A Brief History of the
Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

Bulletin of Atomic Scientists

The founding of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists is entwined with the history of the "Manhattan Project"--the top-secret World War II program that developed the atom bomb.

In August 1939, physicist Albert Einstein (later a Bulletin enthusiast) called President Franklin D. Roosevelt's attention to the possibility that "extremely powerful bombs of a new type" could be made from uranium, and that Germany might already be working on a bomb. That letter got the U.S. atom bomb project under way, and by 1945 the Manhattan Project was the largest single scientific and industrial enterprise of the war.

The Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, where the first controlled self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction took place on December 2, 1941, was a major nerve center of the project. It was also the birthplace of the Scientists' Movement.

As early as the summer of 1944, a few Met Lab scientists began discussing the long-range consequences of their work. "Nucleonics," they knew, could be used for good or ill. In the Jeffries report, written to Arthur Holly Compton, the metallurgical project director, they predicted that after the war, nuclear science would produce staggering advances in biology and medicine, industry, metallurgy, and agriculture. Nuclear energy might even be used to produce electricity, if costs could be brought under control. But there could also be a worldwide nuclear arms race and wars of unprecedented destruction. They suggested that the United States should give up its nuclear monopoly after the war and push for the international control of nuclear energy. Nuclear weapons should be outlawed so that humankind would be free to reap the peacetime rewards of nuclear energy.

In June 1945, these Met Lab scientists sent the Franck report to Henry L. Stimson, secretary of war. In this report they called for the international control of atomic energy; they also suggested that the use of atom bombs against Japan would so compromise the moral leadership of the United States that international control would be difficult to achieve. If atomic bombs were used without warning, they said, the more probable outcome would be a post-war nuclear arms race. It would be better to arrange a demonstration--to give the Japanese a chance to mull things over before military use of the bombs.

The Franck report had no effect on the prosecution of the war. Indeed, there is no direct evidence that Stimson ever read it. But immediately after the war, many of the same scientists founded the ASC--the Atomic Scientists of Chicago. And they helped organize other Manhattan Project scientists into a nationwide movement to control nuclear energy.

The ASC began publishing the Bulletin in December 1945, after informal discussions in the cafeteria at Stineway's Drugstore on 57th Street. "The American people," said the Bulletin's first editorial, must work "unceasingly for the establishment of international control of atomic weapons, as a first step toward permanent peace."

Although based in Chicago, from the first the Bulletin was international in outlook. For five decades it has supported international cooperation to settle a host of seemingly intractable issues between sovereign nations and challenged the notion that nations could best achieve national security by building more and bigger weapons. To dramatize the particular peril posed by nuclear weapons, the Bulletin devised the Doomsday Clock, the universal symbol of the nuclear age.

Today the Bulletin's content is "nuclear plus." Topics range across a spectrum of national and international security issues, with a special focus on nuclear issues. The Bulletin has recently examined the success of U.N. peacekeeping (a mixed bag), the usefulness of international sanctions in resolving conflict (only sometimes effective), and the trail of nuclear-weapons-related items from Europe to Iraq. A series of articles written by journalists from the former Soviet Union presciently highlighted the opportunities and setbacks the 15 former Soviet republics faced as they lurched uncertainly into the future. The Bulletin also documents the waste of excessive military spending, the increased tensions caused by the worldwide arms trade, the opportunity costs of militarism, and the damage to democracy caused by obsessive government secrecy.

Fifty years ago, the Bulletin's founders believed that only international control of nuclear energy could keep humanity from self-destructing. Although the goal of international control was not realized, treaties have limited the spread of nuclear weapons and compelled the United States and Russia to take thousands of nuclear weapons off line. Major world leaders no longer talk about the possibility of using nuclear weapons in battle. A powerful taboo against the use of nuclear weapons has taken hold.

None of this happened in a vacuum. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an oddly named magazine, helped bring about these heartening developments by presenting a smorgasbord of factual reporting and ideas.

In May 1946, Einstein, one of the Bulletin's godfathers, wrote in an early Bulletin fund-raising letter: "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking, and thus we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

The goal of the Bulletin is to render that famous quote obsolete. The Bulletin's mission has been--and continues to be--education in the broadest sense. It is committed to influencing the way people think about war-and-peace issues by presenting the kind of thoughtful and accurate reporting and analyses that are seldom found elsewhere.

Copyright 1996 by the Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science

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