Nuclear Legacies: Transnational Memory and Politics in the Long Cold War

AHA Session 90
Saturday, January 4, 2020: 10:30 AM-12:00 PM
Chelsea (Sheraton New York, Lower Level)
Peter Galison, Harvard University
Peter Galison, Harvard University

Session Abstract

As we approach the 75th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scholarship on nuclear power, weaponry, and casualty has taken a decidedly transnational turn. Unlike earlier studies that revolved around questions about the legitimacy and culpability of the bomb’s use, often with a specific focus on US-Japan relations during the war, recent work has shown a strikingly global expansion of nuclear effects throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Featuring four scholars of memory, politics, and history of nuclear issues across national boundaries in the long Cold War, this panel illuminates transnational legacies of the nuclear age that only recently are beginning to come to light. In so doing, the panelists also highlight the inadequacy of the definition—and the calculation—of radiation effects, which are shaped by postcolonial alliance-buildings and new international orders.

Ran Zwigenberg sets the stage for this transnational inquiry by redefining “survivors” as a broad category arising out of two instances of mass-killings during World War II—Hiroshima and the Holocaust—which, nonetheless, has found a global use beyond these specific cases. Seeing the root of their convergence in the concept of “trauma” in the 1960s and 1970s, as conceived during the Vietnam War, Zwigenberg argues that the rise of global memory culture surrounding nuclear issues was deeply and mutually entangled with the history of psychological illness. The history of Korean survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as Michael Jin reveals, is perhaps one of the most notable cases of nuclear casualty that this global memory culture helped to bring to light. In the 1970s and 1980s, their previously hidden voices became audible enough to drive an international reparation movement. And yet, the fact also remains that Korean survivors as survivors of state atrocity continue to be obscured by the hegemonic view of the American bomb as the liberator of Korea.

Naoko Wake further problematizes the lack of recognition for Korean survivors by exploring conflicted definitions of radiation illness devised by both the Japanese and American governments. In addition to Koreans, any non-Japanese survivors, including American survivors, suffered historical exclusion. She suggests how Cold War politics have divided survivors based on their nationality, race, and ethnicity, regardless of the fact that they were all affected by radiation. This historical dynamism also played out in the aftermath of Chernobyl disaster in 1989, as Kate Brown argues. Despite Soviet officials’ declaration of a public health disaster, both national and international scientific communities responded with skepticism. In the face of US-led study that downplayed the health effects of radiation, the emergency call by the collapsing USSR carried little weight. Yet again, nuclear disasters and their casualties are disproportionately defined by geopolitics.

As we expand our historical inquiry transnationally, the tenaciousness of state and regional interests reemerges. By delineating this tension, the panel hopes to offer a map for the scholarship to come in the last quarter of the century after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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