The Birth of the Bomb: Leo Szilard

Jungian analyst Donald Williams relfects on the birth of the atomic bomb as it relates to Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, how the bomb started the arms race and how the use of atomic weapons directly relates to our evolution as human beings.

The first in our line, the genus homo, was homo habilis, the handyman, who weighed slightly less than a hundred pounds, stood roughly five feet tall when grown, and was a tool maker and meat eater. Evolving on down the line came homo erectus, appearing about 1.5 million years ago, and then about 60,000 years ago came homo sapiens. As the records show, we are very handy and very intelligent. Realizing just how talented we were, we tenaciously exploited our knack for tinkering and figuring out how things work. We made new tools and useful gadgets ranging from bone needles and scrapers to internal combustion engines and computers. Genetically, however, we've hardly changed a whit--we're still designed for the savanna or the outback far more than for the streets of New York. If we weren't so pliable and adaptive, we'd be in perpetual shock in such a changing world.

Unfortunately, our natural bent for toolmaking includes weapons, and here we have excelled. Cruise missiles and AK-47s arise from the same mental and physical dexterity that produced fire on demand, central heating, and air conditioning. In fact, the same man that collaborated with Albert Einstein on a new refrigerator filed a patent for the atomic chain reaction: Leo Szilard, a physicist and tinkerer.

In 1933, Leo Szilard was standing on a London streetcorner waiting for the light to change from red to green when he grasped the possibility of splitting the atom and creating a chain reaction. In 1934, he filed his patent and tried to leave the idea in secrecy with the British War Office, but they didn't take him seriously. In 1938, in the midst of Hitler's growing storm, Otto Hahn, a chemist, bombarded uranium with neutrons at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin; to his astonishment he split the atom. The news reached Neils Bohr in 1939 and spread with him when he fled Denmark to the United States to escape the Nazis. Szilard moved to New York in 1939, heard the news, and feared that the Germans would develop the atomic bomb and use it. There was reason for fear: the Germans had already banned the export of uranium from the Joachimsthal mines of now occupied Czechoslovakia. Szilard was soon collaborating with Eugene Wigner, Albert Einstein, Neils Bohr, Edward Teller and other physicists on the possibility of an atomic weapon. Later in 1939, these men sent an emissary to present their case to Roosevelt, and he got the point: "...what you are after is to see that the Nazis don't blow us up."

In 1941, Roosevelt authorized the massive funding for the Manhattan Project, and just before dawn on July 16, 1945, the atomic "gadget" was tested at the Trinity site in the New Mexico desert, and it worked. Within the brief span of twelve years, we moved from a sudden technological intuition to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Twelve years--that's fast work. Technological evolution races ahead while cultural evolution struggles to catch up.

Shortly before his intuition about an atomic bomb, Leo Szilard had been reading The World Set Free by H. G. Wells--a novel about a German invasion of France and the use of atomic bombs in a global war, a novel written in 1913 but set in the 21st century. Wells called his radioactive element Carolinum: "once its degenerative process had been induced, [Carolinum] continued a furious radiation of energy, and nothing could arrest it." In 1913, Wells was already writing about radioactive decay, half-lives, burning cities, even about deforestation, diminishing supplies of coal and oil, and the rush toward bankruptcy. And he inspired Szilard. Wells wrote--and Szilard read--of the final achievement of a world government and the abolition of atomic weapons--the "world set free." "The catastrophe of atomic bombs shook men...," Wells wrote, "out of their old-established habits of thought." And it was H.G. Wells who gave us the phrase, "a war to end all war." Wells was partially right: when fear doesn't paralyze us, it shakes us, commands our attention, and gets us moving, but fear alone is not enough to change our habits of thought. And fear cannot replace ethics.

While some generals, scientists, and politicians pushed the use of the atomic bomb on Japan, Leo Szilard and other scientists at the University of Chicago argued for moral restraint, and they tried desperately to be heard. By May of 1945, Hitler was dead, Germany's nuclear scientists were captured, and the Americans knew that the Germans had nothing resembling an atomic bomb. In the same month Szilard, trailed by security agents, traveled to South Carolina and met with James Byrnes, Truman's upcoming Secretary of State. He tried to persuade Byrnes to end the Manhattan Project and avoid an arms race with the Russians. Byrnes just didn't get the point, and Szilard wished that he had been an American politician and Byrnes a Hungarian physicist: "there would then have been no atomic bomb and no danger of an arms race."

Back in Chicago, Leo and others drafted a petition opposing use of the atomic bomb and recommending a demonstration of the bomb before representatives of the United Nations. The petition was circulated among colleagues in Chicago and then passed on to Eugene Wigner at the Oak Ridge uranium processing plant. Oppenheimer received the petition at Los Alamos, but he kept it to himself just as he kept quiet about moral dissent in his own ranks. The petition made it to Washington, entered official channels and a bureaucratic eddy, and was never seen by Truman. With Japan close to defeat, the bomb was dropped without warning on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945.

We might wonder if Leo Szilard in those days remembered H.G. Wells' reflections in The World Set Free:

Certainly it seems now that nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the early twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands.


We've managed to avoid using nuclear weapons though we couldn't resist testing them over and over and building bigger ones. We restrained ourselves, thought about consequences, and signed arms control agreements. But perhaps culture can catch up and do more than hold the reins on technology. We can experiment with human culture as deliberately as we experimented with the atom at Los Alamos, and perhaps we can develop new values and new ways of thinking and feeling to create a humane world. If we do this, we may yet live up to our namesake and become as sapient as we have been handy.

Copyright 1994 Donald Williams. All rights reserved.