Noted nuclear physicist calls for halt to all future U.S. nuclear weapons research

The "WASHINGTON REPORTS" section of the July 1997 issue of PHYSICS TODAY, published by the American Institute of Physics (umbrella organization of the premier professional societies for physicists in the U.S.), contains the commentary reproduced below on a letter recently sent by nuclear physicist and Nobel Prize winner Hans Bethe to President Clinton.

Bethe, now 91, was one of 5 nuclear physicists critical to the development of the atomic bomb during the Manhattan Project. Only one other of this core group remains alive today--Edward Teller. Teller is famous for not only never renouncing nuclear weapons but for the key role he has played over the years in promoting ever more powerful and compact nuclear weapons, and for numerous grandiose proposals for the use of nuclear explosions for a variety of purportedly peaceful purposes, such as to create new deepwater seaports along the Alaskan coast.

Bethe's statement is particularly telling because of his key role in the early development of nuclear weapons and their subsequent cold war drain on the economy. One can speculate as to his reasons for supporting the maintenance of the U.S.'s existing nuclear weapon stockpile. One reason might be that opposing this would renounce work he did in helping create this stockpile in the first place. Another might be a strategic political gambit--not to appear too extreme to current political, military, and industrial leaders.


From Physics Today, July 1997:

General Jack D. Ripper, the cigar chomping Air Force commander who launched a nuclear attack against the Soviet Union in the movie Dr. Strangelove, was a parody of the Strategic Air Command general enamored with the bomb's destructive power. Yet even in the throes

of the cold war, many real-life generals held deep reservations about nuclear weapons-a discomfort displayed last December when 60 retired military leaders from 17 countries called for dismantling all the world's nuclear arsenals. The alarm was sounded in a joint statement coordinated by Andrew J. Goodpaster, a former supreme allied commander of NATO, and George Lee Butler, commander in chief of the US Strategic Air Command-a job that has been filled by some of the nation's most hawkish military professionals, such as General Curtis E. LeMay, the model for Jack D. Ripper.

But the military mandarins were late in rejecting the policy they had espoused for decades when they still controlled the nuclear arsenal. Back in 1983, 1500 American physicists, including 22 Nobel laureates, joined with 1 1 500 physicists worldwide in calling for all countries "to halt the testing, production and deployment of nuclear weapons and nuclear weapons delivery systems." Among the signers of that statement was Hans Bethe, who during World War I I was chief of the theoretical physics division for the Manhattan Project, at the secret research center in New Mexico that later became Los Alamos National Laboratory. Bethe, who turns 91 this month and is now professor emeritus of physics at Cornell University, is one of the few living senior participants in the design and production of the first atomic weapons. In a letter to President Clinton dated 25 April, Bethe renewed and extended his earlier position. Though the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) released the letter soon afterward, the Senate, which must either ratify or reject the treaty, still hasn't come to grips with the CTBT. The President signed the treaty last September at a United Nations ceremony (see PHYSICS TODAY, December 1996, page 37), but hasn't nudged it forward by word or deed since then. The treaty prohibits work on developing new nuclear weapons, though it allows sub-critical tests of nuclear weapons components. Even so, according to several scientists with experience in nuclear weapons design, the conceptual, computer-based and even experimental work now being carried out at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and at Los Alamos could eventually lead to developing new nuclear weapons for tactical battlefield use, including so-called pure-fusion weapons set off by chemical explosives rather then fission reactions (see PHYSICS TODAY, March, page 63, and June, page 13).

[Caption under photo of Bethe: "BETHE: Enough is enough, already."]

That's what disturbs Bethe. "It seems that the time has come for our nation to declare that it is not working, in any way, to develop further weapons of mass destruction of any kind," Bethe stated in his letter to Clinton. "In particular, this means not financing work looking toward the possibility of new designs for nuclear weapons. And it certainly means not working on new types of nuclear weapons, such as pure-fusion weapons. The United States already possesses a very wide range of different designs of nuclear weapons and needs no more. Further, it is our own splendid weapons laboratories that are, by far and without any question, the most likely to succeed in such nuclear inventions. Since any new types of weapons would, in time, spread to others and present a threat to us, it is logical for us not to pioneer further in this field.

"In some cases, such as pure-fusion weapons, success is unlikely But even reports of our seeking to invent them could be, from a political point of view, very damaging to our national image and to our effort to maintain a world-wide campaign for nuclear disarmament. Do you, for example, want scientists in laboratories under your Administration trying to invent nuclear weapons so efficient, compared to conventional weapons, that someday, if an unlikely success were achieved, they would be a new option for terrorists?

"In my judgment, the time has come to cease all physical experiments, no matter how small their yield, whose primary purpose is to design new types of nuclear weapons, as opposed to developing peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Indeed, if I were President, I would not fund computational experiments, or even creative thought designed to produce new categories of nuclear weapons. After all, the big secret about the atomic bomb was that it could be done."

Bethe proposed that the President, the weapons lab directors and the scientists in those labs should "cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons-and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons." This is the same stance taken two years ago by the Atomic Scientists Appeal to Colleagues, organized by the FAS.

Despite Bethe's argument that "enough is enough" in nuclear arms, he told Clinton he "fully supports science-based stockpile stewardship, which ensures that the existing nuclear weapons remain fully operative, [and] neither it nor any of the other Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty safeguards require the laboratories to engage in creative work or physical or computational experiments on the design of new types of nuclear weapons, and they should not do so."

Sources at the White House say Clinton has read the letter and sought advice from the Pentagon, Energy Department and independent experts on what action, if any, to take in response.


Omitted from the PHYSICS TODAY article was perhaps the most socially significant line in the Teller letter: "After all, the big secret about the atomic bomb was that it could be done. Why should taxpayers pay to learn new such secrets--secrets that will eventually leak...?" In his statement Bethe maintains that tax money should not fund nuclear weapons thought at all. If the physicists want to discover nuclear weapons secrets, let them pay for it out of their own pockets he implies.


Content of a SideBar Box:

APS Statement on Test-Ban Treaty

On 19 April the council of the American Physical Society passed a resolution supporting President Clinton's signing of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and urging the Senate to ratify the treaty. Excerpts of the APS statement follow:

The CTBT ... ends the qualitative arms race among the nuclear states and is central to future efforts to halt the further spread of nuclear weapons.... Ratification of the CTBT will mark an important advance in uniting the world in an effort to contain and reduce the nuclear danger. Having been the first country to develop nuclear weapons, having been a major participant in the nuclear arms race of the cold war, and having played a leadership role in the Non-Proliferation Treaty extension and the CTBT negotiations, [the US should find it] appropriate and imperative [to] ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty at the earliest possible date. The council notes that detailed, fully informed technical studies have concluded [that] continued nuclear testing is not required to retain confidence in the safety and reliability of the remaining nuclear weapons in the US stockpile, provided science and technology programs necessary for stockpile stewardship are maintained. This conclusion is also supported by both the senior civilian and military officials responsible for US national security.


The full text of Bethe's letter, President Clinton's response, a New York Times article of June 17 on the letter, and Senator Moynihan's comments on the letter are posted on the web site of the Federation of American Scientists (

Posted by NoFlyby 3/21/99 12:12:23 PM