What to Do With Good News?


By Edward Teller, Ph.D.

(published in the Journal of Civil Defense, Spring 1993)

I had just finished a delightful lunch with my grandson. At the end of it, he made a statement as horrible as it was surprising: “A few years ago,” he said, “I thought that the human race would not survive the 21st century. I have become more optimistic. There’s now a 50% chance.”

Is that what our children think? And their children? Is it this far that our fear of innovation of science, of the future, has escalated? To imagine the worst is all right as long as you couple your thoughts with the determination and the conviction that the worst can be averted.

We see now the beginnings of replacing confrontation between East and West by cooperation for mutual benefit. But it is true that the fear of a cataclysm of the big conflict is being, in fact, replaced by worry of conflict on a smaller scale. Indeed, proliferation of nuclear weapons continues as a possibility and proliferation of missiles is developing as a fact.

In view of the fear of a cataclysm, civil defense appeared as a necessity. One of my reasons for advocating it was my experience that a good beginning often has a one hundredfold payoff. And such a big payoff might even have sufficed.

Now, considering the properly reduced fears of my grandson, I will repeat my response to him. “I am firmly convinced that we will survive for better or for worse. I even predict that we shall survive for the better. To do this, we must continue to consider the worst. By being prepared for an attack from any part of the world, we may finally arrive at the state where violence between nations will have become as rare and as absurd as violence between individuals.

“But to do this, it will be of growing benefit to establish defenses against the possibilities of violence. The idea of a success of violence is the main reason why violence is still planned, particularly by those people to whom power is an ultimate goal rather than a heavy obligation.

“To me, the question is no longer whether civil defense will succeed. The only remaining question is whether the success of civil defense will have to be preceded by some bitter experiences or whether, for once, reason will suffice to produce protection.”