Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Tuesday, November 27, 2018, and I have with me Richard Rhodes. My first question for him is to please say his name and spell it.
Richard Rhodes: Richard Rhodes, R-h-o-d-e-s.
Kelly: Okay. Richard wants to share some of his expertise on the history of the Manhattan Project and its legacy—which is wonderful. Why don’t we start with Robert Oppenheimer and talk about what was going on with this very enigmatic character—who is often a central figure.
Rhodes: You know, in a way today, the Manhattan Project is fading into myth. The myth is that there was one bomb for Hiroshima. Nagasaki tends to be forgotten. That there was one site where the weapon was developed—Los Alamos—and the huge factories and power reactors that were sited at Hanford, Washington, and Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the work on nuclear reactor development at the University of Chicago—those things tend to be forgotten.
That there was one man who somehow magically ran the entire, huge, 650,000-person project, and that that was Robert Oppenheimer. In fact, Oppenheimer was the director of the laboratory at the secret weapons site on a mesa north of Santa Fe called Los Alamos—“the cottonwoods”—because of the trees around it. Who directed the development of the actual physical weapon itself—or themselves—there were two different kinds.
He [Oppenheimer] played a crucial part, but the question for me has always been, “Why is he the mythological figure?” There were extraordinary people—Nobel laureates by the bushel. General Leslie Dick Groves, who at six foot three and 230 pounds was a mighty figure in his own right, and who did run the whole project and ran it well. Why Oppenheimer? I think part of the answer is exactly that enigmatic quality that Oppenheimer still has. But where did that come from? Why was he enigmatic?
Some of his friends had insights into the kind of person he was that I think help us understand who he was, and why he was able to direct a group of scientists at every level of skill from first-class up through Nobel—with egos to go with levels like that. And somehow bring them all together and make them work together, and allow them to do the work to produce these weapons in a remarkably short time for something that was essentially absolutely new. Such things had never been built before.
Oppenheimer—to Isidor Rabi, one of his best friends, who was a Nobel laureate physicist at Columbia University. Rabi said, “He reminded me of something a friend of mine said once—that he never could decide whether he should be president of B’nai B’rith or the Knights of Columbus.” Rabi said he [Oppenheimer] had an identity problem—he really didn’t have a solid core.
He tended to be an actor—he tended to play roles. And, often, those were painful roles for his friends and those who loved him. Because he could be brittle, he could be cruel. He knew this. If he was talking in a classroom and one of his graduate students said something that he thought was stupid, he would say, “That’s stupid. You’re stupid. Think about this.” Then he would explain to him what he didn’t understand. So he was hard to be around, and he did this to everyone.
Hans Bethe, one of the great Nobel laureates of the time—the man who figured out how the sun works, why the sun has so much energy production—told me once, “Oppenheimer could be cruel, and he was to me sometimes if I made a mistake. And we all make mistakes.” “But,” Bethe said, “I didn’t mind.” He minded enough at least to remember that it happened, of course.
But when he was asked to run the Los Alamos laboratory, Oppenheimer decided to take on the role of being the absolute perfect lab director. Someone who could master all the science that was involved, someone who could understand the various personalities and their conflicts, someone who could make peace every day in many ways, while staying ahead of everyone in the knowledge part.
He played the role superbly, so superbly that when I interviewed Edward Teller, who was perhaps his worst enemy in the world—Oppenheimer’s, I mean—Teller was very difficult about Oppenheimer. “He was a complicated, difficult man,” he said to me.
But I said, “What kind of lab director was he?”
And Teller said, “Robert Oppenheimer was the best lab director I ever knew.”
I thought of something that President [Dwight] Eisenhower wrote in one of his memoirs, that he, Eisenhower, had always most admired Hannibal—the general who defeated the Romans, or tried to. “Because,” Eisenhower said, “all of the stories of Hannibal’s life come down to us in the writings of his enemies.” If Edward Teller thought that Oppenheimer was the best lab director he’d ever known, he must’ve been spectacular.
Rabi thought that Oppenheimer was not sufficiently focused. That to do Nobel-level work you really have to just be very practical and pragmatic about what you’re working on. Oppenheimer, who was insecure, intellectually even, believe it or not. Bethe said, “He was far more brilliant than the rest of us.” But he was still insecure, so he always had to know the latest thing that was going on. You can’t really quite get the job done if you’re constantly trying to scramble to keep up with the latest, so that you feel everyone sees that you know everything.
Yet, what a fascinating man. He was a poet. He wrote several good poems that I’ve seen, and there are probably others. He decided that he wanted to understand the Bhagavad Gita better, so he casually learned Sanskrit. In fact, there’s a story about his time in Copenhagen working with Niels Bohr. When one of the graduate students who’d come there—Oppenheimer said, “Why don’t you give a lecture in Danish next month?”
The graduate student said, “I don’t speak Danish.”
Oppenheimer said, “Well, you have a month, you can learn it.”
He was in addition physically, strangely charismatic. He was about six foot one, rail-thin—I mean, he weighed never more than 140 pounds in his life. At the time of the first bomb test in 1945 at Los Alamos, he had just been through a bout of chicken pox and he only weighed 115 pounds at six foot one. He was just narrowly framed. Someone said that he was the only adult they’d ever seen who would come to their house and casually sit in the baby’s highchair. We know how narrow those things are.
He made powerful martinis and drank quite a lot, actually. I don’t suppose it showed in the exterior, because he was superbly mentally controlled. But that was a side of his life that hinted at some of his anxieties. He had been—as he himself described himself—a terrible, obnoxious child, just lording it over all the other kids by what he knew. He called up the New York Geological Society [misspoke: Mineralogical Club] at the age of 15 [misspoke: 12] and proposed to give a lecture on crystals, because he collected crystals. They didn’t know, he sounded totally knowledgeable, so they said, “Please, come.” When he arrived, this basically little boy, they were shocked, but it was a fully professional lecture that he gave.
So a really complex, interesting, fascinating, brilliant man, who was able to mold himself to the circumstances, to do something that he knew would be historic. There has been at least speculation—I’m not sure how much I credit it—that both he and Edward Teller, who of course, contributed importantly to the invention of the hydrogen bomb, were two men who never quite worked at the Nobel level. But they found their way into history another way, by inventing these terrible weapons of war.
Oppenheimer was visited early at the time of the opening of the Los Alamos laboratory, 1943, by a man who became his mentor during the war years, to help him understand the larger meaning of what this weapon might be. This was Niels Bohr, a great Danish physicist, probably the second-most original physicist after [Albert] Einstein in the twentieth century. It was Bohr who came up with the basic ideas that led to quantum physics—the idea that there’s another level of reality where particles and waves don’t operate the same way as they do in what we call classical physics, the real world that we all know.
Bohr was also a philosopher and a good one. Contributed in many different ways to thinking about how people communicate with the natural world. But he was prepared with this background to think very deeply about what it would mean to have a weapon so destructive that one bomb could destroy a city, and ten bombs ten cities, and a hundred bombs an entire continent. What would that mean? Was that just horror? Was that just destruction?
There’s a myth about the Manhattan Project that if the scientists—once they understood nuclear fission had been discovered—had gotten together in some secret place and agreed together not to tell the world about this terrible thing—that the world would be safe from atomic bombs. It’s a charming myth in its own way. Would that life were so simple. But the truth is, physics—starting around the turn of the twentieth century—had slowly begun exploring the kind of energies that occur in the core, in the nucleus of atoms.
Before then, it had been basically chemistry that was the leading science. And chemistry is entirely involved with the electron shells around the nucleus. The energies are much, much lower. The energy from the fission of an atom produces about four million times as much energy in the form of heat as a chemical reaction. That’s why in a nuclear power plant, the amount of fuel is not much more than you could put in a small room. Yet it produces as much energy annually as 150 carloads of coal or so forth. Actually, closer to a thousand. So the nucleus was what really intrigued scientists.
Beginning with the discovery of polonium by Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, in the last decade of the nineteenth century, one by one, elements had been found that were, as she coined the term, “radioactive.” Across the early quarter of the twentieth century, and particularly in the 1930s, increasingly powerful methods of splitting atoms and chipping out pieces of the core of the atom had been worked through. Until finally, in 1933 [misspoke: 1932], with the discovery of the neutron, there was finally a way to fire a particle into a nucleus that wouldn’t be repelled by the nucleus, because the neutron had no electric charge, and that really began to be the breakthrough.
So by 1939, when fission was discovered—actually, late ’38—in Nazi Germany by two radiochemists, it was an inevitable discovery. It wasn’t something where the scientists could get together in secret and say, “Oh, let’s not do this.”
With the discovery of fission in Germany and the publication of that fact in a couple of different scientific journals, every physicist in the world went to the blackboard, went to the laboratory, pulled equipment off the shelf, ran the experiments, saw the energy release, and usually hit themselves in the head and said, “How on God’s earth did I miss that?” It was, as one of the scientists, Philip Morrison, said, “Overripe.” It’s amazing that it hadn’t been found before.
But it had not. And with the discovery, all the countries in the world that had a reasonably advanced group of physicists working very quickly realized that with this kind of energy you had a new source of power and the potential for making a weapon of vast destructive power. So it wasn’t something people could say, “Let’s not do,” because everyone presumably would try to do it. Particularly Nazi Germany where the discovery was made.
There was real terror on the part of our scientists, particularly those who were Jews, who had just escaped from anti-Semitic Germany and Hungary and come to the United States in rescue. A fear that if Hitler got the bomb, the Third Reich would lead the world for the next thousand years. The Jews understood what would happen to them. They were already aware that the beginnings of the assembly of the Jewish people and even the early so-called Bullet Holocaust where they were shot in the pits was beginning. They had a powerful impetus to work on a bomb—to forestall a German bomb.
The French, who had not yet been conquered by Germany, saw the possibility of a bomb and immediately started working on it. So did the English, so did the Italians. So did the Japanese—a little later, and not for very long, because they really didn’t have the kind of industrial capacity in wartime, as it soon was, to also build these huge installations that were needed to enrich uranium to weapons-grade level or to build the big reactors that would breed plutonium from uranium. They had to basically stay at the laboratory level rather than move on. But there’s no question that Japan would have built a bomb had it been able to do so. Everyone would have.
There was just no doubt that this was going to be the ultimate weapon of war. Presumably, and this came early, the realization that the only way you could defend yourself—you certainly couldn’t build a building strong enough to not be blown up by an atomic bomb—the only way you could defend yourself would be to have a comparable weapon in hand. To be able to say, “If you destroy us, we’ll destroy you.” What we’ve come to call deterrence was already in place in 1941 in the minds of the scientists who understood the energies involved. Most people don’t know that, and they don’t understand what a race for time this whole thing was.
It’s a popular exercise in public school these days to run a mock trial and ask whether Harry Truman should be impeached for having used the bomb on those nice Japanese. But if you think back to the beginning and you realize that we were really racing—we thought—against the Germans, and only very late in the war, after Germany was defeated, did we turn toward Japan. As an answer to what seemed like an implacable problem of the Japanese leadership absolutely refusing to surrender, even if their own population was slaughtered to the 100 million. It was something that was believed to be not merely a weapon, but also a defense against that weapon.
This is the paradox that Niels Bohr, back at Los Alamos—having escaped from Denmark just ahead of the Gestapo—when the Gestapo went to Denmark to round up its 6,000 [misspoke: approximately 8,000] Jewish people. With Bohr’s help and the help of the King of Sweden [misspoke: Denmark], the Swedish [misspoke: Danish] people secreted them out in the middle of the night on little boats over to Sweden and to protection for the rest of the war. One of only two European countries that saved almost all their Jews. Bulgaria being the other one. Because, the Danes saw them as Danish citizens first and as Jews second. So they didn’t want their citizens involved or murdered.
Bohr escaped and arrived in England and was astonished to see how advanced the bomb program was in Britain, and by extension in the United States. Then he traveled to the United States and was allowed to go to the secret site in Los Alamos, because he was highly respected at every level in the government—right up to the president. By then, he’d thought it through. He even told Franklin Roosevelt—President Roosevelt—about his idea, which was that this was not simply a new weapon. It was also a new kind of reality that the world was going to have to deal with. That if you live in a world—well, one step back.
Nations define themselves not only by their borders, but also by their ability to defend themselves against attacks. Their military—whatever they have that allows them to say, “This is us and you can’t take us over.” That’s a kind of boundary that says, “Here is a nation-state and if you try to cross into it in a violent way, we will fight you and protect our boundaries.”
With nuclear weapons, the boundaries are all down. Someone attacks you with nuclear weapons, which are basically small bombs—the first ones were big, but they’re down to no bigger than this these days—there’s really no defense. If they come over in an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] and enough ICBMs are fired, you can’t knock them all out of the sky. If someone carries one in in the back of a pickup truck, who would know?
So the whole premise of a nation as a physical entity was demolished, Bohr realized, by this new discovery and this new development. That meant countries were going to have to rethink the whole thing. Who were they? What defined them? What sort of relationships could they have with their neighbors if, at the boundary of a dispute, they couldn’t go to war? Which is exactly what the new situation was going to bring.
Bohr imparted these thoughts to Oppenheimer and worked them through with Oppenheimer in his visit to Los Alamos. He said later, “They didn’t need me to build a bomb. They already knew what they were doing.” He actually did fiddle a little bit with one small part of the bomb, just for fun. But he wasn’t any better at it than the others who’d been trying to make this particular thing. They solved the problem eventually, fairly simply. But other than that, Bohr was there—he said—to try to impart this idea to people.
Interestingly, it connects with something Oppenheimer had partly worked through already. When he was recruiting scientists for Los Alamos, he went around campuses all over America—this would have been ’41 and ’42 in particular—picking out the best minds that he could find. He couldn’t tell them what they were going to do. It was secret. He could tell them that they’d be working in a secret site in the Southwest, but he couldn’t tell them what they’d be working on.
Some of them guessed it, of course—nuclear physics was a thriving enterprise by then. But what he did was say, “I can’t tell you what we’re doing. What I can tell you is that it will probably end this war, and it may end all war.” That was idealistic enough for this man recruiting for someone to make weapons of mass destruction, truth be told, that they signed on. They trusted him for that.
But that idea is at the core of Bohr’s idea that there’s a complementarity, as he called it—a term out of quantum physics—to the bomb. It’s a weapon of mass destruction and that’s its dark side, but its complementary side is that it will inevitably either lead to the end of major war, or the destruction of the human world. A kind of take it or leave it proposition, to be sure.
In my way of thinking, scientists—well, actually the English physicist and novelist C.P. Snow said this. In 1945, he said, “Physicists became the most important national asset a nation had.” Because they could design and build nuclear weapons, is what Snow meant. That was going to change the whole outlook of the world. Well, did it?
If you take the number of man-made death from war, starting in the eighteenth century, and graph the numbers up through 1943, there is almost an exponential increase. Until, in 1943, the worst year in terms of war deaths in human history – 15 million people died in 1943. That is both the Holocaust, the Jews who were being murdered in the death camps, and the war itself. Then the number starts to decline as the wars kind of began to wrap up, and in 1945 at the end of the war, it drops to about a million per year.
Then, strangely, it stays there—between around one and two million up to the present time. So wow, what happened? I would argue, and Bohr would have argued, and others have argued, that what happened was the appearance of nuclear weapons in the world. It’s no longer possible to have the kind of large-scale war that would inevitably involve nuclear powers, whether primarily or secondarily. It’s no longer [possible] to have a large major war in the world with the involvement of major nuclear powers.
Instead, what we’ve had is a series of kind of marginal proxy wars around the edges. Even then, what on earth led the United States, the most powerful country in the world militarily, to put itself in a position to be defeated by Vietnam? A small colonial country with a fiercely prideful and dedicated military, but no real resources to support that military. Well, they were a client of the Soviet Union, and we hesitated to push that situation so far that the Soviet Union would step in and back them with its ability to use nuclear weapons.
Again and again across the years after the Second World War up to the present time, we’ve been deterred—not in some fancy theoretical level that the mandarins of nuclear theory have come up with over the years to rationalize building more bombs. But at the basic, gut level of existential fear of the destruction of all that we hold dear and love, including the physical world we live in and the people we live among. That’s what happened with the discovery of how to split a uranium atom into two pieces with the release of a little energy.
At the end of the Second World War, with the defeat of Japan—Germany had been defeated the previous May, and we had discovered to our surprise that they’d never had a serious bomb program. But we didn’t know until later in the war, so we had to pursue that possibility. The atomic scientists, the men who had worked—men and a few women, not very many, sadly, but a few—who had worked on these weapons were engulfed with really complex feelings about what they had done.
The news came back—despite Army censorship—from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of tens of thousands of people killed almost instantly. Not—I want to stress—not by the radiation from the bombs. The bombs produced a lot of prompt neutron radiation, but it was focused pretty much on the same area where the blast effect from the bomb killed people anyway. The bombs were designed not to kill people with radiation. They were designed to be set off at a high enough altitude—about 1800 yards, in each case—that the fireball wouldn’t touch the ground and churn up dirt and irradiate the dirt and make a really dirty fallout cloud. So that didn’t happen.
What all those stricken human beings were stricken with—the ones in the photographs—was fire. These were consummate fire weapons, because the fireball that erupts from a nuclear explosion starts out at about three million degrees Celsius, and as it expands taking in cold air, cools down to the point where you can even see it. Because, light—blue light—the color, the last color we can see as you go up the electromagnetic spectrum, is about 10,000 degrees. Three million degrees, those are X-rays, those are gamma rays, you can’t see those. You just see something, I don’t know what you see, a cloud of dust around this thing.
As it expands, it cools and at 10,000 degrees, it’s flashing what is like the world’s worst sunburn on everyone below. That’s what those burns were on Japanese women where the pattern of their kimono was burned into their skin. It ignited everything organic that was ignitable for about a half mile diameter circle around the center of the explosion. That started a mass fire—what we used to call a firestorm—and it was the firestorms that burned out Hiroshima, that burned out Nagasaki, and many, many people with it.
There were then some people who were irradiated enough that their burns didn’t heal, and they died of complications of their burns. Because radiation kills cells and prevents them from dividing, so that the healing process couldn’t go beyond a certain point. But the myth that everyone in Hiroshima and Nagasaki died from radiation, I mean, it’s horrible enough that they died from fire. We don’t need to go on and talk about that other thing, because it isn’t true.
I emphasize that only because Americans are so phobic about radiation. We encounter it every day when we take an airline flight, when we get an X-ray, when we have a CAT scan—so many contexts where radiation is a part of our world. But radiation from nuclear fission seems to have a special place of evil in the American mind. It’s getting in the way of our producing some good energy from nuclear power. That’s a little sidelight.
But to go back to where we are, the first conception that the atomic scientists—still at Los Alamos, still at Oak Ridge, still in Chicago, still at Hanford—had of what had happened was that they somehow had to prevent it from ever happening again. They conceived that in this way: that as soon as another country—Soviet Union no doubt, Germany was destroyed—there were only two powers left in the world with any kind of military capacity. That was the Soviet Union and the United States. We were way ahead of the Soviet Union. They had lost 25 million people in the Second World War, and 25% of their entire industrial plant.
They were not in great shape, but they were still a vast power with a lot of people and a strong—if evil—leader, [Joseph] Stalin. We knew that they would get to work as soon as they could on a bomb, and they did, just as soon as they got the news from Hiroshima. Stalin called in his chief scientist and said, “Comrade, give me the bomb. You have all the resources of the state at your disposal.”
So they were at work on the bomb. Some spies who had infiltrated our bomb program had carried designs of weapons to them and information about how to enrich uranium and so forth. The good scientists were aware of that. How long it would take them to get there was another question.
But the scientists at Los Alamos and elsewhere in the Manhattan Project assumed that as soon as two countries were nuclear powers, there would be a nuclear arms race, followed inevitably by a world-scale nuclear war. For the scientists, it became a duty and a moral responsibility to find a way to control the atom—as they called it—to bring it under control, not only domestically in the United States, but throughout the world.
Well, how do you do that? You do that with treaties, presumably. Treaties and inspection, treaties and the right to go into another country and look at what they’re doing. The United Nations was in formation at that time, and the obvious place to them seemed to be to go through the United Nations.
President Truman felt much the same way, evidently. He also understood that international control was important to the future of this weapon and of his country.
He delegated his Secretary of State, Jimmy [James F.] Byrnes—a canny [South] Carolina politician who thought of himself as kind of the second president. [He] didn’t think much of Truman, even though Truman knew he was smarter than Byrnes. Anyway, Byrnes delegated the job to an Undersecretary of State, Dean Acheson—famous later for his negotiations and so on. Acheson in turn turned the job over to a committee of basically industrialists with the presence also of Robert Oppenheimer as their guide to the science involved in these new weapons.
There were like five people and they were hard-headed business men and engineers. They sat down with Oppenheimer. For the first ten days they met together, he basically taught them enough nuclear physics so that they could understand how this weapon worked and what it was. He was a good teacher when he wanted to be, and he did a good job with them. Then they started thrashing out the problem of, “How do you control something like this? What do you do? How does the whole world agree to something?” How do they protect against cheating—and on and on and on.
They came up with the most extraordinary ideas. You would never imagine that a hard-headed industrial engineer would have signed on, but they were all sold and all unanimous about what came to be called the Acheson-Lilienthal Plan. [David] Lilienthal being the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a highly-placed lawyer who was involved in government and who was one of the members of the committee. Here, I think Oppenheimer plugged in Bohr’s ideas—at least Bohr’s ideas are embodied in this document.
I did talk to Rabi—one of the Nobel laureates who was close to Oppenheimer. Rabi said that he and Oppenheimer worked through the whole idea for international control at his apartment near Columbia University in the months just before this committee began meeting. There was an input from the scientists, probably from Bohr’s ideas, Oppenheimer’s ideas, and then the test bid was hard-headed engineers and lawyers in this little committee.
They argued, and they thrashed, and they argued, and they thrashed. Lilienthal wrote later that about every day someone said, “Oh, let’s just outlaw the damn things.” As if that was somehow a solution. Finally, they got such crosswise with each other that they decided to take a train trip down to Oak Ridge to see the big factories down there and learn a little more.
There were a lot of shots of whiskey shared on the train down to Oak Ridge, but the five hungover committee members arrived at Oak Ridge and took the tour, and they resolved some of their disputes. Then they went on in General Groves’ private plane to Los Alamos and visited that. They went to Hanford.
By the time they got back to New York, they had really worked through their ideas. Their ideas were absolutely radical. Basically, it was fairly simple. The only way to control the development of nuclear weapons is to make sure the unique materials—highly-enriched uranium and man-made plutonium—never got out of the hands of the control system.
Well, how do you do that? Where do you start? You start at the factory where you’re making the material? Do you start when the ore arrives at the factory? Do you start after you’ve made the material and you’re working on the weapon? No. You take over all the mines that produce the ore from which the materials will be made. The bomb—the mechanism of the bomb isn’t the important part. It’s those little cores—the plutonium core of the Fat Man bomb was about the size of a softball, and it destroyed an entire city. So you control the materials from the beginning to the end of the whole process by an international authority. That was their solution.
Unfortunately, President Truman—playing the complicated politics of left and right as we do in this country—decided to assign the presentation of the Acheson-Lilienthal plan to the United Nations to a famous Wall Street guy named Bernard Baruch. Who had kind of set himself up as a wise man for government officials to visit, sitting on a bench on Wall Street. He would give them forth his wisdom, and they would go back to Washington and he would have solved their problems. That was Bernard Baruch.
When Baruch read through the plan—he understood it, except for one key part. He asked Oppenheimer, “Where’s the police force if someone violates these terms?” Because, you see, if someone then with international control of all the parts, if someone started mining uranium somewhere off in the distance, that was a breach of the treaty. And was therefore a sign that someone was starting to try to cheat.
You would react accordingly. You would have diplomatic discussions. If that didn’t work, you might have a war, a conventional war. If that didn’t work at the extreme, every other country that was threatened by this development—by this sneak attack, as it were, toward building weapons—could do the same thing. You would slowly then return to the deterrence that presumably was already in place in the world. It’s brilliant. In fact, it’s the only solution I’ve ever seen that would actually solve the problem.
But Baruch couldn’t see that part. He just kept asking Oppenheimer, “What if someone cheats? Where’s my army?”
Oppenheimer finally explained to him the fact that the treaty was self-policing. He said, “If someone starts mining uranium, why, that would be an act of war, wouldn’t it?” But Baruch really didn’t get it.
So he modified the proposal—renamed it the Baruch Plan, and presented it to the United Nations with the idea that the UN would have a small army that would be able to invade another country if someone started trying to build their own bombs. The Soviet Union wasn’t buying that. He also set it up so that only after every other country had complied with the treaty would the United States give up its small but existent arsenal. That was totally unacceptable to Stalin as well.
So the plan fell by the wayside. And indeed, we had the arms race that everyone had feared. What we did not have—because those young scientists really hadn’t seen all the way through as Bohr had—what we did not have was nuclear war. We had a lot of close calls, we had a lot of near-misses, but no country even as powerful as we, the United States, have been, or the Soviet Union, ever dared begin a nuclear war. We lost the war in Vietnam because we wouldn’t use nuclear weapons. We lost the war in Korea because we wouldn’t use nuclear weapons, and so on. We just simply didn’t dare.
McGeorge Bundy, who was a national security advisor—a very important one in the government— was quoted once as saying, “A decision by a leader that would lead to one bomb on one city in one’s own country would be seen in advance as a catastrophic mistake. Ten bombs on ten cities would be unthinkable. A hundred bombs on a hundred cities would be beyond history.” He meant that one bomb—he said, basically—was sufficient to deter a war. That’s a little bit poetic perhaps—maybe not one bomb—but in a nuclear-armed world there’s no question that countries have not felt that they dared start that kind of war.
So in an inadvertent and much more dangerous way, the Acheson-Lilienthal plan worked. Except rather than being in a world where there was only the knowledge of how to build nuclear weapons on the part of various countries, but no physical weapons in the barn, as it were, we’re now in a world where there are lots of nuclear weapons. There are ten [misspoke: nine] nuclear powers and the damn things could go off.
The other way we would’ve had deterrence at the level of human knowledge—which is basically what Bohr saw as the ultimate deterrent, which of course, it is. People who don’t have any knowledge of science can’t build nuclear weapons. People who do—and the sufficient infrastructure—can build nuclear weapons. And that makes them potentially a threat.
It doesn’t really matter if you are attacked by a nuclear power and they destroy your country. If you have weapons safe from destruction that, a month from now or six months from now or ten years from now could destroy the other country as well, deterrence is still there. We don’t need 30 minutes of delivery time.
It was all thought through—this unique and unusual problem. It was all thought through at the very beginning and then, in a way, it was lost. Because, the nation-state—this powerful invention of about three or four hundred years ago during the Enlightenment, when peoples come together because they share in common, in most countries, language and history. In the United States the idea of the country itself embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution—that’s such a powerful bonding mechanism for a group of people. The leaders have so much power thereby, because these people are all willing to defer that power to the leader, the president, the prime minister, whoever, that it’s really hard to move beyond.
One of the things I’ve found in writing histories of technology and science is people are really, really reluctant to change. They just don’t. If we’re talking about something as simple as switching from wood to coal in Elizabethan England—it took about 100 years. It took about 100 years to move from lamplight to the electric light. Every time a new technology is introduced into the world—whether military or civilian—there are lots of people resisting it for lots of reasons, including they have a stake in the older forms, they’ve got money invested in it, and so on and so on.
The same thing is true for a nation-state. I mean, think of our president, Mr. [Donald] Trump, and his words about the border. That’s kind of an extreme version of this problem. It’s really hard for people to think in terms of a whole world of people. We’re still to some degree tribal, national—whatever word you prefer—and the really hard, cold reality of nuclear war just hasn’t quite sunk in yet.
In the meantime, we’ve had at least a dozen near-misses since the beginning of the Cold War. When it was within often a few hours that one side or the other was prepared to attack because they believed the other side was attacking. Some of them have occurred because heroic people have stepped in and stopped it. Some of them have not occurred just from sheer luck. There we are, living in this precarious balance between a kind of uneasy world peace on the one hand, and a war beyond human imagining on the other.
Syngman Rhee—who was President of South Korea in the early years of that country—every time he visited President Eisenhower in the White House used to try to convince Eisenhower that he should join Rhee in attacking North Korea. He said, “You know, you can use nuclear weapons on them. That’s okay,” Rhee said.
Eisenhower had a phrase that he used for that. He said, “Why, if we used nuclear weapons, there aren’t enough bulldozers in the world to scrape the bodies off the streets, sir.”
And Rhee would say, “Oh, yes, yes, yes.” And then he’d say, “But if we really did it carefully—” I mean, his dream was to take over the rest of Korea. But Eisenhower had a much grimmer experience of war than Syngman Rhee ever did, and understood that it wouldn’t do.
There’s a phrase from somewhere that I’ve always enjoyed quoting. That is, “The first act is the tragedy and the second act is the first act repeated as a comedy.” If you appreciate dark comedy, the development of the hydrogen bomb falls in the comedy part.
Just to encapsulate it in one image—when at his trial for supposed security breaches, Robert Oppenheimer was asked, “If you had had a hydrogen bomb for the Hiroshima bombing, wouldn’t you have used it on Hiroshima?”
Oppenheimer said, “No.”
The lawyer said, “Why not?”
Oppenheimer said, “The target was too small.” Which says everything there is to say about hydrogen bombs.
They are capable of being made—not in kiloton, thousands of tons of TNT equivalent like fission weapons, like uranium and plutonium weapons—they’re capable of being made as large as you want to make them. Because, they’re basically a thermonuclear burning process, a sort of a radioactive burning process. If you add more fuel in the form of hydrogen, you get more explosion.
To take one of my favorite examples, Dr. Edward Teller—sort of the dark figure in all of these stories—once sat down to figure out if you could make a bomb with 1,000-megaton explosive force. That’s a thousand million tons of TNT equivalent. For comparison, remember that the Hiroshima bomb was about 15 kilotons, not even close to one megaton—much less a thousand megatons. And the Nagasaki bomb was 22 kilotons. Again, a long way away from even one megaton, much less a thousand.
The largest bomb ever exploded in a test was a Soviet bomb that was 57 megatons. The only reason it was that small—they designed it at 150, but they were afraid it would just destroy all of Siberia. So they took off the uranium outer shell that was part of the material that made the big explosion and replaced it with a lead shell. Which would not react—would just melt, blow away, and even then, it was 57 megatons. The plane—a fast jet bomber which dropped it from a high altitude and then skedaddled—the plane was painted white and still had burns all over the wings by the time it got back to Moscow. And that was still not a hundred megatons.
Teller’s idea was really the kind of grandiose toying with the natural world that he thought was interesting to do. But he realized very quickly that the bomb wouldn’t be an advantage in any way. Because the fireball would expand to 10 miles in diameter, and the atmosphere is only 10 miles deep. That meant that any energy coming off the fireball would just blow out into space. It wouldn’t—you’d get some lateral movement, but it would go that way mostly, and that would mean that you might as well use a smaller bomb. Why build this giant thing?
But that’s what’s possible with thermonuclear weapons. You can make them as big as you want. Once the idea was broached—and it was broached during the war by Teller and Italian Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi. They were walking one day, fairly early in the war. I think it was around 1942, on the campus of Columbia University in New York, and they were thinking about the immense amount of energy that an atomic bomb releases.
I mean, truly an immense amount of energy, enough to make its light so powerful that it could actually compress iron and steel and uranium. The light—we don’t even think of light as having the push energy—but when you get that much in one place, it does. And the temperature, of course, is 300 million degrees at the outset, which is hot as the interior of the sun.
Fermi was playing around with the numbers and he said to Teller, “You know, I wonder if we could use an atomic bomb to set off hydrogen and make a thermonuclear weapon.” Well, Teller ran with the idea. He was someone who when he had an idea, would think it through and work it through and then toss it away and let someone else finish the job of actually making it work rather than just theorizing it. But that was his baby after that, and all through the war he tried to see how you could make it.
But fundamentally, you couldn’t make one until you had an atomic bomb. So Oppenheimer would say, “Why don’t you work with us on the atomic bomb? You can’t make your thermonuclear until we have this one.”
Teller wasn’t interested. “Oh, that’s already done,” he’d say.
So Oppenheimer finally said, “Look, Edward, you go off and do whatever you want. If I have a problem that I think you could help me with, I’ll give you a call.” And Teller just hung around and played the piano all night and thought about hydrogen bombs.
After the war, there was a big interregnum when it wasn’t clear how this whole enterprise was going to be controlled legally and politically. There was a delay. Teller was incensed to hear Oppenheimer once say, “We should give Los Alamos back to the Indians.” Oppenheimer didn’t want to make any more bombs. He didn’t see why we needed them at that point, when the war was over and we had won.
But Teller was still dreaming of this powerful new weapon and continued to pursue it up to around 1948, ’49, with a design that, as it turned out, would never have worked. In fact, was tested later on and did not work. Certainly, not as well as he thought it would. Teller was increasingly upset and increasingly paranoid that somehow the forces behind Oppenheimer were thwarting his dream.
The breakthrough came for Teller, and the people on his side, with the Soviet test of its first atomic bomb in August of 1949. There was panic in Washington. Everyone was running around, “They’ve got the bomb. What do we do now?” Which sounds strange, because we had the bomb. If they got the bomb, the balance of forces was the same. We had been the monopolist before. I’ve heard people in this industry say, “We should’ve bombed the Russians before they got the bomb.” As we didn’t have very many bombs, we really couldn’t have done it.
But the reason for the panic was really quite realistic in this regard. The Soviets had never moved their four million men on the ground in Europe and Germany back to the Soviet Union after the war was over. They’d left them there, because of course, they took control of all of Eastern Europe. We, on the other hand, had rushed out as fast as we could get out.
Curtis LeMay, who was later the head of the Strategic Air Command, complained. He said, “Everybody just dropped their tools and ran home.” He was horrified, because he knew the Soviets were still there. But as long as they had an army on the ground in Europe and we had the bomb—that was a balance of forces, too. But then they got the bomb, and suddenly the balance was broken. And that’s why people panicked.
The military’s perspective was “We need something that rebalances the forces.” Teller was there to say, “Hydrogen bombs would do that for you. It can take out not only cities, it can take out whole states, can take out whole armies in one explosion.” And—speaking to the Strategic Air Command, because all we had in those days were bombers, planes, we didn’t have ICBMs—you can carry a lot more destructive force on one bomber with a hydrogen bomb than if you have to carry five or ten or twenty atomic bombs.
So, from the SAC’s point of view—Strategic Air Command’s point of view—this was something they wanted, so that they could fulfill their mission. It was their mission to destroy the Soviet Union if we went to war. Because they knew some of their planes would be shot down, but if each one was carrying a megaton-scale bomb, then even if only one or two got through it would be enough.
LeMay had this cockamamie dream that we would overfly Eastern Europe and bomb all of Eastern Europe, because it was communist now—not thinking about the people. Then we would fly over the Soviet Union and bomb them into destruction. And then, if we had any bombs left, we’d fly over Red China and bomb them, too.
I mean, some Navy officer who attended one of LeMay’s briefings wrote in his diary afterwards, “I came away with the impression that all of that side of the world would be one smoking, reeking ruin within three hours.” So that’s where the pressure from the Air Force to move toward a hydrogen weapon came from.
On the other hand, Oppenheimer was now Head of the Scientific [misspoke: General] Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission. In October of 1949—responding to the first Soviet bomb, the SAC—the Science [misspoke: General] Advisory Commission—was asked by the Atomic Energy Commission to give them its best judgment about the feasibility of building a hydrogen bomb. They met and wrestled with this issue. Some of the members of the committee, including Enrico Fermi and Rabi, were so horrified by the idea of building a weapon of this scale of destruction that they basically wrote an ancillary report that said, “This thing is a weapon of evil in any light and should never be built.”
But the main committee’s response was to say, “Our proper response to the Soviet development of an atomic bomb should be to build more fission weapons, more atomic bombs, and expand our arsenal.” Well, where was our arsenal at that point? We had, as I recall, something less than 100 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs by then, with the capability of really rapidly expanding production.
We were at a point in the development of the idea of how to make a hydrogen bomb, where the fuel—which was presumed to be a special form of hydrogen called deuterium—would not be enough to sustain a big thermonuclear explosion. You would have to have had yet another kind of special form of hydrogen called tritium in increasingly large quantities. As they did the calculations, up to a kilogram or more. That’s a lot of a gas.
Well, it turned out that the way you made tritium was to put lithium—a metal—in slugs into a nuclear reactor, and let the big neutron flux breed tritium in the lithium, by converting the lithium to a form of hydrogen. But the amount of slugs that would have to be put in the reactor to make even a small amount of tritium would be the equivalent of making the plutonium for 75 fission bombs.
To get a little bit of tritium for one hydrogen bomb that you really didn’t know how to make, Teller was proposing that we eliminate the production of 75 or 150 or however many atomic bombs, which would be the equivalent in blast force. It was crazy. But Teller’s dream was this dream, “Let’s build this great bomb. This is my bomb,” even though it wasn’t really workable yet.
With that imbalance, the committee rightly said, “We believe the proper response is to continue working on the hydrogen bomb at the present level of intensity and investment. But at the same time, increase the production of fission bombs, knowing that they will do the same job.”
The crazy Air Force dream of having a bomb that only one plane had to carry—and the Teller dream of having a bomb with his name on it that was vastly more destructive than anything else human beings had ever designed and made—was something that all of the right-wing component of the physics community was pushing. Behind Teller, against what was believed to be Oppenheimer’s perfidy in preventing the development of the hydrogen bomb.
The chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission—who was a mean, politically really almost fascist guy named Lewis Strauss—had it in for Oppenheimer. Because Oppenheimer had exercised some of his skill at insulting people on this man, and this man was a very proud man, and a wealthy man. Strauss was gunning for Oppenheimer anyway and just assumed that he had worked some sort of mesmeric magic on the committee—this committee made up of hard-nosed Nobel laureates of science of various kinds—and convinced them against their better judgment that fission bombs would do just because Oppenheimer didn’t want someone to outdo him in explosive force.
These things sound so infantile, but the record is clear that this is what was going on. All glazed over like a beautiful birthday cake with various kinds of theories and ideas and rationalizations for these positions. But they were pretty primitive, they really were.
The Air Force was out for Oppenheimer, Teller was out for Oppenheimer. Many of the scientists at the Berkeley laboratories were out for Oppenheimer. On the other side, the guys on the committees were very much on his side. One spinoff from this was the famous Oppenheimer having his security clearance lifted and having to go through a “security hearing,” so-called.
So the official report of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission proposed not building the hydrogen bomb. Not not building it, but simply not accelerating the development of something that—as they all pointed out—they didn’t know how to make. When that meant using crucial materials in limited supply that could be used to make a large arsenal of atomic bombs that would do the same. In fact, do it better, because the blast center would be multiple all over rather than just one. So in a way, you get more power, more bang for the buck from using a number of bombs.
But two things happened. The first was that a German scientist who had worked at Los Alamos during the war turned out to be a spy. His name was Klaus Fuchs, and after the war he had gone to Great Britain and was working on the British bomb program. In fact, in a sense, he was the first nuclear proliferation agent in the history of the world, because he first delivered information about the American bomb to the Soviet Union. He was a dedicated communist.
Then, when he went to England, delivered information about the American bomb to the British. They knew a lot, but he knew a lot, too, so he helped them. Then later on, after he got out of jail when he was arrested in England—he was held for nine years and released—and he opened a research institute in East Berlin, in East Germany. And presumably proliferated the bomb beyond from there—in fact, he did.
Because it was the Soviet bomb that helped the Pakistanis build—through China—build their bomb and off we go. It’s really a strange kind of web of personal delivery of information from one to another. Against the rules, needless to say. Anyway, Fuchs was one of the spies. There was an American named Ted Hall—who was also a dedicated communist—who basically unknowingly, operating independently, duplicated the same information. So the Soviets had good reason to trust it.
Because the spy thing broke in the middle of this debate over the hydrogen bomb, it just terrified this country even more. We just felt beleaguered.
And then on top of that, Lilienthal—who was now overall in charge of atomic energy matters in the government—told Truman that we really shouldn’t build the hydrogen bomb. Truman said, “Let’s ask the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They are the military leaders.”
As soon as they heard about it, they said, “Oh, yeah, we need that.”
Because they were thinking of this balance-of-power problem again. That the Soviets had military on the ground in Europe and bombs, and we only had bombs. The hydrogen bomb was somehow going to magically adjust that balance for us. The fact that, obviously, the Soviets would get the hydrogen bomb sooner or later, that we, the United States, was much more vulnerable to these big bombs. Because we have big cities and more of them than the Soviet Union had. These things went by-the-by. It was just, “Let’s get this new weapon, it will save us.”
Early in 1951 [misspoke: 1950], on the advice of the Joint Chiefs—against the advice of the scientists—President Truman authorized the accelerated development of the hydrogen bomb, which is nice. It’s like saying, “I would like a Christmas tree to magically appear in my front yard.” But that doesn’t make it happen, just because you order it to happen.
The scientists still had to figure out how to make this happen. There were various ideas tried. The first Soviet hydrogen bomb—which many of our people grudgingly refused to acknowledge—was a hydrogen bomb, consisted of layers. There was a layer in the middle of uranium, surrounded by a layer of a solid form of hydrogen—actually, lithium, which would breed tritium in the course of the explosion. So another way of actually having a solid fuel rather than a gas around. And then another layer of uranium, another layer of lithium, and so on.
It was a big, bulky thing, but the one that they tested delivered something like 400 kilotons of explosive force. Well, our rule was it wasn’t really a hydrogen bomb unless it was at least a full megaton. But from their perspective, it did the same job. Half a megaton of explosive force is a lot of explosive force.
They in a way were a little bit ahead. We knew that design. Teller had come up with that design on his own, independently. He called it the “alarm clock,” because he hoped it would, as he said, “Wake up the American scientific community.” We eventually built a few, but they were big clumsy bombs. They weren’t really a very efficient design.
The breakthrough came after a lot of work with early computers. The first use for the digital computer was to calculate the hydrodynamics of an exploding hydrogen bomb, to see if the design would actually work. I mean, the computer figures into this kind of weird, sinister, angelic phenomenon of nuclear weapons as well. Every time they ran a simulation on whether the explosion would really progress beyond simply the trigger atomic bomb—it would get to a certain point and then it would cool off at the edges and then it would fail.
Teller was just tearing his hair. He was desperate, he wanted his bomb and somehow, he knew he was right about it. And people like Oppenheimer were thwarting him. They were deliberately trying to prevent a hydrogen bomb, because they had some weird idea that if you didn’t build one, the Soviets wouldn’t build one.
Teller had grown up in Hungary as a little boy during the First World War. After the First World War, Hungary was briefly taken over by a communist group of Hungarians, and they had a little communist interregnum during which soldiers were posted in people’s houses. Teller’s father was a banker; they were a wealthy family. Teller was living in this fancy apartment with his mother and father and Soviet soldiers, who—he pointed out—would piss in the potted plants. They were crude from his point of view, and they were scary. And there were bodies turning up in the river. I mean, it was a scary time in Budapest at that point.
Because Jewish children in the nineteenth century were commandeered by the Russians for their military, and would be taken off at eight or nine years of age and kept in the military for up to 25 years. It was really scary to be a Jew in Hungary any time during that long period, from Russia to the Soviet Union to after the First World War.
Teller’s grandmother used to tell him, “Edward, if you don’t behave, the Russians will come and take you away.” True. So he really was terrified of the possibility of a Soviet takeover of the United States. He once said in anger about this question of whether to work on the hydrogen bomb, “If we don’t develop the hydrogen bomb, I will be a prisoner of the Soviets in the United States within five years.” That’s how he felt about it. But he didn’t know how to do it.
So they struggled and struggled. There was a Polish mathematician, a very charming man named Stanislaw Ulam, who had gotten interested in physics. Mathematicians can be converted into theoretical physicists fairly easily—they just have to learn a little physics, because theoretical physics is basically mathematical. Ulam was a very good mathematician. He made some major breakthroughs in mathematics in the course of his life. But he had been commandeered to work with Teller during the war at Los Alamos on the hydrogen bomb ideas and had done a lot of calculations with Teller.
Ulam was working one day at this home—and I heard this from him—I interviewed him in his adobe home in Santa Fe late in his life. He was working on the numbers trying to see—he had come up with an idea to make a bigger fission weapon. He thought, “What would happen if I had a fission bomb and next to it another fission bomb, smaller with less material, and then another one and another one, as many as you wanted?”
This one could be used, using the blast wave to set off and squeeze and set off the second one using less material, which in turn the blast wave could be directed to set off the third. With each explosion, you’d have a bigger and bigger explosion—all happening within a few millionths of a second. So essentially, a way to get to megaton range weapons at the fission level.
Ulam immediately saw that you could do this, too, and maybe make a hydrogen bomb. That if you could separate the trigger from the hydrogen material and only use the radiation in the form of neutrons—which is basically what the blast is. To squeeze an amount of hydrogen gas or hydrogen, liquid hydrogen, to the point where it was hot enough and the atoms were squeezed close enough together to start thermonuclear burning—you might be able to set off a thermonuclear explosion much bigger than the trigger was.
He at that point shared the idea with Teller. And they didn’t get along at all. Teller didn’t like Ulam. He thought he was stupid, which he was not. I think Ulam thought Teller was stupid, which he was not. They had nothing good to say about each other when I talked to them. But Teller took one look at this and argued that it wouldn’t work for about a half an hour.
Then he started thinking about it and he had a second breakthrough. That was that if you used the blast, everything would blow apart before you could get much yield out of this thing. But that the radiation which travels at the speed of light—radiation in the form of gamma rays and X-rays and whatever other rays are pouring off this little fireball—could itself squeeze a mass of hydrogen in some form to the point where it was hot enough and compressed enough to begin thermonuclear burning.
With that, they had the breakthrough. That was the key idea. They went immediately and filed a patent under their joint names, Ulam and Teller. They wrote a paper that explained how the thing worked and shared it with the laboratory. They were at Los Alamos at the time—this is 1951, ’52. Everyone who saw it said, “Eureka!” including when it was reported to the General Advisory Committee, Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer said, “The reason we were hesitant before is you didn’t have a good idea. What, are we going to waste all this good material on something that might not work when we can make regular bombs with it that we know will work? Now, you have a good idea.” He famously said, “When you see something that’s technically so sweet, you just have to go ahead and build it and then decide what the moral issues are and so forth.” That was Oppenheimer’s perspective on the world.
They proceeded and 18 months later—I think it was November 1, 1952, on an island in Bikini [misspoke: Enewetak] Atoll in the middle of the South Pacific. This huge device, which was not a bomb—it was an experiment. But it certainly exploded like a bomb. There was a tank of liquid deuterium—one of the special forms of hydrogen that’s more reactive than ordinary hydrogen—the size of a railroad tank car, sitting on end under a shelter to keep the sun off. With a rounded top, which is where the trigger—the primary—as it was now called, was set that would set off the rest of the explosion. The secondary—which was cylindrical—was this tank of liquid hydrogen surrounded by layer after layer of cryogenic cooling systems.
When everything was ready, they backed off on ships twenty miles away—they weren’t sure what the yield would be—and fired this thing. It went with—what was the yield of that first bomb? It was a megaton [10.4 megaton] yield. It was stunning. It was this huge fireball, a column bigger around than a bunch of ships together.
It went up 120,000 feet into the stratosphere and then spread out in its characteristic mushroom cloud for a hundred miles in every direction. There’s film footage of it and photographs of it, but they don’t do justice to—one of the people who was there told me, “I was twenty miles away. When I took off my mask that I was wearing to shield myself from the light so I could see it, it felt as if I had opened an oven door.” That much heat that far away was coming off this huge explosion.
Within a couple more years, we had gotten the bomb down to the size of a Cadillac, and it was now fueled with lithium, so a solid fuel. You didn’t have to have cryogenic cooling, which was enormously complicated to maintain—to keep that liquid hydrogen at minus 270 degrees Fahrenheit or something like that. The bombs were now deliverable, and they were loaded onto SAC planes and flown continually back and forth around the Soviet Union.
Then in 1954, primarily because of the work of Andrei Sakharov, the famous Russian scientist, the Soviets had figured out how to do a two-stage primary/secondary bomb. They, too, had tested such a weapon and we were back equally at odds with each other. It never got us anywhere, it just put us all at greater peril. I tell audiences when I talk about this history, “The first thing that a country learns when it becomes a nuclear power is how much it’s put itself in danger.”
Because, a little country like North Korea—as we’ve been seeing these last years—is suddenly in the target sights of every major nuclear power in the world. Because they’ve got the potential to destroy a major power. On the other hand, they’ve at least contingently made themselves invulnerable to such an attack, because they have the capability to retaliate. It’s like a little dog with the biggest claws and teeth you’ve ever seen.
So that process—which could have happened so differently. Rabi and Fermi, the ones who had said, “This is an evil thing in any light,” had proposed as one answer to the question, “Should we build the hydrogen bomb?” that that was the perfect time to go once again to the Soviet Union and say, “Can we negotiate some kind of thing about this? Can we avoid taking that next step, which increases the radius of destruction by tens and hundreds of miles?”
Nobody liked that in Washington. It was the height of the Cold War. We thought we could do anything, and we should do anything. And the enemy was so evil and dangerous that anything we did was justifiable, except go to war, because we didn’t dare, thank God.
There was another generation of weapons possible. The energy that comes off the fireball of a nuclear weapon is unbelievably large. When Teller was trying to figure out a way to invent a Star Wars system—so-called Strategic Defense Initiative—he envisioned using X-ray lasers to simultaneously shoot Soviet incoming warheads out in space with enough laser energy to make them heat up and explode. Not fission or fusion, but just explode.
Well, how do you get all that energy into space? You have a big wire running down to the ground? No. The only way he can see to make his dream system work was to have bombs. The so-called bomb-pumped X-ray laser was his idea for a sleek, small device that could simultaneously take out a thousand Soviet war—you see, he always thought big, even though he didn’t necessarily think very clearly.
But what that tells you is there’s a lot of energy coming off a nuclear fireball. You don’t have to let that energy just dissipate as heat, which is what all these bombs do. You can convert it by putting the right kind of filters into microwaves. You can convert it into visible light. You can convert it to anything you want in the electromagnetic spectrum just by bouncing it and filtering it and so forth.
Well, imagine exploding a warhead overhead that would produce a directed beam that could burn out one city’s electronics and everybody in it and so forth. That level of use of bombs has never been developed. Obviously, it’s been thought about—just because it’s interesting to think about what you do with so much energy in one little place.
So in a way, we stopped short of really being crazy. We’ve only been crazy to the extent that we’re prepared to destroy human civilization.
When Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he was a horse of a different color. Most of the guys who’d been the head of the country after Stalin had been apparatchiks. They’d been in the government in Moscow, they were city boys—they were city slickers in a way. Maneuvered with each other, knocked each other in and out of power, grew old together—reached a point where they even no longer believed in their own dogma.
But the country was shambling along as best it could. It had actually reached the point by 1980 where one of the most bountiful countries in the world couldn’t even grow enough grain to feed its own people. It had to buy it from us.
Gorbachev was a child of the peasantry. He had grown up on a collective farm. He had worked side-by-side with his father and his uncle and his aunt and his cousins harvesting grain and all the rest. He was awarded a four-year scholarship to Moscow [State] University as the 17-year-old who harvested more grain in one summer in his seventeenth year than any other 17-year-old in the country.
He was awarded a Lenin medal [Order of Lenin] for that, as well as the four-year scholarship. He said years later, “That Lenin medal always meant more to me than all the other medals I was awarded.” So he was a country boy. He was jeered at by these slickers in Moscow. They sent him out to the provinces from whence he’d come to run the regional programs. He did a superb job; he was a very smart man.
He developed a mentor in the form of the man who soon became the head of the KGB. Who saw in Gorbachev the kind of intelligence and passion and larger perspective on the world that the country needed. But when he was brought into the Politburo in 1983, he was brought in as Secretary of Agriculture. His job was to somehow make the wheat grow again so that they could feed the people. And to be fair to the whole process. In the course of rapid industrialization starting in the 1920s and forward, and then after this debacle of a Second World War, which just about destroyed the country—they had basically starved the countryside of material development. For example, they just didn’t have much of an electrical grid outside the cities. Because everything was fed into building up the cities and the industries around the cities, and the farmers were like— “Grow the grain, comrade, shut up.”
From Gorbachev’s perspective, everything had to change. His first priority was to make sure everybody had enough to eat. His second priority was to develop the countryside in all of its potential—human and otherwise—up to the level of the cities. He worked through with some of his wise friends whom he’d developed over the years.
I should throw in here, he went on vacation. This was one of the perks of being a member of the Party and a leader of the Party. He went on vacation as a young man to places like Italy. And looked around and couldn’t figure it out. “How could these people who weren’t even communists have all this wealth and prosperity? Why did they all own personal homes and have automobiles and so on, and good clothes and plenty of food?” He was struck by that as so many of the younger generation of communist leaders were. It really put a dent in his enthusiasm for the Party’s ideas, of course.
For him, he said later, the turning point was Chernobyl. When Chernobyl blew up and he went through the whole experience of dealing with it—first by trying to hide it. And then, after two or three days, he realized he couldn’t hide it because the radiation had drifted over Finland and into Sweden and across the world. Then he opened up about it in that glasnost-ian way that he was beginning to think through.
[He] was very direct about what had happened—but from his perspective. He understood that what had happened is bad management. Making all of these nuclear power plants military secrets because they were dual-purpose plants. You could use them to make electricity or you could use them to make plutonium. They were made that way deliberately, so they could be used in wartime. Just as Soviet automobile factories were set up so you could quickly convert them to making tanks. Everything was dual-use.
But unfortunately, the design that made it possible to make plutonium was deadly for trying to use it to make electricity. Because, it had a fatal, built-in flaw that meant that if it lost its coolant, it would go faster, not shut down. That’s in fact what happened at Chernobyl and the whole thing blew sky-high.
But from Gorbachev’s point of view, Chernobyl was not a flaw in nuclear power. It was a flaw in the system that led to the development of such a dangerous reactor with no chance to learn how to do better with nuclear power. Because one plant, if it had a problem, couldn’t report that problem to another plant, even with an identical reactor.
So there was no learning curve. Everybody was off for themselves. Well, all of this came together, and he said to one of his closest advisors, [Eduard] Shevardnadze, he said, “The whole system is rotten. It’s got to be changed.” He had hoped before to adapt, and that’s when he realized you couldn’t adapt—[you] had to throw it out and start over.
That’s where Gorbachev came from when he went—actually, Chernobyl was 1986, just before the summit at Reykjavik—so it really was a fresh lesson for him when he went to Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who had doubled the defense budget in his first year in office, which scared the hell out of the Soviets. “Why would he do that unless he wants to start a war? And comrade, he’s got a lot more stuff than we do.”
They were scared. Then when Reagan proposed SDI [Strategic Defense Initiative] and was proposing to spend billions of dollars on it. The American press says, “This is silly, and it won’t work.”
“But the Americans are spending of billions of dollars on it, there must be something in it.” So Gorbachev proposed to Reagan innocently that maybe they should have a little preliminary meeting before the summit that had been planned the following year to be held in Washington, D.C.
But in fact, Gorbachev convinced the Politburo through a bunch of clever manipulations that they should agree that if he could, he would get Reagan’s agreement to begin the elimination of all nuclear weapons. From Gorbachev’s point of view, not only would that make the world safer, but it would also cut the defense budget way down and make it possible to divert some of those funds to feed the people, to develop the countryside—to do all the things he’d hoped to do for his country.
Well, the Reagan people fell for it and Reagan was counseled basically to just take whatever the man gives you and put it in your pocket, but don’t give him anything. That was his brief for the weekend that he was going to meet with Mikhail Gorbachev. They got there, and it turned out to be something totally different. At one point, Reagan says—it’s in the transcript— “Mr. Gorbachev, this isn’t a preliminary to a summit. This is a summit.” He was shocked, but he joined into the whole summit.
So then the second question for me was, “Why did these two men—of all the leaders of the Cold War—come together and actually talk about eliminating nuclear weapons?” It never happened before. For me, the answer—as I read their autobiographies and books about them and the transcripts from meetings—was they were both outsiders.
Reagan was a country, or actually, a small-town boy who’d grown up fairly poor. His father was a semi-alcoholic shoe salesman, who was never really quite enough. He [Reagan] worked as a lifeguard all during his adolescent years and developed a sense of himself as someone who could save things, save the world, even though people didn’t appreciate being saved. In a way, Reagan imagined himself as kind of a national lifeguard when he became president.
On the way to the convention when he was nominated, one of his advisors said, “Mr. Reagan, why do you want to be president?”
Reagan said, “Because I want to end the Cold War.” So he was thinking about it from the beginning.
In fact, all the way back to the end of the Second World War, Reagan had been a Roosevelt Democrat then and had been a proponent of the Acheson-Lilienthal plan. He was plugged into all those ideas that came out of Los Alamos and Niels Bohr and so on. About how eliminating nuclear weapons was possible, given the right arrangement. So that had all percolated away in his mind for, I don’t know, forty, fifty years.
Until at this late time, here he was with the Chairman of the Politburo, sitting in a little room in a little house in Reykjavik, Iceland. They started talking about eliminating all of the nuclear weapons in the world. To the horror of their advisors on both sides, who just—that wasn’t what they came here for.
There’s a story that Ambassador Tom Graham [Jr.] tells after the Reykjavik Summit, when Secretary of State George Shultz was called in by Maggie Thatcher, the Prime Minister of England.
Who had a big purse on her arm and who started berating him for having done such a stupid thing as talk about getting rid of our deterrent—the thing that prevents us from having wars. And started actually beating him with her purse. She was so angry at him. Shultz is backing up. The ambassador who told this story said, “I don’t think this is apocryphal.” George Shultz himself tells this story, so it may have happened that way.
In any case, these two men—because they were outsiders, I think—because they had a different experience of the world than the people who were professionals, and who had a deep sense of the people built into their souls somehow. I understand Gorbachev’s maybe more than Reagan’s, but he had it, too. He had a sense of being one of humanity.
At one point, when he was at Reykjavik, he said, “Mr. Gorbachev, I know that you would never start a nuclear war.”
Gorbachev said, “How do you know that?”
He said, “Because the Russian people love their children.”
Gorbachev shook his head, like “What? That isn’t the sort of thing I expect these capitalists to be saying to me.” But that’s what Reagan said and that’s what he meant.
They came so close. They came within a hair’s breadth. It broke down because Reagan had a fixed idea that treaties by themselves could never guarantee a peace in the world. That you had to have some sort of backup. In his mind, that backup was technological—was his dream of a shield over America in the form of—I don’t know—bomb-pumped X-ray lasers, I suppose. That’s what Teller was selling.
He [Reagan] couldn’t let go of that. Gorbachev also was limited, because the Politburo’s remit had been, “Fine, if you can sell that idea, sell that idea. But only if you get President Reagan to agree never to test his Star Wars system in space. Because that would be the beginning of a deployment and we would be at terrible risk if he did that.” So they were both this close and restrained by the forces behind them.
Nevertheless, as a result of Reykjavik, there had been a major breakthrough in arms negotiations. In one sense, certainly—one way of measuring the beginning of the end of the Cold War. “After that was on the table,” as Gorbachev said later, “No one was going to take it off.” Once they started talking about it, they would continue talking about it, and they did.
Kelly: And then everybody should come and see your play [Reykjavik].
Rhodes: Well, let me just say—when I saw the transcripts, there was obviously the material for a wonderful play. Just almost by lifting the dialogue directly from the transcript. I had to make not much adjustment, basically moving things around a little and adding some more human moments—some of which actually occurred—to turn it into a well-rounded, long one-act play of these two men alone in a room making these decisions.
I was able to bring from their other writings—these past experiences stated to each other as memories, that I hope help explain how these two men should have come to such an extraordinarily large-scale decision—or almost came to.
So, yeah, I hope people see the play. I think it would be enlightening. Maybe it’ll happen again someday.
Kelly: To have two leaders, you mean, happen again.
Rhodes: Maybe two leaders who will meet in the right place and the right time and the right two leaders, and they’ll get the job done.