It’s September 12th, 1933 on a wet and dreary morning in London.
35-year-old Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard walks through the rain-drenched streets of Bloomsbury, a few blocks from the British Museum. Leo’s eyes are cast downward, and his hands are clasped tightly behind his back in scholarly contemplation.
Leo arrived in London earlier this year, having fled Germany after Adolf Hitler rose to power. Since then, Leo has been active in the effort to help other Jewish academics escape persecution at the hands of the Nazis. But today, it’s not the political situation in Europe that is playing on Leo’s mind. Rather, it’s something he read in the newspaper.
As he shambles along Southampton Row, the cuffs of his ill-fitting trousers trailing through the puddles, Leo blocks out all the sound of the traffic and tries to focus his thoughts…
Earlier this morning, Leo came across an article in The Times summarizing a recent speech given by the famous physicist Ernest Rutherford. In that speech, Rutherford rejected the feasibility of splitting atoms to release the energy locked inside, dismissing the idea as nonsense. Leo disagrees, believing atomic energy has a bright future, and he was annoyed to hear his fellow physicist’s defeatist remarks. In Leo’s mind, releasing energy from atoms ispossible. He just needs to find a way…
The sudden blast of a car horn brings Leo back to his senses and he realizes he was about to walk straight into traffic. He steps back onto the curb and waits for the walk signal to appear, watching as the light changes from red to green. As he steps back out into the street more carefully, an idea strikes him; a potential way to unleash massive amounts of energy from the atom. And by the time Leo reaches the far side of the road, the idea for an atomic chain reaction - the scientific concept that underpins nuclear power - has already taken shape in the young man’s mind.
Leo Szilard’s breakthrough on that drizzly autumnal morning will prove to be humankind’s first glimpse into the atomic age, an era in which scientific ingenuity will be applied not only to the enhancementof human civilization - but to its violent destruction. Over the course of the next twenty years, the development of nuclear science will dramatically reshape the global political landscape and ultimately lead to a new and deadly form of warfare in the shape of the atomic bomb.
But as the nuclear age reaches a fever pitch, the US government will begin promoting atomic energy as a force for good, an opportunity for the world’s nations to work together to usher in a bright new future for humanity, in which nuclear power is used not to wage war - but to build peace. This shift toward cooperation and transparency will lead to many more countries around the world launching nuclear programs of their own, the consequences of which are still being felt today, decades after US President Eisenhower kicked off his so-called “Atoms for Peace” campaign with a speech to the United Nations on December 8th, 1953.
From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.
History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.
Today is December 8th, 1953: Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” Speech.
Act One: Destroyer of Worlds
It’s the early hours of the morning of July 16th, 1945 in the New Mexico desert.
J. Robert Oppenheimer steps outside the control center of the Los Alamos Laboratory, the site chosen by the US military to develop the world’s first atomic bomb. The 45-year-old nuclear physicist removes his wide-brimmed fedora and squints up into the pre-dawn sky. A light drizzle has started to fall, gently drumming on the corrugated iron rooves of the laboratory outbuildings. A look of frustration passes over Oppenheimer’s gaunt face; they will have to wait for this rain to pass before they can carry out the test.
Over the last three years, Oppenheimer has worked as the chief engineer on the Manhattan Project, the US government’s top-secret program of nuclear testing and development. The project was initially launched when America’s scientific community expressed concerns that scientists in Nazi Germany were making rapid advances toward building an atomic bomb. Oppenheimer and his team were tasked with the challenge of producing a nuclear weapon before the Germans. But as the fighting continued, it became clear that the war in Europe was going to be won without resorting to atomic weapons. Instead, the focus of the Manhattan Project shifted toward Japan, and the increasingly urgent need to end the bloody war in the Pacific.
With every day that passes, Oppenheimer can feel the pressure mounting. Right now, President Harry S. Truman is in Potsdam in Germany, meeting with the other Allied leaders to discuss how to bring the war against Japan to an end. Oppenheimer knows that the weapon he’s been designing has the destructive capabilities to force Japan into an unconditional surrender. But to the frustration of many in the government and the military, the bomb - or, as it’s known here at Los Alamos, “the gadget” - is not yet ready.
Tonight, though, that could all change. After three years of round-the-clock work, the first prototype of “the gadget” has been built and prepared for testing. This morning, the core team of senior scientists at Los Alamos have assembled to witness the Trinity Test - the first-ever test explosion of an atomic bomb.
At 4:45 AM, the fair weather report finally comes through. Oppenheimer and his senior staff drive out to the main observation bunker 10,000 feet from ground zero. At ten minutes past five in the morning, the countdown begins. The scientists have all donned dark sunglasses to protect their eyes from the flash. Some have even applied sunscreen. They talk in hushed and nervous voices about whether the long-awaited first test will be a success, a failure, or a catastrophe.
Oppenheimer himself remains silent, the muscles in his slender neck tightening with anticipation. He knows that whatever happens will not only be the defining moment of his career but a defining moment in the history of human civilization.
Minutes later, at 5:29 AM, the bomb explodes with the equivalent force of 21 thousand tons of TNT. The bunker is immediately filled with a blinding white light. Oppenheimer stares through the observation window as the dazzling fireball erupts into the sky before spreading out into a billowing mushroom cloud of radioactive dust. A few seconds later, the sound hits - a low, thunderous growl rising to a deafening roar that reverberates around the canyon.
While the other scientists slap each other on the back, laughing and punching the air in triumph, Oppenheimer stares quietly through the observation window, watching as the fiery red cloud rises high above the desert. This test has confirmed to Oppenheimer what he already expected – that with the introduction of the atomic bomb, the world will never be the same. And with the afterglow of the explosion still blazing in his blue eyes, Oppenheimer murmurs a quote from the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad-Gita:
“Now, I am become Death. The destroyer of worlds…”
But soon, the success of the Trinity Test is communicated to President Truman, who presents the Emperor of Japan with an ultimatum: surrender immediately or face a rain of ruin from the skies the likes of which the world has never seen. But Japan does notsurrender, and on August 5th, 1945, an American bomber drops an atomic payload on the port city of Hiroshima, instantly killing almost 80,000 people.
Though he celebrates the bombing of Hiroshima, Oppenheimer is distressed when he learns that a second bomb was dropped without his knowledge on another city, Nagasaki. The great physicist believes that the bombing of Nagasaki was unnecessary, and feels that he has civilian blood on his hands. After the war, Oppenheimer opposes the government’s attempt to develop even more powerful atomic weapons, fearing the risk posed by nuclear proliferation to international security.
But despite Oppenheimer’s concerns, following World War II, the nuclear arms race will kick off, as the United States attempts to outstrip the nuclear capabilities of its former ally and now new enemy: the Soviet Union. Soon, the atomic arsenals of both countries will be extensive enough to destroy the world several times over, prompting one US president to make a speech to the United Nations, calling for the countries of the world to divert their nuclear programs toward improving human civilization rather than destroying it.
Act Two: “Atoms for Peace”
It’s November 11th, 1952; seven years after the first test explosion of the atomic bomb.
On a damp, foggy morning in Georgia, a black car pulls into the gravel driveway of the Augusta National Golf Club. The vehicle rolls to a stop outside the main entrance, and a slight, balding man in his sixties emerges from the back seat and heads inside.
Just seven days ago, Dwight D. Eisenhower was elected to succeed Truman as the next president of the United States. Having commanded the Allied forces in Europe during World War II, Eisenhower has seen first-hand the horrors of war. He has decided to run for president with one purpose in mind: to ensure that such a conflict never happens again.
But President-elect Eisenhower is also aware that things have changed since his days in the military. There’s a new kind of warfare threatening mankind, one driven by advances in nuclear technology. Three years ago, the Soviet Union finished production on an atomic bomb of their own - bringing them level with the United States. This prompted scientists in America to immediately begin working on an even larger nuclear weapon - a hydrogen bomb, a device 500 times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.
The nuclear arms race has officially begun, and Eisenhower is deeply concerned. He fears the proliferation of atomic weapons could gradually normalizenuclear warfare. As countries around the world start accumulating bombs of catastrophic destructive power, what was once unthinkable could become conventional.
So today, Eisenhower is meeting with Roy B. Snapp, Secretary of the Atomic Energy Commission - a government agency created to oversee the development of nuclear technology. Eisenhower wants Roy to update him on the progress of the hydrogen bomb, which is currently undergoing secretive testing in the South Pacific.
Roy jumps to his feet and salutes when Eisenhower steps inside the private function room. The president-elect nods and motions for Roy to sit. The two men settle down at a long table, and Roy reveals to Eisenhower that the test of the world’s first hydrogen bomb - nicknamed Ivy Mike - was an unqualified success.
Roy was expecting Eisenhower to welcome this momentous news, but instead, the president-elect looks troubled. As a military man, Eisenhower understands the strategic necessity of having a nuclear arsenal. But he doesn’t understand the need to possess a weapon with enough destructive power to destroy everything.
Eisenhower suspects it’s only a matter of time before the Soviets learn about the success of Ivy Mike and begin working on their own hydrogen bomb. That is the nature of this new Cold War - a conflict built around secrecy, counter-intelligence, and paranoia. For Eisenhower, greater transparency and clearer communication are needed to build a safer world.
And so, Eisenhower decides to launch Project Candor, an effort to educate the American public about the realities of the atomic age in which they’re living. After taking office in January 1953, Eisenhower initiates a series of radio talk shows entitled “The Age of Peril.” In each episode, a prominent expert discusses a topic related to the Cold War, such as the nature of Communism, or the nuclear threat posed by the Soviet Union.
But the effort to promote transparency between the US government and the American people is only one part of Eisenhower’s project. The second part involves removing the secrecy that surrounds nuclear research and development. By fostering an atmosphere of mutual cooperation between the countries of the world, and by advancing a more open exchange of ideas and atomic materials, Eisenhower hopes to lay the foundations for a future in which nuclear science can transcend national borders and further the interests of allhumankind.
On December 8th, 1953, President Eisenhower stands before the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He adjusts his spectacles and peers out at the assembled delegates.
"EISENHOWER: I feel impelled to speak today in a language that, in a sense, is new. One which I, who have spent so much of my life in the military profession, would have preferred never to use, that new language is the language of atomic warfare. The atomic age has moved forward at such a pace that every citizen of the world should have some comprehension… at least in comparative terms of the extent of this development, of the utmost significance to every one of us.”
In a radical departure from previous administrations, Eisenhower goes on to reveal explicitly the extent of America’s nuclear arsenal. Since secrecy failed to prevent an arms race with the Soviet Union, Eisenhower hopes openness will lead to a safer world. He concludes his speech with a promise.
"EISENHOWER: The United States pledges before you, and therefore before the world, its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma, to devote its entire hearts and minds, to find a way, by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life."
But Eisenhower’s speech is not just an appeal for peace. It's also a canny political move. By advocating the peaceful uses of atomic power for humanitarian purposes, Eisenhower is also diverting the world’s attention away from America’s continued research into how nuclear science can be used to create weapons of increasingly destructive capabilities.
True to his word, one year after the Atoms for Peace speech, Eisenhower will revise the US Atomic Energy Act, committing the United States to providing nuclear power technologies to nations around the world. But as these nations embark on their own nuclear programs, it will soon become clear that while Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace initiative may have succeeded in improving transparency surrounding nuclear science, it may also have accelerated the proliferation of the very weapons of mass destruction it sought to prevent.
Act Three: Nuclear Fallout
It’s May 18th, 1974, at the Pokhran Test Range in Northern India; 21 years after Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech.
Dr. Homi Sethna watches from the observation deck as the countdown begins to the first test explosion of India’s nuclear weapons program. The fifty-year-old nuclear scientist is the Chairman of the Indian Atomic Energy Commission and the driving force behind India’s efforts to build and test a nuclear bomb. It has been a long and difficult road, but today, the first prototype is finally ready for detonation.
As the seconds tick down, Dr. Sethna reflects proudly on the Indian physicists and engineers whose hard work has paved the way to this historic moment. Dr. Sethna also acknowledges that India’s nuclear program would not be where it is today had it not been for the help of the United States.
Following Eisenhower’s launch of the “Atoms for Peace'' initiative in 1953, many countries around the world abandoned the policy of confidentiality that had previously surrounded their nuclear research programs. A culture of openness, transparency, and cooperation gradually replaced one of stealth and secrecy. Four years after Eisehower’s speech to the UN, the International Atomic Energy Agency was created, intended to serve as a global exchange for ideas about the peaceful applications of nuclear power.
In 1954, the Prime Minister of India approached the United States and Canada for help in constructing a nuclear research facility. The US and Canadian governments agreed, on the condition that the facility was intended for peaceful purposes only. After receiving assurances from the Indian government, the North American countries provided India with the necessary raw materials to construct a nuclear reactor.
But India did not hold true to its promise. Indian officials quickly began work on its first atomic bomb. But in order to meet the peaceful conditions stipulated by the US and Canada, the Indian government labeled the bomb a “Peaceful Nuclear Explosive”.
Now, Dr. Sethna watches through protective sunglasses as the 15-kiloton plutonium bomb explodes, flooding the range with a dazzlingly bright light and creating a powerful shockwave that rattles the windows of his bunker.
Soon, the US and Canada will condemn India’s actions as deceitful and in violation of the principles upon which the International Atomic Energy Agency was founded. More troubling for international security, India’s neighbor Pakistan will see the test explosion as an act of aggression, prompting Pakistan to begin developing its ownnuclear bomb, and casting a dark shadow over the future of world peace.
Under Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” initiative, the United States government provided nuclear materials to thirty different countries. Today, historians consider the results of the program to be mixed. On one hand, Eisenhower’s utopian vision was naive, as it accelerated the proliferation of atomic weapons around the world. But on the other hand, the program did lead to improved transparency regarding atomic power and paved the way for the international cooperation that today characterizes nuclear research around the world. For better or worse, there is no doubt Eisenhower shaped the course of the future with his “Atoms for Peace” campaign that started with a speech to the United Nations on this day, December 8th, 1953.
Next onHistory Daily.December 9th, 1967. The Doors singer Jim Morrison is arrested in the middle of a performance in New Haven, Connecticut.
From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham.
Audio editing by Mollie Baack.
Sound design by Derek Behrens.
Music by Lindsay Graham.
This episode is written and researched by Joe Viner.
Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship, and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.