Of the dozens of articles marking the 40th anniversary of the nuclear age (and, by the way, what has happened to the old-fashioned custom of concentrating on silver and golden anniversaries?), one particularly touched me.

It was a piece in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists by Tufts University history professor Martin J. Sherwin, and its human message is captured in its ironic title: "How Well They Meant."

"They," in this instance, are the scientists of the Manhattan Project who designed and carried out the stupendous feat of building the first atomic bomb. They thought they were in a deadly race with Nazi scientists for acquisition of a weapon that could control the world.

Even as they pressed their work to ovetake what they assumed was a German lead, there developed what Sherwin calls "a pervasive anxiety among those scientists . . . about the bomb's role in the postwar world. . . . Within the context of the war, the scientists who participated in the decision to bomb Japan were consumed by a single objective -- to transmit in the most dramatic fashion possible the message that the new age required new forms of international organization."

The story of their struggles to rationalize their own destructive handiwork is not a new one. But it gains in poignance as succeeding generations have gone through mental and moral gyrations, trying to come to terms with possession of a weapon whose power can end life around the globe.

These men -- the Americans, the British and the European refugees -- were scientists united in the conviction that they could not allow Hitler or his allies to win the first round of the nuclear-weapons race. They accomplished that mission brilliantly, but even as they did so, they -- more than anyone else on Earth -- recognized that they had started the most dangerous competition in history.

As early as January 1944, Leo Szilard, one of the refugee scientists, wrote President Roosevelt's science adviser, Vannevar Bush, saying that "This weapon will be so powerful that there can be no peace if it is simultaneously in the possession of any two powers unless these two powers are bound by an indissoluble political union."

Such a union had to be created, Szilard said, "if necessary by force," to prevent a nuclear holocaust. And thus, before the atomic weapon had actually been born, some of its parents were beginning to entertain the idea of a preemptive military attack against the Soviet Union, in order to make the world ultimately a safer place.

Others in the group, including the great Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, saw a different imperative. When he began consulting with the Manhattan Project after escaping from his homeland in 1943, he undertook an additional responsibility he deemed just as great as outdistancing the Nazi scientists. It was an effort to persuade Roosevelt and Churchill to break the secrecy on the project and inform the Soviet leadership what the American and European scientists were attempting to do.

"Arguing for a unilateral initiative," Sherwin wrote, "he (Bohr) insisted that the time to prepare for security in the nuclear age was before the bomb's development overwhelmed the possibility of international cooperation. If the bomb was born in secret in the United States, it would be conceived in secret by the Soviets. The only hope for avoiding a nuclear-arms race after the war was to create an international-control arrangement before the war ended and before the bomb was tested."

It is remarkable to read, two generations later, that the very scientists who conceived and developed the bomb divided along the same lines on which we are split today on the issue of controlling its destructive power.

Then, as now, there were those who saw the only hope in keeping a power advantage over the Soviets -- and being prepared, if it came to it, to use that power to teach them a lesson about the danger of their even thinking of gaining a nuclear advantage.

Then, as now, there were others who were prepared to take a unilateral risk of forsaking the advantage our secrecy and technology provide, in the belief that if the Soviets are not persuaded of our good intentions, the world will not survive.

Forty years later, the same debate still rages. And the stakes are higher today because of the quantum leap in the numbers and destructive force of nuclear weapons.

There are are only two consolations I can derive on this anniversary. For 40 years, we have not resolved the debate, but we have averted the catastrophe. And however fierce the unsolved dilemma is for us, it cannot tear our conscience and wrack our brains any more than it did to the men whose genius gave us these weapons. "How well they meant." as now, there were others who were prepared to take a unilateral risk of forsaking the advantage our secrecy and technology provide, in the belief that if the Soviets are not persuaded of our good intentions, the world will not survive.

Forty years later, the same debate still rages. And the stakes are higher today because of the quantum leap in the numbers and destructive force of nuclear weapons.

There are are only two consolations I can derive on this anniversary. For 40 years, we have not resolved the debate, but we have averted the catastrophe. And however fierce the unsolved dilemma is for us, it cannot tear our conscience and wrack our brains any more than it did to the men whose genius gave us these weapons. "How well they meant."