The impact of Pugwash

By Metta Spencer (interviewer)

Ruth Adams became assistant editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1953 and worked closely with the editor, Eugene Rabinowitch. She was an administrator-coordinator of the first Pugwash conference and has continued to participate in the movement to this day. I interviewed her by phone about the scientists she had known in Pugwash, including its leader and new Nobel prize laureate, Joseph Rotblat.

RUTH ADAMS: Pugwash kept alive a spirit of international community in nations where freedom to move was not easily achieved. There was a conception that reason could be relied upon--an understanding that they were scientists, no matter where they lived. During the Cold War that was an important spirit to keep alive.

There were many wonderful Russian scientists. I remember Topchiev, who was the vice-president of the academy and a very courageous man. And Igor Tamm, a physicist who was a mountain climber. Artsimovich, who was fascinated by history, art, and poetry.

METTA SPENCER: Joe Rotblat speaks of the influence of Artsimovich and Millionshchikov in shaping Soviet anti-ballistic missile policy. Andrei Sakharov's memoirs do not indicate that he realized that he had allies among his fellow scientists--people who thought as he did. For example, he didn't identify with Artsimovich or Millionshchikov.

ADAMS: Sakharov was an angry man. I remember his early article about destroying enemies which shocked the world. I think he must have considered Pugwash to be a compromise group.

SPENCER: Apparently he did go to one Pugwash meeting late in life.

ADAMS: But he was strictly a loner.

SPENCER: Yes. He was courageous, but I think he did a lot of damage politically by leading the parliamentary opposition against Gorbachev at a time when Gorbachev really needed support. I spoke with [Academician] Goldansky about it and he said that Sakharov's political tactics were not well considered.

Anyway, do you know whether any Pugwash peaceniks from the West influenced the Soviet decision to accept the zero option as a way of getting an INF treaty?

ADAMS: Who do you think the peaceniks were in Pugwash?

SPENCER: All of Pugwash.

ADAMS: They really weren't. Pugwash people had very diverse views. Some were using the rhetoric of the Cold War, and the need to buy the Cold War culture, in order to find some way out of the mess. But arms control was not disarmament; it was not a repudiation of nuclear weapons; it was a way of making them more acceptable because they could be controlled a bit. It was never a solution to a nuclear world. It was never an easy, peaceful situation, nor were Pugwash people necessarily peaceniks--though Joe certainly was. We could contrast Pugwash to Randy Forsberg, whose efforts had an enormous impact in the United States--quite a different impact than Pugwash. Pugwash always tried to work through the official government negotiators, if you will, and to influence them.

At the beginning they were right because probably nobody would have listened to them. And by the end of the Cold War there were people in all countries who had been influenced.

The arms control struggle (that is, the negotiations over such questions as: Are we going to go down to this level? What is non-provocative defence?) had a life of its own; it became a culture. It was not a very satisfactory culture to people who wanted to see the world approach better understanding, disarmament, conflict resolution. And the real spirit of Pugwash wasn't actually recognized until the Cold War was over and you had people able to come forward to mobilize for peace. They haven't been successful, but I think the understanding of what is necessary to have a peaceful world is better now than it has ever been.

SPENCER: Do you remember specific debates between the arms controller and the disarmament wings?

ADAMS: In the West, some people were for general and complete disarmament. But if you used that term, you were a tool of the communists. I remember Leo Szilard, in his effort to set up the Council for a Livable World, was careful not to use that term so as to keep credibility with arms controllers.

SPENCER: Tell me about Rotblat.

ADAMS: Joe is 83. He came from Poland through the underground. I think he lost family there. He doesn't talk about it--never did. He lived with his sister, who kept house for him in London. He loves his niece, a doctor. His personal life has been very private and I think in many respects rather limited. He has devoted his life to science and to peace, he truly has. I was with him this summer in Hiroshima. He gave a wonderful presentation there.

Today I heard a story from a friend who attended a seminar by Freeman Dyson in Washington on the day the Nobel Prize for Peace was announced. Toward the end of the seminar, Dyson was talking about the prize and said, There's one man who should have gotten it all these years--Joe Rotblat. And one man back in the audience said, Freeman, he just got it!

METTA SPENCER: Early in your career, you had some very difficult decisions to make.

ROTBLAT: Yes. Horrible decisions, especially after a conversation I had with General Groves in March 1944. This was the time of the height of World War II and the Russians were our allies.

Then, General Groves tells me that the true purpose of the project is to subdue the Russians. That was completely different from what I had supposed. Many scientists would not have worked on the project if we knew it was to be used in war. It was a shock.

SPENCER: Do you think that this was Truman's intention from the beginning of his presidency?

ROTBLAT: Whether it was his intention or not, he certainly became convinced that America must show its new might by some demonstration against the Russians. According to some recent research, the Japanese had made approaches to the Americans to end the war--with only one condition: that the Emperor should not be touched. In fact, this was what was eventually agreed, and this was already done in May, three months before the Hiroshima Bomb. But Truman knew the bombs would be ready soon, so he didn't want to end the war yet; he wanted the opportunity to demonstrate to the Russians the new American might. People say the bomb shortened the war, but it actually prolonged it by about three months. And then he decided to use both bombs during the war.

There is another reason too, why he wanted to publicly use the Nagasaki bomb. There was an agreement in Yalta that as soon as the war in Europe was over, the Russian army would join the Americans in the fight in the Far East. Truman thought that it would take a long time for the Russians to move their army but they did it very quickly. Truman didn't want the Russians to go too far in Japan, so he decided to use the other bomb quickly to end the war. So from the beginning the bomb was used as a tool in this ideological war.

SPENCER: What do you think would have happened if Roosevelt had lived until the end of the war?

ROTBLAT: This is of course a hypothetical question. I can speculate on it. My impression is that he would not have used the bomb against a civilian population

SPENCER: In my research I am trying to show the peace movement's impact. What can you tell me?

ROTBLAT: Initially, I think, the Pugwash exercise was largely a process of education of the Soviet and American scientists. We met in this room--people who were very much involved in the Manhattan project. I remember the first night we sat here and discussed all these issues. It was eye-opening with the Russians. Sometimes one could see this education, as in the case of the ABM. At other times, we could not see it for a long period, but then subsequently we could see the effects. So I believe we really played quite a part. I don't want to be immodest, but on the other hand I don't think we should be too modest. We know from subsequent discussions with people--Georgi Arbatov, for example--that our gradual discussions in Pugwash with people who were in high positions in the hierarchy influenced Andropov, to begin with. He was a perceptive man, unlike Brezhnev or Chernenko. He could listen. And of course Gorbachev was his protegé.

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996

Peace Magazine Jan-Feb 1996, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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