The Manhattan Project

George Kistiakowsky's Interview

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Dr. George Kistiakowsky was a Ukranian-American physical chemist whose contribution to the Manhattan Project included the design of the explosive lenses for the implosion-type bomb. He emigrated to the United States in 1926 and was the head of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) before going to Los Alamos as the leader of the Explosives Division. Following the war, Kistiakowsky served as a prominent scientific advisor to the White House across many administrations. In this interview, author Richard Rhodes and Kistiakowsky discuss life at Los Alamos, the relationships between many of the scientists of the Manhattan Project, and Kistiakowsky’s contributions after the war.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
January 15, 1982
Location of the Interview: 
Cambridge
Collections: 
Transcript: 

Richard Rhodes: Interview with Dr. Kistiakowsky in Cambridge, Massachusetts, January 15, 1982.

I have done a great deal of reading into the literature; there are probably two hundred books that are built around the subject that I’ve looked at, including yours, which I enjoyed. Can I go back to some very early things? 

George Kistiakowsky: Sure. 

Rhodes: All right, I came across a reference that you suggested using gaseous diffusion at the Carnegie Institution, at a luncheon in May of 1940. Was your suggestion the origination of that program?

Kistiakowsky: I doubt it.

Rhodes: It was an idea that would have been available.  

Kistiakowsky: I doubt it, I know that Professor Kenneth Bainbridge of our Physics Department and I talked then, I guess it was in late ’39, early in ’40, about using a gaseous diffusion and as an experiment, we used a French built vacuum rotary pump. I forget what it was called, it had an extremely fast rotating cylinder and it was essentially designed for the fact that the molecules hit that fast cylinder and were accelerated more or less in a given direction. And we, that is we largely being Bainbridge, set up some experiments using some other mixtures to demonstrate that that was, in principal, possible.

Rhodes: And that worked in terms of uranium? You were thinking about that. 

Kistiakowsky: Oh yes, we were thinking of separating U-235.

Rhodes: Okay, good.

Kistiakowsky: Then on my own, I took another experimental work, which was completely negative. Hoping ion exchange resins could be used to separate isotopes of uranium salts. We sent samples to Harold Urey at Columbia, who could never find any difference in isotopic composition, and so after a year, the thing was dropped. In the meantime, of course, I got heavily involved in the work on conventional explosives, high explosives; and that took my mind off the uranium isotope work.

Rhodes: You published a paper around that time questioning the effects of the nuclear explosion, 1941? No?

Kistiakowsky: What was involved was this: there was a committee set up that advised the president on the feasibility of building an atom bomb. I think it was under Arthur Compton as chairman and the National Academy of Sciences committee.

It did some work, of which I was not involved, then it was reconstituted and I was brought in as a member with a specific assignment of describing what would be the effect of an atomic explosion of several kiloton TNT-equivalent force. Which was, at that time of course, an unknown quantity. I brought one of my young associates in the explosives research laboratory near Pittsburgh, in Bruceton [Pennsylvania] to do a careful researcher’s survey calling together all of the information on accidental large, mostly industrial explosions, the Black Tom [Island] explosion during World War I, the Halifax explosion set up by the German spies, and so on. Out of that, we plotted a scaling wall with the size of the damaged area as a function—an estimated size, in other words of course, a huge explosion of ammonium nitrate fertilizer in Leuna, Germany after World War I.

You were not born then yet, so you could not be interested. There was a huge explosion then. It was described in the early books on industrial explosions. There are good World War II books written on industrial explosions. A little book outside that, it’s described there. That gave me a scaling wall so I could roughly extrapolate, and then I describe what then is known to me, to the people I talked to on the blast effect, because we did not consider, at that time, that early in the game, the effect of heat radiation. And what the interest in that was, that was none of my business. I did not ask myself about the effects of ionizing radiation and fallout.

I then wrote a chapter, which was included as a chapter in the report to President Roosevelt by the cabinet. And in that, I also described, which was suggested to me I might do that right then being rather familiar with explosives, how explosives could be used to initiate the nuclear explosion. I think I described it as a case when you have the fissionable material in the middle and the explosives around it, and I said you just explode it so that it explodes symmetrically on all sides.

However, I cannot lead the discovery, the invention of implosion. Because the real secret of explosion is that enormous force, pointing symmetrically to the center of the sphere causes a great compression of the material. That in turn reduces the mean-free path of neutrons on somewhat stiffer material, which is a solid sphere, which is too small to be supercritical. It’s sub-critical, therefore perfectly safe. It becomes supercritical in an incredibly fast time, measured in a small fractions of a microsecond.

So, I call my sketch or description a hollow sphere, which would be subcritical, being driven together by the explosive, into a solid mass which would become supercritical. And so the real invention should be given full credit to [Seth] Neddermeyer.

Rhodes: I was going to ask, [John] von Neumann’s name is sometimes mentioned.

Kistiakowsky: No, he had absolutely nothing to do with it.

Rhodes: He worked on the mathematics later, did he not? Apparently, he helped convince Oppenheimer that Neddermeyer’s idea made some sense.

Kistiakowsky: Yes, the reason for that is a complicated one. While I was running the Conventional Explosives Division 8 of the National Defense Research Committee, we asked—I could probably use the word I—John Von Neumann to develop the theory of detonation velocity of high explosives. We were convinced by then that under proper circumstances, it is obeying the rigorous laws, therefore it could be predicted, and the [inaudible] providing the initial conditions—composition of the explosives, its density—were maintained. The so-called Chapman-Jouget theory, which was an idea on the explosions.

Von Neumann wrote a paper that was secret or top secret. Amusingly enough, the Russian, [Yakov Borisovich] Zel'dovich, published during the war an unclassified paper giving the same theory. And German physicist, Werner Döring, published an unclassified paper on the same subject giving very much the same theory. For some reason, in those two countries the theory was regarded as unclassified. But that produced or generated interest of phenomenon in explosives. 

I always lectured him—if I may use that outrageous word with respect for Von Neumann—on our attitude toward high explosives that they were completely controllable, exact mechanisms; otherwise, it’s just a blind, destructive force. And it was because of that, I think, that then for Von Neumann, when he began going to Los Alamos, I guess in the Fall of 1943, which is the time that I also started going there as a consultant, began telling Oppenheimer that implosion was not a wild shot, but was something conceivable.

To make it into something, you have to assume that you can control the velocity of the detonation with a chemical explosive. Being accurate so if you start the wave at certain points by means of detonators, you can predict exactly where it will be at a given time. When you design the charge in a clever way—and we found later that we had to use so-called lenses—which we invented them, but you end up with a spherical wave traveling towards the center of the charge and centered on the plutonium sphere in the middle. 

Rhodes: I’ve seen a photograph or two of one of the disassembled early units, I’m not sure if it was supposed to be let out, but it was published in a book. It actually shows the top half taken off and the tamper sitting there covered with tape and so forth. Did you actually have to cast those lenses with the slurry? I believe you have used that term.

Kistiakowsky: The total charge was huge; it weighed several tons of explosive. One of the reasons it was made in such a way that there would be some continuous detonation started in many points around the circumference. I will not tell you how many because I don’t know if that’s open or not.

Each initiation point would be centered on a lens, which would convert a diversion beam of an explosion wave into a convergent beam. Very much like an optical lens converts divergent light into a convergent light if you put it right. All of these lenses surrounded the tamper and the tamper mainly served as a reflector for neutrons so that they go back, but there were other reasons for tamper; to smooth the shockwave that was produced by the detonation wave. The detonation wave would be centered on the center point of the charge.

Then there was the cast. At that time the only way we could make this charges was by casts. We used a new explosive, so called Composition B, which was mainly a mixture of molten TNT and a melting powder called RDX, a cyclonite, which is a more powerful explosive than TNT by quite a bit—forty percent or so. Because at that time, in our earlier work, our associate organic chemists, primarily Dr. [Werner] Bachmann of the University of Michigan, discovered so called Process B—Bachman—of making RDX relatively economically.

Until then, it was made by an extremely expensive process, and therefore made only in very small quantities by the British, the Russians, the Germans, and used for very sophisticated munitions, like for instance armor piercing, small caliber shells and that kind of thing and yielding maximum force for minimum weight. 

But that plant, which was built in Tennessee by Tennessee Eastman started making this stuff. Before the war ended, they were making by the [Bachmann] process five hundred tons a day. And then also in our laboratories, we improved upon the British process of how to make a mixture of this powder, crystalline powder, and molten TNT cast which required the additions of the surfactant agents, waxes, and so on. That became known as Composition B.

Rhodes: So the solution—the liquid portion—when the material was hot, was wax? Was it an oil?

Kistiakowsky: It was a slurry, very much like a pea soup.

Rhodes: But that was not a slurry made with water?

Kistiakowsky: Oh God, no. No, no. TNT was the liquid part of it, RDX was the solid part of it and the whole thing was about the consistency of a thick pea soup. Something like that. 

Rhodes: Did it have a characteristic smell?

Kistiakowsky: It smelled of TNT, quite characteristic. 

Rhodes: Can you characterize TNT?

Kistiakowsky: Well it smelled like an organic explosive smell.

Rhodes: It smelled of battlefield? It is more of a revolver smell? 

Kistiakowsky: Well, no, like nitrogen oxides.

Rhodes: Okay.

Kistiakowsky: Not very strong, but it smells a little. Not when cold, but when hot.

Rhodes: There was a problem with the molds.

Kistiakowsky: Well we had to have a second explosive to make the lens, because the lens consist of two media: air around it and the glass inside the optical lens. Here we have Composition B on the outside, which had the function of air because the velocity of the wave was high. The detonation wave, just like in the air, the light velocity is highest. Well, it is fastest in a vacuum, but it is nearly the same. 

So we have to have an explosive which has a very low velocity. And this project I assigned not to the Manhattan District laboratories, who were too busy and did not have enough more organically oriented explosive handling people at Los Alamos. I assigned it to my friends at our explosives research laboratory in Pittsburgh, the so-called Bruceton Laboratory, of which I was the chief until I went to Los Alamos.

And it was from there that Dr. McDougall, who after the war eventually came to Los Alamos, and for many years until he retired recently, was the head of all the implosion work there. And his associate, who developed this explosive named Baritol—I think that’s all that’s disclosed in the literature. That had a low velocity of detonation and therefore we had this changing and fractured index of the interface, which of course caused the wave to bend in effect.

All of this had to be cast in molds, because in wartime we couldn’t get built in time the most elaborate machinery. The machining must be cast to the right shape, which was very complex because you [00:21:00] see there was essentially something like a hundred or so pieces which had to fit together to a precision of a few thousandths of an inch in a total size of five feet and make a sphere. We had to have very precise molds and that was, from a procurement point of view, the greatest agony we had because the people outside Los Alamos simply seemed unable to make the molds to an adequate accuracy.

Rhodes: What were the molds made of? What material?

Kistiakowsky: Low melting metal. A container, because the actual process was a very complicated one, because first you have to make out of some metal, probably aluminum or steel, something exactly in the shape of the casts. And that was done in the big shops outside of Los Alamos, which was done slowly by hand, of course one of a kind, and then finished by hand and polished and so on.

Then that was held properly in a container and a low melting alloy, essentially a soldering-type metal, was poured in between [inaudible] full of coils of copper tubing, so that we could put through various coils separate circuits, hot and cold water. Because we learned gradually that these large casts of fifty pounds or more each, had to be cooled in just a certain way, otherwise you’d get air bubbles in the middle or separation of solids and liquids, all of which would screw up the charge completely. 

This was a slow process. The explosive was poured in and then people sat all over that damned thing, watching it like an egg being hatched, changing the temperature of the water running into the various water pipes. So we got completely repositioned, convinced that explosives were not dangerous. You worked with them as if they were just another chemical.

Rhodes: You were counter to that status at the outset weren’t you?

Kistiakowsky: Well, I had them under my general supervision, although not a close one. There was more than half a million days of R and D work on explosives in World War II without a single major accident, due to explosives. There were broken legs because people fell on ice and other incidents—burns because people got caught in fires, but there were no explosions. Unlike other establishments, like the DuPont laboratories, and the Army ordinance laboratories, where there were quite a few fatalities. The reason being that we developed a theory and understanding, I think, of what causes accidental explosions that were completely different from the official view that was given by Army ordinance and accepted as more than truth, that it was facts. 

Rhodes: I understand, and in some things that would be true.

Kistiakowsky: Yes, so for instance, they never used any steel tools, but always fought for bronze tools, which of course were dull because you can’t sharpen bronze like you can sharpen hard steel. We, on the other hand, were convinced that explosions came from heating—friction heat—assisted by confinement that was preventing the pressure from being relieved. Therefore, things like a dull drill drilling a hole was exceedingly dangerous because it was deep inside the explosive. It was dull, therefore there was a large amount of energy spent on friction, and the deep probe caused by the drill bit would prevent the escape of the gas; so that we forbade everyone to do.

We used sharp tools, ordinary steel, never worried about sparks and never had any explosions. So far as I know, this neutralizing force has never been credited to me, but that’s all right because I just pushed. It was obvious from what our big group of people studied that that was the thing to do. I think I put out a little manual after that came to Los Alamos, because I had to deal with a lot of young people who came there knowing nothing about explosives. That manual explained this idea and they never had any troubles, nor did the people at the National Defense Research Laboratory. Well, that’s it and with these rules. We finally got that feeling of control about being able to get ready for the test, for the Trinity test.

Rhodes: I’ve seen that narrative where you discussed having to drill into those bubbles at the last moment and fill them up by hand, right? Which you did, apparently.

Kistiakowsky: Yeah and I used sharp tools. I was completely confident. Besides, you don’t worry about it. I mean if fifty pounds of explosive goes [off] in your lap, you have no worries. 

Rhodes: There were a number of very low estimates of the yield of that first test bomb. Was that related to a question about whether the explosives would work properly? 

Kistiakowsky: Yes, but the physicists, that is everybody except my division, the X [Explosives] Division with few exceptions, were very skeptical as to whether the lenses would work properly. Thirty-eight hours before the actual Trinity test, which I describe in my article, there was that test which indicated that they didn’t work. Which created enormous emotional outbursts about mine and everybody else’s work. 

Rhodes: Would you actually be more specific? Was it concern about turbulence as the boundary between the two types of explosives? Or the simultaneity of the explosions?

Kistiakowsky: I don’t remember anymore. I think probably simultaneity, but then there were other things that happened with the interface between adjoining charges.

Rhodes: That apparently has always been a problem.

Kistiakowsky: That was seen as a problem and worried a lot of people. But it was just a general feeling of superiority by the physicists over the chemists, who were in my division. Similarly, however, I had absolutely no confidence in the physicists calculations of the magnitude of the yield. And so, when I bet in that pool that was running there before the Alamogordo test, I bet about one kiloton. I also bet Oppenheimer, quite a bit of my money, about six or seven hundred dollars against ten dollar bills that the explosive part would work and there would be some nuclear reaction. But I didn’t think it would be much of a reaction. 

Rhodes: May I ask you a couple of personal questions about your time at Los Alamos?

Kistiakowsky: Yeah.

Rhodes: There is a story about a lot of beer bottles being piled up against your door one Sunday morning.

Kistiakowsky: Oh, well yes they did something like that. Those were the friendly physicists. It was a big bash, I think it was after V-J Day when I got fairly soused at the party given by Robert Bacher. Those around me egged me on and so I went to the explosive stores and got out twenty-one fifty pound boxes of TNT and with the help of a young man—since I was rather far gone—fired them off in a field and came back. The bastards told me I fired twenty-two.

And then I went to sleep in my little house, which was across the street from Bacher’s house. And then as a last thing they created a fantastic pile of empty bottles—beer, whiskey, tequila—in front of my only door, so I was really stuck for a while. But I got even because I arranged with my trusty friends from my division a few nights later to bring some exceedingly heavy objects, I forget what they are, and blocked the doors of the man who I knew was the initiator of that last trick. And those things required a crew of workmen to remove from these doors.

Rhodes: There’s also a story that you insisted that your daughter be allowed to visit you at Los Alamos? 

Kistiakowsky: Well, not insisted. I was allowed to have her visit. I did not want to go there. I had other plans for myself. 

Rhodes: You were possibly going to go on the Alsos mission. 

Kistiakowsky: Yes I was—the Alsos mission.

Rhodes: But then they needed you for the explosive problem. 

Kistiakowsky: But then Oppenheimer and Groves started urging [James] Conant, because they did not have confidence in Neddermeyer, that they needed me over there because I was supposed to be the number one civilian explosives expert, with these new-fangled ideas about precision instruments—explosives position instruments. And so I said all right, this is war time, and although I’m a civilian, I obeyed the orders of my boss Conant.

But then I negotiated with Groves; in my case, there were two exceptions made. Well, really three exceptions made. My salary was fixed properly, that is commensurate to a Harvard salary and not on the civil service salary which I was getting at the time which was much lower. I had to go on civil service on the National Defense Research Committee for unimportant reasons, legal reasons.

The other [exception] was that I was not going to be put into regular housing, because as a chemist I would have been given very low quality housing. But the housing boss was a lady, wife, of a theoretical physicist. I’m not going to name her.

Rhodes: She had her own sense of hierarchy. 

Kistiakowsky: She had her own hierarchy. She was the daughter of a stuffy German professor of mathematics of some sort on the highest level of mathematicians and theoretical physicists and experimental physicists and then the hoi polloi—chemists, engineers, and so on.

That housing wasn’t far from the dump and quite far from the offices and the eating places and so on. I got this tiny little house, a room and a half house converted out of a diesel engine shed built for the old school, the Los Alamos school. Diesels were too small and it was taken out.

And the third condition, since I was divorced, was that my daughter could spend the summers with me, and yet go to college, which was completely an unusual arrangement. She was the only one, the only teenager who was allowed to go in and out that way.

Rhodes: Then Marina von Neumann was living there?

Kistiakowsky: No, never.

Rhodes: All right because there is a photograph of her with her father in Santa Fe, but it may have been after the war.  

Kistiakowsky: In Santa Fe?

Rhodes: In Santa Fe, yeah. 

Kistiakowsky: No, von Neumann during the war was not a governmental member of the staff. He was a consultant. However in 1945, he spent all his time there [Los Alamos]. 

Rhodes: May I move us forward? Because I do not want to take too much of your time. The period in the early 1950s when there was something that was informally called the von Neumann Committee. There was a question of—there was a committee Trevor Gardner put together.

Rhodes: It was the committee you were on and Charles Lindbergh and so forth—

Kistiakowsky: Charles Lindbergh and what was the name—

Rhodes: Jerome Wiesner?

Kistiakowsky: Wiesner and a professor of aeronautical engineering from Cal Tech.

Rhodes: [Theodore] von Karman?

Kistiakowsky: No. His brother was a well-known economist at MIT and there were the sons of [Robert] Millikan.  

Rhodes: Millikan. That committee, I have found very little information about.

Kistiakowsky: The origin of that committee goes back. They existed ever since the war. The Science Advisory Board to the Air Force Chief of Staff. Chaired by von Karman and created by what was the General that ran the Air Force during the war.

Rhodes: [General Henry] Arnold. 

Kistiakowsky: Arnold, yes. Sometime in the late forties, very late forties and maybe already 1950, I was appointed a member of it and very soon afterwards made a member of a panel under Clark Millikan’s chairmanship to look into the Air Force project to build an ICBM in San Diego, that factory there.

Rhodes: That helps answer a question that I had. Which is how you all convinced the Air Force to be involved in ICBMs, since they were so pro-bomber in those days.

Kistiakowsky: Well, that project was languishing. We looked into it and recommended it be reconstituted and be pushed hard, and the air council rejected our recommendation out of hand. So that died down. Since our channels went through the military, uniformed. And when Eisenhower was elected—what’s the guys name that you mentioned? 

Rhodes: Trevor Gardner.

Kistiakowsky: Trevor Gardner. When he became special assistant to secretary of the Air Force, he convinced the Secretary, Mr. [Harold] Talbott, to set up a committee responding to him, Talbott, rather than to the Air Force Chief of Staff, on this whole issue.

Rhodes: Did the government have security information at that point that the Soviets were working on an ICBM? As far as you know?

Kistiakowsky: As far as I know it was known, we were given full access. There was evidence from German returnees, which was really the only source of information. German engineers from Berlin, who were sanitized by keeping isolated for a few years and then were allowed to go back to East Germany. But that was before the Berlin wall, so information leaked westward very easily.

There was intense work on the ballistic missiles, of increasing ranges, and I remember hearing some very imaginative drawing of Inter-Continental Missiles, no connection to what they look like now. We never knew what they were doing at the time because all of this information was consistently several years late.

Rhodes: Was that information the impetus for your concern and the committee’s concern? Gardner’s concern?

Kistiakowsky: Yes, yes it was very much Gardner’s concern and our committee’s concern. That committee then hired Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation—it’s a very small advising consulting company—to act as our technical source. They did a lot of work.

We came up with a recommendation that the Air Force start an all out, highest priority project of building an ICBM. We rejected the idea that the Air Force built intermediate range missiles, which eventually, contrary to our recommendation, was built before. That was the Atlas missile. What was that company’s name—it was not part of General Dynamics—Convair in San Diego. It was a really risky proposition, but we felt it was the only one that promised relatively quick success.

Rhodes: One of the points was that it was clear that the thermonuclear could be reduced in size by the time the missile was ready, right?

Kistiakowsky: There were three points that were of great importance, our committee concluded. And von Neumann was the leader in it. The warhead could be cut down to somewhere like a thousand pounds and still be of the order of a megaton explosive yield. The size of the missile could be cut down to a third of what old Air Force missiles promised to be. And incidentally that size was the same as the Soviet size of the SS-6, which was then used to launch satellites in space in 1957-58. 

Rhodes: I remember in your diary, Vice President Nixon asking you several times why we didn’t build a bigger one. “Couldn’t we afford it?” I think he asked.

Kistiakowsky: And so did Eisenhower and so on but they were so cumbersome, so impossible to handle, that only four or five of them were deployed by December 1960, or January 1961.

The second point was that for that size warhead, a reasonable propulsion system could be built and that was mainly my concern. Not singularly, but at least that was the group I was working with. And also, that it was not impossible to bring the nose-cone back to Earth without its burning up in the air, which was an extremely acute problem then. The early ideas were to simply enclose it in a very huge copper shield and let the copper heat and melt, but not all of it. 

Rhodes: Kind of ablation of a sort? 

Kistiakowsky: That is right, well not ablation, it’s melting—heat absorption and melting. But it would just save the insides. And the third point, in which Wiesner was the leader, that there were ways of guiding the missile with adequate accuracy considering the warhead would be a megaton or so. And with that report, we went to the Secretary of the Air Force, who was not a very smart guy, but listened to Gardner. So Gardner told him it was a good report and should be endorsed.

The Secretary sent it to the Air Chief of Staff, whose staff gave it in regular ways to his colonels, who briefed the so-called Air Council and their assistant chiefs of staff in a very negative fashion. And the project was rejected again.

But they didn’t count on Taylor Gardner who raised such a stink with the Secretary. The Secretary demanded that the top rungs, that is the Air Council, hear the members of the committee. There was a very strange performance with three college professors, von Neumann, Weisner and myself as the three more-or-less leaders of that committee, briefed the Air Council on each of our specialties, propulsion and re-entry, guidance and warhead, each of us dealing with a special interest.

Whether they believed us or not, I don’t know, but anyways the project was authorized. They selected a young and very obstreperous guy, I think he was then still a colonel. What was his name? Well, I have no memory for him.

Rhodes: It is in the record somewhere. Is it [General Bernard] Schriever? 

Kistiakowsky: Schriever. Benjamin “Bennie” Schriever. He ran into a head on collision with [General Curtis] LeMay, who of course was the paramount among the fly boys. And Schriever argued that the future belonged to the missiles. So he was in the dog house in the Air Force, so they gave him this project. But they always gave him money and highest priorities, and Bennie Schriever was a very capable guy and so he pushed the project and the committee, in a sense, began to have a double function as a kind  money couriering body under General Schriever.

All the advisors first accepted it [ICBMs] to the Air Force and then later, after we recommended it, the Navy go ahead with the Polaris missile, a submarine-type missile. According to the Army’s wish that the Navy build a submarine to have a liquid-fueled missile inside, which eventually became the Thor [missile].

And then we became an advisor to the Secretary of Defense. Von Neumann unfortunately died; Clark Millikan succeeded him as Chairman. He did not have the forceful personality of von Neumann, nor the reputation, and of course, von Neumann was a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and therefore was a big shot on his own in the government.

Rhodes: The committee was able to bypass the Air Force, and Gardner was able to bypass the Air Force by going to what source of power? The President? The Secretary of Defense?

Kistiakowsky: Secretary of the Air Force.

Rhodes: Of the Air Force. He had enough authority to push this over the generals?

Kistiakowsky: He did, I don’t know how. I don’t know what went on behind the scenes. I was just a minor call giver. Big machine and I was doing technical work and I had to make several naïve notions; that intelligence never lies and that people who make policy are more intelligent, more knowledgeable than I am. Both exceedingly naïve notions.

Rhodes: And yet there was a sense within the committee that this had a great urgency, right? This need to build these weapons. A fear that the Soviets could very well have arrived at a fait accompli in a few years.

Kistiakowsky: Well yes, there was danger.

Rhodes: I am very curious about two figures of that era. One is von Neumann himself. He seems to have had an extraordinary amount of influence. The other is Lewis Strauss, who also seems to have had a lot of influence.

Kistiakowsky: Well, I do not know Lewis Strauss. I met him only once or twice socially. Of course, his performance in the Oppenheimer case, I find horrible. Altogether, his influence on Eisenhower, I find very unfortunate. I think he was a really ugly guy. But that’s really from my own personal observations from the record.

Rhodes: He seems to have been von Neumann’s source of power within the government.

Kistiakowsky: Yes.

Rhodes: They were in a sense—von Neumann was a protégé.

Kistiakowsky: Very much, because von Neumann was politically very much to the right of center. He was a hawk, unmistakable, by modern standards. He was a Hungarian and Hungarians are divided into two classes of nuts; the right wing nuts and the left wing nuts.

Rhodes: Putting [Leo] Szilard on one side—

Kistiakowsky: Szilard and Szent-Györgyi on the left, both of whom are charming people. And then the far less charming characters on the right; like Edward Teller and Eugene Wigner and Johnny von Neumann. Of those three, I was only good friends with Jonathan von Neumann—very good friends. I taught Johnny how to play poker until he began to play better than I. He became too good. I spent a lot of evenings at poker.

Rhodes: Was he as extraordinary a mind as he has been described?

Kistiakowsky: Yes, an extraordinary, fast mind. Extraordinarily fast mind.

Rhodes: I am sure you have thought about this business with the Hungarians and their extremes. Why were they so worried about the Soviet Union? You are Russian, right?

Kistiakowsky: I am a Ukrainian, which is like saying to a Scotsman, “Are you an Englishman?” [Laughter]

Rhodes: You seem to be less concerned that they [the Soviets] will sneak up behind us and hit us over the head than the Hungarians were.

Kistiakowsky: Well, you see, the Hungarians had a very long history of atrocities perpetuated by the Russians in Hungary. In 1848, there was a strong liberal movement in Europe—and although I don’t remember the details—there were was a revolution or semi-revolution in Hungary. The Russians—this was Nicholas I, a very ugly character—sent troops that did a bloody job of suppressing it and restoring the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. [Lajos] Kossuth was the Hungarian hero of that revolution.

Then of course, the Russian Army did not treat the Hungarians very nicely at the end of World War II. Those Hungarians, after all, were aligned with the Nazis. There were Hungarian divisions on the Russian front.

Rhodes: There was also that brief regime of Bela Kun right after the First World War when Teller was a child, and von Neumann was a child in Hungary, when for three or four months there was a Soviet, so-called “Hungary.”

Kistiakowsky: That is right, yes.

Rhodes: There is another connection that I keep finding, but I don’t think—

Kistiakowsky: And of course, the last one was that revolt in Hungary in 1956? 

Rhodes: Yeah, correct. There is another connection that I keep finding that has not been much discussed, which is the treatment of the Jews in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century and in those early days. Again, when these Hungarian Jewish men were children. 

Kistiakowsky: Well see, I was a little too young then too, to tell you about that. See all of these people here were an extraordinarily brilliant crew. Extraordinary. They ended [their education] by studying in Germany and interestingly enough almost all of them began their lives studying in the engineering school in Hungary. Von Neumann was a chemical engineer, and then went into this other direction in Germany and continued. You could understand why they became so violently colored in one way or another. I don’t think that middle ground really exists in Hungary.

Rhodes: That is a good point, I had not thought about the polarization that you are talking about. It helps explain Szilard being the other way as so much seems to have been. But they were so influential in this country, that that is part of this whole Soviet-American—

Kistiakowsky: See, I cannot think of any really moderate figures among well-known Hungarians.

Rhodes: von Karman was also conservative—

Kistiakowsky: Very right wing. Way right wing. He and Johnny von Neumann were close friends and Edward Teller. Also, Younger was also there. That was the same group—or gang—with respect to mental capabilities, not so much emotional stability.

Rhodes: How would you characterize your own political point of view? Has it always been as liberal as you seem to be these days?

Kistiakowsky: No, I wasn’t. I grew up in a family, which the question of civil rights, human freedom, was a very important one. My father wrote articles in books and was a professor of sociology, and got into trouble with the Czarist regime, very substantial trouble. Mother was also politically oriented towards this borderline between liberalism and radicalism. I think both of them went through a short period being Marxists and then rejected it. My father became a quite reasonably well known Neo-Cartesian philosopher. He had friends in Germany in that field, and wrote articles with them and all that, and actually was a visiting professor in Heidelberg for a year. 

Rhodes: But you lived in Kiev, right?

Kistiakowsky: That winter we spent in Heidelberg. I was still a kid; it must have been nine or ten, something like that. So that was the background. I think that is why I nearly joined the anti-Bolshevik armies in 1918. It certainly wasn’t because I loved czarism or anything like that. I remember reading newspapers, subscribing to newspapers, of so-called Mensheviks and a very moderate paper of what was called the Social Revolutionary Party, which was competitive with Mensheviks, not Marxism, but essentially against Mensheviks. I went into war work and of course I got completely disgusted with the White Army long before it was all over. I went to war work in 1940 because I had a very intense rejection of Hitler and fascism.

Rhodes: You had studied in Germany, had you not?

Kistiakowsky: Oh yes, I studied—

Rhodes: In Chemistry? 

Kistiakowsky: For four and a half, almost five years—four and a half years.

Rhodes: How did you happen to leave Germany for Princeton?

Kistiakowsky: Because my professor there, [Max] Bodenstein got to like me and kept me after I got my degree in the Spring of 1925 as a lab assistant, post-doc. He told me that if I want to go to academia, which is what I wanted, I should emigrate, that I would never get a job in Germany.

Rhodes: Because here you would always be a Russian.

Kisitakowsky: My wife, [inaudible] was a German. I met her [inaudible] in Berlin, my first wife [Hildegard Moebius]. In 1940, a very intense objection to Hitler that got me into war work and I was sure we would get into the war and I thought we had better get prepared. I still believed in the notion that the powers-that-be were all wise and all-knowing and since they lectured me on this and that I followed them, I kept the same attitude after the war. And so, I was sold on the Cold War because the Soviet Union was going to engage in conquests of the world overnight. Great ideas propagated by Paul Nitze and his like, [Dean] Acheson and so on. Although, Paul Nitze was probably the most dangerous of the bunch.

Rhodes: He is negotiating our arms control these days.

Kistiakowsky: Yeah, which is a joke.

Rhodes: I know.

Kistiakowsky: As I climbed higher and higher on the rungs in the cities on consulting work— Already in Los Alamos I had a sad experience. In the spring of ’45 we were briefed, just a few of us at the top rungs by Naval Intelligence that Japan was nowhere near surrender and we would have to stage an invasion of the main islands with many American casualties and so on. This convinced me that military use of the atom bombs was justified because what I was interested in was getting the war over with as quickly as possible. Then I saw gradually that was not so.

Japan already was involved in peace negotiations and then of course after the Potsdam Conference the only thing that remained was haggling about the fate of the Emperor. In the end the Allies surrendered to Japan, not officially, but they were told the Emperor wouldn’t be penalized.

As I was being promoted to these various rungs, from the advisory level to the Teapot Committee under John von Neumann, before that I was not really heavily involved. I spent several years doing almost nothing but chemistry at Harvard right after the war. Actually that isn’t right because I spent half a year writing a book on Division 8’s accomplishments.

Rhodes: Part of the Manhattan District history?

Kistiakowsky: Not Manhattan, it’s the National Defense Research Committee.

Rhodes: I should look that up.

Kistiakowsky: There is a book called Chemistry in World War II and it is by Albert Noyes Jr., of which the big chapter was on Division 8, which was the explosives division, written by me and the organic chemical part by my good colleague, my successor as Division Leader. If you want to know something about activities prior to Manhattan that is the book to read.

Rhodes: You said also when I talked to you on the phone that you had discussed the von Neumann committee work at some other place or time and it was written somewhere. So far I haven’t found much.

Kistiakowsky: No. I don’t think so. I don’t think anything would be published. It may be mentioned here and there. Probably my book A Scientist at the White House it may be mentioned here and there and maybe that is what I referred to. There may be some speeches which use a few words about it.

Rhodes: We have run over an hour. May I ask you briefly a couple of things about people?

One of the mysteries of Oppenheimer is that he didn’t win more accolades as a physicist. No Nobel [Prize].

Kistiakowsky: Well he got involved in politics. I would have been a better known chemist if I didn’t get involved in all the other things. His interests were just too broadly spread and then of course the war work and then the terrible shock of [the trial]. Well, he made the mistake of not staying as a professor but taking on the Institute of Advanced Studies to be near Washington so he could advise the government. That took him very much out of research and he did very little after World War II.

Rhodes: I do have a sense in reading about him that he had some hope of changing the world, if you will, in a political sense.

Kistiakowsky: Yes.

Rhodes: And that Niels Bohr was his mentor wasn’t he? Don’t you think?

Kistiakowsky: Yes. Very influential. I knew Niels Bohr when he was at Los Alamos and Bohr worked for me but at that time it had very little impact because I felt that the war effort was all-in and let’s get the war over and then talk about work. This obviously was a mistake, but for many years, well into the mid 1950’s, I saw myself as a technical expert being available to policy makers to put the policies into effect. 

As I got up higher and higher on the rungs I began to realize that these policies were based on frequently very distorted, sometimes deliberately, intelligence information. The famous gap—bomber gap, missile gap, ABM gap, nerve gap and the present gap—finally those bastards on the right succeeded in selling everybody on the idea that the Soviets are immensely powerful, which I just don’t believe.

Rhodes: I don’t either from the evidence there.

Kistiakowsky: They have the numbers but they don’t have the quality.

Rhodes: It suddenly occurred to me the other day that the original gap was the German gap. That is to say, the concern during the war that the Germans would build a bomb before we did, right?

Kistiakowsky: Oh yes.

Rhodes: That was the first gap.

Kistiakowsky: That was the driving force of Los Alamos. 

Rhodes: And it turned out not to be true either, although who knew at the time?

Kistiakowsky: I was lucky that I didn’t go on that Alsos mission because my successor James Fisk had a very dull time of it in Italy. 

Rhodes: [Samuel] Goudsmit makes it interesting in his book at least.

Kistiakowsky: Yeah, but that was after the war practically. Goudsmit was there only the last months of the war when our troops were already in Germany but Fisk was in Italy.

Rhodes: There was an earlier one, that’s right. I remember that.

Kistiakowsky: Another one by the same Colonel Boris Pash—a really wild Russian, an extreme right wing, sort of Ku Klux Klan enthusiast. He was active before the war in ferreting out information about Oppenheimer and he testified at the hearings in a very bad way. He was really quite a character, this Boris Pash. Jim Fisk was just not the man to stand up to Boris Pash in that terrible time.

Rhodes: Strange people turn up in this whole story.

Kistiakowsky: Pash wanted to be ahead of our troops to catch the right people and Fisk felt that safety came first and so on. I was supposed to be dropped into Switzerland instead of going into Italy but I think by the time the whole thing was really organized we would have come into Italy and done the same thing that Fisk did, which was nothing.

Rhodes: May I ask one thing that you may not be able to answer but I’m curious: how we got from a five-foot sphere to these little basketballs that we now have. Is that primarily a question of the explosive design?

Kistiakowsky: I could tell you but I can’t.

Rhodes: Okay. It’s very curious because obviously you can’t change the critical mass too much. Something had to change. I’ll make my guesses about it [laughter].

Kistiakowsky: I was a consultant to Los Alamos spending several weeks every summer there, even a month or two, for several years after the war helping with the development of the implosion but I refused to have anything to do with the hydrogen bomb. Edward Teller tried to entice me to join as a senior man at the Livermore Laboratory and I said no to that.

Rhodes: You spoke to the GAC [General Advisory Committee]in that famous meeting when they were trying to decide whether to recommend the thermonuclear or the super as it was called. You testified as an expert witness to them?

Kistiakowsky: I don’t think so.

Rhodes: May 31, 1949 or something like that?

Kistiakowsky: If I did then it is completely out of my memory. If there is a record of it then I did it.

Rhodes: I suppose you probably were speaking about implosion and design.

Kistiakowsky: The general concept of the design was not a secret from me because I was still a consultant to Los Alamos.

Rhodes: McGeorge Bundy is said to be writing a book about the whole development of nuclear weapons.

Kistiakowsky: I’m sure McGeorge will come and talk.

Rhodes: [Laughter] Somehow I have a feeling that is like having a fox in the chicken coop for him to be writing.

Kistiakowsky: McGeorge will be a great man once more.

Rhodes: I think I won’t ask you much more. I’m sure I am wearing you out.

Kistiakowsky: If you make personal references to what I told you, I’d like to see it. That is something that has to be understood.

Rhodes: That’s fine. By personal reference you mean if I quote you directly?

Kistiakowsky: Or say that Kistiakowsky thinks that or remembers that even without the quote marks because everything has to be looked on, if I use Kissinger words, “deep, deep background.”

Rhodes: That’s fine. Excellent. How are you? Are you alright?

Kistiakowsky: No, not so good.

Rhodes: I’m terribly sorry.

Kistiakowsky: Well, I’m eighty-one.

Rhodes: I’m always struck by what an extraordinarily interesting life you obviously have had, just reading about it as I have.

Kistiakowsky: There is another character that wants to write my life history.

Rhodes: It should be done.

Kistiakowsky: This third character wants to and probably will make a TV story of my life, but with very definite political shading—mainly, “How did a major weaponeer become a peacemaker?” That is why I agreed to that one.

Rhodes: Did you see the Teller [film]?

Kistiakowsky: Didn’t you see me discussing his eyebrows?

Rhodes: [Laughter] I missed the show. I have a transcript but I didn’t see the film itself.

Kistiakowsky: I make jokes about his eyebrow.

Rhodes: [Laughter] That’s in the transcript.

Kistiakowsky: It apparently convinced the guy that now wants to make a TV story on me, because they think I am extraordinarily photogenic and the way I handle things was just absolutely superb and all that crap.

Rhodes: He wants to make you a star.

Kistiakowsky: It’s a little late.