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Leo Szilard - A Modern Prometheus

Leo SzilardAs the 66th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approaches, let us praise a tragic hero of that time.

Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard were the three most influential scientists who convinced President Roosevelt to direct funds toward the construction of the atomic bomb. Nearly all the theoretical and technical preliminary work on the Manhattan Project at the University of Chicago was done by Szilard.  Without him the bomb would not have come to pass.

The initial impetus for its development was never intended as an offensive weapon and its use in the Pacific theater wasn’t even considered in the early strategic plans. Concerns were that Germany was researching the feasibility of creating just such a devise to be used against Allied cities as a decisive weapon of terror and mass destruction that well could have turned the tide of the war in their favor.

After Allied intelligence conclusively determined that Germany had failed to develop the bomb and Hitler's defeat became a foregone conclusion, consideration began to be given to using the bomb offensively on the civilian populations of Japan, a sort of precursor, shock and awe campaign to definitively break the will of the Japanese command.

This plan horrified Szilard who began attempts initially to convince Roosevelt of the moral consequences of such a decision. His struggles to run the Washington protocol maze in order to have the voices of dissenting atomic scientists heard can only be described as Kafkaesque. After Roosevelt’s untimely death and before the time of the successful Trinity test in the sands of New Mexico, Szilard attempted to reach President Truman with his petition, signed by 69 other scientists involved in the bomb’s development.

He eloquently laid out for President Truman, not only the moral objections to the use of Oppenheimer’s “Gadget” but also the negative historic, geopolitical, and strategic consequences of its use on Japanese cities. The petition was blocked by the Manhattan Project's military commander, Gen. Leslie Groves, who bore no small amount of personal animus toward Szilard.  It is doubtful if Truman ever saw Szilard’s petition before the dropping of the bombs.

I call Leo Szilard a modern Prometheus because, like the hero of the myth, his personal suffering for the fire of the atom which he gave to mankind was immense and haunted him until his death.

Leo Szilard wrote prophetically in December 1945.

"Politics had been defined as the art of the possible. Science might be defined as the art of the impossible. The crisis which is upon us may not find their ultimate solutions until the statesmen catch up with the scientists and politics, too, becomes the art of the impossible."

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