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Nuclear destruction: the greatest peril facing the US -- and the world

By Robert C. Cowen / July 29, 1981



For many US physicists the top priority on their personal and professional agendas is avoidance of nuclear war. They believe nuclear destruction to be the greatest peril the US -- and the world -- now faces. They are concerned that the danger is not fully appreciated as the US begins a new arms buildup.

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This has prompted 11 of the most eminent amont them, includng four Nobelists, to express their concern to President Reagan. The following extract from their letter makes their point:

"As physicists we are acutely aware of the power of these weapons and yet we believe that increasing the world's nuclear arsenals adds nothing to, indeed perhaps detracts from, the security of the major powers. We also believe that it has been conclusively demonstrated that nuclear weapons are fundamentally different from conventional weapons, and require different modes of thinking.

"If we are to learn anything from history, it is that development of new weapons and bigger arsenals by either the US or the Soviet Union inevitably leads to similar developments by the other side which further undermines the security of both nations.Accordingly, we feel that the greatest legacy your administration could leave for the future peace, security, and prosperity of the United States would be to help halt the arms race in which we are presently engaged."

Physicists remember that the nuclear arms race was started by a letter to a president from a physicist (Einstein). The 11 who now want to halt that race bring as much professional authority to their message as did Eisntein, although they may be less well known to the public.

The Nobel laureates are Owen Chamberlain and Donald Glaser of the University of California and Sheldon L. Glashow and Edward M. Purcell of Harvard University. Joining them are Leon Lederman, director of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and Robert R. Wilson of Columbia University, his predecessor at Fermilab, plus Herman Feshbach, Francis Low, Philip Morrison, Victor Weisskopf, and Jerome Wiesner of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Wiesner was science adviser to President Kennedy.

These are thoughtful scientific leaders. They recognize "there are many threats to the peace and prosperity of the American people." But, they add, "Surely, among these, nuclear destruction poses the most awesome threat of all."

Recent administration statements suggest the President may be receptive to such advice. Secretary of State Alexander haig has indicated an interest in resuming arms-control talks with the Soviet Union. Mr. Reagan himself has reaffirmed the United States commitment to curbing nuclear-arms proliferation. For the ph ysicists, this must be at least mildly encouraging.