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Credit: Eva Zimmerman
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Interview of Peter Zimmerman by David Zierler on March 19, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Interview with Peter Zimmerman, Emeritus Professor of Science and Security in the War Studies Department, King’s College London. Zimmerman recounts his upbringing in Wisconsin and then New Mexico in support of his father’s work in civilian and military defense, and he describes his early interests in science. He discusses his undergraduate experience at Stanford and the influence of Walter Meyerhof, and his decision to remain at Stanford for graduate school. Zimmerman discusses his postdoctoral appointments at DESY and then Fermilab until his first faculty appointment at LSU. He explains his involvement with the nuclear issues at the federal level in the 1970s and his offer to join the ACDA. Zimmerman discusses his opposition to strategic missile defense and he explains how his policy analysis work at the Carnegie Endowment filtered its way into policymaking. He describes the debates around ending nuclear testing and his interest in looking at nuclear weapons in the context of international terrorism. Zimmerman explains the negative security ramifications of the ACDA being folded into the Department of State and he explains his move to become Chief Scientist of Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He describes the scene in Washington on 9/11 and the subsequent anthrax attacks in Congress, and he explains why he never believed that Saddam Hussein had a WMD capability before the Iraq War. Zimmerman discusses his professorship in London and his opportunity to create a new center on science and security, and he shares his perspective on the JCPOA and what bothered him the most about Trump’s foreign policy decisions. At the end of the interview, Zimmerman reflects on how to best translate scientific analysis into good policy outcomes, and why a lack of public interest or media coverage should never make us lose sight of ongoing security threats.
OK, this is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 19th, 2021. I’m delighted to be here with Dr. Peter Zimmerman. Pete, it’s good to see you. Thank you for joining me.
Thank you for inviting me. A pleasure.
To start, would you please tell me your current or most recent title and institutional affiliation?
Well, my most recent is Emeritus Professor of Science and Security in the War Studies Department at King’s College, London.
When did you go…?
I very briefly held a position with the Homeland Security Institute here in town, but I so disliked the place that I resigned.
[laugh] When did you go Emeritus, Pete?
On my 66th birthday.
And what year was that?
Actually, in August after that, which was ’41 and 66, so 2007.
Pete, in what ways have you remained active in physics or policy, or are you enjoying a true retirement?
I am not completely retired. I’m not making any money, but I’m doing a lot of reading, writing. I stayed pretty active for the first year or two after I returned from London. But then I got sick, I got really sick, and I lost pretty much three or four years. I got an extremely rare cancer in the salivary gland, which may be radiation caused. I’m going to be filing a case with the DOE for their compensation because I spent an appropriate amount of time at the Nevada Test Site during an era when testing was going on, and a solid cancer—that particular solid cancer is something that they consider very likely radiation caused.
What were you doing? What were you around that gives you this suspicion?
[laugh] Well, in 1959, the summer after I graduated from high school, I got a job at the site working for one of the contractors, Reynolds Electric and Engineering, REECo. I was in the tool crib, handing out monkey wrenches and other strange tools that they used in the construction of test site facilities. That was actually, well, one of the periods that kind of marked everything else for the rest of my life, in that once my clearance came through, I got to tour the forward area where the testing was going on, and it scared me.
You look at…in those days, we hadn’t done a lot of underground testing, I should say, so there weren’t the kind of lunar craters that you see today. There was only the ground zeroes from tower shots and balloon shots and air drops and so on. And there were then of course the tunnel shots under Rainier Mesa, which were mostly weapons effects tests. I found that out 50 years afterwards. I didn’t find that out at the time.
But you go around, and you see all these buildings that they built to blow up. There’s a very famous Mosler Safe that’s out in Frenchman’s Flats. For whatever goddamn reason, somebody wanted to know if the bank vaults of this country would survive a nuclear attack, and whether or not they could get the doors open, and then have paper money to hand out to restart the economy [laugh]. So Mosler provided—probably bought—sold to the AEC a big safe.
They weren’t going to have any trouble opening it [laugh]. Let’s just say that. The door was pretty badly warped and a lock broken, the thing tumbled, and I don’t know how far it may have rolled, or if it did roll. But there’s this busted up safe. And there’s a viaduct bridge that is sort of like a railroad bridge or a big crossing at an interstate, and I’m sure you’ve seen pictures of it. But when you see a foot-high I-beam, solid steel, and it’s bent like spaghetti, it’s really impressive if you’re 18 years old.
And I was, and I can still picture it. Of course, I’ve been back. I’ve seen it many times since then. Interestingly, it was all riveted together. And if you go wandering around, even today where we’re probably 60 years after the test, you can still find rivets that were popped off and broken all over the area surrounding the bridge. And, of course, they’re the familiar shots that you’ve seen in Civil Defense and Duck and Cover movies of those frame houses and brick houses and concrete houses that were just blasted.
And, as I say, as a kid, at age 18, it’s very, very impressive. So I didn’t do anything nuclear on that job, but I sure did a lot of sightseeing [laugh]. I also got to see the world’s first nuclear rocket engine, the Project Kiwi, Kiwi A or—was out of its shed, and had been rolled out onto the railroad tracks as we drove by it once.
So I got to see this great big barrel of steel with the pipes all around it, and a little tiny nozzle up at the top. Well, it looked tiny. I don’t know how big it is. I’m sure if I go back and look at the open literature, I can find blueprints or at least sketches of the power plant. It’s a great shame we gave that up.
Why? Because we probably could lift bigger payloads further and faster to Mars or to Jupiter or anyplace else you want to go. I don’t think there was a lot of chance that it was going to take people, just because the weight of the radiation shielding. The idea was you could launch it into space, put it in orbit, and then start the reactor. You wouldn’t launch under nuclear power from the Earth. I think that that’s a little risky, given particularly the number of rocket failures we had in the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Peter, a more present question, in the pandemic, how have you fared? Has it been productive for you? Has this been difficult in terms of your work and your collaborations?
Well, it, look, it’s obviously been difficult, you know. Nobody should say it hasn’t. But, at the same time, I spent from February of last year through January 20th or thereabouts volunteering in one way or another for the President, so—the current President. I wrote a lot of papers. I wrote a lot of op-eds that get published around the country at their request, I mean, specifically tailored things. And as far as thinking, I’m trying to put together a paper on what I think they ought to do with CTBT.
Later on, we’ll get to why I’m interested in CTBT, and what connection I had with it. But it’s one of my pets to try and get that thing entered into force, ratified by the US. It’s a, I think, still a very important treaty to get in force. So I’ve done—I’ve kept my mind going.
The last week in February, I got a call from one of my colleagues who was also a staffer at the Foreign Relations Committee, and was working with the campaign, saying, “We need a sanity check. We’ve been told that you can have a quarter of a million dead, and can you check it?” I said, “Well, I’m no epidemiologist, right. The last bio course I had was high school biology.” On the other hand, I did put together the Senate hearings on plague and anthrax and so on, so I’m not without resources.
And when you sit down and think about it, until vaccination and herd immunity and so on kick in, it’s a chain reaction. And the math is almost identical—just change the symbols to the ones the biologists use—to a nuclear chain reaction, and this I know how to do [laugh]. So over the course of a few hours, I ran out some approximations, and I said—you know, recognize I’m making some assumptions, recognize that I’m no expert, and this is simplified—I said, “I think if you have—if we’re lucky, we’ll only have a quarter of a million dead by election day.”
We weren’t so lucky.
We’re 240,000, I don’t think that’s too bad an estimate.
On the other hand, it need not have been that high by any means.
Nor should it have doubled since then.
Nor should it have doubled since then. The thing is, as Mike Osterholm at University of Minnesota has been preaching for two decades that I know of, and Laurie Garrett for longer than that, this was going to happen. We knew this was going to happen. Anybody who understood the least bit about infectious diseases and the 1918-1919 plague knew that at some point we would get a virus against which we were defenseless because it was a new one.
Nobody had been exposed to it. Nobody had any immunity. It was going to run wild. We’d seen a few of them, but none of them quite as vicious as COVID-19. [pause] So I’ve kept busy. It’s really been a problem not having the ability to go talk to people in person. Picking up the phone is just not as good.
Yeah, politically or scientifically, you mean?
Yeah, I mean it in any way you want to think about it because the communication between people isn’t to say you don’t—and you have to schedule it. And there’s a general feeling on a Zoom call that this is for business. Now it’s not true. When I want to my kids, and they’re [laugh]—my son and his wife are in Geneva, yes, we have to schedule it, and we spend an hour or so on a Sunday talking. But to do business, it’s harder.
I can’t tell you—I’m not a psychologist either. I can’t tell you what the real reasons why it’s harder. But it seems to me that the communication isn’t as tight. Even though I can see your face and at least get body language, which is better than just an audio phone call, and it’s harder, although, yes, you can do screen-sharing and all that nonsense, you can’t easily look at the same piece of paper.
You have to first load it into your machine. So I’d rather we got past this.
Are you fully vaccinated?
Have been for a month. Have been for a month.
Age and illness, and between those two, Fairfax County put me and my wife near the top of the line.
So our second vax was sometime in February.
Let’s talk about happier times probably. Let’s go all the way back to Virginia and before that. Let me hear about your parents, and where they’re from.
I don’t know what you want to know about my parents, but Jesse and Rosalie Zimmerman, they got married—’41 minus 7—so about 1934. They really had to get married because seven years later, I came along. We didn’t know much about fertility in those days, and—
—there wasn’t much they could do, and just—I’m their only kid. I was born in Virginia.
Are your parents from Virginia?
My mother was from Dallas, my father from Indianapolis. My mother’s family secrets—my mother—my grandmother and maternal grandfather were divorced because he was a wife-beater. They moved to Chicago. My grandmother met the man who is not my biological grandfather but certainly was Grandpa in all other respects, who was wonderful. They married. My mother and dad got married.
I’m not—they were introduced by the wife of a very, very distinguished mechanical engineer, Maurice Zukrow, Z-u-c-r-o-w, for whom the rocket lab at Purdue University is named. He and his wife were kind of hosts to all the Jewish undergrads at Purdue back in the late ’20s, and, for some reason, Lil arranged for my mother and father to meet. And they were married until he died at about 83 or 82, something like that. So they were married well over 50 years.
Dad saw the storm clouds in 1938-39, and volunteered for a Navy Reserve Commission as a civil engineering corps officer, and he was at what is now, and may have been called that then, Naval Station Norfolk. And I was born in the Portsmouth Naval Hospital across the river from the, well, from Norfolk City. And we lived there until I was something around the order of 6 months. This was the summer and fall of 1941.
So, you can imagine he got transferred to the Providence, Rhode Island area when I was an infant. So while I claim—because it’s really useful in this state—that I am a native son of the Commonwealth, and it’s perfectly true, I have no memories of it. It was on the birth certificate, but—and he spent the war years shuffling back and forth, building naval air stations on the East Coast. The last one he built was Banana River Naval Air Station, Cocoa Beach, Florida. It’s now called Patrick Air Force Base, and it’s the headquarters for the Cape.
Pete, do you have any really early memories of the war, maybe the end of it, VE Day—
Yes, the first memory I have that is clear, and I know I’m not making it up or because I heard it or anything, is one August day in 1945 being incredibly happy because my mother is incredibly happy because Truman dropped the bomb. And my dad at that point was no longer going to be building airfields in this country. He was shifted over to being a CB officer, and was going to lead a crew into Japan. And it became obvious that he wasn’t going to have to go. So everybody in the family was deliriously happy, and that is what I remember.
Not to put you on the psychologist’s couch, but do you think that memory in some way had anything to do with you later interests in nuclear physics?
No, not in nuclear physics at all, but in arms control absolutely. Nuclear physics, I got interested in it—well, first, the bomb was the great physics achievement of the last century, and that was nuclear physics. And any kid going in as an experimentalist who was going to work hard might very well have been captivated by the tools that are used, the techniques, the theory, how it works. And if he’s lucky enough to have made friends with the man who won the Noble Prize in nuclear physics, maybe that accounts for most of it. And my advisor, Bob Hofstadter did win the ’61, or share in the ’61 Nobel, so I…he led me into it. And, let’s face it, that’s where the trigger came.
Pete, where did you grow up? Where did you spend most of your childhood?
Two places: Madison, Wisconsin from age 5 to age 11; and Albuquerque until I graduated from high school.
What brought your parents to Wisconsin?
This was 1945-46. Dad got a job with what was then the Civil Aeronautics Administration, building airports.
This was a federal job?
Yeah. The Congress appropriated a lot of money to open up airfields in small towns that otherwise would not have an airport or scheduled transport. And so he hopped around the state of Wisconsin as the—I don’t know what the title was—district engineer or something, convincing small cities that they should accept the federal money, and build themselves an airport.
Come ’52 or, no, come ’53, CAA wanted to consolidate offices, and move him to Minneapolis. My mother couldn’t stand cold weather for medical reasons. So he went looking for a warm weather job. And he wanted to go to New Mexico or Arizona, someplace where it was warm but not tropical. Having spent some time in Florida, he didn’t want to go live in Florida.
Pete, what are some memories about Madison that stick out for you?
[cough] I guess you could say I was a gifted kid. I got into a program the public schools and the university had together called the Summer Lab School, a laboratory school, which was a summer enrichment program for kids interested in studying instead of playing all summer long. So it was a half day or something like that, morning till early afternoon, and they had a guy there who was a biology professor at the university, and he was really inspiring to the kids, and got me interested in doing science.
Also, I had a—had some funny experience. I should say I also had a wonderful kindergarten teacher with whom I kept in touch until she died. But when we first got there in early ’46 or late ’45 after the war ended, there was no housing. There were no…very few houses for sale, and no place to rent, and we were kind of nomads moving between hotel rooms in some of the hotels downtown.
And a couple of nights ago, there was something on PBS News in which they were interviewing people in various parts of the country, and they had a shot of the capital in Madison, and I—this is within two weeks. And I yelled to my wife, “You see that building on the right? That’s where we used to stay.” I hadn’t seen it or recognized it in god knows.
I did go back on a business trip in probably the ’90s to see their synchrotron light source, and I realized that driving around the place, once I got inside where the new expansion of the city was, I could drive anywhere I wanted to go without looking at a map. And I hadn’t been there since I was 11 years old. Go figure. The brain does funny things.
And I should’ve looked at my SF86. I might’ve been 12 years old when I left it, but it was something…I finished sixth grade there and left.
What was the job that brought your father to Albuquerque?
Well, that’s a good question because, at the time, I didn’t know. In later years, I was able to dope it out from his records and my memories and things that happened in my professional life. He was supervising storage sites for special weapons for what was then the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. Then it became several different iterations, became—ah, I can’t remember—Defense Atomic Support Agency, and then Defense Nuclear Agency, and finally it’s now Defense Threat Reduction Agency—
Did he retain his clearances all the way from the war?
No, they…besides, during the war, a typical clearance was not very high. I mean, a secret clearance would be all he would ever have had then.
But this would’ve been obviously Q clearance stuff in New Mexico.
Mm-hmm, and TS-Q and what the Military version of Q—I can’t remember it right now…I’ve held that too. And then he competed for and got a promotion and a job as—the Atomic Energy Commission had a manufacturing, refurbishing, and storage site just outside of Albuquerque, and it was called Manzano Base. And many, many, many years later, I was at Kirtland at the Defense Nuclear Agency. That’s what it was before being DTRA.
I was at DNA, and I asked my host. I said, “I know they’ve relocated the weapons. Is it still safe to go in the tunnels? And if so, do I have the clearances that would let you take me in because”—and then I gave him my family history. And he said, “Sure, get in the car. Let’s go.”
So we got in the car, his car, his government vehicle, and we drove out to the fence line at Manzano, and we showed our badges, and got through the fence line, and he went driving up the hill to a part of it that I’d never been, and parked, and we walked in. And I understood then some of the tensions in my household when I was young. There was a corridor, it goes in from the adit into the mountain, finishes up in a T. To one side is where they kept the pits; to the other side is where they kept the bomb that used the pits.
We had used insertable nuclear components then. Between the two, on the T, were two guard rooms. On the pit side—which was on the left, as I remember, but that could be wrong—on the pit side there was an Atomic Energy Commission guard force sitting there armed and ready. On the Air Force side, there was an Air Force guard force sitting there armed and ready in case somebody from the other group wanted to snag either a bomb or a pit, and put them together.
And so you’re in this situation where you have two American guard forces hostile to one another whose sole reason for being is to keep the other guy from walking in and taking a bomb or the pit. And I think living with that in your household must’ve been hard because he couldn’t tell my mother. He couldn’t tell me. He couldn’t tell the neighbors. He just had to keep it in.
Now amusingly—and I was the only kid in my class with this piece of paper—there was a very nice swimming pool at Manzano Base, and almost nobody used it. It wasn’t like the officer’s club pool at—well, it was called Sandia Base then because what is now Kirtland AFB was two bases then. You remember that.
The O club at Sandia had a nice pool, but it was crowded in the summers with all the little kids and so on. So, my dad could work wonders. He got my mom and me gate passes for Manzano so we could go swim up there and bring our friends if we wanted to. [laugh]
I do remember driving that long road from Sandia to Manzano, and seeing what the signs warned you about at either end of the road that if you see a convoy coming, you were to pull off the road, and turn facing away from the road, out to the mesa, and let the convoy go by you without looking at it. And so one day, there’s the flashing red lights and the flashing white lights and the sounds of a siren, and a military police-type vehicle goes by, and then you can tell from the sound, just the whoosh, there’s a heavy vehicle, whatever it was, that went by. And then the parade ended with one more escort vehicle, and I went on to go swimming. Not many kids have had that experience.
[laugh] Pete, did you keep up with your interest in science and advanced education during the Albuquerque years?
Well, I was a teenager. That’s when I got started. But I have to tell you a little more about the tunnels in Manzano. It’s not generally known, though I suspect you do, that that was one of the emergency government relocation places.
But I’ve been in there, and I’ve seen it. There was this office with a bubble-glass door. It had a wooden door with bubbly glass like you might see in a 1940s office building downtown in Madison, and gold leaf that said “President of the United States” on it. They opened the door, and there was a desk and a couch and a couple of chairs.
Obviously, it hadn’t been used in a long time, and it had never been used for—across the hall, there was a pair of double doors, and on that it said, “Congress of the United States”—not Senate, not House; Congress. And you’d open it up, and there’s room in this little auditorium for maybe 100 people. We didn’t hang around long enough for me to count the chairs but, you know, it looked like about 5 rows of 20, something like that. Podium down front. And that’s what we were going to try and survive on if—govern from. And, again, for my dad, that must’ve been really hard because he was in charge of keeping it in good shape against an eventuality that I’m…nobody ever wanted to have that happen.
But, yeah, I was in a whole lot of science classes. I’d seen a movie in my junior high, ninth grade general science class that showed a discharge in a low-pressure glass tube, high-voltage discharge in a hydrogen-filled tube. And I got it through my mind that I wanted to build one of those. So my ninth grade science teacher—if you google him, you’ll find him—his name was George Fischbeck, and if you lived on the West Coast anytime 20 years ago, he was the Channel 7 weatherman.
He got a PhD, and didn’t want to teach general science anymore, and was a really good public educator. And he wound up being a very popular and famous weather broadcaster, weather telecaster on Channel 7 in LA until he finally retired at some old age. I’m sure he’s gone now; has been for a long time.
But, as my bio will show, back in ’71, ’72, we lived in LA, and I saw him on television. I said, “No, this cannot be.” So I called the station, and the woman said, “Well, he gets so many calls from former students, he almost never has time to call them back, but I’ll give him your name.” I don’t think an hour passed before I got a phone call back, and we saw each other for dinner and lunch and such several times in the next few years.
I did do the glass blowing to make this discharge too, and then I got really excited. I was—the reason I was able to do it is Fischbeck called somebody at the University of New Mexico, and got a chemistry professor who was an expert at glass blowing to help me on Saturdays. So every Saturday for months and months and months, I spent down there learning this black art of glass blowing, and I built a…we never did have an opportunity to make it work, and test it.
We built a Roentgen-style X-ray tube, and a discharge tube with a beam in it, and a fluorescent plate, so that you could get a glowing beam along this zinc sulfide coated piece of glass, and then you could bring a magnet in, and learn for yourself, discover for yourself, that magnetic forces operated perpendicular to velocity, which is not obvious in your basic junior high science class. But I took the magnet, and, yeah, that’s [laugh]—I must say, I didn’t know any vector calculus. I couldn’t say it was v cross B. I got to admit I didn’t get that far.
Entered it in the science fair for the state of New Mexico, got a participation certificate; no prize, no nothing. Finally, I got told they didn’t believe I’d done it. They thought somebody else had built it for me. My teacher tried to explain that “every joint in the glass, every wire put into it, everything he did himself.” They said, “It can’t be. No ninth-grader could do that.”
Did it matter in my longer career? Hell, no. My parents tried to let me down easy, and my mother said, “Oh, you really would be a better lawyer than a scientist anyway, so be a lawyer.” In some crazy sense, you know, I have done the verbal kinds of reasoning as well, and legal kinds of reasoning when I was doing treaty negotiations.
So, I went to high school there—had a good friend by the name of Murray Katz, who died a few years ago of liver cancer, I think it was, or pan…yeah, liver cancer, not pancreas. He was a nephrologist at the University of Arizona and the Vets Hospital. And he and I were in our senior year physics class, and, finally, we had to take our physics teacher aside, and say, “Mr. Simms,” or Mr. Jones or whatever the hell it was, “you’re not doing the dot product of two vectors correctly.” [laugh] Two high school seniors telling a teacher he’s wrong. He was. He didn’t know what he was doing.
He was applying—he called it the cosine formula. But everybody in that class…well, no, not everybody. I would say a dozen of us in that class out of the 35 were really interested in science, and we dug into all kinds of things on our own that weren’t in that class. So, yeah, that was fun. Right after Sputnik, our parents arranged a private supplementary night class in calculus. The year after that the school offered one.
And for other activities, I stayed in scouting, became an Explorer Scout, which was—then was very different than it is today. Wound up making Eagle Scout, and the explorer equivalent of it. [Oh, dear, Biden is doing 100% fine, it says, after tripping on his way into Air Force One.]
He has trouble with his feet the way I do: trip, trip every—and that led to something which I will not go into any detail on. There was a contest in the Scouting Council. One of our benefactors owned a steamship line. And every year, he would give two new Eagle Scouts a cruise on one of his freighters.
And I and one of my best friends made the trip from Galveston to Quebec and back. It wasn’t as much fun…it didn’t start out as much fun as it finished because the ship was a Norwegian breakbulk carrier and was loaded with powdered sulfur. You can’t imagine how unpleasant it is to have sulfur dust drifting around the ship, blowing off the decks for the first several days until you get a good rainstorm to get rid of it. The crew was used to it. They used to shuffle sulfur to Canada, and newsprint back to Texas. But that made me—that gave me a love for being on a large ship at sea.
My wife and I had a nice cruise planned for last summer [laugh]. So much for that. We’re not through. We don’t want to risk it this summer. Maybe the summer after. I’m an Arctic junkie, and my wife wants to see Greenland. I’ve been there once.
She said, “Let’s take a cruise to Greenland.” So that will be fun. We will get to do it. We won’t see as much of the island as I got to see because I was there on government business to go up to Thule to see the Phased Array Radar.
Pete, when you were thinking—
—when you were thinking about college, was it physics specifically? Did you know you wanted to major in physics?
From day zero, absolute. Originally, I wanted to emulate Maurie Zucrow, who was a dear family friend in addition to being the founding godfather of the family, and build big rockets. But Maurie said, “Don’t major in engineering, for goodness sake, major in physics. And then if you really want to do rockets, shift over in grad school.” Well, I majored in physics.
My sophomore year, Walter Meyerhof taught modern physics—physics 57 I think, at Stanford. I don’t know what the numbers are now. Who can keep track? Intro to modern physics, baby quantum and relativity, I was hooked. I never wanted to do anything else again. Actually, I don’t know what contacts you have with Physics Today, but Charles Day just turned in an editorial for the next issue, I think, in which I get featured.
Oh, I’ll look forward to reading it.
And Martha at AIP and I—Marty and I just finished last week the final clean-up on a letter to the editor that I wrote that will get published soon—and that goes back to studying physics and majoring in physics. It’s freshman year, winter quarter, first-term physics with calculus. Leonard Schiff is the professor. Leonard believed that the senior people in the department should teach the baby courses because they understood it better than anybody else, and they might be an inspiration to the students.
And the very first day, somebody—and I will promise you it was not I. Leonard was telling us the difference between basic research and applied research; fundamental physics and applied physics. And some kid sticks up his hand, and asks, “But, sir, what is physics?” I know he’d never been asked that question that way before. And he paused and he stopped and he said, “Well, physics is what physicists do.”
The last issue of Physics Today had a spectrum of articles from the difference between Scotch whiskey’s evaporation and Bourbon’s evaporation to high-energy and quantum computing, I think, and all kinds of things. And I wrote Charles a thank you letter because I said, “This is the best example in my career that I’ve seen in one book all the physics spelled out from how you tell the difference between Bourbon and Scotch whisky. So, the spelling and the furthest out frontiers.” He handed it to the letters to the editor people, who said, “Can we publish this?”
They wrote me and asked if they could publish it, and I said, “Sure, let me, you know, just proofread it one more time [laugh].” I just dashed it off. So you’ll see those two things coming up in PT in the next few months. I don’t know how long it is from final copy editing to mailing out the copies, but, whatever it is, that’s when it will show up. I think both are in the same issue, but I’m not sure. I’m not going to tell you what Charles wrote where I feature in a different way.
Pete, by the end of your undergrad, did you feel more at home in the world of experimental or theoretical physics?
I was never a decent theorist, never. I mean, I could solve the required problems. I can make good grades in the required courses. But I didn’t have that inspired gift to go very far. On the other hand, I loved tinkering. Give me a printed circuit board and a soldering iron and some transistors, and I had fun.
Were you following at all the very earliest developments of what would become SLAC?
Oh, sure. Oh, god, yeah. My freshman year physics advisor was a man named Burt Richter, and my sophomore year advisor was a man Panofsky. So, yeah, I was following SLAC [laugh]. They were stealing our best people. (e.g., Panofsky, Drell, Richter and Bjorken)
[Pause] I never—when I came back as a grad student, Hofstadter gave me a choice. I could either work at SLAC or at High Energy Physics Laboratory (HEPL). He didn’t care. He thought I’d fit in either place. And I took a bit of time to consider which would I rather do. And already the gigantism of high-energy physics had kicked in.
There was no such thing as anybody doing his own experiment at SLAC. And I said to Bob, “I think I’ll get better training if I do it at HEPL.” OK, so it’s only one GeV maximum. The point of a PhD dissertation isn’t to win a Nobel Prize for the student; it’s for the student to learn how to be a good physicist.
And so I stayed on campus, and followed a thread, an experiment that I would follow for most of the rest of the time that I was doing experimental physics: bouncing an electron off something, and trying to measure what the momentum distribution of the target was. It was great fun. I did a few good experiments. I did a couple that were crappy. Don’t we all? I don’t know your background. You’re a historian, not a physicist, right?
Did you ever—how did you get into this?
Oh, no, this is your interview. We’ll talk about me after we hit end of record.
So I continued with that thread because it was very interesting as long as I was involved. If you look at Henry Kendall and Jerry Friedman —who were heads of the deep inelastic electron scattering experiment that demonstrated that Feynman’s Parton model works? That’s exactly the same experiment I was doing at three orders of magnitude higher energy—two orders of magnitude higher energy. But I was using a nucleus, and they were using a proton as a target.
That’s OK. I could control everything, and the grad students who were involved in that experiment got to tweak it once in a great while, and all they were was computer jocks. So, yeah, it would’ve been nice to have had the Nobel on my résumé for [laugh] my thesis, but it was not to be, and that was a deliberate choice.
Pete, what advice did you get about what to do after graduating? What seemed compelling to you?
The Parton model had just been confirmed very elegantly, and I had this idea that if I did an exclusive experiment where I didn’t just look at the scattering electron, but I tagged the virtual photon by scattering an electron and detecting it, and then built a cone of counters in the forward direction of the momentum transfer that I just might see a free quark. We did not know—at that point, the Standard Model didn’t exist. We did not know the quarks were bound, and that the force law was more like Hooke’s law than Coulomb’s law, that you couldn’t—the harder you pulled, the harder it pulled back, so that the quarks were bound to the nucleon.
So, I wanted to do this. There was only one lab where you could do it. That was DESY at Hamburg, so I got a postdoc at DESY. I was miserable because my boss was a horrible person, one of the two bad bosses I’ve ever had. He was just awful to his people. But we did a brilliant experiment, and we didn’t find anything. Oh, well.
Pete, what was your title there, visiting scientist?
Postdoc. Mine? Postdoc.
Yeah, just postdoc?
Postdoctoral research associate. What else would it be? I was green out of grad school. It also had a German title, Forschungs assistant, or something like that, research assistant. But it didn’t mean what a research assistant means here—a member of the technical staff, one way or another.
But I got to be friends with a fellow named Tom Walsh, and I don’t know what happened to Tom. He was a theorist. We got to spending our lunches together and talking about—one of them was some kind of a problem that we could do. And I said I was very interested in the way in which they extracted the beam from the synchrotron because they did it with a magnetic field that was pulsed in resonance with the buckets coming around, the buckets of electrons coming around.
And I said it seemed that they could clear the orbit of electrons very efficiently and very quickly. And he started thinking that looks like Saturn’s ring systems. That there’s maybe a resonance there that could cause Cassini’s division, which was, at that point, this is 1969-70, early ’71 maybe. We didn’t—you know, we had no close-up pictures of the planet. What we didn’t know about the solar system was vaster than what we did know.
So he and I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation in which we looked at Saturn’s moons, satellites, and we found one that was in the 2:1 resonance with Cassini’s division, and that was the resonance that they were using in the synchrotron. So we did a really very simple calculation, and published it, and got all kinds of interest. Then, I started thinking of other things I could use that technique for, so here it is theoretical physics, but it’s not quantum theory or advanced physics. It’s really basically mechanics.
And it struck me that maybe it could contribute to the flux of meteorites extracted from the asteroid belt. So I went out, and I found a guy named George Wetherill at UCLA, who was interested in the problem, and practically by return mail, he hired me. So, after a year and a half at DESY, I went off to do planetary astrophysics for two years.
Did you have a good time? Was it fun?
It was a ball, and I tell you, I learned how to do certain things that now are very common but weren’t then. We were able to construct a set of equations that would give us the yield in tons per year or something of meteorites driven out of the asteroid belt by this mechanism where Jupiter was the pulsing—the pacing resonance. And that was a resonance that was at 1:2.
The problem was not to fool yourself. Five minutes later, you’re as hooked on that a lot, if you’ll remember. So, we set up ways in which my boss would evaluate half of the constants, and multiply them together and get a number, and seal it in an envelope. And I would do the same thing with the other half. And then we would together open the envelopes and get out the calculator and multiply them together, so that whatever result we got, we had to accept.
This was way before people were doing that all the time. And, sure enough, we had an answer that was close enough to the known value to make it a plausible mechanism. In the end, a more efficient mechanism was at the 3:2 resonance, and that’s what’s probably responsible for meteorites from the asteroid belt.
Why do you say ‘probably’? What’s the uncertainty?
Well, the uncertainty simply is that we don’t have any way of examining a meteorite and telling for sure where it came from in the asteroid belt, and it was a competition as to which cleared out faster and which did a better job. And it seemed that the 3:2 did a better job. But during that two years, while I enjoyed it a lot, I really got to miss the laboratory, so I took a postdoc at Fermilab.
In what group? What did you join at Fermilab?
Don’t ask me the experiment number, but it was the internal target group.
It was the first—basically—the first set of experiments that they could run there because they didn’t have the beam extraction going. So, we were—it was a joint experiment with Dubna (a major Soviet lab at that time, early mid 70s) and Fermilab. And the Soviets built the target, the gas jet target. And we supplied the accelerator and most of the data analysis.
That was my last experiment in a big group, and I don’t want to do this again. You’re at the mercy of everybody else’s jealousies. You’re at the mercy of whether or not the experiment runs, and how much time you get on the accelerator, and so on. So I went looking for another job. And after a year at Fermilab, moved to LSU as an assistant professor, and started a medium-energy electron scattering group, which used the Bates accelerator at MIT.
Was the plan for you to spend a lot of time in Cambridge, or you could do this remotely?
Mostly it was remotely because the apparatus was already there. Our problem was to secure the targets, and maybe build targets, although I was using solid targets so there was no building. You just put them in a frame and put them in the…put that in the vacuum chamber, and did the data analysis. The problem of course was that Bates wasn’t a closed shop, but the MIT people got by far the more favorable running allotments.
Of course, you would’ve known that going in?
Yeah, and I got involved with Southeastern Universities Research Association (SARA). I was the LSU delegate to SARA, and we put together the proposal for what became CEBAF, Jefferson Lab. And when SARA won that contract, the bad blood with Bates became palpable. They were mad. It’d been stolen from them. In the end, they were able to upgrade their machine into a microtron, and they did pretty well.
Then I did something silly. I went to a presentation on nuclear power but I didn’t realize it was organized by an early vintage anti-nuclear group. The power company wanted to build a small—well, a normal-sized power reactor just up the Mississippi from Baton Rouge. So I decided that if I was going to be a nuclear physicist, people were going to ask me about nuclear power, and I better learn something about it.
And that turned me into a whole different line of work, obviously, arms control because the only rational objection I could give to nuclear power, that couldn’t be fixed with just better engineering, was it made plutonium. And I had to reconcile that. Then I read John McPhee’s book, The Curve of Binding Energy. Well, that was something—that was a turn on because, suddenly, I understood a great deal more than I ever had about how nuclear weapons worked.
John McPhee is incredible.
He is the best prose writer I have ever read, particularly explaining things that are technical. But I don’t care whether he’s telling me how to make a dugout canoe or a deltoid pumpkin seed airship or a nuclear bomb—
—he just writes like magic. I wish I could write one page as good as his books. But that got me really interested. And I got to wondering how much trouble it would be for me and my buddies to go build a nuke. No Manhattan Project, just if we get the fissile material, what would it take to be a nuclear terrorist? Now, remember this is mid-70s—
—mid- to late ’70s. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is brand new. DOE was called ERDA, Energy Research and Development Administration. And they didn’t centralize fossil fuels anywhere, and ERDA had all the nuclear weapons stuff. I started doing some calculations.
What’s a critical mass? How do you arrive at it? How can you assemble a critical mass in an appropriate time? What is an appropriately short time? And came to the conclusion that if you had the material, it was real easy.
And at that point, I had a good friend—since died—by the name of Nicolas Freeling, who was a British mystery author. And I wrote Nicolas, and I said, “Would this make a good thriller?” And he jumped on it. So we wrote a book, which my name is not on it, deliberately. I had to get tenure at that point, and I didn’t think it was wise to tell my department chair that I was playing around with nuclear weapon designs—
—and writing books. But the book came out, ERDA/DOE did its very best to squelch it, put pressure on the publisher to withdraw it, which they wouldn’t do. But it only sold well in three places, and it sold very well there: the Harvard MIT Coop, the Los Alamos bookstore, and Livermore bookstore.
Huh, I wonder why.
I wonder why. It didn’t do too badly in Berkeley either. And that brought me to the attention of some people at ACDA, and ultimately led to my leaving Louisiana for D.C. Bob Kupperman, who was for a while chief scientist at ACDA, called me up once, and I guess my secretary at LSU said, “He’s at the such-and-such hotel at the APS meeting in Washington.”
So I get paged to call him. “So, OK, what’s up, Bob?”
“I’ve got a question for you, and I can’t ask you on the telephone. I want you to come down to my office right now.” I said, “Right now? I’m in jeans and an open collar. I’m not dressed to go to the”—he said, “Just come down here, and don’t worry.” OK. I walk into his office. We have a preliminary of chitchat, and he says, “OK, how do you build a hydrogen bomb?”
This was at the point that the Howard Morland Progressive Magazine article was an important national security thing. And I said, “Bob, I don’t have a clearance. I don’t know how you do it.” And he said, “You’re a bright boy. I know you’ve thought about it. You can’t not have thought about it.”
Was Dick Garwin not available for this meeting?
He wanted to know how somebody who had never had a weapons design clearance would approach the problem. (Not strictly accurate. I had held a “Q” one summer at Los Alamos but never got near any weapons secrets.)
He wanted to know what in the Morland article was truly revelatory, and what wasn’t. He had reasons why he didn’t call Dick. Dick, after all, had built the first one. So I told him.
He looked at me, and he says, “Well, you left out one thing, but if you actually sat down and were serious about it, you’d figure it out.” So I did. I had not at that point seen the article in the Progressive. I only knew that it existed because it was still being kept quiet. [pause] So that was what ultimately got me the fellowship that brought me to Washington.
Did you initially go on leave, or you resigned your position?
Oh, I went on leave. Oh-ho, did I go on leave. It was a…among other things, it was a requirement because it was an IPA, and you can’t take an IPA if you don’t have a home base to go back to.
Lots of people do. They arrange it with home base that you’re not really expected to take me back, but let them run the salary through you. But we weren’t that conniving. So that got me into the START One negotiations and to SDI and things like that.
Did you get a clearance right away?
Before they’d let me in the door.
ACDA’s rules—by law, not rules. The act that set them up said that everybody had to have a top secret clearance to work there.
And where was your office, Pete, physically? Where were you located?
How well do you know the State Department?
I worked there for 12 years.
Public Affairs, Office of the Historian.
OK. Fourth floor, you know where the big reception area is on the fourth floor?
With the—well, it used to be ACDA director’s office. Then I think it’s—now it’s not the under secretary for [unintelligible]. I think it’s the assistant secretary’s office. Turn right. At the end of that little sub-hall, turn left. Go in the last door on the right before the glass—before the end door, and there was a converted broom closet that had a desk in it.
And that’s where they stuck me.
Pete, on the home front, are you a family man at this point? Did you relocate kids and your wife?
My wife and kids wanted to come to Washington. For a number of reasons, we realized it was time to get out of Baton Rouge. The public education system there was horrible. And we thought that if our kids stayed in the Baton Rouge public schools, they would not do as well as if they were in Montgomery or Fairfax counties.
A true statement. In fact, when they came up, my son had already had a year of algebra. Got an A in it. They gave him an exam. He didn’t learn enough to count as having finished Fairfax County’s first year algebra. So he had to take that over again, which didn’t matter much.
Our daughter got out of a somewhat cosseted private school that she was in, and went to public school, and thrived. The schools up here are just so much better. Well, you know that. And when it came time after two years as a Foster fellow, I had to go back. The Carnegie Endowment offered me a job.
LSU said, “You’re going to have to quit if you take it.” And I said, “No, I don’t have to. I haven’t been on leave. I’ve been on an IPA. I get one year of leave.” Convinced them legally I was right, because they’d been paying my salary. That was the whole point.
And I took that year at Carnegie, was offered a second, and with a certain amount of reluctance, resigned my job at LSU. But my wife said, “If you want to go back to the swamps, you go back alone. We’re not going with you.”
Pete, who was the audience for your work product at Carnegie?
I don’t know. I mean Carnegie—
Like, Hill staffers, the intelligence community? Who were you writing for?
Well, we were writing as scholars, and the—I did a couple of pieces on missile defense, and a very long, very good bit of research on the use of commercial observation satellites as verification instruments. At that point, SPOT-1 was up, and that was the first satellite that we had that was public, other than Landsat. And the early Landsat pictures were not very good. I mean, they—you could use them for a lot of things, even some that were military, to make thematic maps, for example, of the polar cap or Kuwait. But they weren’t good enough to let us see maneuverings of foreign forces. So I suppose we were writing for the public and Hill staff.
Pete, was there a certain point when you felt like you were operating more as a policymaker or a public policy analyst, and less as a physicist?
Sure. When I was at Carnegie, it became clear that what I was doing was using physics to influence policy.
Uh-huh, uh-huh. Did you stay up on the literature in physics?
Yes and no. I stayed up on my own narrow subject. I made sure of that. I read Physics Today and, believe it or not, in those days, State had a subscription to Phys. Rev. Letters.
Really? That’s great.
So I’d go down and read that every couple of weeks. But I didn’t fight to stay current.
At some point, it became clear to me that I no longer missed the lab, that an op-ed in The Washington Post was going to be read by more people than all my Phys. Rev. Letters and Phys. Rev. Papers put together—
—and that I had very real interests in pushing the policy discussion in what I thought was the right direction, and so I did not return to LSU. I didn’t return to the lab. And while occasionally I miss it, I do get it vicariously because my son is a high-energy physicist. He’s a neutrino physicist, currently on leave at CERN, based at Colorado.
Pete, to talk about op-eds and the debates of the time, I wonder if you can frame them? What were some of the most important issues? And as you were getting more comfortable debating those issues, and putting forth your own ideas, what areas did you represent?
I came to really oppose strategic missile defense. I just thought—
It seemed to me that it was destabilizing, that if I had a partially effective missile defense—and no missile defense would be 100%—
—then that could actually incentivize a first strike, and that was the one thing you didn’t want to do. And service on the START Delegation and a trip to what was in those days Strategic Air Command (SAC)—now Strategic Command—to get the Single Integrated Operations Plan (SIOP)—our nuclear war plan: briefing was terrifying enough to where it was clear to me that nobody needed as many warheads as either we or the Soviets had, and that it would be a good use of everybody’s time to try and negotiate limits. Yeah, and it just seemed to me that that was…that I understood how to talk to a policymaker, and how to write English, as opposed to equations. And very few of my colleagues really did. And therefore, I could be a bridge between Congress on the one hand, and the Executive Branch, and the physics community on the other, and that I could attempt to teach a little physics to the Congress and the Military, I suppose, and use that to convince them that my attitudes were probably the right ones.
[laugh] Pete, on that point, thinking about advancing your ideas in Congress, in the Executive Branch, in the Military, what were your points of contact? How would you get your ideas up to the people whose decisions mattered?
Well, if you’re working at the Carnegie Endowment, that’s easy because they have plenty of Hill contacts, and you go back and forth up there to talk to people, and so on. I spent a little time teaching at George Washington University, which wasn’t a very good experience. But I wanted to teach again, and they offered a job when I hadn’t gotten one where I’d wanted it, which was RAND. RAND offered me a job in Santa Monica, and I said, “No, I’m not moving.” I said, “I don’t even have to ask my wife. She’s already told me, ‘You’re not to accept a job in California.’”
We’d already lived there a couple of times, and we didn’t want to go back. So, that was no great trick. I was working at CSIS for a while, and, of course, again, they have a whole public affairs department devoted to selling their ideas to Congress, and to contractors and the Executive Branch. So all you have to do is go down and talk to them, and they’ll set you up with the appointments. It was really very much easier than somebody working from their own university.
By then, I was already deeply involved with the Forum on Physics and Society, and with the studies that they did back when they did studies, and I knew just how hard it was to get any of that in front of the people who counted. But I kept my contacts at ACDA up for many years. Finally, Bill Clinton was hired, was elected, and I went over there. I just missed out on a political appointment as chief scientist at ACDA. It’s political, and that means that there might be somebody whose political pull is greater than yours, even if you’re going to do a better job, and that’s what happened, and that’s OK.
I became his assistant and tutor, if you will. And that’s when I got asked to evaluate one of the most significant things I’ve ever done, to evaluate whether or not the US should make a Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) that allows no nuclear yield whatever, or whether we should try to negotiate what deal DOE wanted, which was a four-pound TNT equivalent yield, the safety shot maximum. And I thought that I needed to know the details of what had gone wrong if we ever had tests that didn’t work. How well did we understand the functioning of a nuke?
So, the only thing I knew how to do was I used my clearances, and need to know, and went over to DNA (Defense Nuclear Agency), which used to have a building on Telegraph Avenue south of Alexandria, an old building that dated from right after the war. And deep underneath it, it had a vault with all the test results. Every shot we ever made from Trinity through to war shots, the Bikini shots, and everything else up until the moratorium went in (1992).
So, I went through and read the test summaries of every one of over a thousand nuclear explosive shots. I kept track in my classified notebook that had to stay over there of all the ones that didn’t work to expectations, and there weren’t very many. And then I started finally working my way up to what was important, which was the last few brand-new designs that we had fielded and actually built. And out of the somewhat more than a handful of clean sheet designs towards the end of the whole testing program and everything, there was exactly one that didn’t work. And that was predicted to be really risky as to whether it would or wouldn’t work.
I can’t give you any of the details as to why. But it was a marginal idea, it was a completely new idea, and it didn’t work worth a damn. Everything that built on the historic legacy designs worked to within a small percentage of design performance on the first try. Don’t know what that says to you, but it sure says to me that we understand what we’re doing.
Which also says maybe it gives you the confidence that you’re looking for, that a moratorium on testing is not necessarily going to be a moratorium on understanding?
That’s right. And, at that point, I briefed John Holum, who was the ACDA director, and others, that here’s why I thought if that was the bargain and if we could get a CTBT with zero yield, we ought to jump. After all, we’ve had over a thousand tests. Russia’s had a comparable number, 200-plus, but a lot. [Note: the USSR conducted 715 nuclear tests using 969 devices.]
Who is really hurt by not being allowed to test? People who don’t have any experience. So, if you could cap the new entrants, India, Israel, Pakistan, North Korea, so they can’t do any more testing, they won’t really be able to improve their designs, and find out the tricks of the trade that we and the Soviets came up with. So if you can keep them from testing anything—a four-pound yield test will tell them a lot, and will tell us almost nothing—then we should have a CTBT. And one afternoon, the phone in my office rings, and, by the way, by now, I had a much bigger and nicer office.
And what year is this, Pete? What year are we talking about?
What year are we talking about now?
’98, ’99? And—
And you’re talking about chief scientist for SFRC?
No, I’m talking about—sorry, let me get the right year, ’96. I’m sorry, about to become chief scientist for ACDA—
—or the State Department equivalent once we were folded.
Phone rings, it’s John Holum, who’s the ACDA Director, and he says, “Come to my office. I need to talk to you right now.” “OK.” So, I had a half-hour to get my notes together, and then I walked down to the great big office, about four yellow sheets in hand, and briefed him in detail, and answered all his questions on why it was that zero was better than four pounds for us, because it was harder on other countries.
I didn’t find out until the next morning what then happened. John looked at his watch and says, “I got to go,” and he said, “May I keep your notes?” And he put them in his pocket. He went straight over to the White House to a Principal’s Committee meeting at which he briefed Clinton as to why we should go to zero yield, and Clinton signed off on it. So I would say I pushed history a little bit there, and I was really happy. It came—I found that out the next morning.
Pete, how did you understand this accomplishment, in what ways, both politically, scientifically, maybe even environmentally?
As a—as an American, I really wanted to see us have a good, strong nuclear arsenal because I believed that we can’t disinvent the bomb. Since you can’t disinvent it, you’re going to have to live with it. I was pleased that I found a way that US stockpile stewardship could proceed the way we wanted it to, while, at the same time, I didn’t want any of the new nuclear powers to get to be as good at design and understanding as we were.
At that time, we were also talking about a fissile materials cut-off, and when you think about it, if you can limit—let’s call it India or somebody out there—and keep them from testing, and keep them from making any more fissile material, then they can’t improve their stockpile, their yield is predictable because you know what their technologies are going to be, and they can’t make more than a certain number of weapons because you know how much material their technology requires for a weapon. So I was really pleased that I’d helped find a way to fence in new entrants into the game. And, politically, I thought it was an elegant solution, thank you. [Pause] Not the most elegant that I ever cooked up though.
But it worked.
The most elegant was when my wife and I went off to a vacation in China in 1995, and obviously I cleared this trip with my security people, and the National Academy of Science was kind enough to make a…make arrangements for me to meet with some of the Chinese nuclear weapons people. And if you’ll remember back then, China had—was insisting that, OK, they’d stopped weapons testing, but they wanted to be able to test peaceful nuclear explosives—whatever those are.
Yeah, what is a peaceful nuclear explosive?
You cut off the tailfins. That’s all I ever could figure out.
But they wanted to build PNET—PNE (Peaceful Nuclear Explosives), sorry. They set us up with a Chinese banquet of absolutely magnificent scale at the Institute for Applied Physics and Computational Math in Beijing—the Beijing headquarters for their Livermore, their second laboratory. And I met their director and this and that. And we had some really heated arguments about peaceful testing over those four hours or five hours that we were there in which we first had a long conference, and then we had a banquet.
And they were saying, “How—you tell us that there’s nothing that was found in the past that justifies a peaceful [nuclear] explosive, you know, trying to build a peaceful nuclear explosive. So how can you tell about the future?” I said, “I can’t, but we certainly carried out enough shots, and we certainly had enough disappointments to where it doesn’t seem likely that you’re going to find something that we didn’t try, or the Brits or the Russians didn’t try. After all, the Russians had a big program in peaceful nuclear explosives, and they were just as happy as we were to sign them away with the PNET.”
So, on the way back to my hotel, I’m riding in a government car with one of their scientists, Madame Zhou Yum Wa, who was one of the members of their CTBT delegation, [for a peaceful nuclear explosive] and I said, “Look, I have an idea. You don’t think there’s anything this year—any ideas this year—even your boss says there’s no ideas currently there for a peaceful use. I’ll concede that at some point in the future, you might come up with an idea. So why don’t you state for the treaty record that 10 years after entry into force, if there is a good idea for peaceful applications, you will ask that the treaty could be amended, and allow those tests. But we would get 10 years without any, and you’d have 10 years to think of reasons to do so.”
And Yum Wa said, “That’s a very good idea. May I pass it on?” Well, what’s your answer to that? [laugh] “Of course. Why do you think I said it?” We get to the summer in ’96, we’re in the final endgame, and the PNE question is still unresolved.
And the Chinese delegate says, “OK, we’ll concede for 10 years. We won’t argue for tests. But at the end of 10 years of the treaty, if we find something that really would benefit humanity, we’d like to amend the treaty, and be able to try it.” You could’ve knocked me off my chair. I mean, those were almost my words.
And, of course, the US bit instantly, and said, “Yes, of course, we can’t predict the future. We’ll let you look forward—you know, we’ll see what happens in 10 years.” Well, it’s more than 10 years since it’s 10 years after signature, and we haven’t entered into force for 20—it’s been 25 years since the treaty was signed. But that was the idea that I had that has given me over the years the most pleasure, where I really thought I had done something good.
Pete, when did you start thinking about nuclear issues in the context of international terrorism?
When I realized that it could be done. Once you realize—well, look, 90% of the Manhattan Project went into Hanford and Oak Ridge; 7% went into Los Alamos. Though if we say Manhattan Project to the man on the street, the only lab he’s going to come up with is Los Alamos. Three percent went to overhead. Boy, I wish we could get it down to that nowadays.
It struck me that enough information had leaked out, and there was likely to be enough enriched uranium floating around, and a gun bomb was very easy that anybody given the uranium could build the bomb. While I was at SFRC, I got Biden interested. We held a public hearing on dirty bombs, and we held a public hearing on nuclear terror. And some of the old line Manhattan Project people—all of whom are dead so I’m not going to slander them—said, “Oh, it takes a Manhattan Project.” And our argument was “not if you’ve got the material.”
Maybe it did take a Manhattan Project, but we’ve already had the Manhattan Project.
Exactly. That’s over with. Nuclear weapons are 70-year-old technology—70 years old. Jesus, they’re on social security. Seventy-five years old, in fact. So, we held a classified hearing on nuclear terror, and I asked—obviously over Biden’s signature—Livermore and Los Alamos each to bring in a mock-up of a terrorist weapon, how big it would be, how heavy it would be, and actually build a model, because we all know that showing a senator a piece of paper’s not as good as showing him something to play with. I’m the guy who brought two nukes into the Capitol Building—
—and gained a real appreciation for the Capitol police force because I’d had this vision. Livermore’s truck drives up. Los Alamos’s truck drives up to loading dock at the Capitol, and there is one, “What you got there?” “Atomic bomb.” “Open it up.” “No.” [laugh]
“You can’t come in.” “Yes, we can.” So I didn’t want sort of a standoff where the Capitol cops were caught unawares. So I called the chief—the then chief—and found out that not only do they have a bomb squad, they have a very good bomb squad that is cleared for information on anything you care to think of. They’ve got clearances for chemical and biological weapons, and they have nuke clearances. So that if Livermore had said, “No, you can’t open it,” they would’ve said, “Yes, we can.” [laugh]
Well, I won’t tell you what Livermore brought in because I think it’s far too sensitive to talk about. The Los Alamos boys brought in a Little Boy, a simple gun-assembled bomb, full-scale, guaranteed to have a kiloton yield or more. When the senators who deigned to come to the meeting walked up and looked into the crate to see it, they were flabbergasted.
Hillary Clinton said, “My husband never told me it was that simple.” I’m not sure he knew. I mean, what was the reason why the President should know that it’s one moving part and a bag of powder? They didn’t build the design that—what’s that guy’s name in Wisconsin who published a book with all the drawings in it? [Note: John Coster-Mullen]
I’ve got it in my shelf upstairs, but I can’t remember it right now. They didn’t build the correct Little Boy design. They built a simpler yet design, and, you know, it was bare bones. It was just a sliding slug of uranium, and no initiator, no nothing.
Livermore brought in something considerably cuter and cleverer than that. But I don’t even want to think about it. That one was so simple. We scared a lot of senators, and that was kind of fun to do.
After that, there was—I never heard another peep from the “Oh, it’ll take a Manhattan Project people,” because we showed that it could be done in a, you know, fairly simply, as long as you could get the material. That’s almost precisely what South Africa did. Its six bombs had no initiators, nothing. They were just simple. Assemble them, and let them go. [Pause]
Pete, were you involved at all in the fallout from Wen Ho Lee, and the subsequent creation of the NSSA?
Yep. I was asked to be the scientific advisor to his defense, and I said, “Hell, no.” But the thing is Wen Ho Lee was a very bad boy, and he deserved a good bit of what he got, but not to have gotten it in the illegal way he did, and not—to lose his job, yes, but jail, no, basically, because he didn’t give away anything we weren’t pretty damn sure that the other guys already had —
Pete, what does that say about his intentions though?
Oh, his intention was to try and buy his way in with the currency he had, and the currency he had was knowledge of a particular specific design—[Pause] But I didn’t want to be involved with Wen Ho Lee at all. I think that anybody who touched that was going to be damaged—and, in fact, they were. Now, in retrospect, DOE had gotten awfully sloppy. So, at some point, they were going to get a wake-up call from somebody that they’d walked out with information. And I don’t—
I don’t think he even made any money off of it. I don’t remember. It’s been a long time.
Where did you fall out on the debates about the creation of the NNSA? Necessary or an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy?
You know, I didn’t play in that business at all. I thought in some weak sense, it was returning us to the mid-50s in that the AEC did the weapons, and the Federal Energy Commission and this and that and the other did the fossil fuels, and they were separate. And the AEC did high-energy physics. Well, DOE does high-energy physics now. But I really—you really threw me there. I don’t know in the end whether it was a good idea or not. It’s another layer of presidentially appointed senate-confirmed bureaucrats.
It’s subservient to the energy secretary, sort of. And energy secretaries don’t usually know what the hell it’s all about. We’ve only had two that were even close: Steve Chu and Ernie Moniz. And Moniz certainly was an expert. Chu was not in the nuclear business, so I don’t know how he related to the labs.
Prior to that, we’d had—who was the woman? —Sharon Pratt something, and a dentist, and so on as energy secretary. And Rick Perry was energy secretary, and he didn’t know until after he was sworn in that his big responsibility was nuclear weapons, and that’s where most of his budget was, and he thought it was just oil for Texans.
And I don’t think that was smart to have that as the energy secretary. So, who was—oh, Bill Richardson was one of Clinton’s energy secretaries.
And I don’t remember how many he had. Moniz was a deputy. Moniz’s dissertation and mine interlock. We were studying the same nuclei of—and he was—he theoretically, and I was doing the experiment. It’s really very funny. We’ve been friends for a long time.
[laugh] Pete, another institutional merger you might have more to say about was the decision for ACDA to be folded into State. How far ahead did you see that coming, and what were your thoughts on that process?
I saw it coming shortly before I went over to ACDA as a consultant and then chief scientist. My thoughts are that Jesse Helms had a personal pique and Joe Biden—to get the Chemical Weapons Treaty ratified—destroyed something very good. And I think that there was no excuse for it. I think it was a terrible, terrible loss to US national security.
What would be an example that really makes that case?
[Pause] How do I—let me count the ways: INF; Open Skies; what’s happened to CTBT; the hesitancy about renewing New START; the loss of the ABM Treaty. I think a lot of that would have been prevented if we’d had ACDA there to speak up for arms control. Furthermore, we had the Arms Control Impact Statement mechanism, which required for every major defense program that they at least think about whether it was stabilizing or destabilizing, whether it helped or hurt a desire to have more stability and fewer weapons.
I—if I were able to wave one magic wand in Washington, it would be to recreate the ACDA, and the second would be to recreate OTA. ACDA brought in an absolutely unparalleled group of smart people who were dedicated. Because they were not foreign service officers, they stayed in place. They became experts. They rose up. They made SES.
They did a good job at negotiating treaties that were in our interest, were backstopping the political people who did—horrible loss. We saw it coming but there was nothing we could do about it. And—and—John Holum wanted to be an undersecretary of state rather than director of ACDA.
Do not ask me why. He never explained. And it’s funny because they cut his salary from an executive level 2 to executive level 3. But he wanted to be undersecretary of state, and not director. I don’t understand.
Pete, who did you report to when you were science advisor for arms control at State?
What did I what?
Who did you report to when you became science advisor?
John Holum, and Avis Bohlen; day-to-day, Avis. Whenever I needed to see John, I just called over and said, “Get me a time.”
How much time did you spend on the seventh floor?
Not much. Did you know Avis?
No. Before my time.
You missed out on something spectacular. She is unquestionably the best boss I have ever had.
She gave the scientific people their heads. She gave leadership to the political side of it. Her heart and brain were in the right spot. And when it was time to fight for something, she could put up quite a fight. We had… I’m out of drinking water.
Alright, so you were telling me about the best boss you ever had.
Avis. The Missile Defense Agency came over to brief. [pause] I’m trying to remember what the buzzword name for the interceptors they were selling was then. I think it was the ground-based interceptor. And they had this beautiful sketch of how hard it was for the interceptor to know what the target was.
And they said, “You know, the plume of exhaust from a rocket in space is just enormous.” Well, yeah, it is. And they said, “It’s very hard for the sensor to see the little tiny, hard body in there.” Of course, you’re not looking for the hard body; you’re looking for the heat drone, the rocket motors and from the ICBM hard body. But, so, they then show us a PowerPoint, and there’s the ABM interceptor…the ICBM warhead, and the ICBM body, I guess, maybe the third stage, and an enormous red plume from the ICBM that just encompasses all creation. And then there’s a little orange plume or a little smaller—and, finally, in the middle, there’s a little tiny blue dot, which on their scale is the hottest plume from the rocket.
And they said, “It’s very hard for the interceptor to be able to find that little blue dot in the red cloud.” And Avis starts agreeing, you know, this is going to be hard. And I said, “Avis, we’ll talk after they’re finished.” I said, “I want to let them hang themselves.” Well, what they had done was reverse the spectral colors from what you’re used to the inverse. Blue is hot. When did you ever see a picture that blue is hot and red is cool?
Well, it’s true that if you heat—a black body, if you heat it way up there, it does glow blue, but, and there are blue stars, but that’s not what they were trying to convey. The brightest part of that picture is the little blue, dark blue dot. If you want to discriminate all the rest of that plume, the easiest thing to do is to buy the interceptor a pair of sunglasses, because all this much less luminous, huge plume will be invisible, and all the missile will see, the interceptor will see is the hot blue center.
She—when she realized what they’d tried to do, she was debating writing letters to the Defense Department, “Why the hell are you guys lying to us? Why are you trying to confuse us? Don’t you think we have people here smart enough to see it?” That’s why ACDA was so good. It did have people who would spot that instantly, and say, “They’re pulling your leg. It’s not—they’re lying to you.”
And when DOD came around with the hafnium bomb, which was an isotope of hafnium that can be pumped up like a laser, and then the theory was it would all decay to normal ground state instantly together, and it—since it had a 31-year half-life, you could build it and store it. I won’t go into all the reasons why it doesn’t work. JASON did a beautiful job. Their letter report to me is public.
But when I asked Avis for a special budget to commission JASON to do it, she said, “What’s our dog in the fight?” I said, “Because the way DIA and DOD are characterizing this is that it’s not a nuclear weapon. Even though its power comes from atomic nuclei, because it doesn’t use fission or fusion, and so they’re looking for a way to build nuclear weapons that aren’t nuclear weapons so that they can plausibly argue aren’t susceptible—aren’t covered by a test ban or a non-proliferation treaty.” And she said, “Go spend the money.”
So, I called up Steve Koonin, and Steve said, “We’ll give you a brother-in-law rate.” And they did. They gave a really good cheap rate, and helped all of them out of the water. It’s so much fun to do that. [laugh]
Pete, if Gore won, was your expectation that you would’ve stayed at State, or were you already thinking about making the move?
My expectation was that I would stay right there. That was the organization’s expectation too.
This is not a political appointment though. This is—
Oh, yes, it is.
Oh, this is political appointment?
Oh, it’s absolutely political. Chief scientist at ACDA or science advisor for arms control at State—chief scientist at ACDA carried Senate confirmation and the title of ambassador. Jesse Helms said, “We’re getting rid of ACDA. I’m not going to confirm anybody else.” Holum put it to me, “You can have the job as an SES. I can’t get you confirmed.” I said, “Do I care? No. Let me do the job.”
In retrospect, it would be nice to be ambassador, the Honorable. It would help me get consulting money. But it didn’t affect how effective I was in the job.
And the funny thing is, when I resigned and left when Bush came in, I had some people from State come over to me and say, “Why are you leaving?” They all thought I was career—
—because I’d never acted any other way. I’d never acted as if, well, you know, I got a presidential appointment. Big deal. You’re in the right spot, you get it. If you’re not, you don’t. Most likely Freeman Dyson, (don’t know whom I meant) did a great deal more than I ever did, and he never got a political appointment.
Did you put out feelers to SFRC or somebody approached you?
Did you put out feelers to SFRC or did someone approach you?
I sent them a letter and said, “I’m free now. Would you like me?” And Edward Levine wrote back, to say, “Come in for an interview.” And I came in for an interview, and a few weeks later, they called me back, and said, “The senator would like to meet you.” So—
Did you see this as—
—and a week—
—a lateral move?
Yeah, it was almost exactly lateral, except for pay. The pay went down because the Senate didn’t pay much—it still doesn’t. It should. It would have better people who would have a career there rather than coming in and trying to go on to lobbying or think tanks or something after four years on the Hill.
You know, in terms of power, it might even have been a step up. If there’d ever been any nuclear stuff come through, other than nuclear terror, it certainly would’ve been. And you have to realize I started the last week of August of 2001. I was tossed into the meat grinder on 9/11.
And less than two weeks later, bang.
What were you doing during the in term? We have a five-month delay between the beginning of the Bush administration and August.
Well, I was consulting here and there, writing, and looking for a job, like everybody in Washington who lives by the political appointment. And I had a certain amount of trouble because Dick Cheney knew my attitudes, and put out a contract on me. State had asked me to stay on for three months until the new administration named somebody. And I said, “Sure,” and made no plans to go immediately looking for a job because I was going to stay on.
Two days before inauguration, I get a call from personnel that said, “We want your resignation right now, and we want you out of here on the morning of inauguration.” I said, “What, what?” And they said, “You’re on a by-name list of people the Vice President’s Office does not want to continue even one minute.” OK. But, you know, just a few months after that, after I left SFRC, I was on my way to London, so that was pretty good.
Let’s not get too far afield. Let’s talk about the day. Where were you on 9/11?
Driving in. We didn’t start till 10 o’clock, so I was really—so I was driving in, and NPR on this beautiful blue-sky day says a plane has flown into the World Trade Center, and I think to myself, oh, well, a plane flew into the Empire State Building once too, and there was no great damage. And then there’s this panic from the radio as they say, “Another one flew into the other tower, a jetliner.” Oh.
And I got in, I parked, I went into the Dirksen Building, reported in, said, “What can I do?” And shortly thereafter, we were over in Biden’s office. He was still on the train coming down from Wilmington. We were talking to him on the—on his cell phone. A very young Capitol cop comes into the office, and says, “Gentlemen, ladies, you should leave the building.” And we said, “Hell, no, we’re talking to the boss. We don’t see any reason to leave.”
A bit later, like five minutes, somebody…a very senior Capitol cop comes in with—and I don’t remember what his rank was. But he says, “Gentlemen, you have to leave. There’s another plane still up there, and it’s headed to Washington.” Oh [laugh]. We cleared out. We met in the Dirksen Building parking lot, stood around.
The staff director, Ed Hall, was talking to Biden on the phone, and the question came up, “Well, could the staff do anything?” And the answer was no. So we were all told, “Go home and stay safe.” Driving home was no fun.
I was trying to call my wife, and I couldn’t get a cell connection until a half-hour later when I got—I decided that instead of taking the usual route home, which would’ve been down Constitution towards State, I would just take the first radial I could find out to the Beltway, wherever it took me, and then come around, staying away from Alexandria because of the plane at the Pentagon. And that’s just what I did. I went up to somewhere in Bethesda or Silver Spring, and came around, and went home. Once I hit the Beltway, there was no traffic.
Pete, that same question, “what can I do?” you must’ve continued asking that in the days and months ahead. In this role for SFRC scientist, what could you do? What could you contribute?
You might remember that a week after that, we got hit with anthrax. Suddenly, I was the Senate’s expert on BW.
I had a stable of biologists on my Rolodex, and they were all eager to help and to advise and to tell us what we should do and what the problems were. I had already met Peter Jahrling, who was a—one of the head virologists at USAMRIID, and Peter coached me through the things we should be doing. We held a hearing or two on BW.
We gave Biden what I would now tell you is a N-95 mask, and he came out and said, “You know, for 75 cents apiece, we can protect all of America with these. Why aren’t we doing it?” I still had my mask from that event when SARS-CoV-2 hit, and I used that mask for several—four, five, or six times until I could get something newer. The elastic was falling apart and rotting by then.
We doused it with isopropyl alcohol, you know, 90—70% alcohol to sterilize it every couple of days or every couple of wearing’s. And that was all I could get. And I am a kidney transplant patient, so I’m immunocompromised, and I really needed a mask. None of this “they’re not necessary”. For some of us, they were.
Well, for all of us, they were.
Yes, but, at the time, you’ll remember they were trying to keep people from buying up the stocks and keeping the medical professionals from them. What else I could do was to look at the kinds of mass terror that we thought might be available besides just airplanes.
Pete, how was your access to intelligence when you were on the Hill?
Pretty good. My first week, the staff director and I went in to see Biden, because he wanted to see how I was doing, if I was having any problems getting my clearances. I said, “CIA won’t restore my SCIs.” He said, “I’ll fix that.”
He picked up the phone while I was sitting there, and he called congressional liaison at CIA, and said, “I want Mr. Zimmerman’s clearances reinstated by tomorrow morning, period.” They were. The next morning, I was told, “Drive out to CIA, and get read.” They couldn’t read me in at the Senate for reasons unknown to me.
So I had plenty of access. I had a Q with all Sigma’s, and I had SCI+++. Basically, anything technical that I wanted to know, Biden arranged for me to have. And what else I used it for was the run-up to the Iraq War.
I’m one of those people who said Curveball is lying. (Curve Ball was the code name of an Iraqi defector who claimed detailed knowledge of Iraq’s BW program. He was lying from start to finish but was used to support the push to war.) And I said there are no nuclear programs left in Iraq. Rolf Ekeus’s people with the UN and IAEA took them down. And I had contacts then inside the IAEA and UNMOVIC groups (Un Monitoring Verification and Inspection Commission), and I knew what was going on, and I nearly lost my job out of just insisting to Biden that I didn’t think there were any nuclear weapon programs left in the country.
Pete, obviously, you weren’t going to be changing the minds of people like Rumsfeld or Cheney.
But why so many centrist Democrats? Why so many centrist Democrats bought into this?
That’s an easy question. That’s terribly easy. I’ve written about this, and it’s shown up in other places too. I don’t know what President Bush knew. I don’t know what he’d been told. But he told Biden that he was certain that those weapons or weapons programs were in existence and proceeding well.
And Joe’s comment to me was, “I cannot believe that a president of the United States would lie to the chairman of SFRC on a matter of life and death, war and peace.” He said, “You’ve got to have missed something. You’ve got to have overlooked it because he wouldn’t be so sure, and couldn’t give me those assurances if there weren’t good, solid evidence.” Biden later apologized to me.
We had a briefing from George Tenet for SFRC, both parties and staff. And I got sick and tired of listening to defector this and defector that, (My objection is that defectors want a US passport, a nice salary, and a house in McLean. And they will say whatever they think it will take to get that package.) and so on, so I passed Biden a note, and I said, “Ask him what current, technically collected, intelligence he has that indicates that any of these programs actually exists.” Next time it came around to Joe’s turn to ask, he said, “Director, what technical intelligence do you have?” Tenet said, “None, Senator.”
Joe said, “We can send the staff out of the room. You can talk to senators only at any level you choose.” Tenet’s response: “When I said ‘none’, I meant none, at any level. We’re going by what we’ve been told from friendly intelligence services.”
Well, it wasn’t that hard until that sort of thing started to come out around the edges to convince a senator that the President—you know, this is war and peace. This is our national existence—that the President would not lie. So I don’t know. I’m not accusing Bush of lying. I am accusing him of saying something that we now know was not true.
So, Pete, to clarify, when Biden apologized to you, and, as you explained, he said to you earlier, “I couldn’t believe that the President would lie to me,” on what basis then did Joe Biden apologize to you?
He said, “There obviously were no nuclear weapons programs there. You were right. I should’ve listened.”
That doesn’t resolve the question of whether he believed that Bush had lied to him, though.
I don’t know whether he believed that Bush lied, but he knew that I hadn’t made a mistake. Did Bush tell everything he knew? Did Bush tell things he did not know? Did he fabulate? I don’t know. I wasn’t in the room. I didn’t get to ask him a question.
In retrospect, we know there was nothing there. The UN had taken them down completely. And in absolute retrospect, when I got to London, I had money for a postdoc—actually, for two assistant professors. And I went and I advertised in the appropriate places to advertise in the English market.
One of my applicants was a sweet middle-aged lady whose name I don’t ever use in public, who ran the bearings group for the Iraqi centrifuge program. She said there was nothing there. Saddam didn’t want to admit it publicly because he thought that he would be—have more diplomatic clout if people thought he had a nuclear weapons program. But by the time the Gulf War was over, and the post-war inspections were over, we didn’t have anything anymore.
We couldn’t reconstitute. She went and worked for the—after she worked for me for two years, she went to work as an inspector for the IAEA and loved it. Send a proliferator in to inspect proliferators.
Pete, did anyone else apologize to you?
No. My colleagues said, you know, “We shouldn’t have doubted you.”
To what extent did you leave the government in protest?
To what extent did you leave the government in protest?
None. None. The Democrats lost control of the Senate in 2002. I was able to hang on until spring of 2003 because, just as happened this year, they couldn’t pass an organizing resolution, and so all the staff continued in place. All the committee chairs continued in place. And then they kept me on half-time.
Did you want to go back to academia specifically?
Did you want to get out of D.C.?
No, not—they were not goals that I had. But when somebody calls and said, “Would you like to head up a brand new science and security group at the finest war studies-type program, national security program on the planet?” you don’t say no.
And, really, that was the—it still is—War Studies at King’s College, London is still one of the best departments in the world for national security studies.
Were your kids in college at that point?
Son, yes; daughter, yes.
So it would’ve just been you and your wife going over?
Yeah. We found a housesitter for the house that we own, and we rented a two-bedroom apartment in London.
This was a low point in US-European relations, of course.
To what extent, being on the other side of the pond, did that broaden your horizons on that issue?
I learned to listen to a lot of people whose names I barely knew. I got to be friendly with Lord Robertson, who has been NATO Secretary General and also a man you’ve probably never heard of, but maybe—Air Marshal Tim Garden. Tim was certainly my favorite Englishman. Air Marshal in the RAF as a three-star. He was also Knighted, and they made him a Lord and a Member of the House of Lords. His education was as a physicist.
You spoke the same language?
Identical, and we had almost identical views on deterrence and defense, and we had absolutely identical views on where, if we were lucky, we would get a post—what we would think of as the Capstone post. He wanted to be a junior minister in a Liberal Democrat— Labour Government, and I wanted to be an assistant secretary. Exactly the same.
I said I was happy if it were in defense or in state, but I want to deal with arms control. And he said, you know, “Me too.” He died far, far, far too young of pancreatic cancer, and died about a month before I returned to the States. No, that’s not why I returned.
I was in the British Air Lounge in Dubai at the airport in Dubai when they announced that he’d passed. I had gone to Dubai for two days to spend it with Jafar Jafar, the last and only halfway successful head of the Iraqi Nuke Project. My woman friend said, “You two have to meet,” and set them up—set me up. And Jafar was happy to give me two days of his time.
What role did you serve at King’s College? Was the idea that you would bring in eminent people? Was your idea to mentor postdocs? Academically, where did you see your role?
Well, my role was handed to me. I was given a million bucks of MacArthur Foundation money, and told to start a new center on science and security. I was told that I could bring in two professionals and one postdoc, basically. I had money to hire some grad students and pay them, and I was supposed to get a program going. In the three-something years that I was there, I put out three PhD students, which isn’t too bad. And now, the program is humming with about five times the money that I had because each person has had a good base to build on, and we—you know, being at a good place—you bring in eminent people.
We started a program, which finally ended but worked pretty well. The Foreign Office and some foundations gave us enough money to run a US/UK/China conference on nuclear stability. What does nuclear stability mean to the defense intellectuals of those three countries? We had three meetings a year apart, one in London, the next in Beijing, and the last one back in London. We had a fairly continuing core group with new people rotating in each time.
At the Foreign Office’s suggestion, we didn’t publish anything. It was all off-the-record. Call it a track two and a half or something. I was able to befriend and spend a lot of time with Michael Quinlan, who was the former permanent under secretary in the Ministry of Defense and I think he was cabinet secretary for a short period. Michael was the man who conceived of the British nuclear deterrent, and formulated it the way it is—Sir Michael. But, as with Tim Garden, it was Mike. He—none of these people really much cared about the use of their title. It’s…
When did you come back to the States?
When or why?
I came back because I was involuntarily retired at age 66. There was mandatory retirement there at 65, and I applied for and got an extra year. At the end of that, they said, “You know, it is legal to give you a second year, but it never happens. So don’t even bother to try for it.” So I came back in 2007/2008.
Did you get involved at all with the Obama administration on a consulting basis?
No, for some reason, somebody there didn’t like me, so I didn’t get involved. I did other things, and Tony Blinken and Brain McKeon brought me into the campaign a year ago. I’m hoping they’ll find some kind of board or committee or something that I can help on, but I’m too old and a bit too fragile to take a 40-hour-plus job because in June, I’m 80. That seems like a good time to say, “No, I don’t want to work all the time.”
[laugh] Pete, an outsider looking in, what were your thoughts as the JCPOA was coming together?
Really mixed, really mixed. The JCPOA was the best deal we were going to get. The Iranians had their own interests too, and they weren’t going to give us everything we wanted. The thing that I really did not like about the JCPOA is that it lacks a baseline. Typically, in a good arms control agreement, you have a baseline.
When it starts, you physically inventory the number of centrifuges and the mass of U-235, and the enrichment percentage—you get a baseline, so you know if it changes that they’ve done something. And the JCPOA did not provide for an on-site baseline that was agreed and inspected. It simply declared a baseline. “This is what we got. Take it or leave it.”
On the other hand, it seems to me that they were pretty well abiding by it until they got hit with Trump’s maximum pressure. And it—now, I don’t know whether Biden can reconstruct it or not. I don’t know whether we want to. But I felt better knowing that Iran was three years from a bomb rather than one year.
And they need a little more uranium, but they could build a trivial gun bomb too, and that’s—so, I had mixed feelings. Ernie Moniz set me up with a good briefing over at DOE intel on why I shouldn’t be unhappy. And Rhys Williams pretty well convinced me that, a) it was all we were going to get, and b) with the snap back sanctions procedures, it would probably work fairly well, and they probably wouldn’t cheat too much. Everybody cheats, so that’s not a—
Pete, as a physicist and as a policy expert, there are any number of norms that were broken during the Trump administration that may have bothered you. What bubbled up to the level where you felt compelled to write about it and to take a public stance?
[Pause] Not sure that it bubbled up in that way. Seeing the JCPOA go down, seeing various treaties dismembered and dismantled, bothered me a great deal, and I wrote some things about them. Mostly I published them in regional newspapers, not the national papers, on the grounds that I wanted to convince people, and I wanted to speak to a larger audience than just the politicos, the blob, if you will, here in D.C. I wanted to show ordinary people why there was a problem, and what the problems were.
What outraged me the most? Seeing INF go down. Yeah, the Russians were cheating. There should’ve been a way to negotiate that. That’s why we had the Consultative Commissions on all these treaties, so that when you caught somebody, you could hammer out a deal. The Russians think we were probably cheating a bit too.
I haven’t—I probably should’ve written some things about the Open Skies Treaty going down because that was a no-cost benefit, not merely to us but to our allies. The fact is that our intel’s pretty good, and we probably didn’t learn very much from Open Skies. And the Russians didn’t learn a lot from flying over the United States either, except that there’s a swimming pool in every backyard.
But the Czechs, the Hungarians, the Norwegians, the Romanians, all of those countries don’t have overhead. They got a lot of intel, and Open Skies did exactly what it was designed to do, and that was prove [cough] prove to the Russians, prove to the Czechs, prove to us that nobody was maneuvering troops to form—to prepare for a surprise attack. That was its major reason for being.
As I said, I was sick for a long time. I was somewhat under the weather the first three years of the Trump administration, believe it or not. I not only survived a rare cancer, I also lost my kidneys. That’s why I’m a transplant patient.
And it’s not as easy to manage a transplant as the docs will tell you it is before they do it. Having been for a brief period on dialysis, I prefer managing a transplant. It’s a hell of a lot less soul-gutting. But you still don’t have quite the energy you had before.
So, and then I came down with a couple of strange bugs that we won’t even bother talking about, one of there are only a dozen cases a year. I did some work for the Nautilus Institute, Peter Hayes’s group on the West Coast and in Australia, on North Korean artillery rockets. And I keep trying to push myself, so I did too many things that I’m interested in.
I did—a year ago, I started out on a project to show that it was really a waste of money to try and defend against conventionally armed ballistic missiles, Scuds and the like, whether they were Iranian or North Korean or whoever’s because, in fact, they don’t cause very much damage. You can look at that Iranian attack on an American air base in Iraq, and you’ll see that although they were pretty accurate, the size of the craters left behind are really small, and they had 1,000 pounds roughly of high explosive. The V-2 had 900 kilos, 1,800 pounds, and the actual damage done by the V-2 as well right where they hit was, you know, just the building’s blown away. It didn’t extend very far, and the maximum number of people killed was about 125 when one of them hit a theater.
Well, it cost 100,000 or 200,000 to launch a Scud. It costs about a million bucks to launch an interceptor. The Scud can’t do that much damage that it’s worth blowing 10 times as much on the defense as it’s costing the offense. And I got the research all done. I just have to sit down and make myself write the paper.
You know, that’s always one of the problems. You get the work done because that’s the fun part, and now you got to write it up. And since I’m not John McPhee, it doesn’t come that easily.
[laugh] Well, Pete, I don’t know about lower energy, but you’ve been going strong for over three hours now.
Good, so it has.
It’s been fun.
Pete, on that note, I want to ask for the last part of our talk, I’d like to ask a broadly retrospective question, and then we’ll look to the future for my last question.
So the big question looking back [clears throat], obviously the big transition point in your career is from physics to policy with that interregnum where you were operating sort of half as a physicist, half as a policymaker.
You know, I didn’t tell you I spent a sabbatical in 1981 at UC San Diego with Herb York, and that was my first real professional baptism of fire.
Working for him was really tough. He was a great guy, but very, very demanding.
On that basis, Pete, given that your intellectual maturity, your coming-of-age came as a physicist, you brought that sensibility, that scientific sensibility into the world of policy, overall, what’s the value in that? How do you translate better policy outcomes as a result of having that scientific sensibility, and a scientist’s way of viewing the world?
I think the scientist’s way of viewing the world gives you better policy. I think better policy saves lives. It saves money. It saves the environment. Better policy is—I should say successful policy does all of that. And [pause] I had something, and I—just give me a sec.
[Pause] Now, I think that policy which violates scientific laws, no matter how attractive it is otherwise, is doomed to fail. If I listen to someone who says, “But carbon dioxide’s not a pollutant; it’s just tree food,” and I build a policy on that, as so many people are trying, I’ll get long-term results which are very much inferior. If I build a policy that says, “You need a Manhattan Project to go nuclear, and nuclear terrorists don’t have Manhattan Projects,” I might get surprised. I don’t know.
Nobody knows if we’re going to have nuclear terrorism other than people writing notes and sending threatening letters, which has been happening for decades. But if you assume that it can’t be done, the surprise will be unpleasant. If you assume that a nuclear war isn’t all that bad, and you don’t have to surrender some options to avoid it or to limit the size of the war, you could find out differently.
So, bringing a physicist’s point of view to the policy world is precisely why AIP and APS and AAAS run Congressional Science Fellowships. It’s because we think that that will give better American policy in the end. I’m willing to be contradicted. I could be wrong. But I haven’t seen any reason to believe it’s wrong.
And where we’ve had really brilliant scientists involved—Freeman Dyson, Dick Garwin, just to name two. Sid Drell and Pief Panofsky, and Jim Timbie, my grad school classmate—it’s made big differences in the outcome. We’ve gotten agreements that have at least limited the rate of increase of armaments. That’s not as good as reducing armaments, but it’s better than letting them run free. So physics is what physicists do.
I’ve lived by that. When people said, “You’re not doing physics,” I say, “Yeah, yes, I am actually, because my policy positions are based in large measure on that kind of thinking, that those—that toolkit.” Everybody’s training gives them a different toolkit to go work in a policy world. Some toolkits are useful; some are less so.
Pete, last question, looking forward, in the realm of international affairs, Americans can be very famously shortsighted, and have short attention spans. We’re not talking about anthrax and dirty bombs and radiological this or that right now, and that’s because these things aren’t in the news. But that’s not to say that they’re not ongoing threats. What are the things that you’ve seen over the course of your career in science and policy that we should still think about, that should still be on our public consciousness, where we should still have agencies making sure that they have their eye on the ball?
I’m obviously going to tell you nuclear weaponry and nuclear arms control, neither of which is very fashionable at the moment, and neither of which is getting the media attention that it deserves. We’re far more interested in hate crimes against Asian Americans right now because it’s in the news. I guess one thing I’d like to see is more forward-looking news coverage, more predictive news coverage of the kind that PBS sometimes does. What’s the guy—the science writer, the science reporter there? I can’t think of his name. The guy who lost his arm a few years ago. [Hiles O’Brien]
Oh, yeah, yeah.
He does good things. And what do I—nobody, nobody is doing any serious preplanning for a major volcanic eruption. I don’t mean one of the unpronounceable Icelandic volcanoes going; I mean the Yellowstone Caldera or Mount Rainier. God, if Mount Rainier were to come back to life, and there’s no reason it cannot, the whole SeaTac area would be—would look like Pompeii. Now, there’s nothing we can do to stop it, but there may be things we can do to mitigate it if it happens.
We are fortunately looking at earthquakes, but then a lot of our cities are built in earthquake zones. As a result of Fukushima, we are looking at ever more—and the Malaysian one before it—at tsunamis. We should look at those. Those are things where there’s a science component but not a military one, but that hasn’t—that’s not a problem.
I would say offhand that we ought to worry a little bit about what we might do if a new virus came out of some country that—let’s call it China, just to name one. We were caught pants down for that, and that’s not for lack of warning. It’s for lack of anybody preparing. During the anthrax problem, I studied quite a bit about what we were doing, and what FEMA had available. It didn’t seem like they had enough but it seemed like they had more than I had expected.
My daughter-in-law used to work in the pharmaceutical industry, and, indeed, in emergency preparedness. So, she can reel off chapter and verse where all the FEMA warehouses that are top-secret are located, and what is there. And she is worried that we’re not going to rebuild the stocks, just as we didn’t after previous drawdowns.
Military—I’ll tell you why I’m really worried, and that’s all this—I really want to use obscenities—this crap about the Russian wonder weapons. I have no idea why anybody would build a nuclear-powered cruise missile. They claim that—the hypersonic aircraft or missile with the boost-glide on it, do you know when that was invented? Mid-30s.
Now, Eugen Sänger and his wife didn’t know how to build one, but they knew what it could do, and they did the basic calculations. I stumbled across something on the web last week, and I didn’t bookmark it, and I damn well should have. That we actually built a couple of those things back in the ’60s, and decided that it was too much trouble for not enough return. Not surprising.
And then there was this nuclear-powered torpedo. Can you think of anything dumber? Even if you use appropriate cavitation so that it can go at a fast speed, a nuclear-powered torpedo with a nuclear war head—if you’ve read their doctrine, it’s supposed to screw around the ocean, and then submerge into the mud in front of some major port city and wait until it gets a signal to explode. I don’t think it matters very much to us as a country if the Russians want to spend their money on that, just as it should not have mattered too much to the Russians if we wanted to spend a lot of money on SDI.
I don’t know where you were during the Reagan years, but that was a major point of contention. If Reagan hadn’t been so fascinated, and he had accepted Gorbachev’s offer at Reykjavik, I wonder what the world would look like. Instead, we have what we have. So I could—you can list with a few minutes of thought a lot of contingencies, some of which are important; some of which may not be. At one point, I made a listing.
I was talking to people at RAND Corporation in Santa Monica of the three most important military developments in my lifetime, and I said, “The nuclear weapon, the ballistic missile, and the spy satellite.” And I said, “Not in that order.” I think the satellites have done more to keep the peace than any of the rest of it. If you know what’s going on, you don’t have to fear surprise so much.
Well, Pete, on that note, this has been fantastic spending this time with you. I’m so glad you were able to share all of your insights, scientific, and policy, and I’m thrilled that we connected. So thank you so much for doing this.
I am so glad you asked me to do it.