Compton’s Recollections on Interim Committee Discussion


Throughout the morning’s discussions [31 May 1945] it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the bomb would be used. Regarding only the details of strategy and tactics, differing views were expressed. I was seated at Mr. Stimson’s left at the luncheon following the morning meeting. In the course of the conversation, I asked the Secretary whether it might not be possible to arrange a nonmilitary demonstration of the bomb in such a manner that the Japanese would be so impressed that they would see the uselessness of continuing the war. The Secretary opened this question for general discussion by those at the table. Various possibilities were brought forward. One after the other, it seemed necessary that they should be discarded.

It was evident that everyone would suspect trickery. If a bomb exploded in Japan with previous notice, the Japanese air power was still adequate for serious interference. An atomic bomb was an intricate device, still in the developmental stage. Its operation would be far from routine. If, during the final adjustments of the bomb, the Japanese defenders should attack, a false move might easily result in some failure. Such an end to an advertised demonstration of power would be much worse than if the attempt had not been made. It was now evident that when the time came for the bombs to be used, we should have only one available, followed by others at all-too-long intervals. We could not afford the chance that one of them might be a dud. If the test were made on some neutral territory, it was hard to believe that Japan’s determined and passionate military men would be impressed. If such an open test were made first and failed to bring surrender, the chance would be gone to give the shock of surprise that proved so effective. On the contrary, if they could, it would prepare the Japanese to interfere with an atomic attack. Though the possibility of a demonstration that would not destroy human lives was attractive, no one could suggest a way to make it so convincing that it would likely stop the war.

After the luncheon, the Interim Committee went into an executive session. Our Scientific Panel was then again invited in. We were asked to prepare a report on whether we could devise any demonstration that would seem likely to bring the war to an end without using the bomb against a live target.

Ten days later, at Oppenheimer’s invitation, Lawrence, Fermi, and I spent a long weekend at Los Alamos. We were keenly aware of our responsibility as the scientific advisers to the Interim Committee. Among our colleagues were the scientists who supported Franck in suggesting a nonmilitary demonstration only. We thought of the fighting men set for an invasion that would be so costly in both American and Japanese lives. We were determined to find if we could, some practical way of demonstrating the power of an atomic bomb without loss of life that would impress Japan’s warlords. If only this could be done!

Ernest Lawrence was the last one of our group to give up hope for finding such a solution. The difficulties of making a purely technical demonstration that would effectively carry its impact into Japan’s controlling councils were excellent. We had to count on every possible effort to distort even apparent facts. Experience with the determination of Japan’s fighting men made it evident that the war would only be stopped if they were convinced of its futility.

Our hearts were heavy as, on 16 June; we turned in this report to the Interim Committee. We were glad and proud to have had a part in making the atom’s power available for man’s use. What a tragedy it was that this power should become available first in times of war and must first be used for human destruction. If, however, it would result in the shortening of the war and the saving of lives–if it would bring us closer to the time when the war would be abandoned to set international disputes–here must be our hope and our basis for courage.

Source: Michael B. Stoff, Manhattan Project: A Documentary History (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1991), 122-124.