Thermonuclear Threat

The late Albert Einstein perhaps put it most bluntly when he warned in 1950: "The hydrogen bomb appears on the public horizon as a probably attainable goal. . . .If successful, radioactive poisoning of the atmosphere, and hence annihilation of any life on earth, has been brought within the range of technical possibilities." Thermonuclear explosions in the Pacific have since shown that the goal has been attained, and that the possibilities of drastic damage to life on earth no longer remain purely technical, but now comprise one of the most frightening question-marks in world history: Can the human race survive the radiation effects of repeated nuclear explosions?

The question is particularly pressing at the present moment, for both the Soviet Union and the United States seem content to blast away until the H-bomb is perfected without great concern over the possible radioactive effects that can come from the tests themselves. True, the U.S. did help sponsor action in last fall's United Nations General Assembly to set up a special committee to survey the effects of radiation "on man and his environment." But this country has proceeded, nevertheless, with plans for bigger and better H-bomb tests in the Pacific, and cancelled last week's not because of possible danger from radiation, but because of poor weather conditions. Perhaps for once bad weather did the world a good turn.

Squalls in the Pacific, however, are minor arguments against H-bomb tests to the continuing storms of scientific controversy. As early as 1947, Edward Teller, principle architect of the H-bomb, declared that "The effects of an atomic war fought with greatly perfected weapons. . . .will endanger the survival of man." Last summer two groups of Nobel Prize-winning scientists condemned continued H-bomb tests; the one headed by Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell noted the dangers of radioactive dust clouds and "slow torture of disease and disintegration" in future generations.

It is the effect on future generations that is perhaps most frightening, because it is most unknown. One authority on radiation, who was prevented by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission from discussing his report at last summer's Geneva Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy, said that radiation from H-bomb tests could cause "tens of thousands" of harmful mutations in the next generation of Americans. And more recently, Thomas E. Murray, member of the AEC, declared that atmospheric contamination "could be catastrophic. A sufficiently large number of such explosions would render the earth uninhabitable to man." He went on to say that the "new power we have in hand can affect the lives of generations still unborn."

It is discouraging, but true, that these men who know the most are the most gloomy, but it is also true that no one knows for certain what will be the effects of radiation on heredity. To be sure, there are scientists who argue the effects will not be great, but no scientist so far has put forth the doubtful thesis that genes will be totally unaffected. The question is not whether H-bomb blasts will cause an increased number of mutations, but to what extent.

Until the scientists determine the extent--at which time the defense chiefs and the public can decide whether the bomb is worth the price--the U.S. should discontinue all H-bomb tests. Military defense should not be harmed, since the stockpile of A-bombs is already large enough to act as a powerful deterrent to any potential aggressor, and since the current military race seems to be aimed at the non-atomic intercontinental ballistic missile. If the result of continued nuclear tests will be a biologically deformed species, the defense is of doubtful value. Until scientists are certain that this will not be the result, all nations should realize that their debt to the future demands a halt.

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