I thought, score one for his memory at 89. He remembered the proportion correctly. That was the same factor Oppenheimer and the others predicted in their report in 1949. They were right. The first explosion of a true H-bomb, five years later, had a thousand times the explosive power of the Hiroshima blast.
At 15 megatons--the equivalent of 15 million tons of high explosive--it was over a million times more powerful than the largest conventional bombs of World War II. That one bomb had almost eight times the explosive force of all the bombs we dropped in that war: more than all the explosions in all the wars in human history. In 1961, the Soviets tested a 58-megaton H-bomb.
My father went on: "I hadn't wanted to work on the A-bomb, either. But then Einstein seemed to think that we needed it, and it made sense to me that we had to have it against the Russians. So I took the job, but I never felt good about it.
"Then when they told me they were going to build a bomb 1,000 times bigger, that was it for me. I went back to my office and I said to my deputy, 'These guys are crazy. They have an A-bomb, now they want an H-bomb. They're going to go right through the alphabet till they have a Z-bomb.' "
I said, "Well, so far they've only gotten up to N."
He said, "There was another thing about it that I couldn't stand. Building these things generated a lot of radioactive waste. I wasn't responsible for designing the containers for the waste, but I knew they were bound to leak eventually. That stuff was deadly forever. It was radioactive for 24,000 years."
Again he had turned up a good figure. I said, "Your memory is working pretty well. It would be deadly a lot longer than that, but that's about the half-life of plutonium."
There were tears in his eyes. He said huskily, "I couldn't stand the thought that I was working on a project that was poisoning parts of my own country forever, that might make parts of it uninhabitable for thousands of years."
I thought over what he'd said; then I asked him if anyone else working with him had had misgivings. He didn't know.
"Were you the only one who quit?" He said yes. He was leaving the best job he'd ever had, and he didn't have any other to turn to. He lived on savings for a while and did some consulting.
I thought about Oppenheimer and Conant--both of whom had recommended dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima--and Fermi and Rabi, who had, that same month Dad was resigning, expressed internally their opposition to development of the superbomb in the most extreme terms possible: It was potentially "a weapon of genocid ...carries much further than the atomic bomb itself the policy of exterminating civilian populations... whose power of destruction is essentially unlimited...a threat to the future of the human race which is intolerable ... a danger to humanity as a whole...necessarily an evil thing considered in any light" (York, The Advisor, pp. 155-159).
Not one of these men risked his clearance by sharing his anxieties and the basis for them with the American public. Oppenheimer and Conant considered resigning their advisory positions when the president went ahead against their advice. But they were persuaded--by Dean Acheson--not to quit at that time, lest that draw public attention to their expert judgment that the president's course fatally endangered humanity.
I asked my father what had made him feel so strongly, to act in a way that nobody else had done. He said, "You did."
That didn't make any sense. I said, "What do you mean? We didn't discuss this at all. I didn't know anything about it."
Dad said, "It was earlier. I remember you came home with a book one day, and you were crying. It was about Hiroshima. You said, 'Dad, you've got to read this. It's the worst thing I've ever read.' "
I said that must have been John Hersey's book Hiroshima. (I read it when it came out as a book. I was in the hospital when it filled The New Yorker in August 1946.) I didn't remember giving it to him.
"Yes. Well, I read it, and you were right. That's when I started to feel bad about working on an atomic bomb project. And then when they said they wanted me to work on a hydrogen bomb, it was too much for me. I thought it was time for me to get out."
I asked if he had told his bosses why he was quitting. He said he told some people, not others. The ones he told seemed to understand his feelings. In fact, in less than a year, the head of the firm called to say that they wanted him to come back as chief structural engineer for the whole firm. They were dropping the DuPont contract (they didn't say why), so he wouldn't have to have anything to do with the AEC or bomb-making. He stayed with them till he retired.
I said, finally, "Dad, how could I not ever have heard any of this before? How come you never said anything about it?"
My father said, "Oh, I couldn't tell any of this to my family. You weren't cleared."