Tag Archives: Niels Bohr

Bertrand Russell

The political background of the atomic scientists’ work was the determination to defeat the Nazis. It was held—I think rightly—that a Nazi victory would be an appalling disaster. It was also held, in Western countries, that German scientists must be well advanced towards making an A-bomb, and that if they succeeded before the West did they would probably win the war. When the war was over, it was discovered, to the complete astonishment of both American and British scientists, that the Germans were nowhere near success, and, as everybody knows, the Germans were defeated before any nuclear weapons had been made. But I do not think that nuclear scientists of the West can be blamed for thinking the work urgent and necessary. Even Einstein favoured it. When, however, the German war was finished, the great majority of those scientists who had collaborated towards making the A- bomb considered that it should not be used against the Japanese, who were already on the verge of defeat and, in any case, did not constitute such a menace to the world as Hitler. Many of them made urgent representations to the American Government advocating that, instead of using the bomb as a weapon of war, they should, after a public announcement, explode it in a desert, and that future control of nuclear energy should be placed in the hands of an international authority. Seven of the most eminent of nuclear scientists drew up what is known as ‘The Franck Report’ which they presented to the Secretary of War in June 1945. This is a very admirable and far-seeing document, and if it had won the assent of politicians none of our subsequent terrors would have arisen. It points out that ‘the success which we have achieved in the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greater dangers than were all the inventions of the past’. It goes on to point out that there is no secret which can be kept for any length of time, and that Russia will certainly be able to make an A-bomb within a few years. It took Russia, in fact, almost exactly four years after Hiroshima. The danger of an arms race is stated in terms which subsequent years have horrifyingly verified. ‘If no efficient international agreement is achieved,’ it states, ‘the race for nuclear armaments will be on in earnest not later than the morning after our first demonstration of the existence of nuclear weapons. After this, it might take other nations three or four years to overcome our present head start.’ It proceeds to suggest methods of international control and concludes: ‘If the United States were to be the first to release this new means of indiscriminate destruction upon mankind, she would sacrifice public support throughout the world, precipitate the race for armaments, and prejudice the possibility of reaching an international agreement on the future control of such weapons.’ This was not an isolated expression of opinion. It was a majority opinion among those who had worked to create the bomb. Niels Bohr—after Einstein, the most eminent of physicists at that time—approached both Churchill and Roosevelt with earnest appeals in the same sense, but neither paid any attention. When Roosevelt died, Bohr’s appeal lay unopened on his desk. The scientists were hampered by the fact that they were supposed to be unworldly men, out of touch with reality, and incapable of realistic judgements as to policy. Subsequent experience, however, has confirmed all that they said and has shown that it was they, and not the generals and politicians, who had insight into what was needed.

Bertrand Russell, Has Man a Future?, London, 1961, ch. 2