The Peril of the Hydrogen Bomb



[Part 1 of 2]

“The question of an atomic war is not an ordinary political question. It is of equal concern to the left-winger, the right-winger, and the man in the middle of the road. The hydrogen bomb would not discriminate – it would kill them all. This problem, of an atomic war, must not be confused by minor problems, such as communism vs. capitalism, the existence of dictatorships, the trend toward socialism, the problem of race and class discrimination. It is a problem that overwhelms them – and if it can be solved, they too can be solved.”

-Linus Pauling, 1950.

In January 1950, President Harry S. Truman announced that the U.S. military was pursuing the development of an incredibly powerful atomic bomb. The new and mysterious weapon was rumored to be many times more destructive than any nuclear weapon that had yet been detonated. The declaration was a heavy blow to Linus Pauling and others already opposed to nuclear weapons production, a movement which was now further isolated from official U.S. policy.

To understand the import of Truman’s announcement, it is first necessary to understand the reaction mechanics of the various types of atomic bombs then in development. The cores of first generation atomic bombs were composed of concentrated and heavily enriched uranium or plutonium isotope spheres. Though several methods were devised to catalyze the nuclear reactions necessary for an atomic blast, the first atomic test at Alamogordo, New Mexico used TNT implosion for detonation. When the first atomic bomb was detonated during “the Trinity test,” TNT charges surrounding the bomb caused an explosion on all sides of the radioactive material, forcing it to compress and destabilize its molecular composition. Fission resulted from the splitting of radioactive nuclei, subsequently unleashing a chain reaction that released unprecedented amounts of force.

A different method was used to begin the chain reaction within “Little Boy,” the first atomic bomb ever used in combat. To initiate the Little Boy reaction, a specially tailored gun barrel was used to shoot a uranium projectile into a sphere of enriched uranium.

The hydrogen bomb, in contrast, used principles of both fission and fusion. Fusion, the process by which the sun generates such vast quantities of light and heat, is a process wherein the nuclei of light elements are fused to form heavier elements. This fusion of light elements is capable of liberating far more energy than is atomic bomb fission; however a large amount of energy is required to initiate the reaction.

The first hydrogen bombs were more or less conventional Little Boy-style atomic weapons surrounded by densely packed atoms of hydrogen and other light elements. The primary purpose of the atomic bomb that formed the core of a hydrogen bomb then, was essentially to catalyze an even larger reaction.

In order to help people understand the differences in explosive magnitude created by atomic bombs versus hydrogen bombs, Linus Pauling often compared their relative power to scalable amounts of TNT.  In his book No More War! (1958), Pauling wrote

The Nagasaki and Hiroshima bombs had explosive energy somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 tons of TNT. Each of them was accordingly about 15,000 or 20,000 times more powerful than a one-ton blockbuster. Each was about 1,000 times as powerful as the greatest of the great bombs with conventional explosives used in the Second World War.

The bomb that could destroy the greatest city in the world and kill ten million people is not something imaginary. Bombs of this sort – hydrogen bombs and super-bombs – have been made and have been exploded. Bombs have been tested that have an explosive power as great as 15 megatons – an explosive power equivalent to 15 million tons of TNT, 15 million one-ton blockbusters.

Each one of these bombs is one-thousand times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb or the Nagasaki bomb. Each one of them has an explosive energy five times as great as that of all of the bombs used in the Second World War.

Pauling had been gravely concerned about the possibility of atomic war between the United States and Russia well before development of the hydrogen bomb. However, the destructive potential of a single hydrogen bomb, as well as the conclusiveness of the decision to pursue its development, gave him much greater cause for concern. Pauling was alarmed by the post-war escalation of international tensions, and feared that production of such powerful weapons could instigate an accelerated arms race, ushering in an era shadowed even further by the threat of full-scale nuclear war. Pauling believed that heightened diplomacy and improved international relations were the keys to finding an agreeable solution, and that the development of the hydrogen bomb sowed new doubts about the feasibility of a peaceful, institutionally backed solution.


Harold Urey, 1930s


As discussion of the hydrogen bomb became more public, the possibility of consensus on the matter grew ever more remote. The seemingly irreconcilable positions surrounding hydrogen bomb policy led to the fracturing and destabilization of several associations, including the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists (ECAS). The ECAS, chaired by Albert Einstein, spent a substantial amount of time and energy addressing the need to place atomic weapons under international oversight, stressing the growing importance of an effective world government.

Many members of the ECAS, including Pauling, were vehemently opposed to the development of the hydrogen bomb. Others, particularly Harold Urey, favored pursuit of the new weapon, arguing that the Soviet Union would begin production of the bomb regardless of U.S. intentions. This difference of opinion turned out to be too great, and the ensuing debate was in part responsible for Urey’s resignation from the group. Afterwards, faced with a number of other difficulties, the committee chose to disband.

The severity of Pauling’s disagreement with Harold Urey and others became altogether too much to contain. Pauling gave hundreds of speeches during the 1950s which addressed the pressing threat of deteriorating international relations and atomic war. While his speeches and talks stressed the dangers of the hydrogen bomb, nuclear weapons proliferation and world war, they also accentuated peaceful negotiation as the only realistic solution.  As he noted in his 1954 talk “The World Problem and the Hydrogen Bomb

…Atomic energy should be used for the welfare and not the destruction of mankind. The statement of Mr. Churchill that ‘atom bombs are a terrible means of maintaining the rule of law in the world’ is no longer valid. The atom bomb and the hydrogen bomb have become powerful weapons of destruction in the hands of powerful nations, opposed to one another. If international affairs continue along the lines characteristic of the whole past history of the world, we shall sooner or later see the outbreak of a hydrogen-bomb war. No nation will benefit from such a war – it may be expected confidently that a hydrogen-bomb war, if it comes, will result in the destruction of most of the cities in the world, the death of hundreds of millions of people, the end of the present civilized world.

4 Responses

  1. On a related topic, I’m curious as to what LP’s public position and private thoughts were on Nuclear Winter (from the 1980’s). Did he support or promote it or if not, then why (not)?

    Perhaps a future topic for “The Pauling Blog”; I would be most interested in learning more.

  2. […] the great time demands required by his ambitious program of protein research. However, after the US detonated the first hydrogen bomb in 1954 and the term “fallout” started to become more commonplace, Pauling’s vigor as an […]

  3. […] increasingly powerful bombs – especially the hydrogen bomb – were developed in greater quantities, Pauling’s concern grew accordingly. In 1955 he […]

  4. […] increasingly powerful bombs – especially the hydrogen bomb – were developed in greater quantities, Pauling’s concern grew accordingly. In 1955 he signed […]

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