Scientists At War


Only through a great deal of effort and a bit of luck did RAND learn of this development at all. Information about anything related to atomic weapons was tightly held. A Q clearance—the very restrictive Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) code word for all atomic energy data—was required before one could even hear the magic phrase “intercontinental ballistic missile.” Special subsets of Q were needed to learn much more. Before 1947 the AEC denied these special clearances to anyone at RAND, a state that would have made atomic bomb research impossible. In July of that year, however, after General LeMay turned on some pressure, the AEC gave in and granted clearances to a few analysts. By October the Air Force made it clear to the AEC that RAND would be increasingly active in studies on weapons design, weapons effects, and targeting. The restrictions were loosened still further.


Early in 1948 a physics division was set up at RAND, with a staff of three—the director, David Griggs, Ernst Plesset, and Sam Cohen. Shortly after, Griggs went to teach at UCLA (though he stayed at RAND part-time), Plesset took over the division, and others joined. During the war Plesset had done instrumentation work at Douglas Aircraft and was the only physicist in the company. He joined RAND in its early days. In 1949 he took some time off to work at the JCS Weapons Systems Evaluation Group in Washington. Piesset was in Washington the day the Russians exploded their first atomic bomb. By coincidence, so was Edward Teller, a brash, brilliant Hungarian émigré who had been a physicist on the Manhattan Project and who was devoting most of his time to trying to convince people that the United States should pursue research on fusion technology, the process that would make a hydrogen bomb implode. It was Plesset who brought Teller in touch, just after the Soviet explosion, with several high-ranking Air Force officers to talk about atomic energy and the Super.

Plesset remained close friends with Teller, and—like most of the RAND physicists—had fairly close contacts at the Los Alamos weapons laboratory. Through these connections, and especially through Teller, Plesset learned in 1951 that the H-bomb appeared feasible; that Teller and another physicist, Stanislaw Ulam, had worked out its physics and its design, at least theoretically; that certain implosion devices had been tested; that it would almost certainly be only a matter of time (and money) before an operational Super bomb became a major part of the U.S. Strategic Air Command arsenal.

Plesset knew that Frank Collbohm, RAND’s president, loved a good secret, and this was the greatest of the decade, maybe the century. Plesset told Collbohm that the H-bomb was soon to be a reality. Then he made a proposition. What if a few RAND analysts got together and analyzed the implications of such a weapon—its physics, its destructive magnitude, its technical and strategic and military implications? RAND could time the study so that it would be ready for briefings at just the moment that Los Alamos officially announced the weapon’s feasibility to the administration. Everyone would be interested in hearing the briefing—the air staff, the secretary of war, the secretary of state, probably the President of the United States.

Plesset had already arranged such a deal with Los Alamos director Norris Bradbury, using a similar appeal. When you announce the bomb’s feasibility, Plesset had told Bradbury, Los Alamos should be in a position to interpret its implications, and that’s where RAND comes in. Bradbury had agreed. So, predictably, had Collbohm.

For security reasons, an electronic door separated the physicists from all the other divisions, and the physics division was generally not on good terms with much of the rest of RAND. Physicists looked down on social science and economics: their attitude was that designing a bomb was real science and that the business about analysis was peripheral at best. In return, many in the social science and economics divisions looked upon the physicists as arrogant elitists who knew nothing about politics, who foolishly thought that all problems could be solved by hardware, and whose inbred tendencies and extreme secrecy were inimical to the pursuit of scholarship and to the very purpose of RAND.

Still, for this project on the implications of the hydrogen bomb, Plesset knew that the other divisions of RAND would be of invaluable assistance. He picked three other analysts to work on the project with him: Charlie Hitch, head of the economics division; Jim Lipp, head of the missiles division; and Bernard Brodie, a new employee with social science.