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Nuclear Minds: Cold War Psychological Science and the Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

by Ran Zwigenberg

University of Chicago Press, 2023


Cloth: 978-0-226-82591-5

Paper: 978-0-226-82676-9

eISBN: 978-0-226-82675-2

About the Book
How researchers understood the atomic bomb’s effects on the human psyche before the recognition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
In 1945, researchers on a mission to Hiroshima with the United States Strategic Bombing Survey canvassed survivors of the nuclear attack. This marked the beginning of global efforts—by psychiatrists, psychologists, and other social scientists—to tackle the complex ways in which human minds were affected by the advent of the nuclear age. A trans-Pacific research network emerged that produced massive amounts of data about the dropping of the bomb and subsequent nuclear tests in and around the Pacific rim.
Ran Zwigenberg traces these efforts and the ways they were interpreted differently across communities of researchers and victims. He explores how the bomb’s psychological impact on survivors was understood before we had the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder. In fact, psychological and psychiatric research on Hiroshima and Nagasaki rarely referred to trauma or similar categories. Instead, institutional and political constraints—most notably the psychological sciences’ entanglement with Cold War science—led researchers to concentrate on short-term damage and somatic reactions or even, in some cases, on denial of victims’ suffering. As a result, very few doctors tried to ameliorate suffering.
But, Zwigenberg argues, it was not only that doctors “failed” to issue the right diagnosis; the victims’ experiences also did not necessarily conform to our contemporary expectations. As he shows, the category of trauma should not be used uncritically in a non-Western context. Consequently, this book sets out, first, to understand the historical, cultural, and scientific constraints in which researchers and victims were acting and, second, to explore how suffering was understood in different cultural contexts before PTSD was a category of analysis.
About the Author
Ran Zwigenberg is associate professor of Asian studies, history, and Jewish studies at Pennsylvania State University. He is the author of Hiroshima: The Origins of Global Memory Culture.
“After Hiroshima in 1945, the psychological effect of the bomb was, astonishingly, explained away as if caused by anything but the bomb. Science’s obsession with objectivity and universality, compounded by the Cold War realignment of geopolitical powers, made individual suffering of hibakusha utterly invisible. In a clear and compelling analysis, and with appealingly open prose, Zwigenberg strikingly juxtaposes and makes tangible a global web of psychological knowledge, science politics, and survivor activism before the advent of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
— Naoko Wake, Michigan State University

“A profound and illuminating journey into the psychological subjectivism experienced by the hibakusha under the Cold War psychiatric gaze. Zwigenberg shows how analyses of surviving nuclear attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki were embedded into existing psychological frameworks of militarized emotional harm and yet disrupted them. We see the hibakusha abandoned as suffering individuals even as their wounds were being collectively codified to prepare the world for a dystopic future.”
— Robert A. Jacobs, Hiroshima Peace Institute and Hiroshima City University

“This book presents an insightful and persuasive analysis of Japanese psychiatry and the troubled experiences of atom bomb survivors. . . . Zwigenberg provides important evidence to understand why so many people, who had endured unimaginable suffering, were neglected in the post-war period.”
— The Psychologist

“Within the vast scholarship on the atomic bombs the book stands out for its highly original depiction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as ‘ground zero’ for the articulation of the concept of trauma, which is applied so widely today. Historians of Japan, medicine and science and technology studies are likely to find it an enlightening and even moving read.”
— British Journal for the History of Science

Nuclear Minds is a penetrating investigation into how the postwar Japanese psychological and psychiatric establishment encountered the psychic effects of nuclear trauma, exposing a long journey toward an understanding of how political trauma and war deeply effect individuals within their collective society—here, Zwigenberg offers a necessary reflection and examination extremely resonant with current events today.”
— History: Reviews of New Books

"An in-depth history, analysis, and critique of US and Japanese scientific responses to the survivors of the nuclear bombings in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. . . . Highly recommended."
— Choice

“By interpreting and making accessible testimonies of A-bomb survivors, the book contributes to a better understanding of what mass destruction does to the human mind.”
— Contemporary Japan

Nuclear warfare, Hiroshima-shi, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Atomic bomb victims, Bombings, Psychological aspects, Japan, Military, Psychology, Cultural & Ethnic Studies, Social Science, History
Open Access Information

License: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0