Read The Pentagon's Brain Online

Authors: Annie Jacobsen

Tags: #History / Military / United States, #History / Military / General, #History / Military / Biological & Chemical Warfare, #History / Military / Weapons

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BOOK: The Pentagon's Brain
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The men ran back into the bunker. But inside, behind three-foot concrete walls, there were also life-threatening radiation levels. The group retreated to a region far back in the bunker, behind a second concrete-block wall where the urinals were. Jack Clark
called for an emergency evacuation but was told it was too dangerous to send a helicopter pilot to Enyu Island just yet. Station 70 had been designed with a ten thousand factor of radiation shielding. Whatever was going on inside the bunker, outside it was ten thousand times worse. The firing party would have to wait it out. Eventually the deadly radiation levels would subside, they were told.

Eighty miles to the east another calamity was unfolding. A Japanese fishing trawler, called the
Lucky Dragon Number Five,
had been caught unawares roughly fifteen miles outside the designated U.S. military restricted zone. After the Castle Bravo bomb exploded, many of the Japanese fishermen on the trawler ran out on deck to behold what appeared to be some kind of mystical apparition, the sun rising in the west. Awestruck, they stood staring at the nuclear fireball as it grew, until a chalky material started falling from the sky. This was pulverized coral, made highly radioactive by the thermonuclear blast. By the time the fishermen returned to Japan, all of them were suffering from radiation poisoning. Six months later, the
Lucky Dragon’
s chief radio operator, Aikichi Kuboyama, died.

Castle Bravo was a weapon of unprecedented destruction. It was 250 percent more powerful than the force calculated by the scientists who had engineered it. In time Castle Bravo would become known as the worst radiological disaster in history. Radioactive contamination became so consequential and widespread that two days after the explosion, the Navy evacuated Rongelap, Rongerik, Ailinginae, and Utirik atolls, which lay between seventy-five and three hundred miles to the east of ground zero. Many of the islanders living there were powdered in radioactive dust.

In the days that followed, the world’s 2.7 billion inhabitants remained ignorant of what had happened in the Marshall Islands. The Atomic Energy Commission ordered a news blackout on the aftereffects of the bomb, including that no mention be made of the extensive fallout or the evacuation of the four atolls. Castle Bravo was only the first explosion in a series of U.S. hydrogen bomb tests,
a series that had been obliquely announced to the public as “weapons tests.” All other information was classified. This was 1954, before the invention of communications satellites. It was still possible to move ten thousand men and a fleet of warships and airplanes unobserved to an obscure corner of the earth to conduct a secret hydrogen bomb test.

Americans back home remained in the dark. On March 10, a full nine days after the United States had exploded what would turn out to be a 15-megaton hydrogen bomb, causing deadly fallout to circle the earth, President Dwight Eisenhower took to a podium in the White House press room. In his weekly presidential news conference to the nation, he had this to say: “I have only one announcement. It is very inconsequential. Sometime during the coming week I shall probably go on the air to discuss the general contents of the tax program.”

But in Japan the
Lucky Dragon
fishing trawler had returned to port, and news of the radiation-poisoned fishermen was making international headlines. The Atomic Energy Commission issued a terse statement saying that some individuals had been “unexpectedly” subjected to “some radiation [during a] routine atomic test in the Marshall Islands.” On March 17, at the weekly news conference from the White House, reporter Merriman Smith asked the president to shed light on this mysterious, all-powerful weapon.

“Mr. President,” said Smith. “The Joint Congressional Atomic Energy Commissioner said last night that we now have a hydrogen bomb and can deliver it anywhere in the world. I wonder if you could discuss that?”

“No, I wouldn’t want to discuss that,” the president said. And he did not.

It was the Cold War, and secrecy reigned.

Behind the scenes, what President Eisenhower was just now learning about the Castle Bravo bomb was horrifying beyond most
people’s comprehension. The president’s scientific advisors showed him a top secret map of the fallout pattern made by the Castle Bravo bomb across the Marshall Islands. The scientists then superimposed that same fallout pattern onto a map of the east coast of the United States. If ground zero had been Washington, D.C., instead of Bikini Atoll, every resident of the greater Washington-Baltimore area would now be dead. Without a Station 70–style bunker for protection, the entire population living there would have been killed by 5,000 roentgens of radiation exposure in mere minutes. Even in Philadelphia, 150 miles away, the majority of inhabitants would have been exposed to radiation levels that would have killed them within the hour. In New York City, 225 miles north, half of the population would have died by nightfall. All the way to the Canadian border, inhabitants would have been exposed to 100 roentgens or more, their suffering similar to what the fisherman on the
Lucky Dragon
had endured.

But President Eisenhower had no intention of relaying this information to the public. Instead, he said there was nothing to discuss. The physical fallout map would remain classified for decades, but even the president could not control the escalating international outrage over the Castle Bravo bomb. Soon he would be forced to address the issue.

The secret decision to engineer the thermonuclear, or hydrogen, bomb began five years earlier when, on August 29, 1949, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb. Suddenly, the United States lost the nuclear monopoly it had maintained since World War II. The question of how to respond took on great urgency. Should America reply with powerful counterforce? Or was restraint the more suitable reply?

One month after the Soviet atomic bomb test, the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission—an elite group of nuclear scientists—convened, in secret, to identify
whether or not the United States should pursue a crash program to build the hydrogen bomb. The chairman of this committee was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the former scientific director of the Manhattan Project and a man known as the father of the atomic bomb. In “unanimous opposition,” the scientists agreed that the United States should not move forward with the hydrogen bomb, and they stated so in no uncertain terms. The reasons were uncomplicated, they said. “It is clear that the use of this weapon would bring about the destruction of innumerable human lives,” they wrote. “Its use would involve a decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians.” Tens of thousands of people had been killed in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; a hydrogen bomb would kill millions in a single strike. The hydrogen bomb was a weapon with a built-in “policy of exterminating civilian populations,” the GAC members warned.

Two committee members, the physicists Enrico Fermi and Isidor Rabi, felt compelled to add a letter, or “annex,” for then President Truman to read. “It is clear that 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.” While there was unanimity among the scientists on the General Advisory Committee—the official advisory committee on all matters related to nuclear weapons—the GAC members were not the only nuclear scientists with power and persuasion in Washington, D.C.

As in any serious scientific race, there was fierce competition going on behind the scenes. There existed another group of nuclear scientists who were deeply committed to engineering a hydrogen bomb. Leading this team were the Hungarian-born Edward Teller and his mentor, the American-born Ernest O. Lawrence, both former members of the Manhattan Project. Neither Teller nor Lawrence had been elected to the General Advisory Committee, nor
did they take part in the unanimous decision to advise President Truman against building the hydrogen bomb.

Teller and Lawrence had extraordinary power and influence in Washington, at the Pentagon and the Atomic Energy Commission. Mindful that the GAC had plans to stymie their efforts for a hydrogen bomb, Edward Teller met personally with the chairman of the congressional committee on nuclear energy. “We must know more about principles of thermonuclear devices to make a decision about [the] military implications,” said Teller, who felt that Oppenheimer was foolishly being guided by moral arguments in a fight against an atheistic communist enemy. Senator Brien McMahon, the powerful chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, agreed. The view of the Oppenheimer group “just makes me sick,” McMahon told Teller.

Ernest Lawrence met with David E. Lilienthal, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. “If we don’t get this super [i.e., the hydrogen bomb] first,” Lawrence warned, “we are sunk, the U.S. would surrender without a struggle.” Lawrence considered the atomic bomb “one of mankind’s greatest blessings,” and felt that the hydrogen bomb was “a technical means of taking profit out of war.” He met with Lewis Strauss, chairman of the Atomic Energy Committee. Lawrence took umbrage at the idea of anyone’s bringing moral principles into the mix. Their conversation inspired Strauss to appeal directly to the president. “A government of atheists is not likely to be dissuaded from producing the weapon on ‘moral’ grounds,” Strauss wrote. The “super” must be built. “If we let the Russians get the super first, catastrophe becomes all but certain,” Brien McMahon told the president and his national security advisors. “It’s either we make it or we wait until the Russians drop one on us without warning,” said National Security Committee member Admiral Sidney Souers.

In January 1950 President Truman authorized a crash program to build the hydrogen bomb. The Joint Committee on Atomic Energy
decided that a second national nuclear weapons laboratory was needed now, in order to foster competition with Los Alamos. This idea—that rivalry fosters excellence and is imperative for supremacy—would become a hallmark of U.S. defense science in the decades ahead. Lawrence was put in charge of the new lab, with Teller acting as his special scientific advisor. The lab, a branch of the University of California Radiation Laboratory, was located in Livermore, California, about forty miles southeast of the university’s Berkeley campus.

Livermore, which opened in the spring of 1952, began with 123 employees. Three of them, all graduate students at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, were Edward Teller protégés. Their names were Herb York, Harold Brown, and John Foster. Herb York, age thirty, was Livermore’s first scientific director. Harold Brown, age twenty-four, was put in charge of its A Division, for hydrogen bomb work. John Foster, age twenty-nine, headed up the B Division, which worked on smaller and more efficient atomic weapons. In retrospect, it seems that York, Brown, and Foster were all remarkably inexperienced young men to be put in charge of developing the most powerful nuclear weapons in the world. Each scientist would play a major role in the history of DARPA and leave footprints on U.S. national security that are ineradicable and absolute.

Nuclear weapons work at Livermore went slowly at first. For all the ambition and big ideas, Livermore’s first nuclear weapons tests, detonated at the Nevada Test Site in 1953, were duds. One exploded with such a low yield—equivalent to just two hundred tons of TNT—that the steel tower on which it detonated was left standing in the desert, merely bent and crumpled. A photograph of the misshapen tower was published in newspapers around the country, accompanied by jokes about Livermore’s impotence.

“Los Alamos scientists filled the air with horse laughs,” scientific director Herb York later recalled. And so, despite the Livermore team’s desire to shepherd the world’s first deliverable hydrogen bomb into existence, scientists at Los Alamos were instead given
scientific authority over the Castle Bravo bomb. Edward Teller had designed the bomb before Livermore existed, which is why he is considered the father of the hydrogen bomb. But Los Alamos was in charge of the test.

In that fateful winter of 1954, there were additional hydrogen bomb tests planned for Bikini Atoll. The Bravo bomb was only the first of what would be a six-bomb thermonuclear test program in the Castle series, from March 1 to May 14. Five of the six bombs had been designed and built by Los Alamos. One, called Koon, was designed at Livermore. Like the new laboratory’s previous two efforts, Koon was a failure. Instead of exploding in the megaton range, as was planned, Koon was a 110-kiloton dud. The new Livermore laboratory project was now at serious risk of being canceled. What good is a competition if one side cannot seem to compete?

Teller and his protégé Herb York would not accept failure. Fueled by humiliation, they planned to outperform the competition at Los Alamos. Four months after Castle Bravo, the General Advisory Committee met in Los Alamos for classified discussions about how to move forward with the hydrogen bomb. The majority of these men were the same ones who had opposed the creation of the super bomb just four and a half years before. One person missing was Robert Oppenheimer. He had been stripped of his security clearance, on the grounds that he was a communist, and banished from government service for life. Oppenheimer’s forced exile sent a strong message to defense scientists. There was little room for dissent, and certainly not for objection on moral grounds. Gone was any further discussion of ethics, or of the fact that the super bomb was a dangerous machine. The hydrogen bomb was part of the U.S. military arsenal now. As commissioners, these scientists had much work to do.

Isidor Rabi replaced Oppenheimer as committee chairman. Rabi now embraced the super bomb as having created a “complete revolution… in atomic weapons.” Science had fathered a new
generation of technologically advanced weapons and had paved the way for a whole new “family” of thermonuclear weapons, Rabi said, “from tactical to multi-megaton strategic weapons, which would render some stockpile weapons obsolete or of little utility.”

BOOK: The Pentagon's Brain
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