Thursday, July 29, 2021

Jacob Darwin Hamblin's "The Wretched Atom"

Jacob Darwin Hamblin is an American historian who is a professor at Oregon State University. He writes and speaks about international dimensions of science, technology, and the environment, especially related to nuclear issues, ecology, oceans, and climate.

Hamblin’s books have drawn from archival research in several countries, primarily in North America and Europe. His main research languages are English and French. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, Science, and Salon, and his peer-reviewed essays have appeared in Diplomatic History, Isis, Environmental History, Technology & Culture, and many other academic journals. He is the recipient of the American Historical Association’s Birdsall Prize (for best book in military or strategic history) and the History of Science Society’s Davis Prize (for best book for a general audience).

Hamblin applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Wretched Atom: America's Global Gamble with Peaceful Nuclear Technology, and reported the following:
From page 99:
The idea of the Asian Nuclear Center was hatched by political operators, not scientists, and with little specificity. First, it was unclear what kind of work would occur at the center. Second, and more important, Hollister had not said where the center would be located—and it sparked an immediate competition for hosting it. One possibility was Pakistan, already negotiating with the Americans for a research reactor, and on the verge of creating its own Atomic Energy Commission. Another was Ceylon, whose capital Colombo already enjoyed a symbolic position as a center of Asian cooperation. Another was Japan, where Matsutarō Shōriki was doing his best to set the political stage for atomic energy. Like many others, Shōriki viewed hosting the center as a prize to be won. Of course another possibility was India, with its strong community of physicists and Homi Bhabha’s demonstrated leadership during the Geneva conference.

Despite the appearance of high-stakes competition, the United States already had decided where to locate the center. Tho choice was obvious only to Americans: the Philippines. It was a country relatively free of any troubling Bandung-like notions, it was amenable to promoting a positive cornucopian message, and it was easy to control. The country had become independent of the United States in 1946, with many strings attached—such as the retention of US military bases and guarantees of access to Philippine natural resources. The United States maintained close watch and control over the country, its most reliable foothold in Asia.
Does the page 99 test work for my book? The answer is… sort of! Browsers who open at this page will be treated to something they’ve probably never heard of (the Asian Nuclear Center) which in a book about nuclear topics is rare indeed. So that’s a win! The passage is about where to put the center, what it should do, and why it mattered in the 1950s. Is that what the book is about? No. But my book is definitely about the US’s promotion of atomic energy all over the world and especially in the so-called developing world, where issues of race and colonialism intermixed with the deployment of science and technology in unexpected ways. The Asian Nuclear Center was a great example of that! US government officials hoped the center would be a tangible “peaceful” use of atomic energy at a time when they were ramping up weapons tests, even though neither the diplomats nor the scientists involved had any idea what they wanted to do with it.

The passage doesn’t convey the book’s claims, but there are hints, as it mentions the importance of spinning atomic energy in a “cornucopian” way, as a pathway to peace and plenty. And despite the dizzying array of countries and characters mentioned in the quoted passage, it gives a sense of the narratives discussed elsewhere in the book about Japan, India, and Pakistan. I’m particularly excited to see what readers think about these parts of the book, and about topics that aren’t hinted at here, such as the links to petroleum, environmental issues, and wars in the Middle East. What I think makes the passage a good candidate for the page 99 test is its tone, pointing to atomic energy as propaganda, to the cynical use of reliable allies such as the Philippines, and to the interweaving of atomic energy issues with other critical matters of the time such as the “troubling Bandung-like notions” about race and colonialism.
Visit Jacob Darwin Hamblin's website.

--Marshal Zeringue