About Face: Nuclear Physicist Ted Taylor

The physicist who turned his back on the bomb tells why

BY DAVID SHEFF | ROLLING STONE September 24, 1987

Theodore B. Taylor was in his twenties when he invented the S.O.B., the largest-yield fission bomb ever exploded. Throughout the Fifties, his theoretical ideas for bombs were used to develop the smallest and most efficient atomic bombs of that era. Besides building them, he also calculated the potential effects of the bombs. When he realized his S.O.B. could wipe out most — but not all — of Moscow, he was frustrated.

“I spent some sixteen years knowing directly the intense exhilaration and sense of personal power that comes from deep involvement in the conception, testing and deployment of new types of nuclear weapons,” Taylor has said. Although he received a D in physics at Exeter and twice failed his oral exams for his doctorate at Berkeley, a professor got him a job at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, in New Mexico, where nuclear bombs had been under development since soon after the start of the Manhattan Project in 1943. He is modest about his work there. “What I did shouldn’t be overrated,” he says. “I was responsible for thinking up new concepts and analyzing the effectiveness of old weapons or weapons in the conceptual stage. I worked at a desk with a hand calculator. I knew only rudimentary hydrodynamics. I was not a particularly good physicist, certainly not a particularly good mathematician. But I think I have shown that I have some knack for connecting ways that people now do things with ways they might do them. I would analyze the results of tests and think, ‘Why do we stop there?’ I’d draw circles in my very crude high-school way, then go to somebody in the high-explosive division and say, for example, ‘Just for the hell of it, suppose we talk about an implosion system that is eighteen inches in diameter. We’ll probably have to go to half as many detonators, since you can’t scale the detonators down. What do you think?’ Then I’d go and talk to someone in the chemistry-metallurgy department and say, ‘Look, to make this, we’re going to have to make a very thin shell out of plutonium. Do you think it’s crazy?’ Nine months later he came in and opened up a box and said, ‘Here.’ It was the plutonium shell that made an eighteen-inch bomb possible. It was an incredibly exciting environment.”

After his Los Alamos tenure, Taylor worked at General Atomic, in San Diego, where he coinvented the TRIGA research reactor — a nuclear reactor that shuts itself down when it gets too hot — and spearheaded Project Orion, the conception and preliminary design of a spacecraft, sixteen stories high, powered by nuclear explosions. The project was canceled in 1965 for political reasons — there was the ban on atmospheric nuclear testing, for one thing — not because Orion wouldn’t have worked. Next, Taylor worked as a deputy science director at the Defense Atomic Support Agency (now the Defense Nuclear Agency), in Washington, D.C., managing its nuclear-weapons-effects research and test program with an annual budget of some $100 million. It was there, inside the government, where he was privy to highly classified documents, that he became disillusioned — terrified about the prospects for control of the arms race and, especially, about the danger of nuclear proliferation and terrorism. He was convinced that security of nuclear technology and nuclear materials was so lax it was likely a terrorist group that wanted to build a nuclear bomb could do so. He spent a year fighting within the government for strict safeguards, and in 1966, his impassioned pleas having fallen on deaf ears, he went public. With lawyer Mason Willrich (who had once copiloted a B-47 nuclear bomber), Taylor wrote Nuclear Theft: Risks and Safeguards. He was also immortalized in John McPhee’s book The Curve of Binding Energy, which shows, in alarming detail, how easily a homemade bomb can be built.

Taylor now works as an independent consulting physicist, based in Damascus, Maryland. His obsession is an end to the nuclear threat he helped create. He has testified before Congress against nuclear power and for nuclear disarmament. He served on the presidential commission that investigated the mishap at Three Mile Island. He has conferred with Soviet scientists and politicians promoting test bans and ultimate disarmament. In addition, Taylor seeks to make nuclear power obsolete by working to discover alternative, renewable energy systems.

Taylor is a handsome sixty-two-year-old with a full head of swept-back silver hair, intense brown eyes and a Karl Maiden nose. In the kitchen of his modest home, which he shares with his wife, Caro, is a clue to a fundamental motivation for his vigorous antinuclear passion: on a wall is drawn a ruler, dirtied with dozens of pencil marks indicating the heights of his five children and nine grandchildren over a period of some dozen years. “We’ve got to be sure we don’t screw up the world for them,” he says. “With nuclear materials, there’s no second chance.”

The U.S. has 25,000 or so nuclear warheads deployed worldwide, some of them, we presume, your creations.
The actual weapons I designed are outdated or have been totally revised. However, all current-generation nuclear bombs incorporate some aspects of what I was working on when I was at Los Alamos.

Which included … ?
Many aspects of the development of bombs, pushing current technologies to the limits, from miniaturization on one hand, to exploring the outer reaches of high-yield weapons on the other. I worked mostly on fission bombs, but even the most modern H-bombs are triggered by fission.

Where have we gone from there?
Obviously, the yields of H-bombs are higher. The Soviets tested a 60-megaton bomb, and if they had wrapped it in a natural uranium blanket, it would have been closer to 100 megatons. They didn’t dare go that high because of fallout problems. For a while there was a push here for that big of a bomb, but it was completely impractical for a couple of reasons. It was very heavy, which wasn’t the main problem. The main problem was that you couldn’t get the airplane that dropped the bomb out of the way fast enough. Smaller hydrogen bombs were big enough. The scary thing about the new biological poisons is that they can be based on genetic engineering. You can imagine where that could lead.’

What are both sides testing now?
I have no idea what either side is doing. I know only that the U.S. test on February 3rd was extremely low yield. It was the test that essentially started a whole chain of events. The Soviets had said they would extend their moratorium on testing until we began testing again. We paid no attention to that statement and went ahead and shot off a very low-yield bomb, .01 to .05 kilotons. Those were the reported sizes. That is one-thousandth the yield of the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.

What are they looking for in a test that small?
Probably new ways of enhancing certain forms of energy that are generated in nuclear explosions, for purposes that are mostly aimed at Star Wars — either weapons that could be used by the Star Wars system for destroying missiles, or weapons that might be used to destroy Star Wars components. You have to play it both ways. If you’ve got a way of defending yourself against something, there are always countermeasures against that. One countermeasure might be nuclear weapons that put out forms of energy that are damaging particularly to the parts of Star Wars — tracking equipment, very complicated computers, communications systems — that are likely to be relatively easy to disrupt.

And after our tests this year, the Sovlets followed through on their threat to begin testing. What were they testing?
The first one after the moratorium was about twenty kilotons, the same yield as the Nagasaki bomb.

What does that say about the direction they’re going?
There are a hundred different possibilities for any given test. It would be likely that while we’re testing components for Star Wars, they’re developing and testing countermeasures. Whether these are high-, medium- or low-yield weapons, it already disproves Reagan’s theories about Star Wars stopping the arms race. If we go in that direction, they will develop countermeasures, and we will develop countermeasures to their countermeasures. Anyway, there’s no guarantee that any of those directed-energy weapons will turn out to be cost-effective for either side. And I think the chances are that none of them will — that they won’t be cost-effective in terms of buying some measure of security.

Is that why you’ve been an outspoken critic of the Strategic Defense Initiative?
That’s not my main concern. First and foremost, it will increase the intensity with which the weaponeers will go after new types of nuclear weapons, weapons of mass destruction.

You obviously don’t buy the claim that SDI is strictly for defense.
These concepts are not strictly applicable to defense. That is a lie. It is absolutely unrealistic to think that nuclear weaponeers are only going to think about a particular mission. That kind of closed thinking is incompatible with someone who’s creative. They will open up new Pandora’s boxes.

Can you imagine what might be in those boxes?
Nuclear weapons of the current generation essentially cause a release of a huge amount of energy that is then dissipated in a roughly spherical pattern. SDI will require a highly directed release of energy. By controlling the shapes of nuclear explosions, weapons — both offensive and defensive — could be built that generate and direct beams of radiation toward targets in space or on the ground.

So what do you see as the next superweapon?
Microwaves, or other waves at lower frequency than microwaves, can do things an X-ray can’t. You can modify the energy from a nuclear explosion, convert it and direct beams through the atmosphere.

Can’t you do that with lasers?
If an X-ray laser is fired from space down at the ground, that energy will all be dissipated higher than the highest altitude that any airplanes fly. They’re strictly for use in space. The most important things about microwaves, compared to X-rays or neutron or gamma rays, is that, first of all, microwaves go clear through the atmosphere — even on a cloudy day — if they’re the right frequency. Second, you can focus them with incredible precision. And third, the amount of total energy you need to get them to begin to do serious damage is much smaller than with the other kinds of weapons. Weapons that deliver 1000 or more times the energy per unit area on a target than conventional nuclear weapons are entirely plausible.

With what effects?
First of all, microwaves could disrupt anything electronic. They could overload an electrical system that supplies all the power for a certain region. They could melt relay contacts. Aimed at a missile-launch facility on the ground, they could do irreparable damage. Same thing, aimed at a power station. Or at a city center. At some intensity they could start a fire. In fact, at some intensity they could cook everybody. Only five percent of the energy released by a small, one-kiloton explosion in space directed in a three-cen-timeter beam of radiation could deposit enough energy to wipe out electronic and electrical equipment — computers, antennas, power lines — over an area larger than Washington, D.C. That would damage the complex electronic equipment in military systems for surveillance, tracking, communications and navigation. They could be directed at earth- or space-based targets, which means they could probably wipe out the supposed deterrents to nuclear war.

Are microwaves being developed for SDI?
Without a doubt, if SDI is built, it will be modified for offensive weapons. It would only be a matter of time before they would begin work on microwaves or still other weapons. Microwave weapons can be deployed similarly to SDI but can be offensive weapons aimed back at earth. There will also be other weapons, countermeasures to SDI, including a variety of cruise missiles, some very short range submarine-launched missiles that will be fired from close to shore, some missiles that could get above the atmosphere, pop-up missiles that would have to come within the target range and on and on and on. So my biggest worry about Star Wars is that it will stimulate new round after new round in the arms race, which will generate more uncertainty and ultimately make it much more likely that something disastrous will happen. What SDI is doing is the thing that feeds the nuclear-arms race, and that is, it’s supplying virtually unrestricted funds to a lot of creative people. Which is exactly what happened during the Fifties — and look where that got us.

While we’re getting all this good news, what else is coming from the weapons labs? I’ve heard about a bomb designed to make people crazy. Is there such a thing?
You’re talking about the brain bomb. I don’t know if we have actually developed the bomb, but conceptually, it is based on the belief that waves with very long wavelengths — more or less the same frequency as the brain’s alpha waves — can be directed. The idea is that striking a person’s head at the right frequencies can induce currents that might interfere with what goes on in there. People could be made crazy.

How would they test the brain bomb?
I don’t know if it’s actually been made, or if it’s just a theoretical weapon.

Are there bombs other than H-bombs deployed now?
The neutron bomb has been deployed in warheads with the Lance missiles. They’re specifically for attacking tanks. The purpose is to kill quickly, incapacitating people inside tanks, primarily, without requiring that the tank itself be destroyed. And it’s not to save the tank, it’s to kill the people — to immobilize the tanks. It’s also to try to minimize fallout. In my view, the neutron bomb makes no sense whatsoever. It doesn’t accomplish anything that is in any way usable. If you used neutron bombs on a scale that would have any effect on Soviet tanks coming into Germany, for instance — trying to defend Western Europe — there would be enough radioactivity and general fallout so that you would kill more Germans than Russians.

I think the neutron bomb is a very good example of my belief that the main driver of the nuclear-weapons arms race is the weaponeers, not the politicians. It is the civilian scientists and engineers, the weaponeers, who go around selling these exciting concepts. The neutron bomb is exciting when you think about it. The science is, that is. And with that contagious excitement, it’s very easy to convince a military person that they are worth developing.

Do you know about the work in chemical warfare?
Generally there’s a separation of fields. I do know that chemical weapons that don’t weigh very much can do enormous amounts of damage in terms of making unusable the air, the water — whether on the battlefield or in the city. Still, they’re nothing compared to biological poisons. I know people privy to the field. For example, the toxins in botulism bacteria are fiercely poisonous, even compared with chemical weapons. Botulism toxin is one of the most poisonous substances on earth; less than a millionth of a gram is fatal. It’s fatal no matter how it gets into the system. The scary thing about the new generations of biological poisons is that they can be based on genetic engineering, so that subunits of cells could be distributed that would attach themselves to parts of cells in human beings in ways that are genetically selective, so that there’s no attachment if it’s the wrong kind of gene. You can imagine where that could lead. It’s total madness in one way. But technically, it’s not crazy. So imagine an agent that is spread over the Washington area that would kill all the blacks and not do any damage to anyone else.

Here are examples of scientists working on things that can only be considered abhorrent. Not that long ago, you were building weapons. Defend them.
I can’t defend them, but I do understand what drives them. They go where the money and other rewards are, but it’s more insidious than just money. For me, it was like being hooked on cocaine. You get a sense of power over global events. You rise to a certain position in the field, and you’re brought into the Pentagon with a high-security clearance. You’re asked, “Can you make a bomb ten times more powerful than anything in existence, under eighteen inches in diameter?” and a smile comes over you. You think, “Yeah, I can do that” Then you go to the test site. You see this awesome explosion that you created. You want another and another fix. Scientists have this incredible propensity for very sharply focused tunnel vision. It’s a certain frame of mind that one gets into — to see if one can come up with something new and different. It’s exciting. It’s intoxicating. Trying to create more destruction is an affliction, a disease. I remember doing calculations and being disappointed that I couldn’t wipe out a larger area with my bombs. I was talking about features of some weapon with John McPhee [of The New Yorker] and the word “neat.” slipped in. It’s the same thing.

Your original crusade was for far more security of nuclear weapons and weapons-grade plutonium and uranium, which you felt could — or would — be used by terrorists. Are we In more or less danger now?
The physical security given to these materials started improving substantially. However, from all indications I have, which are not terribly detailed, physical security is still nowhere near as effective as it should be, as it could be.

Would it be easier to build a homemade nuclear bomb now than it was then?
Yes. For lots of reasons. More detailed official information is available. Detonation systems are available that are quite accurate and inexpensive. Mostly, there are far more of the materials needed to make a bomb in circulation.

When you went public, you were criticized for adding to the problem of nuclear terrorism by giving blueprints not for a bomb Itself but for the steps required to acquire the materials and documentation for bomb building.
Some people were alarmed that the subject was being discussed in public in that much detail, yes. But to reiterate: Everything I revealed was already public. Hiding that fact, pretending it wasn’t so, was far more dangerous than alerting the public to the seriousness of the conditions.

You did acknowledge that going public might inspire threats.
I think there’s pretty strong evidence that it did. There had been a couple of threats before the mid-Seventies. Then, within a year or so after my book and The Curve of Binding Energy came out, there were dozens of reports. By now there have been several hundred. As far as I know, they’ve all been hoaxes, some more troublesome than others.

In The Curve of Binding Energy, you offer the Information that a one-kiloton bomb — even “a fizzle-yield, low-efficiency, basically lousy fission bomb” — exploded just outside the Capitol during a State of the Union Message would wipe out everyone Inside: “The heads of all branches of the United States government — all Supreme Court justices, the entire cabinet, all legislators and, for what it’s worth, the Joint Chiefs of Staff. With the exception of anyone who happened to be sick In bed, It would kill the line of succession to the presidency — all the way to the bottom of the list.” Aren’t you asking for trouble?
I’m trying to prevent trouble. This is a dramatic case in point. The question becomes How can it be prevented from happening?

What made you do your one-eighty?
After Los Alamos, I worked at General Atomic from ’56 to ’64 in conceptual and preliminary design of research reactors, power reactors and nuclear space-propulsion systems. That’s where we developed the TRIGA research reactor and Orion. Then, in 1964, our family was camping up seven or eight miles from the trail head in the Sierras, when a man in a suit with torn pants, totally bushed, looking as if he’d seen a rattlesnake, showed up to deliver an invitation to apply for a new job that had been set up in the Pentagon. The job was to run the Defense Department’s nuclear-weapons-effects test program as a scientific director of what was then called the Defense Nuclear Agency. I took the job. In general, we studied the effects of nuclear weapons on electronic equipment, airplanes, computer chips, houses and people. Mostly on military equipment. I knew that the whole field was in a state of disarray. We had all these things out there, and we didn’t know what they did. It was important to find out. In the course of the next year or so, a lot of things happened that turned me completely around.

Through the mid-Sixties you believed in the arms race?
I originally bought the deterrence line. That’s how I justified what I did.

You wrote your parents a letter from Los Alamos that said, “If A-bombs In their present form will make another war something which mankind cannot bear, and if most people don’t realize this, then, I say, there is only one thing to do: develop a bomb which will leave no doubt in anyone’s mind.” That’s how you justified building the Super Oralloy Bomb — the S.O.B. — our first bomb with a yield in the megaton range.
It took some time for me to realize that deterrence is a fallacy. The plain and simple truth is that weapons were designed to kill many people. Even if you believed it was justified to kill enemy soldiers, these weapons were designed to kill indiscriminately.

At the Pentagon, I saw how out of control things were. First of all, the thing on people’s minds — this is 1965 — was the war in Vietnam. I saw from the inside a lot of incompetence in the way that war was being managed. At the time, part of the justification for the enthusiasm for nuclear weapons was that you would make war impossible. And here I was in the middle of the Pentagon, in the middle of what some people considered the worst war that the U.S. had ever been involved in. And nuclear weapons were sitting there threatening in ways that I certainly wasn’t promoting.

At the same time, I saw how many weapons we had and what type and where they were and what they were proposed to be used for. I got totally alarmed about that. I had never been privy to stockpile numbers before. I found that the whole thing went way beyond anything I would imagine. I had a higher clearance and a need to know, which meant I could ask anything I wanted about anything and expect to get answers. I got intelligence briefings from the CIA and from naval intelligence and air-force intelligence and the Defense Intelligence Agency, which was just beginning to be formed. There was misinformation. There was lack of communication. There were dangerous situations in the handling of nuclear materials. People were lying. Once a month, in very secret sessions with the chiefs of staff, I would bring them up to date on what was happening on the nuclear-weapons effects. I told them things about vulnerability of the Minuteman and Polaris that were very scary. And they had no inkling of it. Later there was a congressional hearing, and they were just as uninformed. Again, I got thoroughly alarmed.

I was alarmed, too, when I found that no one was giving any attention to the possibility that criminals or terrorists might swipe weapons or nuclear material to make weapons. I began looking into that. I went on some trips to various A.E.C. [Atomic Energy Commission] facilities to see what the state of security was. I saw enough plutonium to arm a small nation in a shack about thirty feet from a chain-link fence that somebody could have vaulted over. The place was guarded by one fat, very elderly guard about 300 yards away with a .38 pistol.

Where was this?
This was at the nuclear-fuel reprocessing plant at West Valley, New York. Then I went to New Haven, Connecticut, to look at where they made fuel for highly enriched uranium research reactors. I found that right there in the middle of New Haven, close to a residential neighborhood, there were children in baby carts being pushed past utility doors behind a small fence, inside of which was metallic, highly enriched uranium — enough to make maybe fifty nuclear weapons. Overall, I saw that the nuclear-weapons and nuclear-weapons-material situations were completely out of control. After frustrated efforts to do something about it, I finally went public. I started collaborating with Mason Willrich — who was then a lawyer on the faculty of the University of Virginia — on a project, funded by the Ford Foundation, to write a book about nuclear terrorism. John McPhee of The New Yorker became interested at that time, and that was the beginning of The Curve of Binding Energy. What I saw then continues to this day: a lifetime of work to try to bring nuclear weapons under control. It was a straightforward decision. No tears. No flashes of light like Saint Paul on the road to Damascus.

And now?
I am doing everything I can to stimulate complete elimination of nuclear weapons.

Aren’t you dreaming? Isn’t the arms race a given in this political climate?
The reason people think like that is because they have grown up with the idea that the only way to survive is to be able to beat the hell out of the Soviets. I’m more optimistic than that. The Soviets have promised that if we make a commitment to stop testing, they’ll stop again, too. We’re talking about reducing short- and middle-range missiles. This is all very important, and at the same time. I’m coming up with a new answer to the problem. I believe that our greatest hope may be in pressing for cooperative projects between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, particularly projects that are beneficial to both countries, projects that have no military connotations and threaten no one. On the theoretical, futuristic side, to have joint projects to go out and explore space in a really big way. On the more practical — and more immediately relevant — side, the problems that each country is facing. Thus far, the kinds of recommendations we’ve been making are stop and don’t. Stop nuclear tests. Stop production of nuclear weapons. Don’t deploy Star Wars. I’m beginning to think that the more important kind of recommendations are the do’s.

Do what, for example?
Ask where there are common problems, which, if solved, are going to help the current leadership to stay in power. One example is the poisoning of potablewater supplies. It’s a severe problem in both countries. I haven’t talked with anybody in six months who’s an environmentally concerned person who doesn’t believe that it is the number-one natural resource problem in the world. Okay, how is that to be dealt with? We must also face where we are going to get our energy without burning coal and creating a greenhouse effect or without aggravating problems with nuclear waste and the proliferation of nuclear materials.

Here is another example of how it could work: A massive problem in the Soviet Union is housing. If we like Gorbachev’s policies, and therefore want him to stay in power, then if we help the Soviets on the housing front, it will have more of an effect on Gorbachev’s remaining in power than anything else. He could tell the Soviet people, “We have solutions to the housing problems. You don’t have to live in those miserable flats.” They can help us with the steel industry and pipeline technology. There is another common goal that would help us both: the elimination of all nuclear weapons. Had we been using our resources on finding new forms of energy since World War II, I don’t think anybody would care, particularly, who owns the oil fields in the Middle East While we’re waiting for these new fuels, let’s use the reactors that we have. Nuclear-power reactors are a very good place to get rid of weapons plutonium. The highly enriched uranium in weapons can be made unusable for weapons by remixing it with uranium 238. The uranium 235 can then be consumed. The time it would take to destroy all the plutonium and highly enriched uranium in all the weapons in the world using nuclear power plants that are in place is only three years. Let’s do it as a demonstration project and start tomorrow. It doesn’t require any formal treaty. Let’s start with fifty on each side. If we did it as an experiment, with safeguards, in such a way that no one can cheat without being discovered, we’d learn a whole lot.

How would we verify that the Soviets aren’t cheating?
There are various proposals around. A weapon from a Trident submarine could be dismanded by people from the United States, assuming that the U.S. doesn’t want the Soviet Union to know exactly how to make our weapons. Once dismantled, the materials are placed in a black box. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors who made sure there was no plutonium or highly enriched uranium there to begin with measure the material there now. It would then be transported to a place to be fabricated into reactor fuel, and from there it would be put into a reactor, and it’s done. Just before it’s put in, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s inspectors can examine it and find out how much plutonium is in there. The main role of the IAEA inspectors would be to make sure that no plutonium or highly enriched uranium leaves that channel. This dismantling process would have to be coupled with an agreement to stop producing more.

And how do we verify that?
You’re asking, “Are the Russians going to cheat?” They’ll ask, “Are the Americans going to cheat?” What it finally boils down to is a key problem in thinking. If the world goes from a place in which there are 50,000 weapons to 500 worldwide, there will have been very clearly articulated public support for disarmament. Coupled with that, there will be clear and unambiguous rules of international law that the production of weapons, withholding of weapons and possession of weapons is absolutely forbidden. It is immoral; it’s evil.

Even nuclear weapons proponents might agree that they’re evil and nasty and even Immoral — but necessary. We don’t expect the Russians to be moral.
In my opinion, even that’s no argument for not disarming. As it stands now, there is a high probability that during your lifetime, or your children’s lifetimes, or your grandchildren’s lifetimes, the world will no longer exist because of these weapons. Therefore, anything to eliminate these weapons is justified. What is the absolute worst that could happen if the Russians did cheat? What next? What happens after that?”

They take over.
How do they take over?

A bomb is dropped on Manhattan, a bomb is dropped on Los Angeles, and the threat is, If you don’t do what we want, then we drop more. We have no recourse — we trusted them.
And what might they ask us to do?

Become Russians. Better red than dead, you know.
That’s a thoughtless phrase.

For you. But you summed up your view when, in The Curve of Binding Energy, you said, “If the Russians bombed New York, I would not bomb Moscow.”
That’s not a matter of trusting the Russians or not. I would not commit mass murder. That’s all.

It seems that many people in this country feel that if the Russians bomb Manhattan, we should bomb Moscow.
I’m not so sure. I’ve asked our extremely conservative representative from this area if she would be willing to issue the command for nuclear retaliation on the Soviet Union. She refused to answer. I’ve asked some extremely hawkish people in the National Security Council. Other legislators. Everyone assumes we would act in a particular way. The whole thing is a charade.

The entire arms race is based on the fact that we would retaliate.
I think one of the reasons for being optimistic about the future is that the arms race that we’re in, the expressions of distrust from both sides, are extensions of the ways of thinking from an old world that are irrelevant in the new world. And I say that that’s a basis for real hope. I believe that most people are reasonably rational. Neither the Russians nor the Americans can want to murder hundreds of thousands of people.

You obviously haven’t asked President Reagan the question.
He would Issue the command to retaliate. I think the overwhelming majority of the people in the Western world would be frightened to death if he said he wouldn’t. That doesn’t necessarily tell what’s going on in, as he puts it, his heart of hearts. I don’t think in Ronald Reagan’s heart of hearts that he would have anything but the most intense from of conventional anger and want all the vengeance he could get in the event of an attack. That is why we must do everything possible to prevent that situation from happening. And there is a lot we can do. If we were working with the Soviets, there would be no reason for either side to want military superiority. It was Einstein who said, regarding our ability to release such huge amounts of explosive, that we’ve got to change our way of thinking, or else we drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.

The road to stability and some modicum of safety is going to be much less a matter of physical enforcement, complicated rules and inspections than the pressures on governments to redirect priorities so that the kinds of scientific breakthroughs that are encouraged are not in the weapons fields but in the areas that will help solve problems, help us progress. The same scientists working in recombinant DNA areas can take two paths. One path can lead to something that will kill all the whites and not the blacks or vice versa. The other might be to cure cancer. These minds should be encouraged to determine how to face AIDS, unemployment in northern England, the housing crisis in the Soviet Union, the water crisis coming in North America.

It’s madness to continue pushing things to the limit for more sophisticated and more destructive weapons. It’s a cliché by now, but we have enough weaponry to destroy the earth many times over. As Gorbachev said in a speech, one nuclear bomb now can cause as much damage as two World War II’s. We have other things to attend to: common problems of energy, food supply, environment, nuclear waste. The weaponeers have to open their eyes.

The first day I ever spent in the Soviet Union, it was a nice summer day, and my guide and interpreter, a woman named Galina Orlova, asked me if I’d like to go and see some sights. She took me directly to Red Square, pointed out Lenin’s tomb and the tomb of the unknown soldier, where, she said, many wedding parties come as part of the ritual. We saw these wedding parties of happy young people celebrating.

She left me alone and went to arrange some tickets for a theater performance the next day. I was standing more or less halfway between Lenin’s tomb and the tomb of the unknown soldier. I suddenly had a flashback, a very intense one, to a time in November of 1950, on the date of our second daughter’s birth, when I had spent the day in a temporary building left from World War II, where naval-intelligence-operations analysis was. It was my first trip to Washington after I started working at Los Alamos. I had spent the morning poring over aerial photographs of central Moscow and of the greater Moscow area and using a compass with a sharp point that was poked, as nearly as I could tell, exactly where I was standing right at that moment. I was drawing circles corresponding to moderate, severe and massive damage from the explosion of a bomb I developed, the S.O.B., 500 kilotons, at an altitude of 3000 feet above the point I was standing at right then. And one thing that came back was the strong feeling of disappointment because those circles didn’t include all of Moscow.

I stopped, looked around and saw four or five wedding parties all dressed up. Celebrating. There were little kids. There were Russian tourists from all over the country having a wonderful time. There were at least several thousand people.

I started crying. It was the sense of insanity of what I had been doing. It was psychotic behavior. That sense of having been in that state and the sense that the world was resting on whether such people — the scientists and the world leaders behind them — would continue drawing circles on places like where I was standing. The sense of whether they could keep out of their minds the fact that the people who would be killed had nothing to do with what they wanted to do to stay in power. The absolute total, innocent, wonderful people, all dead — boom — within the center of a circle drawn by someone like me.

From The Archives Issue 509: September 24, 1987

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