The Manhattan Project

Ted Taylor's Interview - Part 4

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From 1948-1956, Taylor worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, developing fission bombs of minimal size and maximal capacity. Later in life, while working for the Defense Department, Taylor began to realize the real-world implications and consequences of the bombs he developed. In this interview, he discusses the effect of the Korean War and the pressure to produce atomic weapons. Taylor elaborates on how he developed a great distrust of the nuclear industry, the politics of it, and way the process overstressed secrecy and lying. Finally, Taylor explains how he initially came to be a designer of nuclear weapons, and how he believes that fascination with nuclear weapons is like a disease.
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Rhodes: Well, I had started to ask you about the Korean War. Was that a shock? Did that worry everyone and accelerate your sense of pressure?

Taylor: I don’t think so. I don’t remember any feeling of pressure, that we had to do something by a certain time or else all hell would break lose. All I remember was excitement and anticipation and eagerness to know the result of something I had worked on.

I don’t remember any sense of, “Now everything has changed. We have to do things much more quickly. We have to do things we weren’t doing before.” I had been exploring big fission bombs in the notion of using that against the massed Chinese troops—I think was more justification for going around talking to people about this thing that I was very proud of. You got very possessive about these things. My SOB, Super Oralloy Bomb. My bomb.

Rhodes: I never noticed the abbreviation before. Was that deliberate?

Taylor: We called it the Super Oralloy Bomb. I don’t know who called it that. It happened to come out “SOB.” I don’t think that was premeditated.

Rhodes: When you thought of a design, sometimes you needed to think of a use for it.

Taylor: Yeah. Well, the use that I had in mind originally was the one that led me to drawing circles on Moscow and Baku and so on and so on when I was at Naval Intelligence for a few weeks in November 1950.

I remember the date very well, because our second daughter was born while I was there. I remember sitting in the bar at the Roger Smith Hotel after the day, drawing circles. Waiting, knowing that Carol was in labor and that Kathy was in the process of being born, and hating myself for not being there. I was just sitting there drinking. I had a lot of beer. I felt very bad to have not been there. She was born November 15, and that was toward the end of that.

Rhodes: November 15, 19—?

Taylor: 1950. So that was almost exactly a year after I started there.

Rhodes: Does that suggest then that you worked in some isolation from the political world that was swirling at that point?

Taylor: Yeah.

Rhodes: Because you know, as I said—

Taylor: Bethe had strong support from everybody, and my focus was on things that I was working on, was getting attention about. It was fun, pure and simple.

Rhodes: What was the political ambience at Los Alamos? 

Taylor: That was really interesting. T Division was Democratic, with one exception. I think there were close to 100 people in the T Division at that time. We were all Democrats. We were all out being the [Adlai] Stevenson-[Dwight D.] Eisenhower campaigns throughout. I campaigned more seriously for somebody that I ever have in my life, for Stevenson, that first time.

P Division people, Physics Division people were almost entirely, but not so overwhelmingly, Republican.

Rhodes: The experimentalists?

Taylor: The experimentalists were Republicans.

Rhodes: That’s a famous division.

Taylor: Yeah. So politically, there wasn’t an awful lot of talk about arms control in those days.

Rhodes: No.

Taylor: But what there was, came more out of Stevenson than out of Eisenhower. Eisenhower’s farewell speech, I don’t remember hearing. I heard about it much, much later. I did have a lot of scorn for Eisenhower. I remember things that he said that sounded inane.

For example, one thing that I remembered, and perhaps, it’s literally true, I mean, the actual words. Someone asked him during cutbacks of the military establishment, whether those cutbacks were endangering our national security. His answer was, “The needs of this country are what its requirements demand.” I sort of lobbed onto that, because I never had much respect for Eisenhower.

Rhodes: My respect has grown over the years as I look back on the records.

Taylor: Enormously.

Rhodes: That sort of statement, he was very good at doing just to make things confused.

Taylor: Well, I’m not comparing stories—somewhat later, in the early ‘60s about people reporting how it was to work for Eisenhower. If you wanted him to do something, what you would do is, you would put it into his mind, very gently, with the idea that your objective was to have him suddenly pound the table and say, “I know! This is what we’re going to do.”

Rhodes: But he also really was good at restraining the growth of nuclear weapons.

Taylor: He was, actually.   

Rhodes: This is the famous story about his saying, “We’re going to build 300 of these Minutemen? Well Jesus, why don’t we just go crazy and build 1,000? Why do we need all those?” was his argument.

Taylor: Yeah.

Rhodes: I guess by political, I meant partly a sense of justification in political terms for the work.

Taylor: Well, it was needed. The only time I ever used that was when I was responding to my mother.

Rhodes: Was there a sense that the Russians were dangerous, for example? Threatening?

Taylor: Yeah. Well, it’s very hard for me to recall, because I didn’t keep any record of it. I feel so differently now. I think, I believe, that I was quoting, or misquoting [Nikita] Khrushchev’s statement about “We’ll bury you,” as much as anyone else. I’ve come to realize how far that was from anything that was terribly significant.

First of all, it’s just human error of translation, of understanding. I think it was in the same conversation in which he said, “Bye-bye, you’ll be dead and gone. And we’ll still be there. We’ll wave bye-bye.” I have a vivid picture, which has been shown innumerable times on various accounts.

No, I don’t recall having any feeling of—I was afraid that there might be a nuclear war, and was very active in civil defense at Los Alamos. I spent a lot of time down in the steam tunnels under the high school. We set up some helium balloons on strings and looked to see at what altitude above the central part of the Tech Area you would be safe if you were down in the canyon—the sense of not having a line of sight to the center of the explosion. We would do that for years. I remember wondering how it would really be like and expecting that there was a good chance that we would have a nuclear war.

I didn’t have a conviction that we were absolutely sure that there wouldn’t be one. I, in fact, was quite worried about it. When someone asked, as Carol did, repeatedly, “What would we do if that siren goes off and it’s real? What do we do?” It was important for to me to have an answer to that. We used to sit around the kitchen table where we lived, and I talked a great deal with the children about what a nuclear bomb going off above Los Alamos might do. It terrified them.

The concern was that in spite of the existence of the bombs, we might still go to war anyway because the Russians were determined to conquer the world.

Rhodes: That was a pretty universal feeling in those days.

Taylor: Yeah. I mean, I just didn’t have anything like the sensitivity or knowledge of Russian history or anything else to question that. My attitude toward the Russians must have evolved—it didn’t suddenly change overnight—evolved to the point where one of the most interesting and exciting and welcomed times to me was when I met my first honest-to-goodness Communist Russian in Vienna. We turned into very good friends. Vladimir Shmelev, who was in the nuclear safeguarders division, a department of the IAEA [International Atomic Energy Agency]. I gradually got to know him. That was huge experience. Ever since then, I have gone way out of my way to try to get on familiar terms with Russians. That was ‘66, the start of the fall of ’66, and then we were in Vienna for two years.

Rhodes: Working on—?

Taylor: Nuclear safeguards. I had gotten very concerned about nuclear terrorists.

Rhodes: Was this with the IAEA? 

Taylor: Well, no. I had been the Deputy Director for Technology in what was then called the Defense Atomic Support Agency in the Pentagon. It’s now the Defensive Nuclear Agency. It was a civilian job, the first in line command authority civilian job in the Pentagon. I filled out fitness reports for captains and colonels. That was the first time that had happened.

I’m saying that, because I did my turnaround in the midst of that job. Within about six months of the time when I actually left, I decided to move the family, if possible somehow, to Vienna, because that was where the headquarters of the agency was. I had gotten all kinds of mixed reports from different people ranging—about the IAEA—ranging from saying that “They’re the whole extra show, it’s meaningless, it’s a big deception,” to, “Well, it’s small and they’re not adequately supported. But there’s some very good people there and that’s all we’ve got, and we’ve got to support them.”

I developed a deep distrust of most people working in nuclear things, whether it was pro-disarmament or anti-disarmament, or in favor of ABM [anti-ballistic missile], or against ABM. I had directly witnessed a great deal of lying, people saying things officially that I knew they knew were not true. Hearings before Congress where people lied, and I knew they lied. In that frame of mind, and having discovered that there were 36,000 nuclear weapons scattered all over the world, I decided I wanted nothing to do with that anymore and I would devote myself to trying to get rid of them.

When that happened, which is before I left the Pentagon, I sort of got slightly formal about that and talking to people. One of my biggest anticipated enthusiasms was to get to know some Russians. Not some people who had left Russia—I knew a lot of those. But people were Russian, working on it. So every time there was an opportunity to be friendly with a Russian, I went overboard to do that.

That became obvious, I guess, to people in the U.S. security over there, to the point where one of the intelligence people—I don’t know if he was CIA or not, but he worked for intelligence. He would set up about once a month lunch for him and me to talk. Always in a different restaurant, and a table off in the corner, somewhere in Vienna. He wanted me to tell him everything that I thought that might bear on Russian attitudes that I picked up from Vladimir Shmelev, because it became known to him that we were good friends. We would go over, we had them over for dinner, he and his wife and girl. We went over at their place in the Russian compound, a thing that was not all that common, this outsider that didn’t work for the IAEA.

So that enthusiasm was very strong, and it built on a decision I made to go to Vienna. I did work a deal out as a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission through Jim Ramey, who was a chair on the Commission and who was a very close friend. He, in fact, had been the one who presented me with the Ernest Lawrence Award at the award ceremony. It was Jim who wrote down the basis of the citation and all of that. We were good friends. He arranged for me to have my travel paid to and from Vienna, and $95 a day consulting for not more than 130 days, which was the limit on what you could do, and I think it may still be, with the government.

So with that arrangement set up, and an introduction to the head of the mission—not the ambassador. The ambassador to the IAEA was Harry Smyth, whom I had known for some years too. Smyth recognized me as a part-time consultant. I had a desk in the U.S. mission of the IAEA, and when I got there was then introduced to [Sigvard] Eklund through one of the staff people at the mission.

So that was the basis on which I went over. But we took Carol and five children and two wire-haired terriers on spec that I could somehow manage to get enough income to go.

Well, I went through the 130 days of consulting in very close to 130 days. I had put in to the Ford Foundation a big proposal for two years of work over there. It was not funded. They tried to find a way to support it, individual. But the Ford Foundation was not set up to do that.

So I incorporated and through an old friend, a former roommate at Caltech who was then a lawyer in Washington, set up what we call the International Research and Technology Corporation. As soon as that happened, I got, within a couple of weeks, got a subcontract from the Stanford Research Institute to study non-national nuclear threats. I had become known for that. Because in my progress reports to the AEC, it was full of that, people stealing plutonium and building bombs, and asking what would they need to do and so on and so on. All unclassified. My progress reports, I gave to Vladimir Shmelev and other people at the IAEA. I’m very, very open. I was careful to make sure I wasn’t breaking security rules.

The net result was that I had no income for about a year. We went through most of our resources. But the last six months or so, I was working for Stanford Research Institute under a contract, and then for General Atomic on a particular method that they had developed for non-destructive assay of fuel, to see how much uranium-235 and plutonium was in there. I was only there two years.

Came back to Washington and this International Research Technology Corporation sort of think-tank grew quite a bit, and reached a level of a couple million dollars a year and then sort of gradually faded out. But the beginning of that time, I mean, the time a few weeks over which I just went from “Yes” on bombs to “No” on bombs, that was when I was in the Pentagon. That was late ‘65.

Rhodes: Is there anything in particular that triggered that?

Taylor: Just a combination of things that came together. The war in Korea had been followed by a really nasty form of the war in Vietnam. We were bombing the daylights out of North Vietnam. I didn’t like that, this incredible number of different kinds of bombs. I had no idea how many there were. I didn’t know we had bombs in Turkey, until I got to the Pentagon. I had no idea of the variety, before, of the variety of places where we had stored them in West Germany, and Belgium, and England.

Some of the failures of control over the weapons I was aware of: their susceptibility to effects of very low levels of radiation on the control system, on the guidance and control system, and all that. The whole thing, like a thing gone out of control. Massive, and very scary. One of my jobs in the Pentagon was to review all of the proposals coming from the Arms Control Disarmament Agency, which had been around for a few years, I guess it was started in ‘60, ‘61. It was one of the first things that the Kennedy administration did. This was four years after that.

This stuff was—it wouldn’t do justice to a high school paper on the subject. It was really lousy. I sympathize with those people who had to draw a position. Most of the reproduction was still slightly wet paper, on slightly wet paper. You go running down the hall with this thing hot off the mimeograph machine or whatever they were—the early photocopy machines.

The whole thing, it had just gone crazy. I didn’t see any sign of real competence on anything related to all that. To the weaponry, to the control of them, to the policies that led to our building up these obscene numbers of nuclear weapons. The lying, the cheating, the misleading. That’s all got to stop. I still feel that way. I mean, that really hasn’t changed. The lying, all the evidence I have is that it still goes on.

Rhodes: One of the kinds of loss of control that you listed was the sheer numbers.

Taylor: Yeah.  

Rhodes: That, at least, is being changed. At least, at the official level of the two superpowers.

Taylor: Yeah, but not all that fast.

Rhodes: No, not all that fast. And you’re also concerned about an increase in numbers laterally, right?

Taylor: Yeah. I think our key feature of military activity that I think has got to be abolished is secrecy.

Rhodes: That’s what made it possible.

Taylor: The human species cannot survive with anything like the levels of secrecy that we have now.

Rhodes: That’s what was most totalitarian about the world you were living in.

Taylor: Yes.

Rhodes: That’s what most corresponded with the world of the Soviet Union.

Taylor: Right. Right, right.

Rhodes: And that’s what made the whole thing possible.

Taylor: We were told lies, about ourselves, about the Soviet Union. I had a very intense morning in 1956—1966. It must have been the spring, at a hearing called by Scoop Jackson, who was the chairman of the AEC Joint Committee Subcommittee on National Security. He called a hearing in which he invited the Defense Department to tell the committee how things stood, vis-à-vis the Russians.

There were about ten witnesses. The first normally would have been [Robert] McNamara, but he wasn’t there. So it was Cy Vance. He was the first and then General [Earle] Wheeler was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Johnny Foster was not there. I don’t know why. But a fellow named Dan Fink, who worked for him in the Office of Defense Research and Engineering. And the Assistant Secretary for Atomic Energy, Jack Howard. And my boss, General [Harold “Sam”] Donnelly, who was essentially, to the extent that there existed anything that you could have called General [Leslie] Groves’ office—actually, the office, Sam Donnelly’s office, was General Groves’ office, the actual physical enclosure, down in the bowels of the Pentagon.

Then I was the last witness, and the picture presented to the committee was, “Nothing to be alarmed about. No problems.” I knew, that all of them knew—I wasn’t positive about Cy Vance, because some of these things were very secretive at times. But I knew everybody else was fully aware of the worries about the response of the Minuteman and Polaris guidance systems, nuclear explosions in space, that might have been the precursor to a preemptive attack in which our forces would get pinned down, and the Polaris and Minuteman upper stage. We would go out of control, and things would just go end over end. Not a mention of that.

The hearings had gone close to noon. Everybody’s getting a little bit nervous to go out to lunch. Sam asked me if I had anything to add, sort of expecting I’d say no. There was really no more to say. I said, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do want to make some comments.”

I spilled the whole picture. I’ll never forget—somehow, I’d like to get my hands on—I’m sure that it’s in the Congressional records somewhere, because it was very classified, and see if my memory of that is really right. Because Scoop Jackson bent over and stared, and so did Strom Thurmond. Thurmond’s still there.

Rhodes: Yeah, sort of.

Taylor: Sort of. I was talking about worries we had about very big explosions being set off up in space and really screwing up everything. At one point, I have a vivid picture of Strom Thurmond being leaning over and said, “10,000 miles?”

“Yes, sir.”

I was the last witness, and we finished up. Then several people from the Defense Department—Jack Howard, for example—came over and congratulated me. He said, “I’m glad you did that. It’s time somebody really told these people what we’re worried about.”

I got a little note from Strom Thurmond saying he wanted to see me in his office right away. Not that minute, but as soon as possible. So we broke up and then I got Sam Donnelly. He had a car, and we were driven back to the Pentagon. On the way back, he said, “If I knew you were going to sound off like that today, I wouldn’t have invited you to testify.” Then he sort of was jovial.

The next day, I went up to what was called the Secretary of Defense mess dining room, where I ate most of the time. As I went and sat down—you could go on and sit down wherever you wanted to sit down next to—and sat down next to Jack Stemplar, who was the General Counsel to the Defense Department [misspoke: Air Force].

I sat down. He had a big grin. He said, “Well, that was quite a performance of yours yesterday.” He said, “You know, the Secretary wants to talk to you about that.” And then he leaned over and padded my knee and he said, “I’m just kidding, Ted.”

Nothing ever happened. No meeting with Strom Thurmond, nothing.

I had the made the decision that I would spill the beans. I talked to Carol a bit about that. I didn’t say what about. But I went through a big emotional thing the night before those hearings and said, “I suspect they’re not going to say anything about it.” But I’m—

Rhodes: This is around the time when you changed your mind?

Taylor: It was after that. 

Rhodes: After that event.

Taylor: I think it was after that. It’s hard to recall.

Rhodes: Yeah, but these all come together in your mind?

Taylor: Yeah.

Rhodes: Was it characteristic of you to pack up your family and move to another country with no assurance of employment?

Taylor: I had never been in Europe, or Africa, or Asia. When we landed in Vienna, that was the first time. I had been in Canada and I had been brought up in Mexico, and in the Navy I had been in Cuba, north Atlantic. It was my first trip, which was really kind of wonderful because this wasn’t, “Daddy’s going to tell us what to expect in Vienna,” and so on. I was just as gaga about all that as the kids and my wife were. None of us had ever been.

Rhodes: Did you feel out of control? 

Taylor: I lost about fifteen pounds immediately, in spite of living and eating in Vienna. No, I would wake up at four in the morning: “When is that damn check going to come from the AEC?”

Rhodes: Does it strike you that there’s any connection between being concerned that the whole thing was out of control, and what sounds like a real emotional opening up on your part?

Taylor: Maybe.

Rhodes: I don’t know.

Taylor: It was, in many ways, a dumb thing to do. We used up money that had been earmarked for college and so on. To a large extent, we used almost all of it. I was being paid quite well at General Atomic, $40,000 a year in 1964. When I went to the Pentagon that dropped to $25,000, but we had accumulated a fair bit. I don’t know.

Rhodes: Well, this leads into the other thing that I wanted to ask you about. And that is—and I’m sure you’ve thought about it a lot—what led you to be a designer of nuclear weapons? Why was that something that was particularly the focus of part of your life? 

Taylor: I think I was unusually attracted to the physical—not biological—the physical violence associated with explosions. I had done a lot, I had made a lot of explosions when I was quite young. I had a chemistry lab, in which my most interesting products, I thought, were tests various mixtures of picric acid and red lead and stuff like that. I loved explosions.

So the excitement of explosions, of thinking about explosions, like, “What would happen if enough high explosive were put in the middle of the earth to blow it to pieces? Two pieces?” I was fascinated intellectually. This was all intellectual. I don’t think that I was in any way attracted to killing people. But destroying things, yes.

I’ve come to believe that it’s a disease. It is genetic. An addiction to certain kinds of violence, that is unusual. That is, the addiction is unusual.

Rhodes: Genetic—you mean within your family, or within the species?

Taylor: Within me, but within the species—no, I’m sorry, within the species. And that I have been prone to be excited about that, and turned on by it and get high on it. I have given a lot of thought to that description of what was going on, that it was more than just an analog to alcoholism or drug dependencies of various kinds. More than just an analog.

I’ve had a long set of talks with Bob Lifton, but also Jerry doctored me at John Hopkins, a psychiatrist. I’ve talked with several professional psychiatrists about this. They agreed that it is an interesting, real possibility that there a tendency in me, that I was born with, that is a psychological reaction to certain kinds of violence. I mean, I am very attracted to what happens when lightening hits that tree right there. I like it. Most people don’t. A lot of people do. But most people don’t.

Rhodes: People certainly do have strong reactions either way, that’s for sure.

Taylor: Yeah. To me, the equivalent of the highest high that one can get—I’ve never tried any drugs. I’ve drunk much more alcohol than I should. But I’ve never tested any drugs at all. From what I hear, especially about cocaine, there may be some similarity in the rush or feeling that comes when that first second, after the countdown, of watching an explosion. It’s orgasmic, real.   

Rhodes: Yeah.

Taylor: I think the disease is incurable, like others. The only way to deal with it is absolute abstinence, and that’s it. I’m not saying that is for society, I’m saying that for an individual. The reason I would put it this way—

Rhodes: For society too, really.

Taylor: Well, yeah, people like—

Rhodes: I mean, for zero nuclear weapons—

Taylor: Yeah, collectively. I mean, if you have enough people who are dependent on heroin or hallucinogen or whatever that get together and sort of manage things, if there’s some critical number of such people with such a dependency, such an affliction, and they’re in charge of other things, it can then make this whole society move in a direction it doesn’t want to go.  I think society is against this stuff.

Rhodes: Against—

Taylor: But is being manipulated by people who are addicted to it.

Rhodes: Now we’re talking about nuclear weapons, right?

Taylor: Right. Well, and biological weapons. Prominent DNA’s.

Rhodes: Force as a solution to human problems.

Taylor: Right. The first thing that I think one has to do with any affliction of that sort, and that is, admit that you have it. That’s step one. We’re not doing that. As a society, we’re not doing that.

Rhodes: No, I think in a sense the leaders are essentially saying, “Look, we’re just social drinkers.”

Taylor: Right. You know, it’s funny. I’ve thought about these things a lot. But that little phrase. Things like that I find very helpful.

Rhodes: Yeah, I do too. The parallels between large political bodies and individual human beings are very significant parallels.

Taylor: Yeah.

Rhodes: For example, it’s pretty clear that society, people essentially give over to the leadership this kind of power in exchange for what they feel is protection. Which is why it’s so easy to manipulate the foreign enemy as a source of threat.

Taylor: Something that just occurred to me. I’m going to just go in there and make some more. Do you want some coffee?

Rhodes: No, I don’t thank you.

Taylor: I’ve done a series of radio commentaries. Each one is designed for two and a half minutes. I did that for almost a year, once a week out of an NPR station up in Buffalo. A whole bunch of things, comments about this and that. But the first one is “A Confession of a Nuclear Weaponeer.” It is three quarters of a page. Let me give it to you and see how that strikes you, because it was an attempt to explain that. It took a lot of time.

Rhodes: Yeah.

Taylor: I stopped a year ago, July. Well, the intention is revving back up. The mechanics of it was troublesome, because I kept getting behind. So I’d drive up to Buffalo, to do it. They wanted it done in the studio. I’d drive up and record one or two. The idea was to record five or six, but I never did. I’m set up now where I could record them here. I have a special mic that muffles out other sounds. But I haven’t done that. I don’t know whether to continue that or not. There are other things that are narrower and require a lot more attention that I’d better do at some point.

Rhodes: One of the things I wanted to ask you, is, if there’s any body of correspondence or papers that you would be comfortable sharing that I could look at? Like the letters that you wrote in those days?

Taylor: Well, yeah. I do. Some of them were published in John McPhee’s book, I think a couple of them. There are others. My wife wrote a lot to my mother, and she saved those letters. Those are her property. I mean, it’s a different situation from a year ago. But I have a set of mine. What I’d like to do is to, I don’t want to—it’s a matter of making copies, because I do want to hang on to them.

Rhodes: Sure, of course.

Taylor: I have written a first draft of something I’ve called “Changes of Heart,” which is about my changes of heart about nuclear weapons. That is about half done. It’s done through the time when we made the move to Vienna. It started out to be sort of an introduction to a book that I had a publisher for, that is, “A World without Nuclear Weapons.”

Then the introduction expanded and several people encouraged me to get it all down. I didn’t get it all down, but there’s a lot about Los Alamos, about Berkeley. There was some student activism in there that was involved in, which we called for a general strike of all nuclear physicists until the bombs were gone. A year later, I was working at [inaudible].

Rhodes: That was the switch at the outset. Then there was another switch at the end.

Taylor: Well, there were all kinds. There had been switches all the way through.