Maybe because I was noticing that people I knew have achieved something important — some of them — while others reach the end of their alive-time without…
Or at least without my knowing of such accomplishments…
Maybe because of this I was searching for something important I might have done.
Could be, say, it was invading the offices of the most popular TV station in Baltimore, and getting them to send a crew to film the twelve antiwar students who, one-by-one, denounced President Nixon’s Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong. Or it could be something dramatic on the community level: organizing what proved to be an interracial sit-in of 65 individuals that carried on till 3 a.m. — rain notwithstanding; resulting in my firing being reversed and my evil boss being himself fired.
Okay, so, actions that I’m proud of, but do they qualify? Are they truly important in the Grand Scheme?
Well, I remembered I once had a 5-page résumé so I must have done something world-changing — even if I don’t remember with any precision what that thing I’d done might have been…
But it turns out, oddly enough, that I might have in fact saved the world.
The recently unearthed photo shown above triggered this realization.
I was a freshman in college. The Bay of Pigs (“Playa Girón”) was already history, the Cuban missile crisis a year in the offing. I’d been assigned by the Public Affairs director at the college radio station to interview the renowned physicist Leo Szilárd, who was passing through the Boston area. She intimated that Szilárd might use the interview to launch an anti-nuclear or anti-testing movement.
Now as it happens there was only a week left in the Fall Competition that would determine which of the students were considered worthy to become part of WHRB — and which could be let go. This interview, it occurred to me, could provide the scoop that would burnish my credentials!
The first few moments of the Szilárd meeting went well: At the Harvard Square subway exit, at noon, I managed to get close enough to him to introduce myself and shake his hand. I thought he nodded to me when I held up the little tape recorder. But as we walked along Massachusetts Avenue I saw that the 8 or 9 people moving with him and fussing over him never seemed to go away or give me easy access to the man…
In 1933 Szilárd, a brilliant Hungarian Jewish physicist, had developed — just as he prepared to escape Germany — the idea of a nuclear chain reaction. And in 1934 he went on to patent, with Enrico Fermi, the idea of a nuclear reactor. And once he finally settled in the safety of the United States, Szilárd initiated a number of other projects, like the cyclotron and the electron microscope, that he handed off to collaborators who ultimately received Nobel Prizes themselves.
But most crucially he grasped that German physicists were burning the midnight oil to develop some version of an atom bomb — whereas there was no such research going on in the U.S. In the end Szilárd managed to get Albert Einstein to sign a letter that he, Szilárd, had written to President Franklin D. Roosevelt — which in the upshot led to the establishment of the Manhattan Project and the atomic bomb.
This might be the appropriate moment to note that, under Trump rules and procedures, Szilárd’s admission to the U.S. would have been iffy at best. Thus, in the 1930s, while we kept almost all Jews and foreigners out of our country, Hitler would have been free to develop a nuclear weapon years ahead of a bewildered America. Vast numbers of Americans — however “protected” from the imaginary “crimes” that Trump likes to claim additional immigrants would carry out — might well have been incinerated in a nuclear holocaust. Or if the U.S. had surrendered in time, we would have lived for decades under the most onerous Nazi constraints and controls. Blacks, Jews, Muslims and Asians other than Japanese would have been sent to extermination camps.
And it wouldn’t be long before Japan — useful ally of Germany — wasn’t needed any more, and long-term Japanese-Americans would have been found ripe for the old “relocation” camps, now turned to gas-ovens. That action would have been to insure that the German “Aryan” race-type had no competition.
As it happened, Szilárd experienced persecution analogous to what Trump may have in mind for immigrants and/or enemies — and may hope to carry out in his next phase. But Szilárd’s persecution happened in Hungary, where nationalist anti-Semitic students, like Trump’s Charlottesville white nationalists, physically prevented Szilárd’s attempt to continue his engineering studies.
However, Szilárd was as determined as he was brilliant. He pulled up stakes and moved to Berlin. And later, bored with engineering, he went elsewhere for physics — and managed to be able to work under inspiring lecturers that included Einstein and Max Planck. And finally, when the Nazis took power in 1933, Szilárd understood it was no longer safe for him. Fortunately — for him and us! — he succeeded in taking advantage of a crack in the U.S. wall designed to keep out the many who hoped to immigrate.
Perhaps we need to give an under-the-table thanks to the racists, Nazis and similar fascists who drove those brilliant minds out of Europe and to our shores, enabling us to prevent Hitler from acquiring this doomsday weapon with the power to dictate surrender terms — perhaps after the incineration of a couple of cities like New York and Washington…
All Szilárd’s breakthroughs he’d achieved in the 1930s and 1940s. Now, for our November 1961 lunchtime meeting here in Boston, he was about something equally extraordinary but at the same time altogether different: establishing a mass peace and anti-nuclear movement!
All right, so how did I save the world already? Well, we have to expand our canvas to see what was going on in other venues and in the brains and hearts of other people around the earth…. For isn’t it true that we live amidst the swirl of mutually interacting reciprocal relationships?
In Washington President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was secretly working on his own peace plan — a nuclear test ban treaty that would be ratified in two years, months after Szilárd and only months before Kennedy himself left the stage.
And on the other side of the world Party Secretary Nikita Khrushchev was apparently concerned about the risk of accidental nuclear war and about the Soviet Union being so far behind in technology and nuclear throw weight. The hardliners were repeatedly undermining and trying to outmaneuver and overthrow him but he had nearly 3 years before they would succeed. In the meantime he labored among the factions to create a test ban treaty that would avoid major inspections, save face and forestall his detractors.
Well, it’s most of a century later and we have some perspective. My best theory — why not? — was that Szilárd and JFK had already spoken, and Kennedy was indeed listening for and deeply interested in — and perhaps dreading — the expected lunchtime radio interview… that never came!
Why no interview? What happened at our lunch? Well, Szilárd figured he needed to eat before he talked. Who could argue with that? But who was this kid fresh off the streets of Queens — a walking demonstration of how unimportant WHRB considered so important a person as himself and his fledgling anti-nuclear peace movement. Worst of all Szilárd knew he had only a year, maybe two, to accomplish this second mission, before the cancer removed him from the playing field of this particular universe.
Valiantly I tried to talk with Szilárd during lunch, with the crush of others all around him, but he wouldn’t let me turn on the recorder.
As he slowly chewed his corned beef sandwich, he quickly began to grasp that his prospective interviewer knew nothing about him or his underlying motivation, had read none of his books or articles and had not the slightest idea of what he’d been through, first in Hungary, then in Germany and elsewhere.
I made a last attempt to turn on the recorder — but Szilárd himself covered the switch with his hand.
That afternoon when I got back to WHRB — without the tape I was assigned to get — in my frustration I wrote angry words in the station Comment Book — something that was Not Done! (And even if it Was done, it wouldn’t Be done by a College freshman candidate. So was I soon told — many times — both in writing and in face-to-face dressing-downs.) This action insured that, when the WHRB Fall Competition ended, I would have no future in that organization.1 (But I soon found what I considered better things to do, though I don’t remember what they were….)
John Kennedy was kind of an erudite guy, I figure. What did he make of his college radio station airing no interview with this Szilárd who’d made it possible to get the A-bomb ahead of Hitler and win the war?
Let’s figure that, according to my theory, Kennedy had pressured Szilárd to skip the interview and postpone the actual launching of his movement. Whereas if Szilárd plowed ahead, Kennedy would be under pressure before he himself had his ducks lined up to support and sign the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, his signature presidential accomplishment. Even an impeachment can be derailed by moving too swiftly; one needs to take the trouble to actually buckle down to the hard work of building an adequate foundation…
But Szilárd had not agreed to a postponement and with Szilárd’s push for a test ban agreement now, Kennedy knew the agreement he himself was planning would fail to get the needed support.2 And if he spent his political capital too soon, with the Cuban missile crisis looming ten months down the calendar, he might feel constrained to respond more aggressively — and dangerously!
But my failure, unexpectedly and unknowingly, kept the president’s powder dry, saved him from having to go in whole hog too early — and essentially gave JFK a free hand. With the extra time he got all the deals he needed made on his own schedule before his own time too ran out.
Now, on the one hand — speaking just for my own self — how self-serving a history can one imagine?
But on the other hand, a person might wonder nowadays, did I, Jerry, ever receive recognition for this all-important achievement, at least akin to my success (also unrecognized) in promoting Pinot Noir throughout the country in the Eighties?
I understand that there were discussions in the corridors of power about some kind of medal, perhaps the Unheralded Hero of the Nation plaque and trophy set, but in the end it was thought smarter, and safer, to classify the information for 75 years.
I’m not bothered; saving the world, as I sit in my twi-lit dining room, is, more than most tasks, its own reward.
© Jerry Kurtz 2019
1 All this took place in Fall 1961 when Indochina was only simmering. Eight years later, during some of the worst of the Vietnam War, WHRB acquitted themselves better in the SDS-led University Hall occupation. Chris Wallace and other station heavies stayed all night and were clubbed along with the ordinary students when police broke down the doors at dawn.
2 Some have compared the danger of a too hasty attempt to win on a highly polarized issue — like, in Kennedy’s case, getting a nuclear test ban treaty through the Senate — to, in our case, impeaching and convicting a president.
In either case there was a need to slow the speed of a movement in order to make it possible to gain the additional needed support, and in particular to avoid alienating lawmakers who might ultimately join that movement.