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The Missed Chance to Stop the H-Bomb

On September 23, 1949, President Harry Truman announced that “within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR.” Four months later, on January 31, 1950, he announced that he had directed the Atomic Energy Commission to work “on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or super bomb.” The president put this announcement in the lowest possible key—strictly speaking what he said was that he had told the commission “to continue its work.” But the country understood it just as The New York Times put it in a four-column headline the following morning: TRUMAN ORDERS HYDROGEN BOMB BUILT. Any uncertainty about the nature of the president’s decision was completely removed in early March when he issued a further secret order calling for an all-out effort.

During these same months, or quite possibly even earlier, a parallel decision was made in the Soviet Union. Soviet accounts do not tell us exactly when Stalin and his scientists agreed to try to make thermonuclear weapons, but there is no evidence of any hesitation—indeed, what little there is runs the other way: Soviet scientists were aware of the possibility of thermonuclear weapons from their own knowledge, from Klaus Fuchs, and from occasional American public statements. Soviet sources say that the follow-up on the first successful test of August 1949 was rapid. Thus we must recognize that it was not just Harry Truman’s decision that took the world inescapably into the age of thermonuclear explosions. Eight years earlier, when Franklin Roosevelt told Vannevar Bush that he should make the successful construction of an atomic bomb a matter of top priority, he was making a lonely decision spurred by false fear of what Hitler might be—but was not—trying to do. The world’s entry into the thermonuclear age is the consequence of two national decisions, not one.

For obvious reasons only the American decision is open to our close study, but in considering what happened and did not happen in the United States between September 23 and January 31, it is right to bear in mind, as men did at the time, that the American government did not have the luxury of deciding alone.

This double decision is one of the largest and most fateful that man has ever taken. Fission weapons in themselves are terrible enough, but the potential destructiveness of thermonuclear weapons is genuinely different. After the world’s first multimegaton explosion, on November 1, 1952, the sense of terror and awe that followed Hiroshima was renewed and intensified; it was perhaps especially strong among those who had been closest to the earlier enterprise. Here is Winston Churchill in 1955:

There is an immense gulf between the atomic and hydrogen bombs. The atomic bomb with all its terrors did not carry us outside the scope of human control, or manageable events, in thought or action, in peace or war. But…the first comprehensive review of the hydrogen bomb [shows that] the entire foundation of human affairs was revolutionized, and mankind placed in a situation both measureless and laden with doom.

It was in this same speech that Churchill went on to speak of the possibility that safety might be “the sturdy child of terror,” and “survival the twin brother of annihilation.” But the comfort was and is cool. In deciding to make hydrogen bombs if they could, the governments of the United States and the Soviet Union were making no small choice, both for themselves and for the world. Yet neither government held back and no representative of either government ever raised a question with the other whether there was any alternative. My own belief is that a great opportunity for workable arms control may have been missed, and that the reasons for this result, so far as they can be puzzled out, are interesting.

So I propose to consider how it was in the United States, simply because that is where we can look. Let me begin by pointing out that until late in the game this was a secret debate with only a few participants. The habit of secrecy on nuclear matters was deep and strong. Access to restricted data outside the Atomic Energy Commission was extraordinarily limited. Some of the secrets deserved all of the protection they could get: “How to make an H-bomb” was then unknown in the United States but the exact character of the American ignorance was a subject that it was proper not to discuss in public.

But secrecy went much further, even at very high levels in the executive branch. In 1949 George Kennan was the head of the policy planning staff in the State Department—the secretary’s senior adviser on the policy aspects of this subject—but he never knew, and never asked to know, how many fission bombs his country then had, how many it would or could have in the years that must elapse before any nation could have thermonuclear weapons, or what the power of existing and prospective American fission weapons might be, compared backward to Hiroshima or forward to a possible hydrogen bomb. In this and many other ways most of the men who were asked to help in thinking about this awful decision were flying blind.

Yet the need for secrecy was so deeply felt and so widely accepted that in principle all the participants in the debate fully accepted Mr. Truman’s insistence that the very existence of the issue be kept a secret. When one senator indiscreetly mentioned it on television, on November 1, the government held its breath in hopes that no one would notice. No one did for nearly three weeks, when a single follow-up story appeared, and it was not until the middle of January that first the Alsop brothers and then James Reston wrote accounts of some depth and resonance. The president was furious at the Alsops, whom he called “the sop sisters,” and his response was to press for an early resolution to the matter. (Interestingly, neither the Alsops nor Reston took sides. Reston was then a reporter, not a columnist, and the Alsops too stopped well short of a judgment, exhibiting an awed restraint that might be surprising to readers familiar with their usual disinclination to detachment on contentious questions.)

The president succeeded in his objective. He made his decision before there was a debate. So the process of that decision is deeply different from what we see in such matters today. Our own public debates may be full of error and ignorance; they may often be late and feeble. But we have them, and we can have more if men and women are alert. All this was missing in the case of the H-bomb decision—no sermons pro or con, no dire public warnings from defenders of security or Cassandras of nuclear catastrophe—no public discussion at all, careful or irresponsible. And when the decision was made there was no audible complaint at the way it was made. By habits that had first been set in wartime and then set in concrete by the belief that the secrets of the atom were crucial to national survival itself, the decision was left to the president.

Initial pressure for an American decision to go for a hydrogen bomb came from scientific enthusiasts and their political supporters in Washington. The first recorded recommendation is that of Lewis Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, writing to his fellow commissioners on October 5. “It seems to me that the time has come for a quantum jump…we should make an intensive effort to get ahead with the Super…. I am thinking of a commitment in talent and money comparable, if necessary, to that which produced the first atomic weapons. That is the way to stay ahead.”

Strauss was not alone. A similar point of view was soon expressed by three notable and entrepreneurial physicists, Ernest Lawrence, Luis Alvarez, and Edward Teller. Shortly thereafter they were joined by the formidable Brien McMahon, senator from Connecticut and chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. By the middle of October all these men were hard at work advocating a crash program. They had identified and encouraged one another, and they had begun to press their case in the Pentagon. Strauss had also discussed the matter with his old friend Sidney Souers, the president’s senior staff man for national security affairs, and he had received encouragement from Truman through Souers in pressing the matter forward for early consideration and decision.

If the officials and scientists principally concerned with atomic energy had all been of the same mind as Strauss, Lawrence, and Teller, there would have been no argument. But the enthusiasm of Strauss immediately encountered the resistance of David Lilienthal, the AEC’s chairman, and the enthusiasm of Teller and Lawrence encountered a quite different response from even more notable scientists. These encounters have been described with care by many students, especially by Herbert York in The Advisors. The principal protagonists, Teller and Robert Oppenheimer, are quite sufficiently remarkable to make the story full of personal interest and even dramatic confrontation, but what is more important for our purpose is the exact shape and course of the debate in Washington.

The recommendation of Strauss was referred at his own request to the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission. That committee, of which Oppenheimer was chairman, was at the time the most influential single group of advisers on the scientific and technical choices to be made in the American nuclear program. The committee’s scientific members included Enrico Fermi, I.I. Rabi, and Glenn Seaborg, as well as James B. Conant and Lee DuBridge, two scientists turned university presidents. It had played a commanding role in the successive decisions which had produced a strong and varied program in fission weaponry. Formal authority rested with the five commissioners, but in scientific and technical matters the word of the General Advisory Committee had almost always been controlling.

It was therefore a major event, to the few who knew about it, when the General Advisory Committee, at the end of October, spent a weekend considering “the Super” (with only Seaborg absent) and produced a report that expressed the unanimous “hope that by one means or another, the development of these weapons can be avoided.” The majority of the committee, including in particular Oppenheimer and Conant, further expressed itself in favor of an “unqualified commitment” against such development. The battle lines were joined.

The General Advisory Committee report drew a divided reaction from the five commissioners. Lilienthal, as chairman, promptly concluded that there was no hope of producing an agreed commission position and reported the situation to the secretary of state, Dean Acheson, and then to the president. On November 9 Truman received the divided reports of the commissioners, now three to two on Lilienthal’s side, and ten days later he appointed a committee of three to advise him on the matter: Acheson, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, and Lilienthal.

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