[ RadSafe ] F--- You, Mr President!: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb
cary.renquist at ezag.com
Mon Dec 6 11:06:35 CST 2010
Samuel Cohen, who died on Sunday aged 89, was the American physicist who
developed the neutron bomb, a small nuclear device which has the ability
to kill people, while causing little damage to buildings and other
Cohen developed the "enhanced radiation weapon" for battlefield use at
the height of the Cold War in 1958. Instead of releasing explosive
energy like a conventional nuclear weapon, the neutron bomb works by
releasing a burst of infinitesimally small neutron particles which can
pass through tanks and buildings but will cause lethal damage to the
nuclei of living cells. While a conventional nuclear device leaves
behind radioactive debris that can contaminate an area for years or
decades, a neutron bomb's radiation quickly dissipates.
Cohen described his device as "the most sane and moral weapon ever
invented" because "when the war is over, the world is still intact". On
the whole the world did not agree with him. Soviet leader Nikita
Khrushchev condemned it as a "capitalist" weapon, built "to kill a man
in such a way that his suit will not be stained with blood, in order to
appropriate the suit," a theme taken up by peace campaigners in the
West. The neutron bomb became stigmatised as "the ultimate capitalist
weapon," as if a bomb that only killed people in a limited area was
somehow worse than a weapon that killed people across huge swathes and
caused environmental devastation into the bargain.
A succession of American presidents rejected the technology, largely on
the grounds that it might escalate the arms race, before Jimmy Carter
announced plans to deploy the warheads in 1978, only to back off
following public protests. The Reagan administration authorised the
production of 700 neutron warheads to counter Soviet tanks in Eastern
Europe, but deployment was deferred in the face of anti-nuclear protests
across Europe and the stockpile was scrapped by President George Bush.
France, China, Russia and Israel are also thought to have produced
neutron weapons, but it is not known if they still have any.
Samuel Theodore Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York, on January 25
1921, the son of Jewish emigrants from Austria. When he was four the
family moved to Los Angeles, where his father worked as a carpenter for
the Hollywood studios. Samuel was a sickly child, prone to allergies and
other ailments, and his mother put him on a rigidly controlled diet,
regular purges and daily ice-water showers to toughen him up. She even
controlled his breathing (believing it to be unhealthy to breathe
through the mouth) and made him drink so much carrot juice it turned his
Despite her ministrations he survived into adulthood and went on to be a
brilliant student at the University of California, Los Angeles, where he
graduated in 1943 with a degree in Physics. He joined the Army on
graduation and was posted to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology
for advanced training in Mathematics and Physics.
In 1944 he was selected to work on the Manhattan Project to develop the
first atom bomb. He worked on Fat Man, the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in
1945, days after Little Boy destroyed Hiroshima, and was involved in
calculating the likely densities of neutrons released on detonation.
After the war he studied for a doctorate at Berkeley before dropping out
to join the Rand Corporation, where he continued his work on radiation
fallout and developed the neutron bomb. In later life he explained that
the inspiration for the bomb came during a visit to Seoul in 1951. The
city had been largely flattened by conventional shelling and bombing in
the Korean War and he recalled a "lunar landscape" in which abandoned
children drank from gutters filled with sewage. He wondered whether it
might be possible to develop a nuclear device that could be deployed
against battlefield formations, but would not shell and bomb cities to
smithereens, wrecking the lives of their inhabitants.
Fired via a missile or an artillery shell and detonated a quarter of a
mile above ground, his bomb was designed to eliminate life in an area
less than a mile across, avoiding wider slaughter and destruction. The
military successfully tested the bomb in the Nevada desert, and over the
next two decades Cohen campaigned for its deployment.
But from the first he faced opposition not only from peace campaigners
but also from military contractors and senior service personnel with a
vested interest in existing nuclear arsenals. Cohen claimed to have been
awarded a peace medal by the Pope, though he seemed to be unclear in
which year it was awarded and whether it was Pope John Paul I or Pope
John Paul II. Some doubted.
During the 1990s Cohen turned his attention to the dangers of a
substance called red mercury which, he claimed, was capable of
detonating a nuclear device as small as a baseball. He alleged that the
Soviet Union had produced a number of "micro-nukes" based on the
substance, 100 of which were in the hands of terrorists. Later he
claimed that Saddam Hussein had taken delivery of about 50 of these
devices, which he supposedly planned to use against coalition forces as
they approached Baghdad. The claims were generally rubbished by
mainstream scientists, who dismissed red mercury as mythical, some
suggesting that Cohen had been roped into a disinformation campaign by
government agencies designed to lure potential terrorists into being
Cohen wrote several books about nuclear weapons issues and a memoir,
F--- You, Mr President!: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb,
published on the internet in 2000.
He is survived by his wife, Margaret, and three children.
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