Notes on the Hawaii false alarm, one year later

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 13th, 2019

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Hawaii false alarm, in which the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) sent out a text alert to thousands of Americans in the Hawaiian islands that told them that a ballistic missile was incoming, that they should take shelter, and that “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”

I’ve spent the last few days in Hawaii, as part of a workshop hosted by Atomic Reporters and the Stanley Foundation, and sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, that brought together a few experts (I was one of those) with a large number of journalists (“old” and “new” media alike) to talk about the false alarm and its lessons.

Photo of the author on the beach, wearing inappropriate attire.

You’re looking at the photo documenting the only beach time I got while in Hawaii. Seriously. Thanks to Andrew Futter for taking this picture. You should check out his book, Hacking the Bomb: Cyber Threats and Nuclear Weapons (Georgetown University Press, 2018). I enjoyed getting to spend a few days hanging out with him.

Given that it is supposed to be snowing back home, you’d think a trip to Hawaii would come as a very welcome thing for me, but almost all of my time was spent in windowless rooms, and an eleven-hour flight is no picnic.1 So I spent some time wondering, “why have this workshop here?” I mean, obviously the location is relevant, but practically, what would be different if we had held the same meeting in, say, Los Angeles, or Palo Alto?

Over the days, the answer became very clear. When you are in Hawaii, everyone has a story about their experience of the false alarm. And they’re all different, and they’re all fascinating. On “the mainland,” as they call us, we got only a very small sampling of experiences from those here in Hawaii, often either put together by people who were interested in being very publicly thoughtful about their feelings (like Cynthia Lazaroff, who we heard a talk from, who wrote up her experience for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists), or the kind-of-absurd responses that were used as examples for how ridiculous the whole thing was (e.g., the guy who was trying to put his kids down a manhole). Out here, though, every taxi or Lyft driver has their own experience, along with everyone else.

The sign from the base of a tsunami warning siren tower, which is labeled 'Civil Defense Warning Device' and uses an outdated, 1950s Civil Defense logo on it.

“Civil Defense Warning Device” sign, from the base of a tsunami warning siren tower, in Kapolei.

A few of the responses, broadly paraphrased by me (I didn’t record them, and this is not systematic), follow. It is worth remembering that these are coming a year later, and one would expect their memories to be significantly altered by the passage of time, the increased knowledge about what happened, and, of course, the knowledge that, while “NOT A DRILL,” it was a false alarm.

“I didn’t think it was real. I thought, if it was a real thing, they would also sound the sirens.”

This was from a Lyft driver, who looked like she was in her twenties. Hawaii has an extensive emergency management infrastructure for tsunamis. While I went for a long walk early one morning, I passed by one of the sirens for this, and noticed that they still use the same Civil Defense imagery from the 1950s on their equipment. The people of Hawaii know these sirens well, because they test them on the first day of every month. So the Lyft driver’s response was very interesting to me in this respect: she had expectations about what a “real” emergency would be like, and the ballistic missile alert didn’t meet them.

“I follow the North Korea situation closely, so I assumed it had to be false, because I am sure they wouldn’t just launch a missile like that, because it would be suicidal.”

This is a response that one journalist, and one policy analyst, both independently gave, almost word for word. In this example, people who felt they were connected to the broader context of the US-North Korea situation, and felt they understood North Korea’s strategic aims and options, reasoned that an actual attack from North Korea was unlikely, and thus discounted the alert.

The reasoning behind these “discounting” stories, I might suggest, is terrible. To assume an alert is false because it does not meet your expectations is completely silly unless you are much better informed about what a real alert would look like than our Lyft driver apparently was. Is the ballistic missile system and the tsunami system the same one? Would they use the tsunami alert for a missile alert? Could one system be active and the other sabotaged, malfunctioning, or otherwise not activated? These are big questions! In a real emergency it is not worth betting your life that things aren’t working the way you’d expect them to.

And the “context” justification for not believing it is hubris itself. We only see a portion of the total “context” at any one point. Who knows what has happened on the Korean peninsula several hours ago, but hasn’t made it to your ears? If you’re in Pacific Command (or can contact someone there), sure, you might know enough context to discount such an alert. Otherwise, it’s foolish to do so.

The fallacy of both of these reasons for discounting the alert, as an aside, was made very clear when I visited the Pearl Harbor Memorial. Conventional wisdom prior to Pearl Harbor was that Japan did not pose a major threat to the US, and would not dare to attack such a country.2  A “war scare” with Japan and the US had risen up and dissipated a few months before the actual attack, leading many to think the threat had passed, and even on the day of the attack, many soldiers and radar operators on Hawaii discounted what their own eyes saw because they thought it must be some kind of exercise, giving up any possibility of defense prior to the main attack.

One of the local journalists we talked to had more plausible means to discount the alert as false: he could contact a high-enough ranking member of the Hawaii government. That’s not a bad reason to discount it (though even then, would you bet your life on this official being “in the loop?”), and much of our discussions as a group centered around what the role of journalists ought to be in such a crisis situation, if they had information that was not yet released officially.

“I figured it was probably false, but I went into my bathtub anyway. If I were doing it again, I’d have brought a few beers to pass the time.”

I heard a few people say they understood the “take shelter” message to mean that they should get into their bathtub. I’m not sure where they got that — perhaps the television? I am not sure a bathtub is the best place to be; usually the emergency advice regarding bathtubs is to fill them up with water, so that you have several gallons of potable water in case there is a disruption of service. But anyway, as silly as this story sounds, the guy (a staff member) more or less did the right thing: wasn’t sure if it was real, but treated it as if it was. (And the beer thing is a good joke until you remember that beer is actually a valid post-nuclear water source!)

“I woke up too late, and I only saw the retraction.”

I liked this one, only because it highlights that an early-morning alert is only going to reach so many people.

“I was sitting in my kitchen, and I had finished a cup of coffee. I thought, ‘I should not have more coffee.’ But then I saw the alert, and I thought, ‘I can have one more cup of coffee.’ So I sat and drank my coffee. I thought it was real! But I am 70. I was OK with it. But my relatives on the mainland called me, to say goodbye. They were crying. But I was OK. Of course I believed it was real — it was on the TV!”

This was my Japanese-American (emigrated here in the 1970s from Tokyo) taxi driver who took me to the airport. I don’t have anything clever to say about his story, but I loved it so much. One more cup of coffee, if that’s what it’s going to be.

The other extremely useful thing about being out here was talking to local journalists. It’s easy to dismiss local journalism — a lot of it is pretty bad, and the consolidation of news sources has made a lot of it less “local” than it used to be. But the ones I met here knew a hell of a lot more about this story than most of the national news sources I read. Eliza Larson, of KITV, was part of the conference the entire time, and her knowledge and perspective were crucial. We also visited the office of Honolulu Civil Beat, and they were also great. (And one of them, not knowing my relation to it, described the NUKEMAP as an “authoritative tool” that they found very useful, which of course I delighted in.)

The alert interface used by HI-EMA. It's terrible.

The alert system used by HI-EMA, per Honolulu Civil Beat. It’s a bad interface, no matter how you slice it. The first option, “BMD False Alarm,” was added after the false alarm incident.

One thing that emerged for me is that the narrative of “what went wrong” is still not quite known. The first draft of the story, which most people believe, is that an employee clicked the wrong button on the alert website. This is absurd enough to be believable, and the “lesson” of it is clear: user interfaces matter, a conclusion that resonated very strongly with the “human factors engineering” analysis that became very popular following its application in the post-mortem of the Three Mile Island accident.

But that turns out not to be what happened, as emerged later. Two different versions have been put out. The “button pusher,” we’ll call him, later told journalists that he, in fact, had not done it accidentally, but that he had been told it was real and he believed it was real. Which turns it into a very different sort story: one about miscommunication, human error, and a system problem that makes it very easy for an alert to be sent (by a single person), but not to be rescinded.

The other later version, put out by HI-EMA officials, is that the aforementioned “button pusher” was in fact an unreliable, unstable person who had displayed personality problems in the past and totally “shut down” after sending the alert. The “button pusher” disputes this version of events quite vigorously, we were told, and no documentation has been provided by HI-EMA to substantiate this account. If this version is true, the story is about human reliability, along with the aforementioned system problem. (The “button pusher” was fired from HI-EMA shortly after, and was the target of considerable ire by an understandably furious public.)

Both HI-EMA and the “button pusher” have self-interested reasons for preferring their versions of the story, as it shifts the blame considerably. Either way, the system failures remain: a single individual, whether by confusion or by malice, should not be able to send out a false alarm by themselves to thousands of people.3

The HI-EMA official emblem: a Civil Defense (CD) logo rising out of an erupting volcano, while a massive wave menaces from the right, and wind blows trees on the left, the entire thing ringed in shark teeth. Seriously.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA) emblem. Tell me this isn’t the most amazing piece of graphic design ever. Civil Defense! Volcano! Tsunami! Hurricane! SHARK TEETH!

The grim irony is that Hawaii was being extremely proactive when it came to the possibility of a ballistic missile threat. They’re not wrong to think that it should be in their conception of the possible risks against them. They appear to have been one of the only statewide emergency management agencies that had worked to reintroduce nuclear weapons threats into their standard alert procedures and drills.4 They set up a system that, by any measure, contained terrible flaws, ones that any outside analyst could have seen.

And we were told that a consequence of this false alarm, aside from the panic, fear, and confusion (of such magnitude that may have caused at least one heart attack), we were told, is that Hawaii seems to have put its ballistic missile alert system on an indefinite hold. Which is understandable, but unfortunate. Because the nuclear threat, including the ballistic missile threat, is still a real one. It will continue to be a real one as long as there are hostile states with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles — which seems like it might be a very long time indeed. HI-EMA was right, I think, in making ballistic missile threats part of their “threat matrix” of possibilities that they, as the organization tasked with preserving the lives of their citizens, were tasked with addressing. But they also had a responsibility to set up a system in which false positives would be very unlikely, and they utterly failed at that. The consequence is that not only are the residents of Hawaii less prepared than they had previously been for the possibility of a nuclear attack (which if you think is so remote a risk, read Jeffrey Lewis’s novel, the The 2020 Report, and get back to me), but other state governments are probably going to continue to be shy about taking nuclear risks seriously, for fear of the terrible publicity that comes with getting it wrong.

Dispatched from a mai tai bar at the Honolulu airport, waiting for a red-eye flight. Please chalk up any typos to the mai tai. Expect blog posts somewhat more regularly in 2019. 

  1. Though the flight was pretty good, to be honest. The agency that had set up my ticket had booked me in practically the last seat on the plane, and I was not looking forward to that. But for whatever reason, when I went to check in and get my boarding pass the night before, I was offered a chance to upgrade to first class for only $299. Which is pretty amazing in any circumstances, but for an eleven-hour flight it felt foolish to pass it up. And so I didn’t, and had a very nice flight. The real perk of first class not the better food and nicer flight attendants — though those were nice — but was the fact that my seat turned into a totally flat bed. That was pretty amazing, and my first time being able to experience that on a plane. It makes a huge difference. []
  2. Among its many materials, the exhibit prominently featured a racist editorial cartoon by Theodor Geisel — Dr. Seuss — that ridiculed the notion of a Japanese attack. UCSD has a nice collection of his wartime cartoons, and I was particularly struck that he published many on the theme of how unlikely an attack was, with the last published only two days before the surprise attack. []
  3. As an aside, I have not been able to figure out what order of magnitude of people receive the alert. “Thousands” is conservative. People on islands 100 miles away from Oahu got the alert as well. A Congressional Research Service backgrounder on the incident says that HI-EMA attempted to stop transmission within minutes, so it may not have reached the full intended audience. Some people said that their phone got the alert, but their spouses’ phone did not. “Tens of thousands” is probably conservative. “Hundreds of thousands,” upward to a million, might be a possibility, but I don’t know. []
  4. I took a tour of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency not long after the alert, and was told by the head of the organization that they did not have any plans whatsoever in place for a nuclear weapon detonation, much less a ballistic missile attack. This was kind of amazing to hear, especially since MEMA is located in an underground bunker constructed in the 1960s to survive a nuclear attack. []

Cleansing thermonuclear fire

by Alex Wellerstein, published June 29th, 2018

What would it take to turn the world into one big fusion reaction, wiping it clean of life and turning it into a barren rock? Asking for a friend.

Graphic from the 1946 film, “One World Or None,” created by the National Committee on Atomic Information, advocating for the importance of the international control of atomic energy.

One might wonder whether that kind of question presented itself while I was reading the news these days, and one would be entirely correct. But the reason people typically ask this question is in reference to the story that scientists at Los Alamos thought there was a non-zero chance that the Trinity test might ignite the atmosphere during the first wartime test.

The basic idea is a simple one: if you heat up very light atoms (like hydrogen) to very high temperatures, they’ll race around like mad, and the chances that they’ll collide into each other and undergo nuclear fusion become much greater. If that happens, they’ll release more energy. What if the first burst of an atomic bomb started fusion reactions in the air around it, say between the atoms of oxygen or nitrogen, and those fusion reactions generated enough energy to start more reactions, and so on, across the entire atmosphere?

It’s hard to say how seriously this was taken. It is clear that at one point, Arthur Compton worried about it, and that just the same, several scientists came up with persuasive reasoning to the effect that this could not happen. James Conant, upon feeling the searing heat of the Trinity test, briefly reflected that maybe this rumored thing had, indeed, come to pass:

Then came a burst of white light that seemed to fill the sky and seemed to last for seconds. I had expected a relatively quick and bright flash. The enormity of the light and its length quite stunned me. My instantaneous reaction was that something had gone wrong and that the thermal nuclear [sic] transformational of the atmosphere, once discussed as a possibility and jokingly referred to a few minutes earlier, had actually occurred.

Which does at least tell us that some of those at the test were still joking about it, even up to the last few minutes. Fermi reportedly took bets on whether the bomb would destroy just New Mexico or in fact the entire world, but it was understood as a joke.1

The introduction of the Konopinski, Marvin, and Teller paper of 1946. Filed under: “SCIENCE!

In the fall of 1946, Emil Konopinski, Cloyd Marvin, and Edward Teller (who else?) wrote up a paper explaining why no detonation on Earth was likely to start an uncontrolled fusion reaction in the atmosphere. It is not clear to me whether this is exactly the logic they used prior to the Trinity detonation, but it is probably of a similar character to it.2 In short, there is only one fusion reaction based on the constituents of the oxygen that had any probability at all (the nitrogen-nitrogen reaction), and the scientists were able to show that it was not very likely to happen or spread. Even if one makes assumptions that the reaction was much easier to initiate than anyone thought it was likely to be, it wasn’t going to be sustained. The reaction would cool (through a variety of physical mechanisms) faster than it would spread.

This is all a common part of Manhattan Project lore. But I suspect most who have read of this before have not actually read the Konopinski-Marvin-Teller paper to its end, where they end on a less sure-of-themselves note:

There remains the distant possibility that some other less simple mode of burning may maintain itself in the atmosphere.

Even if the reaction is stopped within a sphere of a few hundred meters radius, the resultant earth-shock and the radioactive contamination of the atmosphere might become catastrophic on a world-wide scale.

One may conclude that the arguments of this paper make it unreasonable to expect that the N+N reaction could propagate. An unlimited propagation is even less likely. However, the complexity of the argument and the absence of satisfactory experimental foundations makes further work on the subject highly desirable.

That’s not quite as secure as one might desire, considering these scientists were in fact working on developing weapons many thousands of times more powerful than the Trinity device.3

The relevant section of the Manhattan District History (cited below) interestingly links the research into the “Super” hydrogen bomb with the research into whether the atmosphere might be incinerated, which makes sense, though it would be interesting to know how closely linked these questions where.

There is an interesting section in the recently-declassified Manhattan District History‘s that discusses the ignition of the atmosphere problem. They repeat essentially the Konopinski-Marvin-Teller results, and then conclude:

The impossibility of igniting the atmosphere was thus assured by science and common sense. The essential factors in these calculations, the Coulomb forces of the nucleus, are among the best understood phenomena of modern physics. The philosophic possibility of destroying the earth, associated with the theoretical convertibility of mass into energy, remains. The thermonuclear reaction, which is the only method now known by which such a catastrophe could occur, is evidently ruled out. The general stability of matter in the observable universe argues against it. Further knowledge of the nature of the great stellar explosions, novae and supernovae, will throw light on these questions. In the almost complete absence of real knowledge, it is generally believed that the tremendous energy of these explosions is of gravitational rather than nuclear origin.4

Which again is simultaneously reassuring and not reassuring. The footing on which this knowledge was based was… pretty good? But like good scientists they were happy, at least in secret reports, to acknowledge that there might in fact be ways for the planet to be destroyed through nuclear testing that they hadn’t considered. Intellectually honest, but also terrifying.

The ever relevant XKCD.

This issue came up again prior to the Operation Crossroads nuclear tests in early 1946, which was to include at least one underwater shot. None other than Nobel Prize-winning physicist Percy Bridgman worried that detonating an atomic bomb under water might ignite a fusion reaction in the water. Bridgman admitted his own ignorance into nuclear physics (his area of expertise was high-pressure physics), but warned that:

Even the best human intellect has not imagination enough to envisage what might happen when we push far into new territory. … To an outsider the tactics of the argument which would justify running even the slightest risk of such a colossal catastrophe appears exceedingly weak.5

Bridgman’s fears weren’t really that the world would be destroyed. He worried more that if the scientists appeared to be cavalier about these things, and it was later made public that their argument for the safety of the tests was based on flimsy evidence, that it would lead to a strong public backlash: “There might be a reaction against science in general which would result in suppression of all scientific freedom and the destruction of science itself.” Bridgman’s views were strong enough that they were forwarded to General Groves, but it isn’t clear whether they resulted in any significant changes (though I wonder if they were the impetus for the write-up of the Konopinski-Marvin-Teller paper; the timing kind of works out, but I don’t know).

There isn’t a lot of evidence that this problem concerned the scientists too much going forward. They had other things on their mind, like building thermonuclear weapons, and it quickly became clear that starting a large fusion reaction with a fission bomb is hard. Which is, in its own way, an answer to the original question: if starting a runaway fusion reaction on purpose is difficult, and requires very specific kinds of arrangements and considerations to get working even on a (relatively) small scale, then starting one in the entire atmosphere, is likely to be impossible.

Operation Fishbowl, Shot Checkmate (1962) — a low yield weapon, but something about its perfect symmetry and the trail of the rocket that put it into the air invokes the idea of a planet turning into a star for me. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Great — cross that one off the list of possibilities. But it wouldn’t really be science unless they also, eventually, re-framed the question: what conditions would be required if we were to try and turn the entire planet into a thermonuclear bomb? In 1975, a radiation physicist at the University of Chicago, H.C. Dudley, published an article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists warning of the “ultimate catastrophe” of setting the atmosphere on fire. This received several rebuttals and a lot of scorn, including one in the pages of the Bulletin by Hans Bethe, who had previously addressed this question in the Bulletin in 1946. Interestingly, though, Dudley’s main desire — that someone re-run these calculations on a modern computer simulation — did seem to generate a study along these lines at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.6

In 1979, Livermore scientists Thomas A. Weaver and Lowell Wood (the latter appropriately a well-known Edward Teller protege) published a paper on “Necessary conditions for the initiation and propagation of nuclear-detonation waves in plane atmospheres,” which is a jargony way to ask the question in the title of this blog post. Here’s the abstract:

The basic conditions for the initiation of a nuclear-detonation wave in an atmosphere having plane symmetry (e.g., a thin, layered fluid envelope on a planet or star) are developed. Two classes of such a detonation are identified: those in which the temperature of the plasma is comparable to that of the electromagnetic radiation permeating it, and those in which the temperature of the plasma is much higher. Necessary conditions are developed for the propagation of such detonation waves for an arbitrarily great distance. The contribution of fusion chain reactions to these processes is evaluated. By means of these considerations, it is shown that neither the atmosphere nor oceans of the Earth may be made to undergo propagating nuclear detonation under any circumstances.7

Now if you just read the abstract, you might think it was just another version (with fancier calculations) of the Konopinski-Marvin-Teller paper. And they do rule out conclusively that N+N reactions would ever be energetic enough to be self-propagating. But it is far more! Because unlike Konopinski-Marvin-Teller, it actually focuses on those “necessary conditions”: what would need to be different, if you did want to have a self-propagating reaction?

The answer they found: if the Earth’s oceans had twenty times more deuterium than they actually contain, they could be ignited by a 20 million megaton bomb (which is to say, a bomb with the yield equivalent to 200 teratons of TNT, or a bomb 2 million times more powerful than the Tsar Bomba’s full yield). If we assumed that such a weapon had even a fantastically efficient yield-to-weight ratio like 50 kt/kg, that’s still a device that would weigh around a billion metric tons. To put that into perspective, that’s about ten times more mass than all of the concrete of the Three Gorges Dam.8

So there you have it — it can be done! You just need to totally change the composition of the oceans and need a nuclear weapon many orders of magnitude more powerful than the gigaton bombs dreamed of by Edward Teller, and then, maybe, you can pull off the cleansing thermonuclear fire experience.

Which is to say, this won’t be how our planet dies. But don’t worry, there are plenty other plausible alternatives for human self-extinction out there. They just probably won’t be as quick.

I am in the process of finishing my book manuscript, which is the real job of this summer, so most other writing, including blogging, is taking a back seat for a few months while I focus on that. The irreverent title of this post is taken from a recurring theme in the Twitter feed of anthropology grad student Martin “Lick the Bomb” Pfeiffer, whose work you should check out if you haven’t already.

  1. This undergraduate paper by Stanford student Dongwoo Chung, “(The Impossibility of) Lighting Atmospheric Fire,” does a really nice job of reviewing some of the wartime discussions and the scientific issues. []
  2. Emil Konopinski, Cloyd Marvin, and Edward Teller, “Ignition of the Atmosphere with Nuclear Bombs,” (14 August 1946), LA-602, Los Alamos National Laboratory. Konopinski and Teller also apparently wrote an unpublished report on the subject in 1943. I have only seen reference to it, as report LA-001 (suspiciously similar to the LA-1 that is the Los Alamos Primer), but have not seen it. []
  3. Teller, in October 1945, wrote the following to Enrico Fermi about the possibility of a “Super” detonating the atmosphere, as part of what was essentially a “Frequently Asked Questions” about the H-bomb: “Careful considerations and calculations have shown that there is not the remotest possibility of such an event [ignition of the atmosphere]. The concentration of energy encountered in the super bomb is not greater than that of the atomic bomb. In my opinion the risks were greater when the first atomic bomb was tested, because our conclusions were based at that time on longer extrapolations from known facts. The danger of the super bomb does not lie in physical nature but in human behavior.” What I find most interesting about this is his comment about Trinity, though Teller’s rhetorical point is an obvious one (overstate the Trinity uncertainty after the fact in order to emphasize his certainty at the present). Edward Teller to Enrico Fermi (31 October 1945), Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 5, Folder 76, “Interim Committee — Scientific Panel.” []
  4. Manhattan District History, Book 8, Volume 2 (“Los Alamos – Technical”), paragraph 1.50. []
  5. Percy W. Bridgman to Hans Bethe, forwarded by Norris Bradbury to Leslie Groves via TWX (13 March 1946), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0128609. []
  6. H.C. Dudley, “The Ultimate Catastrophe,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (November 1975), 21; Hans Bethe, “Can Air or Water Be Exploded?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 1, no. 7 (15 March 1946), 2; Hans Bethe, “Ultimate Catastrophe?,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 32, no. 6 (1976), 36-37; Frank von Hippel, “Taxes Credulity (Letter to the Editor),” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (January 1946), 2. []
  7. Thomas A. Weaver and Lowell Wood, “Necessary conditions for the initiation and propagation of nuclear-detonation waves in plane atmospheres,” Physical Review A 20, no. 1 (1 July 1979), 316-328. DOI: []
  8. Specifically, they conclude it would take a 2 x 107 Mt energy release, which they call “fantastic,” to ignite an ocean of 1:300 (instead of the actual 1:6,000) concentration of deuterium. As an aside, however, the collision event that created the Chicxulub Crater (and killed the dinosaurs, etc.) is estimated to have released around 5 x 1023 J, which translates into about 120 million megatons of TNT. So that’s not a totally unreasonable energy release for a planet to encounter over the course of its existence — just not from nuclear weapons. []
News and Notes | Visions

A View from the Deep

by Alex Wellerstein, published May 10th, 2018

One of the several projects that has been keeping me busy for the past two years (!) has finally come to fruition. I haven’t talked about it on here much, but I’ve been a co-curator at the Intrepid Sea, Air, and Space Museum, in New York City, helping develop a new exhibit about the submarine USS Growler. The exhibit, A View From the Deep: The Submarine Growler and the Cold War, opens to the public on May 11.

USS Growler exhibit at the Intrepid

I’ve worked with museums a bit in the past, but never anything quite as intensive and comprehensive as this job. The Intrepid has had the Growler submarine since 1988, and a somewhat small exhibit had been developed to serve as a queuing area for people who wanted to go aboard the submarine. But since this year is the 60th anniversary of the commissioning of the boat, as well as the 75th anniversary of the commissioning of the USS Intrepid, the aircraft carrier that serves as the main space of the museum, it was decided that Growler deserved a new, far more comprehensive exhibit dedicated to it.

What’s interesting about the Growler? The bare basics: The USS Growler is the only surviving example of the Grayback class of submarine, which was the first nuclear-armed submarine class that the United States fielded. Its deployment was relatively short (1958-1964), in part because it was extremely transitional technology. The Growler was essentially a diesel attack submarine that was modified (by adding some awkward hangers onto its nose) to carry the Regulus I nuclear-armed cruise missile, and ran deterrence missions in the Pacific, near Kamchatka peninsula (its target was a Soviet military base at Petropavlovsk).

As a diesel sub, its capabilities were pretty limited. It could stay underwater for the duration of its run, through the use of its schnorkel, but it couldn’t dive deep for very long. The Regulus missiles had extreme limitations: they could only be launched from a surfaced ship, had very limited range on account of their guidance systems (they required active radar guidance all the way to their targets, and the guidance system only had a range of around 225 nautical miles). It was always seen as a partial solution, an entry point for the Navy’s foray into nuclear weapons.

The USS Growler on a full-speed trial run, November 1958. The bulbous bow contains hangers that contained Regulus missiles. The Growler was initially designed as an attack submarine, and the hangers were a modification to turn it into a cruise missile submarine. Source: NARA Still Pictures, College Park, MD.

So this was not an ideal boat by any means — in a war situation, it would need to surface, ready the missile to launch (in whatever conditions the sea was giving it), and then during the entire period that the sub-sonic missile made its way to its target it would be effectively broadcasting its position to whomever happened to be listening. And here’s a real bonus: if a Soviet plane or boat happened to destroy the Growler while the missile was in flight, they would be effectively disabling the missile. So unsurprisingly many on the Growler saw the use of their most potent weapon as a sort of personal suicide pact — perhaps an apt metaphor for the nuclear age in general.

Given these limitations, and the fact that the Grayback class was phased out in favor of the much more useful Polaris submarines (which were nuclear powered, and could fire ballistic missiles while submerged), it’s easy to ignore them. But as historians of technology often emphasize, we often learn as much from “failed” technologies as we do from “successful” ones. The Grayback class of submarines were seen as temporary. They were the US Navy’s first real foray into an underwater nuclear capability, designed to be fielded fast. The sub and the missile both reflect this expediency to their core.

The exhibit works to both explain the development and capabilities of the submarine and the missile, but also to contextualize them within the broader context of the early Cold War. Anyone who attends the exhibit ought to see my intellectual fingerprints all over it: it is an exhibit about the inseparability of technical developments and their political and historical contexts.

Regulus missile profile, July 1957. The censored word (the little line of dots) is “Atomic,” as a differently-redacted version indicates. This was when it was planned to use the W-5 warhead; the missile was later modified to carry the thermonuclear W-27 warhead. Source: Office of the Secretary of Defense, “The Guided Missile Program” (July 1957), Eisenhower Library, copy from GaleNet Declassified Documents Reference System.

The Intrepid Museum has a great team of exhibit curators and staff (a special shout out to my main collaborators Elaine Charnov, Jessica Williams, Chris Malanson, Kyle Shepard, and Gerrie Bay Hall). And, an aside, their offices are inside the aircraft carrier, deep within the steel hallways that are inaccessible to the public. Which makes sense in retrospect (museum space is always limited, so of course the offices would be kept within the cavernous carrier), but hadn’t occurred to me prior to seeing them. It’s a pretty unusual work environment from a physical standpoint — steep stairs, enough steel to kill your cell reception completely, unlabeled and winding passages, and very unusual acoustics as noises move through the entire hull.) In my usual job, I’m not usually a worker on large teams (e.g., more than three or four people); for a museum of the size of the Intrepid, there were maybe half a dozen people I regularly talked with, and another half a dozen more who I occasionally intersected with.

My job was to help with the broader conceptualization, aiding with the overall research (including a trip to NARA to digitize the Growler’s “muster rolls,” giving us a record of nearly everyone who served on the ship), much of the exhibit text (which of course had to be carved down quite a bit from my word-count-busting original drafts), and aiding in the choosing and creating of the visualizations. I also put them in touch with my colleagues at the Stevens SCENE Lab, who developed some pretty interesting audio-haptic interactives for the exhibit, including a virtual sonar station and a magical vibrating box that gives you a sense of what it would have sounded and felt like to be on an operating submarine. We wanted to make sure that people who couldn’t or didn’t want to go on board the submarine itself could get some sort of sense of its lived experience from the exhibit (the submarine is understandably somewhat cramped and features tiny hatches every so many feet, so people with mobility issues may not be able to go aboard it).

More generally, in the exhibit we tried to situate Growler within a broader past (going back to the developments of atomic bombs, cruise missiles, and modern submarines in World War II), but also its future (the creation and evolution of the nuclear triad). It is an exhibit that tries to do a lot of intellectual work (and if it gets reviewed as trying to do too much, well, you know who to blame) in a subtle way, painting a picture (one that the readership of my blog is probably more familiar with than the average person) of the kinds of forces and mindsets that were at work in the Cold War, and the way in which the politics, technology, and historical context mutually affected one another. There’s no simple good/bad message here; we’re hoping that visitors will leave with new questions about the history of nuclear weapons and the Cold War lodged in their heads.

Malformed muster roll for the USS Growler from 1963, courtesy of NARA. Not much you can do with that other than admire its strange beauty.

I also adapted a version of the NUKEMAP for use on museum exhibit touch screens, which I’m pretty happy with — aside from the aesthetics of it, which I think look pretty good, and some clever technical bits (it has some nice features to try and mitigate loss of connectivity issues that will inevitably come up), I’m especially pleased that from the very beginning the museum has been onboard with making sure that we talk about what the physical and human consequences of using the Regulus missile would have been. It would have been an easy thing to gloss over (because it can make people uncomfortable), but everyone agreed that you really couldn’t talk about this technology honestly without talking about what it would actually do if it was used.1

From a research perspective, the most rewarding thing was finally, after a lot of searching, finding a photograph that gave me an idea of what the W-27 warhead looked like. Warhead shapes can tend to be kept pretty close by the government, because they are frequently revealing of the internal mechanisms, and the W-27 was especially tricky because it was produced in unusually limited numbers. It was a “conversion kit” for the B-27 nuclear bomb, used only on the Regulus in the end, and so only 20 of them were ever produced. The breakthrough was realizing that there are many reports produced by Sandia National Laboratories that were investigating the structural integrity of not the warhead itself, but the carts and containers that would transport it. When they did these tests they would use a dummy warhead mockup that was the right shape and size of the warhead — thus providing far more pictures than I needed in the end. In the end, like most secrets, the warhead’s shape is mostly uninteresting on its own terms (it looks like a thermos with a firing unit bolted to the end of it), but there’s something so satisfying in being able to see it, and more or less figure out how it probably fit inside the Regulus.

A “dummy warhead” of the W-27, which gives one a pretty good idea of what it looked like. I suspect the electronics and arming unit are contained in the part labeled “FWD. END” here. Source: “Drop Test of the H-525 Without Shear Pads,” Sandia National Laboratories (July 1958).

As a collaboration, I thought it was extremely fruitful, and it was an interesting and exciting challenge to see how I would translate my broader interests in the history of nuclear weapons and the Cold War and turn them into something that would be accessible and intellectually stimulating to the general audience museum crowd.

The exhibit will be running for at least the next year, but is slated to be more or less permanent (things get complicated for long-term planning when your exhibit is on a building on top of a New York City pier, I have gathered), so if you’re in Manhattan, please feel free to stop by and take a look. It’s not just a first-generation nuclear-armed submarine that you can walk through, it’s also a deep dive (pun intended) into the Cold War context that led to the creation and use of such a weapon, and a meditation on the peril and value of imperfect solutions.

  1. If you work in a museum and think a NUKEMAP interactive would be useful, get in touch. The new “NUKEMAP Museum” framework is pretty flexible and could be adapted to a lot of different exhibits. []

A “purely military” target? Truman’s changing language about Hiroshima

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 19th, 2018

Some time ago, I wrote a blog post about a hypothesis I had regarding President Truman and the decision to use the atomic bomb. My basic thesis then (and continues to be) is that there is good reason to think that Truman did not understand that Hiroshima was a city with a military base in it, and not merely some kind of military installation. Truman’s confusion on this issue, I argue, came out of his discussions with Secretary of War Henry Stimson about the relative merits of Kyoto versus Hiroshima as a target: Stimson emphasized the civilian nature of Kyoto and paired it against the military-status of Hiroshima, and Truman read more into the contrast than was actually true.

I have kept poking around this issue for some time now, and written an article-length version of it (more on that in due time). I feel even more confident in it than before, having gone over the relevant documents very closely and talked about with many scholars (including at a conference in Hiroshima last summer), though there are some aspects of the original blog post that I would refine or revise.

But I thought I’d share one set of documents that I found extremely illuminating and interesting, and useful for thinking about how the “narrative” of Hiroshima changed over a very short period of time in August 1945. I have not seen any reference to these in the work of any other historians, not because they are slouches (they are not), but because you have to be asking very specific questions to think they are a possible source of the answers.1

The press release sent out under Truman’s name after the bombing of Hiroshima was not written by him. It was largely written by Arthur Page, a Vice President at AT&T and the “father of modern corporate public relations,” at the request of the Interim Committee of the Manhattan Project. Page was an old friend of Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War, and Stimson wanted the first statement to be a very carefully-written document, as it was meant to credibly describe a new weapon and outline possible paths forward for the Japanese. Truman was shown the final version of it, but he didn’t add or remove anything from it. It is interesting (for my purposes) to note that if you did not know whether Hiroshima was a city or an isolated military base, the initial announcement would not clarify that for you, even if you were (like Truman) the one reading it aloud.

A far more interesting case is the second speech that Truman gave which mentioned the atomic bomb. This was a radio address given on the evening of August 9, 1945, not long after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. The atomic bomb only occupies a small part of the overall speech — it is really a speech about what had happened at the Potsdam Conference the weeks previous. But the parts on the atomic bomb are fascinating to read. Here are the parts I’d like to draw your attention to in particular:

The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base. That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians. But that attack is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on her war industries and, unfortunately, thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities immediately, and save themselves from destruction. […]

Having found the bomb we have used it. We have used it against  those who attacked us without warning at Pearl Harbor, against those who have starved and beaten and executed American prisoners of war, against those who have abandoned all pretense of obeying international laws of warfare. We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of young Americans.2

Two things interest me about the above. One is that the first paragraph emphasizes that Hiroshima was a “military base,” and that they wanted to avoid, “insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.” Now, Hiroshima was not, strictly speaking, a military base — it was a major city that contained a military base. There is a difference there, and fewer than 10% of the casualties were military.3 The paragraph further warns that bombing cities might occur — it doesn’t ‘fess up to having already done it, but puts it as a thing for the future.

The second paragraph quoted does something a bit different: it justifies the bombing, first by saying that the Japanese were awful and deserved it, then by saying that the use of the bomb was really a humane act, and using it would “shorten the agony of war,” and would save American lives.

We will come back to both of these in a minute. Let’s instead ask: who wrote this speech? Given the background of the first press release, one might be surprised to find that the answer is… Harry Truman. Well, he wrote the first draft. As he wrote in a note on August 10th:

“While all this has been going on, I’ve been trying to get ready a radio address to the nation on the Berlin conference. Made the first draft on the ship coming back. Discussed it with [James] Byrnes, [Samuel] Rosenman, Ben Cohen, [William] Leahy and Charlie Ross. Rewrote it four times and then the Japs offered to surrender and it had to be done again.”4

When Truman says he “made the first draft on the ship coming back,” he’s referring to his travel back from Europe aboard the USS Augusta. In fact, there is a photograph in the Truman Library that claims to be showing him writing this very draft:

“President Harry S. Truman at his desk aboard the U. S. S. Augusta, returning from the Potsdam Conference. He is preparing his “report to the nation.” August 6, 1945.” Source: Truman Library, 63-1453-47; scan from Wikimedia Commons

So, while many hands were no doubt involved, we can say with some reliability that Truman was very involved in the drafting process. How involved is a hard thing to say — but it gives us something to think about when looking at the specific language used, to question how much of it reflects the President’s own thoughts (something we cannot do with the original Hiroshima press release, which was written without Truman’s input).

I wrote the Truman Library awhile back and asked if they had any information about this statement, and they helpfully sent me a whole sheaf of papers taken from the papers of Samuel Rosenman, who was a Truman speechwriter and staffer. They included not only five different drafts of the radio address, but also many pieces of correspondence that helped contextualize it. For example, I was interested to find that the radio address as a means of communication was decided upon around July 20, 1945, as an alternative to giving Congress a full address, because Congress was going to be out of session when he got back.5

The drafts are of course themselves the most interesting part. There are, as noted, five in the folder. They are all typed, and numbered but not dated. The fifth draft is not exactly the same as the version that Truman delivered, so we can deduce that there was at least one last round of changes, perhaps by Truman himself, perhaps not. There are, as we will see, some ways to date some of the drafts, based on the relationship between their content and some of the other letters in the folder.

The first draft, presumably related to the version first developed by Truman while on the USS Augusta (August 2–7). The atomic bomb was only mentioned very briefly, and in no detail:

What we are doing to Japan now — even with the new atomic bomb — is only a small fraction of what would happen to the world in a third World War. […] We have laid down the general terms on which they can surrender. Since then they have seen what our atomic bomb can do. They can foresee what it will do. They would be wise if they would accept the inevitable before it is too late; otherwise their fate will be even worse than Germany’s.6

That’s it. I suspect this was written before Hiroshima, when Truman knew the bombing was scheduled to occur. What’s really interesting, though, is that underneath the final paragraph quoted above, someone has written in (by hand), the following: “Why we dropped bomb on Hiroshima.” So we can put some kind of boundary on when this draft was written: potentially before Hiroshima (as early as August 6th), but sometime soon after the bombing someone decided that there needed to be more on the atomic bomb in it.

“The scrawl,” as I think of it.

How does this scrawl date it? Hiroshima was the preferred target for the first atomic bomb but it wasn’t until the mission was successful that anyone would have known it was the actual target. There were two backup targets as well (Kokura and Nagasaki); it is only on August 6th that it would have been talked about definitively as the bombing of Hiroshima. (Whose scrawl is it? I don’t know. Could it be Truman’s? Maybe. I am not a handwriting expert and it is not much to go by on itself.)

The second draft of the statement is much the same on the passages already quoted, but true to the penciled suggestion on the first draft, a new statement about the bombing of Hiroshima was added:

The world will note that the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima which is purely a military base. This was because we did not want to destroy the lives of women and children and innocent civilians in this first attack. But it is only a warning of things to come. If Japan does not surrender, bombs will have to be dropped on war industries and thousands of civilian lives will be lost. I urge the Japanese civilians to leave industrial cities and save themselves from destruction.7

This is not so dissimilar to the language in the final statement but the differences are important. Let’s put them side by side:

  • Draft #2: The world will note that the first atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima which is purely a military base.
  • Final: The world will note that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, a military base.

First, we have a confusion about how many bombs (singular or plural) were dropped. I don’t read much into that other than as an indicator of how quickly this was probably written.

Second, the original language is even more emphatic about the military status of Hiroshima: here it was purely a military base. “Purely” is a very strong modifier. Ask yourself under what conditions you would describe a city as being “purely a military base” — it’s hard to come up with any that are honest, if you understood the target to be a city. It is interesting, as well, that in the final version, Hiroshima is still listed as a military base — but the “purely” has vanished. Still a misleading statement (again, it was a city with a base in it), but it’s not as egregious as the original draft.

  • Draft #2: This was because we did not want to destroy the lives of women and children and innocent civilians in this first attack.
  •  Final: That was because we wished in this first attack to avoid, insofar as possible, the killing of civilians.

This is another interesting and, I think, important juxtaposition. In the first one, it is claimed that “women and children and innocent civilians” were spared in the first attack. In the final version, this has been watered down quite a lot — only “civilians” (not even innocent!) are mentioned, the killing of which was only avoided “insofar as possible.”

Am I reading too much into language? I don’t think so. Because, strikingly, this language mirrors very closely another Truman passage, his Potsdam journal entry of July 25th, 1945, which he wrote just after making final decisions about the question of the bombing of Kyoto:

I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital or the new. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one and we will issue a warning statement asking the Japs to surrender and save lives. I’m sure they will not do that, but we will have given them the chance.8

These two phrases are pretty distinct. Truman wants to avoid the killing of “women and children.” This is a phrase he uses again and again when talkig about the atomic bombs — first in talking about how his choices would avoid it, later to emphasize that this is what atomic bombs do. For example, in a speech he wrote in December 1945, Truman noted that the bomb would involve, “blotting out women and children and non-combatants.”9 In 1948, he told a group of advisors and generals that the atomic bomb was not a regular weapon of war, because, “it is used to wipe out women and children and unarmed people, and not for military uses.”10 I just point this out because Truman (like many people, including myself) has distinct turns of phrase that he deploys and redeploys repetitively, what at least one historian has called “Trumanisms.”

From the third draft (emphasis added).

Even more striking is the repetition of the “purely military” phrase, which is much more extreme and particular to Truman. No one today would describe Hiroshima as “purely military,” and the scientists and military men who chose it as a target explicitly noted that it was not one. At the Target Committee Meeting at Los Alamos in May 1945, it was recommended that “pure military” targets not be considered: “It was agreed that for the initial use of the weapon any small and strictly military objective should be located in a much larger area subject to blast damage” — that is, a city, an urban area — “in order to avoid undue risks of the weapon being lost due to bad placing of the bomb.”11

In my interpretation, the timeline so far looks something like this:

  • Prior to the Hiroshima bombing (sometime between August 2 and sometime August 6), Truman drafts the radio address (little to no mention of atomic bomb)
  • After the Hiroshima bombing (August 6), but before Truman knows the full extent of civilian casualties, Truman and others revise it to talk about Hiroshima
  • Sometime before the final version is released (August 9), it is revised to indicate an awareness that Hiroshima was not “purely military” and that civilians were in fact killed in great numbers

On the second point — do we know that Truman himself modified the statement? We know he was (by his own account) involved in the revisions over the days. And the language is strikingly similar to his Potsdam journal. I suspect he was to some degree (even just in discussions) involved in forming that language, but the other possibility is that the Potsdam journal was used as “raw material” for writing that section (and it may have been why he kept the journal; Truman was not a diarist, and the Potsdam journal is unusual).12

Do the rest of the drafts help us refine this timeline and the shifts in language? A bit. By the third draft, the singular/plural nature of the bombing of Hiroshima was resolved (“the first atomic bomb was dropped”), but it is still “purely a military base.” Most importantly, though, is that someone has added a line to it (on page 5) indicating that the Soviet Union had declared war on Japan the day before, putting it at around August 8th or 9th in Washington (midnight in Tokyo is 10am the previous day in Washington, DC).13

The fourth draft moves the paragraphs about the atomic bomb towards the end (from page 6-7 to page 17), which is an interesting change by itself. But it otherwise does not change them.14

In the fifth draft, however, a change occurs. The language about Hiroshima as “purely” a military target still remains. But a new bit of text has been added:

Its production and use were not lightly undertaken by this Government. But we knew our enemies were on the search for it. We now know they were close to finding it. And we knew the disaster that would come to this nation, to all peaceful nations, to all civilization, if they found it first. […]

We won the race of discovery against the Germans.

Having found it we have used it. […] We have used it in order to shorten the agony of war, in order to save the lives of thousands and thousands of Americans.15

This is an interesting addition: it is the justification for having made it (the Nazis were going to make one) and having used it (we wanted to save lives). That it takes until the fifth draft — the last one in the archival file — for this to appear is fascinating. It is almost as if the speech drafters realized, all of the sudden, that they were going to have to account for its use, to make a case for the manufacture and use of the bomb that went further beyond their original one.

So when and where did this language enter into this text? Fortunately, there is another piece of documentation in the file that helps us. The Assistant Secretary of State (and former Librarian of Congress) Archibald MacLeish sent a letter to Rosenman dated August 8th, with “a paragraph which has some ideas you might wish to use about the atomic bomb.” It is not an exact match for the fifth draft’s language but it is so close on many points as to be the obvious source: “Its production and its use were not lightly undertaken by this Government. … Only the certainty that the terrible destructiveness of this weapon will shorten the agony of the war and will save American lives has persuaded us to use it against our enemies.”16

So that indicates clearly that the fifth draft was finished sometime after MacLeish sent his memo on August 8th. What happened on August 8th that would provoke MacLeish and others to think they needed to justify the creation and use of the atomic bomb? On the morning of August 8th, the first damage reports came back from Japan. These included the famous aerial photograph of Hiroshima, which was shown to Truman by Stimson that morning:17

Damage map of Hiroshima, 8/8/1945. Source: National Archives and Records Administration / Fold3

The Japanese also began to talk about the bomb damage for the first time in their newspapers, as the survey team sent to Hiroshima by the Japanese high command had finally sent its report back. (Someday I will write something here on this — it is its own interesting topic.) American newspapers on August 8 and 9th were reporting huge casualties: “Atom Bomb Destroyed 60% of Hiroshima; Pictures Show 4 Square Miles of City Gone” (New York Herald Tribune, 8 August); “200,000 Believed Dead in Inferno That Vaporized City of Hiroshima” (Boston Globe, 9 August). This latter estimate of the dead too high — it was created by just assuming 60% of the Hiroshima population were killed, as opposed to 60% of the area destroyed. But this is the sort of estimate that would persist until full surveys, by the Japanese and Americans, were done in the postwar.

If Truman believed that Hiroshima was “purely” military, there is no way he could have continued to believe that after August 8th. So sometime between that final draft in the Rosenman files (the fifth draft) and the final version delivered, the language about Hiroshima’s military status, and the sparing of civilians, got significantly watered down.

Is this conclusive? Not at all! This is highly interpretive, based on a smattering of sources. But history is the work of interpretation, and if one wants to understand the interior mental states of the long dead, one has to engage in this kind of triangulation of sources. I think it is plausible that Truman did not understand the nature of Hiroshima, and was rudely surprised by it on August 8th. That another atomic bomb would be used on another city on August 9th, I suspect, came as a surprise to him (he was not given any immediate prior warning).

Boston Globe (9 August 1945), page 2. Notice the typo in the first sentence: “Horoshima.” Just a typo, to be sure, but perhaps reflective as to how quickly this news was coming out, how unfamiliar these cities were to the American populace…

In my full paper, I discuss a bit what I think my conditions are for choosing one plausible interpretation over another. In this case, I think my interpretation solves some of these tricky questions about why Truman would persist in many ways to label Hiroshima as a “purely military” target. But more usefully, it also explains Truman’s sudden change in language after August 8th and 9th, in which he bluntly acknowledges that the atomic bomb was a killer of civilians. At his December 1945 speech mentioned earlier, he — in his own handwriting — refers to the atomic bomb as “the most terrible of all destructive forces for the wholesale slaughter of human beings.”18

This is not the language of a man who is under a misapprehension about what the bombings did. On August 10th, he told his cabinet that “he had given orders to stop atomic bombing” because, as Henry Wallace recorded in his diary, “the thought of wiping out another 100,000 people was too horrible. He didn’t like the idea of killing, as he said, ‘all those kids.’”19 This is a far cry from his initial reaction to hearing that the Hiroshima mission was successful: “This is the greatest thing in history!” I think something changed in him, and I think it was a horrible realization of his own misunderstanding of what this weapon would do.

Account of the cabinet meeting of 10 August 1945 in the diary of Henry A. Wallace.

We remember Truman primarily as the person who was president when the atomic bombs were first used. We should also remember him, as I have argued before, as the person who ordered that the atomic bombs stop being used. And the person who, over the course of his presidency, did the most to establish that atomic bombs were not weapons to be deployed lightly ever again. One might see this as irony, but in my interpretation, it is not: it the reaction of someone who realized he had been badly out of the loop once, and wore that on his conscience, and determined it would not happen again.

  1. It is a general point that sometimes comes up when talking about the work of history: a lot of people think new work is driven exclusively or even primarily by access to new sources. New sources can play a role but usually it is new questions that drive historical innovation. The new questions can provoke re-reading of old sources, and can point towards overlooked sources as well. The hardest thing in any field of knowledge is coming up with a new, interesting question to ask — answers are much easier to find and deal with than new questions. []
  2. Harry S. Truman, “Radio Report to the American People on the Potsdam Conference” (9 August 1945), Harry S. Truman Library, Independence, MO. []
  3. Barton Bernstein, “Reconsidering the ‘Atomic General’: Leslie R. Groves,” Journal of Military History 67, no. 3 (July 2003), 889-920, esp. 904-905. []
  4. Longhand note of Harry S. Truman (9/10 August 1945), transcript and copy available in Harry Truman Library. []
  5. Samuel Rosenman to Charles Ross (20 July 1945), Samuel Rosenman Papers, Harry Truman Library, “Report to the Nation (Potsdam).” []
  6. Draft of a Speech by President Truman on Berlin Conference,” (n.d., first draft), Papers of Samuel I. Rosenman, Harry Truman Library,  “Report to the Nation (Potsdam),” pages 2 and 6. []
  7. Draft of a Speech by President Truman on Berlin Conference,” (n.d., second draft), Papers of Samuel I. Rosenman, Harry Truman Library,  “Report to the Nation (Potsdam),”, page 5. []
  8. Harry Truman, Potsdam Journal entry for 25 July 1945, Harry Truman Library. []
  9. Harry S. Truman, “Draft of the Gridiron Dinner Speech,” (15 December 1945), Harry Truman Library. []
  10. Diary entry of 21 July 1948, in David E. Lilienthal, Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume II: The atomic energy years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper & Row, 1964), 390-391. []
  11. J.A. Derry and N.F. Ramsey to L.R. Groves, “Summary of Target Committee Meetings on 10 and 11 May 1945,” in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5D, “Selection of Targets.” []
  12. See Barton J. Bernstein, “Truman at Potsdam: His Secret Diary,” Foreign Service Journal (July/August 1980), 29-34. []
  13. Draft of a Speech by President Truman on Berlin Conference,” (n.d., third draft), Papers of Samuel I. Rosenman, Harry Truman Library,  “Report to the Nation (Potsdam).” []
  14. Draft of a Speech by President Truman on Berlin Conference,” (n.d., fourth draft), Papers of Samuel I. Rosenman, Harry Truman Library,  “Report to the Nation (Potsdam).” []
  15. Draft of a Speech by President Truman on Berlin Conference,” (n.d., fifth draft), Papers of Samuel I. Rosenman, Harry Truman Library,  “Report to the Nation (Potsdam).” []
  16. Archibald MacLeish to Samuel I. Rosenman (8 August 1945),Papers of Samuel I. Rosenman, Harry Truman Library,  “Report to the Nation (Potsdam).” []
  17. “I showed the President the teletype report from Guam showing the extent of the damage; also, the Wire Service bulletin showing the damage as reported by Tokyo at nine A.M. August 8th. I showed him the photograph showing the total destruction and also the radius of damage which Dr. Lovett had brought me from the Air Corps just before I went. He mentioned the terrible responsibility that such destruction placed upon us here and himself. “Memorandum of Conference with the President” (8 August 1945), attached to Henry L. Stimson diary entry of 8 August 1945, in The Henry Lewis Stimson Diaries, microfilm edition retrieved from the Center for Research Libraries, original from Manuscripts and Archives, Yale University Library, New Haven, Connecticut. []
  18. See the “Gridiron Dinner” speech, previously cited. []
  19. Henry A. Wallace diary entry of 10 August 1945, in Henry A. Wallace, The diary of Henry Agard Wallace, January 18, 1935-September 19, 1946 (Glen Rock, N.J.: Microfilming Corp. of America, 1977). []
Articles » Washington Post

“The Hawaii alert was an accident. The dread it inspired wasn’t.”

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 16th, 2018

I wrote a short piece for The Washington Post on the Hawaiian nuclear false alarm last Saturday.

The Hawaiian incident was an unacceptable mistake, indicative of a poorly-designed system. False alarms are dangerous for a lot of reasons, not the least in that there will be a significant amount of doubt about the veracity of any future messages from the same source (or any other governmental source).

But we should at some level take it as a welcome wake-up call. The possibility of a nuclear attack is real. It won’t go away tomorrow. People need to know what they ought to do during one, so they don’t (as many were reported to have done) run out into the open —the absolute worst thing one can do, if one is interested in improving one’s chances of survival. And there are things that should be done, at a diplomatic level, to reduce the chances of it happening.

If a missile was in-bound to Honolulu from North Korea, it would only take about 30 minutes to reach its target after launch — less time than it took the Hawaiian agency to revoke its warning! Assuming it was as powerful as the last North Korean nuclear test, it  could kill upwards of 140,000 people almost immediately, and injure another 170,000. Most Hawaiians would survive — and have to deal with the cleanup, the lingering health issues, and the political and literal fallout. It would not be the end of the world for all, but it would be a disaster unparalleled in American history, killing nearly a hundred times more people than the attack on Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. It could happen. To embrace fatalism, or to simply deny the threat should not exist, is not nearly enough.