Andrei Sakharov: The Conscience of Humanity

Edited by Sidney D. Drell and George P. Shultz, (Hoover Institution Press, 2015), 164 pp, $19.95, ISBN 978-0-8179-1895-8 (paperback)

Andrei Sakharov was awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize. He is one of very few scientists awarded the Peace Prize; others include chemist Linus Pauling, who received the award for his work opposing nuclear weapons testing, and physicist Joseph Rotblat, who shared the award with the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, of which he was co-founder (with Bertrand Russell). In the words of Sakharov’s award citation, he was awarded the Peace Prize because he “emphasised that Man's inviolable rights provide the only safe foundation for genuine and enduring international cooperation.”

The subtitle for the volume edited by physicist and arms control expert Sidney Drell and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz is a variation on the Norwegian Prize Committee’s description of Sakharov as “a spokesman for the conscience of mankind.” The book consists of eleven essays based on presentations at a two-day conference held at the Hoover Institution in December 2014, the month of the 25th anniversary of Sakharov’s death. According to the preface, new threats have joined the nuclear threat, and Sakharov’s “work and thinking can serve as fixed reference points for an effort to find solutions that must also emerge on a global scale.”

This reviewer was a graduate student when he first encountered Sakharov as author of the essay "Reflections on progress, peaceful coexistence, and intellectual freedom" nearly fifty years ago. The debate about anti-ballistic missile systems loomed large at the time, and his essay made the case that such systems would undermine mutual nuclear deterrence. But Sakharov’s essay was about much more than that issue. Thinking back, I believe that it changed the way I thought about the world, and that I was one among many on whom Sakharov’s essay made a lasting impression.

The editors should be commended for getting these conference proceedings into print. The presenters include a journalist, veterans of the US military and the Foreign Service, theologians, scholars of science and international studies, and others. As is usually the case with collections from a conference, I found several of the essays more interesting and valuable than others. Here I will focus on two essays which were favorites of mine.

Particularly valuable for me was the opening chapter, “The Evolution of Andrei Sakharov’s Thinking” by journalist Serge Schmemann, Moscow bureau chief for the New York Times for many years. Here’s an excerpt: “Sakharov’s own path from a willing servant of the state to a dissident willing to starve himself to death for a young woman’s right to emigrate was hardly rapid or linear.... It took his thinking decades to evolve from the belief in the Soviet state as the prototype for the future world, to a sense that all governments are bad, and finally to the realization that the messianic pretensions of the Soviet state created a unique system of totalitarian repression.” At the conclusion of his essay, Schmemann lets Sakharov speak for himself: “I’m no politician, no prophet, and certainly no angel.... As I never tire of repeating, life is a complicated thing.... Most important, I have tried to be true to myself and my destiny.”

Another especially interesting essay is taken from the second day of the conference. The author, David Holloway, is a scholar of international history, especially the history of the nuclear age. His essay is entitled “Moral Reasoning and Practical Purpose.” Holloway begins by briefly but vividly tracing Sakharov’s evolution from nuclear weapons scientist to human rights campaigner held in internal exile. He then frames three large issues that Sakharov addressed: the relationship between science and politics, the imperfect integrity of scientists, and the distinction between “ethics of responsibility” and “ethics of principle.” Near the end of the essay, Holloway recounts Sakharov’s reply to a Swedish journalist who prompted him as follows in 1973: “You are doubtful that anything in general can be done to improve the system of the Soviet Union, yet you yourself go ahead acting, writing declarations, protests—why?” Sakharov’s answer: “Well, there is a need to create ideals even when you can’t see any route by which to achieve them, because if there are no ideals then there can be no hope and then one would be completely in the dark.”

This volume could play a valuable role in a seminar or university course on international security, the social responsibility of scientists, or the role of science in international history. Although there is some biographical coverage of Sakharov, I would recommend that those using book precede it with an extended visit to the Sakharov exhibit on the website of AIP’s Center for the History of Physics.

William H. Ingham
Professor Emeritus, James Madison University

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.