The Second World War ended on September 2, 1945, formally ending a global conflict that saw science and engineering play a vital role in achieving Allied victory. However, the use of two atomic bombs on Japanese cities not only dwarfed the many breakthroughs in science and technology that resulted from the war, but also redefined the relationship between scientific progress and the ethical obligations born from it. The detonation of the atomic bomb, an invention that could in an instant obliterate a city and a hundred thousand lives, forced open the discussion of issues that had until then only been whispered in secret. Did the species that had the intellectual power to create such things also have the wisdom to use this power wisely? And did the people who created the weapons carry a special obligation to ensure that this wisdom was exercised?
The Federation of American Scientists (FAS) was formed in 1945 by atomic scientists who felt that scientists, engineers and other innovators had an ethical obligation to bring their knowledge and experience to bear on critical national decisions, especially pertaining to the technology they unleashed - the Atomic Bomb. The origins of FAS predate the end of the war, beginning with the success of the Manhattan Project and as thelikelihood of its wartime deployment grew. Scientists working on the project began to consider its implications, not just for the on-going war, but for the world after the war. Throughout 1945, scientists at the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, the Clinton Laboratory at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos Laboratory, and the Substitute Alloy Materials Lab at Columbia University all met and formed independent associations. Compartmentalization was so rigid during the war that a group of scientists and engineers at the Oak Ridge facility independently created the Atomic Production Scientists of Oak Ridge, unaware that the Association of Oak Ridge Scientists had already formed. Representatives from the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, the Association of Oak Ridge Scientists, the Association of Los Alamos Scientists and the Association of Manhattan Project Scientists met in Washington, D.C., and on November 1, 1945, and held a press conference in the office of Senator Mitchell to announce the formation of the Federation of Atomic Scientists. Robert Maynard Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, was deeply concerned about the consequences of the atomic bombings. He gave $10,000 from the University’s special educational funds to the Atomic Scientists of Chicago, including $1000 to establish a Washington based advocacy office.
The Chairman of the Association of Los Alamos Atomic Scientists, Dr. William Higinbotham, became the first FAS Chairman and then its first Executive Director. He believed that the group should expand beyond scientists who had worked directly on the Manhattan Project, so the membership was opened to other scientists and the Federation of Atomic Scientists became the Federation of American Scientists.
The atomic scientists realized that proliferation was inevitable and other countries would soon be able to develop nuclear weapons, leading to a nuclear arms race. They were convinced that the solution was to maintain transparency in nuclear research and international control of nuclear materials. Thus, the FAS had two immediate political objectives: the proper management of nuclear weapons, and the need for a strong international mechanism to manage nuclear fuel cycles. The Federation lobbied hard and ultimately successfully for passage of the McMahon bill that set up a civilian agency to support research in nuclear physics. It is because of this decision more than sixty years ago that nuclear weapons research is now conducted by civilians within the Department of Energy and not the Department of Defense. The second political goal that called for information sharing, international inspections and ultimately nuclear disarmament remains one of the key tenets for the Federation.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s the members of FAS not only advocated for an enlightened nuclear policy, but also began to expand their advocacy into other fields of scientific research. The organization continued to garner support for its efforts and gained the endorsements of over 70 distinguished scientists, including 45 Nobel Laureates who agreed to act as sponsors for the organization. In 1972, FAS sent the first scientific delegation to China, and co-hosted the first delegation from China in return. That same year the Federation of American Scientists Fund was created to fund advocacy on behalf of research and education efforts. FAS also began to lead the scientific community in protesting the Nixon Administration’s abolition of the White House Office of Science and Technology. They urged cutbacks in nuclear reactor operating levels and forced the Nixon Administration to disclose wartime efforts at weather modification in Vietnam. In 1976 an FAS petition signed by 19 eminent statesmen opposing the B-1 Bomber appeared on NBC news and persuaded three key Senators to shift their vote away from the project.
During the 1980s an anonymous donor provided FAS with the means to purchase additional office space in the Capital Hill area and expand its permanent research staff to about a half-dozen individuals. FAS focused its new energies on arms control, nuclear and environmental issues, energy conservation, peace and security in Latin-America, prevention of genocide in Cambodia and Peru, and animal rights. The Federation continued to advocate against major weapons systems for the country and were among the leading opponents of the Reagan-era assault on the ABM treaty. Two FAS leaders, Princeton physicist and FAS Chairman Frank von Hippel and FAS President Jeremy Stone, met personally with Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev for a forum entitled For a Nuclear-Free World and the Survival of Humanity in 1987. Througout the later part of the decade Chairman von Hippel worked on an FAS project with Soviet scientists and analysts to develop a strategy for ensuring the material from dismantled nuclear warheads was irreversibly destroyed.
Since the early 1990s FAS has become a strong advocate for curbing the illicet arms trade, and increasing the transparency of US weapons exports. FAS publishes annual reports detailing the flow of US weapons abroad. The Federation has also become one of the preeminent sites for information regarding US intelligence efforts, programs and budgets. A Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit filed in 1997 by FAS secured the release of the intelligence budget for the first time in 50 years.
In recent years, the mission of FAS has expanded to include our country’s critical challenges in housing, energy and education. The Housing Technology Project combines the talents of engineers, energy efficiency specialists and other experts in the field of housing to develop new materials and design methods that can led to safe, energy efficient, affordable homes in the U.S. and abroad. As technology increasingly becomes integrated into every facet of our lives, FAS is also studying how technology should be integrated into the classroom. The Information Technologies Project works on strategies to intensify and focus research and
development to harness the potential of emerging information technologies to improve how we teach and learn.