Secrecy suffused every aspect of the Manhattan Project; it was always in the background, as a context. But it’s also a topic in and of itself — people love to talk about the secrecy of the work, and they’ve loved to talk about it since the Project was made public. In the 1940s there was something of a small industry of articles, books, and clichés regarding how secret the atomic bomb was kept. Of course, the irony is… it wasn’t really kept all that well, if you consider “keeping the secret” to involve “not letting the Soviet Union know pretty much everything about the atomic bomb.” (Which was, according to General Groves, one of the goals.)
It’s easy to get sucked into the mystique of secrecy. One way I’ve found that is useful to help people think critically about secrecy (including myself) is to focus on the narratives of secrecy. That is, instead of talking about secrecy itself, look instead at how people talk about secrecy, how they frame it, how it plays a role in stories they tell about the Manhattan Project.
My first example of this is the most obvious one, because it is the official one. We might call this one the narrative of the “best-kept secret,” because this is how the Army originally advertised it. Basically, the “best-kept secret” narrative is about how the Manhattan Project was sooo super-secret, that nobody found out about it, despite its ridiculous size and expense. The Army emphasized this very early on, and, in fact, Groves got into some trouble because there were so many stories about how great their secrecy was, revealing too much about the “sources and methods” of counterintelligence work.
The truth is, even without the knowledge of the spying (which they didn’t have in 1945), this narrative is somewhat false even on its own terms. There were leaks about the Manhattan Project (and atomic bombs and energy in general) printed in major press outlets in the United States and abroad. It was considered an “open secret” among Washington politicos and journalists that the Army was working on a new super-weapon that involved atomic energy just prior to its use. Now, it certainly could have been worse, but it’s not clear whether the Army (or the Office of Censorship) had much control over that.
We might contrast that with the sort of narrative of secrecy that comes up with regards to many participants’ tales of being at places like Los Alamos. Richard Feynman’s narrative of secrecy is one of absurd secrecy — of ridiculous adherence to stupid rules. In Feynman’s narratives, secrecy is a form of idiotic bureaucracy, imposed by rigid, lesser minds. It’s the sort of thing that a trickster spirit like Feynman can’t resist teasing, whether he’s cracking safes, teasing guards about holes in the fence, or finding elaborate ways to irritate the local censor in his correspondence with his wife. All participants’ narratives are not necessarily absurd, but they are almost always about the totalitarian nature of secrecy. I don’t mean “fascist/communist” here — I mean the original sense of the word, which is to say, the Manhattan Project secrecy regime was one that infused every aspect of human life for those who lived under it. It was not simply a workplace procedure, because there was no real division between work and life at the Manhattan Project sites. (Even recreational sports were considered an essential part of the Oak Ridge secrecy regime, for example.)
So we might isolate two separate narratives here — “secrecy is ridiculous” and “secrecy is totalitarian” — with an understanding that no single narrative is necessarily exclusive of being combined with others.1
But the Feynman approach looks perhaps unreasonably jolly when we contrast it to the narrative of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his students, for whom secrecy became something more sinister: an excuse to blacklist, a means of punishment. Oppenheimer did fine during the Manhattan Project, but the legacy of secrecy caught up with him in his 1954 security hearing, which effectively ended his government career. For his students and friends, the outcomes were often as bad if not worse. His brother, Frank, for example, found himself essentially blacklisted from all research, even from the opportunity to leave the country and start over. (It had a happy ending, of course, because without being blacklisted, he might never have founded the Exploratorium, but let’s just ignore that for a moment.)
For a lot of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, secrecy ended up putting their careers on the line, sometimes even their lives on the line. In response to (fairly ungrounded) suspicions about Oppenheimer’s student Rossi Lomanitz, for example, Groves actually removed his draft deferment and had him sent into the dangerous Pacific Theatre. This narrative of secrecy is what we might classically call the “tragic” narrative of secrecy — it involves a fall from grace. It emphasizes the rather sinister undertones and consequences of secrecy regimes, especially during the period of McCarthyism.
So what other narratives are there? Here is a short list, in no particular order, that I compiled for a talk I gave at a workshop some weeks ago. I don’t claim it to be exhaustive, or definitive. Arguably some of these are somewhat redundant, as well. But I found compiling it a useful way for me to think myself around these narratives, and how many there were:
- “Secrecy is essential”: early accounts, “best-kept secret” stories
- “Secrecy is totalitarian”: secret site participants’ accounts
- “Secrecy is absurd”: e.g. Feynman’s safes and fences
- Common hybrid: “Secrecy is absurdly totalitarian”
- “Secrecy is counterproductive”: arguments by Leo Szilard et al., that secrecy slowed them down (related to the “absurd” narrative)
- “Secrecy is ineffective”: the post-Fuchs understanding — there were lots of spies
- “Secrecy is undemocratic”: secrecy reduces democratic participation in important decisions, like the decision to use the bomb; fairly important to revisionist accounts
- “Secrecy is tragic”: ruinous effects of McCarthyism and spy fears on the lives of many scientists
- “Secrecy is corrupt”: late/post-Cold War, environmental and health concerns
It’s notable that almost all of these are negative narratives. I don’t think that’s just bias on my part — positive stories about secrecy fit into only a handful of genres, whereas there are so many different ways that secrecy is talked about as negative. Something to dwell on.
What does talking about these sorts of things get us? Being aware that there are multiple “stock” narratives helps us be more conscious about the narratives we talk about and tap into. You can’t really get out of talking through narratives if you have an interest in being readable, but you can be conscious about your deployment of them. For me, making sense of secrecy in an intellectual, analytical fashion requires being able to see when people are invoking one narrative or another. And it keeps us from falling into traps. The “absurd” narrative is fun, for example, but characterizing the Manhattan Project experience of secrecy makes too much light of the real consequences of it.
As an historian, what I’m really trying to do here is develop a new narrative of secrecy — that of the meta-narrative, One Narrative to Rule Them All, the narrative that tells the story of how the other narratives came about (a history of narratives, if you will). Part of talking about secrecy historically is looking at how narratives are created, how they are made plausible, how they circulate, and where they come from. Because these things don’t just appear out of “nowhere”: for each of these narratives, there is deep history, and often a specific, singular origin instance. (For some, it is pretty clear: Klaus Fuchs really makes the “ineffective” narrative spring to live; Leo Szilard and the Scientists’ Movement push very hard for the “counterproductive” narrative in late 1945; the “best-kept secret” approach was a deliberate public relations push by the government.)
As a citizen more broadly, though, being conscious about narratives is important for parsing out present day issues as well. How may of these narratives have been invoked by all sides in the discussions of WikiLeaks, for example? How do these narratives shape public perceptions of issues revolving around secrecy, and public trust? Realizing that there are distinct narratives of secrecy is only the first step.
- Both of these might classically be considered “comic” narratives of secrecy, under a strict narratological definition. But I’m not really a huge fan of strict narratological definitions in this context — they are too broad. [↩]