General Groves Meets the Press (1945)

by Alex Wellerstein, published 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.

Question: "In that connection what were the results of the official investigation on the radioactivity of Hiroshima after the explosion of the bomb?"
Groves: "There has been nothing official released in the sense of a War Department release but there has been a definite statement by General Farrell who inspected the actual site with competent persons to assist him and to render the decision that there has been none of this prolonged radioactivity that the Japanese mentioned. No one, as far as we know, has incurred any injury after the first bomb."

There's a lively debate in the historical literature about what Groves et al. did and did not know about the radiation effects of the bombs. Groves was intensely suspicious of Japanese reports and thought they were just propaganda against the Allies. He was also profoundly offended by news reports that claimed Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be uninhabitable for generations. His own scientist advisers, like Oppenheimer, had assured him that detonating the bombs at a high altitude would prevent any long-term radiation, and that anyone within the radii of the short-term, prompt radiation would more likely die of the other effects first. But the reality was more complicated than that.

The best you can say for Groves is that at this point, there was considerable scientific uncertainty about the realities of the radiation claims, and he chose to interpret that in a way that made the bombs seem less monstrous. Some go much further in interpreting Groves as perpetuating a cover-up -- I don't see it as quite as clean-cut as that. In any case, Groves did send over teams to start what became the Atomic Bomb Casualty Commission, but it wasn't until October 1945 that the really go up and running. (The Japanese had themselves been studying the question earlier, but the American teams looked upon their data with suspicion.)3

Question: "Are there any other countries who know how to split atoms?"
Patterson: "The opinion of the scientists is more valuable on that than mine. They say that the main principles are well known to scientists all over the world."
Question: "Does that mean the only secret we have left is how to process it?"
Patterson: "I don't know."

Interesting back-and-forth here about the identity of "the secret," if there was one at all. The idea that there was a single "secret," or any secret at all, was under a lot of scrutiny at this point.

Question: "Regardless of what policy is established, is there any reason why the atomic bomb project cannot be kept as one fo the War Department functions?"
Patterson: "There is no reason. It is possible under legislation and the form of control that the legislation may set up, that it may be committed to the War Department or the Corps of Engineers for operation."
Question: "In the opinion of the Cabinet, is it unanimous on the future of the bomb or is it divided? I was thinking of Wallace in particular."
Patterson: "I cannot answer that."

Both of these questions are quite astute; one is wondering about the postwar domestic control (the May-Johnson Act had not yet been introduced, and so it was completely unclear what the character would be), the other is asking about dissidence in the Truman cabinet. On the first part, the War Department itself was in the process of sponsoring a law that would remove it from their primary responsibility (but still give them some influence). On the second part, Truman's Secretary of Commerce, Henry A. Wallace (Roosevelt's former VP, the one that he let in on the bomb), was indeed at ends with Truman and other cabinet members about the bomb. He would eventually lose his job over his view on the confrontation with the USSR.

What all of this adds up to, for me,  is a mediation on the precarious state of information control in the immediate postwar. Groves avoided press conferences of this sort, and for good reason. During the war, Groves had a reasonably efficient — though not totally air-tight — ability to control information about the bomb. In the postwar, this was not the case — here he is, at his first (?) press conference, getting grilled about two very sensitive subjects: the hydrogen bomb (!!), and the question of radiation at Hiroshima. It was an early sign of things to come, as the press eagerly worked to make up lost time from the years of voluntary censorship.

  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. []
  3. M. Susan Lindee, Suffering Made Real: American Science and the Survivors at Hiroshima (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1994), chapter 1. []

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5 Responses to “General Groves Meets the Press (1945)”

  1. krepon says:

    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?

    • Michael,

      That’s a really interesting counterfactual. Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August suggests that if Japan hadn’t surrendered so quickly, we might seen the atomic bomb as just a more convenient form of firebombing, which we were, of course, already doing in scale. If that’s the case, then we might have had a devaluation of the bomb on the whole.

      I mentioned this to Hugh Gusterson once (a while back now) and he wondered whether that sort of hypothetical devaluation could have held in a rocket and thermonuclear age. Surely a megaton-range weapon that can be mobilized nearly instantaneously would be seen as something qualitatively different than a kiloton-range bomb that has logistics and results similar to large amounts of conventional weapons?

      A contrary view to Gordin’s might be Spencer Weart’s Nuclear Fear, which sees the bombs as fundamentally unnerving because they tap into deep human psychological history regarding magical weapons, penetrating rays, and so on.

      (I’m not trying to have a citation-fest over here, just putting some relevant options on the table that come to mind.)

      If I were to hazard a counter-factual, alternative-history guess (and I’m just spit-balling here), I would maybe suggest a synthesis of these views. Early on they’d be treated as another form of firebombing. After Japan surrendered and we had more teams on the ground, and more news from Japan, the radiation issues would play a larger role in how we thought about the bombs — perhaps even larger than they did at the time. Especially if we used them in some of the ways that the US commanders were imagining they might be used: as a way to clear the beaches prior to invasion, which almost certainly would have lead to large numbers of American soldiers coming down with radiation poisoning symptoms.

      The creeping dread (pace Weart) would creep on slowly, especially as the yields of the weapons grew (pace Gusterson). I think we’d end up in perhaps an even worse position on them than we are today. Since the bombs appeared to serve as “wonder weapons” that ended the war, it’s easy for a lot of people to say they were necessary evils, and that at the end of the day, the ethical calculus of saved lives is probably larger than spent lives. That’s not the easiest argument to make even today, but it would be considerably more difficult to make if 1. the bombs didn’t appear to end the war quickly, or 2. the bombs killed upwards of a half million people or so.

      But this is just a stab in the dark, of course. (Maybe I’ll try to see if Michael G. can’t be lured into this conversation as well…)

      • Michael Gordin says:

        It’s hard to resist an invitation from Alex, so let me throw my two cents in. I should preface this by saying that I generally consider counterfactual reasoning rather dicey for historians, because our stock-in-trade is to explore the past through documents and traces, and alternative pasts make this impossible for the simple reason that they didn’t leave traces because they never happened. That said, it’s obviously enticing to think about the what-might-have-beens, and this is part of the interest in exploring the past.

        To my mind, we have here perhaps one of the most interesting counterfactuals: what if the Americans had used many more bombs? Michael Krepon is absolutely right that the Japanese government would eventually have surrendered; that wouldn’t change. But what about the rest of the world? I’ll start with the Soviet Union, since that’s the case I know best.

        Basically, for the Soviets, very little would change with respect to their desire for nuclear weapons. We know already that Stalin wanted these weapons before Hiroshima, and wanted them quite badly afterward. The Soviets left August 1945 with the determined conviction that the United States could not be allowed to keep their monopoly of nuclear weapons. Not only would this not change in a world where the US used, say, 7 bombs (they would have been ready at the rate of one Fat Man about every 10 days, starting in September 1945), but would likely have intensified. Since the Soviet atomic project was pretty much all out by late 1945 anyway, it’s hard to see what would have changed there.

        The real difference for the Soviets is that if the Japanese government had not surrendered in mid-August 1945, that would have meant that the war was continuing for that period, and Soviet ground forces would have made more advances: into China, into the Korean peninsula, into the Japanese Islands. (The Soviets seized the Kuriles, for example, after the official surrender.) The counterfactuals surrounding the bomb often leave these “conventional warfare” questions to the side, so I wanted to bring them back in. The geopolitics could have looked very different, but this has nothing to do with the nuclear question.

        The heart of Michael’s question, as it strikes me, is what people would think of the status of nuclear weapons as “special” or “unique” weapons. Alex addresses this directly. But it might be worth keeping in mind what people — both American and not — would have made of the American government under these circumstances. It remained a strong propaganda point against the Americans into the Cold War that they had used nuclear weapons against an opponent without equivalent arms. But if they had used 7 of those bombs? That likely would have made it harder for the American government to resist domestic pressure to use these weapons in future wars (see Korea, Vietnam). And it would also perhaps (much more speculative here) have made some the allies of the US a little more afraid of it, a little more skittish, given the resultant destruction, which would have been a lot harder to manage in terms of publicity after the war.

        These are all, obviously, rank speculations, of the kind I usually make noises about. Now to our regularly scheduled programming…

  2. krepon says:

    Many thanks, Alex & Michael.
    I wonder if there would have been a work stoppage at Los Alamos.

  3. […] 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 […]