The Kyoto misconception

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 8th, 2014

This week we talk again of the anniversaries of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But if the military brass had its way in 1945, we would speak of Kyoto as well. Kyoto was spared because of a personal intervention: the US Secretary of War, Henry L. Stimson, did not think it should be bombed. This story has been told many times, often as an example of how thin a line there is between life and death, mercy and destruction. But there’s an angle to this story that I think has gone overlooked: how the debate about targeting Kyoto led President Truman to a crucial misunderstanding about the nature of the atomic bomb.

Toji pagoda, in Kyoto, today. Had the Little Boy bomb been dropped on Kyoto, it would have likely been destroyed, as it was less than 3,000 feet from the proposed "Ground Zero" point. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Toji pagoda, in Kyoto, today. Had the Little Boy bomb been dropped on Kyoto, it would have likely been destroyed, as it was less than 3,000 feet from the proposed “Ground Zero” point. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Let’s start from the beginning. The first concrete discussions about what cities to target with the atomic bomb did not take place until the spring of 1945. On April 27, 1945, the first “Target Committee” meeting was held in the Pentagon. General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, was there at the beginning of the meeting, as was Brig. General Lauris Norstad of the US Army Air Forces. But the meeting was mostly presided over by Groves’ deputy, Brig. General Thomas Farrell. Among the scientists in attendance were John von Neumann and William Penney (but not Oppenheimer).

The basic decisions made at this meeting were regarding operational aspects of the bombing. The use of the atomic bomb would have to be done with visual targeting, not by use of radar. The weather had to be good — no easy thing to predict for Japan in the late summer. The targets should be “large urban areas of not less than 3 miles in diameter existing in the larger populated areas… between the Japanese cities of Tokyo and Nagasaki… [and] should have high strategic value.” A list of possible targets that met this criteria was given: Tokyo Bay, Kawasaki, Yokohama, Nagoya, Osaka, Kobe, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kure, Yawata, Kokura, Shimosenka, Yamaguchi, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, Sasebo. Of these, Hiroshima was noted as “the largest untouched target not on the 21st Bomber Command priority list.” Tokyo, on the other hand, was “now practically all bombed and burned out and is practically rubble with only the palace grounds left standing.” It was further noted that they had to take into account that the policy of the 20th Air Force was now “systematically bombing out” cities “with the prime purpose in mind of not leaving one stone lying on the other,” and that they would not likely reserve targets just for the Manhattan Project.

1945-04-28 - Nordstad - Target Information

This list of targets was forwarded on the next day and someone — probably Groves — indicated that Hiroshima was target #1, Kyoto target #2, Yokohama target #3,  and that other targets of high interest included Tokyo Bay, Fukuoka, Nagasaki, and Sasebo. Why Kyoto? A target data sheet, compiled on July 2nd, gives some indication of its perceived strategic value. Kyoto, according to this summary, was a major rail connection between Osaka and Tokyo, had several major factories inside of it (producing “ordnance and aircraft parts” as well as “radio fire control and gun direction equipment”), and numerous “peace time factories [that] have been converted to war purposes.” It also had a new aircraft engine factory that could turn out an estimated 400 engines a month, which would make it the second largest such factory in Japan. It had a population of over a million people, of which a “sizeable proportion” of the workers commuted to war production plants. “Many people and industries are being moved here as other cities as destroyed,” another datasheet noted. Its construction was “typical Jap city” — lots of wooden residential houses, and thus very flammable.

At the Second Meeting of the Target Committee, Kyoto increased in perceived importance. This meeting was held in J. Robert Oppenheimer’s office at Los Alamos on May 10-11, 1945, and was dominated by scientists in attendance. Along with discussing the ideal burst altitude of the bomb, calculated to destroy the largest amount of “light” buildings (e.g. housing), the scientists also discussed targets. At this point, the target list was #1 Kyoto, #2 Hiroshima, #3 Yokohama, #4 Kokura, and #5 Niigata. Aside from the aforementioned justifications (population size, industries), the committee report noted that:

From the psychological point of view there is the advantage that Kyoto is an intellectual center for Japan and the people there are more apt to appreciate the significant of such a weapon as the gadget. … Kyoto has the advantage of the people being more highly intelligent and hence better able to appreciate the significance of the weapon.

No surprise, perhaps, that the scientists would believe that there was strategic value in making sure that other intellectuals saw the effects of the atomic bomb.

Target map of Kyoto, June 1945, with atomic bomb aiming point indicated. This image is a composite of eight separate microfilm images from two maps (Kyoto North and Kyoto South) that I stitched together in Photoshop.

Target map of Kyoto, June 1945, with atomic bomb aiming point indicated. This image is a composite of eight separate microfilm images from two maps (Kyoto North and Kyoto South) that I stitched together in Photoshop. If you want the full uncropped version (7MB), you can get it here.

The plans to bomb Kyoto were serious enough to warrant the creation of a target map, showing the city with a 1.5 mile circle drawn around a starred aiming point — the roundhouse of the railway yards. Even today this is an easy target to find, visually, using Google Maps — it is the site of the Umekoji Steam Locomotive Museum today. One suspects that if Kyoto had been atomic bombed this site would have the same iconic status as the Genbaku Dome/Hiroshima Peace Memorial today.

On May 15, 1945, a directive was issued to the US Army Air Forces requesting that Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Niigata be put on a list of “Reserved Areas” not to be bombed, so that they could be preserved as atomic bombing targets. Why Yokohama and Kokura was not put on the list as well at that time is not known to me, but presumably Yokohama was known to be a planned target, as it was ruinously firebombed on May 29th. (As an aside, the mushroom cloud from atomic bombing of Yokohama would probably have been visible from the Imperial Palace in Tokyo, according to NUKEMAP3D.) Kokura was added to the “reserved” list on June 27.

On May 30th, Groves had a morning meeting with Stimson to discuss the targeting decisions. In Groves’ later recollections, Stimson told Groves that on the matter of the bomb targeting, Stimson was “the kingpin” and that nobody else would overrule him. When Groves told him of the targeted cities, Stimson (again, in Groves’ later recollection), told him bluntly: “I don’t want Kyoto bombed.” Groves recalled Stimson telling him that Kyoto was a cultural center of Japan, the former capital of the country, “and a great many reasons” more why he didn’t want it bombed. Stimson had been having numerous meetings about the atomic bomb and the firebombing of Tokyo over these days — and was resistant to the new mass bombing tactics. On June 1, Stimson recorded in his diary a discussion he had with the commander of the US Army Air Forces, about the fact that the US policy was now one of mass destruction:

Then I had in General Arnold and discussed with him the bombing of the B-29′s in Japan. I told him of my promise from Lovett that there would be only precision bombing in Japan and that the press yesterday had indicated a bombing of Tokyo which was very far from that. I wanted to know what the facts were. He told me that the Air Force was up against the difficult situation arising out of the fact that Japan, unlike Germany, had not concentrated her industries and that on the contrary they were scattered out and were small and closely connected in site with the houses of their employees; that thus it was practically impossible to destroy the war output of Japan without doing more damage to civilians connected with the output than in Europe. He told me, however, that they were trying to keep it down as far as possible. I told him there was one city that they must not bomb without my permission and that was Kyoto.

Stimson went to President Truman with his concerns a few days later, on June 6th. His diary records the following exchange:

I told him I was anxious about this feature of the war for two reasons: first, because I did not want to have the United States get the reputation of outdoing Hitler in atrocities; and second, I was a little fearful that before we could get ready the Air Force might have Japan so thoroughly bombed out that the new weapon would not have a fair background to show its strength. He laughed and said he understood. Owing to the shortness of time I did not get through any further matters on my agenda.

What was Truman laughing at? If Truman was a clever man, one might guess that it was the apparent contradiction between not wanting to “outdo Hitler in atrocities” but also wanting to make sure there was enough of Japan left to destroy to make an impression when the atomic bomb was ready. But Truman was not known as a clever man — he probably just thought it was amusing that we were becoming so successful at destroying Japan that we’d need to preserve a little more to destroy later.

Groves had not given up on targeting Kyoto, however. He repeatedly attempted to see if Stimson would budge. Kyoto was a rich target — more important than many of the others on the list. Why did Stimson insist on sparing Kyoto? The answer you find on the Internet is straightforward but a little glib: in the late 1920s, Stimson had been Governor-General to the Philippines, and had visited the city and loved it (and had perhaps been there on his honeymoon). Thus there was a personal connection. This is not present in most of the books on the bomb decision, oddly enough — the fact that Stimson opposed bombing Kyoto is mentioned, but other than noting it was a cultural capital, it is not probed much deeper. The historiography on Stimson’s decision is one about the moral underpinnings of it: Was Stimson trying to assuage guilt? Was he trying to preserve better postwar relations with the Japanese? There are competing interpretations, and not a lot of evidence to work from.

Truman and Stimson, August 1945. Source: George Skadding, LIFE Magazine.

Truman and Stimson, August 1945. Source: George Skadding, LIFE Magazine.

Which brings us, at last, to what interests me the most here. I am not so interested in why Stimson spared Kyoto, or how scholars have interpreted that. What I am interested in is this: Stimson’s attempt to keep Kyoto off the target list for the atomic bomb went to the very top. The list of targets was not finalized until July 25th, 1945, when Stimson and Truman were both at the Potsdam Conference. There, Stimson told Truman for a final time why Kyoto had to be kept off. From Stimson’s diary entry from July 24th:

“We had a few words more about the S-1 program, and I again gave him my reasons for eliminating one of the proposed targets [Kyoto]. He again reiterated with the utmost emphasis his own concurring belief on that subject, and he was particularly emphatic in agreeing with my suggestion that if elimination was not done, the bitterness which would be caused by such a wanton act might make it impossible during the long post-war period to reconcile the Japanese to us in that area rather than to the Russians. It might thus, I pointed out, be the means of preventing what our policy demanded, namely a sympathetic Japan to the United States in case there should be any aggression by Russia in Manchuria.”

Stimson left the meeting thinking Truman completely understood the matter, and the final target order — with Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata, and Nagasaki (the latter added only then) — was sent out.

But what did Truman take away from this meeting? We can look at Truman’s own diary entry from July 25th:

This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. 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. It is certainly a good thing for the world that Hitler’s crowd or Stalin’s did not discover this atomic bomb. It seems to be the most terrible thing ever discovered, but it can be made the most useful. 

This passage reflects an incredible misconception. Truman appears, here, to believe that Hiroshima was “a purely military” target, and that “soldiers and sailors” would be killed, “not women and children.” But of course every city on that list was inhabited primarily by civilians. And by the calculus of war being waged, every city on that list had a military connection — they produced weapons for the military.

This is not to say that there isn’t a distinction between the targets, just that it is slighter than Truman’s diary entry suggests. Stimson was probably trying to say that the cultural value of Kyoto outweighed its value as a strategic target. Stimson was no doubt aware that Kyoto had war industries inside of it, but thought these were worth overlooking. The lack of a large military base in Kyoto made it more of a “civilian” target in his mind than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. But Truman seems to have come away from this discussion with the understanding that it was a stark contrast between a “civilian” target and a “military” one. As J. Samuel Walker has noted, if Hiroshima had been a more important military target, it likely would have already been bombed much earlier — the fact that it was still intact was in part a reflection of its lack of military presence.

Statistics on "casualties among school children" at Hiroshima, from Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs, volume VI (July 1951).

Statistics on “casualties among school children” at Hiroshima, from Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs, volume VI (July 1951), page 25.

Am I reading too much into one diary entry? I don’t think so. Consider that after the second bomb was dropped, Truman issued a “stop” order on further atomic bombing, telling Secretary of Commerce (and former VP) Henry Wallace that “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.’” Because both of those atomic bombs did kill a lot of civilians, and a lot of children in particular. In fact, as a postwar report explained, elementary schools were seen as a great data source on the mortality of the bombs because good records were kept “of the fate of the children.” So you get really gristly statistics about the percentage of schoolchildren killed at various distances from Ground Zero — something that really underscores that these “purely military” targets were a little less than “pure.” Sometimes these passages have been taken to argue that Truman really did wrestle with the moral issues, but I think they show something else: that he did not understand them until after the fact.

As another bit of evidence along these lines, consider what Truman wrote to Senator Richard Russell on August 9th, before he received a detailed report of the damage at Hiroshima:

I know that Japan is a terribly cruel and uncivilized nation in warfare but I can’t bring myself to believe that, because they are beasts, we should ourselves act in the same manner.

For myself, I certainly regret the necessity of wiping out whole populations because of the ‘pigheadedness’ of the leaders of a nation and, for your information, I am not going to do it until it is absolutely necessary…

My object is to save as many American lives as possible but I also have a humane feeling for the women and children in Japan.

Does this look like a man who understands that he signed off an an order that was being used to obliterate Japanese elementary schools, or someone who really still believes that they are primarily destroying “military” targets exclusively?

I think Truman came away from the discussions about Kyoto with a very incorrect understanding of what the atomic bomb targets were. I think he really, genuinely did not understand the degree to which civilians would compose the vast bulk of the casualties. How could he misunderstand this point? Because of the framing of the discussion, perhaps — Stimson really wanted him to agree with him that Kyoto was somehow a different category of target. Perhaps this is the greatest legacy of the Kyoto decision: it created what looked like a great moral distinction regarding the bomb, one which Truman thought he had taken a decisive stance on. But in the end it confused Truman as to the possible moral options (he was never presented with the question of whether a “demonstration” should be made, for example, or whether Japan should be given a direct warning first), and he chose one apparently under false pretenses.

I don’t think Stimson attempted to purposely mislead Truman, though. Rather, I think the root of Truman’s misunderstanding was that he was a very incurious man when it came to nuclear matters. He liked the idea of the bomb as a source of political power, but he didn’t really get into the details of how it was made or used, not in the way Roosevelt did, and not in the way Eisenhower would. He rarely questioned his advisors, rarely analyzed the issues with independent judgment, and he never grappled with the big ideas. There are many other examples of this from later in his Presidency as well. Despite having his name forever linked to the atomic bomb, one does not get the impression from even his own retrospective, self-justifying accounts that he really took the issues seriously, or even fully understood them. As a result of his lack of interest, and lack of attention, he never thought to ask how many civilians would die at Hiroshima — it doesn’t appear to him to have even been a consideration until after the damage was done.


Would nukes have helped in Vietnam?

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 25th, 2014

That night I listened while a colonel explained the war in terms of protein. We were a nation of high-protein, meat-eating hunters, while the other guy just ate rice and a few grungy fish heads. We were going to club him to death with our meat; what could you say except, “Colonel, you’re insane”? … Doomsday celebs, technomaniac projectionists; chemicals, gases, lasers, sonic-electric ballbreakers that were still on the boards; and for back-up, deep in all their hearts, there were always the Nukes, they loved to remind you that we had some, “right here in-country.” Once I met a colonel who had a plan to shorten the war by dropping piranha into the paddies of the North. He was talking fish but his dreamy eyes were full of mega-death.

So wrote Michael Herr in his masterful and classic book of Vietnam War journalism, Dispatches. I recently re-read Herr’s book, and this passage stuck out to me today more than it did when I first read the book a decade ago. “There were always the Nukes…” is an attitude that one sometimes sees expressed in other contexts as well, the idea that if it came to it, the USA could, of course, “glassify” any enemy it so chose to. The bomb in this view is the ultimate guarantor of security and strength. But of course Vietnam, among other conflicts, showed very clearly that being a nuclear state didn’t guarantee victory.

A napalm attack in the Vietnam War. Source.</a

Napalm in Vietnam. Source.

Would nukes have helped with the Vietnam War? It is a somewhat ghastly idea, to add more slaughter to an already terrible, bloody war, but worth contemplating if only to consider in very tangible terms what nuclear weapons can and can’t do, could and couldn’t do. It was a question that was studied seriously at the time, too. In early 1967, a JASON committee consisting of Freeman Dyson, Robert Gomer, Steven Weinberg, and S. Courtney Wright wrote a 60 page report on “Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia,” considering what could and couldn’t be done with the bomb. The whole thing has been obtained (with redactions) under the Freedom of Information Act by the Nautilus Institute, who have put together a very nice website on the subject under the title “Essentially Annihilated.”

The motivation for the report, according to Ann Finkbeiner, came from a few of the JASON consultants hearing off-hand comments from military men about the appeal of using a nuke or two:

“We were scared about the possible use in Vietnam,” said Robert Gomer, a chemist from the University of Chicago who was probably Jason’s first nonphysicist. During the 1966 spring meeting Freeman Dyson was “at some Jason party,” he said, and a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who was also close to President Johnson “just remarked in an offhand way, ‘Well, it might be a good idea to throw in a nuke once in a while just to keep the other side guessing.’”

Gomer took initiative on the report, but it is Dyson’s name that is most closely associated it, in part because he (alphabetically) is listed as the first author, in part because Dyson is much more famous. Finkbeiner, who interviewed the authors of the report, says that it was not a report that was specifically requested by the military or government, and that it hewed closely to analytical/tactical questions as opposed to ethical ones.

Which is to say, as you probably have figured out, they set out to show from the start that tactical nuclear weapons would not be a good thing to introduce into the Vietnam War. So they weren’t exactly neutral on the question, but neutrality and objectivity are not the same thing.

1967 - Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Southeast Asia

The report is a fascinating read. It serves as a wonderful lens into how strategic thinking about tactical weapons worked at the time, because the authors, perhaps in an attempt to make sure it was taken seriously, couch all of their reasoning in the language of other, official studies on the issue. So it offers insights into the kinds of issues that were popping up in war-gaming scenarios, and assumptions that were apparently taken as valid about what a tactical nuclear weapon could and couldn’t do. And by deliberately avoiding any discussions of politics and morality (and with that, strategic nuclear weapons use), it does allow them to get into the nitty gritty of the tactical questions without getting overwhelmed by larger and often more nebulous debates about the propriety of nuclear arms.

The basic conclusions are pretty simple. The main one is that even if the US did use tactical nuclear weapons, and such use was entirely unilateral, it wouldn’t get very useful results. Tactical nuclear weapons were thought to be most useful against large massed troops or columns of armor, such as an invading Red Army moving into Western Europe. The problem is, that didn’t describe the situation in Vietnam very well at all, where the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army typically operated in smaller groups under forest cover. You could use nukes to destroy their bases, but you’d have to locate their bases first — and by the time you’ve done that, you could have just bombed them conventionally. In general, in a war like Vietnam, tactical nuclear weapons appeared to offer little advantage over conventional arms in most situations. The one special addition of the nukes — the fallout — was too difficult to predict and control, and fallout that would be a useful barrier to troops would necessarily become a problem for civilians as well.

There are some interesting numbers in the report. One is a citation of a conclusion from a RAND study that in a complex war environment, a tactical nuclear weapon is “on the average, equivalent to about 12 nonnuclear attack sorties.” The JASON authors conclude that if you wanted to do something like the Rolling Thunder campaign using nuclear weapons, under this rubric it would require 3,000 tactical nuclear weapons per year. They also note another war-gaming conclusion, that even in the presumedly “Soviet” tactical nuclear weapons environment — large, massed troop and armor concentrations —  “the average number of enemy casualties per strike was about 100.” This probably assumes that some strikes are outright misses while others are very effective, but that’s an impressively low number. The JASON authors note that this would be considerably less in a Vietnam-style environment, because the ability to locate targets of interest would probably be much lower.

There are, they acknowledge, a few cases where specific uses of tactical nuclear weapons might be advantageous. Bridges, headquarters, and underground tunnel complexes could be more easily taken out with tactical nukes than conventional weapons. Such conclusions are somewhat underwhelming, and maybe that is the point: when you do figure out what good the weapons might do, it seems much less impressive than the fantasies.

Map of the Tet Offensive, 1968; the JASON authors would perhaps have us consider what this would have looked like if the North Vietnamese had been supplied tactical weapons from the Soviets or Chinese. Source.

Map of the Tet Offensive, 1968; the JASON authors would perhaps have us consider what this would have looked like if the North Vietnamese had been supplied tactical weapons from the Soviets or Chinese. Source.

The strongest argument they make against using the weapons, though, is not so much that they would be ineffective against the Vietnamese. Rather, it is that the weapons would be really effective against American troops in Vietnam:

If about 100 weapons of 10-KT yield each could be delivered from the base perimeters onto all 70 target areas in a coordinate strike, the U.S. fighting capability in Vietnam would be essentially annihilated. In the more likely contingency that only a few weapons could be delivered intermittently, U.S. casualties would still be extremely high and the degradation of U.S. capabilities would be considerable.

This is often the argument made today whenever the idea of using nuclear weapons — tactical or otherwise — re-raises its head. Since World War II, the US has the strongest interest in not breaking the “nuclear taboo” because once nukes start becoming normalized, the US usually stands to lose the most, or at least a lot. Massed troops, heavy armor, and fixed bases? That’s how we prefer to fight wars. Massive urban cities conveniently located on coasts? Check. Economy highly reliant on communications, transportation, and other infrastructure? Yeah. Which is probably one of the deep reasons that the US, for all of its lack of willingness to commit to a no-first use policy, has always managed to find a way so far to avoid using the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons it produced in the years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The report convincingly concludes:

The use of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] in Southeast Asia would be highly damaging to the U.S. whether or not the use remains unilateral. The overall result of our study is to confirm the generally held opinion that the use of TNW in Southeast Asia would offer the U.S. no decisive military advantage if the use remained unilateral, and it would have strongly adverse military effects if the enemy were able to use TNW in reply. The military advantages of unilateral use are not overwhelming enough to ensure termination of the war, and they are therefore heavily outweighed by the disadvantages of eventual bilateral use.

When I teach to students, I try to emphasize that there are some deep paradoxes at the core of nuclear weapons policies. Deterrence is a tricky-enough strategic issue, a mixture of  military logic and raw fear. Tactical nuclear weapons add complicated wrinkles. Were they merely a means of making deterrence more credible, by showing the Soviets (and whomever else) that we were not willing to let the threat of nuclear annihilation become paralyzing? Or were they really intended to be military weapons that could be usefully employed, regarded as a sort of scaling up of conventional capabilities? In terms of their doctrine and literature, it isn’t clear: they are spoken of as both, in part because a stated willingness to use them is core to their deterrent value. (That is, if you are going to be convincing in your statements that you are willing to use them, you have to look like you are willing to use them, even if you don’t want to use them.)

How much of tactical nuclear weapons was just swagger? Above, the Davy Crockett weapons system, in full-swagger mode.

How much of tactical nuclear weapons was just swagger? Above, the Davy Crockett weapons system, in full-swagger mode.

Thinking through, in a concrete way, what would happen if nuclear weapons are used, and what the long-term consequences would be (politically, tactically, environmentally, economically, etc.) is an important exercise, even if it is sometimes labeled as morbid. Too often, I think, we close our minds to the very possibility. But “thinking the unthinkable” is valuable — not because it will make us more willing to use them, but because it highlights the limitations of their use, and helps us come to grips with what the actual consequences would be.

So would nuke have been useful in the Vietnam War? I think the JASON authors do a good job of showing that the answer is, “almost certainly not very useful, and possibly completely disastrous.” And knowing, as we do now and they did not in 1967, how much of a long-term blot Vietnam would be to US domestic and foreign policy in the years that followed, consider how much of a danger it would have posed if we had started letting little nukes fly on top of everything else.

News and Notes

John Wheeler and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 14th, 2014

Just a quick plug: as noted previously, I’m moving out of the Washington, DC, area very soon, to start a new job at the Stevens Institute of Technology in the New Jersey/NYC area. My last talk as a DC denizen is going to be next Monday, July 21st, at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, from 12-1:30pm.


Here’s the information:

The AIP History Programs invites you to an ACP Brown Bag Lunch-Time Talk:

John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues:
Searching for a missing document
at the height of the Cold War

by Alex Wellerstein, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for History of Physics

Monday, July 21, 2014
12–1:30 pm

Conference Room A
American Center for Physics
1 Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740

There’s never a right time to lose a secret document under unusual circumstances. But for the influential American physicist John Archibald Wheeler, there might not have been a worse time than January, 1953. While on an overnight train ride to Washington, D.C., only a month after the test of the first hydrogen bomb prototype, Wheeler lost, under curious circumstances, a document explaining the secret to making thermonuclear weapons.

The subsequent search for the missing pages (and for who to blame) went as high as J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower, and ended up destroying several careers. The story provides a unique window into the precarious intersection of government secrecy, competing histories of the hydrogen bomb, and inter-agency atomic rivalry in the high Cold War. Using recently declassified files, the AIP Center for History of Physics’ outgoing Associate Historian will trace out the tale of  how Wheeler ended up on that particular train, with that particular document, and the far-reaching consequences of its  loss—or theft—for both Wheeler and others involved in the case.

It’s a very fun paper, drawing heavily on John Wheeler’s FBI file, and one that I will be turning into an article fairly soon. It is open to the public if you RSVP. If you’re in town and want to see me before I go, please feel free to come! To my knowledge it will not be live-streamed or recorded or anything like that.


Who smeared Richard Feynman?

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 11th, 2014

One of the many physicists who came under official FBI scrutiny during the Cold War was Richard Feynman. Feynman’s work on the bomb at Los Alamos, combined with his fame, penchant for telling stories about safe-cracking, and occasional consideration for being on government committees led him to be investigated a few times, to see where is loyalties lay. In March 2012, the website MuckRock filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to obtain and release Feynman’s full FBI file (minus deletions). It got a lot of Internet buzz when it first came out, but from the look of most of it, the articles about it didn’t read it very carefully — they just mined it for a few good quotes.

Would you give this man a security clearance? From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Would you give this man a security clearance? From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

And good quotes it has. Like most FBI files for people who had security clearances at one point or another, it is mostly concerned with interviews with friends and colleagues about Feynman’s “character and loyalty.” Most of the file was filled out in 1958, when Feynman was apparently being considered for a position on Eisenhower’s President’s Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), a very high-level advisory board created in the wake of Sputnik. Most of the testimonies look like this:


“…a brilliant physicist… discreet, loyal American citizen of good character and associates and recommended him for a position of trust…” And so on.

And sometimes you can figure out the basics of what the blank spots say from the context. The first blank spot is someone who Feynman worked with during a summer of 1956 visit to Brookhaven National Laboratory, and we can deduce from the text that: 1. the person is a man, and 2. the person is not someone Feynman knew well before that period. We could if we were really tempted to, try to figure out (from archival files or databases), the names of several candidates based on these properties, and then see if they fit into the blank spot (since it is a fixed-width font). The second blank spot is the name of the interviewing FBI agent (SA = Special Agent). In this case, it is such a boring endorsement that it doesn’t seem worth the effort. (The b7C and b7D on the right are FOIA exemption references that indicate that the blanked out parts have been done so to protect the “privacy” and hide the name of the confidential informant.)

Feynman smear 1

But there is a much more interesting letter in the file, and it is one that several blogs and news sites picked up on at the time. It is dated August 8, 1958, and is an epic 9-page attack on Feynman’s character, written directly to J. Edgar Hoover. It argues that “Feynman is a master of deception, and that his greatest talent lies in intrigue, not physics”:

I do not know—but I believe that Richard Feynman is either a Communist or very strongly pro-Communist—and as such as a very definite security risk. This man is, in my opinion, an extremely complex and dangerous person, a very dangerous person to have in a position of public trust… In matters of intrigue Richard Feynman is, I believe immensely clever—indeed a genius—and he is, I further believe, completely ruthless, unhampered by morals, ethics, or religion—and will stop at absolutely nothing to achieve his ends.

You can read the least-redacted version of the letter here. A lot of the sites which posted it did so in sort of a confused way — talking about how it reflected that the FBI was dubious about Feynman (the FBI do not issue opinions of this sort, and the letter is just part of his file), and wondering which of his colleagues would be mean enough to write such a thing.

Feynman smear letter, 1958

I’ve read a lot of FBI files of physicists, and plenty of them are full of anonymous, smearing letters to Hoover. This one sticks out as unusual, though, both in its vehemence and its personal specificity. The author of the letter is not some anti-Communist nut who writes nasty letters as a hobby. It hits much closer to home than most smears.

So who smeared Feynman? What can we infer about the letter’s author, reading between the lines?

  • The author is someone who knew Feynman pretty well. This is a letter written by someone who has heard a lot of Richard Feynman stories — they are well-acquainted with his lock-picking Los Alamos stories, for example. (And this was several decades before those stories appeared in books.) They know that he’s very handy with mechanical devices, they know his friends, they claim to know how Feynman has talked about his political positions over the years and how he is registered to vote (Republican).
  • The author is religious and conservative. Among the author’s criticisms of Feynman is that he is irreligious and a fake Republican. The author repeatedly invokes Eisenhower’s name in awe and respect, and offers to swear either on a Bible or to the President himself. The author talks of Feynman’s “long hatred of Republicans,” but knows that Feynman registered as a Republican in 1956 — which the author believes to have been part of a long-game deception to infiltrate the government. The author could be faking it, of course, but it doesn’t read like that to me.
  • The author knows a lot about his scientific contacts and knows he is considered brilliant by his peers, but is probably not a physicist. On page 6 of the letter, the author names lots of Feynman’s scientific associations and acknowledges that they would all give Feynman high marks. But the author also makes some rather elementary errors: some of the names are obviously misspelled — “Enerico Fermi” and “Claus Fuchs.” It is hard for me to believe that any of his Los Alamos peers would misspell those names in 1956, much less that of Fermi’s. Of course, we all make typos. But the tenor of the letter suggests someone who was pretty closely connected with Feynman’s scientific world, but was not a member of it.
  • The person is someone who the FBI had already identified as worth interviewing, prior to the letter. This is obvious from the first sentence (“On July 28, 1958, I was interviewed by a representative of the FBI…”) but was missed by a lot of the sites that wrote on the file. This tells us a few things. For one, it tells us that this person was already someone whose connection to Feynman was superficially obvious — again, not an anonymous ranter, but someone relatively close. For another, it lets us trace through the file and figure out where the interview happened. And indeed, we find that on 7/28/58, an FBI agent from the Butte office interviewed someone in Boise, Idaho, who talked about Feynman’s lock-picking stories, and had a rare negative conclusion about his suitability. Probably the same person.
  • The person who wrote the letter is a woman. Wait, what? Indeed! Despite a lot of redaction to keep the identity of the letter writer and interviewee a secret, there are a few tiny slips: a reference to “her” and “she” in a few of the FBI memos. This is the sort of subtle thing that must make file redactors kick themselves, because it’s the sort of little slip-up that gives away a lot of information.

So who smeared Feynman? I submit a theory: I suspect it was his second wife, Mary Louise Bell, to whom he was married from 1952 until 1956. That’s not a long marriage, but it’s plenty of time to hear someone’s stories ad nauseam, and plenty of time to learn to hate someone. From James Gleick’s Feynman biography, Genius:

His friends refused to understand why he finally chose to settle down with Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas, who had met him in a Cornell cafeteria and pursued him—they said cattily—all the way to Pasadena and finally accepted his proposal by mail from Rio de Janeiro. … They married as soon as he returned from Brazil, in June 1952, and they honeymooned in Mexico and Guatemala, where they ran up and down Mayan pyramids. He made her laugh, but he also frightened her with what she decided was a violent temper. … She nagged him, they thought. She liked to tell people that he was not “evolved” to the point of appreciating music and that sometimes she thought she was married to an uneducated man with a Ph.D. … Politically she was an extreme conservative, unlike most of Feynman’s colleagues, and as the Oppenheimer security hearings began, she irritated Feynman by saying, “Where there’s smoke there’s fire.” He, too, voted Republican, at least for a while. Divorce was inevitable—Feynman realized early that they should not have children, he confided in his sister—but it was nearly four years before they finally separated.

Further evidence from the file: Feynman’s only connection to Boise, Idaho, is through Bell (they were married there in late June 1952). The final divorce settlement was rendered only in May 1958 — two months before the FBI interviewed the letter writer. It was an extremely ugly, long (2 years!) divorce hearing: it made the newspapers because of Bell’s allegations of “extreme cruelty” by Feynman, including the notion that he spent all of his waking hours either doing calculus and playing the bongos.

Another approach to these files is to try and guess missing words based on the fixed-width font size. One possible fit shown here, for example. I am always a little un-sure about this approach, though, since lots of other things could fit, as well.

Another approach to these files is to try and guess missing words based on the fixed-width font size. One possible fit shown here, for example. I am always a little un-sure about this approach, though, since lots of other things could fit, as well.

Of course, there’s always another possibility, such as the idea that it might not be Bell herself, but her mother, sister, close friend, etc. But there’s a level of personal animosity in the letter that is quite deep. There’s a sense that this letter writer is the only person in the entire FBI file who is fed up with Feynman’s self-serving stories and not engaged in any form of hero-worship just because he is a well-respected genius. It really does read like someone who just went through a very messy divorce with the guy.

As an aside, I talked about this with my own wife, and she noted how gendered a lot of the Feynman stuff is. His “smartest man in the room” stories are an awfully common male trope, and the emotional self-denial that comes through in his stories (e.g. about his first wife, Arline) reflects a guy who is trying very hard to put on a public face that is strongly within typical American masculinity. Many of the traits discussed in the smear letter are ones Feynman himself would own up to gladly, but were turned on their head — Feynman’s anti-secrecy exploits at Los Alamos are not seen as evidence of the inefficiency of secrecy, but as evidence of Feynman’s own juvenility. Somehow I don’t see Feynman’s male colleagues making that sort of twist. This isn’t to be essentialist, or to claim that men couldn’t smear — but the male smears usually had more emphasis on the Communism and less emphasis on his emotional stability.

Feynman never became a member of PSAC. Was it because of this letter, the one piece of strongly negative testimony in his file? We would need more records (and not the FBI’s) to know that: the FBI did not make recommendations as to whether someone should be hired, it simply produced a summary of the information it received (often with an emphasis on the derogatory information, though), and let the agency in question decide what it wanted to do about it. Feynman’s lack of PSAC participation may have had to do with other factors; it is not clear that he would have even wanted to be on the committee, given his avowed distaste for government work in the Cold War period. But it’s a strong letter, so it might have had an effect — it’s a letter from someone who knew Feynman, and his flaws, very well.


A bomb without Einstein?

by Alex Wellerstein, published June 27th, 2014

If Albert Einstein had never been born, would it have changed when nuclear weapons were first produced? For whatever reason, I’ve seen this question being asked repeatedly on Internet forums, as odd as it is. It’s kind of a silly question. You can’t go in and tweak one variable in the past and then think you could know what the outcome would be. History is a chaotic system; start removing variables, who knows what would happen. Much less a variable named Albert Einstein, one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, and whose importance extended well past the equations he wrote… and those were pretty important equations, at that!

1946 - Einstein Time magazine - detail

Einstein’s 1946 cover of Time magazine. The mushroom cloud is a beautifully executed combination of the Trinity and Nagasaki mushroom clouds.

On the other hand, this kind of science-fiction counterfactual can have its usefulness as a thought experiment. It isn’t history, but it can be used to illustrate some important aspects about the early history of the atomic bomb that a lot of people don’t know, and to undo a little bit of the “great man” obsession with bomb history. Albert Einstein has been associated with the bomb both through his famous mass-energy equivalence calculation (E=mc²) and because of the famous Einstein-Szilard letter to Roosevelt in 1939. On the face of it, this gives him quite a primary role, and indeed, he usually shows up pretty quickly at the beginning of most histories of the Manhattan Project. But neither E=mc² nor the Einstein-Szilard letter were as central to the Manhattan Project’s success as people realize — either scientifically or historically.

In terms of the science, E=mc² gets a lion’s share of attention, most perfectly expressed by Einstein’s portrait on the cover of Time magazine in 1946 (above) with his equation emblazoned on a mushroom cloud. A lot of people seem to think that E=mc² played a key role in the development of the bomb, that the weapon just falls out of the physics. This is wrong. The equation can help one understand why atomic bombs work, but it doesn’t really tell you how they work, or whether you would expect them to even be possible.

The way I like to put it is this: E=mc² tells you about as much about an atomic bomb as Newton’s laws do about ballistic missiles. At some very “low level” the physics is crucial to making sense of the technology, but the technology does not just “fall out” of the physics in any straightforward way, and neither of those equations tell you whether the technology is possible. E=mc² tells you that on some very deep level, energy and mass are equivalent, and the amount of energy that mass is equivalent is gigantic. But it says nothing about the mechanism of converting mass into energy, either whether one exists in the first place, or whether it can be scaled up to industrial or military scales. It gives no hints as to even where to look for such energy releases. After the fact, once you know about nuclear fission and can measure mass defects and things like that, it helps you explain very concisely where the tremendous amounts of energy come from, but it gives you no starting indications.

Eddington's famous plate of the 1919 solar eclipse, which helped confirm Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Very cool looking, and interesting science. But not relevant to atomic bombs. Source.

Eddington’s famous plate of the 1919 solar eclipse, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Very cool looking, and interesting science. But not relevant to atomic bombs. Source.

What about the rest of Einstein’s main theoretical work, both Special and General Relativity Theory? They are pretty irrelevant to bomb-making. The physical processes that take place inside atomic bombs are what physicists call “non-relativistic.” Relativity theory generally only shows its hand when you are talking about great speeds (e.g. large fractions of the speed of light) or great masses (e.g. gravitational fields), and neither of those come into play with fission bombs. You can neglect relativity when doing the math to make a bomb.

An intelligent follow-up question might be: “well, just because relativity theory didn’t play a role in the bomb process itself doesn’t answer the question of whether it started physics on a path that led to the bomb, does it?” Without getting into a long timeline of the “science that led to the bomb,” here, I think we could reasonably summarize the situation like this: Einstein’s 1905 papers (of which E=mc² was one) did indeed play a role in the subsequent developments that followed, but perhaps not as direct a one as people think. E=mc² didn’t inspire physicists to start looking into processes that converted mass to energy — they were already looking into those through an entirely separate (and earlier) line of development, namely the science of radioactivity and particle physics. The fact that huge amounts of energy were released through nuclear reactions, for example, had already been studied closely by the Curies, by Ernest Rutherford, and by Frederick Soddy prior (but only just) to 1905.

Arguably, the most important work Einstein did in this respect was his work on the photoelectric effect (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1921), which helped establish the physical reality of Max Planck’s idea of a quantum of energy, which helped kick off investigations into quantum theory in earnest. This had a big influence on the later direction of physics, even if Einstein himself was never quite comfortable with the quantum mechanics that developed in subsequent decades.

The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experiment apparatus, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. My own photo.

The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experiment apparatus, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. My own photo.

Did any of the relativity work lead, though, down the path that eventually arrived at the discovery of fission in 1939? I don’t think so. The experiments that Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman were doing in Berlin that lead to the discovery of fission in uranium were themselves careful replications of work that Fermi had done around 1934. Fermi’s work came directly out of an experimentalist, nuclear physics context where physicists were bombarding substances with all manner of subatomic particles to see what happened. It was most directly influenced by the discovery of the neutron as a new sub-atomic particle by Chadwick in 1932. This came out of work on atomic theory and atomic modeling that was being done by Rutherford and his students from the early 1910s-1920s. And this early nuclear physics came, most directly, out of the aforementioned context of radioactivity and experimental physics of the late 19th century.

None of which has a strong, direct connection to or from Einstein’s work in my mind. They have some overlaps of interest (e.g. Bohr was a student of Rutherford’s), but the communities working on these sorts of experimental problems are not quite the same as the more theoretical circle that Einstein himself worked in. If we somehow, magically, removed Einstein’s early work from the equation here, does the output change much? There would be some reshuffling, probably, but I sort of think that Rutherford would still be doing his thing anyway, and from that much of the other work that led to the bomb would eventually come out, even if it had a somewhat different flavor or slightly different timeline.

My least favorite way of depicting the fission process, where energy (E) is a magic lightning bolt coming out of the splitting atom. In reality, most of the energy comes in the form of the two fission products (F.P. here) repelling from each other with great violence. Source.

This is my least-favorite way of depicting the fission process, where energy (E) is a magic lightning bolt coming out of the splitting atom. In reality, most of the energy comes in the form of the two fission products (F.P. here) repelling from each other with great violence. Source.

Do you even need to know that E=mc² to make an atomic bomb? Perhaps surprisingly, you don’t! There are other, more physically intuitive ways to calculate (or measure) the energy release from a fission reaction. If you treat the fission process as being simply based on the electrostatic repulsion of two fission products, you get essentially the same energy output in the form of kinetic energy. This is how the physics of fission is often taught in actual physics classes, because it gives you a more concrete indication of how that energy is getting released (whereas E=mc² with the mass-defect makes it seem like a magical lightning bolt carries it away). There are other more subtle physical questions involved in making a bomb, some of which have Einstein’s influence on them in one way or another (e.g. Bose–Einstein statistics). But I think it is not totally crazy to say that even if you somehow imagine a world in which Einstein had never existed, that the physics of an atomic bomb would still work out fine — Einstein’s specific technical work wasn’t central to the problem at all. We also have not brought up the question of whether without Einstein, relativity in some form would have been discovered anyway. The answer is probably “yes,” as there were people working on similar problems in the same areas of physics, and once people started paying a close attention to the physics of radioactivity they were bound to stumble upon the mass-energy relationship anyway. This isn’t to denigrate or underestimate Einstein’s influence on physics, of course. What makes Einstein “Einstein” is that he, a single person, pulled off a great number of theoretical coups all at once. But if he hadn’t done that, there’s no reason to think that other people wouldn’t have come up with his theoretical insights individually, if slightly later.

A postwar re-creation of the genesis of the Einstein-Szilard letter.

A postwar re-creation of the genesis of the Einstein-Szilard letter.

What about Einstein’s most direct role, the famous Einstein-Szilard letter of 1939 that influenced President Roosevelt to set up the first Uranium Committee? This is a tricky historical question that could have (and may at some point) an entirely separate blog post relating to it. Its writing, contents, and influence are more complex than the standard “he wrote a letter, FDR created the Manhattan Project” understanding of it that gets boiled down in some popular accounts. My feeling about it, ultimately, is this: if the Einstein-Szilard letter hadn’t been written, it isn’t clear that anything would be terribly different in the outcome in terms of making the bomb. Something like the Uranium Committee might have been started up anyway (contrary to popular understanding, the letter was not the first time Roosevelt had been told about the possibility of nuclear fission), and even if it hadn’t, it isn’t clear that the Uranium Committee was necessary to end up with a Manhattan Project. The road from a fission program whose primary output was reports and a fission program whose primary output was atomic bombs was not a direct one. By early 1941, the Uranium Committee had failed to convince scientist-administrators that atomic bombs were worth trying to build. They had concluded that while atomic bombs were theoretically feasible, they were not likely to be built anytime soon. Had things stayed there, it seems unlikely the United States would have built a bomb ready to use by July/August 1945.

The “push” came from an external source: the British program. Their MAUD Committee (an equivalent of the Uranium Committee) had concluded that a nuclear weapon would be much easier to build than the United States had concluded, and sent an emissary (Mark Oliphant) to the United States to make sure this conclusion was understood. They caught Vannevar Bush’s ear in late 1941, and he (along with Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, and others) wrested control of the uranium work out of the hands of the Uranium Committee, accelerated the work, and morphed it into the S-1 Committee. The name change is significant — it is one of the more vivid demonstrations of the increased degree of seriousness with which the work was taken, and the secrecy that came with it. By late 1942, the wheels for the full Manhattan Project were set into motion, and the work had become a real bomb-making program.

Einstein wasn’t involved with any of the later work that actually led to the bomb. He almost was, though: in late 1941, Bush considered consulting Einstein for help on the diffusion problem, but opted not to push for it — both because Einstein wasn’t regarded as politically reliable (he had a fat FBI file), and his approach to physics just wasn’t very right for practical problems. Bush decided that Einstein would stay out of the loop.

Usual, rare anti-Nazi propaganda postcard from 1934, showing Hitler expelling Einstein from Germany, titled "The Ignominy of the 20th Century." It is one of the most blatant visual renderings of Einstein as a "scientific saint." Source.

Unusual, rare anti-Nazi propaganda postcard from 1934, showing Hitler expelling Einstein from Germany, titled “The Ignominy of the 20th Century.” It is one of the most blatant visual renderings of Einstein as a “scientific saint.” Source.

Let’s sum it up. Did Einstein play a role in the creation of the atomic bomb? Of course — his physics isn’t irrelevant, and his letter to Roosevelt did start one phase of the work. But both of these things are less prominent than the Time-magazine-cover-understanding makes them out to be. They weren’t central to what became the Manhattan Project, and if you could somehow, magically, remove Einstein from the equation, it isn’t at all clear that the atomic bomb wouldn’t have been built around the time it actually was built. I don’t think you can really credit, or blame, Einstein for the atomic bomb, in any direct fashion. Einstein did play a role in things, but that role wasn’t as crucial, central, or direct as a lot of people imagine. If you could magically drop him out of history, I think very little in terms of atomic bombs would have been affected.

So why does the Einstein and the bomb myth persist? Why does everybody learn about the Einstein letter, if it wasn’t really was sparked the Manhattan Project? There are two answers here, I think. One is that Einstein was, even before the war, one of the best-known, best-recognized physicists of the 20th century, and was synonymous with revolutionary science and genius. Having him “predict” the atomic bomb with equations in 1905 — 40 years before one was set off — is the kind of “genius-story” that people love, even if it obscures more than it enlightens. It also has a high irony quotient, since Einstein was forced to flee from Germany when the Nazis took power.

But there’s another, perhaps more problematic aspect. In many early copies of the Smyth Report that were distributed by the government, copies of the Einstein letter were mimeographed and loosely inserted. The magnification of Einstein’s role was purposefully encouraged by the government in the immediate period after using the weapon. (And it was even a convenient myth for Einstein, as it magnified his own importance and thus potential influence.) Hanging the atomic bomb on Einstein’s head was an act of self-justification, of sorts. Einstein was the world’s greatest genius in the eyes of the public, and he was a well-known pacifist, practically a scientific saint. After all, if Einstein thought building a bomb was necessary, who could argue with him?