- After Hiroshima: The United States, Race and Nuclear Weapons in Asia, 1945–1965
The great strength of this empirically rich study lies in the important connections it traces between two topics that scholars typically treat in isolation: race and nuclear strategy. Matthew Jones reveals here in painstaking detail that U.S. policy toward Asia during the first two decades of the Cold War was plagued by heightened Asian suspicions about the racial biases of Americans and especially about a presumed American disregard for the value of Asian lives. The growing reliance of the U.S. military on nuclear weapons to maintain predominance in the Asia-Pacific region compounded the problem, feeding those suspicions and thereby creating an insuperable policy dilemma for Washington. In the aftermath of the Korean War, U.S. policymakers had concluded that only a willingness to employ nuclear weapons could ensure the containment of China. Yet to the extent that the United States based its defense plans on the use of weapons that would inevitably kill millions of Asian civilians, it risked further estrangement from the very peoples whose hearts and minds it was seeking to win.
The memories of Hiroshima and Nagasaki remained visceral across Asia, Jones contends, along with the conviction—unfair though it might have been—that the United States would not have used nuclear bombs against Nazi Germany. President Harry S. Truman’s casual reference in a 1950 press conference to the possible use of nuclear bombs in Korea triggered a highly negative reaction across the region. His remarks reinforced the suspicions of many Asians that nuclear weapons were reserved for use against non-whites. The powerful nuclear test in the Pacific in March 1954, code-named Bravo, played into the popular narrative of U.S. callousness and racism. The fact that a boatload of unfortunate Japanese fishermen became infected with radiation sickness as a result of the test exacerbated the problem. “For Western policy-makers concerned over winning the favour and allegiance of an attentive Asian public,” Jones notes, “Bravo was a public relations disaster, heightening the impression that nuclear weapons and the deadly fallout they generated were reserved for areas inhabited by non-white peoples” (p. 235).
The fusion, in popular Asian opinion, of U.S. racism with an aggressive U.S. nuclear stance in the Far East became especially pronounced during the presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower. The former general’s “New Look” defense posture required the blurring of distinctions between nuclear and conventional weapons; it also featured regular public declarations about the administration’s readiness to break the nuclear taboo in order to prevent or turn back Communist aggression. That approach, [End Page 123] however, turned out to be politically counterproductive because it aroused deep-seated resentment in Japan, India, and other countries. Jones expertly details the bureaucratic battles that had erupted within the administration by the late 1950s, pitting a State Department worried about the negative political ramifications of the U.S. military’s first-use strategy against a Pentagon committed to nuclear weapons as the most cost-effective means for checking potential Chinese aggression. With the advent of John F. Kennedy’s administration, Jones makes clear, the massive retaliation strategy largely gave way to flexible response and a deliberate widening of U.S. conventional military options, marking a victory for the State Department’s viewpoint. Unlike most previous historians, Jones sees the racial conundrum facing U.S. decision-makers as a key causal factor in the transition to a new military strategy.
After Hiroshima focuses principally on the years bracketed by the Korean War and the escalation of U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The book sheds a surprising amount of fresh light on numerous topics covered in earlier scholarly accounts, including the ending of the Korean War, allied clashes over nuclear strategy, the impact of Bravo, the emergence of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization, the Bandung Conference, the two crises in the Taiwan Strait, and Western reactions to the successful Chinese nuclear test of October 1964. The...