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Are We On The Road To War?

I personally find myself in rebellion against the fate that history seems to have in store for us, and I suspect that some of you may be equally rebellious. The question is, what can you do?
-- Leo Szilard, "Are We On the Road To War?" November 17, 1961.

Hear it now in RealAudio.

After his Harvard speech, Leo Szilard answered questions from the audience. You can hear this now -- the voice of a genius speaking from a desperate time. The first voice is the moderator, who speaks for 4 minutes. Then, for 25 minutes, Szilard responds to questions from the audience with his typical wit, humor, and occasional exasperation.

Was he worried that he might be called before the House Un-American Activities Committee? (It would be a very nice spectacle, and I have no doubt at all who would come out on top.) Why should such a group be led by scientists? (Integrity and purity.) Then why not mothers? (There are so many of them I would not know how to choose.)

Hear it now in RealAudio.

RealAudio file hosted for the Harvard Law School Forum by the Berkman Center For Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. This recording is for research use only and may NOT be used for commercial purposes. For audio of many past Forum speakers, see the Harvard Law School Forum Audio Archive.


In March 1961, with the nuclear arms race reaching a crisis point, Leo Szilard moved to Washington D.C. hoping to educate policy-makers in the new administration of President John F. Kennedy. However, he found that the so-called "best and the brightest" were firmly in the grip of the cold-war mentality. The CIA-sponsored invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs was followed by saber-rattling about the divided city of Berlin. By the autumn of 1961, Szilard concluded that the U.S. government was incapable of the necessary change. "In Washington," he observed, "wisdom has no chance to prevail at this point."

For the voice of reason to be heard, Szilard decided, it would need to be accompanied by something politicians understood -- political contributions. It would be necessary to influence the election process directly.

Szilard envisioned a Council of distinguished scientists who would formulate political objectives on which reasonable people could agree. The Council would seek support of the public, building a mass movement of members willing to pledge 2 percent of their income for political contributions.

Szilard first presented his plan in a speech titled "Are We On the Road To War?" at the Harvard Law School Forum on November 17, 1961. [Full text of Szilard's speech -- Are We On The Road To War?]

The enthusiastic response to Szilard's speech encouraged him to continue on a nationwide speaking tour. Over the next 3 months he spoke on the campuses of Swarthmore (November 18), Western Reserve University (November 29), University of Chicago (December 1), Berkeley (January 9), Stanford (January 10), Reed College (January 12), University of Oregon (January 15), and Sarah Lawrence (February 12). Szilard proposed his idea only as an experiment, but as letters and pledges of support mounted the Council for Abolishing War quickly became a reality.

Even before the 1962 elections, Szilard's warning about the growing danger of war was proved frighteningly accurate. In October 1962, the world came to the very brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

In the November 1962 elections, the support of the Council helped elect new Senator George McGovern (Democrat, South Dakota), who won by only 600 votes. Other winning Senate candidates receiving contributions from the Council included Frank Church (Democrat, Idaho), William Fulbright (Democrat, Arkansas), Jacob Javits (Republican, New York), and Wayne Morse (Democrat, Oregon).

The Council for Abolishing War was soon renamed Council for a Livable World. Although its lobbying efforts never became as decisive as Szilard hoped, it is still a force in American politics today.

... I sometimes have the feeling that I have lived through all this before and, in a sense, I have. I was sixteen years old when the first World War broke out, and I lived at that time in Hungary. From reading the newspapers in Hungary, it would have appeared that, whatever Austria and Germany did was right and whatever England, France, Russia, or America did was wrong... It would have been difficult for me to prove, in any single instance, that the newspapers were wrong, but somehow, it seemed to me unlikely that the two nations located in the center of Europe should be invariably right, and that all the other nations should be invariably wrong. History, I reasoned, would hardly operate in such a peculiar fashion, and it didn't take long until I began to hold views which were diametrically opposed to those held by the majority of my schoolmates... The point I am trying to make is that even in times of war, you can see current events in their historical perspective, provided that your passion for the truth prevails over your bias in favor of your own nation. -- Leo Szilard, "Are We On The Road To War?" November 17, 1961

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Copyright © 2000 Gene Dannen
Created: August 30, 2000
URL: http://www.dannen.com/roadtowar.html
Gene Dannen / gene@dannen.com