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The American Experience
People & Events
Hydrogen Bomb Decision

On September 23, 1949, President Truman shocked America with a terse announcement. "We have evidence," he said, "that within recent weeks an atomic explosion occurred in the USSR." The announcement caused panic in the country and created a flurry of activity in scientific and political circles. What, everyone wanted to know, should the American response be?

Most of the debate was carried out in top secret. The initial proposal from the Los Alamos weapons laboratory was to step up the production of atomic bombs. Meanwhile, physicist Edward Teller and Atomic Energy Commissioner (AEE) Lewis Strauss were among those who began arguing vociferously for a "high-priority" program to build a hydrogen bomb. In the next few months, both men dedicated their efforts to bringing everyone in Washington around to this point of view.

In October, the AEC turned to its scientific advisory panel for advice. The General Advisory Committee, as it was known, was chaired by Robert Oppenheimer who had headed the atomic bomb project during the war. The scientists wrestled with the issue for two days and agreed with the various division directors at Los Alamos that the nuclear weapons program should be expanded in several ways. They supported proposals to increase the production of plutonium and the supplies of uranium ore. And they recommended expanding research into fission bombs.

The panel then turned to the question of the super. In their report, the scientists wrote that if the super could be built there would be, "no limit to the explosive power of the bomb itself except that imposed by requirements of delivery." And they concluded, "... it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations." The scientists unanimously recommended that the U.S. not embark on a crash program to build the H-bomb.

The AEC commissioners themselves were divided. Chairman David Lilienthal
proposed stepping up the production of atomic weapons. He also advocated seeking a way of creating international controls of nuclear weapons while at the same time officially announcing that the U.S was refraining from developing a hydrogen bomb.

Commissioner Strauss made his views very clear in a letter to President Truman on November 25th. "I believe that the United States must be as completely armed as any possible enemy. From this, it follows that I believe it unwise to renounce, unilaterally, any weapon which an enemy can reasonably be expected to possess. I recommend that the President direct the Atomic Energy Commission to proceed with the development of the thermonuclear bomb..."

When asked for their opinion, the Joint Chiefs of Staff supported development of a hydrogen bomb, saying, "The United States would be in an intolerable position, if a possible enemy possessed the bomb and the United States did not."

Finally Truman turned to a special committee of the National Security Council for advice. It consisted of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson, and Lilienthal. Acheson and Johnson both agreed that the U.S. had no alternative but to proceed as rapidly as possible to develop an H-bomb. As political pressure mounted in January in favor of the H-bomb, Lilienthal knew he had been defeated. The Special Committee of the NSC recommended that the AEC investigate the feasibility of a hydrogen bomb. And on January, 31, 1950, Truman publicly announced his decision. "I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission," he said, "to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb."

To supporters of the H-bomb, this didn't sound like the crash program they were hoping for. But within weeks, Truman cleared up any ambiguity. On March 10, the President privately ordered the AEC to expand facilities in preparation for the production of the H-bomb. The Soviet Union's response to Truman's January announcement was swift. Just four days later, Lavrentii Beria issued a protocol ordering Soviet scientists to submit a report on the progress of the "Layer Cake," physicist Andrei Sakharov's H-bomb design.

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