Rational Justification for Developing the Hydrogen Bomb

The work on hydrogen bomb started during the years of the Second World War, along with the work on the atom bomb, as a part of the Manhattan Project. A-bomb was manufactured by the last phase of the war, but H-bomb needed many more years of research and development. The work on the H-bomb continued after the war, though at a diminished pace even as the politicians and scientists debated the ethics of building a superweapon that had the potential to destroy not just cities but the entire human civilization. However, in 1949 after Russia tested its first atom bomb, it became imperative for America to have the hydrogen bomb, and the work on it intensified under the directive of President Truman. America produced its first hydrogen bomb in November, 1952.[2]

There was and is a real need for America to possess at least a small arsenal of nuclear weapons. In this essay we will explore why the building of a hydrogen bomb was necessitated and the continued existence of nuclear stockpiles justified.

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I. Hydrogen bomb in an offensive capacity (historical context)

a.      The Second World War could have been averted

The first argument has to do with the basic rationale behind the Manhattan Project. In the historical context, it is the most important justification for the American involvement in the development of a nuclear weapon.

It was realized in the 1930’s that an artificial fusion reaction which could generate enormous amounts of energy was possible. Work in earnest on the hydrogen bomb began only after 1941, under the initiative of Edward Teller, after Enrico Fermi conveyed the idea to Teller that the fission of uranium is capable of creating the heat conditions necessary for the fusion bomb. It is generally thought that Teller and his team continued to work on the hydrogen bomb as a part of the Manhattan Project, but on the sidelines. However, Hans Bethe, a key figure behind both the atom and hydrogen bombs, counters this perception. He notes that the original focus of the Manhattan Project was the hydrogen bomb:

The H-bomb was suggested by Teller in 1942. Active work on it was pursued in the summer of 1942 by Oppenheimer, Teller, myself, and others. The idea did not develop from Teller’s “quiet work” at Los Alamos during the war. When Los Alamos was started in Spring 1943, several groups of scientists were included who did work on this problem specifically. However, it was realized that this was a long-range project and that the main efforts of Los Alamos must be concentrated on making A-bombs.[3]

Thus the work on developing a hydrogen bomb was relegated to the sidelines for the time being only after the scientists realized certain practical difficulties which were not easy to overcome. However, from the beginning the atom bomb was largely seen only as one of the components of the hydrogen bomb. The larger goal of the Manhattan Project was to create the hydrogen bomb.

A nuclear weapon was needed in order to check the relentless onslaught of Nazi Germany on Europe. Unfortunately, America and Britain did not realize the need of a superweapon in time. The Manhattan project was commissioned in 1939 by President Roosevelt only after the Einstein – Szilard letter warned him of the efforts that were taking place in the Nazi Germany to develop an atomic bomb. The Manhattan project was a reactive move and it was a tardy reaction.  Furthermore, work on a war footing on building a nuclear weapon commenced only in Los Alamos after 1943. Had such work begun nearly ten years earlier, in the immediate aftermath of Ernest Rutherford’s discovery of the fusion reaction, the Second World War could have been forestalled, because the allied powers would have had a decisive advantage over Hitler.

Hitler did not really have the wherewithal to develop nuclear weapons, since all the great Jewish scientists had escaped from Germany and Europe to America. He had only a few scientists like Werner Heisenberg and Werner Von Braun (to develop the rockets for delivering nuclear warheads), but even these scientists were working under duress and were trying their best to retard the development of superweapons[4]. America had a most definite advantage over Germany, but it did not use it.

b.      Hiroshima and Nagasaki could have been averted

As we saw, the building of both the atom and hydrogen bomb were part of one and the same operation, it is only that the atom bomb came first and the hydrogen bomb came later. The atom bomb went on to play a critical role in putting an end to the Second World War. The Japanese as a race were thoroughly embedded in their cultural ethos which placed honor before life. The collective mindset of the Japanese people was such that they would not surrender even if their defeat was certain, as long as they knew they could continue to inflict some good amount of damage upon the enemy. They would surrender only if further engagement in war meant nothing more than pure and simple suicide. If the atom bomb was not dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the proposed assault on Tokyo by the Allied Forces would have been carried out as scheduled, and millions more would have lost their lives on both sides. The war could have dragged on and on to the very bitter end. Only the use of the atom bomb on Japanese cities could bring Japan to its knees forthwith. Hence the use of the atom bomb was very justified, despite the great human tragedy it caused.

Ironically, had the H-bomb been developed by this time its use would have been even more justified. That there was a need to use a superweapon against the Japanese is undeniable. Nevertheless, this nuclear weapon could be used in an unpopulated territory in Japan and still created the same impact. President Truman did not have particular reservations in using the atom bomb upon a civilian population because a 100,000 or 200,000 casualty figure that would result from Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings was not at all a number that would have caused any particular concern, going by the Second World War norms. However, if America had the H-bomb, which is 1,000 to 2,000 times more powerful than the simple atomic bomb that was used on the Japanese cities, Truman would have definitely used it first in an unpopulated or sparsely populated region in Japan as a warning. H-Bomb could have averted the great tragedies of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, besides bringing about the end of the Second World War.

II. Hydrogen bomb in a defensive and deterrent capacity (ongoing context)

a.      Soviet Union and the Cold War

Nuclear deterrence is traditionally the fundamental justification both behind the development of the hydrogen bomb and the subsequent stockpiling of these weapons by America — because the Soviet Union too was doing it. There was simply no option for America, despite the fact that nuclear arms race placed the whole future of humanity in jeopardy. The only way out of it was if the two superpowers came to an agreement early on not to develop the hydrogen bomb. But then the problem would be how to ensure that the other party was honestly sticking to the agreement? It was suggested that the hydrogen bomb could not be fully developed in secrecy because it would need ground testing, and the testing would be detected. But even if America found out Russia violating the accord and conducting a nuclear test, by then it would be too late for America to work on developing a nuclear weapon. Therefore such agreements were not practicable and the US had to develop the H-Bomb and stockpile the weapons. Though the Cold War is over now, there are still high tensions between Russia and America, and nuclear weapons keep functioning as a strong deterrent to further escalation of tensions.

b.      Other countries and terrorism

An increasing number of countries have joined the nuclear club in the past few decades. Even if the US and the USSR reached an accord not to develop the nuclear bomb and stuck by it, China, India and other countries would have sooner or later developed the nuclear weapons indigenously and vied for world dominance. Not only states but private terrorist organizations are also, in theory, capable of amassing enough resources and scientific talent and build a nuclear weapon, whether an atom bomb or a hydrogen bomb.

III. Hydrogen bomb to protect mankind from threats from outer space (future context)

a.       Against alien civilizations

Hydrogen bomb was developed in a time when there was intense hysteria all over the US and other countries regarding the phenomenon of UFOs. In the late 40’s and early 50’s literally thousands of UFO sightings took place in America. A significant number of them were sightings made by the US Air Force.[5] And generally these UFOs did not appear to be very friendly. Therefore humanity needed all the fire power it could amass to stand a fighting chance in the possibility of an alien invasion. The answer obviously was the hydrogen bomb. Oddly enough, UFO sightings appeared to be significantly more clustered around nuclear test sites and nuclear building facilities. Today, we realize that there is a high probability for intelligent life forms with advanced technology to exist on other planets. If any of these alien civilizations may tend to be hostile, the hydrogen bomb remains our best defense.

b.      Against asteroids

The earth has witnessed repeated mass extinctions in its long past due to collisions with asteroids. The neighborhood of earth’s orbit in space is swarming with asteroids. A civilization-destroying impact in the next few years to decades can by no means be ruled out. Hydrogen weapons would be our best protection to destroy an asteroid headed toward our planet, if it was detected early on.

Conclusion

Most of the scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project had serious misgivings about the nature of their work, and the dire consequences it could lead to. After Hiroshima and Nagaski, some of the scientists even nurtured a feeling of guilt. Prominent scientists like Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi strongly opposed work on H-bomb[6]. However, Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb, continued to be a strong proponent of the use of nuclear weapons as deterrent. Though we would like to think that the world would be a better place without the existence of heaps of nuclear weapons constantly threatening humanity’s survival, the advent of nuclear weapons was a historical inevitability as the progress of science continued. America should have nuclear weapons, because the uses of nuclear weapons outweigh the general risk they pose. We have to simply learn to live with the nuclear weapons. We cannot make them disappear, but we can work toward increasing the chances of peace around the globe so that the likelihood of ever using nuclear weapons would gradually diminish.

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References:

Atomicarchive.com. The Hydrogen Bomb. AtomicArchive.com. Accessible from

http://www.atomicarchive.com/History/coldwar/page04.shtml

Bethe, Hans. (1954). Hans Bethe’s Comments on the History of the H-bomb. Nuclearfiles.org.

Accessible from http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/cold-war/hydrogen-bomb/comments-bethe.htm

Brodie, Bernard, Fawn McKay Brodie. (1973). From Crossbow to H-bomb. Bloomington, IN :

Indiana University Press.

Greer, John Michael. (2009). The UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and Disinformation.

Woodbury, MN : Llewellyn Worldwide

Orr, Tamra. (2005). The Hydrogen Bomb: Unleashing the Nuclear Age and Arms Race. New

York : Rosen Publishing.

Rabinowwitch, Eugene. The Hydrogen Bomb and the Great Unsolved Problems. Bulletin of

Atomic Scientists. 10 : 5. May 1954.
[1] Eugene Rabinowwitch. The Hydrogen Bomb and the Great Unsolved Problems. Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. 10 : 5. May 1954. P.146
[2] Tamra Orr. (2005). The Hydrogen Bomb: Unleashing the Nuclear Age and Arms Race. New York : Rosen Publishing. P.23
[3] Hans Bethe. (1954). Hans Bethe’s Comments on the History of the H-bomb. Nuclearfiles.org. Accessible from http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-weapons/history/cold-war/hydrogen-bomb/comments-bethe.htm
[4] Bernard Brodie, Fawn McKay Brodie. (1973). From Crossbow to H-bomb. Bloomington, IN : Indiana University Press. p.253
[5] John Michael Greer. (2009). The UFO Phenomenon: Fact, Fantasy and Disinformation. Woodbury, MN : Llewellyn Worldwide. P.186
[6] Atomicarchive.com. The Hydrogen Bomb. AtomicArchive.com. Accessible from http://www.atomicarchive.com/History/coldwar/page04.shtml

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