Volume 48, No. 5 September/October 1995

Atomic Scientists Appeal to Colleagues: Stop Work on Further Nuclear Weapons

In an "Atomic Scientists' Appeal", FAS, for the first time in its 50-year history, has called on scientists throughout the world to stop working on further nuclear weapons and on other weapons of potential mass destruction.

Inspired by a letter from Nobel Laureate Hans A. Bethe, who is the senior living original atomic scientist, the FAS Council endorsed his appeal and secured the individual endorsements of most of its other FAS member survivors of that era including Marvin L. Goldberger, Jerome Karle, Glenn T. Seaborg, Philip Morrison, Victor Weisskopt, Robert R. Wilson and Herbert York, and also an endorsement by Richard L. Garwin.

This "Atomic Scientists Appeal" was released in Hiroshima on July 25 at a Pugwash Conference by FAS President Jeremy J. Stone. It is noteworthy that the Pugwash movement itself has never issued a similar appeal despite the fact, as one high official admitted, "this has been considered before". In seeking endorsements from non-American scientists, Stone managed, in particular, to secure the endorsement of all but one Pugwash Council Member attending the conference.

Subsequently, the final communique of the Pugwash Council included this statement:

" ... presented to the Conference on its first morning was a letter from one of the most senior Manhattan Project scientists, Nobel Laureate Hans Bethe, calling on "all scientists in all countries to case and desist from work creating, developing, improving, and manufacturing further nuclear weapons--and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons." Conveyed by the Council of the Federation of American Scientists and endorsed by that group as well as by a number of prominent Manhattan Project scientists in addition to Bethe, his letter is a remarkable document to which the Pugwash Council is pleased to add its own endorsement."

A number of observers commented on the fact that it is much easier for scientists to call on governments to do one thing or another than to call upon their colleagues to do something with the collegial censure this implies for colleagues who do not agree. Accordingly, the Atomic Scientists Appeal was viewed by many as a "breath of fresh air", as one scientist put it, and as an important precedent for similar activities of other kinds. The release in Hiroshima was complicated by events on the opening day when Pugwash President Joseph Rotblat, at a plenary session, gave a lecture with slides on the culpability of the United States in dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Rotblat opened his presentation by saying "In total disregard of the basic tenets of science--openness and universality--it [the atomic bomb] was conceived in secrecy, and usurped--even before birth-by one state to give it political dominance." And his primary view was: "As a scientist I want also to apologize to the Japanese people for the atom bombs. Their use was unjustified. Their making was necessary."

Despite an awareness that the Federation's main message--the Atomic Scientists Appeal--could be prejudiced by doing so, Stone rose from the floor, criticized Rotblat for not having scheduled an alterative view, and noted that most scholars did not accept this revised interpretation of history. In particular, Stone noted, even the scientists of conscience within FAS did not, in most cases, agree. (For example, Hans A. Bethe believes that the use of the bomb saved Japanese lives by producing a prompt surrender that cut off the continued fire-bombing of Japanese cities and saved Japanese lives that would have been lost in a subsequent invasion. Needless to say, it also saved American lives.) And Stone offered to circulate a more balanced appraisal in the form of a Washington Post two-part series written by Walter Pincus.

Rotblat's perspective on this is worth noting. He alone among the atomic scientists at Los Alamos, left the project when it became clear that the Germans would not get the atomic bomb. Accordingly, from his point of view, on which he acted at the time, the completion of the atomic bomb was inconsistent with the original defining purpose of ensuring that the Nazis did not, alone, get the bomb. As for the dropping of the bomb being unjustified, he accepted the view that the Japanese were near surrender, that the potential American invasion casualties were fewer than many were led to believe at the time, and that the real purpose of dropping the bomb was to impress the Russians.


Afterwards, a Pugwash participant well informed on the debate, described Rotblat's presentation as "too simple, and at least partly wrong. It's too much Blackett-Alperovitz." A number of other participants agreed in private. A few days later, a Pugwash session occurred in which Historian Burton Bernstein did offer the alternative majority view.

Although Stone's response to Rotblat was carried in the Japanese media and did, reporters later noted, persuade them that FAS had a hawkish perspective, they nevertheless accepted the FAS "Atomic Scientist's Appeal" in good spirit the next day. The main Hiroshima newspaper reported the FAS appeal with small pictures of four signers (Bethe, Morrison, Seaborg and York). And another newspaper helpfully ad-libbed a quote that our effort was "part of a drive for zero nuclear weapons" which its editors realized was necessary to give the Japanese public a correct understanding of our intentions.

The reporters were helped, in their assessment of FAS, by being shown 20-year-old reports of FAS's previous visit to Hiroshima on August 6, 1975. At that time, Stone held a press conference, convened by the city's mayor, to explain FAS's work and, in particular, to float the then-new idea of restricting any president or prime minister from ordering, on his own initiative, the first use of nuclear weapons (i.e. the "no-one-decision-maker" theme which would require Congressional or other acquiescence in such an escalation). In sum, FAS has now, twice, at 20-year intervals, reported to the Japanese public on its continuing efforts to Preclude further use of nuclear weapons.