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Alvin Weinberg and scientific diplomacy in the Cold War

Former laboratory director and ORNL patriarch Alvin Weinberg had many gifts, including an innate ability to bridge gaps both political and scientific. 

Those who knew him said he was approachable to a degree rare among the world’s scientific elite. So it was only natural to include Weinberg in the first official exchange of scientific delegations between the United States and the Soviet Union. 

To put Weinberg’s geniality in context, the exchange followed a journey by American Admiral Hyman Rickover, who visited the nuclear-powered Ice Breaker Lenin with then-Vice President Nixon. Rickover, father of the nuclear navy, was a brilliant man, but he was also notoriously difficult to get along with.

“The Admiral had a difficult character,” Vasily Emelyanov, a high-ranking Soviet nuclear official, told his American counterpart, Atomic Energy Commission Chairman John A. McCone. “This was the view of some people here, too,” McCone replied. 

The exchange of delegations took place at a time—October 1959—when the Soviets were America’s only nuclear rival. Weinberg would later discuss the rationale for the visits:

“The Soviet Union realizes that the existence of nuclear weapons makes a large-scale shooting war a difficult thing to conceive, but for whatever reason, it appears that the Soviet Union has entered into a period—or we hope it has entered into a period—in which it would like to explore with the United States whether it is, indeed, possible to work through some grave difficulties which separate our countries.”

The American delegation consisted of top AEC brass, a couple of other nuclear physicists, and Weinberg, who was clearly amused by the pomp of the occasion. 

“This was an official visit, extremely official and—well, as a Tennessean who lives out in the hills of Tennessee, I just was not used to the lavishness to which we were subjected.” 

On his return, Weinberg shared his thoughts with ORNL staff.

“I believe that we can get it through our heads that these are a very earnest, dedicated people, quite apart from the question of whether they will some day drop H-bombs on us, and take for granted for the time being, at least, that the evidence of the apartment buildings (with no bomb shelters), if you like, suggests that they do not expect to drop H-bombs on us but that they clearly expect to be in competition with us. If we take this to heart and work at it, meet them at their own game and, if you like, beat them at their own game, then I think we have nothing to fear for the future—for our life.”

By the way, the exchange of delegations was followed by an exchange of gifts. Weinberg sent the complete Toscanini recordings of Beethoven’s nine symphonies. In turn, he received a case of fine Russian vodka.