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Students and Faculty Fight Nuclear Tests

Faculty petition was the dawn of anti-nuclear movement at Harvard

By H. Zane B. Wruble, Crimson Staff Writer

In the spring of 1960, 1,359 members of the Harvard faculty signed a petition encouraging the Eisenhower administration to consider banning nuclear testing in the United States, according to a Crimson article from May 16 of the same year. The petition, which was telegraphed to Washington, preceded an upsurge in student and faculty interest in arms control that continued into the decade.

According to the Crimson article, after 24 faculty members signed the petition, it was mailed to about 4,000 Harvard Corporation appointees, which included consultants in addition to faculty members. Ninety percent of those who responded added their names to the petition.

TESTING FALLOUT

Throughout the 1950s, the United States had conducted a series of nuclear tests, most of which initially occurred underground. Concerns arose when some larger weapons were tested in the open atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean. On March 1, 1954, a Japanese fishing boat was exposed to nuclear fallout, killing the captain and wounding the other 22 crew members.

According to History of Science Professor Everett Mendelsohn, who said he had supported the faculty petition, the concerns about testing were twofold. “One was that the increased input of radiation into the atmosphere could be harmful,” he said.

Physics Professor Roy J. Glauber ’45—who said he did not remember the faculty petition—also said that testing thermonuclear weapons could be dangerous.

“The thermonuclear weapons were generally tested in the open air, and that was subjecting everybody downwind from them to the danger of fallout,” he said. “And when I say downwind I mean high altitude winds that carry the cloud clear around the globe several times.”

According to Mendelsohn, “the second and most compelling” argument for a test ban was that nuclear testing increased tension between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was also testing nuclear weapons at the time. Mendelsohn said each nation would respond to the other’s tests by trying to do something “bigger or better.”

“If testing went on, it seemed inevitable that other countries would get their own nuclear deterrents,” he said.

SEEDS OF ACTIVISM

For some Harvard students, the appearance of the petition in the spring of 1960 barely caused a stir.

“In the early 60s, the issue didn’t loom large in student life,” Mendelsohn said. “I’d say for many students, nuclear testing was somewhat esoteric.”

An article printed in the 1960 Commencement supplement of The Crimson made note of the relative lack of political activity on campus, calling students “uninspired.”

But according to Todd A. Gitlin ’63, arms control had become a “roaring issue” by that fall.

October brought the first meeting of a new student group called Tocsin—a word meaning “alarm bell” that has also been a code name in several military nuclear strike events—whose primary activities involved spreading awareness and promoting the fight against nuclear arms and testing.

“It sort of appeared on the Harvard scene out of nothing. It literally was created and became very prominent and very influential,” said Peter C. Goldmark ’62, who served as chairman of Tocsin during the 1961-62 school year. Gitlin, who was Goldmark’s successor for the next year, attributed the increased interest to the election of President John F. Kennedy ’40, who brought the nuclear arms race to the forefront of his presidential campaign.

In December, 40 members of Tocsin participated in a walk in which they passed around “a very sophisticated argument about the test ban,” Gitlin said. They asked Tocsin sympathizers to show their support openly by donning blue armbands.

“To our astonishment, 1,000 people wore those armbands,” he said.

But support for Tocsin was by no means universal. According to Glauber, who worked on the Manhattan Project while he was an undergraduate, it was not obvious at the time that all testing should be banned.

“There was a certain rationale for testing weapons,” he said.

The group faced opposition from many of the more conservative figures in the Harvard community.

“We were denounced publicly by a number of faculty members,” Gitlin said, “some of whom were people like Henry Kissinger who had contempt for us, as we did for him. We were controversial.”

EXERTING INFLUENCE?

But student involvement in protesting nuclear armaments eventually extended beyond the bounds of Harvard.

Along with several other disarmament groups throughout the country, Tocsin helped to plan and participated in a march at the nation’s capital from Feb. 16 to 17, 1962. Goldmark even spent an hour inside the White House talking with Kennedy’s top aides, according to a New York Times article from Feb. 17 of that year.

“Starting with the election of Kennedy in November, there could be a sense that since we were so nicely situated at Harvard we could have some sort of special reverberation in Washington,” said Gitlin, noting that the group was well-connected to the Kennedy administration.

“Our sense of our importance was no doubt inflated by this proximity to power,” he said.

In fall of 1963, the U.S. ratified the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which prohibited all above ground testing.

“Did the [faculty] petition cause the signing? No. But I think that that petition and others at other places brought that forward,” Mendelsohn said.

—Staff writer H. Zane B. Wruble can be reached at wruble@fas.harvard.edu.

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FASPoliticsCommencement 2010Class of 1960