Dangerous Princeton Wives (1943)

by Alex Wellerstein, published December 7th, 2011

The atomic bomb was meant to be one of the greatest secrets of the war. A vast security force was set up to monitor the thousands of personnel involved. Barbed wire, remoteness, and intrusive investigations were meant to keep the Los Alamos lab a complete and total blank. But the Manhattan Project administrators didn’t count on the powers of one especially nefarious group to pierce the veil of secrecy: Princeton wives.

This week’s document is a letter, from early 1943, from Henry DeWolf Smyth, Princeton physicist and future author of the famous Smyth Report, to Irving Stewart, the Executive Secretary of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, the civilian organization were had overall control over the wartime bomb project. Smyth reports that he had become aware of “an extremely unpleasant and serious situation with regard to Dr. Oppenheimer’s new project.”1

Click the image to view the full document in PDF format.

J. Robert Oppenheimer had been in town not too long earlier, and had been recruiting physicists to his new, secret laboratory in New Mexico. He recommended to the physicists that they consult with their wives about the possible relocation. “It is not clear to me,” Smyth wrote, “whether they were to tell their wives anything more than the location and restrictions. There were, of course, repeated warnings by him and by me on the necessity for extreme secrecy.”

But it wasn’t enough:

Last Thursday I received a call from a young woman who has no connection whatever with anyone on the project here but who felt it a matter of duty to tell me that a considerable amount of information about Oppenheimer’s project was circulating among the women who live in the Prospect Apartments. The Prospect Apartments is one of the few apartment houses in Princeton, and there are several member of our project who will be going to Oppenheimer who live there. I understand that the woman who spoke to me had not received this information directly from any wives of people on this project, and I further understand that there is a woman living at the Prospect Apartments whose brother is a physicist at Berkeley and is going to Oppenheimer’s new project.

Smyth recommended an investigation be made into the source of the information, and pointed out how “deeply distressed” he was by the apparent leak. Stewart replied that he had forwarded Smyth’s letter on to the security people, who would look into it.

The heart of the issue, though, was not that Princeton wives were especially gossipy — it was that the requirements of security struck to the heart of human lives, and moving 2,000 miles across the country was no small decision to be made. To do so in total secrecy was going to be more or less impossible, at least for scientists not fully “indoctrinated” to the security approach to life. That news of potential dislocations and moves would circulate, at least in the vague outlines of the project, is not surprising.

This isn’t anything remotely like the last time this sort of thing occurred. In his nuke-anthropology classic, Nuclear Rites, Hugh Gusterson describes in some detail the ways in which a compartmentalized life can put strain on domestic unions:

Viewed in this context, we must partly understand laboratory practices of secrecy as a means of creating a disciplinary distance between weapons scientists and their families. Often working in concert with traditional American notions of appropriate roles in marriage, they open a space between the laboratory and the domestic sphere that, to some extent at least, insulates weapons scientists from questions and challenges about their work and maintains a seal between the values of the public and domestic spheres.2

All of which is an important reminder of the messiness that emerges in which the idealized world of information security mashes up against the more complicated world of actual human beings.

  1. Citation: Henry D. Smyth to Irving Stewart (15 February 1943), in Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, Record Group 227, microfilm publication M1392, Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. (ca. 1990), Reel 9, Target 24, Folder 140, “Oppenheimer, June 1, 1942-February 1943.” []
  2. Hugh Gusterson, Nuclear Rites: A Weapons Laboratory at the End of the Cold War (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 99. []

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