Secrecy News

H-Bomb History Published Over Government Objections

Physicist Kenneth W. Ford, who participated in the design of the hydrogen bomb in the early 1950s, has published a memoir of his experiences despite the objections of Energy Department reviewers who requested substantial redactions in the text.

“Building the H Bomb: A Personal History” was released this month in softcopy by World Scientific Publishing Company. Hardcopy editions are to appear in May.

The dispute between the author and the government over the book’s publication was first reported by the New York Times in “Hydrogen Bomb Physicist’s Book Runs Afoul of Energy Department” by William J. Broad, March 23. The Times story immediately turned the book into something of a bestseller, and it ranks number one on Amazon.com in categories of Physics, Nuclear Physics, and Military Technology.

Significantly, Department of Energy reviewers did not attempt to compel the author to amend his text, nor did they seek to interfere with the book’s publication. So their response here is altogether different than in the 1979 Progressive case, when the government sought and received an injunction to block release of Howard Morland’s article “The H Bomb Secret.” Rather, they asked Dr. Ford to make extensive changes in his manuscript. Depending on one’s point of view, the requested changes may have been frivolous, unnecessary, or prudent. But there is no reason to suppose they were presented in bad faith. The Department had nothing to gain from its recommended changes.

For his part, Dr. Ford was not on a crusade to expose nuclear secrets. On the contrary, “I have bent every effort to avoid revealing any information that is still secret,” he wrote in prefatory remarks. As one of the original participants in the H-Bomb program, he has exceptional standing to render a judgment on what is and is not sensitive. “In my considered opinion, this book contains nothing whose dissemination could possibly harm the United States or help some other country seeking to design and build an H bomb.”

Still, while Dr. Ford’s scientific judgment is entitled to great weight, the question of what constitutes Restricted Data under the Atomic Energy Act is not a scientific issue. It is a legal matter which is delegated by statute to the Department of Energy. This means that DOE retains some legal authority over the information in the book which it has not yet used. One may still hope that the Department, in its wisdom, will decline to exercise that authority in this case.

“Building the H Bomb” is a rather charming and quite readable account of a young man finding his way in the midst of momentous scientific and political upheaval. It is not a history of the H-Bomb. For that, one still needs to turn to Richard Rhodes’ “Dark Sun” and other works. Dr. Ford does provide an introduction to the basic physics of nuclear weapons. But for those who don’t already know the names of John Wheeler (Ford’s mentor), Enrico Fermi, or Hans Bethe, and what made them great scientists and men of stature, this book will not enlighten them very much.

What the book does offer is an eyewitness account of several crucial episodes in the development of the hydrogen bomb. So, for example, Ford considers the contested origins of the Teller-Ulam idea that was the key conceptual breakthrough in the Bomb’s history. He cannot decisively resolve the disputed facts of the matter, but he knew Teller and he knew Ulam, as well as Richard Garwin, John Toll, Marshall Rosenbluth, David Bohm and many others, and he provides fresh perspectives on them and their activities. Any historian of the nuclear age will relish the book.

The National Security Archive has posted an informative commentary by Dr. Ford, along with several important declassified documents that were used by the author in preparing the book.