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Scientists as Servants

Scientists in Power

by Spencer R. Weart
Harvard University Press, 343 pp., $17.50

Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts

edited by Spencer R. Weart, edited by Gertrud Weiss Szilard
MIT Press, 244 pp., $17.50

Science in a Free Society

by Paul Feyerabend
NLB (distributed by Schocken), 221 pp., $15.50

Since Congress cannot repeal the law of gravitation, is physics at odds with democracy? That is high school humor, but it can be turned into scary questions, illustrated with human shadows burned into Hiroshima walls, bewildered refugees from Middletown, Pa., and amphitheaters of docile youths copying equations. Since the laws of nature are established by self-selected fellowships of scientists, may they not subject the innocent majority to their esoteric power? In that form the question still seems the product of an adolescent subculture; it recalls the horror comics that derive from gothic novels, increasingly silly caricatures of fearful belief in occult knowledge as power.

Modern culture has replaced such antique dreams by scientific knowledge, with baffling results. Natural science is not occult but accessible to any normal mind, and it generates real, not imaginary power—which confronts us as an alien force, which may even destroy us all. Nuclear bombs are the appropriate symbol, not only in their literal capacity to destroy us all, but also in the universal irresponsibility that they embody. Scientific inventors created them as an unrestricted gift to military and political leaders, who keep insisting in advance that “the adversary” will be responsible if “we” are “obliged” to initiate some “nuclear exchange.”

Creations of human minds confront us as external necessities; they not only push us toward self-destruction but mock us along the way for ever dreaming that people could freely shape their future by rational discussion and conscious decision. Not only in technology, but in science itself, as romantic thinkers have been complaining for two centuries, the mind’s knowledge of objects seems to stand outside the mind, like the things themselves, prohibiting some lines of thought, ordering others, restricting the mind to the discovery of necessity, turning the mind into another thing, like the calculating machines that guide smart missiles to their programmed goal.

Here are three more scholars grappling with such perplexities. Daniel Kevles is the least alarmed, or the most euphemistic. He discerns a manageable tension between “elitist science” and “democracy” in the history of American physics over the past century. Spencer Weart’s history of French nuclear physics illustrates a menacing title, Scientists in Power, with the usual symbols: a mushroom cloud on the dust jacket and a frontispiece photograph of a glowing apparatus magnetizing the intense gaze of the three Frankensteins who made it. Under a reassuring title, Science in a Free Society, Paul Feyerabend has written the most disturbed book, a diatribe against the “intellectual fascism of most of our leading philosophers, scientists, philosophers of science,” “a small gang of power and money-hungry intellectuals” who hold “common citizens” in “ideological and financial exploitation.”

Weart’s title seems to imply support for such accusations, but his excellent history shows how physicists were excluded from power, and not just in France. Weart has actually done a comparative history, for he has carefully traced French connections with British, US, and Canadian nuclear research. In all these countries, whenever scientists’ discoveries developed important technological implications, they were firmly subjected to “industrial, military, and government people.” Weart seems unaware that he has rediscovered C. Wright Mills’s power elite, and demonstrated the subjection of scientists to it. Kevles also provides evidence of that subjection, but veils it, as many scientists do, by cultivating a snobbish sense that they are somehow above the people who rule them. Usually the cult of purity, combined with haughty indifference to the concerns of “industrial, military, and government people,” performs the masking functions. Kevles presses toward unmasking by giving serious attention to the relationship of pure physics with technology and politics. Unfortunately he does not press the examination far enough. He is eager to show what great contributions physicists have made to America’s industrial wealth, military power, and national prestige, but reluctant to probe the part they have played in deciding how their contributions are used.

In this respect Kevles’s book resembles many Soviet histories of science, which also dwell lovingly on the contributions of scientists to the prosperity, strength, and glory of the fatherland, and do not probe the essential relationship between the scientists who offer contributions and the leaders who accept. The underlying assumption is that the leaders represent the nation, and therefore have sovereign authority to decide what shall be accepted and how it shall be used. Power over human beings is on one side, knowledge of inhuman nature on the other—a monstrous specialization of function, which could yield a Hitler armed with nuclear bombs. That is the usual symbol of the danger. Far more serious, because far more likely, is the danger that normal leaders will feel encouraged to some “rational” use of nuclear weapons by scientific advisers whose function it is to tell what is technically feasible, not what is humanly right. We hardly need to speculate; that has already happened.

Consider this illuminating episode, which Kevles omits in spite of his inordinate love of anecdotes. It sheds more light than he can bear on the position of scientists in our democracy. Just after Roosevelt’s death Leo Szilard went looking for the leaders who might set off a nuclear arms race by a spectacular display of the A-bomb’s power to kill Japanese. He was shunted to Kansas City, to Washington, and finally to South Carolina, where at last he and two scientific colleagues achieved an audience with a genuine potentate, Jimmy Byrnes. The scientists were realistic enough to ask to pity for the potential Japanese victims. They focused on the calamity the United States might suffer if it precipitated a nuclear arms race, and on the possibility of averting such calamity by keeping the A-bomb secret or by demonstrating it as a weapon too dangerous to use on people. They requested a meeting with the President and his Cabinet, so they might provide the information necessary for a rational decision.

Byrnes was annoyed by such presumption, especially by Szilard’s “general demeanor and his desire to participate in policy-making.” 1 The Russians, he told them, had to be shown that we would have unanswerable power in the postwar world, and we would, for the Russians could not make nuclear bombs. General Groves had told him so. Moreover, Congress must be considered. Two billion of the people’s dollars had been spent in secret. Without a dramatic display of the great new killing force that had been created for the people, they might grumble at their public servants.2

Byrnes may well have been right about domestic public relations, if not about the international realities of the arms race he thought to start and win at one stroke. His Caesaristic concept of democracy—the massed populace cheering the military force that embodies its mythic power—may have been closer to the mentality of twentieth-century Americans than Szilard’s antique dream of enlightened discussion leading to rational and humane decisions. Szilard was reduced to the usual rueful soliloquy of the intellectual, ironically contrasting his impotent acuity with the obtuse power of his superiors:

I was rarely as depressed as when we left Byrnes’ house and walked toward the station. I thought to myself how much better off the world might be had I been born in America and become influential in American politics, and had Byrnes been born in Hungary and studied physics. In all probability there would then have been no atomic bomb and no danger of an arms race between America and Russia.3

The point here is not the brutal delusions of political and military leaders in launching the nuclear arms race, but the ideology that closed their minds to the humane realism of “concerned scientists.” The charmed circle of policy makers represented “the people,” and the scientists making the bomb did not belong. If that is what Kevles means by his contrast between “democracy” and “elitist science,” he should translate the ideological terms into plain talk: “democracy” means top bosses, “elitist science” means their technical servants. In fact, the overwhelming majority of the nuclear scientists quietly accepted that relationship, with or without an “elitist” sense of superiority to their bosses. They were truly “unconcerned” with policy making, submissive to the rule that specialists must be on tap, not on top. Only a tiny group even thought to discuss issues of arms policy among themselves.

Most of that tiny group of “concerned scientists” shared Szilard’s views, or perhaps we should say James Franck’s views. Franck was the only scientist who had had the foresight, when he was recruited to the bomb project, to extract a promise: if the project should succeed, he would have the right to communicate his views on policy to the highest level. In June 1945 he demanded fulfillment of the promise, and prepared the “Franck Report,” arguing that a murderous demonstration of the bomb would certainly set off a disastrous arms race. This, he said, might be avoided by a non-murderous demonstration coupled with a timely proposal to the Soviet regime for mutual restraint.

The memo was stifled in the usual bureaucratic manner, by dispatch to a review committee, four eminent physicists headed by Oppenheimer. They smothered Franck’s arguments with commentary, a balancing act that ended with a self-effacing disclaimer of “special competence in solving the political, social, and military problems which are presented by the advent of atomic power.”4

In 1949, when the Soviet regime exploded its first A-bomb, the American regime reasserted its dream of omnipotence, with a crash program for a hydrogen “superbomb.” This time Oppenheimer accepted the responsibility he had evaded in 1945. Still in charge of a scientific advisory committee, he skillfully organized a unanimous recommendation against the crash program, for a public discussion, and for a proposal to the Soviet Union that both countries refrain from making an H-bomb.5 Not only was this recommendation rejected; Oppenheimer was transformed from a national hero into a shifty character of suspect loyalty.

That famous case dramatizes the tragic situation of scientific armorers who come to see that they are morally responsible but politically impotent, rather like the technicians who are now preparing the nation’s electric chairs and gas chambers. Of course, technical preparations for a few hundred ritual killings are not nearly as horrifying as technical preparations for killing hundreds of millions. The similarity in the two cases is in the moral predicament of individual technicians who perceive the horror but cannot prevent it, whether by refusing to serve—others will do the job—or by agreeing to serve in hopes of gaining influence on those who command the murderous technology. Sakharov testifies to “the feeling of impotence and fright that seized” him when he realized that he had earned no such influence by making H-bombs for the Soviet bosses.6 Allowing for the different political styles of the Soviet and American power elites, his experience was remarkably similar to Oppenheimer’s.

Kevles obscures the moral responsibility and the political impotence of the physicists. He is the court historian of an American establishment that serves the sovereign people; he takes for granted the rectitude of that service, even when the leaders who speak for the collective order a race toward nuclear disaster. Individual responsibility is dissolved into a collective abstraction, the nation or people, and Oppenheimer’s moral tragedy disappears along with his responsibility. In place of tragedy Kevles presents the usual melodrama of honor rightfully bestowed on the nation’s chief armorer, honor wrongfully withdrawn in a time of hysteria, and honor happily restored by the laying on of presidential hands. Lyndon Johnson gave Oppenheimer a medal, a ceremony of purification that Kevles describes with moist sentimentality.

  1. 1

    Quoted in Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists’ Movement in America, 1945-47 (MIT Press, 1970), p. 30

  2. 2

    A Peril and a Hope, pp. 29-30. Cf. Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (Knopf, 1975), pp. 200-202, for another description of this interview.

  3. 3

    Leo Szilard: His Version of the Facts, pp. 184-185.

  4. 4

    Quoted in A Peril and a Hope, p. 50.

  5. 5

    The full history is superbly told in Herbert F. York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (W.H. Freeman, 1976).

  6. 6

    See his brief account in Sakharov Speaks (Vintage Books, 1974), pp. 30-34. I cannot help wondering if his conversion into a “concerned scientist” in the late Fifties was influenced by the accident that Zhores Medvedev analyzes in his new book, Nuclear Disaster in the Urals (Norton, 1979).

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