January 31, 1950 – President Truman Approves Development of the H-Bomb

Many physicists who had worked on the development of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico as part of the “Manhattan Project” during World War II were opposed to doing any more work on a bigger bomb, or “Super” as the theoretical thermonuclear (or hydrogen) bomb was called. Although they found the physics of the atomic project exhilarating, they had moral qualms over the effects of the explosion. Edward Teller, however, was one scientist who was obsessed with its development, and had a falling out with Robert Oppenheimer (the head of the Manhattan Project) because of it.

Portrait of Edward Teller created by Dmitri Vail  from the cover of SCALACS (Southern California Section of the American Chemical Society), June 1965.

Portrait of Edward Teller created by Dmitri Vail from the cover of SCALACS (Southern California Section of the American Chemical Society), June 1965.

On August 29, 1949, the Soviets exploded their first atomic bomb. At this point, moral qualms were thrown aside as many in the U.S. became convinced that it would not be long before the Soviets came up with a hydrogen bomb. Some of the pro-Super scientists, including Teller, began to lobby politicians for approval of a development program. (Athough these scientists argued that a thermonuclear device could only be defended with another thermonuclear device, the fact was, as Gerard J. Degroot argues in The Bomb: A Life, “a one-megaton Super bomb could be deterred with a 100-kiloton atom bomb since the potential destruction in each case was so great that the difference in yield was immaterial.”)

J. Robert Oppenheimer

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Meanwhile, after the war, Oppenheimer had been appointed Chairman of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). The GAC met to discuss how the United States should respond to the news that the Soviet Union had an atomic bomb. The eight members expressed unanimous opposition to a Super development program, writing:

It is clear that that the use of this weapon would bring about the destruction of innumerable human lives; it is not a weapon which can be used exclusively for the destruction of material installations of military or semi-military purposes. Its use therefore carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations.”

They added:

To the argument that the Russians may succeed in developing this weapon, we would reply that our undertaking it will not prove a deterrent to them. Should they use the weapon against us, reprisals by our large stock of atomic bombs would be comparably effective to the use of a super.”

President Truman wanted a second opinion (i.e., a different opinion), so he appointed a Special Committee of three from the National Security Council to consider the issue. At a meeting with Truman on January 31, 1950, they recommended, two to one, a crash program. When the lone dissenter tried to express reservations, Truman interrupted and asked if the Russians could develop an H-bomb. When all three agreed they could, Truman said “What the hell are we waiting for? Let’s get on with it!”

President Harry Truman

President Harry Truman

As for Edward Teller, “the father of the H-bomb” he gained iconic fame as “the real Dr. Strangelove.”

DeGroot’s history provides an in-depth look at the creation of both the atomic and the hydrogen bombs.

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