The Film & More|
"It is still an unending source of surprise to me to see how a few scribbles on
a blackboard could change the course of human affairs."
August, 1945. At an American air base in the Pacific, scientists
from Los Alamos - a secret weapons lab - watched closely as an
intricate, new device disappeared into the hold of a B-29. The following
morning, the solitary bomber approached the port city of Hiroshima in
Japan. Three days later a second atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki.
Edward Teller, Physicist:
In Los Alamos on the whole it was pure joy.
Hans A. Bethe, Physicist:
The first impact was:
That's beautiful. We have
won the war and we have ended the war. And then the second reaction was -- the
destruction of Hiroshima which we saw in photographs was so absolutely
overwhelming that my conclusion was it must never happen again.
Richard Rhodes, Writer:
It was a terrible thing to have signed one's
name to. As one of them said, our beautiful physics, which had seemed like
such an almost religious science commitment before the war, should have been
put into the deepest and darkest part of human existence, it really horrified
But before long, scientists in the United States and the Soviet Union
would begin a frantic race to build an even more terrible weapon--the hydrogen
bomb--a weapon of virtually unlimited power. It was a race that would push the
world to the edge of a nuclear catastrophe.
"Race for the Superbomb"
In the fall of 1945, the troops were coming home.
"One of three B-29 bombers arrives at Chicago airport after a 5,996
mile, nonstop flight from Japan."
Among the soldiers returning from the Pacific was the architect of
the air war against Japan, Major General Curtis LeMay. When he saw his
native midwest, LeMay was amazed by the "difference between the
bomb-blackened ruins of our enemies' cities and the peaceful Ohio landscape,
untouched and unmarred by war." Back home with his family, LeMay considered
the lessons of the war:
"If you love America," he said in a speech a few weeks
later, "do everything you can to make sure that what happened to Germany and
Japan will never happen to our country."
In New Mexico, the scientists, too, were ready to go home. As he prepared to
leave Los Alamos, the lab's director, Robert Oppenheimer,
addressed his colleagues:
"When you come right down to it, the reason that we
did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist
you cannot stop such a thing."
Like many of the lab's leading scientists, Hans Bethe was eager to move
"We all felt that, like soldiers, we had done our duty," he wrote, "and
that we deserved to return to the work we had chosen as our life's career, the
pursuit of pure science and teaching."
One scientist who did not share in the happy mood was Bethe's colleague and
friend Edward Teller. Like Bethe, Teller had fled fascist Europe before
the war--but growing up in Hungary, he had learned to fear the Soviet Union as
much as Hitler's Germany.
Underneath it all--and I think this is perhaps the tragedy of Edward
Teller--was the deep fear of Russia and of the Soviet Union and of
totalitarianism, which he had seen as a child in Hungary destroy his country
and nearly destroy his family.
The threat felt during his youth in Budapest was still on Teller's
mind as he argued that the work at Los Alamos should continue. During the war
the goal of the Manhattan Project had been to build the atomic bomb--a
bomb based on the fission--the breaking apart of heavy atoms, like uranium.
But now that the war was over and the bomb built, Teller tried to enlist the
help of his colleagues in developing an even more advanced weapon, the hydrogen
Practically all of my friends and acquaintances have said:
done a lot in 1945, let's do no more." And I knew that at that time, by
splitting the uranium nucleus, we have only barely started, that much more
could be done in the hydrogen bomb and I was unhappy to stop it. It was
unnatural to stop it.
Teller, at a scientific level, was an intense enthusiast. A very
emotional man, but also an extremely brilliant man. But brilliant, as one of
his colleagues Stan Ulam would write later, not so much at the basic simple
level of the most original work in physics, but more fascinated with more
complicated things. And here was something that was orders of magnitude more
powerful and sophisticated than the atomic bomb.
Like the sun, the hydrogen bomb would gain its energy from fusion--the melting
together of the very smallest of atoms--the atoms of light elements, like
hydrogen. Teller hoped to use the enormous heat of an atomic blast to set off
a fusion reaction in hydrogen--and so create a bomb of practically unlimited
In the spring of 1946, Los Alamos organized a conference to take a closer look
at "the super", as Teller's idea had come to be known.
The Super Conference was called at Los Alamos in April of 1946,
basically in the spirit of putting away your fur coat in mothballs. They had
done a certain amount of work. Everyone was leaving. Let's get it all down on
paper so we can set it away. And this is where we are at this point. There'll
be a record.
Where they were was what has been called the Super--Teller called it the super
-- a super bomb--which was essentially a pipe filled with liquid
deuterium--which is a kind of hydrogen--with an atomic bomb screwed to one end.
The idea was that the bomb would heat the deuterium hot enough to start
thermonuclear burning--a fusion reaction--and the burning would proceed up the
pipe, and you would have a big explosion. It was presumably more complicated
than that, but that basically was the design.
Among the scientists attending the conference was physicist Klaus
Fuchs--he, too, a refugee from Nazi Germany who had worked on the Manhattan
Project. Fuchs proposed a complicated new scheme to improve Teller's design.
For several days the scientists debated the super. But no one knew whether the
hydrogen bomb would work. Like most of the lab's leading scientists, Teller
soon left Los Alamos for an academic appointment, and Fuchs returned to Europe
to help develop nuclear weapons in England. The future of Los Alamos looked
uncertain. "Give the place back to the Indians," joked Oppenheimer.
Vladislav Zubok, Historian:
Americans ended the war with a bang, so
impressively. And the bomb, as you know, produced profound depression in
The wartime alliance between the Soviet Union and the United States
was turning cold. In the Kremlin, the atomic bomb was seen as a direct
The fact that the Americans used the bomb meant a lot. That meant that
they were ready to use it again, perhaps against another enemy, against another
Suddenly, the modest nuclear program already under way in the Soviet
Union acquired great importance.
David Holloway, Historian:
In August, 1945, in fact two weeks to the
day after Hiroshima, Stalin signs a decree which turns it into a
crash program. Laying the basis for a program to build a Soviet bomb as soon
And it's amazing, because he didn't even wait for, for a year, for
instance, to let the country to lick its wounds just a little bit. He rushed
immediately into this project. And we know that whole regions in the Urals and
Siberia were left without electricity for weeks. Electricity was cut off. To
take resources for the atomic project meant to leave people starving, and
that's what Stalin did.
Stalin was making his quest for the atomic bomb a national priority.
To direct the vast new enterprise, he chose Lavrentii Beria, the chief
of his all-powerful secret police.
Lavrentii Beria was one of the most sinister and cruelest people in
a pretty sinister and cruel leadership. And by virtue of his kind of control
or place in the police apparatus he had more effective instruments in his hands
for extracting resources from the economy than anyone else. One, of course, is
to make great use of prison labor. So you have tens of thousands of people
involved in construction work and in mining who are prisoners of the Gulag. So
it was a classic example of what the Soviet State could do quite well, which is
to focus on certain very high priorities, and channel resources into those, and
at the same time to neglect the welfare of the mass of the population.
To save time, Beria ordered his scientists to build an exact copy of
the American atomic bomb; they followed plans supplied by several spies
working inside Los Alamos. As it turned out, the spy who provided the most
useful information was Klaus Fuchs.
In 1948--meeting his Soviet contact in a London pub--Fuchs also passed on a
detailed description of Teller's idea for the super. But Fuchs didn't know, if
the Americans were actually building an H-bomb.
In Moscow, Igor Kurchatov--Beria's chief scientist--was sufficiently
alarmed to form a new team.
Kurchatov brings in people who have not been involved in the atomic
project. And he turns to Igor Tamm, a very well-known physicist.
Tamm quickly assembled a group of his most promising students,
including Andrei Sakharov. Twice before Sakharov had turned down offers
to join the nuclear program. "But the third time," Sakharov later commented,
"nobody bothered to ask my consent." In a matter of months, Sakharov developed
a new idea for the hydrogen bomb.
Sakharov comes up with an idea for a different kind of design for
the thermonuclear bomb, the so-called "Layer Cake", or sloika in
Vitalii L. Ginzburg, Physicist:
So Sakharov came up with the idea for
what was called the "Layer Cake." Essentially, he proposed taking a layer of
one element--it does not have to be uranium necessarily, you could take
lead--but let's use uranium because it's heavier. We take one layer of uranium
and then another layer--and between them, we'll place a layer of deuterium.
Sakharov alternated several layers of light and heavy elements.
High explosives surrounding the "Layer Cake" would be used to implode and
ignite an atomic bomb at the center of the device. The atomic explosion would
then set off a fusion reaction in the deuterium.
Everyone was impressed with Sakharov's new design; but before they could hope
to build the Layer Cake, Soviet scientists had to finish their atomic bomb. In
the Ural mountains, the first industrial-scale reactor was about to start
producing plutonium. Before long, Stalin would have his bomb...
By the summer of 1948, the United States and the Soviet Union--allies just
three years before--appeared headed for war. The crisis erupted in Berlin when
Stalin cut all road and rail links to the Western sectors of the divided
"The Soviets claimed that technical difficulties caused the
stoppage; the truth was that they were trying to force the Western allies to
surrender their position in Berlin and the weapon was hunger."
For more than eight months, the allies supplied the city from the
air. The stand-off in Berlin pushed the U.S. military to get ready to fight a
new enemy. In the fall of 1948, Curtis LeMay was put in charge of SAC--the
Strategic Air Command--with orders to shape up the Air Force unit
responsible for atomic attack.
Lt. Gen. James V. Edmundson, Strategic Air Command:
22nd, when I first went to it, was a-- was a hodgepodge of people
and airplanes. We could hardly keep the airplanes in commission. A lot of my
people were untrained. They had been assigned to the outfit, but they'd never
been in a B-29 before. And by the time I left it three years later, it was a--
it was a going Jesse.
LeMay believed that in the nuclear age strategic bombing alone would
be decisive. "There must be no ceiling, no boundaries, no limits to our air
power," he declared. "The Air Force must be allowed to develop unhindered and
He has such a reputation for being an iron-ass, a tough, hard,
thoughtless man. If you really knew him, you knew that he was, inside, he was
a real softy. He -- he loved the guys that worked for him and flew for him.
He suffered deeply when they didn't come back from missions. And he knew that
incompetence is what killed people.
"My goal," LeMay stated, "was to build a force so professional, so
strong, so powerful that we would not have to fight. In other words, we had to
build a deterrent force. And it had to be good."
LeMay understood that atomic weapons would be decisive, and
that therefore you couldn't hold off the enemy while you built the bombs you
needed to defend yourself. You had to have everything in place on day one,
because there would only be the first day and the second day, and maybe the
third day, and then it would all be over.
By 1949, LeMay's first war plan was ready. It called for attacks on
70 Soviet cities using 133 atomic bombs during the first few days of war. The
concept was dubbed "killing a nation".
It's a truism of people who really understand violence that you hit
the enemy with everything you've got, whether you're in a fist fight or whether
you're--you're in a war. And you hit them up front and you take them out with
overwhelming force before they have a chance to get you. All those basic
principles of violence were multiplied a million times over by the fact of
nuclear weapons, the fact that one bomb could essentially destroy a city, and
50 bombs, a country. Under those circumstances, you only had one punch. You
only had one chance.
But President Harry Truman was skeptical:
"This isn't just
another weapon, not just another bomb," he said. "People make a mistake when
they talk about it that way; we will never use it again if we can possibly
help it. But," added the President, "I know the Russians would use it if they
In the summer of 1949, Igor Kurchatov and his team of scientists traveled to
the steppes of Kazakhstan to complete preparations for their first atomic
A few weeks later, a specially-equipped U.S. weather plane flying off the coast
of Siberia brought back alarming evidence. Air filters on the plane had
collected radioactive debris suggesting a recent atomic explosion.
President Truman was slow to accept the news. As he said later, he simply
couldn't bring himself to believe that "those asiatics" had built something as
complicated as an atomic bomb.
It was a shock for Stalin as well. He did not expect Americans to
detect this bomb. He did not know that such a technology existed. I mean,
Americans -- we know that the Americans, almost by chance, created a special
squadron with special technology on the planes. So if they hadn't done it in
time by, I mean, Stalin would have kept his secret. Which is amazing.
Laura McEnaney, Historian:
The explosion of the atomic bomb really
meant that the United States lost its monopoly. And that was a very important
turning point for foreign policy, but also in the sense of American
vulnerability, citizens began to think that they, too, could be attacked by an
Elaine Tyler May, Historian :
On the one hand it was:
Well, we knew this was
going to happen. It was just a matter of time. On the other hand there was
this terror that, well, now the big enemy, the big, powerful enemy now has the
same weapons that we have. Now we really have to think about the possibility
"Without warning you are startled by an intense flash of light. You
have seconds before the shock wave will hit you, before the debris starts
flying. Hit the dirt. Get behind the nearest and best shelter--a ditch, a
depression of any kind--but get down!"
For the first time, Americans could imagine being the target of a
"Duck and cover! Duck and cover!"
"You have seconds. Move towards the nearest doorway, corridor, or a
stairway. Or get under a bed or table. Or get behind the couch or other
large, heavy object."
There was public outcry, political outcry to do something. It
wasn't clear what, but there was definitely public pressure for Truman to do
something, to act.
"Civil defense bulletin:
This city has just undergone a surprise
atomic attack. This was an air burst. Check for fires."
Harold M. Agnew, Physicist:
And there were some of us even advocated
that we should go to Russia and just bomb them, just keep doing it to keep them
from developing anything.
A Pentagon report predicted that the Soviet Union would build an
atomic stockpile large enough to attack the United States. "They may attack at
the earliest opportune moment," the report warned.
Gen. Andrew J. Goodpaster, Eisenhower Aide:
We began to see that there
could be many hundreds, even several thousands of these weapons and that they
could be delivered in ways that would absolutely devastate a targeted
In Washington--behind closed doors--the administration reviewed its
options. What could be done to stay ahead of the Russians? On Capitol Hill,
Teller's plea for the hydrogen bomb suddenly gained support. When the proposal
reached the White House it was the first time Truman ever heard of the super.
In '49 the question occurred, shall we go ahead with it? And at that
time, only a limited number of excellent people were asked. And those
"No more." I was the only one who said:
"It can be done.
It should be done."
Teller was convinced that we must make the hydrogen bomb. I was
skeptical from the beginning and in the course of conversations with other
friends, I became convinced that it was a bad idea.
The administration turned to senior scientists for advice. In late
October, a committee--lead by Robert Oppenheimer--took up the issue of
Teller's super. After two days of intense debate, the scientists' conclusion
Out of that meeting came a recommendation basically saying:
think it's a good idea to--to rush into a hydrogen bomb. We're not sure we
know how to make one. Let's instead increase and accelerate our production of
atomic bombs, to make sure that we have a sufficient armament and deterrent,
now that the Soviets have broken our monopoly.
Two of the committee's most prominent physicists, Isidor Rabi
and Enrico Fermi, went even further. Mindful of the devastation seen in
Hiroshima, they condemned the very idea of the super:
"It is clear that the
use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground," they wrote.
"The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its
very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a
whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light."
It used the word "genocide", a new word, only five years old at that
time. That particularly incensed Teller. Here are these people who had built
an atomic bomb, who'd used it to destroy two Japanese cities, calling his
weapon a genocidal weapon.
I believe that having argued for the hydrogen bomb in 1949 at an
important juncture helped keep the world safe. I'm proud of it.
Through the fall, the pressure on Truman was increasing. "If we let
the Russians get the super first," warned a prominent Congressman, "catastrophe
becomes all but certain." "The United States would be in an intolerable
position," insisted the Joint Chiefs of Staff, "if a possible enemy possessed
the bomb and the United States did not." In January, 1950, President Truman
announced his decision.
John Lewis Gaddis, Historian:
In the end, he goes ahead and does it
simply on the grounds that whatever agonies may be involved in building this
weapon, there would be worse agonies if the Russians got it and we didn't have
When the news reached Capitol Hill, Congressmen stood and cheered.
In Moscow, the Soviet leadership responded at once.
After Truman's announcement at the end of January 1950 Beria gives
the final kind of authorization to go ahead to the production and testing of
the sloika design in the Soviet Union.
To help build the Layer Cake, Sakharov was ordered to leave Moscow
and move to a secret weapons lab two hundred and fifty miles east. At Los
Alamos, the scientists switched to a wartime schedule--a six-day work week.
The race for the superbomb was on.