Strategic Analysis

Strategic Analysis:
A Monthly Journal of the IDSA

May 1999 (Vol. XXIII No. 2)

The Missed Opportunity to Stop the H-Bomb
By Matin Zuberi *


The first Soviet nuclear test called Pervaya Moiniya or “First Lightning” (American physicist Arnold Kramish called it “Joe-I” after Stalin), was conducted at the Semiplatinsk site in Kazhakstan on August 29, 1949. The US Air Force and the Atomic Energy Commission had established a secret Long-Range Detection Programme, “Project Centering,” to monitor foreign nuclear weapons developments. An American weather plane flying at 18,000 feet over the North Pacific, east of the Kamchatka Peninsula, detected atomic radiation. 1 Secretary of Defence, Louis Johnson pooh-poohed the possibility of a Soviet nuclear test. An expert group led by Vannevar Bush, elder statesman of American science, and including Robert Oppenheimer and British scientists William Penny, confirmed that the fission products indicated a Soviet nuclear test. For more than a dozen years, its identification as a plutonium bomb became one of the most closely guarded secrets of American surveillance. Despite irrefutable evidence, however, President Truman was reluctant to believe that “those Asiatics” could build so complicated a weapon as an atomic bomb. Truman demanded a signed statement from Bush and his colleagues attesting that the fallout was from an actual atomic explosion and not from some unsuccessful laboratory experiment. Even after obtaining such a statement, Truman’s public announcement on September 23 pointedly referred to “an atomic explosion” and not the test of an atomic bomb. 2 Truman reiterated his disbelief in the Russian’s capacity to manufacture and explode an atomic bomb as late as January 1953. 3

The Soviet nuclear test ignited a fierce secret debate regarding the consequences of the erosion of American nuclear monopoly. There are many accounts of this controversy. 4 While scientific-technological, political, economic, and even ethical issues were passionately discussed, strategic considerations of the proposed decision found only a brief mention. Unable, as well as unwilling, to resist pressures for what was then called the Super, Truman decided in favour of its development.

Initial pressure for the H-bomb came from scientific enthusiasts and their political supporters. The first recorded memorandum is that of Lewis Strauss to his fellow members of the Atomic Energy Commission. On October 5, 1949, he suggested that the time had come “for a quantum jump” in American nuclear planning. The General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Commission should discuss concrete steps to be taken in response to the Soviet test. 5 Strauss was joined by three “notable and entrepreneurial physicists,” Edward Teller, Ernest Lawrence, and Luis Alvarez. David Lilienthal, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, “turned his chair around,” looked out of the window, and “resisted even a bare discussion” when Alvarez broached the subject. The three enthusiasts enlisted the support of Senator McMahon, the formidable chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. All of them were hard at work advocating a crash thermonuclear effort. 6 Strauss also got in touch with his old friend Sidney Souers who was advising the President on national security affairs. Until October 6, 1949, Truman had never heard anything about possibilities of an H-bomb. He now “wanted Strauss to force the issue up to the White House and to do it quickly.” 7

The enthusiasm of Strauss, however, encountered the resistance of Lilienthal; and the scientific promoters were faced with stiff resistance from their colleagues. Lilienthal was in anguish as he found himself presiding over a weapons-producing establishment. Regretting technological fanaticism, he was bothered by the absence of “even a single ‘token’ expression of profound concern and regret” that the country was “engaged in developing weapons directed against the indiscriminate destruction of innocent men, women and children.” 8


The General Advisory Committee

The General Advisory Committee of the Commission discussed the matter over the weekend of October 28-30, 1949. Eight of the nine members attended these meetings. Oppenheimer was their leader who generally drafted their reports. James B. Conant, president of Harvard University, was the most prestigious member. Nobel Laureates Enrico Fermi and Isidor Rabi were admired for their scientific achievements and personal shrewdness. The Committee listened to the testimony furnished by a remarkable array of scientific, diplomatic, and military dignitaries, including members of the Atomic Energy Commission and its Military Liaison Committee, Hans Bethe, George Kennan, and senior officers of the army, navy, and air force. These officers seemed uncertain about the military value of a thermonuclear bomb. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Omar Bradley said that “the principal advantage of the Super would be psychological.” 9

Lilienthal confided in his diary his impressions of the proceedings in the GAC. Conant was flatly against the H-bomb and said, “This whole discussion makes me feel I was seeing the same film, and a punk one, for the second time.” Oppenheimer was inclined to agree with him. Fermi thought exploration of the feasibility of the weapon did not foreclose the question whether it should be produced. Rabi said a decision to go ahead with it would be made, and the only issue was who would be willing to join in it. Lilienthal himself could not accept the inevitability of political decisions. But scientists from Los Alamos and Berkeley were “drooling with the prospect and were ‘bloodthirsty.’” 10 Commenting on the intense lobbying for a crash effort, Conant wrote that when he was in Washington he felt he was “in a lunatic asylum” without knowing “who is the attendant and who the patient.” 11

The GAC report dated October 30, 1949, endorsed an increased fission programme of “weapons expansion, weapons improvement, and weapons diversification” including tactical ones, preparation for radiological warfare, and continued work on the booster programme. It, however, objected to the Super on technical grounds, especially the “vagueness of design and the uncertainty as to performance” and the impossibility of conducting useful experiments short of a series of tests before a workable model could be evolved. It also questioned whether the Super entailed a wise use of scarce resources. Large quantities of tritium needed for the project would have to be produced in reactors which were dedicated to the production of plutonium. As manufacturing a kilogram of tritium would entail foregoing production of approximately 70 kg of plutonium, the project would disrupt efforts to augment the stockpile of atomic weapons. An imaginative and concerted attack on the problem, however, had an even chance of producing the weapon within five years. This estimate proved correct because the United States tested a deliverable thermonuclear weapon in 1954. The Committee, nevertheless, maintained that because of its vast destructive power, the weapon carried “much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations” and expressed the unanimous “hope that by one means or another” its development could be avoided. 12

The “majority annex,” whose signatories included Oppenheimer and Conant, advocated total renunciation of the weapon because “the extreme dangers to mankind” represented by it wholly outweighed any military advantages. Alarmed by the prospect of radioactive fallout, the signatories thought it was “in a totally different category from an atomic bomb” and “might become a weapon of genocide.” Responding to the argument that the Russians may develop the bomb and use it against the United States, they reassuringly pointed out that the large stock of fission bombs in the American arsenal would be sufficient to deal with such a threat. The Super was, therefore, not necessary for deterrence or use in case deterrence failed. Renunciation of the Super would provide 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.” 13

This was a remarkable document. Its signatories consciously repudiated the scientific-technological imperative that scientists had a duty to learn whatever could be investigated, and warned against the pursuit of a certain kind of knowledge. Having made significant contributions to the Manhattan Project, and having encouraged the building of a stockpile of a new generation of atomic weapons, they were now appalled by the destructive possibilities of a thermonuclear weapon. Their implicit argument was that the maximum explosive power of fission weapons could not be more than 500 kilotons. They had strategic and tactical value because their destructive effects were “geographically confined and ecologically absorbable in some set time period.” Thermonuclear weapons, however, had no fixed outer boundary of destruction; they could become “weapons of genocide” and posed ”a threat to the future of the human race which is intolerable.” 14

The “minority annex,” signed by Fermi and Rabi, offered a more sharply worded statement of moral objections. The fact that there were no limits to the destructiveness of the weapon made “its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole.” It was “necessarily an evil thing in any light.” Its use could not be justified “on any ethical ground which gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity even if he happens to be a resident of an enemy country.” It would be “wrong on fundamental ethical principles” to initiate the development of such a weapon. The two scientists proposed that the nations of the world should be invited to take a “solemn pledge” not to develop such a weapon. The then available atmospheric and seismic detection capabilities would ensure that there would be no cheating. Moreover, the American stockpile of atomic weapons was adequate for military retaliation against any use of such a weapon. 15 It was Rabi’s firm recollection that he and Fermi intended “to couple American forbearance with a Soviet pledge to do the same.” 16

Both the majority and minority annexes expressed moral indignation about the implications of the new weapon and were also sensitive to the international ramifications of a decision to produce it. Fermi and Rabi had argued for “a provisional renunciation of the bomb, contingent on Soviet restraint.” As the Soviet Union could not produce it without testing, and as the United States had successfully detected the first Soviet fission explosion, the Nobel laureates “considered their compromise to be safe.” The majority had argued that unconditional renunciation was safe, while the minority favoured conditional renunciation. All members of the GAC were committed to maintaining American lead in the nuclear military sphere; they had lived with the nuclear arms race but were now being forced to address at short notice issues that touched the core of their beliefs, assumptions, and carriers. They had, confessed Oppenheimer, “reached a meeting of sensibilities.” 17

A thermonuclear test ban would not have precluded theoretical studies necessitated by the fact that at that time no one knew how to produce an H-bomb. Prospects for such a bomb were then much less certain than they had been when President Roosevelt sanctioned building the atomic bomb. The proposal “married the technical possibility of test detection and the technical reality that no one could really know he had this weapon without tests, with the Soviet political reality that no intrusive means of detection could ever be accepted by the Soviets and the American reality that without some means of confidence” in the ability to detect any violation, no agreement was possible. 18 An uninspected atmospheric test ban has been in force since the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. Fermi and Rabi, however, did not press for their proposal to be incorporated in the decision-making process. “We just wrote our report,” Rabi remarked retrospectively, “and then went home and left the field to the others. That was a mistake. If we hadn’t done that, history might have been different.” 19

The AEC voted three to two against H-bomb development, and decided to refer the matter to the President. Lilienthal told him that launching such a programme would entail “another costly cycle of misconception and illusion” about the military utility of weapons of mass destruction. 20 In the midst of a continuing swirl of conflicting recommendations, Strauss wrote to Truman on November 25 that the United States “must be as completely armed as any possible enemy.” He, therefore, requested Truman to direct the AEC to proceed with the development of the Super. In a memorandum attached to this letter Strauss observed that “a government of atheists is not likely to be dissuaded from producing the weapon on moral grounds.” Refuting the arguments of the GAC, he wrote that the danger did not reside in the weapon but in human behaviour and that “its unilateral renunciation by the United States could very easily result in its unilateral possession by the Soviet Government.” 21


Special Committee of the National Security Council

Faced with this deadlock, Truman appointed a special committee of the National Security Council, consisting of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defence, Louis Johnson and AEC Chairman David Lilienthal. It, in turn, delegated the preliminary phase of investigation to a working group whose principal members were Paul Nitze, deputy director of State Department Policy Planning Staff, Robert LeBaron, chairman of the AEC’s Military Liaison Committee, and AEC Commissioners Henry D. Smyth and Gordon Dean. The State Department wanted detailed analysis of delivery capabilities, the proposed use of the weapon in war plans, and the possible effects of enemy retaliation in kind. Moreover, it insisted that while developing its conclusions, the working group should look at the “moral questions” involved in producing the H-bomb. LeBaron believed in “peace through power” and favoured its development. Nitze thought that the Soviet Union might already be working on its own superbomb.

Johnson was inclined to follow the joint chiefs of staff in supporting the programme, while Lilienthal had already opposed it. He wanted a clear articulation of the foreign policy objectives of the United States, the role of defence policy in achieving those objectives, and the place of weapons of mass destruction in American defence policy. Weary and about to retire shortly as chairman of the AEC, his ability to influence the policy outcome was considerably reduced. The departmental loyalties of members of the working group and the personal incompatibilities of the special committee produced a “head-on collision” between Johnson and Lilienthal at its first meeting on December 22, 1949. Acting like a skilled attorney probing every argument in preparation for his own case, Acheson declined to take sides pending further study. Blaming “the acerbity of Louis Johnson’s nature” for blocking progress, he decided to talk separately to the two contenders and then evolve a recommendation for Truman. Under attack for “losing” China and, therefore, unwilling to allow himself to be subjected to further criticism, Acheson provided the swing vote endorsing the Super. 22

Acheson privately met Oppenheimer; he could not understand Oppenheimer’s argument that an American decision not to produce the bomb would ensure a similar outcome in the Soviet Union. He asked in bewilderment: “How can you persuade a paranoid adversary to disarm ‘by example’?” 23 His sense of realism prompted him to conclude that even if the Soviet Union could be so persuaded, the Truman administration would “run into a Congressional buzz saw” and the proposal would be rejected. He ridiculed the moral objections of George Kennan, Director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff and told him, “ If that is your view of the matter, I suggest you put on a monk’s robe, put a tin cup in your hand, and go on the street corner and announce the end of the world is nigh.” 24

Parallel with the work of the special committee, pressures were mounting from other sources. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy was pushing for the Super. Senator McMahon’s 5,000-word letter to Truman criticised the “false, horror-inspired logic” of the GAC report. The weapon could not, he asserted, be at once enormously powerful and militarily unnecessary. There was no “moral dividing line” between bigger and smaller explosions. It was modern warfare that was “the real instrument of genocide.” If the United States “let Russia get the Super first, catastrophe becomes all but certain.” 25 The joint chiefs of staff also urged endorsement of the H-bomb on military, psychological and moral grounds. It would increase national security “as a potential offensive weapon, a possible deterrent to war, a potential retaliatory weapon, as well as a defensive weapon against enemy forces.” Rebutting the charge of the GAC that it was a genocidal weapon, they observed: “In war it is folly to argue whether one weapon is more immoral than another. For, in the larger sense, it is war itself which is immoral, and the stigma of such immorality must rest upon the nation which initiates hostilities.” 26

Bypassing the special committee, Johnson sent the recommendations of the joint chiefs directly to the President. By January 19, 1950, Truman had been persuaded that their position “made a lot of sense.” 27 He wanted to act before his hand was forced by public pressures. As reports of the secret debate had started appearing in the Press, he asked Acheson for an early report of the committee. And Acheson saw to it that a draft recommending a decision to go ahead with the bomb was ready. In a concession to Johnson, he deleted a paragraph reserving decision on development to a later consideration, and to mollify Lilienthal the report called for a broad assessment of American diplomatic and military objectives. It was “a masterful management of a process of recommendation that was not central to the president’s decision.” 28


George Kennan’s Memorandum

George Kennan presented his views in a remarkable memorandum of 79 typewritten, double-spaced pages. He now thinks that the top secret memorandum of January 20, 1950, is the most important paper that he ever wrote. 29 The real problem at issue, Kennan thought, was American attitude towards weapons of mass destruction in general and the role assigned to them in military planning. Were such weapons an integral and vitally important component of American military strength expected to be employed deliberately, immediately, and unhesitatingly in the event of a conflict with the Soviet Union? Or were they to be retained in the arsenal only as a deterrent to the use of similar weapons by the adversary and as a means of possible retaliation? According to the way this question was answered, a whole series of other decisions would be influenced. In case use of these weapons were considered vital to the conduct of any future conflict, the only limitation on the number and destructiveness of the arsenal would be those of ordinary military economy, such as cost, efficiency, and ease of delivery. If, however, they were basically superfluous to the American military posture, as something to be retained against the possibility of its use by the Soviet Union, they represented “only a burdensome expenditure of funds and effort.” In that case, “only the minimum required for the deterrent-retaliatory purposes” should be kept; and it could be announced that the United States would be willing to divest itself of this minimum “at the earliest moment” by subscribing to an arrangement for their control and elimination. The stockpile of fission weapons “combined with present and prospective possibilities for delivery,” may then be sufficient and ”anything further in the way of mass destruction weapons would be redundant, or would fall into an area of diminishing returns.” 30

Responding to the issue of moral distinctions between different kinds of weapons, the memorandum highlighted the destructive horror of atomic weapons. Warfare with conventional weapons implicitly recognised the possibility of surrender and submission and was, therefore, diplomacy by other means. Weapons of mass destruction, however, “fail to take account of the ultimate responsibility of men for one another, and even for each other’s errors and mistakes. They imply the admission that man not only can be but is his own worst and most terrible enemy.” 31 Emphasising the value of “a clean and straight beginning,” Kennan suggested that the initial lines of policy should be as close as possible to the principles dictated by American traditions, and that where it was necessary to depart from these lines, people were made “aware that this is a departure and understand why it is necessary.” 32

Kennan reluctantly conceded the need for a minimum nuclear deterrent-retaliatory force but warned against reliance on it in American military planning. He proposed that the American public posture should be that “we deplore the existence and abhor the use of these weapons; that we have no intention of initiating their use against anyone; that we would use them only with the greatest of reluctance and only if they were forced upon us by methods of warfare used against us or our allies; and that in the absence of international agreement on the abolition of such weapons under suitable safeguards we would hold only enough to assure that it would be suicidal folly for anyone else to use them against ourselves or our allies.” 33 Kennan was proposing what in modern parlance is called a policy of no-first-use. His views did not commend themselves to Dean Acheson or anyone else in the government, except Robert Oppenheimer, who joined him ”for somewhat different reasons in trying to persuade the government to pause at this particular break.” 34


Truman Decides

The special committee met for the second and last time on January 31, 1950. Lilienthal said he was under no illusion about the limited value of his advice when it conflicted with a joint recommendation of Acheson and Johnson. During the three years he had been chairman of the AEC, there had been no examination of the assumptions on which the military establishment had been accumulating nuclear weapons coming “out of the spigot.” He was worried about the moral aspect of “the utter frightfulness of this weapon.” A dispassionate assessment of the assumptions on which American nuclear weapons policy was based could be undertaken as there was no immediate threat of a war with the Soviet Union. A presidential decision prior to such an assessment would be highly prejudicial to the adoption of a course of less danger. Acheson, however, felt the pressure for a decision. “We must protect the President,” he said. Johnson added that “the heat was on in the Congress and every hour counted.” The committee should go to the White House at once and get a decision. 35

The two-page recommendation was at once taken to the Oval Office. For Truman, the governing consideration had been succinctly put in the paper of the joint chiefs of staff: “Possession of a thermonuclear weapon by the USSR without such possession by the United States would be intolerable” and “a unilateral decision on the part of the United States not to develop a thermonuclear weapon will not prevent the development of such a weapon elsewhere.” Lilienthal, given a brief hearing, explained some of his reservations. He dwelled upon his fear that a presidential decision endorsing the weapon would lull the Americans into believing that nuclear weapons provided the best defence. Truman interrupted him and simply asked whether the Russians were capable of embarking on a thermonuclear programme. Getting an affirmative response, he declared that the United States then had no option but to go ahead. The meeting lasted only seven minutes. 36 Lilienthal carried the news to the GAC. “It was like a funeral party,” especially when he informed the members that the president had imposed a blanket ban on public discussion. He noted in his diary that if he had gone out of the Oval Office without making his point regarding the moral issues, he would have “crumpled inside” for the rest of his life. 37

On January 31, 1950, Truman ordered an examination of the technical feasibility of a thermonuclear weapon, with the rate and scale of effort to be determined by the AEC and the Department of Defence. His directive said nothing about the needed production facilities, nor did it specify that a feasibility study could involve a testing programme. He also ordered an examination of the country’s military and diplomatic objectives and plans in the context of the evolving Soviet nuclear weapons capabilities. This completely reversed the procedure suggested by Lilienthal for an orderly decision-making process. Members of the AEC were explicitly excluded from participation in this review which simply took for granted the imperative necessity of a comprehensive effort to maintain American nuclear superiority. 38 Ironically, this comprehensive survey of the country’s diplomatic and military objectives became the canonical statement of the militarisation of containment policy, known as National Security Council document number 68 (NSC-68).

Major participants in the secret debate came from five governmental institutions: the Atomic Energy Commission (including members of its GAC and scientists who had played a crucial role in the Manhattan Project); the Departments of State and Defence; the Office of the President; and the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy. Informal discussions among these participants facilitated the decision. The views of some scientists changed during the course of the intense debate. 39

The highly charged political atmosphere of the time--a consequence of the first Soviet nuclear test as well as the proclamation of the Chinese People’s Republic--made a verdict against the thermonuclear weapon difficult for any president. 40 Truman had apparently convinced himself that he was merely confirming what had already been decided. He noted that the critical choice had been made in the fall of 1949 when he approved acceleration of atomic production and that by January “there actually was no decision to make on the H-bomb.” 41

Truman had taken a politically popular and bureaucratically safe decision. The dictates of domestic politics, the expressed needs of joint chiefs of staff and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, the wishes of his close confidant Acheson, and the demands of international politics had comfortably coalesced. Moreover, his own inclinations pushed him in the same direction. Truman’s decision, therefore, was virtually inevitable. He had no reason to resist the pressures for the H-bomb and many domestic and international reasons in its support. Scientists like Alvarez, Lawrence, and Teller, AEC commissioner Strauss, Senator McMahon and his Congressional colleagues, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff simply reinforced Truman’s own desires and predilections. Had the Joint Chiefs, however, opposed the bomb, he would have clashed with them in their own area of expertise with serious political consequences. His policy of secrecy barred scientists like Conant and Oppenheimer from taking their case to public. And by appointing his confidant Acheson to the special committee, he created an institutional mechanism ensuring a recommendation that he wanted. 42

The main feature of Truman’s decision was its “minimal” character. Of all the proposals debated during the preceding months, he had chosen the one ”which seemed to close off the least number of future alternatives,” one that left most issues undecided. His own position on the issue was the same in January 1950 as it had been in October 1949 when he first heard of the H-bomb. If it could be made, he could not let the Russians get it first. A comparison of the choices he made with those he did not make reveals the minimal character of his decision. He was silent on the need for testing, on producing such weapons if testing was successful, and on the purposes for which they would be employed. His conscious choice not to pronounce on these issues was due to his belief that any attempt to tackle them would have one group or another of his advisers into passionate opposition. He saw no reason to stir up a momentous conflict within his Administration. Truman’s policy was to take “one decision at a time.” 43

One consequence of the minimal character of Truman’s decision was that some of the issues which he had deliberately avoided soon returned to the Oval Office. The joint chiefs of staff, in a memorandum of February 24, 1950, requested “an all-out development of hydrogen bombs and means for their production and delivery.” Truman again appointed a special committee of the National Security Council consisting of Acheson, Johnson, and scientist Henry Smyth. After the departure of Lilienthal, there was no opposition from the Atomic Energy Commission. Endorsing the unanimous recommendation of the committee, Truman ordered on March 10, 1950, quantity production of the H-bomb without waiting for the results of a test and before the completion of a review of American foreign and defence policies. 44

The secret debate leading to Truman’s decision proceeded from a dispassionate analysis of scientific-technical problems to a cataclysmic ethical dilemma. Two proposals, not fully explored, are of considerable interest to nuclear historians. The first was the Fermi-Rabi suggestion of a thermonuclear test ban. The technical feasibility of the Super had not yet been established; in fact, scientific enthusiasts themselves were groping in the dark. One Super design reviewed in 1949 included “a fission trigger that in itself weighed 30,000 pounds; the overall length of the bomb was estimated at approximately 30 feet, with a diameter in excess of 162 feet.” 45 The breakthrough--the Teller-Ulam configuration--came in the spring of 1951. A test ban could easily be enforced through what are now called “national technical means.” And the safeguard against any possible violation by the Soviet Union would have been the growing American stockpile of about 200 fission weapons. 46

The other interesting proposal was adoption of a policy of no-first-use of nuclear weapons implicit in George Kennan’s magisterial memorandum. The NSC-68, however, explicitly considered and rejected it. Even after the end of the Cold War, the United States as well as NATO continue to subscribe to this “pernicious and indefensible position.” 47


Attempts to Stop H-Bomb Tests

Two American explosion experiments in the Pacific involving thermonuclear reactions, conducted in May 1951, were of considerable significance. The concept of “boosting” in which a small amount of thermonuclear fuel is added to the standard fission bomb, thereby producing a higher yield, was applied in a test code-named “Item.” The second test on May 9, 1951, code-named “George” with the device called “cylinder,” established that a thermonuclear reaction could be made to take place in an experimental device. It ignited “the first small thermonuclear flame ever to burn on earth.” This test was a critical step in the American pursuit of the H-bomb. 48

Some senior American scientists who had previously opposed development of the weapon saw another opportunity before the first test to negotiate a moratorium on thermonuclear testing. Acheson had appointed a Panel of Consultants on Disarmament in early 1952, with McGeorge Bundy as executive secretary. Chaired by Robert Oppenheimer, the panel articulated a deepened sense of enormous and rapidly approaching nuclear peril. Each additional atomic weapon was becoming “increasingly cheap and easy to get” and the cities and peoples of Europe and America were “in the front lines, with a certainty and finality that must not be obscured.” Since the initial decision to produce the atomic bomb, the United States had “decided to use it, to keep its control wholly unshared, to make as many as possible, and to base that plan centrally on the concept of an immediate and devastating strategic blow at the centre of hostile power.” There was a widespread, though unjustified, feeling that the United States was “clutching the atom to its bosom and may at any moment get angry and hurl it in the general direction of the Kremlin.” The panel suggested that the US government should adopt “a policy of candour toward the American people” because they had to cope not only with the Soviet threat but also with the peril of the nuclear arms race. 49

The panel included Vannevar Bush who wanted the first thermonuclear test postponed. A new president was to be elected only three days after the scheduled test. It was improper, he thought, to confront an incoming president with an accomplished test for which he would carry the full responsibility thereafter. An agreement with the Soviet Union on a thermonuclear test ban would have been self-policing as any violation could be immediately known. The panel urged postponement of the test; the delay of a few months would not adversely affect the project. It added that a thermonuclear bomb would be more useful to the Soviet Union because the United States, with a much larger arsenal of atomic bombs, already had a military alternative to thermonuclear weapons. Moreover, by providing the Russians valuable information through analysis of its fallout, an American test could speed up a Soviet thermonuclear programme. It would destroy all prospects of a test ban and therefore would be the “point of no return.” Oppenheimer, Conant, and Bethe also voiced similar concerns. Members of the AEC were sympathetic to a postponement of the test. Truman and his chief advisers, however, had no interest in the proposed test ban. 50 It was the considered view of Bush that those who pushed for the H-bomb without making that attempt had “a great deal to answer for.” 51

Oppenheimer, summarising the panel report in a memorable article, tried to articulate the implications of total dependence upon nuclear weapons. The atomic clock was ticking faster and faster and the United States and the Soviet Union were like “two scorpions in a bottle, each capable of killing the other, but only at the risk of his own life.” It was small comfort to be told that the Soviet Union was four years behind the United States in the nuclear arms race. “The very least we can conclude is that our twenty-thousandth bomb, useful as it may be in filling the vast munitions pipelines of a great war, will not in any deep strategic sense offset their two thousandth.” Referring to Truman’s persisting doubts about the competence of Soviet scientists to produce the bomb, he wrote: “It must be disturbing that an ex-President of the United States, who has been briefed on what we know about the Soviet atomic capability, can publicly call in doubt all the conclusions from the evidence.” Oppenheimer advocated a policy of candour--to describe to the American people “in rough but authoritative and quantitative terms” the nature and implications of the nuclear arms race. 52


“Mike” Test

The first American thermonuclear device code-named ‘Mike’ was tested in the Pacific on October 31 (November 1, local time), 1952. It was an experimental device, affectionately nicknamed the “sausage”: It had a refrigeration unit to freeze hydrogen down to liquid form, fuse it into helium using an atomic bomb as trigger. A 22-foot-long cylinder, weighing 21 tons, contained canisters of liquid deuterium and tritium which were surrounded by the plutonium trigger. Counting the refrigeration unit, the “Mike” device weighed 65 tons. It resembled not so much a weapon as a small refinery. Oppenheimer joked that in case of a war it would have to be carried by a cart. 53

More than 500 scientific stations on 30 islands monitored the “Mike” shot. Its fireball expanded more than three miles across compared to the fireball over Hiroshima that covered a little more than one-tenth of a mile. “It rose over the horizon like a dark sun.” A sailor who witnessed it wrote home: ”You would swear that the whole world was on fire.” Within minutes, the enlarging fireball cloud reached 57,000 and then 100,000 feet. “It formed a huge canopy more than one hundred miles wide that loomed over the atoll.” Its fireball alone would have engulfed Manhattan and its blast would have obliterated the New York City. The island of Elugelab in the Eniwetok Atoll was vaporised. A circular crater 200 feet deep and more than a mile across was torn in the ocean floor, big enough to fit several buildings of the size of the Pentagon and deeper than the height of the Empire State Building. The explosion lifted into the air some 80 million tons of solid material that would be dispersed around the world. Millions of gallons of water turned into steam. “Mike” had an incredible yield of 10.4 megatons. Mankind had entered the age of megatons. 54

Teller, busy setting up his new Livermore Laboratory, did not go to Eniwetok to witness the test. He had made an elaborate arrangement enabling him to monitor the explosion on a seismograph at Berkeley. “The sound waves took twenty minutes to carry the message (of the explosion) under the Pacific and arrive in Berkeley.” 55 Teller dashed off a telegram to Los Alamos, claiming paternity: “It’s a boy.” 56

The world’s most powerful fission device was tested by the United States in the “King” shot of November 16, 1952. It was dropped from an aircraft, exploded at an altitude of 1,480 feet above the target, and is estimated to have a yield of 500 kilotons. Although this powerful fission device was originally suggested as an alternative to the H-bomb, it became an additional component of the American thermonuclear armoury. 57

Thomas Murray, frequently described as “the conscience” of the AEC, witnessed the “Mike” explosion and felt that he “might be gazing into eternity, or into the gates of hell.” Such violent manifestations of the power “latent in nature’s miniature solar systems make a man stand riveted and dumbfounded.” He tried for a bilateral moratorium on thermonuclear testing. 58 The United States was far ahead of the Soviet Union having conducted a total of 56 nuclear tests while the Soviet tally was just 4 tests. 59

Early in 1954, Thomas Murray proposed an “Atomic Summit” at the Pacific testing ground. No member of the National Security Council, including the president, had witnessed a thermonuclear explosion. He suggested that the United States should stage “a dramatic demonstration of multimegaton thermonuclear power” at Eniwetok before policy makers and moulders of public opinion from all the nations of the world. The proposal was rejected by the government. 60 Murray wrote to President Eisenhower that “an international moratorium might prevent the development of much larger yield weapons.” Eisenhower replied that such a moratorium depended on Soviet adherence to it which could not be relied upon. 61 Murray thought that American scientists had accumulated sufficient information for the development of a thermonuclear stockpile and that there was no need to further develop this technology by continued testing. Moreover, a moratorium on thermonuclear testing would block the development of H-bomb by additional countries. 62


“Bravo” Test

The first deliverable American H-bomb, code-named ‘Bravo’ was the first in a series of six thermonuclear devices--“Romeo”, “Koon”, “Union”, “Yankee”, and “Nectar”--tested under “Operation Castle.” Their yields varied from about one-tenth of a megaton to 26 megatons. Richard Garwin played a major role in working out the design modifications needed to convert “Mike” into a practical weapon. 63 Weighing a relatively portable 23,500 pounds, “Bravo” was detonated in the early hours of March 1, 1954, at the tip of Namu Island. It had a yield of 15 megatons and its fireball lighted the skies for more than a hundred miles. It was the most powerful nuclear explosion ever conducted by the United States and, with the explosive force equal to that of about 750 Hiroshima bombs, it was till then the largest manmade explosion in world history. A freight train carrying its equivalent in TNT would have run from Maine to California. Its fireball was nearly four miles wide and literally vaporised the entire test island and parts of two others. It created a gaping hole in the ocean floor which was one mile wide and 200 feet deep. Its fallout covered 50,000 square-miles which passed over the surrounding islands, showering 28 Americans and about 250 local inhabitants with radioactive dust. 64 Hiroshima paled in comparison to it.

The crew of a small Japanese fishing trawler, inappropriately called (as it turned out) Fukuryu Maru or Lucky Dragon, was casting nets 85 miles east of the test site to catch tuna fish for the last time before heading for home. Early in the morning, Shinzo Suyuki was relaxing on the deck. Startled by the thermonuclear flash he shouted, “The sun’s rising in the west!” A few minutes later came the shock wave, which was like an earthquake at sea. The 23 crewmen were exposed to radioactive fallout and by the time they reached homeport they were suffering from radiation poisoning. Their arrival caused a sensation in Japan. One of them shivering in a hospital, said “Our fate menaces mankind. God grant that they may listen.” Radio operator Aikichi Kuboyama died on September 23, 1954, thus becoming the first victim of the H-bomb. 65 The American Atomic Energy Commission never issued a formal statement of his death. His funeral was attended by more than 400,000 people. A few months later, over 30 million Japanese signed a petition calling for a ban on nuclear testing; this led to the convening of the first World Conference Against Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs in Hiroshima on August 5, 1995. Professor Mitsu Taketani suggested in a radio broadcast that the contaminated fish should be sent to American Ambassador John Allison for his dinner. 66

Ambassador Allison simply could not understand the commotion. He wrote to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that Japan was passing through a “period of uncontrolled masochism” and the Japanese people were revelling in “fancied martyrdom.” A small group of Japanese doctors had “vistas of nation-wide publicity at home and world-wide scientific prominence as exclusive proprietors of the world’s first hydrogen bomb patients.” He recommended payment of a lump sum in order to weaken “the position of neutralists, pacifists, feminists, and professional anti-Americans.” 67 A British historian has pointed out that the Bikini incident “caused resentment in Japan at least equal to that occasioned by the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.” 68 The Lucky Dragon was restored and placed in a Tokyo park. A stone monument was erected with Aikichi Kuboyama’s dying words inscribed on it: “Please make sure that I am the last victim of the bomb.” 69


Jawaharlal Nehru’s Appeal

It was on this occasion that Jawaharlal Nehru proposed a “standstill agreement” on nuclear testing until the nuclear weapon powers could agree on comprehensive nuclear disarmament. Expressing sympathy with the Japanese fisherman subjected to unknown risks, he added: “It is of great concern for us that Asia and her peoples appear to be always nearer these occurrences and experiments, and their fearsome consequences, actual and potential.” A test ban in 1954 would have been an effective disarmament measure because there were only three nuclear weapons powers at that time and their inventories were not very large. The United States and the Soviet Union had exploded their first thermonuclear devices. Only four tests had been conducted in the Soviet Union. The first British fission bomb was exploded in 1952. France was still developing its nuclear infrastructure while China had not even started its nuclear programme. This was another missed opportunity to stop the nuclear arms race. If Nehru’s proposal had been accepted, the world would have been spared much of the subsequent nuclear follies.



*: Member of Advisory Board N.S.C.  Back.

Note 1: Herbert York, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the H-Bomb (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1976), pp. 33-35; Richard G. Hewlett and Francis Duncan, Atomic Shield: An Official History of the Atomic Energy Commission 1947-1952 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1969), pp. 362-69.  Back.

Note 2: Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), pp. 372-73.  Back.

Note 3: Gregg Herken, Cardinal Choices: Presidential Science Advising from the Atomic Bomb to SDI (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), p. 39; For Truman’s doubts see Department of State, Foreign Relations of the Unites States, (hereafter FRUS) 1952-54 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 1984), vol. II, Pt. 2, p.1113 footnote.  Back.

Note 4: See especially Herbert York, n. 1 and chapters 19, 20, 23, and 24 in Richard Rhodes, n. 2.  Back.

Note 5: Lewis L. Strauss, Men and Decisions, (London: Macmillan, 1963), pp. 216-17.  Back.

Note 6: Luis W. Alvarez, Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (New York: Basic Books, 1987), p. 170; Rhodes, n. 2, pp. 383-404.  Back.

Note 7: Hewlett and Duncan, n. 1, pp. 373-374.  Back.

Note 8: David E. Lilienthal, The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950: The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), p. 364.  Back.

Note 9: Richard T. Sylves, The Nuclear Oracles: A Political History of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, 1947-1977 (Iowa State University Press, 1987), p. 145.  Back.

Note 10: Lilienthal, n. 8, pp. 581-582.  Back.

Note 11: James Hershberg, James B. Conant (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1993), p. 483.  Back.

Note 12: York, n. 1, pp. 152-156.  Back.

Note 13: Ibid., pp. 155-157, Emphasis added  Back.

Note 14: Sylves, n. 9, p. 148.  Back.

Note 15: York, n. 1, pp. 156-157.  Back.

Note 16: Ibid., p. 54; Also Rhodes, n. 2, pp. 395-399 and 400-402.  Back.

Note 17: Peter Gallison and Barton Bernstein, "In Any Light: Scientists and the Decision to Build the Superbomb," Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Science, vol. 19, Part 2, 1989, pp. 293-294.  Back.

Note 18: McGeorge Bundy, "The Missed Chance to Stop the H-Bomb," The New York Review of Books, May 13, 1983, pp. 17-18.  Back.

Note 19: John S. Rigden, Rabi: Scientist and Citizen (New York: Basic Books, Inc, Publishers, 1987), p. 208.  Back.

Note 20: Steven L. Rearden, History of the Office of the Secretary of Defence: The Formative Years 1947-1950, (Washington, DC, Historical Office of the Secretary of Defence, 1984), pp. 448-449.  Back.

Note 21: Strauss, n. 5, pp. 219-22.  Back.

Note 22: Rearden, n. 20, pp. 449-451.  Back.

Note 23: Gallison and Bernstein, n. 17, p. 302.  Back.

Note 24: Rhodes, n. 2, p. 405.  Back.

Note 25: McGeorge Bundy, Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years (New York: Random House, 1988), p. 211.  Back.

Note 26: Bradley to Secretary of Defence, "Request for comments on military views of members of General Advisory Committee," January 13, 1950, FORUS, 1950, vol. I, (Washington: DC, GPO, 1977), pp. 503-511.  Back.

Note 27: Acheson, memorandum to file, January 19, 1950, Ibid., pp. 511-512.  Back.

Note 28: Bundy, n. 18, pp. 16-17.  Back.

Note 29: Kennan, The Nuclear Delusion: Soviet-American Relations in the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon Books, 1982), p. xvi.  Back.

Note 30: Memorandum by the Counsellor (Kennan), Top Secret, Extracts, January 20, 1950, "International Control of Atomic Energy," FORUS, 1950, vol. I, pp. 29-30; Kennan, Ibid., pp. 3-6; see also Kennan, Memoirs, 1925-1950 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1967), pp. 471-476.  Back.

Note 31: FORUS, 1950, vol. I, pp. 38-39.  Back.

Note 32: Ibid., p. 44. Italics in the original.  Back.

Note 33: Ibid., p. 36.  Back.

Note 34: Kennan, n. 29, p. xcvii.  Back.

Note 35: Lilienthal, n. 8, pp. 623-632.  Back.

Note 36: Ibid., p. 632.  Back.

Note 37: Ibid., p. 633.  Back.

Note 38: McGeorge Bundy, n. 25, p. 229.  Back.

Note 39: See Gallison and Bernstein, n. 17.  Back.

Note 40: Herken, n. 3, p. 48.  Back.

Note 41: David Alan Rosenberg, "American Atomic Strategy and the Hydrogen Bomb Decision," The Journal of American History, vol. 66, no. 1, June 1979, p. 86.  Back.

Note 42: Barton J. Bernstein, "The H-Bomb Decisions: Were They Inevitable?" in Bernard Brodie, Michael D. Intriligator, Roman Kolkowitz eds., National Security and International Stability (Cambridge, Mass: 1983), pp. 345-346 and 350-351.  Back.

Note 43: Werner R. Schilling, "The H-Bomb Decision: How to Decide Without Actually Choosing" in David B. Bobrow ed., Components of Defence Policy (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1965), pp. 390-391 and 404.  Back.

Note 44: Bernstein, n. 42, pp. 349-50.  Back.

Note 45: Rhodes, n. 2, p. 379.  Back.

Note 46: McGeorge Bundy, n. 25, p. 203.  Back.

Note 47: Kennan, n. 2, p. 195.  Back.

Note 48: York, n. 1, p. 77.  Back.

Note 49: McGeorge Bundy, "Early Thoughts on Controlling the Nuclear Arms Race: A Report to the Secretary of State, January 1953," International Security, vol. 7, no. 2, Fall 1982, pp. 10, 12, 14 and 21.  Back.

Note 50: Panel of Consultants, "The Timing of the Thermonuclear Test," FORUS, 1952-54, vol. 2, pp. 994-1008; Also see Barton J. Bernstein, "Crossing the Rubicon: A Missed Opportunity to Stop the H-Bomb?," International Security, vol. 14, no. 2, Fall 1989, pp. 140-143, and 148.  Back.

Note 51: Rhodes, n. 2, pp. 497-8.  Back.

Note 52: Robert Oppenheimer, "Atomic Weapons and American Policy," Foreign Affairs 31 (4), July 1953, pp. 525-35.  Back.

Note 53: Richard L. Miller, Under the Cloud: The Decades of Nuclear Testing (New York: The Free Press, 1986), pp. 115-16.  Back.

Note 54: Rhodes, n. 2, pp. 508-10.  Back.

Note 55: Edward Teller, Energy from Heaven and Earth (San Francisco: W.H. Freeman, 1979), p. 150-151; Robert Jungk, Brighter than a Thousand Suns (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982 ed), pp. 272-73.  Back.

Note 56: Rhodes, n. 2, p. 511.  Back.

Note 57: York, n. 1, pp. 83-84.  Back.

Note 58: Thomas E. Murray, Nuclear Policy for War and Peace (New York: World Publishers, 1960), pp. 20-21.  Back.

Note 59: Herken, n. 3, pp. 82-3.  Back.

Note 60: Murray, n. 58, pp. 35-36.  Back.

Note 61: Ibid., p. 75-76.  Back.

Note 62: Ibid., pp. 83-84.  Back.

Note 63: York, n. 1, p. 85.  Back.

Note 64: Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press), 1994, pp. 302-304; Rhodes, n. 2, pp. 541-2; A. Constandina Titus, Bombs in the Backyard (Rino & Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1986), p. 47.  Back.

Note 65: Norman Moss, Men Who Play God (Penguin Books, 1972), pp. 94-6.  Back.

Note 66: Ralph E. Lapp, The Voyage of the Lucky Dragon, (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1957), p. 127. Also see Ben Shahn and Richard Hudson, Kuboyama and the Saga of the Lucky Dragon (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1965).  Back.

Note 67: Weisgall, n. 64, p. 305.  Back.

Note 68: Richard Storry, A History of Japan (Penguin, 1960), pp. 261-62.  Back.

Note 69: Stephen Salaff, "The Lucky Dragon," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May 1978, pp. 22-23.  Back.