Kistiakowsky: Professor of Peace

George B. Kistiakowsky died last Tuesday at the age of 82. Since then, I have seen numerous articles in the local and national press honoring Professor Kistiakowsky for his noble ideals and tremendous accomplishments. My purpose here, however, is not to list those features of his life however, is not to list those features of his life which will undoubtedly be remembered as his claim to greatness--the scientific achievements, political prestige, publications, titles, and awards. Rather, I wish to present the man, himself, as I knew him.

I met Professor Kistiakowsky for the first time early in my sophomore year when I visited him at his office in the Gibbs Laboratories at Harvard. That initial encounter was a turning point in my life and the most important part of this story.

Earliet that year I had begun grappling with some very troublesome questions about my role as a student--my right to the privileges and opportunities offered to me at Harvard and my responsibility to society. This introspection was a source of much energy and enthusiasm which I could neither ignore nor certain. I decided to channel it into volunteer work for a cause which I considered very important--nuclear arms control. I felt strongly about the moral aspects of this issue even though I knew little about its political and technical aspects. Through all of this I was struggling with some personal doubts which compelled me to search for answers, meaning, and new ways to act.

Larry Hill, a university hipline and director of Waging Peace, a Harvard-based arms control group, suggested that I go to George Kistiakowsky with my questions. Although I knew nothing about Professor Kistiakowsky. Larry assured me that he could answer and of my questions about nuclear arms policy and technology I had reservations about knocking on the door of a professor whom I had never met Nevertheless, I resolved to make that "cold call." I still wonder whether I would have made that decision had I known more about his impressive scientific background and political credentials.

So I set out for Kistiakowsky's office one afternoon in October, 1980. I felt very self-conscious about my simplistic understanding of the arms race and hoped at best to be able to ask him a few fairly intelligent questions. I also wanted to seek his advice on how I could help others to learn about the nuclear arms issue. By this time I had learned a little more about him. I knew that he was a professor of chemistry emeritus. He had helped to build the atom bomb and in 1959 became the science adviser to President Eisenhower. Later he left Washington, becoming active in the arms control movement and now was devoting full time to his duties as chairman of the Council for a Livable World.


When I got to his office, his door was wide open. I introduced myself and he welcomed me in with a smile, offering me a seat opposite his desk. That first hour-long conversation with George Kistiakowsky was filled with pleasant surprises. I was surprised not only by the things he said, but also by the things he did not say. He never asked me whether I was a chemistry student as if chemistry professors see only chemistry students. He never said anything that would make me feel I was wasting his time of that would make me feel uncomfortable about my admittedly limited knowledge of nuclear weapons

Instead, he told me a great deal about his intriguing experiences and his views on his work We talked more about the scientist a social responsibility and arms control than we did about weapons technology or military policy In particular we discussed the role of scientists and students in the arms control movement. His views were rather unexpected.

Early in our conversation, he told me that scientists have a moral obligation to influence science policy because they are responsible for their products and the ways their products are used. For example, he said that the original atomic scientists--himself included--are partly responsible for modern weapons technology and the arms race and therefore should work for better arms control. This struck me as overly critical and demanding of both himself and his profession. I did not fully understand his guilt until this fall when I read a speech he had given upon receiving the American Chemical Society's Priestly Medal in 1972 In that speech he explained.

anything discovered scientifically can now he rapidly put to practical uses. Since technology is now science based, we scientists cannot disclaim responsibility for technological innovations and for their influence on modes and qualities of life Together with those especially knowledgeable in problems of society we must now try to separate the good from the bad potentialities and then lend our weight to the good side

Driven by this conviction that scientists have a moral obligation to influence policy, he spent the years after 1959 lending his weight to the "good side," trying to control the weapons he helped to pioneer. He personally brought scientific specialists and political decision-makers together in Washington to share ideas and debate issues on the nuclear arms race. As I was to learn later, this was only one of the many contributions to arms control he made as chairman of the Council.

He envisioned a special place for students in the arms control movement as well He had both observed and worked with politically conscious students and had formed a definite opinion of how students can be most politically effective. He told me stories of how some students had such unwieldy or outrageous plans to change the world that they wasted their potential to make a valuable political contribution Either they were too ambitious and unrealistic or they simply did not know enough of the facts. Thus when I asked him how I, as a student could best contribute to the arms control effort, he said that the most effective thing for me to do was to get involved in a way which felt comfortable, but to recognize my limitations and to work within them to bring about a change in people's attitudes. He encouraged me to all, to talk to my friends and family about them. He believed students should work within the limited circles of people among which they are most influential and then gradually expand those circles outward. He also remarked that he was annoyed by students who, knowing the importance of his name, asked that he sign a petition or support a cause simply so they they could claim him as their advocate.

I saw Professor Kistiakowsky many times over the next two years. At first, while his health was still holding up remarkably well. I was usually able to find him in his office. But he had cancer, and his health deteriorate rapidly. He therefore spent less and less time at his office as his condition worsened. During those last two years, however, he devoted all his energy to arms control work for the Council. During my sophomore year, 1980-81, he traveled nationwide for meetings and speaking engagements and spent most of the remaining time working at Harvard. Last year he traveled less, working mostly at his home in Cambridge.

Whether he knew it or not, Professor Kistiakowsky helped me to find ways to be and feel more socially responsible. During the winter of my sophomore year, with his encouragement, I began to volunteer at the Council's Boston office. I still work there and continue to marvel at the way the patient, hardworking and dedicated staff make great efforts in the cause of peace everyday. Professor Kistiakowsky had great faith in this organization, in the way it brings scientific and political experts together and in its ability to provide a means for scientific experts to educate the public. Under his chairmanship, research and publications provided by the Council increased substantially and a new branch of the organization, the Education Fund, was established.

I think there is something to be learned from my story of how I got to know Professor Kistiakowsky, the ideas he shared with me, and the way he helped me to grow here at Harvard. The faculty have a wealth of knowledge, advice, and encouragement to offer students which they really want to share with us. We students should try to take advantage of this opportunity, despite our reservations, so that we can benefit. Not that all professors are eagerly awaiting students to come sit and chat with them--Professor Kistiakowsky certainly never felt that way; he was a serious and busy men. But he was willing to take the time to help students who had a sincere interest in the world around them, their place in it, their goals, and their capabilities. This is what he did for me and why, for myself, I can say he was a great man.

Julie Tang '83 is a History and Science concentrator living in Winthrop House. She is currently working on a biography of George Kistiakowsky