The Federation of American Scientists

Honorary Membership Card, Federation of American Scientists -- Los Angeles Chapter. 1962.

“We feel strongly that the university people of America must use their knowledge and their influence to assist in the formulation of sound international and national policy to give permanent security in progress and peace.”

– Charles D. Coryell, “To the Scientists who have endorsed the formation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists,” December 13, 1945

After two American atom bombs were dropped on Japan in August 1945, the world was both shocked and intrigued by the destructive force that had been unleashed. At the same time, many of the atomic scientists that were involved with the creation of the bombs at Los Alamos were soon devastated. Though they had carefully formulated the destructive energy that was to be released by the bombs, actually seeing the ruin left in their wake was a different experience entirely. Certain of these scientists, many of whom had already been involved in discreet discussion about the impact of this new atomic science, decided that something had to be done. Their general goal was to educate the public about the effects and implications of this mysterious new technology.

The concerned scientists began their task in small steps. First, they held informal discussions about the potential peril of aggressive atomic policy and disseminated information to the public through speeches and written material. Out of this emerged the Federation of American Scientists, formed in 1945 – a loose association of sixteen member associations from around the country.

The scientists were soon forced into action, responding to a bill that was being deliberated by Congress. Under the controversial proposed legislation, titled the May-Johnson bill after its sponsors, it was argued that little would stop the military from dominating the affairs of atomic energy and science. The Federation of American Scientists, and a number of small discussion groups from around the country including the Association of Pasadena Scientists, joined together to inform the congressional debate and to influence the legislation.

A splinter group, the Federation of Atomic Scientists formed as a result in 1946.  Its main objectives were to hinder further use of atomic weapons and to establish a cooperative system of international control to safeguard world peace. Aside from basic moral objections, the group argued that the American monopoly over atomic technology would be fleeting, and that continued development of nuclear weapons would lead to a global arms race.

As debate raged on, the newly risen advocacy groups helped to create a bill in opposition to May-Johnson, called the McMahon bill, that would place civilian scientists in charge of atomic energy development in the U.S., and create an Atomic Energy Commission. Though consensus within the scientific community was split between the two bills, McMahon eventually won out and was made into law.

During the next couple of years, many scientists that had gotten involved with atomic politics began to focus once again on conventional research and experimentation. Having played its part in the defeat of the May-Johnson bill, the Federation of American Scientists and other groups saw an precipitous drops in membership levels. As funding sources dried up and agendas became less clear, the Federation of Atomic Scientists and a number of other associations, including the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, melded together under the banner of the Federation of American Scientists. This transformation allowed a number of loosely connected partnerships to be re-fashioned, and it was decided that the main group focus would be that of an educational organization.

Under its new structure, the Federation of American Scientists continued its advocacy and initiated publication of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, famous for its “Doomsday Clock.” During this process of revitalization, the Federation developed more cohesive guidelines and chartered a revised constitution. In a document released by the Federation in 1949, the aims and trajectory of the organization were explicitly detailed:

The Federation of American Scientists is formed to meet the increasingly apparent responsibility of scientists in promoting the welfare of mankind and the achievement of a stable world peace. . . The need for a more active political role of scientists has been brought into sharp focus by the atomic bomb. An immediate concern of the Federation must therefore be the problem of atomic energy.

The Federation continued to educate others about the biological effects of nuclear detonations, and served as a forum for concerned scientists. The group stood actively against the use of atomic weapons for destructive purposes, focusing in particular on radioactive fallout and the horrifying dangers inherent to nuclear conflict. The Federation also advocated for nuclear test-ban agreements, though its positions were often more moderate than the views expressed by Linus Pauling and others.

Though Pauling was typically in agreement with the general activities and agenda of the Federation of American Scientists, he spent very little time actually working with the organization. He maintained consistent contact with its members, was a sponsoring member of the Los Angeles chapter, and received the Federation newsletters. He was also a member of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists – which became a working committee of the overall organization under Albert Einstein – but he was rarely present for meetings or events. Pauling also read and kept several issues of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and remained connected to the organization in some form or another for most of his life.

As time went on however, there areas of substantial disagreement emerged between the man and the Federation, especially as Pauling became a more polarizing figure in American politics. In particular Pauling was at odds with the Federation of American Scientists and many within the scientific community, when a majority of scientists began to accept the re-escalation of atomic bomb testing in the 1960s.

As anti-communist sentiments and increased opposition to peaceful relations with the Soviet Union rose, the influence of the FAS began to diminish. As the years passed, the organization evolved and adapted to changing circumstances, undergoing a number of substantial changes. In the latter part of the 20th century, it was decided that the organization should become more multi-disciplinary, and associate with a number of organizations with similar aims. In its own words, the Federation of American Scientists now “provides timely, nonpartisan technical analysis on complex global issues that hinge on science and technology.” Though some focus remains on atomic weapons, the organization now tackles a myriad of issues, thus continuing a tradition started by concerned scientists over sixty years ago.

For more on the early development of the Federation of American Scientists, see the website Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.

2 Responses

  1. […] after its formation, the ECAS became a working committee within the Federation of American Scientists, following the restructuring of the Federation in 1947. Aside from providing funding for the […]

  2. […] and Szilard were primarily responsible for the creation of the ECAS, it received the backing of the Federation of American Scientists from the moment of its inception. The ECAS raised funds for the National Committee on Atomic […]

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