How a faceless, underground collective of scientists has helped determine the fate of the American empire.

The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite
By Ann Finkbeiner

thejasonsbook.jpg Credit: Mark Weiss

Science and secrecy don’t exactly go hand in glove, but when they do, the hand is prosthetic and the glove is leather and both are at the end of Dr. Strangelove’s upraised arm. This is true in the public imagination, but it also exists in the scientific imagination. Just ask the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who attended a Cold War-era defense briefing only to hear about a computer simulation of a massive missile exchange leading to the deaths of 20 million people.

Ann Finkbeiner recounts this story early in The Jasons: The Secret History of Science’s Postwar Elite, and not surprisingly, it haunts the rest of the book. Her subject is a collective of top-notch scientists who have been meeting every summer since 1960 to serve as consultants to the US Department of Defense. They don’t like secrecy. They would probably all agree with Finkbeiner’s simple declaration: “Secrecy is antiscience.” But they also believe that transparency sometimes isn’t an option, and they know too well that it can end up doing science more harm than good.

Some information about the Jasons has surfaced in the press over the decades, especially in the aftermath of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, and in the 1980s some of the Jasons participated in an oral history project now archived at the American Institute of Physics. But, until now, no one has written a major book on them. Indeed, much of the work the Jasons did—and do—for the government remains classified, and when Jasons are uncertain about the status of information, they err on the side of secrecy. Finkbeiner herself has conducted dozens of interviews with Jasons past and present. But by her own admission, she has produced “less a respectable history than a series of stories.” That episodic, sometimes anecdotal quality lends the book a tone more journalistic than literary; Finkbeiner rarely recreates a scene, even when it would have been ethically unimpeachable to do so, preferring to keep the accounts within quotes. She has, nevertheless, produced an important investigation into the relationship between science and government; between “studying ultimate reality” and “shooting down missiles;” between the rules of logic and the vagaries of human nature. At heart, The Jasons is a meditation on morality.

thejasons.jpg Credit: Michael Gillette

The story begins, as descents down slippery slopes often do, at the summit of best intentions. During World War II, the atomic bomb might have been “the prototype of a harmful technology forcing a moral decision,” as Finkbeiner writes, but for the physicists working on the Manhattan Project, the decision on whether to build a bomb before the other guys did was what we today might call a no-brainer. Not long after the end of the war, American physicists again found themselves advising the government in secret, this time about how to build more bombs, bigger bombs, better bombs, as well as how to detect the detonation of enemy bombs. Then on October 4, 1957, the Soviets sent a satellite into space. “It’s hard,” John Archibald Wheeler tells Finkbeiner, “to reconstruct now the sense of doom when we were on the ground and Sputnik was up in the sky.” Sputnik carried no cargo but it did send a message: A rocket that could launch a 183-pound beeping piece of metal into orbit above the US could easily throw a warhead the same distance. 

Like a sheriff putting on the badge one last time, the old World War II and Cold War gang—Wheeler, Edward Teller, Eugene Wigner, Hans Bethe and others—reassembled, deputizing the best and the brightest of a young generation of physicists, including Freeman Dyson, Steven Weinberg and Murray Gell-Mann. They called themselves the Jasons, as in Jason and the Argonauts, a reference that evoked young heroes on a mission. Walking into one of the early Jasons meetings, Bethe remarked that it looked like “the Who’s Who” of American physics.

But they weren’t in Kansas anymore. The black hats and white hats were becoming
harder to tell apart. After the US began sending thousands of military “advisers” to Southeast Asia in the early 1960s, Finkbeiner writes, the Jasons decided, unasked, to “see what they could do about Vietnam.” “The old-time warriors,” Marvin Goldberger says now, “decided with the characteristic modesty of physicists that they ought to get into this and clean it up.”

As an alternative to the US bombing of North Vietnam—which they concluded in 1966 “...has had no measurable effect on Hanoi’s ability to mount and support military operations”—the Jasons advocated an electronic barrier, a series of eavesdropping devices that US forces could deploy along the Ho Chi Minh Trail to detect troop movements. As far as the physicists knew, says one Jason, they were recommending this strategy for “further study, you know, the way physicists do,” but Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara “jammed it down throats of military.” The Air Force saw sensors not as an alternative to carpet-bombing but, Goldberger says, as an “add-on.” And so the bombing continued, on and on, into the 1970s, and into Cambodia and Laos.

In June, 1971, The New York Times and The Washington Post began publishing the Pentagon Papers, the government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, including the involvement of an elite band of scientists. Suddenly the Jasons found themselves the public face of a deeply unpopular war, villains in black hats, a brotherhood of Strangeloves. Riots broke out on campuses where Jasons taught, mass protests greeted them at conferences around the world, death threats followed them home. As Finkbeiner says, “nobody liked scientists anymore.”

Part of what went wrong was that the US military had grossly misjudged the enemy. But the Jasons had also grossly misjudged the US military. “Our objective,” Goldberger tells Finkbeiner, had been “to lower the temperature of the war so it could be solved by political means.” The military’s objective was to thwart a Communist takeover. The two goals weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but they weren’t the same, either. In what Goldberger calls “almost a textbook demonstration of the arrogance of physicists,” the Jasons had forgotten that dec-isions about what goals to pursue, and how to pursue them, belonged not to the physicists but to their sponsor. “The government,” one Jason recalls, “was not interested in the advice that was given it, and didn’t intend to take it, and did not take it.” By the time the Jasons realized their miscalculation, they had uncorked a new genie, what the military brass and DC politicians were soon calling “the electronic battlefield,” or what we now call smart weapons.

The war that isn’t going according to plan because of faulty intelligence, an administration that ignores science it finds politically inconvenient, government manipulation of information to justify foreordained conclusions—Finkbeiner doesn’t push the parallels to current events, though she makes clear in the final pages that such parallels exist. Her larger point is that these parallels always exist to a lesser or greater extent, and so scientists must decide whether to share their expertise—whether to try to shape public policy.

In the end, Finkbeiner comes down on the side of more information, which is to say on the side of the Jasons, for “the more convinced the government is of the rightness of its political decisions, the more it needs to hear the advice of its scientists.” This summer, in La Jolla, maybe body armor will be on the agenda, or how to protect against a dirty bomb, or how to better intercept voices bouncing off the kinds of satellites that an earlier generation of Jasons helped launch. This year’s Jasons will surely have something useful to contribute. The question is: Will anyone be listening to them?

Originally published May 11, 2006


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