As Hiroshima Smouldered, Our Atom Bomb Scientists Suffered Remorse

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A boy looks at a photograph showing Hiroshima city after the 1945 atomic bombing, at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, Japan August 6, 2007. Toru Hanai/Reuters

“…this deliberate, premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.”

— Henry Stimson, Secretary of War in the Truman administration, defending the decision to use the atomic bomb (Harper’s Magazine, February 1947)

As the facts of the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki filtered back to Los Alamos in August and September, the earlier exuberance of the Manhattan Project’s scientists and engineers turned introspective and, by stages, morose. Some found themselves reflecting guiltily on what they had done.

The nuclear reckoning preoccupied the experts in ways they had not foreseen: The “questionable morality” of dropping the bomb without warning “profoundly disturbed” many, and their moral qualms deepened after Nagasaki, observed Edward Teller. “After the war’s end,” he wrote, “scientists who wanted no more of weapons work began fleeing to the sanctuary of university laboratories and classrooms.”

In J. Robert Oppenheimer we encounter a man who seemed to reflect the median temperament, rather like a psychic bellwether who captures the emotional impulses of those around him. On 16 October, his last day on the “Hill,” Los Alamos held a farewell ceremony in Oppenheimer’s honor.

Upon accepting his Certificate of Appreciation, Oppenheimer addressed the mesa’s entire workforce (each of whom later received a sterling silver pin stamped with a large “A” and a small “BOMB,” in recognition of his or her service).

“It is our hope,” Oppenheimer said, “that in years to come we may look at this scroll, and all that it signifies, with pride. Today that pride must be tempered with a profound concern. If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.

“The peoples of this world must unite or they will perish. This war, that has ravaged so much of the earth, has written these words. The atomic bomb has spelled them out for all men to understand. Other men have spoken them, in other times, of other wars, of other weapons. They have not prevailed. There are some, misled by a false sense of human history, who hold that they will not prevail today. It is not for us to believe that. By our works we are committed, to a united world, before this common peril, in law, and in humanity.”

On 25 October 1945 President Harry S. Truman received Oppenheimer in the Oval Office; the physicist had requested the meeting in an effort to persuade the president to support international controls on nuclear weapons. Truman disarmed Oppenheimer by asking when the latter thought the Russians would develop a nuclear weapon; Oppenheimer replied that he did not know, to which Truman interjected: “Never!” 

Sensing a lack of urgency in the U.S. leader, and perhaps a little overwhelmed by their first meeting, Oppenheimer confided, “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.” The remark infuriated Truman who bluntly replied (as he later told David Lilienthal, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission), that “the blood is on my hands, let me worry about that,” smoothly ejected the physicist and instructed Secretary of State Dean Acheson never to bring “that son of a bitch in this office ever again.”

Oppenheimer meant that he wore the blood of future casualties of nuclear war; not the blood of the Japanese. The “cry baby scientist,” as Truman later dismissed him (itself a rather infantile remark) cared not for the Japanese—who were “poor little people,” the collateral damage of a war they had brought on themselves; he wept for the Western victims of a future nuclear Armageddon.

Oppenheimer’s remark alluded to his responsibility for the deaths of millions of individuals in some distant apocalypse, which would be traced to the two nuclear bombs, nicknamed Little Boy and Fat Man. Hiroshima and Nagasaki served as terrible, if necessary, examples of what the bomb might do; he did not think of them as avoidable tragedies in their own right. He quickly cast forward—as though he dared not look back—to a world where, he dreamed, global controls on nuclear weapons would entrench a lasting peace.

In later years he alluded to a collective sense of regret for the general horror of war. He spoke of the “numbing and indifference” World War II had imbued in mankind; he warned that “we have made a very grave mistake” in contemplating the massive use of the weapon; and that “in some sort of crude sense…the physicists have known sin.” He did not define the nature of his “sin.” Oppenheimer’s mind was impervious to the probes of an ordinary conscience. He felt a terrible responsibility for what might happen; not for what he had helped to do.

His great speech of 2 November 1945 to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (ALAS)—the spirit of whose acronym he did not share—was notable for what it did not say. The man who bore most responsibility for developing the weapon did not name Hiroshima or Nagasaki; they were already part of a fading past. He made one oblique reference, however, that suggested niggling regret.

“There was a period immediately after the first use of the bomb,” he told the 500 members of ALAS, “when it seemed most natural that a clear statement of policy, and the initial steps of implementing it, should have been made; and it would be wrong for me not to admit that something may have been lost, and that there may be tragedy in that loss.”

He called for noble goals—the shared exchange of atomic knowledge, the creation of a world fraternity of nuclear scientists and the abolition of nuclear weapons; he spoke of the “deep moral dependence” of mankind during the “peril and the hope” of the nuclear era; he cited Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. He charmed and pullulated and a kind of statesman was born. These were, however, the impossible ideals of a very clever problem-solver, not a moral visionary. Grand gestures could not change the fact that Oppenheimer had personally recommended a nuclear attack on a city of civilians without warning. This happened; the rest was wistful dreams. He later insisted—perhaps it was unbearable to think otherwise—that the atomic bombs “cruelly, yet decisively ended the Second World War.”

08_04_Hiroshima_02 Paul Ham's 'Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath,' excerpted below, reflects on the American attitudes to the event immediately after the bomb fell. Picador

Scandal and tragedy punctuated the rest of Oppenheimer’s life. The recipient of several job offers, from Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, Oppenheimer chose initially to return to Berkeley. In the event, however, he would serve in Washington as an adviser and contributor to the Acheson-Lilienthal Report on international atomic controls.

His acme as chairman of the powerful General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission came tumbling down with the suspension of his security clearance in 1954: the inquiry dredged up his pre-war associations with Communists, notably his late lover Jean Tatlock and his friend Haakon Chevalier, who claimed the scientist had been a member of a Communist cell.

The witch hunt, of course, was a “travesty of justice,” and had more to do with Oppenheimer’s refusal to support the hydrogen bomb project than any serious truck with Reds. That General Leslie Groves should be among those who refused to clear him would surely have embittered a lesser man; but Oppenheimer rode the inquiry with dignity and circumspection. He retained his job as director of the Institute of Advanced Study, was later rehabilitated and retired with a certain honor. He died on 18 February 1967.

If Oppenheimer lacked the moral courage directly to recognize his role in the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the facts of the atomic bombs jolted other scientists, as if from a fitful sleep, to a keener awareness of a terrible new reality.

Many lapsed into torments of self-accusation and spent much of their lives expiating guilt. Physicist Mark Oliphant, for example—who had played a critical role in persuading the U.S. to build the bomb—“could hardly believe the early reports of the incineration of Hiroshima…for he had not really come to grips with the possibility that a civilized and reputedly Christian nation was capable of such a deed.”

His denial was hardly credible: what on earth did he suppose he had been working on, if not a bomb that would, if the chance arose, be used? Unlike Oppenheimer, Oliphant ran the gauntlet of guilt and later damned himself: “During the war I worked…on nuclear weapons so I, too, am a war criminal.”

Leo Szilard and members of the Franck Committee imposed, to a lesser degree, a similar self-indictment. Their consciences were less harmful, as they had persisted with their protest weeks before the nuclear destruction of the two Japanese cities.

Many of these dissident scientists, however, had been all too eager to drop the bomb on Germany—casting a shadow over the consistency of their moral position: were they opposed to the nuclear destruction of all innocent civilians, or just non-German ones? Were their principles absolute or relative?

Many were Jews who had lost family members in the Nazi round-ups, and their personal loss clearly influenced their support for the destruction of Germany. At the time, however—1941-1944—they were unaware precisely of what had become of their families and friends.

The Soviets liberated the first Nazi death camp in July 1944. The fact is, many émigré scientists turned decidedly cool on the bomb when Japan loomed in the sights of the Target Committee; Szilard in particular had adopted “diametrically opposite positions” in relation to Germany and Japan.

James Conant, the chemist who drove the S-1 program, manifested a third expression of the scientists’ moral dilemma: pride and an utter lack of remorse were the hallmarks of Conant’s response to the atomic bombs. Conant disdained those scientists who “paraded their sense of guilt” about the bomb. The moral conflict over Hiroshima “hardly existed in my mind,” said the man who had led America’s mustard gas research program during World War I and played a vital role in the development of proto-napalm dropped on Japanese cities.

Conant understood the gravity of a nuclear arms race; his answer was to ratchet up America’s nuclear arsenal to force concessions from the Kremlin. Within weeks of Hiroshima he advised the War Department to prepare for nuclear war. Fear of an atomic conflagration should not render the American public insensible or hysterical, he counseled—for that may lead them to reject the new weapon.

08_04_Hiroshima_01 Paul Ham, author of 'Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath,' Mark Friezer

Fear must be managed, distilled and drip-fed to the people, rather like a doctor treating a man with diabetes. “The physician, therefore,” Conant wrote, “had to frighten the patient sufficiently in order to make him obey the dietary rules; but if he frightened him too much, despondency might set in—hysteria if you will—and the patient might overindulge in a mood of despair, with probably fatal consequences.”

Conant’s arms race had limits: he drew the line at the creation of the first hydrogen bomb, which he opposed in his capacity as a member of the General Advisory Committee on thermonuclear power. He saw in its hideous potential the capacity “to destroy far more than military objectives might ever justify”—surely a self-deceiving view after the events of 6 and 9 August.

He reconciled his opposition to the superbomb on the grounds that nations at peace had no moral case for building such a weapon. “Let us freely admit,” he said in 1943, with reference to general advances in the technology of weapons of mass destruction, “that the battlefield is no place to question the doctrine that the end justifies the means”—that is, in war anything goes, mustard gas, napalm etc. “But let us insist, and insist with all our power, that this same doctrine must be repudiated in times of peace.”

In old age, fretful over his role in the bomb, Conant conceded that it had been a “mistake” to destroy Nagasaki.

In Edward Teller we encounter a fourth response: the utter rejection of any controls on nuclear arms. Teller was the apotheosis of the “warrior-scientist,” a man who gave his working life to the hydrogen bomb, and who saw in the megaton dawn over Eniwetok the harbinger of the American century.

Teller, on whom Stanley Kubrick partly modeled the character of Dr. Strangelove, argued that America must equal or exceed the Soviet balance of terror—to assure the continuation of world peace. Negotiation, compromise, the preservation of the species, the ideal of a shared humanity: none had any traction on his argument that only by matching the Soviet arsenal could peace be assured.

The planet was doomed, Teller believed, unless America subscribed to the logic of mutually assured destruction (MAD), in which bigger and more devastating bombs were the sole currency. Peace would only prevail in a world in which each side possessed the power to annihilate the other.

In this, he was prophetic. The grim truth is that posterity has thus far judged him, and the exponents of MAD, partly correct, insofar as mankind has avoided a nuclear war through the assurance of mutual annihilation; that does not mean, of course, that it will not happen, and the dire uncertainty and immense expenditure of maintaining the balance of mutually assured death has turned the minds of enlightened leaders to the policy of nuclear disarmament.

Excerpted from Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath by Paul Ham, published in August 2015 by Picador USA. Copyright © 2015 by Paul Ham/Picador USA. Published by arrangement with Picador USA. All rights reserved.