Did Lawrence doubt the bomb?

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 4th, 2015

Ernest O. Lawrence was one of the giants of 20th-century physics. The inventor of the “cyclotron,” a circular particle accelerator, Lawrence ushered in an era of big machines, big physics, big budgets — Big Science, in short. And that came with ups and downs. I’ve recently finished a review for Science of Michael Hiltzik’s new Lawrence biography, Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. The full review is online but behind a paywall (if you want a copy, get in touch with me), but I am allowed to post the unedited version that I originally submitted, which in this case is about twice the size of the printed one, so maybe it’s interesting as an essay in its own right (so I may flatter myself). I found it hard to cram the story of Lawrence, and this book, in a thousand words (and brevity has never been my strength), because there is just so much going on and worth commenting on.

My wonderful Stevens STS colleague Lee Vinsel had a review in last week's issue of Science as well.

My wonderful Stevens STS colleague Lee Vinsel had a review in last week’s issue of Science as well.

Lawrence featured early into my education. I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, which means I was in Lawrence country. His laboratory literally perches above the campus, looking down on it. In various buildings on campus, it is not uncommon to come across a large portrait of the man. And any geeky child in northern California visits the Lawrence Hall of Science numerous times in the course of their education.

As a budding historian of science, what I found so incongruous about Lawrence was the way in which he embodied something of a paradox at the heart of particle physics. High-energy particle physics is for the most part a pretty “pure” looking form of science, trying to pull-off very elegant experiments with the most abstract of physical entities, and making the experimental evidence jibe with the theoretical understandings. When people want to point to evidence of objectivity in science, or to the places where theory gets vindicated in a very elegant way, they point to particle physics. And yet, to do these experiments, you often need big machines. Big machines require big money. Big money gets you into the realm of big politics. And so this very elegant, above-it-all form of science ends up getting tied to the hip of the military-industrial complex during and after World War II. How ironic is that?

The scientific staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory with magnet of unfinished 60-inch cyclotron. Lawrence is front and center. Oppenheimer stands in back. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

The scientific staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory with magnet of unfinished 60-inch cyclotron, 1938. Lawrence is front and center. Oppenheimer stands in back. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

As you can pick up from both the published and draft review, I had mixed feelings about Hiltzik’s book. I think people who have never read anything about Lawrence before will find it interesting though potentially confusing, because it bounces around as a genre. One can’t really tell what Hiltzik thinks about Lawrence. Half of the time Hiltzik seems to want to make him out to be the Great Hero of 20th century science. (Sometimes this gets hyperbolic — Lawrence was a big character, to be sure, but he was still of his time, and it does some historical injustice to claim that everything related to Big Science necessarily is laid at his door. To claim that Big Science was “a solitary effort,” as Hiltzik does, is as self-contradictory as it is untrue.) The other half of the time, though, Hiltzik is pointing out what a huge jerk he could be, how bad of a scientist he could be, and how he sullied himself with some of the worst sorts of political engagements during the Cold War. Everyone gets on Edward Teller for being a far-right, pro-nuke, anti-Communist jerk, but even Teller thought Lawrence could be an extremist when it came to these things.

This ambivalent mix — Lawrence as great, Lawrence as terrible — never gets resolved. One could imagine it being talked about as two sides of the same coin, or some sort of synthetic whole emerging out of these two perspectives. But it just doesn’t happen in the book. In my own mind, this is the somewhat Faustian result of Lawrence’s “cult of the machine” (as I titled my review), where the Bigness required for his science ended up driving extremes in other parts of his life and politics as well.

The intense Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

The intense Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Serious historians of 20th-century physics will find little new in Hiltzik’s book, either in terms of documentation or analysis. He relies heavily on secondary sources and the archival sources he does consult are the standard ones for this topic (e.g. the Lawrence papers at UC Berkeley). The book also contains several avoidable errors of a mostly minor sort, but the kinds of misconceptions or misunderstandings that ought to have been caught before publication (some of which I would like to imagine would jump out to anyone who had read a few books on this subject already). I did not mention these in the formal review, because there was really not enough space to warrant it, and the book never hinged on any of these details, but still, it seems worth noting in this more informal space.1

That aside, the book reminded me of one of the strangest aspects of Lawrence’s relationship with the bomb — whether he thought it was a good idea to drop one on Japan without a warning. As I’ve discussed before, the question of whether a “demonstration” should be made prior to shedding blood with the bomb was a controversial one on the project. A Scientific Panel composed of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur H. Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence were asked to formally consider the question in the June of 1945. They formally recommended that the bomb be dropped on a city without warning: “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

Lawrence and the Machine. (And M. Stanley Livingston, the one-time grad student who got the machines working.) I like the symbolism of this photo — Lawrence looking at the newest piece of hardware, Livingston with a hand on it, staring the camera down. They are with the 85-ton magnet of the 27" cyclotron, circa 1934. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence and the Machine… and M. Stanley Livingston, the one-time grad student who got the machines working. I like the symbolism of this photo — Lawrence looking at the newest piece of hardware, Livingston with a hand on it, staring the camera down. They are with the 85-ton magnet of the 27″ cyclotron, circa 1934. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

But there’s potentially more to it than just this. Case in point: in the archives, one finds a letter from Karl K. Darrow to Ernest Lawrence, dated August 9th, 1945. Darrow was a friend of Lawrence’s, and a fellow physicist, and a noted popularizer of science in his day. And this is an interesting time to be writing a letter: Hiroshima has already occurred and is known about, and Nagasaki has just happened (and Darrow may or may not have seen the news of it yet), but the war has not ended. This period, between the use of the bomb and the cessation of hostilities, is a very tricky one (a topic Michael Gordin has written a book on), because the meaning of the atomic bomb had not yet been cemented. That is, was the atomic bomb really a war-ending weapon? Or just a new way to inflict mass carnage? Nobody yet knew, though many had uncertain hopes and fears.

August 9th is also a tricky period because this is around the time in which the first casualty estimates from Hiroshima were being received, by way of the first Japanese news stories on the bombing. They were much higher than many of the scientists had thought; Oppenheimer had estimated them to be around 20,000, and they were hearing reports of 60,000 or higher. For some, including Oppenheimer, they saw this as a considerable difference with respects to how comfortable they felt with the attacks.

"Best Copy Available," the last excuse of the wicked. Click here for the original with a transcription appended.

“BEST COPY AVAILABLE” is the last excuse of the wicked. Click here for the original with a transcription appended.

This context is relevant to making sense of the Darrow letter. The archival document is hard to read, and in some places illegible, so I’ve included a transcription that I typed up from the best of my reading of it. The import of it is pretty easy to take away, though, even with a few phrases being hard to read. Here is an excerpt of the key parts:

Dear Ernest:

This is written to you to put on the record the fact that you told me, on August 9, 1945, that you had presented to the Secretary of War by word of mouth the view that the “atomic bomb” ought to be demonstrated to the Japanese in some innocuous but striking manner before it should be used in such a way as to kill many people. You made this presentation in the presence of Arthur Compton, Fermi, Oppenheimer and others, and spoke for about an hour. The plan was rejected by the Secretary of War on the grounds that (a) the number of people to be killed by the bomb would not be greater in order of magnitude than the number already killed in the fire raids, and (b) an innocuous demonstration would have no effect on the Japanese. […]

I think that it is not far-fetched nor absurd to conjecture that in time to come, people will be saying “Those wicked physicists of the ‘Manhattan Project’ deliberately developed a bomb which they knew would be used for killing thousands of innocent people without any warning, and they either wanted this outcome or at least condoned it. Away with physicists!” It will not be accepted as an excuse that they may have disapproved in silence. We do not excuse the German civilians who accepted Buchenwald while possibility disapproving in silence.

I think that if the war ends today or tomorrow or next week, this sort of criticism will not be heard for a while, and yet it will be heard eventually — and particularly it will be heard if at a time should come when some other power may be suspected of planning to use the same device on us. In other words, if the use of this weapon without forewarning has really brought quick victory, this fact will delay but will not indefinitely prevent the emergence of such an opinion as I have suggested. It may then be of great value to science, if some scientist of very great prominence has already said that he tried to arrange for a harmless exhibition of the powers of the weapon in advance of its lethal use.2

There is a lot going on in this letter. First, it makes it clear that Lawrence and Darrow had a discussion about the demonstration matter right around the time of the Nagasaki bombing. It is also clear that Darrow came away with the impression that Lawrence was deeply unsure about the logic of bombing without warning. Now the amount of pontificating by Darrow makes it seem like Darrow might be reading into what Lawrence told him more than Lawrence said — Darrow’s concerns are not necessarily Lawrence’s concerns. But it does seem clear that Darrow thinks he is setting something into the record that might be useful later, and that even if the war ended soon, there were going to be doubts to be contended with, and the fact that Lawrence was worried about using the bomb might somehow be exculpatory.

Darrow’s letter was received on August 10th (so it is stamped), but it isn’t clear when Lawrence read it. He did not reply until August 17th, 1945, by which point hostilities with Japan had ended. This is a big thing to point out: the Darrow-Lawrence conversation, and original letter, took place at a time when it wasn’t clear whether the bombs would actually be credited with ending the war. By August 17th, Japan had already pressed for an end of the war and had credited the atomic bomb in part with their defeat.3 If Lawrence ever did have doubts, they were gone by August 17th:

Dear Karl:

In reply to your letter of August 9th, you have the facts essentially straight, excepting that I didn’t believe I talked on the subject of the demonstration of the bomb as long as an hour. I made the proposal briefly in the morning session of the Secretary of War’s committee, and during luncheon Justice Byrnes, now Secretary of State, asked me further about it, and it was discussed at some length, I judge perhaps ten minutes.

I am sure it was given serious consideration by the Secretary of War and his committee, and gather from the discussion that the proposal to put on a demonstration did not appear desirable […] Oppenheimer felt, and that feeling was shared by Groves and others, that the only way to put on a demonstration would be to attack a real target of built-up structures. 

In view of the fact that two bombs ended the war, I am inclined to feel they made the right decision. Surely many more lives were saved by shortening the war than were sacrificed as a result of the bombs. […]

As regards criticism of science and scientists, I think that is a cross we will have to bear, and I think in the long run the good sense of everyone the world over will realize that in instance, as in all scientific pursuits, the world is better as a result.4

To me, this letter reads as something of a kiss-off to Darrow’s doubts — and maybe to doubts Lawrence himself might have once held. Darrow recalls Lawrence telling him it was an hour-long discussion, and a major conflict between the soulful Lawrence and the unfeeling others. In Lawrence’s post-victory recollection, it becomes a 10-minute talk, duly taken seriously but not that hard of a question to answer, and in the end, the ends justified the means, neat and tidy.

Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer operate a cyclotron for the cameras in a postwar photograph. Small historical detail (literally): one can find this photograph sometimes flipped on its horizontal axis. Which is the correct orientation? One can take guesses based on rings, handedness, etc., but the copy of the scan that I have has sufficient resolution that you can read the dials, which I think resolves the question. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer operate a cyclotron for the cameras in a postwar photograph. Small historical detail (literally): one can find this photograph sometimes flipped on its horizontal axis. Which is the correct orientation? One can take guesses based on rings, handedness, etc., but the copy of the scan that I have has sufficient resolution that you can read the dials, which I think resolves the question. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

So where lies the truth? Was Lawrence a doubter at the time of the Nagasaki bombing, only to lose all doubts after victory? Was Darrow projecting his own fears onto Lawrence at their meeting? I suspect something in between — with a second bomb so rapidly dropped after the first, Lawrence and Darrow might have both been wondering if these weapons would really end the war (much less all war), if they weren’t just a new-means of old-fashioned mass incineration. Maybe Lawrence exaggerated, or gave an exaggerated impression, of his debate over the demonstration.

One interesting piece is that the story of “doubts” can, as Darrow implied, be made exculpatory without necessarily calling into question the wisdom of the bombing. That is, if the story is about how the scientists really didn’t want to use the bomb, but couldn’t see a better way around it, then you get (from the perspective of the scientists involved) the best of both worlds: they still have souls, but they also have justification. This is how Arthur Compton presents the meeting in his 1956 book, Atomic Quest, which takes more the Darrow perspective of a fraught Scientific Committee, Ernest Lawrence as the final hold-out, but with “heavy hearts” they recommend direct military use.5

Lawrence and the Machine (or, at least, one of them). I like the idea that Lawrence was doing his research wearing a full suit and tie. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence and the Machine (or, at least, one of them). I like the idea that Lawrence was doing his research wearing a full suit and tie. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, for his part, later said he had “terrible” moral scruples about the dropping of the bomb, of killing at least 70,000 people with the first one, though, notably, he never said he regretted doing it. He did, however, think that physicists had “known sin” and required an active role in future policy regarding these new weapons, if only to keep the world from blowing itself up. Lawrence parted ways with his former friend and colleague after World War II, remarking that “I am a physicist and I have no knowledge to lose in which physics has caused me to know sin” and chastising those scientists (like Oppenheimer) who thought that they ought to be getting involved with policymaking, as opposed to research — or bomb-building.

If Lawrence had doubts, he left by the wayside once the promise of victory was in the air, and he happily and seemingly without misgivings hitched himself permanently to the burgeoning military-industrial complex. He was part of the anti-Oppenheimer conspiracy that led to the 1954 security hearing, he worked closely with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss to attempt to scuttle attempts at test bans and moratoriums, he pushed for greater quantities of bigger bombs, he sold out colleagues and friends, participating in McCarthyist purges with gusto. He was also the inventor of the cyclotron, a physicist of great importance, and one of the creators of the Big Science approach to doing research. These are not incompatible takes on a complex human being — but when we celebrate the scientific accomplishments, we do history poorly if we forget the parts that are arguably less savory.

  1. A short list of the serious errors that jumped out at me follows. Page 227: Hiltzik says that Hanford (as a site) could only produce half a pound of plutonium every 200 days. That this is a misunderstanding should be pretty obvious given that they managed to come up with 27 lbs of it (for Trinity and Fat Man) by late July 1945 despite starting B-Reactor in late 1944. I don’t know where the 200 days figure comes from, but the Hanford reactors could get 225 grams (about half a pound) of plutonium for every ton of uranium they processed, and each reactor was designed to process 30 tons of uranium per month at full power (though it took several months for the plutonium to be extracted from any given ton of exposed uranium). Because there were three reactors, that means that optimally Hanford could produce about 20 kg (45 lbs) of plutonium per month. In practice they did less than that, but half a pound every 200 days is just wrong, and if true would have made two of the World War II bombs impossible. Page 292: The book gets the information about the Trinity core geometry wrong — it says it is a hollow shell that was “crushed into a supercritical ball.” Rather, the Christy core was a mostly solid core (there was a small hole for the initiator) whose density was increased by the high explosives. Hollow shell designs were considered, and were later used in the postwar, but the wartime devices did not use them. This is one of those errors that won’t die — often repeated despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Page 386: Hiltzik refers to the Soviet test Joe-4/RDS-6s as a “fizzle.” This is incorrect terminology and implies that it did not achieve its target yield. It was not a staged thermonuclear weapon, but it was not a fizzle — it did what it was supposed to do, and was not a disappointment in any way. Page 405: Hiltzik, perhaps by reading too much Ralph Lapp (who was very smart but sometimes got things wrong), doesn’t seem to understand how the so-called “clean bomb” would have worked. The higher the proportion of the weapon that comes from fusion reactions as opposed to fission reactions, the smaller the amount of fallout that would result. The contamination power of a weapon is not related to its total yield so much as its fission yield. The area of contamination does relate to the yield (so a 10 megaton weapon with only 1% of its yield from fission does spread those fission products over a wide area), but the intensity of the contamination does not (the level of radiation would be extremely low compared to a “dirty” hydrogen bomb that derived at least half of its power from fission). One can object that the “clean bomb” was at best a cleaner bomb, and doubt both its wisdom and the sincerity of its proponents, but the idea itself was not a hoax. Page 416: Hiltzik says that Hans Bethe “flatly refused” to join the hydrogen bomb work. This is not correct. Bethe initially refused, and then later joined the thermonuclear project at Los Alamos and made several important contributions (to the degree that he is sometimes referred to as the “midwife” of the hydrogen bomb). Bethe’s wavering position on this is very aptly discussed in S.S. Schweber’s In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist. There are a few other nitpicks (e.g. saying that “the test ranges remained silent” from 1958-1961… only true if you ignore France), but those are the ones that really stood out as outright errors. The most irritating misrepresentation (not strictly a factual error so much as an omission) is the fact that while Lawrence’s Calutrons were indeed an important part of the overall enrichment system used to make the fuel for the Hiroshima bomb (though not the only part), they were shut down in the early post war because they were not as efficient as the gaseous diffusion method. One would not get that impression from Hiltzik’s book, and it is relevant inasmuch as evaluating the importance of Lawrence’s method to the war — it was a useful stop-gap, but it was not a long-term solution. []
  2. Karl K. Darrow to Ernest O. Lawrence (9 August 1945), Ernest O. Lawrence papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0724362. []
  3. Whether the bomb did or did not actually sway the Japanese high command is not a completely settled question, but does not matter for our purposes here — we are talking about what Lawrence et al., might have thought, not internal Japanese political machinations and motivations. []
  4. Ernest O. Lawrence to Karl K. Darrow (17 August 1945), Ernest O. Lawrence papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0724363. []
  5. Arthur Compton, Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 239-241. []

29 Responses to “Did Lawrence doubt the bomb?”

  1. M Tucker says:

    Thank you for the review. I had already decided to pass on Hiltzik’s book and your review has convinced me that was the correct thing to do. I’m sure you have read Childs’ book “An American Genius.” Do you think he presents a better investigation of “Lawrence as great, Lawrence as terrible?” I have not read that yet and I have not read the books you mention. I have read Rhodes and Conant’s “Tuxedo Park” and “109 East Palace.” One take I have on the atomic bomb is that the scientists would have gladly dropped bombs on Germany without reservation but when that opportunity was past they had a harder time adjusting to the idea of bombing Japan. Do you think my take is wrong? If Manhattan could have just got started a year earlier we would have a record of their thinking on that subject. 1942 was a wasted year, vis-à-vis Manhattan, to my way of thinking. If the bomb had been ready in August 1944 instead of 1945 I don’t think anyone would have discussed demonstrating the bomb.

    Gordin’s book is now on my list mostly because I am intrigued by this: “…the Allies were almost as stunned by the surrender as the Japanese were by the attack…” Do you think Gordin actually supports that assertion in his book or is it an exaggeration made by the reviewer? Regardless of your answer I am still going to get the book.

    • Childs’ book was commissioned by the Lawrence family and written before many of the files relating to Lawrence’s Cold War work were declassified. It is in the booster genre. My favorite book on Lawrence is Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. This is the one that, in my mind, has really set the bar that has yet to be surpassed.

      As for the bombing of Germany — it’s a tough counterfactual. I have written a little on the politicians’ view of this here, but I haven’t thought about the scientists’ views. I am not sure how they would have reacted to it. I agree that if they had accelerated the project earlier (e.g. late 1941 instead of late 1942) they probably could have had a bomb earlier than they did.

      As for Gordin’s book — yes, he does make this argument in the book. (I reviewed the book here.) I think the trick here is defining who “the Allies” are (e.g. heads of state versus military planners versus people on the ground), but yes, he makes a strong case that the capitulation of Japan came about a lot sooner than the American military planners expected.

  2. Gene Dannen says:

    Alex, you referred to Lawrence as the inventor of the cyclotron, so of course I must point out that Leo Szilard invented it first.

    I think that Lawrence’s doubts about the use of the bomb become more clear if it is emphasized that he raised the issue twice. Lawrence’s letter to Darrow refers to proposing a demonstration at the May 31 meeting of the Interim Committee. The other occasion, of course, was the meeting of the Scientific Panel two weeks later.

    • Hi Gene — I could have guessed you would have pointed that out! I have not looked at Szilard’s concept in detail to see what is and isn’t similar (the cyclotron was defined by more than just its circular nature — e.g. does he have the resonance principle?); it would be curious to compare. Hiltzik does mention this in his book, though later than one might expect, and he somewhat disregards Szilard a little curtly as someone with ideas but no follow-through. I would point out that Szilard, unlike Lawrence, lacked ample graduate student labor to assign the hard business of working things out. I think Szilard’s contribution is important to note, however, because it does help get us away from the idea of lone geniuses — if two people are simultaneously coming up with the same idea, it tells you that something is sufficiently “in the air.”

      • Gene Dannen says:

        Yes, Szilard’s patent application on the cyclotron included resonance.

        I published about Szilard’s accelerator patents in 2001 in Physics Today.

        Hiltzik was clearly unaware of my publication.

        • Interesting — thanks. To be sure, Szilard was not the person you wanted to try and bring things to fruition. This is where Ernest Lawrence definitely gets the credit, using a small and quite finicky invention as the cornerstone of a massive laboratory and a physics empire. That takes a specific turn of mind (and a willingness to sit on a single problem for a long time — or, at least, to assign grad students to that problem for a long time). Szilard impresses me as more of an idea man, not someone particularly well-suited to managing large groups of researchers, much less pressing the flesh necessary to get funding and institutional support. Taking the cyclotron from promising idea into standard laboratory apparatus is what Lawrence pulled off, and I am not sure Szilard could really have ever done that. But I am sure you may disagree on that!

          Niels Bohr was asked by G.P. Thomson what Lawrence had really done to deserve his Nobel, and I thought his reply was a telling one, simultaneously praising and undermining:

          Well, what has Lawrence done? Invented an instrument which would have been more or less obvious to anybody unfamiliar with the difficulties of experimental technique, made it to work, and done nothing with it except to incite a large number of very able experimental physicists all over the world, unsuccessfully, to emulate his efforts. The wiser of them seem to have handed this trouble over to their students, but it is doubtful if it will help their generation!

          Lawrence got it to work, and it he got it to be exported and emulated — no small task, especially when going from cyclotron concept to working cyclotron was so extraordinarily difficult.

  3. Howard Morland says:

    “chastising those scientists (like Oppenheimer) who thought that they ought to be getting involved with policy making, as opposed to research — or bomb-building”

    I assume you added that last phrase, since for that period policy was dictated by the arsenal. The main job of policy makers was to figure out what to do with the bombs that were coming off the assembly lines.

    The picture of Lawrence in his suit brings to mind his lack of caution in exposing himself to radiation, which I assume was a factor in his premature death.

    • Hi Howard — On bomb building, yes, the arsenal, but Lawrence was also actively looking for ways to expand fissile material production if it got him new laboratory equipment (such as his abortive MTA project at Livermore which eventually became the seed of the weapons laboratory).

      He did have a cavalier attitude towards laboratory safety, but I don’t know if there is any evidence that his death had anything to do with that. (I think the suit pictures are all staged and don’t reflect much of the reality of operation in any cases.) He died from severe ulcerative colitis, which I’m not sure is correlated with radiation exposure, but is definitely correlated with high levels of stress and overwork. Though apparently there is such a thing as “radiation colitis” — I wonder if they had that diagnostic category at the time (the mid-1950s). Of course, if it was radiation-related, it would be very hard to prove conclusively unless it was one of a small spectrum of diseases that are near-exclusively associated with radiation exposure.

  4. priscilla mcmillan says:

    dear Alex, maybe you have addressed this subject somewhere and I’ve missed it, but where do you come down on Hasegawa’s argument that it was the Soviet attack on Manchuria rather than the dropping of the bombs that was crucial to ending the war? I’ve read a lot of the literature and concluded that, while in the end it was both, the bombs were crucial to the war’s ending when it did. I’d really like to know your opinion.

    • Hello Priscilla! At some point I will be writing up a post on the Hasegawa argument. I have just not yet gotten around to it. To spoil things a bit, I will say: I think he goes a long way in making it clear that Soviet neutrality was of immense importance to the Japanese (both the “peace party” and the militarists), and that the Soviet declaration of war did matter a lot to them. I did not find him totally compelling in separating out the relative effects of the bombs and the Soviet invasion, if one can indeed hope to do something like that with such unusual events spaced so closely in time. That does not mean I think he is wrong — it means I am rather agnostic on the relative weights one should assign to each of those factors.

  5. Po says:

    Hi Alex. Nice post, and nice to learn about Lawrence. I just recently moved to the Bay Area and I have also seen big pictures of him on the walls of buildings, like the icon you describe.

  6. Ross Mallett says:

    Disappointed about Michael Hiltzik’s new Lawrence biography. Lawrence really does deserve better treatment (although compared to, say, Harold Urey or Arthur Compton, he’s doing well). Do universities still even teach HPS?

    Lawrence as great / Lawrence as terrible is not two sides of a coin – he had only one face. The biographer has to deal with that. The idea of a soulful, melancholic Lawrence does not ring true; I am more inclined to believe that he thought that the Japanese would be over-awed by the technology. His “cult of the machine” as you put it; more generally the American shibboleth that bigger must be better.

    I was hoping that you were going to write about Lawrence and the H-bomb.

  7. Peter says:

    My favorite Lawrence anecdote is how he went to considerable lengths to get the university to allow the non-US citizen Emilio Segre to continue to work for him during the war years – but then, knowing Segre had no other work options, paid him a ridiculously low salary.

    • I agree — it is one of those classic stories that tells you how a person really is. Segrè harbored deep resentments of Lawrence and the University of California over this treatment.

  8. Gregg Herken says:

    Alex–thanks much for the plug for “Brotherhood of the Bomb.” I reviewed Hiltzik’s book for the WashPost book review a few weeks ago. I thought it was pretty “derivative,” of my book among others. At least he attributed “Brotherhood” in his Biblio. Incidentally, re the “German” question, I began the review with a comment that Rabi made when I interviewed him in 1984–to the effect, that “the Germans owed a lot to Szilard.” Namely, that if EOL had been approached about the bomb, instead of Einstein/Szilard going to FDR, the weapon would have been ready much sooner–and used against the Germans. I thought that was interesting. And thanks, too, for the bar-raising comment. I blush.

    • Gregg, can you believe it has been 13 years since your book came out? I can still remember when you gave a talk on it at Berkeley, when I was still an undergraduate studying with Cathryn Carson. Your book still holds up strong!

    • Gene Dannen says:

      I think this is utter nonsense. Szilard turned to Einstein as a last resort. Before approaching Einstein, Szilard had contacted everyone he could find to urge a crash research program and a moratorium on publication of fission research. Lawrence must have known about Szilard’s efforts.

      Let me make this completely clear. Lawrence didn’t need Szilard to tell him about the urgent need for American chain-reaction research. By the summer of 1939, the possibility of atomic energy from uranium fission was widely discussed in the press. Lawrence, like everybody else, must have read such news coverage, and he… did nothing.

      • But Szilard was really the only person in 1939 who thought making bombs would be easy. Lawrence, Fermi, Bush, Conant — they all thought it was a long-shot possibility. So I think one can say that not everyone saw things as Szilard did, and to dismiss them as foolish seems incorrect. Even the Einstein letter admits it is probably a long-shot possibility that you could make a bomb of it.

        What Gregg is saying about it being faster without Szilard is just that if instead this work had gotten to a more urgent phase before the stifling bureaucracy of the National Bureau of Standards came into the picture, maybe it would have attracted more internal attention and not been relegated to “long-shot possibilities” as long as it was.

        • Gene Dannen says:

          Alex, you know better than that. Szilard didn’t believe it would be easy. He thought that if there was even a small chance that it could be done, the terrible implications demanded immediate action. None of the people you mentioned were wise enough to understand that.

          I’m not mis-characterizing Herken. In his Washington Post review of Hiltzik’s book, Herken wrote:

          ‘…the bomb could have — indeed almost certainly would have — been ready long before it was dropped on Hiroshima, in August 1945, had Szilard gone to Ernest Lawrence instead of Einstein.’

          There’s no way to spin that to make it true.

          • I’m not sure of what your objection is re: Herken. We know what happened in the Einstein case: Einstein prodded FDR, FDR set it up as a committee in the National Bureau of Standards, and nothing really happened until 1941.

            What Gregg is saying re: Herken (which is also what Wigner thought, if I recall correctly), is that if Szilard had instead taken it to someone who could do more research on it, with more drive, that they might have gotten it out of the realm of “very unlikely to be a problem” quicker. Lawrence is a plausible candidate for someone who could have done that, if he saw it in his interest, and indeed once he did get a fire lit under him in 1941, he did just this.

            This is no real slight against Szilard or Einstein. Wigner attributed their approach to not really understanding the pitfalls of American bureaucracy, on account of their being foreign to it. It is not unreasonable to suggest Lawrence might have understood that better, and been better connected towards the ultimate goal of things (which was not to institutionalize fission, but to do something about it).

          • Gregg Herken says:

            Rabi’s point is that Lawrence had a well-deserved reputation for getting things done; Szilard did not.

  9. Gene Dannen says:

    I thought I’d been crystal clear. Reputation had nothing to do with it. Szilard thought that an atomic bomb was a realistic possibility. The others didn’t. Lawrence didn’t. There’s absolutely nothing that Szilard could have said to Lawrence that would have convinced him.

    But OK. You say otherwise. Give me a realistic scenario. In July 1939, Szilard goes to Lawrence instead of to Einstein. What could Szilard possibly say that would convince him? And Lawrence says and does… what? Why does Lawrence do anything different than the nothing that he actually did?

    • One can imagine plenty of semi-plausible things, when one is outside the realm of what happened. Szilard goes to Lawrence. He doesn’t say, we should worry about a bomb. He says (as the Einstein letter starts off with), I bet we could make a reactor that would be a copious supplier of neutrons, and it probably wouldn’t be that hard. With that, you can make radioisotopes like nothing else. Interested in adding a new scientific tool to your growing empire? Can you raise the $6,000 or so required to get it off the ground, and can we get it moving today, not in a year’s time?

      Would Lawrence have bitten? Maybe. If so, would he had done a better job than the Uranium Committee at appropriating funds and materials? Almost certainly (not much of a bar to beat there). Would he then have been in a better position to appreciate the results of the work, and thus gotten enthused about the possibility of enriching uranium using his electromagnetic method earlier than 1941? I don’t see why it isn’t plausible, in the realm of hypotheticals.

      Would anything had been better than the Uranium Committee? Almost definitely.

      • Gene Dannen says:

        That’s clever, Alex, as I would expect from you. But I’m afraid it’s not really persuasive.

        First of all, Lawrence would have been aware of those possibilities, and the knowledge hadn’t motivated him to act.

        Second, at that time the doubters didn’t regard the chances of a successful reactor to be much higher than the chances of a bomb. If Lawrence had asked Fermi for a second opinion, which he would have, Fermi would have told him that Szilard was too optimistic and the chances of success were very small.

        Third, I also think it’s doubtful that Lawrence would have welcomed the mass production of radio-isotopes in reactors. It would have been a competitor, rather than a complement, to his own efforts. It would threaten to put his cyclotron-produced isotope operation out of business.

        Fourth, Szilard’s initial reason for approaching Einstein was to safeguard the uranium in the Belgian Congo. Lawrence had no influence over that.

        Finally, I would like to suggest that the Briggs Committee is just a convenient scapegoat. Bush and Conant held the real power, and their disbelief in the possibility of a bomb is fully documented. If the Briggs Committee had never existed, their stranglehold would have remained.

    • Ross Mallett says:

      I don’t think Szilard knew Lawrence, but Oliphant certainly did. They had met before the war when Oliphant wanted to build a cyclotron at Birmingham, and had become good friends. It was Oliphant that sparked the British program, and it is no coincidence that Oliphant was the man who had pioneered electromagnetic isotope separation at the Cavendish in 1934; Lawrence’s calutron patents reference Oliphant’s work.

      I think it was Werner von Braun who commented that in Britain Oppenheimer would have been given a knighthood instead of being treated as a pariah by the US government; Oliphant received both.

      • Gene Dannen says:

        Szilard knew everybody, and he did indeed know Lawrence. There’s a wonderful photo of them engaged in conversation in 1935. The photo has been on my website for 20 years, and Alex has also posted it.

        It’s actually quite possible that Szilard did discuss his ideas with Lawrence between January and July 1939. I didn’t mention this because I don’t recall any written record of such a meeting.

        Weisskopf’s letter to Blackett circa April 1, 1939 mentions Weisskopf’s intention to discuss Szilard’s secrecy proposal with Lawrence during Lawrence’s visit on April 3. See Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts pp 72-73.

        Lawrence had his chance. Rabi’s comments were contemptible.

  10. M Tucker says:

    It is very interesting that Rabi would have that opinion in hindsight. After all, at the time, he did not think that the atomic bomb could be ready in time to influence the outcome of the war. That is why he continued on with radar and only reluctantly agreed to be an occasional adviser on the atomic bomb project.

    It is important to avoid an American centric view of the bomb project. It began as a US – British project and later included the Canadians. If it had not been for Briggs ignoring the Maud Report I think that Oppenheimer could have held his little Berkeley bomb theory gathering in the fall of 1941 instead of the middle of 1942. If that could have happened it is not unreasonable to imagine that Groves could have been handed the responsibility of building a working bomb at about that same time. That could have moved things along much faster.

    If we speculate on involving Lawrence in 1939 that might certainly have sped things up. Conant went to Oppenheimer in the spring of 1942 but it is very easy to speculate that Lawrence would have also involved Oppenheimer, and done so in 1939 or early 1940. Oppenheimer brought Serber, Bethe and Teller onboard for that summer of ’42 bomb theory school. For success it depended tremendously on who was involved and when. Of course a few months more of delay might have meant that the Japanese might have surrendered due to constant disruption of their supply ships by submarine, the Fast Carrier Task Force operations, conventional bombing and the Soviet declaration of war. It might also have meant that the Allies might have gone ahead with the invasion.

    Speculation is fun but it really leads nowhere. What is true is that Briggs sat on the Maud report, Oliphant came over from Britain and shook up the S-1 committee, brought the report to the attention of Conant, Lawrence and Fermi. Conant involved Oppenheimer. Slow initial movement by the army was solved by Bush who brought the problem to the attention of Marshall and others. Enter Groves. The selection of Oppenheimer for Site Y and the relentless march to destiny. What we can say for sure is that if Briggs had brought the Maud report to the attention of the S-1 committee as soon as he got it things would have moved much faster.

    • Gene Dannen says:

      I disagree with most of this. It repeats the standard approved narrative. But I fully agree that Rabi had no business criticizing Szilard for what he did, when Rabi himself hadn’t believed in the possibility of a bomb.