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Ted Taylor’s Interview – Part 1

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During World War II, Ted Taylor served on active duty in the United States Navy. In 1954, Taylor obtained his PhD in theoretical physics from Cornell University. From 1948-1956, Taylor worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), developing fission bombs of minimal size and maximal capacity. Later in life, while working for the Defense Department, Taylor began to realize the real-world implications and consequences of the bombs he developed. In this interview, he discusses his work on nuclear weapons, the expertise of his fellow scientists at LANL, and the secrecy surrounding fission bomb designs. He also recalls his interactions with J. Robert Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, John Von Neumann, and other scientists.

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


Ted Taylor: I think Carson Mark is the most valuable resource to talk to about what happened in those days at Los Alamos. At Livermore, [Edward] Teller, certainly.

Richard Rhodes: Teller won’t talk to me, I’m afraid. He’s decided I’m the enemy.

Taylor: Herb York I think is anxious for the story to be told correctly. John Foster was deeply involved in what was going on. For quite a while, he and I were thought of as sort of rivals. I don’t know whether he would have thought of it that way or not, but I got that sense.

Rhodes: He was at Livermore?

Taylor: He was at Livermore.

Rhodes: You were at Los Alamos.

Taylor: He was focused principally on tactical fission bombs and so was I. He then went on to become the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, after he was director of the laboratory at Livermore. He’s been a senior official of TRW for many, years. He still is, as far as I know, Vice President, Director of Research, or something.

Back to Los Alamos. Key people there besides Carson Mark that are around that I would urge you to try and to talk to are Marshall Rosenbluth, who’s in La Jolla and retired.

Conrad Longmire had an enormous impact on what was happening, in terms of actively getting answers to questions that kept coming up. He is semi-retired and lives in Santa Barbara. The company he set up is called Sierra something [Pacific-Sierra Research Corporation]. But I’m sure you can get in touch with him in Santa Barbara.

Nick Metropolis is still living I think in Los Alamos. He was very close to John Von Neumann in the computer end of things. Carson and he were very good friends. Bill Ogle–I don’t know where he is, but Carson would know.

Rhodes: How do you spell that?

Taylor: O – G – L – E. He was the test director for the tests going on in the Pacific and in Nevada, certainly by the mid-’50s. Al Graves was the head of the test division. But even at that time when he was, Bill was doing a great deal of what was actually happening. He was in charge of it.

The calculations of the implosion bombs during those times were mostly done by two people. The one who was in charge when I was there was Preston Hammer. Carson might know how to get ahold of him. He was a mathematician. He was the person I would go to or someone else would go to when you wanted an implosion calculated. Six weeks later, you would get a stack of IBM [inaudible]. That’s something now that you get in fifteen minutes. Another person who took over from him and was very active in all of this while I was there was Bengt, B – E – N – G – T Carlson, C – A – R – L – S – O – N.

Rhodes: You’ve haven’t mentioned [Richard] Garwin.

Taylor: Garwin was a consultant. The people I’ve mentioned so far were full-time members of the staff. Garwin was a consultant and he came out quite often and he would be very good to talk to.

Rhodes: I don’t think anyone has.

Taylor: He and I and Carson are co-inventors of something that’s never been declassified.

Prominent people who were there—Stan Ulam was on the staff full-time. He died.

Rhodes: Yeah, I talked to him about three months ago.

Taylor: It would be worth talking to Françoise [Ulam]. She’ll know a great deal, even some of which she was not supposed to know, about what was going on.

Walter Goed, G – O – E – D, was there through this time. He was a star student of George Gamow, who died of alcoholism a long time ago.

Rhodes: You worked with Bob Serber?

Taylor: I didn’t work for Bob Serber on the Hill—the other hill. It was at the Berkeley Laboratory. What happened there was that I basically flunked out of graduate school because I had failed two preliminary exams in a row, because I wasn’t interested in the studying part. But I had done quite well, from his point of view, working for Bob Serber on theoretical physics. I was devastated. I had just gotten married and had gone seriously into debt. We were about to have a child. He said, “Calm down. I’ll get you a job at Los Alamos,” which he did.

Rhodes: Because I worked with Bob on the [Los Alamos] Primer. I sent you a copy of that Primer. He’s still wonderful and vigorous and has a ten-year-old son.

Taylor: Now Serber wasn’t involved in anything having to do with the bomb, as far as I know, after the war. I think part of it might have been conscience.

Rhodes: But he was involved in the 1946 Thermonuclear Conference. He was there, but I think that may have been the end of it for him. I’ll ask him. He certainly was plugged to what was going on with [J. Robert] Oppenheimer, because they were close friends. And he lived across the hall from [Isidor I.] Rabi for all of those years. 

Taylor: I’m sure there would be other theorists. I’m not mentioning people who were there and very prominently involved—maybe I should mention those—people are now dead. [Enrico] Fermi.

Harold Agnew was an experimental physicist who at that time was involved in a whole variety of different aspects of the weapon development. Although he was an experimentalist, he joined the theoretical division and played a major role, but still under Carson. He knows the history of everything all the way back to Fermi and what was going on in the [Los Alamos] laboratory then. He, of course, became Director [of LANL].

I had a little bit to do with him technically, because he had done some new experiments on the neutron production possibilities of beryllium. Beryllium has an extra neutron that is just barely hanging on. It’s the easiest isotope from which to get a neutron. It was a question about whether you could make a multiplying assembly that had to do with the bomb. The answer was no, but a multiplying assembly with a very small amount of uranium or plutonium in it in which some of the neutrons, instead of releasing just one neutron, would release two.

Rhodes: From the beryllium?

Taylor: N2N reactions from the beryllium. It has one of the highest, if not the highest, N2N reactions. He was measuring that. So we talked quite a bit about that.

Fermi was there every summer until he died and was a very stimulating person, especially, I thought, to young people.

Rhodes: Was he involved in design work on weapons?       

Taylor: He was. He was involved in some of the crucial questions about whether the Super would work. Could you ignite a big tank full of deuterium? The answer was no. He and Ulam and a fellow mathematician named [C. J.] Everett, the three of them kept getting results that “Teller’s bomb” didn’t work. I think they saw that as good news and Teller saw it as bad news.

Rhodes: Teller even actually accused them of messing around with the numbers at one angry point along the way. At least, Ulam said that.

Taylor: [John] Von Neumann was there prominently. By that time, by 1950, the Atlas missile was beginning to be [inaudible] specific in terms of its size and what it could carry, what its range would be. By that time, Von Neumann’s main role connected with nuclear weapons was getting across to the military establishment that the likelihood of an H-bomb becoming available was very high. This is even before the Tellar-Ulam breakthrough. When that happened, then Johnnie just charged with that and pursued that until the mid-‘50s, when he died of cancer.

I was very fortunate. I got to know him quite well. The reason was that I had been playing around with the idea of exploding clean thermonuclear weapons at the bottom of an icecap and then putting it a big jacket of Uranium-238 around the bomb, not to cause fissions of Uranium-238, but to convert it to plutonium. What happens is that you set up a ten megaton bomb at the bottom of an icecap. You then make a huge amount of water, then process the water and take out the plutonium. We could out-produce Hanford. They got really interested in that. In fact, we worked together on it until he got sick and was in the Walter Reed Hospital when he died. He was intriguing.

Rhodes: How did you find him as a person? I’m seeing such conflicting descriptions of him as someone who was somehow distant and repellant, and yet charming.

Taylor: He was one of the most attractive people I’ve ever known, attractive in the sense that he knew so much and could reason in front of people and show them what was going on so well, it was really quite wonderful. He also had a good sense of humor.

The one thing he could not take was having people point out that he, the author of The Theory of Games, which is probably his best known work at that time, always got beaten at poker. There was a group of people called the Philosophical Society. We used to get together, usually at the Ulam’s and play poker—Stan Ulam, Johnnie, Nick Metropolis, and Jim Tuck, who then ran the fusion program. Johnnie always lost.

He was wonderful, and I was really crushed when I found out that he had cancer. He didn’t seem that old. He was a commission of the Atomic Energy Commission.

Rhodes: Wasn’t he something like fifty-four, fifty-five? That’s my age right now.

Taylor: He gave a talk at Los Alamos at one of these informal seminars that we had in the afternoon on the greenhouse effect in 1950. My recollection of that was that I got extremely excited about what he had to say. I talked to him afterwards and he was upset because most of the people there didn’t seem to think that was worth giving much attention to. He talked more about it. He left me scared to death of what would happen if we kept building up CO2. He was not the first person to recognize the greenhouse effect. That was recognized just before the turn of the century, but he was the first person I ever heard say anything about it. All of us had come to learn, when Johnnie says something, you listen.

Rhodes: He’s usually credited with having done the design work on the explosive lenses, figuring out what shape they should take.

Taylor: That could be. I wasn’t there. That makes a lot sense, because he had a real knack for calculating, getting real numbers in situations where other people couldn’t. [Hans] Bethe was there for long stretches and had a lot to do with them and got to know him quite well, because he was very enthusiastic about what I was doing on the fission bombs. In fact, it was Bethe who had specified the implosion system characteristics for the stockpile, which then resulted in a couple, two I think, implosion calculations done by Preston Hammer.

I then used over and over and over again in exploring other possibilities, in going beyond what Bethe had proposed to do. Bethe was someone conservative. So he in effect cut out a whole bunch of that aluminum and made some other not very big changes. I kept wanting to go to extremes and just get an answer. What’s the limit? How thin can you make a tamper and still have it work, in terms of reflecting neutrons and/or slowing the explosion down to keep it contained? What are the limits? What’s the best tamper? The answers weren’t known, and so it was a very exciting time to find these things out.

Bethe was very friendly, very approachable. He was wonderful to me when the laboratory decided that they just had to get me to get a PhD. They couldn’t deal with somebody who was on the staff that didn’t have a PhD. So they sent me back to school. There was no question about going to Cornell, because then I could spend a lot of time with Bethe. We talked bombs, to some extent, while I was supposed to be working on my degree. I did get the degree, finally.

Rhodes: Were some of the bombs that were designed at Los Alamos essentially experiments to test these limits?

Taylor: Oh yeah. Some of them never wound up anywhere near stockpile. Norris Bradbury, for example, once told me in a meeting of what was called the Fission Committee, he said, “You’ve been harping on this. Now see what you can come up with as the most efficient twenty, thirty kiloton bomb, using the stockpile implosion system.”

I did and we tested it. I pushed the limit for the Mark 13 high explosive system. “Here’s the best you can do.” So there was a lot of that. Fermi kept saying quite seriously that we weren’t doing our jobs, because we never had a failure, and we accommodated him. By “we” I mean Los Alamos and the whole laboratory accommodated it about a year later with a bomb that didn’t go off at all.

Rhodes: Was that the “PP Bomb?”

Taylor: Yes. That has an interesting connection with some other things. The morning it was tested at the Nevada Test Site, it was put on a tower and it was ten miles away from the control point. It was the first one to which there was a general invitation to the press to witness the explosion. So a lot of people turned up. I wasn’t there, but we heard a lot about how there were a hundred or so reporters. All the countdown, and “Put your goggles on,” and so on. And “Pfft.” There was an explosion and a little mushroom cloud.

To make a long story short, the next morning, the headlines in the Albuquerque Tribune and the Santa Fe New Mexican and some Las Vegas paper were variations on “US develops baby A-bomb.” The first serious public discussion of tactical nuclear weapons started then, came from that shot. The New York Times gradually picked up on it. This is all true, I’m not embellishing.

Some six months or so later, after some speculations about whether the Navy were developing tactical low-yield nuclear weapons for use in Europe and possibly elsewhere, that now that we have these nuclear weapons, what must our policy be? There were op-ed pieces coming out. The whole thing was built on zero, on nothing.

Rhodes: Speaking of tactical weapons, I have the impression that the Air Force in those days was quite determined that all the weapons would be theirs, and that they were very hostile to the whole idea of tactical nukes. That seems to be one of the reasons they were partly behind the Oppenheimer security hearing. They didn’t like Oppenheimer’s promoting tactical weapons.

Taylor: I don’t know, but this certainly sounds credible. Oppenheimer’s promotion of tactical weapons, I do know some about because he was quite active in the project that was set up called Project Vista. It was established at Cal Tech. My link with that was another visitor, a very prominent person who kept turning up—I always lit up when he announced that he was visiting—was Bob Christie. He was I think sort of the project manager. He was involved in all of the gory details of this Project Vista at Cal Tech. He was just an enormous inspiration to me. He’d turn up and he’d come into my office and say, “Okay Ted, what’s up?” There was always something up and he’d say, “How long is your list now? Let me see your list. What do you have checked off?” He was just wonderful.

Rhodes: A list of ideas for weapons?

Taylor: Yeah. How about, “What’s the biggest fission explosion you can make with something that there’s at least a good chance of our being to guarantee would not go critical by mistake?” Things like that.

[Inaudible] had been talked about, I think it was originally perhaps invented by Teller. It was certainly talked about by Teller a lot, and we always veered away from it because of concerns that things would get all mixed up that close to the middle of an implosion and you couldn’t get deuterium to burn with any reliability. I kept asking, “Why not? How do we know that?” The numbers from the implosion—I asked Preston Hammer to subdivide the numbers a little more closely. See, what was going on in the very middle, they were big enough so that the intensity, the density of the material when it exploded was high enough, so that it would override any [inaudible] mix. I had a discussion with Oppenheimer—he would go around and talk to people and ask, “What’s up?” He came by when I was working on [inaudible] and I told him what I was up to. He said that it was a waste of time, and he was dead wrong.  

Rhodes: He often was dead wrong when he made those—

Taylor: My interactions with Oppenheimer were not good. He was extremely upset with Teller and remained that way ever since, because of the hearings and all that. But it just happened that all of my direct interactions with Oppie put him in a not very good light. Not the least of which was, I was not one of his star students, far from it. He just didn’t seem interested in me, I don’t know if he should have been.

Rhodes: When the word about the discovery of fission arrived at Berkeley, Luis Alvarez ran over and said, “Oppie, look at this!” Oppenheimer gave him all of the theoretical reasons why it wouldn’t work. Then he said within fifteen minutes, he turned it around to reactors and bombs. So he developed, but that was his first response, since he hadn’t thought of it himself, I guess.

Taylor: He also was very cruel. For example, with some of the old faculty members at Berkeley, one in particular, a man named Professor Linson. We would all make fun of him. He memorized all of his lectures. Oppie went to one of his lectures. Every faculty member had to give a physics department tea lecture at least every five years. So Linson’s turn came up and Oppie was there, and asked him a question after he’d gotten into his talk after a couple minutes. Everybody knew, and I’m sure Oppie must have known, that if anyone asked him a question, he would simply rewind his tape and go back to the beginning and that’s exactly what he did. He repeated everything that he had just said for the last two minutes. He got to the same point, and Oppie asked the same question. Linson started physically shaking and turned red. Oppie got up and walked out. I couldn’t abide that. But I was still very angry and I remained that way with Teller.

Rhodes: Did you ever see the secret interviews that Teller gave the FBI about Oppenheimer?

Taylor: No.

Rhodes: It’s something else that I found in these files.

Taylor: Was this with the Freedom of Information–?

Rhodes: These were interviews that the FBI transcribed with Teller.

Taylor: Yeah, but how did you get them?

Rhodes: I went to Oppenheimer’s FBI files. There’s a room in the FBI building where there are two giant sets of files, one for Robert Oppenheimer and one for Martin Luther King. 

Taylor: Two people who were experts on hydrodynamics. One was Bob Richtmyer. I don’t know where he is. He’d already made quite a name for himself. The other was younger than he, Rolf Landshoff. They did a lot of things that made it possible to do the implosion calculations much faster. In particular, dealing with strong shop fittings, which mechanically and mathematically are hard to deal with, because in a shockwave, an infinite number of things happen in a small distance.

Richtmyer particularly invented something called the “Artificial Viscosity.” It would spread things out, so you didn’t get these sharp shocks that messed up the calculations. Those sound like unimportant things, but they weren’t. They made the difference between being able to do these calculations at all, some of them, with any meaningful results. It had to do with what goes on in the middle of an explosion, and in an implosion in particular. An awful lot that’s really interesting goes on right in the middle.

Rhodes: To do these calculations in the early days of computers, or to do them at all?

Taylor: To do them at all, they needed something like this artificial viscosity as a way of getting around the formalities of the way hydrodynamics was formulated at that time that made it very definite. At the shock front, everything changed in no distance at all.

Rolf Landshoff worked very closely with him; usually behind the scene things, but they made the difference between someone getting an idea. “Gee, that number is really high enough. It might work.” That happened over and over again, as a result not of my looking at something in a new way, but I took it upon myself to explore the middle of every problem that Preston Hammer–may cause a man on the computers to see what was going on. Carson asked me to do that too, in connection with something else which we can’t talk about. There are still some things that aren’t public.

Rhodes: There is a lot around the fission bomb, and everything around the hydrogen bomb. There’s a lot that still can’t be discussed obviously around fission designs, but there’s almost nothing that could be discussed about hydrogen bomb designs.

Taylor: In detail.

Rhodes: Yeah, but even the general idea of radiation transport and radiation implosion and so forth, it’s only in the last four or five years.

Taylor: The last few years. I don’t know whether you would agree with this or not, but the Progressive [Magazine] case pushed that out, independently of how accurate that was.

Rhodes: And now the Russians are letting slip a little bit here and there, but not a lot.

Taylor: Yeah. The security people have been burned. You may know this about the Los Alamos Primer, but it was declassified in 1964. A part of Carson’s job at that time I think was, he was on a classification committee. But someone, and I think it was Carson, reported that the reasoning was, “The Russians know all of this so why is it secret?” It had never occurred to them to ask whether the Indians or the Brazilians or anybody else might know this. As soon as that question was put to them, which was principally through John McPhee’s book about concerns about nuclear terrorists, they tried to reclassify it. Well, you know the history of all that intimately, because you’ve now published it.

Rhodes: They were some question about that too, as you might imagine. In fact, after the book was published, we had an angry call from some staff member of the Center on Foreign Relations Committee saying, “What are you doing? Why did you publish that book?”

Taylor: This “Why did you publish that book” kind of question kept coming up in a lot of different contexts. I got yelled at very severely by a few people, for having sounded off to John McPhee. One of those who was most severe was [Isidor I.] Rabi.

Rhodes: Because of the question of proliferation?

Taylor: Yeah, just publishing all that information about how to make a simple bomb in your basement, because they’re dangerous. John and I had gone through that very carefully, a lot, asking the question over and over again, “Does it serve the public interest better to just forget about all of this, or to get the public to realize that these things are possible? You don’t need a Manhattan Project, because it’s a fact of life. Why should that be hidden?”

So there was a lot of dispute about such things. Apparently a lot about some other things that were declassified, like the critical masses, which were declassified really early on in the mid-‘60s. Atoms for Peace triggered a lot of that, but it didn’t happen until maybe ten years later. Atoms for Peace was what, ’55?

Rhodes: That was a serious event, wasn’t it?

Taylor: Oh, yeah. In the late ‘50s, the fission cross-section of Uranium-235 at high energies was extremely secret. And yet people had to know that to design fast reactors, even not fast reactors.

Rhodes: I was thinking a serious event in the sense that all sorts of secrecy was lifted, not only on our side, but on the Soviet side as well.

Taylor: Oh, that I didn’t know.

Rhodes: Well, less. The American papers, from their point of view, it was a revelation of all that was happening. That’s when we learned about the [inaudible]?

Taylor: Yeah, I think that’s right.

Rhodes: I still don’t understand how someone as paranoid as Lewis Strauss allowed Atoms for Peace to happen. I gather Rabi did a major sell job on him, to convince him that it was a good idea.

Taylor: Yeah. You must have heard the story of the time in which—maybe the time in which Lewis Strauss decided to get Oppenheimer. That was when Oppie made a fool of him publicly. It was at a closed meeting with the General Advisory Committee.

Rhodes: About the isotope?

Taylor: Right. You could see Lewis Strauss sitting there thinking, “I’m going to get this guy if it’s the last thing that I do.”

Rhodes: It’s perfectly consistent with your story about the Berkeley professor and his lecture. It’s the same sort of behavior. But there was a lot of adverse publicity around that time that was Air Force-instigated that had to do with Project Vista and tactical nuclear weapons.

Taylor: That’s sounds plausible to me, but I don’t really know. I just had the same common view of traditional inter-service rivalries. A few of us did go to Washington in the fall of 1950. I spent six weeks there with the leader of the weapon division, W Division, W-4, Art Sayre, who had a lot to do with miniaturizing the bombs. In fact, for a while, much more than T Division. He started pushing things down to sixty inches to forty-five, and then he jumped to thirty-seven and then made another jump to about sixteen or so.

The two of us spent several weeks working in an Office of Navy Intelligence on how people derive military requirements for weapons. But before that settled down to doing that, we were taken around the Pentagon and given, for those days, standard briefings on where the US and the Soviet Union stood relative to each other. It was totally frightening. This was in 1950 and they had tested their first bomb, so they had some distance to go. But their conventional forces were massive and poised and ready to go. Everybody said that if they wanted to, they could take over Europe in six weeks and we couldn’t do anything about it, except maybe do some damage to Moscow.

During that, there was a lot of pressure by the Navy to show that they needed nuclear weapons. In fact, they set up that particular arrangement where Art Sayre and I worked with Navy Intelligence, not Air Force Intelligence. The Army people were getting very excited about tactical nuclear weapon possibilities, even at that time. This was November 1950, and how to make an H-bomb wasn’t known. But if was clear how to make a big yield fission bomb. I spent a lot of the time drawing circles on various targets to show how far out you’d get moderate, severe, and massive damage from a 500 kiloton explosion.

Soon after that, in connection to the entry of the Chinese into the Korean War, I started looking at what was then called the “Iron Triangle,” which was 500,000 mass Chinese troops north of the Yalu River where we thought we would be poised to break through and they would take over it. George Gamow and I spent a lot of time looking at that, what to do about such a massive troop concentration. He was there for a year. He wasn’t just coming and going. His office was right across the hall.

Rhodes: At Los Alamos?

Taylor: At Los Alamos. Gamow was there for that whole period, a year and a half I think, from ’49 to at least mid-1951. We got excited about half-megaton tactical fission bombs, because of that particular development in Korea. By that time Army people were beginning to turn up and ask about, “Can you build something to fire out of a cannon?”

Rhodes: I think the Air Force’s big worry came a little earlier, back when it still seemed likely that there would never be enough plutonium, or uranium, or ore.

Taylor: Could be.

Rhodes: Then I think they felt very much that every little weapon took away from their big weapons, which weree their sole justification.

Taylor: And the little weapons had a way of using more material.

Rhodes: Since [General Curtis] LeMay was running SAC [Strategic Air Command] and his plan was to drop everything all at once within three hours after the beginning of the war, which it was. There was his program. He didn’t see why you needed tactical weapons. The war would already be over as far, as he saw it. That was his theory.

LeMay is going to be a central character in this new book. He was there bombing Japan. He invented the firebombing of Japan. He was in charge of dropping the atomic bombs. He was in charge of the Berlin Airlift. He was in charge of the Strategic Air Command. It’s extraordinary how much he was in the middle of all of this story.

Taylor: Let me see if I can give you a couple more people. Ernest Courant, perhaps the most famous hydrodynamicist in the world at that time, turned up quite often, sometimes for several weeks.

Rhodes: Is he related to the Richard Courant, the mathematician?

Taylor: Did I say Ernest? I meant Richard. Ernest is his son. No, Richard Courant, who I think is long since dead. His work added realism to these calculations that many people were doing, were looking at the results of. We thought those implosion calculations were so arduous, it took so long, we almost thought of them sort of like an experiment.

And then we did a lot of subsidiary calculations, using that as the experiment, trying to duplicate it. And then there were things that we had to do separately: do the neutronics calculations, estimate the yield, the timing, the initiation time. But that came out of these implosion calculations. Those could be quite wrong, and Courant and Richtmyer and to some extent Preston Hammer and Carson. There was a whole cadre of people. Hydrodynamics was a big deal, theoretical hydrodynamics.

Copyright 1994 Richard Rhodes. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Richard Rhodes. Exclusive rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.