But James Conant, the chairman of the Manhattan Project, had no qualms against gas weapons. He had developed poison gas working in the Chemical Weapons Service during World War I. Years later in his memoirs, he wrote: “I did not see in 1917, and do not see in 1968, why tearing a man’s guts out by a high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs or skin.” The view that gas weapons were less moral than others, he believed, was just plain “old fashioned.”
In 1942, James Franck, a German chemist who emigrated to the U.S., was hired to work in the Manhattan Project as director of the chemistry division of Chicago’s “Metallurgical Lab,” colloquially known as the “gas house.” Franck had ample experience working with poison gas. During World War I, he had been the “confidential assistant” of Fritz Haber, the father of chemical warfare. Alongside the scientists at Chicago, however, he developed serious doubts about the bomb project, and organized secret all-night sessions where his colleagues could voice their concerns. Together, the group drafted a document known as the Franck Report.
“We have large accumulations of poison gas,” this report explained, “but do not use them, and recent polls have shown that public opinion in this country would disapprove of such a use even if it would accelerate the winning of the Far Eastern war.”
The report considered the implications of using the weapon from various angles—moral as well as technical—and recommended against using the bomb without prior warning. When George Harrison, the special assistant to the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, summarized its main message to his boss, he explained it this way: “They feel that to do so might sacrifice our whole moral position and thus make it more difficult for us to be the leaders in proposing or enforcing any system of international control.”
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The lessons Harrison derived from the Franck report, however, seemed to have more to do with controlling the perception and history of the new weapon than with further investigating any troubling comparisons. Immediately after reading it, Harrison stressed the need to compose “fairly complete statements to the world about [the bomb’s] history and development.” He knew that the effects of the bomb would shock the public, making it harder for civilians to embrace nuclear energy in the post-war period, so he sent a memorandum to Stimson, urging him to act quickly “to avoid the risk of grave repercussions on the public in general and on Congress in particular.”
In a May 31, 1945, meeting with Oppenheimer and other top scientists, Stimson and the Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall set key directives for subsequent narratives of the bomb and its development. Stimson explained to those present that the atom bomb was a “special” weapon—one arising from elite knowledge, and not from industrial engineering. Accounts of its development were to stress brains, not brawn: “This project should not be considered simply in terms of military weapons,” he said, “but as a new relationship of man to the universe.” The point of comparison was to be that of the Copernican or Newtonian revolutions, but “far more important” than both.