Walter Grunden
Walter Grunden

BGSU Historian’s Book Answers Why Japan Lagged in World War II Weaponry

In his 1985 book, Japan’s Secret War, Robert Wilcox contends that Japan successfully tested a nuclear device on Aug. 12, 1945—six days after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and three days after the attack on Nagasaki.

Wilcox makes his case in a History Channel documentary—scheduled to premiere at 8 p.m. Aug. 16—in which Dr. Walter Grunden, history, takes the opposing view.

Grunden argues “there’s just not enough evidence to say they succeeded” in developing a nuclear weapon, and in a new book, he outlines reasons why Japan was unable to produce any potentially decisive weapons during the war.

In the book, Secret Weapons and World War II: Japan in the Shadow of Big Science, Grunden explains that “Big Science”—a term coined after the war—requires the intersection of several elements.

Sufficient numbers of scientists, engineers and technicians who can do research and development are needed. So is scientific apparatus—a nuclear particle accelerator, for instance—for experiments.
Production of planned weapons then requires abundant natural resources and industrial capacity, in the form of factories, machines and tools. And extensive capital is needed to fund it all.

Although not to the extent of the United States, Germany and the Soviet Union, World War II-era Japan had some of the necessary components. “They were a player,” says Grunden, who joined the BGSU history department in 1999.

But a failure of policy is largely to blame, he maintains, for the Asian empire’s inability to develop what are now called weapons of mass destruction.

Coordinating the components among the state, military and large corporations requires a central administrative organization, which was in place elsewhere, Grunden points out. Germany had its Reich Research Council, for example, and the U.S.’s Manhattan Project—which produced the atomic bomb—was an affiliate of the central Office of Scientific Research and Development.

Japan’s comparable entity was called the Technology Agency, but unlike the American OSRD, which directed all branches of the military, the Japanese agency was essentially an office of the army, which had been heavily involved in its formation, Grunden says.

It had been designed to have authority but due to infighting for resources, “the Technology Agency in Japan never rose to that level,” according to the author. Because the agency couldn’t implement policy across the board, the Japanese army and navy didn’t work together, even having separate programs for radar development, nuclear research and advanced aeronautical weapons, he adds.

It may be too simple to say this is why Japan was ultimately defeated, but “all of the factors that go into why they couldn’t produce WMDs are the same explanation for why they lost the war,” says Grunden, who holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of California-Santa Barbara.

By the war’s end, even advanced technology such as better radar or jet interceptors wouldn’t have turned the tide in Japan’s favor, “because all of that would have been used for defensive systems by ’45,” he says. “Only a nuclear weapon would have made any difference.”

And Grunden’s research indicates that probably wasn’t a possibility. In the National Archives and Tokyo’s National Defense Library, he has seen a number of original documents, including U.S. military intelligence on Japanese nuclear research, he says. He has also met three Japanese scientists who were involved with that research. And while he thinks Japan may have tested something on Aug. 12, 1945, he doesn’t believe it was nuclear.

Grunden says a possible explanation for Wilcox’s belief otherwise is that his source, a counterintelligence agent, may have been trying to throw him off the trail of a biological weapons production facility. In that area, Japanese development was more successful, although it’s not believed they used biological weapons against the Allies. “Where there was fear of retaliation, they didn’t use them,” he notes.

Nonetheless, the Japanese example can be a lesson, and concern, in today’s global climate, Grunden says. “The (weapons) program with the highest priority for a developing nation would be biological weapons,” he contends, saying they’re the easiest and cheapest to produce, as well as hide. “Japan serves as that model.”

Although their work didn’t help prevent defeat in World War II, Japanese scientists did lay the foundation for their country’s post-war emergence as an economic power, adds Grunden.

“There are people in Japan who will tell you it was a useful war,” he says, arguing that “the Japanese were able to make a rapid economic and industrial recovery after the war because they had laid the groundwork for the evolutionary transition to ‘Big Science’ during the war.”

Published by University Press of Kansas, Secret Weapons and World War II is available at the University Bookstore and BGSU on Main.
July 18, 2005