Sam Cohen conceived of the neutron bomb as a way of morally killing large populations during warfare, while leaving everything else intact. It didn't work. He later claimed to have been inspired by traumatizing motherly hygiene. And now he's dead.
Cohen died at 89 this past weekend, poisoned by stomach cancer. His death capped a long career of creating, testing, and bizarrely explaining his pet weapon.
It was designed in the gut of the Cold War, celebrated as a "clean" bomb that could, say, kill an entire city's population without knocking over buildings, or topple a Soviet tank column by irradiating those inside, rather than melting or blowing them up. It was supposed to be a graceful, polite nuke. Nukes were unpopular. They were ugly. They were Hiroshima. The neutron bomb was, in Cohen's Pentagon PR speak, "a low-yield anti-personnel nuclear weapon where radiation would be the dominant effect."
Nuclear bombs kill by, essentially, burning and melting the shit out of everything for miles. Walls of flame, enormous shockwaves, fiery ash. This is because, when detonated, the majority of a nuke's energy is released via its explosion. The neutron bomb, by comparison, would release most of its energy as silent radiation, with a relatively small blast—small enough, it was claimed, that it would leave a city unscathed. Or un-demolished, at least. It would be dainty, Cohen claimed. Dainty enough, he once said, to be a "moral weapon that conformed to the Christian 'just war' principles, because it can be used to discriminate between enemy miltary personnel and innocent civilians." By killing the former with radiation poisoning. The neutron bomb would be God's bomb of choice! Or, according to Soviet Premier Nikita Krushchev, a way "to kill a man in such a way that his suit will not be stained with blood, in order to appropriate the suit."
This was a falsehood—and a well known falsehood, at that. In 1982, the State Department submitted a report to Congress in which the miraculous, city-sparing neutron bomb wasn't painted in such an angelic light. The notion of the neutron bomb as "a weapon that 'kills people while leaving buildings undamaged,'" the report noted, "is an inaccurate interpretation by some portions of the press that has served to catch public attention all over the world.'' This is putting it politely. Simply, the tech behind the bomb didn't back up its heavenly image. The Pentagon's General Niles Fulwyler testified that, hypothetically, "If you stood there looking at [a neutron bomb] from a distance, you could not tell the difference from a standard fission weapon. You still get tremendous blast, flash and thermal. I would not want people to think of an enhanced radiation weapon as a close support weapon.''
The notion of a clean nuke was a fiction—as much as 65% of the bomb's energy would be released as a raw blast. Although never actually used in combat, this level of release would undoubtedly have damaged physical objects to traditional nuclear proportions—that is to say, a lot—despite an accompanying increased radiation dosage.
So where did this idea come from? How did Cohen's head dream it up? Not with a PhD, that's for sure—Cohen never received an advanced degree of any sort, despite working as a nuclear physicist and weapons engineer. The answer may be stranger than mere ignorance. In his memoir, subtly titled "Shame: Confessions of the Father of the Neutron Bomb," (perhaps he was trying to tell us something? But what?) Cohen blamed his weapons fatherhood on his crazed mother. The Federation of American Scientists, one of the few organizations that bothered to review the book, recounts "a claim that even the most facile critics of nuclear weapons would hesitate to make," in which "he suggests that his own work on nuclear weapons development can be traced back to the abuse he suffered as a child due to his mother's bizarre views on health and nutrition, including a tyrannical toilet training regime." So maybe Freud would have a better explanation of the man's tactical wet dream.
Decades before Cohen's death, the debate over the neutron bomb fizzled out. But his life and career served—and ought to continue to serve—as a reminder of the bizarre intersections between tech, life, and the fantasy spawned by the two. That, and there is never a clean way to kill. A nuke will always be a nuke, no matter how much we want it to be soap.