The Szilárd petition, drafted and circulated in July 1945 by scientist Leo Szilard, was signed by 70 scientists working on the Manhattan Project in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, Illinois. It asked President Harry S. Truman to inform Japan of the terms of surrender demanded by the allies, and allow Japan to either accept or refuse these terms, before America used atomic weapons. However, the petition never made it through the chain of command to President Truman. It was not declassified and made public until 1961.
The petition was preceded by the Franck Report, written by the Committee on the Social and Political Implications of the Atomic Bomb, of which James Franck was the chair. Szilárd and Met Lab colleague Glenn T. Seaborg co-wrote the report, which argued that political security in a post-nuclear world would rely upon international exchange and ownership of atomic information, and that in order to avoid a nuclear arms race and preserve goodwill towards the United States, Japan must be given proper warning ahead of the dropping of the bomb.
Unlike the Franck Report, which by and large focused on the politics of using the atomic bomb and the possibility of international collaboration, the Szilárd Petition was a moral plea. Its signatories, foreseeing an age of rapid nuclear expansion, warned that, should the United States drop the bomb to end the war in the Pacific theater, they would "bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale." They feared that, in using the bomb, the United States would lose moral authority to bring the subsequent nuclear arms race under control.
More than 50 of the initial signatories worked in the Chicago branch of the Manhattan Project. After much disagreement among the other scientists in Chicago, lab director Farrington Daniels took a survey of 150 scientists as to what they believed the best course of action would be, regarding the bomb. The results were as follows:
- 15% - the bomb should be used as a weapon by the military in order to bring about Japanese surrender with the fewest possible Allied casualties.
- 46% - the bomb should be demonstrated by the military in Japan, with the hope that surrender would follow; if not, the bomb should be used as a weapon.
- 26% - the bomb should be part of an experimental demonstration in the United States, with a Japanese delegation present as witnesses in the hope that they would bring their observations back to the government and advocate for surrender.
- 11% - the bomb should be used only as part of a public demonstration.
- 2% - the bomb should not be used in combat and total secrecy should be maintained afterwards.
Szilárd asked his friend and fellow physicist, Edward Teller, to help circulate the petition at Los Alamos in the hopes of recruiting more signatures. However, Teller first brought Szilárd's request to Los Alamos director J. Robert Oppenheimer, who told Teller that politicians in Washington were already weighing the issue and that the lab scientists would do better to stay out of it. Thus, no new signatures for the petition were collected at Los Alamos.
The petition was addressed to President Truman and states that the original intention of the Manhattan Project was to defend the United States against a possible nuclear attack by Germany, a threat that had by then been eradicated. They then pleaded with Truman to make public the full terms of surrender and to await a Japanese response before dropping the atom bomb, and to consider his "obligation of restraint":
"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 [...] 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. 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 the light of the considerations presented in this petition as well as all the other moral responsibilities which are involved."
In the spring of 1945, Szilárd took the petition to the man who was soon to be named Secretary of State, James F. Byrnes, hoping to find someone who would pass on to President Truman the message from scientists that the bomb should not be used on a civilian population in Japan, and that after the war it should be put under international control in order to avoid a post-war arms race. Byrnes was not sympathetic to the idea at all. Thus, President Truman never saw the petition prior to the dropping of the bomb. Szilárd regretted that such a man was so influential in politics, and he appeared to also be despondent at having become a physicist, because in his career he had contributed to the creation of the bomb. After the meeting with Byrnes, he is quoted as having said, "How much better off the world might be had I been born in America and become influential in American politics, and had Byrnes been born in Hungary and studied physics." In reaction to the petition, General Leslie Groves, the director of the Manhattan Project, sought evidence of unlawful behavior against Szilárd.
The first atomic bomb, known as Little Boy, was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945. It was followed three days later by a second bomb, known as Fat Man, over Nagasaki. The deployment of these bombs led to an estimated 200,000 civilian dead and Japan's eventual surrender. In December of 1945, a study by Fortune business magazine found that over three-quarters of Americans surveyed approved of the decision to drop the bombs. In spite of this, a group of the most prominent scientists of the day united to speak out against the decision, and about the future nuclear arms race. One World or None: A Report to the Public on the Full Meaning of the Atomic Bomb was released in 1946, containing essays by Leo Szilárd himself, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr, Arthur Compton, Robert Oppenheimer, Harold Urey, Eugene Wigner, Edward Condon, Hans Bethe, Irving Langmuir, and others. The theme of the book, which sold over a million copies, was that nuclear arms should never be used again and that international cooperation should govern their use.
The 70 signers at the Manhattan Project's Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, in alphabetical order, with their positions, were:
- David S. Anthony, Associate Chemist
- Larned B. Asprey, Junior Chemist, S.E.D.
- Walter Bartky, Assistant Director
- Austin M. Brues, Director, Biology Division
- Mary Burke, Research Assistant
- Albert Cahn, Jr., Junior Physicist
- George R. Carlson, Research Assistant-Physics
- Kenneth Stewart Cole, Principal Bio-Physicist
- Ethaline Hartge Cortelyou, Junior Chemist
- John Crawford, Physicist
- Mary M. Dailey, Research Assistant
- Miriam Posner Finkel, Associate Biologist
- Frank G. Foote, Metallurgist
- Horace Owen France, Associate Biologist
- Mark S. Fred, Research Associate-Chemistry
- Sherman Fried, Chemist
- Francis Lee Friedman, Physicist
- Melvin S. Friedman, Associate Chemist
- Mildred C. Ginsberg, Computer
- Norman Goldstein, Junior Physicist
- Sheffield Gordon, Associate Chemist
- Walter J. Grundhauser, Research Assistant
- Charles W. Hagen, Research Assistant
- David B. Hall, Physicist
- David L. Hill, Associate Physicist, Argonne
- John Perry Howe, Jr., Associate Division Director, Chemistry
- Earl K. Hyde, Associate Chemist
- Jasper B. Jeffries, Junior Physicist, Junior Chemist
- William Karush, Associate Physicist
- Truman P. Kohman, Chemist-Research
- Herbert E. Kubitschek, Junior Physicist
- Alexander Langsdorf, Jr., Research Associate
- Ralph E. Lapp, Assistant To Division Director
- Lawrence B. Magnusson, Junior Chemist
- Robert Joseph Maurer, Physicist
- Norman Frederick Modine, Research Assistant
- George S. Monk, Physicist
- Robert James Moon, Physicist
- Marietta Catherine Moore, Technician
- Robert Sanderson Mulliken, Coordinator of Information
- J. J. Nickson, [Medical Doctor, Biology Division]
- William Penrod Norris, Associate Biochemist
- Paul Radell O'Connor, Junior Chemist
- Leo Arthur Ohlinger, Senior Engineer
- Alfred Pfanstiehl, Junior Physicist
- Robert Leroy Platzman, Chemist
- C. Ladd Prosser, Biologist
- Robert Lamburn Purbrick, Junior Physicist
- Wilfrid Rall, Research Assistant-Physics
- Margaret H. Rand, Research Assistant, Health Section
- William Rubinson, Chemist
- B. Roswell Russell, position not identified
- George Alan Sacher, Associate Biologist
- Francis R. Shonka, Physicist
- Eric L. Simmons, Associate Biologist, Health Group
- John A. Simpson, Jr., Physicist
- Ellis P. Steinberg, Junior Chemist
- D. C. Stewart, S/Sgt S.E.D.
- George Svihla, position not identified [Health Group]
- Marguerite N. Swift, Associate Physiologist, Health Group
- Leo Szilard, Chief Physicist
- Ralph E. Telford, position not identified
- Joseph D. Teresi, Associate Chemist
- Albert Wattenberg, Physicist
- Katharine Way, Research Assistant
- Edgar Francis Westrum, Jr., Chemist
- Eugene Paul Wigner, Physicist
- Ernest J. Wilkins, Jr., Associate Physicist
- Hoylande Young, Senior Chemist
- William Houlder Zachariasen, Consultant
- Einstein–Szilárd letter
- Franck Report
- Leo Szilárd
- Nuclear ethics
- Nuclear weapons debate
- The Manhattan Project
- Harry S. Truman
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- Elmo Roper, “The Fortune survey,” Fortune 32 (December 1945), 303–310; on 305.
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