Critical Issues Before the Democracy


Hans Bethe, 1985

Hans Bethe is Professor Emeritus of Physics at Cornell University. During World War II he worked under J. Robert Oppenheimer as head of the Theoretical Physics Division on the Manhattan Project which developed the atomic bomb. After the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki Professor Bethe joined the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists chaired by Albert Einstein to enlighten the public on the dangers of atomic warfare and to establish international controls over atomic power. Professor Bethe received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his explanation of the details of the nuclear mechanisms of solar and stellar energy. He successfully answered the question, "Where do the sun and stars obtain their energy?" He is also the recipient of the Enrico Ferme Award from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Presidential Medal of Merit, and the National Medal of Science.

Whiteley: Professor Bethe, can science recreate the world that existed prior to the first nuclear explosion? Is defense possible in a nuclear age?

Bethe: I wish we could. I think every person in his senses would wish that we could recreate that world; it was a much safer world. However, I think the answer is no, I think it cannot be done. Now, in an effort to recreate that world, President Reagan, in March 1983, gave his famous ‘Star Wars’ speech. He asked the scientific community to apply their minds to recreating the world before nuclear weapons, to make nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete.

Whiteley: Well, you’ve taken that challenge very seriously as a member of the scientific community to think about those possibilities. As you engage your mind in the task, where do you begin?

Bethe: Well, people - a committee was appointed to think about it. This committee was directed by Dr. Fletcher of the University of Pittsburgh, and it came out with a report. And of course being formed by the President, they couldn’t very well say anything but ‘yes, we can do it.’ They did make a number of proposals, and there are indeed some possibilities of constructing devices which might shoot down ballistic missiles. The defense is concentrated on ballistic missiles. But the trouble is that there are, in general, also good countermeasures which the other side could take to make our defensive devices impotent and obsolete.

Whiteley: Professor Bethe, you’ve thought carefully about the problems of offensive weapons in a nuclear age, and the potential for defensive weapons. As you’ve applied your mind to the way to a safer world where do you begin your thinking?

Bethe: Well, I think the only thing to do is to have careful negotiations, to limit offensive weapons, and we have had such negotiations before, and we have after all several quite solid treaties with the Russians, two of them limiting our offensive weapons.

Whiteley: You’ve mentioned, however, that Mutually-Assured Destruction is not a policy, but a fact of life in the nuclear age. Where do you begin on working on that problem?

Bethe: Well, the only thing that I can see is to be patient, to have these negotiations, and try to reduce the level of armaments.

Whiteley: There is no technological solution in your judgment to the problem of national security.

Bethe: There is no technological solution, but there is a political solution. Now back in 1961, we were already armed to the teeth. We were and the Russians were also, and so at that time the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency was founded by President Kennedy. One of the first actions of the Agency was to get together a panel of people who had worked on this beforehand including some scientists, including myself, where we thought what we should do and could do, and what we came out with is still as good as it was twenty-five years ago.

Whiteley: What were the components of that?

Bethe: We said, let’s negotiate, and let each country promise to destroy a certain number of its weapons. And in fact we thought it would be good to invite either the other country or United Nations observers or both, to witness the destruction. So at the time we had lots of big bombing planes, so we were mostly talking about destroying them, and we were saying we have now well over a thousand (I think it was close to 2000). Let’s go down to two-hundred. And that’s still as good a scheme today as it was then. And of course we wouldn’t go down to twohundred in one step, but we might agree with the Russians that we would reduce the number of our warheads and the number of our missiles to half of what we have now in the space of maybe ten years - 5% a year. And then if that was successful we would go again and we might end up at the two-hundred in the end.

Whiteley: Two-hundred is enough to prevent a preemptive strike of one side on the other by having enough retaliatory power.

Bethe: That is the idea. And we were concerned then, and I’m sure we would be concerned today, with the question, ‘Do we see all the enemies weapons?’

Whiteley: The issue of verification, and do you have to trust your enemy, is a classic issue to deal with in a democracy.

Bethe: Now we are much better at that than we were in 1961.

Whiteley: What can we do now that we couldn’t then?

Bethe: We can now - we now have our intelligence satellites which can photograph all of the Soviet Union, and the photographs are really incredibly good, incredibly detailed. Somebody has claimed we can photograph the license plate on a car. I haven’t seen that personally, but I have no reason to doubt it. So we know therefore the location of the Russian missiles and we know the number of Russian submarines, what class, what kind. We know the number and kind of Soviet bombers, and all this we know, and they know it about us just the same.

Whiteley: So while technology may not work to effect a defense, in your view, technology is very capable of verification.

Bethe: Exactly. So what we said at the time, and I would say today, I don’t know whether I can really see every one. There might be a few built inside the buildings; there might be - and they might be able to uncover them afterwards. So let’s say they can build a few dozen secretly. It’s difficult to imagine that they or anybody could build more than a few dozen, and two-hundred is enough more than a few dozen that I would feel very safe.

Whiteley: If in your view there is enough verification capability to prevent all but minor violations of agreements, and those violations wouldn’t have the capability of upsetting the strategic balance, you’ve also indicated that over time our society should not depend on deterrence by threat of mutual destruction, but we should work toward some political solutions. I’d like to ask you to apply your thinking to the options before both the Russians and the Americans at this time. When the Russians and the Russian scientists examine us, what do they see?

Bethe: Well, they are very much scared by the Strategic Defense Initiative, what is popularly called ‘Star Wars.’ Why are they so afraid? Well, first of all they realize very clearly that they cannot compete. All the elements of the Strategic Defense, except possibly that space truck with the homing vehicles; in all these areas they are far behind us.

Whiteley: But the history since World War II, whether it was the development of the hydrogen bomb or the intercontinental missile or the cruise missile or the multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles, is that they will pay any price to catch up, stay up...

Bethe: That’s exactly what they did.

Whiteley: Why won’t that apply to the Strategic Defense?

Bethe: Because the Strategic Defense is particularly geared to an area, precision optics, and especially computers, an area in which we are way ahead of the Russians, and will probably remain so. And also because there are simpler ways for them to deal with it. They need the countermeasures which are - if I were a Russian scientist or a military planner, I wouldn’t try to compete on ‘Star Wars’; I would try to develop those countermeasures.

Whiteley: You’ve quoted a leading Russian scientist as confiding to you that in his judgment we can’t make the Strategic Defense work, assessing it as a physicist and the technical problems to be solved.

Bethe: He said - well, I know perfectly well that your ‘Star Wars’ is not going to work, but I can’t possibly tell it to my generals. The military will not believe me. They have to take the attitude that ‘Star Wars’ could work and therefore they have to proceed accordingly.

Whiteley: This moves to your view that with deterrence not a long-term solution we must rely on verifiable negotiated settlements. Given the fact you’ve indicated that it is possible by agreement to work out ways to verify on a technical basis, or with inspections, or a combination, the major features of an agreement, what would contribute to making the world safer for the future?

Bethe: Well, I think I said it in our previous discussion about the offensive weapons. We should go down to a very low level from where we are now. I see no point in the European weapons at all; let’s keep them all intercontinental or submarine-launched, and let’s try to go down as fast as we can to as low numbers as we can. Now that’s the one side. We could say let us, the United States, do research on space-based weapons for the next ‘X’ years - ten maybe - we shall not put anything into space. And then I would say, if I were to make the negotiating position, I would say we will not put any such weapons into space until the offensive weapons have been reduced to something like two-hundred. Once they are down to something like two-hundred then a space-based defense could be effective; and once we have sufficient verification methods to ensure that it will remain at two-hundred, then the Space Defense might remain.

Whiteley: This is an important notion. Over the short-term your concern is if we deployed a defensive system the effects of that deployment would put a premium on the offense and lead to an accelerated arms race. Your judgment on the longterm, however, is that if there was a sharp reduction in the world’s stockpile of nuclear weapons, that a combination of a much lower number of offensive weapons and a defense would increase stability.

Bethe: That is exactly my opinion. A very similar opinion has been stated by Freeman Dyson, a very respected theoretical physicist in a long series of articles and in a book. The articles were in the New Yorker Magazine. And also the two committees appointed by President Reagan about the ‘Star War’ business, both have the same opinion; namely, they said Space Defense can work if the offense is severely constrained. We both reached that conclusion. It will also, in that far distant dreamland, it would also be an insurance that no new country could arise

- let’s say another Hitler - and build such weapons because we would have defenses at that time. And I think you have put it exactly right. At the moment they would be destabilizing, but in the distant future with a small offensive, a group of weapons, they would be stabilizing.

Whiteley: There’s an argument against mounting a defense in that it will put an even greater emphasis on offense and accelerate the arms race. What is your assessment of that argument?

Bethe: I very strongly believe that argument. The Soviets undoubtedly do not want their main military weapon to be overcome and to be made obsolete and impotent, as President Reagan said. And they certainly will do everything to avoid that situation. They have said so. And so they will, if we go ahead with this, they will undoubtedly take all the countermeasures that occur to them. They will surely develop these fast-burn boosters. They will surely abrogate the SALT Treaty which limits the number of boosters they can have. They will therefore increase the numbers of ICBMs; they will probably put them in a circle of a thousand miles so they are less vulnerable to attack by our defensive weapons. They will do everything to increase the number and make a possible attack more and more formidable. And what I consider particularly disastrous is that a small enemy attack - an enemy attack with ten missiles - can easily be dealt with by any of the systems that I have described. But the big attack, by a thousand missiles, carrying ten-thousand warheads, we can just not deal with. And so that is an incentive for the Russians, if they ever have the crazy idea to make a firststrike, it is an incentive for them to go immediately to the biggest possible strike.

Whiteley: It took seven years to negotiate the SALT II Treaty over three presidents, and then it wasn’t ratified by our Senate. While we continue to abide by the terms of it, there are responsible, knowledgeable and informed people who do not believe the SALT II Treaty was in our interest. Given the major dissimilar characteristics of our forces and their forces, and a treaty that allows the enemy to decide what your arsenal will be, how long is it going to take to think the way through a solution to this?

Bethe: That’s very difficult to tell. President Reagan himself thought that it may not be during his tenure of office. It would be good if it could happen during his tenure of office because if such a treaty were agreed on under Reagan, then it would probably also be ratified.

Whiteley: A theme that’s run throughout your writings and your career has been the impotence of some of our political mechanisms to cope with the massive power of the technology. You argued against the creation of the hydrogen bomb; you argued for the creation of an international vehicle to make more safe the fact that the atomic bomb had been invented. Four decades later the issues are with us again, and at some point there has to be a message for those formative institutions of our society to think fresh.

Bethe: Yes.

Whiteley: What do you want educators to do differently? What should your fellow citizens learn in this nuclear age to work toward a safer world?

Bethe: Well, he should learn first of all that there is no defense against nuclear weapons. They are so much bigger and more destructive than anything that went before, that all the thinking that we had about the old-fashioned weapons simply is not true anymore. And that it is absolutely essential to know that a nuclear war is not like World War II. And a nuclear war is one in which our civilization will not survive. A few people may survive, but not the civilization.

Whiteley: As you’ve thought of the roles of other institutions, of the family, the religious institutions of our society, what issues do you want them to pay attention to?

Bethe: Well, I was very much impressed by the paper of the Catholic Bishops about nuclear war. I think it was very well thought out, very moderate in every way. They did not want to suddenly abolish nuclear weapons, but they made it very clear that a nuclear war should by all means be avoided. And so I think the church - all the churches - Catholic, Protestant and Jewish have a great obligation to make it clear to their members that nuclear war would be the ultimate catastrophe. We have two enemies.: One is Soviet Russia and the other is nuclear war. Nuclear war is a far more formidable enemy. You can’t talk to a nuclear weapon, and you can talk to a Russian.

Whiteley: Professor Bethe, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the way to a safer world in the nuclear age.