Oral History Transcript — Dr. Henry Kendall
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Interview with Dr. Henry Kendall
Session I | Session II
Aaserud:We're back in Henry Kendall's office the day after, the 26th of November, 1986, and we are continuing our interview, which yesterday went up to the transition from JASON involvement to the Union of Concerned Scientists involvement, the origins of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and your involvement in that.
We could start now perhaps with a little more detail on the actual involvements of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The activity that stands out, from the media at any rate, is the critique of the Atomic Energy Commission and its licensing practice of nuclear reactors. I think we mentioned yesterday that that started (or the media started covering that (on the 27th of July 1971. You said that that reflected your first press conference.
Kendall:No, I did not say that. In fact, I said quite the opposite. That was far from the first press conference that we had. We had been having press conferences for two years, since 1969.
Aaserud:On that particular issue?
Kendall:Not on that particular issue. But we had certainly had press conferences and had developed a modus operandi: generating technical studies, having press conferences, and ultimately giving testimony, either by invitation or by soliciting invitations. Our way of doing business had already been well established.
It is true that that was the opening gun, so to speak, on the nuclear reactor safety debate. And that report and press conference was followed by another one, I think in October of that year. Not long after that we became involved in the major hearings that went on for about two years on the subject of emergency core cooling and reactor safety.
This reactor effort, started when the Union of Concerned Scientists, was very small. Indeed there were really just two of us by early 1972 who carried the Union and its name through.
Aaserud:That was you and...
Kendall:(Daniel Ford. There was a small vestigial group at MIT who had no contact with reactor safety. My own interests in the nuclear arms race never abated, but there seemed to be no satisfactory opening for making that a matter of public controversy. But I did initiate a study of the consequences of nuclear war early in the 1970s.
Aaserud:That was also within the Union of Concerned Scientists?
Kendall:Yes it was the Union of Concerned scientists. But it was with one or two people. We got a little MIT money to support it. But the time was obviously not ripe for taking this material public, and it stayed on the shelf. It wasn't until later, in 1977, that I reintroduced an emphasis on the nuclear arms race. I was searching continuously (or (for ways to get into that subject. It's much more important, in my opinion, and has always been so, than reactor safety. By 1981, our arms race effort was beginning to be successful, and now UCS has got a very heavy commitment to the nuclear arms controversy.
Aaserud:Maybe we should stay a little with that early period. The size of the Union of Concerned Scientists went down rather drastically; is that a correct?
Kendall:It went down from many hundreds of people who had nominally subscribed in 1969 (to a handful. Of course, we were not a really formal organization in any sense in the late sixties and early seventies. It was not until the reactor safety controversy proceeded and Dan and I felt the need for a more stable operation that we began to solicit funds on a continuing basis. Eventually, some time after 1975 (we'd have to look at the record to get the date correct (we incorporated UCS in Washington as a tax-exempt organization, and created a formal board of directors; an entity that people could give money to. Eventually, we had a full time secretary for a year, and some offices that we got at no cost, and then, in the middle seventies, we moved into rented headquarters near Harvard Square. From then on the growth has been continuous.
Aaserud:You were chairman already before that formalization.
Kendall:Yes. To the extent that anybody was chairman, I suppose I was, although there was no formal structure really. Other people had been chairman on and off, in the 1969, 1970, 1971 period. But by the time we had formalized our structure, I basically was the chairman and have continued to be the chair up to the present time.
Aaserud:So 1971 was kind of a low, at least in the size of the organization.
Kendall:1971, 1972 into 1973, I would say.
Aaserud:Why was it then that the media picked up on this and not as much on the earlier concerns?
Kendall:Well, I think the earlier concerns were being broadly voiced by very many groups in the society. I don't think that the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1969 or 1970 had any unique approach or any unique message. The material was broadly known, had been matter of a public controversy for a long time; UCS had nothing really to contribute to the debate. With the reactor safety business, the circumstances were totally different. We had much new information of risks and threats in an entirely new field. We were alone in acquiring the information, interpreting it, and setting it out to the public in a way that was understandable. We became a unique group at that time, and got a reputation that suited those circumstances. We became nationally known very quickly once that started.
Aaserud:It was a justified coverage by the media in that respect.
Kendall:Well, they must have thought so.
Aaserud:You thought so too, you're saying now.
Kendall:Well, I'm giving you an evaluation in retrospect. But it was clear at the time to everybody concerned that we had novel information, and it was also clear that we were the only ones that had it, understood it, and kept getting it in a continuous stream over a period of many years. We have remained the most technically competent group of critics in the United States on reactor safety, and that has persisted; it's still true.
Aaserud:Even at that time you were referred to as a specific organization. You were not referred to as individuals, but you were referred to as UCS.
Kendall:We used the organization name. That was the organization under whose name the petitions went in. That was the name that was used in participating in legal controversies, in generating court papers, and so forth. There was a reason for that, because it helps to have an organization, particularly when you're involved in large public controversies, and once you have it, it's a mistake to bypass it and start to get many names associated with the controversy. UCS has quite properly been the name that we focused on, and it's the one that's had public recognition.
Aaserud:If we're not talking in retrospect and try to understand the origins of the involvement of that particular problem, what was it that brought your attention to that?
Kendall:Well, it was a very simple matter. In fact, there had been a small effort, which again I initiated I think in late 1969 or 1970, to have one of the people then associated with UCS do some looking at reactor safety; but that did not come to very much, for a variety of reasons. In 1971 Daniel Ford, who at that time had graduated from Harvard, was working with the Economics Research Center under Vasily Leontieff at Harvard. He had been studying what the economists call the residuals of pollution control measures and environmental damage from an economic point of view. He had gotten to looking at nuclear power, and had discovered some unsettling information about safety. He had discovered that the Pilgrim Nuclear Plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts, was up for construction license, as I recall, and he joined as an intervener in that. Recognizing that his own technical skills (that is in the physics and engineering of reactor safety (was not advanced he came to the Union of Concerned Scientists, to James Mackenzie and me. We had a meeting at Harvard, which who in the early spring of 1971. That was the formal involvement of UCS in it, and very quickly Daniel and I found that we worked well together and became colleagues in the effort.
From then on we worked jointly on the matter, and we initiated the study group on reactor safety. We had other people helping us, particularly Jim Mackenzie, a Ph.D. physicist on the staff here at MIT in the physics department, who eventually moved out of formal physics, went to work for the Audubon Society, continued contact with UCS for a number of years, worked in the Carter White House during that Presidency for the Council on Environmental Quality, and then came back to work for UCS in Washington for a number of years. He's just left us this spring. He has been very helpful with our affairs over many years. During the period he was a volunteer, sometimes more sometimes less, but especially so from 1969 into the early 1970s.
In any event, that was the origin of our participation in nuclear affairs. Then the issue was brought to a point when we challenged the Atomic Energy Commission with the results that there were large scale hearings organized in Washington, that I referred to (the so called ECCS, Emergency Core Cooling System hearings (in which we were the principal critics, and in which Daniel and I carried the technical case. That was the first big break on reactor safety.
Aaserud:Was that a natural thing for a person of Ford's background to do (to work with the Union of Concerned Scientists (or is that an expansion of the kind of people doing that?
Kendall:I think the whole thing was somewhat unusual. Today the Union of Concerned Scientists has 100,000 members, it is a stable organization, now being 17 years old, with a budget of three million and a half dollars and a permanent staff of 35 or 50 people, with offices in both Cambridge and Washington. There is no other example in which two people from the academic community, one who stayed with it and who dropped out, formed an organization of that size and that particular set of skills and particular working characteristics. We are essentially the high tech end of the environmental movement. So it's unique.
Aaserud:But from the point of view of say the 4th of March activities, was the involvement of a person from a non-scientific background natural?
Kendall:Well, I always wonder when speaking of an economist as nonscientific. I suppose technically he is, but there are many economists who have had things to do with technical issues of one sort or another. It's obvious that reactor safety is not an economist's prime object of interest. But Daniel has proven to be quite a versatile person, although he did not practiced economics for very long. He is now a writer for the New Yorker. But I suppose one could say that it's not usual to have an economist turn to New Yorker writer either. He's also a potent cross-examiner and can write legal documents with considerable skill.
Aaserud:An economist would never be thought of as a JASON member, so that's a difference there that shows the broader scope of the Union.
Kendall:And we have also, as circumstances required, solicited people to help us with various technical aspects (technical in the broad sense (of whatever we happened to be working on. We've had other economists work with us in the past, and we've had biologists and lawyers and writers and all sorts of people. If we need them, we ask them.
Aaserud:Let's continue to talk about the contact with media. There was a press conference on the 4th of January, 1973; I'm still using the New York Times as a source.
Kendall:Well, you have more information than I have, so I hope I'm not embarrassed, by all this. There was a continuous string of press conferences, and I don't remember which one that was.
Aaserud:Well, that was the one in which Ralph Nader participated, I think for the first time.
Kendall:Yes, well, that stemmed from observations during the ECCS hearing. Those are probably too long and detailed to go into, but to boil it down, it became clear that there were certainly severe technical problems in reactors. At the outset it seemed to me that the people in the industry and in the regulatory agency were unaware of them and that they should be called to their attention and evaluated. It took some while for me to understand that they were not quite as ignorant as that, that they understood these problems fairly well, and in fact had gone to great lengths to cover them up.
As the hearings proceeded, it became clear that they were being run in a grossly biased way, that information was intentionally being suppressed and secreted, and that government nuclear safety researchers, in the past and during the hearing, had pressure put on them not to tell the results of their researches, or to give voice to their concerns or to the implications of their work. It was also clear that the Atomic Energy Commission and the industry had no intention whatever of doing anything about this whole safety issue.
In sum, it was obvious that a new approach was necessary, and we intentionally solicited Nader with a view to getting him involved in the controversy. It took six months to convince him that the controversy was technically well-founded enough to justify his coming in. It took quite a while of feeding information and briefing his lieutenants, until finally he did decide to join. As a result he came in with both feet and became a major participant in the controversy. He was of course well known at that time, and his impact on the controversy was substantial.
Aaserud:So he was introduced by the UCS.
Aaserud:How effective was that approach?
Kendall:Well, it opened up the Nader constituency to his exposition of all these views, and I think in the long run it was very helpful. It's a different way of looking toward the solution of technical problems in the society, the total opposite of the insider's approach. But there are certain practical problems for which there is no other mechanism.
Aaserud:And that increasingly became your realization in your dealings with the AEC and your experience with the nuclear safety problem.
Aaserud:And that was entirely separate from anything you had experienced from the inside before?
Kendall:Well, I think perhaps I had experienced it and been unaware of it in its full glory. It's not possible not to speak in retrospect to some extent. In fact, that had happened with respect to the Vietnam War. That did not become clear for a number of years, simply because the whole conflict in Southeast Asia was of such large scope. The government's role in prosecuting it in part in a clandestine way, the government's interest in keeping it going, its reluctance to search for other ways of terminating the war, except by exhaustion of the attempt to win it (none of that became clear for a number of years. So, as I say, while there was some evidence of it, the whole story wasn't clear until well into the seventies.
So my own realization of these matters certainly was developing through the seventies. But by 1973 or so, things had pretty well jelled, I would say, and we no longer looked in any sense to the Atomic Energy Commission or to the Congress for relief; we took the whole business public and we did it in as big a way as we could.
Aaserud:Did you feel that kind of institutional pressure for conformity while a JASON member?
Kendall:It was not a question of pressure for conformity within JASON. There was no pressure for conformity at the level I operated at. There might have been some in choice topic. The group could look at a wide range of technical problems and, I believe, choose what to investigate. On the other hand, that did not necessarily mean under all circumstances the government would do what you wanted. In fact, it was not even true that under all circumstances the government would even listen to what you had to say. That was the government's choice.
Anyway, it became clear by 1973, at least in the area of reactor safety, that neither the regulatory agency, the industry nor the Congress were about to move toward a solution of all of this, and until the scandal over reactor safety became noxious and there was a big constituency in the public, there was nothing done.
But the long-term consequences of this controversy have been major changes. The Congress has now become totally skeptical about nuclear power. The Congress scrapped the AEC and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy after the stench of their behavior became apparent even to reluctant and obtuse observers. The industry has been backed into a corner, largely as a consequence of its own ineptitude and of improved public understanding of just what the nuclear proponents were doing that was not in the public interest. This took a very long time, a decade or more, to accomplish. There was a time around 1976 when we first began to appreciate the fact that the public perception of nuclear power was turning over (and the perception was correct (and got stronger and stronger. Of course, Three Mile Island in March 1979 helped that along, and it has been helped along even further by Chernobyl and the general dismal economic circumstances of nuclear power.
So at this point it's a derelict technology, and the work that the Union of Concerned Scientists did in opening that controversy is now largely completed, because the nuclear power problems are now well understood. It's a matter of public understanding and appreciation, and the Congress now reflects this new understanding.
Aaserud:So UCS has made itself unneeded?
Kendall:Well, it's not true that it's unneeded, but a lot of the work has certainly been done.
Aaserud:In taking that different approach to advising on science related matters, to what extent did that involve or lead to controversies with earlier collaborators?
Kendall:One collaborator, a nuclear engineering graduate student, pulled out when it was made clear to him he had no future in his field if he remained a critic. As far as JASON friends was concerned. Once I had left JASON, I had no professional contact with the people in the organization. For a long time, I think there was great skepticism over my views and UCS's views on nuclear power. People took a while to appreciate the truth of our conclusions, even in the scientific community, and there is a minority who never believed it and who do not to this day. But I think now there's a general appreciation of the nuclear troubles among most of my friends. A few people have come by and, in a gentle way, apologized for having misunderstood how deep were the ills of the technology. We were certainly correct, as events have proven, but it was a long time coming and people were somewhat reluctant to accept it for a long time. Some more than others.
Aaserud:There's still a controversy about the insider (outsider approach.
Kendall:I don't know that there is much controversy. In general, I think the limitations and the opportunities that an insider approach takes are well understood. And there's an understanding of the limitations and opportunities of and outside approach. There are some problems that can only be tackled largely by one or the other, although both are almost always necessary at some level.
The nuclear arms race will never be reversed or blunted until there is major public understanding and major public pressure to resolve things. But this can't be done totally by the outside critics. There have to be some insiders who can help keep the technical records straight, particularly in an area that involves national secrets, which the arms business necessarily does. But the government now over-classifies things. It continues to keep security wraps on matters which should not be kept secret. On this score, the continued presence of some insiders who are friendly to the public cause is critically important.
Aaserud:Well, they're in a difficult position, of course. You're saying that there's not a complete divide between the insiders and the outsiders.
Kendall:Well, I think it's difficult for people to play both roles although there are some that do, and very well, except for a few extraordinary individuals. Even then, it's not terribly easy to be effective in both places. But by and large, you need people inside and you need people outside, and you cannot really get away without both of them.
Aaserud:But if I understood you correctly yesterday, your involvement in the Vietnam affair came, at least to some extent, from a dissenting attitude toward the government policy.
Kendall:Yes, in a way it was dissenting. Certainly it was the feeling that the government did not really understand the nature of the problem. We were trying to help the government directly, initially. We worked with the government, and we got some response from the government, but not enough, and none whatever ultimately at the very highest levels. So it was a question more of trying to help the government than it was of dissenting in some way but later, as the ferocity of the war grew the dissent became more intense.
Aaserud:And by hindsight, that may seem naive.
Kendall:Well, it's certainly true that we didn't agree with the government's policy, but we felt, at first, that it was more a matter of ignorance on their part, and that some technical work and perhaps some technical innovation could be brought around that would alter the circumstance. But in the long term it proved that the government didn't want such things anyway, so the fixes were doomed to failure. But we did not know that at the outset.
Aaserud:Let's turn now from the reactor business to other activities. I note that the current sheet of information on you from the Union of Concerned Scientists states three main areas of involvement by the Union (nuclear power safety, national energy policy, and nuclear arms control. Is that something that was defined from the outset, or was that something that has been defined later?
Kendall:Well, nothing is defined at the outset, and nothing is sacrosanct anyway, the elements of our program are under continuous review. That is the circumstance that prevails today. In 1973, when we were not doing anything except nuclear power and there were only two of us, it obviously wouldn't have been the case that energy policy or nuclear arms were defined objectives.
We are involved in nuclear arms now because I've re-opened the subject in UCS. I've attempted to re-open it several times, and was ultimately and finally successful in 1981. It has grown as the opportunities have permitted it to grow. It has grown since then to be the major objective we have. We became interested in energy policy in the middle 1970s as a natural outgrowth of nuclear safety concerns, because the question obviously arose, if nuclear power were to be scrapped or greatly diminished, either by intent or by the result of accidents or faulty performance, what would the country do?
This question came up in the midst of the Arab oil embargo, with a huge rise in energy prices, particularly petroleum products, fuel shortages. There was a growing controversy over the use of fossil fuels aside from liquid fuel. We moved into this gap, and initiated a major study of national energy policy. We reviewed the potential contributions of the presently utilized energy sources, and did a review of the alternative energy sources (solar, wind, a great many of those (and we published a book on that subject.
Aaserud:That effort was not as well covered in the media.
Kendall:No, it was not as well covered in the media; that's correct. That's because it had been endlessly explored, during the environmental movement's opening days, from the late sixties though the seventies. We were essentially a somewhat minor contributor to that. And we did not have that much novel to say, either, just because the field was somewhat more mature by the time we got into it. We did not have the unique position in energy planning that we did in nuclear power.
Aaserud:What was your major contribution in energy policy?
Kendall:Well, a significant work product was the book. That got reasonable sales, and it allowed UCS to say correctly, that it did understand something about energy policy, and that we had a well thought out prescription for the energy future of the country. This all came in the midst of Nixon's push for energy independence, which was an ill thought-out, misfit program which eventually died under its own weight. It enabled us in talks on nuclear power to comment and criticize general energy policy, and to respond to the central question: if there is no nuclear power, what else? There's a good answer to that, and we have it, so it was worthwhile from our point of view.
Kendall:Well, our prescription involved a combination of things, including solar energy; we carried out a fairly complicated evaluation, and set out a number of different scenarios, many of which would have been acceptable, and which involved a variety of different trade-offs. There was a big focus on increased efficiency of energy use, energy conservation, a slow transition out of liquid fuels, and so forth. At any rate, it's all in that book.
Aaserud:Yes, Toward a Solar Future deals with solar energy in that broader sense.
In that activity, did you collaborate with other organizations with the same outlook?
Kendall:No, we tended not to collaborate with other organizations very much, partly because there were not too many that worked at our level of technical skills, and partly because it gets too confusing and chaotic to try to work with other groups. We do now work with other groups on a collaborative basis (occasionally, and under fairly tight control. But in those days we did not, and it was a wise choice. Most of the groups in the environmental movement were technically not adequately informed, and frequently could not be moved off of what I think were poorly founded positions, so we tended to do our own work. But by the time that book was prepared, we had a technical staff and it was done in-house.
We also did a book on radioactive waste, which was a current issue of interest in the late seventies. I spent a lot of time on that. It did not get a huge public play, but it did result in testimony. It was a success, although not a runaway success.
Aaserud:The last item on the list of concerns of the Union is nuclear arms control. That's the concern that you yourself consider the most important, and that's the concern that's certainly most active now.
Kendall:I think that's correct. Of the technical issues we face, that is certainly among the most important or perhaps the most important.
UCS has by choice never spread itself among many issues. There are certainly many that we could tackle. In the very early days we did work in a variety of areas (the Clean Air Act and environmental pollution of one kind or another. We even did a study of meatpacking, as regulated by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. But we very quickly discovered (or I guess didn't even wait to discover, we just simply decided (that one should stick to a very limited number of issues. We have done that. Do a good job on just one or two. Nuclear arms is the crucial one, and so we've put a lot of effort into that over the years.
Aaserud:Starting from the outset?
Kendall:Well, starting at the outset, but then we dropped it for a very long period of time. In 1977 we tried to see if the public controversy could be re-aroused, with the various treaties under negotiation (the SALT II Treaty, and so forth. We did a Scientists' Declaration. We did another SALT Declaration and got a lot of support from the scientific community. Thousands of people signed our petitions.
But the time still wasn't right for public controversy on a large scale. That really didn't come about until the early eighties, after the Reagan campaign, in which there were charges by the Republicans and the Right Wing that we had become second best in nuclear arms and were vulnerable, and needed to build up nuclear arsenals. There was more than a little irresponsible talk by Reagan people on the winability of nuclear war and their interest in winning it. That gave us an edge to re-enter the controversy, and we did (in 1981, by organizing a national teach-in on nuclear arms, which was unexpectedly successful. It was the first big expression of public concern over nuclear war risks. We have had those annually since then. That was the first big break, and from then on it has been more and more successful.
Aaserud:And then it was the ASAT involvement.
Kendall:Well, that came considerably later.
Aaserud:That was 1983.
Kendall:That's correct. By then I had gotten Kurt Gottfried to come back on the board of the Union of Concerned Scientists, and we had been rearranging the staff and bringing on more experts. Kurt Gottfried took a leading role in introducing UCS into the ASAT business. That had been largely completed prior to Reagan's Star Wars speech. With an informed group and a publication and some skills in the area, when the Star Wars speech came, we were able to take a leading role, I think the leading role in the Star Wars debate. We have been the group that has established, to the satisfaction of the country as far as I'm concerned, that the scientific community broadly has no confidence in Star Wars. We wrote a book which has been our most successful book, The Fallacy of Star Wars, which sold something over 50,000 copies. That's now been re-written in a new version under a different name, and is coming out now just in a week or two. It is called Empty Promise: The Growing Case Against Star Wars.
Aaserud:With new stuff?
Kendall:With much new stuff in it, yes, brought entirely up to date.
Aaserud:I would be interested in seeing that. In my view, it's more informative than the other one, partly, of course, because it's more up to date.
Kendall:Well, the book Beyond the Freeze was up to date when it was written, but the Freeze having died, it's not very helpful to speak of "Beyond the Freeze"; there isn't going to be any "Beyond the Freeze" because there probably isn't going to be any Freeze. But that unfortunately was not our fault.
Aaserud:To what extent do you consider the Union of Concerned Scientists as the voice of American scientists?
Kendall:Well, I don't; it's not a general voice of American scientists. A voice only on very specific issues. First of all, the American scientists don't have a voice, and if they did, it would not make itself felt through an organization like Concerned Scientists. We don't work that way, and we don't aspire to be "the voice." What we do, we do as an organization. The UCS Board members, and senior staff propose, select and then support the generation of position papers on important topics (technical papers as on anti-satellite weaponry, Star Wars defenses, or doctrine of No First Use of nuclear weapons, or a comprehensive set of recommendations for what the country should do in the arms control area, for example. We may prepare a declaration with the help of a handful of the country's experts, and then we will go to the scientific community and ask for support for that statement, for that position. We frequently get overwhelmed by support in these cases and get thousands and thousands of scientists that sign on.
We do polls (sometimes ourselves and sometimes contracted out to a polling organization (to see what the scientific community thinks on various subjects. But the support we have from the scientific community comes specifically in the circumstances of some sort of document, for which we solicit supporters. And so on very selective issues, we get the support of the scientific community. On the Star Wars issue, we prepared a set of questions, and have a majority of the National Academy of Science, a majority of the country's Nobel Prize winners, supporting us on proposals to ban space arms and prevent an extension of the nuclear arms race into space. So that's the way we work.
Aaserud:So it's not just a matter of getting more yeses than nos; it's a matter of getting a number of replies that you actually have an absolute majority for.
Kendall:Well, that can be the case. Or sometimes we simply solicit signed support for a position paper. Then we publish the names or a selection of the names, saying that the following people support UCS's statement. We give the statement, and we give the supporter's name.
Aaserud:To what extent have you encountered a problem with the point of view that the scientist, the academic in particular, should be objective and not concern him or herself with political questions?
Kendall:You mean in their personal research or in their political feelings?
Aaserud:I mean the general response of scientists to the Union of Concerned Scientists; have you had that kind of response?
Kendall:There hasn't been any serious difficulty in that area. Many of the major problems facing the country, or facing humanity, have heavy technical components in them, and people including scientists, have opinions on these subjects, just like they have opinions on anything else. You know, some of us are Republicans and some of us are Democrats; some of us like to base the national security on lots of nuclear weapons and other people like to base it on a mix of nuclear weapons and intelligent doctrine and negotiated agreements with our purported enemy. My sense is that a majority of scientists support our views. But there are dissenters, and I don't think that anybody believe that scientific objectivity can lead to a single unique solution to the nuclear arms race, because it is not a scientific question. I have not found any new and startling dilemma there.
Aaserud:But others may have.
Kendall:Not to my knowledge. People disagree with us, but I don't think it's a dilemma that we shouldn't disagree, or that we shouldn't all by mysterious means reach a common understanding (and agreement on ends and means.
Aaserud:But you might have been criticized for being a group of scientists having pretensions to more of an opinion than other people.
Kendall:Well, there is a limited number of people who have said that, but there have not been very many, and I tend to discount its importance. We adopt issues that typically have important technical components and on these it is our aspiration to speak authoritatively.
Aaserud:It's not been important enough so that you have been too concerned about this.
Aaserud:I guess that's my question.
Kendall:I'm not really concerned about it at all. We are not concerned about that particular potential criticism. I think it is a fact of life in matters of public controversy that the critics have to prepare technically unassailable cases. I think that a technical blunder can be very damaging if not fatal, just from a practical point of view. I think people's scientific integrity has to be kept polished up, in working up technical cases in the public domain, because these cases are ransacked by people who are opponents and frequently enemies of what one wants to do looking for faults. A major blunder is going to prove very serious for public credibility, and opponents will never let you forget it.
We have made a very small number of errors (only one or two that I can think of in our whole history. In the nuclear power debate, I think we never made a mistake that ever caused us any significant grief. It's important to aspire to that, and take great care that they don't occur. Also overspeaking or making any attempt to stretch the limits of technical knowledge is not advisable. The scientific community is very sensitive to that and an organization can very easily lose its scientific supporters.
The government overspeaks, and so does industry, frequently and it's one of the facets of these controversies. But the government is, because of its position, able to ride out such mistakes. It can simply assert technical falsehoods (as we've discovered (when it knows better. But that is really not possible for the critics, at least not the Union to behave similarly. Truth is our most important commodity.
Aaserud:Let's turn to the development in terms of numbers in the organization. What has been the development of the membership?
Kendall:Well, first of all, there never was membership until after we incorporated. The drive for supporting members started when Daniel who was Executive Director, brought on a fund raiser to do public fund solicitation in-house. Then we started a direct mail campaign to get money from the public, and that's when we began to grow substantially.
Aaserud:Was that at the time of the incorporation?
Kendall:Well, it was not long after that, probably within six months or a year. Again, I don't remember the dates, but we brought on a very competent woman named Charlene Devokey who had been a fund raiser in the political system earlier. She came on the staff, and organized an internal direct mail division. That moved us away from dependence on angels, that is, people who could give us a few thousand dollars every now and then, and a handful of foundations that had supported us when we were in the ECCS hearing.
Aaserud:What was your original basis of support?
Kendall:Well, the basis of support originally was nothing, and we had the use of a xerox machine or mimeograph machine at the Audubon Society. The rest of us just worked at home, and would pay $60 for a reproduction fee or something of that sort. I mean, we were at that size for a while. And it just came out of people's pockets and spare time.
Then as the ECCS hearing proceeded, we had to have more money. We found some people, particularly one wonderful woman in New York, who basically fielded us. We're talking about a few thousand dollars, and then a few times ten thousand dollars, stretched over a year or two.
Eventually we had to pay (a lawyer, and we began to spend, not a few times ten thousand dollars, but many times ten thousand dollars, and got foundations to help us. But once we had incorporated and gotten the direct mail program, then we could look to having hundreds of thousands of dollars. I can't reconstruct an exact spending profile over the years, but once the direct mail started, we were able to expand.
We are not in that circumstance any more. We have stayed for two or three years now at roughly the three million dollar level. We're still growing, but it's not a very great growth rate at the moment. But it has grown more or less uniformly since the middle seventies till today.
Aaserud:The incorporation was in the mid-seventies.
Aaserud:And the membership?
Kendall:The membership's gone up along with the revenues.
Aaserud:How has the increase in size affected the workings of the organization?
Kendall:Well, no surprise there. We've become more complicated and more bureaucratic. It's somewhat more difficult to do things, but we're able to address larger problems and have more funds to bring to bear when we need to. We can afford to put on a satellite conference across the United States, and include Europe; we do that once a year. We've been able to afford to make movies, write books, support the travel of staff to various places, hold press conferences, and all our other various activities; our funds make that possible.
Aaserud:Could point to any major changes over time?
Kendall:Oh, we had a big bulge in our membership in 1980, 1981, 1982 (in that period (when the arms race became a major issue. We were the first group who could capitalize on the concern over nuclear arms and the risk of nuclear war. We had a big direct mailing (millions of pieces of mail soliciting membership. We had a big bulge in our membership then, and we have hung onto that, too.
We have a size and a set of resources, both intellectual and financial, that lets us capitalize on circumstances that are fast breaking. We can write an ad campaign in a week or so if we have to, and get major ads in, as we did over Three Mile Island. There was a big bulge of membership after Three Mile Island in 1979, although not as big as the arms race one later.
Aaserud:You have been the chairman since the early seventies?
Kendall:Yes, since the middle seventies. Since we had enough organization to be worthy of that name, I guess I've been chairman.
Aaserud:What has been the development of the task and the duties of the chairman during the period of expansion?
Kendall:I think it's just bigger and more complicated now; that's all.
Aaserud:You haven't become a bureaucrat entirely.
Kendall:I doubt it. No, we have a full time executive director and have had for ten years or more. He carries the brunt of the bureaucracy.
Aaserud:If you were to place the Union of Concerned Scientists within the broader framework of (I shouldn't call it science policy, but the implications of science in society (do you consider it unique now? What organizations would you compare it to? What role does it play among others?
Kendall:Well, there are not many organizations in the various areas that we deal in, at least not ones that are very nationally known and very effective. I think that in terms of size and scale, in the areas in which we have decided to concentrate heavily, we are certainly lead players, and I'm glad to report that. We certainly have had the lead role in the Star Wars controversy (and now many people in the Congress recognize that. We are not interested in science and social policy; we are interested in those social policies that have a heavy component of technology. It is that aspect that we in some sense are uniquely suited, to address, because the majority of the people that run UCS are scientists of one sort or another.
Our working mode has developed as one in which we do evaluations of major issues and make recommendations for public policy. We're not interested in science and public policy in the academic sense. We are trying to change the U.S. national defense posture, and it is a technical subject, in part. We have made ourselves competent to address that, and in doing so have separated ourselves from many other groups like the Sierra Club or others of that sort, who also have things to say about nuclear arms, but frequently don't say it with the competence and sustained investigation behind them that we try and put into it. So that's the difference.
Aaserud:Where do you find your expertise for writing books or for testimony? Do you find it among the membership generally?
Kendall:These are initiated within the UCS, usually at the board level. We ask people whom we know, whom we believe to be competent, to join us in that effort, but it's usually a small group of people. First of all, the general group that supports UCS is not drawn largely or intentionally even from the scientific community. The supporting membership of UCS (are drawn from the public at large. And on these technical studies we will have anywhere from three to half a dozen or nine or ten people involved. We pick them and ask them to join.
Aaserud:Do you have any statistics on the division of membership?
Kendall:It is not a membership organization in the sense which some organizations are, where members have a voice in policy and vote on issues placed before them. The board is in charge of the organization, and sets policy. There is some service to the membership in terms of newsletters, information available, and so forth, but basically they contribute the funds that keep us going. We also have a scientists program, about 7000, who take active roles in their local areas, and nationally, in representing UCS's views to the public and to elected officials.
Aaserud:But certainly the division according to membership would show something about the reach of UCS.
Kendall:Well, it turned out, when we first started reviewing the membership, that a larger fraction of them were scientists than we had thought. We haven't particularly solicited scientists, but have sought support from the general public. We mail several million pieces of mail a year across the country, in a broad-brush attempt to get support. The average donation is $33.00, and the aggregate provides the bulk of the money that we use.
Aaserud:We were talking about the division of members, for example, physicists versus chemists or scientists versus non-scientists.
Kendall:Most of our people are not scientists, but a fair number of them are, in the vicinity of 15 to 20%.
Aaserud:Well, if we are to wind down, we should go from the specific to the more general again. I would like to ask you, do you see the emergence of the Union of Concerned Scientists as a sign of a new kind of concern, signifying a trend in that kind of involvement?
Kendall:It may not be a trend, but there certainly is a new need for organizations of the UCS type. What we did in the reactor safety business was certainly, I believe, a major contribution. There are some who disagree with that, and who would have liked to have seen the nuclear power industry go ahead uncriticized and with its flaws left hidden. But in general I think it's best that that got out, and it took an organization (however, small it was at that time (to bring the facts out. We have long since developed quite satisfactory operating procedures for doing our work, and there has been no organization really like us before.
I think it is a model, and has proven so for some people. Many of the environmental organizations are now beginning to depend more and more on competent technical help. I think they were slow to realize the need and it was to their disadvantage. Now more and more they are getting Ph.D.s on their staffs, many group still depend on UCS for technical advice (which I find gratifying. We aspire to making an absolute minimum of mistakes as a precondition for continued effectiveness.
Aaserud:Part of my general study concerns the role of the physicists in American science policy (excuse the expression (after the Second World War. Is the Union of Concerned Scientists kind of organization a sign that the involvement and impact of the physicist relatively has receded as compared to other groups in that respect?
Kendall:What other groups have you got in mind?
Aaserud:Physicists did play a very strong role after the Second World War.
Kendall:They played a very significant role in Second World War. War World II was a physicists' war. World War I was a chemists' war.
Aaserud:The inertia from that is what I'm talking about.
Kendall:Well, rather than say the inertia, I would say the momentum. During and since WWII, the physics community was preeminently the one involved in developing not only weapons systems, but technical innovations of all kinds, including radar, computers, transistors and semiconductors. It's just a quite normal consequence of all of physics skills that the community would have had a lot to say about nuclear weapons, ASAT, space defenses and so forth.
Aaserud:Which is still the case, of course.
Kendall:Which is still the case.
Aaserud:In those issues, I suppose, it's the physicists who still dominate in the Union of Concerned Scientists.
Kendall:Well, to some extent that's correct, yes. That is the result of historical legacy, because I and my friends who have sustained the organization have been physicists.
Aaserud:So the list of interests is partly a legacy of that.
Kendall:Well, it's partly a legacy of that. It's partly a result of the fact that the problems posed by nuclear weapons and the nuclear arms race involve a lot of physics. UCS has a considerable investment in skills in these areas. We have acquired a good reputation for the way we deal with them, and that is continuing.
Aaserud:You have also been involved in a number of other committees and panels.
Kendall:Not a great many. I tend to stay off those.
Aaserud:Not all that many. It was I think mainly during the transition period, say in the late sixties and early seventies. Just a quick glance at the list shows the National Academy of Sciences, 1970 to 1971, the American Physical Society (
Kendall:Well, I would put all of those in the category of being small operations; there's no particular importance for most of them.
Aaserud:So in the area we're talking about you would emphasize JASON during the first period, and Union of Concerned Scientists subsequently.
Aaserud:To the extent that we have been talking about your science policy involvements (for lack of a better expression (we have been covering the majority of it.
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