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Interview of Edward A. Frieman by Dan
Ford on June 2004,Audio and video interviews about the life and work of Richard Garwin, 2004-2012,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/40912-5
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In this interview Edward Frieman discusses topics such as: Richard Garwin, Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), White House Science Council, Ronald Reagan, Soviet Union.This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.
OK, and your name?
OK. So, tell me what you…
Tell me a bit about what you do and in what context you've known Dick. I know you've worked in plasma physics.
Yeah. I started in plasma physics at Princeton and worked on things like — this is a report that just came out of the National Academy… While I was at Princeton… I guess when JASON first started, I was one of the people who was involved very early on. Murph Goldberger, Ken Watson, Charlie Townes, Johnny Wheeler started this whole project at the time when the Cold War was on, and things were — it was a different political world, so the notion was to try to bring a group of academics together to help, primarily, DOD at that time. It's continued ever since. Dick joined that somewhat later. I think — as I remember it, and I'm a little hazy on this point — that originally there was a notion that anybody who was a member of industry would not be a member of JASON, that there would possibly be some conflict there. So Dick, at that point, was with IBM, even though he was at a very broad mandate from IBM. So he did not join JASON until some time later. I don't remember what year that was.
I think it was '66.
Yeah, that sounds about right. So that's about six years after JASON started. In those years — well, Dick of course was a member of PSAC and had been on just a huge number of panels. A few of us felt that he — we should just wipe away the IBM prescription and just get him on board, that he was too valuable to have to worry about that kind of problem. And he was brought on board. I worked with Dick not in huge detail, but in areas that are somewhat related, if you will. In the early days, Dick was all over the place, and he was a very different individual than he is today. Much more acerbic. When we were in, oh, I guess, classified briefings, when some general got up and said something that Dick thought was not the smartest thing in the world, he got up and let that person know in no uncertain terms that he was sort of an idiot. So this created a trail behind Dick over the years which I think played against him in many ways.
I'll give you an example. In Bush One, I was nominated to be a member — I think I chaired the board that was supposed to recommend winners of the National Medal of Science for the president, and I felt then that Dick was a national treasure for all of the things that he had done, and that he should be listed in the three or four names that went up through the White House. I just got roundly shot down. I'm not sure that Dick, to this day, knows that. I don't know what anyone would do with this information, but I'm revealing it to you. But it was — there was no question of his scientific talent. It was somehow this trait of his which did him in in a group that otherwise thought so highly of Dick. As you know, much to the delight of many of us, he did make it in an administration where you would've thought it wouldn't happen. It meant a great deal.
Over the years Dick and Louis and my wife Joy and I have become best friends. We see each other all the time. We have dinner together. I've got to say, Dick has mellowed to the point where some of his attributes as a human being come forth. He is very caring. There are friends we have who are now widows because their husbands, who were members of JASON or friends, are now departed. And Dick is so kind and so caring in many, many ways that are just not very obvious. I think it's a — put it that way — that attitude is so opposite to the situation that occurred a year ago. It's as if you say, is this the same guy? How does it all fit together? Nevertheless…
Is he just aging?
I believe that it was always there — knowing Dick better now — and that he was younger, he was just so steadfast in pursuing what he believed was best for the country, in a way — Dick is really a true patriot. And the people who tend to denigrate him are, I think, just completely mistaken. Probably it's aging. It's a whole set of factors.
I'm personally glad that it's happened, because when I met him — maybe 35 years ago or so — I was working with Henry Kendall. Do you know Henry? Henry was petrified of him, and when Henry introduced me, he was — you know, you be on your best behavior, and you watch what you say, or you're going to get —
Dick had that. He looked like — he tried to behave like a tiger, but he was really a pussycat with some stripes painted on him. As I say, I think it was always there. It was just paint that was applied. I think the major area where I sought… I think the time when I saw Dick sort of the most exercised —
[change of tapes]
Okay. Let me talk about SDI a little bit, because that's a major issue. And if you'll pardon me, I'll talk a little bit of my own interaction.
I was on the faculty at Princeton, and went to Washington. Jim Schlesinger asked me to come to DOE to become director of energy research. John Deutch was in that job. John was moving over, and I took that and interacted with Dick very much during those years, when we were concerned about energy and what was going on with the oil crisis, etc.
During that time, I got to know Jay Keyworth as he was in at Los Alamos, and Jay then became Reagan's science advisor, and asked me to chair — I left the administration, I got fired by Reagan because I was the wrong color or whatever. So Jay asked me to come to chair the White House Science Council, which is now PCAST. I said, "Jay, you're crazy. I'm a Democrat, and the White House would never approve it. You're just going to create problems for yourself and probably for me also." So he said, "Okay, will you be the vice-chair?" I said okay.
So I was the Vice-Chairman of the White House Science Council through those years. I felt like a spy.
There's an episode of "The West Wing" with the Republican on the staff.
Yeah. But nevertheless, it was an extremely interesting time, and lots of stories. One was the following: I led a study for that group which was along the following lines — there was a strategic modernization program which Reagan announced, which was supposedly to rebuild the defense structure in the US that the Republicans claim was due to Jimmy Carter, blah, blah, blah, but let's not even get into that one. But nevertheless, they were going to rebuild it. And at that time, there were all sorts of issues coming up about laser weapons, etc., in space.
So the task that was given to us was to take all this classified stuff, plus the new things, new technologies, and ask the question, "Would any of these new technologies have any impact on the Reagan strategic modernization buildup." And the modernization buildup, of course, the only way we looked at it was over the term of the presidency of eight years. I came to the conclusion and some of my colleagues, the answer was "No." Those weapons, whatever they were, Brilliant Pebbles whatever, brilliant inventions from Livermore were only on paper, could not play any role.
Edward Teller at that point went into orbit and demanded that my report be suppressed, that this was an incorrect answer, and that — I mean it just created holy hell. In fact, at that point, getting beaten up by Edward Teller was not the most pleasant thing that could happen to one, so I went to see David Packard, who was a member of the [White House Science] Council, and was somebody that I regarded as somebody rational, etc. I said, "David, I need help. I think that this attempt on the part of Edward to scotch this whole thing is wrong. I believe we studied the problem in great detail, and we came to such and such a conclusion. And I think that I need your help in dealing with this." And David said he would do it. And I think he actually went to see the President, and got it turned around.
Now what's the interaction with Dick? Well, during those times, I talked to Dick. I didn’t of course tell him about what was going on with Edward. That was internal White House stuff. But I tried to get from him as much as I could, and his assessment of the technology to see whether the conclusion that we were stating that there was no way that any of those weapons could influence strategic modernization over these years, whether that was in fact a correct statement or not. So we had these discussions. I relied on Dick. And the discussions weren't long, where he'd sit down and lecture me. It was, I'd see him in the hall and I'd ask a question, or we'd discuss it over dinner or whatever. But I can only tell you from my perspective, having Dick's imprimatur on what these weapons meant, etc., etc., was incredibly important, because I trusted his judgment on these scientific and technological issues really far above almost anybody else.
The next phase of this is that I'd been at a meeting of the White House Science Council on a Friday and came home here to La Jolla. And I got a call, I think it was the next morning, Saturday, from Sol Buchsbaum, and it said, "Come back to Washington, today." And I said, "What's going on?" And he said, "There's really something important happening?" And I said, "Well, how high is this?" And he said, "The highest." That meant that we were dealing with something with Reagan. So I told my wife, "I've got to go back to Washington. I have some meeting at the White House. I don't know what the hell I'm doing, and why I'm going." But she said, "Do you have a clean shirt?" I said yes, so off I went.
When I got there, Jay Keyworth hands me this thing, and it was Reagan's SDI speech.
This was where he invited all sorts of scientists to sit there …
All sorts of them, yeah, but all sorts. Yeah, that's right. We spent the weekend massaging that speech.
This is all now a matter of public record. It's been written, I think.
So the most egregious stuff, we're trying to blueline it, and then send it back to the National Security Council where a bunch of weenies would put it back in. And we were at this all weekend long, back and forth and back and forth. I should say we lost most of what we were trying to get rid of. And we went to, were invited to this White House do where there were 50, 60 people. Edward, of course was there. Panofsky was there.
Bethe was there, I think?
I'm not sure I remember Hans. He may have been there. But I was sitting next to George Shultz. He had never heard of this. Nor had Caspar Weinberger. This whole goddamned thing was carried out in absolute secrecy. It was a — I don't know how to describe it. It was just a screwball event.
Shultz and Weinberger were the Secretary of State and —
The Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense. Weinberger knew a little bit. He was in Portugal. So they were sending him some stuff, so he had some notion of what was going to happen. I don't think he had seen the details. I remember standing in Jay Keyworth's office at one o’clock in the morning, and this whole thing was unfolding, and he came in with the cables. He said they were sending a cable to Maggie Thatcher, telling her what was going to happen. They all called her Attila the Hen. I mean it was a wild scene.
And we subsequently talked to Reagan about it. He was — we said, "We don't know how to do this." It didn't make any difference. He said, "I need to protect my country." All the words.
You know, I won't go on and on; there's lots to this story. Dick DeLauer was then the Under Secretary of the DOD. He was a guy I knew. He was very good, and clearly thought that this was just a bunch of trash. So following the speech, there was this huge group of people brought together under DOD auspices, one group after another to study it. And Dick was all over the place in those things, and just tore every argument to shreds. It finally got to the point where Dick and a few people were really arguing (over how you carried out an integration) with some of the guys at Los Alamos, particularly Greg Canavan. He's an interesting character, because Greg and Dick have interacted over the years in various ways.
Greg is at Los Alamos now. And Greg — there were arguments, but clearly they were a set of technical arguments. Would this laser do that? And then it got into countermeasures and counter-counter measures. It just became an incredibly complicated mess technically, plus there were systems studies — if we did this, they did that and on and on and on. And in these systems studies, people were looking for shortcut ways. You could stick this on a big computer simulation and get some answers, and people say, "Can I construct a back of the envelope picture of this, which would encapsulate the whole thing?"
And in fact, Greg Canavan did that; Greg is very smart, but wrong. And Dick also did it. They would get into arguments, some of which appeared in Physics Today about how you do these integrations and all sorts of things. But I would say that Dick's role in trying to bring some scientific credibility to showing that this was not a way to solve the world's problems was crucial. He wrote about it. He was all over the place. He was on one panel after another. And in fact, he gave the administration fits because he was deadly opposed to this; thought it was wrong; thought it would etc., etc., and he would… it didn't bring it to an end, clearly, because these current guys are building a system we don't need, and it won't work, but other than that, it's all fine.
I don't know the total suite of what Dick did then; I saw it from my perspective. But I think it was critical — looking back on it — I'm going to say something, which I think it should be off the record because I don't know what I'm saying at the moment. But let me say it so that it's in your head. So we're off the record.
The story was given at the time of the collapse of the Soviet Union that the pursuit of SDI was one of the reasons for the collapse. And you will find a great deal of debate over this issue, amongst arms controllers and so on, and whether this is a true statement or not. But one person that I talked to, and I think Dick has also, we both know, is Roald Sagdeev. I knew Roald when he used to come and stay with me at Princeton, because we started out in the same racket[plasma physics]. So I remember once, I gave him a Princeton tie, and then I see him on television in Vienna sitting next to Gorbachev wearing the tie with the tigers on it.
But nonetheless, after it was all over, I talked to Roald, because this debate was going on. I said, "You know, Dick and I and others were trying to stop all of this." And he said, "How did you guys react?" Is there some truth to this statement that SDI had this effect? And he said, "I've got to tell you…." Roald led the Soviet effort to counter SDI. He said, "You guys oversold it, but we overbought it." Which I think seems to be the trend.
So after this was all over, Roald was here. He got married to Susan Eisenhower. They cleaned him up, and sent him around. He said he went to Los Alamos and talked to the guys there, in particular, Greg Canavan. And he asked the guys at Los Alamos, "Well, who's the enemy?" And they said, "Oh, it's Livermore."
[Off the record content removed from online transcript]
Just to give you my own opinion —
I was actually involved with Dick when some of the Star Wars…
I thought you might have been.
I helped make a television commercial that one time Dick and the Union of Concerned Scientists issued a statement by Dick and Bethe and all that. I said if you just have a piece of paper that's nothing, why don't we make a little television commercial? The UCS only had enough money to put it on the air in Washington. But the press didn't know that. And so all the networks picked it up and replayed it on national television.
That helped a lot, too. Before that commercial, it was always the Reagan Star Wars program. After that commercial, it was always referred to as "the controversial Reagan Star Wars"… it just took one word to change the tenor of the debate. But the more substantive thing is this whole business that we helped bring about the collapse of the Soviet Union.
It's very debatable.
I wrote for the New Yorker the first detailed study of Gorbachev’s economic plan. I spent a couple of months in Russia in 1987. I went around interviewing all of the leading economists in the country. And I went in particular to Novosibirsk, which was the institute where Gorbachev had picked Aganbegyan and different advisors. And the main thing that I learned was that all of these reform programs, and trying to make a switch to a capitalist-like economy, that all began in the mid-1960s, and that it had been obvious to the Soviet leadership and the up-and-coming, the Gorbachev age, part of it that this system doesn't work at all, and it's a shipwreck of a system and it just has to be changed.
But our analysts didn't know that.
That is again a question. Because anyone who walks down the street in Moscow can see that this is a third-world country. And the CIA estimates of the Soviet gross national product and all of that were totally ludicrous. It had a GNP per capita on the level of Mexico, whereas according to the CIA estimates, it was on the level of England. I think that the two, the three biggest things that did them in were Afghanistan, Chernobyl, and the biggest mistake in the history of their central planning was the development of the West Siberian oil fields, because they were under the impression – this is in the late-1960s - that the Baku fields were running out, and there had been this huge discovery in Samotlor. Within a space of 15 years, they essentially relocated the whole oil industry from Baku to Tyumen and Western Siberia, etc.
There was a very good book on this by Joseph Stanislaw, I think his name was. He has a consulting company called Cambridge Energy.
Yeah, with Dan Yergin.
At any rate, that study said that basically something like 40 percent of all the domestic investment in the country was in the West Siberian oil fields. Every other branch of industry was just falling apart. If the Soviets had joined OPEC and hadn't had Chernobyl, and if they had had better geologists, because Baku was not running out. If they had just going out into the Caspian…
But see, what you're saying is a much more rational view of this and that it was basically the economic structure was just failing, and these Reagan guys didn't think of that all. The CIA analysts were nowhere. And it was all this military defense etc. etc. structure, and that's what they were focused on.
In the course of doing my research on the article. I went and I met all of the leading Russian experts on the Russian economy. But I also met all the leading American experts on the Russian economy. The American experts mostly worked for the CIA or the State Department or something like that. And they knew nothing. And even he wasn't an economist, but this Ulam, the head of the Russian Research Center at Harvard, and wrote the famous biography of Stalin.
This is Adam Ulam?
Yeah. I was talking with one of the people at the Russian Research Project, and by this time I had made dozens of trips of different parts of the Soviet Union or whatever, and this guy at the Russian Research Project at Harvard tells me, "I'll tell you a big secret. I'm a director that's never been there." And he refuses to go because he doesn't want his view**overtalk** to change, but it seems he wants to live in this historical period of Stalin. He finally did go, but I found that just mindboggling.
The very first trip that I made to Russia, I had read the New York Times correspondent in Moscow, Hedrick Smith — he wrote a book in 1976 called The Russians, which was an excellent book. To me, that was one of the most eye-opening things that I ever read because he's describing this third-world country and blah, blah, blah, and you can't find a light bulb. There's such a shortage of windshield wipers that people keep them inside the car. So obviously, we had diplomats and people on the ground there. You didn't have to hire a spy. And we knew that this was a wreck and a ruin. My personal position on the arms race, I'm not going to go into the psychological dynamics, but I thought that the cruelest thing to do to the Soviet Union was just to announce that we're quitting. You're not a worthy opponent. You're so far behind, and you're a terrible outfit and you're a big threat to your own people and to the other countries that you've put your foot on. But as far as we're concerned, our official policy will be one of benign neglect.
That's too clever.
But you know, the point you're making is that our self-delusion here led us through those years to focus on the wrong things, and we're doing it all over again.
But this also comes back to the question I had about Dick. He's continued for much of this period to be occupied by all the details of these technologies and do they work, and don't they work, and whatever. And I just wonder — was this really a waste of his time? Weren't there much more important things that he could be working on; if in fact this Soviet threat is completely misdiagnosed and all that — if he's decided that’s the case, then what the Star Wars has done or not done, it doesn't make terribly much difference.
You're asking a very good question as to whether he rose above it and looked at an overarching structure of what this was all about. I can only answer this in a limited fashion, but Dick has been a member of CISAC for many years. I was a member for a few years, and overlapped him. But in that capacity, they have addressed some of these issues, but not in the larger geopolitical sense. He's not that kind of a guy. Is he wasting his time because he hasn't addressed them? I would say no, in the sense that Dick is a true technologist. He's presented with a problem, and he will come up with clever answers. I don't think anybody has presented to him the problem, "Here I've got the world and I've got this to do, so fix it." It's not his thing. We don't know how to translate into…
I'll give you an example. I tease Dick all the time. He came to our house, when we had a big house up on the hill here. We had a swimming pool, and in the swimming pool is one of those crawlers that goes around and sweeps it all up. And it wasn't working. So Dick [demonstrates action]. I said, "Dick, leave it alone." No. He grabs it, yanks it out of the water. I mean the thing — he broke it. He can't resist it. He's just drawn to these things.
Another time, we were at his house, and Joyce, my wife, said to him, "There's something wrong. We can't hear the doorbell at the back of the house." He said, "I know. You buy this at the Radio Shack. You plug it in, you press the bell and you can hear." He has answers for everything; if you want to fix your stove, your dishwasher…
I used to like it when Henry Kendall would come to my house. I'd be cooking and he would say, "That knife isn't sharp enough." And he used to carry little sharpeners, and he would go to sharpen all the knives. And then the pan would have a loose handle, and he would go, "Where's your tool box?" I said, "I don't know." And he'd say, "You have to find it. You can't leave your poor little pan like that."
I think the only area where I've seen Dick rise above the pure technology is in energy. He's really done some very serious thinking about that. But he goes from time to time; his interests these days are really very much focused on defense and intelligence-related things. And as you know, in the classified arena, he's done really spectacular stuff. It was that which I was trying to get recognition for him, where I failed, because he had made so many enemies in the administration.
But he's a phenomenon; you just have to take him for what he is.
How am I going to deal with all the classified stuff that he's done? I know he's worked on things that float in the sky. Is there any unclassified — I haven't talked with him much in detail about it because he doesn't want to talk about it.
Dick must have voluminous files. And I know it's probably a pain to go through them, but I suspect that just going through his files, you would get some sense of what that's all about. I don't know any other source at this point, myself. I've served on some of these committees with him from time to time. He always has something to contribute to make things better. And when he sees things that are being done that are stupid, he tries to stop them. I guess a bunch of us questioned him when he got involved with Rumsfeld, just before Rumsfeld went into the administration. Maybe he's sorry he did now.
Rumsfeld's a funny character. I was with Rumsfeld in a meeting at Aspen six or eight months before he went into the administration. And the meeting was on corporate social responsibility, and you would have thought this guy was a communist. In those social areas, very different. Many of these people have different sectors. You look at them this way, it's like Rashomon. I think that, to a certain extent, Dick is like that.
It's just that they've [Lois & Dick] been to China together many times, and Dick as a leader, etc., was just extraordinarily kind to Wendy. They became friends. They decided that they were going to take this boat trip down the river before they flooded the whole thing. I think they were on the last trip down. And Dick and Lois just took Wendy under their wing. It's an extraordinarily kind thing to do. We find them, now, just pleasant. We met in Paris a month or so ago, and went out to dinner together, and just had a fine time.