Kurt Vonnegut and the Day Scientists Went on Strike

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When the mechanics of war are set into motion, we tend to tell ourselves there isn't much we can do. This is on a practical level, mind you, not a moral or spiritual one. The overwhelming majority of us lack the technical know-how to fully understand these complicated machines of destruction. Like babies watching a pot of water boil over, we can only sit and coo and cry and mess ourselves because I have no idea how to turn the burner off, do you?

But what if the inventors of all these weapons said, "Enough"? That happened in 1969, at the height of the Vietnam War, when America's scientists proposed a "research stoppage"—a strike.

The Science Action Coordinating Committee, an M.I.T.-based organization backed by 45 professors there, scheduled the strike for March 4, 1969—timed to protest the development of Sentinel ABM, a nation-wide ballistic missile defense system aimed to protect against Chinese attacks. They argued that the system would intensify the nuclear arms race and waste a disgusting amount of money. The Committee also maintained the broader goal of fighting against the "diversion of American Science to military means" while working to prevent the flow of Defense Department money into private institutions. Their thinking was simple: If you're going to use our research to hurt people, we'll stop researching.

The plan was publicly announced at a February meeting of the American Association of Physics Teachers in New York. There, a 47-year-old Kurt Vonnegut delivered a speech titled "The Virtuous Physicist." While the novelist had a few well-received books to his name, he was a relative unknown at the time. In their write-up of the meeting, the New York Times merely described him as "a science fiction writer." (The next month, the Times would publish a rave review of his newest novel, Slaughterhouse Five, on the front page of their books section, instantly making Vonnegut a household name.)

"What does a humanistic physicist do?" Vonnegut asked the crowd of scientists, many of whom were wearing "STOP ABM" buttons. "Why, he watches people, listens to them, thinks about them, wishes them and their planet well. He wouldn’t knowingly hurt people. He wouldn’t knowingly help politicians or soldiers hurt people. If he comes across a technique that would obviously hurt people, he keeps it to himself. He knows that a scientist can be an accessory to murder most foul. That’s simple enough, surely."

When asked at a press conference afterwards what he meant by a "virtuous physicist," Vonnegut briskly replied, "One who declines to work on weapons.”

The strike was planned to occur at 28 universities, although it's unclear how comprehensive the research stoppage was. At the University of Washington, some "200 faculty members took part." However, at Harvard, the day was mired by a "good deal of confusion." The Crimson reported that scientists there "balked at the words 'protest' and 'strike,'" and chose to view the day more as a "religious holiday" than a labor dispute. The movement didn't apply to them, they figured, because Harvard didn't conduct classified government research on campus.

The Crimson had a conservative view of the strike's effectiveness: "If the only outcome of today's research stoppage is an increased willingness on the part of scientists to use the word 'protest,' the stoppage will still have been a success."

The Science Action Coordinating Committee didn't last long after the March 4 strike, and records of their existence seem to stop in 1969. Lord knows they were unable to prevent government money from invading private scientific research.

Still, they could claim a small victory. Due to wide-ranging public unrest of which they were a very vocal part, the Nixon administration suspended and then subsequently cancelled the Sentinel ABM defense system. However, it was soon replaced with the Safeguard ABM defense system, a colossal waste of money which was shut down after just 24 hours of operation. America's enemies, it seemed, could bypass Safeguard simply by using more warheads and more missiles.

As a certain science fiction writer would say, "So it goes."

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August 13, 2014 - 8:00am
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