By the time of his death, which occurred on August 31, 2005, Joseph Rotblat was a revered figure. A top nuclear physicist, Rotblat received — among many other honors and awards — a British knighthood and, together with the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (an organization that he had helped to found), the Nobel Peace Prize (1995). As the president of the Pugwash conferences recalled: “Joseph Rotblat was a towering figure in the search for peace in the world, who dedicated his life to trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons, and ultimately to rid the world of war itself.”
But Rotblat’s steadfast support for nuclear disarmament and peace did not always receive such plaudits, as I discovered when I conducted two interviews with him and did extensive research in formerly secret British government records.
Born in Warsaw in 1908, Rotblat moved to Britain in 1939, where he became a promising young physicist. During World War II, when he feared that Nazi Germany might develop the atomic bomb, he came to the United States to work on the Manhattan Project, America’s own atomic bomb program that he — like many other scientists — hoped would deter Germany’s launching of a nuclear war. But, in late 1944, when Rotblat learned that the German bomb program had been a failure, he resigned from the Manhattan project and returned to London to engage in nonmilitary work. This decision, taken for humanitarian reasons, plunged him into hot water with the authorities. Shortly after telling his U.S. supervisor of his plan to leave Los Alamos, he was accused by U.S. intelligence of being a Soviet spy. The charge, totally without merit, was eventually dropped.
Back in Britain, Rotblat engaged in peaceful research and, in the postwar years, helped to organize the Atomic Scientists’ Association (ASA), which drew together some of that country’s top scientists. Much like America’s Federation of American Scientists, the ASA promoted nuclear arms control and disarmament. However, British government officials, then more interested in building nuclear weapons than in eliminating them, looked askance at its activities. In 1947—48, when the ASA organized an Atomic Train to bring the dangers of nuclear weapons (and the supposed benefits of peaceful nuclear power) to the attention of the British public, Prime Minister Clement Attlee objected strongly to plans for government cooperation with it. In March 1948, when Rotblat invited Attlee to visit the Atomic Train during its stay in London, the foreign secretary and the defense minister advised the prime minister to reject the offer, which he did.
Rotblat’s relations with the British government continued on a difficult course in the 1950s. Working closely with the philosopher Bertrand Russell, Rotblat signed the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of July 9, 1955, which warned nations that if they persisted in their plans for nuclear war, civilization would be utterly destroyed. This venture, in turn, led to the Pugwash conferences — so named because they began in 1957 at a private estate in Pugwash, Nova Scotia. Designed to bring together scientists on both sides of the “iron curtain” for serious, non-polemical discussions of the nuclear menace, these conferences were low-key operations, with little publicity outside of scientific circles. Nevertheless, British officials were deeply suspicious of the Pugwash conferences and of Rotblat, who did most of the organizational work for them and, in 1959, became Pugwash secretary-general.
Convinced that “the Communists” wanted to use the 1958 Pugwash conference “to secure support for the Soviet demand for the banning of nuclear weapons,” the British Foreign Office initially sought to promote an attitude of skepticism toward it. But, when Rotblat asked J.D. Cockcroft, a member of Britain’s Atomic Energy Authority, to suggest who might be invited to it, Cockcroft and the Foreign Office decided that a better strategy would be to go with the flow and arrange for the participation of a staunch proponent of the British government’s position in the meeting, which they did.
Although one British diplomat noted that the conference “passed off quietly enough, and not too unsuccessfully from our point of view,” the British government remained on guard. Learning of plans for another Pugwash conference, in Vienna, the Foreign Office warned of the possibility “that this will be more dangerous from our point of view than its predecessors.” Communist participants might launch “a major propaganda drive against nuclear weapons,” and “the organizing committee consists of Lord Russell and Professor Rotblat.” From the British government’s standpoint, the Pugwash conferences were little better than “Communist front gatherings.”
But British policy gradually began to shift, as the government grew more interested in nuclear arms controls. Asked by Rotblat if he would like to join the advisory body of the British Pugwash committee, Cockcroft referred the matter to the Foreign Office, which responded that he should do so, as it would help prevent Pugwash from “being exploited for propaganda purposes.” Although the Foreign Office did not think he should attend the next Pugwash conference, in Moscow, during 1960, it reversed course that summer and urged him to recruit additional politically reliable scientists to attend. Indeed, it now sought to take over the Pugwash movement for its own purposes. In response to a suggestion by Cockcroft, a Foreign Office official opined that “it would be most helpful if the Royal Society could be persuaded to sponsor British participation . . . and if this were to lead to the winding up of the present Pugwash Committee.”
But the plans for a takeover failed. When the British government suggested topics for Pugwash meetings and more government officials who should be invited to them, Rotblat resisted, much to government dismay. In October 1963, a Foreign Office official complained that “the difficulty is to get Prof. Rotblat to pay any attention to what we think. . . . He is no doubt jealous of his independence and scientific integrity.” Securing “a new organizer for the British delegation seems to be the first need, but I do not know if there is any hope of this.”
Nonetheless, despite lingering resentment at Rotblat’s independence and integrity, the British government had arrived at a positive appraisal of the Pugwash conferences. As a British defense ministry official declared in January 1962: Pugwash was “now a very respectable organization.” When the Home Office, clinging to past policy, advised that Pugwash was “a dirty word,” the Foreign Office retorted that the movement now enjoyed “official blessing.” Explaining the turnabout, a Foreign Office official stated that “the process of educating” Soviet experts is “bound to be of some use to us.” Furthermore, “we ourselves may pick up some useful ideas from our own scientists . . . and are not likely to be embarrassed by anything which they suggest.” Finally, “if there is ever to be a breakthrough, it is not inconceivable that the way might be prepared by a conference of this kind.”
In fact, there soon was a breakthrough: the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963 — a nuclear arms control measure that the Pugwash conferences played a key part in generating. The British government had no doubt about the connection, and in 1964 it honored Rotblat with a CBE — Commander of the British Empire — for his organization of the Pugwash conferences.
And so it goes. Today’s dangerously peace-minded heretic is tomorrow’s hero. Abraham Lincoln — that staunch critic of the Mexican War — became America’s best-loved President. Robert LaFollette — reviled and burned in effigy for his opposition to World War I — emerged as one of this nation’s most respected senators. Martin Luther King, Jr. — condemned for his protests against the Vietnam War — is now honored as this country’s great peacemaker.
Lawrence S. Wittner [send him mail] is Professor of History at the State University of New York/Albany. His latest book is Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to the Present (Stanford University Press).
This article originally appeared on the History News Network.