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Work with the Disarmament Agency


Misconceptions about JASON in Vietnam
Freeman Dyson Scientist
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In fact the involvement with Vietnam wasn't really JASON. It was a group which called itself JASON East which actually was in Massachusetts, while the real JASON was in California, and so there really wasn't so much connection. JASON East was a much higher level affair. It was... it involved McNamara and various other high level people, and it was a mistake that they called themselves JASON East, but it was convenient because they used the same administration that we had for JASON. It was really quite a separate operation and it was directly concerned with building a barrier in Vietnam, but this was not really a JASON project and certainly JASON was involved in Vietnam in various other respects, but this main barrier project wasn't ours. So that's sort of to clarify the thing. A number of people were bitterly attacked because they were JASON members. I mean there was a... Sidney Drell... violent, physical harassment which occurred, especially at Columbia, and... and Murray Gell-Mann actually suffered from this too. So there was a general feeling of being under siege because the public believed that we were responsible for the horrors of Vietnam. So, I didn't feel much threatened by this because first of all I wasn't myself being physically assaulted and I felt I wasn't guilty anyway, and if I was innocent there's no reason why I should appear guilty. So for me there was no reason to resign from JASON, it would only have sort of strengthened their case if I resigned from JASON. But a number of us did. I think Ed Salpeter was the one I spoke with the most...

[Q] Francis Low and Steve Weinberg I think.

Yes. And Ed Salpeter was the one I spoke with, and I mean it was clear for him, it wasn't so much the particular barrier project that he was concerned about, but just the... the mere association with the government at all at that time that he didn't like. I mean he felt the government was just doing such bad things that he didn't want to be associated with them. Whereas I felt, from the Bomber Command experience, just the opposite - that the worse it was the more I needed to talk to them. So it was a difference in philosophy, but I... of course, I respected very much the decision of these people. I mean, it was clear they were very sincere in wanting to... not to be involved. But what I really did at that time for JASON, which was actually... my real involvement in Vietnam, was caused by a remark I heard Maxwell Taylor drop at a cocktail party. Maxwell Taylor was at that time the private military adviser to Johnson; he was very close to the centre, I mean he was retired chairman of the Joint Chiefs, he was the man who whispered into Johnson's ear, so he was very much responsible for everything that happened. Well, at a cocktail party he remarked, in my hearing, 'Wouldn't it be fun to drop a nuke once in a while, just to see what the other side would do?' Well, that scared me to death! So four of us in JASON who heard him say that, we decided we should do something and so what we did was to prepare a hard-boiled military analysis of nuclear war in Vietnam. It was called The Use of Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia [sic]. We did a little study to find out what would really happen if nuclear weapons were introduced into Vietnam, and of course the answer was we'd lose very fast, because they had no targets and we had very good targets, so if the war became nuclear we would have lost in a couple of weeks. So that... it was very simple to make the case that, even from the most hard-boiled military point of view, disregarding all questions of ethics, that this made absolutely no sense. So we... we did the study and we put the report in, and whether it had any effect I don't know, but I felt good about it, I mean, it gave a strong case. If anybody in the Pentagon got hold of our report it would strengthen the case for not doing what Maxwell Taylor suggested. I mean, whether Maxwell Taylor was serious or not, I don't know....

[Q] If he was. I can relate to you, at least going through the Rabi correspondence, he too is worried about the use of nuclear weapons, so he had heard this possibility and he gets various people engaged to try to stop any such move.

Yes. Well, anyway, that's what I actually did and of course, there was, of course, a lot of repercussions of this, because the list of titles of JASON reports was not secret. And so this report we wrote about nuclear weapons of course was secret, but the title of the report got out into the open. And so when of course our friends in France and Italy saw this Use of Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia [sic] - author FJ Dyson, I mean, that looked pretty bad. So we got some unpleasant repercussions from that, but I think it was worth it.

Freeman Dyson (1923-2020), who was born in England, moved to Cornell University after graduating from Cambridge University with a BA in Mathematics. He subsequently became a professor and worked on nuclear reactors, solid state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics and biology. He published several books and, among other honours, was awarded the Heineman Prize and the Royal Society's Hughes Medal.

Listeners: Sam Schweber

Silvan Sam Schweber is the Koret Professor of the History of Ideas and Professor of Physics at Brandeis University, and a Faculty Associate in the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University. He is the author of a history of the development of quantum electro mechanics, "QED and the men who made it", and has recently completed a biography of Hans Bethe and the history of nuclear weapons development, "In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist" (Princeton University Press, 2000).

Tags: JASON, Vietnam War, JASON East, Massachusetts, California, Columbia University, RAF Bomber Command, Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia, Robert McNamara, Murray Gell-Mann, Sidney Drell, Francis E Low, Steve Weinberg, Edwin E Salpeter, Maxwell D Taylor, Lyndon B Johnson

Duration: 6 minutes, 8 seconds

Date story recorded: June 1998

Date story went live: 24 January 2008