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A Mixed Blessing: Atomic Energy

What can be done to mitigate the potential dangers of nuclear energy?

October 18, 2005

What can be done to mitigate the potential dangers of nuclear energy?

With IAEA Director General Mohamed ElBaradei winning the Nobel Peace Prize last week, there is no doubt much progress has been made on nuclear issues since the Cold War. Here we present the historical views of William C. Bullitt, author of “The Great Globe Itself.” His 1946 book still rings true in that we all still live with the promethean deal we struck over half a century ago.

Man is caught in a trap of his own invention. He has acquired, and is acquiring each year, increased control over the force of inanimate nature. But he has not acquired and is not acquiring any increased control over the force of his own nature.

The sciences which deal with inanimate nature, physics and chemistry, have outstripped the sciences which deal with animate nature — biology and psychology.

In consequence, the atomic bomb is in the hand of a superficially civilized savage who is somewhat restrained by the pressure of custom and the teachings of religion.

His forefathers on murder bent, had at most a stone, a club, a dagger, a sword, a spear and a bow. Their intended victims had at least legs with which to run away. There is no running away from the atomic bomb. And there is no hope that biology and psychology can produce adequate changes in human nature in time.

Moreover, the influence of religion on man’s conduct is not increasing, and the years from 1914 to 1946 have been a period of moral decay in international customs — a period of de-civilization.

If Christ’s teaching: “Do unto others as you would they should do unto you,” or its Confucian corollary, “Do not do to another what you would not have him do to you,” had become the way of life of mankind before the discovery of methods to utilize atomic energy, the future would be bright with hope for all humanity.

For atomic energy offers the physical means to make this earth a fairer habitation than man has ever dreamed.

But the atomic bomb came first. And our problem is no less than this: To try to develop and integrate in the national and international customs of all peoples wisdom and character of the quality that hitherto has distinguished a few saints and sages.

To raise the level of some peoples is not enough. The world is studded with the wrecked remains of relatively civilized communities that fell before barbaric conquerors.

To beat swords into plowshares while the spiritual descendants of Genghis Khan stalk the earth armed with atomic bombs is to die and to leave no descendants.

Must we conclude, therefore, that the human race is an unsuccessful experiment which is nearing an unhappy end?

Perhaps. But before embracing annihilation, we may at least examine every bar of the trap which holds us, try to remember how we got into it and try to find a way out.

Let us begin our search by looking backward from our present situation to some events of the immediate past, then examine the facts that lie behind those events, then — if the facts permit us to draw any conclusions that offer hope of peace — try to look forward and chart a way out of our present predicament.

It might be more logical to begin by a discussion of the development of such civilization as mankind possesses, then proceed to an examination of the fundamental aims and present objectives of the Great Powers, then assess the possibilities and draw conclusions. Such an approach to the problem would avoid the unpleasant obligation to state conclusions from time to time before examining the facts on which they are based.

But the process of working backward from the fact of the atomic bomb, although less logical, has the virtue of corresponding to reality.

The atomic bomb is the central fact in the minds of all men who attempt to think about their own future or the future of mankind.

From the book “The Great Globe Itself,” by William C. Bullitt. Copyright © 2005 by Transaction Publishers. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.