An A-bomb inventor who campaigns for arm control
Cambridge, Mass. — He is a man pushing peace by pointing out the ugly prospect of war. He is an octogenarian who advocates mass protest with youthful zest. He is a former Washington "insider" who now battles the military establishment from the outside. He is a weapons expert who eschews the need for more weapons, at least the most destructive ones.
George Kistiakowsky, onetime science adviser to President Eisenhower, never veers from his ultimate destination: to halt the spread of nuclear weaponry, a colossus he helped to create. Dr. Kistiakowsky, in short, is an apostle of arms control.
"I am very much interested in this idea of a mass movement -- of making the public aware that nuclear war is a real possibility," says the Harvard University professor emeritus, his 6-foot 3-inch frame folded in a chair.
"It has to be prevented. That is the only way to deal with a nuclear war. And to prevent it through a nuclear arms race is impossible. That is the mechanism for starting one."
Dr. Kistiakowsky, probably the nation's foremost chemical expert on explosives during World War II, helped produce the first atom bomb in the desert at Los Alamos, N.M., in 1945. For years afterward, he helped shape national policy as an adviser to three administrations, starting with his tenure as President Eisenhower's special assistant for science and technology. He was awarded score of honorary degrees and medals.
But during these postwar years, the Harvard chemist was also becoming more and more wary of what he saw as the nation's drift toward militarism. In particular, he was concerned about the country's swelling nuclear arsenal and the burgeoning influence of the Pentagon in national affairs. His anxieties peaked in 1968 when he formally broke ties with the Defense Department, partly over concern about the Vietnam war.
Today the tart-tongued chemist is still crusading for peace. For more than a decade he has been calling for a curb on the growth of nuclear weapons.
He serves as chairman of the Council for a Livable World, a Boston-based arms-control group. The council, founded by nuclear physicist Leo Szilard in 1962, champions the cause of arms control by focusing on the Senate. It provides technical information on defense matters and supports senatorial candidates in elections.
Dr. Kistiakowsky's message: World stability can only be ensured through effective arms control. He doesn't advocate reducing the arsenals already in place. But he does want the development of nuclear weapons, by both superpowers , stopped. Each new weapons system the US produces, he believes, just forces the Soviet Union to produce a new one also, and vice versa. This seesaw buildup only pushes the superpowers closer to the trigger point. He is concerned in particular at the talk of waging a limited nuclear war.
"We are trying to prevent a nuclear war," he says. "This, frankly, is our only objective. It is a big objective, too. I think the likelihood is we will lose it, and there will be a nuclear war between now and the end of the century. Whether it will grow into a holocaust destroying hundreds of millions of people I don't know. But I am pretty sure nuclear weapons will be use in anger in the next 20 years."
His views may never prevail, at least in the short run, in a world that seems to equate security with greater military might. But, in the opinion of many observers, his voice helps to balance and sharpen the national debate over defense policy.
He likes to urge fellow scientists to be more aware of the social implications of their work and not to kowtow to the military establishment. Never short on opinions, he refers to his "hawkish" adversaries as "pathetic characters" -- or, if he is irate, as "subhuman." But he always seems to soften his verbal thrusts with a toothy grin.
George Kistiakowsky was born the son of a liberal sociologist in Kiev, Russia , in 1900. He fought in the White Army against the Bolsheviks in the Russian revolution because he thought they were an authoritarian group allied with the Germans. He later fled to Germany where he studied chemistry; he came to the United States in 1926, joining the Harvard faculty four years later. He served as chairman of the college's chemistry department from 1947 to 1950. His skill with explosives resulted in his being summoned to Los Alamos.
It was July 1945. A cluster of the country's top scientists was trying to come up with a new weapon, code named "Gadget," in time to be of help in ending the war. The site: a dusty New Mexican desert dubbed Jornada del Muerto" (march of death) by 17th-century Spaniards. For months, the scientists had been exploding a ton of explosives a day.
Word had come from Washington to speed up the tests. Officials wanted the bomb results before the end of the Potsdam summit, where Truman, Churchill, and Stalin were to huddle. After days of bad weather, the skies finally broke on July 16. The firing was set for 5:30 a.m. Uncertainties abounded. In fact, shortly before the firing, J. Robert Oppenheimer, director of the nuclear experimental program, bet $10 it would be a dud. young Harvard scientist George Kistiakowsky took him up on the wager.
The switch was thrown. A fiery caldron "brighter than a thousand suns," according to one chronicler, mushroomed up from the desert floor. Dr. Kistiakowsky collected an autographed $10 bill.
"This is the nearest thing to doomsday that one could possibly imagine," the Harvard chemist was quoted as saying at the time. "I am sure that at the end of the world -- in the last millisecond of the earth's existence -- the last man will see what we saw."
While working for the National Defense Rasearch Committee during World War II , Dr. Kistiakowsky helped develop a long lineage of explosives. One, dubbed "Aunt Jemima," looked and tasted like flour. It could be baked into bread and then detonated. The powder was poured into bags labled "flour" and smuggled into Japanese-held areas of China.
But the chemist also fund more benign uses for explosives. Shortly after the Japanese surrender, a group of scientists celebrated at a home near Los Alamos. Late that night, several of them lamented not being able to fire off a 21-gun salute. The young chemist fetched a box of TNT-like explosives from a supply shack and let loose with the fire-explosives from a supply shack and let loose with the fireworks. "When I got back to the party, they told me I fired 22," he now says.
Years later, when Dr. Kistiakowsky sought a permit to blow out tree stumps on land in Lincoln, Mass., local authorities wanted proof he could handle explosives. He came back with a signed note from President Eisenhower, citing his contribution to the development of the atomic bomb.
Dr. Kistiakowsky solidified many of his nonmilitarist views during the Eisenhower time. He says the President was very peace-oriented in his waning days in office, which left a deep impression on him. He refers in particular to his farewell address, warning of the growth of the military-industrial complex.
Dr. Kistiakowsky became disturbed by the pace of the arms buildup under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, which was carried out presumably to counter Soviet muscle-flexing. Even today, he argues, the widespread belief that the Soviet Union in the past 10 years has expanded its arsenal compared with that of the United States is a myth.
"This refrain that we are vulnerable [to the Soviets] goes back years in different forms," he says. "The missile gap of the 1950s was a story like this. Before that we had a bomber gap: the country was defenseless against the enormous forces of Soviet bombers, which existed only in the imagination of the Pentagon.
"Sure, in terms of [percentage of gross national product devoted to defense] we are building less," he says. "But the point is we have built enormous forces already. And they are effective. We're now really gold plating or inventing dangerous systems like the MX which border on insanity."
Nor does the chemist buy the widely held assumption that the US land-based missile force -- mainly up of its 1,000 Minuteman missiles -- is becoming vulnerable to a strike from the Soviets' larger SS-18s. While the Russians may be able to knock out part of the US force, he says, it is doubtful they could ever pull off a coordinated, split-second attack capable of wiping out the entire land-base arsenal. And, he argues, the US still has the two other more invulnerable legs of its nuclear force: submarine-based missiles and the bomber force.
Thus, Dr. Kistiakowsky sees the addition of a sophisticated new missile system -- the mobile MX, for instance --as overkill that would only boost the arms race. The MX plan was hatched under the Carter administration to beef up the US land-based nuclear arsenal and to help the US survive a "first strike," considered esssential to deterring such an attack. The mobile-basing system was to ensure the missles' survivability. Some 200 missiles would be lodged in road-linked concrete shelters beneath desolate, windswept stretches of Nevada and Utah, covering an area the size of Pennsylvania. But the multibillion-dollar an area has run into stern opposition from everyone from environmentalists to cattle ranchers.
President Reagan's new defense budget includes outlays for the MX, but the administration hasn't settled yet on how to base the missle. Defense and congressinal officials have been weighing the possibility of a sea-basing system -- including deploying the missiles on small submarines. The congressional Office of Technology Assestment recently released a study endorsing the submarine idea. Dr. Kistiakowsky says he would be willing to go along with new submarine-base missiles if they were only aimed at detering the Soviets. But he believes they go beyond that.
"There are assertions that the Soviets are building weapons that can destroy our Minuteman silos," he says. "So now we're building counter silo weapons, and , of course, the existence of these two forces in effect aimed at each other makes for a political crisis far more dangerous than anything that people can imagine."
The danger, he says, is that the US would then be capable of knocking out the Soviets' silo-housed missiles -- 75 percent of their strategic force.
"So there would be a real possibility of disarming them," he says. "This adds to enormous political instability. But if the missiles are not designed as silo killers, but for deterrent purpose, then I don't see anything tragic about it except I think it is a waste of resources."
Dr. Kistiakowsky believes the sidelined SALT II treaty would be a useful beginning to slow the growth of nuclear weapons. He contends it would set limits on Soviet missiles and multiple warheads at a time when Moscow is geared up to produce more weapons and the US is not. The treaty would also force Moscow to allow US intelligence-gathering by satellite and other means.
But critics of the treaty argue that the US lost its most important monitoring post with the fall of the Shah in Iran. Other less "hawkish" opponents insist the treaty doesn't go far enough in setting limits. Dr. Kistiakowsky himself would rather see a moratorium on new weapons production and testing than the SALT treaty.
"Look, I'm not for unilateral disarmament," he says. "The world isn't right for it. But I have a strong conviction that the Soviet Union would be very eager to join in the reduction of nuclear arms. I don't mean to say at all that it will grow out of a noble spirit. But simply because it is nuclear arms which threaten the destruction of the Soviet Union. And they want to preserve themselves.
"I am saying let's for the time being leave what is already deployed there. Let's just not add anything new. Because in a political sense, it is the uncertainty of what is coming from the other side that creates the tension more than what is already there. And if we leave the things there without adding any more, the deployed forces will gradually lose their reliability. . . . And as they lose reliability, at least theoretically the temptation to use them will go down."
An equally ominous threat, he believes, is the spread of nuclear weapons to other nations. The so-called nuclear club now numbers six or seven. But other countries -- Pakistan, Iraq, and South Africa among them -- are believed to be trying to get on the roster.
In addition, no substantive breakthroughs appear likely in the near future on the strategic arms limitations talks between the US and Soviet Union. Against this backdrop, Dr. Kistiakowsky keeps trying to rally public indignation -- a Vietnam-like movement that would be an antipode to the conservative, hard-line groups now flexing their muscles in Washington.
"What is necessary is to have a mass movement, a people's movement for peace. I'm about something which, frankly, is the opposite of what has happened this last 12 months, particularly during the presidential campaign and the attacks by the so-called neoconservatives and allied hawks and by these horrible TV preachers. . . ."
He agrees there is a need to shore up conventional forces, particularly manpower. His suggestion: compulsory national service (male and female) -- with no exemptions for college or anything else.
When he is not bogged down in the technical minutiae of Minuteman and MX missiles, the raspy-voiced chemist spends time plowing through British spy novels ("They're better than American ones.") Or else he is reminding colleagues in the Cambridge community about their social responsibilities as scientists -- a responsibility he thinks is either too often shirked or tampered with by the military. Too many technical people, he believes, are working on military problems these days.
"You know, very few scientists who were active in World War II are enthusiastic about militarism today," he says. "There are a lot of young scientists who are enthusiastic about military things -- it is more interesting, more exciting, more money, more opportunity. But older people by and large aren't. i'm not alone, in other words."
Scientists should, he says, have a larger social conscience. "I feel that to interfere with basic science, which is essentially the age-old human urge to understand the world we live in ourselves as part of that world, is criminal.
"Scientist have to realize that they have been given extraordinary facilities by society. . . . They have to alert society whenever they see new scientific discoveries and findings that can be misused for evil purposes."
Dr. Kistiakowsky is trying to warn the public about what he sees as the nuclear menace. Does he think he will succeed?
"Probably not," he concedes. "But a person doesn't have to be succesful to have a certain peace of mind."