George Rathjens: A Reflection

By June 13, 2016


1925 – 2016

On one of my last visits with George, we were having dinner at the assisted living facility where he had an apartment.  Looking over the dessert selections, I mused out loud that I wasn’t sure I knew the difference between sorbet and sherbet.

“Oh, that’s easy,” George said without missing a beat, “one’s French and the other’s English.”

This type of wry humor was typical of George, as was the unconventionality of his analytic mind.  Looking back on my 37-year friendship with him, if asked what one word best described how George approached problems and looked at the world, it would be “orthogonal.”  He always delighted in turning a problem inside out and looking at it from a variety of angles, recognizing, as Buckminster Fuller noted, that “every boundary is a useful bit of fiction.”

It was this type of thinking that made George such an asset in the numerous important positions he held prior to joining the MIT faculty in 1968: at the Institute for Defense Analyses, the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense.

I first met George when I arrived at MIT in the fall of 1979 to begin Ph.D. work in the Defense and Arms Control Studies program of the Political Science department.  Along with Jack Ruina, William Kaufmann, Carl Kaysen, and other faculty, we graduate students were blessed by having teachers who, similar to George, constantly tested the boundaries of conventional thinking.

George had little patience for many things besides conventional thinking, one of them being graduate students who took more than 3-4 years to finish their studies, complete the dissertation, and obtain their degree.  He was constantly urging all of us to get to work, get the degree, and get the hell out of MIT and into the world.   In this, as in benefiting from his intellectual rigor, I was fortunate to have George on my thesis committee.

I also remember George having no patience for Air France, which he always found difficult to deal with in trying to get an exit row seat because of his 6’6” frame and the ever-shrinking economy class airline seat!

In early 1982, while finishing my thesis, George and Jack helped me get my first job after MIT, as director of the international security studies committee of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, Mass.  One of my duties was assisting the Academy’s oversight of the U.S. Pugwash Committee, of which George and Jack were both members.  I remember well George’s pivotal role that spring and summer in the midst of a U.S. Pugwash controversy over whether to attend the Pugwash Quinquennial Conference in Warsaw, scheduled for August 26-31, 1982.

Given the imposition of martial law by Marshal Jaruzelski in December 1981 and the subsequent suppression of Solidarity and other pro-democracy movements, many U.S. Pugwash members called for cancelling or postponing the conference to avoid any appearance of conferring legitimacy on the Jaruzelski government.  For their part, Pugwash co-founder Joseph Rotblat and Secretary General Martin Kaplan urged that the conference go ahead so that Pugwash could fulfill its role of acting as an intermediary across the Cold War divide, especially in moments of crisis.

In the event, the Warsaw Conference did proceed and was the subject of continued debate within the international press and scientific community, all the more so as conference participants were the recipients of a contentious open letter by Andrei Sakharov, then under house arrest in Gorky in the Soviet Union, questioning the continued validity of Pugwash.  For his part, George went to Warsaw, but only to participate in separate meetings of the Pugwash Council, not the Conference.  Upon his return, he and others in U.S. Pugwash committed themselves to strengthening the work and effectiveness of both U.S. and international Pugwash.

Thus began my work with George and others at the American Academy and in Pugwash on various defense and foreign policy projects that tested conventional thinking in international security studies.  One noteworthy project  involved working with George and Tad Homer-Dixon of the University of Toronto in the 1990s on a multi-year American Academy study of environmental degradation and civil conflict that, sparked by George’s intellectual probing, led to landmark articles in Scientific American and the New York Times and helped create the field of environmental conflict studies that has gained such prominence today.

Then, in 1997, George succeeded Francesco Calogero as Secretary General of the Pugwash Conferences and I joined him as Pugwash Executive Director.  As anyone who was involved with Pugwash during George’s tenure from 1997 to 2002 knows, it was both an intellectually stimulating and at times contentious time for Pugwash.  George would often delight in playing devil’s advocate; he and Jo Rotblat in particular did not always see eye to eye in pursuing the Pugwash agenda of eliminating nuclear weapons and the scourge of war.  But well beyond any differences there may have been between them, George and Jo were both passionately committed to the mission and goals of Pugwash.  Each fervently believed there was one boundary that must never again be breached: the use of nuclear weapons against humanity.

During these years, my wife Sara and I joined George and his wife Lucy, often times joined by Claudia Vaughn and others from Pugwash, in traveling together following Pugwash meetings.  Especially memorable were Pugwash conferences and meetings in Mexico and South Africa, road trips through New England up to Pugwash, Nova Scotia, and from Havana to Cienfuegos and Santa Clara in Cuba, as well as the final large international conference of George’s tenure, held at UC San Diego in La Jolla in August of 2002, assisted greatly by Ruth Adams, Herb York, and Marvin Goldberger.

During our time together, we would be treated to great stories that George would tell of his travels around the world going back to the 1950s.  From icy scientific research in the Antarctic to escaping from Shining Path guerrillas on a mountain trail to Machu Picchu, George would regale us endlessly with wondrous tales of his (and Lucy’s) travels.

I know that one of George’s great pleasures in working with Pugwash were the friends and colleagues with whom he worked so closely on the Pugwash Council.  There were many of them, too numerous to list (and I apologize to those I don’t mention) but three in particular who George so admired and liked were Sverre Lodgaard, Marie Muller, and Michael Atiyah, and of course Claudia and Mimma de Santis in the Rome office.

George and I continued to stay in close touch after he left Pugwash, and even in declining health, he never lost his intellectual curiosity, expansive framework for viewing the world’s problems, or disdain for those political leaders who failed to confront head-on the major issues of our day.  I doubt many of the residents of Fairbanks, Alaska in June of 1925 – where George was born – could have foreseen all that he would experience and accomplish, in government, in academia, and through organizations such as Pugwash, the Federation of American Scientists, and the Council for a Livable World – or the lives of numerous colleagues and students that he would enrich so fully, mine included.

Oh, and the difference between sorbet and sherbet?  I now know, and am sure George did at the time, that it’s the simple presence or absence of up to 3% milkfat.  Of such are great memories made.

Jeffrey Boutwell is the former Executive Director of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. His working career consisted of 30+ years focusing on international security, nuclear weapons, and Middle East issues for the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Boston (1982-2000) and the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (2000-2010) in Washington, DC.

Contact information: [email protected]