Go to Home Page
  Library Correspondence Glenn Seaborg: Letter, June 13, 1945

Letter on the Future of Nuclear Weapons
From: Glenn T Seaborg
To: Ernest O Lawrence
Date: June 13, 1945

June 13, 1945

Mr. Ernest O. Lawrence
Radiation Laboratory
University of California
Berkeley, California

Dear Ernest:

I am writing to give you my opinions and suggestions on the question of the course to be taken for nuclear weapons in the immediate future, and also on the question of the post war future for neucleonics. My purpose is to express myself briefly here upon such political and social questions as the release of information, use of the weapon in the present war and post war control of the weapon, rather than upon the actual research program which would be difficult to cover in a short communication. As you know, it is difficult to express unqualified opinions on such political and social questions as these on the basis of information available to us, and therefore I have the feeling that my views could change if there is important information, espe-cially in respect to the present war, which is not at our disposal. I do want to say, however, that these present opinions are shared almost unanimously by the people associated with me in my section of the Chemistry Division here. For the purpose of brevity I shall list our conclusions with little or no discussion of the basis for the development of these conclusions. These opinions of course are based on the assumption that the development of a nuclear weapon of great destructive capacity is now essentially an accomplished fact.

I believe that the basic facts concerning the successful release of nuclear energy and its immense destructive possibilities should be made public and impressed upon public opinion in this country and all over the world very soon. There should be essentially two stages in the release of this information, disclosure to the general public of the results which have been obtained, and the publication of these results through more or less regular scientific channels. The first of these, disclosure to the public, should come soon and probably need go no further than to describe the destructive possibilities of the self-sustaining chain reaction with the heavy isotopes, with some non-technical description of the achievements in the manufacturing of such fissionable material. The method to be employed for this release should be chosen only after much careful study; perhaps a stepwise release, studying the effect at each step, should be used. The publication in regular scientific channels, which is not an urgent matter, should come later but should then go at least so far as to cover the entire scientific basis of the accomplishments. This would include such items as the existence of and the important nuclear properties of the heavy isotopes, the fundamental information about the nuclear chain reactions, the basic information concerned with the methods for the separation of the uranium isotopes, the fundamental information about chain-reacting structures used in the manufacture of the heavy synthetic isotopes, and the fundamental chemical properties of the new synthetic elements. Perhaps it would be all right to withhold indefinitely some of the information with respect to the actual detailed designs of the major manufacturing installations. This might not be construed as too unnatural a procedure in that the maintenance of secrecy in regard to ordnance infor-mation and in respect to many industrial operations has an established pre-cedent in this country.
With respect to use in the present war we suggest the following. Our country would probably lose some of the confidence of our Allies and dete-riorate our moral position with respect to the outlawing of future use of the weapon if we were to use it directly upon Japan without warning. It seems certain that the moral position of our country would be greatly strengthened if the first demonstration of this weapon were made upon some uninhabited island in the presence of the invited representatives of all the leading countries of the world, including Japan. Following such a successful demonstration Japan would be given an ultimatum to surrender and if this ultimatum was not accepted, the question of then using the weapon would be decided by the United States together with the United Nations; the sanction of other leading nations of the world would be important. The question of international control of this weapon, touched upon in the next paragraph, should of course be vigorously pursued immediately after the demonstration.
The question of the post war control of nucleonics is a most difficult one. The above-described disposition of the weapon in the present war amounts essentially to subordinating its use now toward the broader goal of insuring control over it in the longer post war future. One method of post war control lies in the complete outlawing of nucleonics research throughout the world; I believe that this method, which amounts to advocating the suppression of science, is too unnatural for it to succeed. We would favor, rather, if it could possibly be made consistent with our national security and with world secu-rity, free research in nucleonics throughout the world with complete ex-change of all the basic information and some degree of control through an international organization. Probably the best method of control lies in the control of the raw materials, although this is admittedly difficult. Completely free research in nucleonics, unfortunately, makes it possible for any country to accumulate a stockpile of fissionable material. It is the opinion of some that probably the only method of maintaining control under such conditions would involve world-wide pooling to form a stockpile of fissionable material to be used by the international organization for policing purposes; I do not feel qualified to express an opinion on this complicated possibility. As suggested by Szilard, perhaps control could be effected, at least in the case of some of the fissionable material, by denaturization, i.e. by mixing it with suitable isotopes to spoil its use for explosive purposes without interfering too much with its use for research purposes such as power pile developments.
With respect to the organization of post war research in nucleonics in our country, I believe that the establishment, with government aid, of about four large research laboratories at four of the major universities is a good idea. These laboratories should form a sort of a foundation for the country's re-search program and should include men who are able and willing to advise outlying laboratories as to research program. The outlying laboratories might consist of Government laboratories working on the more practical aspects of the field, and also regular university and industrial laboratories supported by Government contracts or grants-in-aid. This government-aided research would be concerned with the application of nucleonics to military and defense purposes and with such other applications as are recognized as governmental purposes. There should be no reason to restrict the development of nucleonics along other lines and industry should be free to work on its ap-plication to such fields as power piles, the manufacture of radioactive iso-topes and other fields which they may wish to develop.

Sincerely yours,
        G. T. Seaborg

Source:  Seaborg papers, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory.  

Printer Friendly

See Also
Ernest Lawrence biography