Adam Curtis, 1992
2. To the Brink of Eternity
The age that we have just left – the forty-five years since the end of the Second World War – was overshadowed by a strange partnership between science and fear. It began with a weapon created by scientists that threatened to destroy the world. But then a group of men, who were convinced they could control the new danger, began to gain influence in America. They would manipulate terror. To do so, they would use the methods of science. Out of this would come a new age, free from the chaos and uncertainties that had lead to terrible wars in the past.
TO THE BRINK OF ETERNITY
Sam Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb
They believed – I think honestly in the beginning and fraudulently at the end – that they could create
a better world and have control over this process of recreating the world through their science and
their mathematics, because it all sounded so damn rational and so damn reasonable as to be
Their opportunity came on October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Union suddenly launched the first ever satellite: Sputnik.
Simon Ramo, guided-missile engineer, 1950s
It was amazing to the American people that here was this spacecraft up in the sky and suddenly the
American people realised that the Soviet Union was not, as they were supposed to be, a backward
power that was capable of providing us with caviar and ballet companies but had no business being
up in space. It was shocking to find out we'd been so wrong about them. It was shocking to discover
that perhaps we had something to fear.
Two months later, the Russians struck again: Sputnik 2 carried into space a dog called "Laika". As the Soviet Union
flaunted its success, American politicians panicked.
A sense of vulnerability swept America, for Laika could just as easily have been a nuclear warhead. To the military, it was a nightmare. Russia was their enemy, yet they had no idea how to defend themselves against this
new weapon that might descend suddenly from outer space.
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT
But three thousand miles away, on the California coast, scientists believed they had the answers. They worked at the RAND Corporation. "RAND" stood for "Research ANd Development"; it was the first scientific think-tank. RAND was funded by the Air Force, but staffed by young academics who believed the scientific method could help bring the Cold War back under America's control.
James A. Thomson, President, RAND Corporation [addressing a small meeting]
You're here at RAND, at Santa Monica, California on the Pacific Ocean, where groups of engineers,
scientists, mathematicians, political scientists all came together to begin working on problems
originally of national defence and national security.
The principal issue they were dealing with was trying to understand the future of American security
in the nuclear age. It involved questions of technology: what would technology offer, how could it
be harnessed to serve America's security; science of the rigorous mathematical sort.
Sam Cohen, RAND Corporation 1947–1975
The techniques they were developing were generally categorised as "systems analytic" techniques.
What this consisted of was getting an enormous mathematical model that could be calculated
thanks to the advent of these high-speed computers. We had a combination of technologists,
economists [and] mathematicians who could piece all of these disciplines together and feed their
inputs into this huge, complex mathematical model. It meant that the world could be understood
to a degree where it could be calculated and predicted. And that's what these system analysts
proceeded to do.
To the scientists at RAND, the Cold War was a totally new system of conflict. Past experience and politics were no help in predicting how the other side would behave. They turned instead to a method of predicting behaviour in uncertain situations: the theory of games. It had been developed by the famous mathematician John von Neumann, who had worked at RAND. In the 1920s, in Berlin, he had watched poker games and seen how each player's strategy depended on what he thought the other side would rationally do. von Neumann had shown how to give numerical values to the different choices and so decide on the best move.
William Gorham, RAND Corporation 1953–1962
It was seen like a game; a game in which there were rational players and in which each side had
certain information about the capabilities of the other side. The notion of "Kriegspiel" evolved at
RAND, which was the game of chess in which you don't see the opponent's pieces. You have two
chessboards, each complete, with a blind between them; and you have to presume from indirect
information where the opponent's chess pieces are and then make the best judgement you can to
get more information.
RAND strategists studied every piece of information they could find about the Soviet Union. They even wrote their own operational code of the Politburo and commissioned the famous anthropologist Margaret Mead to study the Russian attitude to authority. From this came complex mathematical models that showed the Air Force
the best possible moves.
But, in the process, the idea of the Cold War as a political conflict that could be resolved was fading away. It became, instead, a mechanical system in which all parts worked according to rational laws – and that included
the enemy. So, the strategists' job was to keep it balanced, in equilibirum.
The most influential figure at RAND was Albert Wohlstetter, a mathematical logician. He was also a devoted fan of modern architecture and abstract design; and a close friend of the famous architect Le Corbusier. Whilst Wohlstetter saw the system of conflict as dangerously unstable, he was convinced the Soviet Union might attack: not because it wanted to, but because the rational logic of the system would force it to pull the trigger first.
Albert Wohlstetter, RAND Corporation 1951–[present]
I drew the analogy with the Western gun duel. The gunman and the sheriff were not necessarily
morally... were not morally equivalent in any sense, but they each might find themselves in the
position where they had to draw first in order to survive. And this would be a rational act, if they
found themselves in that position.
And so I wanted to design a posture where it would never make sense for an adversary, in his own
terms, to attack.
Wohlstetter invented what were to become the familiar icons of the nuclear age. He proposed that hundreds of missiles should be protected in concrete silos underground. Fleets of bombers were to be in the air twenty-four hours a day, controlled by a system he designed called "Failsafe". The aim was to convince the Soviets that if they attacked, America would always have enough missiles left to destroy them in return. The Cold War would become safer by stabilising what Wohlstetter called "the delicate balance of terror".
[From TV footage of Vice-President Richard Nixon speaking to Premier Nikita Khruschev in] Moscow, July 1959
"There are some instances where you may be ahead of us – for example, in the development of
your... of the thrust of your rockets for the investigation of outer space. There may be some
instances – for example, colour television – where we're ahead of you. But, in order for both of
us... for both of us... [Khruschev, on hearing the translation, wags his finger, shakes his head and starts
to respond while Nixon smiles and tries to continue] ..."
As America's politicians became increasingly intimidated by the Soviets, the strategists exercised a restraining influence. They argued that the enemy was dangerous, but rational. It was not a satanic monster that had to be destroyed.
We had the resources, intelligence and courage to make the correct decisions. There were real
dangers, real dangers of the... subversion or attack on... or military attack on Europe.
Our aim was to design a more stable balance.
But the rise of the strategists was only part of the changes brought about by the Cold War.
Amelia Musgrove, bar owner, White Sands [New Mexico]
After Sputnik and the Cold War started, then they started developing all of these missiles. All of
the companies would bid for them and build them and they'd bring them out here and test them.
From... [She points at a photo on the wall] like the Patriot; sixteen years it's been tested – [they're] still
testing it. They're adding to it now, to make it reach out further. [She indicates another photo] Here
is the cruise missile. It was here. That was the meanest-looking one that I've ever seen.
To see something like that was out of this world... was unreal.
In 1961, the influence of the men from RAND increased dramatically. The new President, John F. Kennedy, turned to them to impose order not only on nuclear strategy but on the arms race, which was threatening to run out of control. Kennedy was convinced the scientific method was the key to solving the problems of modern
THE CORRIDORS OF POWER
Leading members of the RAND Corporation were asked to become the aides of the new Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. McNamara had previously run the Ford Motor Company and used systems analysis to rationalise production. Now he told the strategists to do the same with America's defence. They were no longer
advisers to the military; they had become the masters.
But they had hardly begun work when they received some astonishing news. A new reconnaissance satellite showed that far from having six-hundred missiles, as the Air Force had claimed, the Soviets had only four. It was severely embarrassing for the strategists, because the Air Force figures had been the basis of much of their work.
The Air Force intelligence inputs were mainly parochial. They were designed to make out the
enemy – principally the Soviets – at their very worst, because if they did that, the Air Force would
get ever so many billions of dollars to build more airplanes, more missiles, more everything. And so
these analysts were being misled, from the very beginning.
For years, the Air Force had been showing slides of Russian monasteries and war memorials, claiming they were missile silos in disguise. The awkward question now was whether RAND's studies were equally fictitious. But the strategists were undeterred. The Russians had fewer missiles and the satellites showed where they were, so it would be possible, if a nuclear war happened, to mount selective strikes and thus control – and even win – the conflict.
Thomas Schelling, RAND Corporation, Consultant to the Department of Defense 1960–1964
This was combatting the notion that there was only one big spasm kind of war and once things
started, all you did was shut your eyes, close your ears, fire everything. I was once doing a study in
the Pentagon with the people who were responsible for getting all the data about nuclear
detonations anywhere on the continent and I asked the question "How do you tell when the war
is over?". And it looked as if the question had never occurred to them before; and I thought "Well,
this is important: that somebody must be attending to how the war will be ended – as well as
simply to how to start it – efficiently."
Under the strategists' new plans, Soviet military targets would be annihilated first. America's remaining missiles would be held back to threaten Russia's cities and force the Soviet government into submission. The most notorious proponent of these plans was Herman Kahn. He had left RAND and set up his own think-tank, the Hudson Institute, near New York. He was convinced a "controlled nuclear war" was possible.
[From (black-and-white) TV footage of] Herman Kahn, Consultant to the Department of Defense, early 1960s
Just because you go to war, that itself may be an irrational act, or may not; but even if you,
irrationally, decide to go to war, that doesn't mean you have to fight it in a wildly irrational fashion.
[Interviewer:] Many people feel that even if they survive a nuclear war, that things are going to be
so awful and life is going to be so destroyed everywhere that they'd actually rather be dead.
[Kahn:] That's [an] almost completely standard reaction and is really a reaction to try to prevent
thinking about the subject... and I make a comment which always gets me a great deal of
criticism – let me make it anyway: Objective studies indicate that the post-war environment, while
hostile to human life – more hostile than the pre-war environment – will not be so hostile as to
"preclude normal and happy lives".
The Institute is now deserted, but, in the early sixties, it was full of men and women working out what to do if the worst happened. Cities on both sides were given precise values; then scenarios were constructed, like equations, showing what to do in any eventuality.
Debbie Kahn, daughter [of Herman Kahn, with] Gail Neale, Hudson Institute, 1960s [and two other women]
[Kahn:] There's an accident. We drop a bomb on Kiev. It was a fluke. We didn't mean to; the
Russians believe we didn't mean to. Then there's a negotiation about where we can drop a bomb
on something that's of equal value [to] Kiev; if we drop the bomb, we can stop now. If we destroy
something equal, you've got a sort of a status quo – [Neale:] but if you escalate, if you go from
our equivalent of Kiev to... [Kahn:] New York [Neale:] ...our equivalent of Moscow, it's a very big
In a controlled nuclear war, populations of cities would become like pawns in a game of bargaining with nuclear
weapons. So the strategists persuaded America's leaders to take civil defence seriously.
Herman Kahn believed America's cities would have to be evacuated two or three times a decade as America played brinkmanship with the Soviet Union. Everyone would have to be taught to think rationally about nuclear war.
[Debbie Kahn, still with Gail Neale and the other two women]
I can remember growing up having dinner-table discussions about "Let us assume something
happens". We go down in our bomb shelter. We can support six or ten or twelve people in the
shelter. The neighbours start banging on the door: "Let us in! Let our children in!". Who do we let
in? That's sort of unthinkable when you're ten years old or nine years old... I mean, that's – I
remember growing up discussing things like that, because it was possible. And [if] it was possible,
it was worthy to talk about, you know – rather than just saying... well, you throw up your hands
and say "It's unthinkable."
Sam Cohen, RAND Corporation 1947–1975
These analysts were human beings... they were no ordinary human beings – they had more
than a smattering of megalomaniacs, Herman Kahn being one of them; Albert Wohlstetter,
another megalomaniac... There was this feeling that they could get in control and a huge degree
of power by doing these studies. And so these analysts indeed achieved their grandiose dream:
they were in full control.
TO THE BRINK
Then, as if on cue, a crisis occurred that seemed the perfect test for these theories. In October 1962, America discovered the Soviet Union was siting nuclear missiles in Cuba. The question was how to force them to stop.
To the strategists, it was a clear opportunity for their scenarios.
While journalists waited outside, President Kennedy's cabinet met to decide whether to attack Cuba. Their discussions were recorded. The tapes show a group of men facing the reality of a nuclear crisis. As the strategists
had told them, it was a game of bargaining.
But, confronted by the need for action, they found they had no idea how the other side would respond to any move they made. They weren't even sure if the other side was rational.
[From the audio recording of the discussions]
Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defence 1961–1968
"It seems to me almost certain that any one of these forms of direct military action will lead to a
Soviet military response of some type, some place in the world."
Dean Rusk, Secretary of State
"But they may be thinking they can either bargain Berlin and Cuba against each other, or that they
can provoke us into the kind of action in Cuba which would give an umbrella for them to take
action with respect to Berlin. If they can provoke us into taking the first overt action, then the
world would be confused and they would have what they would consider justification for making
a move somewhere else.
"For the first time, I am beginning really to wonder whether Mr Khruschev is entirely rational about
Berlin, because if they shoot those missiles, we are in general nuclear war."
As the crisis escalated, the prospect of nuclear war became very real. If it happened, the strategists' elaborate plans were supposed to offer the President ways to control it.
George Ball, Under-Secretary of State in Kennedy administration 1961–1966
Well, I must say I was scared to death that we were going to get ourselves in a nuclear exchange...
that I wasn't sure until the final culmination of the thing that we were going to escape that. I think
we took a hell of a chance, myself.
[Adam Curtis, interviewing, off-camera:] If that nuclear exchange had happened, do you think it
could've been controlled in the way the strategists argued?
[Ball:] No, I think that... We had testimony from these characters day and night on how you
contain a nuclear exchange; I never believed any of it.
[From footage of an unidentified (American) citizen responding to questions about a nuclear attack]
[Interviewer, off-camera:] Half or three-quarters of Los Angeles has been destroyed. How are you
going to continue to live?
[Citizen:] Well, the first thing we have to recognise is that if half of Los Angeles is destroyed, maybe
eighty, ninety percent of the people will be dead and there will be fewer mouths to feed; and those
of us who will survive will have more food and water to divide up.
[Interviewer:] Well, isn't this a very good argument, from a purely selfish point of view, of not
wanting many people to make shelters?
[Citizen:] This is true, but, on the other hand, [for] those of us who have been building shelters, we
believe for the most part that if we, as citizens, do something to demonstrate that we are prepared
to withstand an attack, the Russians – or whoever it is – will be less likely to launch an attack
In the end, President Kennedy ignored any idea of controlled war. Instead, he told the Russians that if they launched just one missile from Cuba, he would retaliate with America's entire arsenal. To the strategists, this threat was irrational and humiliating.
William Kaufmann, RAND Corporation; Consultant to the Secretary of Defense 1961–1980
My only recollection is one of disappointment; I mean, President Kennedy indicated that the
United States had the capability to engage in massive retaliation, which led several of us to
wonder why he had used this particular language and why he hadn't gone to... well, at least, [to
what] we thought of as the more powerful and rational approach to deterrence. It seemed to me
that it would be utter folly for us to go in [for] what one of my colleagues, Herman Kahn, called a
"wargasm" and try and destroy everything we could, because, in effect, that would sign the death
warrant of the United States.
The Russians backed down and America celebrated. But Cuba had shown, like a flash of lightning on a dark night,
how the Cold War really worked: through fear, not reason.
Robert McNamara began to back away from the elaborate plans for controlling nuclear war. Yet the strategists remained influential; politicians found their rational approach irresistible.
I think the Americans have made a kind of theology about using scientific means to solve political
problems; the belief that this is a kind of substitute for religion, that you turn to these mysterious
forces which we [have] now begun to harness for the first time – and we can use them; and
therefore we [be]come master of everything and we don't have to worry about other [things...]
[From TV footage of] President Lyndon Johnson [making [the "Great Society" commencement address at the University of
Michigan?] in] 1964
"Society... is a place where every child can find knowledge to enrich his mind... and to enlarge his
talent. It is a place where leisure is a welcome chance to build and reflect, not a feared cause of
boredom and restlessness. It is a place where the city of man serves not only the needs of the
In 1964, President Johnson promised a new approach to government which would solve deep-rooted problems such as poverty. Its architects were to be the systems analysts from RAND.
William Gorham, RAND Corporation; Assistant Secretary, Department of Health, Education and Welfare 1965–68
President Johnson had a vision of a society which would be glorious; and he saw in the analytical
strength – [in] the rationality that was being applied in some of the military problems – an aid, a
force that could be applied also in the civilian areas. And so we were apostles, we were apostles
of rationality; we were to go out and apply those techniques and methods of thinking to civilian
problems – to bring to bear systematic rational thinking [on] them. And we believed that they were
solvable problems; they were not insoluble [problems.]
On the President's orders, many of the men who had gone from RAND to the Pentagon now moved on into other areas of government. They had become all-powerful courtiers in an age of reason. Their methods were being used to build a better world in America. As their power increased, so did their ambitions. Their techniques, they said, could even predict the future.
[From the footage for a] 1967 CBS TV Special Report
[Voiceover:] "This is not a crap game. It's a serious game. Rolling the dice is Dr Olaf Helmer of the
RAND Corporation. He is conducting a "simulation exercise". A panel of experts has studied a list
of possible twenty-first century developments, from personality-control drugs to household
robots. They have estimated the numerical probability of each... the current fascination of a new
intellectual breed: the futurist."
[Helmer:] "...we wind up with a world which has the following features: we have fertility control,
a hundred-year lifespan, controlled thermonuclear power, continued automation, genetic control,
man-machine symbiosis, household robots, wideband communications, opinion control and
[From (colour) footage of] Herman Kahn, futurist
"I would guess in a hundred-and-[thirty to?] two-hundred years, [if] things go at all well, [that]
ninety, ninety-five percent of the world's people will be living in higher-than-current American
standards of living. Men who are from everywhere poor, everywhere [in] danger of hunger [or]
starvation, [will come] to a life in which the technology largely insulates you from nature."
But at the very moment when the men from RAND were promising America a utopia, their whole approach was
about to meet its nemesis.
THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS
In 1965, Lyndon Johnson began a bombing campaign of North Vietnam. The targets were chosen for their psychological value; pawns in a game of persuading the communists to withdraw from the South. It was inspired by the work of RAND's leading exponent of game theory: Thomas Schelling.
Thomas Schelling, Consultant to the Department of Defense 1966–70
It was a war in which we were attempting to intimidate an enemy into discontinuing what he was
doing; in which it was believed that if you made it painful enough for the North Vietnamese, they
would call off their campaign. So, I think there w... may've been plenty in my writings that people
thought applied to this kind of war, because this was a... vicious, violent bargaining process...
and the effort was to convince the other side that we could tolerate more pain and damage than
But the communists did not behave in a rational way and retreat. Reluctantly, the strategists and the Pentagon
agreed to send thousands of American troops to Vietnam.
By now, the systems and numbers approach dominated the Pentagon. McNamara's whizzkids were convinced that the battle against the Viet Cong could be managed in a rational, scientific way. Indeed, they could see no other way.
William Ehrhart, US Marine Corps 1968
The problem with the Vietnam War was that it was not a war for territory. What American
policymakers needed – what the Pentagon needed – was some way of "How do you tell if we're
winning or not?" In the absence of being able to take Hanoi or something like that, they had to
find other indicators; and what came out of that was a whole array of statistics.
It ranged from the body-count down to number of missions flown, number... tonnage of bombs
dropped, number of enemy structures destroyed, tonnage of food captured from the enemy...
Col. David Hackworth, US Army (retired)
This is a chart that was used by one of the think tanks to demonstrate how to [the camera focuses
on the flowchart Hackworth is showing] neutralise an enemy village, showing a flow of how action
can be taken to neutralise an enemy force. [He reads some of the flowchart's nodes:] "Is this village
loyal to the belligerent?"... "Consider the next village"... "Is this village loyal to the opponent?" –
"No" – "Based on reliable information, what does this village perceive as its major problem?"...
It's almost like a game of Monopoly, isn't it?...!
To Mr McNamara and his "brain[s] trust" of whizzkids, this was probably equal to the US
Constitution – it was the ultimate document.
George Ball, Under-Secretary of State 1961–1966
I will tell you, for example, that we [had] long sessions [...] on Vietnam when McNamara would be
urging us [toward] a certain measure and the President would say "Well, Bob, what do you think
the chances of success are?" "Oh," he would say, "I think it's fifty-five percent and forty-five
percent failure." And I would speak up [Ball is smiling] and say "Bob, are you sure it isn't
forty-seven percent and forty-two percent?" You know, I mean, this was a frame of mind... and
nothing was ever expressed except in quantitative terms as far as McNamara was concerned;
and he spoke for the whole defence department.
Let me give you an example of the way the numbers worked. I happened to be on a patrol in late
spring, early summer of 1967, where we spotted, observed a Vietnamese national some hundreds
of metres away from us, running away from us; and standard procedure at that time was to...
you could fire on anybody running away from you.
When we got to the body, we discovered it was an unarmed older woman – fifty-five, sixty years
old – and in the intelligence summary that I prepared the next day, I put in exactly what happened.
By the time that that report reached the division[al] level, that dead woman had become an
ageless, genderless Viet Cong with a Chinese communist grenade.
And these numbers, these reports, these statistics directly obscured the reality and presented a
picture that was a hundred-and-eighty degrees removed from reality. And yet, when you take
all those numbers and dump them in the Pentagon, those guys sit there and they count up the
numbers and they can go "We're winning!".
In 1967, Robert McNamara resigned in failure. Before he went, he made a speech in Montreal. He ended it by asking "Who is man? Is he a rational animal? If he is, then the goals can be achieved. But if he isn't, then there is
little point in making the effort."
McNamara had been the patron of the strategists. Without him, much of their power disappeared. They and their think tanks became targets for the mass protests against the war.
[Back to the four women, including Debbie Kahn and Gail Neale, inside the former Hudson Institute building]
[One of the other two women:] Hundreds of people protested and marched up the driveway and
planted crosses in the front yard of the Institute; and it made me and many of us here very angry,
because they were making assumptions about what we thought – and they wouldn't even check.
[Kahn:] They thought we were warmongers; there's no question about that.
[Neale:] They offered us jobs; to go to other places – when we would leave the driveway for lunch,
they'd stop and offer us jobs if we'd leave [the] Hudson Institute. None of us ever did.
America's politicians had originally been attracted to the strategists because they'd promised a rational, controllable world. But in Vietnam, their methods had been used to create a fiction. The scientific approach had been corrupted to preserve the politicians' power.
When we started all this systems analysis business, all these many, many years ago, we stepped
through the looking glass... where people did the weirdest things and [with] the most perverse kind
of logic imaginable – and yet claimed to have the most precise understanding of everything and
would give these perversely, superbly rational, illogical explanations as to why they were doing all
these perverse and irrational things. That was the world that's always existed; it's always been a
peverse, irrational world – that was the world that these systems analysts stepped into; that's in
the mirror. They should've stayed on the right side.
What they left behind was MAD – Mutual Assured Destruction – a giant system of nuclear defence with the two sides locked together, watching each other for the slightest move. But, by the mid-seventies, it seemed to've become an end in itself.
[Footage of a US [?Air Force] officer, sitting beside panels, monitors, screens, etc, from] 1978
[Officer:] We are part of the Aerospace Defense Command. We want to maintain surveillance of all
these satellites; to continually know where they are and also to determine if a new satellite is up
[Interviewer (Adam Curtis?), off-camera:] Why does that... why is that information required?
[Officer:] Well... you got me! [laughs]
The system of deterrence had begun as rational. It now seemed a dangerous trap. If either side decided to attack, it would mean the end of the world. Then, a politician came to power who believed that this was just what the
Soviets were about to do.
In 1980, on the campaign trail, [Ronald] Reagan came face-to-face with the delicate balance of terror.
Herbert York, former Director of Defence Research and Engineering, Department of Defence
He visited NORAD, the North American Air Defense Command, to see what they did. And he went
and they showed him all these magnificent warning systems – and then he said "After you get the
first warning, what do you do?"; and they said "Well, we follow these incoming missiles a little
further and keep track of them better." Then he said "What do you do?"; and they said "Well, we
follow them further and keep track of them better." And he kept asking; and the answer he
wanted to hear was "...and finally we shoot them down." But they never got to that, because, in
fact, there was no missile defence; we had missile warning, but we had no missile defence.
And he thought, like a lot of people thought, that that's kind of crazy – I mean, [that] that's got
to be fixed; we've really got to work on defence. If science can do all these wonderful things that
it's done in the past, it surely can accomplish this if we will just unleash it.
But this was an age of disillusion with science – and the people who came forward with the solution the President wanted were zealots: scientists like the inventor of the hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller. He had long dreamt of a defensive missile shield in space. A lobby group was formed that proposed [that] such a defence could be assembled using the new Space Shuttle. It was led not by strategists, but by two science-fiction writers.
Jerry Pournelle, Chairman, Citizens' Advisory Council on National Space Policy, 1980
Larry Niven, science-fiction writer and Council member
[Pournelle:] We ended up as the "kitchen cabinet" on space and military technology. We had
access to the President; and, because we had that access, nobody refused an invitation to come
to the meetings is what it amounted to. So, we ended up with a bunch of four-star generals and
captains of industry and the entire military-industrial complex of the United States in Larry Niven's
living-room – and, in fact, Jim Ransom pointed out that one RPG through the plate-glass window
of Larry's thing would've pretty well crippled the United States technologically for twenty years...
he was probably right!
[Pournelle:] And science-fiction writers, by the way, turned out to be very key [sic] to this process
because they could write the documents that were understandable by the President –
[From TV address made by] President Ronald Reagan, 28th February 1983
"Let me share with you a vision of the future which offers hope. It is that we embark on a program
to counter the awesome Soviet missile threat with measures that are defensive. Let us turn to the
very strengths in technology that spawned our great industrial base and that have given us the
quality of life we enjoy today.
"What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that we could intercept and destroy
strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies? ...
"Fellow Americans, I ask for your prayers...
Many of Reagan's cabinet, including his Secretary of State, had had no advanced warning of this proposal. As they watched in the White House that night, they quickly discovered [that] this was not going to be a magic escape from the cycle of terror, [but] just another twist.
Simon Ramo, guided-missile designer
During dinner, I happened to sit next to the then-Secretary of State George Shultz and he said: "Is
it possible to put a laser up in the sky with sufficient power to knock out a Russian ICBM?" And I
said: "Yes, it is possible." "Well," he said, "doesn't that really make a tremendous difference?"
I said: "Not necessarily. If I were the Russians, I would be thinking about carrying a mirror; and
you shine your high-powered light at me that can destroy me and you'll get it back in your face."
"Well, then, it's no good, what you're saying..." This is an offense versus defence battle that's
always gone on; for every offensive weapon, there's a defence – and then, when there's a
defence, there's an offense that beats the defence; and this goes on to infinity – and this is just
some more of the same...
Amelia Musgrove, bar owner
After Reagan announced [that] the laser was coming to Orogrande, it was the Cold War all over
again. They were moving it out here to intercept any big [or] small bombs that would come in to
It became known as "Star Wars". Dramatic tests of different high-powered lasers were shown on American television. But, behind the scenes, there were serious problems – especially with the grandiose promises of Edward Teller, working at the [Lawrence] Livermore Laboratory.
Dr. Hugh DeWitt, physicist, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
There were a small number of X-ray laser tests done underground in Nevada, but these tests were
failures as weapons; in no way could this thing have been made into a weapon for use in space –
in that sense, they were failures. Yet, in spite of this, Edward Teller wrote glowing letters to high
government officials under President Reagan –
[From TV recording of ?testimony given by] Dr. Edward Teller, former Director, Livermore Centre [sic]
"This X-ray laser... is a remarkable invention... and I am not allowed to tell you more; I wish I would
be allowed – and I think I should be allowed – to tell you more, because the Soviets know about
it anyway, in detail."
Teller wrote: "For instance, a single X-ray laser module, the size of an executive desk, which applied
this technology could potentially shoot down the entire Soviet landbase missile force, if it were to
be launched into the module's field of view." Now, this kind of statement is absolute blithering
nonsense. It is science fiction. It's fantasy. It's – I also think it's dishonest. It was a corruption of a
science technology to promote a fantastic idea that could not ever work.
But to those who had first persuaded the President, such problems were irrelevant. As it became apparent that the Soviet Union was close to collapse, they claimed that – all along – the idea had really been to bankrupt the "Evil Empire".
[Jerry Pournelle with Larry Niven]
[Pournelle:] Son of a gun – it worked! You know, we, we were putting together... we, we used all
the rational analysis we could to put together a strategy to bring down the Evil Empire – and we
did it! It happened!
[Pournelle:] It literally took a set of scientific concepts, turn them into a policy, got it adopted and
used it to bring about – in my judgement – one of the key events of the twentieth century. Science
did that – it brought down the Evil Empire!
There were many reasons why the Soviet Union finally collapsed, but few people would count "Star Wars" among them. For forty years, the world had been frozen by the two superpowers locked in conflict. The men from RAND
had seen this as a system simple enough to control with the methods of science. When America's adversary crumbled, that simple world was replaced by complexity and chaos far beyond the reach of their abstract theories.
James A. Thomson, President, RAND Corporation
We, here at RAND, believe that the last forty years – the period from the end of World War II until
1989 – was really a very unique [sic] period in history.
Most of the history of Europe or of the world has involved shifting balances of power and constant
warfare, whereas [during] the last forty years, the balance of power was fairly rigidly frozen; and
now we're seeing the balance of power is going to now become more complex – the way it was
before, in the eighteenth century and seventeenth century.
Suddenly, the Soviet empire collapsed. What had kept me going through all these many, many
years of professional activity disappeared. There was no enemy.
We've returned to what we've never left: human normalcy. And we're going to be in for more
surprises; I don't know what. We're going to be in for more wars; of what kind, of what
magnitude, I don't know.
The strategists were part of an age that believed political problems could be solved by the application of knowledge. Their success in preventing Armageddon seemed proof that it worked. But they were lucky enough to inhabit a world that was simple, frozen by the deadlock between the superpowers. That odd moment in history is over; and with it has gone the optimistic faith that the world was being changed for the better.