Guest Column: Atomic bomb builders speak for peace – Part 2

Guest Column: Atomic bomb builders speak for peace – Part 2

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George Beres
Guest Columnist


Germany had started atomic development two years earlier, and the Manhattan Project team feared that the Germans were ahead of the United States, Novick explained. “Despite success of Allied landings in Western Europe, we thought that at any instant the Germans might come up with a nuclear bomb.”

Concerns about this possibility began with the warning given to President Franklin Roosevelt by Albert Einstein in 1940.

However, opposition to nuclear power was vigorous among a few Manhattan Project scientists. According to Novick, Leo Szilard, the man credited with starting the project, wrote a letter of protest to President Harry Truman; it was given to Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes, who never delivered it.

James Fronk, a refugee physicist from Germany, prepared a petition that insisted the bomb not be dropped on a city. These isolated examples got virtually no hearing, mainly because, in Novick’s view, the leader of the project, Oppenheimer, recommended the bomb be used on a city.

Their efforts for arms control often took Olum and Novick off campus. For the University Speakers Bureau, they were the two people most in demand to speak about that threat. They especially welcomed chances to speak to audiences of children.

I heard Novick comment to a group of 5th graders at Eugene’s Washington School, “As human beings, we are used to settling our conflicts through war. You as children can educate adults that there are and must be other ways to settle those differences. I feel guilty because I helped establish the bad, bad precedent of being willing to use a terrible weapon we could not control.”

Olum accepted an invitation from national TV talk show host, Phil Donahue, to discuss his views on nuclear armaments before a nationwide audience. “Donahue can make it hard on a guest,” Olum said. “He is rough on you, but treats you fairly.” One thing they discussed was the petition Olum prepared favoring nuclear disarmament, that he circulated at the 40-year reunion of Manhattan Project scientists in 1975.

It called for bilateral nuclear arms reductions and eventual elimination of nuclear weapons. It was signed by 70 scientists, including five Nobel Prize recipients: Hans Bethe, Owen Chamberlain, Richard Feynman, Edwin McMillan and Emilio Segre.

Scientist Edward Teller, refused to sign the petition. “When I gave the petition to Teller, he became infuriated,” Olum recalled. “He pounded the table and screamed that it was actions like mine that caused wars. Olum’s efforts to get Teller on the Donahue show with him were rebuffed. “We probably would have gotten mad at each other in front of the cameras,” he said.

Olum chose to appear on TV “because we and the Russians each have an arsenal of atomic weapons large enough to destroy the world ten times over. The crucial thing is that we sit down together and negotiate without worrying about who is a little bit ahead or behind, because it hardly matters,” he said.

He commented that both countries were kidding themselves about getting ahead. “The crucial point is to stop this insane arms race and to sit down to do all in our power to get rid of these damned weapons,” he said.

Finding ways to reduce atomic power wherever they could, Novick and his wife were key figures in a successful effort by Eugene activists. Against heavy odds, they halted plans by the Eugene Water and Electric Board to convert to atomic power. They were called troublemakers by those who favored the transition.

Years later, advocates of the nuclear plant thanked Novick for his vision. His views, and those of his wife, about war and peace also were reflected in their outspoken opposition to the war in Vietnam during a time when the US and the USSR challenged each other in the Cold War. For that they took flak from war supporters. At one Arms Control Forum meeting, some students shouted at them, “Go back to Russia, you commies.”

Olum pointed out the irony of public paranoia that accepted the arms race: “Security does not come by building more weapons. Because of the arms race, we become less secure. We don’t seem to want to give up on war as an arbiter of international disputes. What we have to deal with is government that feels the need to preserve the institution of war.”

Novick and Olum deserved a catharsis from the self-imposed guilt they felt about building the bomb. Our challenge is to continue their efforts for a caring legacy they have left us.