Obituary: Jerome Wiesner

Jerome Bert Wiesner, scientist: born Detroit 30 May 1915; Professor of Electrical Engineering, Associate Director and Director of Research Laboratory of Electronics, MIT 1948-61, Dean of Science 1964-66, Provost 1966-71, President 1971-80 (Emeritus); member, President's Science Advisory Committee 1958-68; Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology 1961-64; married 1940 Laya Wainger (three sons, one daughter); died Watertown, Massachusetts 21 October 1994.

Jerome Wiesner had an intimate relationship with John F. Kennedy. He recalled how on 22 October 1963, a month to the day before the tragic events in Dallas, Kennedy appeared before the Academy of Sciences and closed his talk with an anecdote that revealed the strength of his conviction about the importance of basic research to the future of the United States: 'The great French Field Marshal Lyautey once said to his gardener: 'Plant a tree tomorrow.' And the gardener said 'It won't bear fruit for a hundred years.' 'In that case,' said Lyautey to the gardener, 'plant it this afternoon.' 'That is how I feel about your work and that of your scientific colleagues,' said President Kennedy.'

In particular, as Kennedy's science adviser during the Cuban missile crisis, Jerome Wiesner may have saved the world from the commander-in-chief's impetuosity, and nuclear holocaust.

He exuded quiet authority. To visit Wiesner in his office in Washington in the early 1960s was a memorable experience, because one realised that behind the twinkling, questioning eyes and exquisite courtesy was the most powerful and influential scientist-engineer in human history. Much has been said and written about Camelot and its princes and much of it retrospectively derogatory. Yet I have never heard serious criticism of John F. Kennedy's choice of Wiesner as chairman of the President's Science Advisory Committee, or of Wiesner's conduct in that pivotal position.

Born in Detroit of first-generation Jewish parents from Silesia, Wiesner said that he had the motor industry and its engineering in his blood. After a first degree and masters at the University of Michigan, he was instrumental in setting up an educational broadcasting service, a reflection of his lifelong mission to be an 'engineering educator' - the phrase that he himself chose to describe himself in reference books. Hubert Humphrey as Vice-President with special responsibility for science in the Johnson administration told me that he had recommended Wiesner to Kennedy, in the first place, precisely because he believed that the United States in 1960 was falling behind Japan and Europe in technical education, and that Wiesner was the most persuasive apostle of technical education in the United States.

In 1940 Wiesner went to Washington as chief engineer of the Acoustical Record Laboratory of Congress. In the first place it was simply a professional promotion. But the effect of physical proximity to the Senate and House of Representatives gave the 25-year-old a taste for public affairs at the highest level. With American entry into the Second World War, Wiesner was drafted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Radiation Laboratory, the start of half a century's association with MIT. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, he worked on research on scatter communication techniques, anti-ballistic missile systems, information theory and communication theory. He headed the distinguished Department of Electrical Engineering. His time at Cambridge was interrupted only by a spell at Los Alamos and by his government service in Washington.

Wiesner believed that the knowledge that no victory lies in a nuclear exchange has kept nuclear powers from going over the brink for the past half-century. Yet circumstances remained in which the use of nuclear explosives was thinkable. Hiroshima and Nagasaki illustrated the first possibility - when only one side possesses nuclear weapons. Another instance was when only one side was targetable. A terrorist group with a few nuclear weapons might use them because the user was untargetable - perhaps not even identifiable.

Wiesner's concept of the role that the scientist should play was that of the fighter for desirable policies rather than the detached purveyor of scientific expertise. As science adviser his office became a point of introduction and lobbying for specific policy proposals which happened to enjoy wide support in the scientific community. Such activity was of course not science but political advocacy.

The impact on US policy of Wiesner's style of operation was extremely important. He was a main force behind the partial test ban and the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. He pressed for the increased public support for scientific and technical activities and for foreign assistance. Along with others Wiesner pressed for a reduction in the vulnerability of US retaliatory forces and for command and control arrangements which may have contributed to a reduced risk of nuclear accidents. In the face of considerable criticism he resisted efforts to preserve the strategic superiority of the United States or to push ahead with programmes for civil or ballistic missile defence. He justifies these attitudes in his book Where Science and Politics Meet (1964).

Wiesner's nuclear thinking later advanced. One-sided possession of nuclear explosives conferred such a great military advantage that it implicitly meant the coercion of the nuclear have-nots. Some described the denial of the means to produce nuclear weapons as a form of 'nuclear imperialism' and Wiesner sympathised with them. He said he understood why some have-nots even regarded nuclear weapons as an urgent human right.

For Wiesner the fear of nuclear asymmetry was the strongest motive for developing nuclear weapons. He recollected that Stalin feared the US nuclear monopoly and the Chinese leaders feared Soviet bombs. India had found nuclear asymmetry with China intolerable, had tested one nuclear device and now had a nearly ready nuclear arsenal. Pakistan had responded to the Indian threat and was thought to have weapons that were ready if untested.

Just before he died Wiesner made a plea that honest attention be devoted to the demand side for nuclear weapons. A serious approach to a universal pledge against nuclear use against non-nuclear states might reduce the demand for weapons technology as would significant reductions in weapon stockpiles, a monitored halt to all nuclear tests and the cessation of weapons fabrication in all states.

Wiesner's dying wish was that all nuclear weapons development should end forthwith.

(Photograph omitted)

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