TCS Daily


Hirohito's Nukes

By Patrick Cox - March 31, 2003 12:00 AM

Last August, just days before the annual ceremonies to commemorate victims of the two atomic bombs dropped on Japan (and reproach America for dropping them), the widow of a University of Arkansas professor returned papers that had been covertly entrusted to her husband at the end of World War II by Japanese scientists engaged in the race to build nuclear weapons.

A few years after Japan's surrender, Kazuo Kuroda emigrated to the United States, where the brilliant physicist forged a distinguished academic and research career. For more than half a century, however, "Paul" Kuroda kept secret the existence of a 23-page document containing key details of Japanese wartime nuclear weapons research and manufacturing techniques.

The papers, discovered by his wife upon his death, are now in the hands of the Institute of Physical and Chemical Research (RIKEN) near Tokyo, where they came from originally. They exist only because the institute's leadership disobeyed direct orders to destroy all evidence of the country's bomb development program after it became evident that the allies would win the war in 1945.

Though the return of these historic materials generated almost no mass media coverage in the English-speaking world and even less in Japan, it ended at least some of the resistance to accepting the existence of a Japanese nuclear weapons program. In doing so it affected philosophical questions regarding the morality of America's use of the bomb as well as current efforts to limit nuclear proliferation.

The document also shines a new and ominous light on another of the war's most historically controversial and enigmatic events. In 1997, materials were declassified revealing that, in the final days of the Third Reich, Hitler sent the prize of his navy, Submarine U-234, from the port of Kiel to Japan on a route around the horn of Africa. In its cargo bays were detailed plans and prototypes of proximity fuses, anti-aircraft shells, jet planes and chemical rockets - far more advanced than any developed by the Allies.

Most significant, however, were 10 wooden containers filled with 1,200 pounds of high-grade uranium oxide, accompanied by German and Japanese technicians. Despite Hitler's suicide and Germany's surrender while it was en route, the U-234's maiden and only voyage was one of the only missions not recalled by the Nazi leadership at war's end.

With the aid of the breakthrough schnorchel breathing tube, which allowed the craft to travel without surfacing for far longer than any earlier U-boat, the sub continued on what might have been the last and most lethal act of the war. If it had made it to Japan, military scientists would have received the uranium three months before the U.S. ended the war, and might have been able to use the materials to build and use a Japanese A-bomb.

Hitler's strike at America from the grave was parried, however, by its detection by the USS Sutton, a destroyer stationed in Newfoundland. Some historians believe it was a chance discovery while others posit a clandestine deal made with some high-ranking Nazi or Nazis.

Regardless, the Sutton's captain forced U-234 into U.S. waters and, ultimately, the Portsmouth, N.H., naval base where the crew surrendered. The two Japanese officers on board committed suicide and were buried at sea before arriving.

What happened next is still murky, as U.S. records about the impact and final destination of the uranium may never have existed. Similarly, researchers interviewing Japanese survivors have yet to publish evidence that would define the state of their bomb program at the end of the war.

Some historians reject the possibility that Japan could have produced a bomb, though cyclotrons were later found and dumped in Tokyo Harbor by U.S. Army troops. Others, including Robert Wilcox, author of "Japan's Secret War: Japan's Race Against Time to Build Its Own Atomic Bomb" (1995), believe a prototype nuclear weapon was actually built and tested. The middle ground is that the Japanese program was just months behind America's - and was stopped only by allied bombing of research facilities and a shortage of fissionable materials.

What is very clear, however, is that the reality of U-234's uranium and its obvious purpose must have raised in the minds of American leaders the stark possibility that Japan might beat America to the atomic punch.

Before the emergence of the Kuroda documents, critics of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings preferred to believe that the high-grade uranium was destined only for non-weapons industrial processes or, at the worst, conventional "dirty bombs." The discovery of those papers diminishes the credibility of that reasoning and recasts the U.S. decision to accelerate development and use of nuclear weapons.

There is much about this period of history that remains unknown and perhaps unknowable, but one of the most interesting speculations is that, due to dire U.S. shortages of usable uranium, U-234's payload made the second "Nagasaki" bomb possible. Many historians believe it was that weapon that led to Emperor Hirohito's decision to stop the war and, probably, saved millions of lives.

Not only should the reappearance of Kazuo Kuroda's hidden documents change the moral calculations regarding America's use of atomic weapons a generation ago, it may also provoke serious reconsideration of contemporary threats. It should also make the point that, as the facts about Japan's weapons of mass destruction program are only coming to light after 57 years, it is naive to believe we will know everything about Saddam Hussein's any time soon.
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1 Comment

Japan's recent nuclear problems are of such a different type, but still leave me just the same chills as this story. Hopefully we can better reign in war and control energy generation.

Big Mike
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