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 By Joe Scarry  JoeScarryBlogspot  January 6, 2015

Several days after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, I returned from northern New Jersey to Chicago.
I remember looking up at skyscrapers like the Sears Tower and wondering if it was possible that one of them would be struck.

Roger Brown,
End of the World

I was reminded of this while reading about some of the scientists who were involved in the creation of the atomic bomb:

“In the summer of 1945,we walked the streets of Chicago vividly imagining the sky suddenly lit up by a giant fireball, the steel skeletons of skyscrapers bending into grotesque shapes.”

These are the words of Eugene Rabinowitch, recounted in Lawrence S. Wittner’s book, Confronting the Bomb: A Short History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement.

I was aware that the beginnings of the Manhattan Project took place at the University of Chicago. I had learned, principally from the opera Dr. Atomic, that in early 1945 a group of Manhattan Project scientists had urged that the new bomb not be used against any populated area. I knew that a after Hiroshima and Nagasaki many scientists joined together to oppose nuclear war, and that some of their advocacy could be found in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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But somehow I never quite understood how much of a Chicago story the bomb and opposition to it really is.

The “Met Lab”

Henry Moore, Nuclear Energy
This bronze sculpture on the campus of the University

of Chicago stands on the spot above Chicago Pile 1,
where Enrico Fermi and colleagues carried out the world’s
first successful atomic chain reaction in December, 1942.
(Image from Philosophy of Science Portal)

Reading a few pages of Wittner, I realized that the Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory (the “Met Lab”) was the locus of scientific opposition to the use of the bomb. The basic sequence of events was:

* May 28, 1945 – Leo Szilard meets with Secretary of State-designate James Byrnes, in an unsuccessful attempt to convince the U.S. government to forgo actual use of the bomb* early June, 1945 – Met Lab scientists convene a “Committee on Social and Political Implications of Atomic Energy” to quickly compile recommendations for the U.S. government. Committee members are Leo Szilard, James Franck,Eugene Rabinowitch, Donald Hughes, James Nickson, Glenn Seaborg, andJoyce Stearns.* June 11, 1945 – The report of the Met Lab committee (“the Franck Report”) is circulated, recommending no use of atomic weapons against human populations

* July, 1945 – aware that the U.S. government is not heeding the Franck Report, 68 scientists at the Met Lab and 69 at Oak Ridge petition the the government to refrain from bombing Japan. Manhattan Project scientists at Los Alamos are barred from participating in the petition.

* August 6, 1945 – U.S. drops atomic bomb on Hiroshima

* August 9, 1945 – U.S. drops atomic bomb on Nagasaki

Rabinowitch went on to be one of the founders of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which to this day is headquartered in Chicago, not far from the original site of the Met Lab.

“Who asked you?”

Andrei Sakharov, Memoirs 

Whenever I hear the story of the Manhattan Project scientists, I am reminded of a story told by the scientist (and later dissident) Andrei Sakharov about his role in the Soviet Union’s first successful hydrogen bomb test:

“[I]n the reception after the test, Sakharov proposed the toast: ‘May all our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and never over cities.’ This toast stunned everyone, and elicited from a top official a response warning Sakharov that, he, as a scientist, should not intervene in politics.”

(See the Learn to Question website.)

Sakharov and the Met Lab scientists had the same rude awakening: “We’re interested in your technology, not your political advice.” As one of the Met Lab scientists said, “I might as well have thrown those recommendations [about abstaining from using the bomb] into Lake Michigan.”

Ancient History?

2015 will mark the 70th anniversary of the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

We are inclined sometimes, I think, to treat all that as “ancient history.” And that fits naturally with our desire to avert our eyes from the unpleasant truth that we live now, as we have every year since then, under the threat of nuclear annihilation.

More significantly, it fits perfectly with certain Chicago stereotypes (e.g. “Second City,” “Third Coast”) to continue thinking that, whatever decisions get made about nuclear weapons, they will be made by other people, in one of those “big” cities where the people who call the shots live.

Illinois: projected targets in event
of a nuclear attack

However, I can think of at least three reasons why people right here in Chicago need to make themselves heard about nuclear disarmament:

* when it came time to install the latest figurehead — the “thermonuclear monarch” — to sit at the controls of the U.S. nuclear threat, people were very happy to accept a candidate from Chicago* when it’s time to build the weapons,people look to a Chicago company to built the hardware.* when the “accident” happens, Chicago will no longer be a “second city.”

It’s time for Chicago to step up.



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By Published On: January 8th, 2015Comments Off on Joe Scarry: Unfinished Business in Chicago (Nuclear Disarmament, that is)

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