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“Do Rational People Make War?”

An Interview with Isidor I. Rabi

BRANDON: Russia’s launching of two satellites was a great shock to the Western world. Do you think American scientists or the government were to blame for Russia’s being ahead of the United States in this field? 

RABI: Of course there’s not so terribly much science in Sputnik. It’s chiefly a matter of engineering. We need to make headway in exploring new fuels, and in improving electronic guidance systems and engine designs. All this is not basic science. It does not mean that the Russians are ahead of us in basic science, but they are probably well ahead in rocketry. Our progress does not depend on scientific decisions, but on whether we will employ more money and more people. It is a decision for the government. With more money and greater effort we could go ahead much faster. Of course it would be done at the sacrifice of something else—teaching and research in other fields—but we can do it.

BRANDON: I have been told that the United States has many blueprints for space projects but that the hitch is a shortage of space engineers.

RABI: I don’t think this has been proved yet, but we are in the habit of indulging ourselves by going off in many different directions at once. I rather think that if we focused our efforts we would find that we have plenty of personnel.

BRANDON: Are there space faculties at any United States universities, and have the Russians any?

RABI: I don’t know of any here, but the Russians have all sorts of things. I met some Russians, for instance, who were Professors of Television. Russian scientists are generally more broadly trained than either Americans or British. 

BRANDON: Now that Mr. Eisenhower has appointed his special science advisor, Dr. Killian, will the committee of which you have been chairman wind up its business?

RABI: No, that is a continuing committee. We set our own tasks mostly, and we advise the government in regard to various scientific questions and aspects of their public discussion. But we usually leave detailed studies to the government, for the President himself has tremendous resources at his command. Dr. Killian will be to the President very much what Cherwell was to Sir Winston Churchill, a personal adviser. He is not a scientist, properly speaking. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, more trained in the administrative side of engineering; but he is the confidant of the President and he knows a good deal about science and the scientific community in the United States.

BRANDON: Much will have to be done to strengthen this scientific community if the West wants to win the science race with Russia.

RABI: Yes, fundamentally, the general public must first of all learn to appreciate the importance of science as an element of culture. If that happened it would result in a revision of the curriculum of secondary schools, and public and grammar schools in your country. More time must be spent on mathematics and science. When science is considered as valuable as language has been in the general part of our education, our troubles will be over. We must also teach science not as the bare body of fact, but more as human endeavor in its historic context—in the context of the effects of scientific thought on every kind of thought. We must teach it as an intellectual pursuit rather than as a body of tricks.

In Russia science is considered essential to a general education. As far as I can see the Russians are getting a 20th Century education, whereas in the United States and England young people are getting a mid-19th Century education.

BRANDON: In Russia scientists come from part of the élite that includes industrial managers, generals and prima ballerinas.

RABI: Yes, the Russians have orientated their revolution toward science, even though it is sometimes pseudo-science. Nevertheless, that’s an important part of the image which has been a stimulus to young people. In the West the scientist has been a latecomer and has not had the same social acceptance. That acceptance is gradually increasing, but as yet, if a man has no feeling for art he is considered narrow-minded, but if he has no feeling for science he is considered quite normal. This is a fundamental weakness of our whole civilization. Right now it’s the thing which may bring its destruction.

BRANDON: I have often heard scientists blame the traditional anti-intellectualism of this country for their lack of recognition.

RABI: Yes, we are very rich, and rich people become intellectually lazy. However, today professors in the United States have a very high standing. They are extremely important in their communities and in the government, much more powerful and significant than in any other country. But the general public myth remains, and it is the public myth about the social handicap of being a scientist which still decides what young people go in for.

BRANDON: Is this public myth still influenced by memories of McCarthyism and the fate of Professor Oppenheimer?

RABI: It is still too early to judge the long-range effects of McCarthyism, but the exclusion of Professor Oppenheimer, a man who accomplished so much for his country, is indication of the failure of the country and the authorities to value correctly such contributions, both intellectual and substantial, to the welfare of the United States. Only when he is returned to more active government service will it indicate a change of heart has occurred. It will be a source of encouragement to the whole scientific community. Nevertheless, there has been a tremendous upsurge in American interest in science. We were not beaten by the Russian developments for lack of interest. I think the chief criticism must be not that we are not contributing vast amounts but that we haven’t contributed as much as we could and should.

BRANDON: Is the West handicapped by its free enterprise system? Our scientists are much more under pressure to show results and success, something that is particularly hard on the pure scientist.

RABI: I think this is more true in England and on the Continent, but in the United States there has been a tremendous support from the government, from private industry and from foundations. Of course that does not mean we could not use more funds, or that we should not make science as a profession financially more attractive. Another great mistake is that our universities have expanded at the expense of professors. Their funds, instead of going into the salaries of professors, have gone into building expansions to increase the number of students.

BRANDON: What kind of advantages have the Russians gained from launching their two Sputniks?

RABI: I would say, at least from my point of view as a scientist, that science is a very worthwhile activity in itself, for the delight and knowledge it gives you in exploring the world in which you live, the universal matter, the universal laws of nature and so on. So the advantage they have is that they are acting like human beings and are learning about the universe. And I am sure that most Russian scientists take it in that way. If there are certain side advantages, insofar as military applications are concerned, and, of course, general prestige, that’s true of many other endeavors. But the real thing is that there is space and that we must learn about it.

BRANDON: Will it enable the Russians to get to the moon ahead of us?

RABI: Certainly. Just as great attempts were made to reach the South and North Poles when I was a boy, so we will have realistic attempts to reach the moon.

BRANDON: Do you have a yearning to get to the moon?

RABI: None whatsoever. But there are people I know who would volunteer to go to the moon even if it were the last thing they did.

BRANDON: How soon are we likely to reach the moon?

RABI: I am not expert in this, but I think we could do it in one year if we wanted. I mean a rocket, not a person.

BRANDON: What would be the advantage of doing that? The accomplishment of spectacular achievement?

RABI: Yes, it makes you feel good.

BRANDON: It makes scientists feel good?

RABI: The whole world. I think the whole world was inspired by the Russian achievement. It was a very worthwhile thing.

BRANDON: I could have done without it. It’s not the kind of thrill I get excited about.

RABI: Well, we could have done without our civilization. Our ancestors, ten thousand years ago, did without many things, and they lived and died. You could also do without the poetry of T.S. Eliot.

BRANDON: I think that rather than being thrilled, this country is in a mood to redouble its efforts to match Russia. Maybe this is the time to call for sacrifices.

RABI: I agree. Better now than later. But I also think that it will require more than sacrifices. It will require a certain amount of intelligence.

BRANDON: What do you mean?

RABI: I mean a policy which is more suitable to the times than the policy all countries have been pursuing for the past 10 years. It has become a truism to say we are headed for destruction. But these wise statesmen both in the East and the West keep on heading for it.

BRANDON: You don’t believe in the deterrent power of these weapons?

RABI: Oh, I think they certainly are very deterrent to rational people; but do rational people make war? The worst of it is that as the deterrent grows, the result of a single mistake becomes more and more terrible. The deterrent is nothing but a psychological thing, and I don’t know whether anybody knows enough about human psychology really to place a lot of faith in it. A policy of mutual deterrents will ultimately lead to universal disaster—but that’s my view.

BRANDON: Has your Committee suggested to Mr. Eisenhower the need for much closer collaboration between American and British scientists, and do you think the atomic energy law should be repealed?

RABI: Certainly, and the President is very sympathetic to close collaboration. It would strengthen our whole effort. As regards the atomic energy law, I think it need only be changed. We still need a protective law, just as we have protective laws about drugs. Some of the information protected by it involves the fate of the whole country.

BRANDON: The number of atom bombs, for instance?

RABI: That’s the last thing I would want to keep secret. I think if I had the deterrent I would like people to know its full extent. But that’s not the kind of information I am talking about. I mean weapons and devices and one’s new discoveries in that field. But there is a great area where our exchange of information needs improvement. We could beat the Russians by having a much closer relationship.

BRANDON: And how long do you think it will take us to catch up, to safeguard our long-range future?

RABI: Oh, a generation. you know how long it takes to change a cultural pattern. The growing general awareness of this need will help us, but nevertheless we will have to work hard to succeed in a generation. 

This article appeared in the May 12, 1958 issue of the magazine.