Toby Ord has written a new report with GovAI on lessons from the development of the atomic bomb relevant to emerging technologies like artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology.

The creation of the atomic bomb is one of the most famous and well-studied examples of developing a transformative technology — one that changes the shape of human affairs. There is much we don’t know about the future development of these technologies. This makes it much more difficult to reason about the strategic landscape that surrounds them. Which, in turn, makes it more difficult to help make sure the development is safe and beneficial for humanity. It is thus very useful to have a case study of developing a transformative technology.

The making of the atomic bomb provides such a reference case. This report summarises the most important aspects of the development of atomic weapons and draws out a number of important insights for the development of similarly important technologies.

One should treat the development of the atomic bomb not as a map to one’s destination, but as a detailed account of another traveller’s journey in a nearby land. Something that provides valuable hints to important dangers or strategies we might not have considered, and which we neglect at our own peril.

Read the report here.




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The report suggests that Roosevelt's supposed accidental use of the term"unconditional surrender" and his subsequent failure to back down played a significant role in shaping the strategy that led to the launch of atomic bombs on Japan. I found this claim hard to believe – and after some research, I think it's probably not correct.

Quite amazingly, the term ‘unconditional’ only entered into the Allied demands due to a verbal mistake made by Roosevelt when reading a joint statement in a live broadcast in January 1943, a fact that he later admitted. Churchill immediately repeated the demand, later saying: ‘Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort.' Thus, the otherwise reasonable idea that the bombs needed to be dropped to avoid more deaths in an invasion, was only true due to an unreasonable demand that was created by an error people were too proud to step back from. (Lessons from the development of the atomic bomb, page 27)

The claim is repeated on page 35. I couldn't easily find a copy of the original source for the claim[1].

But I could find three sources that seem to refute this interpretation.

The first non-primary source argues that Roosevelt supported the "unconditional surrender concept".

The matter was also discussed in the fall of 1942 by the U.S. Chiefs of Staff who, at the end of December, recommended to the President that no armistice be granted Germany, Japan, Italy, and the satellites until they offered the "unconditional surrender" of their armed forces. The President in reply informed them on January 7, 1943 that he intended to support the "unconditional surrender concept" at the forthcoming Conference at Casablanca. (Balfour, 1979. Page 283)[2]

Secondly, Churchill sent the following report on January 20th, 1943 in Casablanca - just four days prior to Roosevelt’s alleged "verbal mistake".

6. We propose to draw up a statement of the work of the conference for communication to the press at the proper time. I should be glad to know what the War Cabinet would think of our including in this statement a declaration of the firm intention of the United States and the British Empire to continue the war relentlessly until we have brought about the “unconditional surrender” of Germany and Japan. The omission of Italy would be to encourage a break-up there. The President liked this idea, and it would stimulate our friends in every country. [3]

(Churchill and Roosevelt were apparently confused about the specific procedures that should have led to the use of the term ‘unconditional surrender. So that might be part of the reason why they gave different accounts over time.[4])

Thirdly,  Roosevelt likely held Press Conference Notes that were drafted between 22. and 23. January 1943 during his statement on the 24. January 1943.[5] These notes called for the "unconditional surrender" of Germany, Japan, and Italy.

The President and the Prime Minister, after a complete survey of the world war situation, are more than ever determined that peace can come to the world only by a total elimination of German and Japanese war power. This involves the simple formula of placing the objective of this war in terms of an unconditional surrender by Germany, Italy and Japan. Unconditional surrender by them means a reasonable assurance of world peace, for generations. Unconditional surrender means not the destruction of the German populace, nor of the Italian or Japanese populace, but does mean the destruction of a philosophy hi Germany, Italy and Japan which is based on the conquest and subjugation of other peoples.

Based on this information, the timeline appears to be the following:

  • 07.01.1943 – Roosevelt expresses support for the "unconditional surrender concept".
  • 20.01.1943 – Churchill proposes using "unconditional surrender" in a statement, and notes that the President [Roosevelt] liked the idea.
  • 22.-23.01.1943 – Press Conference Notes drafted that call for the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy, and Japan.
  • 24.01.1943 – Roosevelt uses the term "unconditional surrender" in his statement, likely holding Press Conference Notes in his hand, that exactly asks for the same.

From this sequence of events, it does not appear that Roosevelt used the term mistakenly. If so, this anecdote likely doesn't serve as an example of a slip-up and subsequent reluctance to back down from a mistake having severe consequences.

It's also well possible that I'm missing something here. Would love to learn more.

  1. ^

    Rhodes, Richard. 1986. The Making of the Atomic Bomb.

  2. ^

    Balfour, M. (1979). The Origin of the Formula. Armed Forces & Society, 5(2), 281–301.

  3. ^

    Churchill, Winston. 1950. Second World War: The Hinge of Fate Hardcover (pages 834 and 835)

  4. ^

    Balfour (1979) has a confusing passage about the second explanation:

    "When the draft of the Casablanca communiqué was submitted to Roosevelt and Churchill, it contained no reference to unconditional surrender and neither leader seems to have queried the omission. The obvious reason was that Roosevelt instead mentioned it in his talk to the press. After Churchill's telegram to the Cabinet came to light, thus making it impossible to attribute his claimed surprise to the contention that the subject had not been discussed beforehand with him, the inference seems to be that the surprise lay in this manner of publication.
    But the talk to the press was itself based upon a written text and one of the surviving drafts for this contains emendations which are said to be in Churchill's own hand, and must have been made during the preceding forty-eight hours. 13 Either he did not read the draft carefully, or his memory slipped, or else he, like Roosevelt, wanted to cover his tracks. It is unlikely that we will ever know the exact truth."

  5. ^

    Footnote 1: 

    "Photographs of the Roosevelt–Churchill press conference of January 24, 1943, such as that following p. 483, show Roosevelt holding a document, presumably the notes printed here.

You may be right, and these sources to make it less clear. I haven't looked at the original sources and as with most parts of my report am following the eminent nuclear historian Richard Rhodes, who marshals some pretty convincing evidence that it was accidental. On page 521 of The Making of the Atomic Bomb (which I cited in that paragraph of my report):

…Franklin Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill at Casablanca. In the course of the meeting the two leaders discussed what terms of surrender they would eventually insist upon; the word "unconditional" was discussed but not included in the official joint statement to be read at the final press conference. Then, on January 24, to Churchill's surprise, Roosevelt inserted the word ad lib: "Peace can come to the world," the President read out to the assembled journalists and newsreel cameras, "only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power ... The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy , and Japan." Roosevelt later told Harry Hopkins that the surprising and fateful insertion was a consequence of the confusion attending his effort to convince French General Henri Girard to sit down with Free French leader Charles de Gaulle:

"We had so much trouble getting those two French generals together that I thought to myself that this was as difficult as arranging the meeting of Grant and Lee — and then suddenly the Press Conference was on, and Winston and I had had no time to prepare for it, and the thought popped into my mind that they had called Grant 'Old Unconditional Surrender,' and the next thing I knew I had said it."

Churchill immediately concurred — "Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort" — and unconditional surrender became official Allied policy.

I don't have time to follow up on all the sources Rhodes used to construct this passage, but it does sound like there is some remaining mystery here. We have direct quotes from Roosevelt and Churchill saying it was accidental, but some other evidence which might contradict that.

Thanks for getting back to me and providing more context. 

I do agree that Churchill was probably surprised by Roosevelt's use of the term because it was not in the official communiqué. Trying to figure out how certain historical decisions were influenced is very challenging.

The way you describe the events strikes me as very strong and requires a lot of things to be true other than the term being used accidentally:

Accidentally called for unconditional surrender of the Japanese, leading to the eventual need for the bomb to be dropped. (p.35)

Based on the available information and until we have better evidence for the claim, I would not want to use this as an example of a simple mistake having severe consequences. And because the Anecdote is incredibly catchy, I worry that policy researchers and practitioners will read it and subsequently use it in conversation.

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