Nuclear Disarmament Activities at MIT:
Rising from the Ashes
Almost exactly 25 years ago, in a speech launching his "Star Wars" initiative, President Reagan said: " I call on the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.”
Reagan either did not know, or did not believe, the Los Alamos scientists who had developed nuclear weapons and who warned in 1945 that effective countermeasures were unlikely to be developed. They had argued that safety from nuclear weapons was possible "only by suitable international arrangements.” This was not the first time that a politician had issued a clarion call for impossible technical solutions to a political problem. Following the development of nuclear weapons, scientists have been trying unsuccessfully to warn the public and the politicians that abolition of nuclear weapons is the only sure way to prevent their use.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, many of us thought that the nuclear arms race would end and the reduction of the weapons inventory would begin in earnest. Instead we have witnessed only a very slow reduction in their numbers from the staggering worldwide maximum of about 65,000 weapons in 1986 to approximately 20,000 today.
Adding to the danger of this appallingly large number is the fact that many of these weapons are on hair trigger alert, capable of being fired in very short times and, therefore, without serious thought or oversight. Despite this danger, the issue of nuclear weapons largely disappeared from public discussion following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Attention has shifted towards the issues of anthropogenic climate change and how to handle energy production and needs.
Launching an MIT Nuclear Abolition Initiative
We believe a revival of interest in nuclear arms control is urgent – globally, nationally, and at MIT. Concerned by recent events, a group of faculty and students has formed "The MIT Nuclear Abolition Initiative" with the intention of holding public events to involve more students and faculty, as well as staff members. We plan the first such event early in May, with a discussion and a showing of the film Dr. Strangelove. Future events are being planned for the fall, and we may offer an undergraduate seminar on nuclear weapons. As members of this initiative we have been asked to present our thoughts for the Faculty Newsletter.
We believe that MIT, by virtue of its preeminence in science and engineering, should continue to play a major role in the solution to the nuclear arms race. We invite MIT faculty, students, and staff to join us in the discussion of the goal of abolishing these weapons. We believe that the tradition of serving society and safeguarding the Earth is as alive and strong today at MIT as it was in the years following the Manhattan Project. More than 60 years after the development of atomic weapons and a quarter of a century after President Reagan’s request that those who developed those weapons should control them, we are indeed attempting to do that – not with missile defense technology but by continuing to convince all reasonable inhabitants of our fragile planet to abolish the genie that our forefathers let out of the bottle.
What has happened to bring arms control back into focus? One recent cause was 9/11, an event that raised the specter of nuclear terrorism and the realization that even a limited use of nuclear weapons would wreak significant destruction. The issue of proliferation has also resurged as a hot topic. Indeed, these two issues are connected, particularly since the Kahn network, operating from Pakistan, was active in supplying nuclear weapons knowledge in several sensitive places. There is a growing realization that our nuclear weapons posture is counterproductive, working against rather than for a global non-proliferation regime. Such “nuclear eminences” as Henry Kissinger and George Schultze have helped to break the long-term silence on this issue with a call for nuclear abolition as a serious long-term goal.
MIT’s Role in Nuclear Disarmament Efforts
The post-WW II MIT faculty was rich in Los Alamos alums, including (among many others) Bernard Feld, Phillip Morrison, Cyril Stanley Smith, and Victor Weisskopf. These men had played major roles in the Manhattan Project and went on in the post-war period to urge the U.S. to give up its nuclear weapons. When that did not happen, they urged international control. Initial focus was on testifying before Congress and educating policy makers and the public on the unprecedented danger posed by nuclear weapons and the necessity to control them. Morrison helped start the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), the political arm of the scientists’ movement, espousing the twin goals of abolishing nuclear weapons and establishing civilian control of nuclear energy. Feld was an early editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the public outreach arm of the scientists’ movement.
Gradually it became clear that the control of nuclear weapons could not be affected by a short campaign, but required a long-term commitment. The initial efforts at international control failed, and the emphasis of the arms control community shifted.
Some of the scientists took the "insider track" of trying to tone down the arms race by giving expert advice to policy makers. Some scientists used their international connections to establish dialogue between Russian and Western scientists and policy makers via the Pugwash conferences. Feld played a major role in these, as did Kosta Tsipis, George Rathjens, and Jack Ruina. Courses of study were established to expose students to these issues and to train professionals for the extended and increasingly technically demanding issues that arms control entailed. Rathjens and Ruina set up a program in MIT’s Center for International Studies. In 1978, Feld and Tsipis started the “Program in Science and Technology for International Security,” devoted to technical studies of military systems and practices. They taught courses, trained students and post-docs, and wrote numerous technical and non-technical articles. These MIT programs trained many students and mid-career professional scientists who later became prominent in arms control work and who, in turn, produced technical and general interest articles and books, influential op-eds, and advice to policy makers including congressional testimony.
A parallel effort was being made on the "outsiders track," trying to create public opposition to the arms race. One activity with long-term reverberations was the formation of the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) on March 4, 1969, following a teach-in at MIT. Limitations of space (and memory) preclude even a partial summary of those years of activity, but one outstanding event was the establishment in 1980 of the Nuclear Freeze Movement by MIT graduate student Randy Forsberg.
Many of our colleagues were involved in these activities, some in multiple roles. The Manhattan Project alumni were joined by colleagues from many disciplines including Henry Kendall, Scott Paradise, Francis Low, Leo Marx, Salvador Luria, George Rathjens, Jack Ruina, Kosta Tsipis, Jerome Wiesner and many, many others, who participated in the excitement of the time.
The Authors’ Involvement
The three authors of this article have had long involvement with nuclear arms reduction and control, including extended personal contact with many of the Manhattan Project scientists. Tsipis was a founding member of an arms control center at MIT. In 1984, he, together with Feld, Morrison, Jonathan King, Eugene Bell, Jack Dennis, James Paradis, and others, wrote the “Nuclear Almanac,” an exhaustive study of nuclear weapons and their planned uses. In 1993, Wiesner, Morrison, and Tsipis wrote “Beyond the Looking Glass,” a study of the U.S. military after 2000. In 1998, Morrison and Tsipis wrote “Reason Enough to Hope,” a study of military forces and needs in the twenty-first century.
Heather Lechtman came to MIT by invitation of Manhattan Project alumnus Cyril Smith. She was a close colleague and friend of Alice Kimball Smith, whose 1965 book, A Peril and A Hope: The Scientists Movement in America, 1945-1947, was translated into Japanese immediately upon its publication. Lechtman was inspired by Feld, one of the youngest of the scientists at Los Alamos, who cautioned MIT students never to allow their investment in research to seduce them, as he had been seduced, to lose track of the goal of that research and of the inescapable, destructive impact it might have on human beings and ecosystems.
Aron Bernstein taught undergraduate seminars with Morrison on the nuclear arms race and has been active in both UCS and FAS. He chaired the MIT Disarmament Study Group in the 1980s and was faculty advisor to the associated student group. He is presently on the National Advisory Board of the Council for a Livable World, an organization founded by Leo Szilard in 1962 to elect candidates to the U.S. Senate who are strongly committed to reducing the nuclear arms race. (Tsipis has also served in this capacity.)
Invitation to Participate
With the risks of nuclear weapons use and proliferation increasing, and with public opinion galvanized by terrorist threats, it is time to begin anew. The world is more dangerous and complex as the bipolar U.S.-U.S.S.R. nuclear standoff has been replaced with multiple existing and potential nuclear states – often in the most politically volatile regions – as well as with possible terrorist actors. In our view we urgently need to discuss the measures that will reduce the incentives for the acquisition of nuclear weapons, and realize the benefits of their abolition.
The long-range goal of nuclear weapons abolition, shorter term initiatives that could lead up to that, and the effects of both on nuclear proliferation and national security are complex problems which require a combination of technical and political solutions. MIT is well suited – perhaps uniquely so – to be active in this debate. The authors invite suggestions for future activities and participation in our group from all sectors of the campus. Please contact us. We welcome your involvement.