Declassifying the Ivy Mike film (1953)

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 8th, 2012

Every good nuclear wonk has seen the delightfully over-the-top film that the government made about the Operation Ivy test in 1952. If you've seen any films involving nuclear test footage, you've probably seen parts of it, even if you didn't recognize it as such. It ranks probably second in the all-time-most-viewed nuclear weapons films.1

Ivy Mike was, of course, the first test of a staged, multi-megaton thermonuclear weapon: the first hydrogen bomb. With an explosive yield of 10.4 million tons of TNT, it was a grim explication how tremendously destructive nuclear arms could be. Even Congressmen had difficulty making sense its power.

A 17-minute version (down from 28 minutes, which is already down from the hour-plus version now available from, embedded above) of the Operation Ivy film was released for American citizens on April 1, 1954. The domestic and international reactions were immediate. The Soviet Union warned its people that these weapons could destroy "the fruits of a thousand years of human toil"; Premier Nehru of India called for the US and USSR to cease all hydrogen bomb tests. It was replayed two days later in the United Kingdom with an estimated 8 million viewers, even though supposedly the film was not meant to be distributed overseas, to avoid inflaming international opinion against nuclear testing.

The New York Times' television critic, Jack Gould, reviewed it negatively: "A turning point in history was treated like another installment of 'Racket Squad.'"2 The problem, Gould explained, was that it used "theatrical tricks" to talk down to the audience. Now the irony here is that the Operation Ivy film wasn't made for a television audience. It was made for the President of the United States and top military brass and folks like that. Which makes the "talking down" even more disturbing, no?

This week's document concerns the internal deliberations by the Atomic Energy Commission regarding the declassification and sanitizing of the Operation Ivy film. This report, AEC 483/47, outlines the opinion of the AEC directors of Classification and the Information Service about whether the film could and should be declassified.3

Click the image for the full PDF.

This isn't the story of how it ends up on American television, but it is moving in that direction. The document goes over a proposal to release an edited (sanitized) version of the film for usage at a Conference of Mayors that President Eisenhower had assembled. The goal was to convince the mayors that Civil Defense was important: you'd better act now, before your city gets nuked.

The problem: the AEC didn't really want to release the precise yield of the Mike shot. That's a hard thing to hide when you're obliterating an island with it. They also weren't keen on releasing the fact that this wasn't a deliverable weapon yet, but they couldn't see a way of getting around that without seriously cutting it down to nothing. But at least they managed to cut out everything about its design, and the Ivy King shot (the largest pure-fission explosion, at half a megaton).

The idea was to downgrade it from "Restricted Data," i.e. "nuclear secrets that we will execute you for revealing," to "Official Use Only," i.e. "please don't release this but we can't punish you legally (only administratively) if you do." OUO is not really a classification category — it's a directive about internal government handling. It doesn't require the document being put in safe, nobody goes to jail for giving it away. So essentially they're debating whether they can declassify it but still restrict its circulation. The Information Services director points out that this could lead to bad P.R. if they are withholding unclassified material for any amount of time, and recommends that after the Conference, they just release it publicly anyway. A nice quote:

Resisting the pressure for public showing of a declassified film will place the AEC in the position of withholding material which will not affect the common defense and security, according to its own official determination, and which is of absorbing interest to the American public. It seems prudent to the Division of Information Services to avoid this dilemma by determining that following the showing to the Mayor's Conference, the film will be made available to the public media at a time and under conditions which will best advance the nation's interests in the fields of domestic public information and foreign information operations.

Lastly, there is a comment from Alvin Graves, of Los Alamos, explaining that the concern amongst the weapon scientists is as follows:

We recommend that one should not adopt the philosophy that since this has been released one must be more careful of other information and thereby tighten up security to such an extent that our work becomes more difficult. That philosophy might easily give the Commission a very heavy handicap.

Pretty interesting. The full report is one of those great documents in which they weigh, back and forth, the pros and cons of release, and those can be very revealing when thinking about the classification mindset of any given period.

What eventually pushed Ivy into its April 1, 1954 release? That I'm not sure about, yet, but it's got to have something to do with the publicity that followed the Castle Bravo accident (March 1, 1954), where suddenly talking publicly about H-bomb yields, fallout, fission-fusion-fission bombs, and the like, became the norm.

I just want to point out one more thing: this tension between the Division of Classification and the Division of Information Services is an instructive one. Secrecy is produced not just by holding things back, but by deciding what to release. From the Smyth Report forward, the effort at maintaining nuclear secrets has always been this twin consideration.

  1. First likely goes to the Crossroads Baker test, which aside from being used everywhere is featured very prominently, repeatedly, at the end of Dr. Strangelove. []
  2. Note that the Operation Ivy narrator was Reed Hadley, from the aforementioned "Racket Squad." []
  3. Citation: Report by the Directors of Classification and Information Service regarding the Film on Operation Ivy (AEC 483/47), (8 December 1953), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document #NV0074012. []

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7 Responses to “Declassifying the Ivy Mike film (1953)”

  1. Davey says:

    So I watched the film. At 44:23, the narrator uses the word “orientates”. And I thought it was a recent abuse of the language.

    Yeah, it’s an odd thing to walk away with. Yet, it’s refreshing to remember how badly the military communicated. Unfortunately, the cheezy films gave way to cheezy Powerpoint presentations. A couple of generations have passed and only the medium has changed.

  2. […] didn’t they put this on the cover in 1952? Because the test was secret, and images from it weren’t widely released until April 1954. So even though it was a year and a half late, it still had a lot of symbolic relevance. And notice […]

  3. […] until 1954, after the Castle BRAVO accident) despite the weighty subject matter. Information on the Ivy Mike shot wasn’t released until nearly two years after it was detonated, which is a long time to try and keep something that big […]

  4. Frank says:

    I am not entirely sure about the release date of 1 April 1954. I have a letter here from Sterling Cole to members of the JCAE dated 1 April 1954 stating that the “uncensored version of the film ‘Operation IVY,’ which depicts the first test explosion of a thermonuclear device, release of which has been authorized by the President, will be distributed, in black-and-whites copies only [underlined], to the television, radio and press on April 7th.”

    Cole acknowledges color versions of the film will be made available to members of Congress and government agencies for public showing “under certain restrictions.”

    • Frank says:

      Well, disregard, as another letter lists 1 April. Argh.

      • No problem! My source for the April 1st was (here I feel like the ambassador character in Strangelove, so imagine this in a deep Russian accent), “the New York Times.” The review I mention (but didn’t cite, for whatever reason) by Jack Gould was published on April 2nd, and said that it aired nationally on April 1st.

  5. […] was this latter event that made BRAVO famous — so famous that the United States had to admit publicly it had a hydrogen bomb. And accidentally exposing the Japanese fishing supply to radiation, less than a decade after […]