The Wonders of Star Wars

Star Warriors: A Penetrating Look Into the Lives of the Young Scientists Behind Our Space Age Weaponry

by William J. Broad
Simon and Schuster, 245 pp., $16.95

How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete

by Robert Jastrow
Little, Brown, 175 pp., $15.95

Ballistic Missile Defense Technologies

Congress of the United States, Office of Technology Assessment
325 pp., $12.00

The Geneva summit has come and gone, leaving Mr. Gorbachev adamant that the Strategic Defense Initiative program is a critical impediment to any significant nuclear arms control agreement—for the simple reason that it would inevitably drive the arms race into space. President Reagan on the other hand, remains bewitched by what he continues to call his dream, a dream of a shield of defense systems in space which would liberate mankind from “the prison of mutual terror.” So there it is—as the USSR sees it, a choice between survival and mutual suicide; for Mr. Reagan, a beautiful dream. Where does reason lie? Will there be anything new at the summit later this year?

Had anyone other than the American president ever invited scientists to try to render “nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete,” the suggestion would probably have attracted no more attention than had they been asked to square the circle or solve the problem of perpetual motion. But it happened to be the President, and he spelled out his vision of a future over which the nuclear bomb no longer casts a shadow in such homely terms that it all sounded real. How could the message fail to appeal? There was also a promise of vast resources for R&D—a vision therefore not only of peace but, at least in the meantime, of work, prosperity, and excitement for some. For those who might object that the idea was strategically naive, the President even acknowledged that it would “take years, probably decades of effort” for the dream to become a reality, and that in the meantime defensive systems, “if paired with offensive systems,” could be “viewed as fostering an aggressive policy.” However fantastic it was, the challenge therefore had to be taken seriously, even by the President’s defense secretary who, it had been widely rumored, had been skeptical about the idea until the moment it was suddenly proclaimed to the world.

The upshot is that within the space of two years, SDI has become one of the best-known acronyms in the world. It has stimulated a global debate. Instead of reducing tensions between East and West and “introducing greater stability into the strategic calculus of both sides,” it has exacerbated the tensions. It has also generated strains in the Western alliance. Even more important, it has divided that part of the American scientific community to which the challenge was particularly addressed, with respect both to its technological implications and to its strategic desirability—a part of the debate in which politicians, military people, and ordinary citizens have also engaged. And of course the debate has produced a mountain of comment, including books such as the three under review.

In some respects the debate is a rerun of the controversies that culminated in the 1972 ABM Treaty, when both sides implicitly acknowledged that it was then beyond their power to design meaningful defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Both had set about the job in the same …

This article is available to Online Edition and Print Premium subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.