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Scientists and Society


Szilard Documents

(from Leo Szilard: his Version of the Facts, ed. by S.R.Weart and Gertrud Weiss Szilard, MIT Press, 1978)

A number of relevant passages from Szilard's writings are extracted here. These should be read and compared to the "Franck Report" (Szilard's petition is obviously written in contrast to this which Szilard regarded as unsatisfactory). Several questions may appear; e.g., how should we make sense of Szilard's constrast of "expedient" and "moral"?

See also Szilard and Szilard_Note.


Jan. 14, 1944, To V. Bush

[In a letter in which he complained that the project of uranium bomb is "crippled by circumstances which are not within the power of any one special project to remedy", Szilard insisted as follows.]

...with your permission I may perhaps say why it appears to me (...) so very important to do all that is in our power to have the final product in sufficient quantities at an early date. . . . It would therefore be imperative rigidly to control all deposits, if necessary by force, and it will hardly be possible to get political action along that line unless high efficiency atomic bombs have actually been used in this war and the fact of their destructive power has deeply penetrated the mind of the public. This for me personally is perhaps the main reason for being distressed by what I see happening around me. (163)


As regards the motivations for a petition to the President, Szilard recollects as follows:

Initially we were strongly motivated to produce the bomb because we feared that the Germans would get ahead of us, and the only way to prevent them from dropping bombs on us was to have bombs in readiness ouselves. (Doc. 100) But now [around the spring of '45], with the war won, it was not clear what we were looking for. (181)

I knew by this time that it would not be possible to dissuade the government from using the bomb against the cities of Japan. The cards in the Interim Committee were stacked against such an approach to the problem. Therefore all that remained to be done was for the scientists to go unmistakably on record that they were opposed to such action. While the Franck Report argued the case on the ground of expediency, I thought that the time had come for the scientists to go on record against the use of the bomb against the cities of Japan, on moral grounds. Therefore I drafted a petition which I circulated in the project. (187)


July 4, 1945, draft of a petition

It may very well be that the decision of the President whether or not to use atomic bomb in the war against Japan will largely be based on considerations of expediency. ... Such arguments could be considered only within the framework of a thorough analysis of the situation which will face the united States after this war and it was felt that no useful purpose would be served by considering arguments of expediency in a short petition.

However small the chance might be that our petition may influence the course of events, I personally feel that it would be a matter of importance if a large number of scientists who have worked in this field went clearly and unmistakably on record as to their opposition on moral grounds to the use of these bombs in the present phase of the war. (210)

The fact that the people of the United States are unaware of the choice which faces us increases our responsibility in this matter since those who have worked on "atomic power" represent a sample of the population and they alone are in a position to form an opinion and declare their stand. (210)


July 13, 1945, draft of petition, revision

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

1. Opportunities has been given to the Japanese to surrender on terms assuring 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. (210)


July 17, 1945, final draft of petition

... Until recently we have had to fear that the United States might be attacked by atomic bombs during this war and that her only defence 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:

...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 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 the 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. ... 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 strength which this lead gives to the united States brings with it the obligation of restraint and if we were to violate this obligation iur moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. It would then be more dificult for us to live up to our responsibility of bringing the unloosened forces of destruction under control. (211-2)


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