Editing Truman’s Announcement of the Bomb (1945)

by Alex Wellerstein, published March 7th, 2012

President Harry Truman gets quoted a lot for his justly famous statement announcing the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The language is, for a Presidential press release, florid, and powerful:

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East. … The fact that we can release atomic energy ushers in a new era in man’s understanding of nature’s forces.

The thing is, not only did he never say it — it was released while he was at sea, coming home from Potsdam — he didn’t write it, either.

Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, 1945.

It may seem a pedantic thing to point out that a modern President did not personally write a statement sent out under their name. In this case, though, the process of writing the Presidential statement, and releasing it, was deeply tied up with ideas about how and whether a “secret” of the atomic bomb could be preserved in the face of an inevitable media flurry, as well as the psychological effect the atomic bomb would likely have on the Japanese.

The job of writing the Presidential statement was initially given to the New York TimesWilliam Laurence, but he was found to be pretty poor at affecting a Presidential voice. The task was transferred to Arthur W. Page, the Vice President of Marketing for AT&T and a personal friend of Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War. Page is considered one of the fathers of corporate public relations in the United States, and a much more sober character than the ebullient Laurence.

This week’s document is a letter from Lt. Colonel William A. Consodine to Arthur Page from June 19, 1945, about a month before the “Trinity” test.1 Consodine was an Army lawyer who worked in the security wing of the Manhattan Project, and was central to General Groves’ Manhattan Project public relations planning. (Consodine would later be involved with the MGM turkey of a film about the bomb, The Beginning or the End?)

Click the image for the full PDF.

It’s a pretty interesting document, as Consodine nit-picks his way over a draft of Page’s Presidential statement, as well as a statement to be released by the Secretary of War,  with four pages of suggestions. A few of my favorites are below, ordered by Consodine’s own paragraph numbering.

On the statement for Stimson:

  • 2. Emphasize Fermi less, industrial contractors more. (Groves in particular felt that secrecy — and good will — would be preserved if the industrial contractors were given proper credit early on.)
  • 3. Don’t talk about the Quebec Agreement. “Every executive agreement represents a potential attack on the floor of Congress for the evasion of the Senate ratification clause of the Constitution.”
  • 4. Don’t mention thorium, or the Combined Development Trust (which outlined how future uranium ore from the Belgian Congo was to be divvied up among the US, UK, and Canada).
  • 5. “I have one overall criticism of the article. There is too great a stress on the scientists as a whole. The job was finished because of the complete coordination of the Army, industry and the scientists. There is too little mention of the part played by the Army. I believe that industry has been given proper attention and that the scientists have been given absolutely too much attention.” Well, then.

On the Presidential statement:

  • 6. “With reference to the suggested radio talk, I think it is an excellent job of following the President’s style. The evasion of scientific discussion has been beautifully handled.”
  • 8. At this stage in the drafts, they were going to tell both the weight of the Hiroshima bomb (five tons or so) and were still unclear what the yield should be listed as being (not a huge surprise, given that they probably weren’t too firm at that point on the yield of “Trinity,” much less guessing about how “Little Boy” would do). The final Truman statement does not give the weight of the bomb, and says (incorrectly) that “Little Boy” had”more power than 20,000 tons of T.N.T.” (It was more around 13-16 kt.)
  • 11. Consodine wanted Page to have Truman being grateful “to God” that the Nazis didn’t get the bomb; in both the original draft by Page, and in the one used, Page just had Truman saying they were “grateful to Providence” about the Nazis only having limited quantities of V-1’s and V-2’s, and not grateful to anything in particular about the bomb. (In a later memo to Page, Consodine suggests that reference to “Almighty God” be added . It was not .)
  • 14. Consodine objected to any statements saying that the reason the bomb work was done in US was because the UK was under aerial bombardment. “These reasons were not the basis of the decision to carry on the project in the United States. Hundreds of millions of American dollars and billions of American manpower hours had been spent on the project at that time. To do it in England would have required the removal of our plants from the United States to England — an utter impossibility.” Page didn’t make the change. In this case, I’d be inclined to agree with Consodine: while the lack of resources and security in England was certainly a motivation for the British to give the Americans the fruits of their research (e.g. the cavity magnetron and the MAUD report), it wasn’t why the Americans chose to do the work in the United States.
  • 16. More complaints about the emphasis on scientists: “On page 4, line 1, reference is made to the achievement of scientific brains in organizing, etc. The organization of this work was by the Army and American industry. If the organization depended on the scientific personnel of the United States, it would be today very little further than it was in 1939. This might be corrected by giving tribute to the scientific brains and excluding references to the organizing ability of the scientists.” Harsh, not entirely accurate, but not entirely wrong-headed either.
  • 18. In the initial draft, the Stimson statement was to follow the Truman statement by some 12 hours. Consodine thought this was unlikely to work and would start the press speculating — “What we give them immediately will work better to our advantage than what they surmise” — and it was later amended to be released immediately after Truman’s statement.
  • 21. In the President’s statement, it explains the need for continued secrecy as a departure from the norm for scientists: “It has never been the habit of the scientists of this country or the policy of this Government to withhold from the world scientific knowledge. Normally, therefore, everything about the work with atomic energy would be made public.” Consodine has an interesting objection to this: “The President of the United States is not bound by any policy of scientists just as he is not bound by the policy of any bar association or national association of manufacturers or publishers.”
  • 23. Consodine also thought that there should be thanks given to the self-censorship efforts of the press during the war. “Many of them knew our secret and kept it a secret. Many others could have guessed it from the Censorship directive, but did not guess.”
  • 24. Lastly, Consodine thinks that the “race with the Germans” should be emphasized, and included in the Stimson statement. “Both would be for the purpose of calling attention to our plight if the Germans had succeeded in developing the atomic bomb. Selling for the future, especially the Congress, also is involved.”

Most of Consodine’s suggestions were not implemented, interestingly. Why, I’m not sure — there may not have been time, or Groves may not have agreed.

What I really find fascinating about Consodine’s critiques, though, is they point towards strains in the historiography of the Manhattan Project. The question of whether it is a story about science and scientists, as opposed to manufacturing, engineering, and organization, has been a live one for quite awhile.

As David Kaiser has pointed out, it’s not just an abstract issue of how we tell the story: it had real consequences. The overarching focus on the scientist as the locus for making an atomic bomb boosted the boffins to positions of high fame in the immediate postwar. But it also led to their being scrutinized to an unusual degree under McCarthyism. You can’t have it both ways, being both the saviors of the world and yet not the potential betrayers of it.2

  1. Citation: William A. Consodine to Arthur W. Page (19 June 1945), in Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 31, “Releasing Information.” []
  2. David Kaiser, “The Atomic Secret in Red Hands? American Suspicions of Theoretical Physicists During the Early Cold War,” Representations 90 (Spring 2005), 28-60. []

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4 Responses to “Editing Truman’s Announcement of the Bomb (1945)”

  1. krepon says:

    Stimson pics always appreciated.

  2. […] determined to win the war. It would be part of the materials released to the press along with Truman’s announcement after the use of the […]

  3. […] need to be carefully scrutinized before being taken as evidence of Truman’s point of view, since he did not write many of them. […]