“This is grim death…”

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 2.15.44 PM

Heinlein’s early fiction shaped his later political views. The September 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction contained his nuclear fission-oriented story “Blowups Happen”

Robert Heinlein was a fan of Star Wars. A passionate fan, if the correspondence in the Heinlein Archives gives any indication. But I’m not talking about the 1977 classic by George Lucas (nor any of the subsequent sequels nor recent Lego interpretations). There’s no evidence – none I’ve found, anyway – in the Heinlein papers that Star Wars caused any sort of disturbance in the Force for the award-winning author of sci-fi classics like Starship Troopers and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

No, I’m talking about real plans to put real lasers (and other hardware) in space – Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Announced in March 1983, journalists and politicians quickly dubbed Reagan’s vision – and it was little more than that, at the time – “Star Wars.” SDI’s advocates pitched it as a technological end-run around the “limits” of nuclear weapons negotiations which appeared at an impasse, especially after the 1979 Soviet incursion into Afghanistan. Speaking to the terrifying logic of “mutually assured destruction,” Reagan asked in his televised speech, “Wouldn’t it be better to save lives than avenge them?” Whether he or his advisers were sincere is beside the point. Just as space-based settlements promised a “technological fix” for overpopulation and resource shortages, Star Wars offered similar (and equally unrealistic) solutions to the perils of nuclear war and the “limits” of arms control treaties. (An aside: if you’re really interested in nuclear topics, especially those pertaining to secrecy, check out Alex Wellerstein’s blog.)

Praised by conservatives and many in the military while derided by liberal politicians, Reagan’s plan for rendering incoming nuclear-tipped missiles “impotent and obsolete” was among the most divisive issues the post-1945 science and engineering communities had ever confronted. (For one recent look at this, see Rebecca Slayton’s new book on the SDI controversy). A small taste of the nasty exchanges between people on differing sides of the SDI debate can be found in an exchange of letters between Heinlein and Bernard (“Barney) Oliver in February 1985.

It started when Oliver – well-known in the technical and scientific community as the founding director of Hewlett-Packard’s research labs – wrote a letter to Heinlein. The recently retired scientist began by noting that John R. Pierce – Oliver’s contemporary at Bell Labs and also a science fiction writer – had commented on Heinlein’s interest in missile defense. Oliver went on to tell Heinlein that the prevailing “scientific consensus” held that the “effective interception of a massive [nuclear] attack presents enormous technical difficulties.” SDI, in other words, wouldn’t work as its proponents imagined.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 12.58.07 PM

Barney Oliver’s opening salvo…pretty mild.

Oliver briefly listed the reasons – missile decoys were always going to be cheaper than defensive countermeasures and so forth – and concluded that the “problem has been thoroughly studied from the Nike days through the ABM to now. Maybe something has changed the balance but I am not aware of it.” End of a pretty mild salvo.

The response was anything but. In today’s parlance – Heinlein went nuclear. “I see John has you trying to pull his chestnuts out of the fire,” the sci-fi writer began.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 12.58.14 PM

Heinlein’s retort, page 1.

Oliver, Heinlein says, must have mistaken him for some “uninformed but good-intentioned laymen” who just needed to be educated “as to the experts’ opinions” on SDI. But Heinlein was no naif when it came to nuclear and defense issues. No, his interests in such matters went back, he noted, some four decades. In fact, five years before Hiroshima – in September 1940 – Heinlein published “Blowups Happen” which he claimed was the “first story ever published about the explosive potential of fissioning U-235.”1

Screen shot 2013-09-19 at 8.24.51 PM

Scene from Blowups Happen, courtesy of Bill Higgins.

In fact, since 1945, “the problems of the next world war have been my principal study,” Heinlein said.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 12.58.24 PM

Heinlein’s reply, p. 2

Besides sending Oliver copies of his fiction stories, Heinlein reminded the retired scientist that both he and his wife Virgina served in the military during World War Two. “We are both retired Navy,” he said, “bound by the same oath and share the same values.”

In other words – Heinlein claimed he well knew what he was talking about. And these views were quite different than those of Barney Oliver and many other physicists and engineers. When it came to SDI, Heinlein believed “this is not just a friendly debate…this is grim death, the very survival of our country.” And if Oliver wasn’t going to be part of the solution, then he “should not go out of [his] way to discourage the troops (i.e., in this case, Ginny and me.)”  “Barney,” he said, “I am going to ask you to stand up and be counted.”

As Heinlein saw it, “the present balance of terror is an unspeakable folly.” In addition, the recent turnovers inside the Kremlin had left him unnerved. (The USSR had seen three General Secretaries of the Communist Party. Brezhnev was replaced by Andropov in 1982 followed by Chernenko in 1984. A few weeks after Heinlein and Oliver corresponded, Gorbachev would assume the position.) “When do we get one as crazy as Stalin?” he wondered.

Screen Shot 2013-09-15 at 12.58.33 PM

Page 3

To be fair, Heinlen doesn’t come across as “pro-nuclear war” in the same manner that Reanganites dropped glib comments and fashioned sober policy (starting under Carter with Presidential Directive 59) about “winnable” nuclear war. Such ideas were hotly debated in the early 1980s. And, Heinlein claimed, he wasn’t endorsing SDI with blinders on. “I am backing Star Wars despite its glaring faults because I do not know of anything better.” He went on to challenge Oliver – an “electronic genius” – and his colleagues to come up with something better. “Shucks,” he wrote, “the description of the SDI project is so loosely worded…Hewlett-Packard could have a write-your-own ticket contract under SDI.”

Would Oliver would be willing to try? If so, Heinlein exclaimed “bully for you!” But if not…then Oliver should just “back off and shut up; the grownups have work to do.”

So – why did Robert Heinlein react so strongly – even nastily – to what was a quite mild letter from a colleague, if not a friend? Was this just two retired men – both of whom did military-related research during World War Two – having a squabble. One answer is right there in Heinlein’s own words: to him, the nuclear standoff with the Soviets was a clear, present, and unstable danger. “Which side are you on, Doctor?” he asked Oliver. “Better Red than Dead? Or Better Dead than Red?” Because when it came to defending the United States, Heinlein claimed “there is third position…no middle ground.”

But there was another reason as well…more on that next time. But here’s a hint:

Screen Shot 2013-09-19 at 1.20.00 PM

From 1983…


  1. Heinlein also wrote another story about what today would be called a ‘dirty bomb’ called “Solution Unsatisfactory”. Both were republished in 1946 in a sci-fi anthology. []

Horizons of Expectation

Screen Shot 2012-12-31 at 11.31.38 AM

Not all futures are created equal.

One of the meta-points of The Visioneers is that the future is not a neutral space that we as individuals or as a society move into. Rather, the future is politically contested terrain, an arena of speculation where diverse interests meet, debate, argue, and compromise. In the “predictive space” of technological tomorrows, the future exists as an unstable entity which different individuals and groups vie to construct and claim through their writings, their designs, and their activities while marginalizing alternative futures.

The “Forum” section in the new American Historical Review  takes up the absorbing topic of “histories of the future” in some innovative and provocative ways.1 The editor of the Forum is David C. Engerman, a historian at Brandeis University; his super 2009 book Know Your Enemy examined the network of scholars who engaged in “Soviet Studies” during the Cold War. In his introduction to the AHR Forum, Engerman draws on the work of German historian Reinhart Koselleck. His book Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time argued that scholars must consider “horizons of expectation” in addition to “spaces of experience.” It’s impossible to fully analyze and understand historical experience without taking these expectations of the future into account. As Engerman puts it, “how historical subjects imagined their futures is crucial to understanding their pasts.” I couldn’t agree more.

In The Visioneers, I show how technological visionaries engaged in politics – primarily at local levels – to build support for their ideas and quash rival views of the technological future. The essays in the AHR Forum likewise address politics but at the higher levels of the state and geopolitics. For example, Jenny Andersson’s essay “The Great Future Debate and the Struggle for the World” examines how futurology on both sides of the Iron Curtain “was a veritable battleground for different future visions.” Andersson shows how even definitions of “futurology” varied depending on whether one was a West German or East German futurist. Here, we see futurology as well as the future freighted with all sorts of political baggage. Andersson’s realization that writing histories of the future is methodologically challenging is something I learned when writing my own book. For example, archival materials left by futurists are often not readily available and instead have to be “retrieved from garages and storage rooms.” I have a good story about this which I share in public talks.

Politics naturally conjures questions of power. Engerman describes how the Forum’s authors built on insights from anthropologist Johannes Fabian. Fabian’s book Time and Power observed that “geopolitics has its ideological foundations in chronopolitics.” As a result, visions of the future are not “natural resources” but “ideologically constructed instruments of power” which makes them far from neutral. This theme comes out quite strongly in an essay by historian Matthew Connelly (which he co-authored with nine other people, perhaps an AHR record). “Team Connelly” focus on interactions of forecasters and planners with military leaders and politicians during the Cold War as they attempted to predict Soviet strategic intentions in order to prepare America’s nuclear war plans. From the pre-Joe 1 days through Ike’s 50s and the High Cold War and well into détente and “Cold War redux” of the Carter-Reagan years, these wildly inaccurate estimates were shaped by fights over power and resources within the Pentagon. Just as the Soviet Union and the U.S. offered contrasting images of the communist/capitalist future as an ideological tool, the future was also something wielded in Beltway bureaucratic battles.

Screen Shot 2012-12-31 at 11.29.52 AM

Were Sid and Johnny right?

At the same time, it’s through the lens of nuclear war that we see how our understanding of Cold War culture is complicated by the fact that, for many people, there was no future (cue Sex Pistols). Connelly et al. draw nicely on French psychiatrist Eugène Minkowski’s work on World War One survivors. People “live the future” based on a balance between activity and expectation…and if expectations of the future are nil, then one should expect to see this reflected in their activity (and films, art, books, etc.).

Team Connelly also refer to Marc Bloch’s “problem of prevision” – predictions about the future can be “self-falsifying” and predictions that today seem implausible “may therefore have been the most important of all.” This is an elegant phrasing of two ideas I tried to bring out in The Visioneers. First, one shouldn’t judge past predictions of the future on the basis of how “crazy” they seem today. While my characters certainly proposed some radical schemes, they might appear less so (or at least more understandable) when seen in context. Second, it’s hard to judge the effects of the futures that didn’t happen. Often, the activities of visioneers were like “dark matter” tugging on the more visible galaxy of mainstream science and engineering as well as public imagination and state policy.

The essays by Engerman, Andersson, and Team Connelly all grapple with the surge in “future studies” – RAND figures prominently – that marks the Cold War and especially the late 1960s and early 1970s.2. People have always looked to the future. But, in the late 1960s, begins to unfold, a growing number of scientists, writers, and other experts were also looking at the future. Professional “futurologists” became well-paid celebrities sought out for their advice. Like many other areas of Cold War-era technology, this fascination with the future originated within the military-industrial complex. In the late 1960s, tools developed for military planning made their way to the corporate world, aided by the growing availability of computers and a belief that complex economic and societal situations could be modeled. American businesses started retaining more and more specialists, including science fiction writers, “to plot the future much as medieval monarchs used to have court-astrologers around.”3

While RAND researchers began to apply skills honed for modeling war and business to address ‘60s-era social issues, others founded their own enterprises such as the Institute for the Future based in Palo Alto, California. In 1966, as part of the “civilianizing” of futures research, a few hundred forward-looking people joined the World Future Society. Within a decade, its membership had shot to 25,000. Futurology entered a golden age and, with it, came the mass-marketed futurist. Hugely popular books about the technological future, such as Alvin Toffler’s book Future Shock (1970) and Daniel Bell’s The Coming of Post-Industrial Society (1973), flew off bookshelves. This “pop futurism” carried a common message: The 1970s, poised between two technological eras, one of industry and the other of information, would be an era of abrupt change. The future became an object of serious scholarly inquiry as an entire academic edifice of journals, conferences, and experts devoted to looking over the horizon emerged. Trying to find an alternate to “the whole Cartesian trip,” American and European universities offered hundreds of courses that addressed some aspect of the future.

The future and technology have always been interwoven. The sheer act of building something, be it a stone axe or spaceship, implies an imagined future need and use. Although the AHR Forum’s essays do not explicitly treat technology (or science) as a central variable, technological change was the major variable in these classes as economists, computer scientists, and sociologists attempted to understand the future more “scientifically” and propose ways in which society might navigate toward alternate, more desirable futures. In response to the “bourgeoisie-capitalist” scenarios proffered by groups with corporate or military connections, a growing swell of anti-technocratic, publicly oriented intellectuals spun dissenting futurology. Senator Edward Kennedy, taking a jab at the excesses of Apollo, said in 1975, “We must be pioneers in time, rather than space.”4

As Team Connelly notes, a good deal of historians’ attention to the future has been on intellectual and cultural history including utopian/dystopian visions as well as “visual and literary representations of things to come.” Valuable as these approaches are, they leave lots of territory open for future exploration. More histories of Koselleck’s “horizons of expectation” – not only at the state and geopolitical levels but in ways that also incorporate social, economic, and scientific/technological history – can help reveal how past predictions of the future have helped shape where we are today.

  1. Unfortunately, these article are behind a pay wall…hopefully, you’ve access to these excellent essays via a personal or institutional subscription []
  2. A third essay in the Forum, by Manu Goswami, deals with the early 20th century []
  3. William H. Honan. “The Futurists Take over the Jules Verne Business.” New York Times, April 9, 1967. []
  4. John D. Douglas, “The Future of Futurism: An Analysis,” Science News, 1975, 107, 26: 416-17. []