Newspapers are reporting the passing of Sam Cohen, 89, the nuclear physicist credited with dreaming up the neutron bomb, a low-yield weapon which would kill people with radiation but spare buildings and infrastructure. According to his Washington Post obituary, Cohen was born in Brooklyn but moved as a child to Los Angeles, where he earned a physics degree from UCLA while moonlighting as a gravedigger. Pretty soon, though, he was hired to work on the wartime Manhattan Project, studying the lethal effects of nuclear particles emitted during A-bomb blasts.
Cohen, paradoxically, got his inspiration for the neutron bomb when he visited Seoul, South Korea, during the Korean War, and observed the “lunar landscape” of destruction caused by conventional munitions, which forced young survivors to drink from sewage-filled gutters to quench their thirst. As an alternative, iIn 1959, Cohen proposed creating “enhanced radiation weapons”–essentially, small hydrogen bombs that had less explosive power and instead relied primarily upon spewing neutrons to kill. He saw this as a more humane method of nuclear warfare, one that would kill enemy soldiers but leave intact the infrastructure, such as homes, hospitals, water and electricity plants, upon which civilian populations depended.
Additionally, the neutron bomb was designed to kill without leaving behind much residual radiation. As this 1979 analysis from the U.S. Air Force archives details, military planners saw this as a tremendous advantage, because after a neutron bomb was dropped, soldiers could quickly advance into the area with minimal risk, and even seize enemy weapons and equipment for reuse.
Cohen’s view that the neutron bomb was a more humane method of warfare, however, bore eerie parallels to that of the committee of French officials who designed the guillotine in the 1790s as a more humane alternative to the breaking wheel and the ax. Like the guillotine, the neutron bomb wouldn’t always kill its victims instantaneously. Instead, as the previously mentioned Air Force archives article projected: “within one kilometer (KM), there would be immediate incapacitation and early death (within hours from the neutron and gamma radiation) for all exposed individuals. Within two KM of ground zero, there would be severe radiation sickness, and most exposed individuals would die within a few weeks.” Here’s a 1970 study of the effects of gamma-neutron radiation on pigs, which gives a hint of the sort of agony that those casualties might experience, including loss of bodyweight from muscle wasting, rapid growth of tumors in the small intestines, and a breakdown of their immune systems which would render them helpless against infections. (Drinking from sewage-filled gutters is starting to sound better and better, isn’t it?)
Cohen’s vision of the “humane” bomb never came to pass, in part because the neutron bomb promised to create a propaganda disaster for the U.S., even if it wasn’t used. (Then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, for example, denounced it in a 1961 speech as “a bomb by means of which it would be possible to kill people but to preserve all riches – here it is, the bestial ethics of the most aggressive representatives of imperialism.”) Nevertheless, Cohen aggressively campaigned for the building of neutron bombs in the 1960s, and even advocated their use against the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war, according to a 1997 interview in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. But then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara nixed the idea. According to this BBC News history of the neutron bomb, in the late 1970s, U.S. bomb designers actually did develop the W-70, a working enhanced radiation bomb, but President Jimmy Carter halted its production. Ronald Reagan started up the W-70 program again, but ultimately, only a small number of the bombs were built before they apparently were scrapped as part of a 1993 arms limitation agreement.
And now, for the news.