Bohr Letter to UN

Bohr Letter to UN

As early as April 1944, Niels Bohr recognized that the creation of atomic weapons would completely change the nature of future warfare. Bohr presented this letter to the United Nations on June 9, 1950, urging the free exchange of scientific and technological information as critical to creating the basis for peaceful cooperation between nations. 

Document Type: 
Bohr Letter to U.N.

I address myself to the organization, founded for the purpose to further co-operation between nations on all problems of common concern, with some considerations regarding the adjustment of international relations required by modern development of science and technology. At the same time as this development holds out such great promises for the improvement of human welfare it has, in placing formidable means of destruction in the hands of man, presented our whole civilization with a most serious challenge.

My association with the American-British atomic energy project during the war gave me the opportunity of submitting to the governments concerned views regarding the hopes and the dangers which the accomplishment of the project might imply as to the mutual relations between nations.

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The aim of the present account and considerations is to point to the unique opportunities for furthering understanding and co-operation between nations which have been created by the revolution of human resources brought about by the advance of science, and to stress that despite previous disappointments these opportunities still remain and that all hopes and all efforts must be centered on their realization.

For the modern rapid development of science and in particular for the adventurous exploration of the properties and structure of the atom, international co-operation of an unprecedented extension and intensity has been of decisive importance. The fruitfulness of the exchange of experiences and ideas between scientists from all parts of the world was a great source of encouragement to every participant and strengthened the hope that an ever closer contact between nations would enable them to work together on the progress of civilization in all its aspects.

Yet, no one confronted with the divergent cultural traditions and social organization of the various countries could fail to be deeply impressed by the difficulties in finding a common approach to many human problems. The growing tension preceding the Second World War accentuated these difficulties and created many barriers to free intercourse between nations. Nevertheless, international scientific co-operation continued as a decisive factor in the development which, shortly before the outbreak of the war, raised the prospect of releasing atomic energy on a vast scale.

The fear of being left behind was a strong incentive in various countries to explore, in secrecy, the possibilities of using such energy sources for military purposes. The joint American-British project remained unknown to me until, after my escape from occupied Denmark in the autumn of 1943, I came to England at the invitation of the British government. At that time I was taken into confidence about the great enterprise which had already then reached an advanced stage.

Everyone associated with the atomic energy project was, of course, conscious of the serious problems which would confront humanity once the enterprise was accomplished. Quite apart from the role atomic weapons might come to play in the war, it was clear that permanent grave dangers to world security would ensue unless measures to prevent abuse of the new formidable means of destruction could be universally agreed upon and carried out.

As regards this crucial problem, it appeared to me that the very necessity of a concerted effort to forestall such ominous threats to civilization would offer quite unique opportunities to bridge international divergences. Above all, early consultations between the nations allied in the war about the best ways jointly to obtain future security might contribute decisively to that atmosphere of mutual confidence which would be essential for co-operation on the many other matters of common concern.

In the beginning of 1944, I was given the opportunity to bring such views to the attention of the American and British governments…. [A] memorandum, dated 3 July 1944, contained the following passages regarding the political consequences which the accomplishment of the project might imply: [A] weapon of an unparalleled power is being created which will completely change all future conditions of warfare….[T]his situation raises a number of problems which call for most urgent attention. Unless, indeed, some agreement about the control of the use of the new active materials can be obtained in due time, any temporary advantage, however great, may be outweighed by a perpetual menace to human security…

Many reasons, indeed, would seem to justify the conviction that an approach with the object of establishing common security from ominous menaces without excluding any nation from participating in the promising industrial development which the accomplishment of the project entails will be welcomed, and be met with a loyal co-operation on the enforcement of the necessary far reaching control measures….

The secrecy regarding the project which prevented public knowledge and open discussion of a matter so profoundly affecting international affairs added, of course, to the complexity of the task of the statesmen. With full appreciation of the extraordinary character of the decisions which the proposed initiative involved, it still appeared to me that great opportunities would be lost unless the problems raised by the atomic development were incorporated into the plans of the allied nations for the post-war world.

[M]utual openness, which now was obviously necessary for common security, would in itself promote international understanding and pave the way for enduring co-operation. This memorandum, dated March 24th 1945, contains, besides remarks which have no interest to-day, the following passages:

Above all, it should be appreciated that we are faced only with the beginning of a development and that, probably within the very near future, means will be found to simplify the methods of production of the active substances and intensify their effects to an extent which may permit any nation possessing great industrial resources to command powers of destruction surpassing all previous imagination….

Any arrangement which can offer safety against secret preparations for the mastery of the new means of destruction would, as stressed in the memorandum, demand extraordinary measures. In fact, not only would universal access to full information about scientific discoveries be necessary, but every major technical enterprise, industrial as well as military, would have to be open to international control….

Detailed proposals for the establishment of an effective control would have to be worked out with the assistance of scientists and technologists appointed by the governments concerned, and a standing expert committee, related to an international security organization, might be charged with keeping account of new scientific and technical developments and with recommending appropriate adjustments of the control measures.  

On recommendations from the technical committee the organization would be able to judge the conditions under which industrial exploitation of atomic energy sources could be permitted with adequate safeguards to prevent any assembly of active material in an explosive state.

[F]ree access to information, necessary for common security, should have far-reaching effects in removing obstacles barring mutual knowledge about spiritual and material aspects of life in the various countries, without which respect and goodwill between nations can hardly endure….

Indeed, it need hardly be stressed how fortunate in every respect it would be if, at the same time as the world will know of the formidable destructive power which has come into human hands, it could be told that the great scientific and technical advance has been helpful in creating a solid foundation for a future peaceful co-operation between nations.

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Looking back on those days, I find it difficult to convey with sufficient vividness the fervent hopes that the progress of science might initiate a new era of harmonious co-operation between nations, and the anxieties lest any opportunity to promote such a development be forfeited.

Until the end of the war I endeavoured by every way open to a scientist to stress the importance of appreciating the full political implications of the project and to advocate that, before there could be any question of use of atomic weapons, international co-operation be initiated on the elimination of the new menaces to world security.

I left America in June 1945, before the final test of the atomic bomb, and remained in England, until the official announcement in August 1945 that the weapon had been used. Soon thereafter I returned to Denmark and have since had no connection with any secret, military or industrial, project in the field of atomic energy.

When the war ended and the great menaces of oppression to so many peoples had disappeared, an immense relief was felt all over the world. Nevertheless, the political situation was fraught with ominous foreboding. Divergences in outlook between the victorious nations inevitably aggravated controversial matters arising in connection with peace settlements. Contrary to the hopes for future fruitful co-operation, expressed from all sides and embodied in the Charter of the United Nations, the lack of mutual confidence soon became evident.

The creation of new barriers, restricting the free flow of information between countries, further increased distrust and anxiety. In the field of science, especially in the domain of atomic physics, the continued secrecy and restrictions deemed necessary for security reasons hampered international co-operation to an extent which split the world community of scientists into separate camps.

Despite all attempts, the negotiations within the United Nations have so far failed in securing agreement regarding measures to eliminate the dangers of atomic armament. The sterility of these negotiations, perhaps more than anything else, made it evident that a constructive approach to such vital matters of common concern would require an atmosphere of greater confidence.

Without free access to all information of importance for the interrelations between nations, a real improvement of world affairs seemed hardly imaginable. It is true that some degree of mutual openness was envisaged as an integral part of any international arrangement regarding atomic energy, but it grew ever more apparent that, in order to pave the way for agreement about such arrangements, a decisive initial step towards openness had to be made.

The ideal of an open world, with common knowledge about social conditions and technical enterprises, including military preparations, in every country, might seem a far remote possibility in the prevailing world situation. Still, not only will such relationship between nations obviously be required for genuine co-operation on progress of civilization, but even a common declaration of adherence to such a course would create a most favourable background for concerted efforts to promote universal security. Moreover, it appeared to me that the countries which had pioneered in the new technical development might, due to their possibilities of offering valuable information, be in a special position to take the initiative by a direct proposal of full mutual openness.

I thought it appropriate to bring these views to the attention of the American government without raising the delicate matter publicly. On visits to the United States in 1946 and in 1948 to take part in scientific conferences, I therefore availed myself of the opportunity to suggest such an initiative to American statesmen. Even if it involves repetition of arguments already presented, it may serve to give a clearer impression of the ideas under discussion on these occasions to quote a memorandum, dated 17 May 1948, submitted to the Secretary of State as a basis for conversations in Washington in June 1948:

[G]reat scientific and technical developments… have placed formidable means of destruction in the hands of man. Indeed, just as previous technical progress has led to the recognition of need for adjustments within civilized societies, many barriers between nations which hitherto were thought necessary for the defence of national interests would now obviously stand in the way of common security…

In the years which have passed since the war, the divergences in outlook have manifested themselves ever more clearly and a most desperate feature of the present situation is the extent to which the barring of intercourse has led to distortion of facts and motives, resulting in increasing distrust and suspicion between nations and even between groups within many nations. Under these circumstances the hopes embodied in the establishment of the United Nations organization have met with repeated great disappointments and, in particular, it has not been possible to obtain consent as regards control of atomic energy armaments….

Under the circumstances it would appear that most careful consideration should be given to the consequences which might ensue from an offer, extended at a well-timed occasion, of immediate measures towards openness on a mutual basis. Such measures should in some suitable manner grant access to information, of any kind desired, about conditions and developments in the various countries and would thereby allow the partners to form proper judgment of the actual situation confronting them….

The consideration in this memorandum may appear utopian, and the difficulties of surveying complications of non-conventional procedures may explain the hesitations of governments in demonstrating adherence to the course of full mutual openness. Nevertheless, such a course should be in the deepest interest of all nations, irrespective of differences in social and economic organization, and the hopes and aspirations for which it was attempted to give expression in the memorandum are no doubt shared by people all over the world.

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Within the last years, world-wide political developments have increased the tension between nations and at the same time the perspectives that great countries may compete about the possession of means of annihilating populations of large areas and even making parts of the earth temporarily uninhabitable have caused widespread confusion and alarm.

As there can hardly be question for humanity of renouncing the prospects of improving the material conditions for civilization by atomic energy sources, a radical adjustment of international relationship is evidently indispensable if civilization shall survive. Here, the crucial point is that any guarantee that the progress of science is used only to the benefit of mankind presupposes the same attitude as is required for co-operation between nations in all domains of culture.

Also in other fields of science recent progress has confronted us with a situation similar to that created by the development of atomic physics. Even medical science, which holds out such bright promises for the health of people all over the world, has created means of extinguishing life on a terrifying scale which imply grave menaces to civilization, unless universal confidence and responsibility can be firmly established.

The situation calls for the most unprejudiced attitude towards all questions of international relations. Indeed, proper appreciation of the duties and responsibilities implied in world citizenship is in our time more necessary than ever before. On the one hand, the progress of science and technology has tied the fate of all nations inseparably together, on the other hand, it is on a most different cultural background that vigorous endeavours for national self-assertion and social development are being made in the various parts of our globe.

An open world where each nation can assert itself solely by the extent to which it can contribute to the common culture and is able to help others with experience and resources must be the goal to be put above everything else. Still, example in such respects can be effective only if isolation is abandoned and free discussion of cultural and social developments permitted across all boundaries.

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The very fact that knowledge is in itself the basis for civilization points directly to openness as the way to overcome the present crisis. Whatever judicial and administrative international authorities may eventually have to be created in order to stabilize world affairs, it must be realized that full mutual openness, only, can effectively promote confidence and guarantee common security.

Any widening of the borders of our knowledge imposes an increased responsibility on individuals and nations through the possibilities it gives for shaping the conditions of human life. The forceful admonition in this respect which we have received in our time cannot be left unheeded and should hardly fail in resulting in common understanding of the seriousness of the challenge with which our whole civilization is faced. It is just on this background that quite unique opportunities exist to-day for furthering co-operation between nations on the progress of human culture in all its aspects. 

I turn to the United Nations with these considerations in the hope that they may contribute to the search for a realistic approach to the grave and urgent problems confronting humanity. The arguments presented suggest that every initiative from any side towards the removal of obstacles for free mutual information and intercourse would be of the greatest importance in breaking the present deadlock and encouraging others to take steps in the same direction. The efforts of all supporters of international co-operation, individuals as well as nations, will be needed to create in all countries an opinion to voice, with ever increasing clarity and strength, the demand for an open world.

 

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