POST: Manhattan Project Implications on Japanese Politics

September 2, 2009

Last night I watched a very interesting documentary on the eagerness of one nation’s race to achieve a nuclear program, for the sole and (later) express purpose of delivering a viable nuclear weapon.

But this nation was not Iran or North Korea, or the former Soviet Union or India. It was the United States.

I realized, as I sifted through Netflix‘s “instant play” documentaries (the new not-so-guilty pleasure of my nights spent at home) that my knowledge and background concerning the experimentation and invention behind the first viable nuclear program – our own – was embarrassingly low.

The 50-minute program, from the History Channel’s Modern Marvels series, was surprisingly enlightening for such a short program. Beginning from the Nazi German scientists who first discovered uranium fission, continuing onto the newly arrived European scientists to America who assisted in the experimentation project, and even delving into the technical side of how fission occurs and why both plutonium and uranium were used and how, the documentary was extremely thorough. It also brought to light the immediate implications for the Project – socially, politically, and militarily.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Professor. H. D. Smythe, General Nichols, and Glen Seaborg look at a snapshot of the atomic blast on Hiroshima in 1946. Oppenheimer was later stripped of his security clearance due to apparent "Communist sympathies."

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Professor. H. D. Smythe, General Nichols, and Glen Seaborg look at a snapshot of the atomic blast on Hiroshima in 1946. Oppenheimer was later stripped of his security clearance due to apparent "Communist sympathies."

The documentary spoke of the Project’s controversial legacy – as mankind’s self-created means to self-destruction, some saw it as the harbinger of nuclear winter and an embarrassment to the gentler side of the human spirit. Over 100 Manhattan Project scientists even signed a petition to require testing Little Boy before he was dropped on Hiroshima, an impossible demand considering they only had enough U-235 for one bomb. The documentary failed to mention that even after the bombs were dropped, another petition was issued that stated “We [the scientists of Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago] feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified.” But, there are those who ardently support the opposite. Edward Teller, a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist and one of the Manhattan Project scientists who also helped engineer the Hydrogen Bomb, stated that he feels no regret over his part in the creation of the bombs. Citing America’s continued pursuit of peace and equality, he sees no other country better suited for the acquisition of such a responsibility.

But the implication of the Project and the two powerful destructive events it precipitated, unnamed in the documentary, and extremely salient after this weekend’s Japanese elections, is the continuing pacifist nature of Japanese political and ‘military’ affairs. Even though it was “no Obama moment,” this weekend’s landslide victory of the Democratic Party of Japan to Japan’s Lower House is important. Contrary to the increasingly militaristic (by their standards) half-a-century reign of the LDP in Japanese politics, the DPJ wants to back peddle on their military commitments in the region, especially those tied to the U.S. war machine. Some think this could complicate U.S. East Asian policy. But today, the DPJ President and PM-designate Yukio Hatoyama made clear that he does not wish to alienate the U.S., but wishes to create a more Asia-focused Japan policy that shies away from further ties to U.S. military commitments (see Futenma and Afghanistan refueling agreements).

The DPJ’s wish to renegotiate these agreements, however unlikely to happen, underscores the continued importance of the Manhattan Project and the nuclear arms race’s influences on Japanese society and politics. However much trouble it will or will not cause among the Japan and U.S. in coming months is unimportant compared to the DPJ sticking to its pacifist convictions and upholding a non-agressive stance that, I believe, will become the ideal for humanist, dignified states in the future.

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