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Oral History Transcript — Dr. Marvin Goldberger

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Interview with Dr. Marvin Goldberger
By Finn Aaserud
At the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA
February 12, 1986

Transcript

Aaserud:

I have presented my general interest. Maybe we should start talking about the general?

Goldberger:

Well, let me begin in a sort of autobiographical way, because I think it will have the possibility of addressing both sets of questions at the same time, and we can go back and forth.

I worked on the Manhattan Project during the war, after which time I went to graduate school. I guess that the first relevant time in my life has to do with when I joined the faculty at the University of Chicago. I was there involved with people like Enrico Fermi and Edward Teller and Harold Urey, the Mayers, Szilard, all of whom had played prominent roles in relatively senior positions on the Manhattan Project, and having been on the project myself, I was quite sensitized to the involvement of the scientific community in that.

In about 1953, I guess, or 1954 — well, let me back up. 1953, 1954, I spent a year at Princeton. That was the year when Robert Oppenheimer's whole case hit the press. And being very close to him personally, I was terribly involved, and in the course of those hearings and subsequent publications, I became very sensitized about the role of science advisors. Around that time, I became a member of a number of committees for various defense projects. I discovered at that time that many places like the Defense Science Board, the Air Force Science Advisory Board, the people who were involved with the then Atomic Energy Commission, were all the same set of players, and they went from one committee meeting to another, and I and a number of my younger colleagues — not younger than me but contemporaries who had similarly began to become involved — became concerned about two aspects of that situation.

One was, it was these old warriors — they seemed old to us then. These old warriors were the only ones whose voices were being heard, and it was a rather closed set of people. We felt also that there should be a new group of younger people to begin to take on these responsibilities. And the particular people that I was talking with at this time were Ken Watson and Keith Brueckner. And we stewed about this, and couldn't figure out a terribly good mechanism for broadening the group of advisors, except to accept a number of these appointments ourselves, and try to involve other people.

In the summer of 1958, John Wheeler, Eugene Wigner, and Oskar Morgenstern ran a summer study that was called by the terribly imaginative name of Project 137, and Watson and Brueckner and I were invited, along with a fairly large number of young scientists. At that time in 1958 I was 36 years old, almost 36 at the time, and we were all roughly the same age. It was our first introduction to a broad spectrum of defense problems. We spent about three weeks in Washington continuously being briefed, and it was a very intense operation.

At the end of that period, Wigner and Wheeler had conceived the idea of there being something like a National Defense Institute, where there would be an opportunity to bring recent developments in science and technology to the attention of the Department of Defense at a level that it was not at that time being put into the system. Herb York was the first Director of Defense Research and Engineering, and the first evidence of a serious interest on the part of the Department of Defense in having an ongoing presence of high level technical capability. The proposition for this Institute, let me call it, was presented to Herb, and he was very supportive of it.

It seemed natural that John Wheeler would be the director of this thing, because he was terribly interested, very concerned about the cold war, and tremendously competent. For whatever reason, Wheeler did not want to do it, and Wheeler and Wigner put an unbelievable amount of pressure on me to do it. I felt that I had not yet exhausted my potential for making contributions to science. I'd just moved to Princeton a year or so before then. I was extremely reluctant to effectively give up my scientific career to do something like this, even though I thought it was an important and worthwhile thing, so I refused. And that Institute died really because no one was ready to step up and take the responsibility.

During the course of the rest of that year, and in early 1959, Brueckner and Watson and I had been consulting for Convair, on high altitude nuclear explosions or something like that, and again we were concerned about the fact there that, although we were making what was for us a fair amount of money, Convair was making a lot more. We were making some contribution to national security but it wasn't very satisfying. We even thought of forming our own consulting group and trying to become more heavily involved, and that never came to pass.

But in the summer of 1959, we were all at Los Alamos together, and we were working on nuclear propulsion of rockets, and Charlie Townes had become vice president for research of the Institute for Defense Analyses. Together with a man named Marvin Stern — I really think it was Marvin Stern's original idea — he sought to get a bunch of bright young scientists on some serious continuing basis to become involved in an advisory fashion with the Department of Defense. Stern and Townes came out to Los Alamos and met with Brueckner and Watson and me to explore this idea.

Well, it seemed an ideal way of satisfying our desire to try to do something and their desire to have the Institute for Defense Analyses put something together. I made the mistake of going out of the room to go to the john one day and I ended up the chairman of the steering committee of this group. This time I accepted. We sat down and started making a list of people whom we thought would be useful contributors. There was a heavy preponderance of theoretical physicists since that was what we were. There was an overwhelming preponderance of physicists. And everybody was about the same age. We called an organizational meeting, I think it was in December of 1959, and we invited George Kistiakowsky, who was the President's Science Advisor at the time, to come over and make a presentation, and we had a lot of people there. And then, sort of at the end of this meeting, we asked people to declare, and I think everybody who was invited signed up.

It was a very prestigious group. I could try to reconstruct the names, but, Herb York has written some history about this period, and he might have a list of the original names, but I'm sure they can be acquired.

Aaserud:

Actually he gave me a chapter of his memoirs —

Goldberger:

— which he wanted me to review and make some corrections on, and I never did, and I will correct at least one thing in it while I talk to you.

We decided to form this group, and we got a man who had been the editor of Physics Today named David Katcher to head up, to be the kind of executive officer of the thing. We began, and the basic idea is that we would do all of our consulting through this new organization, that we would meet several times during the year, that we would try to carry on work on projects that we decided to work on during the course of the year, but the center piece of the operation was a summer study.

The Department of Defense's response to this was splendid. We chose our own topics. We would consult with them — "What are you interested in these days?" — and frequently we would select things that were high priority for them. Sometimes we would impose our own special interests. I know that we initiated our own interest in anti-ballistic missile defense at a very early stage, really even before they were particularly interested in our poking our nose into that.

We all were granted top-secret clearances, and we had great access. Some of us had special higher clearances and had involvements with the intelligence agencies and the like.

Aaserud:

There were no problems in getting the Department of Defense to go along with that.

Goldberger:

No. They could not have been more receptive. Now, part of that of course was the fact that Herb York was there, enthusiastic about the idea, and his successors, Harold Brown, Johnny Foster, were all very supportive of JASON.

Now, JASON provided a kind of training ground for young people, and when the President's Science Advisory Committee was in its beginning days in the late fifties and early sixties, they more or less used JASON as a farm camp — using baseball terminology — and a very large number of people who went on to PSAC began their involvement as members of PSAC panels and ultimately were elevated to full membership. There must have been six or seven of us that went that route.

Now, as long as I've started with JASON, let me continue with it. JASON has, I think, been a very positive influence on the Department of Defense in a number of ways. First and very important is this involvement of a new generation of people. Second is, as a training ground for this group to become more involved in a host of science policy issues, not only national security. Third, they have provided extremely valuable dispassionate technical analysis on important issues. JASON was deeply involved in shooting down, helping to shoot down, a number of very ineffective and technically premature concepts on ballistic missile defense. They played quite a significant role in the development of a number of kinds of specialized techniques of relevance to ballistic missile defense, and analysis of things like re-entry physics — we got heavily involved in reentry physics — a number of radar developments.

A JASON product was this famous extremely low frequency submarine communication system, which was going to put wires underneath Wisconsin and North Carolina and has had a very long history. It was invented by a JASON member, named Nick Christofilos. As a matter of fact, he actually invented that during this Project 137 study, but he pursued it doggedly over the years. JASON has played a very significant role in anti-submarine warfare studies for the Navy.

Aaserud:

You're not chronological now?

Goldberger:

No, I'm just mentioning accomplishments over the years to try to give a flavor of the overall contribution of the group. They worked also on a number of unclassified things, worked on the C02 problem.

Aaserud:

From the outset, or was that later?

Goldberger:

That was later, that was probably in the mid-sixties. Then of course there was the infamous involvement of JASON with the electronic battlefield and the Vietnam War, and that was a situation where JASON as a group got a rather bad rap, because although this was called a JASON project, there were only about six or seven people from the true JASON group that were involved in it.

Aaserud:

That was unusual?

Goldberger:

Oh yes. The bulk of the people involved were in the Cambridge, Massachusetts, area, and involved some of the real old warriors like Kistiakowsky, Jerrold Zacharias, Jerry Wiesner, Carl Kaysen, and so on. And it was not a true JASON activity, though God knows we were bloodied a great deal because of that.

Aaserud:

Yes, that was the one time that JASON really reached the headlines.

Goldberger:

That's right. It appeared in the "Pentagon Papers," and I'm not trying to say that they were not involved. They were involved, and it was a very conscious, though extraordinarily naive, intervention on the part of JASON into national security affairs, and I was deeply involved. I was still the chairman of JASON at the time. I remained chairman for the first seven years of JASON.

The naivete of the JASON people, and these old warriors, was that there was not any realism to the Department of Defense taking seriously the idea of substituting something like this electronic battlefield and barrier for any of their other aggressive activities like bombing the North. And we didn't realize that what they were going to do was just to add this on to the rest. We genuinely thought that we had an idea that was technically sound, that would lower the temperature of that war, and enable us to extricate ourselves in an effective and honorable way. And we got taken to the cleaners. With the wisdom, clarity of hindsight, I believe that it was a serious error on the part of the scientific community.

Aaserud:

Was that a view across the board of JASON members at the time?

Goldberger:

At the time, everybody got caught up in the same feeling. There was no resistance that I can remember by anyone in JASON saying, no, we ought not to do this. But I became disillusioned about the Vietnam War, oh, not too long after that study and a few other things that happened, and I think that we really should have spit in Mr. McNamara's eye and told him we weren't going to be involved. But you know, it's easy to say. You have to put yourself into the framework of the times, when you had to make that decision.

Aaserud:

Were there departures from JASON after that?

Goldberger:

A few. A few left. The number of people who have retained their relationship with JASON over this 25-year period is very large, it's quite remarkable.

I think on the whole JASON is a good thing. They have never hit what you would call a true home run ball. They have not revolutionized any thing. But they've made a continuing series of very responsible, very respectable contributions to national security, and I think most of the people, justifiably, feel that they have done something for the country, with the possible exception of this Vietnam era.

Now, the thing I want to correct about Herb's thing has to do with the naming of JASON. The original name that the computer spewed out, back in December of 1959, was Project Sunrise.

Aaserud:

The computer spewed out?

Goldberger:

Yes. You know they have to have a code name for everything, and they have to make a search to find the names that haven't been used before, and it has a certain number of letters, and they come out with a list of names. They chose Project Sunrise. Well, I went home and told my wife about that. She said, "That stinks! You should call yourself JASON." Now, why did she do that? Herb says because we had a dog named Jason. That's false. We had a dog named Jackie, not Jason. It has nothing to do with it.

The Institute for Defense Analyses had a facility on the edge of the Princeton campus called the Communications Research Division, and IDA put out a brochure. Since Princeton was one of the supporting universities, we happened to see a copy of it. It had a colophon that was like a Greek temple, and it was that that caught my wife's imagination. Here was this group of brave young men setting out to conquer or defend the world. So she just popped out the name JASON. That's the true origin of the name. It does not mean July, August, September, October, November and so on, as people have sometimes suggested, the number of months when JASON as at the most active. Nothing to do with any of those things. So it's important to get that straight.

Now, to address the more general question of science policy and the role of scientists in influencing it, shaping it, and what have you, I think there's no question that the President's Science Advisory Committee was extraordinarily influential. Two things they created very early on were, one, the Office of the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, and the second was the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. They consistently addressed problems of very high priority, some of which had to do with defense issues, and many of which did not have to do with defense issues. They did studies of the environment, of the oceans, of energy, health problems, all kinds of things that had nothing to do with defense issues, and in addition played a very important advisory role to the Office of Management and Budget, or Bureau of the Budget, whatever the hell it was called in those days, about the needs of the academic research establishment or more generally the research establishment from a financial standpoint, and tried to give guidance to OMB on that. We worked very closely with OMB, with the National Science Foundation, and it was a very harmonious and effective relationship.

It was at the time of the creation of NASA. There were two standing PSAC committees, one having to do with the manned space program, one having to do with the unmanned space program. We were terribly involved at the time of the tragedy in 1967 when the three astronauts were killed in the fire. The PSAC panel was right in the middle of that.

And we were also terribly influential in the whole anti-ballistic missile defense area. They had something called the Strategic Military Panel, which I became a member of I guess in about 1959. And when I went on to PSAC — in 1964, I guess it was — I became the chairman of that, and our principal preoccupation was ballistic missile defense.

There were also a number of panels that worked through the Office of Science and Technology, that had PSAC representation — they were not strictly speaking PSAC panels — that were crucial in the development of the satellite reconnaissance program and the U-2, the SR 71. All of those intelligence things, we were deeply involved in. Mostly as I say it was not properly a PSAC panel, but it was a panel of the Office of the President's Science Advisor, but most of the members were PSAC members.

Aaserud:

What was your period of tenure?

Goldberger:

It was probably January of 1965 to June of 1969. When Mr. Nixon came in, they were a little slow in appointing new members, and so I stayed on for about five months after my term had formally elapsed. The PSAC terms were not connected to particular administrations. It just happens that mine coincided with the Johnson Administration.

I think the loss of PSAC was a tremendously serious one for the country, and I believe I'm speaking from more than just an ego trip of having been associated with it. The group had great prestige, was taken very seriously by everyone in Washington. If you wanted to see a Senator and you called up and said, "I'm a member of the President's Science Advisory Committee," by God, you got an appointment right away.

But they had the ability to look at problems that cut across several of the agencies. You know, there were always squabbles between the Air Force, and the CIA, and other parts of the Department of Defense, where special interests — not necessarily evil but special interests — were putting inputs into the system, and it was very difficult for someone like the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State or the White House to get a balanced view.

Well, they would turn to PSAC, because we didn't have any axe to grind, and there was no special interest that we were representing. We never interpreted our job as being the spokesperson for science in Washington. We were the President's Science Advisory Committee, and we advised the resident on the important issues that had a strong science and technology component. That was our job.

Secondly, we never talked; we never took a public position on anything. It was absolute confidentiality. We never abused our sources of information, and the President's Science Advisor's name never appeared in the newspaper, except perhaps occasionally to give a talk at the American Physical Society or something like that.

Aaserud:

Not even as individuals?

Goldberger:

We never as individuals made statements about anything that could conceivably be construed as either expressing an opinion of PSAC, or divulging information that had come to us because of this special privileged position.

While I'm on that subject, one of the deep criticisms that I have of the most recent President's Science Advisor is that he did not follow that policy, but allowed himself to become a public spokesperson for administration policy, and I tried to tell him this when he first went in there, that he should never ever do that.

Aaserud:

This is the one that left. There is no one now, right?

Goldberger:

There is no one. The one that quit. Jay Keyworth. They're looking for a successor, and I don't know how that's going to come out, but I think that that group was a very important component of the Science Advisory apparatus. Now, there are some other groups of considerable significance. Of course, in ancient times there was the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission that was chaired by Robert Oppenheimer. I'm sure you know the whole his story of that. There was and is, although I think it's moribund at the moment, a General Advisory Committee to the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency that was very influential. It has been influential at various times. There is a Defense Science Board, which is not as impartial a group of people as I would like to see. It's too heavily dominated by industry representatives and not enough independent academics. There is the National Science Board. Now, that's a story in itself, which I'm not really in a good position to describe. It has been unfortunately a highly politicized group of people, though in principle, in their charter, they are supposed to report directly to the president on a broad series of science policy issues, in addition to being the sort of oversight board of directors of the National Science Foundation. It's never functioned in any way other than simply being in charge of the National Science Foundation, and it's a very strange group of people.

NASA of course has advisory boards and there are a lot of the scientific community that have been heavily involved in NASA. But those are the principal ones that I know about.

Aaserud:

What are the interconnections between them? Are the inter-connections close in terms of personnel, in terms of points of view?

Goldberger:

Well, as I say, the National Science Board is not quite orthogonal to everybody else but nearly so. They usually have a smattering of representatives from the scientific community, but at least in the past 10, 12 years, they've been in a distinct minority. They tend to choose people whose scientific careers are so far behind them that they really don't bring what I feel is the appropriate expertise to crucial issues for the Foundation.

The Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, even as recently as the Carter Administration, had some very good and very serious people on it. Some of them were associated with PSAC. Some of them had had broad experience as advisors in national security issues. The appointments during the Reagan Administration have been highly political, and the group is sadly lacking in scientific competence, in my opinion.

There's a certain amount of interlocking directorates still, and while I'm on that subject, I have become concerned — I guess as I get older — about the fact that I now see these same old guys around on all these damned committees, and one looks for the next generation.

The Institute for Defense Analyses is trying to put together a group of people who are in their late thirties, early forties, and again, they're trying to be very careful not to create Son of JASON, but it's patterned clearly and unmistakably after JASON, and I think that's a good thing.

Aaserud:

What about JASON itself?

Goldberger:

JASON continues, and they continue to play important roles. For example, recently a group of JASON people was called in to study allegations of problems in the analysis of the nuclear explosive driven X-ray laser, a controversy which reached the public press. A group of JASON people went to Los Alamos. They went to Livermore. They wrote a report. There was a consensus of what the situation is.

So they continue to address important problems.

Aaserud:

Has the impact changed over the years? In any systematic way? Up, down?

Goldberger:

It's a strong function of who's around to receive the information. JASON has established over the years a very close and continuing relationship with the Navy, that's been very receptive to their activities in the anti-submarine warfare area. That's been independent almost of changing personnel. The degree to which they are taken seriously in the Department of Defense I think has waxed and waned. I should say that I haven't been active in JASON for, oh, at least ten years. Since I've come here, I just have not had time to spend any extended periods with them. I usually go down for a few days in the summer just to find out what's up, keep my clearances active, a few things like that.

But I think that there is a future for JASON. I think there's still a role to be played, especially at the present time, in the sense that the level of technical expertise, within the Department of Defense, is at an all time low, and there is a very big hole there. The system is not receptive.

Aaserud:

Worse than pre-Sputnik?

Goldberger:

Oh, it's probably not as bad as pre-Sputnik, but a person who had a very prominent position in one of the research arms of the Department of Defense — he had been in the defense business for 30 years — said that never in his whole 30 years has there been such a desert. I prefer not to identify the person, but he was very highly placed. And that unfortunately is something that's become exacerbated during the course of the Reagan Administration's tenure. When Carter was President, he had Bill Perry as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, who's absolutely first rate. I have never seen a better person in that job, he was just tremendous. He understood the value of having a strong science and technology presence in the establishment, either in the form of advisory groups or personnel.

Now, Dick Delauer, who had the same position during the first three years or so of the Reagan Administration, was strongly supportive of that, but he found that his ability to attract people was so heavily impinged by the political litmus tests imposed by the administration, he had a very hard time getting people. It's a fact.

Aaserud:

Well, there is one possible conceptual problem with my general interest. I emphasize the physicists' involvement in American science policy, and the question is of course whether that makes sense. I'm not implying by any means that it was only physicists, but certainly physicists played a prominent role. JASON, of course, started out essentially with physicists, even theoretical.

Goldberger:

At various times we used to have one or two tame chemists.

Aaserud:

But in PSAC for instance that has not been the case to that extent. I think DuBridge was the first physicist heading that.

Goldberger:

Well, that's true. Wiesner was very close to being a physicist, but the composition of PSAC was always dominated by physicists.

Aaserud:

So you would not think that is a problem with my project. It makes sense to concentrate on the physicists.

Goldberger:

It's just natural selection. That's why all the presidents of Caltech have been physicists, I always tell people.

Aaserud:

Is that something that continues?

Goldberger:

That it be largely physicists?

Aaserud:

Yes. The role of physicists in science policy positions.

Goldberger:

I would hesitate a little bit to answer that. It would be worthwhile for you to talk with somebody like Frank Press, who has a broader view of this, and more knowledge than I do. I think there is still a preponderance of physicists. It's somehow the nature of the trade. It is broader than many other disciplines. Just historically.

Aaserud:

Well, there has recently been a compartmentalization of physics; now, of course, it's not as general as it used to be.

Goldberger:

It's true, and one could see some changes. I think that's a realistic possibility, but I don't know.

Aaserud:

Well, JASON continues to be basically physicists, I guess. There are some geologists, oceanography people.

Goldberger:

Yes, but not a great number.

Aaserud:

Well, I'm interested in JASON for several reasons, but one of them is that the JASON people continue to do physics, both in their capacity as JASONs and also in their capacity mostly in academic positions.

Goldberger:

That's correct.

Aaserud:

So there is an interaction there between physics work as physics and physics work towards other means that you can't find anywhere else or at least few other places.

Goldberger:

Let me give you an interesting illustration of that. In the summer of 1961, Ken Watson and Harold Lewis and I came upon the notion of using a technique known as the Hanbury-Brown-Twiss effect of intensity correlation to measure the size of reentry vehicles — the warheads of ballistic missiles. And we worked on that during the summer of 1961. In the summer of 1962 we were involved with a few other people who were other wise mild-mannered high energy physicists, that carried out a rudimentary experiment, on the rolling hills of Stanford, on using this technique.

About a year later, Ken Watson and Harold Lewis and I wrote a paper that showed how you could in principle solve the phase problem of X-ray diffraction by using the Hanbury-Brown-Twiss technique. We had two sources and two detectors, and we showed that if you measured the intensity of these two detectors and multiplied them together, and correlated them — averaged them over time — you could in fact extract the phase information of the X-ray scattering amplitude.

Aaserud:

Was that openly published?

Goldberger:

Oh, published in the Physical Review. We never said how we got into that problem in the Physical Review, but that was in fact the origin of it.

So it stimulated, for the three of us at least, an honest to God research activity that was published in the open literature. And I know for example that Ken Watson has made a career change, based in large part on his JASON work on problems in anti-submarine warfare. He became interested in a host of wave phenomena in oceanography, hydrodynamics, and that's what he works on now. So that it was stimulating scientifically, in a certain number of cases. I don't want to try by any means to imply that everybody had their work changed on the basis of those experiences, but there was a certain amount of back and forth.

Aaserud:

That's bound to happen I guess by the nature of it.

Goldberger:

Well, that's to be hoped for. It's like we encourage our professors to do a certain amount of consulting because not only do they bring something to the people to whom they consult, but they bring things back that they incorporate in their classes that are of value to students and to their own research, so it's a similar sort of thing.

Aaserud:

You started out with describing the origins of JASON, and did I understand you correctly when you described it as kind of a generational reaction to the Los Alamos generation, or is that too strong?

Goldberger:

No, it's not too strong. Our interest really was to try to do two things. One is to relieve that generation of their sole responsibility for concerns about national security issues, and at the same time, it was a reflection of our own commitment, of concern, about national security. So it wasn't an allergic reaction, it was a concern, really more of a concern.

(Noise on tape knocks out voices for one minute)

Aaserud:

What is your view, your opinion, on what is available in terms of records?

Goldberger:

You know, I don't really know. I know there was a time when we held information about JASON very closely. It became exacerbated during this turmoil about the Pentagon Papers, and desire on the part of organizations like the Students for a Democratic Society to embarrass the JASON people. We used to publish an unclassified list of titles of JASON papers, which had the potential for getting us into terrible trouble. For example, on one of these unclassified lists there was a paper which was entitled "Use of Nuclear Weapons in North Vietnam," or "in Vietnam." Well, the fact of the matter was, this was a study that demonstrated clearly and unequivocally that anybody who thought of using nuclear weapons in Vietnam was crazy. But the title of course didn't transmit that. It's a red flag. The suggestion that JASON advocates use of nuclear weapons in Vietnam! Nothing could have been further from the truth.

I don't know what the record situation is about JASON, frankly. And I don't know what the rules are about it.

Aaserud:

Do you have any records of JASON?

Goldberger:

I'm a rotten record keeper, and I have identically zero records. I think that when I moved out here, I sort of made some cursory effort to clean out my files and just threw a lot of things away. I'm not a record keeper.