Samuel Cohen

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During the cold war and over the course of many U.S. administrations, the neutron bomb--a weapon produced but never used--sparked highly charged debates. Politicians, scientists and others argued over the implications of a nuclear weapon meant to kill while inflicting limited structural damage.

Physicist Samuel Cohen, who died Nov. 28 at 89, repeatedly defended the controversial warhead he designed in the 1950s. "It's the most sane and moral weapon ever devised," he told the New York Times toward the end of his life. "It's the only nuclear weapon in history that makes sense in waging war. When the war is over, the world is still intact."

In contrast to a regular hydrogen bomb, this enhanced-radiation warhead was constructed to release many more neutrons, subatomic particles that would kill living organisms (including troops in armored tanks) while not destroying building and other inanimate objects that lie outside the smaller zone hit by the bomb's reduced blast and heat effects. Meanwhile, the radiation from the neutron bomb would soon dissipate, allowing the area to be reinhabited not long after an attack without risk of contamination.

Cohen, who worked on the Manhattan Project before joining the Rand Corp., argued that the neutron bomb was better for civilians. But in former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev's words, it was intended "to kill a man in such a way that his suit will not be stained with blood, in order to appropriate the suit."

While some decried the bomb as the "ultimate capitalist weapon"--harming people rather than property--others opposed it because of the very sensibility Cohen championed. These critics believed that a purposely limited nuclear weapon could all too realistically clear the way for further--and even more intense--nuclear warfare.