The Manhattan Project

Avner Cohen's Interview

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Avner Cohen's Interview

Avner Cohen is an Israeli-American historian and a professor at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. His 1998 book, Israel and the Bomb, is the definitive historical work to date on the Israeli nuclear program. In this interview, Cohen discusses his professional background and the difficult process of writing about the development of nuclear weapons in Israel. He explains the policy of opacity or amimut regarding the nuclear program, as well as the role of the United States and France in supporting the program. Cohen describes the origin of Israel’s nuclear weapons development, including the influence of the Manhattan Project; how Israel’s nascent nuclear program may have played a role in the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli War; and the 1979 Vela Incident. Cohen also discusses Franco-Israeli nuclear cooperation and the development of the French nuclear program.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
May 30, 2018
Location of the Interview: 
Washington DC
Transcript: 

Alexandra Levy: I’m Alexandra Levy. I’m here today with Dr. Avner Cohen. It is May 30, 2018, in Washington, D.C., and my first question is to please say your name and spell it.

Avner Cohen: I’m Avner Cohen. A-v-n-e-r, first name, last name Cohen, C-o-h-e-n.

Levy: If you could tell us where and when you were born.

Cohen: I was born in Israel in the early ‘50s, city of Tel Aviv.

Levy: Great. If you could just tell us a little bit about yourself and your career, how you got into nuclear issues?

Cohen: Briefly—I really can tell you stories as long as they want to go. Currently, I’m a professor for non-proliferation studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey for the last seven years.

But I see myself very much as a scholar of the nuclear age. I think that a great deal of my professional life—even though I was trained as a philosopher—has been shifted to study quite a variety of aspects of the nuclear age, with a great deal of focus on the special, the unique case of Israel. I’ve been doing it since the early ‘80s, so by now it’s about thirty-five years.

As I said, I was trained as a philosopher. I got my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Very soon after my first year as a visiting assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, I got a call—I think it was in the spring of ’82. I got a call from a close colleague of mine. He was then—he still is—a philosopher, named Steven Lee. Steven has a lot of interest in the nuclear age. This was in the midst of the anti-nuclear movement. Steve kind of out of the blue said, “Avner, what about us doing something jointly about the philosophical foundations, the moral issues involved in this anti-nuclear movement of the early ‘80s?”

I was on a normal track of converting Ph.D. dissertation into a book. That’s a very common practice. Almost without hesitation— that meant that I’m going to change what I’m doing and to change, essentially, my life, ultimately—I told him, “Yes, let’s do that." 

The result was a book that was edited by the two of us called Nuclear Weapons and the Future of Humanity. It came out in 1986, so we worked on that book for about four years. A large volume that we solicited articles from all sorts of people who were involved in various aspects of the nuclear age: scientists, philosophers, historians, others. I read into that.

In retrospect, I thought there was something in my genes, perhaps, or something in me that was ready to change and to move into that. I had a certain kind of dissatisfaction about the state of philosophy. I think the challenge of thinking about nuclear weapons and the meaning of living under the shadow of the bomb was something that was close to my heart. Perhaps, also, for deeper reasons than I understood at the time. 

Later, I learned that my father—my late father now—thought a great deal about it. It was for him almost the question whether to marry and to have children in a world with nuclear weapons. I was born in 1951. My dad was a veteran of World War II, so he was part of the generation that saw, so to speak, the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It had a profound impact on him. I still recall the time that we heard on the radio that Israel has its own reactor, which everybody understood—it’s not just reactor, it’s more than that. It’s most likely about security, about weapons. It was a theme that was in the house when I was a child, and I kind of responded back to the same thing.

When I said yes to my friend, Steven Lee, when he asked me to do that, I really changed my life. The result was that, essentially, I didn’t do standard philosophy, I left philosophy. I gave a series of lectures on the Israeli radio and the nuclear age from moral and historical perspectives, the nuclear age as a moral history. I spent many years to study the Israeli case and to find my own voice about it. It took me almost eight or nine years to work on that.

Ultimately, I came out with a book, Israel and the Bomb. Took me another decade to work with another book dealing with the uniqueness of the Israeli case, and the very way that Israel has resolved or not resolved—depends on how you’re going to call it—with its own unique way of having the bomb but not talking about it, the policy of opacity or amimut in Hebrew.

In the last seven or eight years, I am a professor of non-proliferation studies, and I do primarily history and morality and Israel at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies. That’s, in a nutshell, my intellectual history.

Levy: That’s great.

Cohen: Maybe I can add one more thing. To do historical work on the Israeli case, it was not a simple thing. I had to struggle and to address very powerful forces that did not want the story to be out, some top powerful bureaucrats. I had to deal with societal taboos, and it was not a simple thing. Ultimately, I defied—by now, I am both an Israeli and American citizen—but I defied the Israeli regulation. I did not submit my book to the censor, ultimately. I had a case before the Israeli Supreme Court.

The whole writing a book on Israel was not just the intellectual issue of doing history, but it was also struggling with institutions and forces who were committed to do their best not to let the story come out. It was a struggle. 

Levy: How did you go about conducting research and writing Israel and the Bomb? I know you conducted a lot of oral histories.

Cohen: Correct. 

Levy: Can you talk a little about that?

Cohen: When you have very limited direct sources—archival, documentary-based sources—and you want to do history, you cannot just rely on clips in the media or some superficial archives, especially that you have so little from Israeli sources. You may have some you can find in various files of the State Department or Pentagon, in the U.S. National Archives. Maybe you can go to the U.K. archives, to Norwegians. But very limited information you can find from the makers themselves, of the Israelis.

I decided to do that by oral history. I have been always aware of the limits of oral history. In fact, one of the cases I’m going to talk about tomorrow here in Washington, it’s the story about 1967. Maybe you’ll talk a little bit about it. 

I’ve been always aware of the limits of oral history. We’re talking about one person, we’re talking about sometimes decades from the events, we’re talking about subjectivity. We’re talking about the forgetfulness of things and the very selective way that you remember things, the limits of memory, and all that. I’m fully aware of the limits of that.

I’m also fully aware of the limits of documentary. I don’t believe that the final truth is in the archive. It’s lovely to have access to archives, but I don’t believe that the full, whole history is there. In a way, the search for historical truth is never-ending, because historical truth could be found in all sorts of ways. We don’t really have criteria to even to know what is fully constituted. We don’t have any template for the truth.

I decided to interview a lot, a lot of people. Given my own background, I had some access to various kinds of people, because of my own upbringing. I grew up in the elite of Israeli society at the time, in the ‘60s, military elite. I was able to find some people who were ready to talk to me. Not all—I got a few, quite a number of rejections, people who were not ready to talk to me. But I had a few sources that were fantastic sources. I wish I had more, you can always wish to have more. Some of them are people that I kept connections for years, in some cases even for decades. In some cases, even people until they died.

I was trying to put elements together. I always took oral history with some salt, and often, I put the insight actually in the footnotes. That’s the reason why sometimes you have rich footnotes, rather than in the body of the study itself. Ultimately, I interviewed somewhere over—for that book, Israel and the Bomb—over 150 individuals in the United States, in Israel, in Norway, in the U.K., and in France, including [Bertrand] Goldschmidt, who we will talk about it. 

I can also say that I got some rejections. I think that my trouble with the Israel authorities started when some people who refused to talk to me felt the need to report to somebody else, to security, that somebody’s asking dangerous questions. I think shortly after I started—I think it was the summer of 1992—when I started to ask the first questions, I got also a call or a visit of somebody from the defense establishment, or the security establishment, “What are you doing?” Questions like that, and the story goes from there.

Levy:   Did you find that the people that you interviewed were generally forthcoming, and gave you accurate information?

Cohen: Some. I encountered the limits of memory. I encountered some sources who were fantastic and were trying to retrieve their own memory for me. Some people, I was amazed how fragile the memory could be and how limited the memory could be. I learned—which is not surprising—that very often people remember from meetings, from encounters, just the personal, emotional, outside side, but the substance of the conversation, the issue, even the decisions that were taken, those are often being forgotten.

I learned quickly that memories are different. Some are great, some are terrible. But my own memory is not the best, necessarily. I learned that, too. And I learned also about how you need to be prepared for an interview. You need to read a great deal before that, about the subject, about the context. I spent about two or three years primarily in the research that includes a great deal of oral history. 

Levy: How was Israel and the Bomb received when it was published?

Cohen: I think by scholars, it was the first time that there was agreement on, or near agreement, on that. This was the first history that was based on serious research, and an effort to reach out for answers of a lot of issues that were put aside. People recognized that there was a lot of original, historical, and you could say even philosophical or metahistorical insight about that particular story, the story of how Israel pursued the bomb.

I got, largely outside Israel, very positive reviews. In Israel, I got very soon the request to have a Hebrew translation by Schocken, quite a respectable press. But when the book came out and it was to have a special kind of release with a lot of media coverage, I was told that if I fly to Israel, I may be arrested. The arrangement that the publisher thought, the legal arrangement about my status, would fall apart, and they recommended me not to come. We did the first interview for the publication via satellites from here in Washington. It was in 1998. The book came out in ’98 in the English version, the Hebrew edition in 2000, I believe. For the interview for the Hebrew edition, I couldn’t be there, because it was clear that I’m likely to be arrested.  

In the eyes of the security/defense establishment, the fear was that if they cannot handle me—and they knew that I did not reveal anything truly sensitive, locations, processes, names, or any of that. But the concern was, if the policy of amimut is broken, an Israeli source tells factual history about that story, what are we going to do with it later? It was very much in their mind—I have a different interpretation, I don’t think they took it too seriously—if they cannot handle me, the whole policy would collapse. They didn’t handle me, and the policy did not collapse. 

The policy remains today. I think some of the practice of the policies have changed a little bit. But some of the top leaders were afraid that they would need to show others, they would need to warn others not to talk. They cannot let it go as if nothing happened, so they must do something with me to stop me. They tried to stop the publication of the book. That failed.

Then the issue was, how to punish me, if punishment makes sense. Ultimately, I was not punished. I was interrogated to resolve that issue for many hours, not continuously, in steps. Ultimately, there was no indictment, no persecution against me. I think this was a smart decision. It would publicize exactly the kind of thing that they want to prevent.

But it was a very long interrogation into quite a number of years, until the issue disappeared. I think that by now, I have been immunized, and I am not treated anymore, in part because I’m for a while an American citizen and I don’t live in Israel anymore. I paid a certain kind of price, but in part because I became a special case in the mind of the security services.

Levy: Maybe this would be a good point for you to provide an overview of Israel’s development of the bomb, and the policy of amimut.  

Cohen: Israel is a very unique case in the nuclear age. It’s the sixth nation to have acquired nuclear weapons. And yet, its mode of acquisition, its mode of possession of nuclear weapons, is fundamentally different, and in more than one way, from all others. 

All others, secretly they pursued nuclear weapons. Once they got it, there was a test. Sooner or later, the test became known, and it became known that they have nuclear weapons and it became declaratory, and there was some kind of doctrine. Operational secrecy remained on some specific issues, but the very basic fact that the country has nuclear weapons became known. This was the case with the first five. All of them are now the nuclear weapons official states, part of the recognized nuclear weapons state under the Nonproliferation Treaty.

But this was also the story of others who came after Israel. I’m talking about in particular India and Pakistan. The only case that was like Israel, mimicked to some extent Israel, was South Africa, but South Africa was a short-lived case. It was the case of, they decided to have nuclear weapons, had very few nuclear weapons, six and a half, actually. Half, I’m saying because the seventh was not completed. Ultimately, it was for less than a decade. It was dismantled when South Africa left the apartheid regime.

Israel is the only case of a country that has developed and by now possesses a significant arsenal of nuclear weapons. Some of it is believed to be in the form of actual, almost fully-assembled nuclear weapons. They may not be fully assembled, but almost fully assembled. Technically, it could be a matter of hours to put it together. And probably some reserves of weapons-grade material. For all practical purposes, it has nuclear weapons, it has a significant command and control system. 

And yet, Israel has not conducted a test that was recognized by other countries as a test. There is one case of suspicion, what happened in South Africa in September 1979. Israel has never declared to have—Israel has made up a very strange declaratory stance, saying that, “Israel will not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons,” refusing to say anything factual about what they do and what they don’t do.

It’s a very unique case. It’s a country that everybody believes by now—including Israelis and they’re talking about it more openly than before, even though technically they cannot say it in writing without reference to foreign sources—that Israel is a nuclear weapons state. And yet, there are limits on the discourse. There are limits on the knowledge. The country has never acknowledged [it has nuclear weapons], and there was no test that was acceptable by others. If there was a test, probably there was a series of a few tests at one point, and that’s it.

Israel developed a system to be in a possession of nuclear weapons without some of the features, let alone the most important features, self-declaration, some kind of announcement that the nation has nuclear weapons. That’s a very strange thing, to have it and not to have it. To have it, but to feel not to have it. There’s something profoundly, I would call it schizophrenic, about that kind of capability.

I believe it reflects, and I think it’s not just tactics to hide, because everybody—as I called my last book, The Worst-Kept Secret, it is a worst-kept secret—everybody knows that. Partially, it’s a political strategy. But I believe that it reflects something deeper than just political strategy, or even strategic device to manage in a region that you would like to keep a monopoly but without a situation that your monopoly would trigger arms race of others.

Others could be Egypt, at least at one time they wanted to have weapons, no more. Iraq, at one time they wanted to have weapons, no more. To some degree, it’s because of the Iraqi invasion to Kuwait and the U.S. response. But ultimately, it was under the U.N. that Iraq was not allowed to. Syria—Israel did not allow Syria to have nuclear weapons. Also, in Iraq, the early case, Israel bombed the nuclear facility in Iraq, in Al Tuwaitha. 

Israel was able to manage a strategy of monopoly, and that policy was very instrumental for them. That policy was a way to avert criticism, so it was a political strategy. But I think there was something even deeper than just that, deeper than tactics, deeper than just strategy—even though it played a role—deeper than just politics of nonproliferation, to have less pressure, almost no pressure.   

There was also an American angle: the fact that Israel and the United States got a deal under which the United States, under President Nixon in 1969, became Israel enablers, essentially. Without that U.S. support, Israel could not have succeeded with having that kind of stance. 

What I’m trying to say is, I believe that the depth of the Israeli unique stance of “to have and not to have” is a reflection of something deeper, something in the Israeli psyche that had to do with anxiety about the Holocaust, and Holocaust as playing a role for both inertia and momentum and resolve on the technology side. And at the same time, inhibitions on what you say, what you behave on your diplomacy, on the diplomacy side. So, constraints. 

Let me explain, because there is a very interesting dilemma. I think the dilemma has some strategic and political, but it also has some psychology. It reflects why Israel ultimately became, to some extent, hesitant about nuclear weapons. On the technology side, it is fully resolved. On the political, diplomatic side, it doesn’t want to see itself as having full nuclear weapons. 

Let me explain that. In a way, the Holocaust and the commitment, “Never again”—the Holocaust essentially is the most traumatic event in Jewish history, where six million Jews—at that time, it was maybe 40% of the Jewish people at that time—perished. The commitment, “Never again to happen,” it involves that, “If we had nuclear weapons at the time,” which of course, it’s counterfactual and just kind of wishful thinking, “We’d be strong, then it would never happen.” 

By the way, think about it, just a few years ago, it was something very moving and very emotional, even though it was not directly about nuclear weapons. Israeli F-15s flew over Auschwitz with Israeli pilots. Some of the pilots were survivors’ children, and some of them were talking through the communications, it was clear there were tears in their eyes.

The commitment “Never again” means that in order to prevent another Auschwitz, we must be in position to threaten explicitly, implicitly, to have the capability to do what was done in Hiroshima. That will prevent, that will deter another Auschwitz. “We must be strong ourselves.” This was the imperative to be strong, the imperative that led technology, that ultimately was that imperative in mind. 

Israel’s first prime minister, when the country was extremely poor, in the first decade of its life, when the country absorbed so many new immigrants—it’s almost the same number that there were in the country, about 650,000 in 1948 and within three or four years, absorbed some other 750,000. And yet, within the first decade, by 1950, he thought about it, [David] Ben-Gurion, already in 1948. He was inspired by the Manhattan Project, and by the Jews who were playing a leading role in the Manhattan Project.

Within a decade, he ordered to start to look for the possibility [of developing nuclear weapons]. It was the imperative that survival in this hostile area, small against the many, few against the many, in that hostile area. “We don’t have any chance to get a guarantee from anybody else but from ourselves, our science. We are few against the many. Nuclear weapons makes sense.”

This was very powerful. This was non-hesitant. This was thinking in a very concrete way to achieve within a decade, essentially—the ideas were in 1955, the starting of the project was when we had the deal with the French in 1957, the beginning of the Dimona Nuclear Complex was ’58, ’59. By the eve of the ’67 War, Israel had something very embryonic, a very rudimentary device.  But an explosive device that could be shown. Not fully a weapon, not something that when you could put on a missile, on aircraft, but something, perhaps a device you can bring somewhere and demonstrate its capability.

This is the resolve to go for it, to have it. At the same time, other groups of people, there were people who said, “We should never do that. Nuclearizing the region, we’ll never be able to keep ourselves alone. Others will have it, too. If others have it too, even if for a while we have it alone, monopoly, if others have it too, then the whole monopoly, from invincibility, from being powerful, you become vulnerable.” Because Israel is more sensitive, is more vulnerable because it’s small, because its population is small. One bomb, God forbid, would be the end of the Zionist project. One bomb over Tel Aviv. The belief was that there is no way to have it for the long run ourselves alone. The monopoly would be only temporary.

The view was, “We should always be in a position to be ahead of the other side, but it’s not our interest to nuclearize the conflict. Because nuclearizing the conflict means that ultimately, both sides will have it. And it’s not our interest,” those people argue, “to have a situation that both sides have it. This situation would make us more vulnerable, because it’s not symmetrical. It’s asymmetrical.” Small territory, few [people], and essentially, it’s much more vulnerable.

Even if you believe in a balance of terror, you can do it when there is roughly large entities, big population, big geography, big space and all that. But it’s not the case here, because the conflict itself is between a small entity, almost like an island in the region, and the region is hostile, the region is larger. Those people say, “We should not nuclearize. It would be a terrible mistake if our own deeds, if our own desire for security would nuclearize [the region], because then we would be flipping our own situation and the other side will have it, too. And that would be terrible. We would change the entire predicament.” 

Ultimately, it led to a compromise. The compromise was saying, “We’ll do technologically a great deal. Ultimately, it will be unstoppable. But we’ll never say it. We’ll put it in a very low profile. It’s not our interest to advertise it. It’s not our interest to steer. It’s a way to live with it as if it’s not there.” You have this extra capability that will give you a sense of security in some existential, psychological sense. But you treat it as a very extra insurance, insurance, as some people call it, for a rainy day. That concept ultimately became the concept.

It was also a domestic fight between two camps of people. One camp was Ben-Gurion and his lieutenants, people such as Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan. The others were other people who believed in conventional security and doctrine, people such as various commanders of the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], Yigal Allon and [Yisrael] Galili and Yitzhak Rabin and others.

The compromise was, neither side could be stopped. Those people who were against to nuclearize won politically, that Israel would not be the first to nuclearize, that Israel would not be like any other nuclear weapon states. Those people who wanted security and wanted to have weapons got in because does Israel want weapons, but in a way that Israel does not recognize it. That led to a full consensus and agreement by all, this kind of compromise. “We don’t talk about it, perhaps. And maybe we can have this monopoly for the long-run.” Or at least for the last fifty years, and Israel was able to keep it for the last fifty years. Maybe it can work out against the view that, ultimately, the other side will have it. 

For luck, for smart, Israel was able—I mean, the only case today is Iran. Iran was under the JCPOA [Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action], and there was an agreement that did not allow [it to have a nuclear weapons]. Some people say, including the president of this country [President Trump], “This is not good enough,” and withdrew from that. And they said, “We were not going to let Iran anyway, and we can get even better agreement than the one we had.” But, essentially, the last stronghold was Iran. Some people say that maybe, ultimately, Saudi Arabia will try. But until now, Israel was able to keep this monopoly that initially people thought would be very difficult to maintain.

It’s a combination of tactical, strategic, political, psychological, existential elements that naturally pushed this very unusual stance that became the Israeli stance. It was protected or shielded by a deal that started almost fifty years ago in the deal between Golda Meir and President Nixon. Every American president, including Trump, has confirmed and affirmed that the United States will protect Israel as long as Israel keeps it quiet, in the basement, under the table. And that’s what you have today. 

There are problems with that, and if you want, we can talk about it, too. But a lot of Israelis view it as a very smart way, and some Americans view it as a very smart way to have nuclear weapons. It’s the best way to have nuclear weapons without dealing with pressure, just ignoring, not acknowledging anything.

Is it the best way? Well, it’s not that obvious. There are some moral issues, there are some domestic political issues, there are some democratic issues. It’s a complex issue. But that compromise by now has become so strong that the Israeli body politics feel—not only that they all support it, and they do, but they also cannot conceive otherwise to live with nuclear weapons. It seems to most Israelis that that’s the only way they can live with nuclear weapons. They cannot even see in terms of imagination acknowledging and so-called normalizing this issue.

Levy: You mentioned the start of the Israeli nuclear program was really in the 1950s. Can you talk a little bit about how it got started, and the early French-Israeli cooperation? 

Cohen: I mentioned that the Manhattan Project was an inspiration and an image of mimicking and duplicating in the minds of Israeli leaders from the very beginning. Ben-Gurion used to say, and even he wrote it down sometimes, “Just as people such as [Edward] Teller and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and others—all Jews, Jewish scientists—were able to bring the nuclear weapons to the United States, so Israeli scientists could do the same.”

In the minds of some people in Israel, it was from the very start a heroic scientific project that Jews played a major role, and even saw it as a project that was motivated by and led by Jews. There is some partial truth to that. For Ben-Gurion, he was inspired by his scientists. He was not a physicist, he was a chemist, an organic chemist, David Ernst Bergmann, the first Chairman of the Israeli Atomic Energy Commission. It was founded secretly by Ben-Gurion in 1952.

The idea was to start to train people, to send young scientists, and they did it immediately. That notion, that hope, that sentiment that at one time in the future, “We would like to be there,” was from the very beginning. Ben-Gurion thought about it already as early as 1948 when the country was born, and the country was very, very poor.

In 1949, after the War of Independence, six Israeli young students—they had just left the military service. I think many of them served in what at the time was called a Science Corps, which was a way to use young scientists or students in science for various kinds of technological, at that time—today we treat it as like primitive—various kinds of explosive and development of munitions and mortars. But some of those people who were talented were sent overseas to study nuclear physics. The hope was, “They will come back, they will get a Ph.D. and they will be the first cadre to use them for national purposes. Possibly they will have a teaching job somewhere, but they will be [in Israel].”

All of them became well-known scientists. Some of them were very prominent scientists. They were not really interested in—some of them, perhaps the most prominent one of them, Amos de-Shalit, did not even believe that Israel was capable at that time to move seriously into a nuclear project.

The nuclear project has to be weighted, even though the leaders—especially Bergmann, he really wanted to have it early on—but some of the scientists, the younger scientists, younger than him by about 15 years, thought, “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He’s a dreamer who doesn’t even know science, relevant science good enough to make a judgement.”

Even though the inspiration for a nuclear project started very early on, essentially in 1948, ’49, in the mind of the leader, in the mind of his scientific advisor, Bergmann, the chemist—ultimately Ben-Gurion authorized Bergmann in 1952 to create at the Ministry of Defense the Atomic Energy Commission, a way to get knowledge, to send people and all that. Seriously, there was very little there except hope and desire. They came back, they did some experiments. There was a survey of whether the country has uranium—very little, some perhaps could be extracted from phosphate in the Negev. 

But in 1955—Ben-Gurion left politics and left public life in late ’53 for two years—when he came back in ’55, he is determined to do it the second time in a very serious way. From hope, from desire, from something abstract, to start a real project. It so happened that this was after President [Dwight D.] Eisenhower’s speech, “Atoms for Peace.” That speech essentially led to the big conference in Geneva, the first with thousands of scientists, declassifying use of material, the idea of using nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. 

So in 1955, Ben-Gurion came back to power, and he decides to move it from hope into something concrete. I mentioned that this was following the Eisenhower speech, “Atoms for Peace.” The idea was to make available the peaceful side of atomic energy, to make it available to other nations, to sell reactors, small research reactors, use it for various kinds of peaceful purposes, medicine, agriculture, and other things. And the Israelis thought that could be a context that would allow them to get it. Very soon, they realized that with the United States, even at a time there was not a full system of safeguards, the limited system of safeguards—they realized that via that channel, they would not go anywhere.

But Shimon Peres, who was the third person and perhaps ultimately would become the most instrumental person in the Israeli nuclear program. He was young, he was not a scientist, he was a manager, administrator with strong political inspiration, political ambitions. He felt that he could find a way to stimulate such a project. It will be also a way to push his own career. It will be technology and science. He started already to make connections in France for conventional weapons to Israel. He found in France a receptive scientific, administrative, political, and military networks of people who are friendly to Israel, and who are open and friendly to the idea of joining interests. At that point, France itself has not made a final decision to go—political decision to go for nuclear weapons.

He learned there that you can make various kinds of small bureaucratic, technocratic, technological and political decisions not being approved at the high political level, national level, that ultimately would lead you to have a nuclear weapons full program without calling it by name. Ultimately, by looking at the situation, the political situations around the development of nuclear weapons in France, it was from France, it was for Peres, the way that he learned how to manage politically the creation of nuclear weapons without dealing with the friction, the political frictions of the oppositions. To make a lot of things quiet, to make small decisions about research, about allocation of resources, about the money, but without making a full decision about weapons, and essentially to create a reality. 

France was the place that Shimon Peres learned what ultimately would become opacity or ambiguity, to create things without moving to the political. Because if you move to make a big political decision, you definitely would create opposition, you don’t want to deal with it. When the project is so young, fragile, small, it needs to have accountability. You don’t need to have political fights. You need to do it quietly, and that he learned from France.

He felt that the French nuclear industry, and some people at the Commissariat [à l'énergie atomique], including Goldschmidt and others, could be friendly to Israel for Israel to gain some capability. Even with them, they may understand what it’s all about, but you don’t have to call it by name, “weapons.” But, he thought that if the American technology is not going to be available, the country that we can make some deals, that we can work together would be France, especially if Israel would inflate the little things that it has. There was some conversation, started in the mid-‘50s, about Israel new patents of creating uranium, extracting uranium out of phosphates, and also for heavy water. Ultimately, none of these two inventions were that meaningful and that important technologically, but there was some time that there was around buzz about it. 

And also, I believe that the French thought that Israel, via Jewish scientists in the United States, could help France to get some atomic secrets, through American Jewish scientists. I have doubts how much in reality that worked. Essentially, we’re talking about espionage, transfer of information. But I do know, because I talked to many French people, that there was this magic belief that some American doors could be magically opened, and some secrets could come to France via the Israelis.

Ultimately, it led, after some kind of negotiation—in particular, there was one important moment, and that’s the collusion between Israel and France and the U.K. in the Suez Campaign, that’s October-November 1956. There were Soviet threats against all three of them, but essentially, both France and Israel did not have at the time nuclear weapons. And the determination that only in France—essentially, it was under those threats that came from the Soviet Union, from [Nikolai] Bulganin, the French nuclear weapon was born. In a more limited way, the Israel nuclear weapons, if not born, was promoted heavily towards about to be born.

The actual deal, Israeli leaders Peres and Golda Meir as the Foreign Minister, flew to Paris, discussed what to do. And essentially, they both have nothing to do in terms of protecting themselves against those threats, Soviet threats. The threats proved to be essentially a bluff, but it was a very political, unique moment that helped to give birth to this, to a nuclear program. The deal between Israel and France was ultimately signed in September 1957.

Within a year or so, the French were very instrumental, very much involved in terms of engineers, in terms of designs, in creating the complex in the Negev and outside of Dimona. Later on, it would be called the Negev Nuclear Complex Research Center. With the most well-known, of course, was the reactor. The most secretive part of that was reprocessing plant that was from the beginning planned to be part of that.

This was the deal that Peres did in late September 1957. This is the beginning, the real beginning, of the Israeli nuclear project. 

Levy: Were French political leaders supportive of that at the time? 

Cohen: Some did. Some were hesitant. Peres, in a very Peresian way, he got a deal essentially, literally hours after the French government lost confidence. He was changing the date on the documents just to fit it, as if the legitimate government could sign it. They signed it after they were already illegitimate. There was even a little trickery involved in that; some would say even deception. This was when the deal was born. Later on, it took years until Peres told the story. I think in the last ten years of his life, he was reasonably open about that. But this was the beginning of Dimona.

In parallel, in other parts of the Israeli defense R&D [research and development] establishment, they started to think about weaponization. Dimona, its job is to create the fissionable material, the plutonium. The other part, Israel at that time reorganized its military R&D. By 1958, a new entity, going to become a large entity called RAFAEL, the Hebrew acronym of the “Authority for Weapons Development,” was born. They were in charge of the development of the weaponized side of that project. Dimona was in charge of fissionable material, the RAFAEL was in charge of the weaponization part of that. Ultimately, in the mid-’60s, they were moved together, and they were put together into one project. 

Levy: You’re here in D.C. this week for a panel on the nuclear dimension of the Six Day War in 1967. Can you talk a little bit about how Israel’s work on developing the atomic bomb impacted the Six Day War? 

Cohen: The traditional narrative of the 1960s war is a narrative of losing control, and a war created out of miscalculation and misunderstanding, a war that nobody wanted. But it was created in such a way that it led to the concentration of Arab forces, Egyptian forces in the Sinai. Ultimately, Israel found it must respond, must preempt, because it could not accept, could not tolerate that.

I’m not saying it’s false, but the nuclear dimension of that for years, for decades, was tacit, was unrecognized, and frankly, it was hardly known in public. The first one to talk about it was a journalist called Aluf Benn, who gave some reference to the significance of the flight of Egyptians during the crisis of May ’67, of an Egyptian MiG-21 over Dimona, and the fact that Israel was quite concerned that Dimona could stimulate a crisis if Egypt would respond to that. But very little information was given in public. 

Later on, bits and pieces came out. In my book twenty years ago, Israel and the Bomb, I had a full chapter and I was trying to give certain kind of nuclear dimension into that. Last year, through the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project, I released quite a number of testimonies that revealed that the crisis and the war had a strong and actually two-fold nuclear dimension. Even today, some of it is not fully known or fully understood, and even the information that I’m trying to bring is partial and it’s still limited.

But when I’m talking about the two-fold aspect of the crisis, I’m referring to the fact that from 1965, Israel is concerned that Dimona could stimulate Egypt to attack. If the Egyptians would come to the recognition that Israel is about to acquire or soon to acquire nuclear weapons, they may take military action to prevent that. To what extent it was full familiarity with Egyptian thinking, or to what extent it was actually a reflection of Israeli thinking—because that’s what Israel did with Iraq, with Syria, it was about to do it with Iran—it’s not fully clear. 

There was some conversation about it in Egypt in ’65 or ’66. Possibly that’s one of the issues that I hope that some of the conference from the Egyptian side, the paper would shed more light than we know. At least the top military men in Egypt at the time, second to [Gamal Abdel] Nasser, the president, Field Marshall [Abdel Hakim] Amer was concerned about it. How much it was motivation, we’re not fully clear.

But it was an Israeli concern that Egypt is concerned about it and might be attacking. Therefore, first it was early on, from 1965, there was a guidance for the military intelligence to build up a plan that would allow to provide early warning in case of either intelligence or aerial signs, to pick up signs of the Egyptians’ intentions vis-a-vis Dimona. That program that involved all sorts of technological and human aspect of intelligence collection, it’s called “Senator,” started in 1965.

When the crisis started, and given those flights over Dimona—one of them was on May 17, the other one was on May 26—the view in Israel was that the crisis may be about Dimona. They didn’t talk about it to the public. Israel, as I said before, there was always concern that Israeli determination to have nuclear weapons could create war, and could push the other side to have its own nuclear weapons. Therefore, the public discussions about what the other side thinks about Dimona, because Dimona itself, the whole nuclear activity of Israel itself, was very quiet. There was also reluctance to talk. There was not that much knowledge what the other side talked, think about Dimona. Most people in the other side, in Egypt, did not talk publicly about it.

But the early reading of the crisis was, “The crisis may well be about Egypt’s efforts, this is the time and they’re looking for an excuse ultimately to attack Dimona.” So that’s one aspect. The concern that at the core of the crisis is the last effort of Egypt, or perhaps the serious effort of Egypt, to prevent Israel reaching or acquiring nuclear capability. By that time, it was published—without confirmation, but in the world media—that Israel might be within a short time, in two or three years, having some rudimentary capability. By the way, it was the case. In fact, Israel already started reprocessing probably around ’65, ’66.

So this was one aspect. The concern of Egypt, and Israeli concern about the Egyptian concern, and the fact that this could be a cause in the Egyptian side. And Israel thought much about that in terms of protecting Dimona, in terms of alert of the Israeli Air Force, to attack on Dimona. The question that Dimona might be a target, Dimona might be attacked, was greatly talked among leaders and among military leaders. The public knew nothing about it. That’s one aspect, and now there is more and more information about it, including from cabinet meetings and that kind of stuff, of material.

The more exciting material is that indeed, Israel was close to having weapons. Probably, they could have a rudimentary device within months from ’67, even though there were a few events in early ’67 that were setbacks, or ’66, including accidents. When the crisis came up, Israel had enough fissionable material to try to improvise, to put together for the first time, just in case, because this was an existential crisis.

In the view of Israel at the time, 1967, during the crisis, many Israelis thought this was like an Auschwitz because Israel is being circled, surrounded by the Arabs who want to push the Jews, to push Israel to the sea. There was unification, or at least declaration about military unification, between Syria, Egypt, and Jordan. Israel had to deal with multi-enemy, three different armies, possibly providing some support even from Iraq or Saudi Arabia.

It was really viewed as the most dangerous moment in Israel’s history. Out of that emergency, there was this activity. There was a crisis of three weeks that led to that war, the 1967 War. The concentration of Egypt in the Sinai started on May 14, and the war started on June 6. A lot of stuff was going on. Some Israeli military leaders pushed to start an action to preempt. The United States told Israel not to do so. The Prime Minister [Levi Eshkol] was hesitant. In those three weeks, for the first time, there was an effort to improvise a nuclear device.

A testimony of a man that I was seeking for him, but I couldn’t find him during the time that I wrote Israel and the Bomb, I found him a year after the book came out in 1999, Ya'tza. He was the liaison officer, he was at the time a colonel, and he was the connection between the Israeli military stuff. He was a senior military person liaising between the nuclear project and the other civilian defense industries, and the Israel military, the IDF military, the IDF headquarters. 

He was pushing even further this preparation just in case to prepare some capability, never tested. There was a lot of hesitancy whether it’s going to work or not, but he wanted to give it some kind of military meaning. He told me—and this testimony was sealed for a long, long time. At one time, we tried to publish it, but it was not allowed. He was arrested, and he had a trial, but I was the one who kept the interview, because I interviewed him first. He passed away in 2014. His name was—later on, he became a one-star general—Brigadier General Yitzhak Yaakov, nicknamed Ya'tza. 

A year ago, in the 50th anniversary for the war, I published most of the interview that he gave me in 1999, a year after my book was out, in which he tells about a military plan, military operation, that he conceived. It was approved, but just as planning, not actually to do it, in case everything else fails, as an option of last resort. The idea was to provide the promise, if everything else fails—and there was a great deal of uncertainty. In that respect, it was a great success. Israel was able in three hours to destroy on the ground just about 400 aircrafts, most of them, almost all of them on the ground, Egyptians, later on Syrian and Jordanian. 

But it was dependent on a lot of contingencies. It was dependent that the element of surprise would work. It was dependent on the element of operational success would be there, that the issue would not be compromised. The Egyptians would not be in the air, but rather all the aircraft will be on the ground. Ultimately, it was remarkably a success, but nobody could predict it’s going to be a success. Even Rabin did not expect. Even the commander of the Air Force thought it was going to be even more losses. Israel ultimately lost about 20% of its Air Force, but it destroyed about 80% of the air forces. 

The fact that there was this emergency plan to allow the prime minister options of unthinkable doomsday, and the idea was not to use it against troops, not to use it as a weapon. The idea was in case everything goes wrong, Israel can demonstrate capability by a demonstration shot, to find some location in the eastern part of the Sinai desert, to within a short time, hours, to put together teams bringing the wires, making connections. They are lying down in some control area, a kilometer or two away from the detonation, and pushing, making connection with the prime minister, having approval. All this is highly, highly, highly contingent, and for a lot of people it was just in case. It was never taken very seriously, but just in case.

But from a historical point of view, those preparations and the creation of this primitive device—they used to call it—it was a nickname, I forgot exactly the word for that, how to describe the strange way that this device looked like because it was not really a weapon. “Spider,” they called it, actually. In the mind of those people involved—tens, possibly hundreds of people or more—this was the moment that Israel crossed the line, Israel became a nuclear power. Nothing happened. The whole thing was just a plan, and ultimately there was no need for that. But it was a plan that pushed the country. Even though before that there was some hesitancy, it was kind of a point of no return.

Now, none of this history is well known. We talked already about the limits of oral history. We have some confirmation from some sources about various elements, but the full story is still not known. This is a testimony of a very important guy who was involved with that. But it’s subjective, oral testimony from one source. I’m fully aware of the limits in terms of historical knowledge of that testimony, as precious and fascinating as that testimony might be. 

The conference that we’re going to have tomorrow, the mini conference [at the Wilson Center], I’m going to present the introduction along the lines that I’m just telling you. Somebody is going to talk about what the U.S. knew and didn’t know; the U.S. knew very little about it. There’s going to be the Egyptian story from Egyptians, what they thought and to what extent the nuclear dimension was on their side. An Israeli will talk too, to tell about the politics of nuclear weapons in Israel. We hope to enrich a little bit the body of knowledge. Again, I think that much of the story is still untold. 

For a while, the Israeli government did not like the story to come out. By now, they don’t really have a chance, they don’t have control over that. I do believe by now, that that crisis that led to war, that changed the Middle East, had a much stronger nuclear dimension than anybody thought. Initially, people ignored that dimension at all, either didn’t know or wanted to look the other way, because it was taboo. That’s the meeting that I’m going to have tomorrow.

Levy: Very interesting. Moving forward in time a little bit, you mentioned earlier the possible test with South Africa, that some believe was perhaps a joint South Africa-Israel nuclear test. Can you talk about that, and why some people think that? 

Cohen: I was involved in an effort to try to uncover some aspect of that mysterious Vela Incident that happened on September 21, 1979. The mystery is—we still don’t have a full picture. I do believe it was a low-yield Israeli test. I don’t believe that South Africa was much involved, except possibly providing Israel that space off the shore of South Africa towards, essentially, half the way between Antarctica and South Africa. And possibly providing some logistic support to Israel.

Bill Burr of the National Security Archive and I recovered some documents that give indication towards that. It’s a complex and convoluted story. I don’t want to go into the details of all that. 

But the bottom line is that I believe it was a test. I believe that Israel needed some kind of confirmation, but it was also very important for them that—and, again, we see the United States, if my interpretation is correct, as an enabler. Because it was important that nobody definitely would have a smoking gun, and also no country would say, “This was a test,” and the United States never said that.

It remains a mystery. Whether it was lack of knowledge, or that it was protection of Israel and shielding Israel, it’s still not fully clear. I do believe it was ultimately a shielding of Israel. We have some diaries from President [Jimmy] Carter at the time, that he thinks it was Israel. From his diaries—at least what was published, and he published his diaries just a few years ago—it doesn’t have a smoking gun for that. There is still a great deal of mystery. 

Levy: Even President Carter wouldn’t have been informed about it?

Cohen: I think that by now, he believed it was an Israeli test. But from some of those diaries, there was a full commission that was run by Jack Ruina of MIT. They never came to a strong final conclusion. They essentially ended without a firm conclusion whether it was a test. They said, “It’s probably unlikely to be a test,” but they were not sure. They call it a “zoo event,” an event that cannot be explained. Some other information that apparently led to a test remained classified.

I think that I have some various kind of evidence to support. Some of it is indirect. I believe it was a test, and I believe that Israel needed, in designing advanced weapons, to have that kind of results. But it was never acknowledged by governments as a test to this day.

Levy: Thank you for the explanation. There’s just been so much mystery about it. I was curious what your perspective was. 

Dimona today is still a very secure site?

Cohen: Yes. Even though it’s not clear to what extent Dimona works the way like it was in the past.  I tend to believe that Dimona, the reactor, the complex, is doing various things that had to do with maintenance and keeping an active arsenal. That’s essentially the infrastructure of the arsenal. It’s not clear to me that Israel has continued to produce a full capacity of fission material, the way it did twenty or thirty years ago. I have doubts. I’m not going to explain why I have doubts, but I have doubts.

Levy: It might be relying on its past nuclear stockpile, rather than building up more?

Cohen: That’s right.

Levy: Does Israel have a nuclear energy program as well?

Cohen: Not really. Israel was interested many times in possibly a nuclear energy program. It always fell. Even though there was interest in nuclear energy, in part to disguise the real activity for weapons, Israel did not have enough sources, financial and human sources to have two large projects at the same time. So it had to be postponed and delayed. Later on, the NPT [Non-Proliferation Treaty] did not allow Israel to get legitimately a nuclear system, because Israel was not part of the Nonproliferation Treaty. 

By now, the pressure is much off, because Israel in the last ten years discovered a great deal of gas offshore. Reasonably cheaper. The need to have a nuclear program is no longer pressing.

Levy: As you mentioned, Israel is one of the only countries that hasn’t signed the NPT.

Cohen: That’s right. In fact there are three states, all of them do have nuclear weapons. It’s India, Israel, and Pakistan. 

Levy: Has Israel come under external or internal criticism for not being a signatory?

Cohen: Not really. Internally, there is, as I said, the Israelis were in love with the current policy and didn’t know that they have nuclear weapons. Most Israelis know nothing about that treaty anyway. 

The United States, the deal that was made almost fifty years ago between Golda Meir and Nixon is still valid. In fact, the Trump Administration essentially adopted almost—there is not even lip service of asking Israel kind of pro forma to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty or to do something for a nuclear weapons-free zone. The Trump administration fully adopts the Israeli official position that the conditions are not ripe, and there is no point to talk about a nuclear weapons-free zone right now.

Levy: Can you provide a little more detail about the 1979 agreement between President Nixon and Golda Meir?

Cohen: 1969.

Levy: Sorry, 1969. 

Cohen: The issue was interesting, because the Nixon Administration was the first administration that faced the realization that Israel is becoming a nuclear weapons state. The question was, “What to do with it? Can we do anything about it?”

Under [Henry] Kissinger as the National Security Advisor, there was complex and multileveled bureaucratic study and discussion what to do about it with the Pentagon, the Department of State, the CIA, and at the time the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission], later on it’s the Department of Energy, involved in the discussions. At the senior level of the administration, some thought that the United States should put pressure on Israel to sign the NPT, or to put some limits. 

Very soon, they realized that Israel refused. There was an effort to put some pressure, questions to the ambassador at the time, Rabin. He shrugged off this effort, and said the issue has to be discussed between the president and the new prime minister, Golda Meir, and President Nixon. Nixon refused to give okay to those efforts to link supply of American weapons to Israel, to Israeli concessions on the nuclear side.

When the prime minister met ultimately President Nixon—I believe we don’t have any record from that meeting, but we have some testimonies of other people and we have some records after that give some hints that the deal was made that Israel is not going to change its policy. It’s going to continue to say that it’s not going to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons. Israel would refrain testing, would refrain keeping a high profile, would refrain announcement or declaration. In return, the United States would look the other way, and would no longer press Israel to sign the NPT.

A few months later—this meeting was in late September 1969—as Israel promised, Ambassador Rabin informed Kissinger that Israel not to sign. The National Security Advisor, Kissinger, does not even say, “I’m sorry,” or “It’s regretful,” or “It’s unfortunate,” or any of that. He just passed it on to the president, and essentially, he knew it was coming.

It was a two-sided agreement to give Israel a very unique status. Israel would keep itself low-profile, non-acknowledgement, non-testing. The United States, essentially, would protect that kind of test and it would put off pressure on the Israelis in various kind of international forums. In many ways, the United States became a full party to that deal. The deal, this bargain could not be done, the bargain of opacity as a policy, as a unique policy—we talked about it in the early interview—could not be maintained by Israel alone. 

In a sense, the United States, not formally, but practically is a trustee of that arrangement. The responsibility—whether you like it or not—without strong American support, tacit support to that deal, the deal could not exist, could not survive, could not persist.

Levy: One of the people you interviewed was Bertrand Goldschmidt, who was the only French scientist to work on the Manhattan Project in the United States. Tell us a little bit about him.

Cohen: In the summer of ’92, I believe, I felt that I needed to do some questioning in France. I used a number of colleagues in France, in particular, Thérèse Delpech, who was at the time kind of “Ms. Nuclear Energy” in France. She was involved in a senior position in a number of capacities, including the Commissariat. She helped me to reach out to Goldschmidt, in fact she introduced me to Goldschmidt.

There were a few individuals, one was American, Larry Scheinman. Larry Scheinman was involved with the legal and political aspects of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency], and he did his Ph.D. in the late ‘50s on the history of the French nuclear development. I think the first American book on the French nuclear history was written by Larry, or Lawrence, Scheinman. He had various positions in the U.S. State Department, he was at ACDA [U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency], including in Europe, and he knew all those people.

The other individual who helped me a great deal was Thérèse Delpech. I knew her individually, but Larry knew her also very well. She arranged for me a number of interviews, I think three interviews. The most prominent among them was with Bertrand Goldschmidt.

I met him at the Commissariat. This was in 1992. I think he was well into his mid or late 80s. And yet he was coherent, and talking to him, I realized some of the limits about oral history. He remembered well some aspects.

Goldschmidt was one of the pioneers, as you know very well, of the French Commissariat. He was one of the scientists who was in Quebec, and he was involved in various processes. He was a chemist. He was interested in history. He was one of the French pioneers of their development in the ‘50s.

By 1956, ’57, he was the head of the external relations part of the Commissariat. He was the chief diplomat, so there was no way to avoid him. He, on the one hand, was supportive of Israel. But I think he was not completely certain whether it’s right for France to provide Israel the full assistance for weapons. 

I met him, and he told me a great deal of his memory. He remembered certain things, and he didn’t remember other things. I think you can see it in the interview itself that he tells me about the atmosphere of some meetings, and the attitude of some people. But he doesn’t have that much meat in his memory. I talked to him thirty years later. We talked about things that happened between ’56, ’57,’58, when he was a man of probably mid-late 40s, and I was sitting with him in 1992. So this was almost forty years later.

There was a sense that first he was understanding the issue of proliferation and the dangers, at the same time, how this technology would be spread. On the Israeli thing, it was clear that he was ambivalent, being a Jew, at least partly Jewish, he had sympathy. But he also had some doubts whether it’s right for France to provide that much assistance. And the fact that even above him, at the level of the head of the Commissariat and the head of some of the ministers and the prime minister, there was some hesitancy. Some supported it, but some there was some hesitancy.

Levy: Since we’re on the topic of France’s nuclear program, what can you tell us about why France decided to develop a nuclear weapon? You mentioned earlier that the Suez crisis—

Cohen: The Suez crisis was a major turning point. The conviction of France to keep its status, especially after the humiliation, there was another important point. That’s the humiliation that happened in Indochina, especially Dien Bien Phu, when the French had to desert and had so many losses. “If we had tactical nuclear weapons, we could have saved those soldiers. We didn’t have to be humiliated.”

The view that for a country that used to be a colonial power—even if they’re losing their colonies— to maintain a certain kind of image, they need to have nuclear weapons, was there much before de Gaulle. De Gaulle supported that, and he would develop into the French grandeur, the notion that for the greatness of France, France must distinguish itself with having nuclear weapons.

Politically, the communists in France that were a strong part of the body politics, domestic politics, they did not want to go nuclear. There was hesitancy and not fully clarity about what political decision to go. But there was groups of technocrats, of nuclear industry people.

They wanted to have infrastructure for weapons, and various people develop, and cultivating that idea and that activity. It was in the context of the Sinai crisis, the Suez crisis, that crossed. I think the final decision was made a short time—about a year before they actually detonated. 

Of course, it was de Gaulle with the Fifth Republic who took the final decision to go further and to have a certain kind of special doctrine that fits the French needs, especially its independence and especially its being outside NATO and all that kind of things.

Levy: When did France test its first nuclear weapon?

Cohen: This was in Algeria in 1960, in February 1960, in Reggane. That’s well known. There was a series of nuclear weapons tests. The last one was under the concern that there were some rebels within the French military about Algeria, and France was about to leave Algeria. The whole thing became kind of less and less secure. Ultimately, the French moved that kind of test site into the Pacific. But the first one was in February 1960.

There is a strong rumor—I tend to believe it’s true—that Israeli scientists might have been present during the first test. Because the least-known aspect of French/Israeli nuclear cooperation was on weaponization, and on some cooperation on actually weapons design. I believe as part of that agreement, there are strong rumors that some Israeli senior scientists were observing the first French tests in the Sahara. 

Israel wanted very much to get the reprocessing technology from France. The example was the fact that France was able to establish its own capability, the famous facility in Marcoule, France. That was the place where French work on reprocessing was done for many years. It was apparently a smaller version of Marcoule that was built underground in Dimona, built in from the very beginning as part of the Israeli project. This was the key factor of the project that America for years and years and years did not know whether firmly it exists or doesn’t exist, or to what extent was the size of that capability. 

Levy: That’s interesting that Israel and France had at least some cooperation, considering the French had some resentment toward the U.S. for not giving it more information out of the Manhattan Project. The same with England. 

Cohen: That’s right. Israel appeared to be as if Israel could open certain kind of doors that France itself could not open. To this day—this is more than sixty years since that cooperation started in ’56, today, 2018—I don’t believe that the full story of the French-Israeli nuclear cooperation is known, and very few documents were released. As you know, France is a country that is committed to nuclear secrecy almost as much as Israel, almost.

Levy: How much information does France reveal today about its nuclear stockpile?

Cohen: My understanding is, very limited. We know some. We know something about the submarines and missiles, but it’s very limited. French people, society, don’t ask too many questions.

We know much less about France than we know, for example, about the U.K. I think U.K. is the most open country. France—Israel aside—is the most closed, talking about democracies, western democracies.

Levy: You could talk about some of your current projects and current research? 

Cohen: I see myself as more nuclear historian than nuclear analyst of policy. I have a strong interest in policy, but my real interest is as a historian. I have interest in the questions of—in the American case—the questions of relationship between leaders and the bomb, particularly in the American context, in the context of the president and the bomb, the unique arrangement that the president alone is the one who can authorize use of nuclear weapons.

Alex Wellerstein and I received a small contribution from Ploughshares to start a project in that way, and we did a workshop on this issue. We hope to apply for larger funding, and to continue with both historical and policy related activity on this issue.

Levy: There does seem to be a lot of misunderstanding among the public. Many people seem to think that Congress has to authorize the president to use nuclear weapons, which of course, is not true.

Cohen: That’s not the case, of course. 

Levy: That’s the sort of thing you’re trying to combat against? 

Cohen: Yes, and to think what kind of change is involved. I don’t believe much in legislative change. I believe more in structural, organizational, and doctrinal changes. Of course, some of this concern came out because of the current president we have, in the sense of lack of satisfaction with the impulsive nature of that president. What to do with, in general, impulsive president, erratic president? That’s the source of some of that interest.