THE CHALLENGE OF AVOIDING NUCLEAR HOLOCAUST
Sydney Drell, 1985
Sydney Drell is Professor and Deputy Director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center and Co-Director of the Stanford Center for International Security and Arms Control. He is the recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Prize. Today he shares some of his central views on the quest for peace.
Whiteley: Professor Drell, you’ve written that however difficult the path in our slow evolutionary voyage, we must catch up with the nuclear revolution, and the sooner the safer. What are you trying to share with us?
Drell: Well what I’m saying there is that with the transition to nuclear weapons we have increased the destructive energy release in our bombs by factors of a million, and we’ve turned each weapon into a weapon of mass destruction. We’ve come to the point that with weapons of this enormous destructive potential, and with the numbers that now exist in the world (altogether more than fifty-thousand nuclear weapons), we have reached the point that we can literally destroy the conditions for human survival. We certainly have reached a point of being able to destroy the civilization built through the centuries by human genius and sweat, and we’ve brought into question the survival of the human race. This is a revolution. Nuclear weapons now are so destructive that we can kill ourselves, and it seems to me that while we have to develop a new way of resolving our disputes as people, we have to develop a new understanding of what these weapons can and cannot do and how they threaten us, to see to it that for the first time in history we won’t use weapons that we have created.
Whiteley: You’ve written and quoted George Frost Kennan that the whole concept of advantage is simply not relevant anymore.
Drell: Well that’s because I believe that nuclear weapons are not weapons of direct military value; they are weapons of no direct military value. They have a single purpose: to deter the use of nuclear weapons by others, and this is in contrast to previous periods where when one went to war, victory usually resulted by first exhausting your enemy, and then defeating them. We are now in a condition where I believe (President Eisenhower first said this back in the middle 1950s) that war is no longer possible; we have reached a point where war now becomes the destruction of the enemy and suicide. These were his words. And so as long as we both have now many thousands more than 20,000 each, speaking of the two Superpowers (the Soviet Union and the United States) which have more than 99% of the world’s weapons (about that percentage), we’ve reached a point where going to war may very well mean committing suicide. We both have much more than necessary to deter an opponent by physically having the capacity to destroy in a retaliatory strike, and on this level, one is to ask how much is enough? Is there an advantage to having more weapons when we both can have so much overkill? I can see prudent planning for a stable deterrent posture in the world. Prudent planning to have stability in our strategic relationship, particularly in time of crisis, calls for us to have weapons that we can have confidence in, that they cannot be destroyed in a preemptive strike, that they are secure, they can survive an attack on them, so that we know, and a potential attacker knows, that he risks unacceptable damage to himself in retaliation for a first-strike.
Whiteley: This is the fruits of development since World War II that the fabric of civilization is at risk, and it raises the question of the uses of scientific knowledge. But the involvement of scientists, as you’ve written, from Archimedes to Michelangelo to the present in making war is nothing new, but you describe as in a Faustian dilemma now. What do you mean?
Drell: Well, I would say that scientists who leave their laboratories and their research institutes and enter into the public domain, advising, participating in military planning and thinking, have always made somewhat of what I would call a ‘Faustian bargain.’ We leave our laboratories where we have our expertise, where we have confidence in the fixed laws of nature; we come out into the world where the political laws, the political climate changes, where we’re not trained experts but we are dealing with the political forces, and where the consequences of what we are doing sometimes cannot be perceived or, in fact, may be results which we don’t approve of.
I always have in mind the poignant picture of my good friend Andrei Sakharov, now in his exile in the Soviet Union in Gorky. He made his Faustian bargain when in the 1940s, when he finished his studies, he contributed so crucially to the development of the Soviet hydrogen bomb on a premise. His premise was that the world would be safer if there were a socialist bomb to balance the capitalist bomb, as he said. But then he grew over the next fifteen years to realize that what he had helped create was in a certain sense a monster out of control, as his government created more weapons, continued testing in the atmosphere, threatening the help of peoples, and he could not support this policy anymore. So in fact he became disillusioned, he opposed the system. He now is rejected by the system. We, of course, closer to home, have the tale of a Robert Oppenheimer who created a weapon, but then society rejected him and didn’t trust him. So we take risks when we go out into the world as scientists; we make the bargain. What makes the situation so poignant now, so dangerous now, is that we are dealing with cosmic forces when we’re dealing with nuclear weapons. We’re dealing with energy releases that are so great that the danger to mankind as a result of the weapons we’ve created is much greater than before, and as I say at the offset, even raises questions about the survival of mankind, and certainly of our civilization.
Whiteley: Well here’s where you’ve drawn on C. P. Snow’s observation about the bizarre occurrence in an advanced technological society where the people most affected by decisions are not privy to the debates, and the decision-making by a handful of people that fatefully affect us all. What’s the proper role of an informed public opinion at this time in our history?
Drell: Well, I think that in view of the enormous danger posed by nuclear weapons, particularly in a world armed at the level we are now, it is a very major burden of responsibility on an informed public to think our way through the challenge and see how best we can meet it. I think it’s a responsibility of very great proportions because I think the number one challenge we face as a civilization today is to avoid a nuclear holocaust. We have weapons. In the past, history shows that every weapon that has been created has eventually been used, and yet we now sit in a world with more than 50,000 nuclear weapons which, if used, in large part will alter the conditions of survival. So the challenge, the dangers have never been greater, and I think it is the responsibility of thinking people, of informed people to address the difficulty as best they can. One does not have to be a nuclear physicist to face these problems; in fact the problems are by and large political problems. But one has to understand the danger posed by these weapons; one has to therefore address the challenge of how to develop means of resolving our differences without resorting to weapons. If they are, as President Eisenhower said, ‘weapons of suicide’ they are not legitimate means anymore for us to resolve differences. And this is obviously a very great challenge, but it’s one in which I think there’s hope we will succeed. Because as I look at the history of the nuclear era since 1945, I see that public constituencies have been created that have had a significant effect on our policy in dealing with nuclear weapons.
Whiteley: As a prelude to thinking about current issues before our democracy, I would like to ask you to reflect back on several key and fateful decisions, and share with us what you would have us learn from them. Let’s start with the decision to proceed with the development of the hydrogen bomb.
Drell: Well that’s a very good example because in the early 1950s we faced this fateful decision, as did the Soviet Union. Now that is a decision that was made by a small group of people - scientists, government leaders — and it was made behind closed doors. The public was not part of that debate. I have no notion that we could have prevented the development of the hydrogen bomb. What I’m referring to here is that first we had the A-bomb, the atomic bomb, such as destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The hydrogen bomb uses that A-bomb as a trigger, and has destructive energy releases up to a thousand times greater. Now, was it necessary to take that step? Might we have negotiated in the face of the enormous danger, evil of such weapons? Might we have negotiated to avoid taking that step? I don’t know. The relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union then in the Cold War were not relations that make one optimistic that we might have had constructive negotiations, but we never tried. The people never were involved in the discussion, the public at large of either country. Several leaders decided to go ahead unilaterally, and we made this fateful decision to go ahead. We lost what might have been an opportunity, however slim, to try and head off the development of hydrogen bombs. The scientists involved, as we now know from the unclassified record, Oppenheimer, Ferme, Rabe, all the great scientists involved (and the senior statesmen then) questioned whether it might be possible to avoid this step, but there was no public debate. There was no diplomacy, no effort through diplomacy with the Soviet Union; we lost an opportunity to head off that escalation and destructive power.
Whiteley: Let’s take a second example, the ban against atmospheric testing and the Anti-ballistic Missile Treaty.
Drell: Those are two distinct examples; let me take them because they’re very important. In the late 1950s, 1960 time-frame we had been testing (the United States and the Soviet Union) many — had been making many tests in the atmosphere, generating atmospheric fallout, increasing the background radiation, and I think (led by scientists realizing the consequences of the fallout) there was a growing perception that continued atmospheric testing created a very major environmental problem. I’m not talking about an arms control problem, but an environmental problem. The question was being raised ‘is this fallout good for our families, for our friends, for our children?’ And I think with a large public interest aroused, coupled with studies made by scientists themselves as to how far the bomb development had gone, how far it could go, with what confidence could one verify that if there were a ban on testing nuclear explosions so that they were not tested any longer in the atmosphere, but perhaps only underground, we came to the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty, so-called Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1962 when it was ratified.
Here I’d say that the element of the public in, shall I say, in encouraging, persuading governments to focus their attention on this problem and realize it was a problem of major concern to peoples around the world was an important ingredient in getting that Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty. I think that just shows that the role of the public can be effective, can be very important, as I think it was also in the second example you mentioned - the ABM negotiation and Treaty. Remember that in 1967-68 the United States began to make plans to deploy some ballistic missile defenses. The Soviet Union had already started making a limited deployment around Moscow, and we in this country (first a proposal by President Johnson, and then President Nixon) began to think of deploying the system. There what happened was that people, when they learned of this decision (and it was approved by the President) realized that in its original form this system was going to call for the deployment of nuclear-tipped defensive missiles; interceptors near the major northern cities of the United States to protect them. And citizens in the major northern cities - Boston, Detroit, Chicago and the like - woke up to the question of - to the fact, I should say - that there were going to be nuclear-tipped missiles, figuratively speaking, in their backyard, and this did not prove to be a very attractive idea.
This generated a public discussion. Out of that public discussion there were hearings, open hearings in the United States Congress about whether we should proceed in this direction; and out of this involvement of the public - not in a straight arms control issue, but in an issue - I’ll call it again an environmental one
- ‘do we want nuclear-tipped interceptor missiles trying to defend against the intercontinental attacking ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads in our backyard?’ Out of this debate there grew a far deeper understanding of two important issues: namely, the technical one of could this defense be very effective, or could it be countered technically by the offense; and two, what will be the impact of such a development on the arms race, on the prospects of reducing the risk of nuclear war, on stability? And this major debate in the United States, triggered by public hearings in the Senate, led us to recognize how futile was the quest for a ballistic missile defense of the nation, and indeed we ended up negotiating the ABM Treaty of 1972, which is enforced today; it’s a treaty of unlimited duration. I think it’s our most important arms control achievement. And I cite that along with the Atmospheric Test Ban Treaty as two examples when a public became a vital force in the discussion in our democracy, and I believe led us to take very constructive action.
Whiteley: Before proceeding to the issues before our democracy today, let’s take one final historical example: the decision to deploy multiple-independently targeted reentry vehicles.
Drell: So-called MIRVS, yes.
Whiteley: Would we be safer as a society today if there had been a public debate at the time of deployment and a determination, concert with an agreement with the Russians, not to move into this deployment?
Drell: Unquestionably. Unquestionably, we would be safer. Much of the debate of recent years about the "window of vulnerability" that some people have for a period claimed that we are suffering now; much is debate about strategic stability, and whether it’s been challenged, has been the result of the build-up of MIRVs on both sides. The point is that a key to deterrence is the recognition by both of the Superpowers, as we face one another, that there can be no advantage to attacking first. With MIRVs, which are a multiplier - they make each missile with its many warheads, each of which can be aimed with precision on individual targets - they make it possible now for one attacking missile to, in principal, destroy many of the ICBMs and hardened silos of their opponent. And so it makes it possible to think that if you attack first, you can destroy enough of your opponents’ retaliatory power that you might have an advantage. I find that very difficult and specious reasoning, because I think that there is no way in a first-strike to destroy the entire retaliatory power of the other side.
But nevertheless, our confidence in the survivability of our deterrent force has been reduced by the MIRV. The MIRV has tripled the number of intercontinental warheads in the world since we’ve started our arms control negotiation. They created the perceived need in this country for the MX missile, some way of beefing up our ICBM capability because of our fear that Minutemen near silos might be vulnerable to Soviet attack, because they MIRV. We’d be much better off had we agreed not to MIRV. But that’s an example where a decision was made without public debate. We were focusing on the ABM debate which was the most important first step to take, but there was no public pressure saying we don’t want MIRVs in the middle of Wyoming or North Dakota. There were no major political forces operating, and so without proper scrutiny we made a decision which Henry Kissinger said recently we’d be much better off if we hadn’t made. If he had understood then what he now understands (those were his words), we might not have MIRV’d. We didn’t make the serious effort. There was no political pressure. It was a military system that was easy to build, cheap to build - people went ahead and did it.
We’d be much better off if we scrutinized very thoroughly the implications of MIRV, of having MIRV. That’s a lost opportunity. That would have taken an arms control constituency. It was not an environmental question really. There were no population centers being affected, or existing missile silos were just having more weapons put on them instead of just one in the MIRV, and so it would have taken a real arms control constituency to have an effect on that debate, but we have one now. The very fact that programs like this are being made, the debate in the public which has surrounded issues like the MX, or whether Star Wars is a good thing or not; the issues that have been raised by the Catholic Bishops in their letter, by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, by the entire freeze movement. These issues are now before the public.
We have a public constituency, and so I personally have some optimism that as we move into the years ahead now, there’s a good chance that we will have a continuing and an informed public debate on the issue posed by continual weapons build-up, by the move toward Star Wars (or the Strategic Defense Initiative), or the move toward more weapons in space in general including any satellite weapons, and that a product of this informed debate may be a more carefully thought through policy, and therefore more prospect, I hope, for arms control success; but above all, improvement in our understanding of the dangers of these strategic weapons and therefore perhaps in reducing the risk that they might be used.
Whiteley: What would you have your fellow citizens think about on a number of issues currently before the democracy? Let’s take first the notion of whether defense is possible in the nuclear age, and particularly, is it possible with the Strategic Defense Initiative to make the world safer?
Drell: Well, I would have citizens think of two questions: One is, when one thinks about a defense, is the technical side. Can we achieve it; what can we do? And then the other side, I’ll call the political or strategic side, how will the effort affect stability and the risk of a war occurring? On the technical side a general public has a certain disadvantage. We’re talking about very sophisticated technologies that are coming along: the most advanced performances that can be achieved with very bright lasers, with very elegant optical systems that are huge, but are operating at their theoretical limit of perfection. And here, without being a scientist it’s somewhat difficult to know when you hear competing ones, which ones to believe. My own view is that one has to first listen to the arguments and not be put off by such statements as ‘there are secrets I can’t tell you. If you knew what I knew then you would agree with me.’
Whiteley: You’ve said that’s often an argument that ‘the emperor has no clothes.’ What do you mean?
Drell: Well I mean that these issues with a little effort can be understood. Whatever system is being built is being built according to the laws of physics, and those are not classified or secret laws. I think with good common sense and effort one can understand the basic elements. For example, the Star Wars idea is to have many layers of a defense, each one less than perfect, but in their accumulated action, layer after layer, one would have a defense that is highly effective. Technically one can think of each component of that system: the sensors, the satellites that are going to acquire the targets, that are going to discriminate targets from decoys, that are going to focus the kill mechanisms. One can look at the kill mechanisms and see how bright a laser can be made. One doesn’t want to be a technical naysayer and say that each one of these elements can’t work. But remember, to have an effective defense of a nation, to put an astrodome over one, to make these weapons impotent and obsolete, this entire system of hundreds of platforms, hundreds of elements, the most advanced computers that have yet to be designed has to work perfectly the first time it’s turned on in a nuclear atmosphere.
I think that for a defense to lead to stability, to contribute to making the world safer it has to be - it has to proceed in a framework of restraint on the offensive weapons that we’ve achieved some progress in arms control. Without that restraint I fear that as one moves ahead with defense, and I’m speaking now about the imperfect defense because I think all recognize that’s all one can realistically talk about, as the defense proceeds, each side in order to preserve its deterrent is most likely to build up further offensive forces --countermeasures with more offenses and more penetration aids on the offenses. After all, that’s how the MIRV was born.
When we saw the first primitive Russian ABM around Moscow, we said quite properly, how do we protect our deterrent capability? and we MIRVd and the world is not safer as a result. If one is looking for a safer world with nuclear weapons I think the principle to be understood is that there’s no technological fix to our problem. The fix has got to proceed with improved diplomatic relations with progress in arms control. I think the path to a safer world has to start with serious dialogue, serious progress in arms control, which I hope we are returning to now. In such a framework where there are limits on the offenses, indeed not only limits but severe reductions, then it would be a wonderful challenge to try and figure out with the Russians and with all nuclear nations, how to proceed to a safer world in which we have an effective defense, and the threat of nuclear weapons is reduced to the point of being not as serious as it is today.
And I think that one has to start one’s way to a safer way with progress in arms control, with limits, with reductions in the offense, and a development of perhaps then of some means of making the transition from where we are today, with the terrible threat of more than 50,000 nuclear weapons, to a safer world.
Whiteley: Professor Drell, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a safer world and the role of an informed citizen toward a more peaceful world.