continued.

There are two difficulties besetting contemporary readers of these events. The first is the failure to comprehend the immense urgency of the situation as it appeared in 1945. The war was devastating, and daily causing immense losses in soldiers and civilians on both sides. The book shows clearly how those losses would have inevitably and inexorably continued. Only those there at the time would have understood the ruthless pressure of events. Modern readers of now far-off events must remind themselves they are not reading an exciting novel, but a real account of a real tragedy.

The second difficulty for the contemporary observer is that the past is a different country. Modern-day Japan is a nation of top international ranking, with stable government, increasing prosperity and an educated and alert citizenry, welcoming to visitors from other lands. It is hard to think back a century to a people dedicated to the conquest of other peoples and the ascendancy of “The Greater East-Asian Co-prosperity Sphere” which, in reality, meant only one nation. So it is not surprising that some, now reading for the first time of these events, might ask, “Could the nation we know of as peaceful and prosperous now, really have been the aggressive, ruthless, attackers of their neighbours and those further afield?”

The answer to that question is “Yes”, and this book will tell you why.

The Honourable Austin Asche, QC, AC is a former Administrator of the Northern Territory of Australia, and a Supreme Court Judge. He served in World War II in radar in northern Australia as a member of the Royal Australian Air Force.

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