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The Secret History of G.I. Joe

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Posted on Aug 15, 2013
University of Massachusetts Press

By Tom Engelhardt, TomDispatch

(Page 4)

The Look of Star Wars Enters the World of War

About two years before Star Wars opened, a 20-year-old MIT student, Peter Hagelstein, applied for a fellowship to the Hertz Foundation. Among its board members was Edward Teller, “father” of the H-bomb and a founder of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a government nuclear weapons research facility in Northern California. Although John D. Hertz (of rental car fame) had set up the fellowships to “foster the technological strength of America” vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and some recipients were recruited into Livermore’s weapons research by those interviewing them, the foundation advertised only that “[t]he proposed field of graduate study must be concerned with applications of the physical sciences to human problems, broadly construed.”

Hagelstein was offered a fellowship and a summer job at Livermore by Lowell Wood, his interviewer and head of Livermore’s O Group. Its young scientists were working on designing a “third generation” of nuclear weapons (the first two being the A and H bombs). According to Hagelstein, Wood told him only that they were working on “lasers and laser fusion, which I had never heard of before, and he said there were computer codes out there that were like playing a Wurlitzer organ. It all sounded kind of dreamy… The lab made quite an impression, especially the guards and barbed wire. When I got to the personnel department it dawned on me that they worked on weapons here, and that’s about the first I knew about it.”

In the summer of 1976, he went there full time, while continuing Ph.D. work at MIT. He was a young man who “hated bombs” and “didn’t want to be associated with anything nuclear.” He was even romantically involved with an antinuclear activist who picketed the lab. But he was held by a dream of creating a laboratory x-ray laser that would allow scientists to “see” various biological processes, and by the appealing young men of O Group, with their jeans and long hair, all-night work habits, countercultural élan, and perverse humor. (Once, they even “took up a collection” to buy Lowell Wood a Darth Vader costume.)


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The year that Star Wars soared into box office heaven, a senior O Group scientist came up with a new concept for using a nuclear explosion to “pump” enough focused energy into a laser to turn it into a weapon. In the summer of 1979, Hagelstein appeared at a meeting where the use of an underground nuclear explosion to test out the idea was being discussed. Dazed from 20 straight hours of work, he made a suggestion—“The mouth just said it”—that was to lead to a laser device dubbed Excalibur and successfully tested in November 1980. While Hagelstein’s dream of a laboratory x-ray laser faded, “his” weapon became the centerpiece of a different sort of fantasy.

In February 1981, the trade journal Aviation Week and Space Technology reported the x-ray laser’s heavily classified existence, saying that, “mounted in a laser battle station” in space, it had “the potential to blunt a Soviet nuclear weapons attack.” The magazine’s account was accompanied by a hyper-realistic, futuristic “artist’s drawing” showing a snazzy battle station that “bristled with long laser rods,” an image the mainstream media picked up, thus marrying the look of war to the look of Star Wars.

By 1982, Teller had taken news of Peter Hagelstein’s laser directly to Ronald Reagan. Space lasers and other third-generation weapons, he assured the president, “by converting hydrogen bombs into hitherto unprecedented forms and by directing these in highly effective fashions against enemy targets would end the MAD [Mutual Assured Destruction] era and commence a period of assured survival on terms favorable to the Western alliance.” Even a young weapons researcher whose doctoral thesis (“Physics of Short Wavelength Laser Design”) mentioned three science fiction novels featuring beam weapons could hardly have imagined that one spaced-out suggestion would become a crucial part of a multibillion-dollar national fantasy to create a “protective shield” over the reconstruction of war on Earth.

[Part 2, “Teenagers in Space” will be posted on Thursday, August 15th.]

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and author of The United States of Fear, runs the Nation Institute’s This post is excerpted from his history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture (just published in a Kindle edition), with the permission of its publisher, the University of Massachusetts Press.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook or Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.

Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt and University of Massachusetts Press

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