Los Alamos and the Smyth Report

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 15th, 2012

Everyone has spent a lot of time talking about the 67th anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But last Sunday (August 12) was also another anniversary: the 67th anniversary of the release of the Smyth Report.

Richard Tolman, advisor to General Groves and one of the security editors of the Smyth Report, and Henry DeWolf Smyth, in 1945

The Smyth Report is one of the great documents of the nuclear age. Written by the Princeton physicist Henry DeWolf Smyth, it was an official history of the Manhattan Project that was released to the public only days after the bombing of Nagasaki. From the very beginning of the document you can tell it is playing a very delicate game with regards to openness and secrecy. Let us juxtapose the Introduction, written by Smyth, with the Foreword, written by General Groves:

SmythThe ultimate responsibility for our nation’s policy rests on its citizens and they can discharge such responsibilities wisely only if they are informed. The average citizen cannot be expected to understand clearly how an atomic bomb is constructed or how it works but there is in this country a substantial group of engineers and scientists who can understand such things and who can explain the potentialities of atomic bombs to their fellow citizens.

Groves: All pertinent scientific information which can be released to the public at this time without violating the needs of national security is contained in this volume. No requests for additional information should be made to private persons or organizations associated directly or indirectly with the project. Persons disclosing or securing additional information by any means whatsoever without authorization are subject to severe penalties under the Espionage Act.

What a fun game, eh? “Here is some important information, because it is necessary for democracy and sound policy. Also, if you go even an inch beyond what is written in here, we’ll put you in jail forever.”

Even the title of the report reflects this push and pull of secrecy. On the face of it, it’s got a dull, boring, bureaucratic title (which matches tone of the report itself, which is no great read):

“A General Account of the Development of Methods of Using Atomic Energy For Military Purposes Under the Auspices of the United States Government, 1940-1945.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, does it? You can see why in the Princeton University Press edition, they dubbed it Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (still a dull title), and everyone just calls it the Smyth Report. (Note: it’s pronounced Smythe but spelled Smyth.)

But here’s a little-known fact: that long, awful title wasn’t meant to be the title. It was supposed to be the sub-title — the actual title was so sensitive that it was going to be stamped on at the last moment before distribution. In the hubbub before its release, the stamp was essentially never used, and the sub-title became the title.

So what was the original title? Recently I found a rare copy in the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress that contains the original title with the original stamp:

The original title was ATOMIC BOMBS, to be applied in a bright red stamp. Now how cool is that? In a way, this is Manhattan Project trivia, but really it points towards a deeper truth about the Smyth Report: every single aspect of it — even its title! — was shaped by the question of secrecy. The story of the Smyth Report is a fascinating one, and I spend the good part of a chapter in my forthcoming book talking about it.1 The idea of its creation, the process of its creation, and the debate over whether it should be released at all, much less the consequences of that release, are all completely vital stories in their own right for making sense of secrecy and publicity in the immediate postwar period.

I want to focus on just one little part of that, though: what Smyth did, and didn’t, write about Los Alamos, the most secret site in a system of secret sites.

On February 1, 1945, Smyth sent the first draft of the history of Los Alamos to none other than J. Robert Oppenheimer.2 (As if Oppenheimer didn’t have enough to do.)

“I am at last ready to send you the first draft of what I have written about the project at Y,” Smyth explained. (Project Y was the official code name for the Los Alamos lab.) In the habit of all academics, then and now, he apologized for being a bit tardy. He explained that it would be swell if Oppenheimer could have Richard Feynman take a look at the draft. He also noted that:

You will notice that I have omitted nearly all numerical values for constants. This is a departure from my original intention, but I do not see that their inclusion would really add much to the usefulness of this document and it might necessitate a complete revision before publication.

This is interesting: Smyth’s “original intention” was to write the entire report without any regard for secrecy. Later, after everyone agreed the draft was more or less correct, he’d cut out all of the secret stuff, once it was decided what the secret stuff would be. In this case, though Smyth has pre-censored himself on numerical constants — but still written it as if he hadn’t. A weird genre of writing, no?

Nobody got back to Smyth on this letter; they were too busy. Smyth wrote Oppenheimer again in April 1945, sending another draft.3

He had heard from Groves and James Conant that Oppenheimer “did not like the chapter as a whole” but “were unable to give any report of specific criticisms.” Smyth asked for any that Oppenheimer had, and noted that: “I have not found the writing or this report an easy assignment.”

Smyth also explained some of the major omissions that had been made from the previous draft:

As I anticipated, the critical comment on the choice of the site will be deleted. I may say that I inserted this comment and similar comment in other chapters with the expectation that they would be removed before publication but with the feeling that it was desirable to record the existence of such opinions in the original draft.

All discussion of ordnance work is also to be removed. There is no objection to including the general statement of the ordnance problem and all the other parts of the problem, but the approaches to solution that have been made will be omitted. On the other hand, the feeling is that there is no objection to including the nuclear physics.

The General believes that the metallurgical work and a considerable amount of the chemistry work should be excluded on the ground that it would be extremely difficult for the average scientist to carry out any of this work without supplies and material which would not be available to him. I am not entirely clear how this criterion should be applied, but it probably means the elimination of the metallurgical work on plutonium and at least of some of the chemistry. I shall simply have to write a revised version and discuss it in detail with General Groves and Dr. Conant.

One other general comment which they made is that more names should be included. While this comment applies more forcibly to some other chapters than to that on Y, it is a point to be borne in mind in criticizing what I have written.

I don’t know what the “critical comment on the choice of site” refers to — except maybe to the fact that Los Alamos is in the middle of nowhere, which has its disadvantages as well as its advantages — but the rest is pretty straightforward. Ordnance — the actual work to design the atomic bomb, esp. relating to implosion — was out. Metallurgy and chemistry? Out and out.4 Basic nuclear physics? In!

So let’s get this straight: out of all of the work done at Los Alamos, all that gets past the censor is basic nuclear physics. And the implications of removing metallurgy and chemistry here probably means almost nothing will be written about Hanford, either. The final report has exactly two paragraphs on Hanford, despite it consuming a fifth of the Project resources. Which also meant cutting out the legions of chemists, engineers, and metallurgists who worked on the project in that capacity.

And so one suddenly sees that there is more missing from the Smyth Report than there is revealed in it.

Oh, but also: add more names of people. Why? Because Groves was afraid that scientists (and contractors) would seek credit after the war ended if they didn’t feel it was properly given to them — and in the act of seeking credit, they might give away secrets.

The Smyth Report as published by Princeton University Press.

Oppenheimer finally did write back to Smyth about this draft, apologizing for never writing back to his first letter, in April 1945.5 Oppenheimer wasn’t particularly pleased with it. What’s interesting about his objections and corrections to it are that they are almost completely concerned with things which were cut from the final draft for security reasons anyway. There’s a lot about implosion (what prompted it, who came up with it, etc.), for example, and implosion was completely omitted from the final Smyth Report.

If you’re interested in Los Alamos project history, you might find Oppenheimer’s comments interesting — Oppenheimer’s history of implosion is from a rather unique vantage point, since they hadn’t actually even tested the bomb yet (“In the past months I think we have had the fundamentals of implosion licked, and the future in this field looks bright“). Oppenheimer’s list of corrections has a lot of interesting bomb arcana in it; a selection here to give a flavor for it, along with some of the more interesting corrections:

Page 2, line 9. “December” should be “October.”
Page 3, line 11 (from bottom). “January” should be “November.” […]
Page 9, line 10. “Mass” should be “radius.”
Page 12. This is the point I have discussed above. The history of implosion is roughly thus:

It was proposed by Neddermeyer at the April conference, and some arguments were given by him to show that it would give a faster assembly than the gun; work was carried out on exploratory basis which gave misleadingly hopeful looking results. The matter was considered again by von Neumann in the Fall of 1943; he expressed the opinion that the implosion would work better with high charge to mass ratio, and might avoid the necessity for extreme purification of plutonium, at least or very small gadgets, because it would give such a rapid assembly. The compression on the material resulting from high velocities was then pointed out by Teller and investigated by Bethe. After much struggle and argument the implosion project was adopted with over-riding priority in late 1943. The later history I have outlined above. […]

Page 25, line 15. I would use the word “surprise” rather than “setback,” but that is a matter of judgment. […]
Page 32, par. 3, line 1. The 3000 ft/sec figure always referred to 49. The 25 velocity was not set until firm limits on the spontaneous fission of the isotopes enabled us to take 1000 ft/sec. This occurred early in 1944. […]
Page 42 line 10. The theoretical behavior is well known, but we are not sure that the theories are right.

The final version of the chapter on Los Alamos, “The Work on the Atomic Bomb,” is comparatively barren, when compared to the nitty-gritty that Oppenheimer went into above. It has a nice, but brief administrative history (why the lab was created, why the site was chosen — no critical comments, who was in charge of it), the world’s most basic discussion of basic bomb design issues (critical mass, tamper, efficiency, and an extremely vague statement on the gun-type design), and then more or less doesn’t advance the timeline beyond April 1943.

Like so many things, it’s clear that Smyth, Oppenheimer, and even Feynman spent a lot of time trying to ferret out all of the facts about Los Alamos — only to see them almost completely, and silently, cut from the final publication.

  1. I should also note here that there is an in-depth study of the Smyth Report which I’ve benefited a lot from: Rebecca Press Schwartz, “The Making of the History of the Atomic Bomb: Henry DeWolf Smyth and the Historiography of the Manhattan Project,” (Ph.D. diss., Princeton University, September 2008). Rebecca has actually looked at the original drafts of the Smyth Report, which are kept in the archives of the American Philosophical Society. []
  2. Henry D. Smyth to J. Robert Oppenheimer (1 February 1945),  Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0125251. []
  3. Henry D. Smyth to J. Robert Oppenheimer (6 April 1945), Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0125250. []
  4. Rebecca Press Schwartz’ dissertation, cited above, notes that for many years Smyth received angry letters from chemists and metallurgists in particular complaining that they had been cut out of the official history! []
  5. J. Robert Oppenheimer to Henry D. Smyth (14 April 1945), Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0125249. []

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8 Responses to “Los Alamos and the Smyth Report”

  1. […] was what was even plastered across the official government statements in 1945 — the Smyth Report was originally meant to be titled “Atomic Bombs,” as I discussed on Wednesday. An interesting wrinkle is that Smyth himself hated the use of the term […]

  2. Stan Norris says:

    There were two reasons for releashing the Smyth Report. You cite the Preface (an informed citizenry) and Groves’ concern with security and secrecy but what the latter did in effect, as I say in my book, “was to establish a baseline of information beyond which those who had worked on the project could not go. Without a clear line of what could and could not be said, the thousands of people who were returning to normal life might divulge too much.” (p. 436)

    Later Professor Smthye commented on this, “I have always found it curious that two lines of reasoning quite opposite in the abstract led in practice to the same conclusion.”

  3. J B says:

    Thought this would be of interest to others.

    “On this date in 1945, top scientists from the Manhattan Project gathered in Chicago for an important policy discussion, one that was bugging most of them in a big way. What could they say about the super-secret project that developed the first atomic bombs and helped win World War II? Nobody really knew, at least not for sure, outside of what had been released in the Smyth Report and other government-approved statements.”

    • That is interesting. At least two of those folks — Compton and Spedding — ended up on the postwar Committee on Declassification, which Groves convened in November 1945. Truman ordered no knew info released; Groves was happy to oblige for awhile, since he thought the postwar legislation would be coming soon (and thus it wouldn’t be his problem). By the end of October or so he realized that wasn’t going to happen, and started a real (scientist-run) effort to come up with a real declassification scheme. Anyway, just some little context about why “Washington” was so uninterested in releasing more. Interesting to see Szilard had already formulated his anti-Smyth Report line, which he didn’t really articulate publicly until that September, primarily as a means of criticizing Groves.

  4. […] details about the weapons themselves, and so on. Why? It’s a legacy, perhaps, of the Smyth Report, Atoms for Peace, and other gestures towards the positive role that nuclear information can play in […]

  5. […] depiction of a nuclear fission chain reaction from the Princeton University Press edition of the Smyth Report. I’ve always really liked this drawing: it is very seriously drawn (no fancy embellishments), […]

  6. […] scientific facts of the atomic bomb, especially the physics, were the most easily declassifiable. As discussed in a previous post (with many nods towards the work of Rebecca Press Schwartz), one of the main reasons the Smyth […]

  7. […] first history of the Manhattan Project that was ever published was the famous Smyth Report, which was made public just three days after the bombing of Nagasaki. But the heavily-redacted […]