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Star warriors.

Star Warriors.

Rod Hyde hates the Soviets. He fears they will take over the world. He jokes-- earnestly--about rearranging Soviet society with a few well-placed H-bombs. Pressed to explain his views, Hyde concedes that he doesn't "give a shit what [Soviet leaders] do to their own people,' or to anyone else, for that matter--as long as the Kremlin doesn't get in the way of his escaping from Earth in his own spaceship. "What I want more than anything is essentially to get the human race into space,' says Hyde. "After that, I don't worry about the Soviets anymore.'

This is no pimply ninth-grader, dreaming about blowing away the Klingons so that he can join forces with Captain Kirk and the Enterprise. At 31, Hyde is a senior scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, where in his spare time he designs sophisticated spacecraft. He earns his salary developing lasers for the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and is one of the subjects in William J. Broad's intriguing group portrait of this nation's youthful "star warriors.'*

* Star Warriors. William J. Broad. Simon & Schuster, $16.95.

Broad, a science reporter with The New York Times, paints with rough, impressionistic strokes. One can't help wondering whether he skipped the polishing stage altogether in order to get this short book out in time for summit season. He nevertheless succeeds in combining a comprehensible explanation of SDI with a lively diary of a week-long visit to the Livermore lab, one of the government's two main nuclear weapons design facilities.

Rod Hyde attracts Broad's attention not as an exceptional character but as a typical one. Livermore, according to Broad, is a sprawling fraternity of nerd-geniuses who never grew out of their fantasies. It's a world where the ice cream and Coca-Cola abound, where scraggly-bearded young men in blue jeans get to stay up all night working on ray guns. Broad cleverly illustrates how enthusiasm for beating up on the Soviets fits into a generally juvenile social setting--tough talk, no girls, incessant outings to Burger King. He also describes the SDI researchers' fierce desire to discover the darkest secrets of the atom, regardless of the consequences. Lurking in the background of this picture, watching over the chaotic activity, is Edward Teller, principal developer of the hydrogen bomb, founding father of Livermore, and influential advocate for strategic defense. By illuminating the attitudes and goals of the Livermore scientists, as well as the atmosphere in which they work, Broad provides a useful new perspective on SDI, one that should encourage continued skepticism about the program.

Out of the babes' mouths

Prominent in the Reagan administration's presummit public relations campaign was an effort to portray SDI as America's kindly attempt to save the world from destruction. Conservative lobbyists backed by the White House produced a television commercial showing SDI as a child's drawing of a rainbow "peace shield' protecting what looked like Mr. Rogers's neighborhood. Reagan himself has declared that, rather than escalate the arms race, strategic defense would render offensive nuclear weapons "impotent and obsolete' and that American efforts would benefit the Soviet Union, which would be able to purchase the technology "at cost.'

Broad's conversations with the Livermore scientists reveal how misleading Reagan's references to "scientists working to shield their cities and their citizens' really are. First of all, SDI does not resemble a simple shield; it is a group of technologies, in some cases merely vague theories, that would rely on lasers, particle beams, and supercomputers to track and shoot down Soviet missiles. Broad's star warriors concede that the obstacles to constructing such devices are difficult to envision, let alone overcome. Chief among the problems is the need to write and test the software necessary to identify enemy missiles, aim and fire at them, and then almost instantaneously determine which had been destroyed. Fantastically complicated hardware positioned in space, on land, and possibly under water would have to function flawlessly the first time out in order to achieve the leak-proof barrier described by Reagan. Finally, the scientists imply that, as critics of SDI have argued, numerous countermeasures, such as decoy warheads and vastly increased attacking forces, could potentially overwhelm a strategic defense system.

Almost to a man, the Livermore scientists imply that they have no illusions of turning Reagan's vision into reality. But they are quick to add that even if SDI "is only 20 percent effective,' as one worker tells Broad, "the 20 percent that gets protected is an enormous retaliatory capability.' Broad notes, perhaps without enough emphasis, that the entity being preserved in this formula isn't human life; it's offensive nuclear fire power. In the eyes of its architects, SDI will preserve, or possibly heighten, the uncertainty over whether a Soviet first strike will preclude a devastating American response. This view offers no Reaganesque optimism about offensive weapons vanishing along with the threat to civilian populations. No "shield,' one scientist tells Broad, "would keep cities from being obliterated.' Mutual fear--the heart of the doctrine of deterrence--remains the basis of peace in a world with SDI.

Although his opinions would generally be called liberal, Broad is no knee-jerk peacenik. He acknowledges that the threat of SDI brought the Soviets back to the negotiating table and that Reagan could still use it profitably as a bargaining chip. The author's goal is to demonstrate that SDI is not a departure from Cold War politics or a new, more humane approach to designing nuclear weapons. Quite the contrary: the spirit of Dr. Strangelove thrives at Livermore.

Rather than stability based on parity, most of the young SDI researchers seek American dominance buttressed by an ability to knock out at least some fraction of any Soviet nuclear attack. "In general,' Broad writes, "defense ideology does not seem to be a motive in their work.' This observation underscores the hollowness of fine distinctions between the danger of strategic offense and the security of strategic defense. As a threat, SDI may scare the Soviets into agreeing to mutually beneficial arms reductions. But, if implemented, an anti-missile system would surely prompt a hostile and potentially destabilizing response from Moscow. And unlike old-fashioned, ground-based missile defense systems, which had no potential for making a first strike more feasible, space-based beam weapons could easily be transformed from shield to arrow. "If you can shoot down [Soviet] boosters,' one Livermore official tells Broad, "it's equally plausible that you could shoot down [early warning] satellites.'

Science jock heaven

Vehement though it is, the anti-Soviet sentiment at Livermore does not alone explain the extraordinary devotion of the young scientists Broad meets. Most of these men are recruited by lab officials straight out of schools such as the Massachusetts and California Institutes of Technology. With little time for thinking about what they want to do with their vast talent, they are ushered into science jock heaven. Livermore offers the best in big lasers, supercomputers, and electron microscopes; in some cases, its equipment is unique. Nowhere else on earth, for example, would Rod Hyde find the facilities to design the fusion engines with which he intends to visit the stars.

New arrivals at Livermore learn quickly to appreciate the luxury afforded by the arms race. The billions of dollars in federal funding already slated for SDI only add to the lab's overflowing coffers. Another prime lure dangled by recruiters is the government's practice of waiving its rights to many discoveries made at Livermore, permitting scientists to split their time between SDI and lucrative work in nearby Silicon Valley.

One aspect of the money angle Broad should have pursued further is the role of the Hertz Foundation, a private organization that provides millions of dollars in grants to many of the younger Livermore scientists. The money enables them to pursue Ph.D.s while beginning their weapons research. Started in the 1940s by rental car magnate John D. Hertz, the foundation was intended to fund opposition to the Soviets and has maintained a rigidly hawkish philosophy. The ranking recruiter at Livermore is on the Hertz board of directors, as are Edward Teller, General Curtis E. LeMay, and a host of other Cold War luminaries. Broad notes blandly that "the whole Hertz connection raises questions,' especially since the foundation keeps its precise agenda secret, but he fails to dig for any of the answers.

Whatever indoctrination Hertz officials conduct, and Broad muses ominously that there must be some, the influence at Livermore of one man, Edward Teller, is undeniable. Teller in the early 1950s lobbied for the founding of a second weapons lab when his colleagues at Los Alamos, birthplace of the atom bomb, disparaged his obsession with building an even more powerful nuclear device. The successful explosion of the first hydrogen bomb in 1952 opened a schism between Teller and much of the rest of the American scientific community that was widened by his subsequent participation in the McCarthy-era persecution of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Isolated physically and intellectually at Livermore, Teller continued his personal crusade to free the West of the threat of Soviet missiles. He did pioneering work in strategic defense theory, and when pro-Oppenheimer liberals shunned Livermore, he turned to the Hertz Foundation to help attract promising graduate students. When the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty sharply limited superpower arsenals of nuclear-tipped interceptors, Teller led the development of the lasers and other "third generation' weapons that are part of SDI. He is credited with helping to convince Reagan to launch a formal federal program in 1982.

Today Teller, 76 and officially retired, still holds court at Livermore in an office decorated with African violets and pictures of mushroom clouds. Broad describes his influence as that of a revered, almost mystic godfather. As mentor to some of the laboratory's senior administrators and recruiters, Teller keeps alive his quest for American nuclear superiority in ever more sophisticated weaponry. Broad quotes from a July 1983 letter in which Teller told President Reagan that innovations at Livermore, "by converting hydrogen bombs into hitherto unprecedented forms and then directing these in highly effective fashion against enemy targets, would . . . commence a period of assured survival on terms favorable to the Western alliance.'

The ink still wet on their Ph.D. parchments, the young scientists Broad interviews echo tenets from Teller's gospel. "The number of new weapon designs is limited only by one's creativity,' says one. "There are a tremendous number of ways one might defend the country.' Broad calls the peculiar mix of motivations at Livermore "nuclear curiosity'--a response to endlessly challenging scientific problems, some posed by gurus like Teller and all of which have an aura of great danger and risk. It's fun to spend your time working, socializing, and practically living with other brilliant guys who share your desire to be at the forefront of top-secret science. One former Hertz fellow familiar with Livermore tells Broad, "The lab has bright people and incredible resources, but so do a lot of universities. What makes them different is that theirs is also a power trip. What they're doing could save or destroy the world. They deal with that by enjoying it.'

Star Warriors contributes considerable insight into the origins and purposes of strategic defense. It also poses the troubling question of whether we ought to view advances in nuclear technology as necessary or inevitable simply because people at places like Livermore may have the brainpower and bravado to accomplish them.
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Author:Barrett, Paul M.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Bibliography
Date:Jan 1, 1986
Previous Article:Criminals by any other name.
Next Article:The Reagan detour.

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