Minutes before the B-29 bomber Bockscar dropped the atomic bomb on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, the crew of the accompanying B-29 released a canister holding testing equipment. A letter was Scotch-taped inside. The canister fell on the outskirts of the city and its contents withstood the second and, to date, last nuclear attack in a war.
The letter, addressed to “R. Sagane, Imperial University, Tokyo,” was an appeal from three Manhattan Project physicists to fellow physicist and former colleague Ryokichi Sagane. They asked Sagane to confirm the power and devastation of the nuclear attack to the Imperial Japanese government, and to urge Japan’s surrender.
“As scientists, we deplore the use to which a beautiful discovery has been put,” said the letter. “But we can assure you that unless Japan surrenders at once, the rain of atomic bombs will increase many fold in fury.”
That missive then took a circuitous path from the edge of destroyed Nagasaki to Sagane in Tokyo, to Washington State College President Wilson Compton, and finally back to one of the letter’s authors, physicist Luis Alvarez. Along the way, the original irradiated envelope and a copy of the letter were tucked away in the Washington State archives and forgotten for several decades.
Archivists at Los Alamos researching the letter from Alvarez, Phil Morrison, and Robert Serber contacted Cheryl Gunselman, WSU manuscripts librarian, after they discovered a reference to Compton’s papers.
Gunselman found the letter for them, but didn’t expect much. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘It’s just another reproduction. The collection is full of reproductions. Nothing to get really excited about,’” she says.
But as she dug into the story and found a digital image of the original letter online, Gunselman grasped the importance of the University’s copy and Compton’s role in this piece of history following World War II.
Sagane received the letter from a Japanese naval officer in October 1945, but it was unsigned. As recently as 1938, Sagane had studied and worked with Alvarez and other nuclear physicists at the University of California. He wanted to return the original to Alvarez, in hopes he was one of the authors, and Sagane found his chance on March 8, 1946, when he met Wilson Compton.
The state college president was on an educational mission during the early days of the occupation of Japan. He sent the letter on to Alvarez in Berkeley, after noting that WSC would keep the original envelope and a copy of the letter.
Compton personally knew Alvarez. Compton’s brother Arthur was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, head of the Manhattan Project’s Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, Enrico Fermi’s supervisor, and Alvarez’s doctoral advisor. Wilson Compton sent a copy of the Nagasaki letter to him and to his other brother, MIT President and physicist Karl Compton.
Arthur Compton noted in his memoir Atomic Quest that Alvarez and the others thought it “would be more impressive if the Japanese scientists knew firsthand from their American colleagues what further might be expected.”
Alvarez signed the letter in 1949, forever altering the original, which Gunselman says makes the WSU copy even more interesting.
“It’s the most significant reproduction I’ve ever seen in our collection, where the reproduction actually did have research value,” she says. “It captures the letter in a state in which it survived for only a very short amount of time.”
As a piece of history, the letter describes what seems to be a heartfelt attempt from scientists involved in building this devastating weapon to communicate with a colleague. For Gunselman, that human element transcends the context of the bomb.
“I was fascinated with the power of the human bond between these physicists who had worked together, one in Japan, three in the United States, and the exploitation of that relationship to try to influence the conduct of Imperial Japan during the war,” says Gunselman.
Alvarez went on to win the Nobel Prize in physics in 1968. Sagane returned to the United States in the early 1950s and worked with Alvarez at the University of California.
Read more about Wilson Compton and Washington State after World War II in “After the War: Mud, floods, and modernization”.