The Tribune - Spectrum

Sunday, August 5, 2001

When Einstein tried to prevent the atom bomb

The bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945, by the USA opened the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale. K.R.N. Swamy describes how on searching the archives of science libraries, one finds that most of the scientists were overcome by a gnawing fear that their attempts to develop the atom bomb would unleash a great peril on humanity.

IT is interesting to consider how world famous scientists in Allied camps felt about the atom bomb. Searching the archives of science libraries, one finds that most of the scientists were overcome by a gnawing fear that their attempts to develop the atom bomb would unleash a great peril on humanity.

Albert EinsteinEinstein with his relativity theory can be rightly called the father of the atom bomb. But eminent humanists like late Romain Rolland have said that Einstein did not do his best to prevent the development of the atomic bomb. In the words of Romain Rolland, "Einstein, a genius in his scientific field, is weak, indecisive and inconsistent outside it".

As a Jew, Einstein became unpopular with the Nazi rulers of Germany and had to flee to the USA. There his eminence as a scientist attracted to his camp many great figures in science like Leo Szilard, the Hungarian genius, and Enrico Fermi, the Italian physicist. To this galaxy of scientists was added Niels Bohr, the Danish servant, who has been called the Pope of Nuclear Physics. Einstein well realised that there were many eminent scientists in the Nazi camp who were capable of advancing further towards an atomic bomb. He felt that the main source of Uranium in the world, namely the Belgian Congo, should be kept out of German hands. As such on August 2, 1939, he wrote a letter to President Roosevelt asking for the USA’s intervention in keeping Congo out of Nazi occupation.


Testimony to the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima.
Testimony to the atom bomb attack on Hiroshima.

In the Allied camp, the British, who bore the brunt of the war for the first two years, were in constant fear that the Germans might build the atom bomb first. The British Secret Service had informed Churchill that the German atom bomb might be ready by August, 1943. But the entry of the USA in World War II in 1941, changed the picture and with the help of scientists like Bohr, Fermi and Einstein, by 1943, the Allied forces heaved a sigh of relief that they were now sure of having the weapon first. Still the scientists felt that the building up the bomb should be preceded by a careful control of nuclear armaments. Niels Bohr, during one of his meetings with British statesman Winston Churchill, told him that the Allies must ensure that nuclear weapons would not be used indiscriminately. Churchill bluntly told Bohr that he felt that even an eminent scientist like Bohr should not dabble in politics and refused to listen to Bohr’s suggestions. Robert Oppenheimer, another eminent scientist, felt that they should not bother too much about politics and that in any case the question could come up only after the atom bomb was exploded.

Above, Hiroshima before the attack, and below, after the explosion.
Above, Hiroshima before the attack, and below, after the explosion.

Yet the scientists felt very uneasy and approached Einstein — the most eminent of them all — for help. Einstein in turn requested President Roosevelt to meet Leo Szilard, one of the foremost physicists, in order to sort out the moral question. Unfortunately, Roosevelt died before the discussions could take concrete shape. In the early months of 1945, due to persistent efforts of the scientists, an interim committee was formed on the use of the atom bomb. This committee with atomic scientists like Arthur Crompton, Enrico Fermi, Ernest Lawrence and Robert Oppenheimer, discussed in detail as to how to use the atom bomb. At one stage, it was felt that when the first trial atom bomb would be exploded, Japan must be asked to send some observers to see for themselves its lethal effects. In was felt, that after seeing the devastation the atom bomb could cause, the Japanese might be willing to surrender without much ado. But American Secret Service pointed out that if the first test atom bomb proved to be a failure it would make the Japanese derisive of the American War efforts. Then the Americans would have no choice except to kill the Japanese observers in order to keep the secret. Even in the use of atom bomb the scientists wanted certain precautions to be taken, namely that the target would be a military one and that a warning should be given about the lethal effect of the nuclear weapons. The American Defence Department protested, that if a sufficient warning was given, the Japanese might move to Allied prisoners of war into the bombing zone and thus upset the bombing programme. Finally, six committees were formed to deal with the following aspects of the atom bomb — research, educative value, production, controls organisation and social and political implications of the atomic weapon. In the Alamogardo desert in July, 1945, the scientists witnessing the explosions became aware that they had created a bane on humanity.

In the words of one of them, "Each of us was going to understand what he had witnessed and most of us were shocked at what we had done". Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of the team, felt that about 20,000 Japan might die because of the atom bomb and that might save hundreds of thousands of human lives if Japan could be forced to surrender without and invasion. As the day for the bombing of Hiroshima approached, the scientists became frantic and one of them even thought of demonstrating before the emerging United Nations, protesting against the use of the atom bomb. Seventy of the top scientists wrote a letter to President Truman warning him that using the atom bomb "Opens the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale". But still their effort was doomed and the Government of the USA decided to use the atom bomb against the Japanese.

They succeeded as scientists, but failed as humanitarians.