Leafing – or in this case scrolling through – the commemorative issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists after 75 years of publication is a tingling exercise of existence. The subject matter pushes you to the edge. You threaten to fall off. Death is promised; extinction contemplated. Nuclear holocaust. Your sanity is called into question. The Bulletin’s own Doomsday Clock pointing to potential nuclear Armageddon continues to guarantee a permanent state of terrifying insecurity.
The commemorative issue is a compendium of highlights. Early attitudes to the atomic bomb are covered in the June 1947 issue of the Bulletin, with Sylvia Eberhart’s report. Eberhart had been tasked by Dr. Leonard S. Cottrell, Jr., subcommittee chair of the Committee on the Social Aspects of Atomic Energy of the Social Science Research Council, to compile the findings. Few Americans, she suggested, ventured to “depreciate the power of the bomb.” There was a universal emphasis on “its destructiveness.” A sense of the weapon’s normality was detected. “On the whole, it must be concluded from the survey that the threat of the bomb does not greatly preoccupy the people, and that they are not giving special attention to the issues in which it is involved.”
Much of this might have been put down to ignorance. A third of those surveyed were unable to explain the role of the United Nations or know what it was designed to accomplish. This was all the more notable for the fact that the UN was meant to be responsible for the control of the bomb. Opposition to the UN having such control was notable in the survey, as it was perceived to be “giving the bomb secret away to foreign countries.”
For those surveyed, the bomb as a “psychological refuge” was also a detectable theme. The terrifying notion of nuclear deterrence can already be found, as many “reasoned that the bomb was a contribution to peace because it seemed unthinkable that governments would dare to provoke a war when so terrible a weapon might be used by any side.”
Concern of the Soviet Union – or Russia, as the report terms it – had already taken root, providing the raw material for a future arms race. “Most of the people believe that we cannot depend on her to be friendly to us, and their desire to keep the bomb secret, their criticisms of our giving in too much, their dissatisfactions with the progress of the UN are often related to misgivings about Russia.”
The commemorative issue then takes us to the debate of legitimised insanity: that any balance of terror required each side to discover the next incalculably lethal weapon. In March 1950, the scientists took to the podium of debate. President Harry S. Truman had announced on January 31 that year that the Atomic Energy Commission would “continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super-bomb.” This was, in no small part, occasioned by the destruction of the US atomic monopoly in August 1949, with the Soviet Union’s first successful test.
Albert Einstein’s contribution is all warning and foreboding about the coming National Security State. According to the Nobel laureate, “The idea of achieving security through national armament is, at the present state of military technique, a disastrous illusion.” The bomb had given the US a false sense of comfort: that it, and it alone, could attain “decisive military superiority.” The contours of the Cold War and its future social and political costs are charted. Superiority could only be achieved through intimidation. Global military bases would have to be established; potential allies would have to be strengthened and armed. Society would be militarised; the loyalty of citizens supervised. Independent thinking would be questioned. Radio, press and school would become tools of indoctrination. Public information would be restricted for reasons of military secrecy.
As pessimistic as he was, Einstein’s note outlines a view that would govern the disarmament movement for years. The Second World War might have seen the vanquishing of “an external enemy,” but the mentality created by the war had remained. Mutual fear and distrust had to be dealt with. Trust could only be attained through “loyal give and take.” Violence had to be eschewed.
The militarily minded Edward Teller, future father of the hydrogen bomb, refused to wade into the moral implications of such weapons. Those in the business of working on atomic weapons had “grave responsibility.” But scientists were not responsible for the laws of nature. It was merely their job “to find out how these laws operate.” There have been fewer better expositions of the amoral scientist. It was “not the scientist’s job to determine whether a hydrogen bomb should be constructed, whether it should be used, or how it should be used.” Design the weapons of mass murder; let others – namely “the American people” and their “chosen representatives,” decide on their use.
For the squeamish, Teller recalled the bomb loving scientists of 1939 who were keen to get the business of building an atomic weapon underway. Poland had been crushed; Nazi Germany, rampant. Scoffingly, he recalled a colonel who had little time for such weapons. They were faddish things. Wars, he suggested “are not won by weapons.” Now, it was the turn of the scientists to voice that same scepticism. “Ghost of the colonel!” With gravity, Teller proclaimed the holiday over. “Hydrogen bombs will not produce themselves. Neither will rockets nor radar.”
With such thinking as Teller’s, the voices of reason became heretical prophets; the lunacy of mega death intellectuals held sway. But the Bulletin would still run pieces bucking the trend. Contributions by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, and the mathematician philosopher Bertrand Russell, reflect on the role of science more broadly and the need for new political orders. In September 1956, Oppenheimer wrote of science as alleviating “man’s sufferings, moderated his harshest limitations, and responded to his long-sustained aspirations.” But with scientific knowledge came the potential of powers the exercise of which could “spell disaster.” The nuclear legacy could spell an end to “our human inheritance”. But hopes could be entertained: that “honest and viable international communities, with increasing common knowledge and understanding” might be created.
Russell, in September 1958, sees such an honest international community as only possible with renouncing the bomb (unilateral disarmament for Britain is advocated) and confining it, via agreement, to the US and Soviet Union. The piece takes issue with the ignorance of politicians. The views of US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles is taken as an example. “Does Dulles really think that anybody could ‘win’ a hot war, or does he merely pretend to believe it in order to encourage bellicosity in his dupes?”
The Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev is not spared either, he also being of the view that a nuclear war might be winnable against the “imperialists”. It was important to state “that the views of such men as Mr Dulles and Mr Khrushchev are utterly disastrous, and would receive almost no support if the facts were widely known.” Cooling measures were preferable: disengagement in Central Europe; the use of international arbitration for disagreements between the powers; disarmament summits; the abolition of poisonous nuclear testing. But for Russell, it was the idea of world government as part of the “machinery for the permanent prevention of great powers” that held most promise, “a single federal world government, possessing a monopoly of all the serious weapons of war.”
As for discussions of the weapons themselves, the assessment of hydrogen weapons and the neutrino bomb by theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson from September 1961 remains chilling. The hydrogen bomb was a symptom of a disease, part of “the continuous and apparently irresistible march of technology which makes all kinds of weapons progressively more simple, more versatile, and more lethal.” He turns to the potential use of a neutrino weapon. Were it to be deployed by infantry units as “standard ammunition,” Dyson was “convinced that the effects would be as important as the effects of the hydrogen bomb.”
In both cases, the physicist muses that such weapons would be needless, their lethal mission being easily accomplished by older weapons. But nuclear weaponry remains symbolic and political. “Politically, these [neutrino] bombs would be the symbol of military power in the eyes of the world, the latest, most modern, most refined, most chillingly murderous of mankind’s instruments.”
With the Soviet Union’s termination as a political entity and the conclusion of the Cold War, we have Arthur C. Clarke, science fiction scribe and futurist, likening nuclear weapons to gun lust. Few people need guns; too many want them. He reminds us of his slogan: “Guns are the crutches of the impotent.” Weapon systems of high-tech wonder were also “crutches of impotent nations; nukes are just the decorative plating.”
Clarke ponders a utopia without such crutches, some of them startling: devices that could kill no more than one person (“civilised weaponry”); martial-arts devices of a non-lethal nature; genetically modified aides (“canine, ursine, or simian”) taking the role of guard dogs, albeit with higher IQs; passive defence robots governed by Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics. “We are now one global family, and however much we may dislike our siblings, family quarrels should not be settled with hand grenades or AK-47s – much less with ICBMs.”
The author indulges his readers with a moment of reflection. It is a trip down madness lane, recalling the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction he first articulated in the March 1946 issue of the Royal Air Force Quarterly. (This point eludes the drier texts on the subject.) “Too much thinking about MAD is liable to induce that dislocation from reality, the Strangelove syndrome, for which there is no known cure.” By 1986, he had bidden “the whole dismal subject” farewell in his Nehru address “Star Wars and Star Peace” in Delhi. The bomb could be loved no longer.
In concluding, Clarke throws us the quotation from H.G. Wells: “You damn fools! I told you so!” (The epitaph by Wells, from his 1941 edition of The War in the Air, was actually: “I told you so. You damned fools.”) Many a “told you so moment” can be found in this Bulletin issue. But will today’s powers, aided by their modern generation of amoral Tellers and damned foolery, listen?
This post was originally published on Radio Free.