Feature

Herbert York

The atomic scientist who tried to curb arms

The atomic scientist who tried to curb arms
1921–2009

In the field of nuclear weapons research, said a colleague of Herbert York, “there are the Strangeloves, there are the dour existential thinkers, there are the efficient white-shirted RAND Corp. automatons—and then there are the human beings. Herb is a human being.” York helped build both the atomic and hydrogen bombs, and later devoted himself to trying to curb the arms he helped create.

At the outbreak of World War II, York was enrolled as an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, said The San Diego Union-Tribune. Soon, he recalled, “my physics professors began to disappear one by one into secret war laboratories.” In 1943 he joined them on the Manhattan Project, specializing in the electromagnetic separation of uranium-235. “Not only did we complete the project,” he exulted in 1978, “but we ended the war.” York earned his doctorate and, at 28, became director of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, where he worked with the Atomic Energy Commission on aspects of the hydrogen bomb. Later, he was director of defense research and engineering at the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency.

But even as he rose in the military-industrial establishment, said The New York Times, York was growing uneasy. “He gradually became concerned that the United States and the Soviet Union were developing more weapons, yet becoming less secure.” Beginning in the 1960s, “he spent the rest of his life as an antinuclear activist,” advising six presidents on the subject. John F. Kennedy appointed him to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency in 1962; 17 years later, Jimmy Carter made him head of the U.S. delegation that sought a comprehensive test ban with the Soviet Union. The failure of those talks left him disappointed. “The world situation just wouldn’t support it,” he said. But York persevered and, in 1983, founded the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation at the University of California at San Diego, which “organized research and seminars on conflict resolution and promoted international efforts to avoid war.”

York, the first chancellor of U.C.–San Diego, won many honors, including the Enrico Fermi Award, presented by President Clinton in 2000. He died of the effects of radiation treatment for prostate cancer.

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