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Labor Action, 17 December 1945


Atomic Energy:

For Barbarism or Socialism?

A Series by the Editors of Labor Action


From Labor Action, Vol. IX No. 51, 17 December 1945, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Part IV

The Administration has outraged the entire scientific world. Dr. Harold C. Urey said that passage of the bill, which so far has the support of the Truman Administration, “will lead to an atomic armament race.”

Referring to the section of the bill forbidding the teaching of nuclear energy theories, Oppenheimer said: “It could stop science in its tracks.”

Lowell Mellett, writing in the New York Post of October 23 said that:

“Many of the scientists who worked\on the development of the atom bomb feel that science, as far as America is concerned, will be placed in a straitjacket if the present Administration bill for control of atomic energy becomes law. They think, further, that passage of the bill will start other nations off in a mad, secret race with us that can end only in some nation pulling the bomb to use.”

Dr. T.R. Hogness, of the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, called for defeat of the May-Johnson bill, stating that there was a “clear-cut and strongly-backed effort in Washington” to prevent them from “fully presenting to the public their ideas on the implications and future control of the terrible weapon they have placed in the hands of mankind.” This statement was signed also by Dr. Harlow Shapley, Harvard astronomer, and Dr. Karl T. Compton, MIT president.

The Chicago group stated further:

“A danger of a policy of secrecy is that while we would be spurring on other nations to develop atomic bombs, we might sterilize our further development of nuclear physics and chemistry in our own country by withholding information from the, majority of our own scientists ...

“The maintenance of secrecy in the field of atomic developments will mean that vital political decisions also will have to be made in secret without consultation with the people.”

The scientists, whatever their illusions about an international agreement by the nations of the world today; have no illusions about the May-Johnson bill, produced in the Senate of the country whose “sacred trust” the atomic bomb is!

The Military Minds at Work

And what of our military leaders – what effect does the atomic weapon create on their thinking? They don’t, naturally, advocate the outlawing of war. That would be asking them to commit hara-kiri. They don’t call for the outlawing of the bomb, either. The stepped-up destruction of the atomic bomb leaves little impress on these specialists in destruction. Some say, like Major de Seversky: “I don’t believe the bomb is any more destructive than twenty thousand tons of ordinary incendiary bombs” (!) Otherwise, besides recognizing a very slight difference in magnitude of destruction, the military goes about with a war-as-usual attitude. The former U.S. Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, slated this viewpoint in his report to the nation:

“So far as they can see world conditions a decade from now, War Department planners, who have taken every conceivable factor into consideration, believe that our position will be sound if we set up machinery which will permit the mobilization of an army of 4,000,000 men within a period of one year following any international crisis resulting in a national emergency for the United States.”

What an atomic-powered rival nation could do to the United States, given a year following an international emergency, the general does not indicate. He must conceive that we, too, would have our atomic weapons ready at a moment’s notice.

Nor does the cataclysmic explosion that wipes out over 100,000 people at one stroke seem to have produced much of a dent in the thinking of the New York Times’ military specialist, Hanson W. Baldwin. He readily admits the possibility of an “atomic Pearl Harbor,” but advocates as preventatives the development of air power, pilotless planes, rockets and an enlarged and highly skilled intelligence service! Our spies would keep us informed of atomic developments abroad; other agents would keep other countries informed on us.

As a novel response to meet a novel situation the Navy advocates more ships. The Army, with true brass hat courage, argues you still need an army, the infantry, to seize, occupy and hold territory in order to clinch the atomic victory. They do not say that with atomic warfare the action of an infantry, which may be the last patrol of the last nation left on the globe, may be a macabre job of seizing, occupying and holding a no man’s land – all that will be left of civilization.

What Will Capitalism Do with It?

Given the continued existence of capitalism, the prospects for the use of atomic energy,in peacetime productive channels are no happier than its military use. This is true whether capitalism develops atomic energy on a wide scale to revolutionize the power sources of industry or whether capitalism doesn’t develop atomic power for peace at all.

In his testimony before the Senate Military Affairs Committee, reported in PM, October 15, Dr. Oppenheimer asserted that “... a million kilowatts of electric energy is not far off, possibly five years or less. But to fit this into our economy may take a long time.” Why? Because whether atomic energy has industrial application and when “is a matter of economic policy.” Atomic energy could be manipulated so that “industrial development would never occur.”

What Dr. Oppenheimer fears is that the fate of atomic energy will be identical with that of technological improvements under capitalism. Because production for profit is the mainspring of our capitalist society, and as a tendency to increasing monopolization continues, the determining factor in the use of any new discovery is: is it profitable? While the industrial use of atomic energy might be of enormous benefit to society as a whole, its. use by present-day society might be unprofitable to the industrialists and financial overlords, the two per cent who own seventy-five per cent of the wealth of the United States. Many inventors today, whose discoveries, if put to use, would aid mankind, play the role of blackmailers of the trusts, because to put their inventions to use would entail the scrapping of already existing machinery, increased costs to the owners of industry and reduced profits.

What Would Happen

Suppose capitalism did find it profitable to use atomic energy industrially? Willem de Voorter, writing in The New International, September 1945, expresses what would likely happen if atomic energy were developed under private ownership:

“Let us assume, however, that U-235 can be made cheaply enough so as to become a serious threat to present power sources. While as yet the stuff cannot have any useful part in our technical processes and is no immediate threat to coal and oil interests, it then might be. Then we would see an immediate change in imperialist policies, directed toward uranium deposits as well as to oil lands. The entire imperialist game will have to be reshuffled and again the people will! have to pay for the game with blood and life.

“If we assume that U-235 or another new element or isotope is tamed and becomes the power source we are being promised, the consequences will be, as far as the workers are concerned, disastrous under a capitalist system. A single airplane could serve for fuel transportation over the entire world, delivering an ounce here, an ounce there. One has only to visualize the unemployment resulting from its use in power plants. Truly, the burden of labor would be lifted from the shoulders of mankind, to make place for the burdens of unemployment and hunger on an ever-increasing scale. Technological unemployment would reach staggering figures; and the capitalist would invent the slogan: a fair day’s work for a fair day’s wage, when dictating conditions to those he will employ. This might be interesting for the membership of the AFL. Capitalism will feel perfectly healthy again: there will be a well supplied pool of unemployed, and a college degree may be necessary to become an atomic spittoon cleaner, as in the good old days such a degree,was demanded from gas station attendants.”

Atomic energy, like every other labor-saving device under the “free enterprise,” capitalist system, is a potentiality for the good or evil of society. Under capitalism, profitability in the long and short term sense, determines the use or lack of use of any technological, scientific or inventive advances. The present stage of capitalist monopoly results in stagnation. The big monopolists dominate economic life and determine, in a general way, the progress or stagnation of economic development. This is what Oppenheimer means when he says industrial use of atomic energy “is a matter of economic policy.”

As de Voorter indicates, the result of a huge saving of human labor by the capitalist application of atomic energy would result in a huge army of unemployed. For when capitalism cannot make profits, it shuts down. Or, worse still, it goes to war against competitor capitalist nations suffering from the same disease of production for profit – not for human needs.

The fact that we live under a social order which periodically goes to war, and the relation of this to the peacetime use of atomic energy, greatly concerned the Chicago group of atomic scientists. In the questions and answers it wrote up for Life on October 29, it stated:

“The scientists are often asked: What about the peacetime application of atomic power? These, too, will depend on how successfully the specter of atomic warfare is banished from the earth. We may look confidently to benefits which the production of new radioactive elements will bring to science, industry and medicine, since small-scale plants will be sufficient to provide an abundance of these invaluable tools for scientists, doctors and engineers. On the other hand, only in a world free from fear of war will it be possible to give full freedom to the development of large-scale atomic-power prospects.”

British Prime Minister Attlee stated, on the occasion of his visit with President Truman to discuss the, bomb, that ninety per cent of United States efforts on atomic energy were now concerned with the production of atomic bombs, not its peacetime use. Under capitalism, whether atomic energy is controlled by the government or handed over to a monopoly (du Pont has already been suggested) we are certain that the bomb will not be abolished and that industrial application, if it takes place, will benefit only capital and lead to bigger depressions.

(Part V)

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