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Issue Date:  September 16, 2005

Joseph Rotblat's legacy of peace


Scientist and peacemaker Sir Joseph Rotblat was one of the great men of the 20th century. Born in Warsaw, Poland, in 1908, he was one of those rare individuals who come to an intersection with history and courageously forge a new path. In Rotblat’s case, the intersection with history arrived in 1944 while he was working on the Manhattan Project, the U.S. project to develop an atomic bomb.

Rotblat had worked as a scientist toward the creation of an atomic weapon, first in the United Kingdom at the University of Liverpool and then at Los Alamos, N.M. When he learned in late 1944 that Germany would not succeed in developing an atomic bomb, he believed there was no longer reason to continue work on creating a U.S. bomb. Rotblat was the only scientist to leave the Manhattan Project on moral grounds.

He was the last living signer of the 1955 Russell-Einstein Manifesto, one of the great documents of the 20th century, and he often quoted its final passage: “We appeal, as human beings, to human beings: Remember your humanity and forget the rest. If you can do so, the way lies open for a new paradise; if you cannot, there lies before you the risk of universal death.”

Just prior to his 90th birthday, he said that he still had two great goals in life: “My short-term goal is the abolition of nuclear weapons, and my long-term goal is the abolition of war.”

Rotblat was for many years the general secretary of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, and later served as president of the Pugwash Conferences. In his work with Pugwash, he was instrumental in bringing together scientists from East and West so that they could find common ground for ending the Cold War with its mad nuclear arms race. In 1995, Rotblat and the Pugwash Conferences were joint recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In his Nobel acceptance speech, he said, “At this momentous event in my life … I want to speak as a scientist, but also as a human being. From my earliest days I had a passion for science. But science, the exercise of the supreme power of the human intellect, was always linked in my mind with benefit to people. I saw science as being in harmony with humanity. I did not imagine that the second half of my life would be spent on efforts to avert a mortal danger to humanity created by science.”

In his speech, he reasoned that a nuclear weapons-free world would be safer than a world with nuclear weapons, but the danger of “ultimate catastrophe” would still exist. He concluded that war must be abolished: “The quest for a war-free world has a basic purpose: survival. But if in the process we learn how to achieve it by love rather than by fear, by kindness rather than compulsion; if in the process we learn to combine the essential with the enjoyable, the expedient with the benevolent, the practical with the beautiful, this will be an extra incentive to embark on this great task.”

When Rotblat came to Santa Barbara, Calif., in 1997 to receive the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Peace Leadership, I asked him, “What gives you hope for the future?” He responded, “My hope is based on logic. Namely, there is no alternative.”

Earlier this year, Rotblat made an appeal to the delegates to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, held in May at the United Nations in New York. “Morality,” he wrote, “is at the core of the nuclear issue: Are we going to base our world on a culture of peace or on a culture of war? Nuclear weapons are fundamentally immoral: Their action is indiscriminate, affecting civilians as well as military, innocents and aggressors alike, killing people alive now and generations as yet unborn.” He ended his appeal with his oft-repeated plea, “Remember your humanity.”

I visited Joseph at his home in London just a few months ago. He had been slowed by a stroke and was disturbed that he wasn’t able to be as active as he had been. But his spirit was strong, and he was still smiling and looking forward. He was as committed as ever to his dual goals of achieving a world without nuclear weapons and without war.

Joseph Rotblat died in London Aug. 31. It is our job now to continue his legacy.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and deputy chair of the International Network of Engineers and Scientists for Global Responsibility.

National Catholic Reporter, September 16, 2005

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