DAMN THE TORPEDOES
November 1950-April 1951
AS I WRITE this, I am on my way home to Stanford from one of my fairly frequent visits to Los Alamos. It has developed into an attractive, intellectual, and remarkably homogeneous community. It is forever grateful to Oppenheimer for its fabulous location and its dramatic beginnings. It is also liberal in the sense that great differences of opinion are easily tolerated. The period I must now write about, the early 1950s, was a critical period in its development and full of controversy. It is impossible to look back to those times without some feeling of confusion.
Today, the Soviet Union has ceased to exist. I do not believe that the massive military spending and the expansionist policy in the Soviet Union in the second half of the twentieth century could have been contained if the United States had not used technology. Only advanced technology made it possible to provide the necessary military preparedness without the expenditure of enormous amounts of money. The work at Los Alamos was the starting point of an important portion of that technology. Yet, during this period, the question was raised as to whether a truly innovative effort in technology should be undertaken or avoided. The turning point came in the early 1950s. I was in the middle of those events.
In retrospect, neither Truman's decision to develop a thermonuclear weapon nor the variety of the scientists' responses to that decision are surprising. What I never expected were the difficulties and increasing doubts about the feasibility of the Super. In the fall of 1950, when Johnny von Neumann, with the help of his wife, Klári, completed the pertinent calculations on the ENIAC, those doubts were greatly reinforced. The calculations indicated that our design would not work.