JF Ptak Science Books Post 1094
Note: our poll site crashed I think under the weight of unexpectedly high traffic. At last count there were over 12,000 responses, 10,000 of them coming in the last few days. I will update the analysis section on 7 August. My apologies for the disappearance of the poll.
This is a continuation of my post/thread “Deciding to Use the Atomic Bomb: The Chicago Metallurgical Lab Poll, July, 1945" which is part of a 50-post thread on the history of atomic and nuclear weapons. Thus far more than 2400 people have responded to this poll on whether/how to use the atomic bomb that was first taken by the Manhattan Project metallurgical lab physicists at Chicago. (Image: the 600-foot wide fireball of the first detonation of an atomic weapon at .016 seconds. The event, codenamed “Trinity”, detonated an implosion design plutonium device code at Alamogordo, New Mexico (near Socorro), 16 July 1945.)
In July 1945 (but before Trinity), Arthur H. Compton asked Farrington Daniels (Director of the Metallurgical Lab section (at Chicago) of the Manhattan Project) to poll the 250 or so scientists at work under Farrington on the coming immediate use of the atomic bombs. (The results of the poll, answered by 150 of the 250 people, were originally published as “A Poll of Scientists at Chicago, July 1945,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, February 1948, 44, page 63. and again published in Compton’s own book, Atomic Quest, in 1956. You can follow the images of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists for October 1958, p 304 here.
The results of the five-option poll were interesting. Of the 250 asked to take the poll, 150 responded, with 15% (as you will be able to see in the Results section below) of the scientists thinking that the bomb should be immediately employed against a military target. 46% thought that there should be a demonstration of the weapon in Japan in a show of strength, while another 26% thought that the bomb should be demonstrated here in the U.S. and witnessed by members of the Japanese government. Rounding out the poll was the 11% who thought that the bomb should be demonstrated but not in front of the Japanese, and the final 2% holding the option for keeping the weapons secret and unused.
The 2010 results thus far are displayed below, though if readers were interested in taking the poll they should do so now and then return to read the results.
To take the poll, go HERE. You can be a part of this poll anonymously. Please try and keep in mind the time
and place of the events unfolding: the Japanese resistance to the
unconditional surrender ultimatum developing at Potsdam; the resistance
to massive air raids which in the year or so previous to 6 August saw the destruction of 66 major cities (destroying half of all the combined major centers, killing about 900,000, wounding over a million and making another 9 million homeless); the tenacious fighting in the islands at the
outreaches of the Empire; the thousands of American POWs; the
circulating estimates of the coming Japanese invasion casualties
(hundreds of thousands of Americans, far more so Japanese), and so on.
Caveat: this is a curiosity-poll more than anything–it is hardly scientific. Admittedly the original poll was taken by a very distinct population which represents only itself and could hardly be thought of as representing any wide section of the American population. Still it is interesting to see how folks today respond to the poll even in this environment (where the writer has already discussed the results of the original poll, for example) where the history of the decision to use the bomb and its results are so iconic and well known.
The story goes so (this from my original 2008 post): “In late June 1945, the Interim Committee (a secret, blue chip group established by Secretary of War Stimson with the approval of President Harry S. Truman to examine the problems that could result from the creation of the atomic bomb). decided what exactly to do with the weapons. The group (also including James F. Byrnes, former US Senator soon to be Secretary of State, as President Truman's personal representative; Ralph A. Bard, Under Secretary of the Navy; William L. Clayton, Assistant Secretary of State; Vannevar Bush, Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development and president of the Carnegie Institution; Karl T. Compton, Chief of the Office of Field Service in the Office of Scientific Research and Development and president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology; James B. Conant, Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee and president of Harvard University; and George L. Harrison, an assistant to Stimson and president of New York Life Insurance Company) found the following:
The opinions of our scientific colleagues on the initial use of these weapons are not unanimous: they range from the proposal of a purely technical demonstration to that of the military application best designed to induce surrender. Those who advocate a purely technical demonstration would wish to outlaw the use of atomic weapons, and have feared that if we use the weapons now our position in future negotiations will be prejudiced. Others emphasize the opportunity of saving American lives by immediate military use, and believe that such use will improve the international prospects, in that they are more concerned with the prevention of war than with the elimination of this specific weapon. We find ourselves closer to these latter views; we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.
Overall the results are fairly similar—of course there were no controls in the 2008-2010 poll, and it was taken by more than just the scientists at Chicago who helped build the bomb in 1945, and of course people were asked to try and place themselves with some judiciousness back into 1945. So the results are necessarily problematic. Even so, I’m not sure right now how to interpret them. (Image: Oppenheimer and Groves at what was left of the tower that suspended "the Gadget" at Alamogordo.)
The results thus far for Option 1—drop the bomb, drop it now, and drop it on a military target–show that roughly twice the number of people were willing to go straight away to military application than among the Chicago scientists in 1945, 27% in 2010 said to use the bomb “now” compared to only 15% in 1945.
I’m not sure if I’m surprised by this or not—people today certainly know and probably could not put out f their mind that the Japanese didn’t surrender until days after the dropping of the Nagasaki bomb. Wouldn’t this mean that more people would think to drop it?
The second option, which frankly I thought would be the overwhelming choice in ’08-'10 (the demonstration of the effectiveness of the bomb) fell from 46% to 36%, which is just about the percentage of folks who were more willing to drop the bomb more-or-less immediately.
I was thinking that this number would increase dramatically. On the other hand I would guess, though, that if the general public was given this poll (somehow) in 1945, that the overwhelming response would be option #1. After all there were millions of Americans in uniform who would’ve been put at risk in an invasion of Japan. There were also dozens of thousands of American GIs who were in POW camps whose well-being would not have been a primary concern if the Japanese homeland was invaded. Also it must be remembered that just a few weeks before this poll was given and before the American public could have imaginarily taken it, there was a massive firebombing of Tokyo--334 of Curtis LeMay B-29's were loaded to utmost capacity with the newly-conceived M-69s bomb, an incendiary so vicious that the fires it produced were all but inextinguishable. The B29's bombed Tokyo for hours, killing 100,000 people and making over a million homeless. In spite of this overwhelming display, the Japanese movement towards surrender was still secretive and extraordinarily slow1.
My suspicion is that this number would be overwhelming on the order of 90% or something like that, because by this point the U.S. was swimming in reports of terror and blood and death with nothing but the promise of more, the invasion of Japan leading to the possibility of hundreds of thousands of soldiers being killed. The chance of ending it all in one or two steps was irresistible to the decision makers; had the use of the bombs been publicly debated I feel that there would have been no debate. Remember: no major decision-maker in the U.S. government had any reservations about the military use of the bomb. There were private reservations on the use of the bomb among America’s top military men (Eisenhower, for one), but these men would not make the ultimate decision. (This is a shallow description of a complex situation, but for our purposes here I think it will do.)
Results thus far (as of 26 July 2010):
2008 poll takers= 2418 people.
1945 poll takers= 150 people
Option 1. “Use them in the manner that is from the military point of view most effective in bringing about prompt Japanese surrender at minimum human cost to our armed forces.”
Option 2. “Give a military demonstration in Japan to be followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.”
Option 3: “Give an experimental demonstration in this country, with representatives of Japan present; followed by a new opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.”
Option 4. “Withhold military use of the weapons, but make public experimental demonstration of their effectiveness.”
Option 5. “Maintain as secret as possible all developments of our new weapons and refrain from using them in this war.”
1. The business of whether the Japanese were ready to negotiate a peace in the weeks before 6 August is complicated and far from conclusive. It does seem though that no negotiating team could've spoken with a unified voice for the Japanese government, and that the issue of an unconditional surrender further complicated the situation.