Archive for April, 2012


Cold War Sex, Cold War Secrecy

Monday, April 30th, 2012

This weekend I read a fascinating article in the New York Times about the unusual death of an MI6 agent. The agent in question was found dead in his apartment, badly decomposed and locked in a duffel bag. Apparently the "official" line here is that he was into unusual sexual games, including "claustrophilia," a fetish so outre that even the venerable Wikipedia doesn't yet have an entry on it in its copious library of paraphilias.

"Photographs from a video show an expert trying to determine whether Mr. Williams could have locked himself in a duffel bag." I don't judge. (Reuters via The New York Times)

That's titillating, I suppose, but what's really interesting here is that the UK intelligence agencies are using this as an example of the fact that they don't care about the outre sexual practices of their agents anymore — and because of that, it isn't blackmail material. That's a pretty bold thing to say, given the sordid history of intelligence agencies in prosecuting homosexuals and others who engaged in other-than-heteronormative sexual activity during the Cold War. (On this, see David K. Johnston's The Lavender Scare.)

The official line here was that "sex deviants" were probably psychologically unwell (this is, of course, the period in which homosexuality was still classified as mental illness), and, even if they weren't, that they were vulnerable to blackmail attempts, and thus could be vulnerable to being coerced into aiding enemy powers. Or putting that last part in its fully circuitous form: because homosexuals were not tolerated, they were vulnerable to blackmail, thus they could not be tolerated. 

The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission was no stranger to these Cold War concerns. In February 1951, just before the beginning of the Rosenberg trial, AEC Chairman Gordon Dean reported to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy that they had rooted out a high-placed homosexual:1

  • Mr. Dean: ... We had one other pleasant thing during the course of the last month. We found out that a man down at Oak Ridge, who was in charge of personnel, was given to homosexual activity. He was arrested up here in the District of Columbia when he was up here on a trip; and of course we removed him from the payroll immediately, fired him.
  • We have also checked to see if there has been anybody brought into the program by him who might be a person with similar proclivities at the Oak Ridge office. We see no evidence of that at this point.
  • Mr. Holifield: How long had he been personnel officer at that point?
  • Mr. Dean: A matter of three years, I think. [...]
  • Sen. Bricker: What did he do?
  • Mr. Dean: He was a homosexual, picked up here by the police in Washington, D.C. It was a very unfortunate place for a man to be in, a place as high in the program as the personnel office of Oak Ridge, but such things happen.
  • Sen. Hickenlooper: He failed to report a former arrest on his PSQ [Personnel Security Questionnaire, required for security clearances], didn't he?
  • Mr. Dean: In looking back in the file we find he did not report an arrest in his PSQ. At a subsequent hearing, which took place about two and a half years ago, he was interrogated about this, and the interrogation was not skillfully conducted and they got almost up to the point of why he had been arrested and what it was all about and then it trails off into the transcript. [...]
  • Mr. Cole: What is the reason your folks weren't able to discover his weaknesses in the three years he was down there?
  • Mr. Dean: He is perfectly normal apparently when he is down there. He is a married man, he engaged in sexual intercourse. When he goes out of town, apparently this other thing comes on him. He got liquored up. It is when he drinks excessively. There is no indication from anybody down there he was even suspected of this sort of activity. [...]
  • Sen. Bricker: Was there any evidence in this man's contacts and associations away from there that there was any security risk?
  • Mr. Dean: No. [...]
  • Sen. Bricker: I mean, in his homosexual activities outside. Do you know of any pressure that might be used against him to give secrets and to get any more of his kind into the operation?
  • Mr. Dean: Is there evidence of that?
  • Mr. Waters: No evidence of that.

What a sad thing. Here's a guy who has spent the one life he has living in a horrible closet — not just one mandated by the social norms, but the "national security" requirements of his career. He's so deep in the closet, so afraid, that he doesn't act upon it unless out of town and very drunk. He gets arrested for his sexual preferences, loses his job, god knows what else. At least he was probably unaware that his sexual habits were being discussed (in secret) by one of the most powerful Congressional committees of all time.

I think it's actually a great thing that MI6 has made a point of explicitly breaking the original circuitous cycle. If they don't care about the sexuality of their agents, then it isn't blackmailable, and thus they don't have to care.

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with Avner Cohen, author of Israel and the Bomb and The Worst-Kept Secret, the books on the history of the Israeli nuclear program. He shared with me a quote from Mordechai Vanunu's lawyer, Avigdor Feldman, that I've been coming back to a lot lately:

"If something is secret, and something else touches it, it too becomes secret. Secrecy becomes a disease. Everything around the secret issue becomes secret, so the trial became a secret, so I became a secret."

Secrecy, as Avner puts it, is contagious. It spreads. It goes from something that we might all agree ought to be secret — how to make a weapon of mass destruction, to take the canonical example. But from that point of apparent agreement, it seeps out, worming its way into the lives of everyone who comes near it — even into the bedroom, that most private of places.

  1. Executive Session CCLXXXVIII (8 February 1951), Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. []

Targeting the USSR in August 1945

Friday, April 27th, 2012

If the World War II alliance between the United States and the United Kingdom was the special relationship, what was the alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union? The especially problematic relationship? The relationship that could really have used to go to counseling? A relationship forged out of extreme crisis that later seemed like a sketchy thing? (Easily abbreviated as the sketchy relationship, of course.) My wife suggests perhaps calling it the shotgun marriage.

Maybe special fits the bill there too, in the sense of it being odd. Case in point: by August 30, 1945 — before World War II was officially over — some part of the U.S. military force (I'm not sure what branch; the Army Air Corps are a likely suspect) had already taken the time to draw up a list of good targets for atomic bombs in the USSR... and even overlaid a map of the Soviet Union with the ranges of nuclear-capable bombers, along with "first" and "second" priority targets marked on it.1

Click image to zoom.

How many other war alliances end with one side explicitly plotting to nuke the heck out of the other ally? Probably not too many.

This amazing map comes from General Groves' files, and was sent to him in September 1945 as part of a list of estimates for how many atomic bombs Curtis LeMay thought the US ought to have. I'll talk about that another time, but here's a hint: it was so many that even General Groves thought it was too many. Whoa.

A few things: the majority of these "dark" plots are B-29s (the same bombers that carried Fat Man and Little Boy), and they are going out of all kinds of "allied" bases (some currently in their possession, others labeled as "possible springboards") around the USSR (Stavanger, Bremen, Foggia, Crete, Dhahran, Lahore, Okinawa, Shimushiru, Adak, and Nome). Which is an interesting way to quickly conceptualize the Cold War world from a military standpoint.

The very large, empty plots are for B-36s, which didn't exist yet. They wouldn't get fielded until 1949, but were already in the planning stages during the war. The actual B-36s as delivered had somewhat longer ranges (6,000 miles or so, total, if Wikipedia is to believed) than the ones estimated on here.

The target cities are a bit hard to make out (the next time I'm at NARA, I'll try to get them to bring me the original map), but the "first priority" cities include Moscow, Sverdlovsk, Omsk, Novosibirsk, Stalinsk, Chelyabinsk, Magnitogorsk, Kazan, Molotov, and Gorki. Leningrad appears to be listed as a "second priority" target, which surprises me, but it might just be the microfilm being hard to read. All in all, it's not the most interesting list of cities: they have literally just taken a list of the top cities in the USSR (based on population, industry, war relevance) and made those their atomic targets.

Stalin has a well-deserved reputation as a paranoid guy. But, as the old saying goes, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not after you.

  1. Citation: "A Strategic Chart of Certain Russian and Manchurian Urban Areas [Project No. 2532]," (30 August 1945), Correspondence ("Top Secret") of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 4, Folder 3, "Stockpile, Storage, and Military Characteristics." The microfilm image I had of this came in two frames, a top and a bottom, and I pasted them together in Photoshop. This took a little bit of warping of the bottom image in odd ways (using Photoshop's crazy "Puppet Warp" tool) because it didn't quite line up with the top one due to folds in the paper and things like that. So there is a tiny bit of manipulation here, though none of it affects the content. []

The Third Shot and Beyond (1945)

Wednesday, April 25th, 2012

Counterfactual history — or alternate history — is not a genre that most professional historians indulge in. We're quick to sneer at it, for good reason: it's pure fantasy, and about as relevant to history as Star Trek is to serious physics. (Star Wars is, unfortunately, another story.)

But sometimes the genre of What If? can be somewhat useful at pointing out assumptions in the current historical narrative. Controversial topics can cause us to get stuck in narrative ruts, parroting back the same sequence of events, taking for granted what did happen and losing sense of the contingency — the way in which things might have turned out otherwise.

Hiroshima, October 1945. The domed structure in the far background, at right, was nearly directly under the bomb when it exploded. When showing such photos to students, I always point out that the reason there aren't any corpses isn't because they were vaporized — it's because these photos were taken after they were already removed.

In the comment section of a post on here from last week, Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center (and Arms Control Wonk) posted an interesting hypothetical question:

What do you think would have happened differently had Japan not surrendered and if the US kept using atomic weapons when they were ready? We know what would have been the same: Japan would have lost the war. We can readily imagine what would have been different in Japan: more smoldering, radioactive rubble. But what would have been different outside of Japan?
I strangely wonder about the question. I suspect that there would have been an open revolt at Los Alamos. Would Truman have said, “enough”? Would attitudes about the Bomb in the US & Russia have been any different? Attitudes toward the US?

It's worth noting explicitly that this is a very different question to the "what if we hadn't dropped the bomb at all?" question, which is more common and has some pretty well-worn narrative ruts (deaths of bomb vs. invasion, whether demonstration would have worked, the importance of the Soviets invading Manchuria vs. the bomb, etc.). This query presumes that Hiroshima and Nagasaki happened as they did, but instead of surrendering shortly thereafter, the Japanese had kept on going, and Truman had OK'd the dropping of more bombs.

I gave some gesture at a response, synthesizing some interesting work that I thought was relevant to the issue. I also managed to get Michael Gordin, author of Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War, to chime in as well. You can read the responses at the post linked to above.

How realistic is the question? Pretty realistic, as it turns out. As Michael G. argued in his book, the notion that "two bombs were enough" wasn't actually dominant at the time — some people thought it would be "enough," but most people, naturally, had no idea how many would be "enough." In early August 1945, nobody knew whether the atomic bombs would be the "war-ending weapons" that they were later (controversially) touted as being. Only after surrender do you really get into the idea that two are "enough," if not too much.

This week's document is one of the more vivid demonstrations of this fact. It is a transcript of a telephone conversation between General John E. Hull, who was involved in Allied planning in the Pacific theatre, and Colonel L.E. Seeman (here incorrectly noted as "Seaman"), an assistant of Groves, on August 13, 1945. The subject is the "third shot" — the next bomb ready for use after Nagasaki, which was anticipated to be ready by August 23 — and the shots beyond that.1

Click for the PDF.

From the transcript:

  • S[eaman]: ... Then there will be another one the first part of September. Then there are three definite. There is a possibility of a fourth one In September, either the middle or the latter part.
  • H[ull]: Now, how many in October?
  • S: Probably three in October.
  • H: That's three definite, possibly four by the end of September; possibly three more by the end of October; making a total possibility of seven. That is the information I want.
  • S: So you can figure on three a month with a possibility of a fourth one. If you get the fourth one, you won't get it next month. That is up to November.
  • H: The last one, which is a possibility for the end of October, could you count on that for use before the end of October?
  • S: You have a possibility of seven, with a good chance of using them prior to the 31st of October.
  • H: They come out approximately at the rate of three a month.

That's a lot of bombs. (Incidentally, this also lets you estimate the maximum stockpile size throughout much of the late 1940s. In practice, bomb production fell off in the confusion at the end of the war, and didn't pick up again until 1948 or so.)

  • H: That is the information I wanted. The problem now is whether or not, assuming the Japanese do not capitulate, continue on dropping them every time one is made and shipped out there or whether to hold them up as far as the dropping is concerned and then pour them all on in a reasonably short time. Not all in one day, but over a short period. And that also takes into consideration the target that we are after. In other words should we not concentrate on targets that will be of the greatest assistance to an invasion rather than industry, morale, psychology, etc.
  • S: Nearer the tactical use rather than other use.

"The other use": what a euphemism! Though perhaps no worse than "strategic bombing," which is a nicer formulation than "terror bombing" (as it was, for awhile, originally called, in the context of firebombing). This idea of one-bomb-as-you-get-them or holding them up and then "pour[ing] them all on" is one of the ones that has stuck with me. A "rain of ruin" indeed. It's tempting to imagine this as periods of peace punctuated by periods of terrible destruction, but it's probably worth noting that there would have likely been firebombing during those "peaceful" periods as well, so there'd be a lot of terrible destruction to go around.

Read the full post »

  1. Telephone conversation transcript, J.E. Hull and L.E. Seeman ["Seaman," sic], (13 August 1945), copy in the National Security Archive, George Washington University, Washington, D.C. The NSA's page on "The Atomic Bomb and the End of World War II" is a really quite excellent collection of documents on this subject — I strongly recommend it to anyone teaching about the Manhattan Project. []

Nevada Test Site’s “Arnold” OPSEC Videos

Friday, April 20th, 2012

"OPSEC" is governmentspeak for "operations security." In practice, OPSEC programs are usually devoted to coming up with creative ways to  remind employees to keep secrets, and investigate breeches of secrecy. Google Ngrams suggests the term was birthed in the mid-1970s or so, and has proliferated since then. In the earlier Cold War, these functions were just dubbed "Security" by the Atomic Energy Commission.

"Silence Means Security" — Cold War "OPSEC" billboard from Hanford Site. (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)-

The media output is of course what I find most interesting — the ways in which employees, in the name of OPSEC, are cajoled, and often threatened, into maintaining strict cultures of secrecy. This sort of activity is a common and integral part of a secrecy system, because if you aren't "disciplining" the employee (to invoke a little Foucault) into acting contrary to the way they are accustomed to, the whole thing becomes as leaky as a sieve. It's not a new thing, of course, and we've already seen a few historical examples of this on the blog.

Sometimes it is done well — strong message, strong artistic execution. And sometimes... it is done less well.

The DOE OPSEC logo from the Arnold OPSEC era. "Propugnator causae" is something like, "Defender of the Cause."

In the category of "less well" falls a series of OPSEC videos the DOE Nevada Operations Office put together in what looks like the late 1980s or early 1990s, featuring the hapless character "Arnold OPSEC." They are little film clips (non-animated) demonstrating poor, dumb Arnold OPSEC as he accidentally divulges classified information through clumsy practices.

The DOE has helpfully put all of these online for your viewing pleasure. A few of my favorites follow. (You will probably need QuickTime Player to view these.)

Arnold goes jogging (and blabbing) with his "new friends," who happen to be Soviet spies! D'oh!

Arnold gets a cell phone the size of his head and uses it to blab about secrets while driving his sports car.

Arnold uses an "airfone" on a plane, brags how important he is to his girlfriend, and nefarious terrorists hear him, and then hijack the plane and keep him as an important hostage. Sometimes your days just don't work out.

Arnold gives a tour of Nevada Test Site, and tells a bunch of obvious-shady visitors (check out those evil eyebrows) things he shouldn't, so his supervisor (who is mysteriously missing legs) dresses him down.

Arnold takes work home to use on his new-fangled PC and modem service, "Prodigy," and accidentally posts it all onto the new-fangled Internet. (And you thought WikiLeaks was a new thing!)

Arnold irritates everyone at the office by publishing their birth dates and Social Security Numbers. "Arnold just doesn't realize the kinds of information that can be considered sensitive!" Arnold is both a leak and a jerk.

"Help make our security a sure-thing. Don't gamble with OPSEC." I find this one very perplexing. It's not a real situation. It's a metaphor, you know? Arnold is gambling with OPSEC, and hit the jackpot of, um, espionage. Then he is being served little black men by a blond woman whose dimpled rear has received a little too much artistic attention. So don't, um, do any of that. Got it?

It's a recurrent theme in these that new-fangled technology is the result of a lot of leaks. The Information Age did create a lot of challenges for places where information flow was meant to be restricted, not encouraged. Still, I can't help but feel sorry for the poor employees who must have been forced to sit through these scoldings.


General Groves Meets the Press (1945)

Wednesday, April 18th, 2012

Since I’ve already been engaged in some Oak Ridgery earlier in the week, I thought I might continue the trend. This week’s document is the transcript of a press conference given by Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson and General Leslie R. Groves at Oak Ridge on September 29, 1945.1

It’s one of the few press conferences that Groves gave during this time, one of the few times early on in which he actually made personal appearances with the press, as opposed to his more carefully-constructed, only-by-paper publicity campaigns.2

Click to view document (sorry about the poor resolution — blame NARA and their low-res online versions)

It’s a fascinating exchange between the press and the deacons of secrecy, at the secret city itself.

Question: "What is the Army's position on the release of the secret?"
Patterson: "I am not in a position to say that. A decision as to policy is to be made by the President and is to be made very shortly and I prefer not to say anything about that, but you won't have to wait long."

You won't have to wait long. One wonders what this refers to. Truman did issue various requests for the secret to be "kept" around about this time, as a temporary measure. The Attlee-Truman-King statement was issued in November, which had a very ambiguous take on the question of secrecy (see section 6 in particular, which suggests short-term secrecy is important, but that long-term secrecy is ineffective), and then there is the entire Baruch plan debacle.

Question: "How many people actually knew what you were doing?"
Patterson: "I don't think anyone could answer that question."
Question: "Less than 100?"
Patterson: "I would say more than that but that would be pure speculation."

"Actually knew what you were doing" refers, presumably, to the fact that the end goal was making an atomic bomb. It's quite a bit more than 100 (if you include, for example, the weapons designers at Los Alamos), but it's an interesting list to consider. I've played with creating a table of "who knew" myself; it has some interesting parts of it (Vice President Harry Truman: did not know. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin: did know. Most workers at Oak Ridge and Hanford: did not know. Most members of Congress: did not know.) but  never quite did enough to justify an entire table.

Question: "Is there anything to the rumor that you are making a super bomb that would make the Nagasaki bomb look small?"
Patterson: "I don't know."
Groves: "I don't think the Nagasaki bomb was made obsolete. That bomb could never be made obsolete. Those we used are pretty super." [last sentence hand-written] ...
Question: "Is there such a thing being planned as a super bomb?"
Groves: "No, I don't think so. They talk about airplanes that will go around the world, etcetera. This thing has just started and no one knows just what will develop."

This is, as far as I know, the first published reference to a rumor of a possible "Super" bomb, the hydrogen bomb, in the public domain -- as early as September 1945! Note how sneaky Groves is in the first instance. He doesn't deny anything, he doesn't confirm anything. He's evasive but in a way that doesn't actually give anything away. He's right, of course, that no matter how you slice it, 20 kilotons is going to be a pretty big bang. His second statement is more dishonest; he knew that there was a "Super" bomb being contemplated.

Click to continue: Groves gets asked about radioactivity at Hiroshima...

  1. The photo of Groves is actually from Hanford; I couldn't find any of him giving talks at Oak Ridge. Photo is from the Hanford DDRS database, item N1D0029056. []
  2. Transcript, "Press Conference — Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson — Clinton Engineer Works," (29 September 1945), National Archives and Records Administration, available online through their ARC website under the identifier 281581. []