Scientists At War

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The choices were obvious ones. Hitch had assessed bomb damage in World War II for an Anglo-American unit of the OSS called RE-8. He would be ideal for calculating how much damage the hydrogen bomb could do to the Soviet economy. In 1946 Brodie had written the book on the strategic implications of the atomic bomb, The Absolute Weapon, and in 1950-1951 had done targeting analysis for Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force Chief of Staff. He would be best for thinking through this new weapon’s strategic impact. Lipp, a highly competent scientist who had directed RAND’s project on earth-circling satellites, was assigned the task of figuring out the tactical implications of the H-bomb in a European war. Plesset gave himself the job of presenting details on the Super’s technical aspects, with assistance from others in the physics division who would do some calculations for him without knowing of this particular project’s existence. It was a very secretive affair.

“SOMETHING TERRIBLE IS GOING ON”

IN DECEMBER 1951 the four-man team began work. At the beginning it was a rather mechanical task. Plesset knew from Los Alamos scientists that the H-bomb could release the explosive energy of one million or five million or ten or twenty million tons of TNT. The Nagasaki bomb, by comparison, had released the equivalent of twenty thousand tons—or twenty kilotons. A new term had been invented for the grander scale of the H-bomb: megaton . Plesset and some others in physics drew some “lay-down” circles, indicating the radius of various types of damage—blast, heat, prompt radiation—produced by bombs of one to twenty megatons. Hitch, Brodie, and Lipp took these circles and laid them over maps of various kinds of targets—cities, built-up industrial complexes, battlefields—scaled to the same dimension as the circles.

Suddenly the job was not so mechanical. It became, for some on the project, the most unsettling and gruesome work they had ever encountered.

Charlie Hitch had grown somewhat inured to looking at the consequences of strategic bombing while working at RE-8 in England during World War II. But the analysts at RE-8 had measured the damage in terms of thousands of square feet. Plesset’s damage circles showed that a five- or ten-megaton hydrogen bomb would kill people within fifty square miles of ground zero and would severely burn people and topple buildings within three hundred square miles. At RE-8 Hitch had dealt with bombing raids involving hundreds of airplanes, producing thousands—at the very most, tens of thousands—of civilian casualties. Laying Plesset’s circles on various maps revealed that a mere fifty-five H-bombs of twenty megatons each would completely wipe out the fifty largest cities of the Soviet Union, killing thirty-five million Russians, all in a matter of minutes. And that assumed that the urban population would have the protection of World War II-type shelters. Even when Hitch, along with Brodie, tried to simulate attacks that would damage the most important industrial complexes while minimizing casualties, ten or eleven million Soviet civilians would die.

A later generation of defense analysts would toss these figures around with casual aplomb; but in early 1952 nobody had ever dreamed of such massive destruction. Nobody had ever killed thirty-five million people on a sheet of paper before. To those who did it for the first time, the experience was shocking.

Charlie Hitch’s wife called John Williams’s wife one morning and asked, “What’s happening at RAND? Charlie comes home, he barely says hello, he is uncivil, and after dinner he just locks himself up in his study. Something terrible is going on there.”

For Jim Lipp it was too much to bear. He was a gentle man, the sort of person who told friends that, when it came to nuclear weapons, he cared about his grandchildren and his grandchildren’s grandchildren. Lipp laid Plesset’s damage circles over a map of Western Europe to see how many soldiers and civilians would be killed if H-bombs were used on the battefield. After doing some calculations, he discovered that, even under the best of circumstances, nearly two million people would be killed. He nearly threw up. After three weeks of this sort of work, lasting late into the night nearly every night, Lipp dropped out of the project.

Bernard Brodie was supposed to think about the strategic implications of all this. The calculations of bomb damage done by his colleagues pushed Brodie even further along a line of thinking that he had begun to pursue one year earlier while examining the U.S. targeting plans for Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg.