Darth Vader of Science?


Better a Shield Than a Sword, by Edward Teller, New York: The Free Press, 257 pages, $19.95

Anti-Fascist refugee, brilliant physicist and nuclear weapons designer, outspoken anti-Communist, intellectual force behind the Strategic Defense Initiative: Edward Teller has had more than enough impact on modern science, technology, and politics to merit a wide audience for his new volume. A compilation of 33 essays spanning four decades, it explores the origins of the atomic bomb and merits of "Star Wars," the frontiers of space technology and the political obligations of scientists.

Written in a simple, engaging style, these essays collectively project an image of Teller as a genial grandfather-figure of American science, not at all the Darth Vader monster portrayed by the left. Indeed, open-minded liberals will find much here they agree with, including his commitment to open research unshackled by excessive secrecy, his defense of social and political activism by scientists, and his warning against leaving final decisions in a democracy to scientists.

For all the energy Teller has devoted to producing weapons of mass destruction—understandable given his first-hand observations of totalitarian persecution—he has long sought alternatives to their use. After Hiroshima, he came to believe "strongly that action without prior warning or demonstration was a mistake." Yet Teller has always been out of sync with mainstream liberal thinking. When others advocated disarmament, Teller pushed for development of the H-bomb. And when others now advocate holding onto those bombs as a deterrent, Teller proposes phasing them out in favor of nonlethal defense.

Teller gives himself too little credit for the "Star Wars" revolution. Noting only that in 1983 President Reagan "addressed the greatest deficiency in American military preparedness" by proposing "a comprehensive research effort with the aim of rendering weapons of mass destruction impotent and obsolete," Teller nowhere mentions his own contribution to Reagan's thinking. A few months before the president's famous "Star Wars" speech, Teller came to him with results of a theoretical breakthrough on X-ray lasers that might make space-based defense feasible. Partly on the basis of this discussion, Reagan took most of his own advisors by surprise and forever changed the terms of strategic debate.

The title of the book, taken from one of the essays, sums up Teller's strong convictions in favor of SDI. But he is too good a scientist to ignore the major hurdles that lie ahead. Although he believes "technology will probably accomplish more than the most optimistic forecasts," he admits the formidable challenge of distinguishing missiles and warheads from decoys, choosing an appropriate antimissile weapon, protecting the defense system from attack, and coordinating the entire, hugely complex system.

But scientific advances are unlikely to solve a more fundamental, conceptual problem. Since no defense can ever hope to be perfect, since any defensive system can itself be attacked and partly disabled, no nuclear nation is ever likely to abandon at least some offensive deterrent. President Reagan's critique of the immorality of "mutual assured destruction" is simply irrelevant.

Teller himself admits as much. "Defense alone may not suffice," he writes, "but defense may well make an important contribution to deterrence" by increasing the uncertainties facing an attacker. At this level of argument, the merits of strategic defense should be weighed not on grounds of morality but cost-effectiveness. Is our current deterrent credible or not? If not, is strategic defense the most efficient way to plug the gap? Teller neither asks nor answers these questions.

President Reagan's own commission on strategic forces, chaired by Brent Scowcroft, concluded that America's land-, sea-, and air-based nuclear "triad" would deter Soviet attacks for the foreseeable future. If fixed missile silos are vulnerable to attack (an arguable point), the solution may be to build mobile missiles. Bombers equipped with stealthy cruise missiles and submarines remain nearly invulnerable launching platforms. Recent technological advances (stolen by the Soviet Union) appear to make subs quieter and more invisible than ever. (Indeed, Teller's proposal to base antimissile X-ray laser weapons at sea assumes submarines can survive Soviet efforts to track and destroy them.) So there's no reason to believe that the administration's rush to develop SDI addresses any existing threat to deterrence.

If a problem does exist, it lies with deterring attack not on the United States but on Europe and especially more marginal areas in the Third World. This notion of "extended deterrence", represented in its purest form by the United States' nuclear "umbrella" over Europe, is central to understanding the implications of SDI. For many proponents, SDI promises not an end to "mutual assured destruction" but rather a shield that will boost the credibility of America's threats of nuclear retaliation against Soviet attacks on U.S. interests abroad. Adding the shield won't eliminate the sword; it may merely embolden the warriors. If so, the program is far more expensive, expansive, and dangerous than most Americans, who have come to support SDI as a peaceful road to disarmament, would embrace.

Teller's failure to address these political ramifications reflects his preference for hard science. The value of the Strategic Defense Initiative, however, stands or falls not simply on future technological achievements but on its place in a coherent political and military strategy. Teller once said that such considerations are "quite outside the range" of his professional expertise. Readers of the essays that gave this collection its title should keep in mind the narrow insights that inspire his confidence in SDI.

Jonathan Marshall is editorial page editor of the Oakland, California, Tribune and the coauthor of The Iran-Contra Connection (South End Press).