Harry Ransom CenterThe University of Texas at Austin

Search Collections

Ralph Lapp

Dr. Ralph Lapp, a nuclear physicist who helped develop the atomic bomb and who gave up research to write and lecture against further nuclear testing, talks to Wallace about the Atomic Energy Commission, cancer, the social responsibility of scientists, the Manhattan project, Hiroshima, and religion.

Watch Video

Guest: Ralph Lapp

WALLACE: Good evening. What you're about to witness is an unrehearsed uncensored interview. My role is that of a reporter. I've asked my guest, Dr. Ralph Lapp, to express his true feelings. His opinions are not necessarily mine, the stations, or my sponsors Philip Morris, Inc., but whether you agree or disagree, we feel that none will deny the right of these views to be broadcast. My name is Mike Wallace. The cigarette is Philip Morris.


WALLACE: Tonight we go after the story of a man who helped to unleash the nuclear energy, which he now claims, threatens the future of mankind. Our guest will be Dr. Ralph Lapp, who helped develop the atom bomb. Dr. Lapp charges that the nuclear bomb tests, like the one you see pictured behind me, have already caused cancer and will deform thousands of children in generations to come.

If you're curious to know why the Atomic Energy Commission continues these tests in Nevada and what scientists like Dr. Lapp think of the moral, social, and political issues surrounding the use of nuclear energy in war and in peace, we'll go after these stories in just one minute.


WALLACE: And now to our story, from atomic physicist Dr. Ralph Lapp. The scientists who split the atom have now been split themselves into opposing camps over the issue of continued nuclear bomb tests. The Atomic Energy Commission says the tests are not unsafe. But two thousand leading scientists charge that these nuclear blasts reign deadly radioactive fall-out on our entire nation.

One of those scientists is Dr. Ralph Lapp, who gave up research several years ago to write and to lecture in a one-man crusade against further nuclear bomb tests. Dr. Lapp, first of all let me ask you this: One group of scientists, yourself included, tells us that we're in grave danger from present nuclear radiation. Another group, just as prominent, says that we're in no particular danger at all.

Yet both groups, apparently anyway, base their opinion on the same body of scientific facts. Now, how do you explain this wide-open disagreement that is bewildering and, I may say, alarming the United States?

LAPP: Well, Mike, I'd first like to say that I wouldn't split the groups into those "Inside the Atomic Energy Commission" and those "outside"; that would be unfair. Because during the past week we've had some excellent hearings before the Hollowfield Sub-committee of the Atomic Energy Committee of the Congress, and it is quite clear that scientists within the Atomic Energy Commission differed themself. I think this is one of the really gratifying things that emerged, that we were able to get really healthy testimony from people of different viewpoints within the Atomic Energy Commission.

WALLACE: But the fact of the matter is that Willard Libby, the scientist member of the AEC says, does he not, that there is a clear and present... that there is no clear and present danger as he sees it. And your group, more or less says, there is a very serious danger. And I put to you again the fact that certain well-known leading scientists claim that there is no real danger. Another group of scientists say there is a real... a present danger. And yet you both based your theories on the same body of scientific fact. How come the split?

LAPP: Well, I think the split... and I agree we now base it upon the same data -- the split comes from the difference in viewpoint. Let me point out it is the difference between relative and absolute numbers. For example, if I say that the risk of inducing leukemia in a population is 100th of 1 percent. That may seem a relatively small risk. But if we multiply one-hundredth of one percent by a total population of two billion eight hundred million, then you see we have a very large number of people.

Although the relative number is small, the absolute number is large. I think here we come to what is the difference in the outlook of the people we come to Schweitzer's point we have a humanist... a man who holds human life in great regard -- even one life. So, he views the absolute number as most significant.

WALLACE: Well, are you... let me understand now... if any group in this nation has access to all the facts, both classified and declassified...

LAPP: May I say now that the facts are out in the open. Dr. Libby has testified that the facts are now out in the open.

WALLACE: All right... certainly the Atomic Energy Commission has all the facts at its disposal, yet it continues to give approval to these nuclear tests. Now are you prepared to say, Dr. Lapp, that the AEC either doesn't know what it's talking about, or that they are evil men, callously ignoring a real danger to the United States?

LAPP: They are not evil men, nor are they unintelligent men. However, I would point out to you what is I think an injustice to them you have the same agency the Atomic Energy Commission which is charged with the developing, testing of nuclear weapons and it is now doing the evaluation of the hazard. That is basically unfair to them.

WALLACE: Well, are you suggesting that Willard Libby... Dr. Libby is a captive of another group that he does not believe what he says?

LAPP: No... in this particular case I'm pointing out that Dr. Libby is a scientist member of the Atomic Energy Commission. As such he is in a position of more than just a scientist. He's on the Commission itself. And this Commission is charged with developing more and more weapons. I believe it is unfair to ask these people to evaluate the risk. It is just basically wrong. There should be a group which is quite neutral -- that has no responsibility for testing weapons.

WALLACE: That suggestion is certainly a reasonable one, except I cannot escape from the fact that Dr. Willard Libby certainly would not suggest that these tests should continue, would he, if he believed that there was any real danger?

LAPP: Well, I noticed in the morning Herald-Tribune, which I just read this evening that Dr. Libby stated that there was not one single case of a person who was injured -- where you could prove injury. Now that statement is both -- it is true that we have not one single case of the result fall-out, with which we're concerned... where you can prove injury. But we will never, I think, even though fifty-thousand people be killed -- and that is our estimate of the number who will die in the next generation in the next thirty years, let's say from the fall-out from bomb tests to date.

Yet, when that happens, this will be fifty-thousand -- but they are scattered among ten million -- who will die from the same type of disease but caused by a different source. Do you see the point now?

WALLACE: I see the point...

LAPP: Statistically we can't find it just as statistically, for example, we can look till the cows come home but it doesn't look like we're going to find anything in Hiroshima which will tell us about the genetic...

WALLACE: I still believe, though, that Dr. Libby's conscience would probably dictate that he would suggest the tests be stopped, if he felt there were a real danger. But let... for the sake of argument...

LAPP: Well -- that is -- I cannot speak for Dr. Libby's conscience.

WALLACE: I know that... Let's, for the sake of argument, say that we do run the risk of some physical harm from radiation. Now, which do you prefer -- you, Ralph Lapp -- do you prefer that kind of risk to your body and that of your children -- or the risk -- the possible risk of moral and spiritual slavery which could result if we stopped the nuclear tests and thus lower our guard against Russia?

LAPP: Well, let me point out that there are two things that I would like to snap back at you with. The first is that you said "we". If we were making the decision for ourselves, if these risks were not inflicted upon other people, then I think I could answer the question, on a basis of a calculated risk myself. But this radio-active fall-out is global: it comes down on Brazil, it comes down on all continents.

So, in this sense we are the United States assuming the judgment for other nations. So this is one of the things I would say. The other is that you are giving me a very black and white choice. And I want to make it very clear that the scientists of the United States, who have petitioned and many who haven't petitioned with whom I've talked -- the scientists are not for a unilateral, a one-way street type of cessation of nuclear tests.

We realize, and I have made this statement many times, that if we, the United States, were to cease our tests, unilaterally, that I believe it would be interpreted as a weakness by the Soviet Union and I think eventually we would be ground under their heel.

WALLACE: In other words you are saying that you do agree with President Eisenhower that nuclear tests are vital until, we, and the Russians can agree to stop them simultaneously and inspect.

LAPP: I agree.

WALLACE: Now, Dr. Lapp, obviously we're going to settle no further issue as to the tests here tonight, so...

LAPP: But I think we've introduced a degree of understanding, Mike, here, which is important. Mainly, the relative versus the absolute numbers. Namely the business that the scientists have not recommended that we stop. I feel that in... with respect, for example this petition whereby scientists petitioned in this country.

One might ask why didn't the scientists petition the Russians to stop their tests? I believe this would be -- people might look upon this and say the scientists were just looking at the United States and not at Russia. But, in that sense, the scientists would be exceeding the bounds of their responsibility. They would be going beyond the borders of the United States in an area where I believe they would have no real responsibility.

WALLACE: Well, if their creature, if their Frankenstein, as you pointed out, goes beyond the borders of the United States even when the testing is done here, it would seem reasonable that scientists of the world should get together and petition governments around the world to stop the tests.

LAPP: Oh, in this case I think one has to be very precise with respect to what the responsibility of the scientist is. And Mike, I'd like to point out that this is a relatively new field. Namely, science, is new in terms of being important to our government, to the world itself. And so the scientist does not really know his place in society, and society does not know his place either.

WALLACE: Well, on that score, Dr. Lapp, tell me this: when you and other scientists worked on the atomic bomb at the Manhattan Project and elsewhere, did you as a group never sit down at night after work, in a bull-session, and talk about it and say: "This is an evil thing that we're doing we are planning mass-murder."

LAPP: Mike, we did think about this. I must confess that I myself was very busy on the technical end I had three jobs all rolled into one so I was working from eight in the morning until midnight. But we did hold, especially toward the end of the war -- we held meetings behind the guarded area... when we talked about what the consequences of this would be.

We realized that we could not keep this as an atomic monopoly for ourselves. That it would get out -- other nations would have it. And we realized then that we would be in a very serious situation. So we thought about these things. We, as a matter of fact, I remember very clearly some of these discussions... they led to the founding of a magazine which is called "The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists", and I don't know...

I wasn't going to do this, Mike, but if you don't mind my doing it... I'll just show you the... this little magazine which has turned out to be one of the most reliable news sources on atomic energy. We founded this magazine as a means of communicating with ourselves. And then when we found others were interested, sociologists, political scientists we brought them into the fold too.

WALLACE: Weren't there scientists among you, Dr. Lapp, who at the very time that you were making the atom bomb said to yourselves: Maybe we ought to pull back... maybe we should go no further with this bomb. We really do not know what force we are unleashing?

LAPP: The thought was given to this, but we felt on the basis of intelligence which was made available to us, through the Army Intelligence we felt that we were in a race to beat the Germans to this weapon. And... such, and so the evidence did indicate at the time -- we later found out that we were incorrect, that the Germans didn't get to first base. But, nonetheless, we felt we were in that race and our worry was where would the United States be if Hitler turned up with this weapon and we did not have it?

WALLACE: Of course.

LAPP: So here was our dilemma.

WALLACE: Drew Pearson wrote back on January 23rd in 1950 about the tormented group of scientists who made the atomic bombs used at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and he added that when these scientists saw photographs of these cities after the atomic attacks, quote, "Their souls were on fire." Do you remember, sir, how you personally felt when you first heard about those bombings?

LAPP: I'm trying to recall now, Mike, it is a good long time ago and I think that my feelings were one of release. That here we had been working on something that we couldn't tell anybody about. As I recall at the time I was one of two people in Chicago who knew that the bomb would be dropped that week, and I had a feeling of release - that at last we could talk about this thing and expose it to the normal process of democracy and see what the reaction would be. I myself did not have a guilt feeling at that time. But I'll tell you, Mike, I had a pretty traumatic experience last month. May I have a moment to tell you?

WALLACE: Surely.

LAPP: I was in the city of Hiroshima --it was my first visit and I... the director of the museum kept it open he had some school children going through and he kept it open so I could go through and see the museum. It was late. And as I went into this museum and saw these horrible pictures of people lying on the floors with terrible burns... I saw these little Japanese children and my wife and I stood there, obviously American, and these little children five years old looked up at us and I couldn't help but feel a sense of guilt about this. It was for me a traumatic experience.

WALLACE: Now, you dropped your scientific research several years ago to go on a kind of a crusade to warn against the perils of radiation. Are you doing this and do other scientists do this, perhaps, to salve a guilty conscience for having helped to create this destructive power?

LAPP: That's a really deep question, Mike. I have been talking with a very famous scientist yesterday. He explained something of what I am -- he said: "You're a 'mutant'." (LAUGHS) I guess I am kind of a mutant. But, frankly, when I saw the power of this weapon and saw the conditions in the world, I felt that we ought to discuss this thing in the open --to tell the truth about it. And so I guess I did start out on a kind of crusade to tell about these things. There aren't many people doing this, and I feel that really with these hearings that have ended this week in Congress -- I feel that there's kind of - a - big cycle in my life - is over.

WALLACE: Let's talk... your life in this regard, is over, you mean?

LAPP: Yes...

WALLACE: Your life as far as...

LAPP: We won't get into half-life.

WALLACE: Let's talk about what drives, not just you, but what drives a scientist. H. L. Mencken once wrote -- he said -- what actually urges the scientist on is not some idea of service, but of boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown. The scientist, Mencken said, is not the liberator-releasing slaves, not the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat holes. How do you explain this thirst for the unknown in the scientist -- the sniffing of rat holes that Mencken talks about?

LAPP: Mike, it is difficult, I think, to explain this to a person who has never done creative research. To explain the thrill that you get when you do something for the first time, when you, so to speak, unlock a door of nature that has never been opened before. There is a reward that is given to you -- a feeling of fulfillment that is the... I think one of the greatest rewards that a scientist can have.

I remember the first time I really got a real concrete original result of my own... I was up in the... it was kind of like the mad scientist scene... I was up in the top of a Botany building... it was late at night... I had to change all of my film in this cosmic ray equipment late at night and I had this film going through and I had about a hundred geiger counters all of which were rattling away... and I was looking for a connection between two events that hadn't been related before.

And all of a sudden while I looked into this machine, this very rare event happened as I watched. The needle of the scale swung over and the geiger counters clicked at the same time and I had actually observed a coincidence between events, which had never been connected before. And I had a real feeling of elation -- this is the kind of thing that...

WALLACE: Of tremendous power.

LAPP: Yes... it is a feeling of penetration which Mencken said. It is also, I think, the motivation of the scientist here is that of a small boy --he has an intense curiosity, which he must fulfill.

WALLACE: Not for the end result, that is, in what it will do to human kind eventually, but rather just the battle itself.

LAPP: Yes... I think...

WALLACE: The penetration of the unknown all by itself. I'd like...

LAPP: You know you're actually touching upon the title of a new book I'm going to do two years from now. It's called "Into the Unknown."

WALLACE: I'd like to touch now, if I may, on the conflict between science and religion, Dr. Lapp, with a question that I'd like you to think over for a moment before answering. The British scientist and Nobel Prize winner, Bertrand Russell once said: "Religion is based primarily and mainly on fear."

And he added: "Science has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against churches. Science can help us get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations." I'd like to know your opinion of that charge by Bertrand Russell. And we'll get Dr. Lapp's answer to that question in less than thirty seconds.


WALLACE: And now, Dr. Lapp, for that question. Again, Bertrand Russell says: "Religion is based primarily on fear. Science," he says "has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against churches." And then he goes on: "Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations." What do you think of that?

LAPP: Mike, this is an area in which I don't profess to be at all well grounded. I have longed to have the time to study more about this and I think I shall have soon. But I would like to say that I think both strive for the same thing, which is the search for the truth. I was, as a matter of fact, thinking about this in church this morning when I heard Dr. Davies in Washington speak. Last week he'd spoken about radioactive fall-out. And this week he spoke about civilization.

And what he said... I just jotted it down here in the back of this church announcement... he said: "Civilization is the story of catastrophe in senseless destruction." Now I think that science has brought into this world picture in which religion has played such a dominant part -- at times a chaotic part -- I think now science has brought into this world picture a new force. I think that the means of destruction which are now present, if we can foresee them, are such that we have for the first time in the history of this planet a real reason to avoid war.

May I say that this can be pretty well spelled out by this... I just happened to bring this along... it's Life Magazine for this week... and on the page on radioactive fall-out they had a map. And this map shows what the United States would look like if you had a number of bombs, not a very large number... said to be within Russian capability in a few years... you would have the radio-active fall-out over the United States. The impact of this upon the United States is the thing that has always worried me.

WALLACE: Let me ask you this - are most scientists, whom you know, religious men, God-fearing men?

LAPP: There was a survey... I'll try to answer that... there was a survey taken some time ago...

WALLACE: Back in 1921 by Professor James Lubel of Bryn Mawr College?

LAPP: No, this wasn't the one I was think of. Dr. Millikan took one too. I happened to have been close to Professor Arthur Compton, who as you know, comes from a deeply religious family. My feeling is that scientists are not much different from anybody else. I believe that they are no more or less religious than ordinary groups, but my own feeling is that a scientist ought to be. I've often felt that a scientist ought to be a religious man; perhaps not in terms of church-going but I believe that when one penetrates into the mystery of science, you see so much. The scientist has the key to open the door to a vaster understanding.

WALLACE: Let's talk about one specific conflict between science and religion, Dr. Lapp. Just last week you proposed the establishment of a sperm-bank. Now according to your plan, healthy male sperm would be stored like blood is stored now, so that in case of a nuclear war we would be able to propagate the human race with healthy sperm rather than with sperm that has been exposed to radiation. Sperm which might breed deformed infants.

We asked a spokesman for the Roman Catholic Church, Jesuit Father John LaFarge, for his reaction to that proposal and he said the Catholic Church would be against that idea. It's merely a form of artificial insemination, which the Church opposes. Isn't this an instance of irreconcilable conflict between science and religion?

LAPP: It's a tough one. Let me tell you, first of all, that when I made this proposal, before the Congressional Committee, I interpolated into my prepared testimony because my feeling was -- that we have very little chance after a war like this to keep the human race alive. And that I merely wanted to point out to kind of jolt the Senators, who were sitting up there in front of me, with the great seriousness of this problem. And I pointed out that the only thing that you could do to help yourself would be to protect the one side of the human equation in reproduction that is possible to protect -- which is the human sperm. Now...

WALLACE: But you weren't really serious about your proposal for a sperm-bank, that you were using it just for dramatic effect?

LAPP: I said that I introduced it because of the bizarre nature that I found it very difficult to propose this. But if you were serious about saving human... to propagating our particular form of civilization, then I think you would have to take account, and my own feeling, and by the way I've had two years of Jesuitical training myself, my own feeling is that we would have to adjust ourselves to the new circumstances.

WALLACE: One final question...

LAPP: But this is a really tough one.

WALLACE: Uh-hum, it is indeed. One final question. Suppose, conceivably science could invent an instrument, a source of fantastic energy that would be a great good to mankind, but that also, might enable the scientist literally to destroy the entire world with the push of a button - as a scientist would you help invent that force?

LAPP: I would not. I think this is the case where we are finding that scientists are coming more... are becoming more and more socially conscious. I think, in this case, I would refuse. I might tell you that some of my friends, very good friends, at the end of the war, 1945, looked at this atomic bomb and they said: "I would rather do my research somewhere else." And they went off and became biologists, radio-biologists and went off into the field. They made the decision for themselves. But my own feeling, and if I can come back to where we started, Mike, for just a second. My own feeling is that some people may argue with the scientists and their arguments about radio-active fall-out, but how would you, the people feel if we, as scientists, did not speak out?

WALLACE: And thank you Dr. Lapp for coming here and speaking out, tonight. The father of the Atomic Age, Dr. Albert Einstein, once told his students: "Concern for man himself and his fate must always form the chief interest of all your technical endeavors. Never forget this, in the midst of your diagrams and equations." And for Dr. Ralph Lapp, the diagrams and equations that led to the awful atom bomb led also to soul searching and to a deeper compassion for his fellow men. I'll bring you the run-down on next week's interview in just a minute.


WALLACE: Next week, we go after the story of the first lady of radio. You see her behind me, she's Mary Margaret McBride. A spinster lady who came to New York from Paris, Missouri, back in the roaring 20's. In the past quarter century she's interviewed some thirty thousand persons on radio -- saints and sinners, beauty queens and steeple-jacks. But this time we'll be asking Mary Margaret for her own opinions on censorship, morals, sponsors, religion and spinsterhood. Mary Margaret McBride, next Sunday. Till then for Philip Morris, Mike Wallace. Good night.

ANNCR: The Mike Wallace Interview is brought to you by Philip Morris Incorporated, the Quality House.