Harold Palmer Smith Interview: Conversations with History: Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley
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I like to ask my guests the following question: What are the skills that one needs to do the work we're talking about here, in nuclear engineering, and what are the qualities of character that you think are conducive to getting the job done in a field like nuclear engineering?
Let me answer the second question first. Nuclear power in this country has been in decline for twenty years, right after Three Mile Island. Of course Chernobyl might have put the nail in the coffin. So, tenacity is certainly needed by nuclear engineers here in the United States -- though not in France, where nuclear power is accepted. But the world moves on, the demand for oil is going up, concerns for global warming are becoming ever more powerful in their arguments. I think it's inevitable that the United States will have to turn to nuclear power. Not everyone agrees with me, of course.
I've had, as you noted in your introduction, considerable work with the French, and I have seen there a country that has 80 percent of its electricity generated by nuclear power, and they do it very, very well. Can we compete? China now says it's going to build nuclear reactors, India's going to build nuclear reactors. It'll be interesting to see who wins these competitions. Will it be the former Westinghouse, or it will be Areva, the French company?
To answer your question, one has to believe that the world is going to need this form of power, and I think it's justified. But tenacity is certainly one character trait that is necessary. To carry out the field, I think it's more sophisticated because of its heavy involvement in nuclear physics. So, you do need a wonderful grounding in nuclear physics, and in my particular case, the applied mathematics that allows you to understand how to do these types of calculations to carry out the designs.
Early in your career you went to Washington and I guess we could say you stayed there, although you always wanted to come back here, and finally, you have. You were a White House fellow, and you worked as an assistant to then-Secretary of Defense McNamara. Did your academic career as an engineer prepare you for Washington and that kind of work?
Nothing can prepare one for Washington. In fact, just to tell a short anecdote, somebody asked Ronald Reagan, "How can you be an actor and be President of the United States?" Mr. Reagan's answer was quite proper. He said, "To be President of the United States, you have to be an actor." But at any rate, nothing really prepares one for Washington, which was why I was so pleased to get the White House fellowship. I had asked for assignment to Robert McNamara because his career, up to that point, had been truly stunning. So, I was happy to go.
What kind of work did you do for him -- nuclear planning?
That was the era when strategic planning, particularly with nuclear weapons, was very much in vogue. Albert Wohlstetter was the leader of the group. What McNamara and his Director of Defense Research and Engineering -- you might say his top engineer -- wanted me to do was to see if we could take strategic thinking à la the strategic game, and apply it to tactical warfare. That meant dealing heavily with what was going wrong with Vietnam at the time. I did do some fine papers for Johnny Foster, and Mr. McNamara appreciated what I did, but the real reward was enormous insight into what was going wrong in Vietnam. And watching two fine people, Mr. McNamara and Dr. Foster, trying to find a way to win the war and yet treat the situation as it deserved to be treated -- it was a period of very high tension. Good experience, good experience.
This gives us an opportunity to talk about a problem that you seem to have grappled with throughout your career, namely the adaptation of technology to the problem of national security -- the management of that process, the thinking through of that process, and the control of that process. Talk a little about that, because that seems to be a theme that runs throughout your career in Washington.
You're very perceptive, Harry, very perceptive. Yes, it does. Just to give a few vignettes, during my early years on the campus I was heavily involved in technology, but because of my Washington experience, I knew how some of those technologies would play in the political arena. At that time on the campus was a professor named Aaron Wildavsky. I would conjure up problems where new developments in technology were going to lead to new political strains in Washington, or perhaps in the world, and I would go see Aaron, and he would resolve the political aspects of the questions with dispatch. Aaron has since died but his legacy lives on in the Goldman School of Public Policy, which is why I am so pleased to be there.
But you've put your finger on it: I like to be absolutely up to date on where technology is going, and then to try to think through what is that going to do. I suppose the best example of that is Oppenheimer, [who,] at the Trinity test in Alamagordo, made the quote, "Physicists have known sin." That was the beginning, I think, of scientists and engineers realizing that what we're doing has enormous effect, good and bad, and I find that endlessly fascinating.
Help us get into the complexity of the problem. Is it that the implications of the technology cannot always be seen? Is that a piece of this? Is it the human organizations that have to integrate the technology into the existing routine? It seems like an interdisciplinary problem.
It is. I remember when Teller was advocating the hydrogen bomb and Oppenheimer opposed him. And yet, the pull of engineering in scientific accomplishments can be so great that when Edward Teller presented to Oppenheimer his idea for how you make a thermonuclear explosion, Oppenheimer was quite intrigued. He was captured by the ingeniousness of Teller's idea.
"Elegance" -- isn't that ... ?
Elegance is a very good word, very good word. The United States did pursue a hydrogen bomb program, and we only tested a weapon less than a year earlier than the Russians. But that's an extreme example of where technological push led to very key decisions. I don't think the Cold War would have gone as it did with the Russians having a thermonuclear weapon, the United States not. One can debate that, but it's trying to look ahead into that fog to see where the almost inevitable press of technology will take us.
Today, discovery of DNA is wonderful, but it also leads to the genetic engineering of bio-weapons. How do you foresee those coming? Can we take steps now that will allow the good side of technology to benefit mankind, and the bad side to at least not destroy us?
You've worked in all sectors. You've been in the academy, you've been in the private sector, you've been in the military, not necessarily as a soldier but as a Pentagon official. What is the ideal synergy between these sectors? Is there one, or do they each contribute something different to the mix?
That's a good question. I've been driven by one other goal -- you covered the first, that is, my love of technology and where it plays. There's another goal, and that is trying to answer the question, now: Just where are the smart guys? I presumed they were here at Berkeley when I came in the sixties, and there are very smart people here, but not smart enough to hold me.
Then I tried the world of business, particularly aerospace, companies like Boeing and Lockheed, that are capable of building machines that we couldn't even imagine ten years before the machine appeared -- 747s, satellites, whatever you'd like. So, I looked for the smart guys there. They are smart people but there's certainly no monopoly. Then I tried the entrepreneurial world. I actually built a company that sold services on Wall Street, and I worked in the world of investment bankers, and there were smart people there.
I was a soldier, as it turns out. I rose to the high rank of first lieutenant in the United States Army, and even there I had interesting assignments, but I didn't want to stay in the military. And then, of course, I went to government, thanks to Secretary of Defense William Perry, and there were smart people there. But they are nowhere and everywhere, I've been looking for almost a lifetime now, and the fact that I'm back at Berkeley tells you that I think the faculty is probably the place where you're most likely to find the most interesting people that think about the things I enjoy thinking about.
It suggests that you're in a unique position to provide linkages, because it must be the case that each one of these sectors is doing something that has an insight that isn't in the routine of the other sector.
That's a very perceptive point, and yes, that's exactly right. I do have the love, probably the ability, to synergize these various experiences and put them together into hopefully a useful approach to something of importance to the society.
You mentioned nuclear power and the controversy over its use, its decline in the United States. Once you were off to Washington, you must have experienced all this organizational thinking about the integration of technology. It happens in this vigorous democracy which can partly help us understand why nuclear power was in decline, because there was a fear that it posed a great danger. Do you have any comments or insights about how the work of democracy complicates the set of problems that you've been dealing with, both in a positive and a negative way?
First of all, I agree with Winston Churchill: democracy is terrible, but there's no better way. Yes, our democratic society was unable to accept nuclear power for reasons that have a lot to do with our free press and what we read about Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But I wouldn't have it otherwise. Furthermore, on the engineer's side, we had thought that nuclear power would be so cheap, we wouldn't even bother to meter it. Well, we were wrong, but now it has become competitive, and it can compete with coal, provided coal doesn't pollute the atmosphere and the landscape. It's competitive, but you might say just barely so.
So, we misled ourselves into just how economically feasible it was, and we failed to solve the waste problem early. Even now, the United States has not solved the waste problem, but the French probably have. They have a better approach. Of course, the French are a much tighter society. Napoleon had his effect -- the bureaucracy does what it's told in France. Here, the bureaucracy, the people, the parties, the press -- we all have our different points of view. If there's a concern such as the disposal of nuclear waste, then it's going to have a hard time in a democracy. Eventually, though -- and I think it's going to happen -- we as a people do figure it out, and I think we do do the right things, but it can be a painful process getting there.
[Over the span of] your career, the relation of the Pentagon to the economy has changed. At one point, it seemed to be much clearer that the relationship was one which had an overall beneficial effect on the economy. One thinks of DARPA, one thinks of something like the Internet. We're going on the Worldwide Web because of choices that DARPA made many years ago. Do you still think that synergy works, or are there things that we have to do to make it work better? Or are we in a new era where consumer economics is more important?
It's a new era. The Office of Naval Research, DARPA -- that's what sustained the marvelous research of the United States in the sixties and seventies. And of course, NASA had a big effect. Most of my work here on the campus in the sixties and seventies was supported handsomely by NASA. But to come to your direct question, let's say in the seventies the defense research drove the research and development in the United States, and we have the benefit. The Internet is certainly a good example. Today, in the areas where I understand the situation, it's the opposite. For example, the chip. The consumer demand for chips makes the Pentagon a minor, minor player. And yet the chips that we put into satellites -- we would like to make sure that those chips can withstand a nuclear explosion in space. But we can't afford to build those kinds of chips, nor should we. We will have to find more clever ways to make sure that those satellites can withstand a nuclear explosion.
In the world of biotech, the military is not the major player, of course; the biotech industry is. So, I do think that in key areas the roles have reversed. Now the military has to adapt to what the civilian economy produces and not vice versa.
Has this changed the way you think about some of the problems that you think about? The change affects decisively the way you pose solutions to problems?
Oh, for sure. A quarter-century ago, we would give this problem, whatever it may be, to the Rand Corporation to see where we should go, we would then give contracts to the defense contractors and get what we wanted. We can't do that today. Many industries are moving so fast that we can't even predict where they'll be, let alone hand out contracts. So, the military has to wait and see what the consumer industry produces and then act accordingly. There are exceptions, of course. So far, Boeing has not decided to build a stealth transport, so there are some technologies which are truly military and they will presumably stay that way.
You began your career working with Secretary McNamara, in the middle of your career you worked with Secretary of Defense Schlesinger, most recently you've worked with Secretary of Defense Perry. Talk a little bit about that role and your perception of it, because it seems to be somebody in the hot seat, bringing all this together to ensure the national security of the country.
It's a very vague question, Harry.
Let me talk about some traits that they all have in common, Perry, Schlesinger and McNamara, all highly intelligent, all articulate, interestingly enough, in different ways. Mr. McNamara speaks very precisely, almost forcefully; Secretary Perry is always accurate but he is very sincere and soft-spoken; and Mr. Schlesinger is somewhere in between. But the ability to articulate, the high intelligence that they all had, is absolutely key. There are differences in the sense that Mr. McNamara felt he was boss and didn't want to rely very heavily on the military. Mr. Rumsfeld, I think, is much the same way. Secretary Perry was just the opposite. Bill knew that to get something done in the Pentagon, you have to get the services behind you, and he used all the charm that he has, which is considerable, to carry that out. So, the Perry mode of operation was obviously quite different than the McNamara mode. McNamara operated from the top down and he had some very able people to carry out his thoughts, and to produce thoughts that he wanted carried out. Secretary Perry was much more diplomatic in getting people to agree that this is what we should do. All in all, I think Secretary Perry's approach is the one that works best in a bureaucracy, not just the Pentagon.
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