Book review: The Bomb by Howard Zinn

Although the world lost one of its greatest radical historians when Howard Zinn died earlier this year, there is some consolation in the fact he lived a long, full and often extraordinary life. From growing up during The Great Depression, to fighting in the Second World War, leading African-American students in their fight for civil rights and protesting against the Vietnam War, Zinn participated in many of the key moments of modern American history.

The Bomb, published to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Japan in 1945, collects two of Zinn’s previously published short essays on war and resistance to war.
In the introduction, written just a month before his death, Zinn notes how happy he was when he read the newspaper headline ‘Atom Bomb Dropped on Hiroshima’. The deployment of ‘Little Boy’ meant the end of the war and the cancellation of his call-up to the Pacific. It was only when he read John Hersey’s influential book Hiroshima that he realised the enormous death and destruction the US had visited on the Japanese.
Quoting numerous sources and studies, the first essay makes a strong case against the dropping of the atomic bombs, highlighting how subsequently leaked documents show the US knew the Japanese were close to surrendering in August 1945. Citing the historian Barton Bernstein Zinn notes that the oft-repeated figure of one million US deaths from a possible invasion of Japan was simply “pulled out of the air.” More interestingly the essay contains that rare thing – a cogent critique of ‘The Good War’ (something he explores in more detail in his 1990 book Passionate Declarations). How could the Allies claim to be fighting for democracy and against racism, when they themselves had huge empires and the US army was wholly segregated, he asks?
The second part of the book concerns the US bombing raid on the small town of Royan in France just before V-E Day, a mission Zinn participated in as an unquestioning bombardier. It was, he relates, one of the first instances of Napalm being used – with 1300 planes supposedly targeting the local German garrison, but in actual fact killing hundreds of French civilians. Haunted by his involvement in this slaughter, Zinn returned to Royan in 1966 to uncover the facts of the raid, and it is his research in the local library that forms the backbone of the essay.
So why was an inconsequential town on the Atlantic coast destroyed when it had no impact on the outcome of the war? Zinn argues the most important cause was “the most powerful motive of all: the habit of obedience, the universal teaching of all cultures, not to get out of line”.
Broadening out the lessons of the raid, he argues “the mass production of massive evil requires an enormously complicated division of labor. No one is positively responsible for the horror that ensues. But every one is negatively responsible, because anyone can throw a wrench into the machinery.”
Throughout his academic career, his popular writings and work as an activist Zinn consistently, and often successfully, threw a wrench in the works of the US war machine. He may be gone, but through his powerful and passionate body of work – of which The Bomb is an excellent introduction – thousands of others will be educated and inspired to work for a more humane and peaceful world.



The Bomb by Howard Zinn is published by City Lights Publishers:

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