“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. []