June 19, 2013
Hiroshima Day: America Has Been Asleep at the Wheel for 64 Years
Posted on Aug 5, 2009
But their petition was sent “through channels” and was deliberately held back by Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project. It never got to the president, or even to Secretary of War Henry Stimson until after the Bomb had been dropped. There is no record that the scientists’ concerns about the future and their judgment of a nuclear attack’s impact on it were ever made known to President Truman before or after his decisions. Still less, made known to the American public.
At the end of the war the scientists’ petition and their reasoning were reclassified secret to keep it from public knowledge, and its existence was unknown for more than a decade. Several Manhattan Project scientists later expressed regret that they had earlier deferred to the demands of the secrecy managers—for fear of losing their clearances and positions, and perhaps facing prosecution—and had collaborated in maintaining public ignorance on this most vital of issues.
One of them—Eugene Rabinowitch, who after the war founded and edited the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (with its Doomsday Clock)—had in fact, after the German surrender in May, actively considered breaking ranks and alerting the American public to the existence of the Bomb, the plans for using it against Japan, and the scientists’ views both of the moral issues and the long-term dangers of doing so.
He first reported this in a letter to The New York Times published on June 28, 1971. It was the day I submitted to arrest at the federal courthouse in Boston; for 13 days previous, my wife and I had been underground, eluding the FBI while distributing the Pentagon Papers to 17 newspapers after injunctions had halted publication in the Times and The Washington Post. The Rabinowitch letter began by saying it was “the revelation by The Times of the Pentagon history of U.S. intervention in Vietnam, despite its classification as ‘secret’ ” that led him now to reveal:
I didn’t see this the morning it was published, because I was getting myself arrested and arraigned, for doing what Rabinowitch wishes he had done in 1945, and I wish I had done in 1964. I first came across this extraordinary confession by a would-be whistle-blower (I don’t know another like it) in “Hiroshima in America: Fifty Years of Denial” by Robert Jay Lifton and Greg Mitchell (New York, 1995, p. 249).
Rereading Rabinowitch’s statement, still with some astonishment, I agree with him. He was right to consider it, and he would have been right if he had done it. He would have faced prosecution and prison then (as I did at the time his letter was published), but he would have been more than justified, as a citizen and as a human being, in informing the American public and burdening them with shared responsibility for the fateful decision.
Some of the same scientists faced a comparable challenge four years after Hiroshima, addressing the possible development of an even more terrible weapon, more fraught with possible danger to human survival: the hydrogen bomb. This time some who had urged use of the atom bomb against Japan (dissenting from the petitioners above) recommended against even development and testing of the new proposal, in view of its “extreme dangers to mankind.” “Let it be clearly realized,” they said, “that this is a super weapon; it is in a totally different category from an atomic bomb” (Herbert York, “The Advisors” [California, 1976], p. 156).
Once more, as I learned much later, knowledge of the secret possibility was not completely limited to government scientists. A few others—my father, it turns out, was one—knew of this prospect before it had received the stamp of presidential approval and had become an American government project. And once again, under those conditions of prior knowledge (denied as before to the public), to grasp the moral and long-run dangers you didn’t have to be a nuclear physicist. My father was not.
Dad was proud of the fact that it was the world’s largest industrial building under one roof. It put together bombers the way Ford produced cars, on an assembly line. The assembly line was a mile and a quarter long.
My father told me that it had ended up L-shaped, instead of in a straight line as he had originally designed it. When the site was being prepared, Ford comptrollers noted that the factory would run over a county line, into an adjacent county where the company had less control and local taxes were higher. So the design, for the assembly line and the factory housing it, had to be bent at right angles to stay inside Ford country.
Once, my father took me out to Willow Run to see the line in operation. For as far as I could see, the huge metal bodies of planes were moving along tracks as workers riveted and installed parts. It was like pictures I had seen of steer carcasses in a Chicago slaughterhouse. But as Dad had explained to me, three-quarters of a mile along, the bodies were moved off the tracks onto a circular turntable that rotated them 90 degrees; then they were moved back on track for the last half mile of the L. Finally, the planes were rolled out the hangar doors at the end of the factory—one every hour: It took 59 minutes on the line to build a plane with its 100,000 parts from start to finish—filled with gas and flown out to war. (Click here and here for sources and photographs.)
It was an exciting sight for a 13-year-old. I was proud of my father. His next wartime job had been to design a still larger airplane engine factory—again the world’s largest plant under one roof—the Dodge Chicago plant, which made all the engines for B-29s.
When the war ended, Dad accepted an offer to oversee the buildup of the plutonium production facilities at Hanford, Wash. That project was being run by General Electric under contract with the Atomic Energy Commission. To take the job of chief structural engineer on the project, Dad moved from the engineering firm of Albert Kahn, where he had worked for years, to what became Giffels & Rossetti. Later he told me that engineering firm had the largest volume of construction contracts in the world at that time, and his project was the world’s largest. I grew up hearing these superlatives.
The Hanford project gave my father his first really good salary. But while I was away as a sophomore at Harvard, he left his job with Giffels & Rossetti, for reasons I never learned at the time. He was out of work for almost a year. Then he went back as chief structural engineer for the whole firm. Almost 30 years later, in 1978, when my father was 89, I happened to ask him why he had left Giffels & Rossetti. His answer startled me.
He said, “Because they wanted me to help build the H-bomb.”
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