The Bomb had its critics long before it became a reality. During the early years of the twentieth century, scientists warned that radioactive materials, if effectively harnessed, could create enormously powerful explosives. Picking up this theme, H. G. Wells, one of the most popular and influential writers of the era, produced a novel in 1914, The World Set Free, featuring a war with "atomic bombs." This war was so devastating that, to avert the world's destruction in a future conflict, its survivors formed a world government which, thereafter, ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and economic progress. Concerned that innovations in science and technology were fast outstripping advances in political institutions, Wells repeatedly argued that an "open conspiracy" of farsighted, rational people must move beyond the war-making state to build a genuine world community.
This notion of a society of the righteous, committed to saving the world from its own folly, had deep roots in world history. It can be traced back at least to the fourth century, to the Babylonian Talmudic teacher Abbayah. According to this Jewish savant, in each generation there existed at least thirty-six righteous people (lamed-vav tzaddikim, in Hebrew) upon whom the survival of the world depended. Jewish fiction and folklore took up the idea of these hidden saints, who played a prominent role in kabbalistic folk legend of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and in Hassidic lore after the eighteenth century.
In 1898, with the birth of Leo Szilard, the legend began to acquire a basis in reality. Raised in a Hungarian Jewish family of comfortable circumstances, Szilard was a sensitive, creative, and precocious child. After World War I, he studied in Berlin, where he took his Ph.D. in physics with Albert Einstein. As he watched the rise of fascism in Germany, Szilard hatched an abortive plan to create a small group of wise, unselfish men and women to preserve civilization from the disaster that loomed. Years later, he attributed what he called his "pre dilection for 'Saving the World'" to the stories told to him by his mother. But the idea may also have been derived from Szilard's reading of novels by H. G. Wells, an author whom he greatly admired. Curiously, Szilard did not read The World Set Free until 1932. But thereafter, he noted, "I found it difficult to forget."
Szilard had good reason to remember the book. Having fled from Nazi Germany, he was living in London in 1933 and conducting experiments in nuclear physics. One day that September, when waiting to cross the street, he suddenly conceived the process that could create a nuclear chain reaction and, thus, lead to the construction of atomic bombs. Recognizing what this would mean, Szilard sought to keep the process secret by patenting it and, also, pulling prominent physicists into a conspiracy of silence on the subject. But these efforts had little effect, for Szilard was a relatively unknown, junior scientist and, also, publication of research findings was the norm in his profession. Symptomatically, in late 1938, two German chemists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, published the results of their successful experiment with nuclear fission. Receiving news of this experiment in early 1939 in his new home, the United States, Szilard grew alarmed. "All the things which H. G. Wells predicted appeared suddenly real to me," he recalled. Working with an associate at Columbia University, he conducted his own experiments on nuclear fission, from which it became clear that "the large-scale liberation of atomic energy was just around the corner.... There was very little doubt in my mind that the world was headed for grief."
Once again, Szilard sought to generate a conspiracy of silence. And this time, given fears of a German breakthrough in this area, Szilard-joined in these efforts by physicists Eugene Wigner and Victor Weisskopf-had greater success. In Britain, the United States, and Denmark, top nuclear scientists agreed to keep their research findings secret. Miraculously, it seemed that they might avert a scramble for nuclear weapons. But a leading French research team balked. Like many scientists, members of the French team considered it unlikely that an atomic bomb would be built for many years, if ever. Furthermore, they detested secrecy in science. As a result, they published their findings in April 1939, thereby precipitating small-scale atomic bomb programs in Germany, Britain, and the Soviet Union.
Much the same thing happened in the United States. In July 1939, Szilard and two of his Hungarian friends met with Einstein, then himself a refugee and vacationing on Long Island. Recognizing Einstein's immense prestige, they hoped to draw upon it to reach President Franklin D. Roosevelt with a warning about the prospect of a German atomic bomb. Einstein agreed, and dispatched a letter, drafted by Szilard, that did catch the attention of the President. With the beginning of World War II , it led to the organization of the Manhattan Project, a vast nuclear weapons development program directed by the U.S., British, and Canadian governments. Szilard, like many other scientists, worked on the project, convinced that they had to produce the atomic bomb-if it could be produced-before the German government did.
A Conflict Emerges
But, even at the start of the Manhattan Project, there was a built-in conflict between the approach of scientists and that of top government officials. Some scientists, like the German refugee Max Born, were horrified by the prospect of an atomic bomb, and refused to work on it at all. Many other scientists, like Szilard, viewed it as no more than a deterrent to a German atomic attack. By contrast, government officials like President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill were committed to using nuclear weapons-if Available-during the war and to retaining them in the postwar years as instruments of national military power.
As the war progressed, this tension between scientists and statesmen grew more acute. In September 1942, Szilard sent a memo to his associates in the Manhattan Project's Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) that revived his earlier idea for a society of the righteous, a group of intelligent individuals "who can, by repeated discussions, make clear ... what the existence of atomic bombs will mean from the point of view of the post-war period." In the following years, he expressed ever-greater concern about the fate of humanity in a nuclear-armed world. Meanwhile, the great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, also began to sound the alarm. Escaping from his German-occupied homeland, Bohr warned British and American statesmen of the unprecedented dangers of a postwar nuclear arms race and urged them to head it off through a U.S.-British-Soviet agreement for postwar nuclear arms control. Churchill, particularly, was furious at Bohr. "I cannot see what you are worrying about," he told the Danish scientist. "This new bomb is just going to be bigger than our present bombs. It involves no difference in the principles of war." Roosevelt, although superficially friendlier to Bohr, secretly lined up with Churchill. Meeting at Hyde Park in September 1944, the British and American leaders agreed to maintain an Anglo-American nuclear monopoly after the war, to reject Bohr's nuclear arms control proposals, to "perhaps" use the atomic bomb against the Japanese, and to place Bohr under investigation.
But new thinking was under way elsewhere, particularly at the Met Lab, where a committee headed by Zay Jeffries solicited the views of scientists on the future of atomic energy. In November 1944, the Jeffries committee produced a report that was submitted to higher authorities. Key sections on atomic energy's social and political implications were written by Eugene Rabinowitch, a biophysicist who had left Russia after the Bolshevik revolution. "No lasting security against a national and international catastrophe can be achieved" through attempts to maintain U.S. atomic supremacy, Rabinowitch warned. "Peace based on uncontrolled ... development" of atomic weapons "will only be an armistice" that will lead, eventually, to disaster. The conclusion was clear: there was an imperative need for the immediate establishment of "an international administration with police powers" that could control nuclear weapons.
By early 1945, the Met Lab was in ferment, not only over the question of a postwar nuclear arms race, but over the prospective use of the atomic bomb. As the German war effort collapsed, it became clear that the Bomb, far from providing a deterrent to a Nazi atomic assault, might well become an offensive weapon against Japan. Szilard recalled that he began to ask himself: "What is the purpose of continuing the development of the bomb?" That spring, several "seminars" on the social and political implications of atomic energy were held among the restless younger scientists, who discussed international control, use of the Bomb against Japan, and the formation of a scientists' organization. In late April, James Franck, the distinguished refugee scientist who directed the chemistry section of the Met Lab, drew on Rabinowitch for a personal memorandum to higher authorities that stressed two of the themes now agitating the project scientists: the danger of a nuclear arms race and the necessity for international control of atomic energy.
Szilard, who had little patience with following the chain of command, once more moved to alert the President of the United States. On March 25, 1945, at Szilard's request, Einstein gave him an introductory letter to Roosevelt, requesting that the President meet with the emigr�� physicist on a secret matter. In an accompanying memorandum, Szilard warned that use of atomic bombs would "precipitate a race in the production of these devices between the United States and Russia," with the result that the United States would become increasingly vulnerable to attack and destruction. As alternatives, he recommended delaying use of the Bomb against Japan and working to establish nuclear arms controls. Roosevelt died before he could read the letter. But his successor, Harry Truman, suggested that Szilard meet with James F. Byrnes, an influential South Carolina politician and the new President's designee as secretary of state. Accompanied by Harold Urey (an important Bomb project scientist at Columbia University) and Walter Bartky (the associate director of the Met Lab), Szilard spoke with Byrnes on May 28.
Like the earlier encounter between Bohr and Churchill, this exchange merely highlighted differences of approach. After Szilard made his case against dropping the atomic bomb, Byrnes retorted that the use of the Bomb would help justify the enormous government expenditure on the Manhattan Project and make the Russians "more manageable" in Eastern Europe. There would be no threat to an American nuclear monopoly for some time, Byrnes insisted, for General Leslie Groves, who headed the Manhattan Project, had assured him of that. Byrnes recalled that Szilard's "general demeanor and his desire to participate in policy making made an unfavorable impression on me," and that he was glad that a U.S. intelligence agent "had been following the three gentlemen." Szilard, in turn, later wrote that "I was rarely as depressed as when we left Byrnes' house.... I thought to myself how much better off the world might be had I been born in America and become influential in American politics, and had Byrnes been born in Hungary and studied physics. In all probability there would then have been no atomic bomb and no danger of an arms race between America and Russia."
When Szilard returned to Chicago, the project was "in an uproar," as he recalled. Furious at the unauthorized approach to the White House and to Byrnes, General Groves denounced what he claimed was a breach of national security. To bring the issue back within official channels and, at the same time, fulfill a promise he had made earlier to Franck, Arthur Compton, the director of the Met Lab, appointed a Committee on Social and Political Implications of Atomic Energy, with Franck as chair. Meeting in all-night sessions behind locked doors, the committee members-Franck, Szilard, Rabinowitch, Donald Hughes, James Nickson, Glenn Seaborg, and Joyce Stearns-felt their responsibility keenly. "By an accident of history," recalled Seaborg, "we were among a very few who were aware of a new, world-threatening peril, and we felt obligated to express our views." On June 11, the Franck committee produced a report, largely written by Rabinowitch and influenced by Szilard, that argued forcefully against combat use of the Bomb against Japan. "If the United States were to be the first to release this new weapon of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind," warned the committee, "she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons." As an alternative, the committee recommended revealing the Bomb to the world "by a demonstration in an appropriately selected uninhabited area."
The Franck Report had little, if any, impact on high-level U.S. government officials. Submitted to the office of U.S. Secretary of War Henry Stimson, it remained there without any response. Rabinowitch recalled that "we waited for some reaction and we waited and waited and we had the feeling we could as well have dropped this report into Lake Michigan." In fact, the decision for the use of the Bomb had already been made. In late April, Stimson had met with the new President and had informed him of "the most terrible weapon ever known in human history" and of his plan to appoint a committee of top government officials to consider its use. Meeting that May, the innocuously named Interim Committee focused on how the Bomb should be used, rather than on whether it should be used. As Compton recalled, committee members believed that using the Bomb was "a foregone conclusion." Nor was there any interest in international control of atomic energy. Stimson believed that, in the world of international power politics, possession of the Bomb constituted "a royal straight flush." Byrnes, too, argued that "the bomb might well put us in a position to dictate our terms at the end of the war."
Yet criticism of government reliance upon nuclear weapons continued to grow. Arguing in late June that immediate use of the Bomb was unnecessary, Assistant Secretary of War John McCloy suggested to Truman and Stimson that the Japanese should be explicitly warned of its use and offered retention of the emperor on a constitutional basis as a condition of surrender. Assistant Secretary of the Navy Ralph Bard also took this position, telling Truman that, as "a great humanitarian nation," the United States should not initiate a nuclear attack. A group of U.S. military leaders expressed doubts about the need to use the Bomb, particularly as Japan tottered to defeat. Most were top U.S. Navy officers, but they included leading Army officers, as well. General Dwight Eisenhower recalled that he told Stimson in July that he had "grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion."
As before, dismay at government plans was strongest among the scientists. At Los Alamos, there was substantial discussion of whether the Bomb should be used, and one scientist, Joseph Rotblat, a physicist, deliberately resigned from the project and returned to his home in Britain. The Met Lab, however, remained the major locus of discontent. "In the summer of 1945," Rabinowitch recalled, he and his colleagues "walked the streets of Chicago vividly imagining the sky suddenly lit up by a giant fireball, the steel skeletons of skyscrapers bending into grotesque shapes." That July, Szilard launched a petition drive, opposing the atomic bombing of Japan and warning that "a nation which sets the precedent" of using atomic bombs "may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale." Szilard's petitions garnered signatures from 68 scientists at the Met Lab and 67 scientists at Oak ridge (before further petitioning was halted by the army) and were banned by U.S. authorities at Los alamos. Delivered to Groves's office, the petitions languished there until the general finally passed them to Stimson's office, where they were deliberately withheld from the President.
Excerpted from CONFRONTING THE BOMBby LAWRENCE S. WITTNER Copyright © 2009 by Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission.
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