Overview of Physicists’ Public Declarations against Nuclear Weapons -The Cold War Period


Antonino Drago and Nanni Salio – TRANSCEND Media Service

Abstract: The present paper analyses the public declarations which, after the dramatic crisis caused to the participation to the Manhattan Project, (mainly groups of) physicists have released during the Cold War period against nuclear weapons. The scientists are subdivided into four groups according to the ethical attitude with respect to their social institution, i.e. the public scientific research: science is neutral, against military research, against both military and civil nuclear power, science under command of ethical principles. These attitudes correspond to both Merton’s and Weber’s analyses on scientist’s professional work. A quick comparison of the most relevant declarations – in particular the Einstein-Russell manifesto which insistied in playing the role of the wisest watchers and promoters of both the rationality and the welfare of mankind -, is performed. They did not change the destiny which the Manhattan Project has imposed to science – i.e. to become the big science, which is also an instrument of the military and political power -, rather. A table summarizing the various ethical positions of the responsible scientists with respect the actions they performed is added.

Keywords: Physicists, Nuclear weapons, Ethics, Merton, Weber, Manhattan Project, Declarations

1. Physicists, ethics and the birth of nuclear weapons

The widespread opinion of physicists on their own work does not concern ethics; they rather amuse themselves in advancing in their fascinating researches. This appraisal derives from a Rousseauian view of the scientific research; this research is at all good, the possible evils come from society.

Robert Merton (Merton 1938; Merton 1973) describes scientists’ ethics as characterized by four interrelated imperatives: universalism, communism (among scientists), disinterestedness and the systematic doubt. Their ethics is linked to a traditionally religious spirit, so that he called it a Puritan ethics.

But the society is not a mere sum of individuals; it includes several and powerful social institutions. According to this latter viewpoint, Max Weber (1930) makes distinction between two kinds of ethics, one at the personal level, the ethics of conviction; which is the ethics that a layman receives by the social institutions; and the responsibility ethics, an ethics whose first obligations are those prescribed by the social institution to which one belongs (when considered under a negative light, this ethics is called Machiavellian ethics).[i]

Both authors consider the scientific research as an ethically positive enterprise, because it represents in the best rational terms mankind’s progress. In addition, Weber describes the modernity as a centuries-old rationalization process, whose a prominent social actor is the scientific research; hence, the ethics of the professional role of a scientist is positive at best, since it directly promotes rationality inside the social life. As a fact, almost all scientists put their rationality before their ethics.

In sum, an appraisal on science has to first of all separate the pure science and the applied science. Pure science, being the direct result of the human reason, gives only goods, apart some its results, inappropriately or maliciously applied; the task to avoid them is a burden of not the scientists, but the governments.

In 20th Century already the event of WW1 ha impelled some scientists to publicly intervene according to their ethics of responsibility with respect to their States.[ii] While this was an occasional episode, instead in WW2 some scientists have solicited and then accepted to work in a gigantic State’s enterprise. They abruptly entered in a patriotic enterprise embracing the motivations of the State in war against Nazis. The Manhattan Project 1939-1947 (Jungk 1958; Rhodes 1986), was aimed to build the first nuclear weapon with a budget of 2 billions dollars; it collected 130,000 workers, whose thousands were scientists, even the most prominent ones in the world (e.g., Fermi, Oppenheimer, Bohr, Szilard, etc.). These physicists have accepted to collectively work in a military-directed enterprise; they have accepted moreover the military secret and a secret life; the aim of the enterprise was to create an international policy of deterrence through the building of a weapon with the unprecedented destructive capacity of annihilating an entire town. The rationality of the scientists led them to hope in a rational government’s politics, during and after the war.

The Manhattan Project abruptly has changed the history of the scientists, the scientific research and mankind. What occurred in the separation between pure and applied science? How changed the characteristic features of scientist’s ethics?

Afterwards, the scientists had unexpectedly tackle new ethical problems. When this Project resulted to be successful, a controversy about the use of the terrifying weapons severed the group of Manhattan Project’s scientists. Was the destruction of entire towns by means a nuclear weapon – an act which surely is reproached by both the scientist’s ethics of conviction and the right in war – allowed by the responsibility ethics with respect to either the scientific research or the ethics of the democratic States’ defence against Nazis, or not?

Few years after, a nuclear arms’ race began. It has included ever more scientists in professional jobs of military laboratories. With respect to the responsibility ethics the decision to support this arms’ race was a correct decision, or not? After the Manhattan Project, the scientific research, as “a hen of the golden eggs” continued to receive by governments great financial funds, so to become a colossal enterprise. How much such a quantitative growth of science has harmed its qualitative growth? Were still the institutionalized scientists capable of independent judgements? Was still science the neutral driving power of the advancement of mankind, or not? Were still scientists a rational and disinterested social group watching on mankind’s welfare, or did the political power subordinated the scientists’ rationalization process of the social life? In addition, after the Manhattan Project, the this arms’ race has continued and grew up; for this reason some other scientists have been asked to be advisors of the governments about the best technological efforts for an ever more powerful nuclear confrontation. Did they promoted international peace, or rather accepted to be technical servants of the military power?[iii]

2. How the physicists’ ethics was changed by the nuclear events

Now let us consider the scientist’s professional ethics, i.e. the ethics of the role played by him inside his institution and more in general in society. In order to answer to the exceptional events of their war time, in name of their responsibility ethics the scientists have joined the Manhattan Project. But in such a way they cancelled the distinction between pure and applied science. Moreover, they have accepted to be collectively organized as in a factory; it was the birth of the “big science”.

In addition, through their inventing and building such weapons, they denied the basic characteristic features of the Mertonian ethics of a scientist since they have renounced to i) the universality of science – they have accepted a secret life which separated them from both the civil society and the other scientists; in addition, they have embraced a particular international politics of their government (the nuclear deterrence); ii) the communism – in each country the group of scientists rushed in a lethal competition with the groups of scientists of other countries -; iii) the disinterestedness – being massively financed, the scientists have devoted their efforts to obtain a military and governmental aim -; iv) the systematic doubt – they had no doubt about the political issues of their enterprise; those advisors who spoke to the public wanted to communicate absolute truths. Certainly, Merton’s ethical model of the individual scientist was no longer adequate to represent the ethics of of post-WW2 scientists (Vadacchino 2002).

Moreover, in order to obey to ethics of responsibility the scientists had sacrificed his principle ethics or they had silenced it. The above event has changed their responsibility ethics (see e.g. Weisskopf 1983); it was no more related to an artisan kind of scientific research, but to that of a big science which was strongly linked to the State.

Weber (1930, p. 181) had foreseen also a negative result of the rationalization process; the man may be closed in “an iron cage”. The building of nuclear weapons led mankind to a worst result. After the experimentation of the nuclear weapons on the Japanese towns, to all it was apparent that the destruction of mankind was possible. This potentiality ha for the first time represented an absurdity of the responsibility ethics of a scientist. This ethidcs could not manifestly admit the destruction of just that social institution (scientific research) which prescribes this kind of responsibility. In addition, also the many-centuries rationalization process could not admit through the end of mankind the end of the rationalization process itself. Every human being equipped by a reason this absurdity.[iv] These two absurdities have confirmed in an astonishing way the ethics of conviction, whose basic principle – to never kill – is appeared to be wise in advising that the long-term consequences of killing are unforeseeable.

3. The collective acquiescence of a large part of physicists to the new situation

During the Manhattan Project the only problem of some scientists was to be freed from the military secret. Let us consider Teller‘s answer to Szilàrd’s appeal against the nuclear bombing the Japanese towns:

This is the only cause for which I feel entitled in doing something: the necessity of lifting the [military] secrecy at least as far as the broad issues of our work are concerned. My understanding is that this will be done as soon as the military situation permits it. (Teller 1945)

In other terms, the first and only aim of Teller was to re-gain the universality of science; he felt himself responsible of only a free scientific research.

After the Manhattan Project the recruitment of scientists for the military work has greatly grew up without obstacles (apart during the years around 1968).[v] Physicists’ common opinion about the scientists working in military laboratories was publicly stated by the Italian secretary of USPID (Italian Scientists’ Union for Disarmament):

Who is involved in the processes of design, construction and modernization of weapons in defense of its country, not necessarily is a warmonger. Indeed, either you can reverse the entire machine, or it is not conceivable that, as long as [the national] security is related to military power, it is possible to stop this flywheel (volano) of the modernization and enrichment of nuclear arsenals.(Lenci 2003)

4. Four kinds of ethical attitude of responsible physicists

Let us now consider the ethical answer of (mainly groups of) physicists that according to a self-reliant ethics felt to be responsible of the historical novelties.[vi] These physicists will be classed in four groups according to the ethical attitudes with respect to their institution, i.e. the publicly financed scientific research.[vii]

1) The group of scientists that considered science an ethically neutral enterprise and nevertheless they wanted to establish a direct relationship with the civil society in order to advise it about the peril represented by nuclear weapons. The most celebrated instance of their declarations is the Einstein-Russell Manifesto (1955) (henceforth ERM).(Ionno Butcher 2005; Nathan, Norden, pp. 623ff)

2) The group of scientists that opposed to the scientific research aimed to military results, mainly the nuclear ones. This group includes the founders of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, the physicists that in Rome during WW2 have suspended their nuclear researches, Meitner, Bethe, etc.; a relevant instance of their declarations was the Mainau petition (1955).

3) The group of scientists that opposed to also civil nuclear power. This opposition was actively and incisively pursued by the Union of the Concerned Scientists, a group born in 1968.

4) The group of scientists that have subordinated their scientific research to the conviction ethics: It include Kapitza, Born, Rasetti and some “non-absolutist” physicits: Rotblat, Oppenheimer, Weinberg.[viii]

The general attitudes of these four groups may be summarised by the following characteristic features which interpret five issues of Weber’s analysis of the rationalization process in society: science, social evil, responsibility ethics, rationality, society.[ix]

1) The nature of science is both neutral and good, the nuclear weapons are evil, but a great action by the people can restore the situation as before, or even – owing to the potentialities of the civil nuclear power – can introduce mankind in a new “paradise”, where there will be no more problems, even for the responsibility ethics of the scientists. This was the basic message of the ERM.

2) The structure of science includes a highly negative activity, the military research in nuclear weapons; the responsibility ethics of the scientists is in crisis; a collaboration is needed between scientists and the political power for avoiding the foreseeably worst scientific results for mankind. This was the essential message of the Mainau declaration (1955).

3) The deep structure of science includes evil till to the potentiality of a suicide of mankind; it is necessary a radical change of both the scientists’ responsibility ethics and the society’s attitude towards science.

4) The deep structure of science includes a so extreme evil to be capable to produce the suicide of mankind through different tools; a new rationality is necessary, according to which it is a rational attitude to subordinate both science and scientists’ responsibility ethics to mankind’s ethics.

5. The first strategies followed by the responsible scientists

The physicists of the Manhattan Project have experienced that the political leaders without scruples insisted that the bombing on Japan was unavoidable, although it was known that it was an at least controversial matter for ethical and political reasons. Then, a very little minority of responsible scientists wanted to answer to a so colossal social problem as that of the mass destruction weapons. By exiting out a Rousseauian conception of science, the scientists had to choose a strategy of interaction with both the public opinion and the governments. We see seven strategies.

The first strategy, i.e. to spread information, was experienced as the first one. After that the scientists of the Manhattan Project have suffered the military secret, the collective declarations of some of them represented an act of independence and political autonomy. But, the first public appeals showed that their capability of spreading informations and influencing the public opinion was low; hence, this strategy was quickly abandoned or left to specific initiatives conducted by professionals.

A second strategy, the educational work, was temporarily experienced by ECAS (a scientists’ association founded by Einstein and survived some years) and by the permanent initiative of The Bulletin. Surely, the latter initiative was greatly productive. It spread informations, opened a space for disputes, gave voice to the dissent, supported scientists’ appeals to governments; in sum, a great pedagogical work.

The next strategies, concerning a transformative social work, played a decisive role for changing the public image of a scientist; the image of a traditional scientist changed in a plurality of images, ranging from that of a conscientious objector to that of a scientist involved in political affairs.

Of course the above mentioned absurdities shaken the responsibility ethics of the scientists. On the other hand, the conviction ethics asked the scientists to repent and to leave the scientific activity in the military field. As a fact, Rotblat left the Manhattan Project and Oppenheimer has repented. About the behaviour of the other scientists those appealing to the conviction ethics seem to have shared the following opinions (obtained by paraphrasing Oppenheimer’s and Rasetti’s sentences): “The community of the physicists knew the sin of mass killing.” “This community sold Physics to the (military) State.” But a strategy starting from the conscientious objection to the military scientific work was considered an individualist act, maybe justified at a personal level, but without influence on the resolution of the enormous social problem.[x] In fact, the number of similar actions was very little and without a wide support.

A further strategy was to lobby through a social movement against nuclear weapons the decisions taken by political representatives. Some ones promoted a social movement (in particular, both Russell and Rotblat, after having drafted ERM, founded the Nuclear Disarmament Campaign). These responsible scientists who have founded and led social movements against nuclear weapons were successful in influencing both public opinion and governments’ politics. Yet, oddly enough the most successful scientists were not the most directly concerned ones, i.e. some physicists[xi], but a mathematician-philosopher, Bertrand Russell, and a chemist, Linus Pauling (he received the Nobel Prize for Peace, after having received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry).

6. The strategies followed by the institutionalized scientists

A strategy was to lobby, through appeals to public opinion, the decisions taken by top political representatives. This strategy deserves attention because was chosen by the more renowned and most representative scientists. Just for this reason their appeal manifested a rational vision of the World; in particular, they hoped that, when the public had become aware of the extreme danger caused by nuclear weapons, this fact alone would lead quickly to take the decision of the government to reach an agreement against nuclear weapons. This vision resulted to be naïve.

Although written by a great philosopher and undersigned by the minds hailed as the superior ones of that time, ERM was silent on the changes of the dramatic crisis of their own institution; nothing was said about their ethics apart an appeal to be human beings (may this appeal be interpreted as an appeal to abandon their previous responsibility ethics?). Rather it insisted in presenting the role of the scientists as the wisest watchers and promoters of both the rationality and the welfare of mankind, in short the rational conscience of mankind. This incomplete self-presentation prejudiced a frank relationship the scientists with the public opinion.

ERM advised public opinion against “a peril”, i.e. the greatest destruction one can imagine. In the face to it, these scientists wanted to neither declare the crisis of their responsibility ethics nor adopt the ethics of conviction; rather, they have wanted to provoke an ethic of conviction in the civil society, in the aim to obtain a public acknowledgement “that [super-powers’] purpose [to solve their conflict] cannot be furthered by a world war”.[xii]

Instead, the contemporary Mainau declaration (1955) presents a drastic negative appraisal on the birth of a powerful military science (“We see with horror that this very science is giving mankind the means to destroy itself.”). Moreover, this declaration was addressed directly to the governments. The undersigned scientists refused to refer their responsibility ethics to the governments’ politics of deterrence and moreover they tried to rationally convince the governments to dismiss this politics.[xiii] However, both declarations induced no change in both the destiny which the Manhattan Project imposed to science – to be changed in a big science which is also an instrument of the military and political power – and the nuclear arms’ race threatening mankind’s survival.

One more strategy was followed by those scientists that have been called by the governments in order to receive advises about the scientific aspects of the international political agreements (and disagreements) on nuclear weapons.[xiv] This invitations generated also collective responses. E.g. the national secretary of the above mentioned USPID, declared:

We as scientists for Disarmament, we wanted to do something that in Italy it had never been done; we wanted to be a credible partner for institutions.(Lenci 2004)

This kind of work was presented also as an engagement for promoting peace. However, these scientists had to refer their responsibility ethics to the institution of the big science, which was dependent from the government’s great financial funds. In such a way; the final institution of reference of their responsibility ethics was, through the scientific research, the political government. As a fact, a bargain was established; the government gave generous financial funds for scientific research and in exchange these scientists have assured two social functions, i.e. to work as the highest technicians of the nuclear issues of international political and to work as the best collectors of public consensus to government’s politics about scientific subjects. Someone characterized the corresponding attitude of such advisors as enjoying a specific IQ with respect to the common IQ (Alfven 1981 p. 4)

In retrospect, the scientific advisors of the government cannot be proud of some merits for having promoted peace; the foolish growth of the nuclear arsenal to thousand times the capability to destroy human kind was never contrasted by their advices; more than drivers a government’s new policy, they have worked as technicians which were subordinate to the political decisions.[xv]

A particular role was played by some other scientists (the international Pugwash group; Nickerson 2013) who, in the name of the authority of a neutral science with respect to all political divisions in the world tried to be recognized as mediator in international disputes about nuclear issues. Of course, their action had to be directed to governments’ advisors; hence, this action had to be performed by only renowned scientific authorities. As a consequence the Pugwash group is constituted as an elitist and co-optative organization. This group was successful in opening some channels of communication between East and West during the Cold War.

Which relationship of the above seven strategies with the four groups of scientists illustrated in sect. 4? The following table represent the variety of relationships.

Neutrality of science No military Not even civil nuclear power Ethics over science
Information x x x x
Education x x x x
Conscientious objection x
Social movement x x x
Appeal to public opinion and governments x (x) (x) (x)
Advisors to governments x
International relationships x

In total, the actions of the responsible scientists have obtained limited successes in influencing the other scientists, the public opinion, the political leaders and even less the military leaders. In particular, the race to H-bomb brutally manifested that almost all physicists had been captured by the politics of the nuclear confrontation with the East; in other terms, the “rationality” (?) of politics has prevailed on the scientists’ rationality.

Instead, were the revolutions of the year 1989 which decisively have removed the immediate threat of a nuclear doomsday. This fact suggests that during the Cold War the best strategy to be chosen by scientists was to support the people, rather than governments. This strategy required an ethics of responsibility with respect to the mankind’s survival, rather than with respect to governments’ politics or a smoothing the international relationships. This ethics was more closely approached by the scientists following the ethics of conviction than those following the responsibility ethics.


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[i] Let us recall that according to the sociologist Ben-David (1971), the scientists’ subordination to the political power has started after the failure of the French revolution, which has been promoted and supported by a great number of the scientists of that time, in France and outside. It was the bourgeoisie which started the formal curriculum at Universities as the only correct introduction to science, the University career as the unique path in order to be recognized as a scientist by a “peer community of scientists”, the Societies of scientists (the first one was the British Association for the advancement of Science born in 1830) and the financial control of University research.

[ii] See the 93 scientists’ aberrant manifesto sustaining war proposal of Germany (Manifesto_of_the_Ninety-Three, 1914).

[iii] These questions have been already presented in (Drago, Salio 1983) and (Drago 1985). Of course, the above problems apply to the Western scientists, being the SSSR’s scientists forcedly included in a general politics which claimed to perform a historical jump to a new era of the entire mankind, obtained by SSSR’s scientific advancement… Hence, these scientists the ethics of responsibility with respect to their scientific research was identified with the responsibility ethics with respect to government’s politics. Only the physicist Kapitza opposed to SSSR’s building nuclear weapons. (Jungk 1958, Chp. XV, sect. IV).

[iv] Some year later Jonas (1978) theorized a new ethics based on the imperative of avoiding this absurdity. (Drago 2012) presented a more general ethics.

[v] Later, in 1983 an accurate analysis of all military contracts in US gave as result that the 48±4% of all physicists were working in military researches.(Woollett 1983)

[vi] The period of time considered is that of Cold War, or better the years 1945-1981; the latter date precedes “the year of appeals” (Feld 1982),which requires a different analysis.

[vii] This classification agrees with the illustration (Drago 1996) of the four general attitudes with respect to science.

[viii] Let us recall some severe sentences. Rasetti: “They sold the Physics to the Devil”; Oppenheimer: “The Physicists knew the sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.” Although wavering between an extreme pacifism and an involvement in military work (Ventura 2005), Einstein belongs to this group, since he staunchly lamented that the ethical progress is too slow with respect to the scientific progress. Moreover, he was an unconditioned admirer of Gandhi, considered by him as the unique teacher of the 20th Century.

[ix] Few scientists were concerned with the social aspects of the historical events occurring in their times and even less scientists have rationalized these events through accurate appraisals. Max Born seems the more perspicacious one.

[x] See for instance the appraisal in (Calogero 1983), written at the time of the deployment of Cruise missiles in Comiso (Sicily). The author was a long time the international secretary of the Pugwash group.

[xi] Einstein was very influential in both directions, i.e. in pushing for obtaining the nuclear weapon and in advising the public of the peril represented by the nuclear weapons.

[xii] A great number of scientists ((first of all Russell) have considered the negotiations for disarmament as no more than an instrument of superpowers’ propaganda (Panofsky 1981, p. 33).

[xiii] However, the antecedent Frank Report (Franck Report 1945), declassified in 1946, seems to be the best document on scientists’ consciousness. Its “Preamble” is surely the most relevant document on the ethical, strategic and international politics concerning nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, it was spread in the civil society along a short period (few years after its declassification), and never it was quoted by subsequent declarations, although its contents are the most incisive ones.

[xiv] A great number of scientists (first of all, Russell) have considered the negotiations for disarmament as no more than an instrument of the propaganda of the superpowers. See also (Panofsky 1981, p. 33).

[xv] As a fact, this responsibility ethics has been – systematically and without pity – denied by the historical events. 1) The democracies have not threatened by a nuclear attack because Hitler did not reached the bomb. 2) The US government has cheated scientists about the motivation to Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombing; important reasons as the official motivation – i.e. to end the war -, were the two reasons to obtain the pay-off to the gigantic financial fund attributed to the Manhattan Project and to overcome the rival SSSR in the Pacific region. 3) The bombings the two Japanese towns represent an illegal use of weapons – at least according to the international war right (no bombing civil population). 4) Unwarily the scientists entered into a large and complex scientific institution, the big science, which grew up according to the government aims rather than according to an independent development of this institution. 5) They have been in great part included in professional work for promoting the nuclear arm’s race, rather than to curb it. 6) In the debate on the building the H-bomb the scientists have not understood the government, which, contrarily to their hopes, did not wanted peace.


Antonino Drago is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, formerly of the University Federico II of Naples – drago@unina.it

Giovanni Salio was a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, formerly of the University of Turin.


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