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Labor Action, 13 March 1950


Carl Darton

You and Science

Should We Get Steamed Up or Blown Up?


From Labor Action, Vol. 14 No. 11, 13 March 1950, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Science and its misapplication in the world today continues to be front-page news. With the possibility of the production of the hydrogen or “hell” bomb, the United States piles one weapon upon another in the international arms race. Thus the crowning intellectual achievements of man bring fear and dismay to all.

The release of nuclear energy in such bombs is not by some “secret” process but rests upon principles now well-known to scientists everywhere. Tbe “atomic bomb” refers to the uranium-plutonium fission-type atomic weapon whose destructive power is derived from the energy equivalent of subatomic particles released in the chain-reaction splitting of very heavy atoms into lighter elements. The hydrogen bomb would presumably produce a similar result from the release of particles associated with the fusion of light elements such as hydrogen (or its isotopic forms deuterium or tritium) at very high temperatures into heavier elements – a process which seems to account for the source of energy (light and heat, etc.) from the sun. Both bombs are similar in that they utilize the reshuffling of nuclear particles, with the transposition of some into energy as a vast explosion.

It would seem obvious that such revolutionary weapons of mass destruction, which will make the last war seem like child’s play, call for a fundamentally new approach to peace and international good will. Rather, the president and the government continue along the old way of power politics. However, despite the efforts to continue the appearance of warmaking as usual, and despite the assurance of some scientists that they will work if necessary upon the hydrogen bomb, the developments of the past several weeks will further increase the contradiction between the fundamental constructive aims of science and its misapplication to destructive means.

Scientists Look For Way Out

In the main, scientists resent this contradiction and are searching for a way out. On Feb. 4 a group of twelve physicists, headed by Professor Hans A. Bethe of Cornell University, warned that “the hydrogen superbomb is no longer a weapon of war but a means of exterminating whole populations.” Then in a somewhat contradictory vein they state: “There can only be one justification for our development of the H-bomb and that is to prevent its use.”

On the following day Hugh C. Wolfe, speaking for the Federation of American Scientists, said in part: “As long as we stick to atomic energy as an isolated issue we can’t expect to get any agreement. If we look upon atomic energy as part of a disarmament program – with the possibility of economic concessions on our part in exchange for inspection concessions on theirs [Russia’s] – then we might get somewhere.”

The FAS statement underlined the hypocritical nature of United Nations negotiations on atomic energy control, saying that the United States “had sought to achieve international control of atomic energy, on one hand, while on the other basing our military planning on atomic armaments.” The FAS called on President Truman to establish a non-partisan committee of natural scientists, social scientists and foreign-affairs experts to begin afresh and re-examine the nation’s atomic policy.

Most dramatic revelation came from Albert Einstein to a television audience. Not only could one hydrogen bomb wipe out a city of several million inhabitants but the resulting radioactivity might make the area uninhabitable for “a thousand years.”

Chicago biophysicist Leo Szilard drew some political and economic conclusions from Einstein’s warning. On February 26 he stated: “If we go into this arms race at all, it will be lunacy not to take defense measures. In the case of the coastal cities it means dispersal of the population.” Cost of the mass flight from the cities was estimated to be $15 to $25 billion each year. Szilard continued: “Well it certainly would mean a planned movement. It would mean controls much stricter than we have ever had ...”

It is encouraging to note that most scientists have abandoned the concept that super-weapons can offer even temporary security. They are searching for answers somewhere in the political realm. Their suggestions to date are far from satisfactory but they certainly have no intentions of heeding, Harry Truman’s serene advice of February 10 that “there is no point in getting steamed up over the question of the hydrogen bomb and other weapons.” Evidently scientists feel it is better to get steamed up than blown up.

Thus the immediate problem of the scientists is a defensive battle against the further encroachments on civil rights and freedom of science; At the same time it is imperative that scientists increasingly concern themselves with the broader social and political aspects of their activity and seek natural political allies in this struggle.

Walter Reuther of the CIO Auto Workers recently called for a conference of labor, management and farm leaders to find a “moral equivalent” to the hydrogen bomb. A more fruitful conference would be one of union representatives and scientists to consider mutual problems of civil rights as well as outlining a constructive economic and social program of security for all.

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