Science, War, and Democracy: Vannevar Bush's Declaration of Faith

No scientist or administrator of our time has clearer knowledge or better right to speak about the atomic armament race than VANNEVAR BUSH, who during the war years was head of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. His new book, Modern Arms and Free Men, is the December selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. For an appraisal of it we turn to RICHRD E. DANIELSON,who served in Military Intelligence in both wars and who has long been one of the most thoughtful critics on the Atlantic staff.



DR. VANNEVAR BUSH, as Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during the war, was in a position both to evaluate the product of the scientists and military men who collaborated in applying science to military problems, and to observe how this vitally important work was carried on under the system which we call “ democracy.”It is because of his professional interest in the product itself — “Modern Arms” — and his profound belief in the democratic theory — “Free Men” — that his book differs from the merely scientific works which have preceded it. Faith and common sense, combined with a full knowledge of his subject, make Modern Arms and Free Men (Simon and Schuster, $3.00) a volume that is of hopeful burden in anxious times.

In a sense there is nothing particularly new in his review of the work of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Dr. James Phinney Baxter III in his admirable book Scientists Against Time, published in 1946, covered the same ground with more detail and equal clarity. Since then, however, further developments along scientificmilitary lines, new or changing tensions in the international situation, and divided thinking on the strategy of national defense have altered the picture of 1946 and the views held at that time as to future probabilities. Dr. Bush’s summaries of the work of OSRD are not so much a history of past accomplishment as they are a study of what that accomplishment — constantly extended — implies if we should become involved in another and perhaps more dreadful conflict. The author disclaims any prophetic powers, but his calm assessments, his weighing of relative values, his projection of future developments, provide a far better foundation for prophecy than the layman’s wishful thinking.

It would be unfair to state his conclusions baldly, for they are put forward very modestly after he has presented the reader with all the facts that are presentable. However, a few of them may be mentioned by way of showing the character of his thinking: he tells us we need not fear invasion; he inclines to the belief that the days of mass bombing by fleets of heavy airplanes are numbered, as the means of defense — radar, guided missiles, proximity fuses, and the like — seem to have won at least a temporary superiority over the offense. Toxic or bacteriological warfare, he points out, is not as easy to handle and deliver without backfiring or reprisals as it appears to be to the layman.

The atomic bomb is a terrific weapon and, if exploded deep enough in water, may contaminate a large area for a long time. But, as he says, the accurate delivery of an atomic bomb is no easy matter, nor is one readily smuggled by subversive agents, nor is it a trifling task to produce them in volume. “The bomb will be important but not absolute.” The innocent-looking merchant ship in harbor which detonates a bomb by way of a surprise attack is, of course, a serious menace and can be countered only by vigilant investigation.

Dr. Bush appears to be more impressed by the dangers to American shipping and control of the seas from the greatly improved Schnorkel submarines which the Russians are said to possess in large numbers. Evidently he thinks this is the major problem facing our navy today and, one gathers, it is a problem which has not as yet been solved. The possibility of enemy submarines lobbing atomic bombs into the harbors of our great coastal cities is perhaps the most fearsome potential of World War III, and Dr. Bush does not minimize its serious implications. “The days of the great battleship seem to be over. . . . Even the days of the greal carrier may be past.” But the menace of the submarine still remains and the first duty of the Navy is to overcome it.

In considering existing or possible new weapons of offense or defense Dr. Bush is always careful to examine the cosl of such weapons. Will this new weapon justify in relative effectiveness the time, effort, money, and material involved in its production— against the claims put forward for other weapons and techniques? Even the wealth of the United States at war is not inexhaustible; the allocation of metals and other materials demands the strictest priority, and the time element the scientific man-hours which must be devoted to a new project or diverted from one project to another is also of compelling importance. We must not follow false leads or waste our priceless resources of brains and wealth on weapons which become obsolete as soon as they are employed. The German magnetic mine seemed at first a most dangerous threat to British shipping, but the answer to it was so quickly found that its creation in retrospect appears as so much lost motion and waste of time. Indeed, the failure of German scientists to make the most of their real discoveries in new and secret weapons was largely due to the fact that their efforts were continually diverted to plausible but relatively ineffective projects as the intuition of the Führer dictated.


DR. BUSH discusses “Modern Arms” in nine chapters. And if he has not added greatly to the fund of information already in the public’s possession, he has arranged that information with wisdom and in just perspective. In Chapter X he analyzes Total War, of which he thinks we are in no immediate danger — “if it comes, it will be by miscalculation, not by design.”The danger of a surprise attack on a large scale — a glorified Pearl Harbor is, however, always present. The best protection against such an attack lies in an alert and comprehensive Intelligence Service, which we do not possess at present but which is indispensable to our security. To build such a service is a difficult but not an impossible task. “As we value our peace of mind we bad better be about it.” The chapter on Subversive War is less convincing than most, as it is largely concerned with biological warfare, and other methods are inadequately handled.

It is not until Chapter XIII, “Threat and bulwark,” that Dr. Bush takes up the subject matter which is referred to in “ Eree Men.”This seems to me the more important portion of the book. Certainly it is more controversial than even the most debatable problem in armament or ordnance. For it involves the human equation and human emotion. Dr. Bush sees the present state of the world — the existing Cold War — as a definite fork in the road which mankind is traveling. For the first time, the whole world is offered a choice: to take the road of fatalistic materialism or the road of faith and freedom. There is, under the circumstances, no other choice.

We have been told so often that democracy is clumsy; we have seen so much power taken over by the central government in our own country on the theory that only a strong, wise group in Washington could make democracy work; we have—so many of us — accepted the premise that in time of war the democratic processes are so slow and fumbling that they must be laid aside and all great matters handled under a quasi dictatorship, that in the end we have come to doubt the strength and effectiveness of our own chosen form of government, our birthright, and our dream. Not so Dr. Bush. He has faith in faith. He has seen democracy at war, and to him it is a mightier force than any dictator can command. It is more supple, stronger in voluntary and varied collaboration; it has depths and layers of untold potentials.

Dictatorship is rigid. It cannot tolerate heresy. It is suspicious and fearful of its own followers. It lives by liquidating the ambitious or the different. Under such a police system an organization like the OSRD would wither into a sterile and acquiescent bureau. The Iron Curtain bars out the world of new ideas, of scientific creation freely discussed and objectively analyzed. Dr. Bush insists that democracy works better — as far as modern weapons are concerned — than a dictatorship. Post-war investigations proved that “the democratic system is more efficient, dollar for dollar and hour for hour, than any totalitarian system.” And the Russian system, he says, “has many of the faults of the German dictatorship magnified to the nth degree.”

Now this is good and cheering news and, coming from such a source, it cannot be discarded us wishfid thinking. But Dr. Bush leaves us in no doubt that if democracy is mighty, it is not so just of itself, ipso facto, without effort and discipline. It has enormous potentials and great weaknesses. Chief among the latter are “its lack of rigidly defined stabilities its prevalent confusion, and the danger that it may be distorted for selfish ends.” If labor and capital seek only selfish ends, if class war is preached within democracy, if our young people never learn what are the stable and enduring principles of democracy but, in listlessness and apathy, accept the plausible and easiest way — then no great war is needed to destroy democracy. It will destroy itself.

I think Dr. Bush has written a book of transparent candor based on a full knowledge of what happened before his eyes and under his direction. I believe that his sincere, refreshing faith in the democratic scheme of life springs from experience and observation. He has seen it at work and found it good. And in this book he has said so nobly. It is a book which should be read wherever doubts persist and faith falters. It is not an opiate. It is a call to free men to be worthy of their heritage.