Joseph Rotblat’s would-be advice to the new president

By Sandra Ionno Butcher | November 4, 2008

November 4 marks the centenary of the birth of Nobel laureate Joseph Rotblat, the only scientist to walk away from the Manhattan Project on moral grounds and a man who held determined views on the kind of world we should try to create. He was an ardent advocate for dialogue across political divides, the elimination of nuclear weapons, the need ultimately for a world without war, and the social responsibility of scientists. In today’s climate where leaders are castigated for even hinting that they might speak with adversaries, it’s important to remember that forward-looking people led to the end of the Cold War, not weapons.

While awaiting the election results, one could imagine the dialogue Rotblat might have had with the incumbent U.S. president on many of the topics that challenge global stability today and topics that will challenge the next president–whether it’s Barack Obama or John McCain.

Mr. President, dangerous times demand extraordinary efforts

“[In 1955] I joined Albert Einstein, Bertrand Russell, and eight others in signing a manifesto warning of the dire consequences of nuclear war. This statement, the Russell-Einstein Manifesto, was Einstein’s final public act. . . . We took action then because we felt that the world situation was entering a dangerous phase in which extraordinary efforts were required to prevent a catastrophe. Now, two generations later . . . we face the same perils and new ones as well. Today, we confront the possibilities of nuclear terrorism and the development of yet more new nuclear warheads in the United States. The two former superpowers still hold enormous nuclear arsenals. North Korea and Iran are advancing their capability to build nuclear weapons. Other nations are increasingly likely to acquire nuclear arsenals on the excuse that they are needed for their security. The result could be a new nuclear arms race. Fifty years ago we wrote: ‘We have to learn to think in a new way. We have to learn to ask ourselves, not what steps can be taken to give military victory to whatever group we prefer, for there no longer are such steps; the question we have to ask ourselves is: What steps can be taken to prevent a military contest of which the issue must be disastrous to all parties?’ That question is as relevant today as it was in 1955.”

Mr. President, true security should be based on more than a balance of terror

“For the deterrent to be effective, the threat of retaliation must be real; we must convince the would-be aggressors that nuclear weapons would be used against them, otherwise the bluff would soon be called. [U.S., Russian, and British leaders] must show convincingly that they have the kind of personality that would enable them to push the button and unleash an instrument of wholesale destruction. I find it terrifying to think that among the necessary qualifications for leadership is the readiness to commit an act of genocide, because that is what it amounts to in the final analysis. Furthermore, by acquiescing in this policy, not only the leaders but each of us figuratively keeps our finger on the button, each of us is taking part in a gamble, in which the survival of human civilization is at stake. We rest the security of the world on a balance of terror. In the long run this is bound to erode the ethical basis of civilization.”

Mr. President, the Future of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) is in your hands

“There is a need to keep hammering home the point that America’s stand on the NPT issue is iniquitous. It has signed and ratified an international treaty that commits it to get rid of nuclear weapons, yet it is pursuing a policy that demands the indefinite retention of these weapons. . . . The United States must make a choice: If it wants to keep nuclear weapons, then it should withdraw from the NPT, which would probably result in a massive increase in the number of nuclear weapon states. Otherwise, it must abide by the terms of the NPT and get rid of its nuclear arsenals. Tertium non datur–there is no third way.”

Mr. President, take heed of the growing consensus for a nuclear-weapon-free world

“In a certain sense, the wheel has come full circle. Immediately after Hiroshima, it was clear to many people–including many politicians–that something had to be done to arrest the spread of nuclear weapons. Then the vision faded; the stocks of nuclear warheads grew. But the strategists assured us that the structure of mutual deterrence was stable. Now it has become clear that this structure was not stable at all, and the old ideas of working toward total abolition under international control are coming back. With the demise of the ideological struggle, the prospects for their implementation are much more promising. Indeed, the onus of justification should now be not on those who want to eliminate nuclear weapons, but on those who want to keep them.”

  • “Past Attempts to Abolish Nuclear Weapons” (in A Nuclear Weapons Free World: Desirable? Feasible?), 1993

Mr. President, what example will you set for young people?

“We all crave a world of peace, a world of equity. We all want to nurture in the young generation the ‘culture of peace.’ But how can we talk about a culture of peace if that peace is predicated on the existence of weapons of mass destruction? How can we persuade the young generation to cast aside the culture of violence, when they know that it is on the threat of violence that we rely upon for security?”

Mr. President, a final word I once delivered to fellow scientists, but which applies even more so to you

“[T]he main message of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto stands out . . . ‘Shall we put an end to the human race or shall mankind renounce war?’ With the end of the titanic struggle between communism and anti-communism, the immediate threat of a nuclear holocaust has abated, but the potential threat to the existence of humankind is still with us, and always will be. . . . As the last voice of the founders of this movement, I appeal to you [who] has so much power over our destiny–use it wisely and compassionately, lend your skills and ingenuity to ensure the continued existence of the world community in peace and harmony. Remember your humanity.”

  • “Reminiscences on the Fortieth Anniversary of the Russell-Einstein Manifesto,” Pugwash Newsletter, July/October 1995

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