Text Messages | Morality and the atom bomb

One of the scientists whose work made possible the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki suffered a last-minute attack of conscience and campaigned against the looming mass murder.

At 8.15am on 6 August 1945, a United States Air Force plane dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Hiroshima in Japan. Three days later, another US Air Force plane dropped an atomic bomb on the city of Nagasaki, also in Japan. 

By conservative estimates the first bomb killed 200 000 people, destroying most of the city in passing. Deaths mounted in the following years from radiation poisoning and injuries sustained. If the Hiroshima bomb was ethically indefensible, even more so was dropping a second one on Nagasaki (which killed an estimated 80 000).

Human beings – the US administration of the time – had decided to test on other human beings a weapon the power and destructive force of which they already well knew, because a bomb had been tested in the New Mexico desert on 17 July 1945. Among the many low points of human behaviour, the decision to atom bomb Hiroshima is among the worst.

Many of the scientists whose work had made the bomb possible were and continue to be blamed for what happened on those terrible days in August 1945. But one perhaps might not deserve to rot alongside his guilty colleagues in Dante’s bleakest circle of Hell. 

Leo Szilard, born in Budapest in 1898, had gone to Columbia University in the US in 1937 and was instrumental in the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb. Why should so clearly a culpable figure be given any redemption? Because after it became clear that the war against the Nazis had been won, it was Szilard who realised that the atom bomb was going to be made for use against the Japanese.

In the feverish days of early 1945 Szilard went on a mission of his own, sending many memorandums in protest. His memorandum to then US president Franklin D Roosevelt did not reach its recipient only because Roosevelt died, on 12 April. That death might indeed have led to the hundreds of thousands later in Japan.

‘A nuclear chain reaction’

The central idea of Szilard’s memo campaign was that the bomb should be openly tested with an audience made up of international and Japanese observers. He hoped that on seeing the bomb’s terrible force Japan would surrender. Looking back, it is easy to label Szilard as both politically naïve and belatedly principled. After all, in an earlier August, that of 1939, a month before Germany invaded Poland, Szilard drafted a letter to Roosevelt about the possibility of setting up “a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium”.

Worse – although better of course for Szilard’s immediate purposes of the time – he persuaded Albert Einstein to be the sender and signatory. Einstein’s name appeared in the heading and his small, precise “A. Einstein” signature appeared at the bottom of the letter, preceded by “Yours very truly”.

In between, there are some horror paragraphs, such as this:

“This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs, and it is conceivable – though much less certain – that extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed. A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove to be too heavy for transportation by air.”

The humanistic side of science

By 1945, the 509th Composite Group of the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) had in commission the customised Silverplate model of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress, a monster capable of carrying an atom bomb. A USAAF B-29 piloted by Colonel Paul W Tibbets, and named Enola Gay after his mother, dropped the so-called Little Boy, stuffed with 64kg of uranium-235, on the defenceless civilians of Hiroshima. The nauseatingly dubbed Fat Man, a plutonium implosion bomb, was unleashed on Nagasaki from a B-29 named Bockscar piloted by Major Charles W Sweeney. May all their names live in perpetual infamy.

Back to Szilard and his wobbly grasp of Weltpolitik. He deserves sympathy for his desperate efforts to stop the bomb being used against human beings. His defeat as both a scientist and a human were poignantly captured by Jacob Bronowski, the Polish-born mathematician who was so brilliant at advocating the humanistic side of the sciences. In The Ascent of Man, his BBC television series (1973) and subsequent book (1976), Bronowski remembers:

“I had not been long back from Hiroshima when I heard someone say, in Szilard’s presence, that it was the tragedy of scientists that their discoveries were used for destruction. Szilard replied, as he more than anyone else had the right to reply, that it was not the tragedy of scientists: ‘it is the tragedy of mankind’.”

That tragedy of humankind is nowhere better captured than in Dante’s The Divine Comedy, Book I, Hell, Canto 33, lines 58 and 59:

Io no piangeva; si dentro impietrai
Piangevar elli

I didn’t weep, for I had turned to stone
Within. They wept …
(Translation by Clive James, 2013)

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