The imaginative conservative:the new barbarians of Los Alamos

the imaginative conservative

The new barbarians gave to the Nation-State a weapon that Genghis Khan never dreamed of, a “technically-sweet” marvel that could destroy humankind thrice over on a lazy Saturday afternoon…

h-bomb los alamos george stanciuI am a Romanian gypsy from a long line of chicken stealers, fortunetellers, tax evaders, and draft dodgers. That is not such a bad heritage.

When I was a child, my Uncle George used to take me to visit an old gypsy woman, who told fortunes and sold alcohol without a license in her front parlor, an Old Country social club to which the local police turned a blind eye. Besides, the gypsy way pays no attention to the civil authorities.

My uncle would play cards and drink hot tea with rum, while I watched the old gypsy woman’s large parrot. The parrot would shout swear words in English and Romanian. In this way, I learned that Romanian is much better than English for cursing. The old men in the unlicensed bar told me the parrot spoke English better than they did.

The old gypsy woman always wore a babushka and a long skirt that went down to her ankles. She played solitaire at a kitchen table next to the parrot. One day, the old gypsy woman told my fortune. Her long, surprisingly youthful-looking fingers shuffled a deck of playing cards and dealt six cards face up on the table in front of her.

The old gypsy woman said, “You are going to be a scientist and will work at a laboratory for the destruction of mankind.”

Then, she picked up the cards and said, “You are too young to hear the rest.”

I said to myself, “The old gypsy woman is crazy.”

Many years later, I became a theoretical physicist and received a postdoctoral appointment to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory in New Mexico. My first day at the Lab, while standing in the coffee room reserved for the theory group, a man in his fifties with a large forehead, made larger by a receding hairline, walked up to me, grabbed my security badge, thrust his head forward, so he could read the writing on the badge, and said to me, “Stanciu. Romanian. My name is Stan Ulam.” He poked the fingers of his right hand against his chest and said, “I am Polish.”

I suggested that we start a club at the Laboratory for Eastern Europeans. Many excellent physicists and mathematicians at Los Alamos had emigrated from Hungary.

I asked Stan a question. “Do you know the difference between a Romanian and a Hungarian?”

“No,” he said.

I gave him the answer. “Both a Romanian and a Hungarian will sell you his grandmother, but only the Romanian will deliver.”

Stan laughed; clearly, he enjoyed the joke. I would learn later that he loved jokes, senseless amusements, and stupid puzzles to stop him from thinking about horrible truths. I would also learn later that Stan would be the most intelligent person that I would meet in my life.

Stan was a brilliant mathematician. Unlike the majority of mathematicians, he was also an outstanding theoretical physicist. Stan always saw the heart of things. In numerous colloquia, I saw him take the most complicated mathematics presented by a guest speaker from Harvard or Princeton and explain it using only high-school geometry and algebra to an audience of theoretical physicists, who generally are not that good at highly abstract mathematics. Invariably, before Stan finished with his elucidation of the speaker’s talk, the speaker listened as intently as the rest of us, no doubt learning for the first time the deeper significance of his work. I always thought that the mark of person with deep understanding is that he or she can explain things in simple terms. Stan told me several times that whatever is worth saying can be stated in fifty words or fewer.

Stan Ulam and Edward Teller together discovered the technical trick to make a hydrogen bomb, described by J. Robert Oppenheimer as “technically sweet.” Unlike the construction of the atomic bomb that required no conceptual breakthrough but merely the dogged determination to work out many technical details, the first step in the development of the hydrogen bomb seemed insurmountable. No one had even a good idea about how to build the superweapon. Even today almost every technical aspect of the hydrogen bomb is highly classified.

Teller was the driving force behind the development of the hydrogen bomb, nicknamed the “Super” during the Manhattan Project. Ulam returned to Los Alamos, in late 1945, after a short stint at University of Southern California at Los Angeles. Later, he and Cornelius Everett, another mathematician, worked five to six hours a day with slide rule, pencil, and paper to check whether Teller’s promising design for the proposed Super would work. After several months, Ulam and Everett concluded that Teller’s bomb would fizzle.

Teller became infuriated when Ulam told him that his design for the Super was no good. He called Ulam and Everett incompetent and questioned Ulam’s motives for performing the calculations. During the war years at the Manhattan Project, Ulam worked briefly under Teller, and the two men were on the worst of terms, primarily because Teller scoffed at one of Ulam’s early physics calculations. Ulam gave Teller, in 1946, a black-and-white photo of himself on which he had written on the reverse side “to my enemy.”[1]

The Super program was dead in the water. No one—not even great minds such as Enrico Fermi, John von Neumann, and Hans Bethe—had any idea what to do next. Years went by, and Teller and Ulam became angrier and angrier at each other. One day out of the blue, Ulam saw how to build the Super. He revealed his insight to Teller, and the two of them worked out the details of what was later known as the Teller-Ulam configuration. As is customary in weapons research, the two applied for a classified patent, which was never granted because the two of them wrangled over who deserved the most credit; Teller refused to sign the patent application form.

Nevertheless, Ulam felt he was vindicated; his insight showed Teller who was smarter and more creative. Ulam was willing to sacrifice humanity for the satisfaction of his ego.

Teller consistently downplayed Ulam’s role is discovering the “technically-sweet” trick that made the hydrogen bomb a reality. In the February 25, 1955 issue of Science, he claimed that he gave “Stan Ulam credit for suggesting compression, although I had come to the realization weeks before Stan discussed it with me.”[2] Two years before his death at ninety-five, Teller was interviewed by journalist Mark Feeney, who pointed out that Herbert York, the founding director of Lawrence Livermore Laboratory, wrote that fifty-one percent of the credit belonged to Teller and forty-nine percent to Ulam. Teller protested half-jokingly, “My view is I deserve 101 percent of the credit, and Ulam minus 1 percent.”[3]

Stan’s friends and admirers thought that Stan had no regrets about the hydrogen bomb, but I am not so sure. Three years after I left Los Alamos, my wife and I were living in Santa Fe, then a small, sleepy western town, with the Santa Fe style yet to be discovered by marketers. The Sunday New York Times arrived on Thursday. Sometimes, my son Nikolai, then two years old, accompanied me to the La Fonda Hotel to pick up the newspaper.

One Thursday afternoon, Nik was racing up the long corridor to the hotel lobby, and I saw that he was going to run headlong into Stan Ulam. Stan had the warmest, friendliest smile imaginable on his face as he watched Nik running and laughing. Stan did not see me. Nik bumped into Stan, and the smartest man I have ever known reached down and briefly grabbed Nik’s shoulder to keep him from falling. Nik did not stop and continued his run to the magazine stand. I saw heavy sadness come across Stan’s face, as if the world would soon end. That was the first time I knew that Ulam was a man without hope for himself or the world. Six years before, during the Cuban missile crisis, humanity came within a hair’s breadth of being snuffed out.

Stan turned slowly and left the hotel through a different exit, and I was glad, because I wished to avoid talking with him right after he unawares revealed his true feelings about the Super Bomb.

Whispered in my ear, I heard the voice of the old gypsy woman. “You are now old enough to hear more of your fortune. The smartest person you ever meet will be clever, not wise.”

At the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Los Alamos, Isidor Rabi, an experimental physicist and a close friend of Oppenheimer, called attention to the “greatness and folly of humanity,” in his commemorative talk, “How Well We Meant.”[4] In the war years, Los Alamos was “probably the greatest gathering of intellect of all times, with the possible exception of Athens in Ancient Greece.”[5] Scientists, then, believed that “only through science and its products could western civilization be saved” from a “fanatic, barbarian culture.”[6] Rabi lamented that Americans have no historical perspective and in the postwar period “forgot the basic reason the United States entered the War…to protect civilization, and, in the process, save the United States.”[7] The folly that followed the greatness was that military power became an end in itself: “The question now is not so much how to protect civilization, but how to destroy another culture, how to destroy other human beings. We have lost sight of the basic tenets of all religions—that a human being is a wonderful thing. We talk as if humans were matter.”[8]

Inspired by Rabi’s wisdom, I made a distinction between making the atomic bomb and developing the hydrogen bomb. I, along with most Americans, was willing to accept that the morality of making the atomic bomb was a complex issue that most likely could not be resolved to the satisfaction of moral philosophers; yet, I vowed not to forget Rabi’s insightful title, “How Well We Meant,” which summed up the attitude of the majority of Manhattan Project scientists whom I had met. Yet, I had the nagging suspicion that the development of the hydrogen bomb would reveal the moral failing of physicists.

Knowing that ultimately the heart of each person is a mystery and that people with great intellects can be masters of dissembling, masking their true intentions and clothing past actions in the best light, I nevertheless struggled on my own to understand what motivated physicists to place the existence of humankind in jeopardy by developing the hydrogen bomb. After I ignored half-truths of self-promotion and those many physicists, like others in ordinary jobs, those new barbarians who mindlessly carry out orders from on high, willing cogs in the scientific-military-industrial complex or corporate America, I arrived at what I took to be the three major impetuses to build a thermonuclear bomb: Stan Ulam was driven to prove that he was smarter and more creative than Edward Teller; Enrico Fermi, Isidor Rabi, and Hans Bethe surrendered their wills to the Nation-State; and Ken Ford, a minor player, represented the majority view of physicists as well as the prevailing belief among American citizens that the United States through overwhelming military strength would insure world peace.

In his book Building the H Bomb: A Personal History, published in 2015, Ford wrote, “I had joined the H-bomb effort in part because of a conviction that great power in American hands would be used to preserve peace, not to make war—specifically, that the world would be a safer place if the United States got the H-bomb before the Soviets did.”[9] And now for the dissembling part: “In a decade-and-a-half since Mike, the world had been a little safer, I felt sure, than it might otherwise have been.”[10]

Mike, the code name for the first test of a thermonuclear device, was detonated on November 1, 1952, on Enewetak, an atoll in the Pacific Ocean. This full-scale test validated the Teller-Ulam design, although Mike was not a bomb, since the 82-ton device was essentially a building. Less than two years later, the United States detonated Castle Bravo, a deliverable hydrogen bomb, on March 1, 1954 at the Bikini atoll. The yield of Mike was 10.4 megatons of TNT, equivalent to some 700 Hiroshima gadgets[*], the yield of Castle Bravo 15 megatons of TNT.

Ford’s selective history ignores that the Cuban Missile Crisis (October 16-28, 1962) occurred a few days short of the tenth anniversary of Mike (November 1, 1952). Thomas Blanton, Director of the National Security Archive, disclosed at a Havana conference forty years after the Crisis how close the United States and the Soviet Union came to a nuclear holocaust.

In a television address to the nation on October 22, 1962 President Kennedy declared a naval quarantine of Cuba to prevent the Soviet Union from delivering nuclear weapons to the communist nation ninety miles off the coast of Florida. On October 27, eleven United States Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph, through sonar sounding, located off Cuba the diesel-powered Soviet submarine B-59 sent from its arctic base on October 1. Despite being in international waters, the Americans started dropping hand-grenade-sized depth charges, explosives intended to force the submarine to come to the surface for identification. None of the American Naval Commanders knew that the Soviet submarine was armed with a nuclear-tipped torpedo.

Vadim Pavlovich Orlov, a communications intelligence officer on board the B-59, said the depth charges exploding right next to the hull “felt like you were sitting in a metal barrel, which somebody is constantly blasting with a sledgehammer.” Another crew member, Anatoly Petrovich Andreyev, recorded in his diary the emotional state of the Capitan of B-59, Valentin Grigorievitch Savitsky, days before his encounter with the American destroyers: “the commander’s nerves are shot to hell, he’s yelling at everyone and torturing himself…. He is already becoming paranoid, scared of his own shadow. He’s hard to deal with. I feel sorry for him and at the same time angry with him for his rash actions.”[11]

The physical conditions on B-59 were horrible. The temperature throughout the submarine was 113 F° and in the engine area 140 F°. Crew members were fainting; no one could sleep; and CO2 levels were dangerously high.

USS Beale and USS Cony dropped ten concussive grenades on the B-59 over five hours. Orlov reported that a particularly powerful depth-charge explosion next to the submarine made the “totally exhausted” Captain Savitsky “furious.” Savitsky screamed, “Maybe the war has already started up there, while we are doing somersaults here! We’re going to blast them now! We will die, but we will sink them all—we will not disgrace our Navy!” He ordered the “special weapon”—a ten kiloton nuclear-tipped torpedo—to be readied for use. His intended target was the USS Randolph.[12]

The three primary officers on board—Captain Savitsky, the Political Officer Ivan Semonovich Maslennikov, and Deputy Brigade Commander Vasili Arkhipov—had to agree unanimously to authorize a nuclear launch. A heated argument broke out, and Maslennikov gave his consent to the torpedo being fired, but Arkhipov stubbornly refused to give his approval.

If the B-59’s torpedo had been launched and had vaporized the USS Randolph, nuclear Armageddon would have ensued, with the 100 tactical nuclear weapons on Cuban soil launched against the United States along with hundreds of nuclear-armed ICBMs on Russian soil; the 5,500 nuclear weapons in the American arsenal would have been launched against the Soviet Union and its allies. A thermonuclear war between the United States and Russia would have entailed the death of at least 100 million people in each country, the destruction of the industrial and military capacity of both, and long-term radioactive contamination of 50,000 square miles. The surviving Russians and Americans would have suffered like the victims of Hiroshima.[13]

Arkhipov persuaded Savitsky to surface and await orders from Moscow; Savitsky spurned assistance from the U.S. destroyers, and the B-59 made its way slowly home to Russia.

World War III was averted not by decisions in the White House or in the Kremlin, but in the sweltering control room of a Soviet submarine. Vasili Arkhipov saved the world. We should celebrate his obedience to humankind, not to the Nation-State, on October 27, Arkhipov Day, a proposed international holiday by students of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I turned over and over Ford’s assertion “In a decade-and-a-half since Mike, the world had been a little safer, I felt sure, than it might otherwise have been,” a statement that could not have been made out of ignorance. Reluctant to accuse a fellow physicist of outright lying, I charitably concluded that Ford could not confront a terrible truth: What he took to be his significant contribution to the building of the hydrogen bomb came close to bringing about the demise of humankind. What human being could own up to a role in the possible death of 200 million other humans?

Enrico Fermi, Isidor Rabi, and Hans Bethe, like mainstream citizens, readily allowed the Nation-State to trump their moral judgments. In a minority report of the General Advisory Committee’s Report on Building the H-Bomb[14], dated October 30, 1949, Fermi and Rabi first noted that the destructiveness of a hydrogen bomb “enters the range of very great natural catastrophes” and therefore its use “in practical effect” would approach “genocide.” Then, the two physicists gave an unassailable moral argument: “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.” For these reasons, they urged “the President of the United States to tell the American public, and the world, that we think it wrong on fundamental ethical principles to initiate a program of development of such a weapon.”

Hans Bethe, the head of the theoretical physics group at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, agreed with Fermi and Rabi that the development of the hydrogen bomb was evil, only worthy of barbarians. “If we fight a war and win it with H-Bombs, what history will remember is not the ideals we were fighting for, but the methods used to accomplish them,” he argued. “These methods will be compared to the warfare of Genghis Khan who brutally killed every last inhabitant of Persia.”[15]

Three months later, on January 31, 1950, President Truman ordered the Atomic Energy Commission to develop the hydrogen bomb. Fermi’s moral argument meant nothing, not even to himself, for he worked[16] to construct a device that is “necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.” Fermi abandoned his reasoned moral judgment and readily conformed his will to the decision of his Commander-in-Chief, when he heard President Truman announce, “I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb. Like all other work in the field of atomic weapons, it is being and will be carried forward on a basis consistent with the over-all objectives of our program for peace and security.”[17]

Rabi thought that Truman’s public announcement decision to pursue the Super was a display of gross ignorance. Years later, he recalled with anger that he “never forgave Truman for buckling under pressure…He simply did not understand what it was about.” For Truman “to have alerted the world that we were going to make a hydrogen bomb at a time when we didn’t even know how to make one was one of the worst things he could have done.”[18] Nevertheless, Rabi readily accepted the Chairmanship of the General Advisory Committee, the high-level scientific and technical body that oversaw the development of the hydrogen bomb for Atomic Energy Commission.

Bethe initially refused to work on the hydrogen bomb. In a letter to Norris Bradbury, the Director of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, he stated in unequivocal terms that “if and when I come to Los Alamos in the future I will completely refrain from any discussions related to the super-bomb.”[19] A year later, Bethe changed his mind and returned full-time to Los Alamos, although he later said that his work on the hydrogen bomb was “not critical to [the] success” of the Mike shot.[20]

For good citizens like Fermi, Rabi, and Bethe, the Nation-State possesses an absolute moral authority that overrules the authority of any religion and every individual citizen. The new barbarians gave to the Nation-State a weapon that Genghis Khan never dreamed of, a “technically-sweet” marvel that could destroy humankind thrice over on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

[*] Nothing in weapons work is called by it proper name. A bomb is a “device” or “gadget;” a nuclear weapons detonation is a “shot;” Los Alamos Scientific National Laboratory is “the Ranch” or “the Hill;” an implosive bomb is made with “ploot,” for plutonium, named after Pluto, the god of hell. A hundredth-millionth of a second is a “shake” — a shake of a lamb’s tail. The chemical energy of a quarter of a ton of high explosive is a “jerk.” The Hiroshima shot released sixty kilojerks.


[1] Edward Teller, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (New York: Basic Books, 2002), see photo insert.

[2] Ibid., p. 407.

[3] Mark Feeney, “Force of Physics Revered and Reviled, ‘Father of The H-Bomb’ Edward Teller’ Remains Controversial at Age 93,” The Boston Globe (Dec. 11, 2001).

[4] I. I. Rabi, “How Well We Meant” in New Directions in Physics: The Los Alamos 40th Anniversary Volume, ed. N. Metropolis, D. M. Kerr, and Gian-Carlo Rota (Boston: Academic Press, 1987), p. 257.

[5] Preface to New Directions in Physics: The Los Alamos 40th Anniversary Volume, ed. N. Metropolis, D. M. Kerr, and Gian-Carlo Rota (Boston: Academic Press, 1987), p. 257.

[6] Rabi, p. 263.

[7] Ibid., pp. 263-264.

[8] Ibid., 264.

[9] Kenneth Ford, Building the H Bomb: A Personal History (New Jersey: World Scientific Publishing, 2015), p. 185.

[10] Ibid., p. 187.

[11] Milan Rai, “Arkhipov Day: Celebrate the Man Who Saved the World.” Also see Marion Lloyd, “Soviets Close To Using A-Bomb In 1962 Crisis, Forum Is Told” The Boston Globe, October 13, 2002. “The Cuban Missile Crisis: 40 Years Later.” Also, the excellent PBS documentary Missile Crisis: The Man Who Saved the World.

[12] Ibid.

[13] See United States government document The Effects of Nuclear War, pp. 27-32, pp. 37-39, and pp. 94-100.

[14] E. Fermi and I. I. Rabi, General Advisory Committee’s Majority and Minority Reports on Building the H-Bomb (October 30, 1949), the Minority Report.

[15] Hans A. Bethe, “The Hydrogen Bomb II,” Scientific American (April 1950): 18-23.

[16] See Richard L. Garwin, “Enrico Fermi and Ethical Problems in Scientific Research.”

[17] Harry S. Truman, “Statement by the President on the Hydrogen Bomb,” January 31, 1950.

[18] Isidor Rabi, quoted by Jeremy Bernstein, “Physicist~II,” The New Yorker (October 20, 1975): 78.

[19] Hans Bethe, quoted by Richard Rhodes, Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), p. 416.

[20] Ibid., p. 487.
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Published: Dec 5, 2016
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George Stanciu
George Stanciu
George Stanciu has a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. He is the Academic Dean Emeritus at Northeast Catholic College in Warner, New Hampshire, and he is the co-author of The New Biology and The New Story of Science.
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3 replies to this post

Jeremy A. Kee
Dec 6, 2016 at 11:07 am Reply

My college mentor, a career military intel guy who spent his career becoming one of the foremost Western experts on Soviet military strategy, once told me about Vasili Arkhipov. To call his a sobering tale is to do it a great injustice. Thank you for the phenomenal essay, Dr. Stanciu.
Dec 6, 2016 at 11:32 am Reply

I’m an avid reader of fantasy and horror, from Lovecraft to King to Koontz, and this article is the scariest thing I’ve ever read.
Dec 6, 2016 at 12:07 pm Reply

Reading this felt like a finger on the pulse of life ( and death). Chilling to the marrow. The greatness we are capable of wrenched into something wholly other. Came here via a brief quotation on simplicity ‘ I always thought that the mark of person with deep understanding is that he or she can explain things in simple terms’. This simple narrative describing unleashing the dogs of war, lets loose also something I know was not stated but conveyed below the words- deep outrage, too deep for expression. Still reeling.

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