Archive for January, 2012


The Custody Dispute Over the Bomb

Monday, January 30th, 2012

The term "custody dispute" is one we usually associate with acrimonious divorce proceedings. But there was a very real nuclear custody dispute in the 1950s, one which I've often been surprised that even folks fairly well-versed in nuclear history weren't aware of.1

Some fifty B61 bombs in a US Air Force base "igloo." Courtesy Federation of American Scientists.

The issue in a nutshell: When Eisenhower took office in 1953, there were around 1,000 nuclear bombs in the US nuclear arsenal and all but a few dozen were in the hands of the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). When he left office in 1961, the nuclear stockpile contains some 18,000 weapons (of widely varying size, yield, and delivery mechanism), and 90% of them were under military control.2 That shifting of control — of whether it was a civilian or a military organization that physically had responsibility over the bombs — was the essence of the custody dispute.

The backstory to the dispute is rather simple. As part of the Congressional battle over postwar domestic legislation to regulate atomic energy, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (the McMahon Act) assigned all control of the manufacture, development, and possession of nuclear weapons to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This was not accidental — the key push by Senator Brien McMahon was that this was "civilian control" of the atom, as opposed to "military control." (The bill the McMahon Act was meant to replace, the May-Johnson Act, was castigated as a "military" bill, which was not entirely true.) The fear, in 1946, was that a military-controlled nuclear complex would result in an un-reflective arms race, preempt democracy, and make an unpleasant atmosphere for scientists. (Thank goodness civilian control resulted in none of those ills!)

The Atomic Energy Act allowed for the possibility that the President could, "from time to time," direct the AEC to give the military access to fissile material and weapons "for such use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense." Otherwise, all weapons would be kept by the AEC.

Thus the custody dispute: the military was, over the course of the late 1940s and 1950s, meant to be ramping up its integration of nuclear weapons into its war plans. And yet, they did not physically have access to live nuclear weapons. In fact, they didn't even have access to weapons casings to practice with, on account of the weapons casings being classified as "restricted data," and required Q-clearances (with full FBI investigations) to even look at!

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  1. My source for this is a rather classic document for information about US nuclear deployments: History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons, July 1945 through September 1977 (8MB PDF here), prepared by the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy), in February 1978. What I mean by "classic," here, is that lots of other folks seem to have known about this document for a long time, but I was only made aware of it when I asked a former Harvard colleague of mine, Dan Volmar, who is doing a dissertation on nuclear command and control systems, for something about the custody issue. []
  2. Peter J. Roman, "Ike's Hair-Trigger: Nuclear Predelegation, 1953-60," Security Studies 7, no. 4 (Summer 1998), 121-164, on 121. []
News and Notes

R.I.P.: Richard H. Groves, son of Leslie Groves

Friday, January 27th, 2012

Richard H. Groves died on December 26, 2011, at the age of 88, according an obituary published yesterday in the Washington Post. Richard was the son of General Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Project.

Leslie Groves didn't tell his family what he was working on over the course of World War II — compartmentalization was, as he put it later, "the very heart of security."

That being said, Leslie Groves didn't ice out his son over the course of the war. The Leslie Groves papers at NARA contain lots of interesting wartime correspondence relating to Richard. My favorite bit: In early 1942, Leslie Groves wrote to Henry DeWolf Smyth, head of the Princeton Physics department and later author of the famous Smyth Report, for advice about whether Richard should select Physics as his college major.1

Click the image for the full PDF.

I love the feeling of paternal concern one gets from the note. General Groves, the man who would move mountains if it further the development of the bomb, suddenly becomes the concerned father, dutifully worried about whether his son's calculus was up to snuff.

  1. Citation: Leslie R. Groves to Henry D. Smyth (3 January 1942), in National Archives, RG 200, Papers of Leslie R. Groves, Correspondence, Box 4, "Richard H. Groves." []

An Oppenheimer for Every Historian

Friday, January 27th, 2012

My favorite photographer of J. Robert Oppenheimer is Ulli Steltzer. She's a Canadian photographer of some renown, and took many of the late photographs of Oppenheimer in the early 1960s that grace many of his biographies. I had inadvertently used one of her photographs — a whole set of them, actually, in the form of a contact sheet or proof sheet1 — while designing the poster for the Oppenheimer centennial conference at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004 (just before I went off to grad school). I had found a photocopy of the contact sheet in Frank Oppenheimer's papers at the Bancroft Library and was just immediately taken with its symbolism: every bomb historian has their own J. Robert Oppenheimer, slightly different.2

The quality of the photocopy isn't as good as the original, but I like the stark contrast it created. It also worked well with the color process (the whole poster is just black, white, and blueish) that we used.3 Only much later did I figure out that the photographer was Steltzer. She was kind enough to ship me a darkroom reproduction of the original contact sheet, which is stunningly beautiful.

Over e-mail, I asked Ulli about her sessions with Oppenheimer. This was her response to me:

I am glad you like the proof sheet. It is one of several, though I only took O.'s picture four times. The first time I was so exited, that all the pictures were out of focus. Your proof sheet is from the second time. He was shy of the camera and I never got more than 12 shots. It is hard to say which expression is most typical. Priscilla chose a very different picture from Kai Bird. And I have one of the friendly ones here, with the pipe and a smile. Was he an easy or difficult guy to photograph? He asked me to come and take the pictures at different times and occasions, but I never stayed longer than 8 or 10 minutes because he would soon say that it was enough. ... When you say "anything you could remember would be appreciated".....I could not write a book, but I do have many profound memories of conversations with Oppenheimer, enough to justify any expression of his that I was able to catch on film. A man of his depth and complexity can not be easily portrayed in one frame. This is why I can truly appreciate your wanting the proof sheet.4

I thought the portions I've bolded above were pretty interesting. I like the idea that someone of Oppenheimer's richness — sometimes one thing, sometimes another — defies the static notion of the photograph, and perhaps a static notion of a narrative character. Sometimes he's smiling at you, elfin, almost winking. Sometimes he's brooding and dark. Sometimes he looks the haunted martyr, sometimes he looks proud. All within the span of 10 minutes or so.

  1. Contact sheets are used by photographer to figure out which of their negatives are worth developing. Any photographer, or anyone who took a photography class in high school, knows this, but I wonder how obscure this fact will be in an age of cheap digital photography. Don't mistake this for nostalgia on my part -- I never saw much glory in smelling like chemicals all day! Though there is something intimate about the darkroom that doesn't quite carry over to Photoshop. []
  2. It's a little cheesy of me to use a poster that I designed as the Friday Image, but it's really because I'm still in love with the original image that makes it work. []
  3. These days, cheap color laser printing is extremely easy to do, but at the time for whatever reason we were using some sort of color separation process. The final result is beautiful but it ended up being a huge hassle. We had told the printers we wanted it to be two colors — meaning black and blue. We hadn't realized they were considering white — the absence of color — to be a color. For whatever reason, we didn't get a proof made. What we received from the printer was horrible: instead of black, white, and blue, it was entirely blue and white, where everything you see as black in the above was rendered as the blue color. It took a lot of e-mails with the printer for them to re-print it again on short notice. I can't remember whether we ended up having to pay some of the second run as well — it wasn't really clear whose fault this was supposed to be, though I had felt that the fact that the printed work looked nothing like the digital files we had provided might have been a tip-off to a competent printer, and probably override the fact that my language in describing it had been imprecise. It also didn't help that they tried to fake some of their e-mails to make it sound like they were in the right. Anyway, you live and you learn. This was my first big poster printing job, and I learned a lot from it — as one does from all survived disasters. []
  4. E-mail reproduced with permission. []

Excerpts from the Klaus Fuchs File (1951)

Wednesday, January 25th, 2012

Recently -- sometime in the last year -- the FBI revamped its online FOIA Reading Room and replaced it with a new website called the FBI Vault. Somehow I missed this until just this week. The Vault contains all of the files the old Reading Room had, but adds a huge, new section on the Rosenberg Case. This is pretty great, both for Cold War historians, as well as a potential font for student papers. Along with those of the eponymous couple, these include the files of Klaus FuchsHarry GoldDavid GreenglassGeorge Kistiakowski (misspelled online), J. Robert Oppenheimer (not his entire file), Morton SobellHarold Urey (not his entire file), among many others. Note that in some cases they are not the full files. Oppenheimer's file there is just the parts that were considered relevant to the Rosenberg Case. It's a lot of this-and-that, and not the full file by a long shot. Same with Urey's and Kistiakowski's files. At some point in the late 1970s, it seems that a number of files were either culled or grouped together with respects to a court order, and you can see evidence of this in the files as they have long lists of documents not enclosed, dated from 1978 or so.

Still, the Fuchs file is a full 9,923 pages (760MB!) of FBI-file-goodness, all conveniently in PDF format. It's not quite identical to what I got by FOIAing the FBI a few years ago -- the CD-ROM the FBI sent me had 839 more pages in it -- but it's still pretty impressive. (If you're interested in downloading the files in bulk, I heavily recommend using a download manager, like Download Them All for Firefox. It makes downloading 111 PDF files a lot easier, even though it does still take some fiddling, since the FBI wasn't entirely consistent with how it uploaded these files.)

Of course, the Vault site also contains the files of Groucho Marx, Liberace, and an 119 page file on "Louie, Louie," the song (the FBI, like everyone else, couldn't figure out the lyrics), so there's no shortage of fun to be had there. I've added this resource to my long list of nuclear primary sources on the web.

This week's document comes from the Fuchs file linked to above. Specifically, it's an excerpt of a February 1951 report made by the FBI titled "Summary Brief on Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs," related to "Fuchs' Scientific Knowledge and Disclosures to Russians."1

Click image to view the PDF.

Now this is, to me anyway, a pretty interesting document in and of itself. It compiles a lot of information about what exactly Fuchs claims to have given to the Russians. It's limited, though, in part because of the fact that the British weren't keen on giving the Americans unfettered access to Fuchs.2

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  1. Citation: Federal Bureau of Investigation, "Summary Brief on Emil Julius Klaus Fuchs" (12 February 1951), (Excerpt), in Klaus Fuchs FBI file, FBI Vault version. []
  2. For a really terrific account of the tensions in the FBI-MI5 relationship regarding Fuchs, see Michael S. Goodman, "Who Is Trying to Keep What Secret from Whom and Why? MI5-FBI Relations and the Klaus Fuchs Case," Journal of Cold War Studies 7, no. 3 (Summer 2005), 124-146. []

More from the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

A few weeks ago, I spent some time at the Legislative Archives in downtown Washington, DC, looking at the files of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). It was my first time over there since I had moved to the area; I had been there a few other times over the years, but it's really quite different when you actually live in the same town as the archive. It's a less hurried, less harried, and less targeted experience: you can take the time to really look at things you might otherwise not have time for. Case in point: I actually got to spend some time talking with one of the archivists there, Bill Davis, who knows about the JCAE records. And last Thursday, Bill called me up to tell me that a new batch of newly-declassified JCAE Executive Hearings had arrived. How's that for helpful? Of course I couldn't resist, and swung by last Friday on my way to work.

JCAE members Sen. Vandenberg (l) and Sen. Hickenlooper (r) look over various documents at a 1949 hearing regarding the AEC.

The eight newly-declassified JCAE hearings are all from 1953, ranging from March to December. NARA isn't in charge of declassifying them -- these ones seem to have been declassified by someone at the CIA who is apparently just working his way through the decades-old queue.  I imagine some poor declassifier sitting there with a 100 foot pile of paper next to him. In reality, these appear to have been scanned and are redacted using what looks like Adobe Acrobat. But it is just a single fellow doing it, apparently -- his name (Alan Lipton) is on every one of them as the declassifier.

1953 was an important year. For one thing, the Cold War was pretty hot right about then. The Korean War was still going on for most of it; the US had tested a hydrogen bomb prototype, but not an actual usable weapon; the Soviets set off a "thermonuclear weapon" (not Teller-Ulam, but still not very nice) that August; McCarthyism was still going strong. Tough times.

So what are in these files? Here are a few notes from them -- they cover some interesting topics. Many of them deal with CIA in particular, which is of some inherent interest.

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