To the Editor:
I want to commend Robert Jastrow for his article, “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” [December 1984]. His arguments are painfully correct in their direction, and, as a result, Mr. Jastrow has been attacked in a very sharp manner.
His detractors, some of whom are publicly well-known, have raised and will continue to raise the argument that Mr. Jastrow, lacking clearance, is inadequately informed. It is important to realize that by abstaining from getting clearance, Mr. Jastrow has retained his freedom of speech. This privilege is one of his main weapons, one which is not available to those of us who have spent years working on the problem of defensive weapons before supporting a major program for their development.
It is worth noting that Hans A. Bethe, one of the outspoken opponents of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), conceded during a classified discussion in February 1983 that the relevant arguments in physics supported the Livermore Laboratory strategic-defense position. Shortly thereafter, however, Mr. Bethe changed his mind—not because the scientific issues had changed, but on the basis of his ideas about proper politics and military strategy. Mr. Bethe has waited almost two years before scheduling another (forthcoming) visit to review the Livermore strategic-defense work, although he has felt free to attack it on the basis of his outdated knowledge in the interim.
The position taken, by Hans A. Bethe, Victor F. Weisskopf, and many other “concerned” scientists is strongly reminiscent of the hydrogen-bomb controversy which raged more than three decades ago. The argument then was that the project was not scientifically feasible, and if it were successful, the result would be too terrible to bear. Furthermore, the argument went on, if the United States did not attempt the project, probably the Soviets would also forbear.
As it turned out—according to Andrei Sakharov’s biographical statement in Sakharov Speaks (Knopf, 1974)—before the hydrogen-bomb debate began in the United States, the Soviet hydrogen-bomb project was already under way. Only months separated the successful tests of a fusion weapon by the United States and the Soviet Union. Yet the United States had the advantage that it had been physically untouched by World War II, while the Soviets had suffered terrible damage.
The consequences of a Soviet success on this project coupled with American non-participation would have speeded up the kind of behavior today being demonstrated by the Soviets on the basis of their military superiority. However, the consequences of the Soviets’ successful development of protective defenses and our failure to do so are incomparably greater. There is much evidence—evidence that in comparison with that available in the earlier controversy should be called overwhelming—that the Soviets are hard and successfully at work on strategic defense. President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative would be more appropriately named if it were called the Strategic Defense Response. Yet Mr. Weisskopf, present for President Reagan’s original speech requesting the cooperation of the scientific community in this effort, appeared to disapprove before the President even had time to develop his point.
Returning to Mr. Jastrow’s article and. his purported lack of scientific information, I would end with a question. Which better represents the method of scientific inquiry: limited, careful arguments that include all of the pertinent perspectives, or dogged support of narrow convictions based on superficial assessments?
I appreciate Mr. Jastrow’s courage in attempting to bring reason and common sense to this vital discussion.
The Hoover Institution
To the Editor:
I read Robert Jastrow’s article with great interest. It has always been a matter of surprise to me that some members of the scientific community have been critical of the technical soundness of our strategic-defense efforts, when it is clear from my knowledge of the research program that the technical promise is great. Indeed, rapid progress has already been realized in some of the most critical areas. In addition, prospects for countering future missile defenses or overwhelming such defenses seem less and less likely as we come to understand better the potential of the new defensive technologies.
James A. Abrahamson
Lieutenant General, USAF
Director, Strategic Defense Initiative Organization
Department of Defense
To the Editor:
“The War Against ‘Star Wars’” by Robert Jastrow was as excellent an article on this major public-policy question as it was overdue. Those of us constrained by the restrictions of government security clearance often despair of responding effectively in public forums to critics of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Government classification rules perversely permit all manner of nonsensical “straw men” to be put forward and then kicked apart by those holding clearance and exploiting the prestige of being “in the know,” while strictly forbidding countervailing arguments containing compelling technical material to be aired publicly. Mr. Jastrow’s article demonstrated that a response to SDI critics on a more fundamental level is not only feasible but can be telling, for these critics unblushingly impeach themselves at levels of logical consistency recognizable by a perceptive undergraduate.
A notable example of this gambit of kicking apart a straw man of one’s own manufacture, and one with which I happen to be particularly familiar, involves X-ray laser technology, which has been singled out by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) as “the leading candidate” among pop-up defensive systems, and thus has been extensively assailed by them in public. The straw man in this case consists of the assertion that X-ray laser platforms having carefully chosen limitations, when popped up from carefully selected sea- or land-basing points in time of defensive need, cannot engage even present-generation ICBM’s, let alone ICBM’s of some future era employing hypothetical “fast-burn” boosters, due to limb-of-the-earth constraints on X-ray-laser-beam propagation from the platform to the booster targets.
In fact, it has been explained on many occasions, to a variety of government forums all over the country, why and how reasonably-sited, technologically-accessible, popped-up X-ray lasers can plausibly engage even fast-burn boosters, and at cost-exchange ratios which strongly favor the defense. Some of these occasions have involved face-to-face discussions with leading strategic-defense critics, none of whom has contested the technical points being made. Nonetheless, the public debate continues to be saturated with pessimistic assertions by these critics concerning this point which, to put it charitably, are disingenuous.
The stunningly effective supporting barrages laid down by sympathetic sectors of the news media amplify the efforts of SDI critics completely out of proportion to their minuscule numbers, ludicrously inflating them into “virtually all knowledgeable scientists”; even the Wizard of Oz was less flagrant in his mummery, more modest in his pretensions. This hyperinflation is the more remarkable as anti-strategic-defense arguments have fared uniformly poorly in technical debate in the classified surroundings required by government regulations. In spite of having failed to make their anti-SDI case to their well-informed colleagues in technical discourse, these critics continue to advocate their rejected positions to the public in impassioned terms, immune from the criticism of their technical peers.
Mr. Jastrow has performed a real service to the thoughtful public by documenting how sloppily this tiny group of scientists compound their nostrums, and with what generous dollops of bias. Focusing on this basic point, his article made devastatingly clear that these individuals, capable scientists though they may be, do not merit the political confidence of their fellow citizens.
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow has done it again. He seems to be the greatest single asset we have in making a strategic-defense system an eventual reality. . . . Ever since I took part in a debate on strategic issues sponsored by the Union of Concerned Scientists, I have realized the irrational fear of ABM systems among many intellectuals. People who would acquiesce in an actual U.S. surrender to the USSR to obviate the risk of nuclear war, but would not be willing to spend tens of billions of dollars to banish its possibility forever, show where their objectives really lie. . . .
University of Illinois
To the Editor:
Mr. Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative raises issues of the utmost gravity. We are astonished that COMMENTARY would present a brief for SDI in the guise of an uninformed attack against the report prepared by us under the auspices of the Union of Concerned Scientists, The Fallacy of Star Wars (Vintage, 1984). Robert Jastrow’s “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” takes issue with our criticisms of SDI by pretending that the entire enterprise stands or falls on a precise calculation of how many laser satellites would be required by the defense. There are some honest disagreements among knowledgeable experts that are central to the SDI debate which we wish to bring to your readers’ attention, but this is not one of them.
In his “Star Wars” speech, Mr. Reagan proposed to defend the population of the United States against Soviet nuclear-armed missiles, and thereby to replace deterrence as the bedrock of our national security. As recently as December 23, 1984, the President and his Secretary of Defense restated this objective in order to proscribe heresies within their administration: SDI would not be bargained away, they asserted, or be devoted to the lesser goal of merely defending American missile silos.
A ballistic-missile defense (BMD) of cities is inconceivable unless the great majority of Soviet ICBM’s could be destroyed while their fragile booster engines are still burning brightly. Missiles that survive this “boost phase” would pose a much more formidable threat to any defense because they would release a large number of elusive and far less vulnerable warheads immersed in a vast swarm of decoys and other “penetration aids.” The subsequent defensive layers could not, it is widely acknowledged, cope with such a prodigious “threat cloud.” The fact that the earth is round requires an attack on Soviet boosters to be launched from space.
We examined all credible proposals for boost-phase defense. (While infrared and laser homing projectiles are promising interceptors for mid-course and terminal defense, they are implausible boost-phase weapons because of their low speed.) Orbiting defenses suffer from a fatal flaw: they would rely on delicate precision instruments which would be exquisitely vulnerable to attack. We share this conclusion with Edward Teller, an ardent SDI advocate, who has said that “lasers in space won’t fill the bill—they must be deployed in great numbers at terrible cost and could be destroyed in advance of an attack.” As we shall see, Mr. Jastrow’s own argument leads to the conclusion that countering new Soviet ICBM deployments with orbiting lasers would be ludicrously expensive.
These pitfalls could be averted if the defensive weapons were “popped-up” into space on warning of attack. But this would pose insuperable time constraints: the defensive weapon must rise to a height of at least 650 miles before the enemy booster completes firing, feasible with current slow-burning Soviet missiles, but hardly practical against a Soviet equivalent of the much faster MX. Furthermore, the Soviets could readily develop boosters that finish burning too soon for any pop-up scheme to work.1 Claims that the Soviets would find it difficult to develop such “fast-burn” boosters should be laid to rest by noting that our SPRINT missile, which operated as a BMD interceptor in 1974, already demonstrated this technology.
In sum, no technical scheme exists for a comprehensive strategic defense free of fundamental conceptual flaws. As former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger has said, “In our lifetime and that of our children, cities will be protected by the forbearance of those on the other side, or through effective deterrence.” Nor is there any basis for Mr. Jastrow’s assertion that the reports of the “blue-ribbon panels,” appointed at the President’s request, are “as different” from our report “as day is from night.” The technical [Fletcher] panel’s summary emphasizes that “survivability of the system components is a critical issue whose resolution requires a combination of technologies and tactics that remain to be worked out.” Major General John C. Too may, the panel’s Deputy Chairman, has said that the panel tended to be “pessimistic whether these technical objectives could be realized but felt that, on balance, the research and engineering was well worth doing,” and that the difference between the panel’s qualified assessment and its recommendation is “like the difference between the horse you bet on and the sentimental favorite.”2
Not only is there no technical scheme, there is not even the vaguest outline for a political scenario that might propel us toward a defense-dominated world. That political factors are essential was recognized in the Fletcher report, which stated that the effectiveness of the defense would depend not only on technology, but also on the degree to which Soviet offensive forces could be constrained. Moreover, the Hoffman panel, which considered the strategic implications of SDI for the President, noted that the past behavior of the Soviets “suggests that they would be more likely to respond with a continuing build-up of their long-range offensive forces.”
Hence our disagreement with knowledgeable and candid supporters of SDI is one of risk assessment. They are gambling on the President’s “sentimental favorite,” in the hope that unforeseen technical advances might transform the prospects for strategic defense, and are not as troubled as we are by the risks that the pursuit of SDI would entail. Our studies persuaded us that all the envisaged BMD schemes are ruinously expensive, and could not protect the United States from utter destruction because they could be readily overwhelmed or outfoxed at much less cost. We shall also explain why the very attempt to proceed toward a comprehensive missile defense will provoke a massive escalation of the competition in offensive nuclear weapons, and increase the likelihood of nuclear war.
Why should a thrust toward strategic defense have any risks beyond galloping budget deficits? What is the harm in trying? This has been answered by the Hoffman panel: defenses that could withstand a small attack, but would collapse under a large onslaught, are highly provocative. In the early stages of BMD deployment we would have just such a defense, as well as vulnerable land-based missiles. This would have two grave hazards. First, the Soviets would fear that if the U.S. were to attack preemptively our defense could cope with their surviving missiles; they would also know that our defense could, at most, provide poor protection of our vulnerable missiles against a Soviet first strike. This would greatly enhance their incentive to attack preemptively in a serious crisis.
Second, Soviet leaders have asserted that they would avert this predicament by enlarging their offensive capabilities. This build-up would emphasize submarine-based cruise missiles, which underfly space defenses and provide little warning; ICBM’s equipped with countermeasures against U.S. defense; and anti-satellite weapons to attack our BMD space platforms. Painfully aware of the fragility of our embryonic defense, we would find such Soviet moves highly provocative, and respond in kind. A budding BMD system is therefore a catalyst for an acceleration of the offensive arms race, not for reductions in offensive arms, as many SDI advocates claim.
SDI is often portrayed as a benign research program. But a program launched from the Oval Office, described as a vital element in the nation’s future strategic posture, and funded at already so lavish a level, is not merely a research project. It will not be so treated by the Soviets, no matter what we may say or believe. Modern military systems take many years to develop, so the Soviets will feel compelled to initiate programs to counter the still unborn U.S. defense. Hence SDI is likely to enmesh us in a more dangerous offensive confrontation even if it is eventually abandoned before any defenses are deployed. Those who find this farfetched have not learned the saga of MIRV—the multiple-warhead ICBM. We invented MIRV’s as a BMD countermeasure. When the Soviets installed a rudimentary ABM system, we forged ahead with MIRV development, and then to deployment after the ABM treaty prevented the Soviets from installing a defense that made MIRV’s necessary. The Soviets then followed suit. As a result, the incentive for a preemptive strike has grown because a single warhead can destroy many MIRVed enemy warheads before they are launched. Now there is a consensus that MIRVing was a dangerous mistake; former MIRV advocates such as Henry Kissinger look back fondly to the days of one warhead per missile.
We are also disturbed that the mere prospect of lavish funds is already giving SDI a life of its own. With jobs, university research, profits, and promotions at stake, such an enterprise can quickly turn into a juggernaut that cannot be stopped even when it is clear that its goals are unattainable.
Many officials now realize that SDI holds no promise for population defense, and so ersatz rationales are coming into vogue. The most popular is that a partially effective BMD would bolster deterrence because defenses would compound the problem of planning an attack.3 True enough, if the offense stays frozen while the defense is installed. But each superpower’s highest priority is a nuclear arsenal that can, with full confidence, penetrate to its opponent’s vital targets. Only technologies far more robust and inexpensive than anything now dreamed of could alter that priority.4
Another fashionable rationale is that even a modest BMD could protect us from accidental launches and from terrorists. But protection from accidental launch by the superpowers does not require space weapons. Devices installed on ballistic missiles to destroy them on receipt of secure, encrypted radio messages would suffice. And attack by terrorists would hardly come via ICBM. Delivery of nuclear explosives by plane, ship, or diplomatic pouch would be far easier. A nuclear weapon hidden in a bale of marijuana would apparently find ready entry into the U.S. The cost of one laser battle station uselessly orbiting would pay for legions of secret agents who could actually grapple with this threat.
There are those who favor SDI because they believe it best exploits the great U.S. advantage in high technology. Their position seems to be supported by the apprehension that Soviet leaders express so vigorously about SDI. Is that not enough reason to pursue the program?
We have observed and participated in the nuclear competition since its inception. Thanks to U.S. technological superiority, virtually every new technical initative has come from the United States: the fission bomb, the hydrogen bomb, the intercontinental bomber, submarine-launched missiles, high-accuracy ICBM’s, MIRV’s, and high-accuracy long-range cruise missiles. The only significant Soviet initiative was the ICBM itself, but our ICBM’s quickly surpassed those of the Soviets in both quality and numbers. The net result has been a steady erosion of American security. There is no evidence that space weapons will be an exception. It is true that we have a significant edge in all the technologies that strategic defense would depend on. But in the nuclear era a sophisticated defense can be foiled by relatively rudimentary means. Which is easier: the construction or the disruption of an exquisitely shaped mirror 30-feet across which must swiftly turn from one target to another with very high accuracy? Moreover, it is cheap to build devastating weapons that could readily penetrate our exorbitantly expensive “shield.” Unless there is a breakthrough in defense as revolutionary as nuclear weapons themselves, the strategic offense will reign supreme.
But if so, why are the Soviets so opposed to SDI? Because they are exceedingly cautious, and have been playing catch-up with American nuclear technology since 1945. Soviet military planners are obliged to take American pronouncements, however implausible, much more seriously than American strategists, and will respond with an offensive build-up and by expanding their already significant BMD research effort.5 They seem to recognize that this will require vast expenditures they can ill afford, and that the net result will be a decrease in their national security. The same would be true for us.
We should vigorously exploit our technological advantage to acquire military intelligence about the Soviet Union, to strengthen our strategic command-and-control systems, and to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons. The search for new BMD techniques must go on, but the distinction between research and deployment should not be blurred. But in assessing military technologies we must recognize that any attempt by either superpower to increase the threat to the other’s survival will soon redound to its own disadvantage.
We now return to Mr. Jastrow’s caricature of our case against SDI. He would have readers believe that the prospects for SDI can be decided on the basis of just two numbers that we had calculated incorrectly in our earliest report, Space-Based Ballistic Missile Defense (Union of Concerned Scientists, March 1984); and that our “many major errors . . . go in one direction only—toward making the President’s plan seem impractical, costly, and ineffective.”
What did we set out to do? Since there is no plausible concept for strategic defense, we sought to fill this void. To that end the technical portions of our report assessed separately the interception mechanisms; illustrated the magnitude of the defender’s task by estimating the size of the defensive system required in the absence of all countermeasures; and examined a large variety of countermeasures. A realistic net assessment would integrate the last two items, and incorporate the likely enhancements of Soviet offensive capabilities. Had we carried that through in a hard-nosed fashion it would have led to the conclusion that the cost and size of the defensive system are unbounded. Why? Because the largely unknown defensive technologies, whose ultimate effectiveness is still a matter of speculation, would be pitted against prodigiously effective weapons and many known countermeasures invented during twenty-five years of BMD research. We firmly believe that countermeasures will carry the day into the foreseeable future.
Mr. Jastrow’s two make-or-break numbers are the size of the laser constellation that would have to be in orbit and the weight of a neutral-particle-beam weapon. Regarding the satellite number, he claims that “the whole ‘Star Wars’ plan rested on this one point.” But it is at least as important whether orbiting lasers could themselves withstand attack. As for neutral-particle-beam weapons, he asserts that they are “that most promising destroyer of Soviet missiles and warheads,” but neglects to mention that once fast-burn boosters are developed they would be completely shielded from such beams by the atmosphere—the reason we relegated our discussion of the characteristics of such devices to a technical appendix.6
Mr. Jastrow’s allegation that our work contains “many major errors” is both false and undocumented. We erred twice in our first report: in arriving at the number of 2,400 satellites and in estimating the weight of the particle-beam weapon; but these errors had hardly any bearing on our overall assessment of SDI, were corrected in public at our first opportunity five weeks after the initial report was issued, and do not appear in any of our subsequent publications.
The calculation of the number of satellites is not simple. For example, the “fine work by the theoretical physicists at Los Alamos,” to which Mr. Jastrow alludes,7 makes just the mistake that we had made, even though it appeared four months after our report was publicly corrected. The claim that “the experts had been looking at this problem for more than ten years, and the accurate results were well known” is not correct.
How many satellites must then dance on top of a laser beam? Mr. Jastrow implies that the calculation that produces the smallest number of satellites is the most accurate, a clear absurdity. A small satellite fleet is much more vunerable than a large one. Indeed, there is no “right” number of satellites, for it depends on a host of unknown performance parameters, the nature of the attack, etc. Given the present level of ignorance, all such calculations are based on ad-hoc assumptions of varying degrees of implausibility. They are meant to be illustrative, and bear no relation to actual designs, since they all ignore a host of factors that would greatly increase the number of satellites. Taking the rather small differences in assumed parameters into account, our corrected estimate of 300 laser stations is consistent with those by Carter, Drell et. al,8 a fact Mr. Jastrow neglected to mention.
Unfortunately, Mr. Jastrow has failed to notice that he is impaled on his own sword, blunt instrument though it may be. “Everyone acknowledges that these satellites are going to be extremely expensive; each one will cost a billon dollars or more,” he says. Quite so. What would be the cost trade-off if the Soviets were to deploy a cluster of 3,000 small three-warhead fast-burn ICBM’s at a cost of about $50 billion?9 Let us accept Mr. Jastrow’s favorite satellite-number calculation,10 and his cost per satellite. We then find that it would cost the U.S. $1 trillion to deploy the additional space defenses required by this new $50 billion threat!11
Mr. Jastrow has painted a picture of the Senate hearing at which our errors were rectified that does not conform with the hearing record.12 He asserts that our statement on the particle-beam weapon ended with the sentence: “Our colleagues have pointed out that the area could be increased after the beam leaves the small accelerator.” Mr. Jastrow then charges us with deceiving the Senators because we did not say that this correction brought with it a great saving in weight. But that was not all that happened. The written testimony of our witness, Richard L. Garwin, distributed before the hearing to the press and the committee, and reproduced in the hearing record, actually reads: “. . . leaves the small accelerator, saving a great deal of weight” (emphasis added). Before our witness took the floor, Donald Kerr, the Director of Los Alamos, had said:
I think the UCS report in many ways helps to illustrate the great difficulty involved in first devising and then developing the technology that might be used for strategic defense. They have properly focused on the concerns with command and control, countermeasures, and vulnerability. In some cases I think their analysis has either been overly simplified for the purpose of the public document that it is, or at least in one case, they are totally in error.
Kerr then described our error concerning satellite numbers, and explained how we had overestimated the weight of the particle-beam weapon. He then went on to say:
So I think on the one hand UCS has done a service to the country in raising these issues. I would hope that a longer-term, more sophisticated analysis, albeit one still in the open unclassified literature, might dispel some of the inaccuracies that are also in it.
That analysis was already under way, and is continuing. It is reflected in our October 1984 Scientific American article and in our book, The Fallacy of Star Wars. When our witness testified, there was little point in going over these errors yet again.13
The allegation that we systematically tilted the case against “the President’s plan” is untrue. In fact, we granted it every benefit of the doubt allowed by the laws of physics: beams that would be aimed instantly from one booster to the next without ever missing; laser weapons having a lethality far beyond that for which not even conceptual designs exist; no redundancy to compensate for attrition due to enemy action; no growth in the size and capability of the Soviet ICBM force. No military system in history has ever attained the level of perfection that we granted to “the President’s plan.” (One of us, Richard L. Garwin, even made an original suggestion that greatly improves the prosspects for the ground-based laser scheme.)
Mr. Jastrow opens his attack on our treatment of countermeasures by admitting that “I am not an expert in this dark area,” and then reveals that (always anonymous) professionals of his acquaintance “regard many of [the UCS] proposals as bordering on inanity.” His rendition of our treatment of countermeasures is another caricature. It is he who emphasizes “tricks” like spinning the missile or “putting a shine on it.” We focused on techniques that would prevent accurate targeting on the booster, on measures that would greatly increase the power levels needed for destruction, and on the inherent vulnerability of spacecraft. He would also have readers believe that decoy balloons are a kind of schoolboy prank, but in reality they have been studied for over two decades14 by “defense professionals,” and are taken very seriously.
This picture of us as babes in the cruel woods of countermeasures does not wash. One of us (Richard L. Garwin) recently participated in the Discrimination Countermeasures Panel of the Army’s BMD Program Office. We (in particular Richard L. Garwin and Kurt Gottfried) have had repeated contacts with senior members of the Fletcher panel. They have given our countermeasure suggestions serious consideration in those few cases where they had not already been studied by the panel. Since some of these men are devoted advocates of SDI, and not shy, we wonder why these charges of “inanity” have not been voiced in public, but have been whispered only into Mr. Jastrow’s ear.
Mr. Jastrow seems perplexed as to how some of “the giants of 20th-century physics” could have “lent their names” to an effort that is “pretty good for high-school students, but not good enough to stand up to more than a thirty-minute scrutiny by the defense professionals.” He attempts to resolve his paradox by quoting Lowell Wood of Livermore: “Is Hans Bethe a good physicist? Yes, he’s one of the best alive. Is he a rocket engineer? No. Is he a military-systems engineer? No. Is he a general? No.”
As this quotation is intended to discredit all our work on these matters, we reluctantly respond. Three of us (Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, and Henry W. Kendall) have together had a total of over eight decades of extensive experience with a wide variety of military systems, including BMD technologies and countermeasures, extending to nuclear-weapons designs and effects and missile-and-reentry-vehicle development. Another (Carl Sagan) has a twenty-five-year continuing involvement in the development of major U.S. space projects. While none of us is a general (in contrast, we presume, to Messrs. Jastrow and Wood), a member of our study panel, Noel Gayler, is an admiral who has served as Commander-in-Chief of all U.S. forces in the Pacific, Director of the National Security Agency, Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Research and Development, and as Deputy Director of the Joint Strategic Target Planning Staff, which is responsible for the operational plans for all our strategic-nuclear forces.
Mr. Jastrow concedes that we did not engage “in a deliberate, conscious effort to deceive,” but surmises that our “rational judgments [were] clouded by ideological preconceptions.” What are these “preconceptions”? A defense against Soviet missiles, he quotes us as believing, would “‘have a profoundly destabilizing effect on the nuclear balance, increasing the risk of nuclear war,’” and “‘could well produce higher numbers of fatalities’ than no defense at all.” But those are not ideological preconceptions. They are the unhappy conclusions to which our analysis has inexorably led. We stand by them.
Hans A. Bethe
Richard L. Garwin
Henry W. Kendall
Victor F. Weisskopf
Ithaca, New York
Massachusetts Institute of
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow attempts to defend “Star Wars” by criticizing other analysts rather than by setting forth his own analysis. This approach would be inconclusive even if Mr. Jastrow were correct. As it happens, Mr. Jastrow’s four criticisms of the Congressional Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) Background Paper which I authored are technically in error. His essay therefore does not offer a serious alternative treatment of this vital national-security issue.
Let me take the four points in turn.
Mr. Jastrow’s first and main criticism rests on his proposition that if the Soviet Union increased its arsenal of missiles by a certain factor to try to overwhelm a U.S. laser defense, the U.S. would have to increase its constellation of orbiting lasers by the square root of that factor. This is wrong. The true dependence is closer to a direct proportionality, which the OTA report uses. Mr. Jastrow’s proposition would be true if Soviet missiles were distributed uniformly over an enormous area and the U.S. laser satellites were at the same altitude as the missiles. These are hardly good approximations to the real world, where Soviet missiles are deployed in a band stretching from east to west across the Soviet Union and the lasers are in space. Careful calculations making few simplifying assumptions have recently been completed by competent government scientists, notably at the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory. Mr. Jastrow’s most misleading error, of course, is implying that constellation size is the key to judgments of the plausibility of “perfect” defense, whereas in fact it is a relatively insignificant issue.
Second, in his footnote 10, Mr. Jastrow criticizes a pedagogical device used in the OTA report, which involved deploying satellites in clusters. This short-cut has little effect on most calculations, since time averages of the constellation coverage enter these calculations. This pedagogy was intended to avoid confusing the reader, but seems to have confused Mr. Jastrow, who thinks it is a serious “error.”
Third, Mr. Jastrow misunderstands the calculation of the number of terminal interceptors needed for nationwide coverage. One thousand defensive batteries are needed for nationwide defense because the missile interceptors in each battery have limited range, not because “1,000 sites in the United States need to be defended,” as Mr. Jastrow supposes. The OTA report makes clear that 280,000 interceptors would be needed only if one aspired to a literally leakproof defense that would prevent all Soviet warheads from detonating on U.S. territory. The point of the calculation was to show how absurd that aspiration is. Mr. Jastrow got the point, but missed the irony.
Fourth, Mr. Jastrow claims that the OTA report said that one-tenth of an inch of lead could shield a Soviet booster from a neutral particle beam. This is indeed untrue, as Mr. Jastrow suggests, but the report does not say any such thing. Mr. Jastrow has confused “a few centimeters of lead” on page 49 of the OTA report with “a few grams per square centimeter” on page 50. The point made on those pages was that covering the entire upper-missile stage rather than just parts of it with enough shielding is impractical, a point with which Mr. Jastrow agrees but thinks the report missed.
Mr. Jastrow is therefore wrong on every single point. But there is an interesting pattern to his errors. Last July some Defense Department contractors, in an equally clumsy attack on the OTA report, made exacty the same spurious “criticisms”! How did Mr. Jastrow hit upon precisely the same points as these contractors? Obviously he was simply parroting them, unaware that they were incorrect.
It is furthermore a matter of public record that OTA convened a panel last summer to review these criticisms of its report. The results of this review were conveyed by OTA’s Director to Congress and to the Department of Defense. The panel consisted of Charles Townes (Nobel laureate, discoverer of the laser, and adviser to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger), William Perry (former Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering), and General Glenn Kent (USAF, retired). This panel also found no substance to precisely those criticisms that now, six months later, Mr. Jastrow “discovers.”
Robert Jastrow has taken up the lonely task of championing the notion of perfect defense of the United States, a task that is widely agreed to be a poor basis for the Strategic Defense Initiative’s research program. To succeed he will need to ask those who are aiding him to keep him better informed.
The issue of strategic defense is not a simple one of “for” and “against.” There are many shades in between. The dim prospect for leakproof nuclear defense is a fact that will not be dispelled by shooting the messenger. Moreover, recognizing that fact does not end, but just begins, a serious discussion of other missions for missile defense. COMMENTARY would serve its readers better by drawing out this variety of views rather than by seeking simplistically to set up opposing camps.
Ashton B. Carter
John F. Kennedy School of Government
To the Editor:
I always look forward to the writings of Robert Jastrow, who manages to be lucid when analyzing the most complex subjects. All the more bewildering, then, his paragraph disposing of decoy balloons.
The picture he paints of laser beams sorting out the decoys from the warheads, after which particle or other beams go after the warheads, somehow does not jibe with my vision of one bullet hitting another, both traveling at enormous speed through the immensity of space. How does one “observe” the recoil of a tapped balloon at such great distances and blazing speeds? Are all the balloons tapped simultaneously, with separate laser beams? Does the device then remember which ones carry warheads, all the while tracking each one? If each of the balloons must be intercepted for identification, why not use the same number of beams to attack? If it is possible to intercept them all, is it not then irrelevant which of them carry warheads? Please, Mr. Jastrow, this subscriber would appreciate a bit more detail.
A. L. Drumwright
To the Editor:
As an engineer, I would like to disagree with one aspect of Robert Jastrow’s defense of the “Star Wars” ABM concept.
His technique for making such a system sound plausible, and for making the possible defensive measures against it sound absurd, is to attribute virtually unlimited ingenuity to those people who are to design the missile-destroying system, and virtual imbecility to those who are to foil it. For example, he says that if the Soviets try, among other things, to spin their missiles and shine them up, “their missile program will be tied in knots.” And what is the fatal flaw in the shininess defense? According to Mr. Jastrow, simply that “no shine is perfect,” and, given time, a sufficiently powerful laser could burn through it. With a wave of his authoritative hand he has implied that we can deliver massive amounts of focused radiative energy against a distant target for as long as necessary, whereas the Soviets will throw in the towel at the very prospect of mirroring their missiles. Is this the kind of meticulous analysis that Mr. Jastrow would substitute for the supposedly biased science of the Union of Concerned Scientists? In reality, there are many pros and cons to the idea of a durable, reflective missile surface. How reflective can a surface be made? Can we allow it to erode like a heat shield while maintaining control of the missile? On the other hand, can we invent a weapon, by an effort which will not tie our military economy in knots, which can overcome with near 100 percent reliability an optimally reflective, robust missile surface?
Such questions are real. One need not be soft on Communism to contemplate them. Perhaps shininess and all other possible defensive measures could be overcome by some attainable, affordable laser technology. However, it is certainly possible that they might not; the idea of missile durability does not “border on inanity.” If Mr. Jastrow really thinks so, then I suggest that his judgment is at least as “clouded by ideological preconceptions” as he claims that of the UCS scientists to be, despite his pose of sweet reasonableness.
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow’s “The War Against ‘Star Wars’” was, like all his writing, clearly conceived and powerfully delivered. I agree completely with his scientific arguments; they needed to be made. Yet in the end I was alarmed and frustrated; Mr. Jastrow has provided the right answers, but in doing so he has legitimized some very wrong questions.
The most crucial fact in this entire debate is one that has been totally ignored: “Star Wars” is not an American initiative, it is a response. The Soviet Union has the initiative. . . .
The data supporting this statement are easily researched; they have been available in the popular press for at least seven years, and important scientific clues have been available in technical journals for nearly a decade before that. The most important article, “Soviets Push for Beam Weapons,” was published in the May 2, 1977 issue of Aviation Week. The intelligence data contained in the article suggested that the Soviet program was at that point already six to ten years old and was very broad and deep. Jane’s Defense Weekly, this year, reported that the Soviets are clearly ahead despite the very broad industrial base America can draw from.
The ramifications of this simple fact are enormous. For instance, Mr. Jastrow excuses the Union of Concerned Scientists on the grounds that “their rational judgments can be clouded by their ideological preconceptions.” Yet most of these scientists, led by Harold Brown, were deeply involved in the effort to discount all the evidence of the Soviet program throughout the 70’s. Interestingly, this brought them in direct conflict with Air Force intelligence and the data gathered by reconnaissance satellites, the very sources these same scientists claimed could be relied upon for verification of SALT provisions, negating the need for on-site inspections. No, these scientists are not innocents, they are quite familiar with Soviet efforts in this field. . . .
But the more important issue is the way such weapons tie in with the evolving strategic picture. The Soviets already possess a first-strike capability, an existing ABM system which violates the ABM treaty and forms the basis for a multilayered ballistic-missile-defense system, and an extensive civil-defense program. Were they to succeed in being first to emplace even an austere version of “Star Wars,” the temptation to launch a first strike would very likely be irresistible. Whatever would be left of the U.S. strategic forces after a first strike might well be handled by the defensive system they are currently building. Even if events proved them wrong, once they acted upon obvious calculations, the world would see a nuclear war. Thus, Mr. Jastrow’s tacit acceptance of the UCS argument that “Star Wars” is potentially destabilizing legitimizes a very wrong-headed perception of reality—the situation is already seriously destabilized and the Strategic Defense Initiative is a minimum attempt to restabilize it.
Even the MX missile plays a significant role in the accurate perception of “Star Wars.” All our current ballistic missiles, both ICBM’s and SLBM’s, are so weight-limited that they offer no potential for modifications which might make them effective a decade from now. Only MX and a projected version of Trident provide sufficient flexibility to incorporate a response to whatever emerges from the massive Soviet beam-weapon program. Midgetman, against any potential Soviet defense system, is an anachronistic joke.
One more point—no matter how permeable or vulnerable the space battle stations envisaged in the Strategic Defense Initiative might be, in launching a first strike the Soviets would have to deal with them first. Such action eliminates all possibility of surprise. Indeed, it eliminates even the very idea of a first strike, since action against American satellites would fully justify a launch-on-warning stance for American strategic forces, as well as immediate counter-strikes against Soviet satellites and any battle stations. The corollary of this time-sequencing is that, while launching a thousand complex missiles within thirty minutes is a very difficult technical feat, launching sufficient numbers to overwhelm a “Star Wars” defense within the time-frame necessary to achieve an effective first strike is likely to remain impossible for quite a while. . .
Thomas J. Rath
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow’s dismissal of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ proposals for countermeasures to the “Star Wars” defensive system leaves me more than a bit confused about how thoroughly the author and the unnamed “experts” to whom he so often refers understand the criticisms they rebut.
Mr. Jastrow seems to refute the charge that cheap “balloon” decoys could degrade the performance of a defensive system by conceding the validity of the point. Decoys are intended to force a defensive system to waste precious time and energy by engaging both decoys and balloon-enclosed warheads. Mr. Jastrow’s announcement that “a sharp pulse of laser light” will cause decoy balloons to reveal their identity by their rate of recoil comes as no revelation to this inquisitive citizen, as I have never heard a “Star Wars” critic argue to the contrary.
Mr. Jastrow seems also not to have thought through his remarks on the utility of spinning and shining ICBM boosters as a means of complicating the job of defensive-beam weapons. Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, and others have proposed the use of a strippable outer coating on missile boosters to reduce the dulling effect that launch would have on a booster shined to reflect laser light. The coating would shed once the missile moved above the atmosphere and within the range of laser weapons.
As for Mr. Jastrow’s observation that a laser firing in pulses would be able to concentrate its energy on a single point on a spinning missile, I must say that a lot of confidence is placed in the laser weapon’s ability to track and determine the rate of spin of a fast-moving object at long range. A simple countermeasure to a tactic such as Mr. Jastrow describes would be to vary the rate of spin of the missile once incident laser light is detected.
Specific counter-rebuttals aside, several of the tendencies apparent in the article were disturbing to me. Mr. Jastrow’s trust in the proclamations of his communicants in the defense community, whose “ideological preconceptions,” while unexamined, must certainly be as clouding of judgment as those of the UCS scientists, and his representation . . . that only professional military-systems analysts can assess competently the merits of the “Star Wars” proposal, lead me to suspect that Mr. Jastrow never undertook a dispassionate analysis but sought instead opinions that reinforced his original enthusiasm for the proposal.
I must note, also, that there is no unanimity of opinion on “Star Wars” within the traditionally pro-defense community. Richard D. DeLauer, Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, testified before the House Armed Services Committee that “any defensive system can be overcome with proliferation and decoys, decoys, decoys, decoys.” Edward Teller has criticized defensive proposals that depend on satellite-based systems because such systems are “costly to put up and cheap to shoot down.” . . .
The most bothersome of Mr. Jastrow’s prejudices is his refusal to see criticisms of “Star Wars” for what they are, that is, attempts to inform the public of the vulnerabilities of a system only the putative virtues of which have been presented publicly by the Reagan administration. Mr. Jastrow does not detail the “promising new developments” that might defend components of a defensive system from space- or ground-based attack. I, and I am sure others, would appreciate any information on progress toward remedying the problem of satellite vulnerability. . . .
Edward F. Hennessey
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow states that “90 satellites—and perhaps somewhat fewer—are needed to counter a Soviet attack.” His argument, however, contains one profound flaw. He deals solely with the defensive systems needed to neutralize a massive attack of Soviet land-based missiles. The actual attack scenario would almost certainly include substantial numbers of submarine-launched missiles as well as cruise missiles that can be fired from a variety of platforms, both moving and stationary. This consideration would exponentially magnify the task of the defense. Indeed, even if the oceans were rendered “transparent” by evolving technology, the cruise missile, relatively inexpensive and readily camouflaged, might easily overwhelm any combination of defensive systems.
Other considerations abound, such as the destabilizing nature of any truly effective defensive system and the obvious inference that its deployment might trigger the very suicidal confrontation that all nations seek to avoid.
I would also assume that any defensive system resulting in the physical destruction of thousands of warheads would result in a literal rain of radioactive bomb components into the atmosphere and thence to the surface of the earth. I wonder if Mr. Jastrow’s celluloid computer has taken this into account.
David R. Perles, M.D.
Woodruff Community Hospital
Long Beach, California
To the Editor:
Even if a satellite-type ABM system could be made 100-percent effective against ICBM’s, the U.S. would still be vulnerable to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, or cruise-type missiles launched from bombers.
Moreover, the deployment of the “Star Wars” system, intended only for defense, could lead to a far more precarious situation than we are in today.
If it were possible to place a working satellite system above the Soviet Union, our weapons-controllers would be tempted to arm those satellites with nuclear warheads; overwhelmingly tempted. The Soviets would certainly react, not necessarily by trying to disrupt or destroy our “Star Wars” system, but by deploying one of their own, albeit with inferior safety controls.
If such systems are deployed, they will dangerously diminish the response time to suspected attack. Instead of fifteen to thirty minutes, the President or Premier will have about sixty seconds to respond to signs of an adversary’s nuclear strike. Hence, both the U.S. and Soviet Union would almost certainly revert to a “launch-on-warning” system, computer-controlled and unalterable by human judgment.
Worse yet, the Soviets, knowing the inferiority of their own radar and signaling equipment, might place their whole nuclear network on a state of constant alert—in which the “red button” does not initiate but merely restrains the launching of their nuclear missiles. Hence, if that trigger were destroyed, a Soviet nuclear attack would automatically follow.
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow exposes and dramatically debunks some of the errors committed by the enemies of the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars” proposal, in their blind attempt to kill this program. However, in addition to claiming erroneously that the hardware required to implement SDI would be virtually impossible to develop, opponents also offer flawed arguments that it would violate the ABM treaty and would stimulate a new defensive arms race.
One way SDI opponents bias their discussions against the feasibility of the hardware is to confine their attention to a perfectly leakproof defense . . ., even though the cost and technical risk of a partially effective nuclear-missile-defense system would be far less than the cost of a leakproof defense. Also, a leaky nuclear-missile defense would strengthen deterrence significantly by drastically reducing Soviet confidence in their ability to launch a successful first-strike nuclear attack. . . .
In an apparent attempt to frighten the public, opponents also declare that SDI violates the terms of the ABM treaty. But SDI is a research program of the kind that is not prohibited by the ABM treaty; it contains no development, testing, or deployment activities. If, in the future, the U.S. determines that it would be in the national interest to go beyond the research stage, then a new kind of activity not in the current SDI program would have to be initiated, and the U.S. would have to determine whether the new activity would violate treaty limits.
This attempt on the part of those who oppose SDI to mislead the public blurs the distinction between the administration’s SDI program, which is well within treaty limits, and some hypothetical program, which has neither been proposed nor planned, and which may or may not confront the treaty limits.
Arguments that SDI would trigger a new defensive arms race are contrary to the facts because the Soviets have been racing in this direction since well before the signing of the ABM treaty in 1972. During the past dozen years, they have developed a new, transportable, phased-array ABM radar and a new interceptor missile, both of which could be deployed rapidly should the Soviets choose to do so. (The U.S. has no equivalent deployable capability.) They have also upgraded the Moscow ABM defense system (the U.S. has no defense system), have deployed additional phased-array radars on their periphery for ABM target-acquisition support, and are now developing an advanced anti-tactical-missile-defense system that definitely has value for strategic-missile defense.
The attack against SDI seems to assume that all of the initiative in strategic defense lies with the U.S. It ignores the chilling and fairly obvious possibility that the Soviets will find it advantageous to accelerate their own strategic-defense programs or even break out of the ABM treaty. The political costs to the West of a substantial Soviet lead or break-out in defense would be great.
SDI should be pursued to give us a chance to strengthen the security of the U.S. and the rest of the world by making nuclear-ballistic missiles less useful as instruments of politics and war.
New York City
To the Editor:
Robert Jastrow faults the Union of Concerned Scientists for some unfortunately flawed calculations concerning the size and weight of satellites required to set up a “Star Wars” defense against Soviet ICBM’s and the numbers of such satellites that would be needed. But the case against a “Star Wars” defense is far more substantial and is based upon serious technical matters. The numbers and dimensions of “Star Wars” satellites are significant only if the X-ray lasers, optical lasers, and particle beams will actually function. The UCS’s The Fallacy of Star Wars raises many doubts about these weapons, doubts which Mr. Jastrow ignores in his article. . . .
The use of X-ray lasers powered by nuclear explosions and launched at the time of a Soviet attack would require building a new fleet of submarines to launch the “pop-up” X-ray laser weapons, since we have no satisfactory land bases close enough to Soviet silos to enable us to intercept Soviet ICBM’s in the short time which will be available. We would also have to build attack submarines and surface vessels to protect the X-ray laser submarines. The X-rays of this type of laser are unable to penetrate the atmosphere, . . . and the Soviets could easily shorten the boost phase of their ICBM’s to end before the missiles have left the atmosphere. The Union of Concerned Scientists has concluded that “the X-ray laser is not a viable BMD weapon.” . . .
In addition, . . . the concept of using the weapons as “pop-up interceptions” is not feasible. The Soviets have located their silos in the area of the Trans-Siberian railway at about 55 degrees latitude. The area closest to these silos that American forces can reasonably use is the Arabian Sea to the south of Pakistan, about 23 degrees latitude. The X-ray lasers would have to be launched to a point where they can fire at the Soviet ICBM’s while they are out of the atmosphere and still boosting. Assuming an interception altitude of 110 kilometers, the distance from a submarine to a satisfactory interception firing point for an X-ray laser would have to be at least 1,200 kilometers.
Assuming far more powerful propellants than those currently in use, the minimum flight time of an X-ray laser from launch submarine to interception-firing point would be 120 seconds. To these 120 seconds we have to add the time involved in the decision to launch the X-ray lasers: the processing and verification of satellite warnings that ICBM’s are being launched: the acquisition, processing, and transmssion of targeting information; and the firing of the X-ray lasers from the submarines. According to John Steinbruner, in the January 1984 issue of Scientific American, 120 seconds would be needed merely to process and verify the data from the early-warning satellites. Regardless of how long this takes, the 120-second flight time of the X-ray lasers is far short of the 50-second booster time the Soviets would be able to achieve for their ICBM’s.
Submarines are also crippled by their inability to fire all their X-ray lasers in a single salvo. The first launch would give away the submarine’s position and invite a Soviet attack.
The interception of Soviet ICBM’s during their boost phase is the most important consideration of the “Star Wars” defense. The large ICBM’s are easier to locate and track than relatively small warheads after they have been released from the final stage of ICBM’s. The Reagan administration’s own Defense Technologies Study Team, headed by James C. Fletcher, agreed that a “Star Wars” defense is impossible unless the great majority of Soviet ICBM’s were intercepted during the boost-phase of their flight. X-ray lasers are clearly not feasible for boost-phase interception. The much-touted particle-beam weapons fired from orbiting satellites are also not feasible because of the effect of the atmosphere and the magnetic field of the earth upon particle beams. The particles from neutral-particle-beam weapons would, if fired into the atmosphere, encounter air molecules in the upper atmosphere and disintegrate into charged particles which would be pulled by the earth’s magnetic field, resulting in a steady increasing of the width and consequent decreasing of the intensity of the particle beam. . . .
Optical lasers, which emit light in the infrared (chemical lasers), ultraviolet (excimer lasers), and visible (free-electron lasers) portions of the spectrum, may also be unsuitable for interception of Soviet ICBM’s during their boost phase. The wave nature of light means that the edges of the beams will tend to spread out increasingly over increasing distance. This means that the size of a spot upon which a laser can be focused increases in proportion to the distance from the target. Since the energy carried by a laser beam spreads over distance, the effectiveness of a laser weapon decreases over distance in proportion to the square of the distance. The energy needed for optical lasers suggests they could be functional only in low orbits where they would be vulnerable to attack from Soviet anti-satellite weapons of various sorts. Clouds of fine abrasives, for example, could be used to damage the laser mirrors. Clouds of light-absorbing substances could be used to limit the efficiency of the mirrors. Battle stations in space are much more vulnerable than boost-phase ICBM’s to a wide variety of rather crude attacks.
The “Star Wars” defense would have to have battle-management systems that would deal with hundreds of thousands of objects. For this we would need computers able to carry out at least hundreds of millions and probably billions of authentic operations each second. Even if huge strides in computer technology were to produce hardware able to perform such gigantic numbers of operations per second, other problems connected with the implementation of a “‘Star Wars” defense would probably never be resolved.
One very serious problem is that of designing and developing the programs (software) needed to direct the defense computers. Experience with the software involved in other defense systems as well as non-defense software indicates it will be extremely difficult—if not impossible—to create software capable of functioning properly in a nuclear attack. . . .
We could never be reasonably confident that a “Star Wars” defense with all its complex facets would function harmoniously and effectively during a strategic-nuclear attack. The “Star Wars” defense would be a gigantic, intricate assemblage, novel in conception, involving the farthest limits of advanced technology, and required to meet an extremely high performance standard, even though it could never be adequately tested.
Complex designs generate complex problems. All large computer programs contain flaws or bugs which decrease over use but which may never be entirely eliminated. . . . But no amount of simulated battle situations could satisfactorily examine the actual response of a complex “Star Wars” defense system to an actual nuclear attack. This is so not only because of flaws or bugs in software . . . but also because the precise nature of a nuclear attack, along with the enemy’s countermeasures, can never be known in advance. . . .
Robert Jastrow writes:
Edward Teller’s letter makes an apt comparison between the controversy over the feasibility of “Star Wars” and the H-bomb controversy of the early 1950’s. Confident in the superiority of American scientists, we were certain at that time that the decision to build the weapon rested solely with us. But we now know that the Soviets were in fact hard at work on their version of the H-bomb as we argued over whether it should be built at all.
Today, as we again debate the wisdom of research on another weapons system—this time, a system that destroys weapons rather than people—we assume that the decision will be made in this country, whereas in fact the Soviet Union is already hard at work on its own “Star Wars” program, and has been for many years. In the twelve years since the USSR signed the ABM treaty, the Soviet Union has, according to Secretary of Defense Weinberger, spent more on strategic defense than it has on its arsenal for strategic offense. Elements of the Soviet missile-defense effort that violate the ABM treaty in particularly conspicuous ways were publicized last October in a report to the President by the General Advisory Committee on Arms Control and Disarmament. Because of this massive Soviet strategic-defense effort, Mr. Teller rightly concludes, our government’s missile-defense program, officially known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, could better be called the Strategic Defense Response.
Soviet emphasis on a defense against missiles, and the total Soviet rejection of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), go back at least two decades. Andrei Gromyko called for the deployment of a missile defense by the superpowers in a speech to the UN in 1962, in which he strongly criticized the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction. Gromyko said the “balance of fear,” as he called it, kept the world in a “a permanent state of feverish tension.” He compared MAD to a duel in which the superpowers “raise their pistols, aim at each other’s foreheads, and wait for the other to shoot.”
James A. Abrahamson’s letter underscores the fact that attacks on his program by a few academic scientists are entirely at variance with the rapid technical progress being made by thousands of scientists and engineers who work full time on the “Star Wars” project. Even without access to classified information, a diligent reader of aerospace trade journals can gain tantalizing hints of extraordinary developments taking place in the basic technologies of missile defense.
It is also reassuring to have General Abrahamson, who is in a better position to know than anyone else, agree that various Soviet countermeasures to our defense—highly touted by the Union of Concerned Scientists and discussed in my article—are not holding up well under the scrutiny of the defense professionals. The Soviets have confirmed General Abrahamson’s evaluation of their countermeasures. If they thought the proposals put forward by the Union of Concerned Scientists were truly effective and inexpensive, they would not be trying so desperately to stop our “Star Wars” research. They would encourage us instead to go on with this expensive program that could be so cheaply countered by them. But they are fighting tooth and nail to kill the “Star Wars” project. Clearly, they disagree with the Union of Concerned Scientists and believe that it will cost them a great deal of money and trouble to counter our defense, if that can be done at all.
Lowell Wood of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory stresses a very significant point which has been made a number of times in my hearing by scientists working on defense matters. The university scientists who put forward the egregiously flawed arguments against missile defense have been repeatedly and firmly corrected by their colleagues in classified technical discussions that are not open to the public. But, as Mr. Wood notes with exasperation, after failing to make their case to their technical peers, they continue to present the same rejected arguments over and over again to the press and public.
One of the prime examples is the so-called “pop-up X-ray laser,” which requires much additional research and development but holds the promise of being a devastatingly effective destroyer of missiles. In the report by the Union of Concerned Scientists and in the recently published UCS book, The Fallacy of Star Wars, the pop-up X-ray laser is dismissed as a useless device, readily countered by Soviet fast-burn boosters—that is, by missiles that accelerate very quickly and burn out at an altitude of 50 miles or less. One UCS criticism relates to the fact that a fast-burn booster may burn out in the atmosphere at depths to which X-rays cannot penetrate. But this criticism turns out to be invalid when classified information relating to the intensity of the X-ray laser beam is taken into account.
The classified information, Mr. Wood notes, has been presented in face-to-face discussions with the critics, who have not contested the technical points being made. Yet the critics continue to make their pessimistic comments in public where they cannot be countered by the classified facts.
This behavior seems to me and many of my colleagues to be less than responsible.
I share with George Fishman his puzzlement over the fears of a space-based missile defense expressed by many academics. These fears seem indeed to be “irrational,” as Mr. Fishman says, because the space-based weapons proposed for the “Star Wars” defense are not weapons of mass destruction, and cannot blow up a city or incinerate millions of civilians. The weapons that can do that are on the ground, in silos and submarines. “Star Wars” space weapons do not kill people; they destroy the weapons that kill people.
The letter by Hans A. Bethe, Richard L. Garwin, Carl Sagan, et al. deals in its first section mainly with the strategic and political dimensions of missile defense. I should like to pass beyond these to the technical issues which were the principal thrust of my article, and take up those in order.
First, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues say that fast-burn boosters protect the Soviets from our neutral particle beams, because the neutral particle beam does not penetrate the atmosphere. The thought here is that the booster will reach full speed in 50 seconds and burn out at an altitude too low to be reached by the beam. But, as my article noted, the neutral particle beam is just as effective against the bus carrying the warheads after the booster has burned out, as it is against the booster itself. If the beam catches the bus early on, while most of its warheads are still on board, the results are just as good for our defense as destroying the booster would have been.
If the Soviets try to escape the neutral particle beam by pushing their warheads off the bus while it is still within the atmosphere, air drag will seriously degrade the accuracy of the warheads, with disastrous consequences for Soviet hopes of taking out our retaliatory forces. That problem might be overcome by putting every warhead on its own mini-bus, with separate guidance and steering rockets. But if the Soviets do that, the extra weight required will substantially diminish the total number of warheads carried on the missile, probably by a factor of 2 to 5. And when the warheads are released, they are still vulnerable to the neutral particle beam during the long mid-course phase of their flight, which lasts many minutes. So, if the Soviets go to the enormous expense and trouble of replacing all their missiles with 50-second boosters—and, as George Keyworth, the President’s Science Adviser, has noted, that means wiping out a fifteen-year investment in their missile force—it will avail them nothing.
In fact, the consensus among the experts is that the fast-burn booster, so highly regarded by the UCS and by Ashton B. Carter in his report to the OTA, is not a useful ploy for the Soviets. This has been pointed out to Mr. Garwin and other critics in classified discussions, but they continue to present their discredited arguments to the public “immune from the criticism of their technical peers,” as Mr. Wood has said.
Not only are fast-burn boosters ineffective against several defenses being designed in General Abrahamson’s program, but there is even some doubt among missile experts as to whether such a thing as a 50-second booster can ever be built on a mass-production basis and perform reliably. A rocket that accelerates from a standing start to roughly 15,000 miles an hour in less than a minute presents horrendous technical problems to the missile designer. Fast-burn rockets tend to explode and are not reliable; they get very hot because they move through the atmosphere so rapidly; and their structure must be stiffened to protect them against the battering forces created by their own acceleration. This last point imposes a heavy penalty on the Soviets, because the added weight must be compensated by the loss of a quarter to a third of the missile’s payload.
Mr. Bethe and his colleagues cite a report submitted to the Fletcher panel that suggests 50-second boosters are feasible, but fail to mention that after examining all the evidence available to it, the Fletcher panel concluded that the Soviets could not hope to deploy a missile of this kind before the 21st century. In the light of these circumstances, many people in the defense community find it impossible to understand why Mr. Bethe and the UCS put so much emphasis on the fast-burn booster as the Soviet response to our defense.
Turning to the question of the number of satellites needed for our defense, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues dispute my statement that the experts have been looking at this question for more than ten years. My remark was taken from an unclassified report dated May 9, 1984 by O. Judd of Los Alamos. I spoke with Mr. Judd recently and he confirmed the accuracy of the statement.
On this same matter, according to the Bethe letter, I imply that the calculation that produces the smallest number of satellites is the most accurate, which is a “clear absurdity.” Not at all. I only note that the UCS calculations went from 2,400 satellites down to 800, then to 300, and, in the most recent report on the matter by Mr. Garwin, to 162 satellites. This sequence of numbers, which started out at 2,400 satellites, seems to be converging to a result in the neighborhood of 100 satellites, which is where the professionals pegged their results all the while.
Anyone can draw his own conclusions from these facts. My impression is that the UCS theorists first did a hasty piece of work and then, under criticism, did more extended calculations, until finally Mr. Garwin did a careful analysis. Throughout this long learning process, their numbers came down steadily, until leveling off in the neighborhood of the right answer.
Hans A. Bethe and his colleagues allege that there is no right answer because the answer depends on many factors, some of them unknown. But there is a “right” answer to the specific theoretical problem which they addressed. For that particular problem they presented a calculation to the public which turned out to be wrong by a factor of about 24, and in a direction that made the “Star Wars” plan seem very costly and impractical.
The Bethe letter also mentions the “square-root law,” which is critical to the assessment of Soviet prospects for overwhelming our defense, because it indicates that we can overcome a massive build-up of Soviet missile forces with a relatively modest increase in the size of our satellite fleet. Richard L. Garwin’s detailed report of December 30, 1984 concedes the validity of this relationship. Yet the letter from Mr. Bethe and his colleagues states that Mr. Garwin has proven the Los Alamos report to be incorrect under “all but highly artificial circumstances.” How do we explain this contradiction?
The answer is in Mr. Garwin’s paper. He has invented another problem involving satellites and missiles, which is quite different from the problem that was analyzed by the Union of Concerned Scientists in its report, and then in its book, and by Ash ton B. Carter in his report to the OTA, and by G.H. Canavan and his colleagues at Los Alamos, and by C.T. Cunningham at the Livermore Laboratory. In this new problem, Mr. Garwin assumes that 3 seconds are needed, on the average, for a laser to swing around from one missile it has just destroyed, and lock its beam onto another missile. This is the so-called “retarget time,” which was assumed to be zero in all the calculations mentioned above. If the retarget time is indeed as long as 3 seconds, our laser-equipped satellites will be very inefficient at shooting down Soviet missiles, and many more satellites will be needed than the previous estimates assumed. We will lose not only the square-root law, but the entire effectiveness of this part of our defense.
But the design objectives in General Abrahamson’s program call for a retarget time of 0.1 seconds and not 3 seconds. If the retarget time is 0.1 seconds, the results for the number of satellites are not very different from those for zero retarget time. In particular, the important square-root law is valid.
But how can we hope, in a time as short as 0.1 seconds, to rotate the mirror that directs the laser beam, damp down its vibrations, and lock in on a new target? A retarget time of 0.1 seconds would indeed be difficult to achieve if the experts were planning to rotate the mirror mechanically to redirect the beam from one Soviet missile to another. But the “Star Wars” program is probably not going to do that. A part of its funding is going into research on an extraordinary new technology that uses “phase conjugate coatings,” which change the direction of the laser beam electronically in a fraction of a second, leaving the mirror fixed in place. The technique is essentially that used in phased-array radars, which do not rotate like the earlier radars, but sweep the sky electronically. This is a fascinating illustration of the black arts being practiced on the cutting edge of technology by the scientists and engineers working with General Abrahamson.
Mr. Bethe and his colleagues also take up the critically important question of cost ratios, saying it will cost us a trillion dollars in additional satellites to counter an increased Soviet missile force costing only $50 billion. With a cost ratio like that, we are lost before we start, for clearly the Soviets can overwhelm our defense by outbuilding us. But I have looked into the cost figures, and they turn out to be entirely different from those given by Mr. Bethe and his colleagues.
First, on the matter of the cost to the Soviets of building more missiles, the letter states that $50 billion will buy 3,000 fast-burn, three-warhead, Midgetman-type missiles, including the cost of warheads and silos plus ten years of maintenance. This amounts to about $15 million per missile, or $5 million per warhead. Missile designers do not know yet what a fast-burn missile would cost, because none has been designed or built, but we can get an idea of the cost by using the current life-cycle cost for the MX missile. This is $40 billion for 100 missiles, each containing 10 warheads. That works out to $400 million per missile, or $40 million per warhead.
The cost per warhead for the proposed Midgetman will certainly be more than that, first, because fast-burn boosters are a new generation of missiles that must be built to withstand the stress of high acceleration, and second, because the cost per warhead is greater for small missiles than for big ones. According to Mr. Carter, a fair guess for the cost per warhead of a fast-burn booster is two to three times the corresponding cost per warhead of the MX missile. It is safe to say the cost of the proposed new Soviet missiles is at least $40 million but probably not more than $100 million per warhead. Thus, 3,000 fast-burn Midgetman missiles will cost the Soviets between $400 billion and $1 trillion.
Now for the cost to us of our defensive satellites. Mr. Bethe and his colleagues say we will require an additional 964 missiles to counter the new Soviet satellites. Using the accepted ballpark figure of $1 billion per satellite, this works out to $1 trillion in round numbers. Where does the figure of 964 satellites come from? It rests on the assumption by Messrs. Bethe et al. that the Soviets will cluster all 3,000 new missiles tightly together in one spot. But is it conceivable that the Soviets would do that?
For several reasons, they would not. For one thing, if all the missiles are located in one spot, and all are launched at one time, the times of arrival at their various targets in the United States will be widely different. That means the Soviets cannot effect a surprise attack that would take out all at once our command structure, airfields, submarine bases, and missile silos, since these are located at widely different flight times from any single place in the USSR. Suppose the Soviets try to overcome this handicap by launching their missiles over an extended period of time, so as to achieve a simultaneous arrival at the various targets. Then our boost-phase defense becomes enormously more effective, because we can pick off the Soviet missiles one by one as they rise from their silos.
The so-called “point” launch will create other problems for the Soviets. If they launch from one location at one time, all their warheads and decoys are bunched tightly as they course through space. This reduces the retarget time for our mid-course defense and, again, greatly increases its effectiveness. It also makes the warheads ideal targets for the X-ray laser. Finally, putting all the Soviet missiles in one place increases the effectiveness of our terminal defense as well, because it then becomes difficult for the Soviets to “ladder down.” That refers to a technique for foiling our terminal defense in which the Soviets explode a nuclear weapon far above the missile silo or other target to create a fireball that will blind the ground radars on which our terminal defense depends. The fireball clears the way for another nuclear weapon that explodes and creates a fireball farther down, which clears the way for still another warhead, and so on, until finally the last warhead, swimming through these fireballs, reaches the target. But laddering down is impossible if all the missiles are in one place, unless they are launched at different times, and that is, as noted, disadvantageous to the Soviets for other reasons.
All in all, the last thing the Soviets are likely to do in response to our defense is to place their entire fleet of new missiles at one location.
But if the assumption that they would do this is removed, and the hypothetical new Soviet missiles are assumed to be spread across the Soviet land mass, as Soviet missiles are today, the number of American satellites required to counter their hypothetical attack goes way down. The reason is that the swath containing Soviet missile fields extends nearly a third of the way around the world at these latitudes. This considerably increases the chance that one missile or another in that vast expanse will be within the range of our satellites. The effect is to reduce by about a factor of approximately 3 the number of satellites required for our defense.
But there is more. The estimate of 964 satellites given by Mr. Bethe and his colleagues also assumes that the Soviets will have available to them a fast-burn booster that completes its acceleration from a standing start to full velocity in 50 seconds. This assumption means that each satellite has a very short time in which to attack the Soviet missiles, and therefore can destroy only a relatively small number of them. That means, in turn, that we need a large number of satellites to do the whole job.
As a practical matter, however, the goal of a 50-second booster is so difficult that the United States probably could not attain it until the late 1990’s, and the Soviets are not expected to achieve it until the 21st century. When the assumption of a 50-second burn time is removed, and the more realistic assumption is made that the Soviets will have boosters similar to our MX, which has a 180-second burn time, the number of satellites required for our fleet goes down to 88, or, in round numbers, to 100.
At a billion dollars a satellite, that brings our investment down to about $100 billion, compared to between $400 billion and $1 trillion for the Soviet investment. In other words, the ratio of costs is very favorable to our defense over their offense.
Next, Mr. Bethe and his colleagues take up the matter of the 40,000-ton accelerator, and suggest that my description of their testimony is distorted because I have omitted the important phrase, “saving a great deal of weight.” But I have the stenographic transcript of the hearing in front of me and it does not contain that phrase. Even if that phrase had been in the transcript, it would not have conveyed the full flavor of the difference between 25 tons in orbit and 40,000 tons in orbit; but in any event, it is not there.
Turning to Ashton B. Carter’s letter, objections are raised therein to four points in my criticism of his analysis. First, Mr. Carter says that the “square-root law,” to which I attribute much importance, is wrong. He refers to calculations by the Livermore Laboratory for support. But the Livermore report confirms the square-root law. I have in hand the Livermore report on this subject by C.T. Cunningham, dated August 30, 1984. It was one of the sources for my article. The report shows that a fleet of 60 satellites in orbit at an altitude of 300 kilometers will shoot down 97 percent of the Soviet missiles in a mass attack from all 1,400 Soviet missile silos; whereas 90 satellites will shoot down the same percentage of the Soviet missiles in a mass launch from 2,800 silos simultaneously. According to the square-root rule, a defense against the increased Soviet missile force should require √2×60 = 85 satellites. But if Mr. Carter’s analysis were correct, and the number of American satellites rose in proportion to the number of Soviet missiles, 120 satellites would be needed to counter the doubled threat. It is clear that the Livermore result is much closer to a square-root rule than it is to Mr. Carter’s result.
Mr. Carter says his hypothetical deployment of satellites in bunches or clusters was a pedagogical device. But his device has an unfortunate effect, for when the satellites are bunched we lose the square-root rule; and when they are unbundled, we get it back again.
Mr. Carter also says I misunderstood his calculations on the number of intercepting missiles needed for our terminal defense. I think I understand them all too well. Mr. Carter estimates our need for thousands of intercepting missiles on the assumption that the Soviets might throw their entire force against one defended site. This leads to a requirement of 280,000 intercepting missiles. That is an implausible number based on an implausible assumption.
In the matter of the lead shield against a neutral particle beam, Mr. Carter suggests that he has been misquoted. Here are his statements. On page 30, his report states that such shielding could be an “attractive countermeasure” for the Soviets. On page 50, the report states: “But if the third stage, say of the MX, were covered with a few grams per square centimeter of lead [about a tenth of an inch], the shielding would weigh as much as several RV’s [i.e., warheads]. On the other hand, if the neutral particle beam is only designed to disrupt or damage sensitive electronics . . . only the sensitive components need be shielded. The weight penalty then becomes small.” It seems to me that my article gives a fair account of the meaning of these remarks.
Finally, Mr. Carter says a panel of experts found no substance to criticisms of his report which had been directed against it by Los Alamos and other groups. Most important among these is a 57-page technical memorandum issued by the Los Alamos Laboratory that contained many detailed criticisms of Mr. Carter’s work, some of them devastating. According to Mr. Carter, the panel refuted these criticisms. But the panel that endorsed Mr. Carter’s report offered no technical arguments whatsoever to counter the carefully reasoned criticisms offered by the Los Alamos scientists. The Los Alamos critique was a serious study, bearing on a matter vitally important to the security of the United States, and its criticisms had to be either rebutted or accepted. The distinguished panel of three experts cited by Mr. Carter did neither. As C. Paul Robinson, Principal Associate Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory pointed out, their benediction, unaccompanied by a technical backup, was without value. Mr. Robinson went on to note that “Los Alamos’s concerns have since been debated in other technical forums, where they have been sustained.”
In response to A.L. Drumwright, the decoy balloons are tapped rapidly, one after the other, with moderate-energy laser beams, and tracked repeatedly throughout this process to observe their recoil. Computers on our satellites keep track of the separate warheads and decoys and remember the information acquired about each one. As Mr. Drumwright suggests, a little more laser energy could destroy the lightweight decoys, instead of just identifying them. That would mean a different kind of midcourse defense, in which we hit all the warheads and decoys with moderately energetic laser beams, and observe what survives. The surviving objects must be the warheads, and we would go after these with our heavy guns.
Larry Clifford asks about my objections to the Soviets shining up their missiles. This proposal generates even more problems for them than I mentioned in my article. For one, as the booster accelerates it compresses and heats the air above it, and the plume of hot air sweeps downward around the side of the missile, oxidizing the surface and taking its shine away. Furthermore, the shine itself is obtained by applying a thin coat of reflective material to the missile, but under the high heat resulting from the the laser attack and from atmospheric friction, the coating tends to disintegrate. Finally, the coating has a different coefficient of expansion from the metal skin underneath, and tends to buckle when the missile is heated by the laser beam, leading to its catastrophic failure.
Thomas J. Rath makes the very interesting point that if the Soviets attempt to destroy the satellites in our space-based defense at the outset, before launching their missiles, they must necessarily give us warning of their attack. For this reason alone, our defenses will make it difficult for them to achieve the element of complete surprise that is essential to the success of a Soviet first strike.
Edward F. Hennessey asks about the possibility of a strippable outer coating that would keep the missile surface clean and shiny during launch. The trouble with this suggestion is that the strippable coating, which is to be wrapped around the entire missile, must be quite thin, or it will weigh too much and force the Soviets to eliminate several warheads from the payload. It must be sturdy, or air resistance will strip it away. And it must be heat-resistant, because the missile gets quite hot as it rises rapidly through the atmosphere. These requirements are partly contradictory, and reconciling them will not be easy. A substantial amount of development and testing would be necessary to make certain that such a device works well and does not interfere with reliable missile performance. And all this is for a very uncertain gain to the Soviets, because, as noted in my article, when the coating is stripped away and the shiny surface underneath is exposed to attack by our laser beam, the heat of the laser beam will degrade the shine rapidly.
Allen Finegold and David R. Perles suggest the “Star Wars” defense, even if effective against land-based missiles, will be vulnerable to submarine-launched missiles and cruise missiles. This is not the case. When our boost-phase defense system of approximately 100 satellites is in place, a dozen or so satellites will be over the missile fields of the Soviet Union at any one time, defending us against an ICBM attack. But most of the remaining satellites will be over the oceans and in a position to defend us against missiles launched from submarines. Moreover, for several reasons—slower speed, staggered launches, and dispersed launch sites—the interception of submarine-launched missiles is considerably easier than the interception of land-based missiles.
As for defense against cruise missiles, that is a different problem from defense against ballistic missiles, but not a harder one. In fact, it appears to be considerably easier, because we have many minutes or even hours in which to find, track, lock our beams onto, and destroy the relatively slow-moving cruise missiles. Lasers in space, contrary to some views that have been expressed, are effective against cruise missiles and bombers because their beams, being light rays, reach to the ground. Clouds offer a temporary screen, but a cover of clouds is not likely to exist all the way to the target. And bombers fly above the clouds, at stratospheric heights, on their way to their targets, and are vulnerable to space lasers for hours.
Marvin King correctly rebuts the charge by some critics of the “Star Wars” research program that it is a violation of the ABM treaty. The language of the treaty states that “Each party undertakes not to develop, test, or deploy ABM systems or components,” but research on missile defense is not prohibited.
Joseph Forbes’s comments on the usefulness of the X-ray laser are taken from a section of the UCS report which Lowell Wood has shown to be in error. For example, the UCS proposes to have the X-ray laser pop up from submarines located in the Arabian Sea. This relatively distant launch site, about 2,000 miles from the closest Soviet missile fields, would introduce a substantial delay of some minutes in the availability of the X-ray laser for combat—that interval being the time required for the X-ray laser device to climb to an altitude at which the Soviet missile fields are in its line of sight. But, as Mr. Wood pointed out, the eastern Mediterranean and the Sea of Japan are much closer to the Soviet missile fields, and just as accessible to our submarines politically. A launch from these waters largely eliminates the problem cited by the UCS.
Mr. Forbes also says that satellites are necessarily more vulnerable to attack than missiles. This is often stated, but is quite untrue. A satellite, being weightless in orbit, can be defended by heavy armor, guns, and maneuvering rockets. On the other hand, a missile, which must propel itself upward against the backward pull of gravity, cannot afford any substantial amount of armor or shielding, or it loses much of its payload. Today’s military satellites are quite vulnerable because no one has been shooting at them, and we have not bothered to go to the expense of protecting them, but tomorrow’s satellites will be another story. A substantial part of the Defense Department budget is going into research on the hardening of our military satellites.
As for the computations needed in the “Star Wars” defense, as many as several billion operations per second may be necessary, but parallel computer architectures should make this possible. Computing speed is not expected to be a major problem for our defense. The preparation of the complex programs needed is another matter. This is one of the pacing items in the “Star Wars” program, and is receiving a great deal of attention in early planning.
1 The Martin-Marietta Corporation studied fast-burn boosters for the Fletcher panel, and concluded that they would impose a payload-loss of at most 20 percent, a consensus confirmed in writing by the Deputy Chairman of the panel. Claims to the contrary stem from an abandoned Pentagon attempt to discredit Ashton Carter's Congressional Office of Technology Assessment report on SDI. This misinformation is still being spread (e.g., Wall Street Journal editorial, December 10, 1984).
2 National Journal, July 7, 1984, p. 1316.
3 The diversion of SDI to silo defense is the only rationale that makes technical (though not necessarily strategic) sense. Hard targets, especially expendable silos, could be defended. However, we agree with the administration's Scowcroft commission that such defenses are not needed at this time. In any case, space-based weapons are not suited to this purpose.
4 Indeed, the growth in the offense is bound to exceed any attrition that the defense is likely to attain. The U.S. nuclear threat against Moscow multiplied as soon as we learned that the city was being surrounded by ABM batteries.
5 The Soviets' BMD program seems to be quite similar in character to what ours was before the “Star Wars” speech. We know of no evidence that they are moving toward a comprehensive strategic defense of Soviet society. As the Fletcher panel emphasizes, the most daunting BMD problems are computer-intensive, an area in which the Soviets are exceptionally weak. Indeed, they lag in almost all technologies critical to space-based BMD, so they would be ill-advised to start a contest in this arena.
6 Mr. Jastrow claims that a neutral-particle-beam weapon would only weigh 25 tons. That agrees with our estimate of the weight of the accelerator alone, but ignores the far heavier beam expansion and targeting magnets (see The Fallacy of Star Wars, p. 97).
7 G.H. Canavan, Simple Estimates of Satellite Constellation Sizing, Los Alamos National Laboratory, August 6, 1984. A detailed solution of the satellite-coverage problem has now been found (Richard L. Garwin, to be published) which shows that the “square-root law” of the Los Alamos paper, to which Mr. Jastrow ascribes such importance, is incorrect under all but highly artificial circumstances.
8 S.D. Drell, P.J. Farley, and D. Holloway, The Reagan Strategic Defense Initiative: A Technical, Political, and Arms Control Assessment, Stanford University, July 1984.
9 This comes from the projected cost of the Midgetman missile, though not in its mobile form, and includes the cost of the extra warheads, the silo, and ten years of maintenance.
10 C.T. Cunningham, Report No. DDV-84-0007, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, August 30, 1984.
11 This is arrived at from Cunningham's number of 120 lasers for 1,400 co-located boosters with an engagement time of 150 seconds. Our 3,000 fast-burn boosters give an engagement time of 40 seconds, which then gives 120 (3000/1400) (150/40) = 964 laser satellites. (All agree that the number of lasers is proportional to the number of co-located boosters, not to their square-root.) Cunningham assumed a booster hardness that is 50 percent of the Fletcher panel's baseline figure. Were the latter used, the laser constellation would cost $1.9 trillion. This illustrates the sensitivity to assumed parameters.
12 Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for FY85, The Strategic Defense Initiative, Senate Committee on Armed Services, 98th Congress, Second Session, April 24, 1984.
13 He did, however, read the phrase at issue, “saving a great deal of weight.” Unfortunately the stenotypist missed precisely one line of written text, and the last word, as restored in the record, was misprinted as “height.”
14 See Richard L. Garwin and Hans A. Bethe, Scientific American, March 1968.
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Progressives can’t remodel the country through politics—and it’s making them miserable.
The liberal malaise that has followed Trump’s shocking victory is a by-product of the left’s unreasonable expectations. Many liberals and progressives were encouraged to see Barack Obama as messianic and to understand his politics as emancipatory, and they fell for it. But political shifts in America just aren’t that radical, and never have been—even though that’s what the flimflam men who run American politics always promise.
Delusions about what big election victories can achieve are nurtured by the politicians who stand to benefit from the passion of those who are swayed by their portentous prognostications. (“This is the most important election of our lifetime,” says the party that needs to win to come back from defeat.) And they are husbanded by the commercial enterprises—paid consultants, super PACs, single-issue peddlers, cable networks—that profit from them. But the vows they make—primary among them the vanquishing for eternity of the bad guys on the other side—cannot be fulfilled, or cannot be fulfilled enough to satisfy the voters who are seduced by them. This is a problem for both sides of the ideological divide.
At the moment, what we’re living through is disillusion on the part of progressives, and on a grand scale. A consensus has begun to form on the politically engaged left that the day-to-day work of American politics—meaning what happens in government and in public service—is simply unequal to the challenges that plague our country. This follows, in turn, the same sort of consensus that rose among conservative voters in 2015 and 2016 that led to the rise of the insurgent Trump candidacy.
Fewer and fewer Americans see the grinding work of passing legislation and formulating policy as anything other than a sham, an act, a Washington con. This view encourages frustration and, eventually, fatalism. The conviction that the political process cannot address the most relevant issues of the day is paralyzing and radicalizing both parties. It is also wrong.
THE LIBERAL SOUNDTRACK OF DAILY LIFE
People on the american left have reason to be happy these days. Boilerplate liberalism has become the soundtrack to daily American life. But they’re not happy; far from it.
Superstar athletes don’t stand for the National Anthem. Awards shows have become primetime pep rallies where progressive celebrities address the nation on matters of social justice, diversity, and the plague of inequality. This year’s Academy Awards even featured the actress Ashley Judd’s endorsement of “intersectionality,” a once-abstruse pseudo-academic term meant to convey that every kind of prejudice against every victimized minority is connected to every other kind of prejudice against every other victimized minority. These are the outwardly observable signs of a crisis facing the liberal mission. The realization that the promise of the Obama era had failed predated Donald Trump’s election, but it has only recently become a source of palpable trauma across the liberal spectrum.
These high-profile examples are just the most visible signs of a broader trend. At the noncelebrity level, polls confirm a turning away from conservative social mores altogether. In 2017, Gallup’s annual values-and-beliefs survey found a record number of Americans approving of doctor-assisted suicide, same-sex relations, pornography, both sex and childbirth out of wedlock, polygamy, and divorce.
Then there’s the ascension of supposedly advanced attitudes about religion, or rather, the lack of religion. In 2017, Gallup pollsters asked Americans: “How important would you say religion is in your own life?” A record low of 51 percent answered “very important,” while a record high of 25 percent said “not very important.” San Diego State University researcher Jean M. Twenge found that twice as many Americans said they did not believe in God in 2014 than was the case in the early 1980s. And a 2015 Pew poll revealed that “younger Millennials” (those born between 1990 and 1996) were less likely to claim religious affiliation than any previous generation.
Finally, a 2016 Harvard University survey found that, among adults between ages 18 and 29, 51 percent did not support capitalism. Positive views of socialism have been rising almost inexorably, even as a 2016 CBS/New York Times survey found that only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism.
But today’s progressive activist isn’t content with cultural domination; he’s after something grander. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a memorandum dated March 2003:
“The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change the culture and save it from itself.”
The election of Obama seemed the moment at which the central liberal truth could finally be given shape and form and body. It didn’t quite work out as progressives hoped.
The first bill President Obama signed into law in 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was sold to progressives as a visionary effort to root out workplace discrimination. In fact, all it did was relax the statute of limitation on holding firms liable for discriminating on the basis of sex and race—a fine-tuning of one part of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yet the “pay gap” persisted, and Obama and his administration spent the next seven years hectoring the private sector over it. They claimed that the figures showing that women in aggregate earned less than men in aggregate demonstrated that the entire society was somehow in violation of the spirit of the law. But the real source of this gap—as Obama’s own Bureau of Labor Statistics confessed—was individual behavior patterns that led women, on average, to work fewer hours than men over the course of their lives. “Among women and men with similar ‘human capital’ characteristics,” BLS economist Lawrence H. Leith wrote in 2012, “the earnings gap narrows substantially and in some cases nearly disappears.”
Similarly, in 2013, Obama credited his Violence Against Women Act with steep declines in rates of reported sexual assault. “It changed our culture,” he said. “It empowered people to start speaking out.” But this legislation did not change the culture. Many women continued to endure abuse at their places of work, with that abuse treated as just a consequence of doing business. The behaviors revealed by the #MeToo movement in the national outing of abusive men in positions of power had been addressed in law long ago, and long before Obama signed the Violence Against Women Act. The stroke of his pen did nothing to change the culture.
ObamaCare is another example of an exercise in cultural engineering that has failed to take. The Affordable Care Act wasn’t only a health-care law; it was an effort to transform society. The law’s true goal was a “culture of coverage” that would foster a new “norm” in which health coverage was an “expected” part of the social contract, according to California Health Benefit Exchange board member Kim Belshe. But once again, the political process failed to match the transformative ambitions of the progressive activist class. A late 2016 survey conducted by the American College of Emergency Physicians found that tighter doctor networks as well as higher deductibles and co-payments meant people were cutting back on doctor visits—the precise opposite of the law’s philosophical objectives.
Donald Trump and his GOP majorities in Congress could not overturn the ACA (though they did manage to get rid of its mandatory aspect). But ObamaCare’s preservation has not prevented the health-care left from sinking into gloom. This is because the politicians who pursued these reforms set unrealistic expectations for what they could achieve. These are not blinkered ideologues, but they are in thrall to a grandiose idea of what politics should be and out of touch with what politics actually is: a messy, narrow, often unsatisfying project of compromise and incrementalism.
Some left-of-center thinkers have addressed this penchant for overreach and its consequences. “Our belief in ‘progress’ has increased our expectations,” lamented the clinical psychologist Bruce Levine in 2013. “The result is mass disappointment.” He reasoned that social isolation was a product of American institutions because, when those institutions resist reform, “we rebel.” That rebellion, he claimed, manifests itself in depression, aggression, self-medication, suicide, or even homelessness and psychosis. What can you expect when the problem is the system itself?
Progressives have come to believe that America is beset with difficulties that must be addressed if the country is to survive—but they recognize that the difficulties they diagnose are extraordinarily hard to deal with in conventional political terms. Income disparities. Sexual and racial inequities. The privileges and disadvantages associated with accidents of birth. Such matters increasingly dominate the agenda of leftist politicians because they preoccupy the minds of their voters and donors. But what can be done about them? Great Society legislation in the 1960s—the farthest-reaching effort to reorder and reframe our country along social-justice principles—was designed to extirpate these evils. It is clear that today’s progressives are convinced we have not progressed very far from those days, if at all. This can lead to only one devastating conclusion, which is that the United States is a structurally oppressive nation. The system is the problem.
For the left, no problem is more hopelessly systemic than racism. It is powerfully attractive to believe that because some American institutions were forged in racial bias, the country is forever soiled by discrimination and white supremacy. Economics, politics, education, criminal justice—all are soiled by what Harvard professor Derrick Bell has said was an indelible stain on American life. Bell’s theories have been amplified by celebrated literary figures such as Ta-Nehisi Coates. “White supremacy is neither a trick, nor a device, but one of the most powerful shared interests in American history,” he recently wrote. You can understand why exasperated activists might conclude that devoting themselves to a Sisyphean torment is not the best use of their time. “I cannot continue to emotionally exhaust myself,” wrote the British journalist and feminist speaker Reni Eddo-Lodge in 2014. In a 2016 Washington Post op-ed, Zack Linly concurred. “I’ve grown too disillusioned to be relieved and too numb to be frustrated. I’m just tired.”
Violence, too, is seen as systemic. Acts of small-scale and mass violence are the result of many factors in American life. The individual who commits those heinous acts is often a secondary concern to activists on the left. For them, the problem rests in our militaristic national character, which is foremost exemplified by a pathological devotion to guns. As a recent headline at the New Republic put it: “America’s Gun Sickness Goes Way Beyond Guns.”
What about substance abuse? “It became clear to us that there is something systemic going on,” said Steven Woolf, director of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center on Society and Health, on the issue of substance-abuse-related deaths in America. And poverty? “Poverty is systemic, rooted in economics, politics and discrimination,” reads the Southern Poverty Law Center’s guideline for elementary-school teachers. Its lesson plan is explicitly designed to convey to students that “poverty is caused by systemic factors, not individual shortcomings.” Corruption? According to Fordham University Law School professor Zephyr Teachout, when the courts find that corporate entities have much the same free-speech rights as individuals, “corruption becomes democratic responsiveness.” Obesity and diabetes are systemic too, according to TakePart magazine’s Sophia Lepore, because they stem from the industrial world’s “increasingly commercialized food supply.”
When faced with this constellation of systemic challenges, progressives are left with a grim conclusion: We are impotent; change on the scale that is necessary is out of reach. Instead of practicing “the art of the possible,” they have made a totem of the impossible. The activists who are consumed by these phenomena have come (or are coming) to the conclusion that the political process cannot resolve them precisely because the oppression is a feature, not a bug, of the system. It is logical, therefore, for them to determine that engagement in traditional forms of politics is an exercise in naiveté.
Indeed, under this set of beliefs, legislative incrementalism and compromise seem like detestable half measures. Mistaking deep-rooted and immensely complex social and cultural circumstances for problems government can solve blinds participants in the political process to the unambiguous victories they’ve actually secured through compromise. This is a recipe for despair—a despair to which certain segments of the right are not immune.
LIBERAL DESPAIR TRUMPS CONSERVATIVE DESPAIR
By the time Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy sprang to life, dejected voices on the right had concluded that the country’s leftward drift constituted an existential emergency.
In late 2015, the author and radio host Dennis Prager devoted most of his time to mourning the “decay” of absolute moral categories, the blurring of gender distinctions, the corruption of education, and the dissolution of the family, all while blaming these conditions on a wrecker’s program. In the fall of 2016, the Claremont Institute published a piece by Republican speechwriter Michael Anton (under a pseudonym) in which he postulated that the United States was all but doomed. He compared the republic to United Airlines Flight 93, the plane that went down in a Pennsylvania field on 9/11, and its political and bureaucratic leadership to the suicidal Islamist hijackers who killed everyone on board. Four days before the 2016 election, the Heritage Foundation’s Chuck Donovan declared America in decline in almost every way and blamed a “dominant elite who thrive on the dissolution of civil society.” These catastrophists agreed on one thing: The time for modesty and gradualism was over.
The issues that most animate these conservatives are significant, but they are only indirectly related to conventional political matters. Disrespect for authority figures in law enforcement, the accessibility of pornography, assimilation rates among immigrant groups, the bewildering exploits on college campuses, and the ill-defined plague of “cultural Marxism”—these are widespread social trends that resist remedy from the inherently circumspect political process.
Also like those on the left, some conservatives have come to embrace their own forms of fatalism about the American system. “We need a king,” wrote the Hoover Institution’s Michael Auslin in 2014, “or something like one.” Auslin theorized that such a figure would liberate the presidency from weighing in on polarizing social issues, thereby lubricating the gears of government. Reflecting on the disillusionment and pessimism of his big-thinking peers in the middle of the Great Recession, the libertarian billionaire Peter Thiel declared, “I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” Patrick J. Buchanan devotes at least one column a month to the virtues of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarianism. Why? Because, as he wrote in January 2018, “Nationalism trumps democratism.”
Intellectuals like Buchanan and Anton have a profound weakness for extremism; it is one of the grave dangers posed by the life of the mind. William Butler Yeats and Ezra Pound found much to admire in how nationalists detested moderation. For Yeats, the “love of force” was a visionary trait. Pound, of course, literally became a fascist and rooted for America’s destruction. These perverse judgments on the right were nothing next to the seductive power of leftist totalitarianism. George Bernard Shaw was a Stalinist convinced of the virtue of eugenics and murderous purges. Theodore Dreiser became infatuated with the Soviets’ brutal adaptation of social Darwinism. Stuart Chase’s 1932 book A New Deal, predating FDR’s governing program of the same name, heaped praise on the nascent Soviet state. The book famously concluded, “Why should the Soviets have all the fun remaking the world?” Chase later became a member of Roosevelt’s inner circle of advisers.
When the political process fails to perform as they would like, activists and ideologues become disillusioned and embittered. They also become convinced not of the unreasonableness of their position but of the incompetence of their representatives. Thus conservative activists hate the Senate majority leader and the speaker of the House, even though both Mitch McConnell and Paul Ryan work tirelessly to advance conservative ideas through the bodies they help manage. Leftists have turned on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who is among the most effective legislative players in recent American history and easily the most progressive Democratic leadership figure of our time. McConnell and Ryan and Pelosi know from bitter experience that the Constitution places obstacles in the path of anyone who wants to use America’s political institutions to remake the culture wholesale. These marvelous obstacles are designed to thwart the human impulse for radical change.
The tragedy here is how this dynamic has convinced tens of millions of Americans that the political system is broken. Pull back from the granular view of events and try to examine America over the past decade and you see something else. You see American voters responding in complex ways to complex events. Obama overreaches and the voters elect a Republican House. Mitt Romney says 47 percent of Americans are losers, and he loses an election. Hillary Clinton says people who don’t care for her are “deplorables,” and she loses an election, too. The GOP appears to be on a path to electoral disaster in November 2018 because Trump may be bringing about a counterattack against the way he does business. Democratic overreach inspires conservative backlash. Republican overreach inspires liberal backlash. The electoral system is responsive to the views of the people. The system works. It works by restraining excessive ambition.
Those restraints annoy people who think change should just happen because they will it. In 2009, for example, the New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was so annoyed by Congress’s failure to devise a bipartisan environmental bill that he lamented the fact that America did not have China’s political system. The People’s Republic, he wrote, was demonstrating the great “advantages” of a “one-party autocracy” led by “reasonably enlightened people.” Amazing how Chinese Communism had the ability to circumvent public opinion—the same ability also leads to the construction of well-populated labor camps.
You don’t need a one-party autocracy to effect change. Sometimes, when change is needed and needed urgently, government can rally to address the change—when voters make it clear that it must happen and when the change is preceded by rich experimentation and vital spadework. For example, New York City is no longer the crime-ridden, pornography-addled, graffiti-marred archipelago of needle parks that it once was. There has been a generation now of civil peace in the city, notwithstanding the act of war against it on 9/11.
But the change wasn’t the culmination of a grand governmental scheme. It was in part the product of work done by the Bryant Park Restoration Corporation in the early 1980s, which developed a model followed by the Rockefeller Center Complex, the Grand Central Partnership, and more than 30 other business-improvement districts. These parties engaged in a block-by-block effort to restore streets and relocate the homeless. The NYPD and the transit police could not focus on “quality of life” policing without hyper-local input that shaped what that campaign should entail and without an intellectual framework provided by the “broken windows” theory promulgated by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The zoning reforms that cleaned up Times Square began as an initiative submitted by the City Council member representing the porn-plagued blocks under the Queensboro Bridge, with input from the Manhattan Institute. By the time Rudolph Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993, a quiet consensus had been building for years about the nature of the problems afflicting New York City and how to solve them.
BETTER THAN WE WERE
Moynihan’s famous quote is usually cut off before the end. After identifying the divergent liberal and conservative truths about the junction of politics and culture, he observed: “Thanks to this interaction, we’re a better society in nearly all respects than we were.”
His insight into the American political equilibrium was not a lamentation or a diagnosis. It was a reflection on why America is forever reinventing and refining itself. But as partisan actors and media outlets confuse the practice of politics with exhilarating bouts of cultural warfare, this equilibrium begins to come apart.
The quotidian, custodial duties that typify public service are neither dramatic nor entertaining. Zoning laws are boring. Police reforms are boring. Business-improvement districts are boring. Functional governance in the United States is unexciting governance.
Unexciting governance is limited governance. And the fatalists are driven mad by the limits our system imposes on them because they don’t want governance to be limited. That is exactly why those limits are so necessary and why, rather than getting dirty fighting inch by inch for the things they believe in, fatalists write themselves out of our political life. The danger the fatalists pose is that they are convincing tens of millions more that our system doesn’t work when it most certainly does, just in a fashion they wish it wouldn’t. In doing so, they are encouraging mass despair—and that is an entirely self-imposed affliction.
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Seventy years after Israel’s founding, we need it more than ever.
Hertzberg understood how helping the Jews over there in the Middle East had helped Jews over here in North America. After decades of American Jewish ambivalence about Jewish nationalism, the Holocaust had created an instant consensus for a Jewish state. The fight to create that state galvanized the community, rousing it from depression—and shielding it from guilt. By doing the right thing in the late 1940s, American Jews atoned for their failure to save more of their doomed brothers and sisters.
Hertzberg’s fear that Zionism was “a movement in search of a program” in 1949 proved wildly premature, because Israel would continue to call on and depend on the support of American Jews for its survival. The nation’s creation was followed by a host of new problems and opportunities that kept the global Jewish community engaged with Israel and kept alive the American Jewish connection to “peoplehood”—even as many American Jews abandoned religious practice entirely.
In 1959, Hertzberg published a seminal anthology, The Zionist Idea, for the purpose of establishing the movement’s intellectual and ideological roots. At the time, Israel was fragile and the Zionist conversation was robust. Today, Israel is robust and the Zionist conversation has turned fragile. Israel’s 70th anniversary offers an opportunity to reframe the Zionist conversation—asking not what American Jews can do for Israel, but what Zionism can do for American Jews. Hertzberg understood that Zionism wasn’t only about saving Jewish bodies but saving Jewish souls. As the celebrations of Israel’s 70th birthday begin, Zionism’s capacity to save our souls remains vital.
Many American Jews in the 1950s helped their fellow Jews settle in the new land. The fundraising short from 1954, “The Big Moment,” featuring Hollywood stars including Donna Reed and Robert Young, celebrated the secular miracle. “When you support the United Jewish Appeal, you make it possible for the United Israel Appeal to help the people of Israel,” the short told its viewers. They could help “rush completion of new settlements, new housing for the homeless, the irrigation of wasteland acres…. Israel’s people who stand for freedom must not stand alone.”
Four years later, Leon Uris mythologized the Zionist revolution in his mammoth bestseller, Exodus. “As a literary work it isn’t much,” David Ben-Gurion admitted. “But as a piece of propaganda, it’s the best thing ever written about Israel.” In Uris’s Zionist paradise, New Jews lived noble ideas and heroic lives. Exodus captured the texture of the Jewish return: the trauma of the Holocaust, the joys of the kibbutz, the thrill of rebuilding, the anguish of the Arab fight, the sweetness of idealism, the wonder of mass migration. In the 1960 movie version, Exodus even tackled serious ideological issues within Zionism. As Ari Ben Canaan escorts his non-Jewish love interest, Kitty Fremont, around Israel, the two look over the Valley of Jezreel. They marvel at seeing the “same paving stones that Joshua walked on when he conquered” the land, along with “every clump of trees” Ari’s father planted.
Thrilled that the valley is becoming Jewish once again, Ari proclaims: “I’m a Jew. This is my country.” Kitty dismisses differences between people as artificial. Ari makes the particularist case against universalism: “People are different. They have a right to be different.” They suspend the debate, Hollywood-style, with their first kiss.
In print, on screen, and in song, Exodus cast Zionism in such glowing terms that it condemned Israel to the inevitable comedown. Decades later, Thomas Friedman, trying to justify his anger at the Jewish state as its popularity flagged, would define this mythic place he missed as “your grandfather’s Israel.” Actually, Israel today—Friedman’s Israel—is more compassionate, just, equitable, and democratic than his grandfather’s.
As Exodus climbed the bestseller lists, Hertzberg’s Zionist Idea showed how a series of abstract debates spawned an actual state in mere decades. The texts, Hertzberg’s editor Emanuel Neumann wrote, illustrate “the internal moral and intellectual forces in Jewish life” that shaped this “idea which galvanized a people, forged a nation, and made history…. Behind the miracle of the Restoration lies more than a century of spiritual and intellectual ferment which produced a crystallized Zionist philosophy and a powerful Zionist movement.”
Recalling this period, Abraham Joshua Heschel would say American Jews took that miracle for granted. We became so used to the Tel Aviv Hilton, he said, that we forgot Tel Hai, where the one-armed Zionist warrior Josef Trumpeldor sacrificed his life for his country. Heschel was chiding American Jews for failing to use Israel to find greater meaning, to revitalize their Jewish identities, to launch “an ongoing spiritual revolution.”
Several political shocks in the 1960s upstaged the cultural and spiritual conversation that Heschel, Hertzberg, and others sought. Having grown up feeling secure as Americans, some Baby Boomers questioned American Jewish silence during the Holocaust. Frustrations at their parents’ passivity “while 6 million died” altered the community’s course—triggering a move toward activism. Cries of “Never again” shaped the Zionist, peoplehood-centered fight that ultimately brought 1.2 million Soviet Jews to Israel even as it nurtured and brought to adulthood two generations of new American Jewish leaders and activists.
The biggest shock was the Six-Day War. Both their fear of losing Israel in May 1967 and their euphoria when Israel won that June surprised American Jews. Many discovered that they were more passionate about Israel than they had realized. This “extraordinary response” led Rabbi Yitz Greenberg and others toward “a strategy of making Israel central in religious and Jewish educational life—if only because thereby we can tap strong loyalties and deep feelings.” The Holocaust and Israel’s founding partially Zionized American Jewry, showing how to live with a Jewish state while living happily ever after; 1967 showed most American Jews that they couldn’t live without the Jewish state.
Zionism became American Jewry’s glue. Israel reinforced a sense of peoplehood and renewed Jewish pride. It inspired the teaching of Hebrew, revitalized summer camps, and invigorated the Conservative and Reform movements. The community learned how to mobilize politically and raise money prodigiously. Indeed, writing in the 1970s, as periodic terrorist massacres kept returning Jews to the traumatic 1973 Yom Kippur War, Hertzberg declared that Zionism had become the only sacred commitment all American Jews shared. “Intermarriage, ignorance in the Jewish heritage, or lack of faith do not keep anyone from leadership in the American Jewish community today.” Hertzberg complained. “Being against Israel or apathetic in its support does.”
But while it was succeeding politically in America, Zionism was failing culturally and spiritually, Hertzberg charged. “Today there is no Zionist education in the U.S., no schools, no teaching seminaries, no commitment by Zionists” to cultivating “a Zionist kind of Jewish personality”—Ben-Gurion’s New Jew. Instead of stirring charges of dual loyalty, instead of adding “to the discomfort of the Jews in the Diaspora,” Hertzberg noted, Zionism contributed to Jews’ “acceptance of themselves and their acceptance by others.”
Today, it seems, personal concerns predominate. Now we wonder how having a Jewish state helps Jews navigate what Birthright Israel calls “their own Jewish journeys” and their quests for meaning. That could seem to be a chaotic souk, an oriental bazaar resulting in a gay Zionism and a Mizrahi Zionism, an Orthodox Zionism and a Reform Zionism, a feminist Zionism and an environmental Zionism. This is not entirely new. Early Zionists also fused their secular, Western agendas with the Jewish agenda—creating the kibbutz and the Histadrut Labor union, among other hybrids of hyphenate Zionism. In fact, a thoughtful Zionism might cure what ails us by focusing on what Israel means “to me, to us.” Which brings us to the greatest contradiction of our age: Succeeding as Americans individually poses a threat to Jews communally. Building careers usually trumps the labor of deepening traditions, morals, or communal commitments. Increasingly, many American Jews are happy being Jew-ish, reducing a profound cultural, intellectual, religious heritage to props, a smattering of superficial symbols to make us stand out just enough to be interesting—and not too much to be threatening.
Academic postmodernism validates that professionally driven Jewish laziness. After slaving away to perfect the CV and GPA, to get into the best college possible, Jewish students arrive on campuses that often caricature Judaism—like all religions—as a repressive system while slamming Zionism as particularly oppressive, privileged, and aggressive. This postmodernist updating of Marxist universalism loathes the kinds of red lines Jews traditionally drew around multiple behaviors and beliefs—among them, intermarrying, denouncing Israel, or indulging in self-indulgent behaviors from tattooing your skin to blowing your mind with drugs or alcohol. But a community cannot exist without any boundaries—it’s as useless as a house with no walls.
More powerful than these ideological issues is the simple fascism of the clock. Few high-achieving American Jews devote much time in their week to being Jewish. The demands of work and the lures of leisure leave little room in the schedule for much else—especially such unhip, pre-modern, and un-postmodern activities.
Then, perhaps most devastating, once American Jews carve out the time and overcome the static, what awaits them in most synagogues is a stale stew of warmed-over nostalgia. Judaism must be more than gefilte fish and lox, more than some colorful Yiddish exclamations and shtetl tales. The superficiality of so many Jewish experiences inside the walls of the large Semitic cathedrals that fill up just three times a year is so dispiriting that it takes most Jews another year to screw up the courage to return.
No comprehensive cures exist, of course. And Zionism, which is in many ways a conservative cultural initiative despite Israel’s liberal democracy, faces a hostile environment. American Jews, whose parents and grandparents were once more culturally conservative than the rest of American society, tend now to be far more liberal. Moreover, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Zionism has done great damage, just as conservative dominance of Israel has tarnished Israel’s luster among America’s passionately liberal Jews.
Nevertheless, Israel and Zionism still have a magic, illustrated by the great counterforce that most lamentations about the Israel-Diaspora relationship overlook: Birthright Israel. Young American Jews on those 10-day trips are thrilled by the experience. The enthusiasm comes from tasting a thick, dynamic, 24/7 Jewish experience that is qualitatively different from their thin, static, fragmented American Judaism. The impact comes from what Jonathan Sacks has aptly called turning Israel into world Jewry’s classroom, its living laboratory demonstrating vibrant, thriving Judaisms in sync with the environment. Seeing Jewish garbage men and police officers normalizes Jewish society, broadening the range of Jewish career paths and class stances, reducing the implicit pressure wherever American Jews look to be the next Zuckerberg, Spielberg, or Sandberg.
Swimming in a pool of Jewish symbols, traditions, values, and stories, Jewish pilgrims to Israel encounter an alternate universe that reveres the past, that seeks meaning beyond the material, that is more communal than individual and is more eternal than last week’s most forwarded YouTube video of cats frolicking. Israel proves Theodor Herzl right: Fitting in, not standing out, because you’re Jewish is liberating.
Even more surprising, unlike the media’s dystopic portrayal, Israelis are happy and fun-loving. Israel’s recent score of 11th on the world happiness index comes on the heels of reports about American mass unhappiness, especially in the upper-middle-class neighborhoods where American Jews live. The findings that half of Yale’s undergraduates at some point in their four years will experience severe psychological distress goes far beyond the anxiety produced by the crazy process of getting in. It suggests a specific sort of soul sickness that an elite life increasingly stripped of community, tradition, nationalism, God, group responsibility, and virtue produces. As the occasionally embattled Jewish state in an old-new land, Israel remains a Republic of Something, even as America risks degenerating into a Republic of Nothing. The shared past, purpose, and principles produce happier, more grounded, people.
Israeli normalcy risks its own laziness. But it’s the laziness of an instinctive, normalized Judaism in all dimensions rather than a Judaism you need to carve out time for, picking and choosing just what to do and when to do it—while often looking over your shoulder because you don’t want to look like a weirdo or a fanatic.
Beyond that, Zionism answers some core ideological conundrums many American Jews don’t even know how to formulate. Zionism resolves the confusion whereby the Judeo-Christian connection in America makes many nonreligious Jews feel Jewish even while calling Judaism their “religion.” Zionism welcomes Jews through the peoplehood portal—remembering that Judaism is this unique mix of nation and religion, of peoplehood and faith. Zionism celebrates nationalism as a force for good, cherishes religion and tradition as valuable anchors, providing meaningful “software” of values and beliefs running on the “hardware” of belonging. And Zionism celebrates the virtues of having red lines to respect, as well as blue-and-white lines to affirm. It “rewards togetherness,” in Anne Roiphe’s lovely phrase, and demands loyalty in many ways—especially considering Israel’s military situation.
With Judaism providing the background music to so much that is Israeli, with Israel instilling a strong sense of belonging in visitors, let alone citizens, American Jews encounter new ways of being Jewish. They see total Judaism, immersive Judaism, public Judaism. And, often without realizing it, they see a startling contrast, even with secular Israeli Jews who have figured out how to keep their kids and grandkids Jewish without being religious.
Finally, Israel helps American Jews shift from Anatevka to Jerusalem, from what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers” to the lives of our brothers and sisters. Israeli Jewish identity is about speaking Hebrew and eating cheesecake on the holiday, often overlooked in North America, of Shavuot. It’s also, unfortunately, about fighting and defending the state. The need for American Jews as allies in that fight continues to offer nonreligious American Jews a passionate Jewish cause, a defining Jewish mission in their lives. And judging by the fact that AIPAC’s Policy Conference is the rare mass event that parents often attend with their teenage and twenty-something children, Zionism offers something one generation can pass on to the next.
Beyond that, the excitement—and, to be sure, the frustrations—of working out Jewish dilemmas and governing problems in real time with high stakes to keep this grand Jewish national project alive and thriving, is a lot more compelling than humming “Sunrise Sunset” as you enter your synagogue.
When done right and understood properly, Zionism can offer an important clarification to all Americans, especially in the age of Trump. In the 2016 campaign, whenever the word “nationalism” appeared in the media, it often came poisoned by words like “white” or “extremist” or “xenophobic.” The reaction against Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Brexit, neo-Nazis, and other manifestations of populist nationalism has soured too many Americans on any form of nationalism.
At its best, what might be called “liberal nationalism” infuses democratic ideals into the natural tendency for people to clump together with those like them. In the 1950s, Isaiah Berlin described this constructive nationalism as “awareness of oneself as a community possessing certain internal bonds which are neither superior nor inferior but simply different in some respects from similar bonds which unite other nations.” Many Enlightenment thinkers, following the 18th-century philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, compared this communal impulse with other human “desires” for “food, shelter, procreation, and a minimum degree of liberty.”
Today, this nationalist vision goes against the prevailing cultural tide. Amid what the sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism,” young Americans experience a “negative” process of “giving birth to oneself” by “breaking free from family, community, and inherited ideas.” By contrast, commemoration of the bar and bat mitzvah defines maturation as accepting communal responsibilities rather than shirking them. The Zionist reality demanding that young Israelis enlist in the army also roots them in communal commitments. In this view, national service is the defining step toward adulthood.
A resurrected, refreshed, Zionist conversation, one that focuses on what Israel does for us, might help Jews see liberal nationalism as a neutral tool that can unite a divided community and make us more determined, more purposeful, and more fulfilled than we can be individually—precisely what the young Arthur Hertzberg proposed seven decades ago.
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The last remnant of Oslo crumbles
The whirlwind changes left Clinton unprepared for the meeting. Perhaps that accounts for the momentous mistake he made that day. “Rabin can’t make further concessions until he can prove to his people that the agreement he just made with you can work,” he told Arafat. “So the more quickly we can move on your track, the more quickly we’ll be able to move on the Syrian track.” Clinton thus tipped his hand: The U.S. saw an Israeli–Syrian peace deal as the real goal, and the president needed Arafat to make it happen. “Now that Arafat had used that deal to open up a relationship with Washington, he did not want to let Clinton shift his attention back to Syria,” reports Clinton foreign-policy hand Martin Indyk in his memoir. “And the more he managed to involve us in the details of his agreement with the Israelis, the less we would be able to do that. In his good-hearted innocence, Clinton had revealed his preferences. Arafat would not forget them.”
Indeed he would not. No foreign official would be invited to the Clinton White House more than Arafat. The Israeli–Palestinian peace process would not be a mere sideshow to the wider Arab–Israeli conflict. It would be a tapeworm inside U.S. foreign policy, diverting and consuming resources. Arafat had made the Palestinian Authority the center of the world.
Twenty-five years of violence, corruption, and incompetence later, the PA lies in ruins, with the Palestinian national project right behind it. Arafat controlled the PLO for a half-century before assuming control of the new PA. Thus his death in 2004 was the first moment of serious potential change in the character of Palestinian institutions. Mahmoud Abbas, far less enamored of violence than the blood-soaked Arafat, was his successor. Rather than reform Palestinian institutions, Abbas has presided over their terminal decline. As Abbas’s own health fades and as the world again turns its attention to Gaza, the part of the Palestinian territories not controlled by him, it’s worth wondering if there is a future at all for the Palestinian Authority.
The PLO was created at an Arab League summit in Cairo in 1964 to serve as an umbrella group for Palestinian organizations seeking Israel’s destruction. It was paralyzed by intra-Arab rivalries until various factions figured out how to wag the dog and draw the Arab states into war with Israel. “Palestinian guerrilla action was insufficient to achieve liberation, and so it needed to overturn reactionary Arab governments and assist Arab unity in order to provide the power necessary to attain the ultimate objective of liberation,” writes Palestinian intellectual and historian Yezid Sayigh, describing how some within the PLO saw it. Arafat’s Fatah faction, which delayed in joining the PLO but influenced it from the outside, was more explicit in a 1965 memorandum: Arab national armies would “intervene to decide the conflict, and to bring it to an end after the revolutionary masses had prepared the way for them.”
Palestinian provocations played a part in helping to fan the flames that exploded into the Six-Day War in June 1967. Yet rather than destroy Israel, the Arab armies lost territory to the Jewish state, including the West Bank of the Jordan River. The following year, Fatah—which had by now joined the PLO—provoked a costly battle with Israeli forces in the West Bank town of Karama. Fatah lost nearly 100 fighters, but Arafat’s mad gamble paid off: The Palestinians survived a face-off with the Israeli military and demonstrated their independence from Jordan. Arafat used this failure-as-success to complete Fatah’s takeover of the PLO in 1969 and become the undisputed public face of the Palestinian guerrillas. Documents captured by Israeli forces in southern Lebanon in 1982 showed extensive training and sponsorship of Palestinian guerrillas across the Communist bloc—the Soviet Union, China, Vietnam, Hungary, Soviet-aligned Pakistan—in addition to PLO support from Arab states. After its expulsion from Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli incursion, the PLO went into exile in Tunisia.
The first intifada broke out in 1987, and even as it publicized Palestinian resistance, it gave the West a chance to consign Arafat and the PLO to irrelevance. Foreign Minister Moshe Arens proposed allowing the major Palestinian cities in the West Bank and Gaza to hold mayoral elections, after which Israel would recognize the winners as official Palestinian interlocutors. Rabin, then the defense minister, opposed the Arens plan, fearing it would undermine Israel Defense Forces’ control of the West Bank. A compromise plan was for the Palestinians in the territories to hold elections for negotiators, not officeholders. In his memoir, Arens explains that the idea “was meant to begin a process of negotiations with the Palestinians while bypassing the Palestine Liberation Organization.”
Before Arens or Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir could present the plan to the George H.W. Bush administration, Bush and Secretary of State James Baker preempted the Israelis by leaking to reporters their preference for the PLO and their belief that talks with Arafat should broach the possibility of establishing a Palestinian state. Shamir’s right-of-center Likud party revolted, and the government eventually collapsed. Bush had succeeded not only in throwing Israeli politics into chaos in the midst of the intifada, but also in effectively legitimizing Arafat as the rightful representative of Palestinian nationalism. This put the PLO and Israel on the glide path to that September 1993 breakthrough and the creation of the Palestinian Authority.
All this history taught Arafat one unmistakable lesson: Violence works. And so, after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, violence continued. Some of it was ordered by Arafat; some tacitly encouraged by him; some his security services merely allowed to happen. More than 250 people were killed by Palestinian terrorists in the five years after the signing ceremony. Arafat’s political rivals in Hamas pioneered the use of suicide bombings as a regular feature of terrorism. This served Arafat well: He could crack down on Hamas if and when he needed to but could also keep his fingerprints off some of the most heinous violence against Israeli civilians.
A perfect example of this double game occurred in February 1996. The Norwegian diplomat and UN envoy Terje Rod-Larsen met regularly with Arafat at the Palestinian leader’s Gaza home throughout the Oslo period. On February 24, 1996—a Saturday—Arafat asked his guest his plans for the next day. Rod-Larsen said he was thinking about spending the day in Jerusalem. According to the journalist Michael Kelly, Arafat cryptically said: “Why don’t you stay away from Jerusalem on Sunday.” The next day, Hamas blew up a bus in Jerusalem and another in Ashkelon, killing 26. “Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who thought he had persuaded Palestinian radicals to refrain from attacks on Israelis, condemned the bombings, saying they threatened the peace process,” reported CNN that day.
Violence wasn’t the only way Arafat hindered the cause of Palestinian statehood. Corruption tore through nascent Palestinian institutions. The numbers are staggering. After Arafat’s death, David Samuels surveyed the damage for the Atlantic:
The International Monetary Fund has conservatively estimated that from 1995 to 2000 Arafat diverted $900 million from Palestinian Authority coffers, an amount that did not include the money that he and his family siphoned off through such secondary means as no-bid contracts, kickbacks, and rake-offs…. In 1996 alone, $326 million, or 43 percent of the state budget, had been embezzled, and…another $94 million, or 12.5 percent of the budget, went to the president’s office…. A total of $73 million, or 9.5 percent of the budget, [was] spent on the needs of the population of the West Bank and Gaza.… Arafat hid his personal stash, estimated at $1 billion to $3 billion, in more than 200 separate bank accounts around the world, the majority of which have been uncovered since his death.
Why didn’t the creation of the PA result in Arafat’s transition from guerrilla leader to civilian state-builder? Three problems kept cropping up. The first was that his lack of accountability was enabled by both Israel and the United States, out of the naive belief that it didn’t matter how Arafat built his state and abided by agreements just so long as he did so. Arafat exploited this—he never built his state, in part because nobody was willing to make him.
The second problem was that the PA only added a layer of opacity to Arafat’s power structure. As the analyst Jonathan Schanzer notes in State of Failure: “Was he the chairman of the PLO, the president of the PA, or the leader of Fatah? These varying roles made it difficult to firmly establish his accountability.”
The third problem was more fundamental: Arafat shaped the PLO, and thus the Palestinian national movement, for a quarter-century before the PA was established. The only thing that changed was that nothing changed. Arafat’s predilection for violence, secrecy, and authoritarianism would be deeply corrosive to the institutions of an existing state; to a nonstate tasked with creating those institutions, they were fatal.
Not until Arafat died did the full extent of the PA’s failure become clear to all. Arafat’s absence was supposed to be cause for hope; instead, it revealed the bankruptcy of the PA’s model. Mahmoud Abbas inherited not a state but an illusion.
There is no doubt that Abbas was an improvement over Arafat. As Arafat’s deputy, he tried in vain to convince his boss to halt the second intifada (2000–2003), a bloody campaign of violence instigated by Arafat after he turned down Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s offer of a Palestinian state at Camp David in 2000. The intifada sapped Israelis’ faith in the PA as a negotiating partner and delivered Likud’s Ariel Sharon—the godfather of Israel’s settlement movement and a man who, as defense minister, had been instrumental in driving the PLO out of Lebanon two decades earlier—to the prime minister’s office.
Abbas’s ascension left policymakers in Jerusalem and Washington playing Weekend at Bernie’s with the corpse of the Palestinian Authority, waving its arms and propping it up in public. Both wanted to show the Palestinians they could get more with honey than with vinegar. But by 2004, it didn’t really matter. With President George W. Bush’s backing, Sharon went forward with plans to pull Israel completely out of Gaza and parts of the West Bank. The “Disengagement” of 2005 was a political earthquake: Israel’s great champion of the settlers uprooted thousands with no concessions from the Palestinians. More important, perhaps, was the fact that it was unilateral. How much did the PA even matter anymore?
Abbas’s legitimacy was another nagging problem. Though he won a presidential election in 2005, the PA was haunted by the ghosts of Arafat’s corruption. In 2006, Abbas called for legislative elections. Confident of victory, he permitted Hamas to participate in the elections, and the U.S. didn’t object. Had his Fatah party won, its legitimacy would have been undeniable. But in a shock, Hamas won. Fatah was hobbled not only by the perception of Arafat’s venality but also by the consequences of his one-man rule. In their biography of Abbas, Grant Rumley and Amir Tibon write: “Palestinian legislative elections are essentially a local election, in which every ‘district’ chooses its own members of parliament from the different political lists. While Hamas’s candidates ran under one banner, Fatah showed disastrous disunity by having splinter lists in multiple camps, towns, and villages.” Civil war engulfed the Palestinian territories. Hamas took control of Gaza and was booted from the government in the West Bank. Abbas is now in the 14th year of his four-year term.
His legitimacy in tatters, Abbas went about consolidating power and cracking down on dissent. But it wasn’t just the democratic deficit that made Abbas’s reign resemble his predecessor’s. The courts, legislative institutions, education, civil society—Palestinian state-building simply wasn’t happening. In 2010, the Carnegie Endowment’s Nathan Brown studied Palestinian government and society under Abbas’s Western-educated prime minister, Salam Fayyad, and he came to a dispiriting conclusion: “There was far more building of institutions under Yasser Arafat than there has been under Fayyad. It is true that many institutions were built in spite of Arafat and that Fayyad’s behavior suggests a greater respect for rules and institutions. But that is consolation only for those who mistake personalities for politics.”
Yet in one way Abbas is arguably more dangerous even than his predecessor. Arafat was notoriously defensive about possible successors because he had created an entire system centered on his role as the Indispensable Man. Nonetheless, PLO bylaws made Abbas the rightful successor, and he remained the consensus choice.
But to say Abbas has failed to claw back any control over Gaza would be an understatement. With a bevy of foreign benefactors—among them Turkey, Iran, and Qatar—no pretense of democracy, and no easy way in or out, the strip has become a Philadelphia-sized Islamist police state. Every few years, Hamas instigates a war with Israel to remind the world that no degree of physical isolation can make it irrelevant. On March 30, the group organized the first so-called “March of Return,” a day of protest and mischief at the border with Israel in which 20 Palestinians were killed in clashes with Israeli troops. A top Hamas official said the marches will continue until they succeed in overrunning the border and driving the Jews out of the land. For this, the protests were rewarded with absurd media devotionals; the New York Times hyped a Palestinian analyst’s comparison of the border rushes to the civil-rights protesters trying to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Hamas displays the organizational control Abbas can only dream of, and the ability to have its propaganda amplified by the Times, CNN, and other major media across the globe. Abbas is reduced to gritting his teeth, and lately seems ready to just give up, telling Egyptian interlocutors in early April that unless Hamas turns over “everything, all institutions and ministries, including security and weapons,” the Palestinian Authority “will not be responsible for what happens there.”
The 82-year-old Abbas is in deteriorating health—yet he has dragged his feet on succession. He now indicates he’ll designate deputy chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul his next in line. But “anyone who thinks Aloul’s appointment will find smooth sailing within Fatah is wrong,” warns Israeli journalist Shlomi Eldar in Al-Monitor. The largest challenge could come from Mohammed Dahlan, Fatah’s former Gaza security chief, whom Abbas sent into exile in 2011 and who has been cultivating Sunni allies abroad. Jibril Rajoub is the party’s secretary general and believes he’s the rightful heir. Hamas could leap into the vacuum to try to take the West Bank by force, or it could play havoc by supporting someone like Dahlan. If the succession battle becomes a proxy fight among Arab states, it could get bloody fast. The PA as an institution survived Arafat’s death. It may not survive Abbas’s.
There is, of course, one remaining way for Abbas to distinguish himself from Arafat and ensure that he leaves something tangible behind: He could take yes for an answer and actually seek a negotiated settlement. Sadly, his track record here isn’t any better. In 2007, he walked away from a generous Israeli offer by Sharon’s successor, Ehud Olmert. The 2008 U.S. election briefly appeared to vindicate him—Barack Obama was elected president and proceeded to browbeat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into giving away the store. But Abbas made a fool of Obama, too. At first, he sat back and played for time. Then, seeing how difficult Obama was making life for Netanyahu, he thought he could wait for Netanyahu’s government to crumble. When Obama left office in 2017, Netanyahu was still prime minister. The one time negotiations got anywhere, in 2014, Abbas blew them up by abruptly agreeing to bring Hamas into the government, a move that cannot be countenanced by the U.S. or Israel as long as Hamas remains committed to terrorism and refuses to abide by existing agreements.
Obama did two other things that backfired on the Palestinian Authority. One was the Iran nuclear deal, which gave tacit American support to Tehran’s expansionism in the Middle East, scaring Sunni regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt into strategic alignment with Israel. The other was more subtle but just as consequential: He helped orchestrate the passage of a UN Security Council resolution that deemed East Jerusalem, home to Judaism’s holy sites, occupied Palestinian territory.
The UN resolution at first seemed to be a clear gift to Abbas. But in reality, it was a ham-handed attempt to tie the hands of President-elect Donald Trump, who would be taking office just a month later. Trump wouldn’t have it. In the first year of his presidency, he publicly declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and announced that his administration would move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. (While a new embassy compound is being built, the White House plans to officially designate the existing consulate in Jerusalem as the embassy in time for Israel’s 70th anniversary celebrations on May 14.)
The Jerusalem moves have been an unmitigated humiliation for the PA. They undid the damage to the U.S.–Israel relationship inflicted by Obama. Worse for the PA, Trump called the Palestinian bluff. Contrary to the fears of Western observers, and the ill-disguised morbid hopes of some in the media, the region did not go up in flames. The “terrorist’s veto” did. And the coordination that such a move required between the United States and its Arab allies made crystal clear just how isolated the Palestinian Authority has become—how vulnerable it is to the politics of the Arab world, and how impervious to Palestinian politics the Arab world has become.
It took four decades, but the dog is once again wagging the tail.
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The covert and overt sins of a celebrated scholar
Kristeva categorically denies the charges. Her critics argue that it is unlikely that the Bulgarian government would fabricate an 80-page dossier for the purpose of embarrassing a 76-year-old academic who is of no particular contemporary political importance. Professor Richard Wolin of the CUNY Graduate Center, who has written extensively about Kristeva, says flatly: “She’s lying.” And he adds that the Bulgarian government’s claims about her did not materialize ex nihilo: Kristeva recently began writing for a Bulgarian journal, and Bulgarian policy is to publish the dossiers of public figures who had served the state intelligence agencies during the Communist era. That policy is carried out by “ComDos,” the Committee for Disclosure of Documents and Announcement of Affiliation of Bulgarian Citizens to the State Security and the Intelligence Services of the Bulgarian National Army.
But what Kristeva did or did not do in secret is if anything less troubling than what she did in public. For decades, she lent her intellectual prestige and her powers as a writer (and propagandist) to some of the most repressive and vicious regimes of the second half of the 20th century. And she did so as someone who had first-person experience with real-world socialism as it was practiced in what was arguably the single most suffocating regime in Eastern Europe.
Once inescapable on college campuses (I was assigned readings from her work in at least four different classes in the 1990s), Kristeva has faded a little: She has authored a number of novels that have not been generally well-regarded, and she has got on the wrong side of her fellow feminists by criticizing the subjection of the individual identity to the demands of identity politics. She belongs, with Michel Foucault and Roland Barthes and a few others of that kidney, to an era of postmodernist excess during which American academics aped the jargon-heavy (and famously unreadable) prose style of their Continental idols, especially the French ones. Discipline and Punish took on the totemic status later enjoyed by Capital in the 21st Century—which is to say, a book with many more owners than readers, A Brief History of Time for Reagan-era graduate students. Revolution in Poetic Language might not have generated quite as much awe as Foucault’s famous lump, but The Kristeva Reader ornamented a great many coffee tables—and who could resist “Experiencing the Phallus as Extraneous”?
Kristeva arrived in France in 1965 on a research fellowship. She soon moved from the École normale to the Sorbonne, and she studied under Claude Lévi-Strauss and Jacques Lacan, taking in the intellectual fashions of her time: psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, semiotics, feminism, and, of course, radical left-wing politics. Indicting midcentury French intellectuals for covert or overt support of Communist dictatorships around the world is like writing speeding tickets at the Daytona 500, but Kristeva’s political history and that of the journal with which she was long affiliated, Tel Quel, is a remarkable testament to the weakness of Western intellectuals for totalitarianism—provided it is dressed in sufficiently exotic trappings—careering from Marxist-Leninist to Stalinist to Maoist. Kristeva was an enthusiastic supporter of the French Communist Party, arguably the most servile of all of the Western European Communist parties, indulging Adolf Hitler when it suited Moscow and later justifying the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 as a necessary prophylactic against “counterrevolution.” There was no Communist outrage too great for Tel Quel, whose editor, Philippe Sollers (Kristeva married him in 1967), declared in the familiar language of the period his opposition to all things “counterrevolutionary” and advertised his allegiance to “Marxist-Leninist theory, the only revolutionary theory of our time.” V. I. Lenin was later displaced from the Tel Quel intellectual pantheon by Mao Zedong. Professor Wolin, an intellectual historian, tells the story in his 2017 book Wind from the East:
As a result of the May  events and their contact with the Maoists, French intellectuals bade adieu to the Jacobin-Leninist authoritarian political model of which they had formerly been so enamored. They ceased behaving like mandarins and internalized the virtues of democratic humility. In May’s aftermath, they attuned themselves to new forms and modes of social struggle. Their post-May awareness concerning the injustices of top-down politics alerted them to the virtues of “society” and political struggle from below. In consequence, French intellectual life was wholly transformed. The Sartrean model of the engaged intellectual was upheld, but its content was totally reconfigured. Insight into the debilities of political vanguardism impelled French writers and thinkers to reevaluate the Dreyfusard legacy of the universal intellectual: the intellectual who shames the holders of power by flaunting timeless moral truth…. The Maoists started out as political dogmatists and true believers. But they soon found it impossible to reconcile their pro-Chinese ideological blinders with the emancipatory spirit of May. Once they ceased deluding themselves with revolutionary slogans, they began to understand politics in an entirely new light. The idea of cultural revolution was thereby wholly transformed. It ceased to be an exclusively Chinese point of reference. Instead it came to stand for an entirely new approach to thinking about politics: an approach that abandoned the goal of seizing political power and instead sought to initiate a democratic revolution in mores, habitudes, sexuality, gender roles, and human sociability in general.
There was a substantial intellectual component to the Maoism of the Kristeva-Sollers set, but there was also a superficial one: Sollers began affecting the Maoist mode of dress, and Kristeva, one of the most important feminist thinkers of her time, dutifully authored articles in defense of Chinese foot-binding, which she described as a form of feminine emancipation. Calling to mind Senator Elizabeth Warren and her fictitious “Cherokee princess” ancestor, Kristeva boasted that she is a woman who “owes my cheekbones to some Asian ancestor.” Despite having almost no facility with the Chinese language and very little knowledge of its culture, she authored a widely read and translated book, About Chinese Women, in which she made unsupported claims about the “matrilineal” character of classical Chinese culture. Tel Quel adopted an editorial line that was uniformly and cravenly pro-Mao, even going so far as to argue that the absence of professional psychiatric practice from China resulted from the fact that Maoism had delivered the Chinese people from “alienation,” the traditional Marxist diagnosis for what ails the capitalist soul, rendering professional mental-health care unnecessary.
“I don’t fault her” for serving the Committee for State Security, Professor Wolin says. “It was the most repressive dictatorship in Eastern Europe.” Signing on to inform for the Bulgarian government might well have been a condition for Kristeva’s being permitted to study in France in the first place, and she had vulnerable family members still living under the Bulgarian police state. “I don’t know why she doesn’t come clean,” he says.
But that is not the end of her story. “What I do fault her for is jumping on the Communist bandwagon,” Wolin adds. First she served the interests of Moscow and then those of Chairman Mao. Unlike most of her French colleagues, the Bulgarian expatriate was in a position to know better from direct experience. Nonetheless, Kristeva and the Tel Quel set undertook a pilgrimage to Maoist China in the middle 1970s, where they saw the usual Potemkin villages and came home to write fulsome encomia to the wisdom and efficacy of the Great Helmsman. “By ’74, everybody knew that the Cultural Revolution was a power play and a debacle on every level,” Wolin says, an excuse for the Chinese authorities to purge their rivals. “People who had been sent down wrote memoirs, and those were published in French in 1971 and 1972…. Kristeva knew how repressive these regimes were. She didn’t have to celebrate Communism. No one compelled her to do that.”
If this were only a question about a Bulgarian-French intellectual who is obscure beyond academic and feminist circles, then it would be of limited interest, one of those French intellectual scandals that give Anglophone writers and academics a twinge of envy. (When was the last time there was a truly national controversy in the United States over a book? The Bell Curve?)
But Kristeva’s advocacy of what was in terms of gross numbers the most murderous regime of the 20th century is only one tessera in the great mosaic of Western intellectuals’ seduction by totalitarian systems, especially those that come wearing exotic costumes. (Jeremy Jennings, writing in Standpoint, describes Kristeva’s Maoism as “part radical chic, part revolutionary tourism, part orientalism.”) Sometimes, that seduction has come from the right, as with Italian Fascism’s ensorcelling of Ezra Pound and F. A. Hayek’s embarrassing admiration for the government of Augusto Pinochet, a political crush that earned him a private rebuke from no less a figure than Margaret Thatcher. But, more often, that seduction has come from the left: Lincoln Steffens returning from the Soviet Union to declare, “I have seen the future, and it works.” Walter Duranty’s embarrassing misreportage in the New York Times, which still proudly displays the Pulitzer prize earned thereby. The moral equivalence and outright giddy enthusiasm with which Western intellectuals ranging from the left-wing to the merely liberal treated Lenin and Stalin. The New Republic’s footsie-playing with Communists under Henry Wallace. Noam Chomsky’s dismissal of the Cambodian genocide as an American propaganda invention. The reverence for Fidel Castro. The embrace of Hugo Chávez by everyone from Hollywood progressives to Democratic elected officials. Chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh / The NLF is going to win!” on the streets of New York in 1968. Ten million Che T-shirts.
“There are Western intellectuals who don’t succumb,” Professor Wolin says. “The George Orwells, Susan Sontags, and others who learn the lesson. Among the French leftists in the late 1960s who swooned for the Cultural Revolution, many of them came to their senses in the ’70s.” But what about those who are seduced? “Often, they’re naive about politics, and they project holistic and idealistic solutions—totalizing solutions—onto events that don’t admit of those kinds of solutions.”
Political ideologies tend to define themselves in two important ways: first, in opposition to the most important and prominent of their direct ideological competitors; second, in an effort to distinguish themselves from immediately adjacent ideologies and factions. In the case of 20th-century radicals such as Julia Kristeva, the enemy was capitalism, and the most prominent alternative to capitalism was Communism. Whether the pursuit of the idealized new man and his utopian new society took the form of old-fashioned bureaucratic Soviet socialism or the more rambunctious and anarchic mode of the Cultural Revolution was a dispute between adjacent factions, something that may seem almost immaterial from the outside but that is the source of all-consuming passions—and rage—inside the radical milieu.
The West is perversely fortunate that its hedonism and materialism have inoculated it against the premier radicalism of the early 21st century—jihadism, which has gained very little purchase in the West outside of poorly assimilated immigrant communities, mostly in Europe. But Islamic radicalism is not the only rival to democratic liberalism on the world stage: As Xi Jinping consolidates his position in Beijing (a project that goes far beyond the recent removal of the term limits that would have ended his rule at the conclusion of his second term), where are the Western intellectuals with the moral authority and political acumen to articulate a meaningful critique of what he represents? The left in Europe and in the English-speaking world has never been obliged to make an accounting—or a reckoning—for its indulgence of a far more dramatically violent expression of Chinese nationalism, and even liberal technocrats such as Thomas Friedman dream of turning America into “China for a day,” begrudgingly admiring the Chinese government’s raw ability to simply act, unencumbered by democratic gridlock.
And if the left and the center-left are ill-equipped to mount an intellectual defense of democratic liberalism, the right is even less prepared, having mired itself deeply in the very kind of authoritarian nationalism practiced by Beijing. Like the 20th-century left, the 21st-century right has gone looking for allies and inspiration abroad, and has settled upon Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, the fascist Le Pen political dynasty in France, Alternative für Deutschland, neo-nationalism, neo-mercantilism, and ethnic-identity politics. The right-wing populists of Europe do not have Mao’s practically unbounded scope of action (or his body count), but they play for intellectuals on the radical right the same role that Maoism once played for intellectuals on the radical left.
It is not clear that Kristeva has learned very much from her political errors, or even indeed that she ever has come to understand them genuinely as errors. Her alleged collaboration with the Bulgarian secret police, tawdry as it might have been, would not constitute the greatest of those errors. But it is that allegation, and not the plain facts of her long career of advocacy on behalf of inhumane political enterprises, that embarrasses her. In that, she is typical of the radical tendency, a spiritual cousin to the Western progressives who once winked at Stalinists as “liberals in a hurry.” But radical chic is not an exclusively progressive fashion. Xi Jinping is in a hurry, and so is Marine Le Pen, and both have their attention set on matters of more consequence than “intersectionality,” the matter of who uses which pronouns, and the other voguish obsessions of our contemporary intellectuals.
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It was Ben-Gurion himself who proposed a compromise: Israel’s Declaration of Independence would conclude by asserting that each signer placed his trust in the “Rock of Israel,” the Tzur Yisrael, a phrase from the Jewish liturgy inspired by the biblical reference to God as tzuri ve-go’ali, my Rock and my Redeemer.
By referring to the “Rock of Israel,” but refraining from any explicit mention of divine redemption, Israel’s declaration was one that both devout and atheistic Zionists could affirm. For believers in the Bible, the phrase could refer to the divine defender of the Jewish people; for the secular socialist signers of the document, the words could instead make reference to the flint-like resolution of the Israeli army. The compromise was accepted, and the modern Jewish state was born by eliding the issue of the existence of God.
For myself, a religious Zionist and American-history aficionado, the story is doubly painful. Thomas Jefferson, the deistic drafter of the Declaration in Philadelphia, produced a first version without any reference to the divine designs of history. The continental Congress, however, representing an America obsessed with the Bible, edited the dramatic closing of the original draft so that it made clear that the revolution was being launched with “a firm reliance on divine providence.”
The irony is difficult to miss. America, inspired by the Israelite commonwealth in the Hebrew Bible, ordered that a reference to a providential God be added to its Declaration of Independence. But in the 20th century, the restored Israelite commonwealth went out of its way to remove any such reference.
For religious Zionists, however, removing God from a document did not do away with God’s role in the divinely directed drama that is Jewish history; in fact, the contrary is true. Sidney Morgenbesser, the kibitzing Columbia philosopher, once inquired of a colleague at the end of his life: “Why is God making me suffer so much? Just because I don’t believe in him?” Morgenbesser’s droll dialectic captures, for people of faith, something profound: It is those agnostic of God’s existence who can at times reify that very same existence. In a much more profound sense, the events that preceded and followed Israel’s declaration of statehood are so staggering that providence alone explains them.
Harry Truman, the former member of the Missouri political machine whom no one had ever expected to become president of the United States, overrode his hero, General George C. Marshall, in supporting and recognizing the birth of a Jewish state. And he did so, in part, because of his relationship with a Jew named Eddie Jacobson, with whom Truman had run a haberdashery business decades before.
Joseph Stalin, whose anti-Semitism rivaled Hitler’s, ordered the Soviet bloc at the United Nations to support partition, and then he allowed Czechoslovakia to sell airplanes and arms to the nascent state. The Jews of the IDF, fighting against overwhelming odds, did indeed illustrate flint-like toughness in their heroic victory; but the honest student of history can see that this is only part of the story.
Seventy years after May 14, 1948, religious Zionists still smart at the words with which Israel came into being. At the same time, they take comfort in the fact that what followed that extraordinary day vindicates their own interpretation of the words Tzur Yisrael. In his memoir, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, the youngest survivor of Buchenwald, describes the moment when the concentration camp was liberated by Patton’s Third Army. Many inmates, having longed for release, ran to the gates—and as they did so, the Nazis, in a final attempt at murdering the prisoners, opened fire from the guard tower. Lau was in the line of fire; suddenly, someone jumped on him and held him down until the shooting had stopped. Having no idea who had saved his life, Lau made his way to Palestine, attended yeshiva, and entered the rabbinate. The first position for which he interviewed was chief rabbi of Netanya. Interviewing for the job with city officials, he encountered hours of question from the mayor of Netanya and his staff. The deputy mayor of Netanya, a man by the name of David Anilevitch, who ought to have been deeply involved in the interview, sat on the side and oddly said nothing. As the interview came to a close, Anilevitch stood up and said:
Friends, honored rabbi, before we disperse, please allow me to say my piece…. I have been reliving 11 April 1945. I was deported from my hometown to Buchenwald. On April 11, American airplanes circled in the skies above the camp. The prisoners, myself among them, were first out of the barracks. As we ran, a hail of bullets passed us. Among those running toward the gate was a little boy.…I jumped on top of him, threw him to the ground, and lay over him to protect him from the bullets. And today I see him before me alive and well. Now I declare this to all of you: I, David Anilevitch, was saved from that horror, fought in the Palmach, and today serve as deputy mayor of an Israeli city.
Anilevitch, Lau concludes, then banged on the table so that all the glasses shook and said: “If I have the merit of seeing this child, whom I protected with my body, become my spiritual leader, then I say to you that there is a God.”
The definition of a miracle is an event that should not naturally have occurred. For us, this tends to mean the splitting of the sea, the stopping of the sun, the opening of the earth. Yet, by the very same definition, it is a miracle that Israel was born, and endured in the way that it did. It is a miracle that after a generation in which many Jewish children grew up without parents, let alone grandparents, we have experienced the fulfillment of Zachariah’s prophecy that grandparents will watch their grandchildren play in the streets of Jerusalem. It is a miracle that after so many civilizations have disappeared, Jewish children continue to be born. It is a miracle that as anti-Semitism continues to haunt the nations of Europe that persecuted the Jews for so long, religious Judaism flourishes in Israel even as a now secular Europe demographically declines.
More than any other event in the last 70 years, the state that was born in avoidance of any explicit affirmation of Israel’s God now stands as the greatest argument for the existence of that very same God. And that is why many Jews, on the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence, will recite with renewed fervor prayers in the daily traditional liturgy that 70 years ago had been at least partially fulfilled:
O Rock of Israel,
Arise in defense of Israel,
And redeem, as you have promised,
Judah and Israel.
Our redeemer, the Lord of Hosts is your Name, the Sacred One of Israel
Blessed are you, O Lord, Who redeemed Israel.