The First Time the World Heard of Atomic Energy

Christopher Davis
February 26, 2015

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2015


Fig. 1: Guided by President Truman's announcement, journalists focused on the atomic bomb's conventional capabilities and elided references to its new and unique dangers. Virtually all information presented in the article come from President Truman's and Secretary of War Henry Stimson's press releases. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

On August 6, 1945, President Truman announced the bombing of Hiroshima mere hours beforehand. [1] For the majority of people in the world, this was the first mention that the United States had been developing a bomb of almost-unimaginable power in secrecy for five years. It was likely also the first time many people had heard about atomic physics. First impressions matter: the content of Truman's announcement no doubt had an outsized effect on the public perception of nuclear energy. Even the most prestigious newspapers like the New York Times drew most information about atomic energy from President Truman and secretary of War Henry Stimson, often quoting entire paragraphs verbatim. [3] The government had an interest in guiding the public discourse on the nature of atomic energy, and as such strictly regulated the dissemination of information about atomic energy. From our more enlightened perspective on the capabilities of atomic physics - peaceful and otherwise - we would be well advised to consider how the United States government presented atomic energy: what factors were accurate? Which overemphasized, and which elided? There will no doubt come a time when science again aids mankind in the creation of a new weapon of awesome and awful power, and we would be wise to remember the last time a revolutionary weapon was unveiled to the world.


This report will not discuss the necessity (or lack thereof) for the deployment of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima. Large portions of Truman's announcement naturally attempt to justify the attack. I will pass over these portions as they do not pertain to the topic at hand.

What Truman Said

The atomic bomb is presented as a revolution in magnitude, not kind. Truman presents atomic energy as a way to merely create bigger explosions. His unit of power is the same as other explosive devices - tons of TNT. To emphasize its strength, he compares it against the 'Grand Slam', a British bomb with a destructive capability of around 22,000 pounds. [3] Truman states that the atomic bombs are being produced at 'two great plants' as well as several smaller facilities - a whole industry devoted towards atomic warfare. This comparison with the 'Grand Slams' creates the impression that the atomic bomb deployed in Hiroshima is just the first bomb of hundreds off of some assembly line, serving to further deemphasize its 'uniqueness' as a fundamentally different type of weapon. By emphasizing the difference in magnitude, not kind, the atomic bomb and the technologies associated with its creation (atomic energy) are things that fall under the control of the government: just as one does not go to the store to buy TNT, so one does not simply buy uranium. This helps legitimize the government's declaration (from Secretary of War Hentry Stimson) that Uranium would become a controlled substance. [2]

How do you inform the public of a massive research project so secret that many who worked on it did not know toward what they worked? First, you legitimize the endeavor by noting that the major Allied powers - Britain and the United States - have signed on to it. This way, the project appears to have the implicit support of the people, who elected the government. Next, you stress the necessity for secrecy by noting that an open research project of this scale would invite enemy assault and reminding the audience of the bombings Britain endured. (Nevemind that there were few instances of sabotage in the United States, much less bombings.) Finally - and perhaps unique to nuclear energy - you emphasize that although the scale of production was indeed massive, the product produced is "exceedingly small", as if all the materially were directly condensed into the bomb. This way, you can address the obvious concern such people had about their work (what is all this material going toward? If this project is really all that is going on, why did it all lead to only a few bombs?), highlight their own involvement (nuclear energy is democratic - see how good Americans worked on it?), but also mark it as something too dangerous for regular people to control (see this power in this small container? this is why we could not say toward what you worked). Although Truman never says which plants were involved in the production of the bomb, the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, does disclose the location in his accompanying press release, taking pains to point that the workers 'live under normal conditions in modest houses . . . and have for their use all the ... facilities of a modern small city.' [2] Even if workers lived at an isolated plant, they worked willingly and humanely toward the project.

The disclosure of secrecy perhaps left an outsized effect on public perceptions of nuclear energy. Because the bomb was 'too dangerous for the people' and its development therefore secretive, maybe nuclear energy also would be too dangerous for the people: it could be used to power military devices (like naval ships) but would be too risky for civilian consumption. Consequently, unlike many other scientific discoveries, which appear to 'yearn to be free' (to borrow from a much later paradigm), Truman's narrative of nuclear energy presupposes that the percolation of its knowledge be controlled. The press release by Stimson on the subject says as much, noting that 'it was a question of which nations would control the discovery [of atomic energy for war purposes]'. [2] This control was literal: scientists who worked on the project were required to relinquish all rights they may have had in the discovery and production of the atomic bomb to their respective governments.

What Truman Did Not Say

A press statement is a meager portion of news for the announcement of a project that channelled the work of thousands for several years into a new and record-setting explosive. A somewhat-longer statement by Stimson accompanied the release, but neither covered the most salient points in describing what nuclear energy was, only what it could do militarily. If a random citizen were polled about what nuclear energy was, they would probably say something like this: it harnesses the power of the atom (not that they would be able to describe what is meant by that statement); it comes from rare elements like uranium; it is expensive and requires much man power; it should be heavily regulated by the government; it was used to create the world's biggest bombs, which were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. They would be unable to talk about any of the following: how atomic energy works; how it could be used to benefit mankind; what its side effects are, for the health of an individual; precisely how destructive it is. Truman is able to hide behind general numerical illiteracy when he states how powerful the bomb is: how does one conceive the damage of 20,000 tons of TNT and contrast it with an explosion of 'only' six? How could people truly know that the bomb in effect vaporized a city? Further, by not disclosing any of the science of radiation, Truman also does not have to mention the deliterious effects of radiation poisoning. Truman almost certainly knew about these radiation effects, but in eliding their lethality, atomic energy became just a means to a bigger bomb. By framing the atomic bomb as a revolution in magnitude, not kind, Truman completely sidesteps the unique and new harms of nuclear energy.


The omission of any discussion about radiation can only be read as deliberate, although the precise end toward which this omission serves is multifaced. It is uncharitable to only state that the presentation of nuclear energy was to make it easier for the government to control the technology. The President had to take care to control any hysteria that might arise from the public's reaction to this new technology (both to its capabilities and to their own unknowing complicity in its creation), and while the world certainly needed to know about the existence of the atomic bomb (as the bombing was as much a propoganda act as a military one), perhaps not every detail needed disclosure. The announcement had to balance the informative aspects with the need to control public reactions to the technology such that his constituents would align with his vision for the future of atomic energy. Whether a decision that maximized the political calculus also maximizes the moral and ethical I will not say, but no doubt this announcement will serve as a useful reference for the inevitable next time a government creates a new and awesome weapon from the cutting edge of science.

© Christopher Davis. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] "Statement by the President Announcing the Use of the A-Bomb at Hiroshima," PUBLIC PAPERS OF THE PRESIDENTS OF THE UNITED STATES: HARRY S. TRUMAN, 1945-1953, VOL. 1 (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1961), p. 197.

[2] "Statement of the Secretary of War," U.S. War Department, 6 Aug 1945.

[3] S. Shalett, "First Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japan," New York Times, 6 Aug 1945.