Pugwash and the Bomb

From the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, July 9, 1955
In the tragic situation which confronts humanity, we feel that scientists should assemble in conference to appraise the perils that have arisen as a result of the development of weapons of mass destruction, and to discuss a resolution in the spirit of the appended draft. We are speaking on this occasion, not as members of this or that nation, continent, or creed, but as human beings, members of the species Man, whose continued existence is in doubt. ...
The general public, and even many men in positions of authority, have not realized what would be involved in a war with nuclear bombs. The general public still thinks in terms of the obliteration of cities. It is understood that the new bombs are more powerful than the old, and that, while one A-bomb could obliterate Hiroshima, one H-bomb could obliterate the largest cities, such as London, New York, and Moscow...
Although an agreement to renounce nuclear weapons as part of a general reduction of armaments would not afford an ultimate solution, it would serve certain important purposes.... We should, therefore, welcome such an agreement, though only as a first step....We appeal as human beings to human beings: Remember your humanity, and forget the rest...
We invite this Congress, and through it the scientists of the world and the general public, to subscribe to the following resolution:
"In view of the fact that in any future world war nuclear weapons will certainly be employed, and that such weapons threaten the continued existence of mankind, we urge the governments of the world to realize, and to acknowledge publicly, that their purpose cannot be furthered by a world war, and we urge them, consequently, to find peaceful means for the settlement of dispute between them."

By Metta Spencer | 2007-07-01 12:00:00

On July 13, 1955, Cyrus Eaton wrote a letter to Lord Bertrand Russell, in response to the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, which had been announced four days earlier in London. That manifesto had immediately gained world-wide notice because its co-authors were two of the most illustrious persons of the century, and it had been signed by nine other eminent scientists.

The preamble of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto called for scientists to assemble in a conference to appraise the perils of nuclear weapons. Accordingly, Eaton proposed to finance just such a scientific meeting at his seaside home in Pugwash, Nova Scotia.

And so, two years later, 22 eminent scientists gathered for the first of many meetings that have continued unbroken for fifty years as The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Certain quiet conversations within this remarkable society have influenced the course of history. Here I can only mention a few historical highlights, focusing exclusively on the topic of nuclear weaponry. The bomb was the problem that drew the founders together and it is still the problem that commands the most attention in Pugwash meetings.

The Nuclear Arms Race

The first atomic bombs had been exploded ten years earlier, first at the Trinity test site in New Mexico and, during the following month, over two Japanese cities. Thus began the nuclear arms race, for immediately other countries sought weapons of their own, while the United States developed increasingly powerful ones, exploding the first hydrogen bomb in the Marshall Islands on November 1, 1952. The Soviet Union was not far behind, testing its own first hydrogen bomb on November 22, 1955, four months after the Russell-Einstein Manifesto had pointed out its perils.

The scientists who had developed these weapons recognized all along that they were morally culpable, though most of them had found justifications at the time. Einstein, a fervent pacifist, had been involved in launching the arms race by warning President Roosevelt that Hitler might get the bomb first. Sakharov, a deeply moral humanitarian, was the "father of the Russian H-bomb," and though he wept over the deaths caused by atmospheric testing, he never expressed remorse for his role in the project. When J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the American A-bomb, witnessed the first test explosion it reminded him of a passage from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. "'Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another." Yet Oppenheimer was willing for the bomb to be used on cities, whereas not all other scientists concurred.

Only one scientist quit the Manhattan Project for moral reasons: Joseph Rotblat. Initially he too justified his work on the atomic bomb by his concern that Hitler might get it first, but in 1944 it became clear that German research was stalled and that Japan would lose the war anyhow without the bomb's impact. Rotblat learned that the real use planned for the bomb would be against the Soviet Union, at that time still America's wartime ally. Not only did he quit his job, but he was to spend the rest of his 96 years tirelessly leading a movement against nuclear weapons. It would be Rotblat who sat beside Bertrand Russell at the press conference to answer scientific questions. It would be Rotblat who would chair the first Pugwash conference. And it would be Rotblat who in 1995 would share the Nobel Peace Prize with the very organization to which he had devoted his life, Pugwash.

Immediately after the war, many other Western scientists also took a stand against these weapons, retrospectively appalled by the evil to which they had contributed and the prospect of another war. But the Cold War was on, and for the next 35 years no campaign was able to halt the nuclear arms race. Disarmament could not be achieved, but there was no World War III either, thanks to an ongoing process of arms control negotiations from 1963, when the Limited Test Ban Treaty was hastily arranged in the wake of the terrifying Cuban Missile Crisis. The arms race was somewhat managed, even regulated.

Three of the arms control treaties during the Cold War were especially important: the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) of 1968; the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM) of 1972; and the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) of 1996. Today, regrettably, the ABM and the CTBT are not in force, and the NPT is jeopardized through non-compliance.

Supporting the arms control negotiations throughout the Cold War were meaningful "back-channel" conversations between scientists, East and West, at Pugwash meetings.

During that period, the internal political dynamics of the socialist and capitalist countries differed in ways that made their relationship asymmetrical. In the West, scientists and scholars had limited political power in comparison to the influence of grass-roots movements. (For example, the "Ban the Bomb" marches of the 1960s provided a major impetus toward the Limited Test Ban Treaty.)

In the USSR, no independent peace movement influenced policy whatever; anyone who challenged government policy was imprisoned or worse. On the other hand, some Soviet scientists did influence policy (as least so long as they enjoyed the favor of the Party chairman) and were keenly attuned to the thinking of Western Pugwashites.

Thus, in in Pugwash meetings during the Cold War, West influenced East more than East influenced West. Let me sketch here some of those influences.

The Importance of Pugwash to Soviet Scientists

In the early days, the leader of the Soviet Pugwash group was Mikhail Millionshchikov, a physicist and the vice-president of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. In 1972 Millionshchikov stated that Pugwash, during its first 15 years, had examined many important proposals that were used in working out international agreements and treaties.

Among those agreements, Millionshchikov listed the NPT, the Limited Test Ban Treaty, international agreements banning the deployment of weapons of mass destruction on the ocean floor, the biological weapons convention, the ABM Treaty, and SALT I.1 Though I know of no independent proof as to most of these influences, there is abundant evidence about the ABM treaty.

Participants in Pugwash conferences are invited as individuals, rather than as delegations officially representing their countries. However, the Soviet government did not permit all invitees to attend, and those who came were always accompanied by an "interpreter" who conspicuously monitored and sometimes even changed their comments. Yet not everyone was intimidated. In an interview with me, Rotblat once mentioned physicists Lev Artsimovich, Andrei Sakharov, and Peter Kapitza as especially bold in speaking their minds.

But boldness often cost dearly in the Soviet Union. Thus both Kapitza and Sakharov spent years under house arrest for opposing official policy. Indeed, Kapitza attended only one Pugwash meeting during the first decade and Sakharov was unable to attend until Gorbachev released him in 1986, though he did correspond with Pugwashites.

Both Kapitza and Lev Landau, who worked at Kapitza's institute, were Nobel laureates. When Landau was arrested by Stalin, Kapitza wrote a letter asking for his release. After another year (when Landau languished and almost died in prison) Kapitza wrote to Molotov and in a few days Landau was released. His assistant, Alexander Rubinin, recalled in a 1992 interview,

"Kapitza had an inner independence. He was a member of the committee to develop a nuclear bomb, and the chairman of that committee was Beria. Kapitza could not work with him. He wrote two letters to Stalin criticizing him. For that he was fired and for [almost ten] years he did not leave his dacha, for he was permanently in danger of being arrested or killed....Beria had wanted to arrest him, but Stalin said it was impossible because Kapitza was too famous in the West. Stalin said, 'I'll fire him, but you may not touch him.'"

After Beria's death, Kapitza resumed his position as director of his institute, but could travel only to socialist countries. In the year after Khrushchev's forced resignation, he traveled to the West for the first time since his student days. Thereafter he was not isolated again, and he participated actively in Pugwash meetings.

As his assistant Rubinin explained, "In 1980 he wrote to Andropov to protect Sakharov. I typed it (he did not even trust the typist) and took it to the KGB. Kapitza wanted to help him and [physicist Yuri] Orlov, who was in jail. Sakharov didn't know about the letter and the dissidents wanted Kapitza to appear publicly. Kapitza couldn't do it. He had a different approach. If he communicated with power, it must be tÍte-[daggerdbl]-tÍte."2

Sakharov was, on the other hand, more confrontational, often unfairly accusing colleagues such as Kapitza of cravenness when their approach differed from his. His suspicions may be attributed largely to his isolation. International meetings have several useful results, the most conspicuous one being the opportunity to become informed about the opinions of foreigners.Only slightly less important, however, is a second outcome that is rarely noted: the chance to see one's colleagues interact with foreigners. That means seeing how they present their views and how the foreigners perceive and respond to them.

This way of understanding one's own countrymen can add an extra dimension to existing relationships. Sakharov's relationships with some of his colleagues could have benefited greatly from experiencing each other in the presence of foreigners. In his writings, Sakharov shows that he was unaware that there were, in his own backyard, scientists and even government officials who were quietly working toward objectives that he cherished. For example, although he had known Lev Artsimovich since 1951 or earlier, and though Artsimovich had personally complimented him on his controversial book, Reflections, Sakharov does not seem to have recognized him as a potential ally in opposing ABM defences. Had he witnessed at first hand Artsimovich grappling with this issue at Pugwash conferences, he might have seen his colleague in a different light.

The same goes for Millionshchikov, another Pugwashite who came to oppose ABM. The only mention that Sakharov makes of him has a hostile tone; he had unsuccessfully asked Milionshchikov to help save some skyjackers from the death penalty.

In another context, Sakharov mentions Vladimir Petrovsky, who announces that Sakharov and his wife Yelena Bonner are to be allowed to return to Moscow. From his description one might suppose that Petrovsky was a simple apparatchik, carrying out orders. In fact, Petrovsky should be counted among the top five or ten most influential people in the Soviet Union when it came to promoting humane values and nuclear disarmament. Sakharov probably could not know that fact, much to his loss, because of his isolation from Pugwash and other contexts where he might have seen Petrovsky and others acting constructively.

During the Gorbachev years, there were new opportunities for Pugwashites and a new cohort of Soviet participants, who were able to convey brilliant new ideas straight to the top leadership. For example, Georgi Arbatov, the director of Moscow's prestigious Institute for the Study of the USA and Canada was an extraordinary contact who promoted ideas such as "reasonable sufficiency" in weaponry, which enabled Gorbachev to take unilateral initiatives that broke the stalemate. He also promoted the notion of "common security" and the policy of "non-offensive defence," which he learned from a group Pugwashites led by the Dane, Anders Boserup.

Soviet scientists continued to meet at Pugwash conferences, but also added other contacts during those heady days. The most prominent scientific advisers to Gorbachev were Yevgeny Velikhov and Roald Sagdeev, who often met with Princeton University's Frank von Hippel. They were especially interested in showing the limitations of Reagan's Star Wars scheme, and in developing ways to verify underground nuclear testing. Doubts about the ability to verify without frequent and intrusive inspections had been the main obstacle in disarmament negotiations. Remarkably, the foreign scientists were permitted to set up a seismic monitoring station near the nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk, which established the credibility of their verification capacities.

Arms control treaties were being generated constantly as the Cold War came to a dramatic end, culminating in the breakup of the Soviet Union and the ouster of Gorbachev. In the chaotic years that followed, however, economic and ethnic struggles took priority in Russia, and new teams of Pugwashites from Russia were less able to influence the new regime than their predecessors.

Pugwash Against NATO's Bombs

Worse yet, the nuclear arms race has revived since the Cold War ended. The Bush Administration has abrogated the ABM Treaty in pursuit of a new missile defence scheme; has rejected ratification of the CTBT; and now is undermining the NPT by building "replacement" warheads and by acquiescing to the nuclear ambitions of Israel, India, and Pakistan, while ignoring the authority of the IAEA in Iraq and elsewhere. Most egregious of all, the nuclear weapons states themselves show no intention of disarming, as they pledged to do as part of the NPT bargain. We still live, as Russell and Einstein stated, in great peril.

Yet Pugwashites persevere. For example, even while preparing for the fiftieth Pugwash anniversary meeting, the Canadian Pugwash Group has launched a new campaign against nuclear weapons. As a country that steadfastly rejected nuclear weapons of its own, and that lives next door to thousands of nuclear bombs, Canada is an appropriate leader in the quest for disarmament. Indeed, a former chair of the Canadian Pugwash Group, Douglas Roche, has been a consistent leader in the world's campaign against these terrible weapons. Now the group is calling for NATO to denuclearize. Here are extracts from its statement:

"Non-Nuclear Weapons States (NNWS) party to the NPT are required to forgo the acquisition of nuclear weapons, while the nuclear weapon states (NWS) are required to negotiate -- and achieve -- complete nuclear disarmament. All of the 190 parties to the treaty are responsible for the full implementation of its provisions. These obligations are being flouted. No substantive nuclear disarmament negotiations are underway. And while most NWS have reduced the size of their nuclear arsenals since the end of the Cold War, all intend to retain sizeable nuclear forces for the foreseeable future and all have modernization programs underway or in planning.

"The START II and ABM treaties are dead; the future of the INF treaty is seriously threatened; the START I treaty is soon to expire; the CTBT remains in limbo, unable to enter into force; and the multilateral Conference on Disarmament has been deadlocked for almost a decade, preventing negotiations on the proposed Fissile Materials Cutoff Treaty and other measures from even beginning. Nuclear capabilities are spreading.

"Because of the alliance's nuclear policies, NATO expansion is itself a form of nuclear proliferation. All new members of the alliance are required to accept NATO's nuclear policies. Its recent growth has increased the number of countries implicated in the operation of nuclear forces and explicitly committed to the indefinite retention of nuclear weapons.

"Russia, not a NATO member, opposes this expansion, in particular the deployment of elements of the ballistic missile defence system in two NATO countries, Poland and the Czech Republic.

"To move toward a more secure world, NATO nuclear policies must be disconnected from the nuclear policies of the United States.

"Canada and the other NATO NNWS need to place the reform of NATO nuclear weapons policies at the top of their nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation agenda. The 60th anniversary of NATO in 2009 would be an appropriate occasion to announce NATO's decision to de-emphasize, indeed eliminate, nuclear use from its arsenal of possible options. The Canadian Pugwash Group urges Canada to take the lead in this regard."

Metta Spencer, a long time member of the Canadian Pugwash Group and an emeritus professor of sociology, University of Toronto, edits Peace Magazine.

1 Matthew Evangelista, Unarmed Forces: The Transnational Movement to End the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 146. Also, see Metta Spencer, "'Political' Scientists," The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July/August 1995, pp. 63-64.

2 From one of hundreds of interviews with activists and academics conducted during the 1980s and 1990s as research for a book on transnational influences.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2007, page 20. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Metta Spencer here

Peace Magazine homepage