If They’d Listened to the Scientists We Might Not Need to Observe Hiroshima Day

Originally published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1948 and in a 1956 book, a poll was posted on Ptak Science Books History of Ideas blog in 2007, but only recently brought to my attention. It seems that in July 1945 answers to a multiple-choice questionnaire were solicited from 250 scientists at the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory division of the Manhattan Project. The question and choices:

Which of the following five procedures comes closest to your choice as to the way in which any new weapons that may develop should be used in the Japanese war?

1. Use them in the manner that is from the military point of view most effective in bringing about prompt Japanese surrender at minimum cost to our armed forces.

2. Give a military demonstration in Japan to be followed by renewed opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.

3. Give an experimental demonstration in this country, with representatives of Japan present, followed by a new opportunity for surrender before full use of the weapon is employed.

4. Withhold military use of the weapons, but make public experimental demonstration of their effectiveness. [Not sure how this differs from questions 2 and 3. -- RW]

5. Maintain as secret as possible all developments of our new weapons and refrain from using them in this war.

The scientists’ votes: 1: 15%, 2. 46%, 3. 26%, 4. 11%, 5. 2%.

In light of how few supported unequivocal use of the new weapon, you see that policymakers, at best, took their responses, “under advisement.” An opportunity was lost to use discretion and end the war on an uplifting note which would have acted as a springboard to a more peaceful world. Especially since more and more historians now believe that it wasn’t the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that prompted Japan to surrender.

No one is more eloquent on this subject than Ward Wilson of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies. At Rethinking Nuclear Weapons he recently wrote: “The evidence that the Emperor was deeply affected by the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is so gossamer thin that the merest breath of skepticism sweeps it aside.” (For more see Wilson’s June, 2007 International Security article The Winning Weapon?) After all, Japan had already lost 100,000 in the bombing of Tokyo and tens of thousands more in comprehensive bombing that included towns as small as yours or mine. Bear in mind, following that line of thinking, the demonstrations might not have induced the emperor to surrender either.

Apparently the reason Japan surrendered wasn’t that different from the reason the United States bombed — the Soviet Union. Japan feared the Soviets were on the verge of invading and the United States wanted to put the fear of God into them, you know, for future reference.

The poll: http://iedllc.com/AskPeople_2_2_2/survey.php?sid=C859D7