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Postscript --
The Nuclear Age

The Smyth Report, August 1945.INFORMING THE PUBLIC
(August 1945)
Events > Postscript -- The Nuclear Age, 1945-Present

The atomic bombing of Japan in early August 1945 suddenly thrust the Manhattan Project into the center of the public eye.  What formerly had been privy to a select few now became the object of intense public curiosity and scrutiny.  Manhattan Project officials, however, had no intent to release what they viewed as essential military secrets.  To both allay inordinate inquisitiveness and satisfy the legitimate public need to know, officials in early 1944 began a carefully designed public relations program in anticipation of when they would have to announce the news to the world.  They perceived that, from the standpoint of security, the release of some selected information would make it easier to maintain the secrecy of the highly classified aspects of the project.  The public relations program had two parts: preparation of a series of public releases and preparation of an administrative and scientific history of the project.

Responsibility for preparation of press releases fell upon General Leslie Groves and his Washington staff.  Realizing the need for professional guidance, Groves approached William Laurence, the well-known science reporter for the New York Times.  The Times agreed to release Laurence to the Manhattan Project for as long as he was needed.  During the early months of 1945, Laurence visited the major atomic facilities and interviewed the leading participants.  He also witnessed the Trinity test and the bombing of Japan.  Laurence drafted most of the press releases on various project activities and events.

Secretary of State James F. Byrnes and President Truman on the U.S.S. AugustaRelease of the prepared statements was carefully controlled and managed following Hiroshima.  Sixteen hours after the bombing, the White House released a statement by President Harry S. Truman, who was en route from the Potsdam Conference aboard the U.S.S. Augusta.  "It is an atomic bomb," Truman announced, "harnessing . . . 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."  Describing the race with the Germans for the bomb as the "battle of the laboratories," he noted that the contest "held fateful risks for us as well as the battles of the air, land and sea, and we have won the battle of the laboratories as we have won the other battles."  Looking to the future and the possible mixed blessings of this atomic victory, the President observed that it had "never been the habit of the scientists of this country or the policy of this Government to withhold from the world scientific knowledge. . . . but under present circumstances it is not intended to divulge the technical processes of production or all the military applications, pending further examination of possible methods of protecting us and the rest of the world from the danger of sudden destruction."  Recommendations would be made to Congress, Truman promised, on how the atom could become a "powerful and forceful influence towards the maintenance of world peace."

In the press releases that followed both before and after the bombing of Nagasaki, the public received selected background information on the Trinity test, atomic processes, production plants, communities, significant personalities, and the prospects of harnessing atomic energy. The well-orchestrated program of public releases revealed the drama of the atomic story in surprisingly detailed episodes.  At the same time, the press release program managed to adhere to the central objective of preserving essential military security.

Vannevar Bush and James Conant, Berkeley, 1940The second and largely complementary part of the Manhattan Project's public relations effort was the preparation and release of an administrative and scientific history of the project.  In fall 1943, James Conant, Arthur Compton, and Henry D. Smyth, a Princeton physicist and a consultant to the Manhattan Project, discussed the possibility of preparing a public report summarizing the technical achievements of the wartime project.  In Conant's view, a technical report would at once provide a basis for rational public discussion and make it easier to maintain the essential military secrets.  When Vannevar Bush independently suggested a technical history in March 1944, Conant proposed assigning the task to Smyth. Groves agreed, and Smyth was provided with carefully drawn criteria to guide his efforts.  Groves and various project scientists, including  Robert Oppenheimer and Ernest Lawrence, reviewed the manuscript for accuracy and to ensure that nothing within it should be withheld.

Henry D. Smyth confers with Ernest O. Lawrence about the Smyth Report, Berkeley, fall 1944.On August 12, three days after the Nagasaki bombing, the War Department released the 182-page account, which became known as the Smyth Report.  The report contained a wealth of information lucidly presented, but, as Groves clearly stated in his foreword, "no requests for additional information should be made."  Persons either disclosing or securing additional information without authorization, Groves declared, would be "subject to severe penalties under the Espionage Act."

The immediate public response to news of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bombings of Japan, as filtered through the project's public relations efforts, was overwhelmingly favorable.  When asked simply "do you approve of the use of the atomic bomb?", 85 percent of Americans in one August 1945 poll replied "yes."  Few doubted that the atomic bomb had ended the war and saved American lives, and after almost four years of war, few retained much sympathy for Japan.  The writer Paul Fussell, who as a 21-year-old second lieutenant was slated to be part of the invasion force going into Japan, perhaps has put it most succinctly:

When the bombs dropped and news began to circulate that [the invasion] would not, after all, take place, that we would not be obliged to run up the beaches near Tokyo assault-firing while being mortared and shelled, for all the fake manliness of our facades we cried with relief and joy. We were going to live. We were going to grow up to adulthood after all.

Over time, other reactions to the abrupt beginning of the atomic age began to emerge.  Newspapers, magazines, and the airwaves around the United States became filled with a variety of opinions regarding the meaning of nuclear energy.  These ran the spectrum from dark pessimism about the future of the human race to an unbounded utopian optimism.  One of the most common reactions, especially among the intelligentsia, was to abolish war once and for all.  The logic was simple: a future world war would inevitably involve nuclear weapons, and a war with nuclear weapons would mean the end of civilization -- therefore, there could never be another world war.  A flood of peace and disarmament campaigns had followed the First World War, and a second world war had followed only two decades later.  Thus, for some, the only solution appeared to be the creation of one government for the entire world.  The movement to create the United Nations was already well underway, but doubtless some of its postwar support derived from this initial desire among many for world government.

Excerpt from the comic book "Adventures Inside the Atom." Click on this image or visit the "Library" to view the whole comic book.In contrast to the fearful forebodings of the "one worlders" were the views of those for whom nuclear energy was a panacea, a new hope for humanity that in the very near future would create an "atomic utopia."  Many magazines and newspapers in the late 1940s were filled with breathless stories of the benefits of virtually free and unlimited energy and predictions of everything from "atomic cars" to "atomic medicines."  The belief that nuclear energy would ultimately prove more beneficial than harmful was strongest among those who had the most education.

Devastation at HiroshimaA certain sense of remorse also slowly began to build among the public, especially as details became known of the destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  An important early step in this process was when the entire August 21, 1946, issue of The New Yorker magazine was devoted to stories of the devastation of Hiroshima.  (These articles were later reprinted as a book: John Hersey's Hiroshima.)


Sources and notes for this page.

Portions of the text for this page were adapted from, and portions were taken directly from the Office of History and Heritage Resources publication: 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), 368, 406-407, and from Vincent C. Jones, Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb, United States Army in World War II (Washington: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1988), 553-562. Also used was Paul Boyer, By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1985, 1994). President Harry S. Truman's "Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima," August 6, 1945, is in Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States, Harry S. Truman, 1945 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1961), 197-200. The "Smyth Report" is Henry DeWolf Smyth, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes: The Official Report on the Development of the Atomic Bomb under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1945); the Smyth Report was commissioned by Leslie Groves and originally issued by the Manhattan Engineer District; Princeton University Press reprinted it in book form as a "public service" with "reproduction in whole or in part authorized and permitted." On the continued postwar emphasis on security, see the numerous press releases issued by the War Department throughout the rest of 1945 and 1946 emphasizing the continued need for security; these releases can also be found on the University Publications of America (UPA) microfilm collection, Manhattan Project: Official History and Documents (Washington: 1977), reel #1/12; and the UPA microfilm collection President Harry S. Truman's Office Files, 1945-1953 (Frederick, MD: 1989), Part 3, reel #41/42. See also the August 11, 1945, advisory for the press (which is also available on reel #1 of the UPA Manhattan Project microfilm collection). Paul Fussell quote from "From the Rubble of Okinawa: A Different View of Hiroshima," Kansas City Star, August 30, 1981. The photograph of James F. Byrnes and Truman on the U.S.S. Augusta is courtesty the Truman Presidential Library. Click here for information on the photograph of Vannevar Bush and James Conant. The photograph of Henry Smyth and Ernest Lawrence discussing the Smyth Report is reprinted in Hewlett and Anderson, The New World, facing page 376. Click here for more information on the comic book images. The photograph of the lone soldier walking through an almost-completely leveled portion of Hiroshima is courtesy the Department of the Navy (via the National Archives); it was taken by Wayne Miller.

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