A LearnWorld Text

Race to Oblivion

A Participant's View of the Arms Race

Herbert F. 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




Germany invaded Poland and started World War II just two weeks before I entered the University of Rochester in September, 1939. Ever since then, my professional life has been completely dominated by the nuclear-arms race.

During my sophomore and junior years my physics professors, including Lee DuBridge and Victor Weisskopf, began to disappear one by one into secret war laboratories. After my own accelerated graduation in May, 1943, I too left for the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley, where we were engaged in the separation of uranium isotopes. The director of the laboratory was Ernest O. Lawrence, and my immediate boss was Frank Oppenheimer. Frank's older brother, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was at that time establishing a laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico, where the isotopes we were separating would, two years later, be fabricated into history's first atomic weapon.

After spending the rest of 1943 at the laboratory in Berkeley, I went with a number of others to Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where we assisted in starting up the great Y-12 manufacturing plant, whose processing machinery was a simple direct multiplication of the isotope separation devices we had been working on in California. Finally, on August 6, 1945, the uranium isotopes we had separated with a late assist from the K-25


plant also located at Oak Ridge were detonated over Hiroshima, in history's first military use of nuclear explosives. On August 9, another A-bomb, made from a different nuclear explosive (plutonium), produced by an entirely different process, was exploded over Nagasaki.

The very next day the Emperor of Japan announced to the world his desire to surrender. We had every reason) then to believe that our bombs had caused him to do so.

A few weeks after, my father, who was a Railway Express messenger, came down to Oak Ridge on his pass to visit me. As we sat on a hill overlooking the great Oak Ridge isotope separation plant, I explained to him how we had finally succeeded in making war so terrible that it could not happen again. I really believed it. I was just twenty- three and I did not yet know that the same thing had been said many times before. I think I would have believed it anyway, if only because this latest step up in the horror of war was such a huge one. It was only much later, after still further enormous increases in the potential destructiveness of war, that I came to realize that we had made perhaps no change at all in the probability of war.

I returned to Berkeley in 1945 as a student and embarked on a career in pure science, or so I thought at the time. Four years later, in June, 1949, I received my Ph.D. Two months after that the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb. This explosion, which happened much sooner than most experts had believed possible, was followed only ten months later, in June, 1950, by the sudden outbreak of the Korean War. As with many other Americans, my life was radically changed again by these two events and by my view of them. Stalin was very much alive, the Sino-Soviet alliance had just been forged, and the future looked gloomy once again.

Edward Teller began to promote the idea that the United States, in response to the new situation, should initiate a top priority program to develop a hydrogen bomb. He, with others at the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, designed an


experimental device which they believed could establish the conditions necessary to bring about the nuclear ignition of the appropriate forms or isotopes of hydrogen. Hugh Bradner and I joined a number of others in establishing at Berkeley a group that later set up at Eniwetok an experimental apparatus to study the environmental conditions within which this hydrogen reaction was supposed to take place. In May, 1951, in operation Greenhouse at Eniwetok, this hydrogen burn, or fusion, did come about more- or less as expected and our experiment helped to confirm the possibility of turning it into a weapon.

Shortly after, I was appointed an assistant professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, and the next fall I began once again, I thought, a research and teaching career. I was just getting settled into that job when Ernest Lawrence asked me to take the lead in establishing a branch of the Radiation Laboratory to undertake research and development in the fields of nuclear explosives and controlled fusion reactions. Edward Teller, Harold Brown, John S. Foster, Jr., and I, along with two hundred others altogether, opened shop in September, 1952, in a grape growing valley at Livermore, California. As was his own special style, Lawrence at first simply told me to "run the place." Later, after we had been going for a little more than a year, he told me to "start calling yourself the director," and I did. Our first attempts to design nuclear explosives worked out poorly. The first two shots at the Nevada test site in the spring of 1953 gave less than the expected explosive yields. In the following year, at Bikini, our first attempt produced an outright fizzle, and we then canceled what would have been our second shot in that test series after painfully deducing that it would turn out the same way. Even so, we all kept trying, and eventually the Livermore Laboratory, now known as the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory/Livermore, succeeded in developing its share of America's nuclear weapons.

Toward the end of my tenure at Livermore, we began to get


involved in a small way with the group President Eisenhower had set up under Harold Stassen for the purpose of trying to find and promote steps leading to arms control and disarmament. It was at that time that I first came to realize that there was another side to the arms race and that there might really be some other more promising and less dangerous road to national security. I came to this realization later than some older and more perceptive scientists, but, even so, earlier than many others.

As director of the Livermore Laboratory, I was invited in l 954 by John von Neumann to join a special committee which he chaired. This committee had as its purposes, first, reviewing various proposals for the development of huge rockets capable of delivering nuclear warheads with high accuracy a quarter of the way around the world, and, second, advising the Air Force (and later the Secretary of Defense) as to what should be done to overcome the Soviets' earlier start in this v new field of weaponry. (By 1953 our intelligence confirmed that the Soviet Union, building on the earlier programs of the Germans in World War II, was engaged in a major effort to develop long-range rockets capable of delivering nuclear warheads.)

The Von Neumann Committee was remarkable in style as well as output. In its earliest meetings, the committee worked directly and intimately with Assistant Secretary of Defense Donald Quarles, Air Force Brigadier General Bernard A. Schriever, and Trevor Gardner, Special Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Research and Development. It was instrumental in establishing the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation in its role of what is now called "general systems engineering and technical direction" (GSETD) of all Air Force long-range-missile programs. It also established the basic design parameters for all the large rockets that the United States developed in the ensuing years. Other members of this remarkable committee included Charles A. Lindbergh and Clark B.


Millikan--who became chairman after the untimely death of Von Neumann as well as George B. Kistiakowsky and Jerome B. Wiesner, both of whom later became Special Assistants for Science and Technology to Presidents of the United States.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviets launched Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, and my professional life underwent another sudden and drastic change. In response to this and to other Soviet space achievements that quickly followed, President Eisenhower appointed James R. Killian, Jr., then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to be his Special Assistant for Science and Technology and to establish and chair the President's Science Advisory Committee. Killian and I had met previously in connection with the work of the Gaither panel, and I was most fortunate to be among those he invited to join the committee. I took a temporary leave (I thought) from my post as director of the Livermore Laboratory, and began in December, 1957, to spend full time working with the committee (called PSAC, pronounced pea- sack) in the White House annex. I thus had a front seat from which to watch our efforts to "do something" about the Soviets' "firsts," and I was able to participate in the making of many of the decisions involved. PSAC reaffirmed some of the old priorities and established some new ones in the United States' space and missile programs. PSAC encouraged and then endorsed the efforts of the Department of Defense to get its house in order in this area, and was the most important factor in transforming NACA (the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, an organization conducting research in aeronautics) into NASA (the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the organization responsible for all the non-military aspects of the United States' space program). But, in addition, PSAC even then found time to devote much of it. attention to the problem of containing the arms race. In general PSAC developed ideas of how best to organize for arm' control; in particular, it did the lion's share of the work in-


volved in promoting the nuclear-test moratorium of 1958. I did not have a major role in that part of PSAC's work at the time, but I followed it closely and was very much impressed by it. What I learned there greatly influenced my own direct activities in arms control and disarmament, which began somewhat later.

I never did go back to Livermore. In the spring of 1958 I was invited by Secretary of Defense Neil H. McElroy to become the chief scientist of the Advanced Research Projects Agency. ARPA, as the agency is usually called, was one of the Department of Defense's responses to the shock of the series of Soviet firsts in space. Each of the three military services was determined to take advantage of the frantic Congressional and public reaction to the spectacular Soviet successes, and each began to lay its own claims to the various new roles and missions it foresaw in this new environment.

The Navy was already the agent for the Vanguard program that was to have launched America's first satellite; the Air Force then already had the responsibility and the money for the development of the largest of the long- range rockets; the Army had Wernher von Braun. ARPA, therefore, was established in large part to try to bring this very confusing and politically explosive situation under control. Roy W. Johnson, a General Electric executive, was named Director of the new agency, Rear Admiral John Clark was named its Deputy Director, and 1 became its Chief Scientist. We opened for business in late February, 1958, and we did help to produce some order in the space and missile efforts of the Department of Defense.

In December, 1958, I was appointed the first Director of Defense Research and Engineering by President Eisenhower, on nomination by Secretary McElroy and with the advice and consent of the Senate. As set out in the Defense Reorganization Act of 1958 (another American response to Sputnik), the DDRE (as the incumbent of the position is labeled) had


authority over all research, development, tests, and evaluation programs of the Department of Defense and its component parts. In addition, he had the responsibility to advise the Secretary of Defense with regard to certain other matters, including the deployment of advanced types of weapons systems. I continued to serve as the DDRE under Secretary Thomas S. Gates, and briefly also under Secretary Robert S. McNamara after being reappointed by President Kennedy. It was an exceptionally interesting time to be in a job of that sort; the general form of nearly all of our present missile and space programs was jelled at that time. It was the time when the Von Braun group was transferred from the Army to NASA and when the responsibility for the very large rockets was also transferred from ARPA to NASA. It was also the time of the first rejection of the proposal to deploy an ABM (antiballistic-missile) system, and it was the time of the U-2. It was during my tenure in that job as scientific administrator of the United States side of the arms race that I formed the views I still hold about the futility of the race and the absolute need to find some alternative course.

In January, 1961, I had the opportunity to discuss these matters with John J. McCloy, who was President-elect Kennedy's personal and principal adviser on matters of arms control and disarmament. I communicated to Mr. McCloy the substance of what I stated publicly before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1963:

Ever since shortly after World War II, the military power of the United States has been steadily increasing; over the same period the national security of the United States has been rapidly and inexorably diminishing.... It is my view that the problem posed to both sides by this dilemma of steadily increasing military power and steadily decreasing national security has no technical solution. If we continue to


look for solutions in the area of military science and technology only, the result will be a steady and inexorable worsening of this situation. I am optimistic that there is a solution to this dilemma; I am pessimistic only insofar as I believe there is absolutely no solution to;be found within the areas of science and technology.

After the inauguration of President Kennedy, McCloy became responsible for developing and promoting the legislation which led to establishment of the United States Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. When the agency was formed, he became Chairman of its General Advisory Committee, and I became one of the committee members.

Some months after Robert S. McNamara became Secretary of Defense I resigned as DDRE so that I could return, as I had long been planning, to the University of California. At his request, I gave Secretary McNamara a list of thirteen names of persons who could, I believed, easily replace me. (I consulted Killian, Kistiakowsky, Wiesner, Glenn T. Seaborg and many others in making up my list.) The name McNamara picked was that of my good friend Harold Brown, who at the time was director of the Livermore Laboratory, as I had been earlier. When Brown later became Secretary of the Air Force, he was in turn succeeded as DDRE by another mutual friend, John S. Foster, Jr., who had followed Brown as director of the Livermore Laboratory.

After returning to the University of California, first as chancellor of the San Diego campus and later as professor of physics, I kept posted on the arms race and the efforts to bring it under control, through continuing service as a member of the General Advisory Committee of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (from 1963 to 1969), as a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee for a second term (1964-68), and also as a trustee of two nonprofit corporations: the Aerospace Corporation (the organization now


charged with doing general systems engineering and technical direction for most of the Air Force's space and missile programs) and the Institute for Defense Analyses (which, among other things, performs analyses and makes studies of weapons systems for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, and other high government officials).

After finishing my second term on PSAC, I began my fourth attempt to establish a serious career in basic science, this time by teaching physics and doing a modest amount of laboratory work. Fifteen months later, in the spring of 1969, when the matter of the deployment of the ABM suddenly broke from behind the curtain of secrecy to become a public issue, I welcomed the opportunity to testify before the Congress on three occasions in opposition to the deployment of what President Nixon called the Safeguard system.

By no means am I the only Department of Defense official who has come to realize the dilemma of an ever-increasing military power accompanied by an ever-decreasing national security Nor am I the only defense official to realize that the dilemma cannot be resolved by the development and deployment of ever more complex and more costly machines. Harold Brown said after serving more than four years as DDRE and nearly four years as Secretary of the Air Force:

Those who have served as civilian officials in the Department of Defense at the level of Presidential appointment . . . have recognized the severely limited utility of military power, and the great risks in its use, as well as the sad necessity of its possession . . . [The] higher their position and, hence, their responsibility, the more they have come to the conclusion that we must seek national security through other than strictly military means . . . and urgently.

In the process of participating in the arms race itself as well as in some of the attempts to bring it under control, I have


had the opportunity to watch most of the key men and events from a front-row-center seat. In Part I of this book I will outline the main elements of the arms race, and I will describe in some detail a number of specific instances where I was personally involved. Through them, I shall try to expose some of the principal factors that have driven it forward. I hope to make it clear why I believe that excessive prudence and technological hard-sell have led to an unnecessary overreaction in case after case. And I hope to convince the reader that while these overreactions have produced so far a fairly stable balance of terror between the superpowers, this balance is at a very much higher level of armaments and peril to mankind than would have been the case had a more reasonable approach been followed.

In Part II, I will describe some important current technological trends and programs, including ABM and MIRV'. I will try to show why I believe that these threaten to unbalance the balance of terror and that they hold no promise whatever as a means for achieving national security. And lastly, I will share with the reader the reasons for my growing conviction that the end result of it all has been to produce a situation which is at once wondrously absurd and exceedingly dangerous, and which no one,, neither the most sanguine weapons fancier nor the most cerebral strategic analyst, ever intended.

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

LearnWorld Explained FAQ Bosnia War Theory Templates

Our Home Page Our Home
Please direct comments and corrections by email to Bruce D. Larkin, who has prepared this page.