In an awesome way nuclear weapons have forced the question of scientists' responsibility for the potential use of their technological achievements. George B. Kistiakowsky, an eminent American scientist who died Tuesday at the age of 82, faced this question for several decades in advising on weapons to deter and on arms control. His dedicated efforts contributed to the nation's security.
A Harvard chemistry professor and explosives expert, Kistiakowsky designed the triggering device for the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, N.M., in 1945. He has been widely quoted as remarking, after seeing that first explosion, "I am sure that at the end of the world -- in the last millisecond of the Earth's existence -- the last human will see what we saw."
This apprehension did not presage a sentimental or idealistic reaction on Kistiakowsky's part. He was later a scientific adviser to the Defense Department, serving on various weapons committees, including one which in 1954 urged that top priority be given to the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. He served for a year and a half during 1959-61 as President Eisenhower's science adviser, a post created as a consequence of Sputnik in 1957 and carrying considerable influence during that period. He continued to advise the government on military and foreign policy matters until 1967, when he ceased because of disagreementBut in the first two wee with the Johnson administration over the Vietnam War.
For those of us who knew Kistiakowsky in his later years, when he was a strongly opinionated and vocal commentator on the implications of security issues, it is impossible to think of the man as a subservient technician. He attributed his growing skepticism about defense policies in large part to the personal influence of President Eisenhower, whom he came to admire greatly, and who turned to Kistiakowsky as a source of independent advice during his years on the President's Science Advisory Committee and as science adviser.
Afterward, from 1962 to 1969, Kistiakowsky served on the advisory board to the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. By the early 1970s he was criticizing the extent that federal resources were allocated to research and development for defense and space programs while civilian technological programs went relatively unsupported. In his last years, Kistiakowsky expressed outrage and pessimism at the seemingly uncontrollable escalation of the nuclear arms race. His death deprives the nuclear debate of a critic whose credentials and basically non-ideological background meant that his views had to be seriously dealt with on their merits.
Quite apart from his absorption in these public issues, Kistiakowsky lived a rich and useful life. He was born in Russia in 1900, the son of a law professor, and served in the anti-Soviet White Russian army after the revolution in 1917. Thereafter he escaped to Germany, earned a PhD, and came to the United States in 1926. After four years at Princeton, he joined the Harvard faculty in 1930 and remained there for the rest of his life.
I knew him as a neighbor in Cambridge, where he lived in a modest style with his wife, Elaine. With characteristic rigor and attention to detail, Kistiakowsky concentrated late in life alternately on publishing the diary of his White House years, writing about arms control issues, gardening at his "dacha" on Cape Cod, and overseeing the life and times of his corgi. He was amiably crusty and blunt, the object of affection among his colleagues, students and acquaintances. At times, his biting wit and scathing judgments on people and issues could astonish.
Eisenhower wasn't the only one who respected Kistiakowsky for his outspoken, independent views. It was a privilege to have known him.