The Role Of Edward Teller
Although the specialists at DARPA were clearly unimpressed by the case for a high-priority program in strategic defense, the cause received influential support from the nuclear physicist Edward Teller. A former director of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and at the time a kind of physicist-in-residence there, Teller had been encouraging a group of protégés—many of them brought to the laboratory under a fellowship program of the Hertz Foundation, in which Teller has long played a key role —to investigate a "third-generation" nuclear device (incorporating fission and fusion weapons but focusing the energy of their explosions in a powerful beam of X-rays) that might have military applications. In 1967 Teller had met Reagan, when he was governor of California, and had given him a tour of Livermore Laboratory.
Two Teller protégés, Lowell J. Wood, Jr., and George A. Keyworth II, also played key roles in promoting SDI. Wood, a physicist, was the leader of the "Excalibur" project team investigating the X-ray laser at
Lawrence Livermore. Later, he would often appear with Teller in congressional hearings and otherwise played an active role in lobbying for SDI in general and the X-ray laser in particular. Keyworth, then head of the physics division at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, became a strong advocate of his mentor's views in general, even though he did not share Teller's enthusiasm for the X-ray laser. On the recommendation of Teller and other leading Republicans, and after other candidates were also considered, Keyworth was appointed special assistant to the president for science and technology and director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) as of May 1981. (The fact that the post remained vacant for so many weeks into the president's term was taken by many as evidence of the indifference and even suspicion with which the president and his immediate advisors regarded the scientific community. This attitude may have been a legacy from the Nixon administration, when the President's Science Advisory Committee was dissolved after certain of its members were criticized for disloyalty to the administration and for being "advocates" rather than advisors.)
Teller had long been in favor of passive defenses in the form of civil defense, including the dispersion of population and industry, in order to limit damage from a nuclear attack. Now he pressed Keyworth to promote the development of active defenses, including research on third-generation nuclear weapons. With Keyworth's encouragement and Teller's active participation, the four members of the kitchen cabinet—Coors, Bendetsen, Wilson, and Hume—reportedly decided to act separately from High Frontier by forming an ad hoc subcommittee. They conferred at the offices of the conservative Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., and used their considerable influence to arrange a White House meeting with Reagan in January 1982 in which Teller took part. At that meeting they presented a report urging the president to establish a strategic defense program modeled after the Manhattan Project. On September 14, 1982, Teller met separately with the president and key advisors. Although he had been invited for a different purpose—Keyworth wanted his help in persuading the president to increase support for basic research—Teller used the opportunity (much to his protégé's annoyance) to lobby for more support for the X-ray laser project. He is reported to have warned the president that the Soviets were making significant progress in developing the new laser and to have advised him that a major breakthrough in the same effort had been achieved in the Excalibur project at Livermore. Teller has said subsequently that "because the Soviets are doing it, by now it is a question of life and death,"
and that the achievement of the X-ray laser "would end the MAD era and commence a period of assured survival on terms favorable to the Western alliance."
Teller's promotion of the Livermore project did not stem from a belief that the United States should deploy defenses only when the X-ray laser had been perfected. Nor did he propose that the United States adopt a space-based defensive system, either using kinetic weapons on satellites (like the High Frontier project) or relying on battle stations armed with laser weapons. Indeed, Teller specifically rejected the idea of satellite-based interceptors and declined to endorse the High Frontier proposals because they made use of this very basing mode. "We are not talking about battle stations in space," he told the House Armed Services Committee. "They are much too vulnerable. We should merely try to have our eyes in space and to maintain them." Teller's support of strategic defense was general rather than specific, and he had long opposed any political actions—including treaties—that might hamper the development or deployment of defensive systems. In a book published in 1962, Teller was already campaigning for active defenses. "A retaliatory force," he wrote, "is important. A truly effective defense system would be even more desirable. It would be wonderful if we could shoot down approaching missiles before they could destroy a target in the United States." If the Soviets were to develop reliable defenses knowing that U.S. defenses were insufficient, "Soviet conquest of the world would be inevitable." He opposed the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty because it prevented development of nuclear-tipped ABMs, and the ABM Treaty because it prevented the United States from deploying more than one hundred ground-based interceptors. Teller continued to believe that such interceptors would be worth having, especially in view of advances in their design. And he believed this even though the interceptors could not promise complete protection and even though, in the long run, the X-ray laser would provide a much more effective defense (if it could be popped up from submarines on warning of an attack) by intercepting missiles in their boost phase without the vulnerability of space-based satellites.
In his meetings with the president, Teller evidently emphasized the long-term prospects offered by the X-ray laser, though he very likely also reiterated his long-held belief that some defense is better than none at all. Later, Teller was to react strongly against the conclusions of the Fletcher committee. He objected on the grounds that the Fletcher report called for deferring deployment until research into all possible alternatives
had been completed and because the report anticipated the deployment of a layered defense requiring some space-based systems. "The spirit is willing," Teller punned, "but the Fletch is weak."