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Fourth International, March 1946


Review of the Month

The Scientists and the Atom Bomb


From Fourth International, March 1946, Vol.7 No.3, pp.69-70.
Transcribed, edited & formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for ETOL.


According to an eye-witness report, there was unrestrained jubilation among the groups of scientists who witnessed the first experimental demonstration of an atomic bomb explosion at Los Alamos, N.M. These scientists spontaneously broke into a dance, “the dance of the primitive man,” shouting and applauding, “shaking hands,” slapping each other on the back, “all laughing like happy children.” (New York Times, September 26, 1945.) Shortly thereafter Hiroshima and Nagasaki were erased from the earth’s surface in the space of a few seconds. Many of these scientists are hardly in a mood for dancing or laughing nowadays.

The discovery and application of the explosive power of nuclear energy have placed a big question mark over the immediate future of mankind. To be sure, technological developments and especially their application to armaments led in the past to similar predictions of impending physical annihilation of civilization. But such forecasts originated primarily among laymen, journalists, novelists and the like, and received little credence in scientific circles. Today, on the other hand, the alarm is being sounded by technicians and scientists, who are in the best position to know the actual state of affairs as well as the trend of future developments in this field. Moreover, the most alarmist and pessimistic declarations come from the world’s leading physicists, chemists, radiologists, metereologists, mathematicians, etc.

These scientists have formed special organizations dedicated, among other things, to arousing the public to ‘the “grave danger for our nation and for the world” in atomic warfare. In the words of Harold C. Urey, atom-bomb scientist: “We need, first of all, to be thoroughly frightened.”

So great already is the destructive power of atomic explosives that man-made disasters produced by their use will henceforth make pale by comparison the havoc of all known natural catastrophes (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, tidal waves, famines, plagues, etc.).

Thus, J.R. Oppenheimer, one of the leading men in the development of the atom bomb, estimates that in the next war, 40 million Americans might be killed in one night. Another scientist, Dr. A.H. Compton, calculates that one-tenth of any country’s population would be destroyed during the first night of atomic bombing and that no city of more than 100,000 would remain as an effective operating center after the first hour of the war.

A memorandum issued by a group of scientists states:

By using more bombs, larger bombs and more efficient bombs, it will be possible in the near future completely to destroy the bulk of the population, industry and military strength of any nation within a few days. Moreover, aviation and rocket developments might enable this to be accomplished within a few hours, without possibility of effective retaliation.

Professor Einstein, who is the most optimistic, denies that all the people would be killed in the next war. He believes that “only two-thirds” will die, and bases his optimism on the assumption that the remaining one-third will pull itself up amid the universal shambles and carry on from there.

All the scientists are agreed that it is impossible either to keep atomic power a “secret” or to invent an effective defense against its use. They fear the consequences of an atomic armaments race, which, as a matter of fact, is already in progress.

Potentialities Of The Atom Bomb

The cost of such bombs is no deterrent. Professor J.R. Oppenheimer has declared that future bombs can be produced very cheaply and that “they may be made by the thousands and tens of thousands.”

Moreover, the explosive force of the initial bombs of World War II is merely a harbinger of the unlimited death and devastation which improved forms of such explosives can spread. For the bombs that burst over Hiroshima and Nagasaki used up only one-tenth of one percent of the available energy. Even doubling or tripling their “efficiency” will still leave more than ample room for further developments. In addition, the uranium-plutonium base thus far utilized by no means constitutes the most explosive source of nuclear power. Far more powerful sources are already known (conversion of hydrogen into helium). It is only a question of time before this and other nuclear processes are “harnessed.”

How much time is there actually left before atomic war breaks out? Speaking last August, Winston Churchill hazarded a guess that mankind had perhaps three years to put its house in order. The scientists agree that the perspective is short-term. “Future history, in fact, may not last very long” (H.C. Urey). “If we manage to get through the next 15 years alive, we shall probably emerge immune to atomic bombs” (L. Sziillard).

Evidently, the solution must be provided within the life-span of our generation; the greater the delay, all the graver will be the consequences.

The most sober spokesmen of the ruling class do not deny the danger. Thus, The Economist, one of the most serious and authoritative organs of the English bourgeoisie, wrote editorially, November 10, 1945:

... The atom bomb is quite capable of destroying the human race within the lifetime of the present generation-or, if not of destroying the hvman race, at least so shattering all social and economic organization that homo sapiens would be thrust back nearly to his biologic origins. The mind resists this conclusion, partly because of its horrible import, partly because of the many prophecies of doom that this generation has seen disproved. But this time there does not seem to be any very great degree of exaggeration.

How do the scientists propose to resolve this crisis? It is precisely here that they reveal their utter prostration and impotence. They adjure one another not to fall into a panic; propose campaigns of education; suggest that the US nationalize nuclear energy; mumble about the need to “control this weapon on international lines.”

Capitalism Cannot Abolish War

All these are pitiful evasions. It is not at all a question of “controlling” this or that weapon (including atomic explosives) but of preventing the outbreak of the Third World War. How can war be abolished on the basis of a decaying social system that has twice in the span of a single generation plunged mankind into slaughter? The answer is: it can’t.

Spokesmen of the ruling class acknowledge this quite cynically. Here, for example, is what the English Economist had to say in this connection, on November 24, 1945, following the Washington conference on the atomic bomb (Truman-Attlee-King):

The atomic bomb is immensely destructive; there is no defense; no nation can hope to keep a monopoly; it will certainly he used in another war; therefore, the only way to prevent certain destruction is to abolish war. But there is not a hint of a suggestion of a new idea for abolishing war.

To abolish war it is first necessary to abolish the economic system that breeds it, replacing it with a higher and far more progressive system. To be sure, this idea is not a new one. It is almost one hundred years old. It was first advanced by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of scientific socialism, who warned that failure to overthrow capitalism could only lead mankind to disaster.

The socialist solution – and there is no other – requires anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist ideas and action. But the frightened scientists who are so advanced in their technical discoveries are reactionaries in their political and social thinking. By rejecting the proletarian struggle for the abolition of capitalist rule, they are actually serving as either voluntary or unconscious flunkeys of imperialism. Thereby they help bring about the very catastrophe which they hope to avert.

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