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Matthew Meselson's opposition to chemical and biological weapons

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Work with the Disarmament Agency
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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I was in the science and technology session of the Disarmament Agency, and it was great fun. The Agency was brand new, it had just been started by Kennedy, so half of us were volunteers and half were people who were going to stay, State Department people and some retired ambassadors. But it turned out there were about 50 people in total in the agency, and the science and technology section was maybe 10 people, but we were doing almost all the work and somehow the scientific and technology section people really believed in the thing much more than the diplomats did. So a great deal of the work which was not technical was actually being done by us. So it was great fun. I was involved to a limited degree in the test ban negotiations while they were going on in Moscow and I remember, sort of, the climatic moment when they almost had a treaty and Harriman was negotiating in Moscow and they were quarrelling about peaceful nuclear explosions which has always been a subject of contention between us and the Russians. Sometimes we are on the side of peaceful nuclear explosions, and sometimes it's the Russians, so we change sides from time to time but we often disagree. Anyway, at that time the United States was in favour of peaceful nuclear explosions and the Russians were against it. So they made it a condition of the treaty that the peaceful nuclear explosions should be banned together with the others, it should be all explosions; whereas the United States was holding out for an exception for peaceful explosions. And it happened then that Harriman said... he cabled back to us what was going on in the negotiations and he cabled back saying, 'Look, I think I can get a treaty if we give on the peaceful explosions. What about it? Can we change the position on nuclear explosions?' That was put to the Agency. Well this happened... this question came on a Friday afternoon and my boss had gone home for the weekend and the next in line above him had gone home for the weekend, so it happened to come down to little me at that... to decide this question. So that was my moment of glory and of course I said, 'Yes, we should give way,' I mean, and that was it. Whether that was really the decisive point, I don't know; probably many other people were also consulted, but anyhow, I was happy I put in my little input and it was clear to me that the peaceful explosions weren't important. It might have been fun to do peaceful explosions and certainly Edward Teller enjoyed doing them but I wasn't going to stop the treaty because of that.

Born in England in 1923, Freeman Dyson moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He has published several books and, among other honours, has been awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Moscow, USA, USSR, JF Kennedy, W Averell Harriman, Edward Teller

Duration: 2 minutes, 52 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008