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Race to Oblivion

A Participant's View of the Arms Race

Herbert F. York


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1 Explanatory Note 5 Denuclearization Links to other sites.
2 The Table of Contents of Race to Oblivion 6 Full text of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report: Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy [16 March 1946].
3 Race to Oblivion: A Participant's View of the Arms Race[1970]: Introduction 7 Entry Page to this site.
8 Description of the book Nuclear Designs: Great Britain, France, and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms and how it may be obtained.
* How to contact the webmaster of this page. 9 An introduction to LearnWorld.


Text of Race to Oblivion, first published by Simon and Schuster in 1970, is reproduced here with the gracious consent of its author, Professor Herbert F. York. The original pagination is conserved, to facilitate citation and reference. Of course, the text can be searched using the Find capability of your browser; and the original index is included.

Herb York was the first director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Much of Race to Oblivion is based on his subsequent experience as Director of Defense Research and Engineering in the Department of Defense, in the latter 1950s and early 1960s. He was subsequently Chancellor of the University of California at San Diego, and then founding Director of the University of California Insitute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. He lives and works in La Jolla, California.


A Participant's View of the Arms Race


Published by Simon and Schuster


All rights reserved
including the right of reproduction
in whole or in part in any form
Copyright © 1970 by Herbert York


Table of Contents57Missile-Gap Mania125
INTRODUCTION78The McNamara Era147
Prologue: Eisenhower's Other Warning9PART TWO: UNBALANCING THE BALANCE OF TERROR171
1The Arms Race and I159MIRV: The Multiple Menace173
2The Race Begins: Nuclear Weapons and Overkill2711Other Lessons from the ABM Debate213
3The Bomber Bonanza4912The Ultimate Absurdity228
4The Elusive Nuclear Airplane60A Glossary of Acroyms241
5Rockets and Missiles75Index245




President Eisenhower's farewell address is justly famed for the twin warnings it left with the American people. The first of these concerned the possibility of "the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex." Arms-control advocates sometimes use it as if it came from a sacred litany. Military-power advocates and arms developers feel compelled to explain it away by emphasizing other passages in the same speech. Scholars and politicians contend it is incomplete, and speak of the military-industrial-X complex, where X can stand for such other institutions as labor unions or universities or Congressional committees or combinations of them.

The other warning which directly followed the first--and which he placed on the same footing--is much less widely known, seldom quoted, and often poorly understood. After noting that research played an increasingly crucial role in our society and that the ways in which it was conducted had changed radically in recent years, Eisenhower said, "Yet in holding scientific research and discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite."

Because this warning is the more subtle, it is the more diffi-


cult to interpret; for the same reason it is the more important. President Nixon and high defense officials have suggested that the opposition by some scientists to the deployment of ABM missiles was what President Eisenhower had in mind. The physicists' vote against the ABM, taken after the spring 1969 meeting of the American Physical Society was described as an example of an attempt by this elite to exercise illicit power. However, I think that what President Eisenhower really did have in mind is something very different from and much more significant than the type of thing suggested by these recent interpretations.

I worked fairly closely with Dwight D. Eisenhower during the last three years of his Presidency, first as a member of the Science Advisory Committee he set up immediately after Sputnik under the chairmanship of James R. Killian, Jr., and second as the first Director of Defense Research and Engineering, a new position created by the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. In these jobs, I was directly concerned with precisely those scientific and technological programs in which the President himself was most involved, and I think, therefore, I have a good feeling for the context in which his thinking on the subject took place.

It also happened that after leaving the Presidency Eisenhower spent his winters in Palm Desert, California, a town less than one hundred miles from my home, and I called on him there on several occasions to pay my respects. Much of our conversation on those visits was devoted to the two warnings. He told me quite specifically that he had just two purposes in mind in making his farewell address. One was to say goodbye to the American people, whom he deeply loved. The other was to bring before the people precisely these warnings. The rest of the speech, he said, perhaps with some exaggeration, was there simply to fill it out and make the whole thing the appropriate length for a farewell address. I asked him to explain more fully what he meant by the warnings, but he declined to P>


do so, saying he didn't mean anything more detailed than what he had said at the time. I knew him well enough to understand what he meant: these warnings were not the result of a careful, methodical analysis; rather, they were the product of a remarkable intuition whose power has generally been underestimated.

What, then, was the context of these remarks? What annoyed and irritated him? Just whom are we to be wary of?

The context spanned the forty months from the launching of Sputnik to the end of his administration. The people who irritated him were the hard-sell technologists who tried to exploit Sputnik and the missile-gap psychosis it engendered. We were to be wary of accepting their claims, believing their analyses, and buying their wares.

The hard-sell technologists and their sycophants invented the term "missile gap," and they embellished that simple phrase with ornate horror stones about imminent threats to our very existence as a nation. They then promptly offered a thousand and one technical delights for remedying the situation. Most were expensive, most were complicated and baroque, and most were loaded more with engineering virtuosity than with good sense. Anyone who did not immediately agree with their assessments of the situation and who failed to recognize the necessity of proceeding forthwith on the development and production of their solutions was said to be unable to understand the situation, technically backward, and trying to put the budget ahead of survival.

The claims of such people that they could solve the problem if only someone would unleash them carried a lot of weight with the public and with some segments of the Congress and the press. Other scientists and technologists had performed seeming miracles in the recent past, and it was not unnatural to suppose that they could do it again. It seemed that radar had saved Britain, that the A-bomb had ended the war, and that the H-bomb had come along in the nick of time to save


us from the Russian A-bomb. On the home front, antibiotics had saved our children from the scourges of earlier times, machines had uplifted us from drudgery, airplanes and electronics could carry us and our words great distances in short times. Scientists and technologists had acquired the reputation of being magicians who were privy to some special source of information and wisdom out of reach of the rest of mankind. A large part of the public was therefore more than ready to accept the hard-sell technologist's view of the world and to urge that the government support him in the manner to which he wanted to become accustomed. It seemed as if the pursuit of expensive and complicated technology as an end in itself might very well become an accepted part of America's way of life.

But it was not only the general public that believed the technologists understood something the rest of the world could not. Many of the technologists themselves believed that only they understood the problem. As a consequence, many of them believed it was their patriotic duty to save the rest of us whether or not we wanted them to. They looked at what the Soviets had done. They used their own narrow way of viewing things to figure out what the Russians ought to have done next. They decided then that since the Russians were rational (about these things anyway), what they ought to have done next was what they must now be doing, and they then determined to save us from the consequences of this next Russian technological threat. The Eisenhower Administration was able to deal successfully and sensibly with most of the resulting rush of wild ideas, phony intelligence, and hard sell. But some of these ideas did get through, at least for a while. Beyond that, dealing with self-righteous extremists who have all the answers--and there were many among the aerospace scientists and technologists at the time--is always annoying and irritating.

As we now know, the Byzantine technological ideas urged on us in those years were in fact a portent of things to come.


Weapons systems have become still more complex in the years since Eisenhower's farewell address. And this complexity is creating new and serious problems of the general kind that Eisenhower warned us about. Worse, this complexity involves not only the inner workings of any device but its use and application as well. By 1969, on the problem of what to do about defending our land-based missiles, one expert felt obliged to say, "The judgment about the best means should be based on a complex of factors that can scarcely be grasped whole by a full-time Secretary of Defense. That a committee of the Congress could meaningfully penetrate such a judgment seems to be most unlikely." I do not believe that this statement was true insofar as the judgment concerning the specific question at issue was concerned, but Donald Brennan, who made the statement, is a long-time serious student of military technology and we must therefore take it as at least a warning of what may become true. And when such a statement can be correctly made about a large issue like protecting land-based missiles, then indeed "public policy" will have been, as Eisenhower warned, "captured by a scientific-technological elite." To allow this to happen would be to accept an absurdity: the transfer of control over our destinies from ourselves and the statesmen and politicians we select into the eager hands of strategic analysts, technologists, and other experts.

We will see in this book how the over-all complexity of systems is already leading us to a situation in which the response to a hypothetical future attack will be so complicated and the time in which to decide what to do will be so short that it will be necessary to turn to automatic computing machines for the purpose. If we continue with the present style of technological approach to defense problems, the inclusion of human beings in the decision-making loop will seriously degrade the performance of the system. Thus, here too the power to make life-and-death decisions is passing from the hands of statesmen and politicians to lower-level officers and ultimately to com-


puting machines and the technicians who program them. This trend too, if allowed to continue, will result in the capture of public policy by a scientific-technological elite. Eisenhower's warnings, while based largely on intuition, have pointed up a very real and extremely serious problem.

Nuclear Designs: Great Britain, France, and China in the Global Governance of Nuclear Arms
[Transaction Publishers, 1996]

British SSBNs

French SNLEs
Other Sites
"Comprehensive Test Ban" [28 February 1996] and a 21 June 1996 addendum on China's CTB policy. The Acheson-Lilienthal Report [16 March 1946]: Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy. Re CTB

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