Security, Not Supremacy


The Truth About the Neutron Bomb: The Inventor of the Bomb Speaks Out, by Sam Cohen, New York: William Morrow and Co., 1983, 226pp., $12.50.

The present debate and demonstrations, especially in Europe, over nuclear-weapons policy and missile-delivery systems can, to a great extent, be traced back to 1977 when the Carter administration discussed placing neutron warheads there. It is news when the "father" of the neutron bomb announces he has "jumped ship" with respect to current US military and foreign policies.

In the first chapters of The Truth About the Neutron Bomb Sam Cohen tells how, by accident, he came to be involved in the atomic bomb project at the end of World War II and "got hooked on tactical nuclear weapons" in 1951. He came to oppose the massive "bomb 'em back to the Stone Age" approach of the air force, especially Gen. Curtis LeMay, which viewed tactical weapons as a threat to its strategic H-bomb capability.

It was Cohen's first-hand observation of the devastation of Seoul from conventional weapons during the Korean War that convinced him there ought to be some alternative to the terrible consequences of heat and blast that maimed human beings as well as devastated the landscape. This was also characteristic of atomic fission weapons, but these also produced lingering radiation.

It was not until 1958, however, with the development of fusion technology, that Cohen perceived the implications for tactical nuclear weapons:

By bursting the fusion device high off the ground, only the enemy-killing radiation would reach the ground; the blast and heat intensities that might reach the ground would not be powerful enough to cause any significant damage to built-up areas. This concept was in sharp contrast to that behind the battlefield fission weapons that we had deployed overseas at the time (and which are still deployed). Their use made large-scale physical damage unavoidable. There was another important difference—in the production of long-lived radioactivity. The fission-fusion neutron weapon would produce only one one-hundredth or even less of the radioactivity produced for a fission weapon with the same battlefield effectiveness, i.e., the same enemy troop killing power. The pure-fusion neutron weapon would produce none of the dangerous, long-range radioactivity produced by fission weapons.

Cohen's weapon was operable a few years later. Much of his book concerns the politics of the neutron bomb during the last two decades and is extremely illuminating. Eisenhower was out golfing, for example, and Cohen missed a chance to explain the concept to him. Kennedy managed to evade any decision, while Nixon was, even early in the 1960s, receptive to the idea. Cohen blames Kissinger for the fact that once in office after 1968, Nixon did nothing to implement a neutron strategy.

In the 1970s the army began to explore the use of neutron warheads on artillery shells, which stirred up the debate in 1977 over whether these ought to be built for use in Europe as a counter to Soviet conventional and tactical power there. After Reagan was elected, he decided to produce neutron warheads but to stockpile them in the United States rather than deploy them in Europe.

One chapter repeats the very effective briefing on the neutron bomb, with charts, which Cohen used over the years as a presentation for various politicians and policy planners. Much of the discussion is an effort to dispel the notion that the immediate radiation from a neutron bomb is somehow more inhumane than that of conventional or fission weapons. This is linked to a discussion of the moral questions involved in the use of such a weapon, with some interesting insights into divisions within the Catholic hierarchy extending as high as the papacy itself. Cohen suggests that, given the level of technology involved, we ought to expect that the Soviets now also have the neutron bomb.

The most important part of the book, however, is toward the end where Cohen undertakes an analysis of US foreign-military policies, little of which is directly related to the question of the neutron bomb. As he points out, the bomb has always been a myth rather than reality, in the sense that any existing weapon is anywhere near what was envisaged.

In "jumping ship" Cohen raises some real questions about American strategic options. Whether by conventional or nuclear weapons, the basic problem is that American policymakers simply want to control too much, so that in seeking to do so they exhaust our resources and end up without a clear definition of real American interests or a sense of the limitations on American power. Thus he ridicules Pentagon planners who argue that the United States ought to maintain a Rapid Deployment Force capable of protecting oil coming out of the Persian Gulf, even though the cost is greater than the value of such oil and the major users are our European allies, none of which seems willing to pay such a bill.

The fundamental myth from which American policymakers operate, Cohen maintains, is a belief, noted 20 years ago by David Lilienthal, "that because the Atom is such a uniquely powerful force for destruction, a revolutionary kind of destructive power, in dealing with it we must divorce it, set it apart, from everything the human race has previously learned about man's behavior, about war and peace, about our institutions, about foreign policy, about military matters, about science."

Cohen argues that most of NATO's strategy is based upon a false assumption that the Soviets will not attack using nuclear weapons in Europe. The United States cannot defend Europe; and with us there, it is unwilling to defend itself. Bringing the troops back home would save over $100 billion a year. Instead of building an offensive force and visualizing a capacity to strike globally, like the Soviets, this country needs to develop a defense against nuclear attack rather than consider such an attack unthinkable.

The Soviets have an extensive air-defense system, continue research and development of antiballistic missiles, and promote civil-defense shelters. In moving toward the same, the money saved on conventional forces could be used to build a more efficient nuclear force, which "would be best if we were to think small—not big as we did in pushing the MX concept." Cohen once concocted a scheme using small, cheap missiles one-tenth the size of an MX, with neutron warheads, placed in small boats scattered across the sea. At this tactical level recent Midgetman proposals of the Scowcroft Commission indicate that Cohen may not have jumped ship as much as he thought.

But when he concludes that strategically "we should be withdrawing from the military aspects of world involvement," he is miles from the current thinking of the establishment, as he well knows. If "small is beautiful" is adopted as a tactic by the policymakers, it will be because they hope such flexibility and cost efficiency may make it possible to retain the country's global posture.

Since Cohen perceives the reality at this point, it is interesting that he does not extend that recognition backward in time. It is the best explanation of why the establishment, not the nuclear protesters, fought a tactical weapon that might have undercut a policy of world involvement based upon a global strike force. At whatever cost, American policymakers appear wedded to maintaining this supremacy, rather than contemplating a defensive strategy as advocated by Cohen, including as one possibility the tactical weapon he developed.

William Marina teaches policy analysis at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton, Florida.