Bitter Debate : Scientists Split Over ‘Star Wars’

Times Staff Writer

The two septuagenarian geniuses of nuclear physics and war sat in uneasy peace, obviously more aware of each other than of the young men who talked on about the wonders of their new laser and beam weapons.

One of the young weapons makers confessed to a sense of awe in the presence of Nobel Laureate Hans A. Bethe, a giant of modern physics, who had journeyed to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near here to be briefed on their work. They were more used to the other legend present, Edward Teller, often called the father of the hydrogen bomb and the spiritual patron of their efforts.

The briefing was designed to gain Bethe’s support for the President’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as “Star Wars.” But Bethe, who has played a key role in U.S. nuclear weapons development since the first A-bomb, remained critical. And Teller, seated across the table during a luncheon break, began to glower.

Suddenly Teller could no longer contain his anger at the man with whom he had once shared the heady and secret intimacy of making the world’s first atomic bomb. In those days of innocence, they had even double-dated. Later, they worked together on the hydrogen bomb for which Bethe did much of the important theoretical work, though he doubted the wisdom of creating an even bigger weapon. But now, Bethe was not simply a doubter but the enemy.

“You fought me on the hydrogen bomb 40 years ago,” Teller’s voice rose, breaking the studious decorum of the luncheon, “and now you’re fighting me on defensive weapons. Let’s have it out once and for all.”


Bethe Keeps Silent

The two-day briefing almost came to an end, but Livermore Director Roger E. Batzel rose to move the agenda, and Teller calmed down. Throughout the incident, Bethe would not respond, telling a colleague later that “it’s no use on these matters. It’s political for Edward, and he cannot change.”

Asked about this incident a week later, during a chance airport encounter, Teller told a reporter that he agreed “the arguments about SDI are primarily political and philosophical, not technical.”

He was on his way home from a speech in Orange County where he had charged: “We are under a propaganda attack from the Soviet Union, aided by misinformation from our own media and many of our own scientists.”

Bethe insists that his objections to SDI are both technical and political. “Star Wars” cannot “provide a comprehensive defense,” he has written, “against a determined adversary who could overwhelm it with warheads and decoys or circumvent it with cruise missiles and bombers.” It will simply lead to building more offensive weapons to overwhelm the defense. “Star Wars,” Bethe wrote, “is a guaranteed recipe for another ratchet in the nuclear competition.”

The Teller-Bethe incident is illustrative of a civil war that has been tearing apart the defense Establishment ever since President Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech of March 23, 1983, which called for a major commitment to research on space weapons. The feuding has revived old disputes, made bitter enemies of longtime colleagues and friends and introduced a note of rancor not often encountered in such circles.

Both sides feel that the stakes are terribly high and that for better or worse, SDI represents a major shift in the politics of the nuclear age.

“This is indeed a major turning point in world history,” Stephen R. Graubard, editor of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, wrote recently, summarizing the thinking of his colleagues who participated in a special two-volume publication on the “Star Wars” debate.

Petition Circulated

That this concern is widespread in Graubard’s organization was indicated this past spring, when over half the members of the Academy and most of the country’s Nobel prize winners signed a petition calling for a ban on weapons in space, a step that would prevent the deployment of a “Star Wars” system.

The debate has little to do with the specific workings of the space weapons and much to do with attitudes toward arms control. A “Star Wars” defensive system does not exist. Even Administration optimists concede that it is decades away from deployment; most experts think it will never be built.

But “Star Wars” has already profoundly and perhaps irrevocably altered the nuclear debate. In the unthinkable arena of nuclear weapons, perception and rhetoric are often more important than some harder notion of reality. And it is the rhetoric--first of the President in proposing a shift away from the deterrent strategy of the past 35 years and then of his critics in denouncing that move as reckless--that divides.

At issue is deterrence, the time-worn, some say twisted, notion of “mutual assured destruction,” (also known by its acronym MAD), a policy of preventing nuclear war that has dominated Soviet-American relations since the Russians also obtained the bomb.

Simple, Grisly Idea

The idea of deterrence is as simple as it is grisly: Each side holds the other’s population hostage. Should one be foolish enough to launch a nuclear attack, he must do so with the knowledge that his own cities will be destroyed.

The premise of “Star Wars” proponents is that it may be possible to find a technological means to free us of the nuclear threat quite apart from what the Soviets do or think about things.

Proponents of SDI do not tend to fear the arms race itself, but rather the prospect of the Soviets winning it. They view “Star Wars” as an opportunity to make high technology--in which America has a major edge--the decisive competitive factor.

“Star Wars” opponents argue that the nuclear competition is not in the interest of either superpower, cannot be won and will lead inevitably to their mutual demise.

“All our technological genius and economic prowess cannot make us secure if they leave the Soviet Union insecure,” Bethe stated in a recent article that he co-authored with former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara. Post-Hiroshima history, they argued, has demonstrated that “the nuclear arms race is a burden to both sides.”

Threatens Treaties

Critics view SDI as an attack on the arms control process because it threatens existing treaties, such as the one limiting anti-ballistic missiles (ABM), and may prevent conclusion of new ones, such as a prohibition on weapons in space and a comprehensive test ban treaty.

“SDI is a way of killing arms control by people like Reagan, who always thought it was a Soviet trick,” says John E. Pike of the Federation of American Scientists. “It is a technological and military solution as opposed to a political one on the part of people who do not believe you can deal with the Soviets.”

The President insists that he favors arms control, but he has also defended “Star Wars” as an alternative route to peace. “There is another way,” the President said in a press conference two days after his “Star Wars” speech, and that is if the scientists who gave us these weapons “could turn their talent to the job of perhaps coming up with something that would render these weapons obsolete.”

That he took this to be a major break with past strategies of deterrence was made clear in the closing refrain of his “Star Wars” speech when he said: “My fellow Americans, tonight we’re launching an effort which holds the promise of changing the course of human history.” The President asked for prayers “as we cross this threshold . . .”

Experts Troubled

Crossing that threshold is just what troubles some longtime defense experts. Defining it as “the issue of the decade,” physicist Sidney D. Drell, deputy director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, charges that SDI is a cover for abandoning a policy of deterrence that has kept the peace.

“I’m not afraid of “Star Wars” working. Technologically, I don’t see the system going anywhere. The emperor has no clothes. The limits of X-ray lasers and lasers in space are clear. What I am afraid of is that we’ll lose deterrence--mutual survival by recognizing our mutual vulnerability. That concept has been under attack by the moralists, who say it’s immoral to threaten people, and the nuclear war fighters, who want to go back to treating nuclear weapons like any other weapons.”

Drell refers to people’s “fatigue” after decades of living with the bomb. “The world is stuck with deterrence for as long as we live, and people don’t want to hear that.”

Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger disagrees. In a television interview last year he said, “I’ve never been a proponent of the ABM treaty. I’ve never been a proponent of the mutual assured destruction, the MAD theory, the idea that if both sides stopped doing anything about their defense and let themselves be tremendously vulnerable, everything would be all right.”

For both sides, the “Star Wars” proposal has put a fresh sheen on a much older debate about the nature of nuclear weapons that surfaced more than 15 years ago in the ABM fight. Those who defended MAD then and now insist that it is simply a statement about the unique power of nuclear weapons.

“The capability for mutual assured destruction,” physicist Richard L. Garwin argues, “is not a theory but a fact of life.”

‘Worthy of Great Effort’

“Star Wars” proponent Teller challenges that view and its implications for defensive systems: “If defense cannot eliminate the horrors of nuclear war,” he wrote during the ABM debate, “it can accomplish a lesser purpose. It can make it probable that enough Americans will survive and will be able to act that the United States will continue to exist as a nation and as a power. That the ideas and ideals which are the essence of our nation should survive is certainly worthy of a great effort.”

Thirteen years later, Teller used the same argument in attempting to enlist Reagan’s support for “Star Wars.” In his speech at Livermore in August of 1982, a month before he met with the President to urge a commitment to third-generation weapons, Teller charged, “That the old MAD policy of mutual assured destruction is nonsense should be clear to everybody.”

It is not at all clear to the people who gave us MAD as a doctrine and still believe in its utility. Some of the toughest critiques of “Star Wars” have come from those former defense officials and scientists who are largely responsible for the nation’s past military strategy and who consider SDI a dangerous distraction.

In a joint statement, McNamara, former national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, former Ambassador to the Soviet Union George F. Kennan and Gerard C. Smith, President Richard M. Nixon’s arms control negotiator, wrote that they shared “the gravest reservations about this undertaking.”

They concluded that Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech “represented an explicit expression of the President’s belief that we should abandon the shared view of nuclear defense that underlies not only the ABM treaty, but also all our later negotiations on strategic weapons.”

Deterrence Defended

A similar charge was leveled by James R. Schlesinger, who served two Republican presidents as secretary of defense, and who said in a speech last fall that the protection of America depends on “the forebearance of those on the other side, or (on) effective deterrence. And it is for this reason that cries of the immorality of deterrence are premature and pernicious.”

Some proponents of SDI, however, argue that these pillars of the American defense Establishment are attempting to hold on to an untenable system of deterrence simply because they helped create it. “It’s the same crowd of critics--the same two dozen people who opposed the ABM and now oppose ‘Star Wars,’ ” SDI’s chief scientist Gerold Yonas said in an interview.

Frustration Seen as Impetus

Like Drell, Yonas cites “frustration with arms control” as a major impetus behind “Star Wars,” though he feels the emotion is justifiable. In Yonas’ view, the ABM treaty assumed that the Soviets would exercise restraint in producing offensive weapons and they have not.

Yonas also disagrees with those he calls the “minimum deterrence people,” among whom he numbers most SDI opponents. Those people, he says, believe “that we don’t really need very much to deter the Soviets. They tend to believe that the Soviets don’t really mean us any harm.”

Yonas argues that the Soviets have built more land-based missiles than they need to deter and that the U.S. ability to retaliate is in question. The President took an identical position when he proposed SDI: “This strategy of deterrence has not changed,” he said. “It still works. But what it takes to maintain deterrence has changed. It took one kind of military force to deter an attack when we had far more nuclear weapons than any other power; it takes another kind now that the Soviets have enough accurate and powerful nuclear weapons to destroy virtually all of our missiles on the ground.”

Commission’s Report

Critics of SDI deny this assertion and cite as proof the conclusions of President Reagan’s own Commission on Strategic Forces headed by retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft. The commission’s report, issued one month after the President’s “Star Wars” speech, denied Reagan’s claim that a “window of vulnerability” had opened in the U.S. deterrent.

The Scowcroft Commission also denied the value of a crash program to build defensive systems: “No ABM technologies appear to combine practicality, survivability, low cost and technical effectiveness sufficiently to justify proceeding beyond the stage of technology development.”

Moreover, as the critics note, one side’s defensive system--no matter how limited or incomplete--could be perceived as an offensive weapon by the other side. As former President Nixon said of SDI in an interview with The Times, “such systems would be destabilizing if they provide a shield so that you could use the sword.”

Some SDI proponents agree but go on to argue that the initiative could still facilitate arms control, since a “Star Wars” system cannot be made to work unless negotiated agreements make deep cuts in enemy weapons.

“The claim by the critics of ‘Star Wars’ that active defense is an impossible and dangerous illusion is as mistaken as the Administration’s claim that the SDI is useful regardless of the arms control context,” wrote physicist William A. Barletta, a “Star Wars” proponent who directs the beam-research program at Livermore.

“All technical approaches (to ‘Star Wars’),” he wrote, “share the limitation that if the offense is unconstrained and unlimited, the defense faces impractical odds and unacceptable expense.”

Arms Paradox

“The only way you can make any case for SDI,” says Livermore physicist Hugh E. DeWitt, “would be if the number of attacking warheads is very small, and that would require a drastic reduction in the arms of both nations through arms control.” The paradox is that the Soviets say they will not negotiate such reductions if the Administration goes ahead with “Star Wars.” They have, in fact, said that if the United States deploys a defensive system, they will simply expand their offensive forces enough to overwhelm it.

Thus, SDI is expected to be the key point of controversy at this fall’s summit meeting between Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. The Administration charges that the Soviets’ shrill opposition to the President’s program is hypocritical, given their own history of working to develop defensive weapons.

Just what the United States knows about what the Soviets are doing in this area is highly classified information. Defenders of SDI privy to such information claim it is a great deal. Teller, for example, has said that the Soviets are ahead in space-based defensive technology. Critics of SDI who also have seen this data claim that the Soviets are behind the United States.

Both sides generally agree that at the moment, the Soviets are far behind in the computer technology needed to actually deploy a “Star Wars” system. “In most of these areas,” Presidential science adviser George A. Keyworth II admits, “we have a substantial edge.”

Unreasonable Demand

Both sides also agree that neither superpower could develop a comprehensive defense system if nuclear testing and space-based weapons were banned by treaty. They also agree that research on defensive systems can’t be stopped and that the Soviets’ demand for such a prohibition is unreasonable because it is unverifiable.

“Since the Soviets have proposed a 25% cut in offensive weapons and also both a ban on nuclear testing and on weapons in space,” Livermore physicist Hugh E. DeWitt asks, “why not call their bluff at the summit and agree to both, while insisting on proper verification procedures and the right to continue research.” The pressure for that sort of trade-off might become substantial in the next months. But Soviet and American intentions on this are not as yet clear. One thing is clear: SDI is already a reality--not as a weapons system but as an idea with powerful advocates at home and an impact abroad.

“Whether or not the President should have said what he did in March of ’83 is now overtaken by events,” former Defense Secretary Schlesinger said in his speech last year. “One cannot eliminate those words that the President then spoke. It is an illusion of the critics of SDI that somehow or other this can all be rolled back. It cannot be.”

Given that reality, Schlesinger believes “Star Wars” ought to be used as a bargaining chip at the negotiating table: “If we are able, through Soviet fears of American space technology, to achieve a breakthrough in arms control in an unpromising era, the development of this new initiative will have been rewarding.”

However, in his press conference last week, Reagan ruled out just such a negotiating strategy. For better or worse, “Star Wars,” once just a gleam in the eye of die-hard arms control opponents, has now become the very foundation of the President’s thinking on the nuclear threat. According to White House sources, it is the thing he plans to offer the Soviets as a substitute for the traditional arms control treaties whose worth he has long denied.

But to McNamara and Bethe, that course is perilous: “We must not forget Winston Churchill’s warning that ‘the Stone Age may return on the gleaming wings of science,’ and we must learn to shed the fatalistic belief that new technologies, no matter how threatening, cannot be stopped.”

Times researcher Nina Green contributed to this article.