Victor F. Weisskopf Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Scientist's Odyssey: Conversation with Victor F.
Weisskopf, 1988 Sanford S. Elberg Lecturer; 4/7/88 by Harry Kreisler

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Scientists and the Peace Movement

Throughout your career, especially after the explosion of the atomic bomb, you were actively engaged in promoting public consciousness on the nuclear threat. What were the frustrations there? You and this group and Einstein saw very early that things had changed but the message didn't get across. Why not?

Einstein expressed it by saying that we had changed our technology but we didn't change our thinking, I think this was an very important point, we tried very hard, not only the committee, but also the Federation of American Scientists and the Union of Concerned Scientists, many other organizations tried to tell the public that nuclear war is unthinkable, and the armament race is extremely dangerous and brings us nearer to this and the proliferation of nuclear arms to other nations is an irrecoverably dangerous point. So it was very difficult Of course it was not only the fault of our policy, the policy of the Soviet Union was also very inimical and confrontational so we were in a way also forced into it, but in many ways we were the leaders because we had the better technology, we were the ones that usually invented new kinds of weapons and the Russians had to follow up and there is this arms race spiral. We preached all the dangers of this and didn't go very far, but I would say in the last decade or so, we are better understood.

And why is that?

I don't know, but I ascribe it to two things. First, the physicians' organizations have come into play, and people have more confidence in physicians than in scientists, maybe for good reasons.

So your talking about groups like the Physicians for Social Responsibility?

The Physicians for Social Responsibility, the International Organizations of Physicians Against Nuclear War, and then I do believe the Catholic Church played a role. There was a pastoral letter about five years ago of the American Bishops that criticized strongly the moral basis of our deterrence policy and I think all of this had an effect. What really made that change, because I think there is a change, maybe not enough but there is a change. I am not a sociologist I cannot really analyze, but I am glad to observe. Lately, I am quite sure that Gorbachev's attitude played an important role, just from that side which is probably least expected by many people, comes a certain suggestion of cooperation instead of confrontation, and there is some hope that maybe we will get somewhere.

So are these groups bringing the complimentarity of thinking that you talked about?

Well, they don't talk that way.

I mean to the whole debate. In other words, if you have physicians talking about the dangers of nuclear war from a standpoint of the physiological impact on mankind?

Yes, there is an element of complimentarity there, but I think the main element is the rethinking of the cause of our actions, which was fear -- fear of the other side and misinterpretation that whatever the Soviet Union does we call aggressive and what ever we do we call defensive. If you really analyze it, it's often not very different. Vietnam, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, etc. -- actually both superpowers are so much in fear of the other side that they want to increase influence but not because they want to conquer the world. I think both sides by now know the obvious truth that it is impossible for the Soviet Union to communize the world, and that it is impossible for America, for the West to destroy communism all over the world. Why? Because of the existence of atomic bombs. It would be suicide.

And this is what Einstein meant?

That is what Einstein meant. I am now an optimist. There is a certain tendency towards agreement, towards saying all right, let's live together, our security alone can never be secure if your security isn't also guaranteed. The tendency of making one side secure at the cost of insecurity of the other, like, for example, building up arms that are better than the others, this will never work. So cooperation on things of the same interest, and after all avoiding war is a common aim of both parts, so this I hope will slowly develop and will perhaps lead us to a less dangerous world.

In this, do you see scientists as having a special responsibility?

Yes, but perhaps one should not exaggerate this. The scientists have a special responsibility because perhaps they know somewhat more about the effects of a nuclear war, like nuclear winter or the destruction radioactivity produces in the soil, they may know a little more about that. But I don't think this is so important, because it is now well known. Therefore the role of scientists as citizens, not as scientists, is important. Actually the role of the social scientists is much more important now. What we need is innovation in social thinking; this is not a natural science. On the contrary, the natural scientists have a tendency of thinking of weapons, that this weapon is destabilizing, an MX is not fulfilling its purpose, we should rather have midgets, mobile or submarine weapons, all these are important points and I would not say scientists should not do it, but it's not the essential thing. The essential thing is the whole problem of confrontation of the other side with weapons; that cannot lead to any solution, and so we have to get together. Whether this is possible or not I do not know. I am not saying the Soviet Union will do this with pleasure. I'm not sure how long Gorbachev will be in power, but at least we should try.

How important are Soviet scientists in the evolution of their system? Are they more important?

I don't think they are more important, but they are perhaps at this moment more important, because previously they had very little to say. Under the present regime they have much more to say, and since I do know the Russian scientific community pretty well, perhaps better than some other people, I would say that indeed there are Soviet scientists like Venikopf or Sidaif and others who have recently gotten much more influence on politics in the government than they had before, and that influence is in the direction which I would consider the correct one.

The whole history of science that we are talking about has a positive side of internationalism, but there is a nationalist side also.

Of course there is a nationalist side and we have to fight it, the fundamentalism both in this country and outside, although in this country perhaps its not so dangerous -- although these forces like creationism and anti-rationalism are rather bad -- but the real danger of course is in Iran with Khomeini and in Libya with Qaddafi, where fanaticism and religious fundamentalism represents a great danger, and indeed the Soviet Union also suffers from it. Look at the recent nationalistic movement in Armenia; perhaps these are consequences of the sins of previous Russian governments, but nevertheless it's a dangerous development.

In what ways have these international scientific collaborations and interactions and settings, say like Pugwash, where you were very active, succeeded in advancing the public consciousness that we've been talking about, tilting the balance toward internationalism?

Scientists, in order to be effective, have to have an influence on government and the Congress and public opinion. In our country and in the West more than in the East, because public opinion and Parliament play a more important role, there are good examples to show that the scientist movements did some good. Let me give you one: the ABM Treaty of 20 years ago, when the Soviet Union and America agreed to stop measures to prevent ballistic missiles from entering the country on the basis that the only effect would be that the other side would increase the number of missiles in order to get something through the defense. It was clear to us that defense would be a very difficult technical problem, and I'm not sure whether it would succeed. Now it was interesting, because at that time it was extremely difficult to convince the Russians, and it was the Americans (not only the scientists but also the American politicians) who were in favor of it. And I do think, at that time, that the Pugwash had contributed to convince the Russian government, through the scientists, that ABM was a good thing.

Now the tables are reversed; now this idea of SDI to protect the United States against missiles, which is technically -- well, one should never say impossible, but certainly, if possible, very expensive and far in the future -- that this would solve the question and that it's only defensive -- that's what the Russians said at that time. So the tables are reversed, and I'm quite convinced, and so are my friends, that SDI, if it ever succeeds, will only have the effect of the other side increasing their weapons in order to get through the defense. So it would only make things worse instead of better.

Isn't the Star Wars program an argument that technology is really what's driving the arms race?

No, it's politics and technology. I mean, it will become technology because if you start a very expensive program with a lot of laboratories and a lot of engineers and scientists involved in it, then they get sort of enamored with the problem. It's very hard to give up a problem in the midst and there is this intrinsic impulse, an intrinsic momentum, once you start a big project to go ahead with the project, and that's a great danger in the SDI case.

Is the relationship between weapons labs and universities a problem generally? MIT broke its relations with weapons development.

True. We had a very hard fight that I was also involved in. But you know, it is not completely broken. At present, as you probably know, the SDI efforts are trying to fan out problems to the universities, again with a lot of money, and it is at present very difficult to get research money at universities, more difficult than before, so some people grab this opportunity, saying, "After all, usually these are not secret problems, this is an open problem and it may be good for science." So it is certainly a great temptation and many people have fallen for that temptation, understandably. Again I say, it's no use for a small sub-group, like the academic researchers, to oppose a policy. A policy can only be changed if the people and Congress oppose it.

I think we have a good sense of the scientific education of Victor Weisskopf, also a little about your political education. What about the moral education of Victor Weisskopf? Clearly, you engage yourself in the problems of our time. What are the roots of that? Is from the scientific inquiry?

No. It's very hard to say. I believe that the home has a lot to do with it, the education at home, not in school but at home. That is the moral aspect, and I should emphasize that it does not come from religion -- my home was not a religious home, but it was a very moral home. I would say, with emphasis, that you had to behave decently. And that is one thing. The other thing, of course, is that the period when I grew up, in the '20s when I was an adolescent, was a very exciting and interesting political time. So you were almost drawn into considering morality. In some ways, more optimistic -- well, I wouldn't say that, because it was also the birth of Nazism, but maybe that also, you see. My generation saw the growth of this evil, and naturally you think you have to do something against it. So, in some ways, the rise of Nazism was, for us, a moral education.

What lessons should one draw from this extraordinary 80-year odyssey? Do you have any particular insight you would like to leave with us?

Well, this difficult to say. Yes and no. I mean first of all, as I said before, I and my family led a charmed life. I mean, it could just as well have ended in an annihilation camp and we just as well could not have been so lucky to get a job in the United States. And we didn't suffer at all. So therefore, it is an exceptional life. On the other hand, I would say that, this life has taught me that everything hangs together. This is the complimentarity: that you cannot be a pure scientist and nothing else. Not only because of your own interests, you see. I think that if I were only a scientist and did not have music or art, and I did not have social problems, I would feel that my life was not so interesting. So in some ways, I would say it's education. Now, of course, in my time the high school was better than it is now, but that is not the main point. It is, as I said, the influence of the home. We must have a better education, an education that emphasizes those ideals and the many-sidedness of things -- science, art, religion also, and social responsibility. If we do get this into the minds of people, perhaps we can reduce the kind of cynicism and negativism that is now so rampant -- drug culture, passive TV entertainment, and so on. Maybe I'm an optimist, but I think these are the points which I would take from my life as the important things for humanity.

Professor Weisskopf, thank you very much for sharing these thoughts with us. And thank you very much for joining us for this "Conversation on International Affairs" with Professor Victor Weisskopf of MIT.

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