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Did enlightened US and Soviet scientists help avert nuclear war?

One of the more heavy-handed themes in The Martian, among a long list of heavy-handed themes in that film and novel, is the uniting power of science, and the enlightened nature of those who study it. It’s a nice idea, though undercut by much of the history of science, and politics. The rabid nationalism of scientists did a lot to push a wide variety of conflicts to go longer, and kill more people, more effectively. But an upcoming book from Stanford professor Siegfried Hecker says there could be a large grain of truth to the narrative that scientists are an enlightened class. According to Hecker, if not for the work of both Western and Soviet science, the Cold War could have become extremely hot.

Hecker was once the Director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, which was founded as an offshoot of ARPA and the rest of the US military research world, and he’s gone on to a long career as an Ivy League academic in engineering. That all means he’s about as well positioned to talk about the history of Cold War nuclear diplomacy as anyone outside of the federal governments of the US and the Soviet Union at the time. He lays out his claims in in a new book entitled Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian scientists joined forces to avert some of the greatest post-Cold War nuclear dangers.

Hecker’s narrative goes over the incredible cooperation that went on between the US and Soviet scientists. It started after the breakdown of nuclear disarmament talks, leading to a new initiative which said that if we can’t eliminate nukes, we should at least work together to better control them. He recounts trips to the Soviet Union where he was greeted warmly, and allowed to move about freely, and conversations in which Russian nuclear experts spoke openly about their fears for the Soviet nuclear stockpile should the government collapse — as, of course, it was going to do in a relatively short period of time.

The most interesting aspect of this collaboration was the literal lab-to-lab research collaboration that went on, joint experiments involving scientists from both nations. It shows how, even before the collapse of the Soviet Union, priorities were shifting to a future in which mutually assured destruction might give way to terrorists or other non-state actors who can hit a population while being impervious to retaliation in kind — they were forecasting a nuclear-armed Al Qaeda-like organization long before Al Qaeda actually existed. In fact, when discussing nuclear proliferation during the Cold War, nuclear terrorism was a major point of worry — and that worry might very well have stopped terrorists or a rogue state from acquiring nuclear weapons during the eventual Soviet collapse.

The implication is that these enlightened individuals could see past their respective nationalist ideologies, presumably because their scientific understanding of the world ensured that they had more uniting them than separating them. Where one might expect the engineers of two rival super-powers to jealously guard their most powerful inventions, the Soviets apparently gave Hecker and his group of visiting US scientists a detailed look at their most advanced achievements. In Hecker’s mind, this is due to the Soviets wanting to be understood as a major player in advanced science, and get the respect they were due from their brilliant colleagues in the West. If he’s right, it’s interesting that such a large and important part of history could have been influenced by such a banal, human incentive as wanting the cool kids to think you’re cool too.

Does any of this prove the thesis statement of the book, that this cooperation, or at least collegial attitude, helped to avert a nuclear conflict between the two powers? You’ll have to check out the full book for a definitive answer, but I’m at least a little bit skeptical. Teams at the very same labs that were carrying out these talks and collaborative experiments were also developing some of the most absurdly destructive, in many cases borderline reckless, nuclear technologies. The Americans very nearly blew themselves up testing the 15 megaton Castle Bravo hydrogen bomb, which led the enlightened fellows in the Soviet Union to one- (and two- and three-) up the West with the 50 megaton Tsar Bomba.

I think there is a strong argument to be made that the terrible nature of nuclear war is the only thing that kept the Cold War from breaking out in real, sustained combat, so on that count science could claim to have been part of the solution. But the idea that these people were, in the aggregate, forces for moderation, cooperation, and disarmament? The reality is that there were plenty of scientists who refused to be a part of advancing such technology at all, and they have a much stronger claim to make to that pacifist mantle.

In the video above, Hecker points out what I’d call the true value of this sort of friendly scientific relationship: At one point, he and his team were led through a laser research lab that he estimates the US intelligence services probably spent “billions” (probably an exaggeration) trying to infiltrate. The point isn’t that scientists make good spies, but that the genuine cross-cultural understanding fostered by science and math can offer a way for rivals to work together toward goals they both find sensible. The ongoing human struggle for knowledge can be a truly uplifting thing — but that’s mostly a nice emotional narrative for the individuals involved.

The larger impact of these scientists on wars and the conduct of major nations has to be weighed against all the other contributions these inspiring collaborators made to those issues. Taken as a net score like that, science doesn’t seem likely to rank all that much higher than art, or philosophy, or politics. The entirety of multiple societies were involved in that conflict, and the entirety of those same societies have to take responsibility for it.

Now read: Explaining the unimaginable: How do nuclear bombs work?

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