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Kennette Benedict’s Interview

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Kennette Benedict is the Senior Advisor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. She served as the Bulletin’s Executive Director and Publisher from 2005 until her retirement in February 2015. In this interview, Benedict discusses the history of the Bulletin. She recalls the scientists and staff involved with the Bulletin over the years, and describes the role the magazine has played in providing scientists with a platform to inform the debate on nuclear policy and other global security issues.

Date of Interview:
November 17, 2016
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. This is November 17, 2016, in Chicago, Illinois. I have with me Kennette Benedict, and the first thing I’m going to ask her is to say her name and spell it.

Kennette Benedict: Kennette Benedict. K-e-n-n-e-t-t-e, Benedict, B-e-n-e-d-i-c-t.

Kelly: Great. Thank you, Kennette, for being here. Why don’t we start with just a little something about who you are and why we’ve invited you here today.

Benedict: I’m currently the Senior Advisor to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Before that, for ten years I was the Executive Director and Publisher of the Bulletin, and helped to bring it into the digital age. And bring issues of climate change to the table as well as those of nuclear weapons.

Kelly: Great. I guess our main purpose here is to talk about the origins of the Bulletin in the context of the Manhattan Project and the work done here at the University of Chicago, as well as elsewhere, on the first atomic bomb.

Benedict: Yeah, the beginning of the bomb was at Chicago. The Metallurgical Lab was here, actually, in the main quad. You can go and see it yourself today. John Simpson, who was the head of department, was one of the leaders in the Manhattan Project, worked with [Enrico] Fermi and others, with engineers here. James Franck was a chemical engineer, who had worked in Germany, who had fled Germany and Austria and came here. So these people were early on thinking about the bomb. When the project went to Los Alamos, they were left here still, because the design elements of it had been already completed and really, a lot of the engineering was what was done at Los Alamos, along with some theoretical work. Most of the early parts of it were known by the time Los Alamos was set up. 

The people at the Metallurgical Lab began to think about what the consequences were going to be of this really huge use of nuclear energy in a military application. They were asked by the president to put together a report in June of 1945. This was even before the bomb was tested in Trinity, in New Mexico. As they thought about it, they understood the ramifications of this use of energy, and were mindful of how much havoc it would wreak on a city and how many people would be killed, how many would be sickened. They knew less about the radiation, but they understood the kinetic potential of this weapon. 

They wrote a report where they said, “We, as scientists, have worked hard on this bomb. We know probably the most about what its effects are going to be. We aren’t politicians, we don’t pretend to be the ones who will make the policy decisions, but as citizens, we feel it’s our responsibility to tell the world how dangerous this new weapon is.”

They signed a report, drafted a report. Eugene Rabinowitch, who later went on to become the founding editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, was very heavily involved in writing it. James Franck put his name to it, along with John Simpson and others, and that became the Franck Report. I consider the Franck Report to be the beginning of the citizen scientist movement here in the United States, because they understood that they needed to speak to not only the political powers that be, but also to citizens—that they needed to be informed as well about what was being done in their name.

The Franck Report got to the president’s desk, at President Truman’s desk. We’re not quite sure how seriously it was taken, but it certainly was the beginning of a protest, really, against the use of this on civilians. They had in the report suggested that there be a test of the weapon where Japanese officials and others could come and look at it so they’d understand, even before it was dropped, what the consequences were going to be. They were not heeded, and of course, we know that the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In fact, the bomb that was tested at Trinity was the one that was dropped on Nagasaki.

After the war ended, many of the people who’d been involved in the Metallurgical Lab and other projects at Los Alamos came back to the University of Chicago, and began to talk about what the consequences were of this bomb. From the stories I’ve heard, people were hanging from what was called Swift Commons at the time. Huge debates around the clock, almost a mobilization of the campus.

Robert Hutchins, who was then President of the University of Chicago, gave money for a large international conference to talk about the consequences of nuclear weapons. He gave $1,000 of his own personal money and $9,000 of the university’s money for this conference, and also to begin this publication, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. It was a major effort by the scientists to speak to the world beyond the university and beyond the laboratories where the bomb had been conceived and developed.

It was an exciting time in the sense that – the scientists, who of course, were the ones who presented this idea to President Roosevelt in the first place. Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard had told the president about the possibility of this incredible bomb, and they did it in good faith. They knew that the Germans certainly had the intellectual capacity, if not the engineering and resource capacity, to make a bomb. Many of them had come from Germany: Leo Szilard from Hungary; Edward Teller, who was at the University of Chicago during this period; and others had fled Europe knowing the horrors of Nazism. [They] were very concerned that Hitler’s Germany would get the bomb first, and for them, if that had happened, that indeed would have been, they thought, the end of civilization.

To participate in the war effort in this way, I think, was not only meaningful, but they felt the right thing to do. But once the bomb was made, they finally understood this was no longer under their control. This was going to be used by politicians and others who may not understand the full consequences of just the pure destructive power of this thing.

It was a time, I think—in those very early years, or months, really, after the war, in October and November, where there was huge ferment, especially at the University of Chicago—where everyone came back, saw what had been done in their name. Some who had gone to Hiroshima after the bomb was dropped, two or three weeks afterwards—Robert Serber, especially—were appalled at what they saw and came back feeling ambivalent at best, maybe horrified at worst. Bob Wilson, who was beloved by many here and who later became the Director of Fermilab, who’d been a graduate student working at Los Alamos, was really quite depressed afterwards, and he describes that depression. He was really horrified and gave up working on weapons after that, went back to work on particle physics and the peaceful uses of this new form of energy.

[Enrico] Fermi himself never really got involved in public policy issues. He, I think, felt that it was almost too difficult for him. He loved the science. They all loved the science. It was a heady time for physicists. I think after seeing how this bomb was used and how indiscriminately it could kill so many thousands of people, I think they felt that they weren’t quite sure whether they’d done the right thing, and really avoided the very knotty problems of the use of nuclear weapons. So, it was a very difficult time here.

In the pages of the Bulletin, I think you’ll see some of the wrestling with conscience that many of these scientists were engaged in, and used the Bulletin as an outlet for that discussion.

Kelly: Was the international conference held that you mentioned? 

Benedict: Yes, it was held, and it was held here at the University of Chicago. In addition to physicists, they also brought in economists, sociologists, to try and understand what the societal implications and consequences would be of having a nuclear weapon that was so powerful that it could destroy whole cities at a time. How are you even going to think about using this as a military weapon?

It was beyond really anything that people had seen in the past. They understood that. They early on understood there was no defense against it, no military defense. It was so large, so huge that it was impossible to conceive of a way to defend against it. In which case, I think many of them understood this is a weapon of genocide, and that was really a horrifying thought, especially given the fact that World War II had just seen the most genocidal mass slaughter of six million people. And, obviously, they didn’t want to be part of that.

The juxtaposition of those two things, I think, was especially searing for them. I think the conference itself was an attempt to come to terms with how to use this thing, whether it could used, and whether it made sense for them to be part of any future efforts to develop nuclear weapons.

Kelly: How many nations were represented in this?

Benedict: I think it was predominantly the United States. I know there were economists from Princeton, sociologists from Columbia University, who came. At that time, I’m pretty sure Britain was represented, but that was about it. Even though it was termed international, I think it was mostly U.S.-based. People here, experts here, trying to figure out the ramifications of this just hugely powerful weapon.

Kelly: Was there a report or its conclusions reflected in the Bulletin, or how—

Benedict: There’s a report of it in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in the early days. I think the ramifications were seen throughout those early pages of the Bulletin. What it did was to bring in social scientists as well as scientists. Anthropologists – Gregory Bateson, for instance – published. There were polls taken of citizens in the United States to find out what they thought of using this weapon. I think the overwhelming majority thought that this was not a weapon that should be used again, according to the survey polls that were done. There wasn’t an official report that went to the government, but there were certainly articles written based on people’s presentations at the conference.

Kelly: Tell us about the Bulletin’s board or its structure in the early days.

Benedict: John Simpson was the first head of the board. He’d also been the head of the Metallurgical Lab, and he stayed involved with the Bulletin for many years until his death in the 1990s [misspoke: 2000]. He was someone who was totally committed to public understanding of the Bulletin, of nuclear weapons.

Eugene Rabinowitch became in some ways the voice of the Bulletin early on. He was a Russian émigré, had left Russia, was in England during the war, immigrated to the United States and to the University of Chicago, ended up at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Of course, Russian was his first language. He was eloquent in both Russian and English, wrote exceedingly well. He was really kind of a poet as well as a scientist and captured, I think, the voices of the scientists in a kind of humanistic, human way, going beyond the technical and scientific aspects of what this weapon could mean to understand the international ramifications.

Because he was from the Soviet Union and spoke fluent Russian, he also became part of the Pugwash movement and served as an interlocutor with Soviet counterparts to try, during even those early days after the end of the Cold War, to seek some understanding between the Soviets and the United States about the uses of these weapons. Tried desperately at the beginning, of course, to try to see this as an international project. If it fell back to the nationalisms that had been the beginnings of World War II, that in some way we were doomed.

And of course, the clock of doom was created in 1947, as really part of the voice of the Bulletin to tell the public very quickly and in a very graphic form how close we were to the end of civilization if we continued to build up these bombs and make them part of our arsenals.

Kelly: What was the first setting of the clock in 1947?

Benedict: The clock was set at seven minutes to midnight. It was designed by a young artist here in Chicago, Martyl [Langsdorf]. She liked to go by just her first name, Martyl. She was married to one of the atomic scientists, Alexander Langsdorf, and the story is that Hyman Goldsmith, who was a co-editor of the Bulletin at the time, wanted to turn this newsletter, which was just a mimeographed newsletter—it’s hard to remember mimeograph broadsheets, but that’s what it was.

They had the idea that if they were going to reach a broader public that it needed to be a magazine. You know, this was the era of Life magazine and glossy photographs, so their ambition was to turn this into a magazine that would be something that everybody would be able to read, but they didn’t have much money. So they turned to their nearest neighbor, Martyl, to come up with a design for the cover. She tells the story that, of course, they didn’t have any money to pay her, but she was happy to be part of the project. 

She thought about putting on a cover of uranium symbol, lots of different things, but came up with the idea of a clock, because she had also been part of these discussions on campus, and felt the urgency that the scientists were expressing. That they were very worried, that the president and politicians and military people would see this as something that they could use to their advantage, and they really wanted the public to know. They also saw that secrecy was how the bomb was born and secrecy would keep the bomb from being understood by the broad public. So, this urgency is what she wanted to represent. She came up with the fourth quadrant of the clock and as she said, “Well, I set it at seven minutes to midnight. I mean, it just looked good.” So, that was the beginning of the Bulletin’s clock.

Then they used the clock on the cover. They changed the color of the cover, but they kept the clock on the cover for many years, and that was the design. The clock, in a sense, took on a life of its own after that.

Kelly: With the Cold War buildup of the arsenal and the standoff between the USSR and USA, how much did the hand of the clock move, closer to midnight or not, for that time?

Benedict: At first I don’t think anybody thought they’d move the hand and that it would just be a design, it would be permanently set at that time. Because, until there was international control of nuclear energy, which is what they all had really advocated for, we weren’t really safe at any time. So, it’s lost to history who decided to move the hand of the clock. Unfortunately, we don’t know, but we do know that in 1949, after the Soviet Union tested their first atomic bomb, someone thought, “Well, let’s move the hand of the clock closer to midnight, because this is getting even worse than we first suspected.” Then in 1953, it was moved again after the Soviet Union and the United States tested thermonuclear weapons, much larger weapons, within six months of one another. That was really the closest to midnight in 1953. It went to two minutes to midnight.

It was really quite a very difficult time. The Soviet Union and the United States weren’t speaking to one another, really, except through their weapons, so it was really a time of great fear on the part of the scientists here. I think many people around in the country began to see that we were really headed towards, if not an active war, certainly increasing hostility with the Soviet Union. If these weapons were used in any kind of hostile acts, it certainly could be a devastating time for both of our countries.

Kelly: Indeed. So, the closest that it’s come is the two minutes, and what is it today?

Benedict: Today it’s three minutes to midnight.

Kelly: Well, that’s comforting.

Benedict: Yes. It’s moved back and forth. I mean, the time when it was furthest away from midnight was at the end of the Cold War. In 1991, it was moved back to 17 minutes to midnight, and I think that was a time when we felt, “Oh, terrific, the Soviet Union is no longer this huge threat to the world.” The United States began to reduce its nuclear weapons. The INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] Treaty had been signed, that [Ronald] Reagan and [Mikhail] Gorbachev had worked on to reduce nuclear weapons. George H.W. Bush, president at the time, unilaterally reduced weapons as well.

So it was a time of, oh, maybe not quite euphoria, but certainly much more optimistic feeling about the world. That the U.S. and the Soviet Union hadn’t blown the planet to smithereens in the meantime, I think was a cause for some celebration. 17 minutes to midnight was the furthest, actually off the chart, really, out of the last quadrant. It was a time of great hope and didn’t last terrifically long, but certainly was a time to celebrate. The worst fears hadn’t come true.

Kelly: What precipitated this move toward midnight recently?

Benedict: Well, the last time we moved it to three minutes to midnight was a time when I think we, after the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty] treaty, which helped to bring down nuclear weapons to lower levels, to about 1,500 in Russia and the United States. Not much progress was being made. And, this was during a presidency of someone who had talked about a world free of nuclear weapons. Barack Obama had really set an agenda, we thought, which wasn’t being acted upon sufficiently.

Because we also included at the time the issues of climate change and the destruction to the planet from carbon dioxide emissions, we weren’t seeing much progress at all on addressing climate change, another world-threatening technology. Scientists who were on the board at the time, climate scientists, felt that a combination of kind of stalling, if we can use that word, a stalling on nuclear weapons reductions along with really very little international action on climate change brought the hand to three minutes to midnight.

What’s important, I think, to understand about the early days, too, was not everyone immediately agreed that everyone should know about the bomb. There were, in fact, over the years, discussions about whether the Bulletin should make public plans for the bomb. In fact, Jim Cronin, who was a Nobel Laureate in physics at the University of Chicago, told me about the discussions they had on the board about whether to go as far as to make the design of an atomic bomb available. They had a chance to do that in the early 1970s. They didn’t go ahead with it, but The Progressive magazine did.

I think the scientists, some of them really thought that was a mistake. There were limits, I think, to how much they felt the public should be really involved, even though they wanted citizens to understand the consequences of what this would do. It’s not entirely clear to me how much they wanted the public to know about the inner workings. The public and then, of course, the enemies of the United States would then have all of this knowledge. I think that they were sensitive to the limitations of letting everybody know about the bomb. 

There were controversies all along. It’s not as if they all spoke with one voice. I think it’s important to remember that the scientific culture is one of skepticism, of debate. They didn’t speak always with one voice. They disputed things. Edward Teller, in the early days of the Bulletin, before the Soviet Union tested in 1949, Edward Teller, who later went on to develop the thermonuclear bomb, even himself called for the international control of nuclear energy and a world government. So, there was not only disagreement among the scientists, but I think there was disagreement inside each scientist. After the Soviet test, then of course, Edward Teller went on to say that, no, we needed to be in a race with the Soviets at that point.

But it was a time of exploration of every conceivable idea. Of course, it was happening at a time when the United Nations was being formed at the end of World War II. So, there was great, I would say optimism in some ways about the ability to control this really powerful source of energy, which was in some ways the good part. Almost with a naivete, perhaps, about what could happen and how countries could come together to exploit the best of this new source of energy. 

It was, the scientists, though, at one point, said after a few years, “This is hard work. We’d like to go back to our labs, thank you, and our benches. And, we’ll be with you, citizens, but it’s really up to citizens to decide what to do with this really horrible weapon. It’s not clear that we can always be at the forefront of this movement.” It was an interesting moment, I think. Probably about 1949, ’50, when they realized that this was fulltime work, and they had lots of other interests, including science.

Some of them went on, of course, to do great scientific work, but I’ll remember especially Paul Doty, who was at Harvard. Who was a chemist, who probably could have and would have received a Nobel Prize for his work in chemistry. But felt that the world was in such danger from this nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States that he devoted his life to working with the Soviets and scientists here in Pugwash and other U.S.-Soviet meetings to try and bring about some understanding, and try and develop treaties and limits on nuclear weapons.

Different scientists played different roles. They weren’t of one mind. Some of them sacrificed their scientific careers, really, for a life of public service in a different way, public service for the common good.

Kelly: Have you seen trends in the attitudes of scientists? Being involved in the politics, as you mentioned. ‘49 seemed to be one turning point where people tend to retreat back to comfort of the scientific lab. Of course, they were devoted scientists—

Benedict: Absolutely.

Kelly: So that’s understandable. But what about over time, does it go up and down?

Benedict: That’s a good question. Yeah, I don’t know if I can point to any trends. I think, though, that the debates about climate science have again tested the scientists. Many of them, I think, felt in the ‘50s, ‘60s, when the Bulletin was publishing articles about climate change, that if they laid out the science that that would be enough to understand that carbon dioxide emissions were creating this warming effect, and it’s polluting the atmosphere, really—that as soon as they laid this out, that clearly people would understand it, and then they would take action. I think it’s taken them some time to figure out that you need to do more than lay out the science, and you need to lay out the science in ways that people can understand.

I think, again, there people have been somewhat frustrated, because they feel ordinary citizens don’t even have the basic scientific information to understand what scientists are saying. So it’s been difficult. I think the climate scientists have looked to the atomic weapons scientists, the scientist movement of the 1940s as a model for what they might do now. I think it’s taken them a few years to understand that just laying out the science is not always enough.

Kelly: That’s a good point, very good point. You’ve mentioned several names. If you had to define the founding fathers of this, of the Bulletin, who would you mention? You mentioned Rabinowitch. Who was on your short list of the greats?

Benedict: Well, Eugene Rabinowitch, really the editor for many years until he died in 1973. Hyman Goldsmith was involved at the beginning as well. He died only a few years after the Bulletin was founded, and was, so not around. John Simpson was clearly, a little-known name, actually, compared to someone like Robert Oppenheimer, of course, and Albert Einstein, even Leo Szilard, who was involved in the early days, and Edward Teller. All of these names, I think, are relatively well-known.

John Simpson was in a way a kind of an untold hero, unsung hero. He had organized the Metallurgical Lab where the designs were made, and then was a constant presence in the scientist movement from the University of Chicago. Stayed here and worked, raised money for the Bulletin, drew other scientists into the Bulletin. And was well loved by many, a little bit like Robert Wilson, who went on to head Fermilab. There were some folks who still continued to do science, but who worked extremely hard to make sure that the public knew. 

There are also social scientists. Robert Adams, Robert McCormick Adams, who later went on to become Provost of the University of Chicago, was also involved in the early days. The others, if you look at the masthead of the Bulletin and if you look a little bit at the organization of some of the groups that emerged after, it included wives of the scientists, who were very active, who were not paid, usually.

Martyl is the foremost example, who’s the artist who comes up with the design. Bob Adams’ wife, Ruth Adams, who later became the editor of the Bulletin – was twice editor of the Bulletin – also worked with Joseph Rotblat, I think the only scientist who walked away from the Manhattan Project and went to England. She worked with him and Eugene Rabinowitch to develop the Pugwash movement, which was the scientific movement, international movement to help bring about the disarmament. So, yes, it’s scientists you don’t hear much about, but you even hear less about the wives and the women who worked on the scientist movement, who were kind of the guts and, you know, who made things happen, really.

It was an interesting social movement, all hands on deck in all sorts of ways.

Kelly: That’s great. I’m familiar with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Can you talk about groups that might have been spinoffs or copycats that were inspired by the Bulletin?

Benedict: At the time that the Bulletin was founded, right after the end of World War II, there were several groups that came about. There were atomic scientists all over the United States, chapters of them in various parts of the United States: Los Alamos; the Manhattan, actually New York, Manhattan, atomic scientists. Those groups came together in what was called the Federation of American Scientists. It was the “Federation of Atomic Scientists” at the beginning; they changed their name to “American Scientists.” They set up shop in Washington, D.C., and they were really a policy analysis group, an advocacy group in Washington that developed information that could be used by congressional members and others to understand more about nuclear weapons in the beginning.

A little later than that, I think it was 1954 [misspoke: 1962], that Leo Szilard set up something called the Council for a Livable World. His idea was that you only needed 51 [misspoke: two-thirds of] senators to ratify a treaty, that the best hope for controlling nuclear weapons was treaties between the United States and the Soviet Union and other countries as well. So he set up essentially a lobbying arm, the Council for a Livable World. He was set up in a Dupont Circle hotel. There’s a plaque over the water fountain that lets you know that Leo Szilard made that lobby his office. He lobbied hard. He lobbied congressional members and especially senators. The idea of the council, which is still active today, is to support legislators, senators, get them elected. It was really a political arm.

You had the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which was thought to be kind of the idea place where people came and published their ideas and kept the conversation going and informed the public. You had the Federation of American Scientists, which produced policy papers for politicians. Then you had Council for a Livable World, which was in the business of getting people elected. That was a very practical way. Leo Szilard was always practical, and I think he understood the politics of things better than most of the scientists.

The Union of Concerned Scientists was formed later in the mid-1980s by students at MIT, and grew out of protests during the war and also the nuclear freeze movement later on. It really became a voice of scientists to talk about a broader range of topics, not only nuclear weapons, but even military research during the Vietnam War and then the problems of the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Reagan Star Wars and ballistic missile defense. They took on a broader range right away, a broader range of topics, and have gone on to become a membership organization. Much more geared towards getting everybody involved in thinking about a number of science-related topics.

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