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Bitter Debate : Scientists Split Over 'Star Wars'

Last of a Series

September 24, 1985|ROBERT SCHEER | Times Staff Writer

LIVERMORE, Calif. — The two septuagenarian geniuses of nuclear physics and war sat in uneasy peace, obviously more aware of each other than of the young men who talked on about the wonders of their new laser and beam weapons.

One of the young weapons makers confessed to a sense of awe in the presence of Nobel Laureate Hans A. Bethe, a giant of modern physics, who had journeyed to the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near here to be briefed on their work. They were more used to the other legend present, Edward Teller, often called the father of the hydrogen bomb and the spiritual patron of their efforts.

The briefing was designed to gain Bethe's support for the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as "Star Wars." But Bethe, who has played a key role in U.S. nuclear weapons development since the first A-bomb, remained critical. And Teller, seated across the table during a luncheon break, began to glower.

Suddenly Teller could no longer contain his anger at the man with whom he had once shared the heady and secret intimacy of making the world's first atomic bomb. In those days of innocence, they had even double-dated. Later, they worked together on the hydrogen bomb for which Bethe did much of the important theoretical work, though he doubted the wisdom of creating an even bigger weapon. But now, Bethe was not simply a doubter but the enemy.

"You fought me on the hydrogen bomb 40 years ago," Teller's voice rose, breaking the studious decorum of the luncheon, "and now you're fighting me on defensive weapons. Let's have it out once and for all."

Bethe Keeps Silent

The two-day briefing almost came to an end, but Livermore Director Roger E. Batzel rose to move the agenda, and Teller calmed down. Throughout the incident, Bethe would not respond, telling a colleague later that "it's no use on these matters. It's political for Edward, and he cannot change."

Asked about this incident a week later, during a chance airport encounter, Teller told a reporter that he agreed "the arguments about SDI are primarily political and philosophical, not technical."

He was on his way home from a speech in Orange County where he had charged: "We are under a propaganda attack from the Soviet Union, aided by misinformation from our own media and many of our own scientists."

Bethe insists that his objections to SDI are both technical and political. "Star Wars" cannot "provide a comprehensive defense," he has written, "against a determined adversary who could overwhelm it with warheads and decoys or circumvent it with cruise missiles and bombers." It will simply lead to building more offensive weapons to overwhelm the defense. "Star Wars," Bethe wrote, "is a guaranteed recipe for another ratchet in the nuclear competition."

The Teller-Bethe incident is illustrative of a civil war that has been tearing apart the defense Establishment ever since President Reagan's "Star Wars" speech of March 23, 1983, which called for a major commitment to research on space weapons. The feuding has revived old disputes, made bitter enemies of longtime colleagues and friends and introduced a note of rancor not often encountered in such circles.

Both sides feel that the stakes are terribly high and that for better or worse, SDI represents a major shift in the politics of the nuclear age.

"This is indeed a major turning point in world history," Stephen R. Graubard, editor of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, wrote recently, summarizing the thinking of his colleagues who participated in a special two-volume publication on the "Star Wars" debate.

Petition Circulated

That this concern is widespread in Graubard's organization was indicated this past spring, when over half the members of the Academy and most of the country's Nobel prize winners signed a petition calling for a ban on weapons in space, a step that would prevent the deployment of a "Star Wars" system.

The debate has little to do with the specific workings of the space weapons and much to do with attitudes toward arms control. A "Star Wars" defensive system does not exist. Even Administration optimists concede that it is decades away from deployment; most experts think it will never be built.

But "Star Wars" has already profoundly and perhaps irrevocably altered the nuclear debate. In the unthinkable arena of nuclear weapons, perception and rhetoric are often more important than some harder notion of reality. And it is the rhetoric--first of the President in proposing a shift away from the deterrent strategy of the past 35 years and then of his critics in denouncing that move as reckless--that divides.

At issue is deterrence, the time-worn, some say twisted, notion of "mutual assured destruction," (also known by its acronym MAD), a policy of preventing nuclear war that has dominated Soviet-American relations since the Russians also obtained the bomb.

Simple, Grisly Idea

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