The Film & More|
Just two days after Truman's decision, the H-bomb was back in
Klaus Fuchs had been arrested for spying.
Headlines of Fuchs' arrest
I was deeply shocked and astonished. Klaus Fuchs had been such a good
physicist. He made several important discoveries while he was at Los Alamos
but he never talked about his private life.
Fuchs admitted being a Communist. He had joined the party during
his student days in Germany to fight against the growing threat of the Nazis.
He and his family had worked helping Jews escape Nazi Germany.
Fuchs' sister had committed suicide by jumping in front of a train when she was
being chased by the Gestapo. So it was a very, very much mixed up with the
whole issue of Nazi Germany and fascism.
In London, Fuchs was convicted in a trial that lasted less than two
hours. The British government was reluctant to call witnesses who would reveal
the full extent of the damage.
And that simply added further weight and a terrible sense of dread to
the whole dilemma of what to do about the Soviet atomic bomb, because now we
knew that they knew what we knew about how you build a hydrogen bomb.
At Los Alamos the crash program was making little progress. Some of
the scientists who had argued against the hydrogen bomb, like Hans Bethe, refused to get involved. But others agreed to help. Enrico Fermi
came back for the summer--hoping to prove that the super couldn't be built.
When, a man like Fermi told me, I hope you won't succeed, that made me
feel, to say the least, uncomfortable. But at the same time I had no question.
As a scientist I had to know what can be done.
It had always been a clear necessity with the hydrogen bomb to
calculate the progress of the explosion, because if you didn't have a kind of a
paper version of what was going to happen, and you tested a design and it was a
dud, you wouldn't know whether it was wrong because your design was wrong or
whether it was wrong because there was no way to make this happen anyway. So
they had to simulate it on paper.
The first breakthrough came when Stanislaw Ulam, a
Polish-born mathematician, developed a method to simplify the enormously
complex calculation. He and Fermi would finally be able to figure out whether
Teller's idea for the super would work.
Richard L. Garwin, Physicist:
In those days, computers were mostly
young women who would take a problem and fill in a spreadsheet with one number
after the other, using hand-cranked Marchant or Friden calculators. And that's
how it was with the calculations that Fermi and Stan Ulam were doing. So Fermi
would look at the data and he and Stan Ulam would talk for a few minutes and
then they would think further, and at the end of the day they would have
another case or two to calculate.
Herbert F. York, Physicist:
All of the calculations were showing that
the existing ideas about how you would introduce the energy led to a situation
in which it fizzled. And not just marginally so but it never got started at
Although, if you are optimistic, you can hope that the calculations
aren't right, that something will save you, and I think that Edward Teller was decidedly optimistic for a long time.
In Princeton the mathematician John von Neumann was trying to
run the same set of calculations on a prototype digital computer. Von Neumann,
an old friend of Teller's, soon confirmed Ulam's results.
Teller is divided. He wants to blame Ulam for somehow distorting the
calculations. And since they weren't total--they were kind of samples--it was
always possible to imagine that some malevolence on Ulam's part was what was
really wrong here. But of course there was the computer back in Princeton,
spitting out the same numbers.
They cast doubt on a scheme. They did not do more. But I felt that
at that time, we must find reliable approaches that were sure to work.
I remember very distinctly Teller's attitude during that time. He was
very desperate and it seemed to most people that Teller's original idea of
making a hydrogen bomb would not work.
The U.S. program to build the hydrogen bomb was clearly in trouble.
At the Soviet weapons lab, the program to build Sakharov's "Layer Cake" was
making progress. Built on the grounds of a former monastery, Arzamas-16 was a
top-secret facility that didn't appear on any map.
German A. Goncharov, Physicist:
The conditions were fine, but what
struck me as very unpleasant and what weighed heavily on me for the first year
was the realization that we were not allowed to leave the place even for a
vacation. So, even during my vacations I couldn't visit my parents and
relatives, you see? That was a heavy burden and it simply tormented me at
first. But the contact with Sakharov, Tamm, Zel'dovich quickly relieved
some of the tension; I got involved in interesting, absorbing work.
"We saw ourselves at the center of a great enterprise on which
colossal resources were being expanded," Sakharov later wrote. "We never
questioned the vital importance of the work. And there were no distractions.
The rest of the world was far, far away, somewhere beyond the two barbed wire
Certainly, there were contradictions:
On the one hand, we were
surrounded by barbed wire and were not allowed to leave; on the other hand,
this helped our complete concentration on the work; we understood that it was
necessary for the good of the country.
They sacrificed their health and their lives themselves. It's, it's
pointless to talk about their living in luxury while the rest of the country
died of famine. No, they, they worked as enthusiasts without sparing
On June 25, 1950, North Korean forces--with Stalin's tacit
support--launched an all-out attack against South Korea. Backed by a U.N.
coalition, the United States intervened. It was the first war in which both
sides faced the risk of atomic attack.
In '50, the Korean thing popped. I got a call from General
LeMay, and he said:
"Eddy, is your outfit ready to go?" And I said:
are can go, General LeMay." General LeMay says:
"Okay. You got three
To his superiors at the Pentagon General LeMay proposed firebombing
the principal cities in North Korea. "Screams of horror arose when I made this
suggestion," LeMay remembered. The Truman administration chose a more limited
We were flying out of Kadena air base in Okinawa. We bombed around
the Pusan perimeter, we bombed Seoul, oil refineries and manufacturing plants,
all the way up to the Russian border. When we ran out of factories we started
in on bridges. We bombed everything in North Korea that was worth bombing.
By the fall of 1950, the Communist forces were in full retreat.
It seemed like the war was over and we were on the way home, when
we got word that the Chinese "volunteers"--in quotes--had come across the river
and were joining the fight.
The Chinese intervention caught the allies by surprise.
"United Nations troops are obliged to fall back on all fronts in the
face of attacks by Chinese Reds estimated to number a half million. Already
casualties among the American members of the UN forces have risen to beyond the
30,000 mark. Bitter winter weather plus an enemy which outnumbers them more
than three to one have taken their toll."
Many Americans were very, very angry, saying:
"Well, you know,
we've got these bombs, why don't we use them again? We used them in World War
II and they worked and ended the war. Why don't we use them now and save
American lives and put an end to this conflict?
In the fall of 1950 when I was serving with the joint advanced
study committee we actually studied what might be done with the use of nuclear
weapons in Korea.
Truman is worrying a great deal about the circumstances in
which the United States could use atomic weapons. You obviously could blow up
a lot of people if you used it. But there are a lot of Chinese. And what if
you use five or six or ten or twelve of them, and the Chinese just keep coming?
Then you have not only failed in the immediate context of the Korean War, but
you've called into question the entire credibility of the bomb on a worldwide
In a report to the Pentagon, LeMay reached a similar conclusion:
The use of atomic weapons in the Far East "would probably not be advisable at
this time," he wrote, "unless this action is undertaken as part of an overall
atomic campaign against Red China."
But Truman did not want to risk a larger conflict. As the fighting wore on,
both he and Stalin were careful to avoid any action that might lead to a
nuclear confrontation. Rather than proving decisive, the atomic bomb had
helped to produce a stalemate.
In the Pacific, scientists from Los Alamos were preparing to
conduct an experiment. Almost a year after Truman's decision, the U.S. effort
to build the hydrogen bomb was still stuck. The experiment--nicknamed
"George"--that would at least allow them to collect data on a fusion reaction.
It was a physics experiment. But it was also a way of saying:
Washington, this is something we can do. We're working on this. Don't think
it's a bomb, because it's not. But at least we're working on this.
Ironically, it was the process of designing "George" that finally
pointed the way to the H-bomb. Teller's concept for "George" was similar to an
idea first proposed by the spy Klaus Fuchs. Before leaving Los Alamos,
Fuchs had modified Teller's design. He placed an atomic bomb inside a heavy
shell, close to a capsule of hydrogen fuel. At the moment of detonation--in a
fraction of a second, before the whole assembly blew itself apart--the shell
would confine the radiation from the atomic blast long enough to heat and
compress the hydrogen fuel, setting off a fusion reaction. But George was not
a practical design for an H-bomb. It was mathematician Stanislaw Ulam
who came up with a better idea.
"Engraved on my memory," Ulam's wife later wrote, "is the day when I found him
at noon staring intensely out of a window in our living room with a very
strange expression on his face. He said:
'I found a way to make it work.'
'What work?' I asked. 'The super,' he replied. 'It's a totally different
scheme, and it will change the course of history.'"
Ulam, too, placed the components of his bomb inside a shell, but he proposed
using neutrons from an atomic blast to generate enormous pressure on the
hydrogen fuel. The key to Ulam's idea was what he called "lenses"--material
surrounding the fuel capsule to magnify the energy of the neutrons to achieve
extreme compression of the hydrogen.
As soon as he heard Ulam's idea, Teller added the final piece:
realized, were not ideal to implode the hydrogen capsule. Teller suggested
using radiation instead--in effect combining Ulam's idea with the design for
the "George" experiment.
I have this vivid memory of Teller going to the blackboard and just with
a few strokes drawing a cartoon that was:
"This is how you make a hydrogen
bomb." And I remember, either at the time or that evening, getting a little
bit of the shivers because I realized:
That was it.
I think I found the right solution, which then was so clear that when
I managed to explain it to the other advanced people they agreed.
I was convinced, as soon as I heard the Ulam-Teller concept, I was
convinced that this was the way to go.
For almost ten years, Teller had been the most ardent advocate of
the super. Now, at last, his goal seemed within reach.
Teller, not surprisingly since this was his discovery, felt that he
should be in charge of building it. The people who did the work at Los
Alamos understood that that would be a catastrophe. He would come up with
a new idea every day, and want it immediately put into effect.
The first test of the Teller-Ulam design, code-named "Mike",
was scheduled for the fall of 1952--not soon enough for Teller.
I believe the disagreement was based on the point, that the director
of Los Alamos knew that the hydrogen bomb among scientists was
unpopular. He knew, if he did not succeed, it would give Los Alamos a bad
Teller accused the leadership of Los Alamos of not working
wholeheartedly on the hydrogen bomb, on the "Mike" test... and he walked out.
In Livermore, California, on the grounds of a former air
base, Teller helped set up a rival weapons lab. The break with Los Alamos
would cost Teller a chance to witness the first test of his idea. In the
Pacific, the construction of "Mike" was under way--documented in a classified
"Twenty-one feet high, eighty inches in diameter, and weighing some
eighty tons. "Mike" was not a weapon, it was far removed from anything
resembling one. "Mike" was purely and simply a laboratory-type experiment."
It had 300 or 400 kilograms of liquid deuterium in a big tank and it
had to be kept cooled down to minus-whatever, close to absolute zero. It was
this immense and very exuberant engineering project.
"Mike" was surrounded by a battery of diagnostic devices to record
the explosion. A plywood tunnel packed with helium balloons stretched nine
thousand feet to a neighboring island. Through the helium, gamma rays and
neutrons would streak towards instruments set up to record the beginning of
From a control room near "Mike," television cameras relayed images of the dials
and gauges to the command ship thirty miles south of ground zero.
"This is the first full-scale test of a hydrogen device. If the
reaction goes, we're in the thermonuclear era. For the sake of all of us and
for the sake of our country I know that you join me in wishing this expedition
"It is now 30 seconds to zero time. Put on goggles or turn away.
Do not remove goggles or face burst until ten seconds after the first light."
"Seven, six, fiver, four, three, two, one ..."
Back in California, Edward Teller waited to see if Mike was
successful. He had found a way to observe the test from afar:
In the basement
of the Geology Department at Berkeley, he sat in a darkened room, staring
intently at a tiny dot of light. On a slowly rotating strip of photographic
paper a seismograph recorded the slightest movement in the ground below.
Teller was waiting for the shock wave from the Pacific to reach California:
"At exactly the scheduled time I saw the light point move," Teller remembered.
"It moved so slightly that I was not sure whether I just thought it moved or
whether it actually had moved. So I stayed around for another ten minutes,
lest I miss the real event; then I took the whole film and had it developed.
There was the signal, just as predicted."
I knew it was a success. And I at once wired to a friend a coded
message where I have invented the code. The total message was:
"Charley one, this is Red Leader. Request here to dog two, over."
Two hours after the "Mike" test," Red Leader approached the mushroom
cloud. When the plane entered the stem of the cloud at 42,000 feet, the
radioactivity was so intense that the pilot quickly turned back. Near the test
site, a survey team set out to take a look at ground zero.
"Two-six approaching ground zero. All test islands seem to be swept clean.
Elugelab is completely gone. Nothing there but water, and what appears to be a
The first hydrogen device exploded with a force of ten megatons--more than
eight hundred times the power of the atomic bomb that destroyed
While the test in the Pacific remained a tightly-guarded secret, President
Truman--who had ordered the strike against Hiroshima--spoke publicly of the
dangers that lay ahead:
"The war of the future," warned the president, "could
extinguish millions of lives at one blow, and destroy the very structure of a
civilization that has been slowly and painfully built up through hundreds of
generations. Such a war is not a possible policy for rational man."
The president's words were addressed to Moscow. But in Washington, no one
knew, if the Soviets were building an H-bomb, or, if they had one, what they
might do with it.