The Open Mind

Teacher, physicist, and administrator, J. Robert Oppenheimer was Director of the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos from March, 1943, to October, 1945. During those years he directed a force of nearly 6000 scientific and military employees under conditions which were seldom free from intense mental strain. Certainly he knows as much about the potential of atomic energy as any living American, and his urge for peace, his belief that we must be governed by open-mindedness in our international responsibility for the atomic bomb, are characteristic of what Secretary Stimson termed his "genius and leadership."

A few weeks ago the president of a college in the prairie states came to see me. Clearly, when he tried to look into the future, he did not like what he saw: the grim prospects for the maintenance of peace, for the preservation of freedom, for the flourishing and growth of the humane values of our civilization. He seemed to have in mind that it might be well for people, even in his small college, to try to take some part in turning these prospects to a happier end; but what he said came rather as a shock.

He said, “I wonder if you can help me. I have a very peculiar proble3m. You see, out there most of the students, and the teachers too, come from the farm. They are used to planting seed, and then waiting for it to grow, and then harvesting it. They believe in time and in nature. It is rather hard to get them to take things into their own hands.”

Perhaps, as much as anything, my theme has to do with enlisting time and nature in the conduct of our international affairs: in the quest for peace and a freer world. This is not meant mystically, for the nature which we must enlist is that of man; and if there is hope in it, that lies not least in man’s reason.

What elements are there in the conduct of foreign affairs which may be conducive to the exercise of that reason, which may provide a climate for the growth of new experience, new insight, and new understanding? How can we recognize such growth, and be sensitive to its hopeful meaning, while there is yet time, through action based on understanding, to direct the outcome?

Such difficult questions one treats only modestly and incompletely. If there are indeed answers to be found, they will be found through many diverse avenues of approach—in the European Recovery Program, in our direct relations with the Soviet states, in the very mechanisms by which our policies are developed and determined.

Yet it will not seem inappropriate to consider one relatively isolated, yet not atypical, area of foreign affairs—atomic energy. It is an area in which the primary intent of our policy has been totally frustrated. It is an area in which it is commonly recognized that the prospects for success with regard to this primary intent are both dim and remote. It is an area in which it is equally recognized that this failure will force upon us a course of action in some important respects inconsistent with our original purposes. It is an area in which the excellence of our proposals, and a record in which we may and do take pride, have nevertheless not managed quite to quiet the uneasy conscience or to close the mind to further trouble.

Our policy and our efforts toward international atomic control are public; far more important, they have from the first aroused widespread interest, criticism, and understanding, and have been the subject of debates in the Congress and the press, and among our people. There may even be some notion of how, if we had the last years to live over again, we might alter our course in the light of what we have learned, and some rough agreement as to the limits within which alternative courses of action, if adopted at a time when they were still open to us, could have altered the outcome. The past is in one respect a misleading guide to the future: it is far less perplexing.

Certainly there was little to inspire, and nothing to justify, a troubled conscience in the proposals that our government made to the United Nations, as to the form which the international control of atomic energy should take. The essential elements of these proposals were: (1) the internationalization of the key activities in the field of atomic energy, (2) the complete abolition of secrecy, (3) the prohibition of national or private activities in fields menacing to the common security, (4) the intensification of coöperation between nations in research, development, and exploitation, and (5) the abrogation of the right of veto, both in the management of the affairs of the international development authority, and in the determination of transgression against the covenant.

These proposals, and some detailed means for implementing them, were explored and criticized, elaborated, and recommended for adoption by fourteen of the seventeen member nations that served on the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission. They were rejected as wholly unacceptably, even as a basis for further discussion, by the three Soviet states, whose contributions to policy and to debate have throughout constituted for us a debasingly low standard for comparison.

This September, the Commission made its third, and what it thought its final, report to the General Assembly, meeting in Paris. It recommended to the Assembly that the general outlines of the proposed form of international control be endorsed, that the inadequacy of the Soviet counterproposals be noted, and that the Commission itself be permitted to discontinue its work pending either a satisfactory prior negotiation between the permanent members of the Security Council and Canada, or the finding by the General Assembly that the general political conditions which had in the past obstructed progress had been so far altered that agreement now appeared possible.

The Assembly did in fact accept all the recommendations but one. It asked the Commission to continue meeting. In its instructions to the Commission, however, the Assembly failed to provide affirmative indications of what the Commission was to do, or to express any confidence in the success of its further efforts. In fact, one might dismiss this action as no more than an indication of unwillingness on the part of the Assembly to accept as permanent the obvious past failures of the Commission to fulfill its mandate.

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