Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (The Smyth Report)



13.1. As the result of the labors of the Manhattan District organization in Washington and in Tennessee, of the scientific groups at Berkeley, Chicago, Columbia, Los Alamos, and else- where, of the industrial groups at Clinton, Hanford, and many other places, the end of June 1945 finds us expecting from day to day to hear of the explosion of the first atomic bomb devised by man. All the problems are believed to have been solved at least well enough to make a bomb practicable. A sustained neutron chain reaction resulting from nuclear fission has been demonstrated; the conditions necessary to cause such a reaction to occur explosively have been established and can be achieved; production plants of several different types are in operation, building up a stock pile of the explosive material. Although we do not know when the first explosion will occur nor how effective it will be, announcement of its occurrence will precede the publication of this report. Even if the first attempt is relatively ineffective, there is little doubt that later efforts will be highly effective; the devastation from a single bomb is expected to be comparable to that of a major air raid by usual methods.

13.2. A weapon has been developed that is potentially destructive beyond the wildest nightmares of the imagination; a weapon so ideally suited to sudden unannounced attack that a country's major cities might be destroyed overnight by an ostensibly friendly power. This weapon has been created not by the devilish inspiration of some warped genius but by the arduous labor of thousands of normal men and women working for the safety of their country. Many of the principles that have been used were well known to the international scientific world in 1940. To develop the necessary industrial processes from these principles has been costly in time, effort, and money, but the processes which we selected for serious effort have worked and several that we have not chosen could probably be made to work. We have an initial advantage in time because, so far as we know, other countries have not been able to carry out parallel developments during the war period. We also have a general advantage in scientific and particularly in industrial strength, but such an advantage can easily be thrown away.

13.3. Before the surrender of Germany there was always a chance that German scientists and engineers might be developing atomic bombs which would be sufficiently effective to alter the course of the war. There was therefore no choice but to work on them in this country. Initially many scientists could and did hope that some principle would emerge which would prove that atomic bombs were inherently impossible. This hope has faded gradually; fortunately in the same period the magnitude of the necessary industrial effort has been demonstrated so that the fear of German success weakened even before the end came. By the same token, most of us are certain that the Japanese cannot develop and use this weapon effectively.


13.4. As to the future, one may guess that technical developments will take place along two lines. From the military point of view it is reasonably certain that there will be improvements both in the processes of producing fissionable material and in its use. It is conceivable that totally different methods may be dis- covered for converting matter into energy since it is to be remembered that the energy released in uranium fission corresponds to the utilization of only about one-tenth of one per cent of its mass. Should a scheme be devised for converting to energy even as much as a few percent of the matter of some common material, civilization would have the means to commit suicide at will.

13.5. The possible uses of nuclear energy are not all destructive, and the second direction in which technical development can be expected is along the paths of peace. In the fall of 1944 General Groves appointed a committee to look into these possibilities as well as those of military significance. This committee (Dr. R. C. Tolman, chairman; Rear Admiral E. W. Mills (USN) with Captain T. A. Solberg (USN) as deputy, Dr. W. K. Lewis, and Dr. H. D. Smyth) received a multitude of suggestions from men on the various projects, principally along the lines of the use of nuclear energy for power and the use of radioactive by-products for scientific, medical, and industrial purposes. While there was general agreement that a great industry might eventually arise, comparable, perhaps, with the electronics industry, there was disagreement as to how rapidly such an industry would grow; the consensus was that the growth would be slow over a period of many years. At least there is no immediate prospect of running cars with nuclear power or lighting houses with radioactive lamps although there is a good probability that nuclear power for special purposes could be developed within ten years and that plentiful supplies of radioactive materials can have a profound effect on scientific research and perhaps on the treatment of certain diseases in a similar period.


13.6. During the war the effort has been to achieve the maxi- mum military results. It has been apparent for some time that some sort of government control and support in the field of nuclear energy must continue after the war. Many of the men associated with the project have recognized this fact and have come forward with various proposals, some of which were considered by the Tolman Committee, although it was only a temporary advisory committee reporting to General Groves. An interim committee at a high level is now engaged in formulating plans for a continuing organization. This committee is also discussing matters of general policy about which many of the more thoughtful men on the project have been deeply concerned since the work was begun and especially since success became more and more probable.


13.7. We find ourselves with an explosive which is far from completely perfected. Yet the future possibilities of such explosives are appalling, and their effects on future wars and international affairs are of fundamental importance. Here is a new tool for mankind, a tool of unimaginable destructive power. Its development raises many questions that must be answered in the near future.

13.8. Because of the restrictions of military security there has been no chance for the Congress or the people to debate such questions. They have been seriously considered by all concerned and vigorously debated among the scientists, and the conclusions reached have been passed along to the highest authorities. These questions are not technical questions; they are political and social questions, and the answers given to them may affect all mankind for generations. In thinking about them the men on the project have been thinking as citizens of the United States vitally interested in the welfare of the human race. It has been their duty and that of the responsible high government officials who were informed to look beyond the limits of the present war and its weapons to the ultimate implications of these discoveries. This was a heavy responsibility. In a free country like ours, such questions should be debated by the people and decisions must be made by the people through their representatives. This is one reason for the release of this report. It is a semi-technical report which it is hoped men of science in this country can use to help their fellow citizens in reaching wise decisions. The people of the country must be informed if they are to discharge their responsibilities wisely.