How Makers Of Deadly Weapons Felt About Their Work
Humans have spent thousands of years trying to come up with better ways to destroy one another, and we've gotten alarmingly good at it. Some of the best and brightest minds worked hard to come up with better weapons, or they invented civilian devices that were quickly adopted for military purposes. In some cases, the individuals' consciences bothered them, while in other cases they strenuously justified their work.
In the throes of wartime, of course, one can always justify developing weaponry on the grounds that it's better that the other guy doesn't get it first. This is the thinking that led even Albert Einstein to sign his name to a recommendation that President Franklin D. Roosevelt develop an A-bomb before the Germans did.
The moral quandaries embedded in this issue are difficult to untangle, to say the least. The following stories explain how some of the people who created humanity's deadliest weapons came to terms with their ambiguous roles in history.
- Photo: Gösta Florman / The Royal Library / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
The Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel patented the formula for dynamite, a new explosive, in 1867. This patent, and others, made him a wealthy man, and he used his fortune to endow the Nobel Prize. Although the primary application of dynamite was in construction, its wartime application was hardly overlooked, and it was first used for destructive purposes in the Franco-Prussian War.
Nobel wrote to the Austrian Countess Bertha von Suttner, who was an advocate for the international peace movement:
Perhaps my factories will put an end to war sooner than your congresses: on the day that two army corps can mutually annihilate each other in a second, all civilised nations will surely recoil with horror and disband their troops.
In light of the conflicts to come, Nobel's words may sound naive. However, what he articulated was essentially mutual assured destruction, the deterrence doctrine that was a pillar of Cold War geopolitics for decades.
- Photo: Attributed to Wilbur and/or Orville Wright / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
The Wright Brothers achieved powered flight in 1903; by 1909, the US Army had commissioned a "military flyer" design from them. Five years later came World War I, during which military aviation advanced by leaps and bounds. Two decades after that, aircraft achieved awesome destructive power in World War II.
Orville Wright initially thought that the airplane's reconnaissance capability could dampen interest in war. In 1917, he said:
We thought governments would recognize the impossibility of winning by surprise attacks, and that no country would enter into war with another of equal size when it knew that it would have to win by simply wearing out its enemy.
Years later, after the horrors of WWII, an elderly Wright gave an interview in which he seemed quite chastened:
We dared to hope we had invented something that would bring lasting peace to the earth. But we were wrong. We underestimated man's capacity to hate and to corrupt good means for an evil end.
Modern warfare, of course, is all but unthinkable without the airplane.
- Photo: US Govt. Defense Threat Reduction Agency / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
J. Robert Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico during the top-secret Manhattan Project, in which the US developed the atomic bomb during World War II. His scientific and managerial acumen were central to the success of the project, which ended the war in Japan with the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and which ushered in the atomic age.
Oppenheimer was famously ambivalent about the device he had done so much to create. Receiving a commendation in October 1945, he said:
If atomic bombs are to be added as new weapons to the arsenals of a warring world, or to the arsenals of nations preparing for war, then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and of Hiroshima.
Not long afterward, Oppenheimer visited President Harry S. Truman at the White House. When he confessed to the president that he felt he had blood on his hands, Truman replied, "[T]he blood is on my hands; let me worry about that."
Oppenheimer opposed the next step in nuclear weapon development - the creation of the far more powerful hydrogen bomb.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
The Hungarian-born physicist Edward Teller immigrated to the US in the 1930s and worked on the Manhattan Project, helping develop the first atomic bomb. Afterward, he was a key figure in the design of the far more powerful hydrogen bomb. He was a co-inventor of the "Teller-Ulam" design, the principle by which modern nuclear weapons work. Consequently, Teller has come to be known as the "father of the H-Bomb."
The immense destructive power of H-bombs led to the rise of an international movement for nuclear disarmament. One leader of this movement was the American scientist Linus Pauling, who debated Teller in 1958 on the question of whether the US should continue to develop and stockpile nuclear devices. Teller, while insisting that he wanted world peace as much as Pauling did, also argued that a strong defense was the best way to ensure it:
If we stay strong, then I believe we can stabilize the world and have peace based on force. Now, peace based on force is not as good as peace based on agreement, but in the terrible world in which we live, in the world where the Russians have enslaved many millions of human beings, in the world where they have killed men, I think that for the time being the only peace that we can have is the peace based on force.
- Photo: US Dept. of Energy, Office of Public Affairs / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
Italian physicist Enrico Fermi was one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century, and also an active participant in the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb.
After World War II, Fermi served on the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, to debate the question on whether research should move forward on the far more powerful H-bomb, which had been deemed theoretically feasible while the A-bomb was still in development.
With fellow physicist I.I. Rabi, Fermi co-authored an addendum to the committee's report, stating:
[N]ecessarily such a weapon goes far beyond any military objective and enters the range of very great natural catastrophes. By its very nature it cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon which in practical effect is almost one of genocide...
The committee recommended that development on the H-bomb not be pursued, but they were overruled by President Harry S. Truman and his senior advisers. The first hydrogen bomb was successfully detonated on November 1, 1952.
- Photo: The Nobel Foundation / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
German chemist Fritz Haber has a complex legacy indeed. As a co-inventor of the Haber-Bosch process, which allowed mass production of the ammonia needed for agricultural fertilizer, Haber vastly expanded the capacity of human populations to feed themselves. But he is better remembered as the "father of chemical warfare" for his work in weaponizing chlorine gas.
A supporter of the German cause in World War I, Haber believed it was his patriotic duty to develop weapons that would help his country defeat its enemies. In a 1920 speech, Haber justified his work, arguing that gas was no less humane than other weapons:
Gas as a weapon is not in the least more cruel than flying pieces of metal, to the contrary the partition of fatal diseases is comparabl[y] small, there are no mutilations and concerning the illnesses that might occur afterwards naturally statistical material can’t be provided yet, but nothing is known to us that would indicate a high frequency. Based on these objective arguments one would not easily ban gas warfare.
Others disagreed. In 1925, the Geneva Protocol was signed, banning the use of chemical weapons. Haber's own wife, the chemist Clara Immerwahr, considered weaponized gas "a perversion of science" and ended her own life in 1915, possibly as a response to the deployment of gas at the Second Battle of Ypres.
The World War I poet Wilfred Owen memorably described a gas attack in his antiwar poem "Dulce et Decorum Est":
Gas! GAS! Quick, boys! - An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime. -
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.