George Kistiakowsky — the Unknown Father of the American Bomb

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.

Georgy Kistyakovsky. 40s

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.

Georgy Kistyakovsky (left) and Dwight Eisenhower. Late 40’s

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.

Legacy Essays