IN the years since the end of World War II the United States has acted with the wisdom that comes from sad experience. Had we been as active in the 1930s in foreign affairs as we are now, World War II would not have occurred. Had we paid as much attention to our military preparedness between the two world wars as we pay at the present time, we would not have been caught unprepared by the last great conflict. Both our foreign and our military policies have become much more mature. The unfortunate fact is that even these improved efforts, which came too late, are now also proving too little for our present needs.

Twelve years ago the Soviet Union had a powerful land army. Nevertheless our own over-all military potential was incomparably greater. What is even more important, our technology was in full bloom while that of Russia had been severely damaged by the Nazi assault. Perhaps most important of all, the United States was obviously and decisively ahead of Russia in the field of science. Science is the breeding ground of new technical advances and we had every reason to expect that we would stay ahead of Russia in technology for many years to come.

A mere 12 years later, spectacular Soviet successes prove to the world that scientific and technical leadership is slipping from our hands. This is happening in a field which has obvious and menacing military applications. At the same time it is happening in a field which comes closest to the realization of a human ambition which is one of the oldest and most inspiring: the ambition to reach the stars.

This Russian challenge needs not one response but many. Some are urgent. Some will necessarily take a longer time. All of them will require sacrifices. Meanwhile, we face immediate problems of security for ourselves and our allies. I should like to discuss here two principal ways in which we may seek to improve our chances of safety in a world which appears to become less safe with each passing year.

One way seems the more logical and more appealing at first sight. It is to find peace for the whole world through disarmament. The thought of war has never seemed more dreadful than it is at present, and the desire for peace has never been more passionate and universal. Disarmament has become the hope and the symbol for an ultimate peaceful solution of all our problems.

There is another way toward greater safety but, by comparison, it seems to be a makeshift. It is to strengthen further our ties with the other nations of the free world, and in coöperation with them to develop a capacity to deal with a variety of threats to our security, including the capacity to wage a limited war. Indeed, coöperation with our allies cannot be considered in a concrete manner without discussing the technology of a limited war. In the minds of most of our allies the question of limited war is as important as that of total war. After all, the total war may even pass over their heads and they might hope to weather the storm in comparative safety.


Since a political solution of the global problem is nowhere in sight, it has been proposed to make the world more peaceful by eliminating the means rather than the causes of war. To be strongly armed in times of peace is not in the American tradition. Disarmament, at first partial, and later perhaps more complete, would appear therefore both logical and desirable.

The desire for disarmament is perhaps even stronger among our allies than it is in the United States. One can easily understand that war-torn countries living under the shadow of bigger and more powerfully armed nations would enthusiastically welcome any development which will reduce everybody's military efforts.

My main argument here will be based on technical rather than on historical facts. But I cannot refrain from mentioning the most obvious historical analogies which come to mind. It is widely believed, and it may well be true, that the First World War was caused by an arms race. Yet it seems to me even more obvious that the Second World War was brought about by a race in disarmament. The Allied countries, though strong and interested in the maintenance of peace, neglected their defense. When Nazi Germany started to rearm, public thinking and public action were too slow and the Allies were caught unprepared. Historical analogies, however, are not reliable. We should not consider the past as proof that disarmament (or limitation of armaments) is a bad idea. But we should also refrain from arguing: history proves that disarmament will prevent war. Most certainly a mere agreement to disarm is not sufficient.

Many ingenious schemes have been proposed in order to insure effective disarmament. It seems to me that there are at present two major reasons why such schemes are doomed to failure. One is the existence of the Iron Curtain. The other is the nature of modern scientific discoveries.

Modern war-making potential depends to an increasing extent on highly specialized weapons. Some of the most essential of these weapons can be hidden with relative ease. Nuclear explosives and long-range rockets are two outstanding examples. Thus, surveillance becomes more and more difficult. In addition, scientific and technical developments have produced and will produce unexpected types of weapons. How shall one check whether such weapons exist when the person who does the checking does not even know what he is looking for? We have most correctly emphasized that no disarmament scheme is acceptable unless the application of it can be verified. Few things are impossible; but it may actually be impossible to verify disarmament in the Soviet Union. The game is strongly weighted against us and the very rules are changing too fast.

Two years ago we attempted to insure the world against surprise attack by the "open sky" principle. Today we have to consider this concept in the light of the Russian satellite and the Russian intercontinental missile capability. The satellite has in a way implemented the idea of the open sky; through this development world-wide observation has become an obvious possibility. On the other hand, the launching of a massive attack by intercontinental ballistic missiles requires very little visible preparation. Therefore, observation from the open skies will not accomplish the purpose of advance warning.


Another proposal is to start disarmament by agreeing to stop the tests of nuclear bombs. It has been claimed that a nuclear test can be noticed around the world and that a ban on tests would therefore appear to be self-policing. Many additional arguments have been advanced for such a ban: the tests are considered a hazard to the health of all people and of generations yet unborn; and the tests are believed to lead to the development of even more horrible weapons. The expression "weapon test" has acquired repulsive connotations, implying the construction of a murderous instrument. Not satisfied with the probability of devastation, we perform a test to make quite sure of the degree of destruction we can cause.

Actually, a nuclear test is easily noticed only if it is performed in the most obvious manner. There can be no doubt that if a nation wants to carry out tests in secrecy, observation will become difficult and uncertain. In the contest between the bootlegger and the police, the bootlegger has a great advantage. Of course, it will cost some money and effort to hide nuclear explosions. But the Soviet Union has never been stingy where a military advantage has been at stake. On the other hand, our tradition and the structure of our society make it certain that we would not violate an international obligation to which we had agreed.

The danger of past tests to public health is certainly much smaller than other biological effects to which we are and have been exposed. The cosmic rays which bombard the earth are of greater influence and their intensity increases markedly with altitude. If you move from the seashore to Colorado, you expose yourself to considerably more additional activity than the accumulated effect of all past weapon tests. The effects of medical X-rays are greater still. It is repeatedly claimed that world-wide fall-out is certainly harmful, yet even this simple straightforward statement has not been proven conclusively.

All this, however, is far less important than the question: How will continued testing affect a future war? Further tests will put us into a position to fight our opponent's war-machine while sparing the innocent bystanders. One development of the greatest importance is the progressive reduction of radioactive fall-out. Clean weapons of this kind will reduce unnecessary casualties in a future war. At the same time we are developing nuclear weapons which can be used to shoot down high-flying attacking planes without endangering the life of anyone below. The complete safety of a person standing directly beneath such an aerial duel was demonstrated in a lifelike experiment in Nevada. Also, nuclear explosives could have many peaceful purposes if they were sufficiently clean. A ban on tests would stop our development before we could make our explosives more flexible, more humane, and before we could put them to a constructive use.

Nuclear tests are conducted to try out new scientific principles. It would be more proper to talk not about weapon tests but rather about experiments with nuclear explosives. These experiments are closely connected with the laws which determine the internal functioning of stars. One is tempted to call the tests experiments in astrophysical engineering.

A ban on nuclear tests has been widely advocated as a simple, practical and beneficial first step toward disarmament. In fact, such a ban could not be enforced, would make a future war more brutal and would be beneficial only to that party which could and would violate the ban by secret testing.

It is not possible to assert that all attempts at disarmament will fail. Each proposal should be considered on its merits. But the example of a ban on nuclear tests illustrates the difficulties we face when trying to agree with a clever and ruthless opponent on the limitation of technical devices which are changing their nature from year to year as new inventions are added to the old.


In the thermonuclear-rocket age all-out war is in nobody's interest. If war cannot be avoided at least it should be limited. But how can this be done? If we agree to limit the kinds of weapons that are to be used, the side which finds itself losing will be under overwhelming temptation to disregard the limitation. Our announced policy is that in case of war we shall use the most effective weapons available to us. This is plain common sense.

Limitation of warfare is possible in a different manner. We cannot limit the means of war. We can limit the aims of war and also the territory in which fighting takes place. That this can be done is borne out by examples in history. Furthermore, the loser in such warfare is not tempted to widen the conflict, because in doing so he would expose himself to a greater loss at the precise time when he is in a weak position.

If we do not limit the means of a future war we obviously accept the use of nuclear weapons. This raises the spectre of cities in ruins, non-combatants killed by the millions, and radioactive contamination spreading outside the battle zone, across the borders of neutral countries. The future is uncertain and one cannot assert that these horrible possibilities will not occur. I believe, however, that they need not occur. There are good reasons to believe that a limited nuclear war can be fought in a humane way--if any aspect of war can be called humane.

In a limited conflict world opinion will be a factor of considerable weight. For this reason as well as for reasons of good military planning it will be best to concentrate on the enemy's fighting power. To spare non-combatants will be in the interest of both sides. If we develop clean nuclear weapons we can eliminate the danger of a poisonous cloud deposited by unpredictable winds. If at the same time the Russians use weapons with a heavy fallout they will lose supporters. They may choose to be callous-- but in that case they will have to pay a price.

In World War II cities were subjected to heavy bombardment. There was a military reason for this. The cities were important as producers of weapons and as centers of supply lines. A limited war of the future will be fought with small and highly mobile units of great firepower. Such warfare is made possible by flexible atomic weapons, by easily delivered rockets, by the ubiquitous and readily available air-transports and by the excellence of modern equipment for communications. By these means and by these means alone can we be of real and prompt assistance to other free countries. If we continue to plan for the slowly moving conventional warfare, we cannot arrive in time to stop piecemeal aggression on the periphery of the Communist empire.

In a highly mobile nuclear war, bombardment of cities will be pointless, unless hostilities are prolonged. Having ceased to be hubs of transportation of men and matériel, cities will become of much smaller importance in over-all strategy. There will be little military reason to destroy them.

Nuclear weapons will certainly cause a considerable amount of unintended damage. But the enormous lumbering armies of the conventional wars did not spare the civilian population either. It is not clear that the devastating firepower of a mobile war of the future will leave more ruins in its wake than did the clumsy fighting machines of the past. The main rôle of nuclear weapons will be to prevent the use of massed military power. Therefore, the will of the local population is going to become a more important factor in a future limited war. Guerrilla activities in many places during recent years, as well as the destruction of tanks by poorly armed and ill-trained youngsters, have shown what determined people can do in a fight on their home grounds. A highly mobile force armed with modern weapons might conquer the world if not opposed by a similar force. But in a war where modern weapons are available on each side the decision may well depend on the local population. Therefore, the mobile army of the future should be considered as the guardian of freedom.

By mutual help, the free countries can greatly increase their chances of national survival and of independence. They can do so, however, only if they coöperate and coördinate all their technical means. The most modern arms must be made a part of the joint planning. This raises the question of secrecy, for close coöperation cannot be planned without sharing most--maybe all-- technical secrets. Yet the more widely a secret is shared, the sooner it may become known to the enemy. We must therefore consider how much we are likely to lose by sharing our secrets.

In 1945 we would have lost very much indeed if all our secrets had become known to the Russians. At that time we had a great technical advantage; in the field of atomic weapons we enjoyed a monopoly. Undoubtedly some secret information was lost to spies who worked for the Communists, but a whole complex technology cannot be given away by a few reports. The reasons to guard our information remained strong.

At the present time we do not seem to be ahead of the Russians in military technology or in science. Differences remain which are to our advantage in some fields and are to the advantage of the Russians in others. Science and its military applications have made giant strides behind the Iron Curtain in the last 12 years. This fast development shows that Russian education must be excellent. Soviet progress proves that our competitors are moving ahead with a most impressive momentum. It is practically certain that they will surpass us in the next few years.

Let us look into this situation more concretely. We have plenty of evidence that Russian children between the ages of 10 and 20 receive a better technical education than do our own youngsters. These children will be the most active scientists a decade hence. As the lead-time in scientific education is long, we probably cannot prevent the loss of our scientific leadership. The best we can hope for is to recapture later what we are losing now.

If we are no longer foremost in science and in military technology, our secrets will obviously be of less value. Most of our secrets will be known to the Russians from their own work. It does not follow that we must abandon all secrecy, but it is clear that we can more easily afford to share our secrets with our allies. It would seem to me that henceforth it is less important to keep our secrets and more important to produce additional knowledge and additional technical tools. Our security lies in speed; our allies could be most helpful in our efforts to attain it.

American science has surpassed the European because of our mass education. We have sown our seed more widely and more fruit was borne. Soviet Russia is surpassing us now because to mass education she has added the highest incentives for technical and scientific accomplishments. This competition will not be easy for us to win.

To help our allies to educate more scientists and engineers is one obvious move in the battle for future leadership. To integrate the efforts of the free nations in military technology is another. The miracles of modern science are not created by one brain and one pair of hands. We need broad financial support, teamwork and the spirit of friendly competition. We need the spirit of World War II which merged into a common and urgent enterprise the work of American, British and Canadian scientists. The present emergency is even greater. The response must be greater if freedom is to survive.

I would like to summarize my ideas in a simple statement. Let us start our planning with the word "Do." It is a mistake to begin with "Don't." Prohibition is futile. Action can be fruitful. I do not believe that disarmament will prevent war. I do believe that active, close and full coöperation between free nations can lay the foundations of a peaceful future.

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  • EDWARD TELLER, Professor of Physics and Associate Director, Radiation Laboratory, University of California; concerned with planning atomic and hydrogen bombs since 1941; staff member, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, 1949-51
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