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Nuclear Minds

Cold War Psychological Science and the Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki


Nuclear Minds

Cold War Psychological Science and the Bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki


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.

304 pages | 10 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2023

Asian Studies: East Asia

History: Asian History, History of Technology

History of Science



“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

Table of Contents

Note on Language 

Part 1. Bombing Minds
Chapter 1. American Psychological Sciences and the Road to Hiroshima and Nagasaki 
Chapter 2. Bombing “the Japanese Mind”: Alexander Leighton’s Hiroshima
Chapter 3. Healing a Sick World: The Nuclear Age on the Analyst’s Couch 
Chapter 4. Nuclear Trauma and Panic in the United States

Part 2. Researching Minds, Healing Minds
Chapter 5. Y. Scott Matsumoto, the ABCC, and A-Bomb Social Work
Chapter 6. Konuma Masuho and the Psychiatry of the Bomb 
Chapter 7. Kubo Yoshitoshi and the Psychology of Peace
Chapter 8. Social Workers, Nuclear Sociology, and the Road to PTSD


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