A Petition to the President Regarding the Atomic Bomb Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Also referred to as the Szilárd petition after its main author, Leó Szilárd, the July 17, 1945, petition to US president Harry S. Truman from a group of scientists and researchers engaged in the development of a nuclear weapon sought to persuade the president to delay the usage of the newly developed atomic bomb against the Japanese. The petition called for the US military to make a public announcement in the hopes of bringing about a Japanese surrender without actually having to employ a destructive device certain to cause tens of thousands of deaths and almost unimaginable damage. At the same time, the petition called on the United States to consider the potential long-term consequences of a decision to drop an atomic weapon and so usher in a new age of nuclear arms. Although unsuccessful, the petition brought up moral and geopolitical issues that informed debate over US military policy and actions for decades to come.

Summary Overview

Also referred to as the Szilárd petition after its main author, Leó Szilárd, the July 17, 1945, petition to US president Harry S. Truman from a group of scientists and researchers engaged in the development of a nuclear weapon sought to persuade the president to delay the usage of the newly developed atomic bomb against the Japanese. The petition called for the US military to make a public announcement in the hopes of bringing about a Japanese surrender without actually having to employ a destructive device certain to cause tens of thousands of deaths and almost unimaginable damage. At the same time, the petition called on the United States to consider the potential long-term consequences of a decision to drop an atomic weapon and so usher in a new age of nuclear arms. Although unsuccessful, the petition brought up moral and geopolitical issues that informed debate over US military policy and actions for decades to come.

Defining Moment

First suggested by a group of physicists in 1939, the Manhattan Project was an immense top-secret military research program focused on harnessing nuclear power to develop a hitherto unbelievably powerful bomb. Conducted under the auspices of the US Army Manhattan Engineer District, the project relied on the talents of some of the leading physicists of the day, including J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leó Szilárd. Some of these researchers had fled parts of Europe that had come under authoritarian governments during the 1920s and 1930s, and they saw their work as integral to resisting these regimes.

Like some other scientists at work on the Manhattan Project, Szilárd saw their goal as mostly to develop a powerful weapon that could be used to defend against Nazi aggression and protect against the possibility of the Germans, who had also been engaged in nuclear research, developing an atomic bomb before the Allies could. The idea of using nuclear arms as an offensive tool seemed to him unethical and practically certain to start a lasting and dangerous arms race. Therefore, as it became clear in the spring of 1945 that finalization of the weapon was imminent, Szilárd spearheaded efforts to attempt to persuade top US political leaders that the best use of the atomic bomb was first a demonstration of its power through a public detonation away from human targets. The death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in April caused a change in the administration, however, as recently installed vice president Harry S. Truman suddenly ascended to become chief executive. Szilárd tried unsuccessfully to reach Truman to share his worries about the postwar atomic world, drafting letters and meeting with administration officials such as James F. Byrnes, who became secretary of state in July of 1945.

Although some leaders shared Szilárd's concerns about the long-term legacies of the development of the nuclear bomb, most saw the weapon as a likely effective method to end a long, costly, and exhausting war. Throughout the spring and early summer of 1945, scientific committees discussed whether, where, and how to use the nuclear bomb. Most of the highest-ranking officials involved agreed that it should be employed against a Japanese target with both military and civilian elements in order to maximize its physical and psychological damage; similar targeting strategies had already been used to direct US napalm bomb strikes over Tokyo and more than sixty other Japanese cities. Even with war in Europe over, the nation seemed to be moving steadily toward using the devastating weapon in combat.

Then, on July 16, an atomic bomb was successfully detonated at a military site in New Mexico. The moment of decision was soon at hand. Some scientists who understood the bomb's force feared that it was about to be put to use.

Author Biography

Although the petition was signed by a dozen scientists working on the Manhattan Project in New Mexico and Illinois, its primary author was the Hungarian-born physicist Leó Szilárd (1898–1964). Szilárd had worked in Germany until the Nazi Party came to power in the early 1930s and had settled in the United States in 1937. During the late 1930s, Szilárd was instrumental in convincing the US government to begin research into the military application of nuclear energy, and he became one of the leading scientists involved with the Manhattan Project. However, Szilárd had grave misgivings about the potential practical consequences of using the atomic technology he helped inaugurate. This attitude earned Szilárd the animosity of military leaders, particularly Manhattan Project head General Leslie Groves, which contributed to his eventual removal. Thus, Szilárd was forced to give up nuclear physics for biophysics, but he remained a prominent supporter of peaceful applications of nuclear power throughout his life.

Historical Document

Discoveries of which the people of the United States are not aware may affect the welfare of this nation in the near future. The liberation of atomic power which has been achieved places atomic bombs in the hands of the Army. It places in your hands, as Commander-in-Chief, the fateful decision whether or not to sanction the use of such bombs in the present phase of the war against Japan.

We, the undersigned scientists, have been working in the field of atomic power. Until recently, we have had to fear that the United States might be attacked by atomic bombs during this war and that her only defense 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:

The war has to be brought speedily to a successful conclusion and attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare. We feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified, at least not unless the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.

If such public announcement gave assurance to the Japanese that they could look forward to a life devoted to peaceful pursuits in their homeland and 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 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 this 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. All the resources of the United States, moral and material, may have to be mobilized to prevent the advent of such a world situation. 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 material strength which this lead gives to the United States brings with it the obligation of restraint and if we were to violate this obligation our moral position would be weakened in the eyes of the world and in our own eyes. It would then be more difficult for us to live up to our responsibility of bringing the unloosened forces of destruction under control.

In view of the foregoing, we, the undersigned, respectfully petition: first, that you exercise your power as Commander-in-Chief, to rule that the United States shall not resort to the use of atomic bombs in this war unless the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail and Japan knowing these terms has refused to surrender; second, that in such an event the question whether or not to use atomic bombs be decided by you in light of the considerations presented in this petition as well as all the other moral responsibilities which are involved.

Leo Szilárd and 69 co-signers

Document Analysis

Written after the atomic bomb had been successfully tested but before its detonation over Hiroshima introduced its power to the world, this petition seeks to persuade US president Harry S. Truman—the man assigned the “fateful decision” over the usage of nuclear weaponry in warfare—to opt not to employ nuclear arms against the Japanese immediately. Instead, the petition argues, the nation should provide open and clear terms for a Japanese surrender and an Allied reconstruction of Japan. Doing this would not only fulfill what the petition's signatories believed was a moral responsibility to use the deadly technology responsibly but also set an important ethical precedent for the use of such weapons which could forestall an era of intense and widespread arms buildup and the constant threat of nuclear attack.

The petition asserts that those involved in the development of the atomic bomb had believed it vital as a defense measure in the event that Germany had successfully developed and used its own nuclear weapons against the Allies, which would have justified “a counterattack by the same means.” With Germany defeated, however, the signatories claim that a similar attack on Japan lacked justification because it would be a proactive step of aggression, rather than a reactive defense. Thus, the petition argues that no bombing should be undertaken without Japan having a fair opportunity to surrender. Even then, the petition argues, the need for the atomic bomb was not immutable, and careful attention must be given to the moral precedents of such a choice.

Much of the petition predicts the problems that seemed likely to result from opening the world to nuclear warfare, warning that “an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale” was a possible outcome of this choice. In such an era, the protection of US cities and people from nuclear attack could command the nation's economic and military resources at the expense of all else. The signatories see this outcome as an unquestionably negative one and fear that the work they had done in the hopes of securing peace in one global conflict would only cause countless others should the “moral responsibilities” of the situation not be fully considered. Although the petition repeatedly states that under some circumstances the implementation of the atomic bomb may be justified, its true assertion is clear: the costs of such a choice outweigh the benefits.

Essential Themes

Despite their best efforts, the Manhattan Project scientists were unable to reach Truman as their document languished in official channels. The president had not yet received the petition when he made the fateful decision to use an atomic bomb against Japan, and the bombing of the city of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, became the first public display of the immense power of nuclear weaponry. A second attack followed days later on the city of Nagasaki. The war soon ended, but the threat of nuclear attack lived on.

Indeed, events over the following few decades largely proved the fears of Szilárd and his colleagues to be prescient ones. Even before Truman authorized the use of the atomic bomb against Japan, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin had learned that the United States was in control of a powerful new weapon. As World War II ended, the tenuous alliance between the United States and Soviet Union brought on by a mutual opposition to a Nazi-dominated Europe began to crumble. The struggle for international influence that rose from the ashes of war-torn Europe quickly escalated into the Cold War, a lasting competition for dominance between the two superpowers. By the end of the 1940s, the Soviet Union had developed its own nuclear weapons, with other countries to follow. Truman's policy of providing military and financial aid to all peoples opposing communist governments was followed by the Eisenhower administration's support for “massive retaliation” and “mutually assured destruction” during the 1950s. These asserted that the buildup of huge numbers of nuclear weapons would prevent their usage by guaranteeing that any nuclear attack would be met by a response of such great force that no nation would risk it.

Americans strongly feared the threat of nuclear war throughout the Cold War. Despite agreements in the 1970s to reduce arms stores, most of the era was marked by a steady buildup of nuclear weapons; during the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan forced an arms race as part of a strategy to end the Cold War. The nuclear arms race thus helped define US foreign policy in just the way that Szilárd had foreseen—and feared.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gest, Howard. “The July 1945 Szilard Petition on the Atomic Bomb; Memoir by a Signer in Oak Ridge.” Howard Gest, Indiana University. Gest, n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2014.
  • Groves, Leslie R. Now It Can Be Told: The Story of the Manhattan Project. New York: Harper, 1962. Print.
  • Lanouette, William, and Bela Silard. Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard, the Man behind the Bomb. New York: Skyhorse, 2013. Print.
  • Rhodes, Richard. Arsenals of Folly: The Making of the Nuclear Arms Race. New York: Vintage, 2008. Print.
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