George Wald - A Generation in Search of a Future
[Elijah Wald home] [Robert Johnson] [Narcocorrido] [Josh White] [Music and albums] [Elijah Wald bio] [Other writing]

Return to George Wald Page

This is a somewhat edited version of a speech given by my father, George Wald, on March 4, 1969, at an antiwar teach-in at MIT. The editing was his, done because he spoke without a written text or notes, as always using only a few cards with key phrases written on them. In general, this version is a good streamlining of the original speech, but it is worth noting one section which he chose to omit: When he talks about the draft, he went on to say that Harvard had circulated a questionaire to its faculty, asking them how they would react if their students came to them with questions about what to do if drafted, and that his response was that if they chose to resist or go into exile, he would assist them in any way he could. Simply saying this was a felony, for which other people at the time were being arrested and sent to jail. Which is to say that this speech was not simply eloquent; it was, in its time, heroic. As for its effect, this is what was written in the liner notes when it was released as an LP:

At least since the day of the Melian embassy to Athens, speechmaking had been the principal medium of public debate. The Speech Era ended about the time America was crucified on a cross of gold. This is the Age of the Deep Backgrounder, and of the Leak.

People still make speeches, of course. A speech is eight seconds of uninterrupted talk heard over the airwaves. Alternately, a speech is two paragraphs of unbroken quotation in a newspaper.

The Thucydides Memorial Award then, goes to the editors of the Boston Globe and to WGBH Boston, for having the sense and taking the trouble to preserve for the public what otherwise would have been the ephemeral remarks of an obscure if brilliant Nobel laureate in biology, Harvard's George Wald.

At the Kresge Auditorium on the campus of M.I.T., Wald spoke of teaching and learning gone sour, of the doubletalk of our times, of terror and nuclear weapons, of death and life and the future. Since then he has been deluged with requests for the text and speaking invitations, and the speech has so far been broadcast in several cities, and reprinted in the New Yorker, the Progressive, the New York Post, Washington Post, Philadelphia Bulletin, Chicago Daily News, Buffalo Evening News, San Francisco Chronicle, and James Reston's Martha's Vineyard Gazette—among other papers—all because of the Globe's initial decision to carry it in full....

Eventually the Globe distributed 87,000 reprints of the speech in response to requests. "We had to stop reprinting because of the cost about the beginning of May," [editorial page editor Charles L.] Whipple said. "My best guess would be that the total number of people who have seen or heard the speech is well up into the millions."

Whipple said it was his impression that about half the requests received by the Globe were from young people who wanted to send it to their parents, and the other half from parents who wanted to send it to their children....

The Wald speech was part of an important event—a strike by scientists at M.I.T., the largest academic defense contractor. But the reception accorded the speech seems to indicate the contrary of the usual newsman's rule of thumb, that ideas unattended by events are not news....

From Chicago Journalism Review, 5/69, article by Ron Dorfman, Managing Editor.

A Generation in Search of a Future

Edited by George Wald from his speech given on March 4, 1969, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology:

All of you know that in the last couple of years there has been student unrest, breaking at times into violence, in many parts of the world: in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Japan, and, needless to say, many parts of this country. There has been a great deal of discussion as to what it all means. Perfectly clearly, it means something different in Mexico from what it does in France, and something different in France from what it does in Tokyo, and something different in Tokyo from what it does in this country. Yet, unless we are to assume that students have gone crazy all over the world, or that they have just decided that it’s the thing to do, it must have some common meaning.

I don’t need to go so far afield to look for that meaning. I am a teacher, and at Harvard I have a class of about three hundred and fifty students—men and women—most of them freshmen and sophomores. Over these past few years, I have felt increasingly that something is terribly wrong—and this year ever so much more than last. Something has gone sour, in teaching and in learning. It’s almost as though there were a widespread feeling that education has become irrelevant.

A lecture is much more of a dialogue than many of you probably realize. As you lecture, you keep watching the faces, and information keeps coming back to you all the time. I began to fee], particularly this year. that I was missing much of what was coming back. I tried asking the students, but they didn’t or couldn’t help me very much.

But I think I know what’s the matter. I think that this whole generation of students is beset with a profound uneasiness, and I don’t think that they have yet quite defined its source. I think I understand the reasons for their uneasiness even better than they do. What is more, I share their uneasiness

What’s bothering those students? Some of them tell you it’s the Vietnam war. I think the Vietnam war is the most shameful episode in the whole of American history. The concept of war crimes is an American invention. We’ve committed many war crimes in Vietnam—but I’ll tell you something interesting about that. We were committing war crimes in World War II, before the Nuremberg trials were held and the principle of war crimes was stated. The saturation bombing of German cities was a war crime. Dropping those atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was a war crime. If we had lost the war, it might have been our leaders who had to answer for such actions. I’ve gone through all that history lately, and I find that there’s a gimmick in it. It isn’t written out, but I think we established it by precedent. That gimmick is that if one can allege that one is repelling or retaliating for an aggression, after that everything goes.

And, you see, we are living in a world in which all wars are wars of defense. All War Departments are now Defense Departments. This is all part of the doubletalk of our time. The aggressor is always on the other side. I suppose this is why our ex-Secretary of State Dean Rusk went to such pains to insist, as he still insists, that in Vietnam we are repelling an aggression. And if that’s what we are doing—so runs the doctrine—everything goes. If the concept of war crimes is ever to mean anything, they will have to be defined as categories of acts, regardless of alleged provocation. But that isn’t so now.

I think we’ve lost that war, as a lot of other people think, too. The Vietnamese have a secret weapon. It’s their willingness to die beyond our willingness to kill. In effect, they’ve been saying, You can kill us, but you’ll have to kill a lot of us; you may have to kill all of us. And, thank heaven, we are not yet ready to do that.

Yet we have come a long way toward it—far enough to sicken many Americans, far enough to sicken even our fighting men. Far enough so that our national symbols have gone sour. How many of you can sing about “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air” without thinking, Those are our bombs and our rockets, bursting over South Vietnamese villages? When those words were written, we were a people struggling for freedom against oppression. Now we are supporting open or thinly disguised military dictatorships all over the world, helping them to control and repress peoples struggling for their freedom.

But that Vietnam war, shameful and terrible as it is, seems to me only an immediate incident in a much larger and more stubborn situation.

Part of my trouble with students is that almost all the students I teach were born after World War II. Just after World War II, a series of new and abnormal procedures came into American life. We regarded them at the time as temporary aberrations. We thought we would get back to normal American life someday.

But those procedures have stayed with us now for more than twenty years, and those students of mine have never known anything else. They think those things are normal. They think that we’ve always had a Pentagon, that we have always had a big Army, and that we have always had a draft. But those are all new things in American life, and I think that they are incompatible with what America meant before.

How many of you realize that just ‘ before World War II the entire American Army, including the Air Corps, numbered a hundred and thirty-nine thousand men? Then World War II started, but we weren’t yet in it, and, seeing that there was great trouble in the world, we doubled this Army to two hundred and sixty-eight thousand men. Then, in World War II, it got to be eight million. And then World War II came to an end and we prepared to go back to a peacetime Army, somewhat as the American Army had always been before. And, indeed, in 1950—you think about 1950, our international commitments, the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, and all the rest of it—in 1950, we got down to six hundred thousand men.

Now we have three and a half million men under arms: about six hundred thousand in Vietnam, about three hundred thousand more in ‘support areas’ elsewhere in the Pacific, about two hundred and fifty thousand in Germany. And there are a lot at home. Some months ago, we were told that three hundred thousand National Guardsmen and two hundred thousand reservists—so half a million men—had been specially trained for riot duty in the cities.

I say the Vietnam war is just an immediate incident because as long as we keep that big an Army, it will always find things to do. If the Vietnam war stopped tomorrow, the chances are that with that big a military establishment we would be in another such adventure, abroad or at home, before you knew it.

The thing to do about the draft is not to reform it but to get rid of it.

A peacetime draft is the most un-American thing I know. All the time I was growing up, I was told about oppressive Central European countries and Russia, where young men were forced into the Army, and I was told what they did about it. They chopped off a finger, or shot off a couple of toes, or, better still, if they could manage it, they came to this country. And we understood that, and sympathized, and were glad to welcome them.

Now, by present estimates, from four to six thousand Americans of draft age have left this country for Canada, two or three thousand more have gone to Europe, and it looks as though many more were preparing to emigrate.

A bill to stop the draft was recently introduced in the Senate (S. 503), sponsored by a group of senators that runs the gamut from McGovern and Hatfield to Barry Goldwater. I hope it goes through. But I think that when we get rid of the draft we must also drastically cut back the size of the armed forces.

Yet there is something ever so much bigger and more important than the draft. That bigger thing, of course, is the militarization of our country. Ex-President Eisenhower, in his farewell address, warned us of what he called the military-industrial complex. I am sad to say that we must begin to think of it now as the military-industrial-labor-union complex. What happened under the plea of the Cold War was not alone that we built up the first big peacetime Army in our history but that we institutionalized it. We built, I suppose, the biggest government building in our history to run it, and we institutionalized it.

I don’t think we can live with the present military establishment, and its eighty-billion-dollar-a-year budget, and keep America anything like the America we have known in the past. It is corrupting the life of the whole country. It is buying up everything in sight: industries, banks, investors, scientists—and lately it seems also to have bought up the labor unions.

The Defense Department is always broke, but some of the things it does with that eighty billion dollars a year would make Buck Rogers envious. For example, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, on the outskirts of Denver, was manufacturing a deadly nerve poison on such a scale that there was a problem of waste disposal. Nothing daunted, the people there dug a tunnel two miles deep under Denver, into which they have injected so much poisoned water that, beginning a couple of years ago, Denver has experienced a series of earth tremors of increasing severity. Now there is grave fear of a major earthquake. An interesting debate is in progress as to whether Denver will be safer if that lake of poisoned water is removed or is left in place.

Perhaps you have read also of those six thousand sheep that suddenly died in Skull Valley, Utah, killed by another nerve poison—a strange and, I believe, still unexplained accident, since the nearest testing seems to have been thirty miles away.

As for Vietnam, the expenditure of firepower there has been frightening. Some of you may still remember Khe Sanh, a hamlet just south of the Demilitarized Zone, where a force of United States Marines was beleaguered for a time. During that period, we dropped on the perimeter of Khe Sanh more explosives than fell on Japan throughout World War II, and more than fell on the whole of Europe during the years 1942 and 1943.

One of the officers there was quoted as having said afterward, ‘It looks like the world caught smallpox and died.’

The only point of government is to safeguard and foster life. Our government has become preoccupied with death, with the business of killing and being killed. So-called defense now absorbs sixty per cent of the national budget, and about twelve per cent of the Gross National Product.

A lively debate is beginning again on whether or not we should deploy antiballistic missiles, the ABM. I don’t have to talk about them—everyone else here is doing that. But I should like to mention a curious circumstance. In September, 1967, or about a year and a half ago, we had a meeting of M.I.T. and Harvard people, including experts on these matters, to talk about whether anything could be done to block the Sentinel system—the deployment of ABMs. Everyone present thought them undesirable, but a few of the most knowledgeable persons took what seemed to be the practical view: ‘Why fight about a dead issue? It has been decided, the funds have been appropriated. Let’s go on from there.’

Well, fortunately, it’s not a dead issue.

An ABM is a nuclear weapon. It takes a nuclear weapon to stop a nuclear weapon. And our concern must be with the whole issue of nuclear weapons.

There is an entire semantics ready to deal with the sort of thing I am about to say. It involves such phrases as ‘Those are the facts of life.’ No—these are the facts of death. I don’t accept them, and I advise you not to accept them. We are under repeated pressure to accept things that are presented to us as settled—decisions that have been made. Always there is the thought: Let’s go on from there. But this time we don’t see how to go on. We will have to stick with these issues.

We are told that the United States and Russia, between them, by now have stockpiled nuclear weapons of approximately the explosive power of fifteen tons of TNT for every man, woman, and child on earth. And now it is suggested that we must make more. All very regrettable, of course, but ‘those are the facts of life.’ We really would like to disarm, but our new Secretary of Defense has made the ingenious proposal that now is the time to greatly increase our nuclear armaments, so that we can disarm from a position of strength.

I think all of you know there is no adequate defense against massive nuclear attack. It is both easier and cheaper to circumvent any known nuclear defense system than to provide it. It’s all pretty crazy. At the very moment we talk of deploying ABMs, we are also building the MIRV, the weapon to circumvent ABMs.

As far as I know, the most conservative estimates of the number of Americans who would be killed in a major nuclear attack, with everything working as well as can be hoped and all foreseeable precautions taken, run to about fifty million. We have become callous to gruesome statistics, and this seems at first to be only another gruesome statistic. You think, Bang!—and next morning, if you’re still there, you read in the newspapers that fifty million people were killed.

But that isn’t the way it happens. When we killed close to two hundred thousand people with those first, little, old-fashioned uranium bombs that we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the same number of persons were maimed, blinded, burned, poisoned, and otherwise doomed. A lot of them took a long time to die.

That’s the way it would be. Not a bang and a certain number of corpses to bury but a nation filled with millions of helpless, maimed, tortured, and doomed persons, and the survivors huddled with their families in shelters, with guns ready to fight off their neighbors trying to get some uncontaminated food and water.

A few months ago, Senator Richard Russell, of Georgia, ended a speech in the Senate with the words ‘If we have to start over again with another Adam and Eve, I want them to be Americans; and I want them on this continent and not in Europe.’ That was a United States senator making a patriotic speech. Well, here is a Nobel laureate who thinks that those words are criminally insane.

How real is the threat of full-scale nuclear war? I have my own very inexpert idea, but, realizing how little I know, and fearful that I may be a little paranoid on this subject, I take every opportunity to ask reputed experts. I asked that question of a distinguished professor of government at Harvard about a month ago. I asked him what sort of odds he would lay on the possibility of full-scale nuclear war within the foreseeable future. ‘Oh,’ he said comfortably, ‘I think I can give you a pretty good answer to that question. I estimate the probability of full-scale nuclear war, provided that the situation remains about as it is now, at two per cent per year.’ Anybody can do the simple calculation that shows that two per cent per year means that the chance of having that full-scale nuclear war by 1990 is about one in three, and by 2000 it is about fifty-fifty.

I think I know what is bothering the students. I think that what we are up against is a generation that is by no means sure that it has a future.

I am growing old, and my future, so to speak, is already behind me. But there are those students of mine, who are in my mind always, and there are my children, the youngest of them now seven and nine, whose future is infinitely more precious to me than my own. So it isn’t just their generation; it’s mine, too. We’re all in it together.

Are we to have a chance to live? We don’t ask for prosperity, or security. Only for a reasonable chance to live, to work out our destiny in peace and decency. Not to go down in history as the apocalyptic generation.

And it isn’t only nuclear war. Another overwhelming threat is in the population explosion. That has not yet even begun to come under control. There is every indication that the world population will double before the year 2000, and there is a widespread expectation of famine on an unprecedented scale in many parts of the world. The experts tend to differ only in their estimates of when those famines will begin. Some think by 1980; others think they can be staved off until 1990; very few expect that they will not occur by the year 2000.

That is the problem. Unless we can be surer than we now are that this generation has a future, nothing else matters. It’s not good enough to give it tender, loving care, to supply it with breakfast foods, to buy it expensive educations. Those things don’t mean anything unless this generation has a future. And we’re not sure that it does.

I don’t think that there are problems of youth, or student problems. All the real problems I know about are grown-up problems.

Perhaps you will think me altogether absurd, or ‘academic,’ or hopelessly innocent—that is, until you think of the alternatives—if I say, as I do to you now: We have to get rid of those nuclear weapons. There is nothing worth having that can he obtained by nuclear war—nothing material or ideological—no tradition that it can defend. It is utterly self-defeating. Those atomic bombs represent an unusable weapon. The only use for an atomic bomb is to keep somebody else from using one. It can give us no protection—only the doubtful satisfaction of retaliation. Nuclear weapons offer us nothing but a balance of terror, and a balance of terror is still terror.

We have to get rid of those atomic weapons, here and everywhere. We cannot live with them.

I think we’ve reached a point of great decision, not just for our nation, not only for all humanity, but for life upon the earth. I tell my students, with a feeling of pride that I hope they will share, that the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen that make up ninety-nine per cent of our living substance were cooked in the deep interiors of earlier generations of dying stars. Gathered up from the ends of the universe, over billions of years, eventually they came to form, in part, the substance of our sun, its planets, and ourselves. Three billion years ago, life arose upon the earth. It is the only life in the solar system.

About two million years ago, man appeared. He has become the dominant species on the earth. All other living things, animal and plant, live by his sufferance. He is the custodian of life on earth, and in the solar system. It’s a big responsibility.

The thought that we’re in competition with Russians or with Chinese is all a mistake, and trivial. We are one species, with a world to win. There’s life all over this universe, but the only life in the solar system is on earth, and in the whole universe we are the only men.

Our business is with life, not death. Our challenge is to give what account we can of what becomes of life in the solar system, this corner of the universe that is our home; and, most of all, what becomes of men—all men, of all nations, colors, and creeds. This has become one world, a world for all men. It is only such a world that can now offer us life, and the chance to go on.