Home > Americas, Asia-Pacific, Conflict & Security, History, Politics, USA > The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative

The Decision to Risk the Future: Harry Truman, the Atomic Bomb and the Apocalyptic Narrative

Peter J. Kuznick writes in Japan Focus:

In his personal narrative Atomic Quest, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Arthur Holly Compton, who directed atomic research at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory during the Second World War, tells of receiving an urgent visit from J. Robert Oppenheimer while vacationing in Michigan during the summer of 1942. Oppenheimer and the brain trust he assembled had just calculated the possibility that an atomic explosion could ignite all the hydrogen in the oceans or the nitrogen in the atmosphere. If such a possibility existed, Compton concluded, “these bombs must never be made.” As Compton said, “Better to accept the slavery of the Nazis than to run a chance of drawing the final curtain on mankind.”[1] Certainly, any reasonable human being could be expected to respond similarly.

Three years later, with Hitler dead and the Nazis defeated, President Harry Truman faced a comparably weighty decision. He writes in his 1955 memoirs that, on the first full day of his presidency, James F. Byrnes told him the U.S. was building an explosive “great enough to destroy the whole world.”[2] On April 25, 1945, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and Brigadier General Leslie Groves gave Truman a lengthy briefing in which Stimson reiterated the warning that “modern civilization might be completely destroyed” by atomic bombs and stressed that the future of mankind would be shaped by how such bombs were used and subsequently controlled or shared.[3] Truman recalled Stimson “gravely” expressing his uncertainty about whether the U.S. should ever use the bomb, “because he was afraid it was so powerful that it could end up destroying the whole world.” Truman admitted that, listening to Stimson and Groves and reading Groves’s accompanying memo, he “felt the same fear.”[4]

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