Martin E. Hellman
Work on
Technology, War & Peace

This page is also available in Romanian courtesy of Alexandra Seremina of azoft, and in German courtesy of Anastasiya Romanova of Uhrenstore GmbH.

Technology has given us powers that were traditionally reserved for gods: raising the dead, creating new life forms, and destroying the world. As the Mid East, Rwanda, and Enron demonstrate, humanity's social progress is far from god-like. This chasm between our technological development, on the one hand, and our social development, on the other, has created a recipe for disaster that demands urgent attention if the human race is to survive.

This truth escaped me during the early years of my career, when I focused on developing technology without much concern for the consequences. But, during the 1980's, a sequence of events forced me to face these issues and, from 1982-88, working with the Beyond War Foundation was central to my life. In that time, the nuclear threat was the most visible symptom of the chasm demanding our attention, and was therefore the best vehicle for engaging people in a way that might then extend to other, pressing issues.

While my initial motivating force was deeply personal, international events soon took charge. When Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1981, he brought the nuclear threat into sharp focus. Whereas previous presidents had anesthetized the American people with implied assurances that these awesome weapons would never be used, President Reagan openly discussed nuclear war fighting plans, pushed for the rapid deployment of "Euromissiles", and developed the Strategic Defense Initiative, also known as "Star Wars", to protect the U.S. during a nuclear war. His honesty, while shocking to some, was a blessing that stirred me and many others into action. And his policies were not that great a deviation from the past: While he had initiated the SDI, Reagan had inherited the Euromissile deployment and nuclear war fighting plans from Jimmy Carter, who later received the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize!

As I worked with Beyond War in an effort to defuse the nuclear threat, we came to the startling conclusion that any long-term solution required going beyond nuclear arms control, beyond even the seemingly Utopian goal of complete nuclear disarmament, to what we came to call "a world beyond war." War would be a thing of the past, looked on with the same puzzlement and repugnance with which we now view human slavery.

Ending war had been an unrealistic dream of mankind for ages. What had changed to make me think it was now possible? I became convinced that the rapid proliferation of weapons of mass destruction had made war incompatible with human survival. If the human tendency to make war is likened to an immovable object, then the survival drive can be seen as an irresistible force. Which will win out in this cosmic tug of war cannot be predicted but the new part of the equation, survival depending on ending war, gives hope that was not present until very recently. With that preface, here is an overly succinct summary of the reasoning:

As we worked to educate on the tectonic shift in thinking required for human survival, many Americans complained, "We can debate our nation's policies and try to change them. But what about the Russians?" As my wife, Dorothie, and I heard this question over and over, we thought we might have an answer.

In the 1970's, when Soviet-American relations had temporarily warmed, we were fortunate to have developed strong friendships with a number of Russian information theorists we had met through international symposia and exchange programs. In some cases, these friendships had led to honest political dialog, free of national rhetoric and propaganda. If we could bring this experience to more Americans, we hoped Americans would stop asking "What about the Russians?" and start asking "What about us? What can we do?"

When Dorothie and I first visited Moscow on this quest in 1984, we knew that our ultimate goal was unachievable, and focused initially on much more limited aims. The honest discussions we had had with our Russian friends had always been one-on-one, out of earshot of other Russians and possibly hidden microphones. Strict censorship was the law of their land. There was no way we could bring our experience to a large number of Americans. But, God seems to reward fools and, in hindsight, this turned out to be precisely the right time to start such a project.

The forces of perestroika and glasnost (reform and openness) that would bring Gorbachev to power in 1985 and lift censorship in 1986 were already at work behind the scenes during our first visit. Although neither we nor anyone else in the outside world was aware of it, the scientists we met in 1984 were actively engaged in that process and, when Gorbachev came to power, several of them advised him directly. Suddenly, Dorothie's and my dream of "bringing our experience to a larger American audience" was possible. And, in the intervening two years, Beyond War had laid the foundation for doing that in a most effective way. Paradoxically, if we had waited until the project made sense, it would have been too late since it took time to build trust and understanding. I can take no credit for the brilliance of that early move and thank the muse of the fools who seems to whisper in my ear frequently. Most of her suggestions do not work out so well, but the occasional home run is worth a number of foul balls. Another major "fool home run" in my life was working on cryptography in the early 70's when virtually all my colleagues told me I was crazy to do so.

The Beyond War Foundation supported and expanded our initial overture, culminating in a book, Breakthrough: Emerging New Thinking, published simultaneously in Russian and English late in 1987. The Soviet sponsor was a committee within its Academy of Sciences, headed by Evgeni Velikhov, then Gorbachev's chief science advisor.

One of the key elements was to move beyond blame. The Soviet Union and the United States had each focused on the misdeeds of the other, while largely ignoring their own — where they have power to effect change. In Breakthrough, we saw the need for change as a universal. Thus, we talked about the need for changing the Soviet policy on Afghanistan and the US policy in Central America, both of which were too dangerous in a world with 50,000 nuclear weapons. Our hope was that each nation would focus more on its own actions, where it had the ability to effect direct change, rather than vainly demanding change from its perceived enemy.

We were gratified that the book received the following endorsement from President Gorbachev:

The English translation is:

"I have examined your book with interest. This collective work of Soviet and American scientists, with participation of Western European experts, represents a valuable experience in the promotion of new thinking. I wish you a fruitful cooperation." M. Gorbachev.

For those interested in exploring the ideas more fully, the full text of Breakthrough is available on line.

Should you follow that link, it helps to remember that the book was written at a time when the Soviet-American nuclear confrontation was the primary, immediate danger facing the world. Today, when Russia and America are often allied in a war against terrorism, I should re-emphasize that Beyond War advocated unilateral initiative, not unilateral disarmament. In its current state, the world is far too dangerous a place for the latter.

My current effort in this area, Defusing the Nuclear Threat, builds on a simple, but overlooked observation:

You have a right to know the risk of locating a nuclear power plant near your home and to object if you feel that risk is too high. Similarly, you should have a right to know know the risk of relying on nuclear weapons for our national security and to object if you feel that risk is too high. But almost no effort has gone into estimating that risk. To remedy that lack of information, this effort urgently calls for in-depth studies of the risk associated with nuclear deterrence.

While this new project may seem to have a much more modest goal than Beyond War, there is tremendous hidden potential: My preliminary analysis indicates that the risk from relying on nuclear weapons is thousands of times greater than is prudent. If the results of the proposed studies are anywhere near my preliminary estimate, those studies then become merely the first step in a long-term process of risk reduction. Because many later steps in that process seem impossible from our current vantage point, it is better to leave them to be discovered as the process unfolds, thereby removing objections that the effort is not rooted in reality.

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