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Scientists at War: The Ethics of Cold War Weapons Research by Sarah Bridger

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  • July-December 2015
    Book Review

    Sarah Bridger's Scientists at War provides a thorough look into the ethical and moral questions that shook the U.S. scientific community in the second half of the twentieth century. This book is a great combination of unknown stories and history, narrated in a synchronized manner. The book delivers an exceptional understanding of the scientist's role in the war. It also highlights the contribution of the scientists and their dilemma in the era of Vietnam and Starwars. Bridger's characters emerge as real actors facing complex problems, of morality and ethics, and this whole phenomena has been penned down in a brilliant way of storytelling. The book has a great account of the clash of worldviews that has divided the Manhattan era scientists from the Vietnamese era scientists.

    Bridger has shown how different categories of scientist received different fates after the two project went live. Scientists such as Edward Teller and George Kistiakowsky saw their careers get a high leap after World War II, and they played important roles directing weapons laboratories and advising presidents. In contrast, the scientists of the Vietnam-era, such as Agent Orange and Matthew Meselson, had tough time and were marked by doubt, disillusionment, suppressed desire to speak out.

    Bridger chose her words carefully so that the events of Vietnam War should not be seen as a start of ethical implications in war era for the first time. Such a view would be a very simplistic conclusion. There were examples where scientists voted for international control of atomic energy, as well as for arms-control agreements with the Soviet Union long before the Vietnam War, she writes. Even, Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and many others openly expressed their concerns on the pages of publications such as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Though they also wanted to keep the United States of America at the cutting edge of weapons technology, especially after the Soviet Union's launched Sputnik. The satellite may have begun the space age, but it also waved a bright red flag in the arms race, demonstrating that the Soviet Union was ahead of the United States on ballistic missiles, an important delivery system for bombs.

    Bridger has not tried to show this book as a protest against the deadly weapon, she has carefully bypassed this opinion and has left the issues open for discussion. She has argued that the scientists supported the Strategic defense initiative, so that the war could be kept at bay. Bridger has given numerous examples how the morality issue had slowly become one of the major part of world politics. Numerous examples are given of how, renowned scientists had advocated for disarmament, and acted as responsible citizens of the world.

    The author adopts a narrative technique, where the characters speak for themselves. This makes the book more conversational and fun to read. Also there are blank spaces in the conversation which has created space for further research and integrate the scientists' thought in the larger picture of cold war era. The author has also enriched the book with lesser known facts, like that of the relationship of the scientists with Vietnam. Other facts such as how there was a difference of mentality between the new generation and old generation of scientist towards issues of ethics and morality are also discussed. Bridger did not write a conventional history of Cold War politics and ethics. The book presents a series of happenings which are fully related to one another but not as a monologue. Today the world has changed a lot, and this book hints at the ethical dimension, which every person should follow. The world is full of disorders and the morality is the only cure of this disease.

    I find this book immensely rewarding and helpful for not only the students of world history, but also for common people who are interested in war history.