What Would Leo Szilard Do?
Some interesting thoughts on “secular liberal intellectuals,” from Timothy Sandefur: What would Leo Szilard do?
I’ve been reading a lot lately about the construction of the atomic bomb during World War II and particular about the scientific community’s attitude toward the making and dropping of the bomb. And it’s interesting—and sad—to contrast that attitude with the attitude of many secular liberal intellectuals* in today’s war against Islamic fascism.
In the 1930s, it became clear to the world of western scientists—including, of course, many who fled�Germany—that fascism was a threat, not only to the politically free nations of the world, but to science itself. The feeling that everything we know as civilization was under attack by an ideology steeped in ignorance, dogma, chauvinism, nostalgia, and of course racism, began with the Spanish Civil War; many on the left in Europe and America urged their governments to take that war seriously as the first step in a worldwide confrontation between civilization and barbarism, and many of them even volunteered to make war against the Nationalists in the name of secular values against fascism’s backward-looking, volkisch dogmas. (Many of them later felt deeply betrayed by the way the Soviet Union exploited their enthusiasm in the name of Stalin’s own tyranny, and then signed a pact with Hitler.)
As Germany fell deeper and deeper into the black hole, scientists like Leo Szilard felt themselves obligated to defend the human values of civilization: free inquiry, personal security, freedom of speech and belief and scholarship. And in August, 1939, knowing how close German scientists were to constructing a uranium bomb, Szilard drafted a letter to Franklin Roosevelt urging him to�start an American�bomb project; a letter he persuaded Albert Einstein to sign. In the years that followed, virtually every great name in physics took some part in creating the atomic bomb, a weapon of unimaginably devastating power. The roster of scientists involved in the Manhattan Project reads like a list of the world’s greatest scientists. Oppenheimer. Bohr. Fermi. Szilard. Rabi. Feynman. Teller. Why did these deeply peaceful men do this?