The Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists

Group portrait of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, as published in the New York Times, November 18, 1946.

Perhaps my own work for world peace would not have been very effective if I had not been invited to become a member of the board of trustees of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists … Before then, I had made some public talks about nuclear weapons and nuclear war; but it was Einstein’s example that inspired my wife and me to devote energy and effort to pacifist activities.

-Linus Pauling, 1992

Largely as a result of efforts made by renowned physicists Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, an organization was formed in 1946 to aid public understanding of pressing atomic issues. It was called the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), and its main function ultimately was to raise and direct funds for public education.  Along with Einstein and Szilard, the group’s trustees included Harold Urey, Hans Bethe, Thorfin Hogness, Philip Morse, Victor Weisskopf and Linus Pauling.

Until two atomic bombs were dropped on Japanese cities, the American public had been essentially unaware of the unprecedented advances being made by atomic scientists. In light of this general gap in knowledge, members of the ECAS sought to inform the general public about international atomic policy and the magnitude of the danger that atomic weapons posed to human beings everywhere. With Einstein serving as its active chairman, and a well-known group of scientists backing him up, the committee launched its appeals for support.

From its beginning, the ECAS attempted to further understanding of the atomic era, rather than serve as a body which sought to either make or influence policy. As was often present in their solicitations and public releases, the committee listed a set of facts that they claimed were accepted by all scientists. As listed in the group’s “Statement of Purpose,” these facts included the following:

  1. Atomic bombs can now be made cheaply and in large number. They will become more destructive.
  2. There is no military defense against atomic bombs, and none is to be expected.
  3. Other nations can rediscover our secret processes by themselves.
  4. Preparedness against atomic war is futile and, if attempted, will ruin the structure of our social order.
  5. If war breaks out, atomic bombs will be used, and they will surely destroy our civilization.
  6. There is no solution to this problem except international control of atomic energy and, ultimately, the elimination of war.

Shortly 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 Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and its sponsoring Federation of American Scientists, the ECAS lent substantial support to the National Committee on Atomic Information. The National Committee on Atomic Information was a grouping of over 60 national organizations, and millions of members, who shared the common purpose of improving communications between atomic scientists and the public.

Promotional image for “Atomic Power!” a newsreel produced under the “March of Time” imprint, 1946.

Laden as it was with a distinguished membership, the ECAS enjoyed substantial coverage in the mainstream news, especially during the enthusiastic initial days of the committee’s establishment. As a result, the committee was provided with many opportunities to present carefully crafted platform statements in the form of press releases. The committee also produced several films and organized a number of conferences that advocated creation of a world government.  Their most common practice, however, remained the public release of materials that warned against nuclear war and the dangers of extreme nationalism.

The committee was officially disbanded in 1951, nearly five years after its formation. In his book No More War!, Linus Pauling wrote that the committee ceased to function in 1950, largely because of the strain it put on Albert Einstein. And though the burden placed on Einstein was likely a contributing factor, the demise of the organization was at heart more political and financial.

As donations in support of nuclear non-proliferation activism began to diminish, the committee found itself unable to provide support for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Even the costs of special committee meetings began to impose a great strain on the organization’s operating funds.

Perhaps more importantly, as the rift between the United States and the Soviet Union continued to grow, members of the committee found it increasingly difficult to reach consensus among themselves. In particular, many committee members harbored strong and opposing views concerning the U.S. government’s intention to develop and produce the hydrogen bomb. Likewise, while the committee agreed in general that some form of world government was necessary to prevent atomic war, opinions contrasted sharply on the question of how such a system should be organized and implemented.

In a letter marked August 16, 1951, Linus Pauling was asked for his signature to legally disband the committee, and the final meeting of the Board of Trustees was held on September 8.

After disbandment, Pauling continued to communicate with several former committee members, especially Albert Einstein. On November 16, 1954, not long after he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Pauling made his final visit to Einstein in Princeton, New Jersey. According to notes made by Pauling after his visit, the two talked about a range of familiar topics, including atomic weapons, foreign policy and their former committee. Einstein also told Pauling that his one great mistake in life was signing a letter to Franklin Roosevelt, recommending that the United States proceed with the development of atomic weapons.

Though Pauling was, more often than not, absent from official committee meetings and functions, the lessons that he learned as a member of the ECAS stayed with him for the rest of his life.  So too, as it turns out, did a large cache of records created by the committee.  When Albert Einstein died in 1955, his personal ECAS files were turned over to Frank Aydelotte, an erstwhile head of Princeton University’s Institute for Advanced Study, when Einstein worked in his final years.  Upon Aydelotte’s death shortly thereafter, Einstein’s personal files were sent to Linus Pauling.  They are now part of the Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers.

4 Responses

  1. […] shared more extensive and personal interaction following Pauling’s agreement to serve on the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS), which Einstein founded along with the physicist Leo Szilard. The ECAS was formed in the […]

  2. […] bomb policy led to the fracturing and destabilization of several associations, including the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS). The ECAS, chaired by Albert Einstein, spent a substantial amount of time and energy […]

  3. […] the political spectrum too closely.  This seems to have been the case for Albert Einstein’s Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists, which was progressively anti-bomb and subsequently stricken by dwindling donations. Over the […]

  4. […] 1946, Albert Einstein, Leo Szilard  and other prominent scientists formed the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS) to aid public understanding of pressing atomic […]

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