Herbert York Interview (1982): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Nuclear Arms Race: Conversation with Herbert York, Director, Program in Science, Technology, and Public Affairs, Professor of Physics, U.C. San Diego; with John Holdren; 4/26/82 by Harry Kreisler

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Peace Movements and Public Opinion

Dr. York, our political system seems to be out of sync with the arms control process. We are unable to ratify SALT, unable to complete negotiations of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. A hard-line administration was elected saying that the Democratic administration is too soft with the Russians. Now we have a new administration, and suddenly, a peace movement develops. What's wrong? Why can't arms control be legitimated and survive politically in this country?

Well, that's a very interesting and good question. It is a fact that things are out of sync, probably in several ways. The one that struck me most forcefully is the one you implied in your remarks that when there was a real chance of getting a SALT treaty and a Comprehensive Test Ban and several other arms control and disarmament treaties, there was inadequate public support. I don't think inadequate support is the only reason that Carter failed to accomplish these objectives. There were other underlying factors. And, in a sense, you might say failure was over-determined. But nevertheless, lack of public support was certainly an important matter, and maybe with appropriate public support -- well, certainly, with public support -- we could have gotten SALT and we might have gotten even a Comprehensive Test Ban.

[Although] currently there is a large public interest, it's hard to tell what's cause and what's effect here. I think the cause of this large public interest is the hard line of the current administration. The current administration believed that the public wanted to hear tougher talk from Washington; believed also that the Europeans wanted to hear tougher talk from Washington. In part, they were right: there certainly are people who did want to hear tougher talk, both nationally and in Europe. But it turns out there were more people who were frightened and offended by this tougher talk, and at least a substantial part of the reason that we now have such an active peace movement does seem to me to be precisely this tougher talk from Washington.

HOLDREN: Don't we see here, though, Herb, a case of several strands coming together? It seems to me, besides the hard tough talk coming out of the Reagan administration, that one has had in the past several years a growing movement represented by the Physicians for Social Responsibility, for example, educating the public on the dangers of nuclear war, [and] increased activity by organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists. This activity had started even in the previous administration and is now, in a sense, feeding successfully on the added concern that comes from the hard line.

Well, these organizations -- the ones you named, and others -- have origins that go back twenty and even more years to the end of World War II, to the fallout accidents of the fifties and so on. But I think that in America, the big upsurge does date from Reagan's tough talk. In Europe, there is, perhaps, an additional, important element underlying it all, and that is the modernization of the nuclear weapons systems there -- both in the case of the Soviets, with their SS-20, and in our own case, with the proposals for new Pershings and for the neutron bomb. From a technical point of view, those are really just modernizations that, in a sense, had been delayed for other reasons. They started during the Ford administration and on into the Carter administration. Those actions did create considerable political activity and reaction in Europe. And the American reaction is at least partly carried over from the European reaction.

HOLDREN: Of course, that situation in Europe also now amounts to rather fundamental re-examination of the question of whether Europe can be defended with nuclear weapons at all. Or whether any attempt to defend against the Soviet conventional attack in Europe with nuclear weapons would lead to the destruction of the continent one was trying to defend, if not the destruction of everybody. I wonder if you would expand on that theme a little bit.

Those are not new questions, nor are they even new answers to those questions. But not very many people were interested ten, twenty years ago. It took these recent events to bring these things to public consciousness. My impression is the Europeans, ten and twenty years ago, just preferred not to think about it and leave it up to us. If they were anti-nuclear, they focused on reactors rather than on weapons. It's only relatively recently that the large-scale activity has been reborn -- and I say reborn because we both remember and realize that in England in the fifties there was a very substantial concern about nuclear weapons and there were marches on Alder Mastin at the time. Out of that same ferment grew the Pugwash movement, for example, out of the concern in the fifties, which grew out of the fallout accident in the Pacific, and I suppose it had other roots as well. That's what I remember, the fallout accident in the Pacific.

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