News and Notes

John Wheeler and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 14th, 2014

Just a quick plug: as noted previously, I'm moving out of the Washington, DC, area very soon, to start a new job at the Stevens Institute of Technology in the New Jersey/NYC area. My last talk as a DC denizen is going to be next Monday, July 21st, at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland, from 12-1:30pm.


Here's the information:

The AIP History Programs invites you to an ACP Brown Bag Lunch-Time Talk:

John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues:
Searching for a missing document
at the height of the Cold War

by Alex Wellerstein, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for History of Physics

Monday, July 21, 2014
12–1:30 pm

Conference Room A
American Center for Physics
1 Physics Ellipse
College Park, MD 20740

There’s never a right time to lose a secret document under unusual circumstances. But for the influential American physicist John Archibald Wheeler, there might not have been a worse time than January, 1953. While on an overnight train ride to Washington, D.C., only a month after the test of the first hydrogen bomb prototype, Wheeler lost, under curious circumstances, a document explaining the secret to making thermonuclear weapons.

The subsequent search for the missing pages (and for who to blame) went as high as J. Edgar Hoover and President Eisenhower, and ended up destroying several careers. The story provides a unique window into the precarious intersection of government secrecy, competing histories of the hydrogen bomb, and inter-agency atomic rivalry in the high Cold War. Using recently declassified files, the AIP Center for History of Physics’ outgoing Associate Historian will trace out the tale of  how Wheeler ended up on that particular train, with that particular document, and the far-reaching consequences of its  loss—or theft—for both Wheeler and others involved in the case.

It's a very fun paper, drawing heavily on John Wheeler's FBI file, and one that I will be turning into an article fairly soon. It is open to the public if you RSVP. If you're in town and want to see me before I go, please feel free to come! To my knowledge it will not be live-streamed or recorded or anything like that.


8 Responses to “John Wheeler and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”

  1. Martin says:

    Shame its not going to be streamed etc. Sounds an interesting talk on an interesting subject!

    Can’t wait for the article about it then 🙂

    Good luck in the new job too Alex

    Martin Hooper (UK)

  2. Howard Morland says:


    Your initial paragraph says January 21, all other mentions of the date say July 21.

  3. Daniel Olive says:

    If anyone were to record audio I would be very keen to hear it. Sadly I can’t attend as I am in London.

  4. You found this, right? the almost-certainly-apocryphal story about Wheeler’s lost letter being part of the reason for the Oppenheimer hearings?
    This third article about George Volkoff describes his contributions to the University of British Columbia (UBC) and TRIUMF, Canada’s National Accelerator Laboratory on the south campus of UBC. Included in this articles are stories, derived from primary sources, about Einstein, Leopold Infeld, Frederick Kaempffer, and Professor Opechowski (Pritchard should read Pickard in this article). Of special note are the comments by I.I. Rabi and George Volkoff and the author regarding the real reason behind the Oppenheimer Hearings, which was the theft of a secret letter – the LOST WHEELER LETTER – from Edward Teller’s colleague and friend John Archibald Wheeler, a secret letter that described the Ulam-Teller configuration. The author has been made aware that the letter ended up in the hands of Soviet Intelligence. President Eisenhower would revoke Wheeler’s security clearance over the lost letter. This lost letter was the greatest breach of the US hydrogen project and was the cause celebre behind the Oppenheimer Hearings. The author draws from private discussions and primary sources.

    And this?
    During his 1984 visit to UBC, Dr. Rabi, Dr. Volkoff and the author had an interesting conversation regarding the Oppenheimer Affair and at Dr. Volkoff’s behest, the author asked a question about the “top secret” letter that Dr. John Wheeler had lost on the train on his way to Washington in 1953. Dr. Rabi was stunned to hear that the “lost letter” was known outside of “official circles” and Dr. Volkoff then admitted to Isidor that he had put the author up to asking the question. After a few minutes of thoughtful discussion, Dr. Rabi decided it was time for this fact to be made public. Dr. Volkoff ended the conversation by stating he thought that the Oppenheimer Affair was ultimately meant by Edward Teller to hide the fact that the “secret letter,” which outlined the dry lithium-6 and the Ulam-Teller configuration, had been lost and that John Wheeler had been responsible for a most serious breach of security. Following the breach, President Eisenhower reviewed and downgraded John Wheeler’s security access.

    • There are some weird confusions/mistakes/errors in the Volkoff accounts. There was no evidence of the letter ending up in the Soviets’ hands. It did have a role in the Oppenheimer hearings, but not the one Volkoff is alleging. Wheeler never lost his security clearance or had it “downgraded.”

  5. Tony Daquino says:

    Just discovered you existed. Awesome articles & I LOVE your blast radius calculator. FYI: I am a Stevens Graduate – ChE 1973 (originally class of 1970 but Vietnam intervened, and no I wasn’t drafted, I enlisted & served in Army Special Forces because I wanted to see what war was like- WHAT WAS I THINKING ????). Anyway, based on your posts & articles I think my Alma Mater is lucky to get you. GOOD LUCK!