This interview was held with Joseph Rotblat, the 1995 Nobel Peace Laureate, when he visited Santa Barbara to receive the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s 1997 Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Peace Leadership. Professor Rotblat was interviewed on October 29, 1997 by Foundation President David Krieger.
Krieger: Having worked for more than 50 years for the elimination of nuclear weapons, how would you assess the progress that’s been made toward achieving a nuclear weapons free world?
Rotblat: I believe that we have made significant progress. Perhaps hopes were a bit too optimistic that, with end of the Cold War, very quickly we could get rid of all nuclear weapons because their purpose, if there was any purpose, certainly ceased to exist. We hoped that particularly the United States would then take drastic steps to get rid of the weapons. Steps have been taken; a certain amount of the dismantlement of weapons has taken place with a number of treaties, stopping testing, etc. But I am disappointed that the progress is not greater, particularly that the nuclear powers still stick to the same way of thinking they did during the Cold War – that nuclear weapons are needed for security. As long as this thinking exists, there is not much hope that there will be an agreement by the nuclear powers to get rid of the weapons. I believe, however, that we’re gradually winning the logical argument against the retention of nuclear weapons. What is needed at the present is a push from the mass media and from mass movements to support the suggestions made in a number of recent studies. I believe that if this is done and specific ideas put forward which could easily be implemented, it will start the process of elimination of nuclear weapons which could be achieved in about two decades.
Krieger: What do you think is needed to achieve the sort of mass movement for abolition that you are calling for?
Rotblat: I think two things – a positive and a negative. The negative one is to point out that the problem with nuclear weapons has not been solved – that the progress which started the world toward disarmament has come to a halt. There is now a real danger that the nuclear arms race will start again and more nations will acquire nuclear weapons. People must realize that the nuclear issue must be put on the agenda because of the real threat that we will go back to the dangers that existed during the Cold War. People should be aware there is a danger.
And then, following out of this, we must put forth specific proposals which will start the whole disarmament process over again. In my opinion, among several proposals like de-alerting of nuclear weapons, separating warheads from the missiles, all of which will make the world safer, we also need something which will enable us to go ahead to the actual elimination of nuclear weapons. One such step is a No First Use Treaty, providing that the nuclear weapons states will agree among themselves that the only purpose of nuclear weapons is to deter a nuclear attack and nothing else. Once they’ve agreed to this, if they agree to such a treaty, then I see the way directly open to the final step to the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Krieger: What will have to happen for the nuclear weapons states to take such a significant step?
Rotblat: They will have to be pushed towards it. And I said there are two things. One is to present the logical argument which is really unassailable. There’s no need for nuclear weapons today. It’s been shown that the world can live in better safety without nuclear weapons than with nuclear weapons. So the first thing is to convince the nuclear weapons states from the professional’s point of view, and then they’ll have to feel the pressure from the people because, after all, they are subject to election. They can’t ignore the voice of the people. If we can build up a real mass movement – people demonstrating, writing petitions, writing to member of Parliament, etc. – if we can just build up to a real crescendo, then I think the nuclear weapons states will have to accept it.
Krieger: What you are calling for is a campaign to educate the people on the one hand and to educate the leaders on the other hand. Is that correct?
Rotblat: You cannot start a mass movement without telling people what they are trying to achieve. Therefore, when I speak about starting a mass movement, of course, it has to start by educating the people. Give them the facts. They should not just believe they are living in a world where nuclear weapons don’t matter. The truth now is that many people think that the danger is over completely, and this is the reason why the nuclear issue is no longer on the agenda. The first thing is to inform the people that the process is not complete, and in fact it may reverse. Give them facts. Groups like yours, the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation, have a big task in this mass movement campaign for the abolition of nuclear weapons, part of the Abolition 2000 program.
Krieger: Do you believe that we will achieve a nuclear weapons free world in a reasonable period of time?
Rotblat: I don’t know what is reasonable. I would like to see it in my lifetime, at least the beginning. What is important is for the nuclear weapons states to get away from the mode of thinking that nuclear weapons are needed for security. This I believe could be achieved very quickly. It could be done before the end of the century. It could be done next year. I believe that if this were achieved, if leaders really accepted a No First Use Treaty, which would mean a breakthrough in their thinking, from then on it would be largely a technical matter how to ensure that a convention banning nuclear weapons will not be violated. I believe this can be done. The main thing is to start the process. If the process is started, which I hope will happen soon, then it would take another two decades until a nuclear weapons free world is completely achieved.
Krieger: This way of thinking that you’re talking about, do you believe this is what Einstein meant when he made his famous statement that “the splitting of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking”?
Rotblat: What he meant was a new way to approach the problem of security – away from national security to global security. This is a new way of thinking. Many people have adopted it, but not yet the decision-makers. We still need a new way of thinking. It is still the most important issue at the present time.
Krieger: You mentioned Abolition 2000 – the campaign for a Nuclear Weapons Convention to be agreed to before the year 2000. Can you share some of your thoughts on this Abolition 2000 campaign?
Rotblat: It is a much needed mass movement campaign. It will be, I believe, the deciding factor in whether the nuclear decision makers will accept abolition or not. But I feel that we need something more than has been done up to now. Additional aspects need to be added to the present movement, that is, to explain to people that they have to do something about the danger and then point to a number of events and pull out specifically one event that we can get very quickly. In my opinion this would be a No First Use Treaty. I think that with this there is a good chance that we shall be successful.
Krieger: You’re almost 89 years old and you’ve worked hard over the course of your life to eliminate nuclear weapons and to engender more responsibility by scientists as well as citizens in general. What gives you hope for the future?
Rotblat: My hope is based on logic. Namely, there is no alternative. If we don’t do this, then we are doomed. The whole existence of humankind is endangered. We are an endangered species now and we have to take steps to prevent the extinguishing of the human species. We owe an allegiance to humanity. Since there is no other way, then we must proceed in this way. Therefore, if we must do it, then there is hope that it will be done.
Krieger: I know that you have a great concern for young people and for life. If you could give one message to the young people of today, what would it be?
Rotblat: My message would be: “You have a duty. You enjoy many fine aspects of life, better perhaps than your parents had. We have bequeathed to you many of the things which we ourselves have inherited and have tried to improve on, to ensure that you have a happy life. I think it is your duty to ensure that this goes on to your children and your grandchildren so that human life on this planet will continue to be enriched all the time.”
Krieger: Thank you.