155 scientists working on the Manhattan Project to design and build the world’s first A-bombs signed a petition to President Truman raising grave moral doubts about what they had created.
Led by physicist Leo Szilard, the signers at the Project’s secret uranium plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and at the Metallurgical Lab in Chicago, urged their Commander-in-Chief to weigh his “moral responsibilities” when deciding whether to drop A-bombs on inhabited Japanese cities. They also urged Truman to warn the Japanese about the apocalyptic ruin they faced, and to state clearly the surrender terms that Washington now expected from Tokyo.
The petition’s signers had all worked doggedly to create nuclear weapons before Nazi scientists could. But they saw this as a desperate, defensive effort to keep Hitler from world domination. Once Germany surrendered in May 1945, they considered offensive use of their new weapons against Japan as both morally wrong and potentially catastrophic. Instead, many signers urged the A-bomb be demonstrated to force Japan’s surrender, and then be locked under new international controls to forestall a post-war nuclear arms race.
More Manhattan Project scientists would have signed at Los Alamos, the secret lab in New Mexico where the bomb was designed and assembled, but there director J. Robert Oppenheimer forbade the petition’s circulation. Oppenheimer had advised a top-level government committee that recommended Truman use the bomb without warning on civilians, and he dismissed Szilard’s petition as naive meddling. Going further, Oppenheimer alerted Gen. Leslie Groves, the Manhattan Project’s military head, about the petition. Only after learning how Hiroshima and Nagasaki had been destroyed did Oppenheimer regret his creation, urge international control for all atomic work, and oppose racing to build even more powerful H-bombs.
Source: U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, Harrison-Bundy File, folder #76.
On July 17, 1945, Leo Szilard and 69 co-signers at the Manhattan Project “Metallurgical Laboratory” in Chicago petitioned the President of the United States.
July 17, 1945
A PETITION TO THE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES
Discoveries of which the people of the United States are not aware may affect the welfare of this nation in the near future. The liberation of atomic power which has been achieved places atomic bombs in the hands of the Army. It places in your hands, as Commander-in-Chief, the fateful decision whether or not to sanction the use of such bombs in the present phase of the war against Japan.
We, the undersigned scientists, have been working in the field of atomic power. Until recently, we have had to fear that the United States might be attacked by atomic bombs during this war and that her only defense might lie in a counterattack by the same means. Today, with the defeat of Germany, this danger is averted and we feel impelled to say what follows:
The war has to be brought speedily to a successful conclusion and attacks by 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 unless the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.
If such public announcement gave assurance to the Japanese that they could look forward to a life devoted to peaceful pursuits in their homeland and if Japan still refused to surrender our nation might then, in certain circumstances, find itself forced to resort to the use of atomic bombs. Such a step, however, ought not to be made at any time without seriously considering the moral responsibilities which are involved.
The development of atomic power will provide the nations with new means of destruction. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.
If after this war a situation is allowed to develop in the world which permits rival powers to be in uncontrolled possession of these new means of destruction, the cities of the United States as well as the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation. All the resources of the United States, moral and material, may have to be mobilized to prevent the advent of such a world situation. Its prevention is at present the solemn responsibility of the United States — singled out by virtue of her lead in the field of atomic power.
The added material strength which this lead gives to the United States brings with it the obligation of restraint and if we were to violate this obligation our moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. It would then be more difficult for us to live up to our responsibility of bringing the unloosened forces of destruction under control.
In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned, respectfully petition: first, that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief, to rule that the United States shall not resort to the use of atomic bombs in this war unless the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail and Japan knowing these terms has refused to surrender; second, that in such an event the question whether or not to use atomic bombs be decided by you in light of the considerations presented in this petition as well as all the other moral responsibilities which are involved.
Leo Szilard and 69 co-signers
Voice of Hibakusha (victims of the atom bombs)-
Testimony of Yosaku Mikami:- Since our order was to help the most heavily injured, we searched for them. We tried to open the eyes of the injured and we found out they were still alive. We tried to carry them by their arms and legs and to place them onto the fire truck. But this was difficult because their skin was peeled off as we tried to move them. They were all heavily burned. But they never complained but they felt pain even when their skin was peeling off. We carried the victims to the prefectural hospital. Soon afterwards, the hospital was full, so then we carried the injured to the Akatsuki Military Hospital. On the following day, we decided to visit the small fire stations throughout the town. I believe there were about 20 or 30 small stations with only 7 or 8 firemen each. Those small stations were temporary place near police stations and city halls during war time. The workers stationed at the important places were all killed. I visited one of the fire stations and inside the burned fire engine, I found a man who was scorched to death. He looked as if he was about to start the fire engine to fight the fire. Inside the broken building, I also found several dead men. I guess they were trapped inside the building.
Testimony of Isao Kita:- The smoke was so thick that it covered the entire town. After about 5 minutes, fire broke out here and there. The fire gradually grew bigger and there were smoke everywhere and so we could no longer see towards the town. The cloud of the smoke was very tall, but it didn’t come in this direction at all. The cloud moved in that direction from the ocean towards Hiroshima Station. It moved towards the north.The smoke from the fire, it was like a screen dividing the city into two parts. The sun was shining brightly just like it was a middle of the summer over here on this side. And behind the cloud on the other side, it was completely dark. The contrast was very much. So about 60 or 70 % of the sky was covered by the cloud and the other 30 % was completely clear. It was a bright clear blue sky. The condition had remained like this for some time. From Koi, looking towards Hiroshima Station, you could see the black rain falling. But from here, I couldn’t judge how much rain was falling. But based on the information I heard later, it seems that the rain fell quite heavy over a period of several hours. It was a black and sticky rain. It stuck everything. When it fell on trees and leaves, it stayed and turned everything black. When it fell on people’s clothing, the clothing turned black. It also stuck on people’s hands and feet. And it couldn’t be washed off. I couldn’t be washed off.
Testimony of Taeko Teramae:- There were many students who were mobilized to destroy buildings to widen the streets and the area of Tsurumi Bridge, City Hall and the Chugoku Newspaper on that day. And since they were outside, they were directly exposed to the bomb. Many of them died, many of them died right there. Someone called for help in vain, and some jumped into the river and drown to death. If my teacher, Mr. Wakita had not come to help me, I would have died in the river.
MATSUDA: It was very, very hot. I touched my skin and it just peeled right off. The driver of the streetcar was not in sight. I thought he had been quick to run away but now I think that he was probably hurled outside in the blast. It was around August 25 that a pile of my hair just fell off all at once. I had a high fever and maggots infested in my eyes.
INTERVIEWER: In your eyes?
MATSUDA: Yes. I was afflicted with erysipelas as well. I had two children, but I had not told them about this experience. And I don’t want to talk about it. But this time many people are testifying together and since I’ve been asked, I will talk. But I have tried to avoid it until now.