In the decades since Mikhail Gorbachev and Ronald Reagan began working together to end the Cold War, much has changed. Science and technology have reshaped global communication, finance, and culture. Terrorism and violent extremism threaten global stability, while climate change threatens the planet itself. But one grim element of the old order war remains a constant: Mankind still possesses the knowledge and means to destroy itself with nuclear weapons, a capability increasingly outside the firm control of two alliances committed to maintaining their own versions of the status quo.
How should today’s thinkers and policymakers deal with contemporary and future nuclear threats? By looking for guidance to one of the giants of the earlier age, Andrei Sakharov. The Russian nuclear physicist was at the forefront of the effort to build the most destructive weapons in history, but he eventually came to understand the dangers such weapons posed and started campaigning to eliminate them. His growing conflicts with Soviet authorities made him a global symbol for political dissent and the human rights movement, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975 for his courageous activism.
The scientific community has a leading role to play in helping mitigate the dangers that scientific advances often bring with their benefits. But mere warnings are not enough, as Sakharov's journey from Soviet hero to unyielding dissident illustrates. Advice must be informed and supported by political activism, moral example, and practical strategizing.
By the time of his death in 1989, Sakharov had demonstrated his unflinching courage in speaking out to demand openness and truth, even at the cost of his own freedom. His insistence on the power of communication is part of what makes his activism so relevant today: only progress in establishing open democratic societies with freedom of information, conscience, and expression, he believed, could avert nuclear war, the greatest peril confronting the modern world. Stripped of his honors and forced into internal exile in an attempt to shut him up, Sakharov continued to write and hope. His resistance to persecution inspired political rebels around the world then, and his example continues to do so today.
FROM BOMBS TO BANISHMENT
Sakharov became increasingly sensitive to issues of human rights, issuing public appeals in 1966 for the liberation of victims of repression. For the young Sakharov, as for most Soviet citizens, World War II was an elemental struggle for survival. A sense of collective sacrifice and heroic struggle was a recurring theme in Sakharov’s thinking as he made crucial contributions in the early postwar era to understanding nuclear fusion, in its applications to both civilian power and military weaponry. His anger at Stalin’s crimes was subordinated to a national sense that suffering and sacrifice were necessary responses to troubled times. That applied as well to his work on the hydrogen bomb, which he saw as necessary for the Soviet Union to keep pace with its rival, the United States. As he noted: “What was the most important for me at the time … was the conviction that our work was essential…. I understood, of course, the terrifying, inhuman nature of the weapons we were building. But the recent war had also been an exercise in barbarity; and … I regarded myself as a soldier in this new scientific war.”
Sakharov did not participate in the program to develop the first Soviet atomic bomb, which was tested successfully in 1949. But he was integral to the development of its even more devastating successors, which he felt could help the Soviets achieve nuclear parity—which in turn could pave the way for controlling and then reversing the arms race. Referring to the work that Soviet scientists were doing in the 1950s, Sakharov recalled during his first visit to the United States in 1988 that “the same kind of work was being carried out [here]. The American scientists…were guided by the same feelings of this work being vital for the interests of the country…. We will never know whether it was really true that our work contributed at some period of time toward maintaining peace in the world, but at least at the time we were doing it, we were convinced this was the case.”
Sakharov’s journey into dissent was not unique. Other nuclear scientists were also among the first to understand the terrible risks their work had created and to try to mitigate them. After the Soviet test, Washington debated whether to develop and test an even more devastating weapon, a two-stage thermonuclear device that would become known as the super or hydrogen bomb. Scientists on the General Advisory Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission urged that “enough be declassified about the super bomb so that a public statement of policy can be made at this time.” Two of the scientific giants in the U.S. nuclear effort, Enrico Fermi and I. I. Rabi, wrote in a personal addendum, “It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity even if he happens to be a resident of an enemy country.” But President Harry Truman, concerned about maintaining the U.S. advantage, ordered that the program proceed.
As the Soviet Union approached technical nuclear parity with the United States, however, Sakharov found that his government rejected scientific advice to temper its program to avoid damage to human health and the environment from radioactive fallout. Sakharov persisted, drawing up a detailed proposal to reorganize the Soviet nuclear program to advance without atmospheric tests. But Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was not persuaded.
Sakharov became increasingly sensitive to issues of human rights, issuing public appeals in 1966 for the liberation of victims of repression. In late 1958, however, the Soviet Union joined the United States and the United Kingdom in a testing moratorium, which ended up lasting for three years. When Sakharov received word in 1961 that the Soviet government was planning to renew testing, he wrote a letter to Khrushchev opposing such a step. In an angry rebuff, the Soviet leader told him to “Leave politics to us—we’re the specialists. You make your bombs and test them, and we won’t interfere with you; we’ll help you. But remember, we have to conduct our policies from a position of strength.” Sakharov understood the desire to catch up. But he sought to persuade Soviet leaders to accept an American proposal to ban all aboveground explosive testing. This stance helped lead to the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) banning nuclear weapons tests “or any other nuclear explosions” in the atmosphere, in outer space, and under water, a crucial step in containing the arms race.
Moscow’s insistence on continuing very large-yield atmospheric tests up until the LTBT came into force (as Washington did) helped push Sakharov into his final break with the Kremlin. He became increasingly sensitive to issues of human rights and free expression, issuing public appeals in 1966 for the liberation of victims of repression who were being incarcerated in the gulag and in psychiatric hospitals. The Kremlin responded by removing him from the nuclear program in 1968 and ultimately, following his protests against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, exiling him to the then closed city of Gorki (now Nizhny Novgorod) in 1980.
In 1981, during a tense period in superpower relations, he issued statements reaffirming his commitment to “disarmament talks, which offer a ray of hope in the dark world of suicidal nuclear madness…. Despite all that has happened, I feel that the questions of war and peace and disarmament are so crucial that they must be given absolute priority even in the most difficult circumstances.” And he continued to stress the need for open democratic societies with full civil liberties, backing his demands with protests and hunger strikes.
His friend and fellow dissident Lev Kopelev wrote of how Sakharov took to heart the oppression of others, as well as his own: “I don’t know if I can explain it, the soul of Sakharov who suffers for each suffering man.” When prospects for political reform were dim, Sakharov wrote, “There is a need to create ideals even when you can't see any route by which to achieve them, because if there are no ideals, then there can be no hope and then one would be completely in the dark, in a hopeless blind alley.”
PEERING INTO THE FUTURE
The urgency of strengthening and protecting human freedom has not lessened in today’s world. Nuclear deterrence based on vast arsenals of unusable weapons continues to pose an existential danger, even as its utility may be in the process of being undermined by proliferation. During the Cold War, it came to be recognized that a full-scale nuclear exchange between the superpowers would cause hundreds of millions of casualties and possibly the end of modern civilization. It might even lead to a “nuclear winter,” a sustained global cooling caused by large quantities of soot lofted into the atmosphere by the blasts. New research suggests that terrible outcomes could possibly be caused even by a limited regional war. More research is needed, but the implications are clear: the dangers of the nuclear age persist and may be even greater than before, and renewed efforts are needed to create the conditions of trust and transparency among states to make a non-nuclear world possible.
New scientific revolutions comparable to the nuclear one, moreover, continue to occur, such as the one taking place now in biology. Over the last generation, the progress made in applying advanced information technology to genetics and other areas has given mankind the power not just to decode the mysteries of existing life but to create new kinds of life on demand. These advances may lead to vital weapons in the fights against disease, hunger, and pollution—but they could also be weaponized for use against humans themselves, to terrifying effect. Now as then, the scientific community faces difficult decisions on what sorts of regulations to put on its research and development work, whether to publicize its findings openly, and the like.
Sakharov even had the foresight to envision what he called a Universal Information System, a mechanism for storing and retrieving all human knowledge, which in many respects prefigured the Internet. He predicted that the development of such technology would be both liberating and disruptive, both for individuals and for societies and governments: “Even the partial realization of the UIS will profoundly affect every person, his leisure activities, and his intellectual and artistic development. Unlike television … the UIS will give each person maximum freedom of choice and will require individual activity. But the true historic role of the UIS will be to break down the barriers to the exchange of information among countries and people.”
Looking ahead in 1974, Sakharov expressed his optimism that “mankind will find a solution to the complex problem of combining tremendous, necessary, inescapable technological progress with the preservation of the human in a human being and the natural in nature.” His example, in turn, can give us hope as well. As Kopelev put it in a eulogy, “The majesty of [Sakharov’s] spirit, the power of his intellect, and the purity of his soul, his chivalrous courage and selfless kindness feed my faith in the future of Russia and mankind.”