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Tracking militarists’ efforts to influence U.S. foreign policy

Harold Agnew

  • Los Alamos Laboratory: Former Division Chief
  • Foster Panel: Former Member

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Harold Agnew is a nuclear physicist who worked on both the creation of the first atomic weapons and on the project to build the hydrogen bomb. As a young member of the Manhattan Project, Agnew flew as a scientific observer on a plane tailing the Enola Gay as it dropped the Little Boy atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Agnew is a longtime proponent of controversial arms programs such as enhanced radiation weapons (neutron bombs). For nearly a decade, Agnew led the weapons lab now known as the Los Alamos National Laboratory. "About three-quarters of the U.S. nuclear arsenal was designed under my tutelage at Los Alamos. That is my legacy," remarked Agnew to the BBC News, nearly 60 years after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Having served as an adviser on science and nuclear matters to a string of administrations dating back to President Lyndon B. Johnson, Agnew was tapped in the late 1990s to serve on the so-called Foster Panel, which played a key role in pushing for the development of new nuclear weapons during George W. Bush's first term as president.

In the late 1990s, a scandal broke out at Los Alamos National Lab over whether China had obtained through espionage classified computer codes related to the design of the U.S. W-88 nuclear warhead. As a former director of the lab, Agnew commented on the case in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal, basically stating that it didn't matter if China, already a nuclear power for three decades, had the design or not. "As long as any nation has a demonstrated nuclear capability and a means of delivering its bombs and warheads, it doesn't really matter whether the warheads are a little smaller or painted a color other than red, white, and blue," Agnew wrote. "I suspect information published in the open by the National Resources Defense Council has been as useful to other nations as any computer codes they may have received by illegal means" (Wall Street Journal, May 17, 1999).

In a 1977 article for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Agnew argued that the fusion reactions of neutron bombs could provide "tactical" advantages over conventional fission weapons, especially in countering the "massive armor component possessed by the Eastern bloc." Citing conclusions reached by the Rand Corporation, Agnew argued that without actually affecting the armor of a tank, the neutrons produced by a fusion blast would penetrate the vehicle and "in a matter of a few tens of minutes to hours kill or make the crew completely ineffective." Because the neutron bomb reduced collateral damage, it could be used in a much more selective fashion than a fission weapon, thereby providing a clear "advantage for the military defender as well as for the nearby non-combatant." Agnew added that the fast neutrons from a neutron bomb produced about half as much carbon 14 as did fission neutrons, concluding: "If one is worried about any long-range implications of carbon 14 production in the atmosphere, the neutron bomb is preferable over the common tactical fission bombs." He felt that if the public understood all the facts correctly, "Even those who oppose nuclear weapons would have had to concur in stating that it is better to have this type of tactical fusion nuclear weapon than the conventional pure fission bomb."

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1. Matthew Davis, "The Men Who Bombed Hiroshima," BBC News, August 4, 2005, news.billinge.com/1/hi/world/americas/4718579.stm.

2. Los Alamos National Laboratory, "The Agnew Years, 1970-1979," www.lanl.gov/history/people/agnew.shtml.

3. Harold Agnew, "A Primer on Enhanced Radiation Weapons," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, December 1977, pp. 6-8.

4. Harold Agnew, "Looking for Spies in the Nuclear Kitchen," Wall Street Journal, May 17, 1999, p. A27, www.fas.org/irp/ops/ci/agnewwsj.html.

5. Harold M Agnew, "Declaration of Dr. Harold M. Agnew," U.S. District Court for the District of New Mexico, United States of America, Plaintiff, v. Wen Ho Lee, Defendant, www.fas.org/irp/ops/ci/agnew.html.

6. "Bethe, Agnew First Recipients of Los Alamos National Laboratory Medal," Children of the Manhattan Project, www.childrenofthemanhattanproject.org/HF/award_agnew_bethe.htm.

7. John S. Foster Jr. et al., "Prepared Statement of John S. Foster, Jr.: Panel to Assess the Reliability of the United States Nuclear Stockpile," House Armed Services Committee Special Oversight Panel on Department of Energy Reorganization, U.S. House of Representatives, March 21, 2002, www.house.gov/hasc/openingstatementsandpressreleases/107thcongress/02-03-21foster.html.

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Harold Agnew Résumé


  • University of California: Adjunct Professor
  • National Academy of Sciences: Member; Committee Member, Panel on Nuclear and Radiological Issues, 2002; Member, Committee on Dosimetry for the Radiation Effects Research Foundation, 2001
  • California Council on Science and Technology: Fellow
  • National Academy of Engineering: Former President, Member Emeritus
  • American Association for the Advancement of Science: Fellow
  • Nuclear Control Institute: Member, International Task Force on Prevention of Nuclear Terrorism, 1986
  • Council on Foreign Relations: Member, Task Force on Promoting U.S. Economic Relations with Africa
  • Government Service

  • Panel to Assess the Reliability, Safety, and Security of the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile (the "Foster Panel"): Member, 1999-2002
  • Presidential Adviser: Has advised Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George Bush, and their senior staff, as well as Congress on nuclear weapons matters
  • Department of Energy: Adviser/Speaker to Defense Nuclear Facilities Safety Board, 2003; Recipient of Enrico Fermi Award, 1978; Recipient of Ernest Orlando Lawrence Award, 1966
  • State of California: Member, Public Interest Energy Research Program, 1998-2001
  • Los Alamos National Laboratory: Recipient of Los Alamos Award, 2001; Director, 1970-1979; Head of Weapons Engineering Division, 1964-1970; Alternate Leader to Weapons Engineering Division, late 1950s to 1961; Experimental Physics Division (then called Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory), 1943-1955
  • Arms Control and Disarmament Agency: Member, General Advisory Committee, 1978
  • NASA: Member, Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel; Recipient of NASA Public Service Award, 1971
  • NATO: Scientific Adviser to NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, 1961-1964
  • New Mexico Senate: Senator, 1955-1961
  • Private Sector

  • General Atomics: Board of Directors; President (Gulf General Atomics), 1979-1984
  • Education

  • University of Denver: B.A. in Physics
  • University of Chicago: M.S.; Ph.D. in Nuclear Physics


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