Charles Platt: What the Inventor of the Neutron Bomb Could Teach Us (If Only We Listened)

Roundup: Talking About History

[Charles Platt was a senior editor at Wired.]

I'm cruising into the small town of Williams, Arizona, heading for the laundromat, when my pickup truck coughs and dies, leaving me stranded at the side of old Route 66. As I pause to consider my options, my cell phone rings. The inventor of the neutron bomb is on the line.

"Charles, this is Sam," he says, sounding elderly and erudite. "Did you hear about Edward?"

In his inimitable fashion, Sam Cohen, who really did invent the neutron bomb, is notifying me that Edward Teller has died after a long series of health problems. Sam was on first-name terms with Edward for about fifty years, since the days when they worked on nuclear weapons at Los Alamos during World War II.

It occurs to me that something must be seriously wrong with the world when a former guru of American nuclear policy seems to have so much time on his hands, he can find nothing better to do than chat with a semi-retired, little-known science journalist sitting in the middle of nowhere in a dead pickup truck carrying an unprocessed cargo of dirty laundry.

Once upon a time Sam Cohen conferred with cabinet members, briefed congressional committees, and argued international strategy with U. S. presidents. He participated in the most influential think-tank that ever existed, and his bid to reform modern warfare earned him a Medal of Peace from Pope Paul VI. During a relentless campaign to deploy downsized nuclear weapons of vastly reduced destructive power, he received an audience from Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was polite but uninterested, preferring big bombs to small ones. He managed to get a memo through to John F. Kennedy, whose position turned out to be similar to that of Eisenhower. He spent some time with Richard M. Nixon, whose position turned out to be similar to that of Kennedy. Finally he scored a hit with Ronald Reagan, who initiated a project along the lines that Cohen had in mind, until George Bush, Senior, reversed the policy at a total cost approaching $1 billion.

The story of how this happened is not just of historical interest. It exposes pathologies in the Federal Government that devour our resources and jeopardize our security just as much now as they did then. For those who wonder how neoconservative think tanks managed to incite empire-building conceits that fomented a renewed war in Iraq, Cohen's experiences fifty years ago turn out to be unexpectedly relevant.

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