What is JASON? Author Freeman Dyson

The following is a January 8, 2003 response by Dr. Freeman Dyson, Professor Emeritus at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, to questions posed by Nautilus Institute Executive Director Peter Hayes, published in its entirety:
Dr. Hayes:

What prompted you to write this report?
Dr. Dyson: We were prompted to write this report by some remarks we heard at an informal party, probably in Spring 1966. A high-ranking military officer with access to President Johnson was heard to say, “It might be a good idea to toss in a nuke from time to time, just to keep the other side guessing”. We had no way to tell whether the speaker was joking or serious. Just in case he was serious, we decided to do our study.
Dr. Hayes:

Do you know to whom the report was distributed?
Dr. Dyson:

I don’t know the distribution of the report. It certainly went to our sponsors in the Defense Department, probably not to anybody overseas or in Vietnam.
Dr. Hayes:

Were the conclusions of the report widely accepted or were they disputed?
Dr. Dyson: So far as I remember, we had no official reaction to the report, either accepting or disputing our conclusions. It disappeared from sight and we went on to other things.
Dr. Hayes:

How seriously was first use considered in the Vietnam War?
Dr. Dyson:

I have no evidence that first use of nuclear weapons was ever considered seriously in the American Vietnam war. The only time that it is reported to have been considered seriously was during the French Vietnam war, when the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu was besieged by Viet Minh forces. I have read somewhere that President Eisenhower was asked to use nuclear weapons to destroy the besieging forces, and decided not to do it. I had no access to any inside information at that time.
Dr. Hayes:

Was there any evidence of operational planning by services or regional unified commands that made such first use a realistic option for decision-makers had a crisis erupted threatening very large numbers of American soldiers during the war?
Dr. Dyson: I have no evidence of any operational planning for use of nuclear weapons in response to a crisis during the Vietnam war. The only evidence that I have seen of planning for tactical nuclear war was the war-games carried out at the Research Analysis Corporation and the Rand Corporation. These games are discussed in detail in our report. They were mainly concerned with responses to large-scale interventions by Chinese conventional forces, supposing the Chinese army to intervene in Vietnam as it had intervened in the Korean war.
Dr. Hayes: How salient are your conclusions with regard to insurgent escalation to nuclear attack after US first use in today’s context, for example, in the war on terrorism?
Dr. Dyson: The general conclusions of our report are still valid for any war in which the United States is likely to be engaged in the future. The main conclusion is that the United States offers to any likely adversary much better targets for nuclear weapons than these adversaries offer to the United States. This is even more true in the fight against terrorism than it was in Vietnam.
Dr. Hayes: What is your view of the current US declaratory policy that appears to highlight preemptive nuclear first strike against Iraq or North Korea?
Dr. Dyson: I am not aware of any current US declaratory policy that highlights nuclear first-strike against Iraq or North Korea. There has been some talk of developing deeply-penetrating nuclear warheads that could be used to destroy underground bunkers or factories. The adversary could easily counter their effectiveness by digging a little deeper underground.
Dr. Hayes: You deliberately did not address ethical or political/foreign policy concerns in this study. What were — and are — your concerns in this regard, both at the time, and in relation to current declaratory policy and war planning?
Dr. Dyson: I am opposed to a pre-emptive war against Iraq, for political and ethical reasons. This opposition has nothing to do with nuclear weapons. The danger of terrorist use of nuclear weapons will remain serious for the foreseeable future, no matter what we do in Iraq.
Dr. Hayes: Do you think that there are scientists today who are writing similar studies in response to declaratory policy? What are the special obligations of scientists to address these issues?
Dr. Dyson: I don’t know of any similar studies being done by scientists today. Fortunately, the wide variety of tactical nuclear weapons that were available for our use in 1967 no longer exists. In 1991, President Bush senior got rid of all the tactical nuclear weapons that used to belong to the US army and surface navy. These included the most dangerous short-range weapons that were deployed in forward positions close to the front lines. This was the largest act of nuclear disarmament in history, and the least widely known. As a result, I am less worried about the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons by the US today than I was in 1967.I end with a couple of comments not prompted by your questions:

The text of the report released by the Department of Defense has certain passages deleted. I was happy to see that the deletions are relatively small and do not seriously detract from the value of the report. The logic and the conclusions of the report remain intact. The deletions are mainly concerned with the weights and yields and performance of US tactical nuclear weapons as they existed in 1967. I agree with the Department of Defense view that these details should remain classified. Although these weapons are no longer in our stockpile, reliable information about their dimensions might be helpful to terrorists who may be trying to build portable nuclear bombs today.

Our report refers extensively to the OREGON TRAIL project, which published its final report in many volumes in 1965. This was a study of limited war, sponsored by an organization called USACDC. The report contained technical assessments of current weapons and tactics which were necessarily classified. It also contained a highly illuminating historical analysis of limited wars that were fought by various countries at various times in the past. Most of these past wars were colonial wars fought by imperial powers against rebellious natives. The authors of the historical part of the report were professional historians. The main conclusions of their historical analysis were the following. When the imperial power spent the major part of its money and resources on military operations, the imperial power usually lost the war. When the imperial power spent more money and effort on civilian measures intended to improve the quality of life for the natives, the imperial power usually won.

An example of the first case was the American war of independence. An example of the second was the British campaign against Chinese insurgents in Malaya in the nineteen-fifties. This analysis was clearly and directly relevant to the war in Vietnam. If it had been made public, it might have changed the strategy of the war and led to a less disastrous outcome. There was no military justification for keeping the historical part of the OREGON TRAIL report secret. Unfortunately, the entire report was stamped SECRET, and the insights of the historians had no chance to affect the conduct of the war. I strongly recommend that the historical part of the report be declassified and published as soon as possible. It could still be helpful in putting future military ventures of the United States into historical perspective, and suggesting more effective ways of achieving our political objectives.

Professor Freeman Dyson
Institute for Advanced Study
School of Natural Sciences
Einstein Drive
Princeton, NJ 08540
Phone: 609-734-8055
FAX: 609-951-4489
E-mail: dyson@ias.edu


Professor Emeritus, School of Natural Sciences, Institute for Advanced Study

Freeman Dyson is now retired, having been for most of his life a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He was born in England and worked as a civilian scientist for the Royal Air Force in World War 2. He graduated from Cambridge University in 1945 with a BA degree in mathematics. He went on to Cornell University as a graduate student in 1947 and worked with Hans Bethe and Richard Feynman. His most useful contribution to science was the unification of the three versions of quantum electrodynamics invented by Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga. Cornell University made him a professor without bothering about his lack of Ph.D. He subsequently worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology, looking for problems where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied.

He has written a number of books about science for the general public. Disturbing the Universe (1974) is a portrait-gallery of people he has known during his career as a scientist. Weapons and Hope (1984) is a study of ethical problems of war and peace. Infinite in all Directions (1988) is a philosophical meditation based on Dyson’s Gifford Lectures on Natural Theology given at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. Origins of Life (1986, second edition 1999) is a study of one of the major unsolved problems of science. The Sun, the Genome and the Internet (1999) discusses the question of whether modern technology could be used to narrow the gap between rich and poor rather than widen it. Dyson is a fellow of the American Physical Society, a member of the US National Academy of Sciences, and a fellow of the Royal Society of London. In 2000 he was awarded the Templeton Prize for progress in Religion.