The following op-ed appeared in slightly edited form in Newsday, Tuesday, July 23, 1985, under the headline “Military Secrecy Threatens the Peace in This Nuclear Age.”

I realize the humor in a cryptographer saying that secrecy is obsolete. Of course, the title is a simplification and the body of the article clarifies in what areas greater openness is needed.


Secrecy is Obsolete

Martin E. Hellman

Secrecy, which was critical to military success for most of human history, is now obsolete. Secrecy is useful if you hope to win a war, but is harmful if you are trying to prevent a war. And today, our paramount goal has to be to prevent war with the Soviet Union. Since war would be the end of civilization, anything less is pointless.

The danger of secrecy in today's world is illustrated by its role in perpetuating the arms race. Because it takes about ten years for a major weapons system to go from planning to deployment, both we and the Soviets must estimate what weapons we think the other side will have at least ten years from now. This is called the "expected threat". But, because so much is at stake, we add a safety margin in our planning and prepare for a Greater Than Expected Threat or GTET. This safety margin is really a danger margin because it fuels the arms race. Each side builds more than it thinks it needs, creating a ratchet effect because its adversary then feels justified doing the same.

This ratcheting process has resulted in the accumulation of 50,000 nuclear weapons with the destructive force of one million Hiroshima bombs. Before the arms race started, we were invulnerable. Today we can be destroyed in an hour. Secrecy, the condition which requires planning for the GTET, therefore is a driver of the arms race and a detriment to our national security.

On a recent trip to the Soviet Union I experienced both sides' misguided use of secrecy. In the Soviet Union, I was struck by the paranoia surrounding picture taking. Pictures from airplanes or tall buildings are prohibited as are pictures of railway stations, airports and other structures of military value.

The message was clear. The Soviets expect a war and fear that such photographs in the hands of Westerners would put them at a disadvantage. In fact, if there is a war, pictures will not matter. With or without them, the Soviet Union will be destroyed. Far from increasing their security, this secrecy on the part of the Soviets actually hurts them. It fuels our fear that they are preparing for war, thereby adding pressure to the hair trigger on the world's nuclear arsenals.

Similarly, the tightened US security measures surrounding sales of technology to Eastern Europe hurt our security. For example, we recently refused to allow the sale to Hungary of a modern telephone system which uses American integrated circuits. The message to the Soviets was clear. We expect a war and fear that American high technology in their hands would put us at a disadvantage. In fact, if there is a war, telephones or integrated circuits will not matter. With or without them, the United States will be destroyed. This secrecy on our part hurts our security. It fuels Soviet fear that we are preparing for war, adding further pressure to the nuclear hair trigger. And, if we keep adding pressure, the trigger will inevitably go off.

Secrecy was of tremendous value in World War II but, in the nuclear age, it is old thinking. Soon after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Einstein declared, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe." If we are to survive and bequeath a future to our children, we must re-examine our thinking about peace, war and security and make it consistent with the realities of the nuclear age. We are not fighting with spears, or bows and arrows, or even with the weapons of World War II. Since no one can win a nuclear war, prevention is our only hope. And that path requires openness, not secrecy.