Foreign Ministry officials in 1958 debated the option of acquiring “defensive” nuclear weapons to guard against the Soviet Union amid increasing Cold War tensions and reported their interest to Washington, newly declassified U.S. documents showed Saturday.
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Douglas MacArthur II told a meeting on Sept. 9 that year with state and defense department officials in Washington that then-Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi “believed it was essential that Japan have (a) nuclear” arsenal, according to a declassified memorandum, indicating the prime minister clearly conveyed his intentions to the ambassador.
It was widely known that Kishi had said the Constitution “did not prohibit Japan from having any kind of weapons,” but the unearthed documents show that Japan actually debated the option of possessing nuclear arms.
MacArthur welcomed Japan’s interest in exploring the nuclear option, remarking that Tokyo’s recognition of “the desirability of defensive nuclear weapons is extremely interesting and encouraging.”
In a telegram dated June 20, 1958, MacArthur informed U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that Vice Foreign Minister Hisanari Yamada had told him earlier that day that Foreign Ministry officials had discussed whether Tokyo should examine and reach a decision on acquiring defensive nuclear weapons.
Yamada told MacArthur there was a growing belief among ministry officials dealing with security matters that it did “not make too much sense for Japan not to have modern defensive weapons — including nuclear weapons — when potential aggressors were armed with (such) weapons.”
Specifically, the ministry officials are believed to have discussed the deployment of nuclear warheads fitted to a surface-to-air missile system to deter the Soviet air force from intruding into Japan’s airspace. The question in the mind of the officials was “whether the Japanese government should not face up to facts of life and study and reach a considered decision regarding defensive nuclear weapons,” MacArthur quoted Yamada as saying.
Then-U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower was relatively tolerant toward the possession of nuclear weapons by Washington’s allies, and there were no international laws banning such arms at the time.
But MacArthur also said in the telegram that Yamada told him that, in view of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, nuclear weapons “raised obvious and serious emotional and psychological problems in terms of Japanese public opinion, and perhaps opinion had not evolved to point where there could be any change in present Japanese policy.”
The ambassador commented that he doubted Kishi or then-Foreign Minister Aiichiro Fujiyama “will feel at this time that they are in position, in light of present Japanese public opinion, to make any substantial changes in Japan’s present policy regarding nuclear weapons.”
The documents were unearthed at the U.S. National Archives in Washington by Takashi Shinobu, a professor of international politics at Tokyo’s Nihon University.