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Harold Agnew’s ‘Cold War’ Series Interview

October 4, 2013
Harold Agnew's Los Alamos ID badge.

Harold Agnew’s Los Alamos ID badge.

Ex-Los Alamos director Harold Agnew died on Sunday at the age of 92. Agnew not only served as the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1970-1979, he is also remembered for his work on the Manhattan Project, flying as a scientific observer on the Hiroshima bombing mission, training the first class of International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, and ‘developing “fail-safe” methods for nuclear weapons that are still used today.’

In 1988, nearly a decade after leaving Los Alamos, Agnew took part in the Peabody Award-winning documentary the Cold War series, produced by Pat Mitchell and Jeremy Isaacs Productions and initially broadcast on CNN. The Archive helped Sir Jeremy Isaacs’ crew formulate questions to ask the interviewees, and the resulting interviews document eyewitnesses accounts of all aspects of the Cold War, from efforts to pursue a policy of sustained reprisal in Vietnam, developing an anti-ICBM system, to bolstering our scientific and technological relationship with China.

In his interview, the interviewer asks Agnew if, while he was watching the Hiroshima bomb detonate, he was worried anything might go wrong. Agnew’s response was:

No, I guess I always had great faith in the theorists. One particular thing that did happen that might have messed up the works and might have had a failure had to do with the trigger bomb and it’s an interesting story. One of my class mates at Chicago, Marshal Rosenbluth ate too much the evening before, several evenings before… they fed you very well, that’s one of the keys if you have only male individuals working on a project, away from home, feed them very well, steaks, strawberries, shrimps, everything and you don’t have any problems, you don’t have any problems with the workers if they’re well fed. Well Marshal evidently ate too many shrimp and he couldn’t sleep and he started to worry and he decided that the particular core we were going to use in the primary or the trigger for the Mike shot might have an unacceptable high probability of pre-detonation, pre-initiation in giving a fissile yield. So he conveyed this information to Carson Marks and more calculations were done and the core was changed. Now whether this needed to have been done or not, but it was another one of these (unintelligible) incidents that did take place.

In another interesting passage, Agnew recounts his feelings upon hearing the news that the Soviets had detonated their first atomic bomb, referred to as Joe One, in 1949, and the role espionage played in helping build it. What surprised Agnew was not that the Soviets successfully built the bomb, but that they were able to do so while “recovering from the devastation and the starvation and dislocation” they suffered after the Second World War.

For a closer look at the interview transcripts with Agnew and other seminal Cold War figures, visit the Archive site dedicated to preserving the documents behind Peabody-winning series.

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