Creator of Neutron Bomb Leaves an Explosive Legacy
In the 20th century, Jews created bombs. Weapons of mass destruction.
Most famously, there was J. Robert Oppenheimer who ran the Manhattan Project, which gave the world the atom bomb. After him came Edward Teller, the Hungarian Jew who engineered an incredibly destructive upgrade: the hydrogen bomb.
And then there was Samuel T. Cohen, the lesser-known Jewish physicist who rounds off this troika but whose invention, the neutron bomb, has been relegated to ignominy. Like the other two, Cohen, a Manhattan Project veteran, was present at the creation.
Cohen died last year on November 28 at the age of 89, and received the requisite New York Times obituary in recognition of his unique contribution to the technology of mass killing. But neither the Times nor other notices of Cohen’s death took note of the unique document that he left behind before he died: a no-holds-barred, angry memoir, titled “F***| You: Mr. President.”
It is an autobiography unlike anything ever published by a Manhattan Project insider. Cohen’s memoir lays bare a trove of revelations about the combustible mix of geniuses who came together for that historic enterprise — and self-revelations about Cohen’s own life and what motivated him to devote his career to wholesale death.
By the time of his demise, Cohen was a man made bitter by his frustrated legacy, by the fundamental disconnect between how he saw the neutron bomb, his prize creation — what he called “the most sane and moral weapon ever devised” — and the revulsion with which the world received it.
The neutron bomb was Cohen’s solution to a dilemma. He wanted to develop a battlefield weapon that would not be as totally or lastingly destructive of civilians and infrastructure as the atom or hydrogen bomb, but at the same time would achieve the ultimate purpose of war: to kill soldiers. His answer was a nuclear bomb that would produce very limited blast damage but would instead release almost all the energy created by nuclear fusion as radiation. Also, because the radiation would consist of neutrons, which carry no charge, no residual radioactivity would be released to poison the environment. It was, in effect, nuclear devastation gone green.
What this meant was that within a 1-mile radius of the bomb, soldiers — and any civilians around, as well — would die from shock to their central nervous systems. Buildings would remain intact, as would water systems and hospitals. But all life would cease.
Six different presidents refused to even consider Cohen’s bomb. Ronald Reagan was the first to warm to the concept and a version of the neutron bomb was created. But George H.W. Bush, not long after taking office, destroyed the weapon’s entire stock.
Cohen’s lifelong struggle to get presidential administrations to give an honest hearing to his ideas made him untrusting of government. But Cohen’s problem was not just the consistent objections that officials had to the neutron bomb. He himself, irreverent and almost compulsive about speaking his mind at all times, did not help his case. Unable to filter out undiplomatic, brutally honest thoughts, he was a terrible salesman.
“He was a disillusioned idealist,” said Charles Platt, a one-time editor at Wired magazine who became a friend of Cohen in his later years. “But he was also abrasive and confrontational. He never got angry with me, but it was clear he did have a temper. He was not a diplomat. And those personality traits were not a good recipe for trying to get people in government to do something they never imagined. He was definitely his own worst enemy.”
Among other things, Cohen thought it highly hypocritical — and wasn’t afraid to say so — when the effects of his bomb were labeled as somehow more brutal than other Cold War weapons of mass destruction.
“I doubt whether the agony an irradiated soldier goes through in the process of dying is any worse than that produced by having your body charred to a crisp by napalm, your guts being ripped apart by shrapnel, your lungs blown in by concussion weapons, and all those other sweet things that happen when conventional weapons (which are preferred and anointed by our official policy) are used,” he wrote in his memoir.
It is in this autobiography that Cohen laid out the story of his life and his many grievances against those who rejected his idea. Originally posted on the Internet under the title “Shame,” in 2005 Cohen revised the title to “F***| You! Mr. President,” an act that highlighted his contrarian, almost reckless nature.
Cohen’s children describe him as a workaholic who came to see the job of promoting the bomb as a kind of crusade. When these efforts were frustrated again and again, he felt betrayed by governments that seemed to him more driven by politics and money than by morality and truth.
“He was very slow to forgive,” said Carla Nagler, the eldest of his three children. “He never forgot. He was very wary of people when he felt he had been slighted or wronged. And very often he was.”
Nagler described her father’s commitment to psychotherapy. For long periods in his life he would go to therapy five times a week in the morning before work. His analyst actually told him that he had come to the end of his therapeutic work — a rarity in analysis — to which Cohen’s wife responded, according to Nagler, that she wanted their money back. Nagler said her father was fascinated by dreams and the subconscious. Freud, she said, “had a strong impact on his life.”
It’s an impact that is more than slightly hinted at it in his memoir, in which he describes how a troubled childhood with an abusive mother — “Torquemada in a Jewess’s clothing,” he called her — was much to blame for the bomb Cohen dreamed up and the difficulties he would face in his life.
Born in Brooklyn in 1921 to Jewish immigrants who had moved there from Austria via the poor East End of London, Cohen wrote of early years scarred by his mother’s bizarre health regimens. She monitored his bowel movements and forced him to drink carrot juice and take laxatives, worried that constipation would poison his body; made him endure daily showers in freezing cold water, and, believing that it was dangerous to breathe through your mouth, gagged him so that he would inhale through his nose. According to Nagler, who said she was always kept “at arm’s length” from her grandmother, the woman was not the “hideous monster” Cohen made her out to be.
But Cohen ascribed great significance to these childhood experiences, writing in his memoir that it was no coincidence that he became fascinated with the side effects of nuclear weapons on human beings. Because of his mother, he experienced during his childhood constant bouts of nausea and diarrhea — the primary symptoms of exposure to radiation.
“As to what extent this loving upbringing of mine affected my interest, make it obsession, in nuclear weapons whose principle effect was radiation, your guess is as good as mine,” Cohen wrote in his memoir. “Was this obsession over radiation an expression of the most insidious revenge I could think of against a monstrous enemy that had brutally attacked my beloved country and countrymen? Perhaps. Or was it an innate sadism resulting from all the masochism I must have reveled in as a loving child so lovingly cared for by his mother? Perhaps. Maybe those psychiatrists and psychologists who plumb the human mind would have a field day with me, trying to figure out how and why my mind has worked in the field of nuclear weaponry.”
Cohen took an unusual path to this field. He had just received his bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of California, Los Angeles, when World War II broke out. The Army sent him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and then to Los Alamos to help on the Manhattan Project. He worked there on “Fat Man,” the bomb that would be dropped on Nagasaki. There he saw Oppenheimer and Teller and the many other Jewish physicists who were building the deadliest weapon ever devised.
The question of why Jews were so drawn to this work does not have a simple answer, according to Martin J. Sherwin, co-author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer. But there is some historical context for this development.
“During the 1920s and 1930s, second-generation immigrants — Jews especially — had the opportunity to be educated at the highest levels,” Sherwin told the Forward. “Medical school admission was limited, but those with a scientific bent were able to get PhD degrees in mathematics, physics, chemistry, etc. Physics was going through an exciting transformation during these years; it was the cutting-edge science field, and it attracted smart young people of every background. It was a meritocracy, and that was appealing to Jewish students.”
While at Los Alamos, Cohen saw how the Jewish identity of his fellow scientists also influenced their work. In his memoir, he described a speech given by Oppenheimer just after the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, on August 6, 1945. The physicist, typically a subdued man, spoke in the tones of a conquering warrior and stated that his only regret, according to Cohen, was that the bomb hadn’t been ready in time to be dropped on Germany. This was a feeling shared by many Jewish scientists, Cohen wrote.
In his memoir, Cohen paints the relationship between Oppenheimer and Teller as a contentious one. The two would become archenemies after Teller testified against Oppenheimer in a hearing to revoke his security clearance because of suspicions about his Communist sympathies. In Los Alamos, Cohen thought both men could be “dramatic, overwhelming, megalomaniacal, self-serving, and event downright dishonest.”
Cohen wrote that “as bright and innovative as Teller was, his overall performance during the war left a lot to be desired. He was not content to be part of a team effort (like yours truly) and preferred to work off to the side on new and different and sometimes pretty far-out ideas (like yours truly). This caused considerable resentment. After all there was a war going on and most people thought future nuclear weapon concepts should be worked on sometime in the future after we had finished our primary assignment.”
As for his own Jewish identity, Cohen was an avowed atheist who was cremated after he died, against Jewish tradition. But still he was proud of being Jewish, his daughter said, and even had a kind of “arrogant attitude” about Jewish intelligence.
After the war, Cohen went to work for the RAND Corporation, the influential Cold War think tank, where he became a specialist in the radiological effects of nuclear weapons. It was at RAND, in the 1950s, after a visit to Korea during which he witnessed the devastation of that non-nuclear war, that he began to conceive of a new type of nuclear weapon.
“I’d seen countless pictures of Hiroshima by then, and what I saw in Seoul was precious little different,” Cohen wrote. “The question I asked of myself was something like: If we’re going to go on fighting these damned fool wars in the future, shelling and bombing cities to smithereens and wrecking the lives of their surviving inhabitants, might there be some kind of nuclear weapon that could avoid all this?”
Cohen, who never got a doctorate, said he invented the neutron bomb in 1958, using “a simple slide rule my dad had given me on my fifteenth birthday.”
The key to his “moral weapon” was in the redesign of the bombshell and its components, limiting the effects of the blast and releasing even more energy in the form of neutrons — subatomic particles that would go through tanks and buildings but would kill any living thing in less than an hour.
Cohen believed that this was a way to make nuclear weapons more tactical and limit the incredible devastation caused by Teller’s giant hydrogen bomb. The neutron bomb could be deployed in such a way that its effects would be felt by only enemy soldiers (and any hapless civilians) within a limited geographical area.
“This invention was the work of a college dropout,” Cohen wrote, referring to the fact the he never obtained a doctorate. “Not a scholar, or an intellectual or creative in the sense that one would describe a composer, an artist, a poet. I simply happened to be fascinated with what most were revolted by — the military uses of radiation.”
The idea met fierce criticism. One American president after another thought it would shift the balance of power between the United States and the Soviets to such a degree as to be dangerous. And, ironically, they feared that unlike the lethal, large bombs, proliferation of the neutron bomb risked making the use of nuclear weapons in warfare more commonplace. The Soviets saw in the bomb a capitalist weapon. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev famously said it was created “to kill a man in such a way that his suit will not be stained with blood, in order to appropriate the suit.”
But Cohen promoted his weapon relentlessly through his work at RAND, and continued once he was forced into an early retirement from the think tank in 1969, after his superiors grew annoyed with his incessant attempts to bring nuclear weapons to the battlefield. Only in 1981 did Reagan take Cohen on as a policy adviser early in his presidency and agree to develop 700 neutron bombs. But, according to Cohen’s memoir, they were designed in such a way that they undermined his purpose, exploding close enough to the ground to cause more damage than he intended. The weapon was never integrated into America’s arsenal and was eventually scraped completely by George H.W. Bush. By then, Cohen had retired.
Until the end, he resented those who made nuclear policy for the United States. He believed they were willfully ignorant of their own country’s capabilities and those of the enemy. In his mind, politics and money constantly muddied everything, obscuring what should have been a reasoned debate about how best to use nuclear warfare in the defense of America. He seems to have been most perturbed by those who lacked humility in the face of these deadly weapons, who claimed to understand what was ultimately “unknowable.” For these policymakers, he had harsh judgment: “At best, their behavior was hallucinatory; at worst they were just crooks and liars.”
Sherwin, the Oppenheimer biographer, in describing the problems his subject faced once he turned against his own creation and condemned nuclear weapons in the middle of the Cold War, could have been speaking about the sad fate of Cohen, as well.
“Science policy debates, whether they are over nuclear weapons or health care policy, can be as nasty and vicious as debates over immigration or taxes,” Sherwin said. “If you engage in any of those debates as a major player, you have to be ready to be bitterly assaulted by those who oppose you. Facts are not a shield against stupidity, and that is a difficult concept for scientists to grasp.”
Cohen might have chosen this as the truest epitaph for himself.
Contact Gal Beckerman at [email protected] or on Twitter @galbeckerman
A few choice quotes from “F*| You, Mr. President!” Samuel T. Cohen’s self-published online book:**
‘As for my inventing the neutron bomb, over my dead body will I admit to any feeling of shame.’
‘As for the people mainly responsible for [U.S. nuclear weapons] policies…at best, their behavior was hallucinatory; at worst, they were just crooks and liars.’
‘It was this kind of nefarious and dangerous behavior by politicians and ideologues, in not giving the American people an honest account of our nuclear policies, that finally made me so intolerant, rebellious and openly contemptuous of the U.S. defense establishment that I was kicked out of it.’
‘As for my attitude over the way my countrymen have regarded and treated this weapon, I’ve had precious little respect and frequently downright contempt for their attitude. Which, I believe, speaks shamefully for me as an American and as a human being.’
‘I’m a lousy Jew, but beneath the surface I’m really Jewish. I can’t help it.’