The Politics of Scientific Knowledge: A Case Study

By James A. Chisem

United States Atomic Energy Commission, General Advisory Committee. Majority and Minority Reports on Building the Hydrogen-Bomb (Washington DC: USAEC, 1949).

On September 1st, 1949, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) informed President Harry S. Truman that a WB-29 reconnaissance aircraft had detected a significant quantity of radiological debris in the atmosphere over Soviet Central Asia. After two weeks of frantic, exhaustive analysis, AEC physicists concluded that this kind of radioactive pollution could only have been produced by a sizeable atomic explosion. For the Truman administration, the news that the American atomic monopoly had passed was both unexpected and troubling, especially since it came on the heels of the Berlin blockade and the mounting successes of Mao Zedong’s communist forces in China.[1]

Initially, the White House responded by instructing the Department of Defence to expand the United States’ atomic stockpile. However, several key government figures were quick to point out that such a measure would act as a stop-gap at best. It would only be a matter of time before the Soviets began mass-producing the bomb, and when they did, it was thought that the resulting atomic stalemate would leave U.S. conventional forces in Europe at a disadvantage. Fortunately, there was another option on the table—the United States could build a so-called ‘superbomb’. After some vigorous encouragement from Lewis Strauss, Truman decided to instruct the relevant government departments, agencies, and organisations to consider whether it was in the national interest to undertake a crash-programme aimed at developing such a device.[2] As part of this process, the AEC asked its General Advisory Committee (GAC)—a body chaired by J. Robert Oppenheimer and comprised for the most part of respected atomic scientists—to put together a short report on the scientific and technical aspects of thermonuclear weaponry (p.1).


Working with the utmost haste and under a considerable amount of pressure, the committee completed its task on October 30th. Its recommendation was clear, unanimous, and unyielding—the United States should not develop the ‘super’. To do so, the report concluded, would be morally wrong, strategically unnecessary, and diplomatically irresponsible. The panel was adamant that the destructive potential of thermonuclear weapons put them in a completely “different category” from their atomic counterparts (p.5). Since their detonation would “damage an area of the order of hundreds of square miles” and “unleash thermal radiation effects extending over a comparable area”, the new bombs would be weapons of genocide devoid of military utility (p.4). What is more, the report argued that even if the Soviets successfully developed their own ‘super’—which was by no means a foregone conclusion—Strategic Air Command’s large arsenal of atomic bombs would still provide a credible deterrent against the Kremlin’s threats (p.5). Whilst the majority of committee members felt that this was reason enough to reject the president’s proposal, Enrico Fermi and Isidor Isaac Rabi went one step further. In a minority addendum attached to the report, they suggested that the United States should publically repudiate the possession of fusion technology in a bid to put international atomic control back on the agenda (p.6).

What is particularly interesting about the GAC’s report is the curiously lopsided manner in which it deals with the various facets of the nuclear question. Having been asked to study the technical feasibility of constructing a thermonuclear warhead, it seems rather surprising that committee chose to focus so heavily on the moral implications of such a venture. Indeed, the majority opinion—most likely written by Oppenheimer himself—does not even make reference to the industrial, scientific, and procedural issues at play. Instead, it explicitly states that the report’s recommendation is based on the normative inclinations of its authors. Whether this approach to the job at hand was prudent or not is a moot point. There is no doubt that the committee’s intimate knowledge of the physics of nuclear explosions gave them a unique understanding of the “extreme dangers to mankind” posed by a world full of ‘superbombs’ (p.5). One cannot help but wonder, though, whether the GAC could have made more of an effort to balance its proselytising with hard-headed scientific analysis.[3]


Whatever the case, the GAC’s final report did not find a receptive audience in Washington. Although the committee’s apocalyptic rendering of the H-Bomb wedged its way into the memoranda flitting back and forth between the Oval Office, the Pentagon, and the State Department, the political bureaucracy took a very different view of its significance. For if this new weapon was so powerful—more powerful than anything that had gone before—then how could they be sure that the increasingly belligerent Politburo would refrain from developing it? The answer was that they could not, and this is something that Oppenheimer and his colleagues failed to seriously consider in their report.[4] By 1949, the domestic and international political climate was simply not conducive to grand conciliatory gestures. And as the Joint Chiefs of Staff pointed out, the “possession of a thermonuclear weapon by the USSR without such possession by the United States would be intolerable.”[5] Ultimately, it was this argument which carried the day. During a National Security Council meeting held on January 31st, 1950, Truman bluntly asked: “Can the Russians do it?” All those present confirmed that they could.  “In that case”, Truman replied, “we have no choice. We’ll go ahead.”[6]


Given its seemingly perfunctory nature, a number of scholars have used the GAC report to back-up the claim made by revisionist historians such as William Appleman Williams that the United States was predominantly to blame for the onset and perpetuation of the Cold War.[7] While such an interpretation is not without merit, I would be so bold as to suggest that it is lacking in historical context. After all, the cliché that “it takes two to tango” is true in this case—as David Holloway notes, Stalin was an especially enthusiastic dance partner.[8] To my mind, the value of this document goes beyond arcane historiographical debates: it highlights the tension which exists between idealism and realism, ethics and exigency, erudition and governance; it gives us a remarkable insight into the role of scientific knowledge in the world of Machtpolitik; and it reminds us that states and governments are not monolithic entities. For these reasons, students of history, strategy, and international relations all have something to learn from the GAC report of October 1949.

James A. Chisem is an editor and writer at Atlantic Bulletin.


[1] Craig, Campbell and Fredrik Lovegall. America’s Cold War: The Politics of Insecurity (Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 2009) p.102-105.

[2] Ibid. p.106. The idea to construct a ‘superbomb’ (or as it became known, a hydrogen/thermonuclear bomb)—an immensely destructive device which harnesses the power of nuclear fusion, as opposed to fission—had been around since at least 1942. Also see: Hewlett, Richard and Francis Duncan. Atomic Shield: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Volume II, 1947-1952 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962) p.374.

[3] At around the same time Dean Acheson asked the director of the Policy Planning Staff, George Kennan, to provide his opinion on the ‘super’. Kennan came to the same conclusion as the GAC, though via a different route.  Gaddis, John Lewis. George Kennan: An American Life (New York: Penguin Press, 2009) p.377-381.

[4] The report talks about the atom bomb as an insurance, but the authors do not fully explore the strategic impact of potential nuclear asymmetry.

[5] Craig, Campbell. Destroying the Village: Eisenhower and Thermonuclear War (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) p.28.

[6] Ibid. p.29.

[7] For revisionism: Appleman Williams, William. The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2009: 1st edition: 1959). On GAC and revisionism: York, Herbert. The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Superbomb (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1989: 1st edition: 1976) pp.55-80.

[8] Holloway, David. The Soviet Union and the Arms Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983). And: Holloway, David. Stalin and the Bomb: The Soviet Union and Atomic Energy, 1939-1956 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1994).


General Advisory Committee’s Majority and Minority Reports on Building the H-Bomb

Washington DC

Dear Mr. Lilienthal:

At the request of the Commission, the seventeenth meeting of the General Advisory Committee was held in Washington on October 29 and 30, 1949 to consider some aspects of the question of whether the Commission was making all appropriate progress in assuring the common defense and security. Dr. Seaborg’s absence in Europe prevented his attending this meeting. For purposes of background, the Committee met with the Counsellor of the State Department, with Dr. Henderson of AEC Intelligence, with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Chairman of the Military Liaison Committee, the Chairman of the Weapons Systems Evaluation Group, General Norstadt and Admiral Parsons. In addition, as you know, we have had intimate consultations with the Commission itself.

The report which follows falls into three parts. The first describes certain recommendations for action by the Commission directed toward the common defense and security. The second is an account of the nature of the super project and of the super as a weapon, together with certain comments on which the Committee is unanimously agreed. Attached to the report, but not a part of it, are recommendations with regard to action on the super project which reflect the opinions of Committee members.

The Committee plans to hold plans to hold its eighteenth meeting in the city of Washington on December 1, 2 and 3, 1949. At that time we hope to return to many of the questions which we could not deal with at this meeting.

J. R. Oppenheimer



David E. Lilienthal
U.S. Atomic Energy Commission
Washington 25, DC


(1) PRODUCTION. With regard to the present scale of production of fissionable material, the General Advisory Committee has a recommendation to make the Commission. We are not satisfied that the present scale represents either the maximum or the optimum scale. We recognize the statutory and appropriate role of the National Military Establishment in helping to determine that. We believe, however, that before this issue can be settled, it will be desirable to have from the Commission a careful analysis of what the capacities are which are not now being employed. Thus we have in mind that an acceleration of the program on beneficiation of low grade ores could well turn out to be possible. We have in mind that further plants, both separation and reactor, might be built, more rapidly to convert raw material into fissionable material. It would seem that some notion of the costs, yields and time scales for such undertakings would have to precede any realistic evaluation of what we should do. We recommend that the Commission undertake such studies at high priority. We further recommend that projects should not be dismissed because they are expensive but that their expense be estimated.

(2) TACTICAL DELIVERY. The General Advisory Committed recommends to the Commission an intensification of efforts to make atomic weapons available for tactical purposes, and to give attention to the problem of integration of bomb and carrier design in this field.

(3) NEUTRON PRODUCTION. The General Advisory Committee recommends to the Commission the prompt initiation of a project for the production of freely absorbable neutrons. With regard to the scale of this project the figure per day may give a reasonable notion. Unless obstacles appear, we suggest that the expediting of design be assigned to the Argonne National Laboratory.

With regard to the purposes for which these neutrons may be required, we need to make more explicit statements. The principal purposes are the following:

(a) The production of U-233.
(b) The production of radiological warfare agents.
(c) Supplemental facilities for the test of reactor components.
(d) The conversion of U-235 to plutonium.
(e) A secondary facility for plutonium production.
(f) The production of tritium (1) for boosters, (2) for super bombs.

We view these varied objectives in a quite different light. We have a great interest in the U-233 program, both for military and for civil purposes. We strongly favor, subject to favorable outcome of the 1951 Eniwetok tests, the booster program. With regard to radiological warfare, we would not wish to alter the position previously taken by our Committee. With regard to the conversion to plutonium, we would hardly believe that this alone could justify the construction of these reactors, though it may be important should unanticipated difficulties appear in the U-233 and booster programs. With regard to the use of tritium in the super bomb, it is our unanimous hope that this will not prove necessary. It is the opinion of the majority that the super program itself should no be undertaken and that the Commission and its contractors understand that construction of neutron producing reactors is not intended as a step in the super program.



The General Advisory Committee has considered at great length the question of whether to pursue with high priority the development of the super bomb. No member of the Committee was willing to endorse this proposal. The reasons for our views leading to this conclusion stem in large part from the technical nature of the super and of the work necessary to establish it as a weapon. We therefore here transmit an elementary account of these matters.

The basic principle of design of the super bomb is the ignition of the thermo-nuclear DD reaction by the use of a fission bomb, and of high temperatures, pressure, and neutron densities which accompany it. In overwhelming probability, tritium is required as an intermediary, more easily ignited than the deuterium itself and, in turn, capable of igniting the deuterium. The steps which need to be taken if the super bomb is to become a reality include:

(1) The provision of tritium in amounts perhaps of several per unit.
(2) Further theoretical studies and criticisms aimed at reducing the very great uncertainties still inherent in the behavior of this weapon under extreme conditions of temperature, pressure and flow. (3) The engineering of designs which may on theoretical grounds appear hopeful, particularly with regard to the problems presented.
(4) Carefully instrumented test programs to determine whether the deuterium-tritium mixture will be ignited by the fission bomb.

It is notable that there appears to be no experimental approach short of actual test which will substantially add to our conviction that a given model will or will not work, and it is also notable that because of the unsymmetric and extremely unfamiliar conditions obtaining, some considerable doubt will surely remain as to the soundness of theoretical anticipation. Thus we are faced with a development which cannot be carried to the point of conviction without the actual construction and demonstration of the essential elements of the weapon in question. This does not mean that further theoretical studies would be without avail. It does mean that they could not be decisive. A final point that needs to be stressed is that many tests may be required before a workable model has been evolved or before it has been established beyond reasonable doubt that no such model can be evolved. Although we are not able to give a specific probability rating for any given model, we believe that an imaginative and concerted attack on the problem has a better than even chance of producing the weapon within five years.

A second characteristic of the super bomb is that once the problem of initiation has been solved, there is no limit to the explosive power of the bomb itself except that imposed by requirements of delivery. This is because one can continue to add deuterium-an essentially cheap material-to make larger and larger explosions, the energy release and radioactive products of which are both proportional to the amount of deuterium itself. Taking into account the probable limitations of carries likely to be available for the delivery of such a weapon, it has generally been estimated that the weapon would have an explosive effect some hundreds of times that of present fission bombs. This would correspond to a damage area of the order of hundreds of square miles, to thermal radiation effects extending over a comparable area, and to very grave contamination problems which can easily be made more acute, and may possibly be rendered less acute, by surrounding the deuterium with uranium or other material. It needs to be borne in mind that for delivery by ship, submarine or other such carrier, the limitations here outlined no longer apply and that the weapon is from a technical point of view without limitations with regard to the damage that it can inflict.

It is clear 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. It is of course true that super bombs which are not as big as those here contemplated could be made, provided the initiating mechanism works. In this case, however, there appears to be no chance of their being an economical alternative to the fission weapons themselves. It is clearly impossible with the vagueness of design and the uncertainty as to performance as we have them at present to give anything like a cost estimate of the super. If one uses the strict criteria of damage area per dollar and if one accepts the limitations on air carrier capacity likely to obtain in the years immediately ahead, it appears uncertain to us whether the super will be cheaper or more expensive that the fission bomb.


Although the members of the Advisory Committee are not unanimous in their proposals as to what should be done with regard to the super bomb, there are certain elements of unanimity among us. We all hope that by one means or another, the development of these weapons can be avoided. We are all reluctant to see the United States take the initiative in precipitating this development. We are all agreed that it would be wrong at the present moment to commit ourselves to an all-out effort toward its development.

We are somewhat divided as to the nature of the commitment not to develop the weapon. The majority feel that this should be an unqualified commitment. Others feel that it should be made conditional on the response of the Soviet government to a proposal to renounce such development. The Committee recommends that enough be declassified about the super bomb so that a public statement of policy can be made at this time. Such a statement might in our opinion point to the use of deuterium as the principal source of energy. It need not discuss initiating mechanisms nor the role which we believe tritium will play. It should explain that the weapon cannon be explored without developing it and proof-firing it. In one form or another, the statement should express our desire not to make this development. It should explain the scale and general nature of the destruction which its use would entail. It should make clear that there are no known or foreseen nonmilitary applications of this development. The separate views of the members of the Committee are attached to this report for your use.

J.R. Oppenheimer

October 30, 1949

We have been asked by the Commission whether or not they should immediately initiate an “all-out” effort to develop a weapon whose energy release is 100 to 1000 times greater and whose destructive power in terms of area of damage is 20 to 100 times greater than those of the present atomic bomb. We recommend strongly against such action.

We base our recommendation on our belief that the extreme dangers to mankind inherent in the proposal wholly outweigh any military advantage that could come from this development. Let it be clearly realized that this is a super weapon; it is in a totally different category from an atomic bomb. The reason for developing such super bombs would be to have the capacity to devastate a vast area with a single bomb. Its use would involve a decision to slaughter a vast number of civilians. We are alarmed as to the possible global effects of the radioactivity generated by the explosion of a few super bombs of conceivable magnitude. If super bombs will work at all, there is no inherent limit in the destructive power that may be attained with them. Therefore, a super bomb might become a weapon of genocide.

The existence of such a weapon in our armory would have far-reaching effects on world opinion; reasonable people the world over would realize that the existence of a weapon of this type whose power of destruction is essentially unlimited represents a threat to the future of the human race which is intolerable. Thus we believe that the psychological effect of the weapon in our hands would be adverse to out interest.

We believe a super bomb should never be produced. Mankind would be far better off not to have a demonstration of the feasibility of such a weapon, until the present climate of world opinion changes.

It is by no means certain that the weapon can be developed at all and by no means certain that the Russians will produce one within a decade. 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.

In determining not to proceed to develop the super bomb, we see a unique opportunity of providing by example some limitations on the totality of war and thus of limiting the fear and arousing the hopes of mankind.

James B. Conant
Hartley Rowe
Cyril Stanley Smith
L. A. DuBridge
Oliver E. Buckley
J. R. Oppenheimer


October 30, 1949

A decision on the proposal that an all-out effort be undertaken for the development of the “Super” cannot in our opinion be separated from consideration of broad national policy. A weapon like the “Super” is only an advantage when its energy release is from 100-1000 times greater than that of ordinary atomic bombs. The area of destruction therefore would run from 150 to approximately 1000 square miles or more.

Necessarily such a weapon goes far beyond any military objective and enters the range of very great natural catastrophes. By its very nature it cannot be confined to a military objective but becomes a weapon which in practical effect is almost one of genocide.

It is clear that the use of such a weapon cannot be justified on any ethical ground which gives a human being a certain individuality and dignity even if he happens to be a resident of an enemy country. It is evident to us that this would be the view of peoples in other countries. Its use would put the United States in a bad moral position relative to the peoples of the world.

Any postwar situation resulting from such a weapon would leave unresolvable enmities for generations. A desirable peace cannot come from such an inhuman application of force. The postwar problems would dwarf the problems which confront us at present.

The application of this weapon with the consequent great release of radioactivity would have results unforeseeable at present, but would certainly render large areas unfit for habitation for long periods of time.

The fact that no limits exist to the destructiveness of this weapon makes its very existence and the knowledge of its construction a danger to humanity as a whole. It is necessarily an evil thing considered in any light.

For these reasons we believe it important for the President of the United States to tell the American public, and the world, that we think it wrong on fundamental ethical principles to initiate a program of development of such a weapon. At the same time it would be appropriate to invite the nations of the world to join us in a solemn pledge not to proceed in the development or construction of weapons of this category. If such a pledge were accepted even without control machinery, it appears highly probable that an advanced stage of development leading to a test by another power could be detected by available physical means. Furthermore, we have our possession, in our stockpile of atomic bombs, the means for adequate “military” retaliation for the production or use of a “super.”

E. Fermi
I. I. Rabi




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