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Atomic Energy for Military Purposes

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Atomic Energy for Military Purposes

Atomic Energy for Military Purposes
Cover of 1945 Princeton edition
Author Henry DeWolf Smyth
Country United States
Language English
Publisher Princeton University
Publication date 1945
Pages 264
OCLC Number LC Classification 595388938

The Smyth Report is the common name of an administrative history written by physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth about the Allied World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb, the Manhattan Project. The full title of the report is A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Atomic Energy for Military Purposes. It was released to the public on 12 August 1945, just days after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August.

Smyth was commissioned to write the report by Major General Leslie R. Groves, Jr., the director of the Manhattan Project. The Smyth Report served two functions. First, it was to be the official U.S. government history and statement about the development of the atomic bombs and the basic physical processes responsible for the functioning of nuclear weapons. Second, it served as an indicator for other scientists as to what information was declassified. Anything said in the Smyth Report could be said freely in open literature. For this reason, the Smyth Report focused heavily on information already available, such as the basic nuclear physics used in weapons, which was either already widely known in the scientific community or could have been easily deduced by a competent scientist. It omitted details about chemistry, metallurgy, and ordnance.

Despite the technical nature of the work, it sold almost 127,000 copies in its first eight printings and was on the New York Times best-seller list from mid-October 1945 until late January 1946. It has been translated into over 40 different languages, and was also published by the British government.


Henry DeWolf Smyth was a physicist from Princeton University who was involved in the Manhattan Project from early 1941 as a member of the National Defense Research Committee's S-1 Uranium Committee and later as an associate director of the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago. In the fall of 1943, the President of Princeton University, Harold W. Dodds, began insisting that Smyth work part-time at Princeton, where there was a shortage of physicists because so many of them were engaged in war work. Dodds had commitments to teach Army and Navy personnel, and he needed physicists like Smyth to meet them. Smyth therefore became a consultant at Chicago, commuting between there and Princeton.[1]

In early 1944, Smyth raised the possibility of producing an unclassified report for the general public on the achievements of the Manhattan Project. The director of the Metallurgical Laboratory, Arthur Compton, supported the idea, and a meeting was arranged with James B. Conant, the President of Harvard University and one of the senior administrators of the Manhattan Project, who was thinking along similar lines. Conant took up the matter with the Manhttan Project's director, Major General Leslie R. Groves, Jr., and this resulted in Smyth being send a formal letter from Groves in April asking him to write such a report. Both the report and the choice of Smyth as its author were approved by the Military Policy Committee in May 1944.[1][2]

The Report was to serve two functions. First, it was to be the public official U.S. government history and statement about the development of the atomic bombs, outlining the development of the then-secret laboratories and production sites at Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington, and the basic physical processes responsible for the functioning of nuclear weapons, in particular nuclear fission and the nuclear chain reaction. Second, it served as a barometer for other scientists as to what information was declassified—anything said in the Smyth Report could be said freely in open literature. For this reason, the Smyth Report focused heavily on information already available in declassified literature, such as much of the basic nuclear physics used in weapons, which was either already widely known in the scientific community or could have been easily deduced by a competent scientist.[3]

The stated purpose of the Smyth Report was to give enough information to citizens so that they could understand enough about the new atomic weapons to make sensible policy decisions regarding them. Smyth wrote in the Preface :

The ultimate responsibility for our nation's policy rests on its citizens and they can discharge such responsibilities wisely only if they are informed. The average citizen cannot be expected to understand clearly how an atomic bomb is constructed or how it works but there is in this country a substantial group of engineers and scientists who can understand such things and who can explain the potentialities of atomic bombs to their fellow citizens. The present report is written for this professional group and is a matter-of-fact, general account of work in the USA since 1939 aimed at the production of such bombs. It is neither a documented official history nor a technical treatise for experts. Secrecy requirements have affected both the detailed content and general emphasis so that many interesting developments have been omitted.[4]
This contrasted somewhat with what Groves wrote in the foreword:
All pertinent scientific information which can be released to the public at this time without violating the needs of national security is contained in this volume. No requests for additional information should be made to private persons or organizations associated directly or indirectly with the project. Persons disclosing or securing additional information by any means whatsoever without authorization are subject to severe penalties under the Espionage Act.[5]


To assist Smyth in writing the report, Groves provided guards for Smyth's office at Princeton University, and secretarial assistance. He also approved Smyth's request to hire another Princeton physicist, Lincoln G. Smith, as a research assistant. Groves equipped Smyth with the security clearances necessary to visit project sites, access documents, and speak to personnel about their work. He sent out a letter to his senior senior managers, Kenneth Nichols, Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, Harold Urey, and Franklin Matthias, explaining that:
The purpose is to give clearly and promptly recognition to those who have worked so long and necessarily so anonymously ... To accomplish his purpose, Dr. Smyth must have rather complete information concerning your phase of the project including access to necessary documents ... [and] information and advice from

you and your principal assistants.[6]

Since he still had his commitments at Princeton, Smyth could only work on the report part-time.[7] He wrote the report in his office in Princeton's Palmer Laboratory. The windows of Smyth's office and the one adjacent to it were barred. The hallway door to his office was locked and blocked by a large safe so that the only access was through the adjacent office, where there was an armed guard. The guards worked in eight-hour shifts, and one was present around the clock. When Smyth needed to send papers to Groves in Washington, D.C., they went separately by military courier.[8]

He sent an outline and rough draft of the report to Groves for approval in August 1944, followed by drafts of the first twelve chapters, all but the last, in February 1945.[7] The drafts were reviewed by Groves and Conant, who had a number of criticisms. They felt that it was too technical for generals readers, did not mention the names of enough participants, and dwelt too much on the activities at the Los Alamos Laboratory.[9] Groves was particularly anxious that deserving people be mentioned, as he felt that this would lessen the danger of security breaches.[10] After Smyth made a series of changes in response to this, Groves sent the manuscript to his scientific advisor, Richard Tolman. Tolman was assisted by two physicists who were working in his office at the NDRC as technical aides, Paul C. Fine from the University of Texas, and William Shurcliff from Harvard University.[9]

They had the task of not just editing the manuscript, but also censoring it.[11] Smyth and Tolman settled on a set of criteria, agreeing that information could be released if:
I. (A) That it is important to a reasonable understanding of what had been done on the project as a whole or (B) That it is of true scientific interest and likely to be truly helpful to scientific workers in this country and

II. (A) That it is already known generally by competent scientists or (B) That it can be deduced or guessed by competent scientists from what is already known,combined with the knowledge that the project was in the overall successful or

III. (A) That it has no real bearing on the production of atomic bombs or (B) That it could be discovered by a small group (15 of whom not over 5 would be senior men) of competent scientists working in a well-equipped college lab in a year's time or less.[12]

Writing to Oppenheimer in April 1945, Smyth noted that
All discussion of ordnance work is also to be removed. There is no objection to including the general statement of the ordnance problem and all the other parts of the problem, but the approaches to solution that have been made will be omitted. On the other hand, the feeling is that there is no objection to including the nuclear physics. The General believes that the metallurgical work and a considerable amount of the chemistry work should be excluded on the ground that it would be extremely difficult for the average scientist to carry out any of this work without supplies and material which would not be available to him. I am not entirely clear how this criterion should be applied, but it probably means the elimination of the metallurgical work on plutonium and at least of some of the chemistry.[13]

Tolman and his assistants finished making their changes in July 1945,[9] and Groves had copies sent out by courier to selected personnel. Each had to submit a written report, which was returned with the courier and the manuscript.[10] These were busy people who sometimes only had a few days or even hours to look at the manuscript. Many, but not all, merely signed a statement saying that they were happy with the manuscript. Nichols, the commander of the Manhattan District, sent back a detailed review. He had concerns about the amount of credit being given to different people and organisations, and recommended that "full credit be given to H. D. Smyth for preparing it and that the statement be made that the Army has no responsibility for the report except for asking him to do it."[14] Smyth was given credit, but no such statement was issued.[14] To get the final draft ready for the printer, Groves had to fly typists with the required security clearances from the Manhattan District's headquarters in Oak Ridge.[10]

Because the Manhattan Project was an Allied affair, Groves had to obtain permission from the British and American governments. A meeting was held on 2 August in the office of the Secretary of War, Henry Stimson. Along with Stimson were his two assistants, Harvey Bundy and George L. Harrison, and his military aide, Colonel William H. Kyle. Groves, Conant, and Tolman represented the Manhattan Project. James Chadwick, the head of the British Scientific Mission to Manhattan Project, and Roger Makins from the British Embassy represented Britain.[15] The meeting went on for two hours, as Groves and Conant sought to reassure Stimson that the report would not give vital secrets away to the Soviet Union.[16]

For his part, Chadwick, who had not read the manuscript, could not fathom why the Americans wanted to publish such a document.[16] When he did read it, he became quite alarmed. His concerns were addressed in a meeting with Groves and Conant, and he accepted their point of view. "I am now convinced," he wrote, "that the very special circumstances arising from the nature of the project, and of its organization, demand special treatment, and a report of this kind may well be necessary to maintain security of the really essential facts of the project."[15]


A thousand copies of the report were printed by lithography at the Pentagon and deposited in Groves's office in Washington, where they were kept securely under lock and key. Final approval was sought from the President, Harry S. Truman, in a meeting at the White House on 9 August 1945, three days after the bombing of Hiroshima. Stimson, Harrison, Groves, Conant, Vannevar Bush, and Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy presented their views, and Truman authorized the immediate release of the report. On 12 August, the War Department released the thousand copies that had been kept in Groves's office.[16]

The original title of the report, before it was published in book form, was Nuclear Bombs: A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Nuclear Energy for Military Purposes Under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940–1945. The word "nuclear" was changed to "atomic" because while the former was favoured by physicists, it was not in common use by the general public at that time. This was the title used on the copyright certificate. The book was copyrighted to Smyth but issued with the statement that "reproduction in whole or in part is authorized and permitted". Groves had the report copyrighted by Smyth in order to prevent someone else from copyrighting it.[17]

Groves was concerned about the security implications of the title, so instead of having "Atomic Bombs" on the cover, it was left blank, and a rubber stamp was made. The intention was for this to be used on each copy before it was distributed. This was done for the copyright deposit copies, but not those given to the press or the public. The lumbering subtitle therefore became the title. A side effect of this was that it became generally known as the "Smyth Report".[18] Over the years, the term "nuclear" gradually gained traction, and by 1960 it had become more common than "atomic".[19]

During the summer of 1945, Smyth approached Datus C. Smith, the director of Princeton University Press, about the possibility of renting his printing plant to the government during a two-week summer shutdown so that Smyth could produce 5,000 copies of a top secret report. Smith's response was that he found it hard to imagine anyone needing to print 5,000 copies of a top secret report, but easier to imagine unexpected printing problems resulting in himself and his workers returning from summer vacation to find themselves locked out of a plant filled with top secret material. Under the circumstances, he felt that he could not risk this.[20]

After the Smyth Report was officially released, Smith immediately offered to publish it. Smyth patiently explained that anyone was free to publish it, but Princeton University Press was only willing to do so on the understanding that this would be "Smyth's edition". Meanwhile, Smyth approached McGraw-Hill about publishing it. The editors at McGraw Hill found the manuscript dull and somewhat technical for a general audience and suggested a rewrite. Smyth baulked at this, as it would mean involve going through the censorship process again. James S. Thompson, the president of McGraw Hill, pointed out the U.S. Government Printing Office would be putting out an edition, probably more cheaply than he could, and there would likely be little profit in it. Smyth then turned back to Princeton University Press. He had but one condition: that he receive no royalties. Princeton University Press agreed, but added a stipulation of its own: that Groves's approval be secured. Smyth obtained this in a letter dated 25 August.[21][22]

Princeton University Press received a copy of the typescript lithograph edition with hand corrections from Smyth on 17 August. The typographers had already started work from another copy. Maple Press of York, Pennsylvania, was lined up to do the printing. Because of wartime shortages, one of a publisher's biggest worries was finding adequate supplies of paper. Smith approached Manny and Leonard Relles from Central Paper and explained to them about the Smyth Report and its significance, and asked if they could deliver 30 short tons (27 t) of paper to Maple Press in twelve days. They found a carloard of paper on a siding in New England and sent it to York, providing enough paper for 30,000 copies, only half what Princeton University Press wanted. The first edition of 30,000 copies was printing when word was received that paper had been found for another 30,000 copies. The presses were held for three hours while the train made its way to a siding in York, where the paper was unloaded and brought to the plant by trucks.[23]

There were minor differences between the original text and the version published by Princeton. In the Princeton publication, first and middle names were added instead of the previous use of abbreviations. In response to public concerns about radioactivity, Groves had text added paragraph 12.18 explaining how the height of the explosions over Hiroshima and Nagasaki reduced fallout and allowed fission products to be drawn up into the upper atmosphere.[24] He also had a one-sentence allusion to a poisoning effect of fission products in the production reactors redacted. This deletion was soon noticed by the Russian translators, and only served to highlight its importance to the Soviet atomic bomb project.[25]

Later editions also incorporated changes. Four typographical errors were found, and the word "photon" in paragraph 1.44 aroused so much correspondence from readers who mistakenly believed that it should be "proton" that it was decided to re-word the paragraph.[23] The British government became concerned that the Smyth report did not cover the British part in the project, and issued its own 40-page report. This was incorporated into the fifth printing in November 1945 as Appendix 7, and a two-page report by the Canadian government was added as Appendix 8.[26]


The first copies were delivered to the bookstores on 10 September. Many bookstores were wary of it, due to its technical nature, and feared that sales would be low. An exception was Scribner's Bookstores, which placed large early orders. At Oak Ridge, some 8,000 copies were sold through the employee welfare organisation. Similar arrangements were made for Los Alamos and Richland, which were located in areas where bookstores were scarce.[27]

It soon became apparent that the Smyth Report was a runaway bestseller. It sold nearly 127,000 copies in its first eight printings and was on the New York Times best-seller list from 14 October 1945 until 20 January 1946.[26] In all, between 1946 and 1973, Princeton University Press sold 62,612 paperback and 64,129 hardback copies.[28] The Smyth Report was translated into over 40 different languages.[29] The report was also published by the Government Printing Office, the Infantry Journal, and His Majesty's Stationery Office, and was the October 1945 issue of Reviews of Modern Physics.[30]

Groves did not intend the Smyth Report to be the last word. It formed an addendum to the Manhattan District History, the official history of the project. This eventually consisted of 35 volumes with 39 appendices or supplements. It was written in the immediate postwar years by the chemists, metallurgists, physicists, and administrators who had worked on the project. Since there were no security restrictions, it covered every aspect of the Manhattan Project, but was of course itself classified. Most of it was declassified in the 1960s and 1970s and became available to scholars, except for some technical details on the actual construction of the bombs themselves.[31]

In her 2008 PhD dissertation, Rebecca Schwartz argued that Smyth's academic background and the Smyth Report's security-driven focus on physics at the expense of chemistry, metallurgy, and ordnance promoted a public perception of the Manhattan Project as primarily the achievement of physics and physicists. Postwar histories and popular writing tended to follow in the footsteps of the Smyth report in this regard, creating a lasting historiographic legacy.[32]

Groves felt that:

on the whole, and considering the rather difficult conditions under which it was prepared, the Smyth Report was extraordinarily successful in its efforts to distribute credit fairly and accurately. It would have been impossible to have prepared any document for publication covering the work of the Manhattan District that every reader would have found to his liking. But the fact is that all those who had the greatest knowledge of the subject were nearly unanimous in approving its publication as it was finally written. And there can be no question that it excellently served its purpose as an essential; source of accurate information, particularly for a news-hungry America in the early days after Nagasaki.[33]



  • Schwartz, Rebecca (2008). The making of the history of the atomic bomb: Henry DeWolf Smyth and the historiography of the Manhattan Project (Ph.D.). Princeton University.

External links

  • The Smyth Report fully transcribed and available online
  • Internet Archive

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