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1945-present:
Postscript --
The Nuclear Age


Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Joseph Stalin, Yalta, Russia, February 9, 1945FIRST STEPS TOWARD INTERNATIONAL CONTROL
(1941-July 1945)
Events > Postscript -- The Nuclear Age, 1945-Present

Throughout most of the Second World War, officials gave little consideration to the postwar atom.  Even at the top echelons of government, few knew of the Manhattan Project, and among those who did the primary concern was the ultimate success of the bomb development and not possible impact of the bomb on postwar international relations. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Vannevar Bush, director of the Office of Science and Research and Development and perhaps the President’s closest adviser on the bomb, discussed "after-war control" on October 9, 1941, "at some length" but there was no follow-up.

Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, Quebec Conference, August 18, 1943The more immediate problem at the time was the extent of the wartime atomic partnership with Great Britain.  The British had been instrumental in prodding the Americans into initiating a full-fledged atomic bomb program, but in 1942 as the Manhattan Project geared up the Americans instituted only a very limited interchange with their wartime allies.  Pressing hard for full interchange, Prime Minister Winston Churchill took advantage of the situation to push his own ideas on the postwar atom to the forefront. Churchill feared what he called "the threat from the east," a thinly veiled reference to the Soviet Union, the third of the "Big Three" allies in the fight against Nazi Germany.  "Unless Americans and Britons worked together," he told Bush, "Germany or Russia might win the race for a weapon they could use for international blackmail." Churchill envisioned an Anglo-American atomic monopoly that would not only win the war but secure the postwar peace.  In the August 1943 Quebec Agreement, which renewed "full and effective" interchange between Great Britain and the United States, the two nations pledged not to use the bomb either against each other or against a third party without mutual consent.  Nor would either nation reveal information about the bomb to third parties without mutual consent. In the September 18, 1944, Hyde Park aide-mémoire, Churchill and Roosevelt agreed that the bomb should be kept in the "utmost secrecy" and that "full collaboration" between the two nations in the military and commercial development of the atom should continue after the war. Any suggestion that the world be informed about the bomb as a prelude to an international agreement regarding its control and use, the agreement noted, was "not accepted."

Vannevar Bush and James Conant, Berkeley, 1940Roosevelt did not show the aide-mémoire to any of his advisers.  After meeting with the President several days later, Bush suspected that Roosevelt contemplated a postwar Anglo-American agreement to hold the bomb closely and control the peace of the world.  The problem with this, Bush told Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, was that it might prompt the Soviets to extraordinary efforts to develop their own bomb and lead eventually to a catastrophic conflict.  At Stimson’s urging, Bush and James Conant, chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, prepared their own analysis of an approach to postwar international control.  Noting that the Soviets could develop a bomb in three or four years, they concluded that a fatal arms competition might be forestalled by the free interchange of all scientific information under the aegis of an international control organization.  The organization would have unimpeded access to all atomic energy laboratories, industrial plants, and military facilities throughout the world.

Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson arrives at the Potsdam Conference, July 15, 1945.Neither Bush nor Stimson ever forwarded the proposal to Roosevelt, but by spring 1945, with the end of the war in sight, postwar considerations became more pressing.  In early May, Stimson formed an Interim Committee of top officials charged with recommending the proper use of atomic weapons in wartime and developing a position for the United States on postwar atomic policy.  In his opening remarks to the committee, Stimson noted that the bomb should not be regarded "as a new weapon merely but as a revolutionary change in the relations of man to the universe." The atomic bomb might be "a Frankenstein which would eat us up," he added, or it might be the means "by which the peace of the world would be helped in becoming secure." An awareness of being at such a crossroads, however, did not necessarily offer a clear vision as to the policy path that would lead to the desired outcome. Stimson himself was unsure. Roosevelt, who had died in April, had left an ambiguous legacy.  His successor, Harry S. Truman, had only just been informed of the bomb project and had no knowledge of the Hyde Park aide-mémoire.  Bush and Conant favored free exchange of information within an international control organization.  Contending that it would take twenty years for the Soviets to develop atomic weapons, General Leslie Groves believed that possession of the bomb would give the United States long-term military and diplomatic advantage.  Truman’s Secretary of State-designate James F. Byrnes argued for pushing forward unilaterally as fast as possible with research and production and using the atomic monopoly to make the Soviets more manageable.

Not surprisingly, the Interim Committee deliberations failed to result in definitive conclusions on the postwar atom. Following the general lead of Byrnes, the committee tentatively decided that the United States needed to maintain a position of nuclear superiority while at the same time pursuing adequate political agreements with the Soviet Union.  Briefing Truman on June 6 regarding the committee’s suggestions on international control, Stimson noted that all countries would make public work being done on atomic energy.  An international control committee, with complete power to inspect, would be created to assure compliance.  Admitting the imperfections in the plan, Stimson stated that the Soviets might not agree to it.  Should an agreement prove impossible, he thought that the United States could accumulate sufficient fissionable material to avoid being caught helpless.  Stimson emphasized that under no conditions would secrets be disclosed until international control was established.  Two weeks later, the Interim Committee, at the urging of Robert Oppenheimer and other scientists, recommended that Truman advise the Soviets that the United States was working on the atomic bomb and expected to use it against Japan.  The committee added that the President might also suggest future discussions to insure that "the weapon would become an aid to peace."

Joseph Stalin, Harry Truman, and Winston Churchill at the Potsdam Conference, July 1945The atomic bomb loomed ever larger in policy calculations as the war neared its end.  Dependent diplomatically on a weapon that had been neither tested nor proved in combat, American officials scheduled the opening of the next meeting of the Big Three leaders at the Potsdam Conference in Berlin to coincide with the anticipated Trinity test. The successful test on July 16 buoyed Truman’s confidence and hardened his resolve toward the Soviet Union.  Churchill described the bomb as "a miracle of deliverance." Stimson later called it "a badly needed ‘equalizer.’" Dealing with the Soviets firsthand at Potsdam, however, started to wear on Stimson, and he began to reconsider international control.  In a memorandum to the President, he noted that no control organization could function effectively if it had to rely on an autocratic nation dependent on secret political police who denied basic civil liberties.  The United States needed to ask itself, he continued, if it dared share atomic secrets with the Soviets under any system of international control.  The nation should proceed slowly, he concluded, and consider how it could use its atomic monopoly to remove the essential difficulty –- the character of the Soviet state.  Apparently taking Stimson’s advice to heart, Truman and Byrnes decided to inform Soviet leader Josef Stalin about the bomb while revealing as little about it as possible.  Upon the close of a plenary session on July 24, Truman, without his interpreter, casually walked over to where Stalin was standing and informed him that the United States had a new weapon of unusually destructive force.  Stalin, who through Soviet espionage and unbeknownst to Truman was well aware of the atomic bomb, replied that he was glad to hear it and hoped that it would be used against Japan to good effect.  Saying nothing about future discussions regarding the bomb as an "aid to peace,"  Truman had done the minimum necessary to warn the Soviets of the impending use of the bomb.

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Sources and notes for this page.

The text for this page is original to the Department of Energy's Office of History and Heritage Resources.  Portions were adapted from the History Office publications: F. G. Gosling, The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb (DOE/MA-0001; Washington: History Division, Department of Energy, January 1999), 55-57, and Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The New World, 1939-1946: Volume I, A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1972), 325-331, 352, 357, 360-361, 367-369, 388, 390-391, 393-394.  Also used were Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975), 38, 204-207, 215-216, 220-228, and McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988), 98-120, 125-126.  On postwar atomic alternatives and the Interim Committee, see Sherwin, A World Destroyed, 121-128; 204-209, and Hewlett and Anderson, New World, 325-331, 354-360. On General Leslie Groves’s view of the postwar bomb, see L.R. Groves memorandum, January 2, 1946, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1946, Volume I, General, The United Nations (Department of State Publication 8573, 1972), 1197-1203.  The photographs of the Yalta Conference and Henry L. Stimson are courtesy the National Archives.  The photograph of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill at the Quebec Conference is reprinted in Hewlett and Anderson, The New World, opposite page 272; the man in between them is the Earl of Athlone, Governor-General of Canada, and the Canadian Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, is over Roosevelt's right shoulder.  Click here for information on the photograph of Vannevar Bush and James Conant.  The photograph of the Potsdam conference is courtesy the Truman Presidential Library.

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