Father of Neutron Bomb, "The Most Moral Weapon," Dies

By Andrew Moseman | December 2, 2010 3:57 pm

Sam CohenSamuel T. Cohen had a different view of warfare than most, and it’s no surprise—he invented one of history’s most controversial weapons, the neutron bomb. He died on Sunday.

Cohen’s ingenious, deadly device actually packed far less destructive power than typical nuclear weapons (which he worked on with the Manhattan Project during World War II). The neutron bomb’s detonation sent out a barrage of neutrons, the neutral subatomic particles in atoms, that passed right though inorganic material but killed living things within its blast radius.

All nuclear explosions produce a rain of potentially lethal neutrons, uncharged particles from an atom’s nucleus, and Mr. Cohen, by adjusting components and reshaping the bomb shell, limited the blast and released more energy as neutrons. [The New York Times]

After the Manhattan Project, Cohen went to work for the RAND Corporation, where he developed his bomb.

He said the inspiration for the neutron bomb was a 1951 visit to Seoul, which had been largely destroyed in the Korean War. In his memoir, he wrote: “If we are going to go on fighting these damned fool wars in the future, shelling and bombing cities to smithereens and wrecking the lives of their inhabitants, might there be some kind of nuclear weapon that could avoid all this?” [Los Angeles Times]

But none of the U.S. presidents in the 1960s or 70s were interested in developing Cohen’s weapon, partly out of fear it could violate the test-ban treaty and encourage further weapons proliferation.

In 1981, however, President Reagan ordered 700 neutron warheads built to oppose the massive Soviet tank force that had been strategically positioned in Eastern Europe. He viewed the bomb as the only tactical weapon that could effectively stop the tanks without also destroying much of the continent. The weapons were later dismantled in the face of widespread protests and the disintegration of the Soviet Union. France, China, Russia and Israel are also thought to have produced neutron weapons, but it is not known if they still have any. [Los Angeles Times]

Some critics worried that the neutron bomb’s limited damage could make nuclear strikes acceptable and even routine, while others faulted its emphasis on preserving structures.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev called the neutron bomb the ultimate capitalist weapon, built “to kill a man in such a way that his suit will not be stained with blood, in order to appropriate the suit.” [Los Angeles Times]

Cohen, however, never stopped seeing his weapon as good for humanity, rather than evil.

“The neutron bomb has to be the most moral weapon ever invented,” Mr. Cohen wrote in his 1983 autobiography, “Shame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb.” (After the U.S. dismantled its neutron bombs, he retitled the book, “F*** You! Mr. President.”) [Wall Street Journal]

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Image: RAND

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Physics & Math, Technology
  • JMW

    I believe the Russians also called it “The Republican Bomb”.

  • DJD

    How exactly was this supposed to be morally superior to chemical or biological weapons?? (Actually, it is essentially a type of chemical WMD, seems to me.)

    Also: Were the fallout dangers expected to be different from your standard nuclear weapon?

  • Woof

    Fallout pretty much results from the weapon’s fireball reaching the ground. Neutron warheads would be employed for an area effect, thus an airburst, thus low/no fallout.

  • Kate

    Not much point in killing everyone if you can’t get their stuff afterwards.

  • William52

    “I believe the Russians also called it “The Republican Bomb”.”

    Not surprisingly the “good” bomb would be identified with Republicans. Democrats prefer naplam, burn baby burn.

    The Republican identification with a good bomb as opposed to a dirty bomb is of course because no Republican ever presided over starting a war in the 20th century. Generally Republicans have to clean up the wars Democrats start. Obama will start a war with Iran before he leave office, after Iran nukes Tel Aviv. A Republican will have to clean up Obama’s, a Democrat’s mess yet again.

  • Richard Townsend

    I’m tired of every article written becoming politicized in the comments section. I am a conservative Republican (mentioned only so none will think I am a Democrat apologist) and don’t think the Emperor of Japan was a Democrat, nor was Hitler.

  • scanner

    @William. I am astonished to learn neither R. Reagan (Grenada, War on Drugs) nor G.W. Bush (Afghanistan, Iraq, War on Terror) are Republicans.
    But I guess, as John Churchill said, “If you wish war, you must first elect the peace party”

  • http://bellsouthpwp.net/h/t/htos1 Htos1

    It’s dangerously naive to have dismantled these weaons.Do you think other nations are now just going to play kissy face because we did this?Especially since the gay attack of Wikileaks?

  • http://twitter.com/ehurtley Ed H.

    @Richard, Hear hear. Too many ultra-right-wingers DO think Democrats are Hitler, though.

    (Note I said “ultra-right-wingers”, *NOT* “conservative Republican”.)

  • Howard

    The fly in the neutron bomb use is this: Once the weapon is used to destroy the human occupants of a city, you couldn’t really occupy or use that city unless you were prepared to quickly remove all the corpses before they decomposed and spread disease.

  • Brian Too

    Always going to be a tough sell, the concept of a ‘moral weapon’, whether in relative or absolute terms, when that weapon causes death and injury. Quite honestly it doesn’t seem like a point worth making when it is so fundamentally flawed.

    If you want a moral weapon, create something that changes peoples minds.

  • suniti

    The neutron bomb is a moral/ clean bomb but it is very difficult to produce. Its maintainance has high costs as Tritium half life is very short.
    Thence this bomb is not very feasible.
    And it does harm the infrastructure

  • Uncle B

    Too bad, Yankee Doodle wasted his time and money on Neutron bombs instead of Solar, Wind, Wave, Hydro, Tidal or Geothermal energy sources! Soon, the suppliers of oil will be exhausted, but first they face slowed flows,The Burgeoning Asian demand for oil will not help! Expect oil prices to soar! Soon!
    China knows this! They have faced this reality! they open thirty new Nuclear reactors this year!
    If the $650 Billions of dollars spent kicking Saddam’s ass were to have been spent developing Thermal Solar (conventional) plants in the American South West, America would be prospering with energy surpluses today!

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