Life or Death, 1958

There is something cold and detached about the world of statistics, for it forms a part of a science based upon self-evident truths and abstract relationships, and there was certainly something chill about the proceedings in the Central Hall, Westminster, on the evening of September 22nd.


On the platform were three eminent scientists—Professor Linus Pauling, of Pasadena, U.S.A., Professor Marcus Oliphant of Australia, and Professor Powell of Bristol University; three men whose contribution to science is acknowledged as great within their own lifetime. They were there at the invitation of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, to be cross-examined “about nuclear and hydrogen bombs and the responsibility of the Scientist in the Nuclear Age.” Their interrogators were two journalists, a liberal politician, and a Q.C.


In expert and erudite terms—terms which any layman could well understand—Messrs. Pauling, Oliphant and Powell explained with the cold compulsion of science the horrors of living in this nuclear age. To have been unmoved would have been to deny that one was a human being. To have accepted their conclusions would have been to deny the very “scientific method” that they had earlier evoked to their aid.


What did they say?
They told us that the genetic mutations caused by radiation from one 20 megaton bomb would cause the birth of 15,000 deformed children, and that consequently mankind had already mutilated 150,000 of its future offspring; and that there is no defence against a nuclear weapon, as indeed there is no defence against high explosives or bullets, save not to have them.


They told us that a limited nuclear war is impossible. That once a nuclear weapon is exploded, retaliation is certain. It had been estimated that even if 630 H bombs were dropped on the U.S. (which number would kill 150 millions of the total population of 175 millions by direct action alone), America’s retaliation potential would not be seriously impaired. This because U.S. missile bases were spread throughout many parts of the globe, and atomic weapons are standard equipment carried by patrol aircraft and submarines.


They told us that though it was possible to detect nuclear explosions and control the making of nuclear weapons, it would be impossible to detect a store of nuclear weapons already assembled. Nuclear materials can be buried conveniently underground, and a plot of earth 30 foot square could house enough nuclear potential to blow the earth out of the universe.


We were told that clean bombs are the starting point for all conventional nuclear weapons. That a clean bomb can be converted into a dirty bomb of twice the power by the simple expedient of changing the nature of the outer compartment metal. And that far from cleaning its bombs, the U.S. was at the moment removing all its nuclear weapons from stock and dirtying them up, by adding something to them. According to Professor Pauling, such a dirty bomb if dropped on London would kill the populations of Manchester and Liverpool by the direct fall-out of radioactive material.


They told us that in a matter of a few years the number of nations which possessed nuclear weapons would be doubled. That a nuclear weapon could be exploded anywhere without anyone having the slightest idea where it came from.


And one thing was said which shows the barrenness of supporting campaigns like the one organised by the nuclear disarmament people. Even if it were possible to destroy all stocks of nuclear weapons and prevent the manufacture of more, even then, in the event of a war, it would take but a year to re-assemble the knowledge of the past and make further bombs. As Professor Oliphant said: “You cannot banish nuclear war without banning all war.”


What is the answer ?
Our three scientists thought that international agreements and pacts, designed initially to ban the further testing of nuclear weapons, were the starting point. From this, they thought, growing confidence and mutual trust would finally make complete disarmament a possibility.


Such, a position is untenable because it is unscientific. If, as our scientists admit, nuclear disarmament cannot be divorced from the problem of war itself, a solution of the former can only be accomplished within a general solution of the latter. War is no act of God, no manifestation of human nature. War is a product of the nature of society. A society whose basis, private ownership of.the means of living and_sale of goods for a profit, is the cornerstone of man’s inhumanity to man. It is the result of international competition by groups of property-owners for raw materials, markets, and strategic positions. Though the players may be disguised and masquerade as governments, the game is just the same, the spoils just as large, the rules just as ghastly.


What place has mutual trust in a world which exhorts the act of legalised plunder and pillage as its premise? Where a sense of growing confidence as half the world’s population dies of slow starvation? What price international agreements with a ballistic missile levelled at your head?


It is difficult to conceive the horrors of an H.B. war; to realise that each bomb is 20 million times bigger than the biggest block buster used in the second world war. Who can imagine London lying obliterated and the peoples of Leeds and Birmingham dying by the same act? Such things are almost beyond the grasp of human comprehension. And yet they may become reality tomorrow. The choice is yours. Is it to be Capitalism or Socialism, private property or social equality, war or peace, life or death?


Michael Gill