Chronicle of Higher Education, April 11, 2003
NOTES FROM ACADEME
A Man Who Thinks Otherwise
By RICHARD MONASTERSKY
In an academic career spanning seven decades, the lowest point for
Philip Morrison came when students at Cornell University picked up rocks
and hurled them at him.
It was late October 1962, when John F. Kennedy and Nikita S. Khrushchev
were pushing each other to the brink of war in a standoff over Soviet
nuclear missiles in Cuba. Mr. Morrison, a professor of physics, stood on
the steps of Cornell's student union, using his cane to help steady legs
weakened by childhood polio. Along with a colleague, "we gave a half an
hour to the idea that instead of discussing nuclear war or bombing
Russia or Cuba, we should ask first for the state leaders, Kennedy and
Khrushchev, to meet with the secretary general of the United Nations to
arrange for some sort of stop to the process. So they could talk it over."
"That could not be called a very radical proposal," says Mr. Morrison,
his voice faltering, dropping to a whisper. "Well, we were stoned."
The irony of the moment was lost on the students: The man they were
attacking had helped father the atomic bomb, had witnessed firsthand the
horror of Hiroshima, had survived the dark years of the McCarthy witch
hunts, had spent much of his life trying to protect democracy from
tyranny. And the students were trying to silence him.
Forty years later, the nation is again consumed with concern over
security, with the worry that an attack is just around the corner. Like
the rest of society, academe is adapting, mobilizing, hardening,
retrenching. Many universities are developing projects to make the
nation safer, but at the same time, they run the risk of curtailing the
freedom they seek to defend. Mr. Morrison, who is now 87 and a professor
emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has seen it all
before, in a career that rode through much of the turmoil of the 20th
It was hard to be apolitical at the University of California at Berkeley
in the 1930s, especially as a graduate student of J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Mr. Morrison was one of Oppenheimer's most promising protégés, and like
many physicists in that circle, he belonged to the Communist Party,
which fought for liberal causes such as organizing farmworkers and
promoting civil rights for African-Americans.
Mr. Morrison earned his Ph.D. in theoretical physics in 1940 and was
teaching at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign a year later,
when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. In late 1942, he received a
cryptic invitation from Robert F. Christy, another Berkeley graduate, to
pay him a visit at his office in Chicago. Mr. Christy had disappeared
from academe after the war started, as had many other nuclear physicists.
When Mr. Morrison arrived for the appointment, he was met by armed
guards. Mr. Christy took him to an office and sat him down. "You know
what we're doing here?" he asked.
"I don't know, but I can imagine," said Mr. Morrison. "Very likely it's
connected with uranium."
"Oh yes. We are making bombs," said Mr. Christy, stunning Mr. Morrison
with his frankness.
"You are one of the very few people in this country -- only a handful
could be useful in this project. Yet I want to ask you a question,"
continued Mr. Christy. "If the Germans develop an atomic bomb first, he
said, don't you think we will lose this war?"
That conversation, all of three minutes long, redirected Mr. Morrison's
future. Terrified by the prospect of a German bomb, he joined the
project, working with Enrico Fermi to refine methods to produce
plutonium. In 1944, Mr. Morrison moved to Los Alamos, N.M., to help
construct the "gadget," as the plutonium bomb was called. On July 12,
1945, he found himself riding in a Dodge sedan from the mountains of Los
Alamos down to the desert, with the plutonium core of a gadget named Fat
Man resting in the back seat next to him. Four days later, at 5:30 a.m.,
he watched the world's first atomic explosion usher in a new age.
Mr. Morrison then shipped out for Tinian, an island in the North
Pacific, and helped assemble the Fat Man that would devastate Nagasaki
on August 9, three days after a simpler uranium bomb obliterated
Hiroshima. In earlier meetings, he had argued that the United States
could not use the weapon without a public demonstration first. "My
position was simple: 'We have to give a real warning, maybe with movies
and all that, because this is starting a new kind of warfare,'" he says.
But the generals dismissed Mr. Morrison and other scientists who
In September, the war over, he accepted the grim assignment of touring
Japan, "with the sense that I was completing my long witness to the
entire tragedy." He arrived on the first day of the American occupation
and later walked through Hiroshima, a disaster he called "matchless in
After the war, Mr. Morrison used his unique set of experiences to pursue
peace, sustained by the hope that such a fearful weapon would unite the
world, not divide it. "I am completely convinced that another war cannot
be allowed," he wrote in testimony to the U.S. Senate in 1946. Only with
international control of the new bomb could nations hope to avert
annihilation. "We have a chance to build a working peace on the novelty
and terror of the atomic bomb."
Mr. Morrison felt driven to promote peace, but he foresaw that growing
tensions with the Soviet Union might hinder freedom of expression. So he
declined an invitation to return to the physics department at Berkeley.
"I knew that Berkeley was going to be one of the most vulnerable of
places," he says. "A state university can't stand out against a majority
opinion, even if it is weak and poorly supported."
Instead, in the summer of 1946, he headed for Ithaca, N.Y., "because my
colleagues in physics were people of such rectitude, for example Hans
Bethe [a Los Alamos alumnus and future Nobel laureate], that I knew they
would be very decent and believe in the old principles -- and that
Cornell was a quiet place."
But even there, Mr. Morrison could not hide from the Federal Bureau of
Investigation or from red-baiting members of Congress and the press.
When a newsletter called Counterattack in 1951 described Mr. Morrison as
a Communist, members of Cornell's Board of Trustees called on the
university's acting president, T.P. Wright, to fire the tenured
professor, according to Silvan S. Schweber's In the Shadow of the Bomb
(Princeton University Press, 2000).
The accusations against Mr. Morrison alarmed some alumni and trustees,
and crimped the university's fund raising. The president told Mr.
Morrison that his activities "are bringing great harm to Cornell." Even
Mr. Bethe, who steadfastly defended Mr. Morrison, was annoyed by his
"charitable attitude towards Russia." In 1953, Mr. Morrison brought more
unwanted publicity to Cornell when he was forced to testify before the
U.S. Senate's Internal Security Subcommittee.
Under pressure, the physics professor gradually reduced his political
work, but he defended his right to voice unpopular opinions. In a letter
to Mr. Wright, Mr. Morrison wrote, "Was it not our own Carl Becker [a
Cornell historian] who defined a professor as 'a man who thinks otherwise'?"
In his townhouse in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Morrison sees parallels
between past and present, although he says the attacks on civil
liberties have grown more sophisticated. "Many people are being injured,
but they belong to categories which are cleverly chosen so that most
people are not too worried about it. ... It's very unkind, but that's
the thing that works." He sympathizes with ordinary citizens whose lives
have been uprooted, recalling the years he spent defending himself
"It was hateful," he says of the period. "Not the least of it was that
quite good people couldn't see that, or they were unwilling to see that.
And that made it seem still worse."
The attacks from Communist hunters diminished as the '50s closed, but it
would be many more years before the country would catch up with Mr.
Morrison's unbridled support for peace. He moved to MIT in 1965 and has
been there ever since, promoting science education, continuing his
research, and speaking out. In recent meetings with MIT's president,
Charles M. Vest, Mr. Morrison has advocated on behalf of foreign
students. He is proud that the university has supported their rights.
"The better schools are doing it," he says. "The weaker schools can't
raise their voice so much. Times are hard."
In his book, Mr. Schweber, a professor of physics and of history at
Brandeis University and Harvard University, calls Mr. Morrison "one of
the most courageous defenders of civil liberties and one of the most
forceful and outspoken advocates of a peaceful solution to the cold war
during the McCarthy era."
Mr. Morrison waves off that description. "No," he says. "I just lived a
long time. I felt it keenly and saw many things. I think we tried
But he can't shake the memory of that stoning at Cornell. "It wasn't all
the students. It was only a few. But it made an impression on me," he
says, his pale blue eyes focusing on something outside the window, far away.
In character, Mr. Morrison didn't let the rocks silence him on that day
long ago. "We dodged," he says. "They got some shame and stopped after a
little while. Ran out of stones. Then we went back and talked."
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