How Einstein, Oppenheimer and Other Scientists Failed to Convince Americans About Controlling Nuclear Weapons

Masterminds in physics, these leading academics didn’t know how to use the powerful tool of a public service announcement in this excerpt from “How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America”

Atoms for Peace - Smithsonian Voices Cover.jpg
During the Cold War, US President Eisenhower oversaw the introduction of the “Atoms for Peace." Here he's seen receiving an album of Atoms for Peace stamps. Public Domain Image courtesy of US Energy Department, Historian’s Office.
In one brief moment on October 25, 1945, what didn’t happen would cost the United States a sane nuclear policy.

World War II was finally over. The normally eloquent nuclear physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was overcome by emotion as he faced President Harry Truman in the Oval Office. Truman had just told the former Manhattan Project director that he thought the Soviets would never develop their own atomic bomb.
Oppenheimer’s incredulity at such a ridiculous statement robbed him of the persuasive voice he needed to accomplish his critical mission—convincing President Truman about the need to control atomic weapons to avoid an arms race and possible war with the Russians. Instead of summoning his usual articulateness, Oppenheimer made an overtly emotional response: “Mr. President, I feel I have blood on my hands.”

As Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin describe the conversation in American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist’s distress may have been a contributing factor in his failure to gain Truman’s support for control of atomic weapons.

How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America: A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns

Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist Wendy Melillo authors the first book to explore the history of the Ad Council and the campaigns that brought public service announcements to the nation through the mass media.

Afterwards, the President was heard to mutter, “Blood on his hands, dammit, he hasn’t half as much blood on his hands as I have. You just don’t go around bellyaching about it.” He later told [Undersecretary of State] Dean Acheson, “I don’t want to see that son-of-a-bitch in this office ever again.”

Even in May 1946, the encounter still vivid in his mind, he wrote Acheson and described Oppenheimer as a “cry-baby scientist” who had come to “my office some five or six months ago and spent most of his time wringing his hands and telling me they had blood on them because of the discovery of atomic energy.”

Oppenheimer’s failure to persuade Truman led scientists to make a dramatic decision: a direct appeal to the public. To reach a mass audience, William Higinbotham, chairman of the newly formed Federation of American Scientists (FAS), turned to the ad industry for help. His February 14, 1946, letter to Theodore Repplier, executive director of the War Advertising Council, proposed a bold move: an atomic energy campaign. He and his fellow scientists were fearful of the destructive capabilities of atomic weapons after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As other nations developed such weapons, the threat of nuclear warfare would grow—unless something was done to stop it. Convinced that international control was the only answer, the scientists wanted the War Advertising Council to trumpet this vital message.

“The advertising business can render a great public service at this time and in the near future by undertaking to present to the American public the basic facts which lead to the decision that some form of world control of atomic energy is necessary,” Higinbotham wrote. “The Federation of American Scientists has as its primary objective the establishment of international controls of atomic armaments, so that the great peaceful potentialities of nuclear energies can be realized in science, medicine and industry, and the world may enjoy an epoch of unhampered cultural, scientific and commercial interchange between nations.”

When he met with War Advertising Council officials a few weeks later, Oppenheimer would add his own appeal to Higinbotham’s. Like many of the postwar Manhattan Project scientists, Oppenheimer worried that the device he had helped create, with a capacity to kill more than 100,000 people, could be used against the United States. His January 1946 comments, published in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, emphasized the urgency of international control. “It will not help to avert such a war if we try to rub the edges off this new terror that we have helped to bring to the world,” he wrote. “As a vast threat and a new one, to all the peoples of the earth, by its novelty, its terror, its strangely Promethean quality, it has become . . . an opportunity unique and challenging.”

Controlling atomic energy was a cause that Albert Einstein, the most famous physicist of the twentieth century, embraced. In 1946 he lent his name to a $1 million fund-raising drive. “We scientists recognize our inescapable responsibility to carry to our fellow citizens an understanding of the simple facts of atomic energy and its implications,” he wrote in a letter for the campaign on December 11, 1946. He believed that the only effective way to defend against atomic warheads was to take the facts about such weapons to the citizens of America. Only if all nations exercised control and pursued the peaceful development of atomic energy would the world be safe.

The scientists’ belief in rational thinking led them to naively assume that if they gave people enough information about the dangers of atomic weapons, the public would act on their message. But giving people knowledge is not always enough to change behavior. Disagreements among the scientists contributed to the campaign’s lack of a strong public message that would have explained what Americans could do individually to help establish international control. What’s more, the scientists’ inability to raise enough money prevented the effort from expanding beyond radio to print advertising, where more information about the need to control atomic energy could have been provided.

The scientists’ collective failure to recognize the need for the atomic energy campaign to include an action message represents a missed opportunity at a pivotal moment in the postwar era to establish an international authority to control the proliferation of atomic weapons. After Oppenheimer stood in President Truman’s office and did not effectively articulate why international control was so critical, the scientists had few options left when negotiations between the United States and the Soviet Union broke down a year later. The atomic energy campaign was the scientists’ best hope to use public opinion to persuade President Truman to negotiate further with the Soviets. Their failure to fully support it partly opened the door to an arms race that did not end with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Nearly seventy years after President Truman used the force of atomic energy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to stop a war, America’s leaders still struggle to contain the threat of nuclear warfare from other countries.

To understand the atomic energy campaign’s failure, it’s necessary to explore the sense of fear that gripped the nation once the atomic bomb was unleashed on Japan, how the scientists sought to harness the bomb’s destructive power through international control, and why the internal disagreements and disorganization among the scientists proved so fatal to the campaign.

Higinbotham’s 1946 letter to the Ad Council was stark. There was no defense against atomic weapons, and the United States could not keep the scientific knowledge necessary to build a bomb secret for long. Therefore, the scientists rationally concluded, some form of international control must be established. Susan Caudill, in a paper on Albert Einstein’s publicity campaign for world government published in Journalism Quarterly, notes that international control “usually was interpreted to mean either international control through an expanded United Nations, or through a supra-national structure with the power to control atomic energy development and to keep the peace. The latter plan required that nations would have to disarm and surrender military control to a world government.”

The scientists had the support of a number of opinion leaders who believed that either international control or the more controversial idea of a world government was the only solution to avoiding future atomic wars. Cousins, whose Modern Man Is Obsolete first appeared as an editorial in the Saturday Review four days after Japan surrendered on August 12, 1945, argued for world government. “Can it be that we do not realize that in an age of atomic energy and rocket planes the foundations of the old sovereignties have been shattered?” he wrote. “The need for world government was clear long before August 6, 1945, but Hiroshima and Nagasaki raised that need to such dimensions that it can no longer be ignored.”

Following the bombings, Raymond Gram Swing, the American Broadcasting Company newscaster, would devote each Friday’s radio broadcast to the influence of atomic energy. In his book, In the Name of Sanity, Swing adopted the slogan “One world or no world,” a phrase he credited to Louis Adamic, the editor of the magazine Common Ground: “There must be one world, or the many worlds into which we still are divided by our archaic concepts of sovereignty will wipe each other out.” Boyer, in By the Bomb’s Early Light, considers Swing to have been an extremely influential opinion-molder in the early postwar period."

Another important voice favoring world government came from University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins, whose speeches, magazine articles, and weekly radio program, the Chicago Roundtable, reached a broad audience. In his radio program on August 12, 1945, Hutchins called for “the necessity of a world organization.” He established the Committee to Frame a World Constitution, promoting the idea through his speeches and radio appearances. Boyer notes the irony of this position, given the University of Chicago’s prominent role in making the bomb, and cites modern historians who suggest that Hutchins was engaged in a public relations campaign of his own to replace the university’s image as a “bomb factory” with the more positive movement for a world government.

University of Chicago Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harold Urey called on the need for an informed public in a democracy to understand the options available for addressing the atomic threat. In an influential November 1945 article in the magazine Science, he considered and then rejected options ranging from establishing security by building more atomic weapons to ceding control of the bombs to the United Nations, before concluding that a world government was the only choice. “We are inevitably led to the conclusion that a superior world government of some kind possessing adequate power to maintain the peace and with the various divisions of the world relatively disarmed, is the only way out,” he wrote. “What will be needed is a most efficient inspection service which will detect and report promptly any attempt to produce atomic bombs . . . and a sufficient force to prevent such activities.”

The scientists had three reasons why they wanted an Ad Council campaign. The first can be traced to an American Institute of Public Opinion poll taken in October 1945, two months after the bombings, which found that only 17 percent of Americans believed that “making atomic bombs should be put under control of the new United Nations Security Council.” While many nuclear scientists and a number of the nation’s opinion leaders considered some form of international or world control necessary to the survival of civilization, the American public was hardly convinced. In the same poll, 85 percent of the Americans sampled approved of Truman’s use of the bomb. It would take a national ad campaign to sway public opinion.

The second reason was articulated in Urey’s comments in the Science article about the need in a democracy “to have an informed people if proper decisions are to be made and executed.” The scientists believed that garnering public support for their cause was the best way to influence American leaders.

As chairman of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), the group that would raise money for the scientists’ educational efforts, Einstein argued that any national policy on atomic energy must stem from an informed public. “America’s decision will not be made over a table in the United Nations,” Einstein wrote in a June 23, 1946, article, “Only Then Shall We Find Courage,” published in the New York Times Magazine. “Our representatives in New York, in Paris, or in Moscow depend ultimately on decisions made in the village square. To the village square we must carry the facts of atomic energy. From there must come America’s voice.” This quote would be used in the ECAS statement of purpose, and the need for informed citizens become a central theme in the atomic energy campaign’s radio messages.

The third reason was the scientists’ bedrock belief in rational thinking. If they could convince Americans of how destructive the bomb would be if placed in the wrong hands, citizens would naturally favor a way to control it to prevent future wars. This reasoning prompted the scientists to use fear messages in the campaign’s radio copy—an approach that would backfire when they were unable to raise enough money to prepare an information pamphlet to accompany the radio messages.

The radio ads, read by program announcers or the hosts of specific shows, began in late summer 1946 and aired on such programs as Quiz Kids, This Is Your FBI, Famous Jury Trials, Martin Agronsky, Arthur Godfrey, Bob Hope, and Amos ’n’ Andy. News broadcasters such as Walter Winchell and Elmer Davis discussed the issues outlined in the radio fact sheets. A September 13, 1946, spot on NBC’s Echoes from the Tropics said, “The problem of atomic energy is your immediate problem. . . . As a citizen of a democratic society, it is your duty to keep yourself informed of all proposals to share, limit or control the development of atomic energy. Read the newspapers. Form discussion groups. Remember—your vote may someday help determine whether atomic energy will be used for war or peace.”

Another spot, on November 22, 1946, on Nelson Olmsted’s program, announced: “The discovery of atomic weapons of warfare . . . with their terrific destructive power . . . has raised one of the most vital problems ever to face you and the rest of the world. But you must know about atomic energy itself before you can have any idea what to do about it. Learn all you can about what leading scientists have to say about the atom. Be informed. Remember . . . ignorance may be bliss . . . but in this case it’s a keg of dynamite . . . and you’re sitting on it.”

How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America: A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns is available from Smithsonian Books. Visit Smithsonian Books’ website to learn more about its publications and a full list of titles. 

Excerpt from How McGruff and the Crying Indian Changed America: A History of Iconic Ad Council Campaigns Text ©2013 by Wendy Melillo