A Peril and A Hope

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Alice Kimball Smith.A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists’ Movement in America” 1945-47. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1965. Pp. xiv, 591. $10.00)


Today, scientists participate in all types of political discussions, from debates over global warming to genetically modified foods. However, American scientists have not always been so vocal about policy.

Following the 1945 bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists who had participated in the development of the atomic bomb expressed various degrees of shock and horror. In 1966, Alice Kimball Smith, wife of an atomic scientist, wrote a well-researched and highly detailed book, A Peril and a Hope, chronicling some these reactions. According to Kimball, the bomb brought about a “dramatic change in the relation of scientists to public affairs.” (v) Unlike European scientists of prior centuries, American scientists had not usually involved themselves in politics; however, the atomic age ushered in a new era. Following the war, “an articulate and influential portion of the American scientific community made a desperate effort to establish guaranties that science should henceforth be primarily an instrument of peace and dedicated to human welfare.” (vi)

Smith begins her tale with a description of the meetings that took place in reaction to the deployment of the atomic bombs. At that time, “they did the job for which their talents and experience best suited them.” By the 1960s, however, “scientists, no less than soldiers and statesmen” were important for a society seeking peace. (3) Scientists were very keen upon seeking peace, for they saw the horrors wrought by their invention. In Kimball’s estimation, “most scientists who worked on the bomb reluctantly approved the use of the first bomb because it promised an early end to the war. But many who accepted Hiroshima were deeply shocked by the second bomb dropped on Nagasaki three days later.” (78)

In the wake of the bombing, scientists became a powerful (if not always organized) lobby. For example, in October 1945, President Truman and Congress introduced separate bills on atomic energy. While the scientists were reassured by Truman’s bill, they felt great frustration with the congressional bill. “To the scientists its negative shortcomings were most marked in the field of foreign policy, for it failed to balance emphasis upon military applications and possible military membership on the commission with any reference to the sharing of information with other countries upon which international control would necessarily be based.” (130) After descending upon the halls of Congress, the scientists faced various reactions from the press and public. One writer opined, “once the scientist emerges from his laboratory he is no more disinterested than a business man or a politician, having like them his own beliefs, aversions, his own creeds and biases.” (176) But, coming together under the auspices of the Federation of American Scientists, these scientists accomplished much. As Kimball Smith notes, they “succeeded in mobilizing the support that established civilian control of atomic energy, contributed significantly to agreement on technical aspects of international control, and made substantial headway on vast job of educating laymen in the facts and implications of a particular technological development and hence in a small way of science and technology in general.” (531) Despite their success, however, lobbying scientists often despaired “when faced with disappointment in the unfamiliar world of politics and that customary tolerance of diversity of opinion sometimes gave way to warm and far from dispassionate judgments.” (530)

Kimball Smith has produced an intriguing book, which should prove interesting to both historians and students of politics as well. The book, however, is not for the faint of heart. It is long and very detailed—perhaps, overly detailed. Kimball-Smith has delved into the nitty-gritty when she discusses the minutes of scientific meetings. It is also frustrating that she did not add a proper bibliography, for she undoubtedly used a multitude of sources.

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