INTERVIEW WITH HERBERT YORK
INTERVIEWER: Interview with Herbert York, roll continuation 10140. Herb, can I take you back to 1949 and basically there was a lot of fear and paranoia around, then suddenly an announcement came through that the Russians had detonated their first nuclear weapon. What was the feeling at the time?
HERBERT YORK: Well, it took a week or two for the idea that the Russians had in fact detonated an atomic bomb. We were expecting an atomic bomb sometime in the next couple of years, but we weren't expecting it, you know, at the moment it came. So it was a surprise, an unpleasant surprise. It was followed within just a few weeks by the capture of Beijing by the forces of Mao Tse-tung and then ten months after that, by the invasion of South Korea. So that it was a very bad time for the United States and some kind of reaction was necessary. Going back to the first Soviet atomic bomb itself, it was natural to suppose that since it was a nuclear event and a hi-tech event, that an appropriate answer would be of the same kind, for a nuclear answer, a hi-tech answer. So there were a lot of suggestions about what we should do precisely with the nuclear weapons, and nuclear technology. And there were a lot of different ideas. There were ideas about simply increasing the total production of atomic bombs, there were ideas about increasing the intensity with which we were exploring for uranium in North America, there were ideas about perhaps increasing the size of the laboratory at Los Alamos. A lot of ideas that would naturally come up at a time like that, plus one very special idea. And that is that we should pursue with a high priority development of the hydrogen bomb.
INT: Well, what was the difference between an atomic bomb and a hydrogen bomb that was so important?
HY: Well, basically they get their energy from different kinds of nuclear reaction...
HY: The difference between atomic bombs and hydrogen bombs, the technical difference is that they derive their energy from different nuclear processes, one from the fission of uranium, the other from the fusion of hydrogen. But the reason it was so important is not that technical detail. The reason that so much attention was put on it is that we thought at that time of atomic bombs as being limited in yield to approximately the yield it had been used in the war in Japan. Whereas we thought of hydrogen bombs as being absolutely unlimited in what the yield could be and more specifically, we thought of the hydrogen bombs as being a thousand times as big as atomic bombs, just as atomic bombs had been a thousand times bigger than the chemical bombs used in World War Two. So we thought of it as a huge increase of the energy output and that gave rise to a lot of controversy. Many people, a majority, said that if it's possible, the Russians will surely do it and it's totally intolerable to imagine... we can't imagine a world in which they've got hydrogen bombs with these characteristics of this open-ended yield and we don't. So a majority interpreted these events and the possibility of building the hydrogen bomb in the way I just described. We've got to do it, because if we don't do it first, it's just much to serious. There were others who saw this large increase in energy and explosive power in a negative sense, found it ethically problematical, thought of it in terms that said that with energy releases that large, the only way you can possibly use them is against enemy cities and that there was something fundamentally wrong with the idea and furthermore, they said that the objectives that even if the Russians were to build hydrogen bombs first, we can maintain our security through building enough atomic bombs, including the means for delivering them, that that's a suitable counter to the possibilities that the Russians might develop hydrogen bombs.
INT: Was there much scientific debate at the time about, I suppose, the ethics of going ahead with this?
HY: Well, among the scientists the biggest debate, the most extensive debate was over the feasibility, because the fundamental ideas had been around since the War, the general idea about how you might use hydrogen isotopes to make a very big bomb, a super bomb, but there was no specific design and so the largest debate in terms of the number of people involved was over the question of really can you build one and if you can, will it be deliverable? Questions like that. They also debated the ethics of the question and in the report...
INT: Let me just go back and ask you that one more time. Was there much debate on the ethics of setting this device in motion?
HY: There was a discussion about the ethics of going ahead with this programme. The context in which the debate took place was a meeting of the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, a committee of scientists that had been set up right after the war to advise the Atomic Energy Commission on all kinds of scientific and technical questions relating to atomic energy. It was chaired by Robert Oppenheimer, who had been the Director of the Los Alamos laboratory. They were handed this whole set of ideas that were coming up from everywhere about how we should respond to the Soviet atomic bomb, including the idea of responding by developing a hydrogen bomb. Essentially, they took the view that all the other ideas were good and we should pursue them, that is we should expand the laboratories, we should explore for more uranium, we should develop bombs that were specifically for use in tactical war and that were designed for specific delivery systems and so forth. When it came to the hydrogen bomb, they took a different view. They first expressed doubts about its feasibility, they said that even if it can be built, it'll probably require too much of tritium, which was difficult to produce, and that besides we can answer it with our atomic bomb, and then they took up this question, the ethical question, of building a bomb that was so much bigger than the ones we had and the entire committee concluded that it would be better if at this time, we not go ahead at least with a crash programme, we should explore scientific questions involved, but we should avoid going ahead and we should make one more try in dealing with the Russians to jointly agree to go ahead, to avoid going ahead with making this new step at all. There were a couple of appendices to the report, some of which used even stronger language and some used weaker language, but all of them sought in some way to avoid going ahead if at all possible. They furthermore said that if we do make an agreement and if the Russians to avoid going ahead and if the Russians then cheat on that agreement, they said we'll know in plenty of time. So they even took into account the question of what would happen if we made an agreement and the Russians cheated. It's a remarkable document, it's only twenty or so pages long, but it's got all these ideas and the discussion of them; it could have been written today, almost. The document was forwarded to the Atomic Energy Commission, who were split on the question, but with the majority in favour of going ahead. President Truman set up a still higher level committee of three persons, the Secretary of Defence, Dean Acheson, I guess, the senior officer in the State Department, and David Lillianthall, who was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Lillianthall was in a weak position, because he'd already submitted his resignation and they split two for going ahead and one for not going ahead and Lillianthall was the one who opposed going ahead and Truman essentially took the advice of the majority. He was getting that same advice from other sources as well and determined to go ahead. What Truman actually said in January of 1950 was to... his... his public statement was, we will continue our work on hydrogen weapons. I recall at the time that when Edward Teller heard that, he became depressed, because we weren't doing very much and the idea that we would continue what we were doing was not at all satisfactory as as he was concerned. The people who didn't want to go ahead also took itnegatively, because they interpreted it correctly, as meaning that Truman had decided in favour of those who thought we should explore the possibilities and go ahead with them if at all possible.
INT: Excellent answer. What was...
INT: Why was Edward Teller so personally upset and involved in all this?
HY: Well, he...
INT: What was Edward Teller's role in all this?
HY: Edward Teller played a major role in all of this. During the War even, in the forties, he'd heard from Fermey the basic idea for the possibility of a hydrogen bomb, learned it from Fermey and it fascinated him from the very beginning and even during the War, he preferred to work on that rather than on the fission bomb that everybody else was working on. And in fact, it led to bad relations between him and Oppenheimer and other senior physicists, including Bader, even during the War. Teller's interest in the hydrogen bomb rather than pitching in with the rest on the atomic bomb, his background has a lot to do with that. After the War was over, Teller's idea was that the atomic bomb... the hydrogen bomb should be pursued with vigour, he attended a number of meetings and conferences at Los Alamos, which took up the general question of the future of the laboratory and he always pushed the idea that the next step was the hydrogen bomb and that should be the focus of attention. Given the resources available, the situation at the time and so on, the general conclusion was that we should improve the... The next test for Los Alamos was, first of all was to survive the end of the War with all the people leaving and then after that, to perfect the atomic bomb, make them better, smaller, easier to handle for the same explosion and so forth. Teller was very much disappointed in that and left the laboratory as a result. As the Cold War became worse, Teller became more and more concerned about this question. Teller was from Hungary, he as a small boy had experienced World War One, he'd experienced the brief Communist regime in Hungary and he was extremely sensitive about the question of both the Russians and the Communists. I mean, he had personal fear of both the Russians and the Communists as part of his general make up. So, when relations began to get worse in the Cold War, he became more up-tight and tense about the situation of what is the proper American response and when the Russian atomic bomb came along and everyone recognised that a nuclear response of some kind made sense, he just dived in with both feet to make sure that it was the hydrogen bomb that we should be pursuing. He felt very, very strongly about it and enlisted several other scientists on to his side of the argument, in particular Innes Lawrence, Louis Alvarez, Wendel Latimer, all of whom were at Berkeley, but there were others as well and Teller also visited the Pentagon, did what he could to persuade people there that this was a serious matter, the hydrogen bomb was the right answer. He had friends at the Rand Corporation whom he persuaded to look into this more deeply and in fact a group from Rand were the first people to actually brief President Truman on what the destructive possibilities of the hydrogen bomb were. So, Teller was very much involved, both in the scientific work and in the political effort to make sure that the hydrogen bomb became the American answer to the Russian atomic bomb.