"We're Only Scientists"
Bernie Loomer was no ordinary dean, still less an ordinary dean of a divinity school. But the divinity school at Chicago was no ordinary divinity school. It was another Hutchins amalgam, composed of the several denominational schools that clustered around the university. It was, and was so called, the Federated Theological Faculty. And as each grizzled old professor of New or Old Testament or Church history retired, he was being replaced by, generally, a younger, friskier person. Bernie Loomer, a Hutchins appointee, just five years out of graduate school, was one of those young and frisky theologians and was subject, as he himself put it, to harebrained ideas.
He had one one day in the late summer of 1947, while most of his federated faculty were still away for the summer. Thirty-two years later he told about it in the University of Chicago Magazine ; in spite of the considerable number of persons ultimately involved in it, it had never been told about before. "Suppose, I theorized, that the University of Chicago had a monopoly or near monopoly of atomic scientists." He didn't know, he said, if this were the case. "And suppose, further, that these scientists were to form a solid community of mutual support dedicated to the purpose of making the most creative use of their unique position. And suppose, finally, that these scientists, with the help of many other members of the university, were to stipulate to the United States government certain conditions that must be realized if they were to continue in atomic research."
The world's case, in 1947, was critical, as Loomer saw it. Maybe nothing could be done to utilize atomic power for the benefit of humanity. But "for the first time in western history academicians held the balance of political power—if only for a time. . . . What if they were to exercise their
power in constructive or even revolutionary ways?" The harebrained dean didn't think he knew exactly what he was talking about or what he might propose. He thought he had a tiger by the tail—or vice versa. He called his predecessor as dean, Ernest "Pomp" Colwell. Colwell said, as a divine might properly say, "Good Lord" and, adding that such matters were beyond his depth, suggested that his youthful successor call the chancellor of the university. Loomer delayed—he did not want to hear Hutchins tell him he was ridiculous—"but I finally screwed up my courage and called him."
"Hutchins listened to my proposition without interruption. But when I had finished speaking there was no response at all. The silence continued for many seconds. . . . I asked him if he was still on the line. He finally said that he was. After another long pause he asked if I knew what he was doing. In response to my reply in the negative, he said: 'I'm kicking myself for not having thought of this idea myself.'" He said he had to go out of town and asked his caller to get in touch with some of the atomic scientists, especially Szilard.
Loomer was amazed at Hutchins' response: "His ready comprehension was not what amazed me. . . . But what really astonished me was his immediate willingness to explore the idea and to do so as the chief administrative officer of the University. . . . Even now I would have great difficulty in naming another person, comparably situated, who would have made such a reply or taken a similar action."
Pondering the proposition in the next few days, Dean Loomer decided that he should go to the faculty of the university, and only then to the scientists; the scheme, even in its inchoate form, was one which would immediately involve the university as a whole. By way of preparing the way to lay the matter before the faculty he sent his own faculty, the divinity school, the draft of a proposed memorandum to the chancellor. The memorandum suggested conditions—including the calling of a world constitutional convention by the United States—under which the atomic scientists would be willing to continue to work. "It was recognized, of course," said Loomer, "that the strength of the proposal derived from the strategic role of the atomic scientists of the university, and from their willingness both to cooperate with the scheme and to conduct a sit-down strike if the stipulated conditions (whatever they turned out to be) were not met."
Out of the conversations both without and within the divinity faculty, several problems emerged. First, the university was legally the board of trustees; would their approval have to be got? Second, could the university as such be expected, in violation of the American (but not of the European)
tradition, to take a political position? Third, could one department of a university (or the university as a whole) attempt in any way to interfere with the freedom of another department (or of its individual members) to conduct what research they wanted to? And fourth, on what grounds could a university make demands on a government anyway? On this last point Economics Professor Paul H. Douglas, a former pacifist turned Marine officer, Cold War proponent, and later U.S. Senator, buttonholed Loomer vehemently; when Loomer asked on what principles the proposition could be said to be unacceptable, Douglas replied, "Never mind the principles. A university just can't make demands on the government."
Loomer felt, then and thereafter, that Hutchins' willingness to explore the proposal in part reflected his distress at the ever wider gap between the sciences and the humanities—C. P. Snow's "two cultures." Loomer: "I believe that he viewed the proposal as a way of taking a concrete step in the direction of redeeming what had become a fairly bleak scene."
With the onset of the fall quarter, the divinity faculty met to consider the proposal, and after prolonged discussion the dean was authorized to draft a resolution to the chancellor. Seventeen members of the faculty eventually signed it; eleven, several of whom had specific rather than general objections, declined to. The resolution began with a series of whereases: the real possibility that further research in atomic energy could be used to create more destructive military weapons as well as to serve peaceful purposes; the moral ambiguity of the university in engaging in this kind of research; the preeminent position of the university in this field and its consequent strategic political role; the threat of atomic energy to civilization under the present political organization of national states; the inadequacy of the United Nations to control these destructive forces; and the resultant need for a world government. The resolution then asserted that the university could discharge its moral responsibility and continue its research in atomic energy only under conditions such as the three following, which should be presented to the United States government: (1) that the U.S. government immediately call a world constitutional convention for the purpose of establishing a world government; (2) that the Marshall Plan be extended to any nation which would attend the convention; (3) that upon the adoption of the world constitution the United States would surrender its knowledge of the atomic bomb to the world government.
The three conditions were presented to the chancellor as tentative or suggestive, and the theologians were well aware (as Loomer put it) of "the idealistic, utopian, and possibly flamboyant" qualities of the proposal. Had it been made public it would certainly have been dismissed by the
statesmen and bureaucrats as both naive and presumptuous, let alone idealistic, utopian, and flamboyant. But its signers did not choose to be more circumspect; the course of their discussion had made it clear that they felt that the world crisis was such as to demand radical measures of the sort they put forth.
The resolution was sent to Hutchins, who called two informal meetings of his deans to consider it. The divisions represented were divinity, physical science, biological science, social science, humanities, library, business, social service, law, and the Hutchins college. Hutchins, presiding, said almost nothing; every one of these men and women had been appointed by him in the course of his long administration. The tone of the meeting was uniformly negative, primarily on the ground that it was impermissible, and not just inappropriate, for a university or any other institution to make such demands and, in effect, by virtue of its strategic position, hold the country hostage to a proposition that envisaged a fundamental alteration of the fundamental law and organization of the national society. (There were not many asides, but one of the deans said that if the government rejected the conditions the scientists would lose their jobs because they had not been trained to do anything else.) There was no mistaking the deans' sentiment, and the resolution was obviously dead.
Then Hutchins, who hadn't spoken, rose and said, according to Loomer, "You don't understand, do you? You really don't understand. You will recall that when I first came here I suggested that the motto of the University should be Walt Whitman's 'Solitary, singing in the West, I strike up for a New World.' I now propose that the motto of the University should be, 'No Cross, No Crown.'" And he sat down, and the meeting, and with it the proposal, came to a quiet end.
But Loomer was able to add a postscript: "A short time later I met Will Munnecke, vice president of the University. He told me that, in view of the atomic energy proposal, I might be interested in the meeting he had just attended which involved Hutchins and David Lilienthal, the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The meeting was devoted to financial arrangements between the University and the Commission. Munnecke reported that after the business matters had been attended to, Lilienthal asked Hutchins to give him a few more minutes because he had another problem to discuss. Munnecke's account, again as closely as I can come to recapturing his words, went like this: Lilienthal said, 'I desperately need to talk to somebody. I preside over a commission that deals with the gatest physical power known to man. We make decisions that affect the whole planet. But we do not know what we are doing. . . . Do you know where I
can go for help?' Hutchins replied that he didn't. Then he added: 'You might try the Divinity School of the University of Chicago. They seem to be worrying about this more than some of the rest of us.'"
At the first of the two meetings called by Hutchins to discuss the Loomer resolution, one of the sorely troubled deans, balking, like the others, at making demands on the government, compared the proposal to "a threat by coal miners to let the country freeze to death by refusing to mine coal unless their demands are granted." Something over a year earlier that same parallel was introduced in a discussion in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was April of 1946, and the debate over transferring control of atomic energy from the military to a civilian commission was at its height. A journalist, who was nationally active on behalf of civilian control, had met two young physicists from the giant atomic bomb development plant at nearby Los Alamos. The physicists asked if he would advise them and some of their colleagues on what they might do to campaign for civilian control. It was arranged that four of the Los Alamos physicists would come down from the hill for a discussion.
The four scientists were all under forty, and they represented themselves as speaking for a clear majority of their colleagues. Many of them had written individual letters to their congressmen and senators, and a few to the White House, urging the passage of the embattled McMahon bill for civilian control. But they were distressed by most of the acknowledgments they'd got. The generals, riding high after winning the war, were determined to remain in the saddle, and appeared to be impervious to the civilian challenge.
When asked how many atomic physicists there were in the country, the four of them agreed upon an estimate of two thousand to twenty-five hundred.
"You've got the making of a nice little closed shop," observed the journalist. "You have a couple of thousand of highly intelligent men and women, probably a majority of them one way or another already in touch with each other. You've got a house organ, and a powerful one, in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reaching, would you say, a majority again?" They nodded. "Then, you're all set. You organize as fast as you can and demand of Congress that control be taken from the military, and you tell Congress that if your demand isn't met you'll strike."
"Strike?" said one.
"Strike," said the journalist. "Your union will constitute a natural monopoly, and there's no way to wreck it."
"Union?" asked another.
"Union," said the journalist. "Just like the miners. John L. Lewis said,
'You can't mine coal with bayonets.' Or produce atomic energy. You're in better shape than the miners, even. There's no substitute for your know-how, and nobody outside the union has it."
There was a silence, and then one of the physicists who hadn't said anything spoke: "Wait a minute," he said. "We're only scientists."
Scott Buchanan had already written, after Hiroshima, that "the heaviest responsibility of the scientist may be to refuse to make himself useful," and when the German physicists, including von Weizsäcker, quit nuclear research, Hutchins spoke of "the professional ideal . . . adopted by many individual scientists who have declined to lend themselves to commercial or political plans of which they disapproved." In an off-the-cuff remark a few years later—a remark that was picked up by the Chronicle of Higher Education —a plainer-spoken Hutchins looked back in anger and said, "On the whole, professors are worse than other people, and scientists are worse than other professors."
Antonio Borgese on hearing the Santa Fe story said, "When the Fascismo came to Italy, we said that the universities would be the last to surrender. They were the first."