Wiesner, Jerome Bert

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Wiesner, Jerome Bert

(b. 30 May 1915 in Detroit, Michigan; d. 21 October 1994 in Watertown, Massachusetts), science adviser to President John F. Kennedy, president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and outspoken advocate of nuclear arms control.

Wiesner, the son of Joseph Wiesner and Ida Freedman, dry goods shopkeepers in Dearborn, Michigan, was an inventive boy who worked throughout his youth selling newspapers, caddying at the local golf course, and tending bar. Always interested in technical systems, he once constructed his own telephone network to communicate with his friends in the community. He attended the public schools in Dearborn and graduated in 1932 from Fordson High School. He then enrolled in Michigan State Normal College in Ypsilanti before transferring to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he received a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1937. He continued at the University of Michigan and earned an M.Sc, also in electrical engineering, in 1938.

While still a student in Ann Arbor, Wiesner served as associate director of the University of Michigan’s radio station. He also worked in the speech department developing electronic systems to aid in speech therapies, and he taught radio techniques each summer at the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. Wiesner remained at the University of Michigan until 1940, when he accepted a position as chief engineer of the acoustical and record laboratory at the Library of Congress, where he worked on sound recording preservation projects. Also in 1940 Wiesner married Laya Wainger; they had four children. Among his interesting activities with the Library of Congress, he traveled with the folklorists John Lomax and Alan Lomax to record folk songs in 1941.

As it did for many other scientists of Wiesner’s generation, World War II defined the trajectory of Wiesner’s career. In 1942 Wiesner joined the radiation laboratory at MIT, which was then engaged in top secret research on radar for the military. Because of his background in sound recording he proved invaluable in developing large, airborne early-warning radar systems. Later, in 1945 and 1946, Wiesner worked with the University of California’s Los Alamos National Laboratory to develop instruments for the Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests.

In the fall of 1946 Wiesner returned to MIT as an assistant professor of engineering. At the same time he pursued a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, and he received both his degree and a full professorship at MIT in 1950. He spent the 1950s on the faculty at MIT and in 1952 he also began directing the Lincoln Laboratory.

During this period Wiesner’s reputation for honesty, good sense, and moral vigor rose. He was increasingly called upon to assist national leaders in setting science and technology policy. Two areas especially sparked his involvement. The first was nuclear weapons and the deterrence theory current during the cold war with the Soviet Union. Wiesner favored a strong military capability for the United States but always argued for joint efforts to limit the number of nuclear warheads available to both sides. He believed, as he said in 1958, that a nuclear arms race results “in less security, not more, with each passing year.” He asked the two rivals to maintain only “sufficient nuclear deterrence to provide protection … but not enough military power to assure the success of a surprise attack.” Accordingly Wiesner participated in the Geneva summit of 1958 and the Pugwash conference of 1960, in both cases arguing in favor of strategic arms limitations. Wiesner had a significant impact on the Kennedy administration in the early 1960s, and the resulting Nuclear Test Ban Treaty of 1963 between the United States and the Soviet Union was an important early step toward strategic arms limitations.

The second area in which Wiesner played an especially important role was in the cold war rivalry in space flight. At the time of the Soviet successes of Sputnik in October 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower asked Wiesner to serve on a special science advisory committee charged with revamping the federal government’s oversight of critical science and technology development efforts. Wiesner advocated the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 and the consolidation of nonmilitary space flight activities under its leadership.

When President John F. Kennedy was preparing to take office in late 1960 he appointed an ad hoc committee headed by Wiesner to offer suggestions for American efforts in space. Wiesner, who later headed the President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC) under Kennedy, concluded that the issue of “national prestige” was too great to allow the Soviet Union to lead the world in space efforts, therefore the United States had to enter the field in a substantive way. “Space exploration and exploits,” he wrote in a 10 January 1961 report to the president-elect, “have captured the imagination of the peoples of the world. During the next few years the prestige of the United States will in part be determined by the leadership we demonstrate in space activities.” Wiesner also emphasized the importance of practical nonmilitary applications of space technology, such as in communications, mapping, and weather satellites, and the necessity of keeping up the effort to exploit space for national security through such technologies as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and reconnaissance satellites. He tended to deemphasize the human space flight initiative for practical reasons. American launch vehicle technology, he argued, was not well developed, and the potential of placing an astronaut in space before the Soviets was slim. He thought human space flight was a high-risk enterprise with a low chance of success. Human space flight was also less likely to yield valuable scientific results, and the United States, Wiesner thought, should play to its strengths in space science where important results had already been achieved.

Kennedy only accepted part of what Wiesner recommended. The president was committed to conducting a vigorous space program and was more interested in human space flight than either his predecessor or his science adviser. This was partly because of the drama surrounding Project Mercury and the seven astronauts NASA was training. Wiesner had cautioned Kennedy about the hyperbole associated with human space flight. “Indeed, by having placed the highest national priority on the MERCURY program we have strengthened the popular belief that man in space is the most important aim for our non-military space effort,” Wiesner wrote. “The manner in which this program has been publicized in our press has further crystallized such belief.” Kennedy, nevertheless, recognized the tremendous public support arising from this program and wanted to ensure that it reflected favorably upon his administration.

Kennedy went further than Wiesner believed was warranted when, on 25 May 1961, he announced that the United States would land an American on the Moon by the end of the decade. Project Apollo became the vehicle for carrying out this mandate. Wiesner questioned implementing this decision, even after the commitment had been announced. For example, he objected to the inherent risk to the crew of the lunar-orbit rendezvous mode for conducting Apollo operations, the eventual method used to carry out the landings with a command module in orbit around the Moon while a small lander went to the surface. Responding to Wiesner’s opposition, the NASA administrator backpedaled and stated that the decision was tentative and NASA would sponsor further studies.

The issue reached a climax at the Marshall Space Flight Center in September 1962, when President Kennedy, Wiesner, NASA administrator James E. Webb, and several other Washington figures visited Wernher von Braun. As the entourage viewed a mock-up of the massive Saturn V Moon rocket during a photo opportunity for the media, Kennedy nonchalantly mentioned to Braun, “I understand you and Jerry disagree about the right way to go to the moon.” Braun acknowledged this disagreement, but when Wiesner began to explain his concern, Webb, who had been quiet until this point, began to argue with him “for being on the wrong side of the issue.” The mode decision had been an uninteresting technical issue before, but thereafter it was a political concern hashed over in the press for days. The science adviser to the British prime minister Harold Macmillan had accompanied Wiesner on the trip, and he later asked Kennedy how the debate would turn out. The president responded that Wiesner would lose, “Webb’s got all the money, and Jerry’s only got me.” Kennedy was right. Webb lined up political support in Washington for the lunar-orbit rendezvous mode and announced it as a final decision on 7 November 1962.

One other area of Wiesner’s influence relative to Kennedy’s policies on space flight was his efforts to make Project Apollo a joint mission with the Soviets. Rather than compete with the Soviet Union, Wiesner emphasized the possibilities of cooperation and thereby lessening cold war tensions. Indeed in the weeks preceding the Apollo decision the Kennedy administration quietly assessed the Soviet leadership’s inclinations toward a cooperative approach to human space exploration. Although these “back channel” efforts did not produce any space agreements, the fact that President Kennedy pursued this track while simultaneously considering a competitive approach signified a newly appreciated depth to Kennedy’s political acumen. The president publicly spoke about cooperating in space with the Soviets several times before May 1961, and afterward he pursued various forms of space cooperation, culminating less than a month before his death in 1963 with a call before the United Nations for a joint lunar mission. At every point Wiesner urged him to pursue such a cooperative strategy.

After the assassination of President Kennedy on 22 November 1963 Wiesner resigned from government service and returned to MIT. He became dean of the MIT School of Science in 1964 and provost in 1966. After the briefest of tenures as provost, he became president of MIT later in 1966 and served for nine years. A founding member of the International Foundation for the Survival and Development of Humanity, Wiesner retired from public life in 1975. He died of heart failure at his home.

A collection of Wiesner’s papers is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. Another sizable collection of Wiesner materials is in the Kennedy Presidential Library in Boston. His autobiography is Where Science and Politics Meet (1965). For his role advocating nuclear disarmament see Abram Chayes and Jerome B. Wiesner, eds., ABM: An Evaluation of the Decision to Deploy an Antiballistic Missile System (1969). Wiesner’s role as presidential science adviser is chronicled in James Everett Katz, Presidential Politics and Science Policy (1978); William T. Goldman, ed., Science Advice to the President (1980); W. Henry Lambright, Presidential Management of Science and Technology (1985); Goldman, ed., Science and Technology Advice to the President, Congress, and Judiciary (1988); and Gregg Herken, Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising from the Atomic Bomb to SDI (1992). Obituaries are in the New York Times and the Washington Post (both 23 Oct. 1994).

Roger D. Launius

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