Weird History

The Neutron Bomb: The 'Humane' Nuclear Weapon That Protected Buildings While Killing People  

Melissa Brinks
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Once the world saw the long-lasting consequences of the atomic bomb, global powers wanted something more humane. Unfortunately, the neutron bomb - an invention created to neutralize enemy combatants while leaving structures intact and civilians unharmed - wasn't the nonviolent weapon world leaders envisioned.

Nuclear scientist Samuel Cohen dreamed up the neutron bomb, but his vision did not pan out in reality. While the weapons created from Cohen's plans were less destructive than the atomic bomb, they were still quite harmful and came with a litany of side effects. 

Nuclear weapons have a contentious history. Some see them as a necessity for national security; others see them as a liability, spurring other countries to fund their own nuclear programs and potentially endanger the planet. From the US-led Manhattan Project to disarmament, the history of nuclear weapons - and particularly that of the neutron bomb - is one in which scientific advancement, foreign policy, and public opinion are inextricably tied together. 

The Neutron Bomb Was Developed In Response To The Devastation Of The Korean War
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Photo: National Archives/USAF/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Samuel Cohen conceived the neutron bomb as a response to the Korean War. Cohen claims he witnessed Korean citizens suffering when he visited the country during the war. He hoped to develop a more "discriminate" weapon that might reduce civilian casualties by targeting enemy forces in a localized, instantaneous, and focused manner - without affecting the utilities citizens needed to survive. 

Cohen's vision involved a weapon that could quickly neutralize small groups of enemy combatants without damaging buildings or homes. By creating a small-scale nuclear weapon, Cohen thought he could lessen the overall human suffering. Unfortunately, his plan was rife with problems. 

Samuel Cohen Also Worked On The Manhattan Project
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Cohen got his start in nuclear experimentation as part of the Manhattan Project. He primarily calculated neutron behavior, analyzing how neutrons behaved in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, during World War II. He continued to work in nuclear testing with the Rand Corp., which is where he began to develop the neutron bomb.

Nuclear weapons like those produced in the Manhattan Project devastated entire cities and left them uninhabitable. Cohen hoped to develop something that would localize radiation and contain blast damage to a smaller area, wiping out enemy troops but allowing civilians to move back in expediently. He hoped the neutron bomb would stop wars in the early stages rather than cause devastation as a last-resort armament. 

The Bomb Was Supposed To Neutralize Troops But Leave Buildings Standing
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Photo: US Government/Samuel Glasstone and Philip Dolan/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

After witnessing tragedies in the Korean War, Cohen became convinced something needed to be done to reduce the number of civilian casualties. Because it was more concentrated, the neutron bomb was supposed to do that - neutralize enemy combatants in isolated areas without devastating an entire region.

Cohen hoped these weapons might lead to more expedient conflicts, as opposing forces could specifically target one another's armies. On top of that, the bombs were theoretically less environmentally damaging than hydrogen bombs, meaning civilians could return to normal life more quickly after the conflict ended. 

Jimmy Carter Didn't Know The Bomb Was In Development Until The Media Covered It
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Photo: National Archives/Naval Photographic Center/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

James Schlesinger, Richard Nixon's Secretary of Defense, was the first government official to take a serious interest in the neutron bomb's development. He hoped it would minimize wartime collateral damage. Schlesinger retained his position after Nixon resigned and President Ford took office, and the development of the neutron bomb was officially approved in 1975.

However, no one alerted Ford's successor, Jimmy Carter, as to the program's existence. President Carter only learned of the project when a story appeared in The Washington Post. A reporter found mention of the bomb's development in a congressional committee report and wrote a story with the headline "Neutron Killer Warhead Buried in ERDA Budget," at which point the project quickly became national news.