Ambassador Robert Grey says in a previous essay in this SWF Sound Off section: “We have a choice.” We can craft a legal regime that would ban the weaponization of space, or we can live with the consequences of a new and destabilizing arms race.
Just so. That’s the theme of my recent book, Twilight War: The Folly of U.S. Space Dominance.
We have been here before. In August 1945, shortly after atomic bombs were used against the densely populated cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Manhattan Engineer District published an amazing little book, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, usually called the Smyth Report after its author, Henry DeWolf Smyth, a Princeton physicist. Smyth outlined the history of the top-secret enterprise, although not in enough detail to show other countries how to build their own bombs straightaway.
Why did the government feel compelled to publish the report and risk giving the Soviet Union insights into how to put together a bomb program? The answer is that publication served two purposes, one practical and one motivated by only-in-America idealism.
Men and women throughout the world would want to know what the atom bomb was and how it had come about. Hundreds of key scientists who had been part of the Manhattan Project and who were returning to normal civilian life would be pumped for information. Publication of the report sent a message to those scientists; it defined their boundaries. Based on the report, scientists knew what they were free to talk about and, by its omissions, what they must not reveal. Publication was a prudent, practical, preemptive measure.
But the Smyth Report had a nobler purpose, stated in its final two paragraphs.
During the war, public discussion of the bomb project had been off limits. And yet, the central issues regarding the bomb were not technical, the scientists said. They were “political and social questions.” How these questions were answered would “affect all mankind.”
“We find ourselves,” Smyth wrote, “with an explosive which is far from completely perfected. Yet the future possibilities of such explosives are appalling, and their effects on future wars and international affairs are of fundamental importance.” These issues had been discussed during the war by some of the upper-tier bomb scientists, he noted, but not by the American people or by Congress. “In a free country like ours, such questions should be debated by the people and decisions must be made by the people through their representatives. This is one reason for the release of this report.... The people of the country must be informed if they are to discharge their responsibilities wisely.”
You will find no better definition of democracy than that. Unhappily, as the Cold War unfolded, it became clear that he and his colleagues had been too optimistic. There was too much paranoia, too much secrecy, too much misinformation and disinformation on both sides of the Iron Curtain to ensure a fully informed public discussion of nuclear issues in the West, much less in the police state that was the Soviet Union.
Nonetheless, the throw-the-issues-open-to-everyone sentiment was magnificent. It spoke of a profound faith in the wisdom of the American people and the workings of the democratic processof how ordinary people, whose rights of free speech and a free press were guaranteed by the Constitution, would be able to come to grips with the most profound life-or-death matters imaginable.
My book, Twilight War is no Smyth Report. It reveals no previously classified information and it does not explore scientific matters that are only vaguely comprehensible to those of us who lack a degree in physics. The morally complex and culturally divisive issues examined in Twilight War are, however, akin to those introduced by the Smyth Report.
Whether the United States should continue to oppose a new space treaty is an issue too important to be left solely to the president, any president, or to the Congress. The Constitution does not vest ultimate sovereignty in the national legislature or the president. It vests it in “We, the people.”
The need for intense and active involvement in a major foreign policy issue has seldom been as important as it is now. We do not need to start a cold war with China or anyone else, in which the drive for space dominance would be the focus. There is a better way to build the future in space, and working toward a new space treaty is it.
The moon belongs to everyone/The best things in life are free,/The stars belong to everyone,/They gleam there for you and me.
Doggerel, certainly. Nonetheless, it is a pleasant rhyme that hints at a near-universal notion. The heavens are somehow different from land, sea, and sky, venues for conflict since the dawn of man. While our planet is a darkly troubled place, the stars and the sun, the moon and the planets still have the capacity to inspire poets and lovers. They cheer the soul and cause us to reflect on the meaning of existence. “The heavens proclaim the glory of God,” begins the hymn of praise in Psalms 19. “The work of God’s hands is revealed in the heavenly vault.”
One need not believe in God to feel the wonder. Any clear night will do. The heavenly vault embodies the infinite and the eternal, concepts that can be named although not fully understood. Unfathomable mystery resides in the universe and the stars are just a visible manifestation of it.
The proper role of the United States is to use its power, influence, and moral authority to ensure that space remains free of conflict, a weapons-free sanctuary. To fail in that task would truly be a tragic irony of American history.
Mike Moore is Research Fellow at The Independent Institute, former editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and author of the book, Twilight War: The Folly of U.S. Space Dominance.