Remembering George Rathjens (1925-2016)

George Rathjens

George Rathjens: 1925-2016

Friends and colleagues of George – Jeffrey Boutwell, Francesco Calogero, and Paolo Cotta-Ramusino – reflect on his life and their experiences together.

A Reflection – Jeffrey Boutwell

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 former Executive Director of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

A reflection – Francesco Calogero

I owe an enormous debt to George Rathjens.

After Pugwash was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize—first announced on 13 October 1995; the previous summer the Annual Conference had quite successfully been held in Hiroshima—I felt justified to try and step down from the heavy responsibility of serving as Secretary General of Pugwash, a task that had left me, since I took over from Martin Kaplan in 1989, very little time to pursue my scientific research in theoretical and mathematical physics. The peculiar nature of Pugwash implied that the serving Secretary General could not abandon his job until an appropriate successor could be found: somebody who was qualified for the task and who was willing to undertake the full-time unremunerated job to run an institution characterized by a quite complicated and loose organizational structure, yet committed to try and influence world politics towards lofty goals: the elimination of means of mass destruction, conflict resolution worldwide, the prevalence of ethical principles in the applications of science, and the overall goal of peace in the world.

I had known George Rathjens for many years through our long association with Pugwash, and I was an admirer of his sharp mind. So when I heard that he was retiring from teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and that there was therefore a chance that he might be willing to accept the offer to serve as the next Secretary General of Pugwash, I approached him and managed to convince him to accept to job. It was then an easy task to get the support of the leadership of Pugwash—including, in particular, Joseph Rotblat (then President of Pugwash and co-recipient with Pugwash of the 1995 Nobel Peace Prize), John Holdren (then serving as Chair of the Pugwash Executive Committee), Maciej Nalecz (then serving as Chair of the Pugwash Council), the entire Pugwash Council, and the participants in the 1997 Quinquennial Pugwash Conference who had—in the rather peculiar democratic set-up of Pugwash—the collective responsibility to affirm the new executive leadership of Pugwash. So George took over as Secretary General in 1997, I took the much less demanding job of Chair of the Pugwash Council, and Michael Atiyah—who had just stepped down from being President of the Royal Society in England, and would later share (with Isadore Singer) the 2004 Abel Prize (the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematicians)—took over as President of Pugwash. George, myself and Sir Michael served in our respective Pugwash roles for the next Quinquennium; while John Holdren stepped down already that year (1997) from his position as Chair of the Pugwash Executive Committee—in which capacity he had delivered on behalf of Pugwash the Nobel Prize acceptance speech in Oslo (December 10, 1995)—to eventually become in 2008 the senior advisor to President Barack Obama on science and technology issues through his multiple roles as Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST), positions which he is still holds.

During the 1997-2002 quinquennium, George and I collaborated quite closely, although I avoided having any say on the day-to-day running of Pugwash, which George could manage quite well, also thanks to the excellent support provided by the Pugwash staff, including his closest Assistant, Jeff Boutwell, and the staff of the Pugwash Offices in Rome and in London.

In 2002, George decided to step down, and the present leadership of Pugwash took over, with Paolo Cotta Ramusino serving as Secretary General, and Jayantha Dhanapala as President. I think George took this decision because, while he could take care quite well of all the organizational tasks associated with the running of Pugwash, he did not really enjoy that aspect of the job. His real interests mainly focused on the intellectual task to analyze the international political situation and what could be done to improve it, rather than in running such a loose and complicated organization as Pugwash is: indeed, a kind of archipelago.

George excelled in thinking through, generally in a quite unconventional manner, the merits of political visions and options and the consequential decisions to be advocated. He had a scientific background (a PhD in chemistry) and a lot of concrete experience in policy making, having held several responsible roles in various governmental agencies in the United States, generally related to technological aspects of military research and development and of arms control (see below). He had then served, for over two decades, as Professor in the Department of Political Science at MIT. He had just retired from full-time teaching there when he took over his position as Secretary General of Pugwash, but remained somehow associated with MIT for some years more even after he ended his 5-year term as Secretary General of Pugwash. Indeed, this is what is written about him (presumably in 2003) in a web posting of the MIT Security Studies Program:

“GEORGE W. RATHJENS became Professor in the Department of Political Science after service with the Institute for Defense Analyses, the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense, the Office of the President’s Science Advisor, and the Weapons Evaluation Group of the Department of Defense. He has also served in the Department of State. Dr. Rathjens received his B.S. from Yale University and completed his Ph.D. in chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been active in a number of associations, including the Council for a Livable World and the Federation of American Scientists, both of which he has been Chairman. He recently retired as Secretary-General of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. Dr. Rathjens’ major policy interests are nuclear arms issues, environmental problems with special emphasis on conflict and the environment, and post-Cold War international security questions, including particularly problems of intervention in instances of ethnic and intrastate conflict.”

The first mentor of George Rathjens was George Kistiakowsky, himself a quite remarkable individual. Born in 1900, he had fought in the White Army at the beginning of the civil war in Ukraine and Russia, had then managed to escape to Germany, get a PhD in chemistry there, and in1926 immigrate to the United States where he eventually became Professor of Physical Chemistry at Harvard. He was particularly competent on the properties of explosives. In that capacity he was involved in the Second World War effort—a curious achievement of his was to develop, in response to a special request for an explosive that could be smuggled through Japanese checkpoints by Chinese guerrillas, an edible explosive, which could pass for regular flour, and even be used in cooking. He had a major role in the Manhattan Project, supervising in Los Alamos the difficult task to develop the implosive configuration that allowed the construction of the Plutonium bomb tested at Alamogordo and then used over Nagasaki. He then became a scientific statesman in the USA, the first to serve as Scientific Assistant for Science and Technology to the President of the United States, who was then Dwight Eisenhower. (Remarkably, George Rathjens, George Kistiakowsky and Dwight Eisenhower were all very tall men). It was certainly Kistiakowski who influenced the remarkable career of George Rathjens, from a PhD in Chemistry to various roles in US Governmental Agencies and eventually as Professor of Political Science at MIT.

A fair assessment of the overall impact of George on the thinking about arms control, disarmament and related topics would require much more space and also more specific competence than I can muster. I just mention here two examples of the intellectual activity of George. An article by him in the April 1, 1969 issue of the Scientific American entitled “The Dynamics of the Arms Race”, the by-line of which reads: “Recent decisions by the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. threaten to upset the stability of the present strategic military balance. The net result may be simply to decrease the security of both countries.” And an article in the Fall 1991 issue of Foreign Affairs co-authored by Carl Kaysen, Robert S. McNamara and George Rathjens, entitled “Nuclear Weapons After the Cold War”, the opening sentences of which read: “The Cold War had two chief features: the continuing confrontation on the border between the two Germanys that might, possibly without notice, break out into war, and the ideologically driven rivalry throughout the Third World.

“Germany is now united within its 1945 boundaries, which have been recognized and accepted by all concerned; the Warsaw Pact has disappeared; and the three countries between the western border of the Soviet Union and the West, no longer in thrall to the Soviet Union, are admiring petitioners to the West. Communism has lost almost all of its appeal outside the borders of the few remaining polities that officially adhere to it—China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia and Cuba—and it is unlikely that it would survive even a modest easing of pervasive repressive central control in any of them.

“Inside the Soviet Union, however, the struggle for change is producing turmoil; the forces of reaction, of reform and of disintegration are in contention, the outcome uncertain. While still possessing formidable inventories of nuclear and conventional weapons, the Soviet state shows no will to use its military power externally, and almost certainly lacks the political coherence to do so. An immediate external threat appears to be the only circumstance that would change that situation, and it is hard to see whence one would arise.”

These were—and still are—the kind of simple truths on which the conflict resolution mission of Pugwash is founded. George was exceptionally able at identifying and promulgating their relevance. Throughout his long life these were the main goals of his public commitment, motivated by an overriding ethical commitment. They remain as an example for all of us.

Francesco Calogero is former Secretary General of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.

In memory of George Rathjens – Paolo Cotta-Ramusino

George Rathjens was my predecessor as Secretary General of Pugwash, but more important for me he was, together with his collegues Jack Ruina and Kosta Tsipis, the person who introduced me into the field of nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament. I will always remember the first MIT seminar in the summer of 1983 where young people were given the basic ideas on how to progress on nuclear arms control and how to address the main problems related to dealing with nuclear weapons. The political climate then, when the Soviet Union was still existing, was very different from now. But during the following years, when dramatic changes happened, I always found in George a sophisticated analyst, a competent and a very warm person who would share his opinion, rooted in years of experience that in many cases involved significant responsibilities at the governmental level. He became the chairman of the Council for a Livable World, among other responsibilities. A livable world for George  was a world without the danger of nuclear annihilation. George belonged to that group of people like Robert McNamara, Jack Ruina, Dick Garwin, Herb York, Bill Perry, and many others who dealt with nuclear weapons in their work and then spent their lives trying to promote nuclear disarmament.

  We need those people, now more than ever.

Paolo Cotta-Ramusino is the current Secretary General of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs.


  1. It was an honor to know George Rathjens. During my tenure with Student Pugwash USA he was consistently supportive of the efforts of young people to tackle the most challenging issues of the day. He seemed to revel in pushing the boundaries of our thinking. I remember feeling totally humbled and energized when he asked me to serve as rapporteur of a Pugwash workshop on science and social responsibility in Hungary in conjunction with the centenary celebrations of Szilard’s birth. It was the first time I had the privilege. I nervously sent him the report and he called me instantly congratulating me, saying he could see I would be asked to do these in the future, and I might not thank him for that… He was a gentle and thoughtful man who has left us all better for having known him. Sending condolences to his family.
    Sandy Ionno Butcher

  2. The Spanish Pugwash Group and myself are very sorry about the death of our former Secretary General George Rathjens. I do remember with pleasure his so stimulating years as Secretary General of Pugwash. We join our condolences to all the Pugwash family. Please convey them also to his family.

  3. The German Pugwash Groups joins the others to mourn about the death of the former Pugwash Secretary General George Rathjens. I made the acquaintance of Georg in the 1980ies at a Pugwash Workshop in Starnberg/Germany. George Rathjens and Jack Ruina were the famous twin couple which enriched summerschools, symposiums and meetings by their deep technical-political experiences and their presence. They encouraged and inspired young scientists to study the political and technical foundations of the security and disarmament debate at this critical juncture. The formidable obituary by Jeffrey Boutwell illuminates George´s contribution as a secretary general in a critical time of his organisation.

    Our condolences go to his family and also to the Pugwash community which should redouble its energy and committment not only to substitute these great scientists but also to counter the challenges we are facing in the Middle East, Eastern Europa and Asia.

    Götz Neuneck
    Chair, German Pugwash Group

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