Leadership and the Virus
Science -- namely, the Manhattan Project that led to the atom bomb -- had a lot to do with ending World War II when it did. The Japanese signed the surrender on the Battleship Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945 precisely because the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki mere weeks before made it clear that resistance was futile.
Later that year, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson took a leave of absence from the highest court in the land to serve as the chief American prosecutor in the International Military Tribunal that tried the top surviving Nazis for crimes against humanity. (The Supreme Court, by the way, managed with only eight justices during the months he was gone.)
On Nov, 20, Jackson made his opening remarks at that tribunal: “The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations, flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of the law is one of the most significant tributes that power has ever paid to reason.”
That was the attitude of the victorious American government -- we held the power but we were reasonable as we dictated terms of the peace: Reason over power.
Most people believed the atom bomb had shortened the war and saved hundreds of thousands of American lives. This, and the sudden surge of postwar prosperity and the beginnings of the arms race with the Soviets, set off a new age of federal support for science, as well as a belief that the nation needed a science policy. Vannevar Bush, head of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, was in charge of U.S. science policy during the war -- and afterwards, gained even more power and influence for a time.
Scientific research, both basic and applied, soon became a major responsibility of the federal government, largely conducted through the National Science Foundation, which was founded in 1950; the greatly expanded National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the United States Atomic Energy Commission (1946-75).
This all could have been a plus but tragically, our leadership began to prepare us for the future as if all that mattered was arming to fight another military war. We strengthened, supported, and developed the basic sciences, physics, chemistry and engineering, while Bush left biological matters to the medical communities, while purposely ignoring them. Consequently, physicians treated disease as they mostly had, taking advantage of wartime developments like the antibiotics sulfanilamide and penicillin.
For decades, the National Science Foundation supported the biological sciences though not as they should -- and the NIH did the same with the basic biological sciences. But when it came, our equivalent of “World War III” did not involve the bigger, more lethal, more securely hidden nuclear weapons we planned for.
Instead, it arrived as a dormant molecular engine enabled by the chemistry of our cells – the COVID-19 coronavirus. While we were spending trillions on weapons, the far smaller amounts we were spending to protect human lives wasn’t nearly enough.
Our national security, in spite of our brilliant scientific leadership, was compromised by decisions made in the immediate postwar years. Then, nearly three-quarters of a century after Hiroshima, along came a viral disease that hit the world like the sledgehammers used in slaughterhouses.
The COVID-19 virus, a pent-up molecular engine of nucleotides in a packet so small that trillions could be put on the head of a pin, came to call. This ridiculously small engine, coupled with political leadership that was more concerned with power than reason, has made humans vulnerable around the world.
We suddenly found out that America was not only seriously threatened – we had leadership that didn’t have a clue about what to do and which refused to be honest with us,
For the past four years, we’ve been finding out that, as we’ve been told, “elections matter.” If humankind – let alone democracy – is to survive, we need to turn a scientific corner immediately. That starts with a reasonable exercise of power from the top; explained by spokespersons who both scientists and laymen can understand.
To be truly “great again,” America needs to once again become a benevolent nation where reason matters more than power. That America rebuilt Germany and Japan, our former enemies, after World War II.
Now, we need to harness all the reason we can find to stamp out the viral war we now live with.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.