Critical Issues Before the Democracy


Herbert F. York, 1984

Herbert F. York is Professor of Physics and Director of the Program on Science, Technology and Public Affairs at the University of California, San Diego. His research has focused on the application of atomic energy to national defense and on problems of arms control and disarmament. A continuing concern of Professor York has been that even if the arms race is slowed down or brought to a halt, civilization will continue to be haunted by a nuclear balance of terror, because of the enormous batteries of destruction already in existence, fully primed, and increasingly vulnerable to error and misuse.

Whiteley: You quoted Secretary of War Henry Stimson, the man who authorized the bombing of Hiroshima, that ‘the development of the bomb climaxes the race between man’s growing technical power for destructiveness and his psychological power of self-control and group-control; his moral power.’ How is that struggle going today?

York: The good guys are still losing, but there is still hope that we can turn it around.

Whiteley: Identifying this problem, however, as one of the most difficult facing people today. You indicated it’s necessary to understand the key aspects of this problem. What do you consider those to be?

York: There are a couple of points that I think one has to start with that are very basic. One of them is that the origin of the problem is not either the Revolution of 1776 or the Revolution of 1917. It’s the current stage of political development of mankind, a development that’s been going on for five-thousand years; that started out with anarchy, chaotic relationships, except within very small families, and where it has progressed through a variety of stages until now we’ve come to a point where, within nations, there’s a reasonable amount of law and order, but between nations there’s almost no law, and there isn’t any law enforcement at all. In other words we have still a primitive form of anarchy and chaos in the relationships between states.

Whiteley: And you’ve indicated in quoting General of the Army Douglas MacArthur, ‘the world is no longer a viable vehicle for trying to create order where there’s evil.’

York: That’s not fully recognized. Since World War II, since the first years of atomic weapons, there have been dozens of wars. In one sense it’s true that war is obsolete as a means for settling interstate problems, but it is nevertheless still used as a major technique for solving them. And it took us five-thousand years to get into this situation; it’s going to take a substantial amount of time to get out of it. I fix centuries. And the immediate problem then is how to survive, how to avoid a nuclear holocaust during what I believe will be a fairly long period of further political development, accelerated political development, I hope designed to produce the kind of world in which war in general - nuclear war in particular - will not play major roles in solving international problems.

Whiteley: You’ve quoted Pope John Paul II that ‘what we need is a primacy of the ethical.’

York: We’ve got to find something better than a purely pragmatic approach based on the facts as they immediately confront us. We’ve got to somehow or other take into account longer term considerations, and broader considerations, than we have so far been able to do.

Whiteley: And this problem, as you’ve remarked, won’t go away simply because concerned citizens take the trouble to understand it. More is necessary.

York: Well, I think that having concerned citizens understand it is a good starting point, but it has got to be handled in a variety of ways. Those which I’m most familiar with are political channels. We’ve got to have the right leadership, they’ve got to be oriented towards getting the right answers, and it all has to play together.

Whiteley: One of the reasons that you’ve identified that it’s so hard to deal with is that it’s not simply one problem.

York: That’s right. Our national leaders - and not just ours, but national leaders of all the major countries, including even the Soviet Union - have really two separate problems to deal with. One is the nuclear arms race. Somehow we’ve got to cope with the nuclear arms race, get it turned around before we get to this nuclear holocaust that many people talk about that will destroy civilization. But all large countries have another problem they have to solve, and that is they have to have an adequate level of military preparedness to deal with the international anarchy that I spoke of a few minutes ago. And those two problems are difficult to deal with because, in a sense, the easy solutions to one problem tend to make the other problem worse. And furthermore, the one problem (the nuclear arms race problem) is a problem that deals with long-term issues, and fairly general issues; the military preparedness problem, or from the American point of view, the Soviet threat, which is just our description for that problem, is usually fairly concrete.

Whiteley: Well, let’s take them one at a time. What do you see the central issues in the military preparedness, or Soviet threat, problems that need to be addressed.

York: Well, there has got to be - in current terms, given the current relationships between states, this anarchistic and chaotic relationship I spoke of - there has got to be a certain military balance in order to achieve strategic stability. And it’s not possible to describe in simple terms what that exactly has to be made out of. It’s not some easy equation, but it is a matter that the leadership in all the great states has to be dealing with, and has to focus a lot of its attention on. And that requires a lot of concrete actions: the preparation of forces, the development of military systems, the deployment of military equipment, and so forth, in adequate numbers and adequate amounts, and in places such that you will achieve a reasonable military balance. I’m not saying that’s how things ought to be. I’m simply saying that given the present state of political evolution of mankind that’s how they are.

Whiteley: In your view it’s a reality that will be with us for some time to come.

York: It’s a reality that will be with us for a long time; it’s a reality which we ought to be doing everything we can to change so that that’s not the situation. But as long as it’s here, it’s a natural part of today’s world (to put it that way) to have military forces, to put a lot of emphasis on military preparedness.

Whiteley: In an anarchistic world, how do the two Superpowers (the United States and Russia) tend to compound the difficulties?

York: Well, they have systems which are antagonistic at every level and they give rise to fears which you can call paranoia, so that each of us tends to exaggerate the threat that the other one constitutes. We see them as perfidious; they see us as unreliable and volatile. The threats that we - we don’t perceive each other in ways which are identical. I mean each of the Superpowers and its allies perceives the other Superpower as threatening, but not in the same way.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that we’re the most open society and they are, in many respects, the most closed.

York: They are the most closed of the highly industrialized societies, and that makes it very difficult to know what’s going on. Combining that with the fact it’s the largest country in the world, the Soviet Union is the largest country in the world, it’s no surprise that people who start out with essentially beliefs which already paint them highly negative, will easily develop the greater fears of the unknown under such circumstances.

Whiteley: In identifying some of their concerns about us you’ve written and indeed indicated today that they see us as fairly unreliable and changeable.

York: Yeah, volatile even.

Whiteley: What is the basis of that concern by them about us?

York: Well, just to take the nuclear relationship, we have signed - three American Presidents (Nixon, Ford, and Carter) have signed treaties which the Congress of the United States then, for one reason or another, has not ratified. In other words we have three times in the last fifteen years started down the process of negotiating a treaty arrangement with them, and then stopped just before the end.

Whiteley: Stopped after our President and their representative had both signed it. What were those treaties?

York: Well, President Nixon negotiated a treaty called the Threshold Test Ban, President Ford negotiated a treaty call the Peaceful Nuclear Explosives Treaty, and President Carter, of course, negotiated SALT II. All of those were signed by the Presidents of the two states, but none of them have been ratified by the United States Congress after the Presidential signature.

Whiteley: So that is a central reason why they see as unreliable...

York: Yeah. And there are other things related to that. There are a number of understandings achieved by one President, then a new President comes in and pays no attention whatsoever to those understandings. And that’s not just a case of President Reagan following Carter and rejecting his understandings; Carter did the same thing. Ford had achieved a number of important understandings with Brezhnev with respect to the SALT process. When Carter came in he figured we can do it better; we don’t need to start from the Ford/Brezhnev understandings. We’re going to start over and do it better.

Whiteley: And that’s a very different way of doing business as a country than they do internally.

York: It’s not only the difference between the United States and Soviet Union; it’s the difference between the United States and essentially everybody else. We do this to our friends, not just to our enemies. We spent many years negotiating detailed elements of a package which is called the Law of the Sea, and then a new President comes in and he says we’re not going to finish. We did that - and it’s not something new - we did that with the League of Nations. President Wilson and others of the statesmen immediately following World War I negotiated arrangements for creating a League of Nations. The arrangements were made and then we backed out at the last minute. We are undependable, both to our allies, and as well as to our antagonists when it comes to major international undertakings. It’s all done with goodwill, and with good intentions, but it’s a very peculiar kind of international behavior.

Whiteley: And in reflecting on the international behavior of the Soviet Union as problematic, you began one of your presentations with their encroachment as an activity. What else?

York: Well, the Western view, the American view in particular, and even within the American view, the view of (let’s say) the conservatives as a group, is that you simply can’t trust the Russians, that they will take advantage of any opportunity to advance their cause whether they have made solemn promises to the contrary or not. That’s a popular view. What I want to point out is the difference. Each of us requires the other - considers the other as a problem and a menace, but the two views are quite different. Our view of them as a problem is entirely different from their view of us as a problem. And because it’s so different it even makes it hard to understand. I mean we know in our hearts that we don’t create the kind of problem for them that they create for us, and therefore we think we don’t create any problem at all. The fact is we create a series of difficult problems for them, but it’s different from the one they create for us.

Whiteley: And one of your central points is people, wanting to understand the current predicament and how to get out of it, need to start thinking about the perceptions each has of the other in this delicate relationship.

York: Well, that’s one of many important things that has to be understood by the leadership and by the public more generally, if we’re going to work our way out of this mess.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated that the burden and mistrust in the relationship is compounded by the technological characteristics of nuclear weapons and how they’re perceived. One of your examples was the neutron bomb.

York: This is an instance in which the promoters of some particular weapons system have made all kinds of exaggerations about it, about its novelty, about its utility, about it as a solution to a problem that can’t otherwise be solved. They made these exaggerations in order to sell it to the highest authorities. The antagonists, the doves let’s say just for short, have simply bought all of those claims by the protagonists and have turned them around and have used them as their arguments against it. Both sides are using what amounts to wrong information. The protagonists are grossly exaggerating; the antagonists are using this information as if it was gospel. The result is, in the case of the neutron bomb, in my view, a tempest in a teapot.

Whiteley: With respect to the control of some fifty-thousand nuclear weapons out there, you’ve indicated there’s an increasing dependence on lower level officers and computers to make decisions. You wrote about this in 1970. How is the situation fifteen years later?

York: Well, somewhat worse. It’s not as much worse as I would have thought in 1970, but it is worse. At the one extreme you find nuclear weapons being moved to more forward positions: Battlefield weapons on our side being located quite close to the inter-German border, and you find the Russians rather slowly, but still responding with short-range systems of their own which also have to be deployed fairly close to the front line or the inter-German border in order for them to be effective; at least effective in the early stages of any fighting that might happen there. That’s the one end.

The question of the computers is quite a different one. That has to do with the fact that in the world of strategic weapons, the warning times are extremely short (a half hour at most), and in order to cope with the short warning times the proposal keeps arising that we should be prepared to launch our own weapons on warning. And that involves directly, in some fashion, connecting the warning devices, which are just devices, machines, radar, early warning satellites - connecting them through some sort of a computer mechanism to (so to speak) the launch weapon. I mean that’s the objective of the people who promote the idea of launch on warning. And the reason for promoting this idea, as I said, is because the warning time is so short that you can’t imagine how you can reliably include human beings, including such as the President, for example, in the decision-making loop. So the short warning times arise from the technical characteristics of the equipment and drive us in the direction of having computers take on the decision of whether to launch or not.

Whiteley: Now you’ve indicated that the warning time is thirty minutes for strategic weapons or those intercontinental ballistic missiles, but it’s six or ten minutes when you load up in Eastern/Western Germany a series of missiles, and they’ve done the same on the other side. That cuts down the response time even less.

York: Yes, and the situation has been that way, I might comment, for well over twenty years. Soviet submarines off the American coast provide warning times of under five minutes. And it has been that way since the early 60s.

Whiteley: And what direction should people be working to reduce this risk?

York: Well, this particular risk, the one involving these very short warning times - that probably is - I don’t know what all people should be doing, but among the things that people should be doing are designing the systems with the maximum emphasis on survivability so that the warning time doesn’t matter so much. That’s a technical solution to this question. At the other end of the spectrum there is the political angle that we’ve started discussing early on and that is simply moving away from a world in which those things are so terribly important, and everybody is focusing so much attention on these systems and relying on them for maintaining - relying on them as the main means for maintaining security and peace.

Whiteley: You’ve indicated one of the dilemmas in accomplishing what you just spoke about is the problem of blending strategic, political, and ethical considerations all in the same package. Why is that so uncommonly difficult?

York: Because usually the people who are experts at one of those are amateurs at the other two, and they may not even be aware of that. I mean it may very well be that the person is good at one, naive at the other, and not aware that he’s naive. In fact, I think that’s quite common. So that - the real reason it’s difficult to blend them is just that each of them by itself is hard to understand and cope with, and to put them together just becomes that much more difficult.

Whiteley: But you think some better solutions will come from a mix of strategic political and ethical considerations?

York: Yes.

Whiteley: In a book you published in 1970, The Race to Oblivion, you began it by bringing your reader’s attention to Dwight Eisenhower’s farewell address, and more than that, that there was a second warning that you felt was very significant. What was that warning? What were both?

York: Well, one of them is the one that is so very commonly quoted by people, the one about the military-industrial complex and the fact that one has to be concerned about its influence on public policy. The other one though, was a warning that they must avoid allowing a small scientific and technological elite to capture public policy. We talked with Eisenhower about that on a number of occasions after he had left the Presidency. And he made it clear in those conversations that he had in mind the ‘super salesman’: The people who are just imbued with what I’ve sometimes called technological exuberance and not much else; They just have all these ideas that they regard as just absolutely of absolute importance, and they are in there using whatever kind of political techniques are available to sell them to a - let’s say a sometimes gullible leadership.

Whiteley: Well, this is sort of ironic in our society which is one of the reasons it has been so great, is that people have developed ideas with a robust enthusiasm; at the same time in this area it works to our disadvantage.

York: Yes, it is a paradox.

Whiteley: It has been twenty-five years since President Eisenhower’s farewell address. How would you assess those two warnings today?

York: Well, the situation is the same as it was then. We still have the problem that there is - and incidentally, Eisenhower said that the military-industrial complex was necessary in this world. He didn’t say it was something we should get rid of; he said it’s something that if we’re not careful will exercise undue influence. I think, in expanding on your own remarks, the same thing is true with regard to the scientific technological elite trying to push their ideas. Whether it’s necessary or not, it has I think in general, produced the kind of results that people are satisfied with in medicine, in transportation, and a lot of other things. But at the same time it has created a situation that requires that one maintain a certain attitude of alertness that you don’t go too far in some direction for no good reason.

Whiteley: Are President Eisenhower’s remarks as applicable to the situation in the Soviet Union?

York: Oh, yes, entirely. The way the system works there, just to take missiles for example, or nuclear weapons, they have these large institutes which take on a life of their own - institutes for developing aircraft, institutes for developing missiles, institutes dealing with space transportation, and so on. They take on a life of their own. They become interested in continuity and survival the same as any kind of institution does, and they engage in the same kind of hard sell at the highest levels in the Soviet Union that people engage in here.

Whiteley: In testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1963, over twenty years ago, you brought their attention to the effect that the United States, with its greatly increased military strength since World War II, was far less secure than ever before. Would you give a similar warning today?

York: Yes, it’s the same sort of thing. What’s happened since then, the process hasn’t been quite so fast as it was in the years immediately before 1963, but it has continued the same way. The military strength of the United States or the military strength of the Soviet Union, measured in terms of the kind of destruction and killing that they could accomplish, and the speed with which they could accomplish it keeps getting greater. But the security of each of the two countries keeps getting less. Its ability to cope with what the other power might do becomes steadily less.

Whiteley: You quoted Robert Oppenheimer that ‘physicists have ultimately known sin, something that will always be with them’.

York: That was a classic remark he made.

Whiteley: What was he trying to share?

York: Whatever he was trying to say, he was referring to the Manhattan Project, and the fact that the Manhattan Project whose purpose was to make the first atomic bombs, had been set in motion for good reasons, good and sufficient reasons, and he never repudiated those reasons; but that it had obviously introduced a new and terrible factor into the future relations between states and the possibilities for enormous harm.

Whiteley: And what should we be doing now?

York: Well, we should be trying to - I think at bottom, we should be trying to somehow accelerate the political evolution that we’ve been undergoing for fifty centuries and control it so that we move in a direction in which the current anarchistic situation that characterizes interstate relationships is somehow done away with. We’ve got to soften the sharp edges of sovereignty. I don’t know that we have to get rid of sovereignty. You don’t have to get rid of personal liberty in order to have law and order within states; it may not be necessary to eliminate sovereignty in order to have law and order between states. But at any rate we have got to move in a direction where the relations between states are governed by law and there’s some kind of law enforcement mechanism that truly has a global reach. So that’s the long-term thrust. The immediate problem is to survive these next years, next many years, while that’s being done to avoid a nuclear holocaust by having as sensible and realistic a set of policies, both for handling the nuclear arms race and for handling the need for military preparedness during this transition period - the best set of policies that we can.

Whiteley: Professor York, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into the problems posed by the nuclear arms race, and your thinking about viable ways to work toward peace.