Is it impossible?

We need research


R.G. Williscroft

Special to the Times (Sunday, April 18, 1984)

 (I received the following response to this column from Col & Mrs. Larry D. Collins Jr.: Collins Letter )



HE other evening I attended a national teleconference on weapons in space, hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists. The conference originated in WGBH’s studio in Boston and was transmitted live to 10 cities across the United States; the Seattle point of origin was the University Tower. The panelists were Dr. Henry Kendall, chairman, Dr. Carl Sagan, Dr. Richard Garvin and Adm. Noel Gayler (ret.).

I was one of the few attendees who seemed to hold a different view than the panelists did, and I think it important that the Seattle citizenry find out what really seems to be going on here under the guise of informed discussion.

The thrust of the panelists’ positions is that so-called “Star Wars” defense weaponry is (1) not realistically attainable. (2) counterproductive from a lessening-of-world-tensions perspective, and (3) prohibitively expensive.

In support of argument (1) they cite current knowledge in physics and state-of-the-art developments in laser technology.

In support of argument (2) they predict Soviet reaction to deployment of a theoretically viable system, deducing an intolerable arms buildup. focusing on their contention that it would lead to a probable Soviet first strike to prevent final installation by the United States of the “perfect shield.”

In support of argument (3) they cite studies about several proposed systems and project an expansion of these systems by the United States to counter the Soviet arms buildup they project in argument (2).

As an alternative, they propose to intensify current discussions, and specifically propose a treaty or treaties that will prohibit research and development of space-based weapons systems. They spoke quite eloquently of human dignity, of solemn commitment, of promises made, of mutual trust. They painted a grim picture of the Reagan administration’s efforts in arms-control negotiations, arms-control-treaty adherence, and basic scientific credibility.

The program allowed each panelist about 15 minutes of presentation, followed by questions from the national audience, answered extemporaneously by panel members. On the surface, it appeared to be an ideally structured platform for presentation of a national problem and for searching out a solution. In fact, it was something quite different.

Almost from the beginning, there was an extraordinary undertone of politics. Questions from the national audience were carefully screened to allow panel members to emphasize specific points. Not a single dissenting question was aired nationally. The panelists presided with a condescending attitude that implied they were supported by all scientists: the naive, misguided Reagan administration was being duped by ne’r-do-wells motivated by self-interest; only by following their recommendations could a solution be reached.

The underlying focus of their proposed solution was to take the Soviet proposals at face value, use that as a starting point, and negotiate reductions in current levels of weapons and the prohibition of future developments. Implicit in their assumptions was the belief that the Soviets are legitimate and that they will always negotiate in good faith.

As a Ph. D. engineer, I do not quarrel with their statements about the difficulties of developing a total defense against missile weapons. I do have a very strong objection, however, to their statement about the “impossibility” of success. To support their argument, they choose systems with obvious flaws and then point these flaws out. That proves nothing at all.

The simple fact is that we do not know what we do not. know. Only by undertaking an in-depth research program directed at finding a solution to this problem will we have even a sporting chance of finding that solution. A genuine solution to this problem is worth whatever it costs. To stink our heads in the sand and declare its impossibility is reminiscent of the eminent scientific pronouncements about the impossibility of flying, or splitting the atom, or surpassing the sound barrier, ad nauseam.

I recently returned from a trip to Budapest. I traveled by car from Germany through Austria to Hungary and then back. When we crossed the German-Austrian border, one passenger in the car was unaware we had passed the frontier. The border was, practically speaking, wide open.

When we arrived at the Austrian-Hungarian border, however, we were delayed for two hours being “processed.” During that time I strolled along the separating barrier—on the Austrian side.

From Austria (a free, neutral country) I could walk right up to the innocuous fence. On the other side of the fence, ostensibly “no man’s land” but actually Hungary, was a gap that a sign in several languages informed me was mined. Beyond this gap was a chain-link, barbed-wire-topped fence, and beyond that another minefield.

It occurred to me that the Hungarians were not trying to keep the Austrians out so much as they were trying to keep the Hungarians in. My impression was of a prison. In my mind, it casts doubt on the credibility of the government that needs such measures to keep its citizens in line. By inference, this applies directly to the Soviet Union as well. I think we are talking about human dignity and honor here. And good faith. Which reminds me that the Soviets have managed to violate every treaty they ever signed, as soon as it was convenient for them to do so.

My point is that only with reasonable men can we afford to offer trust. With men who have demonstrated that their only understanding is bullying and force, those are the measures we are forced to apply, as much as we would rather do otherwise.

A final point. The panelists, specifically Sagan, emphasized the ridiculous character of the massive stockpiling of weapons both we and the Soviets have undertaken. The implication was that if we stop. so will they; after all. they are just trying to protect themselves from us nasty capitalists. Admiral Gayler was on the verge of addressing this point, probably to point out why this situation really exists, since he is eminently qualified to know. He was immediately cut off by signal from Sagan, who proceeded to ridicule this buildup.

We originally threatened destruction of the Soviet Union should it attack Europe following the Second World War, as they threatened to do. The Russians built up sufficient capability to render our threat hollow, and we then fortified further to reactualize the threat. When we hardened our silos, they produced sufficient missiles and warheads to destroy’ them anyway, rendering our retaliatory ability useless.

All we have done is try to retain the ability to retaliate, because (this is the key element) the Soviets continue to threaten our existence. A genuine unilateral reduction on their part will produce an immediate reduction on ours. We do not wish their destruction—we wish only to protect ourselves. That has been the thrust of our existence, and that is the reason behind the dream of “Star Wars” defenses.


R.G. Williscroft lives in Bellevue.