The following op-ed appeared in slightly edited form in Newsday, Sunday, July 6, 1986, under the headline “Let’s Share Star Wars With the Soviets Right Now.” While the first attempt, during the Reagan administration, to deploy a space-based ballistic-missile defense never succeeded, more recent events make this op-ed more current than might first appear:

In keeping with my belief that each side needs to deal with its own problems and not futiley call for the other side to make the first move, this article deals with an American inconsistency. However, I should note that when talking with my Soviet colleagues during this time, I pointed out to them that their government had a similar inconsistency when it said that SDI was both unworkable and destabilizing.


Will the Real Star Wars Please Stand Up?

Martin E. Hellman

Soon after the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Albert Einstein uttered his now prophetic statement, "The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything, save our modes of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe."

Today the drift is all too clear: 50,000 nuclear weapons with enough firepower to destroy the world many times over; warning times reduced to practically zero, leaving no time for rational decision making during a crisis.

Seeing this critical state of the world, President Ronald Reagan proposed his Strategic Defense Initiative in 1983. Defense would replace offense. Morality would return to a nation that has little taste for ensuring its own security by threatening genocide on men, women and children half a world away.

But there was a hitch. The unleashed power of the atom really had changed everything. If the United States developed a true defense against Soviet nuclear missiles, we could impose our will on them all over the world. Should SDI ever appear to be approaching its goal of a “leakproof umbrella,” conventional military wisdom would invite a preemptive Soviet attack before we gained a decisive advantage. Our “defense” would have become our death warrant.

Recognizing the instability inherent in a one-sided defense, Reagan repeatedly has stressed that “the United States seeks neither military superiority nor political advantage” and that, if SDI were successful we would share the technology with the Soviets. This approach is consistent with the thinking Einstein saw was required for survival in the atomic age. No longer can we think of national security as separate from global security. Our security is dependent on that of the Soviets and vice versa.

In spite of the president's assurances, the Soviets fear SDI as a misguided American attempt to gain military superiority. They refer to it as "space attack weapons.” Their mistrust is fueled by testimony by some senior American officials that SDI would only be shared with the Soviets after they dismantled all of their nuclear weapons.

And, if we look at ourselves honestly, we would know that we have no intention of sharing the technology with them. Why else is the research classified Top Secret? Why would we share technology with them once we know that it works if we will not do so now when it is only a dream?

It is scary for the world's leader in technology, the United States, to move from the old view that security goes to the country with the best technology. But, as Einstein said, everything has changed. Today security does not belong to one nation alone, regardless of its technological advantage.

To survive, we must hold to the President’s original vision of the entire world safe from the nuclear threat.

Our current approach of secret research with the promise of later sharing is asking the Soviets to naively trust us. In the current world environment, expecting naive trust from either of the superpowers is living in a dangerous fantasy land.

There is a simple procedure, however, by which we can move out of fantasy, back into reality. If SDI is for global benefit, the work should not be Top Secret. If we really plan to share the technology with the Soviets, let us answer their mistrust by sharing the technology with them now, not at some indefinite point in the far future. Or, if we have no real intention of ever sharing with them, let us be honest and say so. We will not have fooled the Soviets, and the American public would then assess SDI in a very different light.

Let us be honest with ourselves and the world. Will the real SDI please stand up: a futile, “old-mode,” secret attempt at military superiority or an honest, “new-mode”, open effort to use technology for the benefit of all humankind?