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Richard Garwin’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Richard Garwin is an American physicist. In this interview he begins by discussing his work with Enrico Fermi after the Second World War. He then discusses the development of the hydrogen bomb and the role he played in its design. He also talks about his work at IBM in the 1950s, specifically IBM’s research on radar systems and Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS). Garwin concludes the interview with a discussion on nuclear security. He shares his views on nuclear arms reduction and how to create a nuclear-free world.

Date of Interview:
September 12, 2022
Location of the Interview:


Richard Garwin: I’m Richard Garwin. Everybody calls me Dick. G-a-r-w-i-n, born April 19, 1928.

Cindy Kelly: Great. So, we’re going to talk first about what you did as a student, and how you got to know Enrico Fermi and got involved in the business of nuclear weapons. We’ll just start with describing your work in the lab at the University of Chicago, and what it was like to work with Enrico Fermi. Or, if you’d like to go back, prelude that with where you’re from and how you got interested in—

Garwin: I graduated from high school in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, in 1944, spring of 1944, during the Second World War. Went from there to Case, now Case Western Reserve University, and graduated there with a degree in physics in 1947, I think also the spring of ’47. Went from there to graduate school at the University of Chicago, where I had a fellowship to study physics. One of the attractions in the Physics Department there was Enrico Fermi, who was well known for the discovery of fission and for his work on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. 

When I got to Chicago, I took the first year graduate courses and signed up for the Ph.D. exam. It turned out that you were supposed to take the qualifying exam, I guess, and then after you pass that the next year you could take the basic exam, or maybe it was the other way around. I felt that I’d seen the previous exams and I could pass the Ph.D. exam, so I signed up for that. The powers that be said that if I failed that I would have to start over again, take the first exam and then the second exam, so I would lose two years. I did it anyhow, and it worked very well.

After I was there for six months or so, I didn’t have any lab work. I really liked to work in the lab, so I went to Professor Fermi and I told him I was really good at electronics and working with tools and things. Did he have something for me to do to help him? He took me on in his lab and I did help him with some things, but I really started on my thesis subject. That was the first experiment in determining the correlation in beta decay, where an electron comes out between the direction of an electron and the following gamma ray that came from the same nucleus. In order to do that, I had to introduce some new technology, which I did, fast coincidence circuits a hundred times as fast as the ones that had been used during the war. And scintillation counters that could take the light from a crystal or a slab of plastic scintillator and bring it into a photo tube just as small as possible, but no smaller. A lot of people believing in the goodness of God and fantasy who were trying to squeeze the light so they could fit into tiny photo tubes. I published an article showing that that was not possible, and built scintillation counters that did the best you could.

By December 1947, I received my Ph.D. for that work and was hired to be on the faculty of the Physics Department at Chicago. And began to work with the machines there, a 100-million volt betatron built by General Electric and a 450-million volt cyclotron that was being built there by University of Chicago staff. I didn’t have much to do with the building of those, and did some experiments on both.

I had worked with Fermi in the lab. I saw him every day. He was a very nice person. He wanted to learn things that he didn’t know, so one day there showed up a signal generator, a microwave signal generator that had a little klystron in it because he wanted to see with his own eyes and hands optical phenomena. When you’re dealing with the wavelength of light and things that are small compared with the wavelength of light, like the passage of light from one slab of glass to another at close distances, it’s just very difficult. At least it was in those days, to make the surfaces flat enough and adjust the spacing so that you could see things. But with microwaves that have a wavelength like that, instead of a few millionths of a centimeter, then you can easily put things on the laboratory bench and measure. You can’t see, but you can measure, how much radiation goes through. He was having fun with that.

Then he wanted to make an analog computer, again, to visualize the solutions of the Schrodinger equation, of the wave equation that guides the motions of particles. I said I could help him with that. He wanted to have a magnetized needle, like a compass in a magnetic field, and the magnetic field strength would change with time analog to the potential that the particle was supposed to be traveling in. I told him that was not the way to do it. We could make it with analog amplifiers connected together. I built that and he used it. He was the only one who used it, but I think that it taught him a good deal about what he could calculate and how he could actually see the results.

Fermi was a very nice person. Walking down the street, you wouldn’t distinguish him from the corner grocer. He would get to work early in the morning, 7:00 or 7:30, and by then actually, he had planned the day. He would write in his notebook the results that he expected to achieve and any calculations waiting for the numbers that he would obtain. Or, when he helped built the cyclotron, the engineers would come in in the morning and he would have been thinking about their problems overnight, and telling them what they might do in order to solve a problem that had arisen. Everybody came to him with problems that they couldn’t solve, and he would ask them, “Well, have you thought of this?” Then they would go off and think of it, and that would be the solution to their problem.

After I had gotten my degree and I was on the staff of the physics department and moved into new quarters in what is called now the Enrico Fermi Institute – but at that time was just the Institute for Nuclear Studies – he came to me one day and he said, “You know, there is this behavior of nuclei as you increase their mass. They seem to go through periodic changes in their energies and their characteristics, sort of the way atoms do in the periodic table. I was thinking about this,” he said. “Would you like to calculate?”

I told him I would think about it, but I really was too busy and I lacked the courage to do it. After about a week he came back, and he asked how it was going. I told him I wasn’t doing anything, and he said, “All right.” He went to Maria Mayer and told her the same thing. Maria Mayer had more courage as a theoretical physicist, did this calculation and received the Nobel Prize for the shell model of nuclear structure. Which tells you, you really ought to have courage.

Kelly:  That’s great.

Garwin: Of course, Fermi had worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. He had gone in 1944 and come back, I think, the last day of 1945. We didn’t talk about atomic bombs. I did make some suggestions to him, my wife reminds me, and he thought that those were pretty good. After I was on the physics department faculty beginning December of ’49, the University of Chicago paid a salary for only nine months. And yet, you know, you eat and pay the rent for twelve months. Most people had a government contract and they would be paid salary for those three months from the government contract. But I had just joined the staff, so I didn’t have any government contract, and Fermi suggested that perhaps I would like consulting at Los Alamos. I thought that was a good idea. I would find out about these atomic bombs.

I did go to Los Alamos, and Fermi and I shared an office, a small office, maybe about 8×12. His desk was here and mine was here, so we were facing one another over the width of the two desks. I went to the classified report library and read for a week all of the weekly progress reports during the war and from ’45 until 1950. By then I knew everything that Los Alamos knew about atomic bombs.

I talked about some of these things to Fermi. I, of course, had some ideas. One of them was an idea that if you used two atomic bombs on the battlefield too close to one another in space or in time, then with certain types of bombs, they would interfere with the functioning of the second one. We discussed how to calculate this, and I did and wrote a report.

Sure enough, Los Alamos went out and did, at the time, an above ground nuclear test in Nevada. They did some experiments and bore out this theory, so that they then had to issue instructions as to, if you were going to use more than one bomb, how long you had to wait as a function of distance between the detonations.

I decided that the basis for the fusion weapons that they had been trying to build since the war years was really not very firm. They were based on measurements that had been made, I think, in 1939 by Tom Bonner at the University of Texas in Austin. I began to build an experiment to measure these reaction rates, these cross-sections in the laboratory more accurately with a system that would accelerate deuterons and have a gas target cell where you could put the deuterium, heavy hydrogen or tritium with a thin window and a thin film window. Then you could measure the energy of the particle that came out of the cell so that you would know the average energy as it was traversing the gas.

Well, I built some of that and I didn’t have time, actually, to do the experiment. The construction wasn’t finished by the time I went back to Chicago in September, but Los Alamos decided that was a good thing to do. Fermi knew Jim Tuck, a British physicist who had been at Los Alamos during the war, and persuaded him to come to Chicago until his clearance came through. Then he went to Los Alamos and headed that experimental work. So that’s what I did in 1950.

In 1951, I went to Los Alamos again in May for the second time. I had actually been for a month in Korea and Japan during the Korean War with Joe Mayer, who was a professor of chemistry at Chicago. That’s another story. I came to Los Alamos and I asked Edward Teller, who was a professor of physics also at the University of Chicago—but we didn’t talk about classified things at Chicago—what had gone on, was there anything I could do to help? He said that, yes, in February he and Stan Ulam had had an idea for building hydrogen bombs, instead of the classical “Super,” which was a long tube of liquid deuterium ignited somehow by an atomic bomb at one end. Then the idea was that a detonation wave, a burning fusion would go down this long tube and you could have whatever yield you want if you made the cylinder long enough.

Ulam had said, “Well, let’s compress this stuff. It will burn faster.” Teller told him, no, that wouldn’t help. Because he had a theory—Teller being a very good physicist—that if you couldn’t make a hydrogen bomb with a cylinder of uncompressed deuterium you couldn’t make it with compressed deuterium, because everything just scaled. The rate of production of energy went as the square of the density, but the rate of loss of energy from the ions to the electrons went as the square and the rate of transfer of energy from the electrons to photons went as the square of the density. If it didn’t work one way, it wouldn’t work the other way. But Teller, as he soon recognized, had missed an important point, and when he sat down to write the paper he realized that.

The paper was published March 9, a secret paper at Los Alamos. It’s still secret. When I went there in May, people were convinced this was probably a good way to make a hydrogen bomb, which could have a lot more explosive power than the fission bombs that they had been making up to that time. Teller said that he would like really an experiment that proved the principle, and I told him I would think about it. I went off and in a week or so I came back with an analysis and a design of what was then tested 15 months later as the Mike shot, November 1, 1952, in the Pacific.

Because I had decided that there really wasn’t any better demonstration than actually to make it work. It works better in large sizes than in small sizes. This thing didn’t have to, but it weighed 80 tons and it had an explosive power of 11 megatons, almost 1,000 times the 13 kilotons of the Hiroshima bomb.

After I had done that, end of July, written this four-page memo, big drawing of how you would build it, it was, of course, thoroughly discussed, especially in the theoretical megaton group that was headed by Hans Bethe. They decided that would really work, and built it just the way it was designed. I’m sort of, you know, not the inventor but the architect of the first atomic bomb [misspoke: hydrogen bomb].

There I was the end of July with nothing more to do, so I decided I would make some flyable models of these. The test model was vertical, because the cylinder is heavy and the easiest way to make such a thing is symmetrical. You have it vertical with the force of gravity pulling it down. An airplane has to carry the thing horizontally, because that’s the way airplanes are biggest. Furthermore, you’re not guaranteed that you’ll only have one G. The airplanes bounce up and down, they land. There are requirements. You have to withstand eight times the force of gravity. And so used the same design, but now I was particularly careful to make things thinner and to use diagonal stay braces.

Incidentally, Mike used liquid deuterium and so did these flyable models. You have to design it so that there wasn’t too big a leak of heat from the room temperature environment to the liquid hydrogen that would cause the stuff to boil off. At Enewetak they had liquefiers, so they could keep it cool, but if you were putting it in an airplane for a flyable mission to deliver hydrogen bombs against Russia, it had to stay cool enough all by itself for six or eight hours. So I designed it that way and it worked.

In fact, much later I learned that the Atomic Energy Commission had built six of these things and called them “Jughead,” and had them available even before the Mike test in 1952. Having gone to war with the Soviet Union, we would have used them without ever having tested them first. Then after the test, we would’ve used them until we had a solid-fueled hydrogen bomb, that was then tested in 1954.

Kelly:  That’s remarkable. The AEC built them without your knowing it?

Garwin: Well, I was only a consultant. I was there in the summertime and they didn’t need me to make the decision to do it, so they did it. They just never told me. I learned from Herb York’s book, when he sent me the manuscript, called, The Advisors: Oppenheimer, Teller, and the Super Bomb.

Kelly:  So you’re in there.

Garwin: Right. The story is in there, and the Jugheads. I just hadn’t heard about them until that time.

Kelly:  Obviously, you had a good time exploring and solving these problems.

Garwin: Yeah, well, if you’re going to be working you ought to have a good time working.

Kelly:  Do you think that, in a way, when people talk about the Manhattan Project, they think that the scientists just got so involved in the mission they were on that they didn’t think about the larger implications of this weapon. What do you think of those comments and how are they applicable to your own experience during the Cold War?

Garwin: I think it’s largely true. Most scientists, most people, who work in any kind of organization or project just try to do their job. Especially scientists are very much involved in finding out what’s known, making this next step if they can. During the war, people worked extremely hard, so there wasn’t much thought about what would be the implications. Most people weren’t educated, trained to do that anyhow, until at Chicago. Their work had been done in producing the materials for the nuclear weapons, in designing the reactors at Hanford. So people there, Leo Szilard and others, began to think about how the weapon should be used. The next step, how they would be tested, whether there should be a demonstration.

Of course, they were built for use against Nazi Germany. First because the Germans were very adept at nuclear physics, and it was feared that they would be building nuclear weapons, which would be a terrible weapon for them to have against the rest of us. So it was a race to do it before the Germans did.

Then when it turned out that the war in Germany would surely be over before we would have a nuclear weapon, it was somewhat more relaxed, but the war against Japan wasn’t much fun either. A lot of people were being killed and so it was going to be used against Japan if necessary, if the war wasn’t over before the weapons were ready. So people at Los Alamos, which is where the weapon was designed and put together, were working very hard to do this job.

Edward Teller wasn’t. Edward had, from the summer study in Berkeley in 1942, decided that nuclear weapons were too easy. They didn’t interest him. It was hydrogen bombs, and from a walk with Fermi in Leonia in 1939, described in Teller’s autobiography, where Fermi said, “Well, you know, one could probably make a nuclear explosive out of heavy hydrogen, out of deuterium.”

So Teller had been fixated on doing that. It was clear you would need a fission bomb in order to achieve the temperatures and pressures to make a hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer, who was in charge of Los Alamos, had the good sense to realize that he didn’t need a hydrogen bomb exploding over Japan to solve the problem, that fission bombs would do the job. Teller always resented that Oppenheimer didn’t give him more than a couple of people to work with him on hydrogen bombs during the war. He also resented that Norris Bradbury after the war didn’t turn the laboratory over to building hydrogen bombs.

It turns out that the design that they were fixated on, the classical “Super,” really doesn’t work. It doesn’t work because if you make it too big then the X-rays that are produced by the electrons in the hot gas are trapped. They cool the electrons, the electrons cool the ions, and it just doesn’t get hot enough to sustain this burning wave, fusion wave. If you make it too small, then the energy that’s produced by the fusion escapes without heating the rest of the deuterium. So there is an optimum radius, but in fact, even at that radius, the combination of energy escape and cooling due to the trapped radiation is big enough that the fusion wave doesn’t propagate. It really took the question of Stan Ulam and its working out by Teller in this very secret, later declassified, radiation implosion to make the hydrogen bomb practical.

Kelly:  Do you want to tell us just a little bit about how Lawrence Livermore got started?

Garwin: Edward Teller, during all of the war years and post-war years, felt that he was being short-changed, the country was being short-changed. We weren’t working on the hydrogen bomb. The Soviet Union would get it first. He didn’t restrict himself to pushing on the directors of the laboratory or on the General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commission, but he went to Air Force and the military, who were the customers for such things. He said, “We’re not doing what we could for lack of resources. We need a second laboratory.” He had for years been pushing for a second laboratory.

I remember I was at a meeting in September – I guess it was probably September – at Los Alamos. By then, of course, everybody was persuaded. They were persuaded by March or April, 1951, that radiation implosion would work. Then we had the design by July and August, 1951. The laboratory was on a crash program to make and test this thing, so they put together a 7,000-person task force to go out to the Pacific for the testing, and an enormous amount of instrumentation. Marshall Holloway was given the job of manufacturing the hydrogen bomb test itself with uranium and steel and the stuff that goes into that.

It astonished me in September, at this meeting with Norris Bradbury, the Director of Los Alamos, and Edward Teller and probably 30 other people. I just happened to be there. Teller said, “We’re not going fast enough. I resign. I’m going to have a second laboratory.” I guess he had had indications from the Air Force that they would support this, and powerful people in Washington, so they did begin Livermore at that time. Herb York, who was a young person at the University of California-Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, was the first director at Livermore. Edward Teller was deputy director, guiding spirit of the lab.

Livermore, of course, had to do things differently. Teller was critical of the Los Alamos history. None of their tests ever failed. Everybody knows you’re not taking enough risk, you’re not taking big enough steps, if your tests never failed. Livermore’s tests failed frequently. In fact, at the working level, Los Alamos and Livermore got along very well, although there were lots of competition in budget and whatnot. I’ve read just recently that people at Livermore said, “Well, you know, we really didn’t know what we were doing. We had to set up some kind of pulse X-ray system for X-raying our mock bombs as we were testing how they would work. And Los Alamos was extremely helpful. They showed us everything that they had at Los Alamos. They even sent us parts so that we could create our radiographic facility at Livermore.” It was very interesting.

It hasn’t always been lovey-dovey between the laboratories. In fact, it was sometime cutthroat in their competition to have responsibility for a new weapon. Many times what was done was not particularly in the national interest, simply because the system is so rigid.

I remember Harold Agnew, then Director of Los Alamos, telling me that they had been asked by the Navy to make a nuclear warhead for a surface-to-air missile, a ship-based surface-to-air missile. They already had a warhead that would fit, except that there was a partition in the missile that was in the wrong place. If it had been moved two inches, which would’ve made very little difference to the missile itself, the existing warhead would fit. But Livermore didn’t explain that to the Navy, and they happily took the responsibility of building a brand new warhead, same characteristics as the other one, but just a little smaller so you wouldn’t have to move the partition in the missile.

Kelly: In the ‘50s, the Cold War is exacerbated by the Korean War that came on, everything that looked like the communists taking over the world appeared to be coming true. I don’t doubt that there was a lot of fear that drove the Cold War buildup of the arsenal. Did you think at the time that the hydrogen bomb was going to be an effective deterrent? Or was it seen as a weapon that was going to be used in the war itself, in the conflict?

Garwin: Most people in the programs really didn’t think how the weapons would be used, about their deterrent value. They were making nuclear weapons and they liked to make new nuclear weapons, they liked to make them smaller or lighter or more efficient. There was a lot of work on making them safer.

The original nuclear weapons were really very dangerous. Had the airplane crashed with the bomb fully assembled and one of the detonators went off, there would’ve been a nuclear explosion, and it would’ve destroyed the entire base. That’s not something that you want to do. Gradually, people had different ideas as to how to make the bombs safe against a one-point detonation. The original bomb had 32, and all bombs have two or more, because to distinguish between lightning or a bullet and an intentional firing that fires all of the specified detonation points. So there was a lot to do.

Most people really didn’t think about the need. President Truman, before one knew how to build a hydrogen bomb, mandated the building of the hydrogen bomb. Both Fermi and Bethe, who had been against the construction of the hydrogen bomb, once the decision was made by President Truman, decided they would help to see whether it could be built. Hans Bethe said later that his hope was that his work would show it couldn’t be built, but it didn’t turn out that way. Just as he was head of the theoretical program to build fission weapons during the war, Hans Bethe then became of the head of the theoretical program to build hydrogen bombs.

The General Advisory Committee had studied the question of hydrogen bombs and decided that they didn’t have a program to build them. Fermi and I. I. Rabi from Columbia University went further. In a minority report they said that because of its potentially unlimited yield, the hydrogen bomb is inherently evil and shouldn’t be built. Well, even after radiation implosion, you know, if the hydrogen bomb was inherently evil, it’s still evil. I don’t know whether Rabi ever changed his mind, but Fermi went to work on it and Hans Bethe did as well.

I didn’t really worry about how these things would be used. I knew it was very dangerous. In fact, when I first went to Los Alamos, I told Fermi that we really ought to install some monitoring equipment, so if we had a nuclear explosion that destroyed Los Alamos, the monitoring equipment that survived would distinguish between an accidental explosion of one of our bombs there and a Soviet bomb. Because you didn’t want to start a war simply because one of our bombs had exploded by accident. That was as far as I went.

I left the University of Chicago in December of ’52, to work for the IBM company, mostly because I didn’t like the sociology of working with the cyclotrons, where you would have to work with a team of six people and tell people six weeks in advance what you wanted to do. Of course, I’m glad I left that field, because now you have to tell people six years in advance and work with teams of 600 people. I wanted to do something by myself with, you know, a table top, or anyhow, room size, to work with liquid and solid helium and low temperatures, superconductors and things like that.

IBM had a very nice laboratory. They were converting from a computing laboratory to a scientific laboratory at Columbia University, and I joined IBM at that lab in December of ’52. One of the first things that happened was that the head of the company told my boss, Wallace Eckert—Eckert was an astronomer who introduced the punched card into scientific computing in the 1930s. He was a very good man. The Cambridge crowd, in particular Jerry Wiesner and Jerrold Zacharias from MIT, wanted to have a year-long study on extending the radar and interceptor and surface-to-air missile coverage against Soviet bombers attacking the United States or Canada, to the sea lines of approach.

We had built a very costly, widely-deployed system of air defense, the semi-automatic ground environment, early computers, displays and things like that. But we were totally blind to bombers that would come in from the sea. They had to come in over Canada for us to be able to see them. Obviously, you could mount radars on ships or fly them on airplanes, the so-called AWACS now, the Airborne Warning and Control System. Those things don’t happen automatically. You have to think about them and design them.

We had a group called Project Lamplight, and they wanted me to work on it full time, but I resisted. That’s not why I went to IBM for, so I negotiated my working on it halftime for a year or so. There we had briefings in Washington on the threat, top-secret briefings then, what large number of hydrogen bombs delivered by Soviet bombers would do to the United States society. I became concerned about that and so worked on defense. But I told the leaders of our study that by the time anything that we could think of and deploy would be effective, the threat would not be Soviet bombers, but it would be Soviet missiles armed with nuclear weapons and we would need to work on that. Jerrold Zacharias said, “Okay, well, we’ll work on that when the time comes.”

But, in fact, we’re still working on missile defense. Missile defense is still impossible against long-range missiles armed with nuclear weapons, not because you can’t hit a bullet with a bullet, but because of the countermeasures that were obvious in those days, the early 1950s. That Hans Bethe and I published in the Scientific American in March of 1968, and that I testified again April 16th of 2008. The problem is still the same.

Because, you’re not fighting nature, you’re fighting another intelligent enemy and they don’t want their missiles to be destroyed, so they hide them or they put the warheads into balloons that look just like the easiest decoy balloon that they can make, just a spherical aluminum-coated balloon. That’s when I became involved with the question of not only U.S. capability, but Soviet capability, the interaction between the two, and the necessity for arms control if you could do it. The best way to defeat a nuclear weapon is not to have it built in the first place, and so if you can limit the number of weapons on the other side and you can help them to take better care of their weapons so that they don’t get loose by accident or by inadvertence, that’s a good thing.

Jerry Weisner became the science advisor to President Kennedy when Kennedy took office in January, 1961. I had begun to work with the President’s Science Advisory Committee that both Weisner and Zacharias were members of, probably around 1956, and became involved a lot in intelligence and national security at a much more general and elevated level than just building nuclear weapons. I continued to work with Los Alamos in building nuclear weapons. I still work with the government on building nuclear weapons, but I spend a lot of my time controlling nuclear weapons, trying to motivate people to reduce them enormously.

We had at one time 35,000 nuclear warheads. 1967, I think, was the peak. Now we have 10 or 12,000, but we ought to have, certainly, 1,000 as soon as possible, and a few hundred maybe a couple of years later. And make very great efforts to negotiate the end of all national nuclear weapons and the prohibition of nuclear weapons, and have a security system that would keep people from making them. We would have to be able to respond to a threat of a country making nuclear weapons.

In the meantime, you have big problems with the internet, with the declassification and leakage of information over the decades. People know more and more about how you would make early nuclear weapons. The biggest barrier to the acquisition by nations or groups is the acquisition of nuclear materials, either the highly enriched uranium or the plutonium for making nuclear weapons. So we ought to be spending a lot more effort on consolidating the existing materials and providing the proper security wherever they may be found and protecting them, and deterring national acquisition of nuclear weapons.

Deterrence really works quite well, but you cannot have deterrence at the same time that you threaten the survival of another nation. Because, that’s why they will have nuclear weapons. If they have them, then they may very well use them in case their very survival is threatened. You have to limit your political goals with people who have nuclear weapons, which is why they are strongly motivated to acquire nuclear weapons.

Kelly:  Our arsenals, the goal going from 12 to 1,000 to a few hundred. Can you really perceive that there will be a time when the United States could achieve that, or no weapons at all? Or, under what scenarios can—

Garwin:  There’s a big difference between 1,000 nuclear weapons or even 100 nuclear weapons and no weapons at all. I think that there is a consensus among the military, and among people who have worked in national security, that if we had 1,000 nuclear weapons and Russia had 1,000 nuclear weapons, it would be a much safer world than it is now. And, the only question is how to get there.

We’re greatly helped by the work of George Shultz, [Ronald] Reagan’s Secretary of State, and Sidney Drell at Stanford University, who convened a meeting in October, 2006, Reykjavik II. Which was really to think deeply about the summit meeting between [Mikhail] Gorbachev and Reagan at Reykjavik, Iceland, in October, 1986. Four people from that meeting, George Shultz and Bill Perry, who was Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, and Sam Nunn, a well-known senator specializing in defense matters, and Henry Kissinger, National Security Adviser and Secretary of State for Nixon, published an op-ed article in the Wall Street Journal on the elimination of nuclear weapons. That the United States and the world would be much more secure if nuclear weapons were eliminated. That on the way to the elimination, whether you actually get there or not, you should reduce them greatly.

They have the number, 1,000. I’ve been pushing for 1,000 since the mid-1980s when some of my Soviet colleagues in Pugwash meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, said, “Garwin, you’re always talking about reducing nuclear weapons. Now, what would you reduce to and how would you do it?”

I said there, “Well, I would reduce immediately to 2,000 and that means I would eliminate all the weapons that weren’t deployed, the ones that weren’t in the Minutemen.” I think we had 1,000 Minutemen at the time, land-based missiles. I would get rid of those in the airplanes or limit them to one bomb per airplane. In the submarines, I forget how many submarines we had, probably 16 tubes in 16 submarines with eight missiles in each. So, a little more than 1,000. I would limit those to 1,000 also.

Then the next year, I would cut them in half. Now, you’d be having submarines running around with the missiles largely unloaded of warheads, but in fact that’s what we have now. Britain has four submarines, Tridents and Vanguard submarines just like our Trident, except with 16 tubes. They have said that they have 160 warheads only, all of them loaded on the Trident missiles. That’s 16 times four, 64, so fewer than three warheads on each Trident missile, which are built to take 8 or 14. We have these systems that are enormously under-utilized, but that’s okay. They don’t cost any more to operate with a few warheads than they cost to operate when fully loaded. In fact, somewhat less. They’re less vulnerable than if you stuffed all the warheads onto one submarine. So that’s an example.

To go further, in the modern era, I would do exactly the same thing. I would reduce to 1,000 warheads plus those in the supply chain. Then the next year I would have only the thousand deployed warheads, and if you need to refurbish a warhead, well, tough, you take it offline and you send it off to be refurbished and you get it back as soon as possible. It’s no longer a free good. Every warhead that you have in retrofit is one less that you have deployed. So people will become much more efficient about their use of the warheads compared with having – now we have a limit in 2012 of 2,100 operationally deployed warheads. But, we’ll probably have 4,000 more in a hedge, in storage, and that’s not good.

Once we get down to 1,000, we and Russia, then we ought to talk with the other nations. The British have 160, the French have announced just recently that they will have only a couple of hundred. They’re keeping some of their air-to-surface missile nuclear weapons as well as the submarine-launched nuclear weapons. Then there are the Chinese who have maybe a couple of hundred. So, we say to them, “Look, we have too many warheads. We think you have too many warheads, too. Let’s work on a schedule to get them down to much lower numbers.”

Of course, then we have to face India and Pakistan, who have maybe on the order of 100 warheads each, and North Korea, which has a few. I hope the negotiations with North Korea will succeed that they won’t have any. Israel certainly has more than 100, maybe 200, and is the state among them all that needs nuclear weapons most, because they could easily be overrun by the populous neighboring states in a matter of hours without nuclear weapons. It used to be that the conventional forces of Israel would protect it, but now with so many suicide bombers, people willing to sacrifice themselves, you know, you can have a lot of conventional fights, kill a lot of people, and if the fighting forces are motivated, they’ll still press on.

What you need in order to get rid of nuclear weapons – you cannot guarantee that they will be eliminated. You could prohibit them, you can have good inspection and verification systems, and you would need to have a response in case people were building nuclear weapons to keep that from happening. But as I’ve heard Bill Perry say and Sam Nunn, it’s like climbing a mountain, and the top of the mountain is the prohibition of nuclear weapons and no nuclear weapons in the world. But we can’t see the top, you know. It’s one of those convex mountains. When you’re climbing up you can’t see the top. So we don’t the details of how we’ll do that. But we do know that having a lot fewer nuclear weapons would improve our security. Let’s do that and let’s keep – and maybe by then we’ll be able to see the top of the mountain. We’ll be able to see our way clear to prohibiting them. But if not, so we will end with a lot fewer nuclear weapons, and there are a lot of people who will explain to the American people that we’re better off with fewer, because our potential adversaries will have fewer.

There is the myth, and you saw it operate many times in the past, that if there is a perceived security problem, well, no difficulty, we’ll just buy more nuclear weapons. But that doesn’t improve our security. What we want is less nuclear weapons and less cause for using them on the other side.

We have other things to do. For instance, nobody in his or her right mind would believe that Russia wants to use nuclear weapons against the United States. Yet, their vast numbers are targeted, or if they’re not targeted second-to-second, they would be targeted in case of war, against places in the United States. We have by the advance of technology and by really unwise planning allowed our weapons to get much more accurate. The many submarine launched nuclear weapons are accurate enough to confidently destroy the silos where many of these Soviet deterrents are located. No problem, so we’d say. We would not let our weapons be destroyed. We would launch them before they could be destroyed, launch under attack or launch on warning.

That wouldn’t be good for us, particularly since, with the demise of the Soviet Union, the Russian warning systems have been downgraded in number and deteriorated in capability. Here they have the system, but they don’t have very good warning, and they may launch the weapons by accident or because they perceive that there is an attack underway. Well, what should we do there? We should take our weapons off alerts so they cannot be launched, and make it clear to the Russians that they can’t be launched in minutes or hours, but only in days. They as a result should take their weapons off launch on warning status. That would help, no matter how many weapons there are.

There’s a full agenda of things that ought to be done, and many of them require cooperation between the United States and Russia. Unfortunately, the George W. Bush administration has been saying that the Cold War is over and we are no longer enemies, but they’ve been doing their best to provoke Russia and to explain to them that the Cold War is over and they lost it, and they deserve to suffer. That’s no way to get what you want in the world, to diss your enemy, who are actually the people whom you want to cooperate with. Because, they’re the ones who have the weapons that can destroy you. People are very sensitive. You can say, “Well, they ought to be interested in their national interests and disregard these insults.” And we should be interested in our national interests and not give insults, even though some people may feel that makes them feel good.

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