Sakharov tried to find a military application for the Tsar Bomb in the Tsar Torpedo. “After testing the “big” device,” Sakharov recalled, “I was worried that it didn’t have a good carrier (bombers didn’t count because they’re easy to shoot down), in other words, in a military sense we were working in vain. I decided that an effective carrier could be a big torpedo fired from a submarine. I imagined that a nuclear jet engine that converted water to steam could be created for the torpedo.” He acknowledged that destroying a boat with a huge bomb, whether delivered underwater or by air, “inevitably would entail very large numbers of casualties.”
I discussed this project with Rear Admiral Fomin. He was shocked by the “atrocious” character of the project and noted in a conversation with me that military seamen were used to fighting armed adversaries in open battle and that the very idea of such mass killing was repugnant to him. I felt ashamed and never discussed my project with anyone else.”
We know this story only from Sakharov’s Memoirs. Today, when much that was secret is now declassified, Sakharov’s tale tells us more about his conscience than about historical reality. The idea of a gigantic nuclear torpedo for attacking shore sites actually came up long before the Tsar Bomb. It wasn’t Sakharov’s idea, but was endorsed back in 1952 by Stalin.
The real dilemma was not what is more humane – to burn up a city’s population with a thermonuclear blast or to drown it in a giant wave. The real dilemma was how humanity could avoid nuclear war, and frightening a potential aggressor was a serious business. Sakharov worked at it conscientiously but also from inertia. It was to illustrate his mindset of the time that he later told the story of the Tsar Torpedo that never was.
Potential aggression, threats, political illusion, and weapons fantasies were the reality of the world in which Sakharov lived in his “heroic period.” This illusory world created what he recalled as a “sense of the exceptional and crucial importance of [his] work in preserving world balance through mutual deterrence (later they began speaking of the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction).”
Khrushchev lived in that same illusory world. He did not fully understand Sakharov’s stand against open-air bomb tests, but realized what forces moved the physicist who defied him. He felt something like awe for Sakharov and called him – even after later confrontations – “a moral crystal among scientists.”
Back to: Nuclear Testing and Conscience, 1957-1963
© 1998 - American Institute of Physics and Gennady Gorelik