Henry Ford said, "History is bunk." Bunk history surely is bunk, and good history is often distorted to demonstrate precisely contrary lessons.
McGeorge Bundy ("A 'Quick-Trigger' Talk," op-ed, March 28) correctly noted that Einstein's famous letter of August 1939 had not the slightest effect on President Roosevelt. Indeed, "the net effect of that letter was probably to slow things up." As Bundy explained, it was the work of refugee scientists in Britain, followed by the MAUD report, that convinced some influential U.S. scientists that an atomic bomb was feasible.
That was not an easy conversion, however. Harvard's President James B. Conant confessed "These fancies (atomic bombs) left me cold," and President Roosevelt's science adviser, Vannevar Bush, later allowed that since he was "no atomic physicist most of this was over my head." Those deficiencies were overcome by persuasive British results and by Winston Churchill's intent to proceed vigorously toward the goal of a nuclear weapon. As Bundy notes, Roosevelt made a decision on Oct. 9, 1941. But that was to go ahead with research and planning only.
That is what President Reagan decided to do on March 23, 1983: "to define a long-term research and development program to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles." Not until Jan. 19, 1942, after Pearl Harbor and after he had been needled by Churchill, did Roosevelt approve a plan to form an engineering group and accelerate research. Bundy contrasts that Roosevelt's decision "led not to a speech but action." Of course. There was a war on. President Reagan made a speech and acted. There is no war on now, and the object is to ensure that there will be none.
In 1941, the consequences of the discovery of nuclear fission three years earlier were demonstrated four years later. In 1983, the hoped-for benefits of discoveries of the previous two decades may or may not be decades ahead. The president did not promise more.
What he did turn toward is a goal, not a certainty, to try to erase the specter of nuclear retaliation and annihilation from the animus of the populations of the world. It is a bold and risky course, but why should anyone be faulted for any conceptual attempt to resolve these burning issues? How is it that the Bundys and eminent scientists, betraying the scientific spirit of free enquiry, should dictate that humankind should not even think of ways to improve its condition? Where are the scientists of yesteryear who were great through the virtue that they recognized that they were merely part of the human condition, sought to improve it, but knew their fallibilities?
Premier Andropov's reaction to the president's proposals was sharp and not unexpected, but Soviet pronouncements can merit attention, and should not be dismissed if they fail, as is usually the case, to parallel a president's policies. McGeorge Bundy might better have evoked an earlier and more relevant episode of history when Premier Kosygin made a plea for defensive systems in London on Feb. 9, 1967, and mused that "maybe an anti-missile system is more expensive than an offensive system, but it is designed not to kill people but to preserve human lives." Did President Johnson miss the opportunity that President Reagan is now attempting to grasp?
We don't know. McGeorge Bundy can draw upon unique experience to explain, for example, how presidents solicit, receive and act upon scientific advice. Unfortunately, he didn't succeed in his "Quick-Trigger" response. He would perform a greater service by sharing his perceptions of how and why leaders came to the unhappy conclusion that humankind shall perpetually live under the shadows of mutual assured destruction.