Yesterday evening I was channel hopping by way of relaxation and chanced upon a UKTV History programme about the Cold War, and in particular about the doings and sayings of the rocket scientists. (Here is the UKTV History home page, but I can find no internet reference to this particular programme.)
The programme seemed fairly good, on the whole, but towards the end of it there was one glaring – not to say outrageous – non sequitur. We had reached the Star Wars phase of the story. US and Soviet rocketeers had been shadow boxing for a couple of decades, and the Americans, in the person of President Ronald Reagan, decided that the time was now right to put and end to this thing. Rockets are particularly vulnerable just when they are taking off and just after they have taken off. They are then highly visible, because this is when they make their greatest commotion (until they strike!), getting themselves up to speed and up into the sky. So, said the Americans, let us zap them at this point, with laser beams and such like.
The bewilderment of the Soviet strategists and scientists was described vividly, with quotes and interviews with their rocket men, military and scientific. We simply did not know what to do, they said. They needed a national effort, in which the entire resources of the Soviet economy were brought to bear on the problem, the way they had mobilised their entire economy to get them seriously into the rocket race back in the fifties and sixties, first scaring the Americans into building the Minuteman rocket (much quicker to launch and much more accurate than their previous efforts) and then matching the Minuteman with their own version (the Minuteman’s plans presumably having been stolen by them, although that was not discussed at all). Well, now they needed to counter Star Wars with their own version.
Trouble was, they simply could not. This was an arms race they just did not have the resources to win.
And at this point in the story, the programme announced that ‘politics’ then took over. We will never know, they said, if Star Wars would have worked, or if it would have done any good, because, thanks to ‘politics’, the USSR retired gracefully from the field and the Cold War ended, seemingly of its own accord.
I could scarcely believe what I was hearing, or rather, what I was not hearing.
At no point was it even discussed whether the fact that they were going to lose the next phase of the Cold War, had it continued, and that they knew that they were going to lose it, had it continued, had any bearing whatsoever on the decision of the USSR’s leaders to quit the entire contest. No, there was no connection. A connection was not even denied. It was simply ignored. Rockets is rockets and politics is politics, and they have no connection with each other. Rockets (bad) kept the Cold War going. Politics (good – and in the form of an ‘internal’ Soviet collapse/decision-to-quit that had nothing to do with the external pressures the Soviet system was being subjected to by its adversary) ended the Cold War.
Yet the evidence that there was a very close connection between Star Wars and the Soviet collapse had all been assembled by this same programme. The evidence that what the programme then said about Star Wars was a fatuous lie had all been presented to us, just before the lie itself was presented.
If the Soviet rocket scientists had been queueing up to say; “We were winning! We were stabbed in the back by our damned politicians!”, well, that might have counted for something. But they did not say that. They said: “We were losing! We had lost! It was all over!”
This was bias of a very particular sort. It was not cunning, seriously duplicitous, well crafted bias, with any evidence that might undermine the lie being told being quietly suppressed. No, this was extremely public wrong-headedness bias, barefaced, public stupidity bias. Had they hung a big sign on the show saying: “this is totally biased”, it could not have been more obvious or more risible.
What, if anything, were they thinking?
My guess is that the people who made this programme were so completely eaten up with the notion that Ronald Reagan was a buffoon of no significance to anything whatever, who was by his very nature – Republican, B movie actor, rabid anti-communist, etc. – incapable of doing anything even vaguely smart or well-timed or well-executed, let alone anything as portentous as, you know, Winning the Cold War – that they just were unable to consider the possibility that he did just this, and on purpose and that Star Wars was all part of it.
And I further believe that the UK History people believed similar things of the American rocket scientists, the men whom Reagan unleashed – along with many other highly competent Cold Warriors in all kinds of other places and with all kinds of other skills. Oh sure, these guys knew how to lob bits of metal and explosive hither and thither, and to fake up pretty laser beam videos. But when it came to actually thinking through what the larger consequences of their gizmos might be for anything or for anyone, well, that was obviously beyond their one-dimensional brains to grasp and is a job for people such as those who work at the UK History channel. We get the wider picture. They do not.
But rocket science? Is that not supposed to be rather difficult? Do you not have to be rather clever to do this?
They did an interview with Jerry Pournelle, for heaven’s sakes. Is he just some dumb fuck rocket guy with no grasp of the wider picture? The pronouncements of Edward Teller, both as an old many being interviewed, and as a younger man arguing his corner when in the thick of the action, were prominently featured. Did he give no thought to the wider picture? Well yes, but the thoughts of a man like that are so obviously wrong that they were obviously wrong. I guess.
As I believe Ronald Reagan himself said: It is astonishing what you can accomplish if you do not mind who gets the credit.