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Demonstration at Draper Lab

The Motivations Behind a Protest

By John Chute, John Lindsay, and Jay Mccleod

Fourteen protestors were arrested Monday after pouring what they said was human blood on themselves and on the doors of Draper Laboratory. Here three members of the Draper Peace Conversion Group explain the motivations behind the protest.

Charles Stark Draper Laboratory sits in an East Cambridge industrial park called Technology Square, where Polaroid Corporation also has its headquarters. The Lab is housed in a monolithic, eight-story building, covered with shaded windows.

Like most facilities engaged in military Research and Development work, the Lab gives no exterior sign of its involvement in the arms race. This involvement has included the development of the Polaris and Poseidon submarines (and their missiles), and now includes the MX missile, the cruise missile, and the Trident sub (with its missiles, the Trident I and II).

Draper Lab specializes in "inertial guidance," which means it develops the technology to make missiles and space shuttles more accurate. In the development of this technology, Draper is the key lab in the nation.

The missiles whose accuracy Draper is working to further perfect already can be projected from this side of the planet to within 500 feet of their target on the other side. You can better picture this accuracy if you think of throwing a dart across a football field and having it land within a millimeter of its target. With the Trident I, II, and the MX missiles Draper will reduce Circular Error Probability (CEP) to 300 feet. For the purposes of missile accuracy, this amounts to what the Real Paper described as the ability to "land a warhead in stall three of the men's room at the Kremlin." Clearly Draper Lab is very skillful at what it does.

What Draper's guidance program indicates is that these weapons are not necessarily designed to be used for civilian targets, since in any city a landing a half-mile one way or another will cause similar devastation. Rather, this increase in the accuracy of U.S. missiles is part of an increased emphasis on destroying Soviet land-based missiles.

American and Soviet strategic nuclear warheads are based in markedly different ways: 75 per cent of the 20,000 Soviet nuclear warheads are land-based, with the remaining strategic forces submarine- or bomber-based, while the U.S. has only 24 per cent of its 30,000 warheads in land-based missiles, with the remainder submarine- or air-based. Since land-based targets become particularly vulnerable as missiles become more accurate, U.S. weapons place 75 per cent of the Soviet strategic force at risk, while Soviet weapons jeopardize only 24 per cent of the American force. When one considers how Soviet leaders must view the increased accuracy Draper's work produces, there is little question that it will case severe instability in the arms race.

Those missiles from either country still not immediately vulnerable to attack are perfectly capable of killing every person on earth, but the point is that the U.S. strategists now speak primarily of eliminating military targets--of "counterforce"--as if human life were not involved. Concepts such as counterforce increase the strategic complexity of the arms race, making discussion of the issue more abstract, more removed from the real dangers of international instability.

The folks at Draper Lab have a cushion between what they see as their work and the reality of nuclear weapons: it's not Draper Lab that decides to build these things, it's the government. The Lab pictures itself as the neutral link between the partisan decision to build nuclear weapons and the partisan decision to use them. And though it depends on whom they're talking to, the Lab would like to deny that their guidance systems steer missiles at all. Draper's security chief did just that, in fact, last August at the trial in Middlesex County Court of five anti-war protestors who sat in on the property of the Lab. Two of these protestors served two weeks in prison as a consequence of a liturgy held in the Lab's courtyard to mourn the thirty-fifth anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In court, the protestors' defense was of a higher law than trespass, their appeal to a higher authority than the judge's. The same group--Ailanthus, named for a plant that grows even in extreme conditions--has vigiled at the Lab every Monday morning for almost two years.

Anti-war activity around Draper isn't new, however. In 1969, when the Lab was still owned by MIT, and when the Vietnam War had transformed the way most people felt about the military, MIT's Science Action Coordinating Committee sponsored conferences, newsletters, and rallies. A panel appointed by the president of MIT investigated the role of the Laboratory and recommended fewer military contracts. Student activists attempted to pressure the Lab to convert to non-military research, and at one demonstration the door of the Lab was set on fire after it was reported that napalm was made inside the building. Ultimately in May of 1971, as a political compromise, MIT divested itself of Draper Lab, though some MIT faculty and graduate students still work on Lab projects.

Attempting to convert Draper Laboratory to non-military research might at first seem naive--an impossibility. But while conversion is certainly not a simple process, it can work. Between 1961 and 1977, some 68,000 defense workers across the nation lost their jobs because of plant closings and major contract losses. But with federal assistance, 78,000 new non-defense jobs were created. And during the 1970's, the Boeing Corporation converted a large portion of its military production to the manufacture of subway cars and other forms of civilian transportation.

While in these examples conversion was made necessary by changes in the economic climate, several companies have voluntarily divested themselves of military research and production. The Acurex Corporation of Santa Clara, California, worked entirely on military projects in the 1960's, but now does 84 per cent of its work in solar energy and heating technology. The rank and file workers of Lucas Aerospace, formerly a major British military contractor, drew up and carried out the most comprehensive conversion plan in existence--complete with new products and marketing strategies designed to maintain both the number of jobs and level of profits of the corporation.

Instead of developing tomorrow's nuclear weapons. Draper Laboratory could utilize its vast technological and human capabilities for advances in alternative energy, medicine, transportation, and other areas of daily human need. If conversion can be made for economic necessity, it can also be made for the social good. And this is what we, as Cambridge residents, must help them see. Taking responsibility for our community's contributiom to the arms race would be a step in slowing and eventually halting the production of nuclear weapons.

Draper Laboratory is the only company in the United States capable of producing missile guidance systems with the accuracy achieved over the past decades. Its conversion to non-military research would have a significant effect on the research and development of nuclear weapons by this country. Furthermore, it would be a sign to people in other communities that the people of Cambridge were able to take control over a part of the arms race that was within their reach. Similar efforts by groups throughout the country could bring the development and deployment of new weapons systems to a halt.

The Draper Peace Conversion Group has recently circulated an open letter requesting Draper Lab to take some preliminary steps in the conversion process--granting 10 per cent of their independent funds toward a study of the non-military projects the Lab could undertake. This letter, signed by several hundred Cambridge residents, was presented to Robert Duffy, the president of Draper, April 14. Three days later he met with one member of our group, and responded to the letter by offering to give a presentation on the Lab's non-weapons work--the applications of missile guidance technology to medicine, transportation, oceanography and alternative energy. As usual, the Lab's management will not publicly admit that its missile guidance systems are used to steer missiles. For this reason, and because the Lab has been unwilling to negotiate on the request to examine conversion, the group Monday sponsored a sit-in on the Lab's property. We intend to continue these sit-ins, as well as pursue talks with the Lab's management.

It is not necessary that the technology developed by Draper Lab be used to help perpetuate the arms race. But the first step in the Lab's conversion to non-military work must be recognition by the Lab's management that it does contribute to the instability inherent in the arms race. Nuclear weapons, and the systems that guide them, are not abstract concepts. Their impact is connected to all of us--indeed it threatens our very existence. It is very easy to withdraw into our own personal concerns, whether they be the solution to a particular problem in inertial guidance, or a question of how to appeal to a graduate school interviewer, but we must remember to ask ourselves what it is all for. This is certainly something the people at Draper Lab have failed to do, but they are not alone. We are experts in the division between means and ends; if not building weapons of mass destruction in order to prevent mass destruction, then in deliberately playing the game of university education in order to some day be free of that game. For too many of us our life is an idea carefully drawn and theorized rather than an opportunity to be grasped and lived. We are too willing to believe that social science theory and the course catalogue have determined "the way things are," as if cohabiting the planet with 700,000 Hiroshima bombs were intrinsic to our nature (and thus to be incorporated into our model of the psyche), as if these bombs did not confront us with a need to change "the way things are" in our own lives.

The arms race pervades our lives--we pay for it in our taxes, we hear it behind the political rattling of sabers; the problems it presents us divert us from the task of feeding and educating our populations. We must no longer allow the arms race to determine our lives; our choices must determine it, and its end.

John Chute '82, John Lindsay '82, and Jay McCleod '82 are members of the Draper Peace Conversion Group. Lindsay has been arrested twice for participating in sit-ins at the Lab.

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