Visions

Silhouettes of the bomb

by Alex Wellerstein, published April 22nd, 2016

You might think of the explosive part of a nuclear weapon as the “weapon” or “bomb,” but in the technical literature it has its own kind of amusingly euphemistic name: the “physics package.” This is the part of the bomb where the “physics” happens — which is to say, where the atoms undergo fission and/or fusion and release energy measured in the tons of TNT equivalent.

Drawing a line between that part of the weapon and the rest of it is, of course, a little arbitrary. External fuzes and bomb fins are not usually considered part of the physics package (the fuzes are part of the “arming, fuzing, and firing” system, in today’s parlance), but they’re of course crucial to the operation of the weapon. We don’t usually consider the warhead and the rocket propellant to be exactly the same thing, but they both have to work if the weapon is going to work. I suspect there are many situations where the line between the “physics package” and the rest of the weapon is a little blurry. But, in general, the distinction seems to be useful for the weapons designers, because it lets them compartmentalize out concerns or responsibilities with regards to use and upkeep.

Physics package silhouettes of some of the early nuclear weapon variants. The Little Boy (Mk-1) and Fat Man (Mk-3) are based on the work of John Coster-Mullen. All silhouette portraits are by me — some are a little impressionistic. None are to any kind of consistent scale.

The shape of nuclear weapons was from the beginning one of the most secret aspects about them. The casing shapes of the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs were not declassified until 1960. This was only partially because of concerns about actual weapons secrets — by the 1950s, the fact that Little Boy was a gun-type weapon and Fat Man was an implosion weapon, and their rough sizes and weights, were well-known. They appear to have been kept secret for so long in part because the US didn’t want to draw too much attention to the bombing of the cities, in part because we didn’t want to annoy or alienate the Japanese.

But these shapes can be quite suggestive. The shapes and sizes put limits on what might be going on inside the weapon, and how it might be arranged. If one could have seen, in the 1940s, the casings of Fat Man and Little Boy, one could pretty easily conjecture about their function. Little Boy definitely has the appearance of a gun-type weapon (long and relatively thin), whereas Fat Man clearly has something else going on with it. If all you knew was that one bomb was much larger and physically rounder than the other, you could probably, if you were a clever weapons scientist, deduce that implosion was probably going on. Especially if you were able to see under the ballistic casing itself, with all of those conspicuously-placed wires.

In recent years we have become rather accustomed to seeing pictures of retired weapons systems and their physics packages. Most of them are quite boring, a variation on a few themes. You have the long-barrels that look like gun-type designs. You have the spheres or spheres-with-flat ends that look like improved implosion weapons. And you then have the bullet-shaped sphere-attached-to-a-cylinder that seems indicative of the Teller-Ulam design for thermonuclear weapons.

Silhouettes of compact thermonuclear warheads. Are the round ends fission components, or spherical fusion components? Things the nuke-nerds ponder.

There are a few strange things in this category, that suggest other designs. (And, of course, we don’t have to rely on just shapes here — we have other documentation that tells us about how these might work.) There is a whole class of tactical fission weapons that seem shaped like narrow cylinders, but aren’t gun-type weapons. These are assumed to be some form of “linear implosion,” which somewhat bridges the gap between implosion and gun-type designs.

All of this came to mind recently for two reasons. One was the North Korean photos that went around a few weeks ago of Kim Jong-un and what appears to be some kind of component to a ballistic case for a miniaturized nuclear warhead. I don’t think the photos tell us very much, even if we assume they are not completely faked (and with North Korea, you never know). If the weapon casing is legit, it looks like a fairly compact implosion weapon without a secondary stage (this doesn’t mean it can’t have some thermonuclear component, but it puts limits on how energetic it can probably be). Which is kind of interesting in and of itself, especially since it’s not every day that you get to see even putative physics packages of new nuclear nations.

Stockpile milestones chart from Pantex's website. Lots of interesting little shapes.

Stockpile milestones chart from Pantex’s website. Lots of interesting little shapes.

The other reason it came to mind is a chart I ran across on Pantex’s website. Pantex was more or less a nuclear-weapons assembly factory during the Cold War, and is now a disassembly factory. The chart is a variation on one that has been used within the weapons labs for a few years now, my friend and fellow-nuclear-wonk Stephen Schwartz pointed out on Twitter, and shows the basic outlines of various nuclear weapons systems through the years. (Here is a more up-to-date one from the a 2015 NNSA presentation, but the image has more compression and is thus a bit harder to see.)

For gravity bombs, they tend to show the shape of the ballistic cases. For missile warheads, and more exotic weapons (like the “Special Atomic Demolition Munitions,” basically nuclear land mines — is the “Special” designation really necessary?), they often show the physics package. And some of these physics packages are pretty weird-looking.

Some of the weirder and more suggestive shapes in the chart. The W30 is a nuclear land mine; the W52 is a compact thermonuclear warhead; the W54 is the warhead for the Davy Crockett system, and the W66 is low-yield thermonuclear weapon used on the Sprint missile system.

A few that jump out as especially odd:

  • PowerPoint Presentation

    Is the fill error meaningful, or just a mistake? Can one read too much into a few blurred pixels?

    In the Pantex version (but not the others), the W59 is particular in that it has an incorrectly-filled circle at the bottom of it. I wonder if this is an artifact of the vectorization process that went into making these graphics, and a little more indication of the positioning of things than was intended.

  • The W52 has a strange appearance. It’s not clear to me what’s going on there.
  • The silhouette of the W30 is a curious one (“worst Tetris piece ever” quipped someone on Twitter), though it is of an “Atomic Demolition Munition” and likely just shows some of the peripheral equipment to the warhead.
  • The extreme distance between the spherical end (primary?) and the cylindrical end (secondary?) of the W-50 is pretty interesting.
  • The W66 warhead is really strange — a sphere with two cylinders coming out of it. Could it be a “double-gun,” a gun-type weapon that decreases the distance necessary to travel by launching two projectiles at once? Probably not, given that it was supposed to have been thermonuclear, but it was an unusual warhead (very low-yield thermonuclear) so who knows what the geometry is.

There are also a number of warheads whose physics packages have never been shown, so far as I know. The W76, W87, and W88, for example, are primarily shown as re-entry vehicles (the “dunce caps of the nuclear age” as I seem to recall reading somewhere). The W76 has two interesting representations floating around, one that gives no real feedback on the size/shape of the physics package but gives an indication of its top and bottom extremities relative to other hardware in the warhead, another that portrays a very thin physics package that I doubt is actually representational (because if they had a lot of extra space, I think they’d have used it).

Some of the more simple shapes — triangles, rectangles, and squares, oh my!

Some of the more simple shapes — triangles, rectangles, and squares, oh my!

What I find interesting about these secret shapes is that on the one hand, it’s somewhat easy to understand, I suppose, the reluctance to declassify them. What’s the overriding public interest for knowing what shape a warhead is? It’s a hard argument to make. It isn’t going to change how to vote or how we fund weapons or anything else. And one can see the reasons for keeping them classified — the shapes can be revealing, and these warheads likely use many little tricks that allow them to put that much bang into so compact a package.

On the other hand, there is something to the idea, I think, that it’s hard to take something seriously if you can’t see it. Does keeping even the shape of the bomb out of public domain impact participatory democracy in ever so small a way? Does it make people less likely to treat these weapons as real objects in the world, instead of as metaphors for the end of the world? Well, I don’t know. It does make these warheads seem a bit more out of reach than the others. Is that a compelling reason to declassify their shapes? Probably not.

As someone on the “wrong side” of the security fence, I do feel compelled to search for these unknown shapes — a defiant compulsion to see what I am not supposed to see, perhaps, in an act of petty rebellion. I suspect they look pretty boring — how different in appearance from, say, the W80 can they be? — but the act of denial makes them inherently interesting.

Meditations

Maintaining the bomb

by Alex Wellerstein, published April 8th, 2016

We hear a lot about the benefits of “innovation” and “innovators.” It’s no small wonder: most of the stories we tell about social and technological “progress” are about a few dedicated people coming up with a new approach and changing the world. Historians, being the prickly and un-fun group that we are, tend to cast a jaundiced eye at these kinds of stories. Often these kinds of cases ignore the broader contextual circumstances that were required for the “innovation” to appear or take root, and often the way these are told tend to make the “innovator” seem more “out of their time” than they really were.

The "logo" of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

The “logo” of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

Two of my colleagues (Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel) at the Science and Technology Studies program here at the Stevens Institute of Technology (official tagline: “The Innovation University“) have been working on an antidote to these “innovation studies.” This week they are hosting a conference called “The Maintainers,” which focuses on an alternative view of the history of technology. The core idea (you can read more on the website) is that the bulk of the life and importance of a technology is not in its moment of “innovation,” but in the “long tail” of its existence: the ways in which it gets integrated into society, needs to be constantly repaired and upgraded, and can break down catastrophically if it loses its war against entropy. There is a lot of obvious resonance with infrastructure studies and stories in the news lately about what happens if you don’t repair your water systems, bridges, subway trains, and you-name-it.

I’ve been thinking about how this approach applies to the history and politics of nuclear weapons. It’s pretty clear from even a mild familiarity with the history of the bomb that most of the stories about it are “innovation” narratives. The Manhattan Project is often taken as one of the canonical cases of scientific and technological innovation (in ways that I find extremely misleading and annoying). We hunger for those stories of innovation, the stories of scientists, industry, and the military coming together to make something unusual and exciting. When we don’t think the weapons-acquisition is a good idea (e.g., in the Soviet Union, North Korea, what have you), these innovation stories take on a more sinister tone or get diluted by allusions to espionage or other “help.” But the template is the same. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is of course one of the greatest works of the innovation narrative of the atomic bomb, starting, as it does, with a virtual lightning bolt going off in the mind of Leo Szilard.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II missile? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

What would a history of the bomb look like if we focused on the question of “maintenance”? We don’t have to guess, actually: one already exists. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which I reviewed on here and for Physics Today a few years ago, can be read in that light. Schlosser’s book is about the long-term work it takes to create a nuclear-weapons infrastructure, both in terms of producing the weapons and in terms of making sure they are ready to be used when you want them to be. And, of course, it’s about what can go wrong, either in the course of routine maintenance (the central case-study is that of a Titan II accident that starts when a “maintainer” accidentally drops a socket wrench) or just in the haphazard course of a technology’s life and interactions with the physical world (dropped bombs, crashed planes, things that catch on fire, etc.). (A documentary film based on Schlosser’s book premieres at the Tribeca Film festival this month, along with what sounds like a nuclear rave.)

There are other approaches we might fold into the “maintenance” of the bomb. Donald MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy uses the trope of invention, but the meat of the book is really about the way uncertainty about performance and reliability moved between the domains of engineering and policy. Hugh Gusterson’s anthropological study of the Livermore laboratory, Nuclear Rites, is particularly astute about the questions of the day-to-day work at a weapons laboratory and who does it. And the maintenance of infrastructure is a major sub-theme of Stephen Schwartz‘s classic edited volume on the costs of the nuclear complex, Atomic AuditBut these kinds of studies are, I think, rarer than they ought to be — we (and I include myself in this) tend to focus on the big names and big moments, as opposed to the slow-grind of the normal. 

There are two historical episodes that come to my mind when I think about the role of “maintenance” in the history of nuclear weapons. Non-coincidentally, both come at points in history where big changes were in the making: the first right after World War II ended, the second right after the Cold War ended.

Episode 1: The postwar slump

From the very beginning, the focus on the bomb was about its moment of creation. Not, in other words, on what it would take to sustain a nuclear complex. In our collective memory, a “Manhattan Project” is a story of intense innovation and creative invention against all odds. But there’s a lesser-known historical lesson in what happened right after the bombs went off, and it’s worth keeping in mind anytime someone invokes the need for another “Manhattan Project.”

The Manhattan Project, formally begun in late 1942, was consciously an effort to produce a usable atomic bomb in the shortest amount of time possible. It involved massive expenditure, redundant investigations, and involved difficult trade-offs between what would normally considered “research” and “development” phases. Plans for the first industrial-sized nuclear reactors, for example, were developed almost immediately after the first proof-of-concept was shown to work — normal stages of prototyping, scaling, and experimenting were highly compressed from normal industrial practices at the time, a fact noted by the engineers and planners who worked on the project. The rush towards realization of the new technology drove all other concerns. The nuclear waste generated by the plutonium production processes, for example, were stored in hastily-built, single-walled underground tanks that were not expected to be any more than short-term, wartime solutions. When people today refer to the Manhattan Project as a prototypical case of “throw a lot of money and expertise at a short-term problem,” they aren’t entirely wrong (even though such an association leaves much out).

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful "innovation" of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful “innovation” of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

After the end of World War II, though, the future of the American nuclear complex was uncertain. In my mind this liminal period is as interesting as the wartime period, though it doesn’t get as much cultural screen time. Would the US continue to make nuclear weapons? Would there be an agreement in place to limit worldwide production of nuclear arms (international control)? Would the atomic bomb significantly change US expenditures on military matters, or would it become simply another weapon in the arsenal? What kind of postwar organization would manage the wartime-creations of the Manhattan Project? No one knew the answers to these questions — there was a swirl of contradictory hopes and fears held by lots of different stakeholders.

We know, in the end, what eventually worked out. The US created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission with the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, signed by President Truman in August 1946 (much later than the military had hoped). Efforts towards the “international control” of the atomic bomb fizzled out in the United Nations. The Cold War began, the arms race intensified, and so on.

But what’s interesting to me, here, is that period between the end of the war and things “working out.” Between August 1945 and August 1946, the US nuclear weapons infrastructure went into precipitous decline. Why? Because maintaining it was harder than building it in the first place. What needed to be maintained? First and foremost, there were issues in maintaining the human capital. The Manhattan Project was a wartime organization that dislocated hundreds of thousands of people. The working conditions were pretty rough and tumble — even during the war they had problems with people quitting as a result of them. When the war ended, a lot of people went home. How many? Exact numbers are hard to come by, but my rough estimate based on the personnel statistics in the Manhattan District History is that between August 1945 and October 1946, some 80% of the construction labor left the project, and some 30% of the operations and research labor left. Overall there was a shedding of some 60% of the entire Manhattan Project labor force.

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947).

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947). Reconstructed from this graph in the Manhattan District History.

Now, some of that can be explained as the difference between a “building” project and a “producing” project. Construction labor was already on a downward slope, but the trend did accelerate after August 1945. The dip in operations and research, though, is more troublesome — a steep decline in the number of people actually running the atomic bomb infrastructure, much less working to improve it.

Why did these people leave? In part, because the requirements of a “crash” program and a “long-term” program were very different in terms of labor. It’s more than just the geographical aspect of people going home. It also included things like pay, benefits, and work conditions in general. During the war, organized labor had mostly left the Manhattan Project alone, at the request of President Roosevelt and the Secretary of War. Once peace was declared, they got back into the game, and were not afraid to strike. Separately, there was a prestige issue. You can get Nobel Prize-quality scientists to work on your weapons program when you tell them that Hitler was threatening civilization, that they were going to open up a new chapter in world history, etc. It’s exciting to be part of something new, in any case. But if the job seems like it is just about maintaining an existing complex — one that many of the scientists were having second-thoughts on anyway — it’s not as glamorous. Back to the universities, back to the “real” work.

And, of course, it’s a serious morale problem if you don’t think you laboratory is going to exist in a year or two. When the Atomic Energy Act got held up in Congress for over a year, it introduced serious uncertainty as to the future of Los Alamos. Was Los Alamos solely a wartime production or a long-term institution? It wasn’t clear.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

There were also technical dimensions to the postwar slump. The industrial-sized nuclear reactors at Hanford had been built, as noted, without much prototyping. The result is that there was still much to know about how to run them. B Reactor, the first to go online, started to show problems in the immediate postwar. Some of the neutrons being generated from the chain reaction were being absorbed by the graphite lattice that served as the moderator. The graphite, as a result, was starting to undergo small chemical changed: it was swelling. This was a big problem. Swelling graphite could mean that the channels that stored fuel or let the control rods in could get warped. If that happened, the operator would no longer be in full control of the reactor. That’s bad. For the next few years, B Reactor was run on low power as a result, and the other reactors were prevented from achieving their full output until solutions to the problem were found. The result is that the Hanford reactors had around half the total energy output in the immediate postwar as they did during the wartime period — so they weren’t generating as much plutonium.

To what degree were the technical and the social problems intertwined? In the case of Los Alamos we have a lot of documentation from the period which describes the “crisis” of the immediate postwar, when they were hemorrhaging manpower and expertise. We also have some interesting documentation that implies the military was worried about what a postwar management situation might look like, if it was out of the picture — if the nuclear complex was to be run by civilians (as the Atomic Energy Act specified), they wanted to make sure that the key aspects of the military production of nuclear weapons were in “reliable” hands. In any case, the infrastructure, as it was, was in a state of severe decay for about a year as these things got worked out.

I haven't even touched on the issues of "maintaining" security culture — what goes under the term "OPSEC." There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

I haven’t even touched on the issues of “maintaining” security culture — what goes under the term “OPSEC.” There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

The result of all of this was the greatest secret of the early postwar: the United States had only a small amount of fissile material, a few parts of other bomb components, and no ready-to-use nuclear weapons. AEC head David Lilienthal recalled talking with President Truman in April 1947:

We walked into the President’s office at a few moments after 5:00 p.m. I told him we came to report what we had found after three months, and that the quickest way would be to ask him to read a brief document. When he came to a space I had left blank, I gave him the number; it was quite a shock. We turned the pages as he did, all of us sitting there solemnly going through this very important and momentous statement. We knew just how important it was to get these facts to him; we were not sure how he would take it. He turned to me, a grim, gray look on his face, the lines from his nose to his mouth visibly deepened. What do we propose to do about it?

The “number” in question was the quantity of atomic bombs ready to use in an emergency. And it was essentially zero. Thus the early work of the AEC was re-building a postwar nuclear infrastructure. It was expensive and slow-going, but by 1950 the US could once again produce atomic bombs in quantity, and was in a position to suddenly start producing many types of nuclear weapons again. Thus the tedious work of “maintenance” was actually necessary for the future work of “innovation” that they wanted to happen.

Episode 2: The post-Cold War question

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and we’re once again in at a key juncture in questions about the weapons complex. The Soviet Union is no more. The Cold War is over. What is the future of the American nuclear program? Does the United States still need two nuclear weapon design laboratories? Does it still need a diverse mix of warheads and launchers? Does it still need the “nuclear triad”? All of these questions were on the table.

What shook out was an interesting situation. The labs would be maintained, shifting their efforts away from the activities we might normally associate with innovation and invention, and towards activities we might instead associate with maintenance. So environmental remediation was a major thrust, as was the work towards “Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship,” which is a fancy term for maintaining the nuclear stockpile in a state of readiness. The plants that used to assemble nuclear weapons have converted into places where weapons are disassembled, and I’ve found it interesting that the imagery associated with these has been quite different than the typical “innovation” imagery — the people shown in the pictures are “technicians” more than “scientists,” and the prevalence of women seems (in my anecdotal estimation) much higher.

The question of what to do with the remaining stockpile is the most interesting. I pose the question like this to my undergraduate engineers: imagine you were given a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle and were told that once you were pretty sure it would run, but you never ran that particular car before. Now imagine you have to keep that Beetle in a garage for, say, 20 or 30 more years. You can remove any part from the car and replace it, if you want. You can run tests of any sort on any single component, but you can’t start the engine. You can build a computer model of the car, based on past experience with similar cars, too. How much confidence would you have in your ability to guarantee, with near 100% accuracy, that the car would be able to start at any particular time?

Their usual answer: not a whole lot. And that’s without telling them that the engine in this case is radioactive, too.

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: "Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime." Source: Arnie Heller, "Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon," Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: “Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime.” Source: Arnie Heller, “Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon,” Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Like all analogies there are inexact aspects to it, but it sums up some of the issues with these warheads. Nuclear testing by the United States ceased in 1992. It might come back today (who knows?) but the weapons scientists don’t seem to be expecting that. The warheads themselves were not built to last indefinitely — during the Cold War they would be phased out every few decades. They contain all sorts of complex materials and substances, some of which are toxic and/or radioactive, some of which are explosive, some of which are fairly “exotic” as far as materials go. Plutonium, for example, is metallurgically one of the most complex elements on the periodic table and it self-irradiates, slowly changing its own chemical structure.

Along with these perhaps inherent technical issues is the social one, the loss of knowledge. The number of scientists and engineers at the labs that have had nuclear testing experience is at this point approaching zero, if it isn’t already there. There is evidence that some of the documentary procedures were less than adequate: take the case of the mysterious FOGBANK, some kind of exotic “interstage” material that is used in some warheads, which required a multi-million dollar effort to come up with a substitute when it was discovered that the United States no longer had the capability of producing it.

So all of this seems to have a pretty straightforward message, right? That maintenance of the bomb is hard work and continues to be so. But here’s the twist: not everybody agrees that the post-Cold War work is actually “maintenance.” That is, how much of the stockpile stewardship work is really just maintaining existing capability, and how much is expanding it?

Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

Old warheads in new bottles? Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

The B-61 Mod 12 has been in the news a bit lately for this reason. The B-61 is a very flexible warhead system that allows for a wide range of yield settings for a gravity bomb. The Mod 12 has involved, among other things, an upgraded targeting and fuzing capability for this bomb. This makes the weapon very accurate and allows it to penetrate some degree into the ground before detonating. The official position is that this upgrade is necessary for the maintenance of the US deterrence position (it allows it, for example, to credibly threaten underground bunkers with low-yield weapons that would reduce collateral damage). So now we’re in a funny position: we’re upgrading (innovating?) part of a weapon in the name of maintaining a policy (deterrence) and ideally with minimal modifications to the warhead itself (because officially we are not making “new nuclear weapons”). Some estimates put the total cost of this program at a trillion dollars — which would be a considerable fraction of the total money spent on the entire Cold War nuclear weapons complex.

There are other places where this “maintenance” narrative has been challenged as well. The labs in the post-Cold War argued that they could only guarantee the stockpile’s reliability if they got some new facilities. Los Alamos got DARHT, which lets them take 3-D pictures of implosion in realtime, Livermore got NIF, which lets them play with fusion micro-implosions using a giant laser. A lot of money has been put forward for this kind of “maintenance” activity, and as you can imagine there was a lot of resistance. With all of it has come the allegations that, again, this is not really necessary for “maintenance,” that this is just innovation under the guise of maintenance. And if that’s the case, then that might be a policy problem, because we are not supposed to be “innovating” nuclear weapons anymore — that’s the sort of thing associated with arms races. For this reason, one major effort to create a warhead design that was alleged to be easier to maintain, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, was killed by the Obama administration in 2009.

"But will it work?" With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

“But will it work?” With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

So there has been a lot of money in the politics of “maintenance” here. What I find interesting about the post-Cold War moment is that “maintenance,” rather than being the shabby category that we usually ignore, has been moved to the forefront in the case of nuclear weapons. It is relatively easy to argue, “yes, we need to maintain these weapons, because if we don’t, there will be terrible consequences.” Billions of dollars are being allocated, even while other infrastructures in the United States are allowed to crumble and decline. The labs in particular have to walk a funny line here. They have an interest in emphasizing the need for further maintenance — it’s part of their reason for existence at this point. But they also need to project confidence, because the second they start saying that our nukes don’t work, they are going to run into even bigger policy problems.

And yet, it has been strongly alleged that under this cloak of maintenance, a lot of other kinds of activities might be taking place as well. So here is a perhaps an unusual politics of maintenance — one of the few places I’ve seen where there is a substantial community arguing against it, or at least against using it as an excuse to “innovate” on the sly.

Meditations

My conversation on secrecy with a Super Spook

by Alex Wellerstein, published March 18th, 2016

One of the unexpected things that popped up on my agenda this last week: I was asked to give a private talk to General Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency (1999-2005), and the Central Intelligence Agency (2006-2009). Hayden was at the Stevens Institute of Technology (where I work) giving a talk in the President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, and as with all such things, part of the schedule was to have him get a glimpse of the kinds of things we are up to at Stevens that he might find interesting.

The group that met with General Michael Hayden last Wednesday. Hayden is second from left at the far side of the table. The President of Stevens, Nariman Farvardin, is nearest to the camera. I am at the table, at the back. All photos by Jeffrey Vock photography, for Stevens.

The group that met with General Michael Hayden last Wednesday. Hayden is second from left at the far side of the table. The President of Stevens, Nariman Farvardin, is nearest to the camera. I am at the table, at the back. All photos by Jeffrey Vock photography, for Stevens.

What was strange, for me, was that I was being included as one of those things. I am sure some of my readers and friends will say, “oh, of course they wanted you there,” but I am still a pretty small fry over here, an assistant professor in the humanities division of an engineering school. The other people who gave talks either ran large laboratories or departments with obvious connections to the kinds of things Hayden was doing (e.g., in part because of its proximity to the Hudson River, Stevens does a lot of very cutting-edge work in monitoring boat and aerial vehicle traffic, and its Computer Science department does a huge amount of work in cybersecurity). That a junior historian of science would be invited to sit “at the table” with the General, the President of the Institute, and a handful of other Very Important People is not at all obvious, so I was surprised and grateful for the opportunity.

So what does the historian of secrecy say to one of the “Super Spooks,” as my colleague, the science writer (and critic of US hegemony and war) John Horgan, dubbed Hayden? I pitched two different topics to the Stevens admin — one was a talk about what the history of secrecy might tell us about the way in which secrecy should be talked about and secrecy reform should be attempted (something I’ve been thinking about and working on for some time, a policy-relevant distillation of my historical research), the other was a discussion of NUKEMAP user patterns (which countries bomb who, using a dataset of millions of virtual “detonations” from 2013-2016). They opted for the first one, which surprised me a little bit, since it was a lot less numbers-driven and outward-facing than the NUKEMAP talk.

Yours truly. As you will notice, there was a lot of great gesturing going on all around while I was talking. I am sure a primatologist could make something out of this.

Yours truly. As you will notice, there was a lot of great gesturing going on all around while I was talking. I am sure a primatologist could make something out of this.

The talk I pitched to the General covered a few distinct points. First, I felt I needed to quickly define what Science and Technology Studies (STS) was, as that is the program I was representing, and it is not extremely well-known discipline outside of academia. (The sub-head was, “AKA, Why should anyone care what a historian of science thinks about secrecy?”) Now those who practice STS know that there have been quite a few disciplinary battles of what STS is meant to be, but I gave the basic overview: STS is an interdisciplinary approach by humanists and social scientists that studies science and technology and their interactions with society. STS is sort of an umbrella-discipline that blends the history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology, but also is influenced, at times, by things like the study of psychology, political science, and law, among many other things. It is generally empirical (but not always), usually qualitative, but sometimes quantitative in its approach (e.g. bibliometrics, computational humanities). In short, I pitched, while lots of people have opinions about how science and technology “work” and what their relationship is with society (broadly construed), STS actually tries to apply academic rigor (of various degrees and definitions) to understanding these things.

Hayden was more receptive to the value of this than I might have guessed, but this seemed in part to be because he majored in history (for both a B.A. and M.A., Wikipedia tells me), and has clearly done a lot of reading around in political science. Personally I was pretty pleased with this, just because we historians, especially at an engineering school, often get asked what one can do with a humanities degree. Well, you can run the CIA and the NSA, how about that!

JV4_7757

I then gave a variation on talks I have given before on the history of secrecy in the United States, and what some common misunderstandings are. First, I pointed out that there are some consequences in just acknowledging that secrecy in the US has a history at all — that it is not “transhistorical,” having existed since time immemorial. You can pin-point to beginnings of modern secrecy fairly precisely: World War I has the emergence of many trends that become common later, like the focus on “technical” secrets and the first law (the Espionage Act) that applies to civilians as well as military. World War II saw a huge, unrelenting boom of the secrecy system, with (literally) overflow amounts of background checks (the FBI had to requisition the DC Armory and turn it into a file vault), the rise of technical secrecy (e.g. secrecy of weapons designs), the creation of new classification categories (like “Top Secret,” created in 1944), and, of course, the Manhattan Project, whose implementation of secrecy was in some ways quite groundbreaking. At the end of World War II, there was a curious juncture where some approaches to classification were handled in a pre-Cold War way, where secrecy was really just a temporary situation due to ongoing hostilities, and some started to shift towards a more Cold War fashion, where secrecy became a facet of American life.

The big points are — and this is a prerequisite for buying anything else I have to say about the topic — that American secrecy is relatively new (early-to-mid 20th century forward), that it had a few definite points of beginning, that the assumption that the world was full of increasingly dangerous information that needed government regulation was not a timeless one, and that it had changed over time in a variety of distinct and important ways. In short, if you accept that our secrecy is the product of people acting in specific, contingent circumstances, it stops you from seeing secrecy as something that just “has to be” the way it is today. It has been otherwise, it could have been something else, it can be something else in the future: the appeal to contingency, in this case, is an appeal to agency, that is, the ability for human beings to modify the circumstances under which they find themselves. This is, of course, one of the classic policy-relevant “moves” by historians: to try and show that the way the world has come to be isn’t the only way it had to be, and to try and encourage a belief that we can make choices for how it ought to be going forward.

JV4_7755

General Hayden seemed to accept all of this pretty well. I should note that throughout the talk, he interjected with thoughts and comments routinely. I appreciated this: he was definitely paying attention, to me and to the others. I am sure he has done things like this all the time, visiting a laboratory or university, being subjected to all manner of presentations, and by this point he was post-lunch, a few hours before giving his own talk. But he stayed with it, for both me and the other presenters.

The rest of my talk (which was meant to be only 15 minutes, though I think it was more towards 25 with all of the side-discussions), was framed as “Five myths about secrecy that inhibit meaningful policy discussion and reform.” I’m not normally prone to the “five myths” sort of style of talking about this (it is more Buzzfeed than academic), but for the purpose of quickly getting a few arguments across I thought it made for an OK framing device. The “myths” I laid out were as follows

Myth: Secrecy and democracy necessarily conflict. This is the one that will make some my readers blanche at first read, but my point is that there are areas of society where some forms of secrecy need to exist in order to encourage democracy in the first place, and there are places where transparency can itself be inhibiting. The General (unsurprisingly?) was very amenable to this. I then make the move that the trick is to make sure we don’t get secrecy in the areas where it does conflict with democracy. The control of information can certainly conflict with the need for public understanding (and right-to-know) that makes an Enlightenment-style democracy function properly. But we needn’t see it as an all-or-nothing thing — we “just” have to make sure the secrecy is where it ought to be (and with proper oversight), and the transparency is where it ought to be. Hayden seemed to agree with this.

My best look.

I suspect I look like this more than I wish I did.

Myth: Secrecy and security are synonymous. Secrecy is not the same thing as security, but they are often lumped together (both consciously and not). Secrecy is the method, security is the goal. There are times when secrecy promotes security — and there are times in which secrecy inhibits it. This, I noted, was one of the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission Report as well, that lack of information sharing had seriously crippled American law enforcement and intelligence with regards to anticipating the attacks of 2001. I also pointed out that the habitual use of secrecy led to its devaluation — that when you start stamping “TOP SECRET” on everything, it starts to mean a lot less. The General strongly agreed with this. He also alluded to the fact that nobody ought to be storing any kind of government e-mails on private servers thees days, because the system was so complicated that literally nobody ever knew if they were going to be generating classified information or not — and that this is a problem.

I also noted that an impressiontrue or not, that secrecy was being rampantly misapplied had historically had tremendously negative affects on public confidence in governance, which can lead to all sorts of difficulties for those tasked with said governance. Hayden took to this point specifically, thought it was important, and brought up an example. He said that the US compromise of the 1970s was to get Congressional “buy-in” to any Executive or federal classified programs through oversight committees. He argued that the US, in this sense, was much more progressive with regards to oversight than many European security agencies, who essentially operate exclusively under the purview of the Executive. He said that he thought the NSA had done a great job of getting everything cleared by Congress, of making a public case for doing what it did. But, he acknowledged that clearly this effort had failed — the public did not have a lot of confidence that the NSA was being properly seen over, or that its actions were justified. He viewed this as a major problem for the future, how US intelligence agencies will operate within the expectations of the American people. I seem to recall him saying (I am reporting this from memory) that this was just part of the reality that US intelligence and law enforcement had to learn to live with — that it might hamper them in some ways, but it was a requirement for success in the American context.

I forget what provoked this response, but I couldn't not include it here.

I forget what provoked this response, but I couldn’t not include it here.

Myth: Secrecy is a wall. This is a little, small intervention I made in terms of the metaphors of secrecy. We talk about it as walls, as cloaks, and curtains. The secrecy-is-a-barrier metaphor is perhaps the most common (and gets paired a lot with information-is-a-liquid, e.g. leaks and flows), and, if I can channel the thesis of the class I took with George Lakoff a long time ago, metaphors matter. There is not a lot you can do with a wall other than tolerate it, tear it down, find a way around, etc. I argued here that secrecy definitely feels like a wall when you are on the other “side” of it — but it is not one. If it was one, it would be useless for human beings (the only building made of nothing but walls is a tomb). Secrecy is more like a series of doors. (Doors, in turn, are really just temporary walls. Whoa.) Doors act like walls if you can’t open them. But they can be opened — sometimes by some people (those with keys, if they are locked), sometimes by all people (if they are unlocked and public). Secrecy systems shift and change over time. Who has access to the doors changes as well, sometimes over time. This comes back to the contingency issue again, but also refocuses our attention less on the fact secrecy itself but how it is used, when access is granted versus withheld, and so on. As a historian, my job is largely to go through the doors of the past that used to be locked, but are now open for the researcher.

Myth: Secrecy is monolithic. That is, “Secrecy” is one thing. You have it or you don’t. As you can see from the above, I don’t agree with this approach. It makes government secrecy about us-versus-them (when in principle “they” are representatives of “us”), it makes it seem like secrecy reform is the act of “getting rid of” secrecy. It make secrecy an all-or-nothing proposition. This is my big, overarching point on secrecy: it isn’t one thing. Secrecy is itself a metaphor; it derives from the Latin secerno: to separate, part, sunder; to distinguish; to set aside. It is about dividing the world into categories of people, information, places, things. This is what “classification” is about and what it means: you are “classifying” some aspects of the world as being only accessible to some people of the world. The metaphor doesn’t become a reality, though, without practices (and here I borrow from anthropology). Practices are the human activities that make the idea or goal of secrecy real in the world. Focus on the practices, and you get at the heart of what makes a secrecy regime tick, you see what “secrecy” means at any given point in time.

And, per my earlier emphasis on history, this is vital: looking at the history of secrecy, we can see the practices move and shift over time, some coming into existence at specific points for specific reasons (see, e.g., my history of secret atomic patenting practices during World War II), some going away over times, some getting changed or amplified (e.g., Groves’ amplification of compartmentalization during the Manhattan Project — the idea preceded Groves, but he was the one who really imposed it on an unprecedented scale). We also find that some practices are the ones that really screw up democratic deliberation, and some of them are the ones we think of as truly heinous (like the FBI’s COINTELPRO program). But some are relatively benign. Focusing on the practices gives us something to target for reform, something other than saying that we need “less” secrecy. We can enumerate and historicize the practices (I have identified at least four core practices that seem to be at the heart of any secrecy regime, whether making an atomic bomb or a fraternity’s initiation rites, but for the Manhattan Project there were dozens of discrete practices that were employed to try and protect the secrecy of the work). We can also identify which practices are counterproductive, which ones fail to work, which ones produce unintended consequences. A practice-based approach to secrecy, I argue, is the key to transforming our desires for reform into actionable results.

Hayden's lecture in De Baum auditorium, at Stevens.

Hayden’s lecture in De Baum auditorium, at Stevens.

Myth: The answer to secrecy reform is balance. A personal pet peeve of mine are appeals to “balance” — we need a “balance of secrecy and transparency/openness/democracy,” what have you. It sounds nice. In fact, it sounds so nice that literally nobody will disagree with it. The fact that the ACLU and the NSA can both agree that we need to have balance is, I think, evidence that it means nothing at all, that it is a statement with no consequences. (Hayden seemed to find this pretty amusing.) The balance argument commits many the sins I’ve already enumerated. It assumes secrecy (and openness) are monolithic entities. It assumes you can get some kind of “mix” of these pure states (but nobody can articulate what that would look like). It encourages all-or-nothing thinking about secrecy if you are a reformer. Again, the antidote for this approach is a focus on practices and domains: we need practices of secrecy and openness in different domains in American life, and focusing on the effects of these practices (or their lack of existence) gives us actionable steps forward.

I should say explicitly: I am not an activist in any way, and my personal politics are, I like to think, rather nuanced and subtle. I am sure one can read a lot of “party lines” into the above positions if one wants to, but I generally don’t mesh well with any strong positions. I am a historian and an academic — I do a lot of work trying to see the positions of all sides of a debate, and it rubs off on me that people of all positions can make reasonable arguments, and that there are likely no simple solutions. That being said, I don’t think the current system of secrecy works very well, either from the position of American liberty or the position of American security. As I think I make clear above, I don’t accept the idea that these are contradictory goals.

Hayden seemed to take my points well and largely agree with them. In the discussion afterwards, some specific examples were brought up. I was surprised to hear (and he said it later in his talk, so I don’t think this is a private opinion) that he sided with Apple in the recent case regarding the FBI and “cracking” the iPhone’s security. He felt that while the legal and Constitutional issues probably sat in the FBI’s camp, he thought the practice of it was a bad idea: the security compromise for all iPhones would be too great to be worth it. He didn’t buy the argument that you could just do it once, or that it would stay secret once it was done. I thought this was a surprising position for him to take.

In general, Hayden seemed to agree that 1. the classification system as it exists was not working efficiently or effectively, 2. that over-classification was a real problem and led to many of the huge issues we currently have with it (he called the Snowden leaks “an effect and not a cause”), 3. that people in the government are going to have to understand that the “price of doing business” in the United States was accepting that you would have to make compromises in what you could know and what you could do, on account of the needs of our democracy.

Hayden's last slide: "Buckle up: It's going to be a tough century." Though the last one was no walk in the park, either...

Hayden’s last slide: “Buckle up: It’s going to be a tough century.” Though I know he’d agree that the last one was no walk in the park, either…

Hayden then went and gave a very well-attended talk followed by a Q&A session. I live-Tweeted the whole thing; I have compiled my tweets into a Storify, if you want to get the gist of what he said. He is also selling a new book, which I suspect has many of these same points in it.

My concluding thoughts: I don’t agree with a lot of Hayden’s positions and actions. I am a lot less confident than he is that the NSA’s work with Congress, for example, constitutes appropriate oversight (it is plainly clear that Congressional committees can be “captured” by the agencies they oversee, and with regards to the NSA in particular, there seems to have been some pretty explicit deception involved in recent years). I am not at all confident that drone strikes do a net good in the regions in which we employ them. I am deeply troubled by things like extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, water boarding, and anything that shades towards torture, a lack of adherence towards laws of war, or a lack of adherence towards the basic civil liberties that our Constitution articulates as the American idea. Just to put my views on the table. (And to make it clear, I don’t necessarily think there are “simple” solutions to the problems of the world, the Middle East, to America. But I am deeply, inherently suspicious that the answer to any of them involves doing things that are so deeply oppositional to these basic American military and Constitutional values.)

But, then again, I’d never be put in charge of the NSA or the CIA, either, and there’s likely nobody who would ever be put in charge of said organizations that I would agree with on all fronts. What I did respect about Hayden is that he was willing to engage. He didn’t really shirk from questions. He also didn’t take the position that everything that the government has done, or is doing, is golden. But most important, for me, was that he took some rather nuanced positions on some tough issues. The core of what I heard him say repeatedly was that the Hobbesian dilemma — that the need for security trumps all — could not be given an absolute hand in the United States. And while we might disagree on how that works out in practice, that he was willing to walk down that path, and not merely be saying it as a platitude, meant something to me. He seemed to be speaking quite frankly, and not just a party or policy line. That’s a rare thing, I think, for former high-ranking public officials (and not so long out of office) who are giving public talks — usually they are quite dry, quite unsurprising. Hayden, whether you agree or disagree with him, is neither of these things.

Visions

Historical thoughts on Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 26th, 2016

When I meet new, educated-but-not-academic people for the first time, and the subject of what I study for a living comes up, I almost invariably get two questions. The first is almost always some variant on the question of whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary. The second is almost always about Werner Heisenberg.

Werner Heisenberg (at right) with Niels Bohr (center) and Elisabeth Heisenberg (left), 1937. (Victor Weisskopf makes a cameo appearance on the left, in the back.) Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive, American Institute of Physics.

Werner Heisenberg (at right) with Niels Bohr (center) and Elisabeth Heisenberg (left), 1937. (Victor Weisskopf makes a cameo appearance on the left, in the back.) Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive, American Institute of Physics.

Did Heisenberg try to sabotage the German bomb project? Does the failure of the Germans to produce a bomb during World War II reflect on Heisenberg’s technical knowledge, his moral choices, or Allied sabotage? What do historians think, in the end, that Heisenberg was trying to do when he visited his mentor Niels Bohr in occupied Copenhagen in the fall of 1941?

These questions, often without saying so explicitly, tend to stem from one source these days: Michael Frayn’s Tony Award-winning play Copenhagen, first performed in 1998 but often re-performed, and having also been turned into a PBS film in 2002.

This pair of questions, as a pair of cities (Hiroshima and Copenhagen), is interesting to me as a historian. These appear to be the touchstone of American intellectuals’ knowledge of nuclear history, broadly speaking. One rooted in a controversial act of war, the other in a controversial piece of theatre. It is, perhaps, more of a testament to the theatre to get people (at least some people) thinking about history than one might typically suspect — that Americans think about Hiroshima is perhaps as it ought to be, that they think about Copenhagen is far more curious.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen

When I was an undergraduate majoring in the history of science at UC Berkeley in the early 2000s, Copenhagen was very much in the air. It had just come to America (I saw the San Francisco production twice), and it resulted in the early release, in 2002, of several sealed letters in the Niels Bohr Archive relating to Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s 1941 meeting. My undergraduate advisor was a Heisenberg scholar, and I took several classes with her that touched very directly on the history of the American and German bomb projects. One of my last acts at Berkeley was to design the cover for an excellent volume of historical essays on the play. So the play has had a remarkably large role in my early interest in nuclear history.

Last fall I was asked to take part in a Q&A about the play at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge with Alan Brody of MIT, where it was showing. Aside from giving me a chance to visit my old grad school stomping grounds (the first time, I think, since I started my current job), it also gave me a fresh excuse to revisit the play, about a decade after I last spent any real time thinking about it. What follows is based on what I said at the panel.

What did Heisenberg and Bohr talk about in 1941? I think the main response from historians that you are likely to get is: we’ll never know, and it probably isn’t that important in the scheme of things anyways. Which is to say, not much of an answer. All we have to go on regarding that conversation are a few later recollections from the only two people who were there — Bohr and Heisenberg — and all of those recollections have been fairly “tainted” by quite a lot of other events that came afterwards, and do not match up with each other. What I mean by “tainted” is that there became high stakes for both sides for remembering the events in different ways, and the effects of the successful Allied atomic bombs, coupled with the full revelation of the crimes of Nazi Germany, makes it hard for anyone to be anything like objective after the fact.

Niels and Margrethe Bohr, on the motorcycle of George Gamow, 1930. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Niels and Margrethe Bohr, on the motorcycle of George Gamow, 1930. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

The Bohr letters released in 2002 are an example of this. Bohr’s letters to Heisenberg, which are very condemnatory, have been sometimes naively cited as “proof” of whatever took place. They are not. They were written after Bohr had read an account of the German bomb project (Robert Jungk’s Brighter than a Thousand Suns) which implied (in a footnote) that Heisenberg was claiming to have sabotaged the German project on moral grounds. Bohr, infuriated that Heisenberg might be saying such a thing, wrote a strongly-worded language arguing for the opposite. Historians now know — having looked at Jungk’s papers — that in fact Heisenberg’s letter to Jungk was mis-quoted by the latter, missing sentences where Heisenberg clearly backs away from such an implication. In any case, the point is simple enough: Bohr’s letters, written a decade later, were the angry assertions of someone who thought Heisenberg was trying to make a specific sort of claim, and Bohr was intent on disabusing him of the notion. One might also point out (as the play does) that in the end, Bohr was the one who did contribute towards making a weapon of mass destruction, not Heisenberg, and for Bohr to think that Heisenberg was attempting to claim a moral high-ground as a result would have been particularly galling.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t a grain of truth in Bohr’s letters. But decade-old memories conjured up in a moment of anger and misapprehension, at best, are the subjective memories of one individual, and at worst, may be unreliable even as those. And memories are, of course, tricky things, as any psychologist will tell you.

In any case, a historian would probably also argue that this doesn’t matter too much. One meeting is generally not the stuff that history is made of. Even if Heisenberg had said, in the strongest terms, that the Germans weren’t building a bomb, it would have not changed much of history — the momentum was far too great in the Allied project by the time Bohr got to it, and there are few who likely would have believed him without concrete proof.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission. Source: Wikipedia.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission. Source: Wikipedia.

But it might appear to give an one of those questions that people have been asking since 1945: why did the Germans fail to get an atomic bomb? But here also is where the historians might be annoying and pedantic. There are very few historians who believe that Heisenberg (or any of the Germans working on the project) were actively trying to avoid making an atomic bomb. Frayn’s play in many ways tries to “sit on the fence” on this issue, but in doing so the play ends up creating something of the “false balance” fallacy, giving equal time to a side that is not considered very plausible by most. It leaves up in the air whether Heisenberg was trying to sabotage (consciously or not), making it seem that this is as equally plausible an interpretation as any other.

This can be misleading. Some members of the German atomic program — Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker was the main one — did try to claim, after the war, that the reason the Germans didn’t make an atomic bomb was because they didn’t want to make an atomic bomb. Heisenberg himself generally danced elliptically around this claim, never quite (to my knowledge) advocating it, but also describing his actions during the war with enough vagueness as to leave open the possibility that part of him, perhaps subconsciously, didn’t succeed because he didn’t want to. The “Heisenberg was a saboteur” thesis was given prominence in Thomas Power’s Heisenberg’s War (2000), but other than that, it is not present in the claims of pretty much any other recent history on the topic.

The reason why is simple enough: there isn’t any proof of it. In fact, it seems to have been offered up, quite post-hoc, as an explanation while the German scientists were being interred at Farm Hall and trying to grapple with the meaning of Hiroshima. It also doesn’t really square with any of the actions of the Germans during the war: they were working quite hard. If one is to assume they did any “sabotage,” it must have been extremely subtle, so subtle as to be indistinguishable from them doing the opposite of sabotage.

Instead, through many other books (which I have discussed in another post), we have a pretty good picture of the German atomic program, how it was decided that it would pursue reactors, not bombs, and how paltry it was in comparison to the Allied effort. As I have stated elsewhere, the interesting historical question for me is less why didn’t the Germans but rather why did the Americans? Because the American case is the anomaly, not the German case. To decide whether an atomic bomb could be made rapidly with the knowledge available in 1941 involved a non-trivial prediction of the future. The Americans ended up (for various reasons) thinking it could be done; the Germans thought it was not worth the risk and expense. The Americans, in any case, barely pulled it off. Had their schedule been off by a few months, there would have been no atomic bombs ready for use during World War II, and the Manhattan Project still holds the world record for fastest time between deciding to make a nuclear weapon and actually having one.

Heisenberg and Bohr in Copenhagen in the early 1930s. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Heisenberg and Bohr in Copenhagen in the early 1930s. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

But I digress. If Copenhagen errs this is where it errs: it presents, on balance, a case that is remarkably sympathetic to the idea that Heisenberg et al. purposefully sabotaged the German bomb program. This is not what most historians see in the historical record. In its fallback position, the play presents the idea that the German bomb program was a failure on a very basic technical level — that nobody had run the critical mass equation correctly, that nobody had realized a few very basic ideas. And while it is true that there were some errors in the German calculations, they were not nearly so ignorant of these matters as the play would have you believe. They knew what plutonium was. They knew what atomic bombs could be. There were those within the German program (which was not one single program in any case, but several different groups) who knew that the critical mass of enriched uranium would be fairly low (German Army Ordnance thought in 1942 that between 10-100 kg of U-235 would give you a bomb, which is a spot-on estimate). Their problem was not one of basic technical errors. Heisenberg made some technical errors, but he was not the only one on the project.

There are many other, more interesting reasons to attribute the failure of the German bomb project. They lacked the fear of an Allied project that the Allies had of them. They feared over-promising with regards to a risky endeavor. During the later parts of the war, they suffered from supply setbacks due to their being targets of bombing and sabotage raids. They lacked anything like a Leslie Groves or Lavrenty Beria figure who could push the work through, against all odds and setbacks, in the limited amount of time that it might have been successful. But this is an area where I don’t want to overrepresent a historical consensus, though: practically every historian who writes on the topic of the German atomic bomb has a slightly different reason to argue why they didn’t make one. (If you read the volume of essays on Copenhagen I mentioned earlier, Copenhagen in Debate, the overwhelming feeling one gets is that practically every historian in there thinks Frayn is wrong, but they disagree greatly on exactly why the Germans didn’t get the bomb.)

So, does this mean that that I don’t like Frayn’s play? No! I actually like the play a lot. It just shouldn’t be anyone’s primary source for information about what happened during the German bomb project. But I don’t think it’s any worse in terms of confusing people than, say, many History Channel documentaries are. Popularizations of history often get things a bit wrong, sometimes a lot wrong — that doesn’t keep me up at night.

Same scene as above, different moment. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Same scene as above, different moment. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

The moral questions the play raises, the way it encourages people to view historical record as something complex and evolving, and the way in which it emphasizes that changing the questions you ask of history can lead you to see different aspects of it (in a deliberate analogy to Bohr’s Complementarity), are all quite important and interesting things to think about. I think Frayn’s play manages to get a lot right about what history itself is, and how it is formed on the back of inscriptions and memories and uncertainties and understandings that shift over time. In my mind, those are the really important things to get out of a play.

And let’s be honest: how many people — even professional historians! — would care about the ins-and-outs of the history of the German atomic project if not for this play? It raised the awareness of historical scholarship on this question to new heights, even if much of that scholarship is arguing against some of the implications people take away from the play. But it made that scholarship seem relevant. It makes people ask me about Heisenberg. That’s a good thing, and a needed thing. I would much rather people take an interest in this subject, and maybe run the risk of having different views than the majority of historians, than the contrary, which is that they don’t know or care anything about it at all. Of course, there are limits to this sort of attitude.

Frayn’s errors are ones of subtle historical interpretation, and don’t seem (in Frayn’s case) to be motivated by any sort of overarching political or historical agenda. (Unlike the case of von Weizsäcker, for example.) I’m inclined to give them a “pass” for the sake of making interesting entertainment that gets people asking questions. The one error that Frayn’s play essentially avoids is the more common popular error about the German bomb project, which claims that there was a true “race for the bomb” in which the world very narrowly avoided the Nazis getting nuclear weapons before the Americans did. This is a much more insidious sort of erroneous history, in my mind, because it is used to paper over the moral questions on the American side of things, and commits a multitude of factual sins in the process. The question of whether Heisenberg was a saboteur or not is not on that level, even if I think the bulk of the historical profession would not agree with Frayn that it is as likely an explanation for the German failure as any other.

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Solzhenitsyn and the Smyth Report

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 12th, 2016

The Smyth Report is one of the more improbable things to come out of World War II. It is one thing to imagine the United States managing to take nuclear fission, a brand-new scientific discovery announced in 1939, and to have developed two fully-realized industrial-methods of enriching uranium, three industrial-sized nuclear reactors (plus several experimental ones), and three nuclear weapons by the summer of 1945. That improbable enough already, especially since their full-scale work on the project did not begin until late 1942. What really takes it into strange territory is to then imagine that, right after using said superweapon, they published a book explaining how it was made. I can think of no other parallel situation in history, before or since.

The original press release about the Smyth Report, issued only a few days after the Nagasaki bombing. Truman himself personally made the final decision over whether the report should be issued. Source: Manhattan District History Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8.

The original press release about the Smyth Report, issued only a few days after the Nagasaki bombing. Truman himself personally made the final decision over whether the report should be issued. Source: Manhattan District History Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8.

I have written on the Smyth Report before, talking about the paradoxical mix of motivations that led to its creation: the civilian scientists wanted the American people to have the facts so they could be good citizens in a democracy, while the military wanted something that set the limits of what was allowable speech. Groves and his representatives (namely Henry Smyth and Richard Tolman) devised the first declassification criteria for nuclear weapons in deciding what to allow into the report and what not to. Groves was concerned about secret details, but not the big picture (e.g., which methods of producing fissile material had worked and how they roughly worked), which he thought would be too easy to learn from newspaper accounts. There were those even at the time who criticized this approach, since it is the big picture that might provide the roadmap to a bomb, and the details would emerge to anyone who started on that journey.

The Soviets, in any case, quickly translated the Smyth Report into Russian. The Russian Smyth Report is a very faithful and careful translation. The American physicist Arnold Kramish reviewed it in 1948, and noticed that the Soviets managed to produce a document that showed they were paying very close attention to the original — specifically, that they had multiple editions of the Smyth Report, and noticed differences. The first edition of the Smyth Report was a lithoprint created by the Army, and only around 1,000 copies were printed and released a few days after the bombing of Nagasaki. A spiffed-up edition was published by Princeton University Press, under the title Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, in September 1945. Most of the differences between the two editions are cosmetic, like using full names for scientists instead of initials. In a few places, there are minor additions to the Princeton University Press edition.

Now you see it, now you don't... comparing the sections on "pile poisoning" in the original lithograph edition of the Smyth Report (top) and the later version published by Princeton University Press (bottom) reveals the omission of a crucial sentence that indicates that this problem was not merely a theoretical one.

Now you see it, now you don’t… comparing the sections on “pile poisoning” in the original lithograph edition of the Smyth Report (top) and the later version published by Princeton University Press (bottom) reveals the omission of a crucial sentence that indicates that this problem was not merely a theoretical one. (Note: the top image is a composite of a paragraph that runs across two pages, which is why the font weight changes in a subtle way.)

But there is at least one instance of the Manhattan Project personnel deciding to remove something from the later edition. The major one noted by Kramish is what was called the “poisoning” problem. In the lithoprint version of the Smyth Report that was released in August 1945, there was a paragraph about a problem they had in the Hanford piles:

Even at the high power level used in the Hanford piles, only a few grams of U-238 and of U-235 are used up per day per million grams of uranium present. Nevertheless the effects of these changes are very important. As the U-235 is becoming depleted, the concentration of plutonium is increasing. Fortunately, plutonium itself is fissionable by thermal neutrons and so tends to counterbalance the decrease of U-235 as far as maintaining the chain reaction is concerned. However, other fission products are being produced also. These consist typically of unstable and relatively unfamiliar nuclei so that it was originally impossible to predict how great an undesirable effect they would have on the multiplication constant. Such deleterious effects are called poisoning. In spite of a great deal of preliminary study of fission products, an unforeseen poisoning effect of this kind very nearly prevents operation of the Hanford piles, as we shall see later.

Reactor “poisoning” refers to the fact that certain fission products created by the fission process can make further fissioning difficult. There are several problematic isotopes for this. There are ways to compensate for the problem (namely, run the reactor at higher power), but it caused some anxiety in the early trials of the B-Reactor. The question of whether to include a reference to this was considered a “borderline” secret by Groves when Smyth was writing the report, but it got added in. Apparently someone had second thoughts after it was released, and so the sentence I’ve put in italics in the quote above was deleted from the Princeton University Press edition. The Russian Smyth Report claimed to be — and shows evidence of — having used the Princeton University Press edition as its main reference. However, that particular sentence about poisoning shows up in the Russian edition, word-for-word.

"Atomic Energy for Military Purposes," first edition of the Soviet Smyth Report translation made by G.M. Ivanov and published by the State Railway Transportation Publishing House, 1946. Source.

“Atomic Energy for Military Purposes,” first edition of the Soviet Smyth Report translation made by G.M. Ivanov and published by the State Railway Transportation Publishing House, 1946. Source.

Kramish concluded:

I think it is significant in that here we have evidence that at least one Soviet technical man has screened the Smyth Report in great detail and it is very unlikely that some of the references which we have hoped “maybe they won’t notice” have not been noticed. With particular regard to the statement that fission product poisoning very nearly prevents the operation of the Hanford piles, we must realize that that information most certainly has been compromised.

This serves as a wonderful example of a very common principle in secrecy: if someone notices you trying to keep a secret, you will serve to draw more attention to what you are trying to hide.

But who read the Russian Smyth Report? I mean, other than the people actually participating in the Soviet atomic bomb project. Apparently it was published and available quite widely in the Soviet Union, which is an interesting fact in and of itself. One imagines that the American works that were chosen to be translated into Russian and mass-published must have been pretty selective during the Stalin years; a report about the United State’s atomic energy triumphs made the grade, for whatever reason.

Solzhenitsyn's Gulag mugshot from 1953. Source: Gulag Archipelago, scanned version from Wikimedia.org.

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag mugshot from 1953. Source: Gulag Archipelago, scanned version from Wikimedia.org.

Which brings me to the event that got me thinking about the Russian Smyth Report again. For the past few years, on and off, I’ve been making my way through the unabridged edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It’s a long work, and historians take it with a grain of salt (it is not a work of academic history to say the least), but I find it fascinating, at times darkly humorous, at times shocking. Some of the chapters are skimmable (Solzhenitsyn has axes to grind that mean little to me at this point — e.g. against specific Soviet-era prosecutors). But occasionally there are just some really unexpected and surprising little anecdotes. And one of those involves the Smyth Report.

Timofeev-Ressovsky. Source.

Timofeev-Ressovsky. Source.

At one point, Solzhenitsyn talks about his time in the Butyrskaya prison, a “hub” for transferring Gulag prisoners between different camps, albeit one that it was (in Solzhenitsyn’s account) easy to get “stuck” in while they were figuring out what to do with you (and perhaps forgetting about you). Shortly after he arrived, he was approached by “a man who was middle-aged, broad-shouldered yet very skinny, with a slightly aquiline nose.” The man, another prisoner, introduced himself: “[I am] Professor Timofeyev-Ressovsky, President of the Scientific and Technical Society of Cell 75. Our society assembles every day after the morning bread ration, next to the left window. Perhaps you could deliver a scientific report to us? What precisely might it be?” He was none other than the eminent biologist and geneticist Nikolai Timofeev-Ressovsky, a victim of Lysenkoism who had taken up a post in Germany before the rise of the Nazis, been re-captured in the Soviet invasion, and thrown into prison. Timofeev-Ressovsky, though not a name that rolls of the tongue today, was one of the most famous Russian biologists of his time, and one of the world experts on the biological effects of ionizing radiation. And, true to form, he had organized a science seminar in his cell while in Butyrskaya.

Solzhenitsyn continued:

Caught unaware, I stood before him in my long bedraggled overcoat and winter cap (those arrested in winter are foredoomed to go about in winter clothing during the summer too). My fingers had not yet straightened out that morning and were all scratched. What kind of scientific report could I give? And right then I remembered that in camp I had recently held in my hands for two nights the Smyth Report, the official report of the United States Defense Department on the first atom bomb, which had been brought in from outside. The book had been published that spring. Had anyone in the cell seen it? It was a useless question. Of course no one had. And thus it was that fate played its joke, compelling me, in spite of everything, to stray into nuclear physics, the same field in which I had registered on the Gulag card.

After the rations were issued, the Scientific and Technical Society of Cell 75, consisting of ten or so people, assembled at the left window and I made my report and was accepted into the society. I had forgotten some things, and I could not fully comprehend others, and Timofeyev-Ressovsky, even though he had been in prison for a year and knew nothing of the atom bomb, was able on occasion to fill in the missing parts of my account. An empty cigarette pack was my blackboard, and I held an illegal fragment of pencil lead. Nikolai Vladimirovich took them away from me and sketched and interrupted, commenting with as much self-assurance as if he had been a physicist from the Los Alamos group itself.

What are the odds of all of this having happened? The Smyth Report itself was pretty improbable. The Soviets deciding to publish it themselves strikes me as unpredictable. That Solzhenitsyn would run across it in a camp seems entirely fortuitous. And finally, that Solzhenitsyn would be the one who would end up explaining it to Timofeyev-Ressovsky, an expert on the radiation effects, seems like a coincidence that a writer would abhor — it’s just too unlikely.

And yet, sometimes history lines up in peculiar ways, does it not? I am sure it never occurred to Smyth, or to Groves, that the report would end up being much-sought-after Gulag reading.