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Aired January 11, 1999

Race for the Superbomb

Film Description

In July of 1945, President Harry Truman met Joseph Stalin at Potsdam, Germany. "I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force," Truman wrote later. "The Russian Premier showed no special interest." But Stalin was already aware of the atomic bomb thanks to Soviet spies lodged at the heart of the American bomb project in Los Alamos. Soviet scientists were scrambling to catch up. 

The new weapon was revealed to the world a few weeks later when a single atomic bomb destroyed the city of Hiroshima. Stalin's reaction was immediate. "Speed things up," he reportedly ordered. 

As an unpredictable Cold War settled in, several U.S. scientists argued for an all-out effort to build an even more powerful weapon: a hydrogen bomb. Edward Teller, an émigré physicist, pushed for a program to build what he called "the Super"-- a hydrogen fusion bomb. "If the Russians demonstrate a Super before we possess one," said Teller, "our situation will be hopeless." 

Andrei Sakharov, a brilliant young Russian physicist, had also been given the task of designing a fusion bomb for the Soviet Union. Thanks to the Soviet spy Klaus Fuchs, Sakharov was familiar with Teller's design, but he soon decided on a different approach. 

By 1952 the Super was ready for its first test. The fireball of the first H-bomb grew to a diameter of three miles and vaporized an entire island in the Pacific atoll of Eniwetok. The H-bomb's yield was ten megatons, a thousand times greater than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. 

Eighteen months later, Sakharov and his team exploded the first Soviet H-bomb. The nuclear arms race had begun.


Written, Produced and Directed by
Thomas Ott

Peter Rhodes

Associate Producer
Sharon Grimberg

Senior Researchers
Mary McGowan (USA)
Meryl Loonin (Russia)

David Ogden Stiers

Russian Voices
Peter Haydu

Michael Whalen 

Brian Dowley
Jon Else

Mark van der Willigen
John Osborne 

Based in part on "Dark Sun" by
Richard Rhodes

Ellie Lee
Salvatore Raciti

Sound Editor
Ira Spiegel

Sound Mixer
Greg McCleary 

On-line Editor
David Allen 

Assistant Editor
Angélica Allende Brisk

Archival Researchers
Joy Conley
Diane Hamilton
Masha Oleneva

Production Manager
Alison Bassett

Still Photo Animation
Frame Shop 

Marina Golovchenko
Valentina Levina
Julia Vaingurt

Bruce Lewis
Chris Eichman

Academic Advisors
John Lewis Gaddis
S. James Gates, Jr.
German A. Goncharov
David Holloway

Special Thanks
Henry Hampton
J. Philip Miller
Bill Karavas
Gian-Carlo Rota 

Gary Garber
Jinna Lee 
Kathleen Padulchick 
Stacy Schwartz 
Joanna Stewart 
Jennifer Trask

Film and Photographs
AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives
Alan Richards and The Archives of the Institute for Advanced Study 
American Archive of Factual Film
AP/Wide World Photos
Asahi Shimbun
Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley
Rose Bethe
Elena Bonner and the Sakharov Archives at Brandeis University 
Boston Globe
John Brenneis
Comic Book Marketplace, Gemstone Publishing, Inc., and S. A. Geppi
Defense Visual Information Center
Defense Special Weapons Agency
Democrat and Chronicle Rochester, New York
Department of Defense
Detroit News
DOD Nuclear Information Analysis Center
DOE/NV Coordination and Information Center
DOE/Albuquerque Operations
Dwight D. Eisenhower Library
General James Edmundson
Everett Collection
Rachel Fermi
Film Video Studio "Nadezda"
German Goncharov
Janice Harrison
Harry S. Truman Library
Hulton Getty/Liaison Agency
Kurchatov Institute
Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
Library of Congress
Los Alamos National Laboratory
Los Alamos Historical Society
Los Angeles Times
NASA Johnson Space Center
National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution
National Archives and Records Administration
National Park Service
(c) New York Times
(c) New York Daily News, L.P.
New York Post
Ohio Historical Society 
Ralph Morse/LIFE Magazine (c) Time Inc.
Records of the Committee for Nonviolent Action, Swarthmore College Peace Collection
Russian State Film and Photo Archive
Tatiana A. Sakharov
San Francisco Examiner
Strategic Air Command Museum
Sydney Morning Herald
Edward Teller
U.S. Army
U.S. Navy
Françoise Ulam
WGBH Resource Center
UCLA Film and Television Archive
Video Yesteryear
Washington Post

When That Hell Bomb Falls
Written and Performed by Fred Kirby
Courtesy of Columbia Records
by arrangement with Sony Music Licensing



Post Production Editor

On-Air Promotion Producer

Post Production Coordinator

Field Production

Series Designers

Title Animation

Online Editors

Series Theme

Series Theme Adaptation

Unit Manager

Project Administration 

Interactive Media


Coordinating Producer

Series Editor

Senior Producer

Executive Consultant

Executive Producer

(c)1999 WGBH Educational Foundation
All Rights Reseved 


David McCullough:
I'm David McCullough. Welcome to The American Experience.

The debate had been intense for months. But then on Tuesday, January 31, 1950, after hearing the recommendation of his Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Harry S. Truman made one of the most far reaching decisions of his or any presidency.

As the world learned that same day, the United States was to proceed with "work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb."

The announcement was one of a chain of startling events, an onrush of bad news, all in less than a year, that left Americans reeling.

The previous summer, China was overwhelmed by the Communist forces of Mao Tse-tung. That September came the stunning news that the Russians, too, had an atomic bomb; and after this, the revelation that one of the physicists on the Manhattan Project was in fact a spy for the Russians.

And now the arms race of the Cold War was to move to a level of cost and horror dwarfing anything in past experience, even the atomic bomb.

Our film is a chilling drama covering ten years and made especially riveting by the presence of several of the scientists who played key roles. It is not often in a documentary film that one senses such a range of intellectual virtuosity and moral struggle, of genius, fallibility, and sheer terror.

Nor should we let ourselves imagine that the peril at the heart of it all is only a thing of the past.

Race for The Superbomb.

Act One

"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."
Stanislaw Ulam.

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. We succeeded.

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 them.

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 on:
"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 bomb.

Practically all of my friends and acquaintances have said:
"We have 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 destructive power.

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 Moscow.

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 threat.

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 target.

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 as possible.

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 Russian.

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 city.

"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:
The 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 unchained."

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 had it."

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 test.

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 atomic bomb.

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 of war.

"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 nuclear attack.

"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 country.

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 unanimously said:
"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 was unanimous.

Out of that meeting came a recommendation basically saying:
We don't 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 it.

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.

Act Two

Just two days after Truman's decision, the H-bomb was back in the headlines:
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 all.

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 fences."

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 themselves.

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:
"We sure are can go, General LeMay." General LeMay says:
"Okay. You got three days."

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 approach.

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."

Tyler May:
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 basis.

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:
Okay, 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:
Neutrons, he 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 name.

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 government film.

"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 thermonuclear fusion.

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 well."

"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:
"It's a boy!"

"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 deep crater."

The first hydrogen device exploded with a force of ten megatons--more than eight hundred times the power of the atomic bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.

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.

Act Three

In March 1953, Moscow was thrown into turmoil. Stalin was dead. He had ruled the Soviet Union for almost thirty years.

The country was in profound shock and did not know what would happen next. But there was this perception on many levels that without Stalin other great powers might crush us and might use some chink in the armor to penetrate. There was an almost paranoid sense.

Lavrentii Beria, still in charge of the secret police and the Soviet nuclear program, now assumed a dominant role in the Kremlin. But within a few months, a coup lead by Nikita Khrushchev, put an end to Beria's influence. To warn its enemies, the new leadership made a dramatic announcement, claiming to possess an H-bomb before the weapon was even tested:
"The United States is said to have a monopoly on the hydrogen bomb. Apparently it would be of comfort to them, if that were the truth. But it is not. The government considers it necessary to announce that the United States does not hold a monopoly in the production of the hydrogen bomb."

They used this bomb to boost their political position and to boost not only the moral of their people, but their own legitimacy.

The test of Andrei Sakharov's "Layer Cake" was scheduled to take place four days after the hasty proclamation. A last-minute evacuation of thousands of civilians, made necessary by the expected power of the blast, only added to the tension at the test site in Kazakhstan:

It shows, I think, how focused they were just on the mechanics of the bomb itself, on getting that right, and then only at the last minute does one of the scientists, using in fact, the American publication on nuclear weapons effects point out that, hey look, this could be dangerous for the people living in the area.

"Of course, we worried about the success of the test," wrote Sakharov, "but for me, anxiety about potential casualties was paramount. Catching a glimpse of myself in a mirror, I was struck by the change--I looked old and gray."

Sakharov's Layer Cake worked. Though not nearly as powerful as the American breakthrough tested nine months earlier, it had one key advantage:
It was a usable weapon, small enough to be dropped from an airplane.

Almost immedately, Los Alamos assembled a team to analyze the fallout from the Soviet test. Hans Bethe drew a strikingly accurate picture of Sakharov's design:
"It was alternating layers of uranium and lithium deuteride compressed by high explosives." The Soviets, Bethe concluded, had yet to discover the true super--the bomb of virtually unlimited power.

In August 1953, just two weeks after the test of the Layer Cake, newly-elected President Dwight Eisenhower decided to stage his own nuclear show of force. In Korea, Stalin's death had broken the stalemate--and both sides finally seemed willing to end the conflict. To keep peace negotiations on track, Eisenhower called on LeMay's bombers.

Our mission called for me to take 20 B-36s with nuclear weapons on board, and go to Okinawa and sit on the alert.

The mission, code-named "Big Stick", carried an implied threat by placing SAC's newest bomber close to the Soviet and Chinese border.

The B-36 really wasn't much fun to fly. It's a gigantic thing. It's like -- they used to say it was like sitting on your front porch and flying your house around. It was big on the outside and small on the inside. Very cramped for the crews. And the missions were long. It wasn't a pleasurable assignment in a lot of ways. And yet I was very proud of it, because the B-36s could hit targets within Russia that could be touched in no other way.

The idea is that one should use the nuclear capability, the nuclear superiority that we had; make overt and direct threats; be prepared to use atomic bombs to break down this psychological taboo that distinguishes nuclear weapons from other weapons, that we ought to just treat them as being like any other weapon.

LeMay made sure that the mission did not go unnoticed. When the giant bombers landed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, the press was on hand to report the event.

We stayed at Kadena and sat on the alert, crews at the airplanes, while the hostility cessation papers were being signed. And the B-36s being there, with atomic weapons and ready to go, was a warning to the North Koreans and the Russians and the Chinese not to try anything funny when we were sitting around the peace table.

And the fact that the cease-fire occurs, and the fact that it is not violated, I think, caused Eisenhower to believe that this strategy worked, that it had paid off.

And so they make it a general strategy of, in effect, cutting back on the amount of spending for non-nuclear weapons and relying more heavily on the nuclear deterrents to protect American global interests.

"Rows of mannequins are set up out in the open, facing the blast. Each item of clothing and each color was carefully selected to give much needed survival information."

With the new emphasis on nuclear arms, smaller atomic tests in the Nevada desert now became public spectacles--as the administration set out to teach the American family survival skills for the nuclear age.

"Operation Cue", the atomic test program of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, as seen by June Cowen, reporter:
'I arrived at civil defense headquarters the day before the explosion was scheduled to take place and checked in at once with the official who was to brief me about the test. I need hardly tell you that I was anxious to learn all I could about the various types of houses to be tested.'"
"Mannequin families supplied by private industry will represent Mr. and Mrs. America."

They called them mannequin families and they dressed them up in JC Penney clothing and they positioned them in various rooms of the house. And in one room there was a child taking a nap, in another room there was a family dinner party, and one of the things they did they placed families hiding underneath shelters.

June Cowen:
"I was especially interested in the food test program. As a mother and house wife, this appealed to me.

And they equipped each of these homes with refrigerators, typical appliances one would find in a home, the kinds of food one would eat, from baby food to adult food, and they exposed them to blast.

"Five, four, three, two, one, zero."

These were sort of like morality tales. Each film, each brochure was a morality tale. If you didn't prepare you have only yourself to blame for being wounded or killed.

"Remember this dining room group? Effects of an atomic blast in the house farthest from ground zero. Injury, perhaps death in a tangle of debris--the result of being unprepared. House number one nearest ground zero--almost complete destruction, a mass of rubble and debris. Yet, in the lean-to shelter you discover indications that a human being might have survived the blast with simple protection."

And it asked American families to think about themselves not just as friends, neighborhoods, family members, but as warriors of a cold war. And this really introduced a military purpose and practice into American family life.

The threat of nuclear war caused some leading scientists to renew their opposition to the H-bomb. In a secret report, Robert Oppenheimer raised serious questions about the wisdom and morality of U.S. nuclear planning. "We are ignorant of the consequences of inflicting massive destruction and heavy civilian casualties in a brief period," he warned. Oppenheimer, who had never worked on the super, condemned the idea of aiming hydrogen bombs at enemy cities.

In Washington Oppenheimer's persistent criticism hit a nerve. In the summer of 1953, the newly appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis Strauss, decided to act.

As soon as Strauss became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, he moved to lift Oppenheimer's security clearance, to find a reason to accuse him of espionage, or at least of bad advice--which is in fact what he was accused of.

I guess there are politics people in Washington who felt he was getting too big for his britches in a policy advising sense, and they went after him.

In April of 1954, the AEC held secret hearings to review the security clearance of its most prominent scientist. Oppenheimer stood accused of earlier left-wing sympathies and, more to the point, of opposing the development of the hydrogen bomb.

One by one, all the players in this complex tragic story come back on stage and make their speech and play their part. Bethe testified, and Rabi testified, and significantly and really tragically, Teller testified.

I spent an hour with Edward Teller before his testimony, tried to talk him out of it, but it was to no avail.

You know, I was called to testify about Oppenheimer. I was under oath. I took my testimony very seriously.

At the hearing Teller said:
"In a great number of cases I have seen Dr. Oppenheimer act in a way which for me was exceedingly hard to understand. To this extent I feel that I would like to see the vital interests of this country in hands which I understand better, and therefore trust more."

The AEC did not renew Oppenheimer's security clearance, in effect ending his role as an advisor to the government. Transcripts of the hearings were leaked to the press and Oppenheimer's humiliation became front page news.

He retreated to the Institute for Advanced Study, where he was the director, and became what Yeats once called "a smiling public man." But he was destroyed. His friends all say that.

Oppenheimer wasn't the only one harmed.

I lost the cooperation with most of my colleagues in America and for me the profession was more than a profession, it was also my circle of friends.

I thought that Teller would lose a lot of his friends. I didn't expect that it would go this far. And I am sorry for Edward Teller. And he made, in this case, a bad decision.

Act Four

At the very moment Robert Oppenheimer stood accused, American scientists headed back to the Pacific. They would now test prototypes of an H-bomb small enough to be dropped from a plane.

The first test--code-named "Bravo"--took place on Bikini Atoll in March, 1954.

Marshal N. Rosenbluth, Physicist:
I think we were about 30 miles away, and it just kept rising and rising. It looked to me like what you might imagine a diseased brain, or a brain of some mad man would look like. You know, the surface, with the cortex convolutions, and so on. And it just kept getting bigger and bigger.

And something I'll never forget was the heat. And you had the feeling that the cloud was on top of you. But the heat just kept coming, just kept coming on and on and on. And it was really scary, because the heat doesn't go off.

The explosion was twice as large as expected--forty times more powerful than Sakharov's Layer Cake. 200 miles from ground zero, a camera recorded the enormous blast. In minutes the mushroom cloud reached an altitude of more than 15 miles.

It was unprecedented to have an explosion go that high--way up into the stratosphere around 100,000 feet, where we knew very little about the weather. We ran these balloons up to see which way the wind was blowing, but the knowledge was very sparse in those days.

A few hours after the "Bravo" test radioactive fallout hit several inhabited islands in the area--but two days passed before the task force took action to rescue the affected population. In a film kept secret for decades, the AEC summarized the effects of the fallout.

229 Marshall Islanders and 28 American service personnel were evacuated to Kwajalein for survey and treatment. A majority of those receiving the heaviest radiation reported some transient nausea on the first or second day and some loss of hair was a frequent symptom. Most of Marshallese in this category developed multiple skin lesions, usually not severe, predominantly on the scalp, back of the neck and feet.

The story of "Bravo" and its aftermath began to leak out a few weeks later when the "Lucky Dragon", a Japanese fishing vessel, returned home from the Pacific. The boat's crew of twenty-three was suffering from severe radiation sickness. One fisherman later died.

At first, the administration maintained its silence.

No other program outside of intelligence ever had the kind of secrecy surrounding it that the nuclear program had, and everybody became used to that. You know, we don't have to explain what is going on. It is terribly secret, and if we do explain, somehow the Russians will be able to exploit this and so we are not going to tell you. "Bravo" broke into that.

"Another byproduct of the stupendous mid-pacific blast unfolds in San Francisco where tuna fish supposedly made radioactive during the test are scrutinized by federal agents armed with Geiger counters for signs of contamination. The fish shipped from Japan must undergo rigid inspection by food and drug officials before being allowed entry. In this case, the fish are given a clean bill of health."

In Washington, AEC chairman Strauss was forced to respond.

"The first shot has been variously described as 'devastating', 'out of control' and with other exaggerated and mistaken characterizations. I would not wish to minimize it. It was a very large blast in the megaton range, but at no time was the testing out of control."

I thought some of the stuff coming out of Washington was pretty silly. They began to talk about radiation exposure in terms of sunshine units. One of the dumbest phrases to come down the pike in a long time. You know, designed to some how put a happy face on it, on the impossible.

In the Soviet Union the official news agency downplayed the "Bravo" test, but Russian scientists were stunned by its force. Igor Kurchatov, scientific director of the Soviet nuclear weapons program, warned of the new danger.

Kurchatov and three of the other leading scientists in the project write a short report for the leadership in which they say, essentially, that a nuclear war, especially a war using thermonuclear weapons, could lead to the end of all life on earth. It's a very stark document.

"The explosion of about 100 large hydrogen bombs", Kurchatov wrote, "will be sufficient to create on the whole globe conditions under which life will be impossible."

What's really interesting about it is that it cuts absolutely against the official Soviet line.

The Kremlin leadership shelved Kurchatov's report--and the Soviet military soon staged a dramatic exercise that challenged the scientists' conclusion.

Maj. Gen. Valentin V. Larionov, Soviet Army:
In 1954 we conducted a training exercise near the village of Totskoe in the Urals, using an actual atomic bomb. 30 to 40 minutes later troops, both on foot and in tanks, all of them wearing gas-masks, entered the contaminated zone. All the necessary measuring equipment was installed. In the discussion that followed, Marshal Bulganin, who was in charge of the exercise, said that the results showed none of the troops who passed through the contaminated zone had been exposed to high enough levels of radiation to warrant fear of this weapon. And so an atomic war was not as frightening as the imperialists would have us believe.

At the Nevada test site, the American military also used smaller atomic blasts to learn how to survive a nuclear war.

"Aircraft are instrumented to record the strains and pressures inflicted upon them. We're trying every angle and every gadget we can to find out what really does happen when an atomic bomb kicks out fiercely at the world around it."

"Shot day. Camp Desert Rock. H minus five hours. Like all too many people both in and out of the military, before these men got their assignment for this operation they had many misconceptions about the bomb and its effects. Some of them thought they would never again be able to have families. Some of them expected to glow for hours after the bomb went off. Many of them were afraid. They had never taken the time or invested the effort to learn the facts about what to do in case of atomic warfare."

"May I have you attention. Remain in your holes until the command "raise" has been given at H plus three seconds. If you stand up too soon, the heat will give you the equivalent of a severe sunburn. Everyone kneel down in your foxholes, look down and stay down!"


Like their Soviet counterparts, the American military came to an upbeat conclusion:

"In the minds of many of the men there was doubt and fear before. Now there is confidence, confidence that comes only with experience. Just treat it with respect rather than fear. Use a little common sense. And observe a few basic precautions. After the walk through we move back out of the contaminated zone to our parking area. We made it. And so can anyone else who goes through this kind of operation.

In the Soviet Union, the success of the Layer Cake brought rich rewards to Andrei Sakharov and several other leading scientists. Sakharov received the title "Hero of Socialist Labor" as well as the Stalin Prize. At the age of 33, he became the head of the theoretical department at the Arzamas weapons lab. But there was little time to celebrate:

An absolutely insane task was set for us not to lag behind the United States by one iota. We had to have everything the Americans had. There couldn't be the slightest gap. And so as soon as new information arrived about the work in this or that direction, we absolutely had to do the same thing.

The scientists at Arzamas recognized at once that the enormous force of the "Bravo" explosion signaled a breakthrough. Sakharov's team had been looking for ways to improve on the Layer Cake. Now he enlisted additional help in a frantic effort to catch up. Only a few weeks after the "Bravo" test, the Soviet scientists hit upon the same idea of radiation implosion--the concept first developed by Teller and Ulam:
The Soviet Union now knew how to build the superbomb.

We like to believe, and many leading people believe that, if we won't give away our secrets they will remain secrets forever. I think we were ahead of the world, not by much.

They weren't secrets. They were physics. The rest is just the essentially trivial problem of figuring out how to make the physics into machines.

In November 1955--a year and a half after "Bravo"--the Soviet version of the H-bomb was ready.

Taking part in the test of the two-stage bomb made a greater impression on me than anything else in my entire life. The plane was flying at the altitude of twelve to fifteen kilometers; you could see the white jet trail in the sky. It seemed that it was right above our heads because the angle was quite steep--and that made the situation tense. At the moment of the explosion we were standing and we covered our face with our hands as instructed. Immediately, it felt as if you had put your head into an open oven. The heat was unbearable. Then we had this impressive view of the fireball, the mushroom cloud, all of it on a huge scale. What was shocking was that this great scene was unfolding in absolute silence. And when the shock wave approached us, we dropped to the ground. Thunder. Stones were flying. Some one was hit by a large rock. There were several claps of thunder and the ground was shaking.

Unusual atmospheric conditions created a powerful shock wave that hit towns more than fifty miles from ground zero.

I remember when we arrived back at our hotel, the windows and doors had been blown out. It felt as if the place had been hit by an air raid. But our joy was indescribable. We started celebrating immediately. We took out all our supplies. Someone brought alcohol. There was a sense of fulfillment, of having completed our task. That this beautiful, complex device--and that's what it was from a physicist's point of view--had worked was a triumph of science, of course. We all understood that.

The celebrations were soon overshadowed. Two people, a soldier and a two-year old girl, had been killed by falling debris.

Sakharov approached ground zero soon after the blast:
"When you see all of this yourself, something in you changes," he wrote. "When you see the burned birds who are withering on the scorched steppe, when you see how the shock wave blows away buildings like houses of cards, when you feel the reek of splintered bricks, when you sense melted glass, you immediately think of times of war... All of this triggers an irrational yet very strong emotional impact. How not to start thinking of one's responsibility at this point?"

The test left a lasting impression on Sakharov and Kurchatov. Both men became deeply troubled by the consequences of their work.

Nikita Khrushchev, the new leader in the Kremlin, saw the danger, too:
"When I was appointed First Secretary of the Central Committee and learned all the facts of nuclear power I couldn't sleep for several days," he wrote. "Then I became convinced that we could never possibly use these weapons, and when I realized that I was able to sleep again."

By 1955, the H-bomb had become a symbol of doom:
Hailed just a few years earlier as the weapon to save the world from communism the super was turning into the ultimate nightmare.

I think it's very important to remember that both the Soviet Union and the United States were countries that had been traumatized by surprise attack:
the Americans with Pearl Harbor, and the Russians with the German attack of June 1941. That experience never leaves them throughout the Cold War. That preoccupation with the possibility of surprise attack is always there.

To guard against surprise attack, LeMay kept his planes--some now armed with H-bombs--on constant alert. Each crew was trained to attack a specific Soviet target.

The biggest thing in your life was your wartime mission. You lived for it. You knew that they might blow the whistle at any time, and when they did, that's where you were going. Unit commanders, group commanders, wing commanders were never permitted to be more than three rings away on the telephone. If you wanted to go out for dinner, you had a radio in your car that you'd be on, say, "I'm going to be mobile, and when I come off of mobile, I'll be at such-and-such a number," the number of the restaurant. When you'd go in, you'd let them know who you were, and the--the possibility that you might get a phone call while you were there. It was a way of life.

LeMay's plan was clear:
"My determination was to put everyone in SAC into this frame of mind:
We are at war now! So, if we actually did go to war the very next morning, or even that night, no preliminary motions would be wasted."

It was a totally new concept of how to fight a war. And it required the United States to do something we had never done before, which is to have a huge military establishment in peacetime, to have the whole stockpile in hand. All these things that essentially militarized a very peaceful democracy.

Beginning in 1954, regular alert exercises were held in cities across the U.S. But now that both sides had the H-bomb there was no place to hide.

The idea was during the early years of the Eisenhower administration that shelter was not going to work, given the advances in technology and given the advent of the hydrogen bomb, that it was silly and sheer folly to expect that shelters could protect people from such powerful weapons.

"Keep your radio tuned to this frequency. There is a traffic plan for the evacuation of the city."

So instead of "duck and cover", the slogan was "run like the wind".

"All cars in the downtown area must follow the green lights. They will lead you out of the danger area by the quickest route."

Basically Operation Alert was a war game. It was a hypothetical attack on a city or, as they referred to them, on a target area. They would decide how many bombs, what the size those bombs were, what the size of the population would be that was killed, the size of the population that would go homeless.

There was concern running all through the Eisenhower administration about the panic effects, the breakdown of law and order that would occur. Who would exercise any kind of control or support for the people? Those were some of the things that we would test out during these exercises.

When I finally got dealing with people at the White House level, what I discovered is, it wasn't civil defense per se. They wanted civil defense in order to make sure that the American people would not be too frightened. Not to save lives, but to make people believe that they can survive a nuclear war.

Tyler May:
One of the reasons that people are beginning to protest against the whole civil defense apparatus is the recognition, especially after the hydrogen bomb, that this is pointless; there is no way to imagine surviving, individually or as a nation, in the event of a nuclear holocaust with weapons of this magnitude.

In New York City the protests began with isolated acts of civil disobedience.

Janice Harrison:
The sirens were going. I looked around and there is not a soul around. And the civil defense guys come. And they said:
"You are going to have to take shelter." I said:
"No, I am not going anywhere. This is my park, I am sitting here with my children. No."

The protests made headlines in the New York press. The following year, thousands of women brought their children to the same park to demonstrate against the alert exercise.

Tyler May:
It wasn't the first time that women have used the banner of motherhood to protest political realities. But it had a very important resonance at a time when motherhood was so glorified. So when you start to have mothers protesting, it was very powerful.

But Operation Alert continued.

No matter how many times they studied panic, no matter how many times they tested a communications system, no matter how many times they set up a mass feeding exercise, there was no defense against the hydrogen bomb. Nevertheless, they continued to practice it in this kind of ritualized way. And even President Eisenhower would participate.

"President Eisenhower leads the way in a test evacuation of the entire executive branch. The chief executive heads for a secret retreat. The first time the government has abandoned the capital since it was burned in the war of 1812."

'We're here to determine whether or not the government is prepared in time of emergency to continue the functions of government, so there shall be no interruption in the business that must be carried on.'

In private, Eisenhower admitted the exercise was futile.

Once the hydrogen weapon was available, you began to hear from him that any idea of nuclear war would be, as he said, an absurdity or a form of insanity. That no longer was war an extension of policy by other means, but it was a form of mutual suicide.

"The United States is piling up armaments which it well knows will never provide for its ultimate safety," the president told his advisors. "We are piling up these armaments because we do not know what else to do to provide for our security."

On the American side with the build-up of nuclear forces you see an increasing belief in the possibility of a knockout blow against the Soviet Union, and on the Soviet side you see an increasing fear that the Americans might try a knockout blow. And so the Soviet interest then becomes to try to preempt an American attack.

Of course, technically, the one who strikes first--especially if it is a preemptive strike--gains the advantage over the other side. But the thing is, even if you strike first, you will perish together with the defeated side. That is the paradox of our time.

Both countries continued to prepare for the worst:
By 1960 the SAC war plan called for the launch of more than 3,000 nuclear weapons--including hundreds of hydrogen bombs--from bases around the world to attack in the first few hours of conflict 1,000 separate targets in the Communist Bloc.

This could not be more at odds with Eisenhower's own thinking about the consequences of nuclear weapons. And how Eisenhower could sit there and think in those very progressive terms, while at the same time allowing SAC and General LeMay to be piling up thousands up weapons and devising war plans that would involve the use of these weapons simultaneously, is very difficult to fathom.

We felt that the only way we could assure that it didn't happen was to have the capability here, in SAC, to deter the Russians from doing that, and having the honor and the American ethics of not doing it yourself.

But what does it mean that a country that believes in human dignity, even the dignity of the enemy--to the degree that that's possible in war--was preparing to slaughter an entire population of another country? Never mind the fact that the fallout from this killing of a nation would come back to us and kill most of us as well.

It was the use of these weapons and the becoming proficient with them and the planning to use them at their maximum capability, that really, we felt, was the one way to avoid an all-out nuclear war. I know that's anomalous, but we couldn't think of any other way to keep it from happening.


Now that the race to build the super bomb had ended without a clear winner, the focus shifted to a new race to develop faster, more accurate means of delivering nuclear weapons to their targets.

In Washington, Edward Teller found strong support for his argument that nuclear superiority held the key to the nation's survival. He later became a leading advocate of the Strategic Defense Initiative which promised to protect the United States from the very weapon he had helped invent.

Andrei Sakharov, like Teller, continued to work on nuclear arms; but increasingly he found himself in conflict with the Soviet regime. He became the most prominent and outspoken advocate of human rights and democracy in his homeland.

Curtis LeMay retired from the Air Force in 1965. He never questioned his belief in large-scale strategic bombing; in his memoirs, he reflected on the unimaginable power of the hydrogen bomb:

"That beautiful devilish pod underneath, clinging as a fierce child against its mother's belly carries all the conventional bomb explosive force of World War II and everything which came before.

"One B-58 can load that concentrated firepower and convey it to any place on the globe, and let it sink down, and let it go off, and bruise the stars and planets and satellites listening in."

Long after the collapse of the Soviet empire, the United States and Russia continued to maintain several thousand nuclear warheads on constant alert. Getting rid of the super, it seemed, was even harder than building it.