Hydrogen Bomb still makes an impact 70 years later

hydrogen bomb

Splitting the Atomic Scientists

How the question of building the hydrogen bomb split the Manhattan Project scientific consensus.

The 70th anniversary this week of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki reminds us that even after seven decades, the social political, and moral implications of the birth of the nuclear age still are the subjects of an unresolved – perhaps unresolvable – debate.

It may help to bring some clarity to the issues by examining their component parts through the eyes of the people who lived through the development of these horrific weapons. As I concluded from researching my book "Big Science," which is devoted in part to the role of a new breed of physicists in that work, the decision to build and deploy the atomic bomb is very different from the decision to move ahead with its successor, the hydrogen, or thermonuclear, bomb. Seen through their eyes, the first is arguably defensible, in the context of war; the second is very different. That's not to say they're unrelated: The uranium and plutonium fission bombs dropped on two Japanese cities 70 years ago turned out to be merely the precursors of technology that even many of the atomic bomb's creators considered truly genocidal – the hydrogen bomb.

American physicists emerged from World War II torn between two contradictory sensations. In the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki they were hailed as heroes, even portrayed as bearing the "tunic of Superman" (in the words of Life magazine).

But many felt burdened by the consequences of their work. "In the past, scientists could disclaim direct responsibility for the use to which mankind had put their disinterested discoveries," wrote James Franck, a German émigré and Manhattan Project physicist who raised the earliest cautions about the social consequences of nuclear research. "We cannot take the same attitude now because the success which we have achieved in the development of nuclear power is fraught with infinitely greater dangers than were all the inventions of the past."

[READ: 70 Years Later, The Bomb Still Casts Fear]

During the following few years, those contradictions would sharpen, splitting the physics community in two. The cause was not the decision to build and deploy the atomic bomb itself, but what came next: the debate over whether to carry research into nuclear weaponry to another level, to the hydrogen bomb.

One finds very little dissent among physicists in the United States and Great Britain over the necessity of developing the fission bomb during World War II. This was understandable, for they felt that the scientists who had stayed behind in the Third Reich were intellectually capable of developing a fission bomb themselves, and should such a weapon fall into Hitler's hands, as Lawrence said, he would "have in his hands the control of the world."

Germany's surrender in 1945 changed the calculus, but not the momentum of this effort. Unlike Germany, Japan was not regarded as a potential nuclear threat and its regime was not seen as fixed on world domination. But by then, the bombs were nearly complete, and the impulse to use them to bring a quick end to the war was strong. Historians have debated ever since then whether the bombing of Japan was truly necessary to secure surrender, but there can be no question that most of the people directly involved in the decision accepted the conclusion that it was.

The so-called "Super" raised very different issues. Its leading proponent was the brilliant but obstreperous Hungarian physicist Edward Teller, who had been thinking and talking about a fusion bomb even before the Manhattan Project's fission bombs were complete. But he would have several powerful partners in his campaign. Chief among them was the Nobel laureate Ernest Lawrence, whose unassailable public stature as a scientific leader derived from his invention of the atom-smashing cyclotron in 1931. Lawrence had played a key role in the Manhattan Project, inventing the process that produced enriched uranium for the Hiroshima bomb; overseeing the isolation of plutonium, which became the core of the Nagasaki bomb; and nominating his close friend and Berkeley colleague J. Robert Oppenheimer to run the lab that became Los Alamos.

[SEE: Remembering Hiroshima 70 Years Later]

What put Lawrence on Teller's side in the quest for the Super was a news flash on September 23, 1949: President Truman's announcement that an "atomic explosion" had been detected in the Soviet Union. It had taken Stalin's physicists just four years to reach nuclear parity with the United States. Plainly, nuclear research had to continue, and the only option was to build the Super. Within days of Truman's announcement, Lawrence was in Washington, meeting with worried congressmen and Lewis Strauss, an irredeemably hawkish member of the Atomic Energy Commission, which oversaw U.S. government nuclear research, filling the lawmakers' heads with a calculatedly terrifying vision of Russia's quest to rule the world by thermonuclear terror. Teller, meanwhile, began polling his fellow physicists on their willingness to sign up for a Manhattan Project-style program for the Super.

What they discovered was that, among scientists and many policy-makers, the Super would be a hard sell. The most prominent opponent of the weapon was the man given the greatest public credit for building the atomic bomb: Oppenheimer. "This thing appears to have caught the imagination, both of the congressional and of military people, as the answer to the problem posed by the Russian advance," he would write Harvard President James Conant in 1949.

Later that year the high-level panel Oppenheimer chaired, the AEC's General Advisory Committee, came to a firmly negative conclusion about the Super. Deploying the weapon, the committee reported, "would involve a decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians ... A super bomb might become a weapon of genocide." The campaign for the Super placed the nation at a crossroads, the committee said – whether to build a weapon merely because it could be done, or to call a stop to the march of the technology of mass destruction. "In determining not to proceed to develop the super bomb, we see a unique opportunity of providing by example some limitations on the totality of war and thus of limiting the fear and arousing the hopes of mankind." Even the Pentagon, it was observed, doubted the Super's effectiveness as a military weapon. The revered Gen. Omar Bradley, newly appointed chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, declared that its only value would be "psychological."

[MORE: Political Cartoons on Iran]

Yet it would prove almost impossible to stem the momentum driving the Super ahead – just as the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos created its own momentum to use it on Japan. Fears of a Soviet bomb drove the campaign to develop the Super, just as fears of a Nazi bomb had driven the Manhattan Project – with the difference that while it turned out that the Nazis never did have an atomic bomb program, the Soviets certainly did. Lawrence and Teller were openly calling for a revival of the "spirit" of the Manhattan Project.

On January 31, 1950, a three-man committee comprising AEC Chairman David Lilienthal, Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson gave Truman its recommendation that the U.S. proceed with the Super. The White House meeting that formally inaugurated the thermonuclear age took all of seven minutes, and it lasted that long only because Lilienthal asked permission to express his dissenting view. He got out only a few words before the president cut him short. "What the hell are we waiting for?" Truman barked. "Let's get on with it."

Later the same day Truman announced in a nationwide radio address that he had instructed the AEC to "continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super-bomb." That night Lilienthal confided to his diary: "There is nothing but pain for the decision made today." The small personal satisfaction he felt came from his having passed one of the most grueling tests of his career by showing the courage "to 'stand up in meeting' and say 'No' to a steamroller. ... Whether time proves me right and the E.O. Lawrences wrong, I suppose no one will ever know."

The schism created by the hydrogen bomb program within a physics community that had worked together so closely to build the atomic bomb would not quickly heal; nor would the rifts in American politics. The debate would feed – and be fed by – the Red Scare atmosphere of the time. It would lead to Lewis Strauss' attack on Oppenheimer's reputation, culminating in the 1954 hearing into the scientist's loyalty and the stripping of his security clearance. The lesson it taught is one that society is still struggling to absorb: that our scientific ability to access the destructive forces locked within the atomic nucleus may well exceed our political and social ability to control them, once they're unleashed.

Adapted from "Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex" © 2015 Michael Hiltzik. Reprinted with permission of the author.

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