The man who invented conscience

Over the years, and especially this week, since he died, I have read innumerable accounts of Sir Joseph Rotblat’s life. In all of the stories it is told that he left Los Alamos laboratory when it became clear that the reason why he worked on “the bomb” to begin with, to be sure that Hitler didn’t get it first, was no longer relevant. But not one of all the stories even mentioned the price that he paid for this “act of conscience.” 

This week the BBC published a eulogy in which it was mentioned, as an interesting aside, that he was not allowed to enter the U.S. for another twenty years: a classic example of bland “balanced journalism” in which the BBC specializes. The BBC story mentions that Pugwash “was met with suspicion in some quarters.” A vast understatement! No picture is ever given of the wrenching experience of his rejection by the US, for which he had worked so hard at the “the lab”. Never does anyone ever tell how he was labelled a turn-coat, a traitor, how he was hounded by the American and British secret services for years for listening to his own inner voice.

Never is there mention of the fact that already before the bomb was dropped it had become a Shibboleth of the Holy American Empire, that only a communist could possibly be against it (Albert Schweitzer got the same treatment, but it didn’t affect him as much because he was not occupied with politically loaded issues). And this brings me to the point of this story: I think that the first condition for an act of conscience to be classified as an act of courage is that it must extract its “pound of flesh” from the doer. And that was what leaving Los Alamos did to Jo. And that is what makes him not just a great man, but a giant among men.

Nieuwsbrief_2005_november_Page_04_Image_0001Leading Pugwash all those years, sometimes officially, sometimes more or less from behind the scenes, but always the real leader, he must have gone through many wrenching experiences. Keeping Pugwash alive was an intricate balancing act where, strangely enough, people pretended that politics were not the problem, but where they were, in reality, the only problem. What do you do, for instance, when top people in the Pugwash elite work on nuclear weapons, the fight against which was the raison d’être of Pugwash? Jo learned from experience that he had to be a moderate in everything to keep Pugwash from “drowning” in insoluble disagreements. I disagreed with him on many issues, but I also saw the necessity of his very strict adherence to the rules of balance. Council membership was always a delicate point where balance had to be maintained between east and west, and between Israel and the Arab World. What attitude do you take when the VN says that Israel must withdraw from the territories conquered in the six-day war (June 1967), but Israel (and the US) close their eyes to the demand (still today, after almost forty years of occupation)? Do you still keep the balance? If you do, as Jo did, how do you then cope with the impossibility that a signatory of the NPT, the US, openly supports a known, but unofficial, proliferator, their ally, against the whole Arab world?

Where Jo and I disagreed most strongly was his dogmatic adherence to the NPT that I have always seen as a treaty which created two classes of nations, a situation that I find ethically totally unacceptable, but also politically wrong-headed. His view, which I dislike, but respect, is that it must be adhered to, to avoid acceptance as normal of a further growth in the number of nations with nuclear weapons. In the course of the years, I believe that the increase in the number of nuclear weapon states shows that I was right to begin with, but history is not over, and although Jo is not amongst us any longer, his presence will be felt for as long as the issues for which he stood continue to exist.

Jo’s attitude toward, and actions relevant to, these issues, and the many others where we clashed, form the, perhaps paradoxical, basis of my devout respect for Jo as one of the few who was always clear-headed and as courageous as the day he left Los Alamos.

door Philip Smith

Dit artikel werd eerder als hoofdartikel gepubliceerd in de INES (International Network of Engineers and Scientists) Newsletter No. 50, september 2005.




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