A 1.6 Megaton Terrible, Monstrous Sight

The Soviet Union tested a two-stage, lithium-deuteride-fueled thermonuclear device on November 22, 1955, dropping it from a Tu-16 bomber to minimize fallout. It yielded 1.6 megatons, a yield deliberately reduced for the Semipalatinsk test from its design yield of 3 MT. According to Yuri Romanov, Adrei Sakharov and Yakov Zeldovich worked out the Teller-Ulam configuration in conversations together in early spring 1954, independently of the US development. “I recall how Andrei Dmitrievich gathered the young associates in his tiny office,” Romanov writes, “… and began talking about the amazing ability of materials with a high atomic number to be an …

What More Do You Want from Dr. Oppenheimer?

Robert Oppenheimer was predictably devastated by the withdrawal of his [security] clearance. “I think it broke his spirit, really,” [Robert] Serber reflects. “He had spent the years after the war being an adviser, being in high places, knowing what was going on. To be in on things gave him a sense of importance. That became his whole life. As [I.I.] Rabi said, he could run the Institute [for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey] with his left hand. And now he really didn’t have anything to do.” [Hans] Bethe felt “he was not the same person afterward.” Of the hearing …

A Realistic View of the Way Power Gets Used by Governments

But whatever the technical originality of the idea [Stanislaw] Ulam and [Edward] Teller developed together in February 1951, John Manley concluded, the political effect was electrifying. “Teller and Ulam really won [the argument about building the thermonuclear bomb] by figuring out how to do it… You don’t really want to work on something that you don’t know how to do.” Los Alamos radiochemist George Cowan enlarges shrewdly on Manley’s point: Knowing that it was going to work sure encouraged those people to go ahead and do it. Particularly because now, whether you believed that it was a good idea or …

An Arms Race is a Hall of Mirrors

But [Enrico] Fermi and [Isidor Isaac] Rabi also condemned their friend Edward Teller’s Super [hydrogen bomb design] in the strongest language that appears anywhere in the nine pages of the GAC [General Advisory Committee] report. “Necessarily such a weapon goes far beyond any military objective and enters the range of the very great natural catastrophes. By its very nature it cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon which in practical effect is almost one of genocide. “It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a …

The Traditional and Instinctive Russian Sense of Insecurity

There were few places on earth less pleasant in winter than the Soviet capital; [US Ambassador to the Soviet Union George] Kennan calls the time [spent sick] “these unhappy days,” and associates his five-part telegram with “an eighteenth-century Protestant sermon.” For a year and a half, he wrote thirty years later, still exasperated, “I had done little else but pluck people’s sleeves, trying to make them understand the nature of the phenomenon with which we in the Moscow embassy were daily confronted and which our government and people had to learn to understand if they were to have any chance …

Why Should He Presume He Could Fix the World?

If the atomic bomb had shocked the Japanese, it had also shocked America. Materializing from secrecy to such conquering effect, it seemed a mysterious and almost supernatural force. It was a new fact dropped into the world- “a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature,” as I. I. Rabi called the first explosion at Trinity- and no one at first knew quite what to do with it. The discovery of how to release nuclear energy was a technological revolution, most of all a revolution in war; like all revolutions, its meaning would not necessarily accord with hopes …

War Creates a Single-Minded Focus

The United States agreed to furnish Lend-Lease and the Soviets did not doubt that they had earned it- at Leningrad, at Stalingrad, in the monstrous enclosures in the western USSR where the Germans, as they advanced, confined Soviet prisoners of war completely exposed without water or food. At least 4.5 million Soviet civilians and combatants had been killed by 1943; at least three million combatants died in enclosures and camps throughout the war; at least 25 million Soviet civilians and combatants died before the eventual Allied victory. From the Soviet point of view, Lend-Lease was the least America could do …

A Chance Racist Taunt Strengthens the Resolve of a Soviet Spy

South Philadelphia was a tough neighborhood. Harry Gold thought the “fertile soil” of his “earnest desire” to work with the Soviet Union lay there, in his early experience of anti-Semitism: “When I was about twelve I made regular trips to the Public Library at Broad and Porter Streets, a distance of about two miles from my home. On returning from one such trip I was seized by a group of about 15 gentile boys at 12th and Shunk Streets and was badly beaten.” Gangs of Neckers, kids who lived in the marshy Neck section of South Philadelphia near the city …