Declaration on the Atomic Bomb Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In November 1945, US president Harry S. Truman found himself the leader of the one nation that had created and used atomic weapons. In concert with his counterparts from the United Kingdom and Canada, Truman had to determine how to treat the awesome power within his country's control. After all, the Soviet Union was working on its own nuclear weapons, and other nations were likely to pursue the technology as well. Moreover, the world stood to benefit from the peaceful application of atomic technology, a clean energy source. On November 15, Truman, British prime minister Clement Attlee, and Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King issued a joint declaration taking the first step in managing atomic technology on an international scale.

Summary Overview

In November 1945, US president Harry S. Truman found himself the leader of the one nation that had created and used atomic weapons. In concert with his counterparts from the United Kingdom and Canada, Truman had to determine how to treat the awesome power within his country's control. After all, the Soviet Union was working on its own nuclear weapons, and other nations were likely to pursue the technology as well. Moreover, the world stood to benefit from the peaceful application of atomic technology, a clean energy source. On November 15, Truman, British prime minister Clement Attlee, and Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King issued a joint declaration taking the first step in managing atomic technology on an international scale.

Defining Moment

On August 6, 1945, the US bomber Enola Gay dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Upon detonation, the bomb killed about 80,000 people. Within months, the death toll had mounted to 140,000. The bomb leveled four square miles and destroyed approximately seventy thousand buildings. No comparable human-made weapon had ever been seen. Three days later, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, Japan. Estimates suggest that 40,000 died on detonation, with 70,000 dead by year's end. Another 70,000 are believed to have died in subsequent years. Within days of the bombings, the United States and Japan reached terms of surrender, effectively ending World War II.

The decision to drop the bomb has incited debate for decades regarding the development and use of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). For President Truman, the decision to drop the bomb was one of military and political strategy. It ended the war in days, and the United States emerged as a superpower. However, the United States alone did not hold the knowledge behind the weapons. In part, atomic experimentation had come to the United States with German Jewish physicists fleeing the rise of the Nazis. During the development of the atomic bombs, the United States collaborated with Great Britain and Canada. Although some discussion about the handling of postwar nuclear technology occurred as early as 1941, no specific plans had been reached by the time the first bomb was used. The United States, and its allies Britain and Canada, had unleashed an awful weapon, one that could pose a serious threat to them in the future; other nations wanted atomic technology, for both peaceful and military purposes.

The topic of nuclear technology was of central importance even as global leaders worked to establish peace, to build the United Nations (UN), and to negotiate a new international landscape. Most important, the Soviets sought a nuclear weapon as they moved to secure control over Eastern Europe. In this environment, leaders from the United States, Britain, and Canada met in Washington, DC, in November 1945 to set a precedent for how to handle nuclear technology and its applications as well as the resources used to build nuclear weaponry.

Author Biography

Born in Missouri in 1884, Harry S. Truman rose from farmer to soldier to politician. In 1945, he became vice president. A few months later, on April 12, Franklin D. Roosevelt died, and Truman became president. As such, Truman authorized the dropping of two atomic bombs on Japan. Truman won reelection in 1948, and he devoted his postpresidential time to lecturing and writing. He died in 1972.

Born in London in 1883, Clement Attlee studied law at the University of Oxford, served in the armed forces during World War I, and then became a politician in the British Labour Party. He served as deputy prime minister from 1942 to 1945 and as prime minister from 1945 to 1951. He was involved in the rebuilding of Europe and the decolonization of South Asia following the war. He died in 1967.

Born in Ontario, Canada, in 1874, William Lyon Mackenzie King eventually became leader of the Canadian Liberal Party. He served as prime minister from 1921 to 1930 and again from 1935 to 1948. King led Canada throughout World War II. At the end of the war, he began to withdraw from politics, retiring in 1948. He died in 1950.

Historical Document

The President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the Prime Minister of Canada, have issued the following statement:

(1) We recognize that the application of recent scientific discoveries to the methods and practice of war has placed at the disposal of mankind means of destruction hitherto unknown, against which there can be no adequate military defense, and in the employment of which no single nation can in fact have a monopoly.

(2) We desire to emphasize that the responsibility for devising means to insure that the new discoveries shall be used for the benefit of mankind, instead of as a means of destruction, rests not on our nations alone but upon the whole civilized world. Nevertheless, the progress that we have made in the development and use of atomic energy demands that we take an initiative in the matter, and we have accordingly met together to consider the possibility of international action:--

(a) To prevent the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes.

(b) To promote the use of recent and future advances in scientific knowledge, particularly in the utilization of atomic energy, for peaceful and humanitarian ends.

(3) We are aware that the only complete protection for the civilized world from the destructive use of scientific knowledge lies in the prevention of war. No system of safeguards that can be devised will of itself provide an effective guarantee against production of atomic weapons by a nation bent on aggression. Nor can we ignore the possibility of the development of other weapons, or of new methods of warfare, which may constitute as great a threat to civilization as the military use of atomic energy.

(4) Representing as we do, the three countries which possess the knowledge essential to the use of atomic energy, we declare at the outset our willingness, as a first contribution, to proceed with the exchange of fundamental scientific information and the interchange of scientists and scientific literature for peaceful ends with any nation that will fully reciprocate.

(5) We believe that the fruits of scientific research should be made available to all nations, and that freedom of investigation and free interchange of ideas are essential to the progress of knowledge. In pursuance of this policy, the basic scientific information essential to the development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes has already been made available to the world. It is our intention that all further information of this character that may become available from time to time shall be similarly treated. We trust that other nations will adopt the same policy, thereby creating an atmosphere of reciprocal confidence in which political agreement and cooperation will flourish.

(6) We have considered the question of the disclosure of detailed information concerning the practical industrial application of atomic energy. The military exploitation of atomic energy depends, in large part, upon the same methods and processes as would be required for industrial uses.

We are not convinced that the spreading of the specialized information regarding the practical application of atomic energy, before it is possible to devise effective, reciprocal, and enforceable safeguards acceptable to all nations, would contribute to a constructive solution of the problem of the atomic bomb.

On the contrary we think it might have the opposite effect. We are, however, prepared to share, on a reciprocal basis with others of the United Nations, detailed information concerning the practical industrial application of atomic energy just as soon as effective enforceable safeguards against its use for destructive purposes can be devised.

(7) In order to attain the most effective means of entirely eliminating the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes and promoting its widest use for industrial and humanitarian purposes, we are of the opinion that at the earliest practicable date a commission should be set up under the United Nations Organization to prepare recommendations for submission to the organization.

The commission should be instructed to proceed with the utmost dispatch and should be authorized to submit recommendations from time to time dealing with separate phases of its work.

In particular the commission should make specific proposals:

(a) For extending between all nations the exchange of basic scientific information for peaceful ends,

(b) For control of atomic energy to the extent necessary to insure its use only for peaceful purposes,

(c) For the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction,

(d) For effective safeguards by way of inspection and other means to protect complying states against the hazards of violations and evasions.

(8) The work of the commission should proceed by separate stages, the successful completion of each one of which will develop the necessary confidence of the world before the next stage is undertaken. Specifically, it is considered that the commission might well devote its attention first to the wide exchange of scientists and scientific information, and as a second stage to the development of full knowledge concerning natural resources of raw materials.

(9) Faced with the terrible realities of the application of science to destruction, every nation will realize more urgently than before the overwhelming need to maintain the rule of law among nations and to banish the scourge of war from the earth This can only be brought about by giving wholehearted support to the United Nations Organization and by consolidating and extending its authority, thus creating conditions of mutual trust in which all peoples will be free to devote themselves to the arts of peace. It is our firm resolve to work without reservation to achieve these ends

The City of Washington

THE WHITE HOUSE November 15, 1945

HARRY S. TRUMAN

President of the United States

C. R. ATTLEE

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom

W. L. MACKENZIE KING

Prime Minister of Canada

Document Analysis

The declaration is a joint resolve issued by three nations. Its first provision acknowledges the destructive force of scientific discoveries such as atomic energy “against which there can be no adequate military defense.” The first provision clarifies the reason for the declaration, stating that “no single nation can in fact have a monopoly” over this fearsome technology. With this provision, Truman, Attlee, and King acknowledge that the destructive potential of nuclear weapons must be addressed on an international scale.

Provision 2 refers to the peaceful use of atomic energy “for the benefit of mankind,” and suggests the need for guidelines to pursue those applications while guarding against more destructive uses. Provision 3 places responsibility for avoiding nuclear destruction on all nations by proposing that the only real safeguard for civilization is the “prevention of war” altogether. The implication is that once such destructive technology exists, no treaty, declaration, or police force can prevent its possible use in war as a last resort.

Provisions 4 and 5 address the sharing of atomic knowledge for peaceful ends, specifically as an energy source. The authors state that some knowledge has already been shared and that they are willing to continue to share what they know with those nations willing to do the same. Provision 6 builds on this foundation by considering the industrial, and by extension military, uses of atomic technology. The authors do not consider it safe to share too much information (or too many resources) regarding industrial uses of atomic energy, because they could also be put to destructive ends. To share such information and technology requires “enforceable safeguards.”

This reasoning brings the declaration to its chief aim: the establishment of an international agency, under the UN, to develop and oversee rules for sharing basic information regarding atomic energy for peaceful ends, regulating the use of that information to make sure it stays peaceful, eliminating nuclear weapons and other WMDs, and ensuring compliance, through inspection and other means. The guiding principle is that all nations must be held accountable on an international level for how they acquire and use nuclear technology. Provision 8 gives general guidelines regarding how such an agency would complete this task, calling attention to nuclear “raw materials” as being one essential area for regulation.

Provision 9 synthesizes the preceding arguments, and the authors iterate that the paramount challenge is “to maintain the rule of law among nations and to banish the scourge of war from the earth.” In this sense, the declaration serves not only as a promise to share information but also as a rallying cry for world collaboration and an endorsement of the UN. The declaration does not obligate the signatory nations to share any information they deem unsafe; however, it does encourage a sort of intellectual and diplomatic goodwill while emphasizing the shared interest of all nations in the avoidance of nuclear war.

Essential Themes

Truman, Attlee, and King's intention was to secure nuclear technology and knowledge while also providing for international collaboration. Ultimately, the declaration partly shifted the burden to the newly formed UN, resulting in the establishment of the UN Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 and the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1957. The guiding principles of the statement also set the stage for the Treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, first signed in 1968, which promoted peaceful uses of nuclear technology while preventing military applications. The declaration helped secure nonproliferation as a key tenet of international policy, even if modern nations still possess and pursue nuclear weapons.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • “Decision to Drop the Bomb.” Trumanlibrary.com. Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
  • Donovan, Robert J. Conflict and Crisis: The Presidency of Harry S. Truman, 1945–1948. New York: Norton, 1977. Print.
  • Ham, Paul. Hiroshima Nagasaki: The Real Story of the Atomic Bombings and Their Aftermath. New York: Dunne, 2011. Print.
  • “Postscript: The Nuclear Age (1945–present).” Manhattan Project: An Interactive History. US Dept. of Energy, Office of Hist. and Heritage Resources, n.d. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
  • Truman, Harry S. “Announcing the Bombing of Hiroshima.” American Experience. PBS, 6 Aug. 1945. Web. 16 Dec. 2014.
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