"essentially annihilated"
senator's statement
response from vietnam
nautilus overview
summary & quotes
authors' commentaries
insider's account
FOIA discovery
op-ed: nuclear parable
bulletin of the atomic scientists
still valid?
press release
media coveraage
press interviews
Authors’ Commentaries

Freeman Dyson Robert Gomer Steven Weinberg S. Courtenay Wright
commentary  bio   commentary  bio   commentary  bio   commentary  bio

What is JASON?

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.

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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.

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Robert Gomer
In the summer Jason met in Santa Barbara. I think I was the main instigator of a study on the use of nuclear weapons in Viet Nam; my fellow researchers were Freeman Dyson, Steve Weinberg, and Courtenay Wright. It was our purpose to show that using nuclear weapons would be immoral folly, and would set an awful precedent but we realized that these arguments would cut little ice with the powers that then were. We didn't have to look far for military reasons against the use of nuclear weapons: The Vietcong were widely dispersed, our troops concentrated in encampments designed to minimize the perimeters which had to be defended so that we, rather than the VC were extremely vulnerable to attack by small nuclear weapons. There was a lot of classified stuff to drive home this point but the basic argument was that just given. Eventually the title but not the contents of this paper were declassified with at least one ironic result: During the student unrests of 1968 a student at Columbia who had planned to come to Chicago to work with me, announced publicly that he couldn't work with someone who had participated in this study.


Robert Gomer was born in Austria and educated at Pomona College and the University of Rochester, where he received his doctorate in 1949. From 1949 to 1950 he was a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University and worked with G. B. Kistiakowsky. He subsequently moved to the University of Chicago, where he was a professor of chemistry in the James Franck Institute and the Department of Chemistry. From 1977 to 1983 he served as director of the James Franck Institute and in 1984 he was appointed Carl William Eisendrath Distinguished Service Professor. He has been honored with numerous awards including the A. von Humboldt Society Senior U.S. Science Award, the Davisson-Germer Prize of the American Physical Society, the Medard W. Welch Award of the American Vacuum Society, and the Arthur W. Adamson Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Surface Chemistry. Prior to his retirement he worked on the editorial boards of several journals, including the Journal of Chemical Physics, Applied Physics, and Annual Reviews of Physical Chemistry. He served on numerous scientific committees, including the President's Science Advisory Committee (1961-1965) and the Advisory Committee for the Directorate of Physical Sciences, Air Force Office of Scientific Research (1961-1975), and was a member of the Board of Directors of the Universities Space Research Association (1976-1978). He is the author of Field Emission and Field Ionization (American Vacuum Society Classics), a pioneering vacuum text based on four lectures presented at Harvard University in 1958.

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Steven Weinberg
I am pleased that the article Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia has at last been declassified. The title and authorship of this article became public knowledge soon after it was first distributed, and gave some people the impression that the JASON group of defense consultants had played a more sinister role in the Vietnam war than in fact was the case. As long as the article was classified, I could not explain what was in it, or how it came to be written.

The JASON group was divided in its reaction to the Vietnam war. Some members looked at it as a purely military problem, to which the expertise of JASON members might make a useful contribution. Some thought of it as nasty business, which could best be ended by winning the war. Others simply wanted nothing to do with it. I was in the last group.

During one of the JASON summer studies[1], we heard a rumor that someone in the Pentagon or White House was pushing for the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Vietnam or Laos. Some of us were appalled by the idea. I, and I believe others as well, felt that the use of nuclear weapons would make the war even more destructive than it had already become; it would create a terrible precedent for the use of nuclear weapons for something other than deterrence; it wouldn't help much with the war; and it would open up the possibility of nuclear attacks on our own bases in Vietnam. All this was an immediate reaction, not based on any careful analysis. So we decided to do the analysis, and write a report.

It was clear from the beginning that the report should not go into ethical issues. For us to raise such issues would cast doubt on the impartiality of our analysis. Anyway, whoever read our report would doubtless feel that he was as capable as we were at making ethical judgments. So the report concentrated on purely military issues. As can now be read in the report, we concluded that the Vietnam war did not offer plausible targets for nuclear weapons, and that our forces were far more vulnerable to the use of nuclear weapons than our adversaries. The analysis was honestly done, but I have to admit that its conclusions were pretty much what we expected from the beginning, and if I had not expected to reach these conclusions then, for the ethical reasons that we left out of the report I would not have helped to write it.

I never learned whether our report had any effect. In fact, I never learned whether there had ever been a serious idea of using nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia. At least they were not used, and have not been used since then.

It is important for the survival of civilization that nuclear weapons should never again be actively used. Fortunately, since Hiroshima and Nagasaki there has grown up a taboo against the use of nuclear weapons for anything but deterrence, at least on the part of established governments. There have been some signs recently of a weakening of this taboo, in talk of the development of low-yield weapons for attacking underground facilities, and even in suggestions of a revival of interest in nuclear-armed anti-missile interceptors. Let's hope that this will go no further than did the idea of using nuclear weapons in the war in Southeast Asia.

[1] I had thought that this was in the 1967 summer study, but the date March 1967 on the cover of the report suggests that it must have been in the summer of 1966.

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Professor Steven Weinberg
Department of Physics
University of Texas at Austin
Theory Group, RLM 5.208 C1608
Austin, TX 78712-1081
Office - (512) 471-4394
FAX - (512) 471-4888
email: weinberg@physics.utexas.edu


Steven Weinberg was educated at Cornell, Copenhagen, and Princeton, and taught at Columbia, Berkeley, M.I.T., and Harvard, where from 1973 to 1982 he was Higgins Professor of Physics. In 1982 he moved to The University of Texas at Austin and founded its Theory Group. At Texas he holds the Josey Regental Chair of Science and is a member of the Physics and Astronomy Departments. His research has spanned a broad range of topics in quantum field theory, elementary particle physics, and cosmology, and has been honored with numerous awards, including the Nobel Prize in Physics, the National Medal of Science, the Heinemann Prize in Mathematical Physics, the Cresson Medal of the Franklin Institute, the Madison Medal of Princeton University, and the Oppenheimer Prize. He also holds honorary doctoral degrees from thirteen universities. He is a member of the National Academy of Science, the Royal Society of London, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Astronomical Union, and the American Philosophical Society. In addition to the well-known treatises, Gravitation and Cosmology and (in three volumes) The Quantum Theory of Fields, he has written several books for general readers, including the prize-winning The First Three Minutes (now translated into 22 foreign languages), The Discovery of Subatomic Particles, Dreams of a Final Theory, and, most recently, Facing Up -- Science and its Cultural Adversaries.

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S. Courtenay Wright
The main conclusion of the report -- that employment of nuclear weapons by the US would be of little use against a widely distributed opponent but disaster if copied by the opponent -- still stands. Since such weapons are excellent for obliterating cities and their occupants, they have undoubted appeal to terrorist organizations whose restraint (if such existed) would certainly be quashed if the US made use of such devices. And our heralded missile defense system, even if it worked, which it will not, will not stop a terrorist delivered bomb. That would not come on board a missile. It would arrive in a suitcase, by train, car, truck, or motorboat.

Worldwide stewardship of nuclear weapons is waning. The nuclear club is expanding. The breakup of the USSR with its huge stocks and the decline in support for their personnel is alarming. Even in our own well-guarded Los Alamos Lab, the gates were porous enough for a compact disc with the latest bomb designs to slip outside. Analysis of debris from a recent Asian air test showed this ghastly lapse led to this unfortunate example of a Chinese copy. It is hardly reassuring that weapons grade material does not fit on a compact disc.

I find the Bush penchant for announcing major policy initiatives without thought of the response extraordinary. Backtracking on internal matters, except, of course, on abolishing taxes is popular and frequent but for international affairs the results can be appalling. We declare we will go it alone in bending the bad guys to our will, but then discover with surprise, that we need bases and support from regions that are now singularly cool to our approaches. We threaten North Korea, a founding member of the Axis of Evil and a country with real nuclear capability, but when it snarls back we roll over. In Iraq we seem intent on war, no doubt with massive civilian casualties, and confident of the happy outcome for the region and all its varied members as well as us. History is littered with the debacles that follow invasions begun without thought of their possible outcomes. It appears that history is off the reading list for our country's policy makers.

I am not sanguine about the immediate future.

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Photo by Steven E. Gross

Courtenay Wright
Professor Emeritus
Enrico Fermi Institute and the Department of Physics
University of Chicago
EFI Box 44 - HEP 303
Chicago, IL 60637
Phone: (773) 702-7480
FAX: (773) 702-1914
E-mail: swright@midway.uchicago.edu


Courtenay Wright, a member of the Enrico Fermi Institute and the Department of Physics at the University of Chicago from 1949 to the present, is an experimental particle physicist. His research conducted at Chicago, Fermilab, and Los Alamos concerned pion and muon low energy physics; high energy muon proton inelastic scattering; very rare decays of muons; and accelerator design. Wright was born in Vancouver, British Columbia on October 16, 1923. He received his BA from the University of British Columbia in April 1943, then served with the Royal Navy from April 1943 until December 1945. He was radar officer aboard HMS Apollo, the headquarters ship for the Normandy Invasion. Following the war he did his graduate study at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his PhD in nuclear physics in 1949. He is now married to Sara Paretsky and has three sons.





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