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Until recently, the American Physical Society prided itself on its aloofness from matters of public policy. It saw itself as an organization devoted exclusively to the affairs of pure science. The archival record tells another story, and one of which the Society might equally be proud.

Time and again the Society entered the field of politics - with petitions to Congress, telegrams to news agencies, and well-placed letters - in order to defend the scientific integrity, freedom, and loyalty of its members. During the war years, the APS was responsive to the needs of national security without losing sight of the long-term goals of international cooperation.

"The Physicists' War"

The Physicists' WarOne consequence of World War II was the mobilization of physicists for war work. Radar research was undertaken at MIT's Rad Lab, and the atom bomb project was carried out at Los Alamos, Chicago, Hanford, and Oak Ridge.

Photo on left: Scientists at Los Alamos, circa 1942. Photo on right: Work at the Rad Lab, MIT. AIP Niels Bohr Library.

Self-Censorship

War work had impact on the Society's meetings and publications. Many members were involved in classified defense work and had to forego their prewar research.

During the national emergency, scientists took the extraordinary step to set up an office of censorship without direction from the federal government.

Referees' report advising delay in publication of a paper by G. Placzek on fission.

Referees' report advising delay in publication of a paper by G. Placzek on fission.

Science without Borders

AIP Niels Bohr Library.In November 1945-three months after the end of the war-the APS Council voted to treat German and Japanese members the same as other foreign members. Gifts of wartime and postwar issues of the Physical Review and Reviews of Modern Physics were sent to German and Japanese universities in 1948.

Such actions led McCarthyites to view many physicists with suspicion during the Cold War. Former APS presidents Edward Condon and Robert Oppenheimer were among those blacklisted.

Photo on left: Excerpt from Hans Bethe's 1954 telegram to the press in defense of Oppenheimer. Photo on right: Oppenheimer with Major W. A. "Lex" Stevens on a trip to select the test site for the first atomic bomb, 1944. AIP Niels Bohr Library.

Seeking Truth without Regard to Politics

In 1900, APS encouraged the U.S. Congress to set up the National Bureau of Standards. In 1953, APS again came to the Bureau's support when its director, Allen V. Astin, resigned under pressure from the Secretary of Commerce. At issue was a battery additive that NBS had tested and found did not extend battery life as advertised by the manufacturer. Astin was eventually reinstated.

Petition submitted by Washington D.C. area APS members in April 1953 in support of Astin (detail).

Petition submitted by Washington D.C. area APS members in April 1953 in support of Astin (detail).


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin
Associate Editor: Jennifer Ouellette