I was going through a box of college stuff and found an old newspaper that contained something I wrote 24 years ago while I was a student at Stanford University.
This post is about humanity,
not about “Star Wars.”
It was a letter to the editor of The Stanford Daily (the daily newspaper of Stanford University) and it was published on November 5, 1984 — the day before the presidential election of that year between Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale.
I remember being surprised that my letter was published in that paper’s “Opinions” section, or at all, and I certainly didn’t expect them to print it the day before Election Day.
As if it made a difference.
But nevertheless, that was the first time I had ever written a letter to an editor. And it was the first time something of mine had ever been published.
After that, I never wrote another thing for about 23 years. Then when I did, that got published too. So, I guess you could say I’ve never had an article turned down.
It was kinda odd reading my own writing so many years later, but interestingly there was something in that 1984 opinion that still rings true today.
Here is the piece:
Star Wars not appropriate
by Claude Johnson
Not long ago you ran a letter to the editor, “Don’t Bust Reagan” (The Daily, Oct. 25), by a Stanford freshman concerned about the “misconceptions of the space weapons system.” He seemed especially anxious about Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale’s lack of knowledge, naivete and idealism in expressing his opposition to that plan in the previous Sunday’s debate. Let me say that the young writer is himself quite idealistic, naive and at a lack for knowledge regarding the so-called “Star Wars” plan.
From the start, however, I’d like to put him and those who agreed with his letter at ease by agreeing that they are right. The Star Wars defense system was never meant to be used as an offensive weapon. By treaty agreement, in fact, the deployment of weapons in space is banned. Otherwise the Strategic Defense Initiative would probably have been called the Strategic Offense Initiative. If and when we get this system up into orbit we’re only going to be allowed to use it as a defensive measure anyway. “So what are Mondale and all of the rest of us worried about?” the writer seems to be saying. Again, I must agree. Let’s relax about the whole thing. It won’t lead to an arms buildup as Mondale claims. It won’t even “incite paranoia in the Soviet leadership.” At least not as much as Mondale’s Midgetman proposal.
But wouldn’t you just know it: Though the deployment of weapons in space is a no-no according to this treaty, the research into the technology and the development of the weapons on it are not prohibited. I’ll bet most of us never really considered this fact. Still, let’s not get overly excited. The Star Wars plan is “only theory” and the underlying technology is little more than a twinkle in its conceivers’ eyes. The most powerful laser in the world today (the Nova at Lawrence Livermore national Laboratory) is only capable of emitting a mere 150 trillion watts. Naturally we have to improve on this because to produce such a burst now requires facilities the size of the Quad. We do have much smaller nuclear detonated X-ray beam devices being tested, in Nevada for example, for planned use in space, that will eventually be eve more powerful.
Indeed, we need such power in order to knock out those incoming Soviet missiles, capable of reaching our soil 12 minutes after their launch. In fact, we could even vaporize Lenin’s tomb from high above Minnesota if we wanted to. Just pretend we missed one of those incoming SS-20s. An idea in this vein would not be an unrealistic notion, would it? And our president now wants to give the technology to the Soviets? Does he think we could get them to promise, by crossing their hearts and hoping to die, that they would never use our “gifts” against us or against our own theoretical space defense system? Or would we have to send specialists to Moscow to monitor the use of their new technology? Who is the one that’s idealistic and naive?
Well, alright, what if, as Mondale urges, we don’t give the Soviets our space defense system technology? We continue to research and develop and soon find that the construction of a defensive “curtain” against the threat of nuclear attack is imminent. We have our missiles and a curtain.
Now what are you gonna do, you nasty Soviets? You had better just give up while you still have a prayer ’cause we know your missiles ain’t gonna cut it anymore. And they’d probably give up, right? Or at least start dismantling their weapons stockpile, right?
It turns out that that is more like wishful thinking. The paranoia incited in the Soviet leadership by our very discussion of the space defense system plan is already causing a frenzy in Moscow. what will happen when we actually begin its implementation? The reaction, as one could expect from a cornered bear, might well be an all-out nuclear attack of unfathomable proportion before we would even have a chance to complete the system’s space deployment. I don’t think we’d last too long in that scenario by “holding out for optimum terms,” as the writer suggests we do.
The answer to the threat of nuclear war does not lie in the development of advanced technology. This is a human problem. Never in the history of the world has more advanced technology been the solution to a conflict between nations unless it resulted in victory for one side. Have we really decided that war is inevitable and should be fought in space rather than on earth? Will we go after victory? This isn’t science fiction or the planet Krypton. We are humans therefore capable of the decision to come to terms as such.
Reagan has a preference for mutually assured defense as opposed to mutually assured destruction. Yet, no matter how I read it, the acronyms as well as the ideas are utterly MAD, and only spell more MADness. The president’s intentions are unquestionably good, but we all know where the road paved with those can lead.
(Claude Johnson is a graduate student in mechanical engineering on leave of absence as an engineer in the Weapons Division at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.)
You might have guessed that that last part got me in big trouble.
See, I had a high level government security clearance, and the authorities didn’t like me discussing this stuff as a representative of the Weapons Division no less.
So I got called into the principal’s office, so to speak. Two men in suits asked me a bunch of questions.
They told me that, even though it was public knowledge that Lawrence Livermore was involved in the Star Wars program, and was testing lasers in Nevada, that knowledge had never been officially confirmed — until I did it. Oops.
That’s what you call a leak.
But I think they were satisfied that I didn’t do this intentionally, because nothing else happened, I kept my clearance level, and I went about the rest of my life. That was that.
But it made me realize that words matter, and you can’t just write whatever you feel like writing. Maybe that’s why I stopped writing for, oh, 23 years.
The funny thing is that now I realize you really can write whatever you feel like writing. Within certain parameters.
Look, this wasn’t the greatest example of writing, although it was decent enough and after all it did get published in the Stanford Daily on the eve of the 1984 election.
More importantly, going back to my earlier point about what still rings true.
The threats we face around the world still exist, but in a different form. The effects of the Reagan era are still upon us. Now, as then, the problems are still human ones.
What have we learned after all these years?
Well, it seems we’ve learned a lot. The election of Barack Obama as president of the United States of America is a reflection of our collective will to move out of the past.
The past isn’t just what happened in the last 8 years. When we say “change” we aren’t just talking about putting up another portrait in the White House. The things we’re looking to change go back a very long way and they are very much internal to each of us.
As I’ve written before, instead of “A Change We Can Believe In” they ought to have made the campaign slogan “A Fundamental Shift in Humanity We Can Believe In.” That wouldn’t have worked, but you get the point.
Thanks for letting me share.
Make history now!