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'Military Hardware Should Not Be Our Policy'

Excerpts From a Recent Interview


I interviewed George Kistiakowsky on October 29, 1982, about a month before he died. To my knowledge, this was Professor Kistiakowsky's last interview. By then his condition was extremely grave; he was constantly tired and ill with cancer. But I think he knew how important it was to me to record his words and I believe he truly wanted to give me the chance. The interview did not last long; some of his answers were short and incomplete. The following are excerpts from our conversation:

Tang: When you were working on the bomb at Los Alamos, did you ever anticipate an arms race?

Kistiakowsky: No...the Soviet Union was our ally. What we worried about was that the Germans and then maybe even the Japanese would have the bomb ahead of us. That was the only concern.

Tang: Did you think about arms control?

Kistiakowsky: No...I was so focused on military technology that political thinking was just completely absent. I wanted to win the war and win it soonest.

Tang: Was it when you were working in the White House as President Eisenhower's Chief Science Adviser that you became concerned about the arms race or was it sometime before then?

Kistiakowsky: No, it was really then. In 1958 I began working in the White House full time. I began to develop skepticism about our government policies which were so bad. And then I watched all the big shots in the government, Cabinet members, make decisions about subjects they really knew nothing about. It was obvious. And again, important decisions...Eisenhower's fear of the military and the dangers to American democracy and...all the insatiable demands for dollars and weapons made by the military and their friends--all turned me very much against my views from the weapons years.

Then, during then 60s. I was still connected to the White House and to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and I just saw the same way of making policies by the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. I got involved on a part-time basis in an effort to de-escalate the Vietnam War. I did so on the request of the Secretary of State. And then I saw the whole thing sabotaged, double-crossed by the military...

Tang: Would you say the military had too much control over science policy?

Kistiakowsky: It's not science policy; it's military policy.

Tang: Do you think the scientists should have had more to say in what was going on?

Kistiakowsky: There are all kinds of scientists. Yes, if they are competent civilians who are not hysterical about the Soviet Union as a communist leader, but view it as a great power with which we have to live, coexist. If there are such people who really think it through, they realize they are just adding more nuclear weapons until there is a nuclear war. Military hardware should not be our policy.

Tang: When you were in the White House, right after Sputnik, did you think of the Soviet Union as interested in world domination?

Kistiakowsky: No I didn't, but a lot of people did. I kept saying on all possible occasions that they are really a very poor country which is technically way behind. They have some spectaculars. They have the atom bomb. Now they have launched the Sputnik. But everything else is pathetically weak.

Tang: What did you think of the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, and what they did for arms control?

Kistiakowsky: Kennedy was worse than Eisenhower. He really was not that interested...He probably knew from the military that the Limited Test Ban Treaty would not interfere with the development of nuclear warheads. And it didn't. But that part was never explained to the public, and not even to characters like me who were in the circle of the White House.

Tang: Did you find that the military personnel making most of the decisions really knew about the science behind the weapons they were working with?

Kistiakowsky: A few did, others didn't. There are some very well educated military people with Ph.D.s in physics and so on. But they are a minority.

Tang: Do you think these decision makers are motivated by a desire to build arms for their own personal interests, to gain power for the military, or for the interest of national security?

Kistiakowsky: Officially it is to insure the security of this nation. How you interpret it is your own business...It's complex...Some of them really see it in that noble.spirit. Other, and this is very common, see the development of some particular weapon as a new generation of missiles which will serve to advance their careers. As the project goes, because it's successful, the management becomes more important in the Pentagon. The top man gets promoted from colonel to general...

Tang: Tell me about your decision to become involved in arms control outside of the government. Was there a specific reason or was it a gradual decision?

Kistiakowsky: I resigned from all my connections with the military and the Pentagon and such in '67 and early '68. I gave, from then on, what time I had to arms control...I was still teaching a number of research students until '71, but after that pretty much on a full-time basis. I was invited to join the Council for a Livable World eight year ago. I agreed, and then in 1977 I became the chairman of the board of directors.

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