Leo Szilard and the Founding of Council for a Livable World

Written by William Lanouette & Ulrika Grufman

In October 1961, while receiving an honorary degree at Brandeis University, Leo Szilard voiced his fears about the nuclear arms race. When someone asked him what could be done about it, he realized that thinking up clever ideas for arms control is not enough. You also need the power – political, legal, financial – to enforce your views.

Szilard pondered these problems back in Washington and from these musings came one of Szilard’s most successful legacies – the creation of Council for a Livable World, a political action committee for arms control. Szilard thought about creating “a sort of lobby” that “would not only speak with the voice of reason” but also “deliver the votes.”

“Neither reason nor votes alone mean very much, but the combination,” he thought, could be “unbeatable.”

How, Szilard wondered, could an informed minority use its unity and its money effectively? A rational cost-benefit calculation led him to target the U.S. Senate. He hoped that the United States and Soviet Union would negotiate and ratify treaties, first to ban nuclear tests and eventually to limit nuclear weapons. Treaties must be ratified with the “advice and consent” of the U.S. Senate.

Here Szilard combined law and democracy. Each state has two senators, regardless of size or population. It is much less expensive to be elected in a less populous western state, so a western senator’s treaty vote comes at a bargain. By raising relatively small amounts of money, Szilard calculated, he hoped over time to help elect western senators who shared his own arms-control views. Senators serve for six years, so the “investment” need not be made as often as in the biennial House elections.

When arms-control treaties came before the Senate, there would be sufficient votes for ratification. His was a clever scheme, working at the margin of power to widen the “margin of hope”.

During a “Strategy for Peace” conference at Airlie House, Szilard called aside Roger Fisher, a Harvard Law School professor who specialized in international negotiations. Fischer listened, liked the peace-lobby idea, and invited Szilard to describe the plan at a law school forum.

The red-brick Georgian-style Lowell Lecture Hall at Harvard was packed with students and faculty on Friday afternoon, November 17, 1961, when Fisher led Szilard to the stage. His talk was called “Are We on the Road to War?”

Szilard answered his own question affirmatively, and then gave his solution just as quickly. It is conceivable, Szilard said, that “a rebellious minority” might “take effective political action” to change American government’s attitudes about Russia and the arms race. A new organization might combine a thoughtful 10 percent of the voters with the “sweet voice of reason” and “substantial political contributions.” That combination, he said, might become the most powerful lobby that ever hit Washington.

Szilard was hardly a charismatic person, and the “movement” he advocated depended more on logic and reason than on emotion. The lobby’s “political objectives” echoed Szilard’s own, among them: Renounce a first-strike policy against Russia; avoid “meaningless battles in the cold war” that might escalate to nuclear confrontation; and improve East-West relations. If a “sizeable minority” were to back these objectives, Szilard said, he might “go further” and propose a new Council for Abolishing War, complete with scientists and scholars on the board and members who would pledge “2 percent of their total income” to support candidates who share these policies.

After Harvard, Szilard continued his speaking tour at different universities and the proposed council gained its first national press coverage after an appearance at the University of Chicago. This included local and national talk show appearances, stories and a cheering editorial in Chicago’s papers, and coverage by the New York Times, the Washington Post and the wire services.

ABC’s national six o’clock television news ended a description of Szilard’s efforts with the comment “We wish him good luck.” Now Szilard had to decide how his council might actually operate; he enjoyed devising institutions but had little patience for running them. Help came at the right time when Allan Forbes, Jr., a filmmaker and anthropologist in Cambridge, Massachusetts, volunteered his services.

In January 1962, Szilard flew west with his “Road to War” speech, this time renaming his “experiment” the “Council for a Livable World.” By late February about four hundred people had pledged two percent of their income, far from the twenty-five thousand Szilard had thought necessary to begin the council’s political work.

Still, Szilard loved to devise detailed plans for his “institutional inventions” and in a memorandum in February 1962, he defined interconnected roles for the council’s fellows, a panel of political advisers, a board of directors, and the associates. But for all the layers of authority that Szilard devised, it was the new council’s board of directors that became his principal interest and the driving force for his Washington activities. Its founding meeting in June 1962 chose Szilard and Yale chemist William Doering as co-chairmen.  Ruth Adams, one of the early board members, later asked Szilard how he had assembled this remarkable group, and he admitted to but one criterion: “Your sense of humor.”

Szilard established his office for CLW by commandeering a desk in the lobby of the Dupont Plaza Hotel where he lived, invited in his secretary, and “lobbied from the lobby” to both the Kennedy White House and the Congress. Despite its tentative start, the council collected enough money to play a role in the 1962 congressional elections.

The first candidate its members endorsed was George McGovern, a former Food For Peace official from South Dakota. When the council failed to attract the $25 million Szilard had first hoped, he quipped that nowhere near as much was actually needed — you can be just as effective with congressmen by threatening to withhold donations as you can by promising to make them.

The first board of directors:

Leo Szilard – co-chairman

William Doering, Yale Chemist – co-chairman

Ruth Adams, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists editor

Bernard T. Feld, physicist

Allan Forbes, Jr., filmmaker and anthropologist

Maurice Fox, biologist

Morton Grodzins, University of Chicago sociologist

Arthur Penn, theater and film director

James Patton, president of Farmer’s Union

Charles Pratt, Jr., photographer

Daniel M. Singer, attorney and counsel of Federation of American Scientists