Atomic weapons: a symposium

Author: John Desmond Bernal;
Publisher: The Trinity Trust, 134 Ballards Lane, London, N3;
Published: April 1950;
Printer: Dorchester and District Newspapers Ltd;
HTML Markup: Pierre Marshall.

This was a contribution which Bernal made to Labour Monthly (Vol. 32, No. 4). The editor of the journal wrote to a number of leading personalities in public life regarding 'the present continuing deadlock over the question of atomic explosives. The longer this deadlock lasts between the American scheme and the alternative Soviet Russian proposals, the greater becomes the risk of a war in which these atomic weapons will be used. Nothing but good can come of open and public expressions of opinion on this danger.' The editor therefore invited a brief answer to this question:

What steps do you think should be taken to prevent the use of atomic bombs in all forms, uranium and later developments?

The proposal to make the hydrogen bomb has made it clear to everyone the futile horror to which the use of science for warfare has led. Still less than the atom bomb, the hydrogen bomb cannot be considered a military weapon leading to a decision in war. It will produce directly widespread and incalculable destruction of human life and may add to this radioactive products which may do incurable damage on both sides. It cannot even be used as a threat. If it proves practicable to build it, there is no reason to suppose that the Soviet Union may not have it as soon as the United States. Something must be done, and soon, to put an end to all such forms of warfare.

As a first step it might be valuable for people to urge their governments to declare that they would not use the hydrogen bomb unless an enemy had used it first. Alternatively, as Professor Joliot-Curie has suggested — that the first government to use an atomic weapon should be declared criminal. This would certainly reinforce the determination of an increasing number of scientists to have nothing to do with the manufacture of such weapons already, all the research workers and staff of the French Commissariat of Atomic Energy have solemnly declared that they would leave the establishment if they were asked to work on an atomic bomb. The only safe course in the long run is an absolute ban, not only on the hydrogen bomb but on all atomic and bacteriological weapons.

All governments should clearly and explicitly renounce their manufacture and use, and undertake to destroy all existing stocks provided other holders of stocks do the same.

There is nothing revolutionary in such a guarantee. It is essentially the same as that embodied in the Gas and Bacteriological Warfare Agreement in 1925, reaffirmed at the Disarmament Conference of 1932. In fact, so far as we know, gas and bacteria were not used by the belligerents of 1941-45 (although the Japanese were preparing their use). In order to make the undertaking effective, the fullest system of international inspection that human ingenuity can devise of all atomic processes — from mining to actual fission — should be established. This should work under an international inspecting committee, with its staff of travelling scientific inspectors. The vast quantities of material required, and the large plants involved, make the working of such a system perfectly feasible.

Indeed, both Anglo-American and Soviet Governments have agreed that inspection and control is practicable and they only differ on minor points as to how it should be carried out. This is the only acceptable method. It is illusory to imagine that any independent Power could accept the Baruch (USA) scheme, which would hand over ownership and management of all atomic plant to a committee on which the USA and its friends would have a permanent majority, and the USA would in addition be able to retain its stocks of bombs, and make more, for an indefinite period!

Above all, it is essential that all the people should be made aware of the various proposals for the prevention of atomic warfare and that they should no longer be deceived into believing that they are being held up purely by Soviet obstinacy.

The initiative of the World Peace Committee, urging the parliaments of all countries to accept the principle of prohibiting atomic bombs, is one that needs to be taken up here. We should see to it that it is at least discussed seriously in the House of Commons. Sooner or later the will of the people to have done with all these and other horrors of war, will prevail. The important and urgent thing is to see that this is done before it is too late.