Hindsight: Reactions from the American Scientific Community on the Deployment of Nuclear Bombs

Reed Uhlik

For many monumental historical events, the passage of time often leads to a more unified interpretation and narrative of a specific event. However, the decision by the United States to drop two nuclear bombs on Japan does not follow this historical pattern. In the aftermath, US public opinion grew increasingly divided, notably within the scientific community.  Some members of this community initially sought “to devise a means of such unparalleled dimensions in terms of psychological warfare that already by the very nature of its tremendous innate power and destructive agency” (Majerus 22).  After the bombs were deployed, they instead felt grief and resentment towards the US government and its decision to drop such weapons on civilian-occupied areas.  Others feel little to no remorse and acknowledge the war-time urgency to save American lives and bring a quick end to WWII through whatever means necessary. While I focus primarily on the diverging beliefs and varying senses of moral responsibility inside of the scientific community, these points of contention and disagreement exist inside of wide-ranging social groups.

Interviews with Philip Morrison, a nuclear engineer who was a student of Robert Oppenheimer, and John Grove, a chemist who worked to purify uranium for nuclear bombs, highlight both the shared emotions as well as the different post-war interpretations from two people who worked closely on the Manhattan Project.  While these two interviews serve as a small representation of the broader scientific community who worked on building nuclear bombs, their two accounts can be used to explore the nuanced effect that the passage of time can have on perceptions of moral responsibility and accomplishments.  How did Morrison and Grove’s attitudes towards the dropping of the nuclear bomb transform over time? How did the narrative that the Germans were ahead of the US in the arms race impact these attitudes during the war?  And how do these two narratives represent the broader scientific community’s growing contention with the government leading up to President Truman’s decision to employ nuclear weaponry to end WWII?

Shifting Attitudes

The challenge of learning how to harness the theoretical power of nuclear fission was underway since 1902, when chemists Ernest Rutherford and Frederick Soddy discovered the immense energy contained in an atomic reaction compared to that of a chemical reaction (Houghton 10).  Over the course of the next 30 years, many prominent scientists built on this discovery, with the discovery of the nucleus, the neutron, and most notably, nuclear fission in 1938.  With the outbreak of WWII a year later, the entire scientific community was driven simultaneously by two factors: scientific inquiry, and the fear that Axis powers would harness nuclear technology first.  Morrison explains how the scientific profession successfully recruited Albert Einstein in 1939 to petition the government to give them the necessary resources to build an atomic bomb (Terkel 708).  The origin of the Manhattan Project was a product of repeated petitioning by the scientific community itself.

Morrison and Grove both expressed an initial desire to work on a scary yet potentially revolutionary scientific project. While Morrison more explicitly recounted that “the day I joined Fermi at Chicago was suffused was excitement,” Grove also emphasizes the patriotic team dynamic in the beginning of the project (Terkel 709).  Both scientists acknowledge this initial presence of excitement and of how this urge for discovery acted as a moral blindfold, possibly aided by the fact that much of the early work was purely theoretical.

A select group of scientists opposed employing nuclear technology in Japan before Truman’s decision to drop the bombs. In a memo intended for President Truman known as the Szilard Petition, seventy of these scientists felt that “such attacks on Japan could not be justified” unless Japan was made aware of the power of nuclear technology and refused to surrender.  Both Morrison and Grove, however, remained unopposed to its wartime use.  While their initial excitement of working on the novel project had worn off and was replaced by feelings of uncertainty, both acknowledged the patriotic ideology that was driving military decisions and pushes to finish the project.  Additionally, the United States had already invested millions of dollars in the project and the people involved had a personal interest to see their work materialize.  While there was undoubtedly skepticism towards what the future held after, these inner concerns were outweighed by the broader push to end the war and find success in the Manhattan Project.  Morrison, for example, felt that “our work may bring an end to the war, save many lives, start a new world. Nobody breathed its possibilities to the UN” (Terkel 713).  This suggests that there was a strong desire to receive credit from the people working on the project before it was dropped.  This likely also contributed to the desire to see their work come to fruition, even if it meant dropping the bomb on Japan.

A stark difference in perspectives is articulated however, following the defeat of Japan in the aftermath of WWII, with both Morrison and Groves making historically inaccurate claims to morally justify their actions as time progressed. Take Groves’ seemingly surprised reaction that the military dropped the nuclear bomb on a city as an example. Given that, according to Grove, “basically, there are no secrets to scientists” (Terkel 729), and the close relationship he had with his boss Dr. Segré, it is difficult to believe he had no idea the bomb would possibly be dropped on a city.  In fact, the Szilard petition directly contradicts this claim, with other scientists warning, “the cities of other nations will be in continuous danger of sudden annihilation.” Morrison’s claim that, “I followed my leaders enthusiastically and rather blindly” seems to pin the blame for his moral responsibility on his superiors rather than himself, when he had previously explained how he was explicitly told he was “going to make a bomb to kill very many people” (Terkel 718).  

When asked if he had any regrets about working on the atomic bomb, Grove gave a definitive no (Terkel 731).  While recognizing the atrocity that occurred, Grove rationalized his actions through a wartime mentality.  Morrison gives a starkly different answer, explaining how, “reality confronts you with things you could never anticipate” and “it took me only one lesson to learn the mistake” (Terkel 719). Evidently, Morrison feels great remorse for the detonation of the bomb, even when recognizing the political context of the time.  These differing post-war interpretations highlight the overall divergence within the scientific community on their moral responsibility and sentiment towards the nuclear bomb over time.

The Perceived Nuclear Race with Germany

Although the nuclear bomb was ultimately used to bring an end to the war in the Pacific, the fear that Germany was ahead of the United States in developing its own nuclear bomb was arguably the biggest driver in nationalistic ideology for scientific development.  While there was never any highly credible evidence that Germany was truly ahead of the United States in developing a bomb- in fact, they completely stopped their attempts in 1942- the United States military and scientific community had reason to believe that they were.  In fact, the discovery of nuclear fission was made by German scientists (Houghton 15).  From the beginning of the nuclear race, the United States felt that they were playing catch-up. As Morrison describes it, “their information on Germany was not very good, but it seemed to them plausible” (Terkel 710).  For example, scientists in the US gained news from British sources that the Germans were manufacturing a substance that, in the eyes of American scientists, was only suitable for being used as a moderator for a fission reactor (Houghton 25).  This liberal spreading of information and lack of secrecy between scientists supports Groves’ description of how, “science is universal and it’s very difficult to hide [things]” (Terkel 729).  This open-channel communication between scientists across political lines became known as the underground scientific community.

With the prevalence of this underground scientific community, one glaring question emerges: how did the United States (and the people working on the Manhattan Project) fail to know that Germany gave up on developing a nuclear bomb in 1942?  Grove contradicts himself, first claiming that“basically, there are no secrets to scientists,” and later explaining that “with wartime secrecy, we had no way of knowing” (Terkel 729).  This may be another example of a post-war justification for dropping the bomb.  If American scientists working on the project could claim that they did not know whether Germany was also preparing to launch their own bomb at the same time, then they could justify to themselves that their work was undeniably necessary.

Now we know that this was not the case.  Even before the end of the war, Morrison recounts how he oversaw counterintelligence operations to determine Germany’s status of their nuclear program.  Dubbed the Alsace mission, Morrison explains that by December of 1944, “we learned unmistakably […] that the Germans were not a threat. They could not make the atomic bomb” (Terkel 710).  Notably, these missions to determine the status of Germany’s arms program ended up costing the United States more money than Germany ever spent on such development.  So, why did the US continue to insist that German nuclear technology was a threat? Perhaps the benefit from allowing the US public to believe Germany was closer to building a bomb than they actually were was a way to increase patriotism and sustain support for war-time efforts. A sinister explanation perhaps, but plausible considering the moral blindfold many US scientists wore during the war.

The Scientific Community vs. the American Government

The Manhattan project reveals a unique dynamic between the US government and nuclear scientists regarding patriotism. From the beginning of Morrison’s interview, he reminds the reader that it is a “complete misapprehension” that “the folklore of the day is that the physicists were approached by the army,” instead detailing how, “we went to the army” (Terkel 707).  The scientific community petitioned the government to fund work on a nuclear bomb, claiming that Germany was already ahead of them.  As the war went on, the government increasingly controlled the project – dropping the bomb was a decision that fell directly in the hands of the President. As this decision loomed, nuclear scientists became increasingly divided over the consequences of dropping the bomb.  Some scientists such as Morrison and Grove remained unopposed to its use, while those who signed onto the Szilard Petition vocalized their newly developed moral concern.  As the war went on, the same group of people who initially sought the US government’s support to kickstart the Manhattan Project became the most vocally opposed to its eventual use to end the war.  

When comparing Grove and Morrison’s personal sentiments towards the American government, both detail their patriotic duty to their country.  Grove, however, explains his reaction from finding out the success of the bomb stemmed from the threat that failure would result in a Congressional investigation (Terkel 730).  Most people working on the Manhattan Project were not nationally recognized scientists.  Many were fresh out of college and were recruited by the government’s patriotic calls in the time of war.   The hopes of these individuals for the outcome of their nuclear research were vastly different from those of the government.  The Manhattan Project was simply one tool at the discretion of the US government to bring an end to the war.  While collective efforts from the scientific community were driven by the pursuit of knowledge, patriotism, and the desire to make a living wage, the US government was concerned with preserving American lives and diplomatic relations, both during and after the war.  These differing motivations largely account for this dissonance among the two groups.

Until the detonation of the bombs, many scientists were fueled by the pursuit of scientific advancement and US patriotism to catch up to the Germans.  Even after it became clear that Germany was no longer a competitor in the development of this technology, this motivation to defeat the Germans was still highly prevalent.  After the end of the war, many members of the scientific community took starkly different views of the project and likely felt moral responsibility for the event.  Both Morrison and Grove’s interviews highlight contradictions and hypocrisies that likely emerged out of a desire to justify their actions from the war. After the war, with the moral blindfold off, scientists like Morrison and Groves, as well as historians, can evaluate the true consequences of their actions and inactions in one of the most monumental moments in the 20th century. 

Photo: Atomic Cloud Rises over Nagasaki, Japan, by Charles Levy. Office for Emergency Management. Office of War Information. Overseas Operations Branch. New York Office. News and Features Bureau. (12/17/1942 – 09/15/1945)

Reed Uhlik is a Sophomore Undergraduate at Georgetown University double majoring in Computer Science and Economics. In his free time, Reed loves playing basketball, cooking, and watching football.

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