Morality and scientists

Published : Jul 06, 2002 00:00 IST

In the Shadow of the Bomb: Bethe, Oppenheimer and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist by S.S. Schweber; Universities Press; distributed by Orient Longman; pages 260, Rs.285.

THIS is a book which every Indian student of public affairs should read. It describes how two charismatic, exceptionally talented physicists - J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans A. Bethe - came to terms with the nuclear weapons they had helped to create. The physicists were forced to ask disquieting questions about their roles and responsibilities.

By examining how the two struggled with these moral dilemmas, an eminent historian of physics tells the story of modern physics, the development of atomic weapons, and the Cold War. Its relevance to our situation is striking.

The book is "principally concerned with the shaping of Bethe's and Oppenheimer's moral outlooks, how they constituted themselves as moral agents, how they assumed responsibility for their actions, and how they reflected on the Enlightenment and on modernity." Both were concerned, painfully, with the moral dimension.

As the Cold War proceeded apace, scientists began to grapple with the issue of their moral responsibility for the atomic bomb. They had all regarded scientific knowledge as valuable in itself; an ennobling power to do good - as well as evil. To some, no moral responsibility was involved. Others differed. In 1947 Oppenheimer famously acknowledged: "The physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realisation of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatised so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humour, no over-statement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge they cannot lose."

There were some - such as Philip Morrison, Robert Wilson and Victor Weisskopf - who had been at Los Alamos during the war, but who forswore working on weaponry of any kind. Many joined the ranks of the Federation of Atomic Scientists to have a piece of legislation passed that would place control over atomic energy in civilian hands and would establish effective international control over atomic weaponry in order to prevent an arms race. That was a vain hope once the Cold War began.

Oppenheimer was perhaps the most troubled by the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On August 17, 1945, he wrote to Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War: "The safety of this nation, as opposed to its ability to inflict damage on an enemy power - cannot lie wholly or entirely in its scientific or technical prowess. It can only be based on making future wars impossible."

He was opposed to the development of the H-bomb and said: "I find myself in profound anguish over the fact that no ethical discussion of any weight or nobility has been addressed to the problem of atomic weapons... What are we to make of a civilisation which has always regarded ethics an essential part of human life, and which has always had in it an articulate, deep, fervent conviction... a dedication to... doing no harm or hurt... what are we to think of such a civilisation which has not been able to talk about killing almost everybody, except in prudential and game-theoretical terms."

Bethe took an identical stand in a statement issued on February 4, 1950, jointly with other scientists: "We believe that no nation has the right to use such a bomb, no matter how righteous its cause. The bomb is no longer a weapon of war but a means of extermination of whole populations."

It is very important to note Bethe was totally opposed to the policies of the Soviet Union during the Cold War and considered that "World War III was a real possibility... Nonetheless, Bethe was opposed to the development of the hydrogen bomb - primarily on moral grounds" (emphasis as in the original here).

In his testimony to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy on May 3, 1950, Bethe defended and clarified his position not to work on the development of this weapon. Senator Brian McMahon asked him, given President Truman's decision to initiate a crash programme on the H-bomb: "Have you as a citizen the right to interpose your political judgments on the matter and thereby frustrate the contribution that you as a citizen, particularly equipped by Almighty God and the great genius that you have, have you the moral right, I wonder, to withhold?"

Bethe answered: "Well, this a hard question. I think I do. This, after all, is a free country... a country which prides itself on giving the right to the individual to decide his own actions." McMahon then challenged him: "But... if by possession first of the hydrogen weapon (the USSR) may be able to destroy the system that gives you the right of choice. I wonder if you are well-advised on insisting on it at this time."

Bethe replied that he had gone through all the political and moral arguments. The fact of the matter was that he firmly believed that the hydrogen "will not do us any good and it will not win the war for us, nor the lack of it will not lose the war for us."

He relented as the Cold War intensified. Fears that the Soviet Union "might obtain an H-bomb was, of course, the most compelling argument". Years later, he regretted his change of mind. "I still have the feeling that I have done the wrong thing."

The author records that Bethe "now advocates, and has been urging, that fellow scientists collectively take a Hippocratic oath not to work on designing new nuclear weapons." In 1995, on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima, he issued a statement which concluded: "I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons - and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons."

In glaring contrast is the Indian situation, as T. Jayaraman points out (Frontline, June 19, 1998). It is a matter of concern "when a critical section of the scientific leadership goes over to an active advocacy of testing and weaponisation, furthering the creation of a mood that has helped the present government overturn a peace-oriented, non-military nuclear policy."

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