War Сreators

George Kistiakowsky — the Unknown Father of the American Bomb

Machine trans­la­tion

His ide­al was a qui­et uni­ver­si­ty job, but life made him a «mer­chant of death.» George Kistiakowsky’s name does not appear in a his­to­ry text­book. But it was his knowl­edge that helped turn the tide of the war and influ­enced the poli­cies of one of the two super­pow­ers. Though it was­n’t even his home country.

Kistiakowsky was one of the devel­op­ers of the American atom­ic bomb. In fact, it was he who designed the trig­ger mech­a­nism for the first nuclear explo­sion in Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945.

Whiteguardsman Yuri and Chemist George

He was born exact­ly at the turn of the cen­tu­ry: in 1900. It’s hard to find a time that would be less suit­ed to the qui­et and qui­et life of a pro­fes­sor. The first con­gress of the future Communist Party had already been held in Minsk. Five years were left before the first Russian rev­o­lu­tion. Seventeen before the fall of the monarchy.

His father, the soci­ol­o­gist and legal schol­ar Bogdan Alexandrovich caught the «gold­en age» of the intel­li­gentsia in the Russian Empire: a time of big thoughts and small deeds. Today he would run a tele­graph chan­nel and make his way into munic­i­pal deputies. Back then he pub­lished a philo­soph­i­cal anthol­o­gy called Milestones, taught, and even co-found­ed a polit­i­cal par­ty. «My father looked like a black sheep at the turn of the cen­tu­ry,» George recalled of him. His writ­ings were devot­ed to prob­lems of human rights, which rep­re­sent­ed an unpop­u­lar sub­ject for class­es in Russia at that time. These ques­tions sim­ply did not inter­est any­one. His son, by the way, was no exception.

George’s inter­ests since child­hood lay on a dif­fer­ent plane. He was inter­est­ed in the world of sub­stances. While still a stu­dent in Kiev, dur­ing the war he learned how to find unex­plod­ed shells on the bat­tle­field, dis­arm them, and sell the stuff­ing. His teenage expe­ri­ence would come in handy in the future, but with a role rever­sal: he him­self would be mak­ing the stuff­ing for the bombs. But more about that later.

The boy’s inter­est was spot­ted by his uncle, a chem­istry pro­fes­sor at Moscow University. He helped his nephew to go to school in the cap­i­tal and arranged for him a rare oppor­tu­ni­ty: to con­duct exper­i­ments in the uni­ver­si­ty chem­i­cal lab­o­ra­to­ry. But then life itself began to con­duct exper­i­ments on the whole country.

George was 17 when the Bolsheviks came to pow­er. His par­ents, them­selves sick with Marxism, had instilled in him a dis­trust of any rad­i­cal projects for reor­ga­niz­ing the world. He did not accept the new pow­er and end­ed up in the White Army. What fol­lowed was a short ser­vice in the cav­al­ry, evac­u­a­tion from the Crimea by steam­boat, typhus and Turkish cap­tiv­i­ty. Georgy Bogdanovich did not like to remem­ber it.

With the assis­tance of the British author­i­ties, he was freed and set­tled in Paris. Kinship ties helped out again. Another uncle, Ihor Bohdanovich, who dur­ing the civ­il war served as Minister of Internal Affairs in the gov­ern­ment of inde­pen­dent Ukraine, advised the young man to enter the University of Berlin. And he even paid for the tuition.

The hard­ships of war did not dis­cour­age George’s taste for sci­ence. He «swal­lowed» the uni­ver­si­ty course in three and a half years and then, in record time, defend­ed his doc­tor­al dis­ser­ta­tion on the pho­to­chem­istry of chlo­rine monox­ide and ozone. But then there were prob­lems with employ­ment. Russians were not liked in Germany, and this dis­like did not escape the aca­d­e­m­ic world. There were few oppor­tu­ni­ties to get a decent position.

On the rec­om­men­da­tion of his super­vi­sor, Professor Bodenstein, he received a schol­ar­ship to Princeton University and went to America. It was a fate­ful busi­ness trip: the States became his new home. There he mar­ried and soon got a job at Harvard, with which he remained con­nect­ed for the rest of his life. «Not bad for a man who at first strug­gled to explain him­self in bro­ken English,» as his daugh­ter Vera would say.

Partisan buns

Working at Harvard, Kistiakowsky quick­ly became one of the best, if not the best explo­sives expert. In 1939, World War II began. In 1940, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt cre­at­ed the National Defense Research Committee. James B. Conant, pres­i­dent of Harvard, was appoint­ed head of Division B, which was respon­si­ble for bombs, fuels, gas­es and chem­i­cals. He appoint­ed Kistiakowsky to head the A-1 Division, which dealt with explosives.

«Brushy» (as his col­leagues called him) proved to be incred­i­bly pro­duc­tive. He cre­at­ed dozens of new chem­i­cal com­pounds, includ­ing what would lat­er be called the plas­tic bomb and the world’s first «edi­ble» explo­sive that saved China from defeat. It’s worth talk­ing about in more detail.

At the begin­ning of the war, Japan suc­ceed­ed in cap­tur­ing a large part of China. A guer­ril­la move­ment emerged, but it depend­ed almost entire­ly on for­eign aid. The occu­py­ing Japanese troops inspect­ed every truck, and it was incred­i­bly dif­fi­cult to sneak weapons past them. Kistiakowsky found an unex­pect­ed solu­tion when a bag of flour caught his eye.

Working with RDX, he almost acci­den­tal­ly dis­cov­ered its byprod­uct octo­genes. It had a high­er igni­tion tem­per­a­ture and, more­over, was very sim­i­lar to flour. It was with flour that the chemist guessed to mix it. It was even pos­si­ble to make baked goods with this mix­ture. But it was enough to insert a det­o­na­tor and the muf­fin would turn into a bomb.

For ship­ping, the explo­sives were packed in bags from Aunt Jemima (a pop­u­lar U.S. culi­nary brand) and sent through Japanese check­points. It did not dif­fer from real flour in appear­ance or taste. Except that it was some­what coars­er in tex­ture. Some insur­gents were even tempt­ed by its appearance.

In small dos­es it was harm­less. But only in small dos­es. According to American coor­di­na­tors, they had to lit­er­al­ly slap their charges on the wrist to keep them from get­ting poi­soned. «One day our cook tried a cup­cake like this prob­a­bly thought to him­self: “those damn Americans just want to keep them,” and almost died,» recalled sabo­teur Frank Gleason. The Chinese used about 15 tons of Teti Jemima over the years of the war, but the secret remained unsolved.

Engineers of the Apocalypse

But the main busi­ness of George-Georgia’s life was ahead of him. In the ear­ly for­ties at the secret Los Alamos base in the United States, work was under­way on weapons of unprece­dent­ed pow­er. Nearly $2 bil­lion ($23 bil­lion at today’s rate) was allo­cat­ed to cre­ate pro­jec­tiles capa­ble of turn­ing an entire city into radioac­tive ash. There was no sin­gle tech­nol­o­gy, so two teams were involved: one designed a ura­ni­um pro­jec­tile and the oth­er a plu­to­ni­um one.

Technically, it was eas­i­er to build the ura­ni­um bomb. But it had lots of dis­ad­van­tages. Firstly, it was very «vora­cious»: one shell took 50 kg of ura­ni­um-235, and obtain­ing such an amount of ura­ni­um-235 is very expen­sive and time con­sum­ing (in nat­ur­al ura­ni­um-238 frac­tion of ura­ni­um-235 less than 1%). Secondly, «capri­cious»: a strong impact could lead to a pre­ma­ture det­o­na­tion. Third, cum­ber­some: more than two meters in length.

On the oth­er hand, the pro­duc­tion of weapons-grade plu­to­ni­um, enough for sev­er­al bombs at once, was in full swing. But here the sci­en­tists ran into the prob­lem of det­o­na­tion. The design had to be designed in such a way that until the fis­sile mass was «sub­crit­i­cal» and then instant­ly became «crit­i­cal.» In the ura­ni­um bomb, the crit­i­cal mass was achieved by the «can­non» method: by the col­li­sion of two pieces of sub­crit­i­cal mass with each oth­er. But this method was not suit­able for weapons-grade plu­to­ni­um: due to the insta­bil­i­ty of the sub­stance, the reac­tion began too ear­ly. Instead of an explo­sion, the plu­to­ni­um would sim­ply be ejected.

Then physi­cists thought of implo­sion. In such an explo­sion, the det­o­na­tion is direct­ed inward and squeezes, «squeezes» from all sides the plu­to­ni­um ball placed in the cen­ter. But it is very dif­fi­cult to pre­vent the entire struc­ture from break­ing apart while this «squeez­ing» process is going on. The total pow­er of the explo­sion depends on how long the active zone exists.

It was nec­es­sary to achieve a per­fect­ly spher­i­cal blast wave direct­ed pre­cise­ly to the cen­ter of the pro­jec­tile. In the mid-1940s, there were still no com­put­ers that could do all the nec­es­sary cal­cu­la­tions. One had to rely on the best brains in the world. George Kistiakowsky pos­sessed just such brains.

At first he want­ed to refuse: he had nev­er worked with nuclear fuel before, but Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project, man­aged to per­suade him. For this he even allowed an unprece­dent­ed lib­er­ty: he allowed Kistiakovsky’s daugh­ter Vera to vis­it him in the sum­mer (at a secret site!). The first thing George did when he arrived at the site was to buy a cou­ple of hors­es for fam­i­ly outings.

Earth’s Last Moments

What Kistiakowsky was tasked with seemed impos­si­ble to physi­cists at first: to cre­ate a con­trolled explo­sion that would squeeze a plu­to­ni­um ball like a snow­ball in the palm of his hand. The prob­lem was that dur­ing simul­ta­ne­ous det­o­na­tion of sev­er­al charges, the shock waves pass through the met­al and col­lide. The result turned out to be com­plete­ly unpredictable.

But a way to con­trol the wave was found. To do this, the physi­cist and math­e­mati­cian John von Neumann designed spe­cial explo­sive lens­es, which con­sist­ed of a rapid­ly burn­ing out­er lay­er and a slow­ly burn­ing inner com­po­nent. Acting as a mag­ni­fy­ing glass, they formed the con­tours of the blast wave and direct­ed it toward the cen­ter of the bomb.

Another tool that could be used to con­trol the explo­sion was the explo­sive itself. After a num­ber of exper­i­ments, Kistiakowsky came up with the idea of the com­bined action of two dif­fer­ent explo­sives with dif­fer­ent det­o­na­tion rates. The first one (fast) was to cre­ate the main wave, and the sec­ond one (slow) was to cor­rect it and direct it exact­ly to the nucleus.

After months of exper­i­ments, the right com­bi­na­tion was final­ly found: a mix­ture of RDX, TNT, and tor­pex was used as a fast explo­sive, and a slow explo­sive was devel­oped spe­cial­ly at Kistiakovsky’s request in his Pittsburgh lab­o­ra­to­ry. It was called baratol.

When in July 1945 the nec­es­sary lens molds were final­ly made and deliv­ered to Kistiakowsky’s lab­o­ra­to­ry, they already showed signs of cor­ro­sion and small cracks. The chemist was furi­ous! Time was run­ning out, and he had to fix the defects with a den­tal drill and liq­uid explo­sives. Years lat­er, he would describe his con­di­tion at that moment as fol­lows: «I thought that if twen­ty-three kilo­grams of explo­sives explod­ed in my hands, I would hard­ly feel it.

Everyone’s nerves were at their lim­it in those days. No one was sure of suc­cess. Except, it seems, Kistiakowsky him­self. He did not waver even after the failed «dress rehearsal» (with an emp­ty charge) two days before the main test. And he even bet his month­ly salary with the project man­ag­er Robert Oppenheimer that the lens­es would not fail.

On the morn­ing of July 16, the sit­u­a­tion at the Alamogordo Proving Ground was close to hys­ter­i­cal. The bomb cas­ing had not even had time to be bolt­ed down, and was just abun­dant­ly taped over. But then every­thing went sur­pris­ing­ly smooth­ly: the 32 det­o­na­tor primers attached to the bom­b’s steel cas­ing syn­chro­nous­ly tore through the out­er cas­ing and hit the bara­tol core. It extin­guished the first wave, then the accu­mu­lat­ed spher­i­cal avalanche reached the core. The reac­tion began!

The pow­er of the explo­sion, accord­ing to cal­cu­la­tions, was 22,000 tons in TNT equiv­a­lent. Oppenheimer expect­ed that it would not exceed 300 tons. Kistiakowsky him­self pre­dict­ed 1400. As soon as he got to his feet, the first thing he did was to grab Oppenheimer by the shoul­der and demand his win­nings. Though what he saw struck him as much as the oth­ers. «At the end of the world - in the last mil­lisec­ond of Earth’s exis­tence the last man will see what we saw,» he would lat­er say.

Advisor to the President

At first, many of the sci­en­tists labor­ing to build the bomb had no idea of the con­se­quences it would lead to. «In the spring of 1945,» Kistyakovsky recalled many years lat­er, «a rep­re­sen­ta­tive of naval intel­li­gence told us that Japan was not going to sur­ren­der, and that the land­ing of American forces on the main islands would involve heavy casu­al­ties. This con­vinced me that the mil­i­tary use of atom­ic bombs was jus­ti­fied, because I want­ed to end the war as quick­ly as pos­si­ble. And then grad­u­al­ly I began to real­ize that this was not the case.…»

Oppenheimer uttered prophet­ic words: «Today our pride can­not but be over­shad­owed by deep con­cern. If atom­ic bombs are des­tined to add to the arse­nal of means of destruc­tion, the time will inevitably come when human­i­ty will curse the words Los Alamos and Hiroshima.» Similar thoughts undoubt­ed­ly occurred to Kistyakovsky after the bomb­ing of peace­ful Japanese cities.

After the clo­sure of the Manhattan Project, Kistiakowsky returned to the work he loved - teach­ing and research at Harvard. But the nuclear race was esca­lat­ing. Someone had to advise the new devel­op­ment teams. «Brush fre­quent­ly vis­it­ed Los Alamos, help­ing to refine the para­me­ters of the explo­sion. But when physi­cist Edward Teller, who was lead­ing the effort to build an even more pow­er­ful hydro­gen bomb, offered him a job, he flat­ly refused.

Nevertheless, in the 1950s Kistiakowsky active­ly used his expert posi­tion to par­tic­i­pate in mak­ing key deci­sions. He was a mem­ber of the Ballistic Missile Advisory Committee of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Chemical Energy Advisory Committee of the National Aeronautics Administration (NASA). And from 1959, after the launch of the first Soviet satel­lite, he became Special Advisor to the President on Science and Technology in the Dwight Eisenhower administration.

In 1957, short­ly after the Soviet Union’s launch of its first arti­fi­cial satel­lite so ter­ri­fied America, a spe­cial pan­el of experts called the Gaither Commission stat­ed in its report that the threat posed by Soviet mis­siles would «reach crit­i­cal lev­els» in a few years. The mil­i­tary jumped on this report and pro­posed huge increas­es in defense spending.

«Some regard­ed the suc­cess of the Soviet space pro­gram as a ‘blood­less Pearl Harbor’ for U.S. pres­tige,» wrote Kistiakowsky in The Scientist in the White House. In those days, the New York Times stunned that the Russians pos­sessed inter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles that could soon wipe out American cities.

Using sci­en­tists as advis­ers, Eisenhower want­ed to damp­en the wave of anx­i­ety in American soci­ety caused by the Soviet Union’s suc­cess­es. Eisenhower believed, not unrea­son­ably, that rely­ing on expert opin­ion would both help to assuage crit­i­cism of an admin­is­tra­tion that had «missed» the suc­cess of a strate­gic adver­sary and to find bet­ter solutions.

Scientists were giv­en unprece­dent­ed pow­er: they could veto the deci­sions of agency heads, influ­ence per­son­nel reshuf­fles and the allo­ca­tion of bud­gets. Once the pres­i­dent asked Kistyakovsky to ana­lyze the activ­i­ties of the Strategic Directorate of the Air Force with the words: «I don’t trust these gen­er­als, so I sent George to look into it.»

Missed opportunities

One should not think that Kistiakowsky belonged to the pigeon-holed paci­fists. In all groups and coun­cils, he con­sis­tent­ly defend­ed the idea of cre­at­ing a coun­ter­weight to the USSR. Talking about the need to con­trol nuclear weapons test­ing, he did not call for dis­ar­ma­ment, but for con­tain­ing the unrea­son­able growth of expen­di­tures. In 1960 he pro­posed a «thresh­old con­cept» mean­ing that all nuclear tests above the lev­el of seis­mic detec­tion tech­nol­o­gy should be banned.

It seemed that Khrushchev was ready to make con­ces­sions on his part as well. Not for noth­ing did he talk about peace­ful coex­is­tence in almost all seri­ous speech­es. «The inevitable strug­gle between the two sys­tems must be turned exclu­sive­ly into a strug­gle between ide­olo­gies,» he declared in January 1960, at a ses­sion of the Supreme Soviet. In September 1959, the Soviet leader made his first vis­it to the United States. Eisenhower’s return vis­it was sched­uled for the fol­low­ing year.

But short­ly before the vis­it, an American U-2 recon­nais­sance air­craft was shot down near Sverdlovsk, which caused a cool­ing in Soviet-American rela­tions. There was one more unpleas­ant con­se­quence, this time for Kistiakowsky per­son­al­ly. He lost the oppor­tu­ni­ty to see his broth­er who lived in Kiev. As it turned out, forever.

Boris Filipchenko in his book «Biographical Pages from the Family Chronicle of One Family» recalls an inter­est­ing case: «In ear­ly sum­mer 1960, there was a com­mo­tion in Kiev: the city was put in order; the streets were paved with asphalt. And Alexander Bogdanovich Kistyakovsky, a doc­tor of biol­o­gy, who lived in a com­mu­nal apart­ment, unex­pect­ed­ly received a new 3-room apart­ment in a pres­ti­gious dis­trict of Pechersk. The expla­na­tion was ele­men­tary: U.S. President D. Eisenhower was expect­ed to come to Kiev, and with him his advi­sor on sci­ence and tech­nol­o­gy, George (George) Kistiakowsky, who was Alexander Bogdanovich’s brother.

But as we know, this vis­it did not take place. on May 1, 1960, an American recon­nais­sance plane was shot down near Sverdlovsk at an alti­tude of 20 km. The pilot, Francis Powers, eject­ed to escape and land­ed safe­ly. The U.S. pres­i­dent was harsh­ly denied an offi­cial vis­it to the USSR by Nikita Khrushchev. The meet­ing of the Kistiakowsky broth­ers did not take place.

The alter ego of Academician Sakharov

Kistiakowsky’s influ­ence was large­ly built on the trust of Eisenhower. But his term was com­ing to an end. During the 1960 elec­tion cam­paign, Senator John F. Kennedy accused the Republican admin­is­tra­tion of neg­li­gence with regard to nation­al defense and in the end, that posi­tion won him the victory.

For a while Kistiakowsky remained in pow­er. But the sen­si­ble restric­tion of the arms race he insist­ed on was pushed aside. Especially after 1962, when the Cuban Missile Crisis erupt­ed and pub­lic and Pentagon talk of U.S. back­ward­ness and Soviet mis­sile supe­ri­or­i­ty began again. Although Kistyakovsky retained a seat on the advi­so­ry bod­ies, he felt he was no longer being heard.

Eventually he real­ized that the role of experts depend­ed a great deal on the whims of politi­cians, in whose hands the real pow­er lay. «I began to real­ize that pol­i­tics is cre­at­ed in a way that is high­ly ques­tion­able. It is shaped by peo­ple who do not know the real facts and do not have time to study them because of bureau­crat­ic busy­ness. Some are at a low intel­lec­tu­al lev­el,» he wrote.

The sci­en­tist’s final break with the gov­ern­ment came in January 1968. He sent a mem­o­ran­dum to the sec­re­tary of state call­ing for an end to the use of the her­bi­cide Agent Orange. This sub­stance was destroy­ing the forests in which the guer­ril­las were hid­ing, but was also caus­ing can­cer and muta­tions in humans. Not receiv­ing a response, he defi­ant­ly walked out of all gov­ern­ment agencies.

Kistiakowsky devot­ed the last ten years of his life almost exclu­sive­ly to pub­lic activ­i­ties. He became an active par­tic­i­pant in the move­ment to pre­vent nuclear war, head­ing the Public Council for the cre­ation of decent liv­ing con­di­tions on earth. Kistiakowsky also fol­lowed the sit­u­a­tion in the USSR, espe­cial­ly the speech­es of Academician Andrei Sakharov, and even par­tic­i­pat­ed in the dis­cus­sion of his work «Reflections on Progress, Peaceful Coexistence and Intellectual Freedom,» reprint­ed in the New York Times in 1968.

At a dis­cus­sion at the National Academy of Sciences on Sakharov, Kistiakowsky referred the physi­cist to that part of the intel­li­gentsia (pri­mar­i­ly tech­ni­cal) who retained a broad out­look and, despite his nar­row­ly focused inter­ests, thought about the fate of the world and the glob­al con­se­quences of tech­no­log­i­cal devel­op­ment. It is pos­si­ble that the chemist saw his alter ego in his Soviet colleague.

In his last big inter­view with Chemical and Engineering News, he again warned against an unwise expan­sion of mil­i­tary spend­ing: «I believe there is a close cor­re­la­tion between the degree of mil­i­tary involve­ment in a coun­try and the reduc­tion of oppor­tu­ni­ties for eco­nom­ic development.

These words have become prophet­ic. But not for the United States, but for his for­mer home­land. The war in Afghanistan would exhaust the strength of the Soviet Union and bring its end clos­er. But George George would not live to see it. He will not live on December 7, 1982. A year lat­er, his younger broth­er, the biol­o­gist Alexander Kistiakowsky, whom he nev­er got to see again, would also die in the USSR.