Arms and the Man: The Brave New World for Scientists

Arms and the Man: The Brave New World for Scientists

All the benefits mankind may some day gain from atomic energy and space travel cannot hide the fact that the main reason science has recently been catapulted into importance is its ability to advance the technology of warfare. From a self-directed discipline followed by a small and quiet fraternity, science became an indispensable part of the military services during the war years.

Scientists are not bribed to work on weapons research; their laboratories have simply become dependent on defense funds. The majority of jobs in science today are subsidized, directly or indirectly, by military agencies, so that if any considerable number of scientists were to refuse further military work, their alternative would not be to return to nonmilitary research, but to leave scientific work. They would thus set themselves off from their colleagues and from society at large, for it is more respectable to accept the new state of affairs than to resist it.

The Cold War raises fundamental questions for scientists: is the present weapons research program a means of strengthening democratic forces, or at least of holding off totalitarianism? Since the survival of civilization itself is at stake, is not opposition to, or abstention from, the defense effort hopelessly idealistic? Is not support of weapons research politically and morally the lesser evil? Isn’t the only alternative a purely personal attempt to escape responsibility for the evil of war?

As though these questions are not difficult enough for anyone, scientists are burdened with a special, additional difficulty: they are, by tradition and training, averse to letting political considerations interfere with scientific work (which is not at all to say that scientists were or are uninterested in politics). As Oppenheimer put it, “…when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.” Science, like any other healthy discipline, has progressed through the efforts of eager and bold men. The only limits and denials accepted have been those imposed by the scientific problems themselves.

The questions asked above can only be answered from a standpoint which unites, rather than separates, the ideals of science and of social welfare. What such a unification involves is illustrated by the atom bomb. The story of the Manhattan Project contains in dramatic form much of the larger story of how scientists became transformed into pawns of power politics.