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Nuclearization in France: The Politics of Frédéric Joliot-Curie

Nuclearization in France: The Politics of Frédéric Joliot-Curie

Frédéric Joliot-Curie

By AHF Research Assistant Simon Mairson

This summer, I spent seven weeks conducting research for my senior thesis in Paris, France, at the Institut Curie, a cancer foundation, museum, and archive collection dedicated to the Curie family. My Parisian perusing was specifically focused on Frédéric Joliot-Curie, the father of the French nuclear program.

Joliot-Curie began his career as an assistant to famed physicist and chemist Marie Curie at the Radium Institute in Paris. It was there that he met and eventually married Curie’s daughter, Irène. Frédéric and Irène Joliot-Curie were co-winners of the 1935 Nobel Prize in Chemistry (the Curie family had collectively won five Nobel Prizes by this point). Irène would continue to play an important role in the French scientific community, but due to my time constraints I chose to focus solely on Frédéric. The Institut Curie also has an archive dedicated to Irène that I hope to be able to consult in the future.

During my research, I explored Frédéric Joliot-Curie’s political activities as a scientist. The line between politics and science can be difficult to gauge, and although the politicization of science may seem like a modern phenomenon, it has been going on for decades. I hoped to use the historical example of Joliot-Curie to better understand, for example, the difficulties of arms control agreements. Additionally, the modern debate over global warming is increasingly politicized, and the stated goal of the 2017 March for Science was “to defend the role of science in policy and society.” Although scientists are often expected to be part of the political sphere when they would rather stay out of it, Joliot-Curie was nothing but political. 

While running the post-war Commissariat of Atomic Energy as its first High Commissioner, Joliot-Curie served as the president of the following organizations: the World Federation of Scientific Workers, the French Association of Scientific Workers, the French-Polish Friendship Organization, the France-USSR Association, and the World Peace Council. He was also an active member of the French Communist Party, the National Union of Intellectuals, and the National Front (a French Resistance organization of no relation to the modern far-right political party). Leo Szilard, one of the most politically outspoken scientists of the Manhattan Project, pales in comparison to Joliot-Curie.

Joliot-Curie’s passion for his political life was so great that he never allowed anyone else to write his articles or speeches. Along with almost every paper that I came across was a handwritten draft, meticulously corrected and always in the same handwriting. It is evident that Joliot-Curie cared a lot about what he was saying.

Furthermore, despite his communist leanings and anti-Western rhetoric, Joliot-Curie was above all else a devoted French patriot. While many prominent scientists fled the country in advance of the Nazi occupation, he stayed to serve in the Resistance under the alias Jean Pierre Bumont. Additionally, Joliot-Curie was very proud of the French scientific tradition, and thus was a strong opponent of post-war nuclear secrecy. As he affirmed, “France can legitimately claim the knowledge of the secrets of Atomic Energy because she is the country which has given birth to and developed Nuclear Physics.”

Joliot-Curie also disliked the Smyth Report, a 1945 public report on the Manhattan Project, because it made no mention of French contributions. He asserted, “We had all the elements for making a self sustaining chain reaction pile in May 1940 but that is as far as I would go.” A lifelong pacifist, Joliot-Curie insisted that France would never develop nuclear weapons. (In 1960, two years after his death, France tested its first atomic bomb in the Algerian Desert.)

In 1950, shortly before his dismissal from the Commissariat of Atomic Energy, Joliot-Curie initiated the Stockholm Appeal, a worldwide call for the ban of nuclear weapons. He declared at the Stockholm conference, “The outcome of the admirable series of scientific discoveries begun at the dawn of the 20th century by Henri Becquerel and Pierre and Marie Curie is the threat of destruction to humanity by the hydrogen bomb, and should be a warning to everyone and to scientists in particular.”

Although at times controversial, Joliot-Curie’s basic philosophy is one which we should all take to heart: science is essential to the future of mankind, but only if it is used for the good of the worldwide community. As Joliot-Curie affirmed in 1936, “Science is not national, but international.”

Many thanks to the Georgetown Office of Fellowships, Awards, and Resources for Undergraduates (GOFAR) and the Lisa J. Raines Fellowship for their financial support of my project. Thanks also to the team at the Institut Curie for their daily help with my research.