USA

The story of how Manhattan Project workers tried to stop the atomic bombs 75 years ago

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – One month before the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, killing an estimated 150,000 people in Hiroshima and 75,000 people in Nagasaki, some of the Manhattan Project's leading scientists tried to beseech President Harry S. Truman to call off the bombings.

Their requests were never heard by the president.

Instead, two of the administration's top officials schemed to keep the president in the dark about objections raised by the scientists, who were shocked by the fearsome destructive power of what they had created. Ultimately an assistant stamped two petitions from scientists "secret" before they ever reached the president's desk, and they were stored away until they were declassified in 1958.  

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The atomic bombs were dropped on Aug. 6 and Aug. 9, 1945, flattening Hiroshima and Nagasaki and shocking the obstinate Japanese into submission. Americans, and much of the world, celebrated the vanquishing of a fierce enemy and the end of the world's bloodiest war.

Still, the concerns concealed in those petitions 75 years ago have echoed across generations of people deeply troubled by the destruction of entire cities.

The question lingered: Could the scientists' pleas have ended the war with less bloodshed?  

Chief physicist tries to stop the bombs

Leo Szilard was working as the chief physicist at the Chicago Met Lab in the spring of 1945 when he started to rethink the morality of using atomic bombs. 

Szilard was an integral part of the project. He developed the idea of the nuclear chain reaction in 1933.

Though Szilard was a pacifist at heart, he co-wrote a letter with Albert Einstein in 1936 to President Franklin Roosevelt that encouraged the U.S. to begin building an atomic bomb. The men were afraid the technology would be developed first by Nazi Germany.

But now that the weapon was reality, Szilard reverted to his initial feelings.

"Leo Szilard believed that there would be a way to make known the power of these bombs without actually killing anyone," said Ray Smith, historian at Y-12, the Oak Ridge, Tennessee, facility that produced the uranium used in those first atomic bombs.

After his arguments were rebuffed by Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, Szilard became determined to reach the president. He softened his stance over the course of several petition drafts and sent a revised version to other Manhattan Project scientists and technicians for their signature.

Petition arrives in Oak Ridge

Most workers at the labs knew only enough to do their jobs. They were unaware that they were building a bomb, much less the most destructive bomb in human history.

Some people at the lab in Oak Ridge caught on to what was happening inside "The Secret City," a place where workers could not even mutter the word "uranium."

A group of workers, including Alvin Weinberg, the lab administrator, looked over Szilard's letter when it arrived in June. They responded with two petitions of their own. 

The first version was signed by 18 people at the lab and outlined three requests:

We respectfully petition that the use of atomic bombs, particularly against cities, be sanctioned by you as the Chief Executive only under the following conditions:

  1. Opportunity has been given to the Japanese to surrender on terms ensuring them the possibility of peaceful development in their homeland.
  2. Convincing warnings have been given that a refusal to surrender will be followed by the use of a new weapon.
  3. Responsibility for use of atomic bombs is shared with our allies.

In a second version of the petition, a group of scientists stressed the "moral obligation on the government and people of the United States" if the weapon were to be used. They suggested that its powers be described and demonstrated, giving Japan the opportunity to consider the consequences of refusing to surrender. Sixty-seven signed the letter. 

"Those letters were an attempt to not drop the bombs on people," Smith said. "They were the result of scientists who understood what they had and knew the damage that could be done. They were trying to avoid loss of life."

Historians think that between 85 and 150 people signed the various drafts at the Oak Ridge and Chicago sites. The petition never gained signatures at the other project locations because many people didn't want the word to spread — for good reason.

Keeping the petitions classified

Plenty of people involved in the Manhattan Project wanted to quash Szilard's petitions. Project director Gen. Leslie Groves and Secretary of War Henry Stimson were by far the most adamant about keeping petitions out of the president's hands.

"Stimson and Groves wanted to proceed with the plan that they had in place," Smith said. "They didn't think that dropping the bomb out in Tokyo Bay would have had the same impact than dropping it on a military target."

Groves insisted that if Szilard and the other signees wanted the petition to reach Truman, it had to go through him. 

Members of the military were sure that any straying from orders would undercut the entire project, and it could have. Spies swarmed the country to steal secrets, and there were reports of informants in Oak Ridge. A leak could have jeopardized the security that Groves and Stimson worked hard to achieve. 

Nevertheless, Groves made Szilard jump through hoops to deliver the letter. Szilard first passed the petition to fellow physicist Arthur Compton. He passed it to Kenneth Nichols, who passed it to Groves himself. Groves held on to the petition until August, when he knew Stimson would be in Europe with the president. Stimson's assistant filed it "secret," and it was never seen by Stimson or Truman. 

"The scientists had no idea that the president hadn't seen the letter until after the bombs were dropped," Smith said.

Petitions unlikely to change history

Despite support from one of the project's leading scientists and many workers, Smith doesn't believe that the petitions would have made any difference in the outcome of the bombings.

"(The petitions) were stopped because the plans had already been set in motion," Smith said. "It was too little, too late."

Little Boy and Fat Man, the names of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively, were dropped, killing hundreds of thousands and destroying buildings across miles of each city.

On Aug. 14, Japan surrendered unconditionally and World War II ended.

The abrupt end to the war has spurred countless "what if?" conversations. Did the bombings ultimately save many more lives? Were the Japanese actually beat and would have collapsed with a bit more pressure from conventional bombings and blockades?

The U.S. military expected anywhere from 250,000 to 1 million American service members to die in the invasion of Japan, and many more Japanese (former Military Review editor D.M. Giangreco wrote in 2010 that the Japanese military estimated the country would lose 20 million people in an American invasion).

"If it were not for the bombs, the pressure would have not been put on (Japanese Emperor Hirohito) that caused him to change his mind and surrender so quickly," Smith said. 

Manhattan Project sites across the country are commemorating the anniversary of the bombings by looking back on the end of the terrible confrontation in those August days 75 years ago, and forward to efforts to rein in the spread of nuclear weapons to ensure none are used again.

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