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Nationalism, Activism, and Moralism: The Atomized Politics of Frédéric Joliot-Curie

Nationalism, Activism, and Moralism: The Atomized Politics of Frédéric Joliot-Curie


By AHF Research Assistant Simon Mairson

Last summer, I published an article on AHF’s website detailing the two months I spent at the Institut Curie in Paris conducting archival research on French physicist Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the son-in-law of Marie and Pierre Curie and the father of the French nuclear program. This research formed the basis of my senior history thesis, “Nationalism, Activism, and Moralism: The Atomized Politics of Frédéric Joliot-Curie,” which I wrote at Georgetown University during the past year. In light of AHF’s upcoming project on French contributions to the atomic age, I would like to take this opportunity to share some of my conclusions.

The development of the atomic bomb forever changed the relationship between science and politics in the public sphere because it forced scientists to consider the moral implications of their work. The destructive power of the bomb caused a moral crisis for many scientists who were involved in nuclear research. Although there were certainly exceptions, the prevailing belief in the scientific community prior to 1945 was that science and politics should remain separate. “The qualities that make a man an excellent scholar and academic teacher are not the qualities that make him a leader to give directions in practical life or, more specifically, in politics,” affirmed German sociologist Max Weber in his 1918 lecture, “Science as a Vocation.”

I am hardly the first historian to address the impact of the bomb on science and politics, nor did Joliot-Curie present a unique case in this respect. Other important works of this genre include Silvan Schweber’s In the Shadow of the Bomb, which compares the moral quandaries of J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hans Bethe, Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect, and Cathryn Carson’s Heisenberg in the Atomic Age: Science and the Public Sphere. The case of Joliot-Curie likewise offers a window through which historians can better understand the complexities of the atomic age. I argue that as a scientist, government official, and activist, Joliot-Curie tried to fulfill three complementary responsibilities: to France, to the world, and to science itself.

In the aftermath of World War II, General Charles de Gaulle appointed Joliot-Curie—a prewar leader in international nuclear physics—as the first High Commissioner of the newly created Commissariat à l’énergie atomique (Atomic Energy Commission; CEA). Joliot-Curie quickly recognized that nuclear energy could contribute to what he termed the renaissance (meaning “rebirth,” “reconstruction,” or “revival”) of France. Today, partly thanks to his efforts, nuclear energy accounts for approximately 75% of France’s domestic electricity production. Joliot-Curie’s devotion to the development of France’s nuclear program was a political expression of French nationalism. In his eyes, nuclear power would not only help France physically recover from World War II but would restore its international prestige and could serve as an example for other nations to follow.

Joliot-Curie’s allegiances went well beyond France, however. He was a devoted communist, arguing that the natural sciences and Marxism were natural partners since both used the scientific method. Although Joliot-Curie was certainly naïve in some of his more extreme communist rhetoric, particularly when defending the Soviet Union, his ideology was largely driven by a steadfast devotion to international peace. In his early years with the CEA, Joliot-Curie called for politicians to establish international control of nuclear weapons. Later, he publicly refused to work on the atomic bomb. He also served as the first president of the World Peace Council, presiding over its famous “Stockholm Appeal” calling for the worldwide abolition of nuclear weapons. In 1950, Joliot-Curie was dismissed from the CEA because of his outspoken political beliefs.

Lastly, Joliot-Curie struggled with the same Weberian line between science and politics as Oppenheimer, Bethe, Heisenberg, and other scientists did. Departing from a previous generation which largely stayed out of politics, Joliot-Curie was adamant that scientists have a voice in the public sphere. In 1946, he was elected as the first president of the World Federation of Scientific Workers, an organization which offered a political stage for scientists. Furthermore, Joliot-Curie frequently asserted that scientists had a moral responsibility to consider the implications of their work, particularly when it came to building weapons. At the same time, however, Joliot-Curie defended science as a fundamentally objective discipline and rejected any notion that science was in and of itself political. While this might seem contradictory, it reflected the difficult process by which Joliot-Curie sought to make sense of science and politics in the age of the bomb.

This project was among the most difficult and rewarding of my academic career. I hope that it sheds light on the complexities of postwar France and of science in the atomic age, and that other historians will carry this study further. To download my thesis, click here