nuclear chain reaction

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The Szilard Petition and the Atom Bomb


History often paints scientists as Dr. Frankenstein’s in a mad dash to the finish line, damn the consequences.  Occasionally, however, a scientist will stand up and ask the world to slow down and examine what is about to be unleashed on the world.  Perhaps the most momentous (and ignored) of these attempts is the Szilard Petition, named after Leo Szilard, the Hungarian-American physicist who first conceived (and even patented) the nuclear chain reaction.  After working for a decade on nuclear reactions, Szilard realized the import of what was about to happen.  America was racing to create the first atomic weapon before either the Japanese or Nazis could bring one to the battle field.  By the spring of 1945, the Americans were on the verge of success and Germany was defeated.  Szilard began circulating his petition, signed by 70 project scientists, asking the United States Government not to use the bomb in combat but rather to demonstrate its power first and let that demonstration alone serve as all future deterrence.  On July 16, 1945, the US detonated its first test code named Trinity, and on July 17, 1945, Szilard took his petition to Secretary of State James Byrnes, who ignored him and did not agree with the aims of the petition.  Szilard was under internal military pressure that the mere presence of the petition indicated to the enemy that a weapon was imminent and therefore publishing the letter was a security threat.  July 19, Szilard bowed to these pressures and allowed the petition to travel through ‘official channels’ which only led to a delay in the letters receipt by Henry Stimson.  In the end the Szilard Petition did not stop the bombs, which were dropped weeks later on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, causing a calamitous loss of life and destruction of historical sites and property.  Many scientists lost their jobs and careers for signing the Szilard Petition, and Szilard himself left the field and lived in guilt until his death in 1964.  It should be noted of course that almost 6 years to the day before, Szilard started the insane race for the first nuclear weapon with the Einstein-Szilard letter, but that is another story.  He was a man of deep accomplishment and deep contradiction, but a man of principle.