The Scientific Push Against the Atomic Bomb

Michael Halisky
History 1700 – Cassandra Clarke
December 7, 2015

In the dawning of a world war the scientific community revolutionized energy by
discovering nuclear fission, thus entering a race to harness the nuclear energy to create a
devastating weapon of mass destruction. The United States’ effort to create the bomb only came
after the apparent threat that Germany could potentially have a weapon of mass destruction
within a few short years. For the United States, the creation of the bomb was not sought for vile
intent, but rather as a precautionary means to save American lives and end the war as soon as
possible. Although the government persisted in the bomb’s production, many scientists actually
petitioned against its use, especially when the implications of using the bomb in warfare became
apparent. Most of the scientists joined the bomb efforts for the sole reason of participating in the
furthering of science, rather than creating a weapon of war. Even though scientists and
government agencies worked together for the common goal of creating the nuclear weapons,
their agendas and moral views varied. The difference in motives between scientists and
government is not just a theme in the United States, but internationally – even on opposing sides
of the war.
The United States first learned about the threat of a potential weapon of mass destruction
by a letter that was written by a Hungarian Physicist named Leo Szilard on August 2nd, 1939.
Even though Leo Szilard wrote the majority of the letter, it was signed and adopted by Albert
Einstein to gather attention and gain credibility. The letter was addressed to President Franklin
Delano Roosevelt and explained that as a result of recent scientific work by Enrico Fermi and
Leo Szilard, there was a very real possibility that the discovery of nuclear fission could evolve
into something very sinister. In the letter Einstein explained that it was discovered that a nuclear
chain reaction could be possible through a process of uranium detonations and states “This new
phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much

less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of this type may thus be constructed.”1After this
warning, Einstein went on to suggest that the government should take action to keep informed
about the nuclear race and recommended that they go on to fund their own nuclear program to
further experiments and produce uranium. President Roosevelt held the letter to great priority
and responded to Dr. Albert Einstein on October of 1939, ensuring him that he had taken the
measures to compile a board that would further investigate the probabilities of using uranium as
a method of making a bomb.2Although Einstein and Szilard wrote the letter to warn the
president, they could not have seen that they sparked the interest to the beginning of a new age.
After the United States was informed of the imminent threat, British efforts of an atomic bomb
project - the Maud Committee (Military Application of Uranium Detonation), gathered to discuss
what was to be done about the newly discovered uranium detonations in 1940. In 1941 the Maud
Committee published a report that would summarize and conclude what their stance was on the
topic of nuclear weapons. The report stated that even though the creation would be costly “… we
consider that the destructive effect, both material and moral, is so great that every effort should
be made to produce bombs of this kind.”3. The report also discussed further plans to join efforts
in uranium research, nuclear testing, and other further laboratory experiments with the United
States. The nature of the report made it very clear that the goal of the nuclear program was less
tailored for research, but rather to making a bomb that would be used by the military to turn the
tides of the war. It also brought to attention that nuclear fission had been discovered by the
Germans some three years back, and that time was now a very pressing matter.

1 Albert Einstein to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 2 Aug 1939, from Argonne
National Library.
2 Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Albert Einstein, 19 Oct 1939.
3 Maud Committee, 10 Dec 2015, Maud Report.

As the atom bomb became more and more probable, excitement and fear rose in both the
scientific communities in the United States as well as in Germany. When theory of the atomic
bomb first spread, it became apparent that there would be a race between the United States and
Germany to become successful in its creation. With both countries gaining an interest in potential
military applications of nuclear fission, there was a rise in funding for further research. The
scientists who conducted the nuclear experiments were grateful for the new government funding
and that science was progressing, however, that also meant that they would be working towards a
government agenda in contrast to their own. In an interview with German physicist Werner
Heisenberg he states, “The official slogan of the government was: We must make use of physics
for warfare. We turned it around for our slogan: We must make use of warfare for physics.”4.
This shows that in the German laboratories the advancement of science was prioritized more then
the creation of an atomic bomb – although the Third Reich demanded it. The scientists working
under the Reich wanted to stay out of military affairs including building bombs, but as
Heisenberg put it, “It was a new situation for us scientists in Germany. Now for the first time we
could get money from our government to do something interesting and we intended to use this
On May 7, 1945 Germany surrendered and the World War in Europe officially ended.
Even with the surrender of Germany the conflict with Japan was still raging on and it became
clear that Japan would become the target for the bomb. American scientists took initiative to
persuade the government against the use the bomb with the Franck Report of June 1945. The
Frank Report was written with input from several credible physicists like Arthur Compton, in
attempt to halt the use of the atomic bomb against Japan. The report recommends that it is in the
4 Werner Heisenberg, conversation with the author, 29 Aug. 1967.
5 Werner Heisenberg, conversation with the author, 29 Aug. 1967.

government’s best interest to keep the bomb a secret for as long as possible. With the head start
in nuclear science, it would give the advantage of having “bigger and better atomic bombs.”6 The
report also claims that this is an important advantage because it would give the United States
leverage in any coming affairs, as countries would be “outnumbered and outgunned.”7 Finally, it
gave rise to the importance of having an international agreement on the use of nuclear weapons,
as nuclear warfare could bring the destruction of all nations. If the United States did use the
bomb on the Japanese, the Franck Report says “It will be very difficult to persuade the world that
a nation which was capable of secretly preparing and suddenly releasing a weapon, as
indiscriminate as the rocket bomb and million times more destructive, is not to be trusted in its
proclaimed desire of having such weapons abolished by international agreement.”8 The Franck
Report states there were various concerns proposed by the scientific community that using the
bomb would only bring conflict to the world in a political stance on top of the danger of entering
nuclear war.
On July 16, 1945 the United States was successful in creating the world’s first nuclear
explosion as the first atomic bomb was detonated in what is known as the Trinity test. The day
after Trinity, a petition signed by 68 scientists of the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago was
delivered to the President of the United States. The petition offered a clear argument that even
6 John H. Mahoney, letter to Eugene Rabinowitch, 5 Feb. 1946. Roll 7, Target
4, Folder 81, Declassification of Documents, Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to
the Development of the Atomic Bomb, National Archives and Records
7 John H. Mahoney, letter to Eugene Rabinowitch, 5 Feb. 1946. Roll 7, Target
4, Folder 81, Declassification of Documents, Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to
the Development of the Atomic Bomb, National Archives and Records
8 John H. Mahoney, letter to Eugene Rabinowitch, 5 Feb. 1946. Roll 7, Target
4, Folder 81, Declassification of Documents, Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to
the Development of the Atomic Bomb, National Archives and Records

though Germany had surrendered, the Japanese should be quick to follow and the use of the
bomb would be unnecessary. The petition states, “The war has to be brought speedily to a
successful conclusion and attacks by the atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of
warfare. We feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified at least not until the
terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were
given an opportunity to surrender.”9 . This excerpt shows that the scientists were concerned about
the moral perspective of the bomb, as using the bomb could be avoided if different strategies
were used; they were ignored. American Historian Richard Rhodes stated in his book Making of
the Atomic Bomb that, “Scientists were summarily denied a voice in deciding the political and
military uses of the weapons they were proposing to build… A scientist could choose to help or
not to help build nuclear weapons. That was his only choice.”10With the creation of this petition,
the scientists of the Metallurgical Laboratory felt that they had the moral obligation to put a stop
to the use of the atom bomb as they did not agree with the United States government to use it
against Japan under the element of surprise.
On July 18, 1945 Arthur Compton, head of the Metallurgical Laboratory, asked the director of
the the lab to take a poll about the stance that the scientists had on the use of the atomic bomb.
From about 250 members of the lab, only 150 took the poll. In the poll, there were five suggested
procedures that could be chosen from. Only one procedure presented in the poll directly involved
using the bomb on japan and it gained a twenty-three percent of the votes. The second procedure
gained the majority of sixty-nice percent and was to “Give a military demonstration in Japan, to
be followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon in employed.”11.
9 Leo Szilard to The President of the United States, 17 Jul. 1945. From U.S
National Archives
10 Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon &
Schuster, 1986), 621.
11 Farrington Daniels to Arthur Compton, 1945.

The other votes included giving a demonstration to the Japanese inside of the United States,
making a public demonstration of the bomb, and lastly keeping the bomb as a complete secret.
This poll shows that the majority of the scientists in the Metallurgical Laboratory believed in
ending the war by civil and political means before resorting to violence.
The atomic bomb dropped on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Just
three days later, a second bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki. Six days later Japan
surrendered after suffering from almost two-hundred thousand casualties due to the two bombs.
In 1952 Albert Einstein wrote a letter to the editor of a Japanese magazine Kaizo, reflecting on
his participation on the atomic bomb project and gave his last remarks. In the letter he stated that
his only participating act in the creation of the bomb was to sign the letter to President Roosevelt.
In the letter he explains that he was well aware of all the dangers mankind would face if the
bomb was created, but the chance of Germany being successful is what brought him to sign the
letter. The letter shows great remorse over the manner in which nations handle conflict and he
ends by saying “Gandhi, the greatest political genius of our time has shown the way, and has
demonstrated the sacrifices man is willing to bring if only he has found the right way.”12 This
letter from one of the most brilliant minds of all time differentiates scientists from the
government once again, as Einstein brings up the principle of moral duty.
After the discovery of nuclear fission and a letter warning President Roosevelt about the
potential threat of Germany creating a weapon of mass destruction, the United States entered the
race for the atomic bomb. Government and scientists worked together and ultimately achieved
their goal of creating the bomb however, with the sudden realization of the moral implications in
the bomb was planned to be used, many members of the scientific community searched for a
different strategy. While the United States wanted to use the nuclear weapons to strike fear into
12 Albert Einstein to Katusu Hara, 20 Sep. 1952.

the Japanese, the majority of the scientific community preferred to try a political and non-violent
approach first. Scientists proposed their ideas in the form of several letters, and essays but
ultimately were ignored when the bomb fell on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. In conclusion,
Albert Einstein brings up the point that there is always a peaceful approach to a situation. With
this statement, he embodies the idea that the majority of the scientific community had in regards
to the use of the atomic bomb.


Primary Sources

"A Petition to the President of the United States." Letter from Leo Szilard. July 17, 1945.
Accessed December 5, 2015. U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the
Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, Harrison-Bundy File, folder #76.

Einstein, Albert. Albert Einstein to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, August 2, 1939. Letter. From
Argonne National Library. http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/psf/box5/a64a01.html
(accessed December 3, 2015).

Ermenc, Joseph J., ed. "Vita of Werner Karl Heisenberg." In Atomic Bomb Scientists, 9-75.
Westport: Meckler Corporation, 1989.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt to Albert Einstein. October 19, 1939. Accessed December 5, 2015.

John H. Mahoney to Eugene Rabinowitch (5 February 1946), in Harrison-Bundy Files Relating
to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108

(Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 7, Target
4, Folder 81, “Declassification of Documents.”

Nuclear Files: Project of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. By Maud Committee. Accessed
December 10, 2015. http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclearweapons/history/pre-cold-war/manhattan-project/maud-report.htm#.

"On My Participation in The Atom Bomb Project." Albert Einstein to Katusu Hara. September
20, 1952.

"Poll on the Use of Weapon." Farrington Daniels to Arthur Compton. 1945.

Secondary Sources

Rhodes, Richard. “The Making of the Atomic Bomb”. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

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