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Irving Howe

Echoes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki

Atomic Scientists Find Their Conscience

(7 October 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. 10 No. 40, 7 October 1946, p. 3.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Hardly a day passes but some new statement is issued by frantic scientists, urging humanity to realize the danger which the atomic bomb represents to its. future. These scientists, who gave their highly specialized talents to create a bomb which could kill 100,000 people, are now terrified at its possibilities. It disturbs their days and nights: the echoes of the wailing victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki agitate their consciences.

Especially since the publication of John Hersey’s report on Hiroshima – an appalling picture of the abyss to which capitalist civilization has brought humanity – have the voices of the scientists been raised in uneasy, troubled quavers. They glumly warn us that there is no defense against the bomb; they urge some sort of “international control” to prevent atomic warfare.

Of their solution – “international control” – it is a waste of time to write. The notion that the atomic bomb, which represents a danger when in the hands of one imperialist power, can become less of a danger if jointly controlled by all the imperialist powers, is. merely ... quaint. It is as if one believed a convention of thieves more honorable than each of its participants.

But the belated recognition by America’s scientists of the nature of the weapon they developed at the command of American capitalism, offers us the opportunity to discuss another and more interesting question. Just what is the responsibility of the scientist in the present social dilemma?

Scientists – Myth, Reality

The scientist has always been an especially respected and revered figure in the American mythology. A whole series of stereotypes have been developed and exploited by books, the movies and the radio: the man in white sacrificing to discover the cause of yellow fever; the kindly country doctor rearing generations and giving of his energy and life to help others; the neglected, persistent researcher delving into hidden mysteries to find some new technique to ease man’s life or cure his ills.

Such stereotypes can be discovered in as diverse cultural manifestations as Dr. Kildare, the miraculous physician; in Sinclair Lewis’ novel, Arrowsmith, one of whose main characters, Dr. Gottlieb, represents disinterested medical devotion at its best; in Sidney Howard’s play Yellow Jack, which exalted the doctors who discovered a cure for yellow fever; and in the national elevation of Thomas Edison to the rank of folkhero.

Now, such stereotypes are not undeserved – or at least have not been.

Despite the fact that many scientists sold themselves to corporations, many doctors became bedside racketeers and many researchers worked more often for war than for peace, there has still been a higher devotion to humanity among scientists than among most other groups.

The cultural stereotype which gave heroic dimension to the scientist, always saw him as one somewhat divorced from common concerns, as one who narrowed his breadth of vision so that it could be more intense. Hence, the frequent myths about the “absent-minded professor” (to which even as uncritical a film as that based on Louis Pasteur’s life had to pander); and hence, too, the common mistrust in America of professors and scientists who would enter politics – a field traditionally reserved for business men and the more petty variety of thieves.

What Should Science Do?

The scientist was supposed to stick to his own field and not be concerned with social problems; and most of them conformed to this pattern. Exceptions were rare, such as the great Charles Steinmetz, who was an active Socialist in his day. The role of the scientist was simply that of one who made possible by his discoveries great advances for mankind. Whether mankind properly utilized’ these discoveries was ITS business.

But nobody in his right mind blamed the Wright brothers for the fact that the airplane they discovered was later turned into a terrible weapon for destruction. The airplane was there, to be utilized for good or evil in accordance with man’s skill at social organization. Likewise, with the innumerable other discoveries in physics, chemistry, biology and optics which were neutral in quality: that is, they could be utilized for construction or destruction. And there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the bulk of the scientists hoped they would be used to make man’s life better.

The attitude of Marxists was rather similar, ’they hailed scientific discoveries as indices of human progress, despite the possibility that such discoveries might later be misused – and we believe they were right, too. for without such discoveries a society of plenty and leisure such as socialists want would be impossible from the very start.

Yet in the case of the atomic bomb there is a different situation. The scientists who worked on the atomic bomb knew perfectly well – at least those key figures who understood what the project was about; the others were mere tools – that they were engaged on an assignment that could only bring horror and destruction to humanity. If today they shudder when reading Hersey’s report on Hiroshima, just a little bit of imagination two years ago, especially after the New Mexico experiment, should have enabled them to foresee exactly what would happen.

They were NOT engaged in a project which was socially “neutral,” and the value of which would be determined by the use to which it was later put. They were not engaged in an abstract attempt to split the atom which might be a great boon, as well as a great danger, to humanity. In the specific situation, they were working on the most terrible weapon of destruction which humanity has ever known; the key scientists knew this; they went ahead anyhow. There was no doubt at all about the immediate use to which their work would be put.

And that is why their wails of despair and concern today are so significant. Having sold their skills and their skulls to an imperialist war machine, having fathered the ghastly murder at. Hiroshima, their present conscience pricks of belated responsibility is understood by us.

It is said, that, some scientists: – their names are not at hand – more keenly aware of their responsibilities to humanity as a whole, refused to work on the atomic bomb project. These men, whoever they were, displayed a sense of courage and responsibility that is admirable. They were not going to prostitute their skill in order to produce a Hiroshima; and they, we are certain, sleep better at night.

Science and Humanity

The time is past when the scientists could divorce himself from common social concerns; when he could discover, and then allow man to use his discoveries as best he could. For today the scientist must realize that his work has direct and obvious social implications; his manipulations with electrons and protons may tomorrow result in the literal destruction of entire cities.

The scientist can no longer exist as the specialized folk-hero; if he attempts to do so, he will find himself merely a tool of reaction, a cog in a war machine. Today, if the scientist is to continue true to the ideals of his tradition, if he is to find a bond of social kinship with the rest of humanity, he must become a whole man, aware of the meaning and responsible for the work he does. He must be ready to refuse to prostitute it because he is not an isolated specialist but a responsible member of society.

The scientists who live up to this standard will discover – we believe – that their liberation, as well as that of all humanity, depends on the triumph of socialism. Otherwise they will merely plunge humanity further into the Gehenna of a world where Hiroshima is merely the prelude of more terrible things to come.

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