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During this frenetic July when dozens of atomic scientists endeavored to influence the endgame of their unprecedented creation, Parker also released a petition, co-endorsed by D. S. Ballantine, that smeared Szilard’s petition movement as unAmerican. Titled “A Petetion [sic] to the Administration of Clinton Laboratories,” it was unusually strident and provocative as it unleashed a vitriolic condemnation of Szilard.29 Declaring itself a “counterpetition” and evoking the language and ideological nationalism that would typify McCarthyism, the Parker-Ballantine petition denounced Szilard as a threat to national security.30 “[T]he original Szilard petition has exposed the security of the DSM project. Certainly, if one such petition, with the information and dangerous implications it has, can pass through… plant and project administration, we feel that every individual may assume open season and compete to be sure that his own aquiesence [sic] or dissension is equally well broadcast.”31

The Parker-Ballantine petition claiming to represent true patriotism, affirmed its “sentiments” were shared by “particularly those who have sons and daughters in the foxholes and warships of the Pacific.”32 While noting the Metlab petition’s ethical misgivings concerning weapons of mass destruction, the two scientists described accurately its less than unqualified opposition: “If practical necessities demand its [the bomb’s] use, then the moral issue should be bypassed. It should be used if the nation’s life were endangered, the petition went on to say.”33

In their petition, Parker and Ballantine rejected concerns that an unannounced A-bomb attack would precipitate international outrage, or threaten global security by introducing a new destructiveness of unprecedented magnitude. Deployment of the latest military technology always generates fear the petition alleged, but subsequent to widespread proliferation into nation-state arsenals, it becomes an “everyday implement of war.” So too would nuclear weapons as “future generations will come to regard this latest device with less and less regard.”34

The Clinton petitions, counterpetition, and letters were delivered to Martin D. Whitaker, physicist and director of the Tennessee laboratory, and the Oak Ridge scientists’ chief conduit to Washington. Whitaker subsequently gave them to Colonel Kenneth D. Nichols, Corps of Engineers, and a principal deputy of Major General Leslie R. Groves—the director of the Manhattan Project since its inception on August 13, 1942. Nichols, who earned a doctorate and later became a major general, was a key link in the communication’s channel between the Manhattan Project scientists and Washington.35 Nichols subsequently shared them with Compton, hoping to receive a summary analysis, but Compton confined his written analysis during the war only to those petitions and reports written by Metlab personnel.36

Two weeks after circulating his July 3rd petition, Szilard submitted a second revision that had the support of seventy Metlab personnel. The signers’ names did not appear on a single-master petition but were scattered among nine different copies that were circulated among the various laboratory’s division sections.37 As a result, there have been widely disparate accounts of the precise number of names that appeared on the last Manhattan Project petition of World War II. At least four times in 1945 Szilard reported gathering sixty-seven signatures on the July 17th petition.39 Major General F. L. Parks referred to “some sixty scientists” in a letter to A. J. Muste of The Fellowship of Reconciliation.39 In 1960 Szilard also reduced the number to “about sixty members” in an interview with U.S. News and World Report.40 While misidentifying a quotation from the Franck Report as appearing in Szilard’s petition, Lloyd Gardner stated only “several atomic scientists” signed the July petition.41 Alperovitz claimed some sixty-nine signatures were affixed to the petition.42 Kai Bird and Lawrence Lifschultz remarkably claimed there were 155 names appearing on Szilard’s July 17th petition which was only two fewer than the total number of signed supporters of all Manhattan Project petitions!43

A composite list of the July 17th petition at the National Archives contained the seventy names that appeared on nine-separate petition copies along with their job descriptions at the Metallurgical Laboratory.44 A revised, more detailed list, that was probably completed at the end of 1946, revealed a more intrusive ongoing-security monitoring operation. Those who signed the petition were now categorized as “important” or “not important,” and included the circumstances under which an individual might have resigned from the Manhattan Project.45 While there is no evidence of a post-petition purge, an ongoing intelligence-gathering operation of atomic scientists who attempted to influence the decision to use the atomic bomb, anticipated inappropriate national-security excesses during the Cold War.46

Szilard’s revised petition of July 17th never recirculated outside Chicago and, unlike the draft of July 3rd, received no feedback from Clinton Engineer Works’ colleagues. While efforts were made by senior officials to draw major distinctions between the July 3rd and July 17th versions, they were strikingly similar. Each contained eight paragraphs and neither advocated total opposition to the use of the atomic bomb. The final petition did not differ substantively from the original, but merely adopted a more measured, conciliatory tone in its critique of the possible use of atomic weapons. The first petition’s declaration that “the destruction of Japanese cities” might be effective but inappropriate, was replaced by the less provocative—“attacks by atomic bombs”—which removed specific criticisms of urban targeting. The July 3rd petition’s warning that Japan’s refusal to abide by American surrender terms might justify a nuclear response, was rewritten with a similar warning that the United States “might...find itself forced to resort to the use of atomic bombs.”47

The July 3rd petition’s denunciation of nuclear weapons as “primarily a means for the ruthless annihilation of cities,” was substituted with the more moderate reflection that they “provide...nations with new means of destruction.” The July 3rd petition’s sixth paragraph, as cited earlier, which twice denounced the “ruthlessness” inherent in strategic bombing, was replaced with a more analytic reflection that nuclear proliferation among competing powers could significantly attenuate international stability. Significantly, the revised petition retained the earlier provisions for a nuclear attack should “the terms which will be imposed upon Japan have been made public in detail and Japan knowing these terms has refused to surrender.”48 The revised petition concluded with a deferential request that the president, before authorizing the use of the atomic bomb, take cognizance of the petition’s “considerations” and “other moral responsibilities.”49 While the petitions deviated rhetorically in their assessment of the potential use of the atomic bomb, they both unambiguously outlined conditions that could precede its introduction into the Asian-Pacific War.

Szilard’s petitions omitted specific policy recommendations that might have guided those responsible for using the weapon. Possible options of maintaining the blockade around the Japanese islands, continuing the horrific city-busting air raids, or modifying unconditional surrender to allow the retention of the emperor were not included in any Metlab petition. Both the Franck Report and the July 13th Clinton petition had recommended either a non-combat demonstration or an atomic warning precede any final decision to use the weapon against Japan. Yet Szilard is referred to as the first “moral philosopher of the nuclear age.”50

Nevertheless, several officials claimed Szilard had to alter radically his antibomb position in order to obtain a sufficient number of signatures. While certainly true the Hungarian émigré revised the original in order to obtain greater support, it did not deviate from mere-conditional opposition to the use of the atomic bomb. Compton and others who claimed a Metlab probomb consensus thwarted Szilard’s alleged anti-nuclear pacifism, were merely attempting to quell any laboratory opposition to an immediate, combat role for the atomic bomb.

According to Captain R. Gordon Arneson, the Interim Committee’s recording secretary, Szilard’s second petition was categorical in “urging that the bomb not be used in the present war.”51 Besides failing to acknowledge the petition’s explicit avoidance of unconditional opposition to the use of the A-bomb, Arneson dismissed the petition endeavor as frivolous due to the scientific community’s supposed representation on the Scientific Panel.52

Compton also misinterpreted and attempted to discredit the petition effort in a July 24th memorandum to Nichols. Unlike Arneson’s misreading of the July 17th petition, Compton erred dramatically in his interpretation of the earlier petition as an unsuccessful effort to derail the use of the atomic bomb. Compton claimed Szilard failed in “seeking signatures requesting no use of the new weapons in this war.”53 In his postwar memoir, Compton repeated his claim that the July 3rd petition “called for outright rejection of the use of atomic bombs.”54 The Metlab director averred it was rejected by other scientists, thereby, forcing Szilard “to rephrase it so as to approve use of the weapons after giving suitable warning and opportunity for surrender under known conditions.”55

Nichols, who essentially borrowed Compton’s analysis of Szilard’s petition campaign, sardonically observed that “the more informed individuals” at Metlab refused to sign the original draft because they “support the present plans for use of the weapon.” Like Compton, he mistakenly claimed the second petition was significantly altered “as a result of opposition… in order to get signers…”56 Ironically, Compton’s and Nichols’s assessment of the restrained anti-use posture of the July 17th petition were more accurate than that of its author. Szilard’s July 19th cover letter to Compton twice claimed the final version emphasized “the moral issue only” despite its mere-conditional dissent from using the A-bomb. Yet Szilard contradicted his own assessment by describing considerable disagreement among the seventy signers of the document. Some supported “early” use of the bomb, because delay might create the impression that the United States was attempting to conceal its nuclear monopoly and “cause distrust on the part of other nations… ”57 Others feared a nuclear-arms race with Russia would result unless a “demonstration” was delayed until after the United States identified what “course it intended to follow” in arms control and development during the postwar period.58

Compton almost certainly submitted to Washington, without Szilard’s knowledge or consent, the July 3rd petition since it was not intended for actual transmittal; only the final July 17th document was sent to Compton with the purpose of reaching the White House. Szilard delivered to Compton six unsigned copies, and one signed copy that was placed inside a separate envelope. Szilard’s intent was to conceal the names of his supporters by protecting their “privilege under the Constitution,” and requested the signed copy be seen only by those “authorized to open the mail of the president.”59 Nichols then delivered by military police courier60 the ten Metlab and Clinton petitions and letters to Groves. Despite Compton’s and Farrington Daniels’s fallacious assertion that the documents “were transmitted to the White House,” Arneson stated definitively that Truman never saw the Manhattan Project materials that were sent to Washington.61 Groves kept them for about a week until August 1, when he finally routed them to the secretary of war after Stimson had returned from the Potsdam Conference outside Berlin. “It was decided that no useful purpose would be served by transmitting...[them] to the White House, particularly since the President was not then in the country.”62

The popular culture in the postwar period witnessed additional-erroneous portrayals of the Szilard petitions as unconditionally opposed to the decision to use the atomic bomb. Raymond Swing, an immensely popular ABC radio newsperson, denounced America’s-atomic monopoly, advocated world government to restrain unlimited-state sovereignty, and referred to a “communication...to President Truman after the first experiment at Los Alamos [sic] proved to be a success…[as] a plea that the bomb...not be dropped over Japan before a test demonstration.”63 Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey misrepresented the July 3rd petition as “ask[ing] Truman not to use the bomb at all,” without revealing its highly-qualified opposition to an atomic offensive.64 They also claimed incorrectly in their Look article that Szilard, in seeking greater support, changed the July 3rd petition’s demand of “no use of the A-bomb at all” to requiring that a “warning” must precede any authorized use of the atomic bomb.65

Jacob Bronowski wrote that Szilard, “[a]lways… wanted the bomb to be tested openly before the Japanese and an international audience, so that the Japanese should know its power and should surrender before people died.”66 However, no reference to “no use,” a test demonstration, or any non-lethal detonation ever appeared in a Szilard petition. More recently Martin Harwit, former director of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, reprinted the July 17th petition and correctly described its modest opposition to using the atomic bomb in the Pacific. However, he claimed inaccurately that only “as a last resort” should the atomic bomb be used against Japan.67

The atomic scientists who attempted to influence one of the twentieth century’s most fateful decisions, operated within an ideological consensus that only modestly questioned the decision to use the atomic bomb. Manhattan Project officials, historians, and journalists have too often emphasized the supposed chasm between the national-security managers who formulated policy and the Manhattan Project scientists who built the bomb. While the airburst-atomic devastation of a virtually defeated Japan unleashed the nuclear-arms race and increased exponentially the devastation of war, there was no effort among the purported dissenters to argue against any justification for the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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