Do bombs contribute to peace?

Ending War
April 21, 2000

Joseph Rotblat was a young nuclear physicist in Poland in 1938 when news came that nuclear fission had been achieved by German scientists. He saw the theoretical possibility of a nuclear chain reaction, which could generate explosive amounts of energy. He moved to England just before the outbreak of the second world war and, in 1943, was recruited to the team of scientists working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the United States. He believed that their work on the atomic bomb was necessary to prevent Hitler from developing and using such weapons on the Allies. In March 1944, in one of those chance events that shape people's futures, he was invited to dinner by his old friend James Chadwick. Another guest was General Leslie Groves, the project director, who remarked over dinner that the real purpose of the bomb was to subdue the Soviets. Later that year, once it became clear that Germany had abandoned its development of nuclear weapons, Rotblat decided that there was no reason for him to continue working on the development of such weapons. He devoted the rest of his life to the promotion of peace, the elimination of nuclear weapons and ending war. He was one of the founder members of the Pugwash conference on science and world affairs in 1957. He was, with Pugwash, jointly awarded the Nobel peace prize in 1995.

Ending War is a volume to celebrate Rotblat's 90th birthday in November 1998. The contributors include politicians, scientists, academics, lawyers and campaigners. With some 20 different writers in a slim volume, the analysis is never deep. It reads more like a set of exam notes on the views of the famous men (and they are all men) of peace in the 20th century. Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica and another Nobel peace laureate, explains how his country has managed without an army for half a century. He believes the time has come for the rest of the world to follow their example and bid farewell to arms. Mikhail Gorbachev, also a former president and peace prize recipient, recounts his own part in making the world a safer place. He believes that the world needs a new type of leadership and new initiatives if it is to continue on the path of disarmament and peace.

Despite the title of the book, most of the writers seem more interested in schemes to reduce or eliminate nuclear weapons rather than the much more ambitious project of ending war itself. This is an important distinction since it is by no means obvious that the elimination of all nuclear weapons would reduce the incidence of warfare. Conversely, the ending of war would render nuclear and other armories irrelevant. This focus on nuclear matters reflects both Rotblat's work over the years and the main work of the Pugwash conference. There is much discussion about the role that scientists could have played in stopping the nuclear arms race of the cold war. Freeman Dyson believes that it might have been possible for physicists to prevent the building of nuclear weapons in 1939 by concerted action. Given that energy demands would have led to research into nuclear power, his hope for keeping the nuclear genie in the bottle seems forlorn.

He believes that the lessons have been learnt by today's biotechnologists, who have discussed a code of ethics for their work. Again the realist will wonder how much this will restrain the development of biological warfare agents in undemocratic states. Francesco Calogero, chairman of the Pugwash council, argues that a nuclear weapon-free world is achievable, and is necessary for the long-term survival of civilisation. He advocates a programme to make nuclear weapons expertise gradually disappear. He would have a minimum age requirement for security clearances for nuclear weapon work, which would divert young scientists into different fields.

Robert McNamara was the US defence secretary under presidents Kennedy and Johnson. As such he was at the heart of strategic thinking and the doctrine of mutual assured destruction. In this volume he argues for a very different approach by the US now that it has lost its enemy.

He reminds us that there are still 40,000 nuclear warheads in the post-cold war world. As someone at the centre of the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, he argues that both sides made grave misjudgements at that time that could easily have led to a nuclear exchange. Things are no better today, and he believes that "there is a substantial and unacceptable risk that the 21st century will witness a nuclear holocaust". To prevent this the nuclear powers need to remove their nuclear weapons from alert status and take steps to return to a non-nuclear world.

John Polanyi, chemistry Nobel prizewinner, looks at the role that the international organisations should play in preventing war. He believes that the hallowed concept of national interests must be extended to include a deeper concern for the instruments of collective security, such as the United Nations and Nato. Although his piece was written before the Kosovo operation, his ideas are reinforced by experience there. Indeed the humanitarian operations in both Kosovo and East Timor should give some comfort to the reader. It appears that the international community is prepared to act decisively to protect human rights when it can. Many advocates for total disarmament are having to come to terms with the need for military force to stop such humanitarian tragedies.

Ending War will have been a wonderful birthday present for Joseph Rotblat. For the paying customer it gives rather less value. Each contributor has too little space to argue his case. Much has happened in the past year which needs to be addressed. In the US, the failure to ratify the Complete Test Ban Treaty and the push to amend the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty give little confidence in the hopes of the more optimistic contributors. On the other hand, military operations in the Balkans and Indonesia have shown that preparation for war may still be necessary to prevent worse evils.

Air Marshal Sir Timothy Garden is a former nuclear bomber pilot and a contributor to the Pugwash conference.

Ending War: The Force of Reason

Editor - Maxwell Bruce and Tom Milne
ISBN - 0 333 76070 0 and 778482 5
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £42.50 and £15.99
Pages - 179

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