“This is grim death…”

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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. []

Robert Heinlein and the Harsh Politics of Science Fiction

Of all the archives I worked with when writing The Visioneers, none was more intriguing than the collection of Robert A. Heinlein’s papers. Heinlein’s death a quarter-century ago coupled with my recent thoughts on the interplay between science fiction and politics nudged me back to these papers for a second look.

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Robert A. Heinlein at work. c. 1965.

Set up as a cooperative project between the Special Collections at University of California, Santa Cruz and the Heinlein Prize Trust, the Heinlein archives is a very cool on-line collection. Rather than having to travel to UC-Santa Cruz, researchers can browse and download PDF copies of Heinlein’s notes, research, early drafts, and published works.  Not only is it convenient but it offers an opportunity to explore the creative processes of one of the greatest sci-fi writers in history.

But there’s a catch. As Heinlein popularized in his 1966 libertarian-treatise-as-science fiction-book The Moon is a Harsh MistressTANSTAAFL. Translated: There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. So, when it comes to downloading materials from the Heinlein archive, there’s no free lunch. Downloading a few hundred pages of materials costs just a few bucks – way cheaper than having to visit the archive in person.1

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Nobel winner and Playboy interviewee Milton Friedman adopted Heinlein’s adage.

But I think there is a larger moral principle at work here…to understand this, you need to know a little more about Heinlein’s own political views. Some of these can be teased out from his published sci-fi writings. For example, his 1959 book Starship Troopers won a Hugo award (1960) but was also harshly attacked for its right-wing – some even said fascist – vision of a world run according to strict military order. (Heinlein himself did a stint in the Navy – as an aviation engineer – as did his third and long-term wife Virginia).

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Robert and Virginia Heinlein on the set of the 1950 film Destination Moon

Two years later, Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land veered in a totally different political and cultural direction. Questioning all sorts of religious and sexual conventions, Stranger was also a Hugo winner. With characters who live in communes and practice group sex, the book became a touchstone of sorts for the burgeoning counterculture of the 1960s.

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Heinlein’s 1961 book won him a second Hugo

Not all readers were entranced. A New York Times critic – writing before sci-fi had become an acceptable/respectable genre – called it “puerile and ludicrous” in which a “non-stop orgy is combined with a lot of preposterous chatter.”2 Nevertheless, it sold over 3 million copies.

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Review of Stranger in a Strange Land

Although shades of Heinlein’s true political leanings – libertarian in the classic sense – could be found in Troopers and Stranger, these were revealed much more clearly in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (yes, another Hugo winner). Originally titled The Brass Cannon, the novel’s plot centers around a lunar colony’s revolt against its Earth-based government overseers. At the same time, the novel champions free-market – emphasis on free – and private enterprise.3 Heinlein’s “unprecedented combination of rocket visions” with “tough-minded individualism respectful of the military and iconoclastic free living” led Brian Doherty, a senior editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, to call Heinlein a true “bard of Southern California” who anticipated the Golden State’s political and cultural shifts.4 Given the role that California played in 70s-era national politics – anti-tax revolt, the rise of suburban Republicans, the religious right that spun out of the counterculture – these views are critically important for understanding the last 30 years of U.S. history.

While I “visited” the Heinlein archives, I certainly detected signs of Heinlein’s libertarian views that spoke to both the political left and right. I was also intrigued by how Heinlein imagined the politics of future space settlements toward the end of his life. This made me wonder whether his libertarian ideas, forged decades earlier, resonated with either the formal libertarian political movement (which really began to gel in the US in the early 1970s) or the Reagan-era’s focus on free markets and private enterprise. The answer was more complicated than I first imagined.

A sense of Heinlein’s thinking can be found in an exchange of letters he had in 1985 with Dr. Joseph P. Martino, a retired Air Force colonel who was serving as a technology forecaster at the University of Dayton. Their exchange started with a discussion about the morality of missile defense.

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15 April 1945 letter from Martino to Heinlein

Heinlein supported Reagan’s SDI program unlike “the Sagans, the Asimovs, the Garvins, the Arthur Clarkes” and other “soft-minded fools who fantasize about a world that does not exist.” (Odd words coming from a sci-fi writer but explicable in the context of their exchange.) Heinlein goes on to note that the debate over SDI had science fiction writers “more bitterly divided that it was over the war in Vietnam.” In fact, the entire grassroots pro-space movement was divided on the same issue.

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Heinlein’s reply

Like many people intrigued with the idea of settlements in space, Heinlein gave a lot of thought as to what off-world politics might be like. In this matter, he said he remained “both a pessimist and a lower-case libertarian.” When it came to “our race’s future in space,” Heinlein predicted that those “who do not go into space will find, rather quickly, that they can neither control nor tax those who do.”

Heinlein goes on to make it clear that his political position was rested entirely on an unsentimental pragmatism and was “not based on our Bill of Rights” or “libertarian theory.” A key test for the sci-fi writer was a person’s proposed solution to what he called the Lifeboat Problem – what rights should an individual be accorded in a place where food, water, air, safety, etc. are in tenuous supply i.e. a submarine or a space colony? 5 In fact, he demanded a solution to this question before “any avowed libertarian” should be allowed “to open his big mouth on the subject of “natural rights” in space.”

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Part of Heinlein’s response

He framed the scenario thus: “You are boat officer in a lifeboat, rated capacity 50 persons and it is filled to capacity, a mixture of men, women, and children. In the water are others…The sea is Beaufort scale four or higher; the water is freezing cold. You are armed with a loaded pistol. So far as you know no one else is armed…but you may be mistaken.” What do you do? Rotate people in and out of the life boat every 20 minutes and try to save everyone? Noble but impractical. Maybe someone would suggest taking a vote  to which Heinlein said “I would shoot that bastard just for drill.”

So far as libertarians enamored with theory and posturing – “Any libertarian so doctrinaire that he cannot find a pragmatic solution to this problem deserves no tolerance from others…Unfortunately a large percentage of those who describe themselves as “libertarians”…would be a a mortal danger to their shipmates.”

One might read Heinlein’s views here in several ways – maybe the grumblings of an octogenarian WW2 veteran…or perhaps they represent the thoughts of someone smitten with Reagan-era socioeconomic policies toward the poor (which would be ironic given Heinlein’s early social activism as part of Upton Sinclair’s “End Poverty in California” movement). Aside from their bluntness, what struck me most when I re-read Heinlein’s statements was how they reminded me of another science fiction epic – the fantastic 2004-2009 re-make of Battlestar Galactica. One of the series’ on-going themes, especially in the opening season, is the harsh yet pragmatic sacrifices the Colonial fleet has to make to ensure the survival of the greatest number of humans. Heinlein would have approved.

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Destruction of the Olympic Carrier in the BSG episode “33” (Season 1)

After his death in 1988, Heinlein’s estate helped establish the Heinlein Prize Trust. It regularly gives out large cash awards “to encourage and reward progress in commercial space activities.” The most recent award – $250,000 – went to SpaceX founder and libertarian-minded entrepreneur Elon Musk. One of Musk’s ambitions is to establish a settlement for 80,000 people on Mars. So, I’m left wondering what his solution to Heinlein’s Lifeboat problem would be?

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Is there room for one more?

  1. UC-SC still maintains physical copies of the collection which can be viewed for free at its campus. []
  2. Orville Prescott. “Books of The Times”. The New York Times. August 4, 1961, p. 19 []
  3. In a 1973 interview with the libertarian writer J. Neil Schulman, Heinlein questioned whether free markets were more efficient. “The justification,” he said, “for free enterprise is not that it’s more efficient, but that it’s free.” []
  4. A 2007 essay by Doherty expands on these ideas very nicely. []
  5. Here, it’s quite likely Heinlein was influenced by the writings of University of California biologist Garrett Hardin who famously considered “lifeboat ethics” in the 1970s. []