The New Weapon – Scientists at the Service of War

8. The New Weapon – Scientists at the Service of War

بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم وصلى الله على سيدنا محمد وعلى ءاله وصحبه أجمعين وسلّم

Title: The New Weapon – Scientists at the Service of War

Author: Abdassamad Clarke

Publication date: 22/3/2013

Assalamu alaykum. Welcome to the Civilisation and Society Programme of the MFAS. This is the eighth of 12 sessions which make up the Technique and Science module. The lecture will last approximately 40 minutes during which time you should make a written note of any questions that may occur to you for clarification after the lecture. 

Det Opbyggelige, der ligger in den tanke, at mod Gud have vi altid uret

The edification that is contained in the thought that with respect to God we are all in the wrong. (Søren Kierkegaard, Enter-Eller – Either/Or)


In this course we set ourselves the task of examining technique, technology and science with respect to their relationship to power. We made a particular exception in lecture No.7 on The New Physics in which we explored the encounter with religion and God. Now, in this lecture, which is arguably the second half of that lecture, we are back with a bang in the realm of power, both political and physical, and my apologies for the pun.

A man may wield a sword but there are certain weapons that thus far only states can deploy. Inescapably in our study of the emergence of the new weapon of science, we will have to look at the state.

In our Politics of Power module, we concentrated on the emergence of the nation-state during and after the French Revolution. A case might be made for considering the formation of the United States of America in 1776 as having been decisive. One consequence of those events was the crystallisation of other nation-states, in particular for our purposes Germany, which had consisted until then of a loose assemblage of duchies and principalities. Its emergence as the German Empire in 1871 meant that it contended for world power with other nation-states such as France and the United States of America. The US was driven by the diffuse notion of ‘manifest destiny’, something which although too undefined to be a clear doctrine nevertheless has wielded considerable power. Initially that doctrine drove the first thirteen states that signed the Declaration of Independence to their ‘manifest destiny’ to control the American continent.

Contention of states, such as the British Empire, Germany, Russia and the US for world economic and political power led to World War I. The abdication of the Kaiser during the German Revolution of 1918 at the end of the war created a political vacuum which allowed, through the democratic process, the lowest elements of society to rise to the top. The terms of the Versailles Treaty that concluded that war are widely regarded as having created some of the conditions for the emergence of Nazism. The inequitable endebtment of the German people in such a manner as to plunge them into poverty for a considerable time created massive resentment, as much for the unfair apportioning of guilt for the war as for the unjust saddling of Germany with the debt that created the excruciating poverty that fuelled later events.

Thus, while our scientists were busy with their discoveries, other forces were at work and in motion. The great pan-national brotherhood of truth-seekers that scientists had hitherto constituted was about to be tested. 

The Physics


As Ibrahim Lawson said in lecture No.6 of this module “Concerning Technique”:

“Enframing is the gathering together that belongs to that setting-upon which sets upon man and puts him in position to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing-reserve.”1 

If we could characterise the physics of our previous lecture as being the earnest attempt to see beyond the gestell, then perhaps we could say here that of all the multitudinous revelations of the real as standing reserve of our era, from the mining of coal and iron ore to the current exploitation of oil, surely nuclear power must stand at the very core of the whole, for here we see, through e=mc2, the very nature of matter itself revealed as a standing reserve of energy. 

Whereas in lecture No. 7 we saw the very clear metaphysical search that drove almost all of the quantum physicists, although in very different ways, here we see the prior enframing that set upon them and their society to reveal the real, in the mode of ordering, as standing reserve. Given the rapid spiralling out of control of the time, almost all of them gravitated through the force of that setting upon to see the ‘explosive’ potential of this standing reserve rather than its pacific twin: nuclear energy.

What had been implicit in Einstein’s equation was soon to be explicit in the discovery of the various processes of radioactivity. In December 1938, chemist Otto Hahn discovered fission. 

History and moral evaluation

When presented with the spectacle of the atom bomb and its use on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is human to be revulsed and to condemn the outrageous murder of civilians. As a historian one must note dispassionately that the slaughter of civilians is nothing historically new and has not been uncommon in warfare from the earliest moments in the human story. Historical dispassion, however, is not the same as condoning.

It is important in order to understand these two events to get them in perspective, and that can be achieved by considering events in Japan immediately prior to the A-bombs.

Robert McNamara and Curtis LeMay

During Second World War operations in the Far East, the Americans had the strategy of high altitude daylight bombing of military targets. Following Robert McNamara’s involvement in Harvard in a program to teach analytical approaches used in business to officers of the United States Army Air Forces, he entered the USAAF as a captain in early 1943, serving most of World War II with its Office of Statistical Control. One major responsibility was the analysis of U.S. bombers' efficiency and effectiveness, especially the B-29 forces commanded by Major General Curtis LeMay in India, China and the Mariana Islands. He said:

LeMay was focused on only one thing: target destruction. Most Air Force Generals can tell you how many planes they had, how many tons of bombs they dropped, or whatever the hell it was. 

…his operations were totally inefficient and had to be drastically changed. But, anyhow, that's what he did. He took the B—29s down to 5,000 feet and he decided to bomb with firebombs.

…I was on the island of Guam in his command in March of 1945. In that single night, we burned to death 100,000 Japanese civilians in Tokyo: men, women, and children.2

Wikipedia cites Bradley in No Strategic Targets Left – Contributions of Major Fire Raids Towards Ending WWII for this statistic:

Precise figures are not available, but the firebombing campaign against Japan, directed by LeMay between March 1945 and the Japanese surrender in August 1945, may have killed more than 500,000 Japanese civilians and left five million homeless.

In contrast: Within the first two to four months of the bombings, the acute effects killed 90,000–166,000 people in Hiroshima and 60,000–80,000 in Nagasaki, with roughly half of the deaths in each city occurring on the first day.3

McNamara added:

Why was it necessary to drop the nuclear bomb if LeMay was burning up Japan? And he went on from Tokyo to firebomb other cities. 58% of Yokohama. Yokohama is roughly the size of Cleveland. 58% of Cleveland destroyed. Tokyo is roughly the size of New York. 51% percent of New York destroyed. 99% of the equivalent of Chattanooga, which was Toyama. 40% of the equivalent of Los Angeles, which was Nagoya. This was all done before the dropping of the nuclear bomb, which by the way was dropped by LeMay's command.

LeMay said, "If we'd lost the war, we'd all have been prosecuted as war criminals." And I think he's right. He, and I'd say I, were behaving as war criminals. LeMay recognized that what he was doing would be thought immoral if his side had lost. But what makes it immoral if you lose and not immoral if you win?4

LeMay is the recognisable monster in this story, and is himself well aware of it. But McNamara is the pivot of the story because he is the scientist, the technocrat. He is brought in to analyse the data and improve efficiency. Thus his analysis is used by LeMay to change high altitude night time bombing of military targets to low altitude daytime bombing of civilian targets with firebombs specially designed to set the wooden Japanese cities in flames. McNamara’s concern is efficiency. Robert McNamara was later to work for Ford before becoming Kennedy’s Secretary of Defence, in which capacity he served throughout the Cuban Missile Crisis and a good part of the Vietnam war. He became President of the World Bank from 1968-81.

The Jews

The overwhelming involvement of Jewish physicists in the A-bomb calls for some explanation. Nazi hostility to and persecution of Jews had led to increasing numbers of Jewish scientists fleeing abroad, and most often but not always they fled to the US. Thus what had been a highly integrated pan-national brotherhood of scientists, all coming from differing religious and ethnic backgrounds, very quickly broke up into groups owing different national allegiances, which in turn became mutually hostile. In the German case the national allegiance was conceived of as a racial one. The US, by definition, had a different national consciousness, since the indigenous peoples were precisely the first ones not to be included in the nation. Its identity was made up of all the new races pouring in and was by definition a potpourri. European Jewish scientists, as a small tightly integrated group, were to have a disproportionate effect in their new country and a disproportionate effect on the creation of the atom bomb.

The Scientists

In this section are many of the people we saw in our earlier lecture on the New Physics, but some drop out and other figures join us.


Einstein’s contribution to ‘the bomb’ is very famous. A letter he wrote with Szilard in 1939 at the very beginning of the war, that started life as an attempt to alert the Belgian queen mother to the dangers of selling Belgian Congo uranium to the Germans, was transformed into a letter to Roosevelt and formed part of the process to get the president to take the issue of nuclear warfare seriously as well as the very real perceived danger of the Nazis getting such a weapon first. From it can be dated the war effort that resulted in the Manhattan Project which produced the first A-bombs.

Einstein himself had been a pacifist but was transformed by the war and, although he did no real work on the A-bomb, worked assiduously for the Navy. “In June [1943], Einstein became actively engaged in the war effort, working for the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Ordinance as a $25-a-day consultant.”5



“I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”. This quote of Oppenheimer’s from Sanskrit literature when he saw the first test of the A-bomb on the 16th July 1945 catches the general awe of the force of the atom bomb of the time.


Then we have the myth of the four Hungarian Jews who built the atom bomb. The significance of Hungary will here be lost on the modern reader but when we remember the  Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867 to October 1918), one of the great power complexes just prior to our epoch, then we see that these four, who are actually part of an even more significant seven,6 came not from a peripheral and parochial part of Europe but from one of the great capitals. The context here will impinge greatly on what is to follow.

The operators of those mechanisms, by virtue of their superior ambition and energy but also by default, were Jews, who represented about 5 percent of the Hungarian population in 1910. The stubbornly rural and militaristic Magyar nobility had managed to keep 33 percent of the Hungarian people illiterate as late as 1918 and wanted nothing of vulgar commerce except its fruits. As a result, by 1904 Jewish families owned 37.5 percent of Hungary's arable land; by 1910, although Jews comprised only 0.1 percent of agricultural laborers and 7.3 percent of industrial workers, they counted 50.6 percent of Hungary's lawyers, 53 percent of its commercial businessmen, 59.9 percent of its doctors and 80 percent of its financiers.7

Jewish society contained a strong revolutionary socialist group who detested their own commercial élite and who were to seize power in a socialist commune on 21st March, 1919 its head a former prisoner of war, disciple of Lenin, journalist, Jew born in the Carpathians of Transylvania: Béla Kun. This 133 day ‘red’ insurrection cost some five hundred lives, and brought about the inevitable ‘white’ response which was a heavy-handed anti-Jewish movement that executed 5000 people and which drove many of these impressionable young figures out into the world with terrifying images of anti-semitism.

Johnny [von Neumann] entered the Lutheran in 1914, when the scholastic achievements of Budapest gymnasia were at their height. This has helped to breed a darling American myth. It is the myth of four extraordinary young Hungarian Jews, born at much the same time in more or less the same district of Budapest, who attended the same school together, became brilliant scientists there, and emigrated en bloc to the United States where they created, with only modest assistance, the A-bomb.8

John von Neumann

Von Neumann is perhaps one of the most significant men on our list, and yet he is a strangely invisible man, something his biographer gets around by calling him ‘Johnny’ as if to endear him to us. He has some claim to being one of the most important minds of the century even apart from his contributions to the Manhattan Project. He is arguably, along with Alan Turing in England, one of the two early inventors of the computer. He has some important papers in quantum mechanics too. But what eclipses his work on the atom bomb was his work on the theory that was used to calculate the risks of the Cold War: Game Theory. This theory, whose effects have been more far-reaching even than the doctrine of MAD – Mutually Assured Destruction, is predicated on the assumption of a world in which each person is entirely out for his own gain and his enemy’s loss. In this scenario, the ‘other’ is the ‘enemy’. On the basis of such simple but flawed and untested assumptions, situations such as the Cold War are mathematically calculable. It would probably be too much to lay the blame for the alteration of the world into precisely the selfish world on which his theory is predicated, but nevertheless that has been the result.9 

The Cold War was bad enough but this theory in a strong and rigorous form or in a weaker more diluted form has percolated into all corners of public life precisely because it is perceived as being ‘scientific’ or, in the case of those who don’t know the science, ‘realistic’. Most significantly game theory has been used to transform the world of commerce from that zone in which mankind meets its needs in terms of provision and some sort of benign and perhaps even equitable distribution to one in which business people regard the world of commerce as a zero-sum game in which there are winners and losers. 

Leo Szilard

The second of our quartet, Szilard had envisioned the possibility of nuclear fission five years before Otto Hahn had the experimental results, interpreted by the exiled Lise Meitner as nuclear fission, that opened the door for nuclear power and the bomb. 

In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. … The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.10

While Szilard was in mid-street, it occurred to him that if scientists could find an element which, when split by neutrons, would emit two neutrons where it absorbs only one, so that these two would emit four, and these four emit eight, and … well, then a nuclear reaction could be set in being, which could make it possible “liberate energy on an industrial scale, and to construct atomic bombs”. Szilard hurried to patent the idea of a chain reaction and assigned the patents to the British Admiralty for safekeeping.11

This unusual account lets us see, in Goethe’s words, ‘an instance worth a thousand bearing all within itself’, for here is a case of gestell in action, a literal ‘revealing’ of the real as standing reserve, in this case as bomb.

Szilard was an unusual man driven in equal measure by physics and maths on the one hand and a kind of utopian politics on the other. This latter strand is best represented by his passionate excitement at the discovery of the authorship of H. G. Wells and in particular his books The Open Conspiracy.

The Open Conspiracy was to be a public collusion of science-minded industrialists and financiers to establish a world republic. Thus to save the world. Szilard appropriated Wells' term and used it off and on for the rest of his life.12

Szilard would pursue this idea, which he gave the form of ‘Der Bund’ which would be "a closely knit group of people whose inner bond is pervaded by a religious and scientific spirit".13 But Szilard also worked hard on the very practical problems of making a bomb in the years leading up to 1939, the year when he, the Hungarians and Einstein worked on bringing Roosevelt and the US government on board for the creation of the A-bomb. This would lead to one of the most massive scientific/industrial enterprises the world had yet seen. “The Manhattan Project began modestly in 1939, but grew to employ more than 130,000 people and cost nearly US$2 billion (about $26 billion as of 2013). Over 90% of the cost was for building factories and producing the fissionable materials, with less than 10% for development and production of the weapons. Research and production took place at more than 30 sites across the United States, the United Kingdom and Canada.” (Wikipedia)

Szilard, Wigner and Teller were all working under the common fear of a German atomic bomb without having thought through the consequence of making the Allied A-bomb let alone the idea of dropping it. It was as clear to them as it was to Einstein and Bohr that the world would need a world government to control such dangerous weapons.


Fritz Houtermans wrote, just after June 1940:

“Heisenberg will not be able to withstand longer the pressure from the government to go very earnestly and seriously into the making of the bomb.”14

What is evident here is that he viewed, as did others, Heisenberg’s as the most serious intellect which, if directed towards the production of an A-bomb, was much to be feared, and that Heisenberg was averse to such a venture, but not might not be able to withstand the pressure to embark on it.

In the discussions during Heisenberg’s 1939 US visit just prior to the war in which physicists unsuccessfully sought to get him to leave Germany and accept a post in the US, I. I. Rabi quoted Heisenberg saying to his friend Bethe:

“It is clear that there will be a war, it is clear that Germany will lose it. But I am a German, I have to try and save the young physicists who work with me, and it’s important to be there after the war is over to reestablish physics and to see that the right people get jobs at the right right universities.”15

What throws light on this decision is perhaps the work of that other German, Ernst Jünger, and his articulation of the position of the anarch and the skills he will sometimes need to live through tyranny, a position that a number of key Germans took, most prominently the philosopher Martin Heidegger after his disastrous early flirtation with Nazism, and the conductors Wilhelm Furtwängler and von Karajan. This choice is very much less visible for modern people than the apparently more obvious stance of open denunciation of tyranny and then martyrdom or exile.

In September 1939, the Germans established the Uranverein or ‘Uranium Club’. Given the imponderables of developing a bomb – would it be as big as a house or small enough to load on a plane? – Heisenberg, von Weizsäcker and others allowed them to continue doing the scientific research, which for them was fascinating enough in its own right, hoping that history would have done away with the Nazis before the infernal thing could be built.

Bohr and Heisenberg meeting in Copenhagen in 1941

A general feeling among the German scientists was that an atomic bomb would be a monstrous weapon that no one should build. Heiseberg, who refused to defend himself after the war or articulate his reasons for his actions, did however tell his wife Elizabeth. He wanted to meet Bohr in Copenhagen in order to transmit the understanding that the Germans were not close to being able to make a weapon and so the Americans likewise did not need to. Remember that Bohr had been his mentor as a young student for whom he never lost his respect. He arrived in Copenhagen on Monday 15th September, hoping somehow to meet with Bohr. The chances were fraught with dangers for both parties. Denmark was occupied and Bohr could be seen as collaborating with the Nazi occupiers by meeting with Heisenberg. On his part, what Heisenberg wanted to do would clearly be seen by the Gestapo as treason. This meant that when when they did meet and talk together, Heisenberg did not feel that it was possible to be absolutely direct on every point in case it got back to the Gestapo. What is clear from all the accounts of the meeting from both sides, is that Bohr as angry at Heisenberg at the very beginning of the meeting because of his working for the Nazis and because of remarks he had made approving of German actions in quelling Poland invading Russia, a nation for which Heisenberg like many Germans had some fear. In their conversation, Bohr became more angry until when Heisenberg broached the matter he had really come to discuss – cooperation by the world’s scientists on not working on an atomic bomb – it appeared that as a weaker nation, the Germans were trying a tactic to get the wealthier and more powerful Americans to stop work. The main effect of their conversation was to underscore in Bohr’s mind that the Germans were working on an atomic bomb.

On 24th April 1942 Heisenberg was appointed director at the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellschaft and thus put in charge of German research into the A-bomb. There is considerable evidence that he and the other German scientists were extremely reluctant, both because of their distaste for the Nazis and their abhorrence of and revulsion for such a weapon as they knew the atomic bomb would be – and found numerous ways to drag their heels. 

Albert Speer, the Generals and Heisenberg

On 4th June 1942 Albert Speer, whom Hitler had made the Reichsminister for Armaments and Munitions, and a group of top civilian and military advisers went to see Heisenberg to know about the feasibility of building an atomic bomb, which they were in desperate need of.

The account of the meeting is entirely consonant with the picture we already have of the reluctance of the German scientists to make such a weapon or to serve the Nazi regime. The lecture theatre was packed with around fifty people to discuss the progress of research into nuclear fission – it had not yet been articulated as research into the possibility of making a bomb. Heisenberg gave an erudite lecture on fission, neglecting to mention plutonium which is vital for an atomic bomb. Speer then asked Heisenberg directly “how nuclear physics could be applied directly to the manufacture of atomic bombs.” The assembled scientists were visibly disturbed as this was the first mention of a bomb. Heisenberg accepted that a bomb was feasible but that a lot of work would be needed and a great deal of support and that even then it could take as much as two years. He also said that the Americans would not have a bomb before 1945. Speer and his staff were eager to move forward on a project which might make the difference between winning the war or losing it, but, however, when they pressed Heisenberg and his staff to name what support they needed, “Weizsäcker tentatively suggested a figure substantial only university standards before the war – 40,000 marks. Milch later told David Irving, “It was such a ridiculously low figure that Speer look at me, and we both shook our heads at the artlessness and naïveté of these people.”16 When Heisenberg as the director of Institute was asked to draw up a plan and a proper budget for a project with a realistic chance of success in terms of the production of a working A-bomb, he submitted a full proposal in which he upped the figure to 75,000 marks. Thus on 23rd June the gist of what Speer told Hitler that German atomic research was “something useful down the road perhaps, but certainly no war-winning weapon in the near future”.17

The Alsos Mission

The Alsos Mission was mounted by the Allies to round up German atomic scientists right after D-Day and keep them in isolation in Farm Hall for six months while the plans for Hiroshima and Nagasaki went ahead. The Allies bugged the house extensively and monitored all conversations carefully. Otto Hahn, who had made the discovery of fission, had seriously considered suicide in 1939 so that the knowledge would die with him. He had, however, realised that, as with any scientific discovery, it would only be a matter of time before someone else made the same discovery. One of the group, Wirz, said: “I think it characteristic that the Germans made the discovery and didn’t use it, whereas the Americans have used it. I must say I didn’t think the Americans would dare to use it.”18 Such remarks made Samuel Goudsmit, who monitored the conversations and who suffered terribly from the murder in Holland of his parents by the Nazis, angry beyond measure.


Other themes might profitably be pursued: the matter of the tremendous finance, first, that involved in the production of the first atomic bombs and then the gargantuan sums involved in the Cold War arms race, which was arguably, and in hindsight, a high stakes poker game, just as in von Neumann’s Game Theory, that ultimately bankrupted the Soviet Union.

Thus, American scientists, unwittingly, merely assisted the ‘state’ to grow into the monstrously large entity to which we have become used, disposing of the gigantic sums that make up its budgets and deficits, and thus necessitating the super-banks that have grown up in parallel with it and that have now outstripped it. Second, they also directly created the Cold War mentality which is mapped out in Game Theory and through the new commercial mentality have turned the quotidian reality of the majority of the earth’s inhabitants into something like a high-stakes poker game, man pitted against man. Von Neumann articulated the theory, but the American scientists went on after WWII to engage in the arms race and the development of the Hydrogen bomb with alacrity. To their surprise, after the two atom bombs were dropped there were no further nuclear conflicts, nor was the issue resolved by a world government. Scientists’ unique brotherhood was destroyed and, along with the rise of the banks, much scientific research was merely patented and privatised, including promising new avenues such as Emergence Theory, Chaos Theory and Fuzzy Logic.

And the legacy of quantum mechanics and of great men such as Bohr and Heisenberg still remains to be addressed properly.

That brings us to the end of today’s lecture. Recommend further reading includes Thomas Powers’ Heisenberg’s War and Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb and for viewing please see The Fog of War, the film about Robert McNamara. The subject of our next lecture is Emotion, Reason and the Human and recommended reading for that is Antonio Damasio’s The Feeling of What Happens. Thank you for your attention. Assalamu alaykum.


Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Thomas Powers, Heisenberg’s War

Denis Brian, Einstein, a life

Norman Macrae, John von Neumann

Ernst Jünger, Eumeswil

Ibrahim Lawson, “Concerning Technique”, lecture No.6 of MFAS module “Technique and Science” of the Civilisation and Society programme. 

Adam Curtis, “The Trap”

Errol Morris, “The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara” (documentary film)

1 Ibrahim Lawson, “Concerning Technique”, lecture No.6 of MFAS module “Technique and Science” of the Civilisation and Society programme.

2 The Fog of War.

3 Wikipedia. Accessed 22/3/2013

4 Ibid.

5 Denis Brian, Einstein – a life, p.334

6 “Out of the prospering but vulnerable Hungarian Jewish middle class came no fewer than seven of the twentieth century's most exceptional scientists: in order of birth, Theodor von Kármán, George de Hevesy, Michael Polanyi, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, John von Neumann and Edward Teller. All seven left Hungary as young men; all seven proved unusually versatile as well as talented and made major contributions to science and technology; two among them, de Hevesy and Wigner, eventually won Nobel Prizes.” (Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p.106)

7 Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p.105

8 Norman Macrae, John von Neumann, p.66

9 Adam Curtis, “The Trap”.

10 Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p.13

11 Norman Macrae, John von Neumann, p.67

12 Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, p.14

13 Ibid. p.21

14 Denis Brian, Einstein, a life, p.320

15 Thomas Powers, Heisenberg’s War, p.6

16 Thomas Powers, Heisenberg’s War, p.148

17 Ibid. p.151

18 Ibid. p.442