• From Triumph to Terror: How America Grappled with the Dawn of the Nuclear Age

    Part III of the Life and Times of James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist

    James B. Conant had been bound by the fear that weapons of mass destruction—first poison gas, then the threat of a Nazi bomb—would enable the Germans and totalitarianism to triumph. But by the time the first atomic bomb was ready to be delivered, the European war was over, and the bomb became the final arbiter of the war in Japan, used primarily as a weapon of psychological intimidation in order to shock the Imperial government into seeing the hopelessness of the struggle and finally surrendering.

    –Jennet Conant

    The following is from Jennet Conant’s Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist.

    At eleven o’clock on the morning of August 6, 1945, radio stations began broadcasting a message from President Truman informing the American public that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Speaking in a stilted voice, with his flat Missouri inflections, he explained that the United States had “loosed” a weapon “harnessing the basic power of the universe.” American and British scientists, working under the direction of the United States Army, had created the largest bomb in the history of warfare, adding “a new and revolutionary increase in destruction” to their arsenal. They were now prepared to obliterate every productive enterprise above ground in any city in Japan. The Potsdam ultimatum issued on July 26 had been designed to spare the Japanese people from “utter destruction,” but their leaders had rejected it. If they did not accept American terms now, “they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth.”

    James B. Conant listened to the prepared statement with a mixture of pride and anguish. The White House announcement broke four years of silence, wrenching him from the clandestine cocoon of S-1 into the harsh glare of the spotlight. He had gone about the grim business of making weapons, carrying the tremendous secret burden foisted on him. He had achieved his objective: providing a weapon to end the war. It would eliminate the need for conquest by invasion, which the president’s top military advisors estimated would save tens of thousands of American lives.

    Conant did not doubt the “correctness of the action taken.” The atomic bomb would force the Japanese Empire to bow to the Allies’ superior power. The sooner Japan agreed to surrender, the sooner they could start working toward a stable peace. But at the same time, he could not help feeling a certain measure of dread. The bomb’s efficient, deadly effect had been unleashed against the enemy—and it had been a terrible blow. Unless Japan acted quickly to sue for peace, more blows would follow. The components of Fat Man had already arrived at Tinian and were in the process of being assembled. A second plutonium bomb would be ready for use by August 24. Still more were in the pipeline: possibly another three in September and an additional seven in December. Truman had warned Japan that the retribution for continued resistance would be the annihilation of its industrial cities. Millions of leaflets carrying his warning were being dropped over the intended targets, instructing people to evacuate.

    The next morning, Conant read his way through a stack of national newspapers. All of them dutifully printed the official history of the hitherto classified Manhattan Project—complete with his congratulatory handclasp with General Leslie R. Groves after the Trinity test—supplied by the War Department. Truman, who had addressed the nation from aboard the USS Augusta as he sailed back from Potsdam, praised the atomic bomb as a technical triumph and a “marvel.” It was the brainchild of many “scientists of distinction,” who had worked together with their British colleagues to beat the Germans in the “battle of the laboratories” and win the race of discovery. “What has been done is the greatest achievement of organized science in history,” the president declared, and it was done in an amazingly short time, “under pressure and without failure.”

    The laudatory language made Conant distinctly uneasy. He did not like seeing his name and face featured so prominently with the weapon that had decimated an entire city in a fraction of a second. The papers had gone to press before the details of the damage were known, but early estimates were that a greater part of Hiroshima had been gutted and the number of casualties might reach 200,000—ten times Oppenheimer’s estimate to the Interim Committee. “Air became flame, walls turned to dust,” reported the crew of the Enola Gay of the immolating blast. A monstrous column of smoke had erupted 40,000 feet into the sky, where it spilled into a huge, billowy mushroom cloud that hung over what was left of the teeming factory town. The poisonous radioactive particles had not yet settled, but when they did, those within a certain radius who escaped death would be burned, blinded, maimed, or diseased. Conant knew the American public would recoil from these horrors of war. He had seen it happen after World War I: the general rejoicing on the day of triumph, the relief that millions of troops would be coming home, and then, as memories of the suffering attending each additional day of war dimmed, the widespread repudiation of the weapons of mass destruction. He knew how quickly gratitude for victory abated in the face of such indiscriminate slaughter.


    Speaking in a stilted voice, with his flat Missouri inflections, President Truman explained that the United States had “loosed” a weapon “harnessing the basic power of the universe.”


    While the front-page stories celebrated the “Atom Age” and the “greatest scientific gamble” of all time, the editorial columns already contemplated the terrifying new chapter in human history. In an editorial entitled “The Haunted Wood,” the Washington Post observed that most Americans responded to the revelations about the secret weapon “not with exultation but a kind of bewildered awe,” wondering at the grotesque science-fiction fantasy they now found themselves in. Out of the wreck of the rational universe had come an invention whose development was driven by a race for survival but now threatened to doom civilization. With characteristic American optimism, Truman had announced “a new era in man’s understanding of nature’s forces,” and predicted the day when atomic energy would replace coal, oil, and hydroelectric dams, but what was really necessary, the Post warned, was “a new era in the understanding of the nature of man, and whether it was really desirable for him to play with such toys as atoms. Otherwise the story of homo sapiens would become, as the late Lord Balfour once said, ‘a brief and unpleasant episode in the history of one of the minor planets.’”

    The New York Times foresaw an uncertain future dominated by a weapon with the gravest consequences. “Yesterday we clinched victory in the Pacific, but we sowed the whirlwind,” wrote the paper’s military analyst Hanson Baldwin on August 7. “Certainly with such God-like power under man’s imperfect control, we face a frightful responsibility.”

    From war-ravaged England, Winston Churchill, who had led his country to victory only to be defeated in July by Clement Attlee’s Labour Party in the first general election since the war began, observed solemnly that the atom bomb, “more surely than the rocket, carries the warning that another world war would mean the destruction of all regulated life.”

    The comments reflected Conant’s own growing sense of foreboding since Trinity. He, too, recognized the revolutionary character of atomic weapons and that without a means of control, such unprecedented power could overwhelm mankind. His main argument for the combat use of the bomb had been the need to prove its “devastating strength” to the world, so that warring nations would realize that the stakes had become too high and armed conflict too costly. Most Los Alamos scientists, from Bohr to Oppenheimer, had come to embrace the view that the bomb might bring an end to war itself. There could be no defense against such a destructive force. Once the nuclear threat went from scare propaganda to fearful reality, atomic energy could be used as an instrument of diplomacy in negotiations, and ensure worldwide cooperation in outlawing its military use and evolving peacetime applications for human welfare. Surely avoiding an arms race and future atomic wars, Conant and Vannevar Bush had written to the Interim Committee days after the Alamogordo test, “must be the prime objective of every sane man.”

    All his hopes for the postwar situation depended on Japan’s recognizing the larger significance of the weapon and conceding defeat immediately. Yet only a deathly silence came from the shattered island. Radio Tokyo was continuing to exhort people to defend the honor of their country and keep fighting. With so much riding on the bomb providing the necessary “shock” to compel the enemy’s capitulation, Conant could hardly tear himself away from the radio. The strain of waiting was almost unbearable. If Japan did not respond soon, did not accept the Potsdam terms of unconditional surrender, the war would drag on to the bitter end, and any possibility of the weapon becoming an aid to peace would go up in smoke.

    On August 8 Russia kept its promise to enter the war against Japan, sending a million troops into Manchuria to drive back the once-mighty Kwantung Army. It had long been believed that Soviet assistance in the Pacific would shorten the war, but it took Truman’s whisper of a new weapon at Potsdam to seal their cooperation. The expert opinion was that the combination of Russian belligerency and the bomb would convince the Japanese that they were completely outmatched and enable the end-of-war advocates in the Suzuki government to begin negotiations. On Capitol Hill, there were complaints about Stalin’s self-serving maneuver, timing his “Joey-come-lately” entrance after America’s show of power and just before Japan’s imminent collapse. Although he shared their cynical view of Moscow, Conant was counting on Russia’s declaration to finally make the Japanese military leaders accept the humiliation of defeat. In view of the “hopeless odds,” reported the Times, Washington was predicting an “early peace.” The end was near.


    “We are living in a very different world since the explosion of the A-bomb,” Conant began, addressing the problem of what could be done in the event “much of our present civilization” was threatened with extinction.


    Conant was not prepared for the terrible swiftness of the assault on Nagasaki. The implosion bomb disemboweled the imperial port city on August 9, digging a huge crater and destroying more than a square mile. As expected, the improved Fat Man bomb created a bigger blast than Little Boy—21,000 tons of TNT versus 15,000—immediately rendering its predecessor obsolete. The death toll and magnitude of the damage would have been considerably greater except that dense fog hid the naval base, causing the bomb to be dropped two miles wide of its target. Twelve hours later, Nagasaki was still a mass of flames, a scorched ruin covered by a dense cloud of acrid smoke. The tall, black pyre, visible to reconnaissance pilots 200 miles away, was thought to be the pulverized remains of the Mitsubishi Steel and Arms Works that had made the torpedoes used in the Pearl Harbor attack. According to Japanese news reports, the jammed shipbuilding yards and warehouses “crumbled and disintegrated under the devastating effect of the atomic bomb.” Seventy thousand were instantly incinerated, the charred and blistered corpses “too numerous to be counted.”

    Conant had known, of course, that a second bomb was possible, even inevitable, though he did not take part in the final operational meetings held by Secretary of War Stimson, Groves, and Generals Marshall and Carl A. Spaatz, commander of the Twentieth Air Force. The scientists had been responsible for the development of the weapon, but the specific decisions about its deployment were a military matter—that had been understood from the beginning. There were no last-minute discussions in the 75-hour interval following the Hiroshima attack in which to consider a second strike or its role in possibly hastening the end of the war. By that time, he noted in his memoir, they were already committed to an unswerving course, “and the detailed arrangements had been made for the use of a bomb as soon as enough material had been produced.” The plans were locked in place and military protocols took over: the Tinian bomber command never received a direct order to destroy a second city, it simply carried out Groves’s original directive, which included the instruction to deliver “additional bombs” to the designated targets as they became available and the weather permitted.

    Whatever the psychological effect of the atomic bomb, General Spaatz was “taking no chances,” he told reporters, keeping up the pressure on Japan by hitting it with another American secret weapon: napalm. At approximately the same time as the Nagasaki strike, 38,000 tons of “napalm bombs” were dropped on military installations in southern Kyushu. The previous day, 385 Superfortresses had carried out conventional bombing raids on another four industrial cities—having already laid flame to sixty—taking out chemical and steel factories in Wakamatsu, Tobata, Kurosaki and Kokura, and, in what Spaatz described as a “mopping-up operation,” leveled a major aircraft plant and arsenal in Tokyo. The new firebomb attacks were part of an intensified aerial assault meant to make the enemy yield, with fighter pilots vowing to “finish off” the murderous Japs. Conant winced at the bloodthirsty, racially tinged rhetoric, but he knew that for the combat forces, the pursuit of complete victory was more than justified by the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor, the infamous Bataan Death March, and the brutal battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The Pacific commanders were hell-bent on getting the job done and getting it done quickly, determined not to have to take on the tenacious Japanese soldiers, with their willingness to fight to the death, on their home turf.

    On Thursday, August 9, Truman put out a special call to his top scientific and military advisors to attend a meeting at the White House to discuss what the public should be told about the bomb. Stimson postponed his Thursday morning press conference in order to attend, and Byrnes hurried over from the State Department building. They were dealing with what Groves described as a “royal foul-up” in the handling of the news stories from the Pacific theater, to say nothing of Spaatz’s ill-advised comments on his mission. They had not adequately anticipated the enormous pressure from the newspapers for technical information about the atomic bombs, the impossibility of imposing restrictions on the coverage, and the difficulty of “clearing” all the dispatches from the large number of war correspondents in Guam. In short, they had been deluged, and chaos quickly ensued.

    They were better prepared on the domestic front, thanks to Conant’s foresight in having Henry Smyth’s official report on the Manhattan Project ready for public consumption, edited carefully with an eye to security considerations, and giving credit where credit was due. One thousand copies had been printed using the Pentagon’s production facilities and were locked in Groves’s safe awaiting the president’s approval.

    From the beginning, Conant’s argument in favor of issuing the Smyth Report was that the sudden revelation of the bomb would generate tremendous excitement and, along with it, all kinds of reckless and irresponsible statements by unrestrained scientists. Presenting the basic scientific facts would provide a basis for rational discussion, and the gesture of openness would make it easier to hold the line on important military secrets. At a meeting on August 2, Conant had persuaded both Groves and Stimson, along with their reluctant British allies, that publishing the document would appease the critics and possibly avoid further political agitation, with relatively little sacrifice. As to Stimson’s concern that they might be divulging data that would assist the Soviet atomic effort, Conant had replied frankly that Time magazine could probably discover its entire contents in a short time. After listening to all the arguments, Truman approved its immediate release.

    The Sunday newspapers carried lengthy excerpts of the Smyth Report. Conant, who oversaw the writing and editing of the book at every stage, clearly had a hand in composing the preface that placed the “ultimate responsibility” for the nation’s policy on its citizens, and trusted their ability to discharge their responsibilities wisely if informed by “a substantial group of engineers and scientific men who can understand such things and who can explain the potentialities of atomic bombs to their fellow citizens.”

    During the war, security requirements had meant that the decisions had to be made by only the scientists, the president, and a few advisors. In the postwar years, the nation would still face momentous decisions. If anyone was in a position to lead the way in the nuclear age, and grapple with the new dangers, Conant believed it was knowledgeable “scientific men” such as himself and Bush. While the bomb posed a serious threat, in the immediate future it would shift the balance of power substantially in favor of the United States. It was up to them to take advantage of the opportunity and find a way to achieve an international understanding to avert the catastrophe of nuclear warfare. He was eager to start shaping an atomic policy that might prevent the evils of his age from being repeated, even though privately he was less than sanguine that the weapon he had helped to create would lead to a world more fit for human habitation.


    In the fall of 1945, responsibility for the bomb weighed very heavily on Conant. Returning to Harvard, and the pulpit of Memorial Church, at his greatest moment of personal triumph, he spoke in somber tones of the challenges of the postwar world. “For military courage, we must substitute civic courage,” he explained at the opening day ceremony, addressing a student body filled with veterans. “Easy attitudes of complete cynicism on the one hand or Pollyanna optimism on the other are equally disastrous; it is a narrow and perilous knife edge [we] must walk.”

    There was a danger, which he had pointed to in a speech in 1943, that the principle “the end justifies the means,” applied in a time of war to ensure a speedy victory, “could engender such conditions in our minds that we would be unable to preserve liberty when the time of peace had come.” In the heat of struggle, a free nation might be forced to preserve its existence by measures that contradicted its founding principles—just as a battalion commander might have no choice but to resort to a ruthless human calculus to save his men, deciding to sacrifice a scouting party for the sake of the regiment. But in a time of peace, democratic countries had to repudiate the doctrine of the end justifies the means. America had to “reorient its sights” and struggle to find a way through the “shifting muddy ground” to the bedrock below—the basic ideals of equality and individual freedom it fought to preserve.

    While Conant cautioned against “fear, panic, and foolish, short-sighted action” in his public speeches, privately he was wrestling with his own post-atomic jitters. The reverberations from the two bombs dropped on Japan were still rolling in from around the world, but the lesson driven home was that it had changed forever how war was waged. Doleful columnists were predicting “push-button wars” and pilotless “robot planes” that trivialized transoceanic distances and made American cities and industry vulnerable to a “hail of atomic charges.” The significance of the atomic bomb as a military weapon lay in its compactness, in the tremendous power inherent in small volume. One B-29 carrying an atomic bomb was the equivalent of one or two thousand B-29s loaded to capacity with TNT. One plane could now do the work of an armada. “ There was no defense against a surprise attack with atomic bombs,” he warned.

    Abandoning his usual cool detachment, Conant allowed himself to be caught up in the growing national paranoia. Only weeks after victory, he wrote War Department officials that atomic weapons were so effective they had to expect their use in the coming wars and begin paying serious attention to preparing for them. Inasmuch as laboratories and factories held the key to technical superiority, they would become the primary targets and would need to be defended. This “revolution in warfare” necessitated not only a change in military strategy but also a complete rethinking of postwar urban industrial planning if they wanted to survive an atomic attack, especially “the important problem of location of civilian industry and the nature of American cities.”

    The extent to which the scientist had come to fear his Frankenstein creation was evident to Harvard’s chief librarian, Keyes DeWitt Metcalf, when Conant summoned him to his office in September and presented him with a strange, almost fanciful proposal to protect the crown jewels of knowledge that sounded like something straight out of H.G. Wells’s World Brain.

    “We are living in a very different world since the explosion of the A-bomb,” Conant began, addressing the problem of what could be done in the event “much of our present civilization” was threatened with extinction. “We do not want to lose permanently a large part of civilization, as happened when Rome fell 1,500 years ago,” he continued, noting that the “greatest disaster” associated with its downfall was the loss of a wealth of information that was then recorded only in manuscripts that were destroyed or lost. “It has seemed to me that in the world’s present situation, it might be advisable to select the printed material that would preserve a record of our civilization for one we can hope will follow, microfilming it and making perhaps ten copies, and burying these in ten different places throughout the country.”

    Metcalf, who was married to Patty’s first cousin, Elinor, listened in astonishment to Conant’s apocalyptic scenario and the secret precautions he was planning for the benefit of the survivors of World War III. “How many volumes would have to be copied, and what would it cost?” Conant asked. “How should the material be selected?” “How should it be organized?” Would Metcalf please look into the matter and get back to him in two weeks. Swallowing his dismay, the Harvard librarian did as he was asked and returned with a list of figures. In order to “preserve the material on which our present civilization is based,” he reported straight-faced, they would need to film 500,000 volumes, averaging 500 pages each, or a total of 250 million pages. Ten sets would amount to 2.5 billion pages in all. He did not attempt to go into the huge costs.

    “This would include the great literature of all countries that should not be lost, such as everything written by Shakespeare, Tolstoy, Dante, and Goethe,” Metcalf advised, adding there would be no need to preserve more than a few of the thousands of volumes written about these writers and their works. This would also be true for other great authors of books about music, the fine arts, history, philosophy, economics, and—perhaps especially important—the sciences and all the new developments. It would be difficult to select the material, but he believed it could be done. That said, he thought it would be a “mistake” to go ahead with the project.

    “It could not be done without the world learning about it,” he told Conant. “Everyone would be so upset at the idea of such a catastrophe as the destruction of what we call our civilization that it would be unwise to undertake the task.” After handing in his report, Metcalf heard “nothing more about it,” and concluded that the normally levelheaded university president had only temporarily lost his bearings in the confusion of momentous events. In fact, Conant had concluded that in the event of a nuclear war, university libraries outside the major cities would most likely escape destruction, eliminating the need for the expensive project.

    Conant was hardly alone in experiencing a kind of delayed reaction to the bombings. He and his fellow atomic scientists had lived with the fact of the weapon for years, had experienced what Ernest Lawrence called the “mighty thunder” at Alamogordo, so, unlike the public, they were not stunned by the news from Japan. For them, the psychological repercussions lay in their growing horror of the nuclear holocaust—the grisly scenes reported in the aftermath of the attacks, and the deadly long-term effects of radiation poisoning that emerged in the weeks and months that followed. And in the very real fear that it would happen again. Oppenheimer, according to an FBI report, was a “nervous wreck” after Nagasaki, the descriptions of the dreadful effects being no less painful for being expected. His moral uneasiness had begun after the first atomic explosion in the New Mexico desert, when the blinding light had brought to mind lines from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”


    Read part I, “Drinking with Stalin on the Eve of the Cold War.

    Read part II, The Deadliest Weapon of War That Was Never Actually Used.


    From Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist, by Jennet Conant, courtesy Simon & Schuster. Copyright 2017, Jennet Conant.

    Jennet Conant
    Jennet Conant
    Jennet Conant is the author of Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Navigating a Dangerous Era and the New York Times bestsellers The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington and Tuxedo Park: A Wall Street Tycoon and the Secret Palace of Science That Changed the Course of World War II. She has written for Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, Newsweek, and The New York Times. She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor, New York.

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