H-Bomb, Decision to Build

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The 1950 decision to build a hydrogen bomb involved the consideration of U.S. strategic, scientific, and moral concerns in light of the growing threat from the Soviet Union. The decision was part of an arms race with the Soviet Union, which lasted throughout the Cold War (1946–1991) and fueled America's military buildup. Continued development of nuclear weapons would divide opinion on security issues in the Cold War era. The arms race contributed to the public's fear of nuclear holocaust and led President Dwight Eisenhower to seek a reduction of arms, warning against the dangerous effects of the military-industrial complex on American society and culture.

The physicists Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi first discussed the idea of a hydrogen bomb in 1941 while working at the nuclear research facility in Los Alamos, New Mexico. An atomic blast, they postulated, might heat deuterium (hydrogen2) enough to produce a thermonuclear fusion reaction; the explosive yield would be vastly greater than the atomic bomb itself. But the idea lay dormant until atomic policy was reconsidered after World War II.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, Chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission and wartime director of Los Alamos, championed international control and regulation of atomic materials to forestall the creation of more atomic weapons. President Harry Truman feared that relinquishing such control would put the United States at risk. The Soviets, no longer an ally, were becoming hostile. If they started a war, the Strategic Air Command would need as many atomic weapons as it could get to disable the Soviet war machine. Atomic stockpiles grew, but it was Russian actions that brought the hydrogen bomb concept to Truman's attention.

George Kennan, a U.S. diplomat in Moscow, warned the State Department on February 22, 1946, about the hostile Soviet mindset; any perceived weakness could entice the Soviets to challenge the West. The blockade of Berlin by Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin in June 1948 confirmed these suspicions, as the Allied airlift relieved the city and raised the specter of war. Information gathered from decoded Soviet war transmissions and from a Soviet defector, cipher clerk Igor Gouzenko, helped the FBI uncover a Soviet espionage ring that had infiltrated the Manhattan Project, the team that built America's first atomic bomb. Then, in September 1949, U.S. aircraft discovered radioactive evidence of a recently detonated atomic device in Russia. Stalin now had the bomb.

A General Advisory Committee report in October 1949 listed possible courses of action, including pursuing a hydrogen bomb, but urged against it. Its awesome potential (major cities could be destroyed with a single bomb) nullified any real military value, and to pursue it would promote a catastrophic arms race. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) disagreed and warned Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson that the scientists were outside their jurisdiction in suggesting strategic policy. The JCS knew that the Soviets would not hesitate to pursue the weapon themselves and argued that the United States should beat them to it. Failure to pursue a hydrogen weapon could be seen as a weakness that the Soviets, now a nuclear power, might exploit militarily.

Truman reviewed both sides with a special committee on January 31, 1950. The same day, he announced to the world that the United States would pursue a hydrogen bomb. Scientists like Teller and Stanislaw Ulam made the theoretical and mechanical breakthroughs that led, in November 1, 1952, to the successful detonation of the world's fist hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer's opposition to the project raised questions of loyalty and contributed to the revoking of his security clearance in 1953.


Herken, Gregg. Brotherhood of the Bomb: The Tangled Lives and Loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller. New York: Henry Holt, 2002.

Rhodes, Richard. Dark Sun: The Making of the Hydrogen Bomb. New York: Touchstone, 1995.

Jason S. Ridler

See also:Containment and Détente; Eisenhower, Dwight; Hiroshima Guilt; Korea, Impact of; Nitze, Paul; NSC #68; Rosenberg, Hiss, Oppenheimer Cases; Truman, Harry S.