Butman's Bomb

by Joanie Butman

This week seems to have focused on the military. Starting with 60 Minutes last Sunday, the anniversary of 9/11, and the fact that I’ve spent the week transcribing something my father-in-law, Paul, has been working on for years. It’s been a fascinating exercise. I now know more than I need or want to about thermonuclear weapons. I had to come up to speed in an entirely new vocabulary. Never having taken basic high school chemistry, terms like lithium and deuterium were new to me; and the aeronautical and cryogenic terms he used is knowledge I don’t think I will be using again anytime soon.

Without a doubt, the anniversary of 9/11 is a somber occasion, but it is also a symbol of our capacity to rise out of the ashes hopefully stronger, wiser and less naïve about our own vulnerability. Ironically, parts of my father-in-law’s manuscript deals with the problem of different arms of the military and government not sharing information – obvious even sixty years ago. 

The reason I mention his saga is to illustrate the benefits of sharing one’s story. In the telling, my father-in-law gave me a glimpse of history that I never would have had otherwise. It also proved the veracity of Churchill’s statement, “History belongs to the victor.” There is another quote that is similar, “He who writes history owns it.” We are all the authors of our own history. Paul’s just happens to involve an opposing view to what is currently recorded in regard to the development of the Hydrogen Bomb. It involves egos, power struggles, territorial rivalries, and private agendas. It might make a good movie. I would call it Butman’s Bomb, the name his peers dubbed his controversial report that changed the course of his career as well as the direction of the development of the Hydrogen bomb.

Most important was the insight Paul gave me of himself as a young man in the military. At 95 and still mentally sharp, he is a warehouse of knowledge – most of which is well beyond my intellect. Even though it was a struggle to learn the subject matter, it was well worth the effort. The most interesting part for me, though, was not in the science but in the human interest aspect conveying his courage to stand up for what he believed was right which, by the way, was eventually proven to be correct. Without ever intending to, and he might argue this, Paul’s narrative demonstrates his strength of character, his courage to speak the truth, and his loyalty in waiting to tell the story. That is the legacy he is leaving for his descendants—a self-portrait that will hold far more value than any photo. A snapshot of the essence of the man.

Why he waited until now to tell his story is a subject I discussed with him after watching the 60 Minutes segment about the navy SEAL involved in the Osama bin Laden raid and his newly released book, No Easy Day. First and foremost, Paul explained, he had to wait until much of the information became unclassified. His next answer was even more honest, “I didn’t want to croak without setting the record straight.” I responded with just as much candor, “Don’t you think you were cutting it a little close at your age?”

The fact that his decision still haunts him sixty years later is testimony to the fact that it was indeed a life-defining choice. Did he suffer consequences? Absolutely. You can’t challenge the judgment of a world-renowned physicist without some kind of backlash. There are always consequences for speaking a truth that others would prefer to ignore – especially if it derails their own agenda. Ostracism is a popular method for disciplining whistleblowers, for lack of a better term; and he was no exception.

I remember writing an essay in sixth grade as part of a class-wide disciplinary action. In it I made some statements regarding the behavior of the teacher who gave the assignment. When I showed it to my mother and asked for her opinion as to whether or not I should hand it in, she asked only one thing, “Is it true?” I never forgot it. Did I get in trouble? You bet, but not by my mother who stood behind me and gave me the courage to speak up. The teacher didn’t like what I wrote, but couldn’t deny the truth in it. That lesson remains with me to this day as I’ve dropped a few bombs of my own along the way but certainly none as controversial, costly or history changing as Paul’s.

I asked Paul who instilled that lesson in him. He said he’d have to give it some thought, but that he’d always believed in choosing to let the truth speak for itself. Definitely a wise choice in anyone’s book.

It brought to mind yet another quote. “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Determining the truth is often a challenge, but choosing to seek it will take you places you never imagined.