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Interview of Richard Blankenbecler by Finn Aaserud on 1987 May 5,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
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Exposure to government consulting while Ph.D. student at Stanford; JASON membership as outgrowth of university work with Marvin Goldberger. Primary JASON work on ABM defense; first summer study at Berkeley, 1962; other projects include Cape Cod, Woods Hole, and Santa Barbara studies. Impact of personal philosophy on choice of study topics. Broader involvement in Advanced Research Project Agency (ARPA) and Arms Control and Development Agency (ACDA) project on test ban issues. JASON involvement in Viet Nam war issues; disillusionment leading to resignation; broader questions of Institute for Defense Analysis (IDA) independence.
We're going to talk about your involvement in JASON, and perhaps broaden it out a little bit to other involvements pertaining to science policy or science advising. Before I turn to any history, I usually ask people about their papers, correspondence, manuscripts, that kind of thing, because that's another involvement of the Center, to try to keep track of records in the recent history of physics in America. So are the papers being taken care of at this institution with the help of an archivist, for example?
You mean physics papers.
Yes, or any papers you have pertaining to your career.
I try not to keep any.
OK, you said you moved.
No, I don't really have. I try not to worry about that.
OK, but if that ever should come up—
And I think all my JASON records are, either I returned them to JASON, or they all were inconsequential and have been disposed of.
Yes, essentially because of their classified nature, I suppose.
All those were certainly returned.
Yes. But of course there were others as well. That's what I'm hoping to use, because I'm not cleared myself. Well, let's start talking about background and how you got into an interest in science advising in the first place, whether that was related to the war experience or whatever it was related to.
No. Not really from any direct war experience.
You're a little too young for that, I admit. You were born in 1933.
'33. However, I lost family in the war, and my father was in the Army, so I moved around during the war, from Army camp to Army camp. So I was certainly affected by the war. But I had no great desire to improve things and so on.
No. You got your BA in '54, your PhD in '58, and that was just afte Sputnik that you got your PhD.
And you joined JASON fairly soon after that.
I went to Princeton, as an NSF post-doc, and worked with Goldberger quite a bit, Goldberger and Treiman, and so I think after a year, I was probably either an instructor or assistant professor or something, but I joined JASON very soon. In fact, I think the first thing I did was working with Murph on a —the Cornell people were trying to get money, I don't remember from whom, maybe the Air Force, to build the Arecibo radio telescope, so they asked Murph to see whether the physics looked reasonable, and so Murph and I did some work discussing scattering waves from the upper atmosphere of this planet and other planets, and that was probably the first thing I did. And then after that is when Murph asked me if I would be interested in joining JASON. I did not go to the initial JASON meeting, but I think I went to, it was fairly, within a year.
Yes. That was your very first exposure to that kind of problem?
But it came naturally when you were in Princeton.
Yes. That's correct.
Murph asked you rather soon to join.
You don't remember exactly when that was?
No — yes, '60.
But the first meeting was in 1960.
I guess maybe fall of '60 or spring of '61. Somewhere like that.
Yes. So what was your response? You were honored or?
Oh, it was very—I considered myself a very patriotic person. Yes, I wanted to join it, just for that reason.
So it was not just to join your peers, it was a real motivation to help the country also involved in that?
Yes. Rather naive, but that's exactly what it was. There was some money associated with it, but always more pain than it really was worth. So that was not the motivation.
OK, there was not need to help an expanding family or anything of that sort, behind it?
No. We didn't have any money, but didn't need it here.
OK. Fair enough. How was that first experience related to the question of becoming a member of JASON? The first experience that you talked about with the Cornell people.
The Cornell people. Well, I don't know. Murph is the one to judge that.
Yes, but you mentioned it as a kind of a pre—
Yes, it's really the first thing that I remember doing.
Outside of —
—outside of my own academic thing.
I see. Was that a one time thing or was that something that continued?
Now that I think about it, I did, when I was a graduate student, I did work for SRI. It comes back to me. At the Polter Labs, which is a shock wave lab. I got my first clearance at that level, because I worked on emissions, and the design and fitting of emissions, shock wave properties.
Yes, while you were a PhD student at Stanford?
Yes, that was '56.
Was that a usual thing for a PhD student at Stanford to do at the time?
No, I do remember, at the time there were about three of us over there in the shock wave labs, two in my class, and one person was in the mathematical group, and tried to do the mathematics. I was in sort of the practical end. And then there was also someone, I don't know which group he was with, but he stayed in study of shock waves, and now he's doing shock waves physics, so far as I know.
Yes. Was that a way to obtain support for your studies, or was it something that was explicitly encouraged by the physics department?
No, it was neither encouraged or discouraged, but it was for money.
Right, but it wasn't something you were pushed into. It just came naturally.
Right. So that was a similar activity anyway.
So did you have any knowledge of the motivations for establishing JASON? Did you follow its establishment? Did you know about that?
Well, I knew that Murph Goldberger and quite a few people there at Princeton, Wigner and so on, had a lot of connections in Washington, and were always going to Washington, and on panels of various types, and I don't think I ever asked why. It just wasn't interesting to me.
Until you were asked.
Until I was asked.
On your vita here, according to this, you got your PhD in '58 and you started as an associate professor at Princeton 1960.
'61. Somewhere in there.
What happened in between there?
I think I was an NSF fellow, then assistant professor, then I became associate rather quickly.
Yes, you were an NSF postdoctoral fellow from '57 to '60, it says, then a Sloane Foundation fellow from '62 to '64, so the NSF postdoctoral fellowship takes care of that.
There was both a graduate fellowship and a postgraduate fellowship.
So physically you spent that time in Princeton?
No, here, both here and in Princeton, at Stanford and at Princeton.
Right, because JASON of course was established in the fall of 1959. And one of the precursors of JASON was Project 137, which was a summer study in 1958.
At Los Alamos?
No, it was on the East Coast. It was at some Army installation, I believe. I'm not exactly sure of the name of it. But that was essentially from the efforts of Wheeler, Wigner and Morgenstern at Princeton, who got IDA interested in supporting this kind of study, and that had motivation like JASON had, to involve the next generation of physicists in national security matters. So since you were at Princeton, I wondered whether you had any contact with that, but you didn't, you're saying?
Well, this is just to confirm what you've already said then. It was Goldberger who got you into it in the first place, and when you were asked you were interested, but before then you didn't know all that much about it.
OK, and we talked about your reasons for accepting. There's no need to go into that again. So let's turn to your projects, and when you were involved in them, in what context, and we'll take them in order, so did you start off actively at once after you had joined as a member?
As I recall, the usual way of operating would be, there would be one or two meetings during the year, weekend meetings in Washington or various places.
Yes, the fall and the spring meetings.
The fall and the spring meeting, and then a month or so in the summer. And I'm sure I started right off doing it. The first summer study I remember is the one at Berkeley.
I'm pretty sure that's the first one.
Yes. Would that be '61, do you think?
Well, I can't remember. I was thinking it would be '62.
OK. What was the main activity at that meeting and what was in particular your involvement?
Well, as usual, there were many different projects going on, and I don't remember all of them. I do remember there was a study of description of turbulence, a formal study, and I was mostly interested in ballistic missile defense questions, and that's what I worked on the first, and continued, most of the work I did had to do with ballistic missile defense, radar problems, hardware problems, etc.
That was the biggest heading at the time.
Yes. And it was a big question at several points, so at several points there were big studies, always, until the Vietnam War broke out that was the major topic.
Was that something you were set to do or was that something you were particularly interested in and chose among other possibilities?
I think, well, people could choose, among a list, and it had to do with what personal taste and so on. I chose it because Wigner once, I was talking to Wigner about these things, and he said, it was very important than when you accept consulting money, that it should be for things that you would never consider doing under your ordinary academic research. Otherwise you were cheating somebody. It's unethical. And I think he was right. And therefore I always tried to choose my JASON subject to be as far as possible from my academic interests. I would do that anyway.
Yes. Did you have a lot of that kind of discussion with Wigner or others at Princeton while you were there?
No, I can't say that I was much worried about it. I don't—it's pretty rare to actually get Wigner engaged in a conversation, and I don't remember the circumstances of that, but he did say it.
Yes. He was one of the fathers of JASON, of course. He was a senior advisor at the time, as was Johnny Wheeler, whom you also interacted with at Princeton, I'm sure. But we'll be talking about the project.
About the project. So it was ballistic missile defense. In fact, I think the first study was High Point defense of siloes. And it went on from there.
Yes. So how did you work on it? Did you work on it in well-defined groups?
Yes, well-defined groups. We had to sort of lead each other along. And when we needed to find something out, it was good to have several people searching for the information.
Yes. Well, even though you sought a distance between the work in JASON and the work in the academic field, in order that you should be made use of, there must be some kind of relation there. I mean, you must be asked to do something that you can do because you are the one you are.
I think it has more to do with knowing a little bit of mathematics, and having since been able to find the information, more than any specific knowledge. And certainly that's the main reason for having any kind of consultant. A consultant of course—this is a little off the subject— a consultant has a tremendous number of advantages, and one of them is that when someone calls in a consultant, it's because they don't know how to do something, and therefore if the consultant actually doesn't solve the problem, that's fine, because it means the consultant isn't really any more smart than the people who tried to do it originally, and that's a boost for the home organization, so the consultant can't possible lose. But the real reason is to get an independent judgment. That's what's really useful about it. And that, I think, JASON did.
From your side, you chose a problem in order to contribute to it positively.
Do you remember how the choices were presented to you? I mean, did you actually get a list of things to do, or in what context was that discussed?
Well, I think, as I recall, various talks on different subjects were presented at the fall and spring meeting, and at some point, the steering committee would decide what subjects were particularly appropriate. Or possible. And then, some group would respond, by asking some money for it or getting a group together to look into that, and I think those probably also started during the year, and then really got to work during the summer.
Yes. Was there actually a possibility for a non-steering committee JASON member to come up with his own proposals?
That was not on the list?
Oh yes. Certainly you could do that. And there were — I was involved in one, maybe two attempts to do that, but we very quickly found that the problem, there were no resources availble for the problem, so it couldn't be done. Not that they didn't give us resources. We couldn't find any information on the problem, so we couldn't—it wasn't useful for us to pursue it.
Yes, but that was in part due to a communication problem with the agencies that were supporting people.
Right. We certainly had full backing from JASON.
So was that on the same occasion, the same summer study, or was that?
That happened later on.
That was when you had become a little more mature in the business.
Something like that.
So, since we're on that anyway, do you remember what those suggestions were, or at least in what kind of area?
It's embarrassing. Maybe it will pop into my mind. I don't really know.
OK, let's continue chronologically then. I don't know if you have anything more to say about the ABM business during that first summer. Who did you work with at any rate then? What was the group? Whom did the group consist of, do you know?
Henry Foley, I think, Andy Sessler, so we were looking at one area, and then there were other people looking into associated areas. I can't remember who they were. I can't remember.
OK. Was that the main thrust of your work in JASON that summer, or did you divide yourself among different projects?
Oh no, that was it. That continued to be for several summers, for me. I normally sort of worked on at least two subjects, one primary one and one just for my own information and —
—OK, different kinds of activities?
Different types of problems.
Yes, because conceivably JASON can work on more inventive kind of work, I mean, developing its own solutions to problems, or it could investigate the solutions of others to problems.
We were distinguishing between two kinds of problems, the evaluation of the solutions of others, and your own solutions to problems.
So was that the kind of distinction between the problems you worked on? I'm just fishing now.
Yes. Well, I think there were certainly those. There was another kind which would come up on occasion, which didn't take so much time, but IDA would ask individuals to critique a study done by the full time employees at IDA, and so we would go and learn about what they were doing and read their report, and make suggestions about presentation, conclusions, and criticize logic and so on.
Yes, so there was a rather close connection between JASON and IDA more centrally.
At least some parts of IDA. There clearly were large parts of IDA where, at least the normal JASONites, you know, were not permitted to venture. And I don't know whether that's because they did something or because they didn't do anything.
Well, it's hard to know.
Yes, exactly, it's hard to know.
Well, other projects, maybe we should go through—how many summer studies did you participate in? If the first one was '62, you said that you participated in —
At least five. In some form or other. There was one in ? Maine. There were several on Cape Cod. There was at least one at Addis Air Force Base on Cape Cod and maybe two at Woods Hole. There was, the last one I really attended was at Santa Barbara. That was '66, because I came out from Princeton to Santa Barbara in '66 on sabbatical, and I stayed in '67 at Santa Barbara.
That was the Vietnam summer study essentially.
Well, we'll get to that. Are there other studies that stand out? Was it ABM essentially every year before then?
ABM was usually the primary thing. Now, ABM studies, there were several types. One of them was looking at, more like a system, namely, what could you put together, how would it work? For Hard Point Defense that was the major issue. And what would we do to the offense if you had such a thing? How does it change the offensive strategy and so on? That's one, that systems analysis, more. Then there was a more technological question, such as what happens during blackout in the upper atmospheric, when you get it terribly excited, what happens to the radio properties? And I didn't really do very much in that area. I did, I remember I wrote a paper on improving signal to noise, from a particular kind of radar system, which had to do with looking at coherence properties, and that, I think, —well, it was interesting, that's probably as close to physics as I ever really got in JASON.
Still it wasn't quite what you did in your academic work in physics.
Right. We had never come across it, wouldn't have been interested in such a —
No. But was there ever that possibility, that there were problems within JASON that conceivably could be closer to what you did as an academic physicist?
Certainly. People who were studying the mathematical formulation of turbulence. That would have been an academic subject. And —
Would it have been your academic subject?
No, but as a professor of physics, I would have felt happy publishing a paper in that field. And if I was interested in that field, —to me, that's a conflict of interest. Because it's conceivable that I could have done it, so — I shouldn't do it.
And you followed that, I mean, you were strict towards yourself in that respect.
Yes. It wasn't very hard, because there were a lot of interesting problems.
Yes, and you weren't really tempted to find a connection there. Of course, there were others who did that. I mean, that rule wasn't entirely followed.
No, there were some people who did exactly the same thing at JASON that they did at their home institution.
Yes. Were there discussions of principle about that within JASON?
Not that I recall. Not about that.
So Wigner didn't come and lecture you at JASON. This was your personal thing, between you and Wigner.
Yes. And I don't think even he lived up to it all the time, but nevertheless he said it.
Yes. "Do as I say, not as I do."
Yes, exactly. Anyway, so that was — if you want to, I have some, one more technical topic, and that is, I got interested in following the signal analysis thing, the problems of sonar in the ocean, sonar problems, so I did work on signal processing, sonar signals.
Yes, which is entirely different from the ABM. This is entirely separate.
Entirely separate subject. And again, using the same idea, which is to look for coherence properties, but very different environment, totally different situation. You'd never recognize that they would in fact have anything in common. And so I think I published a couple of reports, JASON reports, on that subject.
OK. While we're at that relationship, or lack of relationship, rather, are there any publications on your publication list that have some JASON relationship?
Not even conceptually or something that you wouldn't have worked on otherwise kind of thing?
There's a real true separation there.
Do you have a list of your JASON reports?
No, I don't.
So that sonar thing, was that as extensive as the ABM?
It didn't last as long, but through the years, it only took maybe one summer. Maybe I worked on it part time two summers, something like that. It was, anyway, actually the most interesting thing.
Interesting because it was closer to physics?
It had many more problems that in fact you could think about and get the physics to it.
Yes, right. Did that hook you up with a different group within JASON?
No, I think I actually did that mostly on my own, with some critiques from other people who helped me write the paper so it would be readable, to the sonar community, and trying to get their jargon and so on. No, I think I did it all independently.
Yes. Generally speaking, was there a core of ABM people and a core of say Navy problem people, or did it?
I think that's probably right. People like Bill Nierenberg were always interested in Navy problems, ocean problems. There were some people working on some infra-red effects at the ocean surface. And I don't know exactly how JASON worked, but there always seemed to be experts brought in for the summer studies on major topics of interest. They were brought in from companies or other think tanks etc. And I never really understood whether they were members of JASON, pseudo-members of JASON, or just hired consultants or exactly what.
Well, I guess there were some people who came back, since you were working on some problems continuously.
Yes, that's right. Oh yes. There was considerable continuity and that was one of the nice things about it. Once you got working on a problem you became expert on, you could continue with experts, so —
Yes. It seems to me that one of the distinct, possible distinctions you can make between the two kinds of ABM problems you talked about, the technical one which—was that your own, by the way, entirely?
Well, there were a lot of people working on that area. Again I think the particular paper was probably my name only. I don't remember exactly. Maybe one other person. But there was a group really looking at radar signal analysis in the ABM context.
What I was getting at was that it's not only that one is technical, the other one is more systems oriented, you might say; it's also that a system oriented problem has a more obvious science policy implication, I would say. I mean that feeds more obviously into what you would discuss at some international negotiations for arms control or whatever.
Was there ever discussion within JASON or in your mind as to, to what extent JASON should feed into directly that kind of discussion, or whether JASON should be entirely technical, without any judgment on those larger issues?
Well, I usually find most scientists totally naive on the larger issues. So I never really thought it would be a great idea if JASON were to sit down with the Russian counterpart of JASON and work this whole thing out. But the fact that the information should be fed into the US appropriate people, that was clearly important. In fact, you know, there was another paper that I wrote somewhere about, after we set up this system, and after we did this work on signal processing and what you could actually see and so on, we then wrote a paper on how to defeat that system, which was a crucial thing, because you want to know whether ABM is worth it or not, and so we wrote a paper showing how easy it was to defeat it. So that I think in fact is one of the important contributions that JASON should have made. Whether it made it or not, I don't know, because it takes someone at a higher level reading these things, and I don't know whether the message ever got through.
Yes. That's a major question, of course, for a historian, how and to what extent this advice came through, and how to go about finding out that, and — well, with any of these problems that you were involved in, did you follow its process in government after it was given away in the form of reports?
No, that was beyond my—I'm sure there were people who were in a better position to follow it, like Sid Drell or Murph Goldberger.
Yes, but was that part of something that JASON could do as an institution, or did they follow it by virtue of their other capacities?
I think this was in their other capacities. And if it didn't work, they would come back and JASON would do something appropriate, probably.
Yes. Basically it stopped there for JASON.
As far as I was concerned, it stopped there. Although there were other things, like at some point McNamara decided against the ABM deployment, to defend the missile force. And of course everybody felt very good, because they felt like they led to that correct decision. But I doubt very much whether it really had much to do with it. I can't believe it. But people like to be happy, that's fine. But I don't really think it had much to do with it. I don't think decisions are made that logically anyway. But it made us feel good, so we felt like we were doing something useful.
Yes. Well, it made you feel good that the government did something you agreed with anyway, whether—
— yes, that's right.
— it was a result of your advice. To what extent did you work with people in JASON that you worked with in physics?
Well, that's interesting. At that time I was working with Goldberger quite a lot.
In JASON, as well as —
—no, outside. In physics. But when we'd go to the JASON things, we would work with different groups. Our interests were different.
OK, that was not a conscious choice based on your discussion with Wigner.
No. No. I think Murph operated very close to the way I would have operated anyway. But it was just natural. It happened that way.
It could avoid the suspicion, of course, that's another way of doing things differently in JASON.
OK, you also had an experience with the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.
What was the relationship if any between those two experiences, those two activities?
Well, I was — there were as I remember it two people in JASON who also happened to be members of the American Alpine Club, and were mountaineers of a sort. Anyway, we knew what a tent was. And not too many members knew what a tent was. But anyway, when this, when the Arms Control Agency, either the Arms Control Agency or at the time it was probably called ARPA, Arms Research Projects Agency, in the DOD, someone—
— which was JASON's largest sponsor.
I see. That sounds right. Someone discovered that, even though it was a fundamental element of US policy, that a test ban had to have inspection, on site inspection, for 20 years, since 1946. No one had ever tried it. And therefore they thought they'd better have an exercise, to see what you can in fact inspect. And how many people, just questions like, how many people does it take to inspect a certain area, and how long do you have to stay there, and what's the effect of weather, and various other things. And no one had ever worried about this. So they decided to have an exercise, and this was held in the Four Corners area near Ship Rock, and near Monticello, Utah. And it was sort of half Indian territory, half Indian territory and half government land, and a lot of ranchers in there.
But the US Geological Survey actually took care of the equipment and getting the group housing up there in the wilderness, and transport of various types and so on. And so we had what was supposed to have been maybe a three or four week exercise, and we had a very large area to try to cover with people, and it was pretty well designed. Anyway, there was a group of people who were the examiners, who went in and put things around in this big area, of various types. There was a buried tank of radioactive, very short life radioactive material, which was buried, and it released this into the atmosphere at a very slow rate, and the question was, could we detect it? Could we find it in this area? They left other things around on the ground, of various technical types, that we might find. And various other clues. It was supposed to be, they had a secret test and then they moved all their equipment out, and we come in, and can we discover that? Such activity really took place. And so, the team itself, there were two members in it and there were inspecctors and I was an inspector. I just went around with a team member and observed them and helped evaluate them after the fact.
And I didn't know what had been put in there or anything like that, so they didn't give clues, so it was a fair test, and after it was all finished, we got together and had quite a nice unveiling of what was going on. It worked pretty well. It ended up quite tragically, though, with a helicopter crash which killed someone, a geologist, and he was from Texas but actually his family was in Santa Barbara, where I ended up living, so I know. But the pilot was hurt, a broken leg, and I think there was a third person, a geologist at SRI who was burned fairly severely. So it really brought the exercise to an end.
How did you come to be involved in this in the first place?
Well, since we knew what a tent was, someone at IDA knew they were setting this thing up, and told us about it, so we looked into it, to see—-it seemed like a very noble enterprise, so we, I think, tried to get involved in some way. IDA in fact had other people there. There were one or two other people. They had one other person, a psychologist, someone who was supposed to keep track of the attitude of the team members, and communication between team members, which turned out to be the problem. And so actually, I thought it was crazy to have a psychologist there, but it turned out, he was one of the most valuable people at the final resume time. So we got involved that way.
Yes. So this was essentially a JASON study?
Well, we joined. We joined as independent observers. Then it turned out that I was the only one who went. The other person decided not to do it. I in fact was the only JASON person there. And so I wrote a report to them and gave a report to JASON about what happened, and it also led to —
— that was also JASON supported, that was, as a JASON activity.
Yes, I was paid by JASON. Right. And there were quite a few people from industry, Texas Instruments and so on, and these people were all paid by ARPA, I'm sure, if you trace the money back. Now, after that, I then served on a committee, a Panofsky panel, for ACTA, and we wrote a study, where inspection was one of the major issues at stake, so I was involved in that. And again, I was probably paid by JASON.
Yes. How were you brought into ACTA? Was that as a result of that first involvement?
That first thing, and then I was brought in by Panofsky, to be on his panel.
Yes, right. So it was actually JASON leading to it, if not in a direct way, close to a direct way.
Close to a direct way, yes.
So JASON activity wasn't just the summer studies of all JASONs and the spring and the fall meetings, it was also the possibility of being involved as one JASON in this larger enterprise.
That's right. I don't know how many other times that occurred, but it certainly occurred this time.
Yes, that was the one time it occurred to you.
So in that sense, JASON fulfilled one of its own motivations, that is, to involve the younger generation of physicists in a larger area of national security questions, to serve as a springboard to other activities.
Yes. In fact, what it turns out, this Panofsky committee came to the, not due to Panofsky but due to the other members of the panel, came to the wrong conclusion, and I couldn't, didn't, was ineffective, in trying to override them, and my one major feeling of regret is that, because I had to quit, I didn't, wasn't actually able to pursue this problem, because I just think the people are thinking wrong about this problem of inspecting test ban treaties, possibly inspecting missile ban treaties. They just are not, they're using the wrong —
Could you be more specific about this, what is the right and what is the wrong?
Well, the question is much more complex. This committee said, the Panofsky committee said it was impossible to cheat, and that's crap. It may be a little bit difficult to cheat. But it's very easy to cheat if you don't care much whether you're found out or not. So the point is, the problem has many more parameters than they — they want a yes or no answer. But in fact, it's a complex problem, and you have to think about it in a complex way, otherwise you're totally misled. And also, some of them didn't know the range of possibilities. Can you inspect properly? And no one's found out. I think it's just, even today, they're still talking about inspecting, to see whether the short range missiles or the intermediate range missiles are there, etc. They haven't thought about it. So that was always, I was always sorry about that.
So that led to your resignation from studying that kind of problem?
Well, that didn't lead to my resignation. But because I just couldn't continue, because of the war, which we haven't gotten to.
I mean resignation from being involved in that kind of problem. I didn't mean resignation from JASON.
Yes. That, I just was not able to follow that up.
Was that your main involvement in ACTA?
So in effect in led to your resignation from ACTA or disengagement?
Oh no. What happened then was that, again, about that time is when the war started coming up, and when we had our JASON studies on Vietnam issues, and they sort of took over everything, because people were dying.
Yes. Is it time to start dealing with it, or are there other involvements that we should— ?
No, I think—no. I think we're about ready for that. I can't remember any other.
Yes. Did you have any contact with the sponsors, people outside JASON, in the projects that you were working on? I'm talking about non-Vietnam projects now, like ARPA people or people in IDA who were looking over your shoulder or asking you for a solution to a problem, that kind of thing, or did everything arise from the steering committee, from within JASON, as far as you were concerned?
Most things certainly arose from the steering committee of JASON. And if one wanted to go outside, which I'm quite sure one could, on a problem of interest, one would have gotten permission from the steering committee, which would have been no problem. I mean, they were—everyone was anxious to be helpful, so one would have got permission without any problem.
Yes. I'm asking you in part to find out whether there was some person you were involved with that I in turn could talk to as a possible evaluator of the impact of JASON from the other side, that kind of thing, a project manager or something like that.
Yes, well, you certainly should. I mean, an important issue is people who, like Panofsky and Drell, who had lots to do with the Arms Control Agency, from their side. And I don't know who from the ARPA side survives. I don't know what the effect of this inspection business had.
Yes, and there were a lot of changes in ARPA, at least on the top levels, I don't know, probably at the bottom levels too. ARPA developed a conscious policy of, what did they call it, of, well, getting rid of problems as soon as it reached something like a development stage.
That meant also getting rid of the people who were involved in the projects. There was a conscious policy to that effect.
You're right, there might be—Alvin DeSpain, I spoke to him briefly, he even spoke of JASON as kind of an institutional memory of the government, at least in those matters— well, there may be something to that, because of the changes in ARPA. Well,—
So, OK, then we could turn to the Vietnam involvement generally.
Yes, and to the Barrier.
Yes, I caught myself there because it started out as a broader problem.
Yes, that's right.
What were the origins of your involvement in that kind of problem? Both in JASON and outside JASON, if that's —?
Well, I think, when I was at Santa Barbara, I was the faculty advisor to the Mountaineering Club, and anyway—
— OK, this is '66 to '69 you were at Santa Barbara.
Yes, and I had a lot of things around campfires and various things, to talk to them, to the young men who were facing being drafted, and they would ask my advice, what to do. They didn't want to be drafted, like any sane person. And I never knew what to say. And I didn't think I should advise them one way or the other, because it wouldn't be me who would serve the prison sentence. And so, we have too many cowards who order other people to get into trouble. I couldn't do that. But anyway, so when JASON started working on war problems, which I believe, I don't know whether it was brought in by Maxwell Taylor, when he became the director of IDA or whatever his title was. There was suddenly, there was concentration on it, and it coincided with JASON's strong involvement. I don't know whether it was cause and effect. Anyway—
Well, there might have been some people inside JASON too who saw the need to bring up the problem.
Yes, exactly right. Exactly right. And there were also some neophytes, a neophyte politician, but we had our, JASON had its, more than its share of people who thought they could solve all problems by a little bit of thought. And so, in fact, that's right, there was a Gell-Mann study back along the East Coast, was held in a boys' school somewhere back on Cape Cod, and he studied either Vietnam or Laos, Laos I believe at the time, and he had various people brought in, brought in some remarkable radio announcers who had traveled through the area, and other things. And so I thought it was pretty stupid, but anyway they did it, so there was —
Because it was too broadly construed or too untechnical?
Yes. I coudn't imagine who would make—of what use it would serve anybody. It was just —
Was that a general feeling?
I can't answer that.
But I mean, he wasn't alone in it, obviously.
No. I don't know whether—there weren't too many people involved. I don't know whether it was because he didn't ask or people didn't want to do it. I don't know.
Do you remember what year that was? Was it early on? It probably was.
'64, '65. It was about the time, soon after Kennedy comitted troops there. It must have been '64, he committed troops to combat in '62, probably. So it was '63, '64.
I could find that out, I think. I don't have it right here.
I think it came out that this study—that's where he reportedly asked the group something about, what's the effect on the mayor if you cut off his right hand? Something like that. When guerillas come in and they want to force the local authorities to give them support. Anyway, there's some such thing. That was my estimate of the general level of this. But I was prejudiced.
Yes. That was not the meeting from which the transcript was stolen? Was it?
This did get out.
Yes. That was that meeting.
So that was also the meeting on whether or not to involve social scientists in JASON. I think that too was another level of —
That could be. I think Murray certainly was for that, because he could really impress them all. Grind them all into it. But anyway, yes, that's right.
So that wasn't what got you involved in the general problem. It rather turned you off.
Yes. And was there any report coming out of that, do you remember?
I think there must have been a report. I can't imagine what it would have recommended or said, but surely there was a report. Now, the Barrier was sort of the—JASON started looking into the general problems of Vietnam and what was supposed to be causing the problem, etc., and the Barrier came out of that study, in some way.
Yes. That was an ongoing effort from that '66 study on? Was there any connection there between what was done in '66 and the origins of the Barrier approach?
I don't know. Probably not. Of course, the political—I think the problem at the time, I remember studying several problems. One of them was the bombing, the effect of the bombing on the South and on Laos, and would it cut down on the supplies, and there was absolute fear that it would increase the supplies, and I remember, that was the summer of the airline strike, and only American Airlines was flying. I remember flying back to the East Coast. There was a thing called JASON East, which had nothing to do with the real JASON.
What was the origin of the name then?
I think they tried to use our good offices.
OK. But that was a fairly well-established group in the first place, wasn't it?
Bunch of old fogies. Yes.
Yes, MIT crowd.
Exactly. I mean, the people who advised Kennedy to get in in the first place, and then decided it wasn't a great idea. But I remember going back there to the meeting. And that was the consensus of the meeting. So the question is, how to get the government to stop bombing? And the Barrier, I believe, mostly came out of the feeling that, if the government actually had an excuse, something that they, since it was done by the armed forces, of course it would work, if the armed forces does it, it works—if they put this Barrier, they could stop bombing. So this was an excuse to stop bombing the North. And I believe that was the real appeal of the Barrier.
Yes, even from the outset, that was the motivation even for thinking about it, you think.
Right. That was the only motivation that I really heard, because a little bit of thought—in fact, I felt bad, because at the same time, I was doing some radar stuff for ballistic missile defense. But one of my jobs was to be the, to get through the Barrier, and so I read all the works of General Joppe (?) and his techniques, and so my job was to penetrate the Barrier and show them where the weak points were.
Yes, like the second ABM study.
That's right. And I didn't do a very good job. I always felt bad about that. OK, a good job of that, and it would have never been considered very far. I think. But I don't know. Of course, it wasn't really supposed to work, it was just supposed to be impressive. And so, I think I remember making a trip at least once, maybe two trips to Eglon Air Force Base in Florida to look at various tests of it, of the dispersal system for the Barrier.
Yes. Did the JASON East meeting that you attended, that was in '68? Was it? No, was it '67?
'66 or '67. '66 rings a bell for me, but it could have been '67.
Oh, yes, the same year as Santa Barbara.
Yes, the same year as Santa Barbara. (...) So I think it must have been '66. And so, somewhere along in this period.
Yes. This was something started by the JASON East, and then JASON was involved?
I remember that JASON West, the real JASON, was supposed to look at the Barrier aspect of it.
Yes, that was the agreement from the meeting.
And JASON East was supposed to look at the bombing, exit bombing, and other things, because I think JASON East was also supposed to look at fixed barriers like Maginot Line type of things, which, being the most stupid idea of the whole thing, was in fact tried.
That was the one that was tried?
OK, so, what was the division of tasks after that JASON East meeting?
I think things had been divided up beforehand. The meeting was just to—
Yes, and get information passed from one to the other. There were just a few people that went East because of the airline strike. It was quite a chore to get there. And everyone knew the answer, so in effect it didn't change anything.
Yes. So the main job had been done before that even.
So the order of things was Santa Barbara, then East.
Yes, and then I came back, I think it may have been in the middle of the Santa Barbara meeting. I'm not sure.
Or just afterwards or something, but they were, one of those things came after the other. And then there was —
But at the time you bought that motivation of providing an excuse for not bombing the North.
Yes, although, again, I didn't think anybody would ever buy it, but —
But it was better with a chance than no chance, I guess.
Yes, but I was getting pretty disgusted with the whole thing by then. And there was one other thing that happened which, something else which made me wonder, and that is, Maxwell Taylor was head of IDA. The head of research was — he was a JASON member, he's now—
— at that time— Was it Brueckner? McDonald?
McDonald, McDonald, and anyway, I talked to someone, and they said, "Why don't you look into the problem of the rain, and rain making?" So I got some books to read about rain. And got thinking about it. And then, suddenly it was cut off, and I was told not to do that and not to talk about it, and then what I found out was that someone in IDA, and it was either Gordon McDonald or he approved it, apparently he thought it was a great idea, it went to Maxwell Taylor, and the idea was to seed the clouds so that it would rain, and mire the North Vietnamese down so they couldn't move supplies into the South. And since Maxwell Taylor must have had direct connections with the flight orders, orders on flights, airports, anyway, it happened, and so they were using climate control to try to affect things. And that coming on— just senseless loss of life—
So it was a successful venture?
I don't know. But something—it did rain there. Of course it always rains there.
When did you learn about this? How did you learn about it?
Well, I was sort of asked to read up about it and critique. The question there was, was it worth pursuing? Technical question.
But you were asked to stop it again, you said.
Yes. I was told to stop it and hush up. So it was operational.
So it was pretty clear, that was the implication, yes.
Yes, it was operational.
So were you able to feed into that, do you think, with the little you knew?
No, I was turned off before it really started, because it was operational.
Are we now still in '66?
Or '67. It didn't last very long, so this could well have been between the '66 and '67 things. '67 was probably my last summer study, because that was at Otis Air Force Base, as I remember, Cape Cod, or was it? But by that time, things were pretty—for me—I just couldn't do much. To me, it was, you know, being really young at the time of the Nuremberg Trials, I actually believed what the US justices said at the time. And if your government is doing something sufficiently evil, you are obligated as a citizen not to support it. So anyway, I decided to quit. I decided to stop. I didn't resign, I just stopped.
There's one report of yours, Fleshettes, what was that?
Oh yes, Fleshettes. That one got me into trouble with the Students for a Democratic Society. That was an ABM program. The problem was, there was going to be, in fact you read about it now, one scheme for throwing rather dumb rocks at incoming warheads. It was just to set off an atomic bomb and blow the hell out of a junkyard. Only we had to sit on top of it. Well, one can be more clever than that and try to put heavy material out there, so that when the bomb goes off, the material, the shock waves fragment the material, that you have aerodynamic bodies that can travel distance in the atmosphere, so that they can intercept something, and that's what a Fleshette is. A Fleshette is an aerodynamic shaped object, and that's what it was.
OK, but it didn't have much to do with Vietnam.
It had nothing to do with Vietnam. But it was an idea that would only work with a nuclear weapon, and I have a feeling, at least one would hope that there would never be anything in there. So it was ABM.
Was that an earlier enterprise or something you did in this period?
I can't remember. It might have been the last thing I did. Because I was always working on ABM, even at the time I was doing other things.
Yes. Of course the titles of the reports led to problems. I mean, there was that study, which you said gave you personal problems with the students, and there was the study of nuclear force in Southeast Asia, which of course meant, according to some people, that that was a suggestion of JASON's, to do that.
Yes, right. In fact, there were two such studies. One of them was on the use of nuclear weapons in the Near East. And then, I think that was a couple of years earlier, we were also worried about the introduction of nuclear weapons into the Israeli conflict.
Yes, of course. You were involved in those studies as well?
No. I wasn't involved in those studies.
So what was the trigger to your decision to leave?
It certainly was the war.
I don't know if that is the correct question to ask now, or if this is the appropriate point to ask it.
This is the point, because that's when it happened, and at this time, right at the end was also when I worked with Pief on his committee.
Oh, in ACTA?
In ACTA. And that's because I was working on that and deciding to move up here and join Pief, at the same time.
To SLAC, yes, that was in '69.
And I quit doing any JASON stuff, and finally I decided I would just withdraw. I had to withdraw from everything. I couldn't separate the two things.
Did you write a letter to that effect?
I told them I wouldn't do any more. No, I thought it wouldn't be too honorable to write a letter. And so, and also because I didn't want to quit. I would have liked very much to be able to contribute. But I couldn't. Also, I think if I wrote a letter, it would be advertised or in public, and I didn't want that either.
And it was not a protest against JASON as such then.
No. It was against the government. But years later, and this gives rise to the Lax letter, some time later, I forget now how much later, I might find a copy of the letter actually.
That would be nice, yes. We're talking, just for the tape, I found a reference to this in the minutes of the JASON steering committee meeting of January 10, 1971, which in part says, "Drell mentioned discussions with Blankenbecler concerning the latter's reply to A.H. Lax's letter. This letter discussion of the possibility that JASON consider working for Congress. " Lax of course at that time was the director or president of IDA, right?
Yes, president, right. He's the one who fired me. He wrote me a letter after some period of time, after I quite doing any work, saying, "Sorry to hear that you resigned from JASON, sincerely, A.H. Lax." So that was fine. But then I wrote him a letter, saying that I thought —
That is the reply.
That's the reply. Saying that I thought not only was JASON being misused by IDA but IDA was being misused by the government, and that it really didn't serve its purpose, and in fact, I thought that there was flagrant disregard for its original purpose. And so I outlined various steps that I thought they could take to make sure that IDA served as an independent resource for the government, not a dependent one, a yes man for the government, and that must be what this is about. I'm surprised, I never knew that at all. I thought it must have gone into the round file.
No, it evidently was discussed. It doesn't say what the result of the discussion was.
I'm sure they — nothing. But —
No, it led to a discussion of the possibility. And then it fell. Well, did you expect anything like that to happen?
No. Oh, absolutely not. To tell people to live up to their oath!
No, it doesn't sound that realistic. Well, how come then this letter came up in JASON in the first place, or in the steering committee in the first place? Was that from you, or from ?
No, no, I have no idea. It must have come from Lax. I lost track. I just mailed it off to Lax and that was it. I didn't even mention it to anybody.
Right, you didn't seek to coordinate things with JASON in that respect.
Oh, absolutely not. It wasn't too complimentary. It wasn't uncomplimentary, but it certainly didn't compliment JASON nor IDA.
Well, at least you are positively mentioned here, I would say.
I thought it was a very reasonable letter. I thought I had some good ideas. And it was mostly just to prevent—what happened before was, the government would say, "We had our experts look at this problem, and here's our decision." Whether the experts were listed as IDA or JASON. But it turned out, the decision woudl be the opposite of IDA's advice. And I had a very simple suggestion. That is, before IdA took any research contracts, they should insist that they have the right to correct any misrepresentation about their advice. I thought they owed that to the citizens.
Was that allowed at all? I mean, that IDA had been misrepresented.
Oh yes, it was.
Yes, but would Lax go along with that? Did you ever discuss it with him?
And of course your letter never got an answer.
No. Except I always thought that, about six months later I had this great idea, I was going to write them a letter saying, "Thank you for your reply of last week. I totally disagree with your point number 2, but your point number 3 has some possibilities," and go off into another—and just watch him squirm, and see if he could find this missing letter!
Yes. "In your absence," you could —
But anyway, that's something that I would normally do, but I didn't do it in that case. I think you've exhausted me. I don't know much else.
Well, after your JASON involvement—no, I haven't exhausted you, I think, because I'd like to know the date of your—first of all, is it possible to get a copy of your letter to Lax?
It may be possible. It may be possible.
Because that would be very interesting, I think.
I had copies, but again, it's one of those things, my office has actually been cleaned up several times since '71.
Which might help for some things but not for that.
And I can look through my files, and if I come across it, I will—
Yes, I would appreciate that, and if you come across other things too. It's just by chance that I came across this. There may be other things that are interesting too. I'll be here a week.
Once I decided I couldn't do it any longer, then I just cut off, completely. I didn't discuss it with any other JASON member.
Do you remember the timing of your decision to quit?
Well, it sort of grew up in that '67 time period. And then I think I just stopped going to the fall meeting, the spring meeting, the summer meeting.
Yes, but you did also, if not by letter, then by mouth, give the definite impression that you were quitting, right?
I don't know who I told, I —
Or was Lax's letter a guess? What did he base his assumption on?
That I don't know. I don't know. Actually, I told somebody that I decided that I could only consult for the American government, and as soon as we had an American government, I would do it.
All the resignations that I know about, or that I have seen from these minutes that I've gone through, I've been lucky enough to get access to Charles Townes' papers, in Berkeley, and unfortunately, he doesn't have the minutes up to '67, '68, but he has the minutes from '67 through the first session on SRI in '73. And from those minutes, the first resignation mentioned is Burcane (?) in April, 1968. Was that in any way connected to your decision?
No, he just wasn't interested.
OK, that wasn't Vietnam either. I could ask him of course.
Yes, you can ask him. He was at the Santa Barbara study, but he wouldn't do that. I think he just wasn't interested any more.
OK, and then you quit somewhat after that.
Yes, after that. It sort of depends on when I just stopped going, and when they realized it, and when Lax sent the letter, and I have no idea. I certainly do, it was at least two years before he sent the letter to me.
I had even forgotten. I didn't even know I was still a member until I got this letter.
OK, that's the reason why you aren't mentioned before then, because there was never any discussion of your resignation within JASON probably. And then Mat Sands resigned in '69.
Yes. I don't —
I have his resignation letter. He wrote a resignation letter.
I would imagine. I didn't talk to him. I didn't know, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were for some of the same reasons.
And then Sol Peter and Furth resigned in May, 1970, and that was Vietnam-related, I believe, certainly in Sol Peter's case. Kreeston in October '72, and Shreefer, and I think Trieman in November, '72. Trieman rejoined of course. Those are the people I know about. Are there others that you know about that resigned? I mean, this wasn't something that you did together with others. It was basically your own individual decision.
I feel strongly about it. I didn't want to—I think everybody should come to their own decision. No, I didn't talk about it with anybody, either Pief or Sid or Murph, three of my best friends.
There was a meeting at Eglun Air Force Base in 1968, discussing the Vietnam involvement of JASON in general terms.
I was at that meeting.
You were. How did that come about? Was that some kind of demand on the part of the JASON body?
A couple of people brought the subject up. I think it was Murray Gell-Mann, Fred Zachariasen, and I don't know that they insisted that the subject be discussed, but they were leaders of the discussion, about how unethical it was and so on, and I didn't believe in it at the time. I didn't go along with them at the time because I thought that there was something useful we could do, and people were dying, we ought to do something, and then after a while, you realize that what they said was correct, so I resigned, and they can —so we must have convinced each other.
Yes. It was certainly not a meeting volunteered by Hal Lewis, I'm sure. There must have been some other —
—no, certainly not. Well, it was a very trying time, because it's a true tragedy, in the sense that there were no right answers, and yet you had to do something.
Have you maintained your connection with JASON in any way, or have you been asked to rejoin?
Absolutely not, when anyone has asked me, I said I wouldn't.
So that your decision was, well, went beyond that Vietnam involvement.
I still really — but there's something I always believed all along, and that is that people should advise their government for a while. But then you become like my good friend Hal Lewis, who, in spite of being one of the smartest, cleverest people around, that it is extremely bad to become a professional consultant for the government, and that people should consult for a while and then quit. I mean, it's like professional Washington. Pretty soon you have no idea what's going on in the United States proper. So I think people should voluntarily quit, find out what's going on and learn some more science, physics and so on, and then get into something again, perhaps go back.
Is that the realization that was forced on you by the Vietnam experience, or was it an experience that would have come otherwise?
Oh, I would have — I think if Vietnam hadn't come along, I would have quit, and then done something else and perhaps come back. I would hope that the government actually, that we eventually would have a government that seemed worthwhile working for. But, because, you see, I also am convinced that the people who say, "Well, you have to get in there, and you work for the government in order to change its direction, " I think that's mostly a bunch of garbage. The government hires these consultants in order to prove its own case. I think most of it, people are being used.
Yes, that's the basic problem, are you used to support the already held views of the government, or do you actually have an input in changing the views of government?
That's the basic question of inside advice.