On the occasion of Hiroshima Day, we publish an extract from ‘The Meaning of Hiroshima Nagasaki’ written by ND Jayaprakash
IN July 1939, Leo Szilard, the Hungarian physicist and a refugee in U.S., had sought the help of Einstein to persuade the U.S. administration headed by President Roosevelt, to construct an atomic bomb as a counter to an identical programme that, it was then suspected, Nazi Germany had embarked upon. But nearly six years later, in March, 1945, Szilard again approached Einstein, this time with a request that he should use his influence to prevent the United States, which was on the threshold of acquiring atomic weapons, from holding out threats to other countries. Einstein once again concurred with Szilard’s apprehension and accordingly sent another letter with a covering note by Szliard to President Roosevelt. But neither Einstein’s final letter nor Szilard’s opinion against employment of the atom bomb on Japan ever came to the notice of the president. Both the letters were still on his desk, untouched, when suddenly on April 12, 1945, Roosevelt passed away.
Following Roosevelt’s demise, Szilard tried desperately to meet the new president, Harry Truman. But all his attempts proved futile until finally he was told to contact James Byrnes, a close associate of the president. Thus, Szilard along with two of his senior colleagues, Dr Walter Bartky and Dr Harold Urey, met Byrnes on May 28, 1945. They soon found out that Byrnes had no sympathies with their arguments. According to Szilard:
Byrnes did not argue that it was necessary to use the bomb against the cities of Japan in order to win the war…. Mr Byrnes’s… view (was) that our possessing and demonstrating the bomb would make Russia more manageable.
THE INTERIM COMMITTEE ON DROPPING OF THE BOMB
U.S. secretary of war, Henry Stimson on his own had been urging the setting up of a committee of experts to advise the new president on these questions (use of the bomb). Thus, on May 4, 1945, an advisory body called the interim committee was set up with Henry Stimson as its chairperson. At its first informal meeting, on May 9, 1945, Dr Bush, a member of the committee, supplied the other members with copies of his own and Bohr’s memoranda for consideration, which advocated a voluntary abstention from dropping the atomic bomb in the interests of future international control.
Interestingly when the interim committee formally met on May 31, 1945, it discussed only how, and not whether the A-bomb should be used. This was despite the fact that the committee was set up precisely to examine the desirability of employing an atomic weapon on Japan. According to Arthur Compton, one of the three members of the scientific panel attached to this committee: throughout the morning’s discussion it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the bomb would be used. It is regarding only the details of the strategy and tactics that differing views were expressed.
Equally surprising was the fact that in the meeting that day, the significance of the Soviet entry into the war against Japan was a factor that was never taken into account. Arthur Compton testified to this:
At the meeting of the interim committee which I attended, nothing was said about this matter, but we were all aware of the Russian intention.
The conscious attempt to side step these issues—(a) whether the A-bomb should be used at all; and (b) the likely effect of the entry of the Soviet Union into the war—makes it quite apparent that the proceedings of the interim committee were manoeuvred in such a way as to concern itself only with employing the atom bomb as early as possible irrespective of its military necessity.
Detailing the decisions of the interim committee, Henry Stimson reported that:
On June 1, after its discussion with the scientific panel, the interim committee unanimously adopted the following recommendations:
- 1. The bomb should be used against Japan as soon as possible
- 2. It should be used on a duel target—that is, a military installation or war plant surrounded by or adjacent to houses and other buildings most susceptible to damage, and
- 3. It shall be used without prior warning (of the nature of the weapons)
According to Dr Compton, it was Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves, chief of the Manhattan Project and an invitee to the meeting, who was instrumental in influencing the decisions of the eight-member committee: “The meeting on 31 May, which I attended as a member of the Scientific Panel” he says,
was only one of a number of sessions of the interim committee…. Already the strategy for the military use of the bomb had been carefully worked out. For shaping this strategy General Groves was primarily responsible.
Rober Jungk in his book, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, wrote,
An atomic scientist who was working in close contact with him (Brig. Gen. Groves) at that time states that from 1945 on Groves gave the impression of being obsessed by one intense fear, that the war would be finished before his bomb would be. Accordingly, even after the capitulation of Germany he continued to exhort his collaborators with the incessant slogan: ‘we must not lose a single day.’”
THE FRANCK REPORT
Contrary to expectations, after the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 8, 1945, work on the Manhattan Project was actually speeded up. Thus, at the Los Alamos lab, where the atom bomb was being fabricated, and at the engineering works at Oak Ridge and Hanford where fissile materials were being refined, most scientists were tied down by the pressure of work. However, at the Metallurgical Laboratory (Met Lab) at Chicago, which had carried out much of the research for the Project, pressure had begun to relax and scientists were able to reflect upon the ultimate outcome of their work. Many of them in fact were already contemplating the moral implications of the development and likely use of the atomic bomb, since it had become evident towards the end of 1944 that the atomic threat from the Germans had ceased to be. Now, when the significance of the interim committee decisions registered on them, it disturbed them a great deal.
Sensing the defiant mood of the scientists, the University of Chicago appointed a committee to discuss and report in detail upon the “Social and Political Consequences of Atomic Energy”. The committee, with James Franck the former Gottingen professor as its chairperson, held its first meeting on June 4, 1945 and, within a week, came out with its report. Subsequently known as the Franck Report it was forwarded to the secretary of war on June 11, 1945. The Franck Report essentially pointed out that:
Nuclear bombs cannot possibly remain a ‘secret weapon’ at the exclusive disposal of this country for more than a few years. The scientific facts on which its construction is based are well known to scientists of other countries….
We believe that these considerations make the use of nuclear bombs for an early unannounced attack against Japan inadvisable. If the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, 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.
The Franck Report represented more or less the overwhelmingly dominant view that then prevailed at the Met Lab. Acknowledging this, the editors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, while reproducing the report in the Bulletin on May 1, 1946, commented that:
The report was agreed upon unanimously by the seven scientists on the committee. It undoubtedly expressed the opinion of a considerable group of scientists at the Project.
Nearly a month after the submission of the Franck Report, when no response was forthcoming from the authorities, more and more scientists began to raise their voice against the indifferent attitude. Szilard, who was a member of the committee that prepared the report, went a step further and began collecting signatures in support of the report from scientists in Chicago, Oak Ridge, Hanford and Los Alamos. However, Szilard was forced to abandon the move mid-way. According to Alice Kimbell Smith, assistant editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in its formative years, Szilard’s efforts were abandoned:
… not because of a lack of interest or support, but it was made clear to the committee (by the authorities) that the Report was classified and could not be circulated (even in the laboratories).
The gross misrepresentation of the scientists’ position was a sure sign of betrayal by the political leadership of the trust reposed on them by the scientists. The reaction among the scientists on the Manhattan Project is exemplified by Prof. Niels Bohr’s anguish. In a comprehensive statement published in The Times (London), shortly after the atomic bombing, Bohr declared that every scientist who had worked on the bomb must now be “prepared to assist in any way open to him, in bringing about an outcome of the present crisis of humanity that is worthy of the ideals for which science through the ages has stood.” (Quoted in Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light, Pantheon Books, New York, 1985)
Dr Robert Oppenheimer, another key figure behind the construction of the atom bomb, also had grave misgivings regarding the decision to employ such weapons. This annoyed President Truman, who derided the scientist for being a “cry baby”. In a letter to Dean Acheson on May 7, 1946, Truman, referring to the trauma that Dr Oppenheimer was then undergoing, said:
He came to my office five or six months ago and spent most of the time wringing his hands and telling me they had blood on them… (Robert Donovan, “Conflict And Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman 1945-48”, W.W. Norton & Company Inc., New York, 1977)
Subsequently, in an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Oppenheimer observed that:
… in the last war, the two nations which we like to think are the most enlightened and humane in the world—Great Britain and the United States—used atomic weapons against an enemy which was essentially defeated.
Similarly, many scientists later regretted having placed undue faith in the infallibility of the political leadership. This is evident from what Prof. Rudolf Peierls has disclosed in his autobiography. Recalling the thoughts that later agitated the minds of many a scientist associated with the Manhattan Project, Prof. Peierls, a Nobel Laureate and Manhattan veteran, said:
We felt the leaders were reasonable and intelligent, and would make responsible decisions. In retrospect it is clear that these views were too optimistic…. My regrets are that we did not insist on more dialogue with the military and political leaders, based on full and clear scientific discussions of the consequences of possible course of action. ( Rudolf Peierls, Bird of Passage: Recollections of a Physicist, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, US, 1985, pp. 204-205)
It is not that the men then at the helm of affairs in the United States and Great Britain—James Byrnes, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill in particular—were oblivious to the consequences. On the contrary, as has already been pointed out, Byrnes had alerted President Truman to the possibility that “the (atom) bomb might well put us (the United States) in a position to dictate our own terms at the end of the war” ( Harry S. Truman, “Memoirs Vol. I: Years Of Decisions”, Doubleday & Company Inc., New York, 1955, p.87). Furthermore, Churchill intoxicated by the success of the first atomic test “was already seeing himself capable of eliminating all the Russian centres of industry and population”. He had also “painted a wonderful picture of himself as a sole possessor of these bombs and capable of dumping them where he wished, thus all powerful and capable of dictating to Stalin”. ( Arthur Bryant, Triumph In The West 1943-1946, Collins, London, 1959, pp.477-478)
Thus, as events leading to it vividly show, the unleashing of the heinous crime on Hiroshima and Nagasaki resulted from the insatiable desire of the right-wing leaders of the United States and Great Britain for dominating the world. The attempt to implicate the atomic scientists in the crime was, therefore, nothing but a tactic devised to absolve the real culprits of the hideous deed.