On August 6, 1945 the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan, hoping to end World War II quickly and avoid the half-million more American casualties likely to be suffered if the conflict dragged on. The war did end quickly. Later that year producer Hal Wallis asked Ayn Rand to develop a script about the making of the bomb. The film project, Top Secret, was dropped some months later, but Rand’s work on the movie offers some lessons for today.
In a memo to Wallis, Rand stated that “An attempt to make a picture on the atomic bomb can be the greatest moral crime in the history of civilization—unless one approaches the subject with the most earnest, most solemn realization of the responsibility involved, to the utmost limit of one’s intelligence and honestly, as one would approach Judgment Day—because that is what the subject represents.”
She argued that it was the “thinking of men” that would determine if and when the bomb was used. And because the “motion picture is a most powerful medium of influencing men’s thinking,” such a subject must not be treated “lightly or carelessly.”
Here Rand understood that technology, like the bomb, consists entirely of tools created by our minds. It is our morality that determines whether we use our tools for good or ill.
Rand asked in her memo, “What is the specific danger of the atomic bomb to mankind?” In the aftermath of Hitler and with Stalinist Russia a growing threat, Rand explained that “the basic issue of the world. . . is between Statism and freedom. Specifically: between an all-powerful government and free enterprise.” She understood that “Statism leads men to war because of its nature.”
Statism by its nature involves the initiation of force by government against individuals. Rand understood that it was Statism that made the bomb dangerous. A system in which individuals deal with one another based on mutual consent would have no need for war and weapons would be for defense and deterrence only.
Rand wanted to make certain that the film did not empower those who argued, “See what a strong government can do? Many people objected to Roosevelt’s use of money for secret purposes—yet look what he gave you!” Rand countered that a film must “present the issue not in superficial, political terms—but in its deeper, essential terms.”
To begin with, national defense is a proper function of government; thus, defense spending is valid. But Rand observed that government expenditures were not enough. Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union had not produced an atomic bomb. It was free men who produced it. (The Soviets only got the bomb later, thanks to secrets they stole from the Americans.)
Rand pointed out that the key minds that made the bomb possible were refugees from totalitarian countries—Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, Meitner. And the key scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project to produce the bomb were volunteers, invited by Dr. Robert Oppenheimer, the civilian scientist who headed up the project.
Rand interviewed Oppenheimer as well as Gen. Leslie Groves, who oversaw the project for the army. In her notes she observed that the actual day-to-day work to achieve the seemingly impossible task of producing an atomic weapon was done not through orders and directives from authorities that had to be obeyed but, rather, through open exchange.
Her notes included, “General Groves was the only boss over Oppenheimer,” and “Scientists given choice of problems. Reasons instead of authority. Free to solve problems.” Rand observed that even scientists who were in the military were “free in the laboratory. Never worked under compulsion.”
Groves, a military man, was wise enough to understand that he needed to let scientists use their minds in their own way. Groves thus reaffirmed a keen insight found in all Rand’s writings: the mind cannot be forced!
In recent years the decision to use the atomic bomb has come under criticism. But however you come down on this controversy, Rand’s observations can inform your thinking about our future. Free minds create technologies. Moral systems determine how we use technologies. Statist morality—from left and right—would employ technology to force individual choices and minds. Force is the destroyer of minds. Thus, if we want technologies that will benefit us in the future, we need free minds and free societies!
Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.