Renewed tensions between Russia and the United States bring to mind wise counsel for peace offered in the 1970s by two University of Oregon figures of national distinction: Paul Olum and Aaron Novick. As the 20th century fades from memory, our future could depend on not forgetting their message.
What irony that these two men who helped create the most devastating weapon of war, can be justly remembered today for their service to peace.
As Lane’s Peace Symposium at the end of April draws near, let’s remember these godfathers of the nuclear age in 1945, who spent the rest of the 21st century trying to atone for the atom bomb they helped build.
President Olum (1978-90) and his founding director at the Institute for Molecular Biology, Novick, met as young men in 1945. They were members of the highly secretive Manhattan Project. Olum was a recent graduate in theoretical physics at Princeton University and Novick had a doctorate in physical organic chemistry from the University of Chicago.
They, among other scientists, helped create the nuclear bomb that the United States dropped on Japan at the end of World War II.
Included were project director, Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller, Niels Bohr and Enrico Fermi. Olum and Novick were later reunited in Oregon and served humanity well by giving us persistent reminders of nuclear danger in the decades that followed the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Their concern was that some day, if there is a nuclear war, people will ask, “Why didn’t you tell us?” They did tell us, but we have not listened. They were blocked by what Novick’s wife Jane Novick, described as euphemisms of public denial: counter force for first strike, defense budget for war budget and non-buffered precipitation for acid rain.
Another Eugene link came from the grandfather of Peter von Hippel, long the head of Chemistry at the University of Oregon. Novick remembered the elder von Hippel from the University of Chicago, where in the early 1940s he “worked hard to forestall dropping the bomb on a city.”
Their personal crusade was reflected in the University of Oregon Arms Control Forum, which they founded. It was “only a gesture in the continuing commitment we all must make to protect ourselves and our earth against nuclear devastation,” Novick said.
There were many such gestures from them both in their stubborn efforts to defuse an ultimate global explosion, for which they both felt personally responsible.
They felt jubilation at the war’s sudden end in August,1945, after the bombs fell on Japan. This was soon followed by a deep bitterness, shared with most of their Manhattan colleagues when they recognized implications of the nuclear age they had created.
“The cheers barely were out of our mouths before most of us came to our senses, realizing what terrible things this could mean for the future of the earth,” Novick recalled.”What happened in Japan was terrible. Our fear was that it might be repeated in the future.”
Both men were present for the first bomb test on July 16, 1945, at Alamagordo, New Mexico. Olum remembered Fermi saying the explosion might wipe out all of New Mexico, with a 10 percent chance it could set off a thermonuclear explosion of the earth’s atmosphere. “We knew that if the state went, we really were talking about destruction of the world,” Olum said.
Novick was standing next to Oppenheimer nine miles from ground zero. “With a rumble of deep, deep thunder, the sky was filled with a massive cloud full of purple light,” he recalled. In that moment they had the frightening realization that the future of the world had just suddenly changed — it would never be the same again.
In their rush to perfect the bomb, they failed to calculate the greater price humanity would pay in the years ahead — during a time of terrifying brinksmanship by atomic powers. They knew that nuclear bomb technology would not remain a secret for long. Other nations would learn how to make them.
Eager to escape the morbid reminders of what they had witnessed — the explosion of the first bomb, Olum and Novick joined other troubled scientists as they worked against legislation that would put our nuclear program in the hands of the military.
They gave many interviews and speeches in which they described how continued development of nuclear weapons would threaten the life of the planet. Why, one might ask, would such a group of scientific intellects, recognizing the potential trauma of the bomb before it was dropped, fail to challenge the project beforehand, as seriously as they did afterward?