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Manhattan Project Scientists and the Use of the Atomic Bomb

by Peter N. Kirstein

The author, looking at primary sources in a new light, reaches a conclusion that challenges received wisdom about the attitude of the original atomic scientists on using the first atomic bombs against Japan. Professor Kirstein and American Diplomacy invite comments and criticism: see the appropriate e-mail addresses at the end of the text. —Ed.

The United States and the Axis powers had abandoned any pretext of preserving non-combatant immunity in warfare. The strategic bombings of urban areas was vigorously unleashed by the major powers during World War II as witnessed by the savage destruction of Dresden, Tokyo, Hamburg, Rotterdam, Nanking, and Coventry. As the violence mounted in a war without mercy, the combatants developed the concept of total war in which “soft” non-combatant, civilian populations were added to the traditional target selection of military bases, armies in the field, and key naval staging areas. Even Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson’s dramatic intercession to spare Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital that abounded with historical and cultural treasures, from nuclear attack, was motivated to protect Japan’s historical and material artifacts and not the city’s civilian population.1

With strategic-nuclear bombing rapidly becoming operational in the final weeks of the war, 171 scientists and support personnel from the Manhattan Engineer District (Manhattan Project) responded by disseminating a flurry of petitions, reports, memoranda, and letters.2 Their purpose was to influence United States policy on how, not whether, the atomic bomb should be introduced into the Asian-Pacific War.

It will be shown that civilian and military officials, journalists, and scholars of the period have inaccurately assessed many of these documents as indicative of either unconditional opposition to the use of the atomic bomb or sharply at odds with Truman Administration policy. In particular, the petitions of physicist Leo Szilard at the Metallurgical Laboratory (Metlab) of the University of Chicago, have been variously interpreted as unalterably opposed to the use of the atomic bomb.3 A reexamination of the petitions will clearly demonstrate conditional and not unconditional opposition to attacking Japan with the atomic bomb. Furthermore, the Metallurgical Laboratory Report of the Committee on Political and Social Problems (the Franck Report) has repeatedly been assessed as unalloyed opposition to any combat role for the A-bomb. While their authors’ certainly shared misgivings in abandoning conventional warfare, it will be shown they eschewed an unconditional, absolutist rejection of the use of the atomic bomb.

One of the most detailed and important Manhattan Project documents concerning the A-bomb’s potential use was the Franck Report.4 James Franck, a German-refugee physicist and 1925 Nobel laureate, was the associate director of the chemistry division at Metlab and the committee chair.5

The Franck Report is online

The Franck Report portrayed ominously the security implications of an unannounced use of nuclear weapons, was visionary in its prediction of an abbreviated American atomic monopoly, and correctly wished to harness weapons of mass destruction to an international-control regime. It advocated a warning demonstration on a “desert or a barren island” that would avoid international “horror and revulsion” against an unannounced American-nuclear attack in the Pacific.6 Although conceding the introduction of the A-bomb would trigger a nuclear arms race, its arguments in favor of a non-lethal test demonstration were tactical, not ethical.7 America’s fission bombs were too weak and “of comparatively low efficiency and small size” to “break the will” of Japan.8 Since many Japanese cities had already been “reduced to ashes” by conventional bombing, a surprise nuclear attack would only marginally influence Japan’s decision to surrender.9

However, the Franck Report avoided unconditional opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, and even recommended certain preconditions that might justify their introduction. These might include the approval of the incipient United Nations, the support of the American people, and a Japanese rejection of a surrender ultimatum: “The weapon might perhaps be used against Japan if the sanction of the United Nations (and of public opinion at home) were obtained, perhaps after a preliminary ultimatum to Japan to surrender or at least to evacuate certain regions…”10 The report also avoided recommending a modification of unconditional surrender, established at the Casablanca conference in January 1943, in order to facilitate a diplomatic solution to the war.

The Franck Report was alarmed about the potentially adverse diplomatic consequences that might ensue from a sudden nuclear attack, and counseled the administration on how best to avoid widespread opprobrium should the A-bomb be used against Japan; the government should defer combat use until the international community witnessed a technical demonstration, for this would lessen criticism particularly if “other nations may assume a share of responsibility for such a fateful decision.”11 While the Metlab scientists appropriately looked beyond the military application of the bomb and considered the impact of nuclear proliferation on United States national-security policy, the Franck Report not only avoided total opposition to a nuclear offensive, but also offered recommendations on how best to use the A-bomb without America becoming a nuclear-pariah state.

Arthur Holly Compton was the 1927 Nobel laureate in physics and director of the University of Chicago’s Metlab. It was the great scientist who originated the myth that Szilard’s petition drive and the Franck Report were unconditionally opposed to any atomic attack against Japan. Compton offered highly-opinionated summaries before forwarding Metlab and Clinton Engineer Works (Clinton Laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee) documents to Washington. He sent a copy of the Franck Report to George Harrison, a special consultant to Stimson and the chair, in the secretary’s absence, of the eight-person Interim Policy Committee on Atomic Energy (Interim Committee) in 1945.12 Included was Compton’s highly subjective analysis that the report wanted “outlawed by firm international agreement,” any “permitting [of] the bombs to be used in war.” Compton distanced himself from the report by arguing that any postponement in implementing the atomic option would “make the war longer and more expensive of human lives…”13 Nowhere does Compton mention that the Franck Report delineated a host of specific conditions that, if implemented, could justify a B-29 A-bomb campaign against Japan.

Harrison later informed Stimson in a “Top Secret” memorandum on June 26 about the existence of the Franck Report, and also inaccurately described it as rejecting the “use of the bomb, so nearly completed, against any enemy country at this time.”14 More recently, several documentary and general histories of the atomic bomb by Barton Bernstein, Jeffrey Porro, et al., and William Sweet, excluded in their abridged reprints of the Franck Report those sections that only conditionally dissented from an A-bomb attack or that assessed the negative-diplomatic fallout that might erupt from a military demonstration.15

At Metlab in July 1945, with the decision to use the atomic bomb only weeks away, Szilard began the petition movement. A Hungarian émigré, he helped create the Manhattan Project with his early conceptualization of the nuclear-chain reaction and his drafting of the 1939 Albert Einstein letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt—delivered by Russian-born Lehman Corporation economist Alexander Sachs.16 Szilard has been repeatedly portrayed as the Manhattan Project’s chief architect in organizing protest against the use of the atomic bomb at the end of World War II. Yet Manhattan Project documents reveal Szilard neither unconditionally opposed the atomic bombings of Japan nor significantly deviated from Truman Administration policy.

In early 1945, with Germany’s defeat a near certainty, Szilard initially attempted through an Einstein letter of introduction to meet with Roosevelt, and persuade the president that the original rationale in developing the atomic bomb had vanished. Yet the president’s death on April 12, 1945 precluded such an encounter, and Szilard subsequently initiated the petition effort with the circulation of his July 3rd petition and cover letter of July 4, 1945 among scientists from both Metlab and Clinton.17 There was an unsuccessful effort to distribute the petition at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, which built and assembled the weapons that were used against Hiroshima and Nagasaki on August 6 and August 9, 1945. J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Los Alamos director, thwarted any petition distribution because he believed a scientist should not attempt to influence the policy-making process of the national-security elites.18

While the cover letter unambiguously denounced the immorality of using nuclear weapons in opposing “on moral grounds…the use of these bombs in the present phase of the war,”19 the actual petition was less emphatic in its opposition to abandoning conventional warfare. If Japan did not accept American-“imposed” surrender terms that consisted of vague guarantees of “peaceful pursuits in their homeland,” the United States “might require a reexamination of her position” which could lead to the use of the atomic bomb.20 This first petition on a nuclear-related event did not propose an atomic warning or any concrete steps that might avoid the use of the A-bomb. Szilard, who later opposed a nuclear test-ban treaty in the 1960s that would reduce radioactive fallout and achieve some strategic stability in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, did not advance any non-lethal test scenario that might have induced a Japanese surrender.21

In paragraph six, Szilard’s petition repeated the cover letter’s condemnation of nuclear weapons with a vituperative critique of both conventional and nonconventional-strategic bombing of Japan:

The last few years show a marked tendency toward increasing ruthlessness. At present our Air Forces, striking at the Japanese cities, are using the same methods of warfare which were condemned by American public opinion only a few years ago when applied by the Germans to the cities of England. Our use of atomic bombs in this war would carry the world a long way further on this path of ruthlessness.22

This plea for atomic restraint only applied to using nuclear weapons “in the present phase of the war.”23 This was consistent with the petition’s call for an American “reexamination” of its nuclear-use policy should Japan not accede to dictated terms of surrender.

At the Clinton Laboratory, Szilard’s petition triggered a vigorous response. Eighteen Clinton scientists signed a petition that supported Szilard’s effort except for the latter’s final paragraph. Similar to the Franck Report, which the signers did not see, it recommended sharing American “responsibility for use of atomic bombs…with our allies.” The amended petition, while repeating Szilard’s vague surrender terms that allowed Japan a “peaceful development in their homeland,” explicitly advocated an atomic warning prior to any A-bomb offensive:24 “We…feel that our attitude is more clearly expressed if its last paragraph is replaced by the following…Convincing warnings have been given that a refusal to surrender will be followed by the use of a new weapon.”25 This appeal for an atomic warning went beyond any Szilard petition. While Compton conveniently ignored the Clinton demand for an atomic warning in pursuing his own agenda of prompt, immediate use, his general characterization of its framers as “reading the minds of Mr. Truman and Mr. Stimson” accurately reflected the document’s avoidance of unconditional opposition to the use of the atomic bomb.26

A Clinton “counterpetition” effort also appeared that strongly supported the unconditional use of the weapon. George W. Parker, a chemist and leader of this small but vocal group, mailed Compton a letter which has eluded historical scrutiny on July 16, 1945—the same day as the first nuclear explosion at Trinity, in the appropriately named New Mexico desert, Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death). While not representing government policy, Parker’s explicit written support for atomic diplomacy was one of the first to appear in any World War II document. Parker was impressed with the diplomatic advantages that would accrue from unveiling such an “impressive weapon.” As a winning weapon, the A-bomb would confer an “impressive victory…[and] should inspire American diplomacy and world opinion to effectively tame the present hard-booted Russian ego which is now an embarrassing threat to plans for world security.”27 Specifically rejecting an atomic warning and brushing aside fears of diplomatic isolation following the weapon’s use, Parker rejected any “political or moral issue” that might dissuade the government from authorizing an immediate use of the atomic bomb. It advocated “winning the war.”28

During this frenetic July when dozens of atomic scientists endeavored to influence the endgame of their unprecedented creation, Parker also released a petition, co-endorsed by D. S. Ballantine, that smeared Szilard’s petition movement as unAmerican. Titled “A Petetion [sic] to the Administration of Clinton Laboratories,” it was unusually strident and provocative as it unleashed a vitriolic condemnation of Szilard.29 Declaring itself a “counterpetition” and evoking the language and ideological nationalism that would typify McCarthyism, the Parker-Ballantine petition denounced Szilard as a threat to national security.30 “[T]he original Szilard petition has exposed the security of the DSM project. Certainly, if one such petition, with the information and dangerous implications it has, can pass through… plant and project administration, we feel that every individual may assume open season and compete to be sure that his own aquiesence [sic] or dissension is equally well broadcast.”31

The Parker-Ballantine petition claiming to represent true patriotism, affirmed its “sentiments” were shared by “particularly those who have sons and daughters in the foxholes and warships of the Pacific.”32 While noting the Metlab petition’s ethical misgivings concerning weapons of mass destruction, the two scientists described accurately its less than unqualified opposition: “If practical necessities demand its [the bomb’s] use, then the moral issue should be bypassed. It should be used if the nation’s life were endangered, the petition went on to say.”33

In their petition, Parker and Ballantine rejected concerns that an unannounced A-bomb attack would precipitate international outrage, or threaten global security by introducing a new destructiveness of unprecedented magnitude. Deployment of the latest military technology always generates fear the petition alleged, but subsequent to widespread proliferation into nation-state arsenals, it becomes an “everyday implement of war.” So too would nuclear weapons as “future generations will come to regard this latest device with less and less regard.”34

The Clinton petitions, counterpetition, and letters were delivered to Martin D. Whitaker, physicist and director of the Tennessee laboratory, and the Oak Ridge scientists’ chief conduit to Washington. Whitaker subsequently gave them to Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols, Corps of Engineers, and a principal deputy of Major General Leslie R. Groves—the director of the Manhattan Project since its inception on August 13, 1942. Nichols, who earned a doctorate and later became a major general, was a key link in the communication’s channel between the Manhattan Project scientists and Washington.35 Nichols subsequently shared them with Compton, hoping to receive a summary analysis, but Compton confined his written analysis during the war only to those petitions and reports written by Metlab personnel.36

Two weeks after circulating his July 3rd petition, Szilard submitted a second revision that had the support of seventy Metlab personnel. The signers’ names did not appear on a single-master petition but were scattered among nine different copies that were circulated among the various laboratory’s division sections.37 As a result, there have been widely disparate accounts of the precise number of names that appeared on the last Manhattan Project petition of World War II. At least four times in 1945 Szilard reported gathering sixty-seven signatures on the July 17th petition.39 Major General F. L. Parks referred to “some sixty scientists” in a letter to A. J. Muste of The Fellowship of Reconciliation.39 In 1960 Szilard also reduced the number to “about sixty members” in an interview with U.S. News and World Report.40 While misidentifying a quotation from the Franck Report as appearing in Szilard’s petition, Lloyd Gardner stated only “several atomic scientists” signed the July petition.41 Alperovitz claimed some sixty-nine signatures were affixed to the petition.42 Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz remarkably claimed there were 155 names appearing on Szilard’s July 17th petition which was only two fewer than the total number of signed supporters of all Manhattan Project petitions!43

A composite list of the July 17th petition at the National Archives contained the seventy names that appeared on nine-separate petition copies along with their job descriptions at the Metallurgical Laboratory.44 A revised, more detailed list, that was probably completed at the end of 1946, revealed a more intrusive ongoing-security monitoring operation. Those who signed the petition were now categorized as “important” or “not important,” and included the circumstances under which an individual might have resigned from the Manhattan Project.45 While there is no evidence of a post-petition purge, an ongoing intelligence-gathering operation of atomic scientists who attempted to influence the decision to use the atomic bomb, anticipated inappropriate national-security excesses during the Cold War.46

Szilard’s revised petition of July 17th never recirculated outside Chicago and, unlike the draft of July 3rd, received no feedback from Clinton Engineer Works’ colleagues. While efforts were made by senior officials to draw major distinctions between the July 3rd and July 17th versions, they were strikingly similar. Each contained eight paragraphs and neither advocated total opposition to the use of the atomic bomb. The final petition did not differ substantively from the original, but merely adopted a more measured, conciliatory tone in its critique of the possible use of atomic weapons. The first petition’s declaration that “the destruction of Japanese cities” might be effective but inappropriate, was replaced by the less provocative—“attacks by atomic bombs”—which removed specific criticisms of urban targeting. The July 3rd petition’s warning that Japan’s refusal to abide by American surrender terms might justify a nuclear response, was rewritten with a similar warning that the United States “might…find itself forced to resort to the use of atomic bombs.”47

The July 3rd petition’s denunciation of nuclear weapons as “primarily a means for the ruthless annihilation of cities,” was substituted with the more moderate reflection that they “provide…nations with new means of destruction.” The July 3rd petition’s sixth paragraph, as cited earlier, which twice denounced the “ruthlessness” inherent in strategic bombing, was replaced with a more analytic reflection that nuclear proliferation among competing powers could significantly attenuate international stability. Significantly, the revised petition retained the earlier provisions for a nuclear attack should “the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail and Japan knowing these terms has refused to surrender.”48 The revised petition concluded with a deferential request that the president, before authorizing the use of the atomic bomb, take cognizance of the petition’s “considerations” and “other moral responsibilities.”49 While the petitions deviated rhetorically in their assessment of the potential use of the atomic bomb, they both unambiguously outlined conditions that could precede its introduction into the Asian-Pacific War.

Szilard’s petitions omitted specific policy recommendations that might have guided those responsible for using the weapon. Possible options of maintaining the blockade around the Japanese islands, continuing the horrific city-busting air raids, or modifying unconditional surrender to allow the retention of the emperor were not included in any Metlab petition. Both the Franck Report and the July 13th Clinton petition had recommended either a non-combat demonstration or an atomic warning precede any final decision to use the weapon against Japan. Yet Szilard is referred to as the first “moral philosopher of the nuclear age.”50

Nevertheless, several officials claimed Szilard had to alter radically his antibomb position in order to obtain a sufficient number of signatures. While certainly true the Hungarian émigré revised the original in order to obtain greater support, it did not deviate from mere-conditional opposition to the use of the atomic bomb. Compton and others who claimed a Metlab probomb consensus thwarted Szilard’s alleged anti-nuclear pacifism, were merely attempting to quell any laboratory opposition to an immediate, combat role for the atomic bomb.

According to Captain R. Gordon Arneson, the Interim Committee’s recording secretary, Szilard’s second petition was categorical in “urging that the bomb not be used in the present war.”51 Besides failing to acknowledge the petition’s explicit avoidance of unconditional opposition to the use of the A-bomb, Arneson dismissed the petition endeavor as frivolous due to the scientific community’s supposed representation on the Scientific Panel.52

Compton also misinterpreted and attempted to discredit the petition effort in a July 24th memorandum to Nichols. Unlike Arneson’s misreading of the July 17th petition, Compton erred dramatically in his interpretation of the earlier petition as an unsuccessful effort to derail the use of the atomic bomb. Compton claimed Szilard failed in “seeking signatures requesting no use of the new weapons in this war.”53 In his postwar memoir, Compton repeated his claim that the July 3rd petition “called for outright rejection of the use of atomic bombs.”54 The Metlab director averred it was rejected by other scientists, thereby, forcing Szilard “to rephrase it so as to approve use of the weapons after giving suitable warning and opportunity for surrender under known conditions.”55

Nichols, who essentially borrowed Compton’s analysis of Szilard’s petition campaign, sardonically observed that “the more informed individuals” at Metlab refused to sign the original draft because they “support the present plans for use of the weapon.” Like Compton, he mistakenly claimed the second petition was significantly altered “as a result of opposition… in order to get signers…”56 Ironically, Compton’s and Nichols’s assessment of the restrained anti-use posture of the July 17th petition were more accurate than that of its author. Szilard’s July 19th cover letter to Compton twice claimed the final version emphasized “the moral issue only” despite its mere-conditional dissent from using the A-bomb. Yet Szilard contradicted his own assessment by describing considerable disagreement among the seventy signers of the document. Some supported “early” use of the bomb, because delay might create the impression that the United States was attempting to conceal its nuclear monopoly and “cause distrust on the part of other nations… ”57 Others feared a nuclear-arms race with Russia would result unless a “demonstration” was delayed until after the United States identified what “course it intended to follow” in arms control and development during the postwar period.58

Compton almost certainly submitted to Washington, without Szilard’s knowledge or consent, the July 3rd petition since it was not intended for actual transmittal; only the final July 17th document was sent to Compton with the purpose of reaching the White House. Szilard delivered to Compton six unsigned copies, and one signed copy that was placed inside a separate envelope. Szilard’s intent was to conceal the names of his supporters by protecting their “privilege under the Constitution,” and requested the signed copy be seen only by those “authorized to open the mail of the president.”59 Nichols then delivered by military police courier60 the ten Metlab and Clinton petitions and letters to Groves. Despite Compton’s and Farrington Daniels’s fallacious assertion that the documents “were transmitted to the White House,” Arneson stated definitively that Truman never saw the Manhattan Project materials that were sent to Washington.61 Groves kept them for about a week until August 1, when he finally routed them to the secretary of war after Stimson had returned from the Potsdam Conference outside Berlin. “It was decided that no useful purpose would be served by transmitting…[them] to the White House, particularly since the President was not then in the country.”62

The popular culture in the postwar period witnessed additional-erroneous portrayals of the Szilard petitions as unconditionally opposed to the decision to use the atomic bomb. Raymond Swing, an immensely popular ABC radio newsperson, denounced America’s-atomic monopoly, advocated world government to restrain unlimited-state sovereignty, and referred to a “communication…to President Truman after the first experiment at Los Alamos [sic] proved to be a success…[as] a plea that the bomb…not be dropped over Japan before a test demonstration.”63 Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey misrepresented the July 3rd petition as “ask[ing] Truman not to use the bomb at all,” without revealing its highly-qualified opposition to an atomic offensive.64 They also claimed incorrectly in their Look article that Szilard, in seeking greater support, changed the July 3rd petition’s demand of “no use of the A-bomb at all” to requiring that a “warning” must precede any authorized use of the atomic bomb.65

Jacob Bronowski wrote that Szilard, “[a]lways… wanted the bomb to be tested openly before the Japanese and an international audience, so that the Japanese should know its power and should surrender before people died.”66 However, no reference to “no use,” a test demonstration, or any non-lethal detonation ever appeared in a Szilard petition. More recently Martin Harwit, former director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, reprinted the July 17th petition and correctly described its modest opposition to using the atomic bomb in the Pacific. However, he claimed inaccurately that only “as a last resort” should the atomic bomb be used against Japan.67

The atomic scientists who attempted to influence one of the twentieth century’s most fateful decisions, operated within an ideological consensus that only modestly questioned the decision to use the atomic bomb. Manhattan Project officials, historians, and journalists have too often emphasized the supposed chasm between the national-security managers who formulated policy and the Manhattan Project scientists who built the bomb. While the airburst-atomic devastation of a virtually defeated Japan unleashed the nuclear-arms race and increased exponentially the devastation of war, there was no effort among the purported dissenters to argue against any justification for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.End.


1. An earlier version of this paper was presented in June 2000 at a Siena College conference on ‘World War II: After 60 Years’ in Loudonville, NY. The author wishes to thank Matthew Costello and Byrne Memorial librarians David Kohut and Ursula Zyzik of Saint Xavier University for their assistance. Gar Alperovitz, The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb and the Architecture of the American Myth (New York, 1995), 531-32; Barton J. Bernstein, “The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered,” Foreign Affairs, Jan-Feb 1995, 147.

2. Of that total, Leo Szilard, James J. Nickson, and George W. Parker signed more than one document, resulting in 168 different signatures.

3. The name “Metallurgical Laboratory,” was a ruse that served as a “convenient blind.” Arthur H. Compton to Irwin Stewart, April 30, 1943, roll 10, file 156, Bush-Conant File Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Record Group 227; National Archives—Great Lakes Region (Chicago).

4. Michael B. Stoff, Jonathan F. Fanton, and R. Hal Williams, eds.,The Manhattan Project: A Documentary Introduction to the Atomic Age (New York, 1991), 140-47. In addition to Franck, the other committee members were Donald J. Hughes, James J. Nickson, Eugene Rabinowitch, Glenn T. Seaborg, Joyce C. Stearns, and Leo Szilard.

5. Barton J. Bernstein, ed., The Atomic Bomb: The Critical Issues (Boston, 1986), 25.

6. Ibid., 26-27. “Horror and revulsion” did not represent the Franck Report’s own reaction to a possible atomic attack on Japan, but those of the American public and the international community.

7. The use of the term “demonstration” has often confounded students of the war because of the myriad applications of the term. Frequently, it referred to the use of the atomic bomb in a non-combat mode such as an uninhabited area in Japan or even the United States. A “technical” or a “test” demonstration’s purpose was to induce Japan’s surrender or to gain international support should a combat use against urban areas subsequently ensue. The term “military demonstration” could suggest a “limited” counterforce attack against a military target that would produce minimal “collateral damage” to civilians. “Military demonstration,” however, was frequently used as a euphemism for strategic nuclear bombing of a full range of military and non-military assets.

8. Stoff, et al., eds., Manhattan Project, 143. The term “fission,” based on cell division in biology, refers to a neutron splitting of a uranium (or plutonium) nucleus into two smaller and similar-sized nuclei. Physicists Lise Meitner and her nephew Otto Robert Frisch coined the term in 1938.

9. Ibid.

10. Stoff, et al., eds., Manhattan Project, 144. For support of the development of the atomic bomb and the Franck Report’s, misspelled as “Frank,” surrender ultimatum as a means of “transferring the burden of responsibility to the Japanese themselves,” see Norman Cousins and Thomas K. Finletter, “A Beginning for Sanity,” The Saturday Review of Literature, June 15, 1946, 6-7.

11. Ibid., 147.

12. National Archives Microfilm Publications Pamphlet Describing M1108, “Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946,” (Washington, D. C., 1982), 1. In addition to Stimson and Harrison, other members of the Interim Committee were Ralph Bard, Vannevar Bush, Jimmy Byrnes, William L. Clayton, Karl T. Compton, and James B. Conant. Bard, undersecretary of the navy, authored a memorandum that has also been erroneously portrayed as a great departure from the Interim Committee’s consensus on using the atomic bomb “as soon as possible, on a war plant surrounded by workers’ homes…” While recommending an atomic warning, bilateral talks “somewhere on the China coast,” and an offer to retain the emperor, Bard proposed a mere two-to-three day bombing delay to induce Japan’s surrender on these terms. Notes of the Interim Committee Meeting, June 1, 1945; roll 4, file 3; Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Record Group 77; National Archives—Great Lakes Region (Chicago). [Emphasis in original]; Ralph A. Bard, “Memorandum on the Use of S-1 Bomb,” June 27, 1945; roll 6, file 76, Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Record Group 77; NA—Great Lakes Region (Chicago). [Hereafter referred to as H-B Files]. S-1 was one of several code names used for the Manhattan Project during the war.

13. Compton to Secretary of War–Attention: Mr. George Harrison, June 12, 1945, 1-2, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files.

14. Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York, 1975), 305.

15. Bernstein, Atomic Bomb, 26-9; Jeffrey Porro, Paul Doty, Carl Kaysen, and Jack Ruina, eds., The Nuclear Age Reader (New York, 1989); 11-13, William L. Sweet, The Nuclear Age: Atomic Energy, Proliferation, and the Arms Race, 2nd ed. (Washington, 1988), 9.

16. National Archives Microfilm Publications Pamphlet Describing M1392, “Bush-Conant File Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945,” (Washington, D. C., 1990), 2.

17. Albrecht Fölsing, Albert Einstein: A Biography (New York, 1997), 719-20.

18. Ronald E. Powaski, March to Armageddon: The United States and the Nuclear Arms Race, 1939 to the Present (New York, 1987), 18. Joseph Rotblat, 1995 Nobel Peace laureate, left Los Alamos in 1944 upon learning that Germany was not developing an atomic bomb. His moral opposition to continued atomic-weapons development was, however, a solitary act of protest and not part of any organized effort. He was threatened with arrest if he discussed his anti-bomb beliefs and, therefore, dissembled that family reunification in Europe was his reason for leaving the Manhattan Project. See Joseph Rotblat, “Leaving the Bomb Project,” in Ending War: The Force of Reason, Essays in Honour of Joseph Rotblat, Maxwell Bruce and Tom Milne, eds. (London, 1999), 12-13; Susan Landau, “From Fission Research to a Prize for Peace,” Scientific American, January 1996, 39.

19. “Szilard Petition Cover Letter,” July 4, 1945, roll 9, file 108, H-B Files.

20. “A Petition to the President of the United States,” July 3, 1945, roll 9, file 108, H-B Files.

21. Lawrence S. Wittner, Resisting the Bomb: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970 (Stanford, 1997), 256.

22. “Petition to the President,” July 3, 1945.

23. Ibid. [Emphasis Added).

24. Oak Ridge Petition, July 13, 1945.

25. Ibid. [Emphasis added]. This would have contrasted significantly with the Potsdam Declaration of July 26 which did not specify an atomic weapon in its warning of “prompt and utter destruction.”

26. Arthur Holly Compton, Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative (New York, 1956), 243. Compton belonged to the Scientific Advisory Panel that found no “acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

27. George W. Parker to Arthur Holly Compton, July 16, 1945; roll 6, file 76, H-B Files. M. D. Whitaker’s name appears just below Compton’s as an addressee in whose care the letter would be sent to Compton. On atomic diplomacy see Alperovitz, Atomic Diplomacy: Hiroshima and Potsdam, the Use of the Atomic Bomb and the American Confrontation with Soviet Power (New York, 1985); Alperovitz, Decision to Use; Powaski, The Cold War: The United States and the Soviet Union, 1917-1991 (New York, 1998), 67.

28. Parker to Compton, July 16, 1945.

29. “A Petetion [sic] to the Administration of Clinton Laboratories,” ND, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files.

30. William Lanouette, “A Note on the July 17th Petition,” Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz, eds., Hiroshima’s Shadow (Stony Creek, Conn. 1998), 558-59.

31. “Petetion [sic] to the Administration.” DSM stood for Development of Substitute Materials which was yet another code name for the secret atomic-bomb project. Shortly after the war, Ballantine became more circumspect in his overt support for nuclear weapons when he signed a Clinton petition that criticized General Leslie R. Groves for publicly dismissing the possibility of nuclear proliferation and claiming an American nuclear monopoly would guarantee victory in a future war. “To the Interim Committee on Nucleonics,” September 24, 1945, roll 6, file 77, H-B Files. I was informed about the September petition by Gene Dannen e-mail to the author, July 12, 1999. Dannen’s website, contains a very useful annotated chronology of many documents from Manhattan Project scientists that involve the decision to use the atomic bomb.

32. Ibid.

33. Ibid. While it accurately assessed in principle the conditional-moral argumentation of Szilard’s petition, the latter claimed, after Germany’s surrender, that the initial rationale of DSM to prevent a German atomic monopoly was “averted.”

34. Ibid.

35. Interview with Dr. Albert Wattenberg, April 24, 1992, 24, Argonne National Laboratory History Project, Albert Wattenberg Papers, National Archives—Great Lakes Region (Chicago). This is a transcript of an oral history with Wattenberg, a Metlab physicist, who signed the Szilard petition.

36. Arthur H. Compton to Colonel K. D. Nichols, July 24, 1945, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files.

37. “A Petition to the President of the United States,” July 17, 1945, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files. The copies varied in numbers of signatures from two to fourteen.

38. Leo Szilard to Arthur Holly Compton, July 19, 1945 and August 6, 1945, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files; See also Leo Szilard to Matthew J. Connelly, August 17, 1945; Leo Szilard to Robert M. Hutchins, August 29, 1945, in Spencer R. Weart and Gertrude Weiss Szilard, eds., Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts, Selected Recollections and Correspondence (Cambridge, Mass., 1978) 215-16, 220.

39. F. L. Parks to A. J. Muste, May 31, 1946, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files.

40. “President Truman Did Not Understand,” U.S. News and World Report, August 15, 1960, 69.

41. Lloyd C. Gardner, Architects of Illusion: Men and Ideas in American Foreign Policy, 1941-1949 (New York, 1970), 182. The Franck Report initially was published in “Before Hiroshima,” The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1, 1946.

42. Alperovitz, Decision to Use, 190.

43. Bird and Lifschultz, “Editors’ Note,” 552. In addition to the seventy signatures on the Szilard petition, eighty-seven names appear on Clinton Laboratories petitions. These figures exclude the July 3rd petition that was superseded by the July 17th version. However, Szilard later claimed he obtained “about fifty-three signatures” on the July 3rd draft. See Weart and Szilard, Leo Szilard, 187.

44. The list is untitled and contains only the date of the Szilard petition: July 17, 1945, roll 9, file 108, H-B Files. Ten women signatories appeared, in the following order, on the petition’s composite list: Ethaline Hartge Cortelyou, junior chemist, Katharine Way, research assistant, Mary Burke, research assistant, Mildred C. Ginsberg, computer, Hoylande Young, senior chemist, Information Section, Miriam P. Finkel, associate biologist, Mary M. Dailey, research assistant, Margaret H. Rand, research assistant, Health Section, Marguerite N. Swift, associate physiologist, Health Group, and Marietta Catherine Moore, technician. Of the eighty-seven Clinton personnel who signed petitions, all appear to be male.

45. The revised composite is untitled and contains only the date of the Szilard petition: July 17, 1945, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files. A handwritten note with unrecognizable initials accompanied it: “This is a list of people who signed the Szilard Petition of 17 July 45 to the President. There is included in brief the information on each person available in the Chicago area files.” July 2, 1947, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files.

46. For a comprehensive treatment of Cold War repression of liberal scientists see Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety: Scientists, Anticommunism, and the Cold War (Chapel Hill, 1999).

47 “Petition to the President,” July 3, 1945; “Petition to the President,” July 17, 1945. [Emphasis added].

48. Ibid. [Emphasis added].

49. Ibid.

50. Donna Gregory, ed., The Nuclear Predicament: A Sourcebook (New York, 1986), 5.

51. R. Gordon Arneson, “Memorandum for the Files,” May 24, 1946, 4, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files. While recording secretary, Arneson was then a second lieutenant. See also Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York, 1988), 634, 644.

52. “Notes for Possible Use of Secretary Patterson In Talking to Mr. Charles Ross,” ND, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files. Robert Patterson followed Stimson as Truman’s secretary of war and Ross was the White House press secretary. These notes were certainly written by Arneson, because entire passages of these “talking points” appeared verbatim in his “Memorandum for the Files.”

53. Compton to Nichols, July 24, 1945. [Emphasis added].

54. Compton, Atomic Quest, 241.

55. Ibid. These “known conditions” were not defined in the petition but presumably left for the Truman Administration to determine.

56. K. D. Nichols to Leslie R. Groves, July 25, 1945, roll 6, file 76, H-B Files.

57. Szilard to Compton, July 19, 1945.

58. Ibid.

59. Ibid.

60. William Lanouette, with Bela Silard, Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, The Man Behind the Bomb [Chicago, 1992), 274. Silard, Szilard’s brother, shortened his surname.

61. Arthur H. Compton and Farrington Daniels, “A Poll of Scientists at Chicago, July 1945,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1948, 44, 63.

62. “Notes for Possible use of Secretary Patterson.” The president was out of the country, due to the Potsdam Conference, from July 6 to August 7. See Arneson “Memorandum,” 3. It is possible that Truman may have seen an antibomb letter from an O. C. Brewster, from New York, an engineer with the Manhattan Project. See Robert J. Donovan, Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945-1948 (New York, 1977), 69-70; Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey, “The Fight Over the A-Bomb,” Look, August 13, 1963, 20-21.

63. Raymond Swing, In the Name of Sanity (New York, 1945, 1946), 74. Since the Franck Report was completed five weeks before Trinity, one may conclude he was referring to a Szilard petition. On his internationalist perspective see especially chapters 1-2, 18-21. On Swing’s critique of nuclear weapons see John Lewis Gaddis, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (New York, 1972), 269.

64 Knebel and Bailey, “Fight Over the A-Bomb,” 22.

65 Ibid. [Emphasis added].

66 Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man (Boston, 1973), 370; Arthur Steiner, “Scientists and Politicians: The Use of the Atomic Bomb Reexamined,” Minerva, (Summer, 1977), 258-59.

67 Martin Harwit, An Exhibit Denied: Lobbying the History of Enola Gay (New York, 1996), 234-35.


Peter N. Kirstein
Peter N. Kirstein

Peter N. Kirstein is professor of history at Saint Xavier University, Chicago, Illinois, USA. He earned a Ph.D. in history at St. Louis University, St. Louis, Missosuri, and has taught at St. Louis Community College and Saint Louis University. He is the author of Anglo Over Bracero: A History of the Mexican Worker in the United States from Roosevelt to Nixon (1978) and numerous articles and research papers.

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