1921: The Father of the Bomb That Destroys Only Life, Not Property, Is Born

Samuel Cohen thought his neutron bomb was the 'most moral weapon'. Khrushchev thought it capitalist gimmickry: kill the man, grab his suit.

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Screenshot of Samuel Cohen talking about his invention.
Screenshot of Samuel Cohen talking about his invention.Credit: YouTube
David Green
David B. Green

January 25, 1921, is the birthdate of Samuel Cohen, the so-called “father” of the neutron bomb. Intended for use on the battlefield – rather than, for example, over cities – this tactical weapon was intended to have its destructive impact focused over a relatively small radius, releasing minimal explosive energy and a maximum of lethal radiation. Destruction of physical property would thereby be minimized, but all life within range of the bomb would be killed, almost immediately. At the same time, the neutrons released by a neutron bomb, though especially deadly, were anticipated to dissipate quickly, so that the affected area would not remained poisoned earth for future generations.

According to Cohen, who forfeited a conventional career as weapons designer to fight obsessively, though with no success, to have the United States adopt and deploy his invention, the neutron bomb was “the most moral weapon ever invented.” Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, on the other hand, described it in 1961 as a “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.”

Tough love

Samuel Theodore Cohen was born in Brooklyn, New York (“on a kitchen table,” he wrote in his memoir), and when he was 2 moved with his family to Los Angeles. Both his parents, Lazarus and Jenny Cohen, were Lithuanian-born Jews who had immigrated to the United States by way of London’s East End.

Lazarus was a carpenter, who, in California, built sets for the movie industry. Jenny was a secretary who was deeply involved in regulating her son’s diet and his breathing (gagging his mouth so that he would breathe through his nose) and overseeing his digestion and bowel movements, the latter with the help of both emetics and enemas. He also was required to take daily ice-water showers, to toughen him up. Years later, Samuel would describe his mother as “Torquemada in a Jewess’s clothing.” 

Samuel Cohen talks about his invention, the neutron bomb. Teaser for an upcoming documentary by Peter Kuran (Trinity and Beyond - The atomic bomb movie) about this nuclear weapons type.Credit: YouTube

Cohen attended the University of California, Los Angeles, receiving a B.S. in physics in 1943. Enlisting in the army, he was sent eastward to MIT to pursue advanced studies in math and physics. Then, in 1944, he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project.

At Los Alamos, Cohen’s job was to monitor the radiation emitted by Fat Man, as the atomic bomb dropped over Nagasaki in August 1945 (and the first bomb to be tested) was called. The issue of fallout radiation was also his concern when he began working for the Rand Corporation, the military think tank, in 1947.

It was in the 1950s, while working jointly for Rand and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, that Cohen began developing the neutron bomb. He later explained that the idea came to him after a 1951 visit to South Korea. The extent of the destruction from the war there so horrified him that he began thinking about the need for a new weapon, a “low-yield anti-personnel nuclear [weapon] where radiation would be the dominant effect,” as he recalled in his memoir.  

The Kennedy, Johnson and Carter administrations, each for its own reasons, all rejected the idea of adopting the neutron bomb into the American weapons arsenal. (In 2005, when he revised and updated his 1983 memoir, Cohen changed its title from “Shame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb” to “F**k You, Mr. President!”). His stubborn insistence on continuing to lobby for the bomb had led Rand to fire him, in 1969. Although in 1981, President Ronald Reagan announced the order of 700 neutron warheads designed to be delivered via howitzers and missiles, following a public protest, they were never deployed.

Always outspoken and undiplomatic, toward the end of his life, Cohen – a bitter opponent of “commies” since his youth – raised eyebrows by endorsing Patrick Buchanan for president in 2000, and also for his warnings about “red mercury,” a probably nonexistent fissile material supposedly loosed on the black market following the Cold War that could make it possible for terrorists, he claimed, to build a fusion bomb.

Sam Cohen died in Los Angeles on November 28, 2010, from complications of stomach cancer.

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