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International Socialist Review, Fall 1957



Bigger than the Bomb


From International Socialist Review, Vol.18 No.4, Fall 1957, pp.107-109.
Transcription & mark-up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


SINCE its first issue in 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has carried a single picture on its cover – the hands of a clock pointing to a few minutes before twelve. The editors have preoccupied themselves with this theme – the hour grows short for humanity to make the fateful decision, either to bring atomic energy under rational control or see the earth itself converted into a radioactive desert.

The influence of the Bulletin has been considerable in breaking through the official government policy of discounting the fearful implications of atomic war. Today’s growing movement against even testing atomic weapons because of the dangers of radioactive pollution can be traced back to the warnings which this public-spirited magazine has repeated over and over again with all the knowledge and authority at its command.

However, on the strictly political question of how to end the threat of war and bring enduring peace to the world, the Bulletin has spoken with less sureness. Three articles in the May and June issues illustrate this with particular force.

Edward Teller, who hatched the H-bomb, offers little hope. In The Nature of Nuclear Warfare, he approves the cheapness of nuclear material over TNT, argues for it as more “effective,” denies that it is less “moral” than “outmoded” arms, and calls for construction of a striking force built wholly around nuclear weapons.

In an all-out war, Teller sees industrial America leveled to the ground. But victory will be won through hiding out in “deep underground shelters” where “food surpluses” will have been stored “in such a way that ... we still could feed our population for, let us say, two years. In two years we would have had time enough to find out where food can be grown again.”

According to Teller, “Russia, struggling to build up an industrial civilization, cannot do the same thing. Her agricultural supplies are scarce.”

Coming after such a vision of “victory” through decimating the globe, Teller’s “feeling” that an atomic war “will never come” does not carry much conviction. Equally unconvincing are his vague assertions about the need for “international law and order.”

Max Bern’s article, Man and the Atom, is much more worthy of a leading scientist. The founder of modern physics holds that the unlocking of the secret of atomic energy was inevitable; the war simply hastened things. But the “horrible decision” to drop two bombs “on densely populated Japanese cities” was a “big crime” that cannot be justified “by the statement that we are accustomed to committing many smaller crimes.”

Born does not blame the scientists personally for their research that made the bomb possible, nor Truman for his decision to use it. “What we are concerned with,” in Born’s view, “is collective guilt, the decay of our ethical consciousness, for which we are all to blame, myself included – though I have had nothing to do with the development of nuclear physics.”

The solution, Born feels, is a return to the “great religions.” This would make possible “the renunciation of force in the pursuit of political aims.”

We can share Born’s confidence that mankind will ultimately prove to be bigger than the bomb. But his trust in the willingness of the modern Romans to “take the teaching of Christ seriously” betrays an unfortunate lack of awareness, or appreciation, of the lessons of political history and the economic drives impelling imperialism toward expansion.

Eugene Rabinowitch, editor of the Bulletin, seeks to come closer to political realities. In The Frozen Map he considers the argument that “a large-scale nuclear war between the major powers has been made effectively impossible by the capacity of both camps for mutual nuclear destruction” although “local conflicts” might still break out.

This contention, he holds, has already been disproved by the decision of the British government “to concentrate on an all-out development of large nuclear deterrent weapons.”

In making the decision, the government admitted that the British Isles are indefensible against destruction by modern scientific weapons and that all that can be hoped for if war occurs is “retaliation.” In Rabinowitch’s opinion, similar frankness is called for on the part of the American and Soviet governments.

If the trend toward stockpiling atomic weapons continues, as it most likely will, the result will be “well-hidden, ever ready on-the-trigger bases scattered throughout an otherwise practically unprotected country, whose major population and industry centers will remain at the mercy of an aggressor.”

“This is a prospect,” continues the editor of the Bulletin, “which some military thinkers (and some scientists) contemplate not only with equanimity, but even with eager anticipation. They think that this will represent the closest approach to stable, permanent peace mankind has known (or is likely to know in the foreseeable future).”

Rabinowitch strongly disagrees with this “optimism.” He thinks it would mean “at best, only a breathing spell – a limited period of uneasy peace ...” A “peace structure” might be erected in this period, but the logic of military technology is toward “the ultimate nuclear stalemate.”

“It would be naive to hope that this trend could be arrested or reversed by a cleverly contrived agreement on the limitation of nuclear armaments, by the institution of aerial surveys to detect preparations for aggression, or by any other practically conceivable outcome of the disarmament negotiations in the UN.”

Boundaries of national states or spheres of interest could no longer be adjusted, for the “political corollary of this military stalemate will be the freezing of the existing political boundaries.”

As Rabinowitch puts it:

“Only an internal revolution in the very center of one of the imperial powers – causing a temporary ‘melting’ of the frozen political structure of the empire – could then permit a local change in political allegiance without a major military catastrophe.”

In this “frozen world” the present political divisions “may have to stand indefinitely.” No matter what the inequities, or the feelings of the people involved, “the supreme interest of mankind requires that from now on, no territorial injustice be corrected by violent means.”

How long would the nuclear stalemate last?

“It is hardly necessary to repeat here,” continues Rabinowitch, “that, in the long run, a frozen political map of the world will be no more a guarantee against an ultimate outbreak of international violence than a permanently frozen division of wealth between individuals and classes would be a guarantee against violent revolutions.”

In view of this evaluation, “what should one think of hopes so widely pinned now on disarmament negotiations?” Rabinowitch’s answer is that “All they can promise ... is the reduction of armies or navies which are unessential from the point of view of deterrence – and perhaps some arrangement which would make sudden aggression less likely.” Perhaps international control mechanisms might be set up that would have some use.

“What all these ‘disarmament’ arrangements will not mean is a substantial change in the capacity of nations for mutual nuclear destruction – a threat under which mankind is living now, and will live for years to come – until it fully learns the political lessons of the atomic age.”

An agreement might be reached on ending the atomic tests, and this would undoubtedly be a step forward; “but if our general interpretation of the world situation is correct, it would be a dangerous self-deception to hope that a standstill agreement on the development of new atomic weapons is likely to become a first step toward the dismantling of the terror establishments of the rival camps ...”

The editor of the influential Bulletin ends by scorning the argument “that we should not emphasize the futility of hopes for permanent peace based on the kind of disarmament which is possible in the framework of the present world system of sovereign nations ...” He counts himself among those who “are inclined to consider the task of educating mankind to the necessity of a world political moral renewal to match the current revolution in science and technology the most important public obligation of scientists – and of all others who are fully aware of the extent of this revolution.”

Rabinowitch’s views are no doubt shared by many scientists today who are coming more and more to see that only a deep-going political solution can end the crisis brought on by the threat of nuclear war. The recognition of the dangerous deceptions that can accompany an uncritical campaign for disarmament is, in our opinion, an encouraging development in realistic political thinking. Where we think the approach leaves much to be desired is in appealing to the high-placed military and political figures instead of the working people. This strikes us as seeking salvation in a blind alley. Perhaps the scientists feel this, too, and that is why they are so pessimistic about the future.

People are bigger than the bomb; that is, the working people are. They are the real power in the modern world, and they are easily capable of exercising that power, given the right conditions. Through socialism, as Einstein, one of the founders of the Bulletin, recommended, they can build a world of permanent peace.

The attempts of the Kremlin bureaucrats to freeze their political structure of special privilege will not succeed. The revolts in East Germany, Poland and Hungary are symptoms of the resumption of the working-class struggle for socialism in this section of the world. In Western Europe, where the vision of socialism was born, only American dollars still prop up a capitalism battered by two world wars, fascism, depressions and the Soviet victory. The attempts of the old imperialist powers to freeze the colonial freedom movements are likewise doomed in face of the “melting” process initiated by the tens of millions of human beings in these areas who want socialism.

As for America, we can look back at two previous attempts to freeze the political map. They were answered in 1776 and 1861. We have every reason for believing that the present generation can do as well in keeping America from getting frozen in a system where the threat of H-bomb annihilation is the cardinal fact of life. The pressure today to end the nuclear tests is a step in that direction.

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