Oral History Transcript — Dr. Murray Gell-Mann
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Interview with Dr. Murray Gell-Mann
Murray Gell-Mann; April 23, 1987
ABSTRACT: Founding role in JASON limited his initial involvement. Participation in JASON study on ABM defense, 1961-1962; policy recommendations; results. JASON study on relevance of social science advice to Dept. of Defense. Studies U.S. Southeast Asian inv
Aaserud:Weíre going to talk about Dr. Gell-Mannís involvements in science policy, science advising, and those aspects of his career.
Gell-Mann:I thought that you wanted to talk mainly today about the security issues.
Gell-Mann:But, we can talk about other kinds of science policy as well.
Aaserud:Letís concentrate on security —
Gell-Mann:Yes, OK, fine.
Aaserud:— measures and issues at the outset, then we can —
Gell-Mann:— talk about other things as well.
Aaserud:Yes, thatís fine, because there are interactions of course here.
Gell-Mann:I was involved in the founding of JASON, although for some reason the histories donít seem to mention me. During the late fifties, Murph Goldberger, Keith Bruecker, Ken Watson, Francis Low and I spoke of starting a consulting company, in which we would participate part time during the day or week or so that our faculty positions allowed, to consult for the Defense Department and other branches of the government.
Aaserud:Yes, mainly the Defense Department, was that the idea?
Gell-Mann:Well, it was supposed to be mainly on issues concerned with defense, with nuclear weapons and things of that kind, but presumably we were not excluding any subject that some other civilian agency might be interested in. I was away in France in the academic year 1959-60, when the final decisions were made about how to do that, and also I had a lot of trouble getting my clearances upgraded, so that I could participate in the discussions.
Aaserud:Did you have clearances?
Gell-Mann:I had clearances. I had a Q clearance from the AEC, and I had a secret clearance, which was registered at RAND, where Iíd been consulting since 1956.
Aaserud:That was the origins of the clearances.
Gell-Mann:Yes. In 1956 I got a secret clearance at RAND and a Q clearance from the AEC for use at Los Alamos. But the upgrading of the clearances took some time, and in fact, didnít end until after JASON was actually under way. So for those two reasons I was not present at a lot of the actual sessions and discussions and so on. What we had discussed was a company, and we were persuaded by various elder statesmen that we shouldnít do that, that what we should do instead was to affiliate with a not for profit organization.
Aaserud:What was the motivation for getting the company idea in the first place? What brought you to it?
Gell-Mann:Well, we had all consulted from time to time, for the AEC and others, RAND and organizations like that, and we felt that it would be a better idea to concentrate our efforts by forming an organization to do it. Anyway, we were talked out of it, and it was decided finally while I was away that the organization would be formed in conjunction with some not-for-profit outfit like the Institute for Defense Analyses. The Institute for Defense Analyses was formed some years before by an association of research universities, including by the way Caltech. So that those universities could sponsor, at armís length, an organization that would do consulting for the government on classified and other problems. Those universities didnít want that type of work to be done very much on campus.
Aaserud:To what extent were you involved in being talked into the government part and talked out of the company aspirations?
Gell-Mann:I donít think it was. I was in France and I was worried about other things. They said it seemed best and so on, and I just went along with it. Iím not sure to this day that it was a good idea, but anyway, we did it. Then, when I came back from France — and as I say it took a while for the clearances to come through — but finally I did begin to participate in the meetings. We held, as they still do, several meetings a year and the various conferences and ad hoc meetings, where people fly from one place to another to talk about things, and so on.
Aaserud:Iím sorry, Iíll just try to bring you back once more. Thereís another strand of developments leading to JASON also, and that is Project 137, which was a summer study in 1958, which was I think originated with Wheeler.
Gell-Mann:Yes, various hawks like John Wheeler and Wigner, and so on, were involved in that. I know that some of these other founders like Murph and so on were there, and worried about whatever it is they worried about.
Aaserud:But you werenít intimately involved with that.
Gell-Mann:No, I was not. Anyway, I started participating. In the summer of 1961, I was not doing that kind of thing, if I remember correctly. I was at Berkeley that summer, working on a project in particle physics, particle theory, trying to forecast what would be discovered in experiments at higher energies. And the work was very exciting.
Aaserud:Was it largely on your own that you went out and had these interviews?
Gell-Mann:No. It was natural to do it. I mean, all the people were coming through Berkeley as part of this program, and so I talked with a lot of people. They werenít formal interviews. I just talked with a great number of people, and was able then to put together a talk which I gave at the end of the summer, outlining what I thought were just about all the principal issues relevant to the development and potential deployment of an ABM system. And the conclusions were very negative, that is, that it would drastically reduce our security, and that we would be much better off if both the United States and the Soviet Union refrained from deploying significant ABM systems. Of course, we knew that the Soviet Union was working on such things, and the question was, could both countries somehow — either by unilateral action on both sides, or by means of some kind of treaty — renounce it. The arguments of course are familiar, having to do with the fact that such systems could be overwhelmed. They could be gotten around in all sorts of ways, so that the ideal of a force shield — a science fiction force shield — protecting the population was impossible to achieve. What would happen with the partial defense that might be possible was that, first of all, it would greatly destabilize the competition in procurement of strategic arms, including offensive weapons, penetration aids and so forth and so on. But also, it would greatly increase the instability in case of crisis — the mutual incentive to engage in a counterforce first strike, in the event of a crisis. And that is of course very serious, because it threatens seriously to increase the probability of nuclear war, of a catastrophic nuclear war.
Aaserud:Yes. But JASON was the medium for this?
Gell-Mann:Yes. It was at the JASON summer study in Berkeley in the summer of 1962. During the year, I engaged in some more discussions of these questions with JASON and with various officials that we were briefing, and so on. The next summer, we formed a study group on the same set of questions, of which I was chairman; we met for our summer study in Woods Hole, and we formed a study group. I was the chairman, and some of the members were Tom Schelling and Pete Scoville who was — I forget his exact title but he was a high official of the CIA in charge of scientific and technical matters.
Aaserud:So it was a much expanded JASON, so to speak.
Gell-Mann:Yes, we adjoined to JASON, a number of other people, as we always did, I guess. I forget who else was in the group, but Iím sure you can get hold of the list. And we spent the summer studying these same questions in a much more technical way. We used some minor amount of operations analysis and economic arguments. Also, in order to get some idea of the ultimate scale of the offensive and defensive systems, we made an investigation of the number of nuclear warheads that were likely to be available. The ABM defenses that people talked about were all nuclear, and of course the attacks were all nuclear, and so we tried to get some idea of the absolute scale by looking at questions of availability of nuclear materials for warheads — then and in the future. And what happened was that as a result, our study became extremely highly classified. I didnít realize at that time how serious a matter that was. I thought that the very highest officials, the ones we would be interested in reaching, would be able to read a report of any degree of classification, and that it hardly made any difference; I didnít pay much attention to it. But in fact, when the report finally came out in the fall of 1963, the fact that it was so highly classified because of these numbers of nuclear weapons made it unavailable to almost anyone, which greatly reducing its utility.
Aaserud:But you did produce a report this time.
Gell-Mann:That time we did produce a report, although it would have been more useful the previous year.
Aaserud:Would that be available now, do you think?
Gell-Mann:Well, it was very highly classified.
Aaserud:It still is?
I have no idea. I have no idea to what extent itís been declassified. Anyway, in that report, we went over many of the same issues. By this time, though, Iíd discussed with people elsewhere various hypotheses about what would happen to the technology of strategic offense and defense in the near future. It became clear that MIRVs were going to be very important, although most people were not speaking about MIRVs that summer, but I got wind of the possibility of that; we concluded that that was very likely. And it was very important to us that the instabilities — whatís nowadays called crisis instability: the mutual incentive to first strike in the event of a crisis, for two great powers both equipped with these partial ABM systems, and with arsenals of offensive nuclear weapons — would be greatly increased by the existence of many warheads in one target vehicle. The combination of that with an ABM — which of course would allow the attacker to think that maybe he would have to use his ABM to cope only with a reduced enemy force as a result of his first counterforce strike — would be able to get rid of a number of attacking weapons at once, if they were contained in a single vehicle.
So we did a certain number of arithmetical examples, and showed how this would work. All of that we put together later in the year in a report, and in my briefing at the end of the summer, again we discussed — as we had the previous year — the two possibilities: one, that the United States and the Soviet Union could both unilaterally renounce ABM, with some provisions for trying to make it clear to the other side that this was really so; or, two, there could be a treaty. We discussed the relative merits back and forth of the two approaches. Now, I should emphasize of course that at that time, both in 1962 and in 1963, we made clear that protection of missile sites was a wholly different matter from attempts to protect value, that is to say, cities, population and so on. The protection of missile sites by whatever means is stabilizing. Both sides do more and more of it. Itís better and better for the stability of deterrence. The system we were thinking about, of course, for deterrence was Ö to mean, the system in theÖ How shall I say it? The situation in which we were conceiving deterrence was of course mutually assured destruction, so-called, as people have named it I think subsequently, with that stupid acronym MAD.
Now, it is not really understood by our voters, even today, 25 years later. Itís still not understood that the United States has always had, has had — in the last few decades — a mixed strategy of retaliatory second strike, and preemptive first strike. We have never agreed to renounce the possibility of first use of strategic nuclear weapons, because we imagine that the threat of escalation to a strategic nuclear attack is part of the way in which we defend certain areas that we feel are not defensible by conventional methods because of overwhelming conventional forces on the other side, because of isolation of the territories — like Berlin and so on — and because, even with the use of tactical nuclear weapons, we feel that defense may not succeed, and so the threat of escalation to what amounts to a preemptive first strike is always present. So this peculiar mix of retaliatory second strike posture, and threat of preemptive first strike, has been for a long time a characteristic of our policy, and very poorly understood by the electorate. And various administrations have devoted various fractions of their resources to the two options. So weapons procurement, targeting plans, all sorts of things of that kind have been divided between the two.
Aaserud:To what extent were those issues clear?
Gell-Mann:They were perfectly clear. They were perfectly clear. They were not perfectly clear to me at the beginning, but they became perfectly clear by the end of the summer of —
Aaserud:by the second year?
Gell-Mann:No. By the end of the first year. What we did in the second year was not very much more. What we did the second summer was to add in a number of calculations, examples, economics, some economic calculations, some operations research calculations, examples, and we got some idea of the absolute scale of how far escalation of numbers could go, by looking at the availability of materials for nuclear weapons.
Aaserud:Did you resolve the communications problem? I mean, did you have people read it, did you distribute the recommendations, did you communicate the results?
Gell-Mann:Well, we did write a paper the second time, and presumably it was sent around to officials and so on and so on, but it was so highly classified that that was a big problem. I donít remember to whom we briefed the second paper, but the problem was that lower officials in the Department of Defense had no interest in any of these things. They could see only the technical problems. The only people who could see these strategic questions, and could see that ABM, except for the defense of missile sites, was a rotten idea, were McNamara, Brown and so on. And they already understood it by the second summer completely. They had already begun to see it the first year. So that, I forget what briefing we had, but it was too late to be of too much use, I think. But anyway, I was very interested then in trying to press this point. It runs contrary, of course, to simple reasoning: defense is defensive, itís obviously better than offense, and one ought to have defense and so on. In the last few years, from our idiot President, weíve had the same arguments that ill-informed people at that time came forward with. There was much more excuse for people not to understand this 25 years ago than now. But anyway, there is an episode which I understand some other participant has written somewhere, but that I havenít yet. I plan to put it in my autobiography, if I ever write one.
Gell-Mann:It took place under the following conditions. A few months after that summer study, I agreed to go to the Hogwash [Pugwash] meeting in Udaipur in India, held at the Lake Palace Hotel in the middle of the lake — beautiful place. Carl Kaysen, whom I had only just met, and who had just resigned as deputy to McGeorge Bundy, who was the Presidentís National Security Advisor, and Jack Ruina, who was just going out as head of ARPA, which was as I said responsible for the development of ABM systems, were both there. And these meetings were no longer sort of meetings of naive people interested in peace but willing to serve as dupes for left wing peace movements. Rather, it was this meeting of all kinds of tendencies, including people with official connections with the US government.
Aaserud:Was it a maturing of Pugwash, is that what youíre saying?
Aaserud:So you hadnít been involved in previous meetings.
Gell-Mann:No, I hadnít been involved. And Iíve never gone since, actually, for reasons that are not clear, but I simply havenít. Thatís the only meeting I ever attended. But at that time, at least, it had become, in my view, quite respectable. Kaysen and Ruina and I together submitted a paper on the desirability of renunciation by both great powers of active — and also passive, of course, but we kind of emphasized the active — ballistic missile defense of populations and cities. I should say, by the way, that both summers we had looked at passive defense and seen how that was also a serious contributor to instability in the same way. And at that time, of course, there were all these extensive rumors of rapid Soviet developments in passive defense. We argued a lot about that as well.
Aaserud:Passive defense meaning civil defense?
Yes. Anyway, we wrote a brief paper for the Pugwash meeting, explaining the arguments, and for politeness we submitted it to the Soviet delegation, which consisted of a number of scientists, most of whom were frightened to say very much, and Millionshchikov the vice president of the Academy, a theoretical physicist interested in I think turbulence and things like that, who was a big shot and did all the talking. We submitted it to them in advance of giving it to the meeting, because the Soviet Union was the other power principally concerned. They said that they would look at it and discuss it with us at a breakfast meeting shortly before the conference was to take it up. And Carl and Jack and I came to the breakfast meeting in the open air breakfast area on the island. It was a glorious morning, with flights of Alexandrian parrots from island to island, and barefooted turbaned waiters bringing delicious things to eat. There were the three of us and Millionshchikov and then several other members of the Soviet delegation, who, when it came to talking, didnít say anything.
We sat silently through breakfast. Nobody said anything. And as we put down our coffee cups, Millionshchikov drew out a written document from which he read a speech to us, which seemed rather strange, for just a few people sitting around a table. He started out by saying that Niels Bohr had been quoted as saying that in the present state of physics, a new theory to be correct and really important would have to be crazy. And he said, ďWell, your document certainly fulfills that condition. But it is too crazy. Why, with your exchange ratio arguments from the RAND Corporation,Ē he said, ďyou have produced a total absurdity. You are asking the Soviet Union to renounce attempts to defend its population. Every day in our beautiful capital city of Moscow, ordinary citizens come to me in the street and have recognized me from my picture in Pravda, and they say, ĎComrade, when will you and your colleagues in the Academy of Sciences protect us from these terrible American missiles with their nuclear warheads that are pointed at us? We canít sleep at night for thinking about them.í And I say to them, ĎComrades, do not be afraid. There is nothing that Soviet science and technology cannot accomplish. We are working night and day to protect you from that awful threat, and soon we will have invented and deployed a system that will protect you from those terrible missiles.í And now you, with your stupid arguments from the RAND Corporation, are telling us that we must renounce our attempts to defend our population! Why, if we were to do that, the Soviet government would not get a single vote at the next elections.Ē We, the three of us, covered our mouths with our hands, not to laugh too loud. And Millionshchikov went on in the same vein.
Then, during the spring, Carl and Kistiakowsky and Doty — all three from the false Cambridge in Massachusetts — went to the Soviet capital and talked to various people, higher in rank than Millionshchikov as well, and I think presented similar arguments again. And in the summer, in July, 1964, I was at the International Physics meeting in Dubna at the new hotel that had been built for visitors. After the presentation by Fitch and Cronin on violation of time reversal invariance, in KDKS, which also means violation of CP invariance, I was sitting by myself in a remote part of the cafeteria writing equations on a piece of paper, trying to think what could be the explanation of this effect. I looked up from time to time, and saw a portly man making his way through the cafeteria from table to table, obviously looking for somebody. I paid not much attention until he got much closer, and it turned out it was Millionshchikov. Finally, the last table he approached was mine, and it became clear that he had been looking for me. I found this odd, because he was not a particle physicist and had no particular business at that meeting. But he said, ďDo you remember me?Ē And I said, ďYes, indeed, youíre Academician MillionshchikovĒ. And he said, ďMay I sit down?Ē And I said, ďBy all means, please sit down, letís talk.Ē And he said, ďDo you remember that we were both at a meeting in India in January?Ē And I said, ďYes, very well.Ē He said, ďDo you remember that you and some other people wrote a paper on antiballistic missile defense, and that I commented on it?Ē I said, ďYes.Ē He said, ďDo you remember what I said about it?Ē I said, ďVividly. You said it was totally crazy.Ē Millionshchikov said, ďWell, itís not so crazy.Ē And he got up, left, and went back to Moscow. At any rate, I played a modest role in the activity of a group of people who recognized this danger, and, over many years, gradually persuaded both governments that renunciation of ballistic missile defense of populations and cities would be stabilizing, and a good idea.
Eventually, after many hesitations, the treaty was signed. At Glassborough, in 1967, I understand McNamara explained to Kosygin the same things. Kosygin had not apparently understood these arguments. And by 1968 something could have been done, but the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968 apparently delayed progress for several more years, as did concerns about escalations in Southeast Asia. So it wasnít until a few years into the Nixon Administration that the treaty was finally signed. The treaty did not particularly encourage the development of systems to defend missile bases; it was judged impractical or not all that important or something. I thought at the time that was too bad, and I still do. But whatís happened of course in the last few years is that this unbelievably stupid President that we have has revived all those dumb arguments in favor of building an anti-ballistic missile defense, and practically all of our work is overthrown.
Aaserud:You say that it was highly classified, the studies that came out of JASON.
Aaserud:And still you were able to discuss these things, or part of these things, at the Pugwash meeting.
Gell-Mann:I didnít say that the whole matter was classified. I said that our report happened to include — because we wanted to get an idea of the maximum scale of deployment that anyone could conceivably reach, in order to look at the maximum costs involved — a lot of extremely sensitive information about the numbers of nuclear weapons. But the general ideas were unclassified.
Aaserud:The basic argument was.
Gell-Mann:The basic argument was unclassified. We didnít have any problem with it.
Aaserud:Of course, what youíre talking about now is generally science policy advice, I would say. You contrasted yourself, I think, this kind of advice with mere technical advice that goes into the lower levels.
Gell-Mann:Well, I had done in the fifties some consultation, particularly at RAND, and a little bit at Los Alamos, on technical matters. I was expecting to continue that in the sixties at JASON, but I found that what interested me, more than the technical questions, were always the fundamental ďwhyĒ questions — ďwhyĒ or ďwhetherĒ — because I am that kind of a person. I always try to go to the most fundamental issues, in physics, in other subjects.
Aaserud:How did that merge with JASON more generally?
Gell-Mann:Well, at JASON it was OK at that time. Now, I understand that subsequently JASON has been discouraged from considering anything but rather technical matters. But at that time it was OK. And we went into other policy questions which I can discuss with you now.
Aaserud:Fine. Because just while weíre at that, I interviewed Bill Nierenberg, and he kind of indicated that it was you and I think Don Glaser perhaps who was involved in these science policy questions. Is that correct?
Gell-Mann:I donít remember.
Aaserud:No. But he said that he belonged rather to the technical side. He felt foreign to that kind of argument.
Gell-Mann:Well, he participated in several of these groups that I formed.
Aaserud:OK, so it was not a matter of two distinct camps, just a matter of preferred approaches, perhaps.
Gell-Mann:Perhaps, yes. AASERLJD: OK, well, letís go on.
Gell-Mann:As I remember, Bill participated in several of these things. Anyway, another thing that came up around the same years was the question of preparedness for helping countries threatened by Communist insurgencies, supplied by the Soviet Union or its allies. There again, I got interested in some of the underlying issues. It was clear to several of us from the beginning that in developing countries — in the tropics, where many of these disputes arise — the local conditions are far more important than most other factors. Itís not just a question of meeting an enemy on the battlefield and designing and deploying weapons that will overwhelm the enemy. So we formed a group in JASON to think about that also, and JASON had all sorts of visitors discussing revolutionary war and various aspects of it and so on — the late Bernard Fall who was killed shortly after he spoke with us.
Gell-Mann:Well, yes, he was a naturalized Frenchman. Very interesting man.
Aaserud:Which year are we talking about now, 1961?
Gell-Mann:1961, 1962, 1963, 1964. Those years, when we got interested in that kind of stuff too.
Aaserud:That was concurrent with Vietnam development?
Gell-Mann:Yes, obviously, a lot of the discussion was about Southeast Asia. Now, at some point or other, later than that, I forget exactly when it was, letís see... Anyway, it was clear that political considerations and considerations in the realm of anthropology, in the realm of all sorts of other social sciences were of crucial importance; that the nature of the government, the attitude of the people, of various segments of the people and so on, was crucial, and so forth. Again, they were the questions of what we should do and why we should intervene in particular ways, and whether we should intervene in particular ways, and if so, where, and under what conditions and so on. But our government, as you know, was set on its policies, and it was very difficult to raise these questions. At the same time, and not totally independently, some people raised the issue of whether there should be a social science JASON, and I thought that if there were any such thing, it would be best if the two were closely connected or something. In other words, some sort of associated panel of social scientists or something of that kind, rather than a separate social science JASON.
Aaserud:Where did that idea arise? Do you remember?
Gell-Mann:Well, there was a member of the IDA staff, a psychologist, who was one of the people that who brought it forward. His name was Jesse Orlansky. But there were presumably several people who asked about it. Anyway, around 1966, 1967, we held a study on such matters. It was in our second visit to Woods Hole, in the summer of 1967. And there we discussed the relevance to the DOD and so on of possibly forming such an organization — or the relevance of other ways of utilizing social science advice — in the course of the DOD formulating its policies and methods.
Aaserud:Was this a discussion within JASON as such?
Gell-Mann:Oh no. No, we brought in a lot of social scientists, and in particular we picked a topic which was Thailand, because it looked as if we might someday get drawn into a similar situation in Thailand, to the one we were involved in in the rest of Southeast Asia, and we thought that that would be a possible thing to consider. So we got a number of social scientists who knew things about Thailand, and various other kinds of experts and government people, coming in to brief us. We discussed therefore both issues — in fact, three issues: What was the situation in Thailand and possible considerations relevant to American involvement — involvement of our defense forces and so on? Second, what kind of light could social science throw on these questions, and was the Department of Defense and was our federal government generally getting the kind of social science advice that it needed in order to cope with such a situation? And third, what kind of organizational developments might be good or bad, particularly connected with JASON?
Aaserud:Yes, there are several levels of discussion here, both the particular problem and how to deal with that.
Gell-Mann:Thatís right. And the general conclusion, as far as I was concerned — and I think many of the other people concerned — was that in connection with the last issue, it would probably be a mistake to draw social scientists more into relation with the security branches of the US government than they were already; that it would result in a distortion and corruption of social science, in the association of our social scientists, in the minds of the people that they might be studying, with intelligence, military action, security branches of the US government and so on; that the very nature of the research, concerned as it was with people, would be altered, perhaps for the worse, by this kind of association; and that building up social science JASON and encouraging the Defense Department to use social scientists much more and so on was probably not a good idea. What was a good idea was that high officials of the US government — and also lower officials — when it was necessary ask suitable questions of suitable people in connection with social science. But further drawing in of these people to official links with the government was probably a bad idea, which would corrupt social sciences. Itís not true so much of physical sciences and natural science. Itís true to some extent, because natural science gets its objectives and its priorities altered by association with Defense funding and so forth, often in ways that can be destructive. But thatís not the same thing. The fundamental inquiries about the structure of nature, are not distorted significantly, usually, by association with the security branches of the government. But in social sciences, itís different.
Aaserud:Was there agreement across the board on this, or was there a difference of opinion?
Gell-Mann:I donít remember, but anyway, the number of people wereÖ No, the social scientists seemed to feel this way. They were in fact being threatened with being expelled from their various professional associations, because of that and we felt that way. And on the whole, we felt that going ahead with this kind of thing was not a good idea, and we didnít go ahead with it. At the same time, we had learned a good deal about Thailand. But what happened then was that Jesse and other people insisted that there be notes, extensive notes, on these meetings, which I would not have bothered with, and even bugging, such as youíre doing here, of the sessions, followed by transcription of the sessions by various stenographers with all the usual asinine mistakes that are made in that kind of transcription.
Aaserud:Yes, which I also will be doing, by the way. But thatís another matter.
You will have someone else do it. Anyway, we had this pile of sort of worthless paper — enormous pile of worthless junk emerging from the summerís activities — whereas our conclusions could have been summarized in a very few words. We had this enormous body of stuff, reflecting questions and jokes and briefings of all sorts, a whole bunch of different things, disparate statements that were made by people under all sorts of different conditions during the summer. Copies of this horrible thing were then given to the members of the study, to be kept in their safes if they requested it. And one psychologist no one anthropologist then employed at UCLA — got such a stack of waste paper from JASON, kept it somewhere in his office, and had it stolen by some sort of assistant that he had hired under a program for giving jobs to disadvantaged people. He had hired this person as office help, as part of a program to funnel money to disadvantaged people by giving them employment. And this person stole this whole stack of junk, and turned it over to some group of radicals.
I forget who, but somebody like Students for a Democratic Society or some other group of radical youngsters, who then proceeded to publish chunks of it, which they made sound extremely embarrassing, by taking all sorts of quotations out of context. For example, at one point, somebody reported that one unit of the Thai armed forces had been rumored to have cut off ears of some villagers in a village that was supposedly engaged in insurgency, in northeastern Thailand. And I asked, from the audience, something about whether they thought that this cutting off of ears was going to capture the hearts and minds of the population. Something of that sort. Obviously a sarcastic question. But somehow, these people distributed it in such a way that it sounded as if we were endorsing this kind of thing. Absolutely fantastic. There were a number of such things. And this material was then distributed all over the world, actually, and used to discredit members of JASON. So that later on, in the fall of 1971, when I gave a lecture at the College du France in Paris, my lecture was interrupted by a bunch of screaming radical students, and it was a real mess. Oh, worse things happened to other people. Now, of course it was not just as a result of this that people were mad at JASON scientists. It was a result of many things. But this particular one was particularly bad. It mentioned me also, so it was particularly traumatic for me. It was a very unfortunate piece of stupidity.
Aaserud:Was this a transcript of this particular JASON session that was stolen?
Gell-Mann:Yes, this session on Thailand, social science, whether we should encourage the formation of a social science panel or a social science JASON or social science associates of JASON, in order to study questions like that and provide advice like that to our security agencies, particularly the DOD. And about conditions in Thailand, as an example.
Aaserud:Yes. I came across a letter here from Sid Drell actually to Hal Lewis, at the height of these problems, you know. Drell too had the same kind of experience — in Italy, I think it was — like you had in Paris. And he talks about what he calls the pilfered Gell-Mann papers.
Gell-Mann:Thatís right. Thatís the same thing.
Aaserud:Thatís the same thing.
Gell-Mann:Pilfered from the office of an anthropologist then at UCLA by this man to whom he had given employment as a way of aiding disadvantaged people during the summer. Something like that.
Aaserud:Do you remember which summer study this was?
Gell-Mann:Well, it was 1967. It was the study that I described at Woods Hole.
Aaserud:Yes, right, so this was actually five years later. So it came out later perhaps.
Gell-Mann:No, they started circulating it quite soon. It was stolen — Well, I donít know when it was stolen and circulated. But, yes, the worst repercussions were in 1971, 1972, that sort of thing. And of course I didnít want to have these papers exist at all. I donít like bugging and I donít like notes and so on when they seem unnecessary.
Aaserud:Weíre back after a nice lunch at the Athenaeum, and we continue with your involvements in JASON.
Yes. The other principal project with which I was involved was an ongoing concern with what was going on in Southeast Asia. At first, as I said, we were wondering about whether our Defense Department and the other security agencies of the US government were sufficiently in touch with the realities in Southeast Asian countries, as explored by historians, social scientists and so on; whether they were sufficiently ingenious in using methods attuned to the cultural patterns; whether they really knew what they were doing — in other words, whether we really should be doing what we were doing there, which was basically delaying, as far as I could tell, the unification of Vietnam under the Communist government of the North. How much of a delay was it worth our achieving and at what cost? Clearly, the North Vietnamese Communist government was so much more interested in the unification of the country than we could ever be in delaying or stopping it, or in helping the relatively corrupt and incompetent government in the South. They were so much more interested in the one than we were in the other that it was virtually certain that we would tire eventually and they would achieve their objective.
So it looked to me like a delay, and the question was, how much of a delay did we want and for what purpose and what would it cost? Now, before 1965, and after 1965 the situation seemed to me quite different. Before that, it looked as if a number of the neighboring countries had serious possibilities of joining in a large set of Southeast Asian countries influenced by Communism in one form or another. After 1965 — after the bloody reaction in Indonesia to the attempted Communist coup, and after the stiffening of resistance to that kind of development in other places — it somehow seemed perhaps less necessary that we get ourselves really deeply involved in Indochina. But nevertheless our government under Lyndon Johnson was pressing ahead and escalating more and more and so on and so forth. Anyway, we were all rather upset by the whole thing. We also were upset by what we thought was happening in this country — that we were sacrificing the opportunity to deal with numerous problems that the United States faced, of all sorts. Of course, each of us had different problems in mind, but there were many problems in our society that we had to face.
Aaserud:You mean purely economically?
All kinds. Environmental problems, economic problems, social problems. Even the problems of military preparedness, all of which were being undermined by what seemed to some of us like our excessive involvement in this struggle that we were not about to win. And the Secretary of Defense, McNamara, by about 1965, was also getting fed up. And a number of other people. But the President was very insistent that we continue our commitment in the same form — escalate and so forth. By the summer of 1966, George Kistiakowsky and Carl Kaysen and various other people, in contact with some personalities in the government, including McNamara, decided that they and JASON should join forces to have some sort of a project — first to learn about what was going on in the war in Southeast Asia, and second to try to alter its course in some manner. What this manner would be was not very clear. Presumably we couldnít simply advocate reducing our commitment, because that would have to be a political recommendation, presumably from a different sort of people.
So the idea was, I guess, that we would make some sort of semi-technical or technical recommendation, which, however, might influence the course of the conflict, promote the opening of negotiations or something of that sort. And it was thought that the aerial bombardment of the North was a serious obstacle to changing the situation from one of just military confrontation to one that involved an element of negotiation as well. So it was clear from the beginning that one possibility would be that we might try to suggest some alternative to the aerial bombardment of the North that would accomplish or partially accomplish some of what were alleged to be some of the purposes of the aerial bombardment of the North. There was the interdiction of the movement of North Vietnamese people and material to the South, directly or else through Laos and Cambodia. And we held the study. I was in Italy, actually in Sicily, and I was recalled by a telegram — an urgent telegram, urgent phone calls and so on. As I remember, I was recalled to the US from Sicily — from Erice or someplace like that, in 1966, to attend a meeting in Wellesley, Massachusetts. That was succeeded by another meeting in Santa Barbara, I believe, or someplace like that — some place in the West. And we talked about all these things. After a lot of chitchat, I remember asking the assembled meeting, ďWhere are we going? What is the upshot of all this? What are we supposed to do or recommend or something?Ē And George Kistiakowsky then got up and revealed what I guess he had had in mind all along, which was that we should recommend that the aerial bombardment of the North be replaced by an air-supported minefield running across the North of Vietnam and a portion of Laos, in order to try to reduce the traffic from North to South in people and material.
And of course, George, being an expert on explosives, had in mind particular devices — extremely nasty and destructive devices, largely anti-personnel devices — which would be dropped from the air into these areas. As everybody knows, the part of the North near the coast is relatively populated, and there are roads, including the famous Highway 1, la Rue-sans-joie and so forth. But as one gets further to the West into the mountains of, the forest-covered mountains of Vietnam and into Laos, then the country becomes much wilder — not very many human inhabitants except a couple of mountain tribes, at that time actually not very well-known mountain tribes in that particular area. And so the idea would be that very few human beings would be affected by this strip — this air-supported mine field in the form of an East-West strip — if it started to the west of the settled part of Vietnam and continued over the border into Laos. Iím not sure exactly what the statements were about Laos, because there may have been rules of engagement that prohibited, in principle, in theory, attacking the Laotian side. Iíve forgotten exactly what the story was about that now. But anyway, it was not a very sensible plan really. Obviously one could go around this barrier, and there were lots of things wrong with it. I was not too keen on the effect it would have on the wild life in that remote area. I tried to assure myself that in fact there were very few legitimate inhabitants of that area, that they would mostly be North Vietnamese military personnel on their way to the South.
But the point of it seemed to be largely political, to provide the US government with something to do that would have some role in this alleged interdiction, analogous to the alleged role of the aerial bombardment of the North, and that would permit the US government to stop the aerial bombardment of the North, and thereby perhaps make possible the opening of negotiations. Well, I was associated with this project, with not very much enthusiasm but with some interest in what was going on, for quite a while. And after a while, when the Department of Defense approved of it, and the thing was actually set in motion, something called DCPG was set up with headquarters in Washington under General Starberg who was the lieutenant general — Alfred Dodd Starberg, who was a great friend of Kistiakowsky. And I accepted a position on the advisory committee for this project, and we studied intelligence and we studied the maps and we studied the mines and all sorts of things.
Aaserud:What is JASONís part in this, now?
Gell-Mann:I donít remember exactly what the institutional connection was, but there were several JASONs who were on this committee. I was one of them.
Aaserud:But you were not there as a JASON but as yourself?
Gell-Mann:I guess. I donít remember but I guess not.
Yes, DCPG. One thing I remember was a visit to Panama, to the Canal Zone, to look at some of these nasty little anti-personnel explosive devices in operation. And I saw a couple of new birds on that trip, and I saw the 89 butterfly, including an 88 variety, or maybe it was the 88 butterfly including an 89 variety. And that was pleasant. And I took a couple of days at Borrocolorado where the Smithsonian has its Tropical Research Institute, and saw some nice things there, birds and monkeys and so on. That was very pleasant. But anyway, I never saw that, as a military option, this had a tremendous number of advantages. It seemed to me that it was always a ploy, basically, to try to give the US government, basically Lyndon Johnson, something to do, if he agreed to stop the aerial bombardment of the North and initiate negotiations. But he didnít want to do that. So it became an add-on, and this was particularly true after McNamara was transferred from the Department of Defense to the World Bank, because McNamara was the one who had sort of promised us that it wouldnít be an add-on, but that it would be used to promote a change in the character of the American participation. Of course, after he was gone, his promise no longer meant much, and there was a question then of what was going to happen.
The replacement was Clark Clifford, who had been quite hawkish, and who had not very long before made a trip to Indochina — to Vietnam in fact, South Vietnam — with Maxwell Taylor, from which they had brought back recommendations of escalation and so on. Generally speaking, we felt that now it was guaranteed that the thing which we had been working on, which was not in itself very nice, would simply be used as an add-on. However, Clifford decided, being an intelligent man, to ask people, in and outside of the Defense Department, what was going on — what were our objectives, what plans did we have for winning, what plans did we have forÖ I mean, what were our objectives? What was the cost of achieving those objectives? And he discovered that there were not any very good answers to those questions, and after a while, a rather short while, he decided that he was against the whole thing, and he added his voice to the others among Johnsonís advisors that wanted somehow to bring an end to our involvement, if possible while still continuing to delay the Anschluss of the South Vietnam with the North. Letís see — oh yes, Clark Clifford.
So that actually, during that year, there was increased pressure on Johnson to change his mind, and as you know, in March 1968, when he lost the primary or at least didnít do very well in the primary in New Hampshire, he decided to change everything. Then of course there was a long period of dragged-on negotiations, about how we do negotiations and all that stuff, and finally the Nixon period. But I didnít participate very much. Now, just before that, though, when this change from McNamara to Clifford took place, then there was the question about whether — in the face of the likelihood that the system was not going to be used for the political purpose for which it was intended, but as an add-on — should we resign in protest? And I thought that we should get together and discuss this, and I was rather in favor of doing something of the kind. But instead George [Kistiakowski] simply resigned himself, without consulting us, which I thought was not the way to do things. I just didnít like it at all. So I stayed on, despite the fact that I was perhaps more fed up than he was. Also people told me that very likely, things would turn around, that Clifford was going to be the opposite of what we expected. So I stayed in there for a while and continued with DCPG for a while. George was very angry with me, thinking I was some kind of a fink, but I thought he was some kind of a fink too.
Aaserud:Were you able to clear this up between the two of you?
Gell-Mann:Oh, I think so. I think so.
Aaserud:There was a meeting at the Eglin Air Force base of JASONs.
Gell-Mann:Well, we went down to Eglin to look at some of these things as well. We went to Eglin and from Eglin I think we flew to Panama.
Aaserud:OK, so thatís the order of things.
Gell-Mann:I think. Anyway the two were close together. I think we started from Washington, and we flew to Eglin and from there to Panama. Iím not sure. I really donít remember. One trip was to Panama, one was from Eglin. Then we had a trip to Washington where we briefed McNamara, and Vance. That was from Woods Hole. So it must have been the summer of 1967, just before McNamara was finished at the Department of Defense.
Aaserud:So youíre saying that McNamara was involved in this from very early on?
Gell-Mann:I believe so, yes. I believe that he sort of let it be known that he would be receptive to some technical proposal that could be used as a means of alleged interdiction — alternative to the alleged interdiction that was being accomplished supposedly by the aerial bombardment. Actually the aerial bombardment wasnít much use until we finally used smart bombs in the last week or so. [Interruption] Now, where were we?
Aaserud:We were still on the barrier, werenít we?
Gell-Mann:Yes, but we talked about Georgeís resignation, and how that provoked me to stay on for a while, and then after that, I didnít have much to do with it any more. By 1969 I had become involved, curiously enough, with the Nixon Administration. First I was appointed to the transition team, as a member of the Committee on Science and Technology under Guy Stever, who was going to be sort of an advisor on science and so on to Nixon later on, much later on.
Aaserud:Yes, after PSAC.
Gell-Mann:But this was the transition team. I never expected that, but I agreed. I didnít like Nixon very much, ever. In fact, in 1956, when he was Vice President, I had trained my dog to wrinkle his nose at the command ďNixon!Ē My dog didnít like cigarette smoke, and he had a very wrinkly face, but he looked even more wrinkled when he reacted with horror to the cigarette smoke, with disgust to the cigarette smoke. So, using a cigarette, I trained him so that just at the command ďNixonĒ he would go — yes, Pavlovian training. Anyway, it seemed that the Nixon Administration was going to be more or less in the mainstream of American politics, one way or another, and that it would be possible to work with it, so I actually agreed to serve on that committee. And then Lee DuBridge, our president here at Caltech, was appointed the Presidentís Scientific Advisor and chairman of PSAC and head of OST, and after a few months he called me and asked me if I would join PSAC. PSAC was more or less self-perpetuating, and presumably some of the outgoing members like Murph Goldberger had recommended me. JASON had served anyway as a kind of training ground for PSAC for numerous people, including Murph himself, and so I did join PSAC. After that, I havenít had all that much to do with JASON, although I remain a senior advisor member of JASON to this day, and I have occasionally participated in things in the last, what is it now, 18 years, but not very much.
Aaserud:Not as strongly in any particular project as before — the projects weíve been talking about?
Gell-Mann:No, not so very much. No. Since then. So the next phase then deals with PSAC. And my involvement with PSAC was not very productive. I suppose Iíd been expected to serve on the Strategic Panel, because I knew a great deal about strategic weapons and the strategic considerations involved in their use. But I felt that with the problems of the environment suddenly becoming popular — problems in which I had been interested since I was about five years old — perhaps this was the time to seize the opportunity and try to set up a panel on environment, population, sustainable development and all the related issues there. A large panel, not all of the members of which would actually come to all the meetings, but would cover all the many disciplines that would have to be involved in a real discussion of environment in the general sense. And I felt that the Nixon Administration was showing, because of the Zeitgeist, a certain interest in these questions, unlike most Republican administrations before and since, and that this would be a good thing to do. But I was frustrated by a number of things. First of all, time was a problem. But second, I found that many of the people that I suggested for membership in the panel ran into some sort of difficulties with of the screening procedure. And I realized later that it was not just straight security screening that was the problem, but that they were being subjected to political tests, and that right there in the Executive Office Building was a man who was screening these appointees on strictly political grounds. And a large fraction of the people I was suggesting for this panel on environmental and related questions were failing to meet that political test. I donít know what was the problem — that some of them objected to the War in Southeast Asia and its escalation, or our continued involvement in it, or people objected to other things. Or maybe they were simply Democrats. I donít know what it was.
Aaserud:It was not the nature of the panel itself or its objective; it was the people that you suggested for it.
Gell-Mann:Well, you could also formulate a theory that somebody felt that this panel was a bad thing, and that I shouldnít be allowed to form it, and this was a way to stop me from doing it. But I donít think that was the case, because the Nixon Administration was not so hostile to these ideas, and indeed there were particular people in the Administration who were quite friendly, including John Ehrlichman, whom I met first at a meeting in Aspen, and whom I went to see every once in a while when I felt there were problems that he could help to solve. So that never worked terribly well. And in the end when I went to France — in the neighborhood of Geneva to work for a year at CERN in the fall of 1971 — I simply drifted away from PSAC. I sort of took a leave. And in the end Nixon abolished it anyway, at the end of his first term.
Gell-Mann:Without even sending thank-you letters to its members.
Aaserud:So the panel never materialized at all?
It never really materialized, no. We had some partial meetings and we did discuss some problems, but the thing never worked. The other activity that I was involved in was on the National Institute of Environmental Studies. I had thought all during our involvement with JASON how wonderful it would be if there were a policy studies group devoted to problems of the environment and related questions. And when environmentalism became popular around 1969 or so, I thought this was an excellent opportunity to do something about that. But Iíd been thinking it for several years and Iíd mentioned it to Murph Goldberger and to other people in JASON and IDA. Murph himself and Gordon McDonald, who were serving together on JASON — Iím sorry, PSAC — invented the idea again, between them, perhaps not remembering that I had mentioned it or maybe not having noticed that I had mentioned it or something, and decided that a National Institute of Environmental Studies was to be a good thing, and that they would try to set one up. And they worked and I helped them in trying to lay the groundwork for such a thing. And in the summer of 1969, a summer study was organized at Stanford on the Florida jet port controversy — the Miami jet port controversy. The airlines wanted to use as a training jet port something way out in the Everglades — not in the national park but in the conservation area — far from Miami.
And then people, local promoters, had seized on this with the idea of making that THE great jet port for the Miami area, with a transport corridor leading people back and forth between Miami and that place, and that there problems with noise and affecting peopleís sleep and things like that wouldnít be serious. But on the other hand, they would be building this huge thing, attracting all sorts of development, out in a primitive watershed area in the middle of the Everglades, which is a rather precious ecosystem. So it gave rise to a natural environmental, a typical environmental, controversy. We held a meeting at Stanford, and all these Florida people had to come to California, which was quite humiliating for them — come to California to discuss both sides of this issue. It was very interesting, and it led in the end to the recommendation that the area be acquired gradually by the government from its many small owners, many of whom were foreigners from Japan or Brazil or Germany, and actually itís been done. Gradually itís been acquired, and the airport was used as a training jet port, which was harmless. It was not made into a giant commercial airport with a lot of development. And one reason why the recommendation came out so nice was that two young people who were working at SLAC on elementary particle physics attended —just walked in off the street attending this meeting — and both transformed themselves into environmental scientists. One was Rob Sukalow, now at Princeton, and the other was John Hart, now of Berkeley. Hart is actually a full time ecologist studying the ecology of lakes including experimental models, and studying the acidification of western lakes on account of acid precipitation from industry, and things like that.
Rob Sukalow does policy studies with the Center for Environmental Studies at Princeton which he helped to found. Both of them were working on elementary particle theory at SLAC. Both of them came to the study and immediately changed professions. But at the study the two of them made a very useful suggestion, which was that the hydrology of South Florida might well be roughly symmetrical between east and west, and if so, then the kind of disastrous mining of the water table that had taken place in the Miami area would not be a healthy thing to reproduce on the west coast, with a huge amount of development over there, but that also one wouldnít want to interfere with the watershed. You must realize that watersheds in Florida are a matter of five or ten feet, not like other parts of the world, not like Norway. Even in Norway, the mountains are at altitudes that we here in California would call valleys. But in Florida, a watershed is six or eight feet. But anyway, their point was therefore that developers should also be interested in not monkeying with the watershed, and this is a point that I think carried some conviction later. So policy studies — and policy studies in connection with the environment then — were something that Iíd been interested in for a long time, and was finally able to help with, to do something about. And then I spent the PSAC years trying — along with Goldberger and McDonald, who had been on PSAC before — to try to get the National Institute of Environmental Studies actually established. The leading foundations formed a consortium that agreed to support it, and we were going to get an equal amount of money for scientific contracts out of the government, and then an equal amount of money out of the government for the policy studies. But the one-third from endowments — not from endowments but gifts, yearly — gifts from the foundations — was supposed to guarantee some degree of independence for the organization, so that it could do some of its own studies, and not just ones that were ordered by the g
overnment. And of course, one had to follow a kind of complementary principle here. The more independence an organization has, the less it has simply to do studies that support conclusions that the government agencies want supported. At the same time, the more independence it has, the less the government agencies want to trust it, for the same reason. So itís a difficult matter. But we had designed it quite well, and I did a lot of work on it. But in the end, what happened was that we selected Alain Enthoven as the first director, and the Nixon Administration found him inappropriate, because he had been associated with McNamaraís Defense Department and so on and so forth. And somebody persuaded Nixon to renege on his promise to set up the National Institute of Environmental Studies. And after that Nixon and the great foundations could never again agree on a director. They might have agreed on me, but I didnít feel I could handle such an administrative job, and so in the end the project died. Some of the Ford Foundation money was used to enlarge the Resources for the Future, RFF. But that was a much less ambitious thing than what we wanted to do.