Cindy Kelly: My name is Cindy Kelly from the Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Thursday, February 1, 2018 in New York City. I have with me Benjamin Bederson. I would like to ask him to say his name and spell it, please.
Ben Bederson: I am Benjamin Bederson. Benjamin, B-E-N-J-A-M-I-N, Bederson, B like Boy, E-D like David, E-R-S-O-N.
Kelly: Great. Ben, we were just chatting about your background and your parents, who came from Russia. Could you talk about your childhood and your parents?
Bederson: My parents were both very young when they came to America. I believe my father was only about eighteen. My mother was probably even younger. They were the only people in their respective families who actually went to America at that time because their families could not afford to send more than one person to America.
They met in the Lower East Side. They lived on the Lower East Side. They were very poor, of course. But they met in night school. They were both taking English lessons at a night school where they met. They got married fairly soon, very rapidly.
They came to America just before the [Russian] Revolution, about 1915 or 1916, and they got married shortly thereafter. They had a young child, a daughter they named Rosalyn. She was born in 1919 and I was born in 1921.
As I said, we lived on the Lower East Side. You could see from this wonderful apartment—it’s right down there, only a few blocks away. It’s still there. I still have a soft spot in my heart for the Lower East Side.
But we did grow up. For some reason, I was a happy kid. I liked my life. I loved my family. My father and mother both worked all of our lives. I was more or less left alone. Even after school, I used to play alone. I was accustomed to being alone. I liked being alone. We played in the streets a lot. We played street games.
There was a point at which I would have to say politics did play a role in my very young life because my parents, like everybody, every other Jewish family in that neighborhood, they were either communist or leftist sympathizers, especially after the revolution. They were very happy about the revolution. That’s why they came to America, to escape what was going on there [in Tsarist Russia]. They had a very optimistic opinion about the way it was going to turn out in Russia. As everybody knows, it did not turn out that way.
In any case, I was enrolled in something called the Young Pioneers of America, which was a communist equivalent of the Boy Scouts. We had uniforms. We sang radical songs and we marched in parades, mostly in May Day parades. We were pretty radical, I have to say. I was a true child of my bringing up. I followed the party line.
When I was only six or seven, I was already giving speeches on street corners. I would stand up on the street corner and talk about the bosses and the capitalists. I was pretty funny, I have to say. I will get to more about that a little later. Anyway, that was my early bringing up.
My father was a restaurant worker all of his life. He had a hard time keeping his jobs. It was the Depression, it was the deep Depression, and we were extremely poor, I have to admit. But I was not unhappy. I didn’t even know that we were that poor. I enjoyed it anyway. I enjoyed my life. But that’s my very beginnings, that’s the way it was.
Kelly: Were there many others who came from Russia that were in your neighborhood?
Bederson: Oh yes. In the neighborhood—you can almost see it from here, it’s way north. You go straight north and turn slightly to the right. You end up in the northeast Bronx and then in the northeast Bronx, there was a group of houses called the Co-op, so the Coops. They were communist houses. You could actually you could buy an apartment for a few hundred dollars, a three-room apartment for a few hundred dollars. You had to be a member of the Communist Party to buy an apartment there. But my father didn’t qualify in that regard.
We actually stayed in the Coops and hung out in that neighborhood. I hung out. All of my friends were children of communists, and we all played together. We marched together in May Day parades, sang radical songs. I had a pretty good time.
Kelly: In terms of news about what was actually happening in Russia, were you informed about what was going on?
Bederson: We thought that the Soviet Union had already succeeded in becoming a workers’ paradise. As far as I knew, it was a workers’ paradise.
Now to jump forward a little bit, in 1931, my father was dead broke and was out of a job. He heard of something—a group of people were organizing an organization to help install a huge cafeteria in a huge factory right outside of Moscow. It was a ball bearing factory. It had thousands of workers in it. Anyway, my father joined the group gladly. The group gave him some money, and they went to Russia to help set up a modern American food kitchen in a Soviet factory right outside of Moscow. That’s how I got to Russia.
You have to know that until 1932, Russia was not even recognized by America, but in 1932 Franklin Roosevelt was elected President for the first time. One of the first things he did was, he recognized Russia, the Soviet Union, as a legal country. Immediately that happened, we got permission to go to the Soviet Union. It was exactly at that time, November 1932, when Roosevelt was just elected, we got permission to go to Russia with this small group of Americans who were going to help install and run a big food factory in a ball bearing factory that was now being built right outside of Moscow. That’s how I got to Russia.
We were very excited to go there. I expected a workers’ paradise. I did not see a workers’ paradise, I would have to admit, but in any case, that’s how we got to Russia. At first, we were treated very well. We lived in a fancy hotel, but eventually they moved us into an apartment close to the factory.
It was a three-bedroom apartment, believe it or not, for me, my single sister, and our family. But I have to tell you, it was a three-bedroom apartment, but we shared that apartment with an entire other family. We had two families living in this apartment. I didn’t like that too much. But in any case, that’s how we ended up living near the ball bearing factory on the outskirts of Moscow.
Kelly: Were you speaking English or Russian?
Bederson: I went to a school called the Anglo-American School that was in Moscow. I used to commute from the suburbs of Moscow into the heart of Moscow into something called the Anglo-American School, which was run by a nice lady, a Jewish communist. We didn’t learn very much. We learned politics, mostly.
I have to say though, that one great advantage of going to the school was that I got fed lunch every day. Getting food was not too easy. We didn’t eat very well, but we ate. We did eat in the school at the Anglo-American School.
Kelly: Were you on a scholarship, or was there no tuition?
Bederson: No, no, all foreigners, children of all foreigners in Moscow all went to that school. It was a communist school, you understand, run by a lady communist.
Kelly: A Russian communist?
Bederson: No, I think she was American. Her name was Weiner. Comrade Weiner we used to say, Comrade Wiener. That was my Yiddish at the time.
Kelly: Was it mostly Americans?
Bederson: They were from all over. I made friends, Americans and Germans and English, children of many foreigners who had been lured to Russia to work for the Communist Party on various projects. I have to say, it did not end well for them. To get ahead of my story a little bit, most of the people whose children ended up in that school ended up in Siberia. Many of them were killed. That was after we had come back. I didn’t know that at the time, but I found that out later.
Kelly: You were mentioning earlier that this was just about the time that Stalin began his starvation of the Ukrainians.
Bederson: In 1932, Stalin decided to collectivize the Ukraine. The Ukraine was the breadbasket of then the USSR, and the entire Soviet Union relied upon the Ukraine to feed them. It didn’t work out that way. The Ukrainian peasants objected to collectivization. They really did not like being told they had to organize and live together in co-ops. They rebelled against the Soviets. Stalin did not take kindly to this. Just as I went to the Soviet Union, Stalin reacted and punished the Ukrainians. It is well known, there was a famine that he artificially created and many, many thousands of Ukrainians were killed. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Anyway, that’s when I got there. I didn’t know anything about the Ukraine at the time, but I settled down in Moscow. I was a little disappointed. It was not a workers’ paradise, I have to assure you. Food was hard to get.
The problem is, nobody had apartments. We had lived or shared a full apartment with an entire another family. Life was not easy, but we got along. We managed to survive okay. I even marched in the May Day parade with a red bandana. In any case, that’s the way it went. I was not happy, I have to say. I became homesick almost immediately, and I yearned to get back to America.
At that time, my mother had a sister who still lived in the Ukraine, and she got in touch with her. We went and we took the train from Moscow to Kiev. We met my mother’s sister in Kiev. My sister Rosalyn and I and my mother and father came to the Ukraine.
Now, here comes a story that I know you will find hard to believe. But when I got out of the train in the square in Kiev, I saw something very peculiar. I saw children walking around with swollen bellies, and I didn’t understand that. They explained to me that these children were starving. I saw it the first day I came to the Ukraine. I saw one child dead in the streets, right in front of me, with a swollen belly and a policeman. I saw a policewoman taking the child’s shoes off the child. Anyway, it was totally astonishing to me. That’s the way the Ukraine was.
It was quite different than Moscow. In Moscow, there was food. It was very poor food, but there was food. In the Ukraine, there was no food. People were starving right in front of my eyes.
It was a big shock to me, of course. I knew that there was something wrong. It was a reasonably short train ride from Moscow to Kiev, and yet in one city, there were people that were eating and the other city, people were starving. I didn’t understand that.
I believe that at that point, I began to question the whole idea of communism. How could in country with two cities so close to each other, one is starving? Where did that come from? Why? I never, I didn’t understand that until I came back to America, and I found what really happened. Stalin was punishing the kulaks.
Kelly: And punished millions, millions of people.
Kelly: How was your aunt, your mother’s sister? How was your mother’s sister faring?
Bederson: They lived in the dark. You know what was really strange about this? I can still smell the kerosene in my mind. It was an apartment that it was heated and cooked with kerosene. I can still picture that. I can feel that smell in my nose. We lived with my sister, my mother’s sister, my Aunt Sonia.
I should say at this point that we did have a little bit of special privilege, because my mother was told to bring some money with her, some American money, dollars, with her, not rubles, valuta, it was called. My mother actually had many hundreds of dollars’ worth of American money. She hid them. She sewed them in the fly of my pants, and I went around not knowing that for a long time.
I did find out eventually. When we left Russia, my mother took the pants off me and took the money out of my fly. Then that was when I found out I had been carrying around hundreds of dollars with me all the time we were in Russia.
That’s how we lived there. My mother went to the [inaudible] stores. She bought milk and butter and eggs. We did manage to survive pretty well that way.
Kelly: Was your father paid well, or not so well?
Bederson: He was paid in rubles, and rubles didn’t really buy you much. He was treated okay. He was a member of the [Communist] Party. He was treated okay. He was a loyal party member. He never got into any real trouble.
Kelly: How did they explain this to you as a child, about the starving people in Ukraine?
Bederson: Nobody ever explained it to me, but I did figure it out. I figured, how could that be? The trains were moving. They were running smoothly back and forth. It really only took less than a day to get there. How come there was so much starvation in one place and not in another, in the same country? I thought about that. I realized, “There is something wrong, something wrong with that country.”
Kelly: Did you ask any of your teachers?
Kelly: Or your parents?
Bederson: They said it was these capitalist kulaks who were resisting collectivization. In other words, they were punished. I think that Stalin didn’t speak about the kulaks, and punished them. It was not private. Everybody knew it. People were starving there, and you could see it with your own eyes.
Kelly: When you went back to Moscow, did you read about it in the papers?
Bederson: Oh, no. I went back to Moscow and there was normal Moscow. People were still crowded. They were hanging outside of trolley cars, hanging by their fingernails.
I did go back to the school. I did get food. Fish soup was for lunch. I hated it, but it was food. Anyway, nobody talked about it, but I thought about it. I sat and I realized there had to be something wrong with this country. Although it wasn’t easy to give up my beliefs, I did start to question what was going on, very deeply. That was the beginning of my doubts about Soviet communism.
Kelly: When you came back to the United States—
Bederson: When I came back to the United States, that’s a funny story. But when we left, we left the border of the Ukraine. We left White Russia, I guess it was White Russia. Minsk, we left. She [my mother] took my pants off. She actually took my pants and she took the money out of my fly and she said, “This money will get us back to America.”
Sure enough, she had a few hundred dollars left over. We bought third-class tickets on an American ship called The America. It was a small boat, but we got back to America on a small American boat.
When I came to America, the first thing I did, we got to Ellis Island and we got to Bedloe Island. We landed at the Statue of Liberty. I was so happy to see America and I was so glad to be home that I kissed, I actually kissed, literally kissed the earth to be back to America. I was very happy to be back.
Bederson: It was a wonderful experience. My father was unemployed, but we didn’t starve in America. He was on relief. He got relief checks. We ate. There was no starvation in America—at least that I knew—in America at the time.
But just to be here, to be with the freedom of the people and to be with my friends again, it was a joy. It is virtually impossible to fully appreciate unless you have been through it.
Kelly: So your mother saved the day?
Bederson: My mother did not like Russia either. There was sort of a schism in the family. My mother and I both ended up hating Russia. My father and my sister were loyal to Russia, and they wanted to stay, even with all of that.
It was really hard to give up those beliefs, I have to tell you. You must believe in it yourself to realize how hard it is to give up those beliefs, which were drummed into you all your life. But my mother and I wanted to go home. My father and sister wanted to stay. We ended up going home. My mother was stronger.
That was 1932 or ’33, the height of the Depression in America. My father eventually got a job. We didn’t do so badly. We moved around. We lived in Brighton Beach for a while, but then we went back to the Bronx.
I gradually began to lose interest in the whole business of politics, and I discovered science all by myself. I became a science fiction addict. I read science fiction and I believed in science. I kept a notebook, which I still have called “The Progress.” I did everything to learn all I could about science.
That’s how I discovered about City College, CCNY. I eventually ended up applying for City College. I got in. Though my marks in high school weren’t great. I got into City College and I declared myself a physics major right away, from the very first. That’s how I became a physics major.
Kelly: That’s fabulous. Did you have high school physics?
Bederson: No. I had biology and chemistry. I hated chemistry, because you had to memorize everything. I had biology, but I don’t think I had physics.
I had a general science course and I loved it. I really latched into astronomy and physics. Then I went immediately into physics at CCNY. I didn’t ever look back since. I looked forward to science all my life since that time. I gave up politics.
Kelly: It sounds like for good reason.
Bederson: Yeah. Actually, at City College, there were what they called alcoves or hangouts in the cafeteria. The communists had an alcove. The Trotskyites, who hated the communists, who hated the Trotskyites, they had another alcove, and the regular communists had a third alcove. I had nothing to do with any of them. I just went to a science alcove.
Kelly: There was one?
Bederson: Yeah, it was kind of mild.
Kelly: Were there others who were émigrés from Russia who came to New York City who were—
Bederson: There were a few returnees from Russia, who I remember. We did argue politics a little bit with them. I don’t think they had been to the Ukraine, so they wouldn’t have known what had happened in the Ukraine. But I ended up being really hostile to that whole idea of communism by the time I left City College.
Kelly: This was based on, of course, your experience, and then you learned more?
Bederson: I won’t go into the details, but there were many, many disappointments in my life about communism. I had been raised to think that they were idealists, but it turned out they weren’t idealists. They were just as practical as anybody else. I had a little trouble just getting away from the whole business.
But I loved City College very much. I was so happy to be there. I can’t tell you how happy I was that I was there learning physics. Just learning Newton’s Laws was a thrill to me. How different it was from being a member of the Communist Party.
But I have to tell you, I still had big arguments with the communists at City College. I couldn’t stop myself.
Kelly: How did they respond when you said, “I have seen starvation”?
Bederson: Oh, they wouldn’t believe me. They thought I was lying.
Kelly: Oh my goodness.
Bederson: Because it was in the news. Everybody knew about it. It wasn’t as though the starvation in Ukraine was a secret. Everybody knew that people were starving in the Ukraine. But the communists denied it.
Kelly: They wouldn’t believe it. Fake news.
Bederson: No, they would not believe it. You can see it today. You watch the true believers on any side. Just meet any true believer on any side and talk to them about politics, and see what they say. They won’t believe what they don’t want to believe. A true believer is a true believer.
Kelly: You’ve certainly proved that point.
Bederson: I don’t know. It was so intense. Seeing that woman taking the shoes off that dead child with the swollen belly was more than I could handle.
Kelly: Wow, incredible. That’s very vivid, that image, goodness.
Bederson: Well, anyway, shall I go on from there?
Bederson: After two and a half years of college, I realized the war had already started and I was doing nothing to fight against the Nazis. I went and joined the Signal Corps as a civilian. I worked as a civilian in Philadelphia for the Signal Corps, where I was drafted right away. I didn’t appeal my draft. I just let them draft me.
I got into the Army. I went around from here and there. I started out in Chicago, the city of Chicago. From there, they actually sent me to college. The Amy only sent me to college. Can you believe that? There were so many funny, weird stories about that. Why would they send me to college?
They drafted me. Then I went to Ohio State and I took an electrical engineering major, and I became an electrical engineer. I took two courses. There were cut short to six semester courses. But there were two courses. I was in seventh heaven going to school, living in a dorm—not a barracks in Columbus, Ohio—meeting girls as a Jewish welfare boy. It was paradise. I couldn’t believe my luck.
What happened was—that was I guess in the winter of 1943. It was not a good winter in America. The war was going on full blast. The Americans were fighting the Russians in Stalingrad, and they were losing thousands of soldiers every day. There were many children dying.
Franklin Roosevelt, God bless his soul—Franklin Roosevelt decided to end this college training program. He thought training soldiers for a technical America was not a good idea when America needed soldiers to fight. He abandoned ASAP.
My education course at Columbus, Ohio, at Ohio State ended abruptly. I was given about two weeks’ notice saying that I was going to be shipped off to tail gunner school to become a tail gunner.
But at that point, they decided—for some reason that I can’t quite figure out—to keep me there as an instructor. Instead of teaching college courses, they were learning how to become tail gunners. In order to be a tail gunner, you had to be a radio operator because a tail gunner operator is on the radio on the B-17.
I became an instructor teaching radio school. What I knew about radio was not very much, having two and a half years of college, but I became an instructor teaching my former buddies how to become radio operators. They learned how to be a tail gunner. Some of them, of course, did not survive. That part of my training was a really strange one. I became a teacher in Chicago, living in a hotel.
At that point, my Commanding Officer called me in and he said, “Bederson.” I remember his words exactly. He said, “You’re a loudmouthed New Yorker. How would you like to go back to New York?”
I said, “Oh, yes, sir.”
He said, “Okay. There is something here called the Manhattan Project, which will take you back to Manhattan.”
I said, “Okay, sir. If you don’t mind, would you sign me up?”
He said, “Sure.” He said, “It’s okay with me.” He signed me up to be interviewed for something called the Manhattan Project, and I thought I was going back to Manhattan.
I got my shipping orders, but I didn’t go to Manhattan. I went to the South, to the mountains of Tennessee. I ended up in Tennessee in a town called Oak Ridge, Tennessee. It was a strange town, and it was nothing like Manhattan.
They were obviously building an entire city there. There was red mud up to my ankles. There were working men all over the place. They were building big, tall buildings, with pipes going up and down like this. I couldn’t figure out what was going on, and no one would tell me what was going on.
They kept asking me questions. The first question they asked me, “Tell me what Newton’s Law is.”
I said, “F equals MA. Anybody knows that. I went to City College.”
He said, “Very good. That was a good answer.” So, I passed. They asked me about more physics questions. After a week of asking me physics questions and math questions, I got my shipping orders, and again I ended up going, this time going west.
I went west and west and further west, until I ended up in a town in New Mexico. I went up and up a steep cliff to a mesa. The mesa was called Los Alamos. That’s how I ended up at Los Alamos, still not knowing why I was there and for what reason I was there.
I knew it was something to do with physics because of all those physics questions. I was glad that I had already learned F equals MA in my first year at City College, but I didn’t know what was going on. But they gave me a job anyway, and it was a strange job.
Would you like to hear about Jumbo a little bit?
Bederson: They took me to a place that they called Jumbo. They showed it to me once, and that’s the last time I saw Jumbo. It was a huge container, iron and steel container about ten feet wide and twenty feet high. Can you imagine a steel container that size? They said, “We want you to test that container.”
I said, “Sure, I will be glad to.” I became a physicist again. I did experiments. I met a physicist by the name of Donald Hornig. Donald Hornig was a distinguished physicist from Harvard—from Princeton, not Harvard, Princeton [actually Harvard], who told me what I was doing, what I was going to do.
I was going to test that big tank, but not the big tank, but a little tank this big, consisting of steel plans with explosives inside. My job was to blow up these tubes, and see how they withstood the explosion. What I was doing was testing Jumbo.
It was only later when I found out that Jumbo was to contain the atomic bomb and the atomic bomb was to be contained by Jumbo. If it fizzled, that’s how that radioactive material wouldn’t be scattered all over New Mexico. That’s what I was doing. I was testing small containers that simulated Jumbo, blowing up little explosives in those containers, in a far-away mesa or away from Los Alamos.
I did that for a while, and eventually that project ended when they decided to abandon Jumbo. They decided that Jumbo was not needed, because the confidence in the use of the atomic bomb was so high that they thought that the Jumbo would not be necessary. They abandoned Jumbo. My job ended.
I was given another job. This job was with an Englishman, a very unusual Englishman by the name of Philip Moon. Philip Moon was a physicist, who was a quintessential absentminded physicist. He was so absentminded that he wore a tie for a belt.
We got along really well. Because of his accent, I made a little fun of his accent, I couldn’t understand. I met his wife, a big, dowager, British wife, huge, who spoke with a British accent, which I couldn’t understand. We worked together blowing up—not blowing up, we ended that job. I was doing another job. That was a strange job, even stranger than Jumbo.
What I was doing was, I was testing explosive wires, switches, that were just little pins this far apart. We put a bunch of them together, a bunch of pins, testing to see whether they would explode at the same time. My job was to assemble the pins to assemble a special camera, which photographed these pins exploding. As they exploded, I would try to photograph them to see when they exploded at the same time together, simultaneously. My job was to see that these pins exploded simultaneously. That’s what my job was. That’s what Philip Moon and I were doing.
Mixing them up, that was Donald Hornig, what Donald Hornig and I were doing together. We would drive away to an isolated place where we could blow things up safely without killing anybody except ourselves. We exploded these little tests, until we found out what was going on. That was when I was told what was going on.
Two or three months after I got to Los Alamos, I was called to a little meeting of a group of GIs like myself and some civilians. We met with George Kistiakowsky. George Kistiakowsky was the director of the explosive division. Well, that made sense because I was doing explosives. He said, “We are here today because we received your clearance, and you can now be told what you are doing.”
I said, “Well, I am going to find out what I was doing.”
Unbeknownst to me, some members of the Army had gone back to the Bronx and gone to my friends to find out whether I was a communist. They found out that I wasn’t a communist, to my good fortune. I had two good friends who told them that I was not a communist, that I was an anti-communist by that time. I got my clearance, believe it or not, despite my Russian background, despite my Coops background, I got my clearance.
They understood that I was a loyal American, and they gave me clearance to this immense secret. What a secret that was.
Kistiakowsky told us what we were doing. He told us about the history of nuclear fission and fusion, and of the original experiments in Germany and in France and Holland. What happened with the letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt by Albert Einstein suggesting to start the Manhattan Project, and what was going on at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos, and why we were doing it.
What was happening at Oak Ridge, they were building the uranium bomb. We were told about the uranium bomb, and we were told about the plutonium bomb that we were working on. I was working on the plutonium bomb with Philip Moon, and it was explained to me what I was doing. I was trying to create an implosion to compress a spherical bomb into a smaller spot to create a critical reaction that would produce a chain reaction explosion, which would eventually cause an enormous explosion that would be inconceivably powerful. That’s what I was doing.
Being told all these secrets all at once, it was hard to describe my feelings. It’s important to understand that at first, I did not have any second thoughts about it. I said, “Wow, we are going to end the war.” I didn’t particularly like the war. I hated the war. And to think that I was going to be playing a role, I was playing a role in ending the war and an important role, too, it was quite an amazing story, that that sort of happened out pure luck.
I walked back from the meeting with Kistiakowsky, I walked on air with the thrill of being so important and helping to succeed in creating a nuclear chain reaction. That was one of the biggest thrills of my life.
I thought, of course, about the Japanese that were going to be killed, and I didn’t particularly like that. I have to admit that we knew that we would be killing Japanese. We thought that that was not a good thing to happen, but the war was going on. Americans were being killed by the thousands. We knew that to end the war, we would end up by saving lives. We would not to invade Japan, which we knew that we were ready to do.
I was so thrilled that we were saving American lives. We didn’t have second thoughts. We knew it was too bad for the Japanese. We felt sorry for them, but we knew it was the right thing to do. We worked very hard on it. From then on, I worked even harder.
It so happened that, even more surprising than that, from Los Alamos, I was shipped to another place in Utah, even more wilderness than Los Alamos, called Wendover Field. Wendover Field was where the Air Force was practicing assembling the plutonium bomb to drop on Japan. My job was now to teach them how to wire this simultaneous switching. There were 32 of them to cause the implosion, to cause the chain reaction. I was actually working with the Air Force soldiers.
The funny part of this story is that somebody realized that I was an enlisted man, and here were a bunch of officers running an airplane. How could I be teaching them what to do? In the Army, you do not teach the officers. Privates and civilians don’t teach the officers. What did they do? How did they solve this problem?
They had a good solution: they invented a civilian for me. I became a civilian and they gave me $200. I went to Santa Fe, bought some civilian clothes, and dressed up as a civilian only when I went to Wendover Field. I would go in with my civilian clothes in a suitcase. Go to Wendover Field, change into civilian clothes, pretend I was a civilian, work with all the Army officers, teach them how to operate the switch, and go back to Los Alamos and became a lowly GI again.
Talk about schizophrenia! That was true schizophrenia. I went from civilian to a GI, having to salute and say, “Sir.” I did not like that. I felt as though my job was too important. I shouldn’t have been a civilian. I was never a civilian. So that happened.
That phase of my life ended when the soldiers had to go [inaudible]. What happened then, believe it or not, I went with a plane, I flew to an island called Tinian in the South Pacific. Why was I there? I was there to help assemble the real atomic bomb. That was a surprise, too. I was housed in the barracks with GIs. Next thing I know, I was in barracks.
I helped wire the bomb. Realized that I was actually doing the real thing. This was not a test or anything. It was the real bomb. The bomb went off on August 9 or thereabouts. Is that right?
Kelly: The sixth and ninth.
Bederson: I beg your pardon?
Kelly: The August 6 was the—
Bederson: The first one.
Kelly: Hiroshima. And August 9 was Nagasaki.
Bederson: The Nagasaki bomb. The Nagasaki bomb went off adequately, and within days of the Nagasaki bomb, the war ended and we knew we were right. We knew that the bombs ended the war, and we couldn’t have been happier than seeing the war end and seeing the Japanese surrender. That was especially a wonderful experience.
We knew that the pain caused the Japanese was worth it, as horrible as it sounds. We were never happy about killing the Japanese civilians, but we knew that it ended the war. God knows how many American and Japanese lives we saved by ending the war only three days after the Nagasaki bomb was dropped.
After that, we sweated out our discharge. That’s another story. It took a long time to get out of the Army. We had to wait our turn. It took six months to get out. It was a long time. Got out just in time.
The first class of my City College curriculum—I had managed to register, and I got into City College the first day of the class. I walked into the classroom and I sat down in my uniform. I couldn’t have been happier.
Kelly: You were in your uniform?
Bederson: I was in my uniform. I didn’t have any civilian clothes by that time anymore. I wore my Army GI.
Kelly: What did people say to you when they realized you were in the service?
Bederson: I got a nice letter from Robert Oppenheimer, quite an impressive letter, saying what a great guy I was and how much I helped the bomb succeed. I had a few other letters from generals and admirals that I worked with.
At City College, they gave me three and a half semesters worth of college credit, just like that. Instead of having two and a half years or one and a half years of college to go, I had one semester to go only. I got out of City College in one semester. That’s how I got out, with all of those letters. It was a very happy time.
Kelly: I bet. When you finished, what did you want to do next, did you know?
Bederson: I wanted to do physics. I got an amazing offer from my second-class billet board who offered me a permanent job testing in the South Pacific for—now, you won’t believe this—$6,000 a month for six months. That was approximately 1,000 times more than I was earning as a GI. I said, “Oh my God!” I said, “I would be very happy to turn you down.” I turned them down. I turned down $6,000, and I went back to City College and got my degree, and then went to graduate school. I had no trouble turning down $6,000.
Kelly: But you lived on far less, and were happy.
Bederson: It was quite surprising. A lot of things happened to me. While I was at Los Alamos, next to me in a bunk was David Greenglass. Greenglass and I shared bottom bunks. We were this far apart. I had to listen to how wonderful the Soviet Union was for the whole time that I was with David Greenglass.
The FBI found out about David Greenglass a few years after the war ended. The first thing they found out about, was me. They called me up. They said, “Would you mind coming over, and coming downtown?” I came downtown. There I was in a small room, no bigger than eight by eight, with four or five FBI men. I knew that they were up to something. They started asking me about David Greenglass and about the Communist party, about the Soviet Union.
I was very honest. I told the whole story just the way I am telling it to you. I know this is hard to believe, but they believed me. I have a soft spot in my heart for the FBI. They believed everything I told them.
In fact, I have to tell you at Los Alamos, they used to have these Tuesday night seminars. It was everybody with a white badge with secret clearance was allowed to go to the secret clearance. I, of course, went. I had to go. I wanted to hear more. I heard Enrico Fermi. I heard J. Robert Oppenheimer. I heard Niels Bohr, Nicholas Baker as his pseudonym. He had a pseudonym, Nicholas Baker. I heard all of these people talk.
The most memorable talk was hearing Enrico Fermi talking about the hydrogen bomb. He knew the atomic bomb would work, but he was already thinking of the hydrogen bomb and what a real weapon that would be, the hydrogen bomb.
But having the thrill of being at these secret clearance meetings on a Tuesday evening was a true honor and privilege that I will always be thankful for. That’s how I got so easily into City College and how I got so many credits for my courses. I learned so much at those meetings.
Kelly: They asked you questions, or you had a conversation with the admission people who were deciding about that?
Bederson: Yeah, I told them how one of the things that I did at Los Alamos, and they couldn’t believe it. It was all supposed to be secret. I told them it was really not a secret. It was not a secret at all. I was told everything that I needed and didn’t need to know. I was told J. Robert Oppenheimer felt that the more people knew about what they were doing, the more they would work hard, the harder they would work.
He was right about that. He was wrong about David Greenglass and my other atomic spy.
Bederson: Ted Hall was also a friend of mine, not a buddy. He belonged to the Mushroom Society, and you wanted to know about the Mushroom Society. I have to tell you that my secret clearance friend, all of my secret clearance [friends], formed something called the Mushroom Society because we loved classical music.
We had records that we had somehow had gotten into Los Alamos. Tchaikovsky, Wagner, Beethoven, and others. We used to play these classical music records in a small office building that was occupied by Norman Greenspan’s friend, and we became friends. We played classical music. We could only play classical music late at night and it was very dark at night, probably after 10:00 at night. We played the classical music, and we called it the Mushroom Society because you could only play music late at night. Richard Bellman was the name of my friend, the theorist who would let us in to his office to play classical music. We played that there.
That’s how I knew Ted Hall.
He was an intellectual and he loved classical music just like the rest of us did. He asked could he join the Mushroom Society, and we let him join the Mushroom Society. We had a spy working in Richard Bellman’s office. We had a spy lying next to me on the bunk, telling me how great Russia was and all that stuff. That’s the story. That’s the Los Alamos story.
Eventually, I got my clearance. I would like to say that I lived happily ever after, but I think I did live happily ever after. After that, I had nothing further to do with atomic weapons. But I still feel proud and honored to have been part of the Manhattan Project. I believe that it ended the war. The fact that it ended the war three or four days after Nagasaki, I think, was pure proof that the war did really end because of the nuclear weapons.
I am sorry that the nuclear weapons had to be used. I know how much suffering it caused. I know that the nuclear weapons succeeded in ending this world’s most terrible war, and the citizens were living from the aftermath of some of what happened in that. That’s about my life story.
Kelly: That’s quite a story.
Kelly: My goodness.
Bederson: Yes, it is a strange story.
Kelly: That is great. Now, one little tidbit we forgot to mention was the bagel story.
Bederson: Oh yeah. Well, I cannot say in true honesty that I love the Army. I thought that the Army’s discipline was unnecessary. I felt that we could do everything we wanted to do happily, and that we would do what we did without any discipline, but the Army insisted on having discipline. So we did have discipline.
One of the things at Los Alamos, we had Saturday morning inspections. Everybody in the Army knows about that, Saturday morning inspections. I said, “I am going to do something to show my contempt for the Saturday morning inspection.”
Peter Lax’s family, his family sent to Peter a whole package full of good Jewish food, God bless Jewish food, lox and bagels. Peter Lax gave me one of the bagels. I hung up the bagel from a string on one of the fluorescent lights that you pull to turn on. The bagel hung right in front of my bunk. Then the commanding officer walked right past the bagel, looked at the bagel, and said, “What’s this?”
I said, “That’s a bagel, sir.” I said sir, but I really didn’t even like that. I said, “Bagel, sir.”
He said, “Well, it doesn’t belong there. Take it off.”
I said, “Yes, sir.” I took off the bagel. But anyway, that’s the bagel story.
I didn’t tell you, I also at the same time did show what I felt about RA inspections. I polished the soles of my shoes. I polished them and put them sole side up, so that the officers can see this part of the shoe. I had my footlocker open so he could see them open like this with the shoe, soles polished like that. I was ready for some sort of a reaction. I got absolutely zero reaction from my Army officer, so I was very disappointed.
Anyway, the Army and I never really got along very well. But I knew how important it was what we were doing, and I put up with it. I sort of had to.
Kelly: One thing you might mention or talk about a little, is the Alsos project and Sam Goudsmit.
Bederson: Sam. I am trying to think of where I first met Sam. I met Sam, I think after the war, Sam Goudsmit, first he was editor-in-chief of The Physical Review for many, many years. I became editor-in-chief also shortly thereafter, after Sam Goudsmit died. I became editor in chief at one point.
Kelly: Tell us the publication.
Bederson: The Physical Review. I was editor-in-chief of the American Physical Society. I have to tell you, the American Physical Society published then and still publishes both The Physical Review and The Review of Modern Physics and Physical Review of Letters. They are the journals of choice for many people in the entire world who publish physical reports.
They published many of the most important physical reports that take place the world. I was very proud to be back on The Physical Review, as editor in chief of The Physical Review. But meanwhile, Sam Goudsmit—I was only in chief of Physical Review A for a while before I became editor in chief. He was still Physical Review editor.
He loved keeping his hand in The Physical Review and kept his hand in all the time. He never left Physical Review alone. He was always there sniffing around somewhere in Brookhaven, making sure that people behaved correctly. Physical Review became this class-A journal that it really became entirely due to Sam Goudsmit. Sam really built the Physical Review up to what it is today. The relationship I had with him was as Physical Review A editor and then Physical Review editor-in-chief. I became editor in chief after Sam Goudsmit had died. He was a brilliant editor.
For some reason, he also became scientific chief of what is called Alsos. Alsos was an organization that was put together after the war ended [misspoke: before the war ended] to go right into Germany and other places to find out how far the British and the Germans had gotten in building the atomic weapon. He went in everywhere. He became convinced that the Germans had not really gotten very far in building the atomic bomb, much to his relief.
I have to recommend to anybody with interest to read the book. There is a book that Sam Goudsmit wrote. It is not a scientific book. It’s a book on his adventures as a scientist in going from country to country, city to city, to smell out what the Germans had done in terms of the atomic bomb. Not much it turns out, fortunately, for reasons that I think one could easily explain.
Kelly: What are those?
Bederson: Well, I am glad you asked. There are theories all over the place. Everybody has a theory why [Werner] Heisenberg, the chief scientist, who could have easily have finished things out, didn’t do it.
My personal belief is that the top-down philosophy that the Germans used throughout the war played a significant role in them not building the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer did not believe in top-down, he believed in bottom-up. Everybody in the Manhattan Project who had clearance, white clearance, they knew what was going on. They could present their ideas to anybody they wanted. They could have spoken to anybody. They could have walked up to Niels Bohr, to anybody, and spoken to them and it would have been okay.
To me, that’s the principal reason why the atomic bomb works, is that people all worked together and they worked hand in hand. I with my lowly clearance, even I had a white badge. I knew as much as anybody knew what was going on. I could feel free to talk to Philip Moon about ideas that I had about how these switches should work. He did not tell everybody that “need to know” was a philosophy.
I think “need to know” played an important role. I don’t say that it was the most important role, but it played a very important role in why Heisenberg and his cohorts did not develop the atomic bomb. They did not even come close to building the atomic bomb.
I think democracy—God bless democracy—democracy played a major role in all of this and why America was so strong all along, why America pulled together during the war all the time. That’s why they were really so strong in those days. It should only happen again now.
Kelly: That’s great. I am just skimming down to see what other things we could talk about. Well, this question has been asked many times, but do you think that there could be another Manhattan Project in the twenty-first century?
Bederson: There has to be overwhelming agreement among 99.9 percent of all Americans have to believe in what they are doing. The atomic bomb project, everybody believed in it, except a few. There were some exceptions, but these were not people who worked on the atomic bomb directly.
If everybody believed that this—say, the fight against cancer—is a matter of life and death for every American, then it would work, but it won’t work if we force people to [inaudible]. I think it has to be overwhelming.
I didn’t meet one person in the entire time I was there in World War II, I didn’t meet one person who believed the war was unjustified. Not even Charles Lindbergh, after the war started.
The Nazis were so evil, they were so rotten, they were so bad, that it was not hard to hate them. As far as the Japanese were concerned, I don’t think that we felt that strongly about the Japanese. We knew that what they were doing was really bad in Eastern Asia. We knew that. But we didn’t feel as personally involved as people did for the Japanese.
Kelly: Interesting. I think you have done a great job, Ben. You have told some fantastic stories.
Bederson: It is a story, isn’t it? Somebody said that I reminded them of Hans Castorp. Have you ever heard that name?
Kelly: I have. Remind me.
Bederson: Hans Castorp was a scientist in a novel, a novel by somebody [Thomas Mann] who had written some novels about World War II, in which accidentally he happened to be everywhere where something important was going on all the time, just by accident. That’s who Hans Castorp was. Somebody reminded me that I was like Hans Castorp.
Kelly: You were the Hans Castorp for the Manhattan Project. You were everywhere.
Bederson: I was never at Hanford.
Kelly: Well, almost everywhere.
Kelly: What a life, all in three years.
Kelly: That’s a lifetime of experience.
Bederson: It was about three years, was it? It was a lifetime. It played a role in later years, of course. It’s not as though I forgot what I had done. My career subsequently followed what I started at Los Alamos. Even for a while, I worked on [inaudible]. I worked on that physics project, nothing to do with weapons, but it was still related to what I had done at Los Alamos.
Of course, I made friends. I should mention that. I made friends at Los Alamos. We lived in the barracks and there were sixty guys in the barracks. They were sixty smart guys. I think, the Army, they picked people to work on SEDs—Special Engineering Detachment—they picked guys who were smart, who had a high IQ. The guys I knew were smart. The guys like Richard Bellman, who was almost a genius. My best friend, William Spindel, who worked for the government.
Kelly: Val Fitch.
Bederson: Val Fitch won a Nobel Prize. Murray Peshkin, who worked for Argonne.
Not only were they nice guys, we had fun together. They were wonderful guys. They were smart, and they all fully believed in the war. It was Oppenheimer’s genius that put it all together so that they could happily engage in what they did. It was a genius, which should not be unexpressed, even though he did make a mistake. His mistake was in being too careless about Greenspan [misspoke: Greenglass] and Ted Hall and others.
Kelly: Klaus Fuchs?
Bederson: Yeah, that was a mistake. He didn’t have to be that liberal. But his genius was creating the atomic bomb.
Kelly: Indeed. Yeah. You talked about your role on the American Physical Review. Just mention your years at NYU?
Bederson: Oh, I should not ignore NYU. I became a professor at NYU. Right after I finished graduate school, I went back to NYU, got my PhD at NYU. I became a professor after post-docing at MIT.
I remained an NYU professor until I retired. I held on to another position at NYU. I became chairman. I was dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences for a while.
But I kept my lab going all this while. I made some wonderful friends. I worked in the lab for forty years. Some of my colleagues are still working. I still remember them. There is Tom Miller, among my close friends, the ones in physics all their lives, and I became close friends with them.
Working at NYU was a pleasure. I loved NYU. I still live nearby NYU. I am two blocks away. I am very fond of this school.
Kelly: Good. This is great.
Bederson: Well, thank you. I have to say one word about Atomic Heritage Foundation, if I may.
Bederson: Well, Cindy Kelly, I don’t know where it came from, but out of her experience in working various places before, she herself invented the Atomic Heritage Foundation. She created it not only at Los Alamos, but at Oak Ridge and at Hanford and other places, smaller places in between, even in Manhattan, down there, even there.
She did that all by herself, one person who did so much. How important one person can be. One person did not cause all of Los Alamos. That was a confluence of 100 million [misspoke: 100 thousand] people of America working together. But one person created the Atomic Heritage Foundation. That was her. That’s all I wanted to say.
Kelly: Well, thank you. That’s very nice of you. It’s been a pleasure.
Bederson: So that the world will not forget.
I forgot to mention—they had me sign for my beloved wife and our four boys, who entered my life, each one greater than the next. There is Joshua. There is Geoffrey. There is Benjy, and there is Aaron. I have to mention them, my wonderful boys. I know they are scattered around, but they manage to come here once in a while to New York and visit the old folk.