Magazine article American Scientist

An Ethical Evolution

Magazine article American Scientist

An Ethical Evolution

Article excerpt

An Ethical Evolution SCIENTISTS AT WAR: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research. Sarah Bridger, x + 278 pp. Harvard University Press, 2015. $45.

A memorable scene in the 1983 film The Dead Zone provides an ethical justification for actions that harm innocent people. The protagonist presents his friend and psychiatrist with a well-worn hypothetical query: If he could travel back in time to pre-Nazi Germany, would he kill the young Hitler? His friend responds cannily, "I'm a man of medicine. I'm expected to save lives and ease suffering, and I love people. Therefore I would have no choice but to kill the son of a bitch." I think of this scene often when reading about the scientists who made the first atomic bombs. They typically claimed they did so to deter Hitler. As ethical justifications go, invoking Hitler is the gold standard. But, of course, the justification does not fit the outcome: The atomic bombs were used against Japan.

After World War II, scientists were sensitive about the ethical implications of their work when it had obvious military dimensions. Some were proud to do it. After all, was deterring Stalin so different from deterring Hitler? Many claimed they were not responsible for what nonscientists did with their research. Wartime funding did not dry up after the war, and science flourished thanks to its military patrons. Publications such as Vannevar Bush's 1945 report Science: The Endless Frontier encouraged scientists to play up the idea of "basic" research to continue pursuing pure science without calling it military work. Still others wondered what public responsibilities, if any, fell to scientists like themselves who developed instruments of immense destruction. In the late 1940s Albert Einstein warned that, by allowing the armed services to bankroll so much research, the United States was headed down the path of militarism.

Historian Sarah Bridger's ambitious book Scientists at War rethinks scientists' role within the Cold War military establishment, viewing it through an unusual lens: that of the 20th century's continually evolving ethical norms. She frames her story as a paradigm shift in the sense of Thomas Kuhn's wellknown 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, drawing heavily on Kuhn's suggestion that worldviews are often generational. Kuhn himself makes an appearance in the book, although ironically representing the older generation. The book's title refers not so much to the actual battlefield as to ethical conflicts among the scientists themselves.

Bridger has written a stimulating account of the clash of worldviews that divided the Manhattan Project generation from Vietnam-era scientists. Science superstars such as Edward Teller, Herbert York, and George Kistiakowsky saw their careers skyrocket after World War II, and they played important roles directing weapons laboratories and advising presidents. In contrast, the experiences of many Vietnam-erâ scientists, such as Agent Orange critic Matthew Meselson, were marked by doubt, disillusionment, and the desire to speak out.

Bridger carefully avoids depicting the war in Vietnam as the event that led scientists to consider ethical implications for the first time. Such a view would be far too simplistic. Scientists advocated for international control of atomic energy, as well as for armscontrol agreements with the Soviet Union long before the Vietnam War, she notes. Scientific celebrities such as Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and many others openly expressed their concerns on the pages of publications such as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Yet they also wanted to keep the United States at the cutting edge of weapons technology, especially after the Soviet Union's 1957 launch of Sputnik. The satellite may have begun the space age, but it also waved a bright red flag in the arms race, demonstrating that the Soviet Union was ahead of the United States on ballistic missiles, an important delivery system for bombs. …

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