A generation in search of a future,
the March 4, 1969 talk by George Wald
reprinted for use in
Science for Humane Survival
―Science for the People courses―
April 27, 1997

this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/SfHS/2005-05-23.htm

This web page reproduces the content of a handout (for the Science for Humane Survival courses) commemorating George Wald. It contains newspaper reports of two notable talks he gave, an obituary (he died on April 12, 1997), and a few notes of mine. −G.S.

      This talk, given in the midst of the Vietnam War, carries a message for all generations. From the time he gave it, and I suspect from long before, Wald's insistent focus on humane survival remained the major theme of his life. In addition to this talk, the handout includes part of his talk on August 2, 1974 at the 20th World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs.

      On February 18, 1993, at the Science for Humane Survival course at Univ of Massachusetts/Boston (UMB), Wald gave a guest lecture titled “A Better World for Children”, which is recorded on videotape. At age 86, he was still as compelling and incisive as he had been a generation earlier. I hope also to make that talk generally available.

      The Boston Globe of Mar 8, 1969 prefaced Wald's talk with the following remarks: The crowd of 1200 at M.I.T.'s Kresge Auditorium [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] last Tuesday was shifting and restless when Harvard biologist George Wald rose to speak. Students and professors there as a part of the “Mar. 4 movement” protesting the misuse of science were disturbed at the lack of focus in the day's numerous panel discussions and speeches. The 1967 Nobel prize winner in physiology or medicine provided a focus. As in his popular lectures at Harvard, Wald talked extemporaneously, his head back, his eyes almost closed. His words had an electric effect. A hush fell over the audience, broken just once by sustained applause midway in the speech, and climaxed by a prolonged standing ovation at its conclusion. It may be the most important speech given in our time. Note: The Globe item above had two errors: The Nobel prize date was incorrectly given as 1968, and said to be for physiology and medicine.

George Wald   1906 ― 1997

― (The entire text of Wald's March 4, 1969 talk,
as reported in the Globe, follows) ―

      All of you know that in the last couple of years there has been student unrest breaking at times into violence in many parts of the world: in England, Germany, Italy, Spain, Mexico and needless to say, in many parts of this country. There has been a great deal of discussion as to what it all means. Perfectly clearly it means something different in Mexico from what it does in France, and something different in France from what it does in Tokyo, and something different in Tokyo from what it does in this country. Yet unless we are to assume that students have gone crazy all over the world, or that they have just decided that it's the thing to do, there must be some common meaning.

      I don't need to go so far afield to look for that meaning. I am a teacher, and at Harvard, I have a class of about 350 students ― most of them freshmen and sophomores. Over these past few years I have felt increasingly that something is terribly wrong ― and this year ever so much more than last. Something has gone sour, in teaching and in learning. It's almost as though there were a widesread feeling that education has become irrelevant.

      A lecture is much more of a dialogue than many of you probably appreciate. As you lecture, you keep watching the faces; and information keeps coming back to you all the time. I began to feel, particularly this year, that I was missing much of what was coming back. I tried asking the students, but they didn't or couldn't help me very much.

      But I think I know what's the matter, even a little better than they do. I think that this whole generation of students is beset with a profound uneasiness. I don't think that they have yet quite defined its source, I think I understand the reasons for their uneasiness even better than they do. What is more, I share their uneasiness.

      What's bothering those students? Some of them tell you it's the Vietnam War. I think the Vietnam War is the most shameful episode in the whole of American history. The concept of War Crimes is an American invention. We've committed many War Crimes in Vietnam; but I'll tell you something interesting about that. We were committing War Crimes in World War II, even before Nuremberg trials were held and the principle of war crimes started. The saturation bombing of German cities was a War Crime and if we had lost the war, some of our leaders might have had to answer for it.

      I've gone through all of that history lately, and I find that there's a gimmick in it. It isn't written out, but I think we established it by precedent. That gimmick is that if one can allege that one is repelling or retaliating for an aggression ― after that everything goes. And you see we are living in a world in which all wars are wars of defense. All War Departments are now Defense Departments. This is all part of the double talk of our time. The aggressor is always on the other side. And I suppose this is why our ex-Secretary of State, Dean Rusk ― a man in whom repetition takes the place of reason, and stubbornness takes the place of character ― went to such pains to insist, as he still insists, that in Vietnam we are repelling an aggression. And if that's what we are doing ― so runs the doctrine ― anything goes. If the concept of war crimes is ever to mean anything, they will have to be defined as categories of acts, regardless of provocation. But that isn't so now.

      I think we've lost that war, as a lot of other people think, too. The Vietnamese have a secret weapon. It's their willingness to die, beyond our willingness to kill. In effect they've been saying, you can kill us, but you'll have to kill a lot of us, you may have to kill all of us. And thank heavens, we are not yet ready to do that.

      Yet we have come a long way ― far enough to sicken many Americans, far enough even to sicken our fighting men. Far enough so that our national symbols have gone sour. How many of you can sing about "the rockets' red glare, bombs bursting in air'' without thinking, those are our bombs and our rockets bursting over South Vietnamese villages? When those words were written, we were a people struggling for freedom against oppression. Now we are supporting real or thinly disguised military dictatorships all over the world, helping them to control and repress peoples all over the world, helping them to control and repress peoples struggling for their freedom.

      But that Vietnam War, shameful and terrible as it is, seems to me only an immediate incident in a much larger and more stubborn situation.

      Part of my trouble with students is that almost all the students I teach were born since World War II. Just after World War II, a series of new and abnormal procedures came into American life. We regarded them at the time as temporary aberrations. We thought we would get back to normal American life some day. But those procedures have stayed with us now for more than 20 years, and those students of mine have never known anything else. They think those things are normal. They think we've always had a Pentagon, that we have always had a big army, and that we always had a draft. But those are all new things in American life; and I think that they are incompatible with what America meant before.

      How many of you realize that just before World War II the entire American army including the Air Force numbered 139,000 men? Then World War II started, but we weren't yet in it; and seeing that there was great trouble in the world, we doubled this army to 268,000 men. Then in World War II it got to be 8 million. And then World War II came to an end, and we prepared to go back to a peacetime army somewhat as the American army had always been before. And indeed in 1950― you think about 1950, our international commitments, the Cold War, the Truman Doctrine, and all the rest of it ― in 1950 we got down to 600,000 men.

      Now we have 3.5 million men under arms: about 600,000 in Vietnam, about 300,000 more in "support areas'' elsewhere in the Pacific, about 250,000 in Germany. And there are a lot at home. Some months ago we were told that 300,000 National Guardsmen and 200,000 reservists had been specially trained for riot duty in the cities.

      I say the Vietnam War is just an immediate incident, because so long as we keep that big army, it will always find things to do. If the Vietnam War stopped tomorrow, with that big a military establishment, the chances are that we would be in another such adventure abroad or at home before you knew it.

      As for the draft: Don't reform the draft ― get rid of it.

      A peacetime draft is the most un-American thing I know. All the time I was growing up I was told about oppressive Central European countries and Russia, where young men were forced into the army; and I was told what they did about it. They chopped off a finger, or shot off a couple of toes; or better still, if they could manage it, they came to this country. And we understood that, and sympathized, and were glad to welcome them.

      Now by present estimates four to six thousand Americans of draft age have left this country for Canada, another two or three thousand have gone to Europe, and it looks as though many more are preparing to emigrate.

      A few months ago I received a letter from the Harvard Alumni Bulletin posing a series of questions that students might ask a professor involving what to do about the draft. I was asked to write what I would tell those students. All I had to say to those students was this: If any of them had decided to evade the draft and asked my help, I would help him in any way I could. I would feel as I suppose members of the underground railway felt in pre-Civil War days, helping runaway slaves to get to Canada. It wasn't altogether a popular position then; but what do you think of it now?

      A bill to stop the draft was recently introduced in the Senate (S. 503), sponsored by a group of senators that ran the gamut from McGovern and Hatfield to Barry Goldwater. I hope it goes through; but any time I find that Barry Goldwater and I are in agreement, that makes one take another look.

      And indeed there are choices in getting rid of the draft. I think that when we get rid of the draft, we must also cut back the size of the armed forces. It seems to me that in peacetime a total of one million men is surely enough. If there is an argument for American military forces of more than one million men in peacetime, I should like to hear that argument debated.

      There is another thing being said closely connected with this: that to keep an adequate volunteer army, one would have to raise the pay considerably. That's said so positively and often that people believe it. I don't think it is true.

      The great bulk of our present armed forces are genuine volunteers. Among first-term enlistments, 49 percent are true volunteers. Another 30 percent are so-called "reluctant volunteers,'' persons who volunteer under pressure of the draft. Only 21 percent are draftees. All re-enlistments, of course, are true volunteers.

      So the great majority of our present armed forces are true volunteers. Whole services are composed entirely of volunteers: the Air Force for example, the Submarine Service, the Marines. That seems like proof to me that present pay rates are adequate. One must add that an Act of Congress in 1967 raised the base pay throughout the services in three installments, the third installment still to come, on April 1, 1969. So it is hard to understand why we are being told that to maintain adequate armed services on a volunteer basis will require large increases in pay; they will cost an extra $17 billion per year. It seems plain to me that we can get all the armed forces we need as volunteers, and at present rates of pay.

      But there is something ever so much bigger and more important than the draft. The bigger thing, of course, is what ex-President Eisenhower warned us of, calling it the military-industrial complex. I am sad to say that we must begin to think of it now as the military-industrial-labor union complex. What happened under the plea of the Cold War was not alone that we built up the first big peacetime army in our history, but we institutionalized it. We built, I suppose, the biggest government building in our history to run it, and we institutionalized it.

      I don't think we can live with the present military establishment and its $80-100 billion a year budget and keep America anything like we have known it in the past. It is corrupting the life of the whole country. It is buying up everything in sight: industries, banks, investors, universities; and lately it seems also to have bought up the labor unions.

      The Defense Department is always broke; but some of the things they do with that $80 billion a year would make Buck Rogers envious. For example: the Rocky Mountain Arsenal on the outskirts of Denver was manufacturing a deadly nerve poison on such a scale that there was a problem of waste disposal. Nothing daunted, they dug a tunnel two miles deep under Denver, into which they have injected so much poisoned water that beginning a couple of years ago Denver began to experience a series of earth tremors of increasing severity. Now there is a grave fear of a major earthquake. An interesting debate is in progress as to whether Denver will be safer if that lake of poisoned water is removed or left in place. (N.Y. Times, July 4, 1968; Science, Sept. 27, 1968).

      Perhaps you have read also of those 6000 sheep, that suddenly died in Skull Valley, Utah, killed by another nerve poison ― a strange and, I believe, still unexplained accident, since the nearest testing seems to have been 30 miles away.

      As for Vietnam, the expenditure of fire power has been frightening. Some of you may still remember Khe Sanh, a hamlet just south of the Demilitarized Zone, where a force of U.S. Marines was beleaguered for a time. During that period we dropped on the perimeter of Khe Sanh more explosives than fell on Japan throughout World War II, and more than fell on the whole of Europe during the years 1942 and 1943.

      The only point of government is to safeguard and foster life. Our government has become preoccupied with death, with the business of killing and being killed. So-called Defense now absorbs 60 percent of the national budget, and about 12 percent of the Gross National Product.

      A lively debate is beginning again on whether or not we should deploy antiballistic missiles, the ABM. I don't have to talk about them, everyone else here is doing that. But I should like to mention a curious circumstance. In September, 1967, or about 1½ years ago, we had a meeting of M.I.T. and Harvard people, including experts on these matters, to talk about whether anything could be done to block the Sentinel system, the deployment of ABM's. Everyone present thought them undesirable; but a few of the most knowledgeable persons took what seemed to be the practical view, "Why fight about a dead issue? It has been decided, the funds have been appropriated. Let's go on from there.''

      Well, fortunately, it's not a dead issue.

      An ABM is a nuclear weapon. It takes a nuclear weapon to stop a nuclear weapon. And our concern must be with the whole issue of nuclear weapons.

      There is an entire semantics ready to deal with the sort of thing I am about to say. It involves such phrases as "those are the facts of life.'' No ― these are the facts of death. I don't accept them, and I advise you not to accept them. We are under repeated pressures to accept things that are presented to us as settled ― decisions that have been made. Always there is the thought: let's go on from there! But this time we don't see how to go on. We will have to stick with those issues.

      We are told that the United States and Russia between them have by now stockpiles in nuclear weapons approximately the explosive power of 15 tons of TNT for every man, woman and child on earth. And now it is suggested that we must make more. All very regrettable, of course; but those are "the facts of life.'' We really would like to disarm; but our new Secretary of Defense has made the ingenious proposal that one must be practical. Now is the time to greatly increase our nuclear armaments so that we can disarm from a position of strength.

      I think all of you know there is no adequate defense against massive nuclear attack. It is both easier and cheaper to circumvent any known nuclear defense system than to provide it. It's all pretty crazy. At the very moment we talk of deploying ABM's, we are also building the MIRV, the weapon to circumvent ABM's.

      So far as I know, with everything working as well as can be hoped and all forseeable precautions taken, the most conservative estimates of Americans killed in a major nuclear attack run to about 50 millions. We have become callous to gruesome statistics, and this seems at first to be only another gruesome statistic. You think, Bang! ― and next morning, if you're still there, you read in the newspapers that 50 million people were killed.

      But that isn't the way it happens. When we killed close to 200,000 people with those first little, old-fashioned uranium bombs that we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, about the same number of persons was maimed, blinded, burned, poisoned and otherwise doomed. A lot of them took a long time to die.

      That's the way it would be. Not a bang, and a certain number of corpses to bury; but a nation filled with millions of helpless, maimed, tortured and doomed survivors huddled with their families in shelters, with guns ready to fight off their neighbors, trying to get some uncontaminated food and water.

      A few months ago Sen. Richard Russell of Georgia ended a speech in the Senate with the words: "If we have to start over again with another Adam and Eve, I want them to be Americans; and I want them on this continent and not in Europe.'' That was a United States senator holding a patriotic speech. Well, here is a Nobel Laureate who thinks that those words are criminally insane. (Prolonged applause.)

      How real is the threat of full scale nuclear war? I have my own very inexpert idea, but realizing how little I know and fearful that I may be a little paranoid on this subject, I take every opportunity to ask reputed experts. I asked that question of a very distinguished professor of government at Harvard about a month ago. I asked him what sort of odds he would lay on the possibility of full-scale nuclear war within the foreseeable future. "Oh,'' he said comfortably, "I think I can give you a pretty good answer to that question. I estimate the probability of full-scale nuclear war, provided that the situation remains about as it is now, at 2 percent per year.'' Anybody can do the simple calculation that shows that 2 percent per year means that the chance of having that full-scale nuclear war by 1990 is about one in three, and by 2000 it is about 50-50.

      I think I know what is bothering the students. I think that what we are up against is a generation that is by no means sure that it has a future.

      I am growing old, and my future so to speak is already behind me. But there are those students of mine who are in my mind always; there are my children, two of them now 7 and 9, whose future is infinitely more precious to me than my own. So it isn't just their generation; it's mine too. We're all in it together.

      Are we to have a chance to live? We don't ask for prosperity, or security; only for a reasonable chance to live, to work out our destiny in peace and decency. Not to go down in history as the apocalyptic generation.

      And it isn't only nuclear war. Another overwhelming threat is in the population explosion. That has not yet even begun to come under control. There is every indication that the world population will double before the year 2000; and there is a widespread expectation of famine on an unprecedented scale in many parts of the world. The experts tend to differ only in their estimates of when those famines will begin. Some think by 1980, others think they can be staved off until 1990, very few expect that they will not occur by the year 2000.

      That is the problem. Unless we can be surer than we now are that this generation has a future, nothing else matters. It's not good enough to give it tender loving care, to supply it with breakfast foods, to buy it expensive educations. Those things don't mean anything unless this generation has a future. And we're not sure that it does.

      I don't think that there are problems of youth, or student problems. All the real problems I know are grown-up problems.

      Perhaps you will think me altogether absurd, or "academic'', or hopelessly innocent ― that is, until you think of the alternatives ― if I say as I do to you now: we have to get rid of those nuclear weapons. There is nothing worth having that can be obtained by nuclear war: nothing material or ideological, no tradition that it can defend. It is utterly self-defeating. Those atom bombs represent an unusable weapon. The only use for an atom bomb is to keep somebody else from using it. It can give us no protection, but only doubtful satisfaction of retaliation. Nuclear weapons offer us nothing but a balance of terror; and a balance of terror is still terror.

      We have to get rid of those atomic weapons, here and everywhere. We cannot live with them.

      I think we've reached a point of great decision, not just for our nation, not only for all humanity, but for life upon the Earth. I tell my students, with a feeling of pride that I hope they will share, that the carbon, nitrogen and oxygen that makes up 99 percent of our living substance, were cooked in the deep interiors of earlier generations of dying stars. Gathered up from the ends of the universe, over billions of years, eventually they came to form in part the substance of our sun, its planets and ourselves. Three billion years ago life arose upon the Earth. It is the only life in the solar system. Many a star has since been born and died.

      About two million years ago, humankind appeared. We have become the dominant species on the Earth. All other living things, animal and plant, live by our sufferance. We are the custodians of life on Earth, and in the solar system. It's a big responsibility. The thought that we're in competition with Russians or with Chinese is all a mistake, and trivial. We are one species, with a world to win. There's life all over this universe, but the only life in the solar system is on Earth; and in the whole universe, we are the only human beings.

      Our business is with life, not death. Our challenge is to give what account we can of what becomes of life in the solar system, this corner of the universe that is our home and, most of all, what becomes of humans ― all humans of all nations, colors and creeds. It has become one world, a world for all humankind. It is only such a world that now can offer us life and the chance to go on.

      (Note added. I slightly edited the final two paragraphs by replacing the masculine nouns in the original with explicitly gender-inclusive terms to conform with what was clearly Wald's inclusive intent. For example, I replaced 'man appeared' by 'humankind appeared.')

The August 2, 1975 talk
“We could begin to cope with all the problems that now threaten our lives.
But we cannot cope with any of them
while maximizing profits.”

      George Wald spoke in Tokyo on August 2, 1974 at the 20th World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs. The following excerpts from his talk were printed in the NY Times on August 17, 1974:

      I have come halfway across the world to speak what I believe to be the truth. It is a dreadful truth, hard to live with, but if we do not live with it, we shall die by it.

      I speak here as an American, but even more as a fellow human being, a scientist concerned with life, a teacher deeply troubled for my students, a parent fearing for my children and for their children.

      Human life is now threatened as never before, not by one but by many perils, each in itself capable of destroying us, but all interrelated, and all coming upon us together. I am one of those scientists who does not see how to bring the human race much past the year 2000. And if we perish, as seems more and more possible, in a nuclear holocaust, that will be the end not only for us but for much of the rest of life on the earth.

      We live ― while that is permitted us ― in a balance of terror. The United States and the Soviet Union together have already stockpiled nuclear weapons with the explosive force of ten tons of TNT for every man, woman and child on the earth. You might think that enough, but we are now in the midst of a further escalation on both sides, replacing every single nuclear warhead with multiple warheads and devising new and more devastating weapons.

      My country at present is making three new hydrogen warheads per day. The Soviet Union keeps pace with us. We are told that our security ― strange thought! ― lies in Mutual Assured Destruction ― MAD. It is well named.

      The bomb that destroyed Hiroshima, and ended by killing about 100,000 persons, was a small one by present standards, with the explosive power of about 15,000 tons of TNT.

      One of my friends was in a position about ten years ago to look up what we then had targeted upon a Russian city about the size of Hiroshima. It was in the megaton range, several hundred times as large. Why? What for? One can only destroy a city; one can only kill a person. It is insane, but the insanity of the practical and calculating persons who run our lives. It is insane ― unless one holds an arms contract. Then it is business, and the bigger the better.

      The United States now budgets about $22 billion a year on new arms. A rapid rate of turnover asssures that this business will go on. Our arms sales abroad doubled in 1973-74 over the year before ― $8.5 billion, about $7 billion going to the Middle East. When early in 1971 the Joint Economic Committee of Congress asked a general from our Department of Defense how much military hardware the department then held that had been declared surplus, mainly to be sold as scrap, he replied $17 billion worth.

      The nuclear arms contracts alone are worth about $7 billion a year; $7 billion talks more loudly than any number of humanitarian declarations, or terrified people, or children facing extinction. That money is real, hard cash. Where it changes hands, those consequences are out of sight, hence out of mind ― mere abstractions.

      But arms, and war, and nuclear weapons are only part of the crisis. The big hunger is now upon us, the great famines that scientists have been predicting for years past ― hunger among the poor in the developed countries, starvation in Africa, South Asia and South America.

*     *     *
      The Green Revolution, so recently begun, has already collapsed. It depended on huge supplies of cheap oil and coal to prepare the artificial fertilizers and pesticides that alone made it work. And oil and coal are no longer cheap. The profits of the major oil companies ― which also own most of the coal, and now are developing nuclear power ― doubled and tripled during the past year, as the peoples of the Third World begin to starve. It seems possible that twenty million persons will die of famine during the next twelve months, in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh alone.

      All those problems are made more terrible by the population explosion. We have not yet quite taken in what that means. Even if all the developed nations reached the replacement level ― an average of two children per reproducing pair ― by the year 2000, and all the nations of the Third world came to the same state by 2050 ― both conditions highly unlikely ― then the world population, now at about 3.7 billion, would rise by 2120 to about thirteen billion.

      Development, so-called, has meant mechanization. The work that used to be done by human and animal muscle is increasingly done by machines. That is true even in agriculture. It is another aspect of the Green Revolution. Farming is rapidly being replaced by agribusiness.

      In the United States the same huge corporations that make aircraft control our oil and gas, run our transportation, also grow our food. Such agribusiness now controls 51 per cent of our vegetable production, 85 per cent of our citrus crops, 97 per cent of our chicken-raising, and 100 per cent of our sugar cane. That is happening all over the world. It means more food, but many fewer jobs. And only those who find work can eat ― they and their families. Unemployment, that child of the Industrial Revolution, is rising throughout the world.

      And a new phenomenon that is much worse. With the increasing mechanization, increasing numbers of persons have become not only unemployed but superfluous. There is no use for them in the free-market economy. They are wanted neither as workers nor customers. They are not wanted at all. Their existence is a burden, an embarrassment. It would be a relief if they vanished ― parents and children.

      In his report to the World Bank in September, 1970, its president, Robert McNamara, former Ford executive and Secretary of Defense, spoke of such persons as "marginal men.'' He estimated that in 1970 there were 500 million of them ― twice the population of the United States ― that by 1980 there would be one billion, and by 1990, two billion. That would be half the world population.

      It is too late for declarations, for popular appeals, here or anywhere. All that matters now is political power.

      We call for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Even in the remote chance that that would happen, it would not protect us from nuclear war. Those nations that have already learned how to make nuclear weapons would produce them in quantity within a few months of the outbreak of a new war. Getting rid of the nuclear stockpiles would defuse the present threat of instant annihilation, it would gain us a little time. It would be an important gain, but only a step toward what must be the ultimate aim: to abolish war. War is obsolete in the modern world. It has become intolerably dangerous.

      The only thing that can save us now is political power ― for the peoples of this world to take that power away from their present masters, who are leading our world to destruction.

*     *     *
      And who are the masters?

      In the so-called "free world'' it is not the governments. They are only the servants, the agents. Nor is it the generals. They too are only the servants.

      The "free world'' is run by such enterprises as General Motors, I.T.T., the Chase Manhattan Bank, Exxon, Dutch Shell and British Petroleum, Mitsubishi and Mitsui. Their wealth and power exceed any previously known throughout human history.

      We think of General Motors as a private business, but only eighteen nations in the world have gross national products as large as the annual sales of General Motors ― $36 billion in 1973.

      Those giant corporations can buy and sell, can make and break governments. They stop at nothing. A year ago Chile was taken over by a military junta, its President Allende murdered, its great folk singer Victor Jara beaten to death. But now I.T.T., which offered our C.I.A. $1 million to keep Allende from becoming President, can operate freely, and Anaconda Copper has just settled its claims with the new Chilean dictatorship for $253 million.

      And what of the "socialist'' world? It offers us an imperialism of the left to balance that of the right. We have had hard lessons to learn during the past years. One of them is that private wealth and personal political power are interchangeable, bureaucracies are interchangeable, generals and admirals, corporate executives and industrial commissars ― all interchangeable.

      Hence no nation so closely resembles the United States of America as the Soviet Union. That is what Andrei Sakharov told us a few years ago, and went on to propose that both nations now join forces to work for the good of humanity. For that he is virtually a prisoner in his own country. Policy in the modern world, right or left, is not made by the Sakharovs.

      We are often told indeed that even the experts do not know how to deal with the problems that now threaten worldwide disaster, that "all the facts are not yet in,'' that more research must be done, and more reports written.

      By all means let us have more research. But that must not be allowed to become a trap, an excuse for endlessly putting off action. We already know enough to begin to deal with all our major problems: nuclear war, overpopulation, pollution, hunger, the despoilation of the planet.

      The present crisis is a crisis not of information but of policy. We could begin to cope with all the problems that now threaten our lives. But we cannot cope with any of them while maximizing profits. And a society that insists before all on maximizing profits for the few thereby threatens disaster for all.

      But not for all at the same time. As matters now stand, the peoples of the Third World are to perish first. They have already begun to starve; all that is asked of them is to starve quietly. If they make trouble they will be exterminated by other means.

      The developed nations are armed to the teeth, and mean not only to hold on to what they have but to grasp whatever more they can, while they can. For example, the last of the world's rapidly dwindling natural resources. For another example: As the great famines begin, the grain that might feed a hungry peasantry throughout the Third World is fed instead to cattle and hogs for beef and pork in the affluent countries.

      But their turn must come too, first of course for their poor, already hardhit by worldwide inflation and unemployment. And if there should be another major war, as seems likely, a nuclear holocaust would swallow up everything.

      Unless the people of this world can come together to take control of their lives, to wrest political power from those of its present masters who are pushing it toward destruction, then we are lost ― we, our children and their children.

George Wald     November 18, 1906 ― April 12, 1997
“biology with a vengeance”

      The Boston Globe on Monday, April 14, 1997 ran the following obituary, written by Edgar J. Driscoll:

      George Wald of Cambridge, Nobel Prize-winning biologist, peace activist, and professor emeritus of biology at Harvard University, died at his home Saturday after two years of declining health. He was 90.

      One of the nation's first academics to come out against the United States' involvement in Southeast Asia, he was considered a hero by many students in the 1960s for his opposition to the Vietnam War.

      Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1967 for his explanation of how vitamin A is critical to sight, Mr. Wald also received national recognition for a speech he made at Massachusetts Institute of Technology two years later.

      Mr. Wald called the speech, delivered from hastily prepared notes on March 4, 1969, "A Generation in Search of a Future.'' In it, he told some 1,500 students and scientists: "I think the Vietnam War is the most shameful episode in the whole of American history.'' He said that he thought our nation had lost the war and he rejected US militarism in general and nuclear weapons specifically.

      With that speech he emerged from academic seclusion to become a spokesman for disaffected, disenfranchised youth and an outspoken opponent of nuclear proliferation and governmental warmongering, as well as overpopulation, pollution, imperialism and science for profit.

      After stepping down as Higgins Professor of Biology at Harvard in 1977, Mr. Wald forsook laboratory work to devote his time and energies to political causes, which he called "biology with a vengeance'' and "survival politics.''

      In Cambridge he became a leading spokesman in a bid to move genetic research to less populous areas because of what he saw as a danger of contamination to the community.

      Also, during the Iranian hostage crisis of 1980, he was one of nine US citizens who accompanied former Attorney General Ramsey Clark to the "Crimes Against Iran'' conference in Tehran. They faced possible civil charges for violating a ban on travel by Americans to Iran.

      Broad-shouldered, slim, with an ascetic's spareness and wispy, snow-white hair, Mr. Wald was first and foremost a teacher. He was proud to have lectured in a freshman biology course for 16 years before his retirement. In 1966, he was hailed in a Time Magazine cover story as one of "the 10 best teachers in the country.''

      Mr. Wald's popular course at Harvard was "The Nature of Living Things.'' Widely traveled, he spent half the year in Cambridge and the remainder in a rambling barn of a house at Woods Hole, Falmouth, where he labored for 40 years at the Marine Biological Laboratory.

      Mr. Wald was born in New York City on Nov. 18, 1906, the son of Isaac Wald and Ernestine (Rosenmann) Wald. He received a bachelor's degree from New York University in 1927, a master's degree from Columbia University the following year and a doctorate from Columbia in 1932.

      He joined the Harvard faculty as a tutor in biochemistry in 1934-35.

      He served as chairman of the divisional committee of biology and medical science of the National Science Foundation, was a Guggenheim Fellow, and an overseas fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge University.

      Among honors he received were the Eli Lilly prize of the American Chemical Society; the Lasker Award of the American Public Health Association, and the Proctor Medal of the Association of Research in Ophthalmology.

      He was a fellow of the National Academy of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society.

      Coauthor of "General Education in a Free Society,'' whose principles and recommendations guided Harvard's program in general education, and "Twenty-Six Afternoons of Biology,'' he also had written many scientific papers on vision, biochemistry, and evolution. In the 1950s he published a series of popular science pieces in Scientific American, of which the best known was "The Origin of Life.''

      In his remarks on receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm in 1967, Mr. Wald said: "A scientist lives with all reality. There is nothing better. To know reality is to accept it, and eventually to love it. A scientist is in a sense a learned child. There is something of the scientist in every child. Others can outgrow it. Scientists can stay that way all their lives.''

      He leaves his wife, Ruth (Hubbard) of Cambridge, a fellow biologist and Harvard professor; three sons, Michael of Elmira, N.Y.; David of Bourne; Elijah of Cambridge; and a daughter, Deborah of San Francisco.

      (Note. I corrected the name of the Nobel prize category, and Wald's father's given name. I want to thank Ruth Hubbard for generously lending me the photograph of my choice to use for this handout, and for correcting several errors of fact.)

All comments and criticisms are welcome.    <george.salzman@umb.edu>

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