Oral History Transcript — Dr. Richard Blankenbecler
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Interview with Dr. Richard Blankenbecler
Richard Blankenbecler; May 5, 1987
ABSTRACT: Exposure to government consulting while Ph.D. student at Stanford; JASON membership as outgrowth of university work with Marvin Goldberger. Primary JASON work on ABM defense; first summer study at Berkeley, 1962; other projects include Cape Cod, Woods Hole, and Santa Barbara studies. Impact of personal philosophy on choice of study topics. Broader involvement in Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) and Arms Control and Development Agency (ACDA) project on test ban issues. JASON involvement in Viet Nam war issues; disillusionment leading to resignation; broader questions of Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) independence.
Aaserud:We're going to talk about your involvement in JASON, and perhaps broaden it out a little bit to other involvements pertaining to science policy or science advising. Before I turn to any history, I usually ask people about their papers, correspondence, manuscripts, that kind of thing, because that's another involvement of the Center, to try to keep track of records in the recent history of physics in America. So are the papers being taken care of at this institution with the help of an archivist, for example?
Blankenbecler:You mean physics papers.
Aaserud:Yes, or any papers you have pertaining to your career.
Blankenbecler:I try not to keep any.
Aaserud:OK, you said you moved.
Blankenbecler:No, I don't really have. I try not to worry about that.
Aaserud:OK, but if that ever should come up—
Blankenbecler:And I think all my JASON records are, either I returned them to JASON, or they all were inconsequential and have been disposed of.
Aaserud:Yes, essentially because of their classified nature, I suppose.
Blankenbecler:All those were certainly returned.
Aaserud:Yes. But of course there were others as well. That's what I'm hoping to use, because I'm not cleared myself. Well, let's start talking about background and how you got into an interest in science advising in the first place, whether that was related to the war experience or whatever it was related to.
Blankenbecler:No. Not really from any direct war experience.
Aaserud:You're a little too young for that, I admit. You were born in 1933.
Blankenbecler:'33. However, I lost family in the war, and my father was in the Army, so I moved around during the war, from Army camp to Army camp. So I was certainly affected by the war. But I had no great desire to improve things and so on.
Aaserud:No. You got your BA in '54, your PhD in '58, and that was just afte Sputnik that you got your PhD.
Aaserud:And you joined JASON fairly soon after that.
Blankenbecler:I went to Princeton, as an NSF post-doc, and worked with Goldberger quite a bit, Goldberger and Treiman, and so I think after a year, I was probably either an instructor or assistant professor or something, but I joined JASON very soon. In fact, I think the first thing I did was working with Murph on a —the Cornell people were trying to get money, I don't remember from whom, maybe the Air Force, to build the Arecibo radio telescope, so they asked Murph to see whether the physics looked reasonable, and so Murph and I did some work discussing scattering waves from the upper atmosphere of this planet and other planets, and that was probably the first thing I did. And then after that is when Murph asked me if I would be interested in joining JASON. I did not go to the initial JASON meeting, but I think I went to, it was fairly, within a year.
Aaserud:Yes. That was your very first exposure to that kind of problem?
Aaserud:But it came naturally when you were in Princeton.
Blankenbecler:Yes. That's correct.
Aaserud:Murph asked you rather soon to join.
Aaserud:You don't remember exactly when that was?
Blankenbecler:No — yes, '60.
Aaserud:But the first meeting was in 1960.
Blankenbecler:I guess maybe fall of '60 or spring of '61. Somewhere like that.
Aaserud:Yes. So what was your response? You were honored or?
Blankenbecler:Oh, it was very—I considered myself a very patriotic person. Yes, I wanted to join it, just for that reason.
Aaserud:So it was not just to join your peers, it was a real motivation to help the country also involved in that?
Blankenbecler:Yes. Rather naive, but that's exactly what it was. There was some money associated with it, but always more pain than it really was worth. So that was not the motivation.
Aaserud:OK, there was not need to help an expanding family or anything of that sort, behind it?
Blankenbecler:No. We didn't have any money, but didn't need it here.
Aaserud:OK. Fair enough. How was that first experience related to the question of becoming a member of JASON? The first experience that you talked about with the Cornell people.
Blankenbecler:The Cornell people. Well, I don't know. Murph is the one to judge that.
Aaserud:Yes, but you mentioned it as a kind of a pre—
Blankenbecler:Yes, it's really the first thing that I remember doing.
Aaserud:Outside of —
Blankenbecler:—outside of my own academic thing.
Aaserud:I see. Was that a one time thing or was that something that continued?
Blankenbecler:Now that I think about it, I did, when I was a graduate student, I did work for SRI. It comes back to me. At the Polter Labs, which is a shock wave lab. I got my first clearance at that level, because I worked on emissions, and the design and fitting of emissions, shock wave properties.
Aaserud:Yes, while you were a PhD student at Stanford?
Blankenbecler:Yes, that was '56.
Aaserud:Was that a usual thing for a PhD student at Stanford to do at the time?
Blankenbecler:No, I do remember, at the time there were about three of us over there in the shock wave labs, two in my class, and one person was in the mathematical group, and tried to do the mathematics. I was in sort of the practical end. And then there was also someone, I don't know which group he was with, but he stayed in study of shock waves, and now he's doing shock waves physics, so far as I know.
Aaserud:Yes. Was that a way to obtain support for your studies, or was it something that was explicitly encouraged by the physics department?
Blankenbecler:No, it was neither encouraged or discouraged, but it was for money.
Aaserud:Right, but it wasn't something you were pushed into. It just came naturally.
Aaserud:Right. So that was a similar activity anyway.
Aaserud:So did you have any knowledge of the motivations for establishing JASON? Did you follow its establishment? Did you know about that?
Blankenbecler:Well, I knew that Murph Goldberger and quite a few people there at Princeton, Wigner and so on, had a lot of connections in Washington, and were always going to Washington, and on panels of various types, and I don't think I ever asked why. It just wasn't interesting to me.
Aaserud:Until you were asked.
Blankenbecler:Until I was asked.
Aaserud:On your vita here, according to this, you got your PhD in '58 and you started as an associate professor at Princeton 1960.
Blankenbecler:'61. Somewhere in there.
Aaserud:What happened in between there?
Blankenbecler:I think I was an NSF fellow, then assistant professor, then I became associate rather quickly.
Aaserud:Yes, you were an NSF postdoctoral fellow from '57 to '60, it says, then a Sloane Foundation fellow from '62 to '64, so the NSF postdoctoral fellowship takes care of that.
Blankenbecler:There was both a graduate fellowship and a postgraduate fellowship.
Aaserud:So physically you spent that time in Princeton?
Blankenbecler:No, here, both here and in Princeton, at Stanford and at Princeton.
Aaserud:Right, because JASON of course was established in the fall of 1959. And one of the precursors of JASON was Project 137, which was a summer study in 1958.
Blankenbecler:At Los Alamos?
Aaserud:No, it was on the East Coast. It was at some Army installation, I believe. I'm not exactly sure of the name of it. But that was essentially from the efforts of Wheeler, Wigner and Morgenstern at Princeton, who got IDA interested in supporting this kind of study, and that had motivation like JASON had, to involve the next generation of physicists in national security matters. So since you were at Princeton, I wondered whether you had any contact with that, but you didn't, you're saying?
Aaserud:Well, this is just to confirm what you've already said then. It was Goldberger who got you into it in the first place, and when you were asked you were interested, but before then you didn't know all that much about it.
Aaserud:OK, and we talked about your reasons for accepting. There's no need to go into that again. So let's turn to your projects, and when you were involved in them, in what context, and we'll take them in order, so did you start off actively at once after you had joined as a member?
Blankenbecler:As I recall, the usual way of operating would be, there would be one or two meetings during the year, weekend meetings in Washington or various places.
Aaserud:Yes, the fall and the spring meetings.
Blankenbecler:The fall and the spring meeting, and then a month or so in the summer. And I'm sure I started right off doing it. The first summer study I remember is the one at Berkeley.
Blankenbecler:I'm pretty sure that's the first one.
Aaserud:Yes. Would that be '61, do you think?
Blankenbecler:Well, I can't remember. I was thinking it would be '62.
Aaserud:OK. What was the main activity at that meeting and what was in particular your involvement?
Blankenbecler:Well, as usual, there were many different projects going on, and I don't remember all of them. I do remember there was a study of description of turbulence, a formal study, and I was mostly interested in ballistic missile defense questions, and that's what I worked on the first, and continued, most of the work I did had to do with ballistic missile defense, radar problems, hardware problems, etc.
Aaserud:That was the biggest heading at the time.
Blankenbecler:Yes. And it was a big question at several points, so at several points there were big studies, always, until the Vietnam War broke out that was the major topic.
Aaserud:Was that something you were set to do or was that something you were particularly interested in and chose among other possibilities?
Blankenbecler:I think, well, people could choose, among a list, and it had to do with what personal taste and so on. I chose it because Wigner once, I was talking to Wigner about these things, and he said, it was very important than when you accept consulting money, that it should be for things that you would never consider doing under your ordinary academic research. Otherwise you were cheating somebody. It's unethical. And I think he was right. And therefore I always tried to choose my JASON subject to be as far as possible from my academic interests. I would do that anyway.
Aaserud:Yes. Did you have a lot of that kind of discussion with Wigner or others at Princeton while you were there?
Blankenbecler:No, I can't say that I was much worried about it. I don't—it's pretty rare to actually get Wigner engaged in a conversation, and I don't remember the circumstances of that, but he did say it.
Aaserud:Yes. He was one of the fathers of JASON, of course. He was a senior advisor at the time, as was Johnny Wheeler, whom you also interacted with at Princeton, I'm sure. But we'll be talking about the project.
Blankenbecler:About the project. So it was ballistic missile defense. In fact, I think the first study was High Point defense of siloes. And it went on from there.
Aaserud:Yes. So how did you work on it? Did you work on it in well-defined groups?
Blankenbecler:Yes, well-defined groups. We had to sort of lead each other along. And when we needed to find something out, it was good to have several people searching for the information.
Aaserud:Yes. Well, even though you sought a distance between the work in JASON and the work in the academic field, in order that you should be made use of, there must be some kind of relation there. I mean, you must be asked to do something that you can do because you are the one you are.
Blankenbecler:I think it has more to do with knowing a little bit of mathematics, and having since been able to find the information, more than any specific knowledge. And certainly that's the main reason for having any kind of consultant. A consultant of course—this is a little off the subject— a consultant has a tremendous number of advantages, and one of them is that when someone calls in a consultant, it's because they don't know how to do something, and therefore if the consultant actually doesn't solve the problem, that's fine, because it means the consultant isn't really any more smart than the people who tried to do it originally, and that's a boost for the home organization, so the consultant can't possible lose. But the real reason is to get an independent judgment. That's what's really useful about it. And that, I think, JASON did.
Aaserud:From your side, you chose a problem in order to contribute to it positively.
Aaserud:Do you remember how the choices were presented to you? I mean, did you actually get a list of things to do, or in what context was that discussed?
Blankenbecler:Well, I think, as I recall, various talks on different subjects were presented at the fall and spring meeting, and at some point, the steering committee would decide what subjects were particularly appropriate. Or possible. And then, some group would respond, by asking some money for it or getting a group together to look into that, and I think those probably also started during the year, and then really got to work during the summer.
Aaserud:Yes. Was there actually a possibility for a non-steering committee JASON member to come up with his own proposals?
Aaserud:That was not on the list?
Blankenbecler:Oh yes. Certainly you could do that. And there were — I was involved in one, maybe two attempts to do that, but we very quickly found that the problem, there were no resources availble for the problem, so it couldn't be done. Not that they didn't give us resources. We couldn't find any information on the problem, so we couldn't—it wasn't useful for us to pursue it.
Aaserud:Yes, but that was in part due to a communication problem with the agencies that were supporting people.
Blankenbecler:Right. We certainly had full backing from JASON.
Aaserud:So was that on the same occasion, the same summer study, or was that?
Blankenbecler:That happened later on.
Aaserud:That was when you had become a little more mature in the business.
Blankenbecler:Something like that.
Aaserud:So, since we're on that anyway, do you remember what those suggestions were, or at least in what kind of area?
Blankenbecler:It's embarrassing. Maybe it will pop into my mind. I don't really know.
Aaserud:OK, let's continue chronologically then. I don't know if you have anything more to say about the ABM business during that first summer. Who did you work with at any rate then? What was the group? Whom did the group consist of, do you know?
Blankenbecler:Henry Foley, I think, Andy Sessler, so we were looking at one area, and then there were other people looking into associated areas. I can't remember who they were. I can't remember.
Aaserud:OK. Was that the main thrust of your work in JASON that summer, or did you divide yourself among different projects?
Blankenbecler:Oh no, that was it. That continued to be for several summers, for me. I normally sort of worked on at least two subjects, one primary one and one just for my own information and —
Aaserud:—OK, different kinds of activities?
Blankenbecler:Different types of problems.
Aaserud:Yes, because conceivably JASON can work on more inventive kind of work, I mean, developing its own solutions to problems, or it could investigate the solutions of others to problems.
Aaserud:We were distinguishing between two kinds of problems, the evaluation of the solutions of others, and your own solutions to problems.
Aaserud:So was that the kind of distinction between the problems you worked on? I'm just fishing now.
Blankenbecler:Yes. Well, I think there were certainly those. There was another kind which would come up on occasion, which didn't take so much time, but IDA would ask individuals to critique a study done by the full time employees at IDA, and so we would go and learn about what they were doing and read their report, and make suggestions about presentation, conclusions, and criticize logic and so on.
Aaserud:Yes, so there was a rather close connection between JASON and IDA more centrally.
Blankenbecler:At least some parts of IDA. There clearly were large parts of IDA where, at least the normal JASONites, you know, were not permitted to venture. And I don't know whether that's because they did something or because they didn't do anything.
Aaserud:Well, it's hard to know.
Blankenbecler:Yes, exactly, it's hard to know.
Aaserud:Well, other projects, maybe we should go through—how many summer studies did you participate in? If the first one was '62, you said that you participated in —
Blankenbecler:At least five. In some form or other. There was one in ? Maine. There were several on Cape Cod. There was at least one at Addis Air Force Base on Cape Cod and maybe two at Woods Hole. There was, the last one I really attended was at Santa Barbara. That was '66, because I came out from Princeton to Santa Barbara in '66 on sabbatical, and I stayed in '67 at Santa Barbara.
Aaserud:That was the Vietnam summer study essentially.
Aaserud:Well, we'll get to that. Are there other studies that stand out? Was it ABM essentially every year before then?
Blankenbecler:ABM was usually the primary thing. Now, ABM studies, there were several types. One of them was looking at, more like a system, namely, what could you put together, how would it work? For Hard Point Defense that was the major issue. And what would we do to the offense if you had such a thing? How does it change the offensive strategy and so on? That's one, that systems analysis, more. Then there was a more technological question, such as what happens during blackout in the upper atmospheric, when you get it terribly excited, what happens to the radio properties? And I didn't really do very much in that area. I did, I remember I wrote a paper on improving signal to noise, from a particular kind of radar system, which had to do with looking at coherence properties, and that, I think, —well, it was interesting, that's probably as close to physics as I ever really got in JASON.
Aaserud:Still it wasn't quite what you did in your academic work in physics.
Blankenbecler:Right. We had never come across it, wouldn't have been interested in such a —
Aaserud:No. But was there ever that possibility, that there were problems within JASON that conceivably could be closer to what you did as an academic physicist?
Blankenbecler:Certainly. People who were studying the mathematical formulation of turbulence. That would have been an academic subject. And —
Aaserud:Would it have been your academic subject?
Blankenbecler:No, but as a professor of physics, I would have felt happy publishing a paper in that field. And if I was interested in that field, —to me, that's a conflict of interest. Because it's conceivable that I could have done it, so — I shouldn't do it.
Aaserud:And you followed that, I mean, you were strict towards yourself in that respect.
Blankenbecler:Yes. It wasn't very hard, because there were a lot of interesting problems.
Aaserud:Yes, and you weren't really tempted to find a connection there. Of course, there were others who did that. I mean, that rule wasn't entirely followed.
Blankenbecler:No, there were some people who did exactly the same thing at JASON that they did at their home institution.
Aaserud:Yes. Were there discussions of principle about that within JASON?
Blankenbecler:Not that I recall. Not about that.
Aaserud:So Wigner didn't come and lecture you at JASON. This was your personal thing, between you and Wigner.
Blankenbecler:Yes. And I don't think even he lived up to it all the time, but nevertheless he said it.
Aaserud:Yes. "Do as I say, not as I do."
Blankenbecler:Yes, exactly. Anyway, so that was — if you want to, I have some, one more technical topic, and that is, I got interested in following the signal analysis thing, the problems of sonar in the ocean, sonar problems, so I did work on signal processing, sonar signals.
Aaserud:Yes, which is entirely different from the ABM. This is entirely separate.
Blankenbecler:Entirely separate subject. And again, using the same idea, which is to look for coherence properties, but very different environment, totally different situation. You'd never recognize that they would in fact have anything in common. And so I think I published a couple of reports, JASON reports, on that subject.
Aaserud:OK. While we're at that relationship, or lack of relationship, rather, are there any publications on your publication list that have some JASON relationship?
Aaserud:Not even conceptually or something that you wouldn't have worked on otherwise kind of thing?
Aaserud:There's a real true separation there.
Aaserud:Do you have a list of your JASON reports?
Blankenbecler:No, I don't.
Aaserud:So that sonar thing, was that as extensive as the ABM?
Blankenbecler:It didn't last as long, but through the years, it only took maybe one summer. Maybe I worked on it part time two summers, something like that. It was, anyway, actually the most interesting thing.
Aaserud:Interesting because it was closer to physics?
Blankenbecler:It had many more problems that in fact you could think about and get the physics to it.
Aaserud:Yes, right. Did that hook you up with a different group within JASON?
Blankenbecler:No, I think I actually did that mostly on my own, with some critiques from other people who helped me write the paper so it would be readable, to the sonar community, and trying to get their jargon and so on. No, I think I did it all independently.
Aaserud:Yes. Generally speaking, was there a core of ABM people and a core of say Navy problem people, or did it?
Blankenbecler:I think that's probably right. People like Bill Nierenberg were always interested in Navy problems, ocean problems. There were some people working on some infra-red effects at the ocean surface. And I don't know exactly how JASON worked, but there always seemed to be experts brought in for the summer studies on major topics of interest. They were brought in from companies or other think tanks etc. And I never really understood whether they were members of JASON, pseudo-members of JASON, or just hired consultants or exactly what.
Aaserud:Well, I guess there were some people who came back, since you were working on some problems continuously.
Blankenbecler:Yes, that's right. Oh yes. There was considerable continuity and that was one of the nice things about it. Once you got working on a problem you became expert on, you could continue with experts, so —
Aaserud:Yes. It seems to me that one of the distinct, possible distinctions you can make between the two kinds of ABM problems you talked about, the technical one which—was that your own, by the way, entirely?
Blankenbecler:Well, there were a lot of people working on that area. Again I think the particular paper was probably my name only. I don't remember exactly. Maybe one other person. But there was a group really looking at radar signal analysis in the ABM context.
Aaserud:What I was getting at was that it's not only that one is technical, the other one is more systems oriented, you might say; it's also that a system oriented problem has a more obvious science policy implication, I would say. I mean that feeds more obviously into what you would discuss at some international negotiations for arms control or whatever.
Aaserud:Was there ever discussion within JASON or in your mind as to, to what extent JASON should feed into directly that kind of discussion, or whether JASON should be entirely technical, without any judgment on those larger issues?
Blankenbecler:Well, I usually find most scientists totally naive on the larger issues. So I never really thought it would be a great idea if JASON were to sit down with the Russian counterpart of JASON and work this whole thing out. But the fact that the information should be fed into the US appropriate people, that was clearly important. In fact, you know, there was another paper that I wrote somewhere about, after we set up this system, and after we did this work on signal processing and what you could actually see and so on, we then wrote a paper on how to defeat that system, which was a crucial thing, because you want to know whether ABM is worth it or not, and so we wrote a paper showing how easy it was to defeat it. So that I think in fact is one of the important contributions that JASON should have made. Whether it made it or not, I don't know, because it takes someone at a higher level reading these things, and I don't know whether the message ever got through.
Aaserud:Yes. That's a major question, of course, for a historian, how and to what extent this advice came through, and how to go about finding out that, and — well, with any of these problems that you were involved in, did you follow its process in government after it was given away in the form of reports?
Blankenbecler:No, that was beyond my—I'm sure there were people who were in a better position to follow it, like Sid Drell or Murph Goldberger.
Aaserud:Yes, but was that part of something that JASON could do as an institution, or did they follow it by virtue of their other capacities?
Blankenbecler:I think this was in their other capacities. And if it didn't work, they would come back and JASON would do something appropriate, probably.
Aaserud:Yes. Basically it stopped there for JASON.
Blankenbecler:As far as I was concerned, it stopped there. Although there were other things, like at some point McNamara decided against the ABM deployment, to defend the missile force. And of course everybody felt very good, because they felt like they led to that correct decision. But I doubt very much whether it really had much to do with it. I can't believe it. But people like to be happy, that's fine. But I don't really think it had much to do with it. I don't think decisions are made that logically anyway. But it made us feel good, so we felt like we were doing something useful.
Aaserud:Yes. Well, it made you feel good that the government did something you agreed with anyway, whether—
Blankenbecler:— yes, that's right.
Aaserud:— it was a result of your advice. To what extent did you work with people in JASON that you worked with in physics?
Blankenbecler:Well, that's interesting. At that time I was working with Goldberger quite a lot.
Aaserud:In JASON, as well as —
Blankenbecler:—no, outside. In physics. But when we'd go to the JASON things, we would work with different groups. Our interests were different.
Aaserud:OK, that was not a conscious choice based on your discussion with Wigner.
Blankenbecler:No. No. I think Murph operated very close to the way I would have operated anyway. But it was just natural. It happened that way.
Aaserud:It could avoid the suspicion, of course, that's another way of doing things differently in JASON.
Aaserud:OK, you also had an experience with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
Aaserud:What was the relationship if any between those two experiences, those two activities?
Blankenbecler:Well, I was — there were as I remember it two people in JASON who also happened to be members of the American Alpine Club, and were mountaineers of a sort. Anyway, we knew what a tent was. And not too many members knew what a tent was. But anyway, when this, when the Arms Control Agency, either the Arms Control Agency or at the time it was probably called ARPA, Arms Research Projects Agency, in the DOD, someone—
Aaserud:— which was JASON's largest sponsor.
I see. That sounds right. Someone discovered that, even though it was a fundamental element of US policy, that a test ban had to have inspection, on site inspection, for 20 years, since 1946. No one had ever tried it. And therefore they thought they'd better have an exercise, to see what you can in fact inspect. And how many people, just questions like, how many people does it take to inspect a certain area, and how long do you have to stay there, and what's the effect of weather, and various other things. And no one had ever worried about this. So they decided to have an exercise, and this was held in the Four Corners area near Ship Rock, and near Monticello, Utah. And it was sort of half Indian territory, half Indian territory and half government land, and a lot of ranchers in there.
But the US Geological Survey actually took care of the equipment and getting the group housing up there in the wilderness, and transport of various types and so on. And so we had what was supposed to have been maybe a three or four week exercise, and we had a very large area to try to cover with people, and it was pretty well designed. Anyway, there was a group of people who were the examiners, who went in and put things around in this big area, of various types. There was a buried tank of radioactive, very short life radioactive material, which was buried, and it released this into the atmosphere at a very slow rate, and the question was, could we detect it? Could we find it in this area? They left other things around on the ground, of various technical types, that we might find. And various other clues. It was supposed to be, they had a secret test and then they moved all their equipment out, and we come in, and can we discover that? Such activity really took place. And so, the team itself, there were two members in it and there were inspecctors and I was an inspector. I just went around with a team member and observed them and helped evaluate them after the fact.
And I didn't know what had been put in there or anything like that, so they didn't give clues, so it was a fair test, and after it was all finished, we got together and had quite a nice unveiling of what was going on. It worked pretty well. It ended up quite tragically, though, with a helicopter crash which killed someone, a geologist, and he was from Texas but actually his family was in Santa Barbara, where I ended up living, so I know. But the pilot was hurt, a broken leg, and I think there was a third person, a geologist at SRI who was burned fairly severely. So it really brought the exercise to an end.