Historical Objections from Scientists Working on the First Bomb

Quotes from Schweber, S. S. In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000)

We were then very much sobered

"Immediately after the explosion [at Trinity], many people, including Groves, sought out Oppenheimer to congratulate him. That same morning at Los Alamos, Oppenheimer remarked that his 'faith in the human mind has been somewhat restored' and, while greatly relieved that the endeavor had succeeded, he admitted that he was 'a little scared of what we had made.' He later related that when the bomb detonated he became conscious of the line from the Bhagavad Gita: 'I am become Death, the destroyer of world.' This statement took on two essential characteristics of Oppenheimer: his erudition and insightfulness, and his inability to hold himself at arm's length from the historic events of which he is a part...

"According to Bethe, the bombing had been eagerly awaited and 'people were very happy' that it had happened. But 'we were then very much sobered when we got films from Hiroshima, taken the next day, which showed a destruction far beyond anything we had visualised, although we had calculated something very close to it.' Philip Morrison and Robert Serber had gone to Hiroshima in early September 1945 and reported back to the Los Alamos scientists the terrible destruction that had been wreaked on the city. Although the earlier pictures had indicated the magnitude of the devastation, Morrison movingly described the enormity of the suffering the bomb had inflicted on the population. After Hiroshima, Bethe and most other scientists from the various parts of the project concluded that a nuclear war must never be waged. This was the message that Morrison had brought back from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Oppenheimer was perhaps the most troubled by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 17 he wrote Henry Stimson, the secretary of war: 'The safety of this nation, as opposed to its ability to inflict damage on an enemy power-cannot lie wholly or entirely in its scientific or technical prowess. It can only be based on making future wars impossible.

"After the war, both Bethe and Oppenheimer became deeply concerned with the consequences of the atomic bomb. Like many of those who worked on it, they began to lecture extensively to educate the public at large about the dangers and sought to influence Congress to accept placing the bomb under international control." (Schweber, In the Shadow of the Bomb, pp. 155-56)

A weapon of genocide

James Bryan Conant on the potential development of the H-Bomb (October 30, 1949) "...the extreme danger to mankind inherent in the proposal wholly outweighs any military advantage that could come from this development. Let it be clearly realized that this is a super weapon; it is a totally different category from an atomic bomb. The reason for developing such super bombs would be to have the capacity to devastate a vast area with a single bomb. Its use would involve the decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians. We are alarmed as to the possible global effects of the radioactivity generated by the explosion of a few super bombs of conceivable magnitude. If super bombs will work at all, there is no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained with them. Therefore, a super bomb might become a weapon of genocide... "In determining not to proceed to develop the super bomb, we see a unique opportunity of providing by example some limitations on the totality of war and thus limiting the fear and arousing the hopes of mankind." (Schweber, In the Shadow of the Bomb, pp. 158-59)

What are we to think of such a civilization?

"...Oppenheimer recalled at a seminar his reactions to Truman's decision to proceed with the development of the Superbomb: 'I find myself in profound anguish over the fact that no ethical discussion of any weight or nobility has been addressed to the problem of atomic weapons....What are we to make of a civilization which has always regarded ethics an essential part of human life, and which has always had in it an articulate, deep, fervent conviction...a dedication to...doing no harm or hurt...what are we to think of such a civilization which has not been able to talk about killing almost everybody, except in prudential and game-theoretical terms?'" (Schweber, In the Shadow of the Bomb, p. 160)

Quotes from Jungk, Robert. Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. (San Diego CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958)

Mixed emotions

" 'Willie' Higinbotham, a thirty-four-year-old electronic specialist-the son of a Protestant clergyman and soon afterward prominent among those atomic scientists who felt politically and morally responsible for their work-wrote from Los Alamos, to his mother: 'I am not a bit proud of the job we have done...the only reason for doing it was to beat the rest of the world to a draw...perhaps this is so devastating that man will be forced to be peaceful. The alternative to peace is now unthinkable. But unfortunately there will always be some who don't think....I think I now know the meaning of "mixed emotions." I am afraid that Gandhi is the only real disciple of Christ at present...anyway it is over for now and God give us strength in the future. Love Will.'" (Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns, p. 223)

Death from radiation 'very pleasant'

"A special subject brought up by the scientists at Los Alamos was the game of hide-and-seek played by the Army with the problem of radioactivity. Even before the atomic weapon had first been used some physicists had entreated General Groves to allow pamphlets to be dropped at the same time as the bomb, pointing out the unfamiliar dangers of radioactivity arising from the explosion of this new weapon. This request had been refused by the military authorities, for they feared that such warnings might be interpreted as a confession that they had been employing a type of weapon like poison gas.

"They proceeded, probably from similar motives, to try to divert attention from the radioactive effects of atomic bombardment. It was explained that there was now no dangerous radioactivity to be found in the ruins of Hiroshima, and the number of the victims who had been exposed, at the moment of the explosion, to a fatal dose of radiation or one likely to cause chronic illness, was kept secret. Groves stated openly at a Congressional hearing that he had heard death from radiation was 'very pleasant.'

"Such observations made the Los Alamos scientists' blood boil. For at that very moment their twenty-six-year-old colleague Harry Daghlian was struggling against the menace of a cruel death from the effects of radiation.

"On August 21, 1945, during an experiment with a small quantity of fissile material, Daghlian had set off a chain reaction for the fraction of a second. His right hand had received a huge dose of radiation. After admission to hospital within half an hour of the accident, the patient had at first noticed only a certain loss of sensation in the fingers, occasionally superceded by slight tingling. But soon his hands grew more and more swollen and his general condition deteriorated rapidly.

"Delerium set in. The young physicist complained of severe internal pains, for it was now that the effect of the gamma rays, which had penetrated far beneath the skin to the interior of the body, began to be perceptible. The patient's hair dropped out. The white corpuscles of his blood increased rapidly. Twenty-four days later he died.

"For the first time death by radiation, which the men of Los Alamos had inflicted upon thousands of Japanese by constructing their weapon, had overtaken one of themselves. For the first time the dangerous effects of the new power had been brought close, not in the form of a distant statistic, but as the suffering, pain, and fatal sickness one of their own group.

"The accident to Harry Daghlian intensified the movement which had begun in all the atomic laboratories among those scientists who intended to tell the world the whole truth about the new weapon and entreat their fellow men to renounce all use of atomic energy in warfare. Nine days after Daghlian had been taken to the hospital shed on the Hill, the Association of Atomic Scientists, headed by Higenbotham, was formed in Los Alamos. About a hundred of the men in research immediately joined it. Similar groups had already arisen in Chicago, at Oak Ridge and in New York. The groups got in touch with one another and came to a common decision to enlighten the public and thus bring strong pressure to bear on the statesmen of the country, in spite of the fact that such an appeal would constitute an infringement of the Army regulations to which the members of the Association were still subject. Such was the start of the movement which later became known, in a somewhat exaggerated phrase, as 'the revolt of the atomic scientists.'" (Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, pp. 228-29)

 

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