Michael KreponHuman Values in the Atomic Age

In November 1953, The American Academy of Political and Social Science issued a thin hardcover issue of The Annals, edited by Robert A. Dahl, titled The Impact of Atomic Energy. This collection of essays and book reviews appeared during a rocky phase of the nuclear competition, with the advent of thermonuclear weapons and a geopolitical balance than seemed to be tipping away from Washington, where scapegoating was at full throttle.

Here are some excerpts from an essay by Wayne A.R. Leys, “Human Values in the Atomic Age.” Leys also wrote Ethics for Policy Decisions (1952).

The fear of the bomb is not the beginning of wisdom. Fearful men have a kind of foresight, but in their partial view of the future all signs point to a foregone conclusion. How else could the frightening consequences of nuclear fission justify both McCarthyism and pacifism?…

The release of atomic energy seems to foreshadow more conflict rather than less conflict. Increases in productive capacity multiply the possibilities of mutual interference, particularly in the case of hitherto subject or silent peoples. The diffusion of knowledge means that more diverse demands are articulated and become the source of political pressuring…

Mankind seems to be afflicted with small ideals at the very moment when the means for great achievement are available…

The impracticality of plausible political idealism may be explained by the confusion of two kinds of peace – political peace and peace of mind. Plato related ‘harmony of the state’ to ‘harmony in the soul.’ He insisted that there was a necessary connection between these two kinds of peace… The more we learn about political peace, the less it is identifiable with peace of mind…

Whereas the price of good government is eternal vigilance by an organized citizenry, one requirement of good citizenship is the emotional balance that comes to a person who can get a good night’s sleep…

Knowledge is power; but the more men know about the atom, the more they need to know about themselves. Our heavy investments in the release of atomic energy could have the effect of stampeding us into some single-minded folly of avarice, hatred, or fear…

Citizens may be victimized if they insist on upon finding peace of mind in public action…

Knowledge becomes wisdom when coupled with respect for the plurality of values. Then, no objective can be worshipped so idolatrously that it will seem to justify the sacrifice of all other human purposes.


  1. Moe DeLaun (History)

    A sublime contribution to the week’s thoughts. thank you.

    Mr. Leys’ words seem remarkably Taoist; they resonate especially strongly in our fearful era.

    • SQ (History)

      The Tao of Pu?

  2. bradley laing (History)


    Investigation: Nuclear weapons officers left blast door open
    WASHINGTON — Twice this year alone, Air Force officers entrusted with the launch keys to nuclear-tipped missiles have been caught leaving open a blast door that is intended to help prevent a terrorist or other intruder from entering their underground command post, Air Force officials have told The Associated Press

  3. Bradley Laing (History)


    —Please read page 66 in this report.

  4. Bradley Laing (History)

    But Apple has to have one of the weirdest terms we’ve ever seen, sent to us by the folks at Skyhigh Networks.

    Apple makes you promise not to use iTunes (or any of its online stores) to build nuclear or biological weapons:

    “You also agree that you will not use these products for any purposes prohibited by United States law, including, without limitation, the development, design, manufacture, or production of nuclear, missile, or chemical or biological weapons.”

    This term prompted a lot of funny comments by the editors here at Business Insider

    Read more: http://www.businessinsider.com/apple-no-itunes-for-nuclear-weapon-2013-10#ixzz2jBH10EtK

  5. Bradley Laing (History)


    The United States believed in 1977 that nuclear weapons could be produced from plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel at Japan’s light water reactors and conveyed its view to Tokyo, according to Japanese diplomatic records declassified Wednesday.

    A U.S. arms control official told a Japanese diplomat based in Austria that common belief that reactor-grade plutonium is unfit for weapons production is wrong, according to a cable sent by then Japanese Ambassador to the United States Fumihiko Togo to the Foreign Ministry in Tokyo on Feb. 23, 1977.

    At the time, the administration of U.S. President Jimmy Carter pushed forward nonproliferation efforts following a nuclear test carried out by India in 1974.

    Nuclear experts in Japan including Ryukichi Imai, a former adviser to the governmental Japan Atomic Energy Commission, long believed that plutonium extracted from reprocessed fuel spent at reactors is not suitable for atomic bomb production.

  6. Bradley Laing (History)

    The diplomatic record also revealed that the United States pressured South Korea into abandoning its plan to purchase a nuclear reprocessing facility in the mid-1970s.

    —Is this claim about South Korea new to you?


  7. Bradley Laing (History)

    Asked about mounting Chinese aggression towards Japan and in the South China Sea, Fisher said that if the US did nothing to counter the aggression, there was a danger that allies could be defeated in skirmishes.

    “If our allies are undermined, if they lose confidence in their alliances with the United States, they have alternatives,” Fisher said. “In my opinion they will develop their own nuclear missiles.”

    Fisher said that Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and Australia could all go nuclear “rather quickly.”

    If that happens, the prospect of a skirmish escalating into a nuclear exchange with the US being drawn into a war is “real,” he said