INTERVIEW WITH PROFESSOR JOSEPH ROTBLAT
INTERVIEWER: Professor Rotblat, first of all can I ask you what your role was in the development of the original atomic bomb?
PROF. J. ROTBLAT: Well, my role goes back to 1939, even before the war started, and I was still in Poland at the time. And I did some experiments which have shown that in the process of breaking up the uranium atom, the fission process, some loose neutrons are also emitted. Out of this, it came to my mind that this is a way to start a chain reaction in which a large number of fissions can be produced and a large amount of energy released. And my calculations have shown that this can occur in a very, very short time, less than a microsecond; and therefore a large amount of energy released in a short time means a mighty explosion. Therefore the idea of the atom bomb occurred to me already in February 1939. However, since I'm a scientist, a pure scientist, and it's not the job of a scientist to work on weapons of mass destruction, therefore I tried to push it out of my mind. It's not my job to do this sort of thing. But nevertheless I still, in the back of my mind, had to worry all the time that other scientists may not have the same moral scruples. In particular I had in mind German scientists, because much of the work leading towards fission was done in Germany. And living in Poland, I knew that it's only a matter of time that there would be a war and that Hitler is going to invade Poland; and if Hitler also had the bomb, then of course he could win the war. And therefore I had this dilemma: on the one hand, as a scientist, I felt it's against the ideals of science to work on a bomb; on the other hand, the ideals of science were endangered if Hitler and his philosophy of Nazism were to prevail. So I fought with myself throughout the summer of 1939, this dilemma. By that time I already was in England, and I remember, "What should I do? Should I begin to work or not?" Eventually the decision was made for me by the outbreak of the war in September 1939, and immediately my country was overrun at the time, and I see the great might, the military might of Germany, and I felt the immediate crisis should take precedence. So therefore I decided, at that stage, that we ought to work on the bomb. But even then my idea was that we need to work on the bomb in order that it should not be used. In other words, if Hitler can have the bomb, then the only way in which we can prevent him from using it against us would be if we also had it and threatened to retaliate. And this was the argument which I used at the time to enable me to still my conscience and anyway to begin to work. And therefore, towards the end of 1939, I began the experiments in Liverpool at the time when I was there, and we established in Liverpool actually experimentally that the bomb is feasible, but it requires an enormous industrial effort in order to make it. Therefore, eventually we decided to join with the American team, with the Manhattan Project. This is the way I came to Los Alamos to join the team there.
INT: And what happened at Los Alamos? How long were you there before you rethought what was going on?
JR: I was in Los Alamos for less than a year. Well, I came in the beginning of 1944, and left by the end of 1944. As soon as I came to Los Alamos, I realised that my fear about the Germans making the bomb was ungrounded, because I could see the enormous effort which was required by the American(s), with all their resources practically intact, intact by the war - everything that you wanted was put into the effort. Even so, I could see that it's still far away, and that by that time the war in Europe was showing that Hitler is going to be defeated, and I could see that probably the bomb won't be ready; even that Hitler wouldn't have it in any case. Therefore I could see this from the beginning, that my being there, in the light of the reason why I came to work on it, was not really justified. But nevertheless, I could not be sure that the Germans would not find a shortcut maybe and they could still make the bomb. Therefore I kept on working together with the other people, although I was very unhappy about having to work on it. But as soon as I learned, towards the end of 1944, that the Germans have abandoned the project, in fact a long time before, I decided that my presence there was no longer justified, and I resigned and I went back to England.
INT: A lot of other very well-known scientists at the time, such as Taylor, Oppenheimer, all the people that were talked of, didn't feel the same way. Did you have any discussions with them about what was going on?
JR: We used to discuss the whole problem about the use of the bomb and how it will fit in with the future security in the world, not only in Europe, quite a lot. I think for most scientists... the ones who initiated the work, like myself, they had the same idea, that we needed the bomb in order to prevent its use. But already by that time it could be seen that Germany was going to be defeated without the threat of the bomb. Nevertheless, they felt, having gone so far, they would like to see whether all these theoretical calculations, whether they really come out in practice. I mean, in other words, they wanted to see until the bomb was tested, which came later, in July '45, and then perhaps they would leave the project. This applies to some scientists but not to others. By that time, when Japan entered the war and the cruelty of Japan to the war prisoners became well known, many people by then... at that time changed their views about the bomb; they felt we may have to use it in order to bring the war in the Far East to a rapid end. And I believe that this is the psychology, the war psychology: once we enter war, we almost lose... you know, our moral values are thrown overboard, and we are encouraged, you know, to kill people who were... in previous days were our partners and our friends, and now we say, well, they are mortal enemies. This is the psychology of the war. And I believe that this applies probably even to Oppenheimer, who otherwise would have felt the same way as I did about this, the whole project.
INT: So do you think that there's almost a dichotomy for scientists between the morals of what they're doing and the pure science of what they're trying to achieve?
JR: There is certainly a moral dilemma in this which existed all the time, and how it goes depends on circumstances. For example, in this particular case of the... during the Manhattan Project, the ideas gradually changed from... from needing the bomb as a deterrent, to the idea that we need to use it, because we needed to finish the war very quickly. But this, of course, exists not only during the war years. Science as such, pure science, does not involve making weapons of mass destruction. This if ever it needs to be done, it should be done by some military engineers and so on. Nevertheless, scientists did take an active part later on, not only during the Manhattan Project. But during the war, the time when we had the arms race going on, scientists played a very important role in keeping up the momentum of the arms race. In other words, they really became almost addicted to making weapons of mass destruction. This is of course completely against the spirit of science. Other scientists, like myself, felt that this is not the work... that scientists should not do [it]. They should be responsible for the way their work is being applied. And therefore, there was this... you might say therefore this dichotomy expressed itself into different groups of scientists; some scientists feeling they ought to do work on weapons, the other scientists feel they should not do. And this is still going on up to this day.