Reagan Doesn’t See Line Where Science Ends and Fiction Begins

Ronald Reagan, meet Isaac Asimov! With over three hundred books to his credit, Asimov is arguably the nation’s leading science writer.

In a rare public protest and call to action, Asimov has taken a stand against Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative or proposed Star Wars project. His letter, mailed earlier this month to hundreds of thousands of Americans, begins:
“There is a line between science and science fiction. I know. I’ve written on both sides of that line for forty-seven years. But I’m terribly afraid that Ronald Reagan doesn’t know where that line STAR WARS is a threat to world peace, to our national security and to the United States economy. Like the Maginot Line, it is a dangerous delusion for future historians to shake their heads over — assuming there will be future historians.”

Reagan’s Star Wars program, announced in March 1983, is a remarkable political phenomenon. In one swoop it drew the media away from reporting the nuclear freeze movement and onto the wonderfully graphic television portrayals of simulated intercontinental ballistic missile destruction with a reporter’s voice overlay. Newsworthy controversy within the scientific community immediately erupted, with some scientists, drooling over endless government contracts to fund both research/development and graduate student assistants, saying it was worth trying, while many eminent physicists like conservative Hans Bethe, a Nobel Prize Winner, in vigorous opposition. This bred less media attention to the arms control movement and new topics such as the nuclear winter discovery.

Star Wars technology is, as a recent Office of Technology Assessment (a policy research arm of Congress) report called it, “infeasible.” Even if the world waits the 40 to 50 years its advocates expect to take before full deployment, even if our economy can afford the trillion dollars it will cost as a minimum, even if it effectively stops 90% of incoming Soviet ballistic missiles, what will it accomplish? Well, with the Soviets building the same system, both sides will increase their offensive missiles inventory so that more will get through the shield. Both sides, thinking one is ahead of the other, will go forward with building more first strike weapons Just in case.

The militarization of outer space will become an orbital stampede. The militarization of campus research will make a mockery of free exchange of scientific information, civil liberties and the right of dissent. There is nothing quite like the combination of big money on campus and national security dictates to put free speech in the back seat.

These concerns have just launched a fast-spreading academic boycott. Over 350 full time faculty members, most of them physicists and engineers, and 700 graduate students and postdocs, have signed a pledge “not to solicit or accept any funds from the ballistic missile defense program.” A majority of the faculty physicists at the University of Illinois, Princeton, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Carnegie-Mellon and SUNY-Stony Brook have signed this pledge, which calls the program “ill conceived and dangerous.”

There could be, however, a method to Reagan’s Star Wars madness. Perhaps the President believes that it takes greater madness to stop madness. That if the U.S. shows it can waste a trillion dollars and raise the risk of wild nuclear arms escalation, the Russians will drop their arms race madness and come to an agreement in Geneva. This could sound plausible if Reagan did riot surround himself with alleged arms control specialists who make Dr. Strangelove look like a collector of rare butterflies.

All Presidents since Harry Truman have signed arms control agreements with the Soviets. They did so by proposing to lower the ante, not upping it in order to lower it. Hollywood-minded Reagan doesn’t quite understand Russian psychology; the people who absorbed the shock of national megarubble and 50 million fatalities in two World Wars are not going to be driven to crying “Uncle” this Star Wars way, especially after Reagan places nuclear missiles of completely redundant purpose inside West Germany, the country that devastatingly invaded Russia twice in thirty years.

Using more madness to stop the current arms race madness is really too charitable an explanation. For Reagan’s Star Wars gives him an escape from responsibility – a telegenically soothing message of defense that delays serious negotiations by the world’s more advanced and powerful nation until Mr. Reagan retires to California in January 1989.

He calls his defense initiative “The Great Protector” and “the thing that could eliminate nuclear weapons because they wouldn’t be needed anymore.” Hardly.

Suppose you lived in a community with a rash of burglaries and a company offered to provide with a great defense against the culprits. You said ok and the company built you the most impregnable front door imaginable. You object, saying: “what about the back door, the cellar door, the windows?” Yes, what about submarine launched missiles, low level Cruise-type missiles, bomber missiles and nuclear bombs? And new, more destructive weapons sure to be on their way in the generation before Star Wars is ready. Not even its most fervent boosters say that Star Wars can defend against these inner space nuclear delivery systems.

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