Three decades ago, President Dwight Eisenhower made a startling proposal. He suggested that mankind work together to put nuclear forces to peaceful purposes. It is an anniversary worth remembering.
Today, the atom is a valuable energy source in developing countries as well as industrialized nations. Radioactive materials are widely used in industry, in scientific research, and in medicine. Although the threat of nuclear war continues to overshadow world thinking, the atom is seen to have its beneficial side.
This wasn't the case when Eisenhower gave his famous ''atoms for peace'' address before the United Nations on Dec. 8, 1953.
At that time, the atom meant one thing to most people - weapons. There was talk of atomic power, but all of the interesting research was secret. Even the experts couldn't talk about it with fellow experts without the proper protocols and clearances. Thus, when Eisenhower proposed that the secrets be shared, he electrified his audience.
It was a tough-minded speech. He noted that ''if the peoples of the world are to conduct an intelligent search for peace, they must be armed with the significant facts of today's existence'' - namely, that the US and USSR could destroy the world in nuclear war.
But he said he couldn't be content with a strategy of survival through mutual deterrence. ''To pause there,'' he observed, ''would be to confirm the hopeless finality of a belief that two atomic colossi are doomed malevolently to eye each other indefinitely across a trembling world.''
National antagonisms not withstanding, he said, ''We will never say that the peoples of Russia are an enemy with whom we have no desire ever to deal or mingle in friendly or fruitful relationship.''
Then he invited the Russians and all nations to help ''take this weapon out of the hands of soldiers. . . . This greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind.'' Urging creation of an international agency to ensure the knowledge wasn't used for weapons work, he pledged that the United States would ''devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death, but consecrated to his life.''
Given the shroud of fear and secrecy that veiled the atom, this was a breathtaking proposal. In an assessment typical of global reaction, a Christian Science Monitor editorial noted that ''the world's thinking abruptly changed direction.'' It added: ''Plainly this plan for breaking the atomic deadlock by setting up controls at the most feasible point - with peaceful uses - has captured the hearts and minds of men around the world. It is a master stroke.''
Ike's leadership catalyzed action. Within a year and a half, the first big UN atoms-for-peace conference was under way in Geneva. It threw open the iron curtain on nonmilitary uses of the atom with a resounding clatter. The three main atomic powers - the US, USSR, and Britain - opened up their knowledge to the world. They discovered that their secrecy had merely hidden the fact that they all had discovered pretty much the same things.
Conference president Homi J. Bhabha drove home this point when he proposed that hydrogen fusion, as well as uranium fission, would one day be a major power source. This would take at least 20 years, he said.
Bhabha, an Indian physicist, had a thorough grasp of fusion theory, which, unlike the newly released knowledge of fission, was still considered a closely held secret by the atomic powers. It was painfully obvious to them that atomic knowledge was spreading through the world. This was not due to espionage or security leaks. It was the natural result of trained experts in many countries studying the same natural phenomena as their American, British, or Soviet colleagues.
There was a warm glow of optimism and hope in Geneva over the anticipated benefits from the peaceful atom. Yet this was tempered by concern that subtle dangers inherent in nuclear power be thoroughly explored. These included the need to ensure safe reactor operation, to safely manage nuclear wastes, and to keep nuclear materials from being diverted to weapons.
By now, the optimism has worn thin, while the issues of safety and weapons proliferation have yet to be resolved. But it is easy to take a patronizing view of the past, to highlight the failures and disappointments and forget the achievements.
The 1955 conference was followed by three others - the last in 1971. The global cooperation they facilitated and many direct nation-to-nation programs have fulfilled much of Ike's dream. The International Atomic Energy Agency was formed. It has been, and continues to be, a useful channel for international programs. Its inspection helps keep the nuclear materials involved out of military uses.
Hydrogen-fusion power, whose ''secrets'' were also opened at the second (1958 ) atoms-for-peace conference, remains 20 years or more in the future. But great progress has been made in laying the scientific foundation for its development, largely through international sharing of research.
And nuclear-fission power, while not the economic panacea that its early advocates foresaw, has become part of humanity's common technological heritage.
That's not a bad payoff for a presidential speech. One wonders what the dividends might be if an American president again affirmed, ''We will never say that the peoples of Russia are an enemy with whom we have no desire . . . to deal,'' instead of insisting they are citizens of an ''evil empire.''