The Unfinished Work of Sidney Drell

Monday, April 13, 2009

Last fall, Hoover senior fellow Sidney D. Drell was publicly honored as one of Stanford’s "Pioneers in Science." In an interview on stage with Paul Costello, communications director for Stanford’s School of Medicine, Drell reflected on his life, his career in physics and arms control, and the continuing urgency of controlling nuclear weapons. Here are highlights of that interview.

Paul Costello: I want to begin by asking you to reflect on your career. As a scientist doing theoretical physics, you migrated to scientific work for the government and then to working outside the government as an advocate for restraint on nuclear proliferation. Why did you choose to move from pure science to applied practical questions?

Sidney Drell: Interesting question. Up until 1960, I had no interest in anything scientific outside my research and my students here at Stanford. I had small children. I was building my scientific reputation. I was teaching and nothing could intervene. I had no time for anything else.

I got a phone call one day from a very distinguished colleague, Charlie Townes, inventor of the laser. He mentioned that there was an idea brewing in Washington to bring a young generation of scientists into the effort of advising the government. Physicists like Fermi, Bethe, Oppenheimer, and Teller played such a major role in World War II—I’d like to say we won it with radar and we ended it with the atom bomb. But they were getting older in 1960. There were difficult challenges facing the nation. The Cold War was at its most dangerous. The Soviet Union was technically making great strides with missiles, the first man in space . . . the thousands- of-miles-wide oceans that we felt helped secure this country were now no longer relevant to our safety. The missile with a nuclear bomb could be here in less than thirty minutes, and if it hit New York, that’s the end of New York.

I was aware of these problems, and when Charlie Townes called, he said, "Would you come to a first briefing and see what we’re trying to do?" I thought hard about it and I said, "Well, maybe I better go and take a look."

Costello: What are the questions that a scientist should ask when you make that jump, that leap?

Drell: I recognized the history of World War II, and I recognized in 1960 that we already had thermonuclear bombs and that these things were a challenge to the survival of our civilization. And I [thought], when this call came, why was I ignoring the danger of the Cold War? Should I continue to ignore it?

I went to a briefing and a summer study was organized. I was given a problem. It had to do with being able to get early warning from space of the launch of a missile and it involved technology: What kind of radiation? What kind of transparency in the atmosphere? What kind of reflection of sunlight at the top of clouds? It was very much applied physics, but when I was finished and had solved the problem I was given, something struck me. If space could be used as a way of penetrating the Iron Curtain—this is the world of 1960–61—maybe we would know better what the threat was. We wouldn’t ignore a threat that we didn’t anticipate, but equally important, we wouldn’t exaggerate a threat that didn’t exist and which could have driven us to extremes.

I understood it was the principle of the university: the more you know, the more likely you are to behave intelligently. This could be important. That’s how I got sucked in.

Costello: Did you have any concerns about that? Did you have any moral qualms?

Drell: It was easy then. I wasn’t talking about nuclear weapons; I was talking about knowledge to find what was going on so we could be prepared if the threat evolved or perhaps to head off the threat. There was no moral question at that time.

Costello: Was there any historical figure whom you have thought of as a hero or a role model? What was it about them that you wanted to emulate?

Drell: There are several. First of all, Pinofsky [the late Stanford physics professor Wolfgang Pinofsky, longtime director of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center], whom I met when I was first here. He left Berkeley over the loyalty-oath business. He’d been cleared and worked for the government, but the culture that forced faculty to sign a loyalty oath, he found, as a German Jewish refugee, repulsive. Stanford was lucky. I got to know him and his devotion to the country. Hans Bethe is another legendary man who did work like this. Of course, when you meet a saintly person like Andrei Sakharov, it has an enormous impact on your life.

"We wouldn’t ignore a threat that we didn’t anticipate, but equally important, we wouldn’t exaggerate a threat that didn’t exist and which could have driven us to extremes."

Costello: How should we remember Sakharov?

Drell: When he was young, he was brought into the Soviet weapons project. As he wrote later, "I felt it was the right thing to do because a socialist bomb to balance the capitalist bomb would make a safer world." He, as the father of their hydrogen bomb, the thermonuclear weapon, was honored with every honor imaginable. But then he started telling his government what it was doing wrong. Eventually, he felt there was a terrible war machine out of control, and he couldn’t see any way to stop it.

He wrote an essay that appeared in the New York Times in 1968, talking about peaceful coexistence. He broke with the regime, which punished him in every conceivable way, before exiling him and stripping him of all his honors, all his rights. But he kept writing. If you read his memoirs, you read his essays, he’s always saying that no matter how difficult a situation, you must remember what the nuclear threat is and you must work at arms control to prevent it from getting out of control, of being used.

He became world famous as a spokesman for human rights and for arms control.

Up to the very end, he fought with a purity and a devotion that I’ve never seen in anyone. He became a moment in the conscience of humanity.

Costello: I want to jump to JASON [a panel of academic-based advisers working on technical issues of national importance, primarily related to U.S. national security], which was the organization you worked for for so many years. JASON, what does it stand for?

Drell: Nothing.

Costello: Some people say it stands for July, August, September, October, November.

Drell: Yeah. That’s not true. It has no meaning.

Costello: What is the purpose of JASON?

Drell: The purpose, at the time, was to get thirty or so of us who would be willing, if life was made comfortable, to work (primarily in summer studies) on serious technical problems the government wanted solved. We had to go someplace where we could work in highly classified surroundings. We would get briefed by the government on problems that it thought advanced technical thinking might play a role in. Pretty soon, this became two-way because we could say to the government, "We have some ideas we think you ought to be studying."

Costello: What was your first project?

Drell: To see if we could get early warning by looking at the plumes of satellites when they get above the atmosphere. That’s when I met [Hoover senior fellow] Bill Perry, a lifelong friend who has taken on an even more arduous task because he has actually been willing to serve in government at the highest and best levels.

On Andrei Sakharov: "Up to the very end, he fought with a purity and a devotion that I’ve never seen in anyone. He became a moment in the conscience of humanity."

You know, once you do several problems, if one feels that the problem is important for the security of your country and the peace of the world and that at least you have a chance of being listened to, you’re not just spinning your wheels. If you think you’re going to be listened to every time you do something, you don’t enter this work.

Costello: During the Vietnam War, which you opposed—

Drell: Yeah.

Costello: —you still worked as a government consultant. How difficult was that period for you?

Drell: Well, there were many problems. During the Vietnam War, I was a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, starting under Johnson and continuing through Nixon. I was worried about, at that point, ballistic missiles, ballistic missile defenses, arms control, and whatnot. Some JASONs got involved and worked on the electronic battlefield to try to cordon off North Vietnam as a way of having the war end that way.

It made it very tense in ways because, first of all, in doing your work with students in a university, openness is the most important thing. They’re really part of your family when they’re your thesis students. And yet I was living a life part of which was blocked off from them. That was awkward. On some campuses, the names of JASONs became a dirty word.

At Stanford, the scientists involved—mainly Panofsky and myself at that time—got away with it because we were already known for working on arms control. In Europe, I spent the spring of ’72 at the University of Rome and got thrown out of a classroom as a "war professor." They wanted me to explain my views on Vietnam. They were going to vote on whether I could give a physics lecture. I said, "I’ve been here for three months. If you want to know my views on Vietnam, I will tell you. I have lots of problems with it, but not as a condition to give a physics lecture. That’s an inquisition. That’s fascism." I got thrown out.

Costello: Did you have any regrets during that period?

Drell: No. I was proud of myself when I was confronted in Italy. Usually I think of what I want to say in a confrontation when it’s too late to say it.

Costello: Most of us do.

Drell: Almost always. This was the one time in my life . . . I had no idea they were going to confront me and I said exactly the right thing.

Costello: Bravo. I want to go next to Reykjavik and Ronald Reagan. Reagan is often portrayed as the quintessential Cold Warrior. You recently published a retrospective on the summit between Reagan and Gorbachev at Reykjavik [Implications of the Reykjavik Summit on Its Twentieth Anniversary, Hoover Press, 2007; Reykjavik Revisited: Steps toward a World Free of Nuclear Weapons, Hoover Press, 2008] that challenged his conventional wisdom in many respects. What was the importance of Reykjavik?

Drell: The first important thing about Reykjavik was that it established that two leaders could talk to each other and trust each other. They said, "I can do business with this man." Terribly important. You think of lost opportunities when that condition doesn’t exist. The second thing was that if you read many of Reagan’s writings and speeches, you have to give him credit: Ronald Reagan was the most committed nuclear abolitionist ever to sit in the White House. Reagan really wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons.

Costello: To hear you say that is pretty stark and amazing.

Drell: It’s absolutely true. A book’s going to come out this spring by [Hoover senior fellow] Martin Anderson and [Hoover research fellow] Annelise Anderson, who have had access to Reagan’s papers [Reagan’s Secret War, Crown/Random House, 2009].You’re going to be able to read about this aspect of Ronald Reagan, which is really quite shocking to learn. I mean, if you read Reagan’s speech about "Star Wars," he really dreamed about what you would need when you got rid of nuclear weapons. What came out of the Pentagon because he wasn’t in control was a huge Astrodome, which was science fiction.

"I spent the spring of ’72 at the University of Rome and I got thrown out of a classroom as a ‘war professor.’ . . . I said, ‘If you want to know my views on Vietnam, I will tell you. I have lots of problems with it, but not as a condition to give a physics lecture. That’s an inquisition. That’s fascism.’ "

George Shultz was there. The Reykjavik conference came to us because, in my frequent contacts with George, we are both worried. We are worried about the way the nuclear arms race is going these days. More countries are acquiring arms; the spread of technology means that more countries can build arms; nuclear power is coming back—and nuclear power has many merits, but if we don’t control the fuel cycle, more countries will be latent nuclear powers because when you get enriched uranium for power, you can enrich uranium for a bomb. You’ve got it made.

We see these problems growing and no progress being made, and we’re worried about the future. It’s tough enough to have a world with now nine, going on ten nuclear powers. What happens if it’s twenty? I mean, we’ve done very well to keep the number as small as we have. It’s getting out of control.

Costello: What are the lessons for now? When you consider what happened at Reykjavik, the failures afterward . . .

Drell: The failure was that the world wasn’t ready yet to make a political case for getting rid of nuclear weapons. In 1986, the Berlin Wall still stood, and we were still in the middle of the Cold War. Now, the problem is not that the Soviet Union’s going to annihilate us in a nuclear holocaust; the problem now is that some terrorist may get his hands on one of the 25,000 nuclear bombs out there in the world and could blow it up in a city and the world will be changed.

"If you read many of Reagan’s writings and speeches, you have to give him credit: Ronald Reagan was the most committed nuclear abolitionist ever to sit in the White House. Reagan really wanted to get rid of nuclear weapons."

Now, some people say, "Let’s disarm." That’s not what we’re doing. What we’re saying is, "What are the steps that now have to be made to begin working toward that goal, making it realistic?" And recognizing that, to get the cooperation of 189 nations in the world on this, we’ve got to make them understand we are working toward the vision to join them in a nuclear-free world.

Sidney D. Drell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and a professor of theoretical physics emeritus at SLAC.