Michael KreponBest One-Liners About the Bomb

This shoe box entry could benefit greatly from reader participation. I have three great one-liners about the quest for the Bomb in my 4×6 card collection. My definition of a one-liner is different from Henny Youngman. (Am I showing my age and nationality? Sample Henny Youngman one-liner: “The food on the plane was fit for a King. Here King!”)

A great Bomb one-liner clarifies the importance or meaning of the quest. Here are my top three – no surprises:


Zulfikar Ali Bhutto (Benazir’s father, right) assembled Pakistan’s nuclear experts after the devastating loss to India in 1971 and the resulting vivisection of his country, ordering them to succeed in making the Bomb “even if we have to eat grass”

The North Korean leadership is working from this playbook.


Less well known but equally colorful was the recollection by China’s Foreign Minister Chen Yi (left), that Beijing was determined to succeed in obtaining the Bomb and countering U.S. nuclear threats “even if we had to pawn our trousers.”

(Also translated more crisply as “pawn our pants.”)

I’m guessing that this is one of Jeffrey’s favorites.


Third on my list is J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (right) unforgettable reaction to the Alamogordo test, in which he quoted from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”


What shall we add to this list?

Are there one-liners worthy of addition from the U.S., British, Soviet, French, Israeli, Pakistani, Indian or other nuclear programs?


  1. Allen Thomson (History)

    It’s bit long for a one-liner, but I like McGeorge Bundy’s

    “in the real world even one hydrogen bomb on one city would be a catastrophe; ten bombs on ten cities would be a disaster beyond history.”

    Actually, just the last part fits well into a line.

  2. Joseph Logan (History)

    “And although I, uh, hate to judge before all the facts are in, it’s beginning to look like, uh, General Ripper exceeded his authority.” – Buck Turgidson

  3. Formica (History)

    “Now we are all sons of bitches.” – Kenneth Bainbridge to Robert Oppenheimer, after Trinity. Source: http://www.cfo.doe.gov/me70/manhattan/trinity.htm

  4. Alex W. (History)

    Rather than offer up a one-liner (how to possibly choose from so many wonderful ones?), I’d like to share a little backstory of another classic one-liner from the Trinity test, Kenneth Bainbridge’s “Now we are all sons of bitches.” In the Bainbridge papers in the Harvard archives, there is a letter from Bainbridge to Oppenheimer from 1966 explaining the line:

    “The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.”

    About Bainbridge’s “words,” Oppenheimer replied: “We do not have to explain them to anyone.”

  5. scud

    “La bombe atomique est moins chère que les produits de beauté” (France spends less on nuclear weapons than on cosmetics), Michel Debré, Prime minister, to the French Parliament, circa 1961.

  6. kerbihan

    “Voyons, Madon, vous connaissez ma voix!” (Madon, you know my voice, don’t you?) – alleged reply by De Gaulle to the head of the French Air Force who asked him how, if he received the order to strike, he could be sure that it was actually De Gaulle who was giving the order – or “early French nuclear C3 arrangements, circa 1963”.

  7. GWR (History)

    ‘At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.’
    — General Tommy Powers, head of SAC.

    ‘Mr. Secretary, I hope you don’t have any friends or relations in Albania, because we’re just going to have to wipe it out.’ – LeMay to MacNamara, also explaining massive retaliation.

  8. yousaf (History)

    “In an all-out nuclear war, more destructive power than in all of World War II would be unleashed every second during the long afternoon it would take for all the missiles and bombs to fall. A World War II every second…”

    -President Jimmy Carter

  9. V.S. (History)

    Before the Chinese decided to “pawn their pants”, when they didn’t have the bomb and they had to confront the US during the Korean War, Chairman Mao wanted to downplay the strategic importance of nukes so he described them as “a paper tiger”.

  10. Rwendland (History)

    “We’ve got to have this thing over here, whatever it costs … We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it.” – British Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, in 1946 agreeing to build the bomb.

  11. Corentin B (History)

    What about general Sundarji’s famous sentence, after the Persian Gulf War: “Never fight the US without nuclear weapons” ? (there are several versions, though)

    It doesn’t clarify the meaning of India’s quest for the bomb, however it might clarify some others countries’ ongoing or future quest for nukes.

  12. notany (History)

    We gave you an atomic bomb, what do you want, mermaids?
    — I. I. Rabi to the Atomic Energy Commission

    “The nuclear bomb. Does that bother you I just want you to think big” – Pres. Richard M. Nixon April 25, 1972

    One has to look out for engineers – they begin with sewing machines
    and end up with the atomic bomb. — Marcel Pagnol

  13. Clark Cully (History)

    Bernard Brodie – “Thus far the chief purpose of our military establishment has been to win wars. From now on its chief purpose must be to avert them.”

  14. masoud (History)

    Not exactly about the bomb, but worthy of consideration no less:
    “Iran’s nuclear program is a runaway train with no breaks.”
    -President Ahmadinejad

  15. Ben D (History)

    Not exactly a oneliner but here is an interesting verbal tidbit I came across, “Enola Gay” the name on the Boeing aircraft that dropped the first atomic bomb, when spelled backwards is ‘Yag Alone’.

    Now ‘Yag’ is a Romani word that means Fire and many Romani words are of Indian or Persian origin and in this instance likely from the Punjabi & Hindi – ‘Ag’ which are derived originally from the Sanskrit – ‘Agni’ the God of Fire.
    Now the word ‘Alone’ can mean ‘exclusive’ , ‘distinctive and without equal’, ‘unequaled’.

    Yag alone – Fire without equal.

  16. Carl Vehse (History)

    Strategic Air Command organizer, Gen. Curtis LeMay, provided many enjoyable (if not apocryphal) quotes, such as at a Senate hearing when asked why, with already enough nuclear bombs to reduce the Soviet Union to cinders, he still wanted more nuclear weapons, LeMay replied, “I want to see the cinders dance.”

  17. bradley laing (History)

    From President Eisenhower, talking about a Soviet-American nuclear war: “We can’t have that kind of war: there aren’t enough bulldozers to scrap the bodies off the street.”

  18. bradley laing (History)

    You can’t have this kind of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.
    —Dwight D. Eisenhower


  19. bradley laing (History)


    —This isn’t a qoute about nuclear weapons, but could it be a qoute about the nuclear weapons building complex?

    The problem in defense is how far you can go without destroying from within what you are trying to defend from without.
    Quotation of Dwight D Eisenhower

  20. bradley laing (History)

    As the Danish physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr summarized the dilemma succinctly for a friend in 1948, “We are in an entirely new situation that cannot be resolved by war.”

  21. bradley laing (History)

    ““You can’t have this kind of war,” Eisenhower concluded. “There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets. “ It followed, and follows, that there is no military solution to safety in the nuclear age: There are only political solutions. As the Danish physicist and philosopher Niels Bohr summarized the dilemma succinctly for a friend in 1948, “We are in an entirely new situation that cannot be resolved by war.” The impossibility of resolving militarily the new situation that knowledge of how to release nuclear energy imposes on the world is the reason the efforts on both sides look so desperate and irrational: They are built on what philosophers call a category mistake, an assumption that nuclear explosives are military weapons in any meaningful sense of the term, and that a sufficient quantity of such weapons can make us secure. They are not, and cannot.”

    —whole paragraph—too long to be a one liner?


  22. Yale Simkin (History)

    I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
    -A. Einstein

    The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.
    -A. Einstein

    It is still an unending source of surprise for me to see how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of human affairs.
    -Stanislaw Ulam

    The terror of the atom age is not the violence of the new power but the speed of man’s adjustment to it— the speed of his acceptance.
    -E. B. White

    What The World Needs Is a Good Two-Kiloton Bomb
    -title of a paper by Ted Taylor and George Gamow

  23. Matt Hoey (History)

    I gotta go with SAC General Tommy Power in 1960: “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win!”

  24. Matt Hoey (History)

    “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.”

    General “Buck” Turgidson:

  25. Matt Hoey (History)

    …and last but certainly not least

    “Uh, my boys will give you the best kind of start, 1400 megatons worth, and you sure as hell won’t stop them now, so let’s get going, there’s no other choice. God willing, we will prevail, in peace and freedom from fear, and in true health, through the purity and essence of our natural fluids. God bless you all”

    General Jack D. Ripper

  26. Alex (History)

    Mountbatten, at the first UK test: “What if it doesn’t go off?”

    Lord Penney, Chief Scientist: “It’s going to go off, all right.”

    Prime Minister James Callaghan: “And I say to you that if I had lived after having pressed that button, I would never, never have forgiven myself.”

    Defence Secretary Denis Healey: ““I did feel rather worried about it because I knew it would be a very difficult decision to take.”

    Healey again: “I think I would still have said that that, I’m afraid, is no reason for doing something like that. Because most of the people you kill would be innocent civilians.”

  27. BJR

    On Global Thermonuclear War: “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play. How about a nice game of chess?” W.O.P.R.

  28. Carey Sublette

    My favorite quotations in connection with nuclear weapons were set down years before the terms “atomic bomb” or even “atomic energy” were coined.

    From George Bernard Shaw’s “Man and Superman” (1903):

    The Devil – “Have you walked up and down upon the earth lately? I have; and I have examined Man’s wonderful inventions. And I tell you that in the arts of life man invents nothing; but in the arts of death he outdoes Nature herself, and produces by chemistry and machinery all the slaughter of plague, pestilence, and famine. The peasant I tempt today eats and drinks what was eaten and drunk by the peasants of ten thousand years ago; and the house he lives in has not altered as much in a thousand centuries as the fashion of a lady’s bonnet in a score of weeks. But when he goes out to slay, he carries a marvel of mechanism that lets loose at the touch of his finger all the hidden molecular energies, and leaves the javelin, the arrow, the blowpipe of his fathers far behind.”


    “There is nothing in Man’s industrial machinery but his greed and sloth: his heart is in his weapons.”

  29. krepon (History)

    am on travel and do not have access to the shoe boxes…. was it General Power or Senator Richard Russell who offered that memorable quote about, if there were just one man and one woman left alive after the baloon went up, he wanted them to be Americans?

  30. Azr@el (History)

    “War is at its best barbarism”

    Tecumseh Sherman, soldier of the Union
    General of the Army of the Cumberland, the Army of the Tennessee and the Army of the Ohio
    Liberator of Georgia and the Carolinas

  31. Matt Hoey (History)

    The Wizards of Armageddon by Fred Kaplan has it as General Power, but it is quite possible that Senator Russell offered the variant one liner that mentions the balloon going up. If so that would be a great example of two (not really great, but insane) minds thinking alike.

  32. Steven Dolley (History)

    “Very late one autumn night in 1981, Thomas K. Jones, the man Ronald Reagan had appointed Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Strategic and Theater Nuclear Forces, told me [journalist Robert Scheer] that the United States could fully recover from an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union in just two to four years. T.K., as he prefers to be known, added that nuclear war was not nearly as devastating as we had been led to believe. He said, “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it.” The shovels were for digging holes in the ground, which would be covered somehow or other with a couple of doors and with three feet of dirt thrown on top, thereby providing adequate fallout shelters for the millions who had been evacuated from America’s cities to the countryside. “It’s the dirt that does it,” he said.”

  33. Paul Bernstein (History)

    I always liked this from the late, great Shah of Iran:
    “I am not really thinking about nuclear arms, but if 20 or 30 ridiculous little countries are going to have nuclear weapons, then I may have to revise my policies.”

  34. Yale Simkin (History)

    Let me start by saying, my name is Ted, and I’m an addict. My addiction is to nuclear weaponeering. It’s something I sometimes think I was born with. It’s incurable; the only thing that can be done about it is to control it. The only control that works is total abstinence, and I feel as sure about that as I am of anything, that a large number of human beings have become sufferers of this addictive disease for more and more immense power to destroy. – Ted Taylor

  35. Alex W. (History)

    On the subject of Soviets and shovels, a Soviet joke from the 1960s care of Spencer Weart’s Nuclear Fear:

    Q. What should you do in case of a nuclear attack?
    A. Get a shovel and a sheet, and walk slowly … to the nearest cemetery.

    “Sometimes,” Weart adds, “a second part was added.”

    Q. Why slowly?
    A. You mustn’t start a panic.

  36. anon

    “We believe that Peaceful co-existence is best maintained by being too tough to tackle.”

    USAEC-Pantex Plant (Prior to ERDA)

  37. yousaf (History)

    “The sin of the physicists at Los Alamos did not lie in their having built a lethal weapon, they did not just build the bomb. They enjoyed building it. They had the best time of their lives building it. That, I believe, is what Oppenheimer had in mind when he said that they had sinned.”

    — Freeman Dyson

    ….from a must-read re. nuclear weaponeering, written by George Dyson.

  38. Yale Simkin (History)

    This says it all…

    Dr. Strangelove:


  39. crazy eddie (History)

    “I hardly think it’s fair to condemn a whole program because of a single slipup.”

    General “Buck” Turgidson

  40. anon

    This says it all…
    Dr. Strangelove:

    I agree with Yale Simkin…

    General “Buck” Turgidson: Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.

  41. krepon (History)

    My favorite Buck Turgidson line, and I am paraphrasing: I.m not saying we won.t get our hair mussed (can.t figure out this keyboard)
    What a great screenplay!

  42. Georg Schöfbänker (History)

    Günther Anders,


    an Austrian philosopher had forecasted in 1960 the principal vulnerability and all related follow-on problems of technical based and interconnected networks in his equation „Apparat=Welt“ (Anders 1986, 111), specially on nuclear-weapons related problems, though he was no technician nor a nuclear physicist, “just” a philosopher: (you may apply this quote from C4-nuclear systems over critical infrastructures to whatever technical interconnected system you want.

    „Die katastrohische Gefährlichkeit einer solchen Universalmaschine liegt auf der Hand. Würde nämlich – was bei der Degradierung aller Apparate zu Apparatteilen der Fall wäre – die totale Interdependenz zwischen allen ihren Teilen Wirklichkeit werden, dann würde jedes Versagen eines Teiles automatisch den ganzen Apparat in Mitleidenschaft ziehen, also still legen“ (Anders 1986, 114).

    See my article: From PLATO to NATO. Epistemology, Knowledge and Fantasies of Cyber- and Information War. In Search for New Threats, Threads and Cognitive Patterns after the End of the Cold War. 1998.

    (sorry the English language version of this article is not on-line, only in the print-edition at the Ars Electronica Center.)

    You may find it here:


    In his main work: “Die Antiquiertheit des Menschen.” „The Outdatedness of Human Beings.”
    (To my knowledge never translated into English) there is one outstanding aphorism:

    Basically, what he says is (I dont have the exact wording at hand): In old ages humans were mortal. With the invention of the first weapons they became killable. In the nuclear age human mankind is totally killable.

    Georg Schöfbänker, Linz, Austria

  43. Steve Blank (History)

    “Peace is Our Profession” Sign in front of Strategic Air Command Bases

  44. David (History)

    I liked this one, and when I read it I think my mind attributes a Sean Connery Hunt for Red October voice to it.

    Speaking to the scientists who would initiate the Soviet nuclear weapons program, “A single demand of you, comrades…Provide us with atomic weapons in the shortest possible time”

    —Stalin, 1945

  45. SS Panzer (History)

    “We were not just making the bomb, but building science and technology.”

    -Mr.Munir Ahmad Khan,1999.
    (Chairman, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, 1972-1991).

  46. Nick Black (History)

    “You can’t get me to say that you don’t use radioisotopes in making
    an atom bomb. You can not get me to say that you don’t use a shovel
    in making an atom bomb – in fact you do use a shovel in making an
    atomic bomb. The question is one of relative importance. I would
    put radioisotopes as far less important than shovels, and only
    slightly more important than vitamins!”

    Kurchatov: “if it had not worked, there is no doubt in my mind we all would have been shot.”

    war games: “multiple independently-targeted re-entry vehicles.” “what are those?” “i don’t know, but it’s great!”

  47. vsp456 (History)

    buddha has smiled after pokhran 1 in 1971

    raja rammana

  48. Burgess Laird (History)

    Duck and Cover is full of memorable “one-liners” that reflect the absurdity that came with the bomb. Like:

    “It could hurt you in different ways. It could knock you down – hard – or throw you against trees or a wall.”


    “You know how bad a terrible sunburn can feel. The atomic bomb flash can burn you worse than a terrible sunburn.”

    As tragic as it is, It was these types of bromides, not the observations of an Oppenheimer or an Einstein that were fed to millions of (school-age) Americans. Much as today, when millions of Americans could tell you who the exact contestants are on “American Idol” at any given moment, but couldn’t tell you whether or not the United States still possesses nuclear weapons, so too, in the midst of the Cold War, many more minds were influenced by “Bert the Turtle” than were ever influenced by, say, a Jonathan Schell.


  49. SS Panzer (History)

    “While we were building capabilities in the nuclear fuel cycle, we started in parallel the design of a nuclear device; with its trigger mechanism, physics calculations, production of metal,making precision mechanical components, high-speed electronics, diagnostics, and testing facilities. For each one of them, we established different laboratories, plants and facilities. On March, 11, 1983, we successfully condcuted the first cold test of a working nuclear device. That evening, I went to General Zia with the news that Pakistan was now ready to make a nuclear device.”

    -Mr. Munir Ahmad Khan, 1999.
    ( Chairman, Pakistan Atomic Energy Commission, 1972-1991).

  50. Lugo (History)

    I can’t believe this one hasn’t been cited yet:

    “My fellow Americans, I’m pleased to tell you today that I’ve signed legislation that will outlaw Russia forever. We begin bombing in five minutes.” — Ronald Reagan

  51. Stan Norris


    CDI published two booklets with quotes about nuclear weapons: Quotes: Nuclear War (58 pages) and Nuclear War Quotations (92 pages). Most are longer than a sentence but they have the date and place.

    “The survivors would envy the dead,”

    Nikita Khrushchev, Pravda, July 20, 1963

    “Someday, science may have the existence of mankind in its power and the human race commit suicide by blowing up the world.”

    Henry Adams, Letter, 1862


  52. Anon

    There no doubt that over the years both sides of the issue have made some of the dumbest statements ever.

    I call it a tie thus far but with miles to go before I sleep.

  53. krepon (History)

    Matt: Found the quote by Senator Richard Russell: “If we have to start over again with another Adam and Eve, then I want them to be Americans and not Russians.” He offered these remarks in a floor debate on missile defenses on October 2, 1968. (Congressional Record, v. 114, p. 29,175.) It wouldn’t surprise me if General Power favored this formulation, as well.

Pin It on Pinterest