Nuclear Weapons and Physicist's Moral Term Paper

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This debate is stated to have been lost by Bethe and he finally agreed to work as a consultant since he had failed to dissuade the building of a thermonuclear bomb and provided contributions to the effort focused toward design of the bomb. In contrast the physicist Teller had "been obsessed with the need to develop the hydrogen bomb ever since Enrico Fermi, suggested the possibility to him in 1941." (Arms Control Association, 2005) it is reported that Teller was "lionized by the right as the "father of the H-bomb and became the leading proponent of the need to stay ahead of the Soviets in the arms race and for the deployment of ballistic missile defenses." (Arms Control Association, 2005) Prior to these events Bethe and Teller, were very close friends and remained on the opposite sides of the debates for arms control through their entire lives. In 1945, an international campaign for banning nuclear tests was initiated following the showering of a Japanese fishing boat with a hydrogen bomb by the United States and the resulting sickening of the crew due to radioactive fallout with one crewmember dying. In 1957 Teller participated in stirring the interest of the White House and in 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower's new Science Advisory Committee resulted in the creation of a panel following the Soviet Union's launching the first artificial earth satellite. This interagency panel was set up to "assess the verifiability of a test ban and whether a test ban would benefit the United States." (Arms Control Association, 2005) the U.S. military had also begun proposals for systems that would have the capability to shoot down missiles which had been targeted by the U.S. It is related that the Pentagon made an error in its decision to "site nuclear-armed anti-missile rockets in the suburbs of major U.S. cities, including Chicago, Boston and Seattle..." because this resulted in an uproar among a Congress audience who argued in opposition to the defense system. Bethe however, "had already co-authored an article explaining how any country that could develop ICBMS could also neutralize the proposed system by, for example, adding decoys to their payloads that would overwhelm the defense." Again, in 1983 when the Strategic Defense Initiative was announced by President Ronald Reagan, Bethe and his collaborators "again explained the many Soviet options to defeat the proposed system, which this time was to include a constellation of orbiting lasers. Once again, their technical critique contributed significantly to the erosion of congressional support for what because derisively known as 'Star Wars' and the development program lost most of its funding." (Arms Control Association, 2005)

Following the Cold War's end and at the time Bethe turned 88 years of age, he made a decision that it was time to "call on the world's weapon scientists to help end what he had helped begin. Bethe stated "Looking back at the half-century since [their creation], I feel the most intense relief that these weapons have not been used since World War II, mixed with the horror that tens of thousands of such weapons have been built since that time -- one hundred times more than any of us at Los Alamos could ever have imagined. Today we are rightly in an era of disarmament and dismantlement of nuclear weapons. However, in some countries nuclear development still continues. Whether and when the various nations of the world can agree to stop this is uncertain. However, individual scientists can still influence this process by withholding their skills. Accordingly, 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."


The work of Valiunas entitled: 'The Agony of Atomic Genius" relates that Oppenheimer, while proud of his accomplishments in the area of the atomic bomb, was also reflective in his later years and even to the point of taking on a deep guilt for his involvement in the design and development of the atomic bomb which was dropped on Japan at Hiroshima. J. Robert Oppenheimer headed the Manhattan Project and was accredited by the public-at-large as the 'brains behind the bomb': "...who agonized about the devastation his brilliance had helped to unleash; who hoped that the very destructiveness of the new gadget...might make war obsolete, and whose sometime Communist fellow-traveling and opposition to the development of the hydrogen bomb - a weapon a thousand times more powerful than the bombs that incinerated Hiroshima and Nagasaki - brought about his political disgrace and downfall, which of course have marked him in the eys of some as all the more heroic..." (Valiunas, 2006) Julias Robert Oppenheimer, born in Manhattan 1904 to a German Jewish immigrant....grew up as a child of privilege...guided by ideals of social justice, relentlessly hopeful, earnest, and progressive." (Valiunas, 2006) Oppenheimer was a member of the 'Ethical Culture Society' which was a proponent of women's suffrage, alcohol prohibition, was active in the ACLU and NAACP founding and existed for the purpose of producing an intellectual and moral elite devoted to service. Oppenheimer was stated to be firm in his political convictions "where ideology often passes for certainty." (Valiunas, 2006) Valiunas relates that Oppenheimer experienced great anxiety over the nuclear project and states that:

Alfred Nobel had hoped that his invention of dynamite, which enhanced exponentially the possibilities for battle carnage, would put people off war forever; it didn't happen. Albert Einstein, equally peaceable but more discerning, said of the weaponry developed before the First World War -- machine guns, massive artillery -- that entrusting human beings with modern technology was like putting a meat ax in the hands of a psychopath. The flower of Wilhelmine chemistry devoted itself to devising chemical weapons that would eviscerate the throats and lungs of the French and British enemy in the Great War. When Fritz Haber, the presiding genius of German chemical weaponry, was implored by his wife, herself a chemistry Ph.D., to give up his work on poison gas, he replied that in peace a scientist serves mankind but in war he serves his country. His wife killed herself that night." (Valiunas, 2006)

The enormity of the radiation released during the blast of heat from the atomic bomb was of a magnitude that dwarfed all other and in fulfillment: "...the labors of generations of scientists, most of whom never imagined their purely theoretical discoveries would be put to such use. (Valiunas, 2006) it is interesting to note the statement of Valiunas:

The scientific succession reads like a Biblical genealogy, as Isaac Newton begat James Clerk Maxwell who begat Max Planck who begat Ernest Rutherford and so on to Stanislaw Ulam and Edward Teller, who begat the hydrogen bomb. Some of these researchers and thinkers were innocent as could be; in praise of Rutherford, who observed spontaneous radioactive decay in certain elements and thereby discovered the fundamental structure of the atom, his protege James Chadwick honored "his genius to be astonished." Wonder, sheer delighted amazement at nature's paradoxical prodigality and order, was the prime mover for the best of these men, and probably animated all of them to some great degree. For some pure souls, working for the military corrupted that delight." (Valiunas, 2006)


It is clear that for Oppenheimer, Bethe, and others, being the creator, designer, and developer of the most horrible, most powerful and most destructive weapon ever known to mankind was a bitter-sweet accomplishment because what was envisioned by the creation of atomic energy was not has been employed in terms of application and use fission of atoms in physics. For some of these physicists, the belief was held that possession of something this powerful had the capacity to ensure an ending to war however, this is just not the case as history has illustrated clearly. For others the creation, design and development of applications for use of atomic physics in science was initially geared toward more useful and positive applications. Others held the view of Fritz Haber, specifically that in peacetime science serves the good of mankind but in war...after all war - is war, is it not? This work has demonstrated that regrets were certainly held by Bethe, Oppenheimer, Haber and other scientists and physicists sharing in the atomic energy and weaponry projects.


Byers, Nina (2002) Physicists and the 1945 Decision to Drop the Bomb. Physics Journal archives 13 Oct 2002. Online available at

Bethe, Hans a. (1950) "The Hydrogen Bomb: II," Scientific American, April 1950.

Hans Bethe (1906-2005) Arms Control Today - Arms Control Association. 2005 April. Online available at;

Hans Bethe et al. (1984) "Space-Based Ballistic-Missile Defense," Scientific American, October 1984.

Horowitz, Jacob (1998) Building Bombs, Talking Peace: The Political…[continue]

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