The Smyth Report: A chemical weapon coverup?

by Alex Wellerstein, published May 2nd, 2017

Two weeks ago, The Atlantic published an article on its website that made an interesting and provocative claim about the history of the atomic bomb. The thesis, in short, is that the Manhattan Project officials deliberately misconstrued their own history to avoid the general public thinking that the atomic bomb had effects similar to the reviled and banned gas warfare of World War I. If true, that would be rather remarkable: while it is clear that the Manhattan Project personnel did care very much about their own history and how it would affect how people thought about the atomic bomb, an association with chemical weapons has not traditionally been hypothesized as one of the several motivations for this.

"Atomic Bombs," the original name for the Smyth Report, was meant to be applied with a red stamp. But in the hurry to release it, this was forgotten, and its terrible subtitle became its actual title, hence everyone calling it "the Smyth Report." It was, in other words, a report so secret that it forgot its own title! The only version with the red stamp applied was the one deposited for copyright purposes at the Library of Congress.

The author, Jimena Canales, is a professional historian of science who I’ve known for a long time. I’ve been asked about the article several times by other scholars who wanted to know whether the thesis was plausible or not. What’s tricky is that most people don’t know enough about the history of Manhattan Project publicity to sort out what’s new from what’s old, and what’s plausible from what’s not. Ultimately there are many parts of this article which are correct, but are not new (as Canales acknowledges in her article); the parts that are novel are, in my view, not likely to be true.

Canales’ article is about the creation of the Smyth Report. The argument is, essentially, that the Smyth Report is overly focused on physics at the expense of chemistry (which is the correct but not new argument), and that the reason it is focused on physics is so that people wouldn’t associate the atomic bomb with chemical weapons (which is the new but I think not correct argument). My problem with the piece is really the last part of it: I just don’t think there’s any evidence that this was a real concern at the time of writing the Smyth Report, and I don’t think it’s necessary to posit this as a reason for the way the report turned out the way it did (there are other reasons).

Those who have read this blog for a while probably know that I find the Smyth Report fairly fascinating and have written about it several times. It’s a highly unusual document that sits at several intersections: it hovers between secrecy and openness, it hovers between the end of the Manhattan Project and the beginning of the postwar era. In the remainder of this overly-long blog post, I am going to lay out a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Smyth Report as I understand it, what the key historiographical issues are, and why I disagree with the ultimate conclusions of Canales' piece.

The Physics-Bias of the Smyth Report

The Smyth Report was a work of technical history, authored by Henry DeWolf Smyth, chairman of the Princeton Physics Department. It was released within a few days of the Nagasaki bombing, and is the only case I know of where a concise history of a secret weapon was released within days of the secret weapon being used for the first time. It was a very deliberately-composed production: it had been in the works since 1944 (though the bulk was written in early 1945), and its creation and especially release was debated at the highest levels of the Manhattan Project. In the end, it was Truman himself who personally approved for it to be released, in an unusual bit of direct governance regarding atomic matters from him.1

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

Starting in 1944, the people at the very top of the atomic bomb project hierarchy started to worry about what would happen in what they called the “Interim” between the use of the bomb and the creation of domestic and international regulations that would govern its future existence. They started to worry that the use of the weapon would possibly have a negative impact on world affairs if there wasn’t a lot of planning already in place, and they sought to do that planning in advance. (Which is a remarkable amount of foresight, in retrospect.) There were many angles to this: they contemplated international control plans of the bomb, they drafted domestic control legislation (the precursors of the Atomic Energy Act), and they spent a lot of time on what they called “Publicity,” the information that would be released after the bomb was used (or wasn’t used, as the case may be — they planned for many contingencies, including the end of the war happening sooner than expected).

The “Publicity” efforts each started out as sort of vague ideas, but over early 1945 coalesced into what in retrospect looks like a pretty comprehensive approach to the matter. I have written a chapter on this program in my dissertation, and I see it as one of the really pivotal moments in the history of the bomb. It is when the scientist-administrators, military brass, and civilian decisionmakers all started trying to really wrap their heads around issues of secrecy, control, democracy, and openness, when previously they had been able to mostly ignore such questions under the cloak of “absolute secrecy” that Roosevelt had imposed on the bomb work.

The correspondence between Bush and Conant that led to the Smyth Report, March 1944. Even at this early stage, the motivations that would shape it are present. Source: Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 3, Target 6, Folder 18, "S-1 Military Policy Committee (1942-45)."

There were several types of “Publicity” pursued. One was the drafting of the press releases to be delivered by President Truman and the Secretary of War in the immediate aftermath of the bombing, which were written by intermediaries (Truman’s was eventually written by Arthur Page, the Vice President of AT&T and the “father of modern corporate public relations”). Another was the hiring of a newspaper reporter, William Laurence of the New York Times, to generate news articles that could be given to other newspapers either to be used as sources for their own stories, or to just be blatantly plagiarized (this was encouraged), so as to sate the journalists’ demand for copy after the biggest story of the decade (century?) was announced. Another was the creation of a Manhattan Project Public Relations Organization, an administration heading that would coordinate and centralize all future questions from the press, government officials, industry representatives, etc., after the bomb was used. And another, perhaps the most interesting and complex, was the Smyth Report.

The Smyth Report’s Preface and Foreword offer up two different (but not contradictory) reasons for why it was created. The Preface, written by Smyth, argues that in order for the United States (and the world) to make informed decisions on the future questions involving atomic energy, they will need to know some very basic facts about it. This is what we might call the “scientists’ argument” in favor of the Smyth Report, and behind the scenes it is the motivation that Vannevar Bush and James Conant had in proposing its creation. The Foreword, written by General Leslie Groves, offers up another angle: that the Smyth Report represents all that at the time of its publication could be spoken about freely. If someone worked on the Manhattan Project and saw their contribution in the Smyth Report, they could talk about it. If it wasn’t in the Smyth Report, it should be assumed it was still secret, and that talking about it would incur the wrath of the Espionage Act. This is what we might call the “military argument” in its favor: it would serve as a declassification guide of sorts, informing the 500,000 or so people who worked on the bomb project what the boundaries of knowledge were in the post-Hiroshima period. Groves was explicit in worrying that if the boundaries were not clear, secrecy would die by a thousand leaks. Better to give away some information and set firm boundaries than to try and hoard all of it.2 Neither of these goals contradicts the other: the Smyth Report is both of these things at once, a fascinating artifact of both secrecy and openness at the same time, seeing them (correctly, I might note) as being two sides of the same coin, what would in early the Atomic Energy Commission be called “Information Control.”3

How Smyth self-described his work to Oppenheimer in February 1945, when forwarding draft chapters on the work at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer didn't like them, because so much of the real work of the lab had been cut for security reasons.

The first serious study of the Smyth Report’s history, which Canales rightly cites, is a dissertation by Rebecca Press Schwartz, who got her PhD from Princeton University in 2008. Unfortunately, Press Schwartz’s work is known primarily only to historians of physics, though within the small group of people who have studied the historiography of the Manhattan Project, it has been very influential. Historiography is an academic term that means the “history of history.” So it means looking at how historians have shaped our understanding of history, and how that has changed over time. It is a word that some spell-checkers do not recognize as legitimate, but it is very important to academic historians, because if you do not see how the writing of history itself is embedded within its own historical context, you cannot hope to see around the blind spots imposed by your own context, or to examine critically the narratives being passed down by other academic historians.4

Press Schwartz’s dissertation is both about the creation of the Smyth Report as a document and the influence of its framing of the story of the Manhattan Project on future histories of the bomb. Her argument is an interesting one: the Smyth Report was telling a story primarily about physics and physicists. In the process, it omits attention to the work of the thousands of chemists, metallurgists, engineers, and other non-physicists who were absolutely necessary to the development of the atomic bomb (something many non-physicists who worked on the project would later complain about). Why does it do this? Press Schwartz offered up two answers:

Smyth’s own sense of what constituted interesting science, as well as the security determination that the release of basic physics information was less likely to reveal critical secrets than the release of chemical or engineering information. These two considerations, Smyth’s interests and security concerns, yielded a report that focused on physics and physicists, while limiting discussion of others’ contributions.5

For our purposes let’s generalize Press Schwartz's argument: the overall Smyth Report suffers from “physics-bias.” Why? Reason #1: “professional self-interest” (Smyth was a physicist and was naturally inclined to see the contributions of his field as most important). Reason #2: the “security” argument (basic physics was easier to declassify than anything else in the project). Let us also note that Press Schwartz is not saying that chemists, etc., are not mentioned — just that there is limited discussion of them. If you search the Smyth Report for the top chemists, etc., you will find them — but the discussion of their work is very brief relative to the discussion of physics and physicists.

An early version of the security rules governing the content of the Smyth Report, developed by Groves, Smyth, and Richard Tolman, in late May 1945.

Press Schwartz’s larger argument is that this physics-bias has percolated throughout all histories of the bomb since, and indeed in how we think about the work of making atomic bombs. So when we think “atomic bomb” we think of people like Oppenheimer, Fermi, Lawrence, Bethe, etc., and not people like Seaborg, Spedding, Kistiakowsky, and innumerable others. There is some delicious irony in the “security” argument in particular: the rules governing the release of information in the Smyth Report (the very first declassification rules regarding the bomb ever created, as an aside, created in April 1945) make it clear that anything in it has to be already known, pretty obvious, or have “no real bearing on the production of atomic bombs.”6 In other words, the Smyth Report seems and purports to be telling you how to make an atomic bomb, but in reality, it is telling you anything but how to do that. So the physics-bias is not only incomplete, it is also misleading.

In the years since I first read Press Schwartz’s thesis, and did more of my own research on the Smyth Report’s creation and history, I’ve come to feel that while it is true that the security rules do bias towards the early basic science of the bomb, the other factor, “professional self-interest,” has probably been underestimated by other readers of her thesis. The Manhattan Project hierarchy was dominated by physicists, and the effort was mostly championed by physicists. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, Enrico Fermi, Richard Tolman — all physicists. The Smyth Report was edited by William Shurcliff, a physicist. I have talked about the Smyth Report with modern-day physicists, and had them say, yes, other sciences were needed to produce the bomb, but the basic idea is rooted in a physical principle, and that is what makes it unique from all other weapons previously. Which is true. Yes, you need lots of other people to make these things “real,” but at its core (literally and figuratively) the bomb is about novel physics phenomena related to nuclear fission and radiation. That is what makes an atomic bomb an atomic bomb, not the chemistry. Vannevar Bush, an electrical engineer by training, and James Conant, a chemist, are interesting exceptions to this physics domination, but they saw the heart of the work as being that of the physics, well before any actual bomb loomed on the horizon. And that is because nuclear fission is fundamentally a physical process, and rightly or wrongly they saw nuclear fission as the core of the enterprise.

Distribution of personnel by division at Los Alamos in August, 1944. Divisions defined by their physics (Ex and Theo) make up 20% of the total, only slightly more than people working in administration. See footnote below for source.

To be sure, this is a bias, and a misleading one. Chemists, engineers, and metallurgists are not just the “labor” that makes the bomb real. There was much more tight, interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary integration, as there were on many other wartime production projects (like radar).7 In mid-1944 at Los Alamos, the distribution between different specialists was roughly equal.8 Interestingly, after mid-1944 the laboratory was reorganized to tackle the implosion problem, and the types of specialists become harder to track because the technical groups become more interdisciplinary: “G” (Gadget) Division, for example, was tackling questions relating to practically every discipline, whether it was developing electrical switches for triggering the bomb, casting explosive lens molds, worrying about criticality, or working to stabilize plutonium’s allotropic phases. At sites like Hanford, massive, secret chemical processes were developed to strip plutonium out of spent nuclear fuel, and the raw engineering difficulties involved with separating fissile material, much less designing the bombs themselves, are famous.

But it is not surprising to me that physicists want to “claim” the bomb as theirs — they literally got the project started, it is a discovery in their field which made it possible, and, again, their contribution is what makes it different from anything else. To say “all scientific fields are required to make an atomic bomb” is true, but so is saying “all scientific fields are required to make a B-29 bomber,” even though you would simply not have the latter without aerodynamics specialists. Smyth’s descriptions of the processes involved is physics-centric but not wrong: matters of neutrons and fission are literally at the center of the bombs and the reactors; isotopic separation relies on physical — not chemical — differences between atoms; phenomena like radiation are ultimately physical — not chemical — in nature.

Were chemical weapons on their mind?

So what of Canales’ argument? Her paper rejects both the “security” and “professional self-interest” arguments alike, and instead proposes a new, novel reason for the physics-bias: that the crafters of the Smyth Report were being intentionally misleading, because they wanted the American (or global) public to see the atomic bomb as a creation of physicists and not chemists, because they didn’t want it to be associated with the horrors of chemical weapons. This is a new argument by Canales; this is a novel contribution.

Personally, I find that the “security” and “professional self-interest” arguments are pretty easy to document in the archive. We actually have quite a lot of documents on what the people working on the Smyth Report thought about it, and many early drafts. We have lots of documentation on the early ideas that led to its creation, and the discussions about whether it should be released at all (it was highly controversial in this respect — it was argued that it gave away too many secrets and would help the Soviets too much; the British in particular were not very keen on it being published, but relented under pressure). I point this out because one might get the impression that there are lots of obvious gaps and unknowns here; there are not. Press Schwartz’s work is very well documented, and the creation of the Smyth Report benefits from an abundance of documentation (especially compared to many other important Manhattan Project topics, where one really does have to work from snippets of data).

Canales’ argument, by contrast, is weaved on a comparatively thin evidentiary basis, picking and choosing from sparse places in which gas warfare was mentioned by project participants, and then arguing that this adds up to a collusion in favor of the physics-bias. She notes, for example, that several of those involved with the Manhattan Project (Smyth and Conant in particular) had worked in chemical warfare in World War I. A true fact that is quite interesting to me, as Conant in particular was one of the few people who actually had prior experience working in an isolated secret war laboratory, but the fact of it alone does not lend support for her argument. She notes, as well, that the theme of radiological poisons had been brought up several times by people within the Manhattan Project (both offensively and defensively), and that there were some scientists (notably those at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, associated with the Franck Report) who had argued against the use of the bomb in part because of the possibility of it being seen as related to prohibited weapons.

But there is nothing actually connecting those concerns to the Smyth Report’s creation. There is a big gap between occasional (truly occasional!) discussions of chemical warfare, and that actually influencing the writing or editing of the report. The Smyth Report has its own genesis separate and much earlier than many of these concerns, and I have seen literally nothing that points to the idea that it was created with a deliberately pro-physics bias in order to distract away from chemistry. Canales offers up no guns, smoking or otherwise. She instead offers up innuendo: a conversation here might have been related to an output there, without any actual connection. I have seen nothing in the archives that makes me think such a connection is there.

The story on August 23, 1945, that reported Japanese radiation sickness casualties, and provoked a strong denial from Groves. This photo is from Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 31, "Releasing information."

The strongest part of Canales argument is that there was a time in which Manhattan Project officials worried that the bomb would be associated with poison gases, but it was only after Hiroshima happened. This is a key point. Sean Malloy’s research on radiation sickness, which I have written about at some length, makes quite clear (and I concur with him on this, having seen the documents myself) that the Manhattan Project brass honestly did not think that radiation sickness was going to be a big problem among the victims of the atomic bomb. There are many interesting reasons why they did not (in short, they thought the bomb’s other effects, like blast and fire, would kill anyone who would otherwise suffer from radiation poisoning), but the key point here is that they were actually surprised when the Japanese claimed (post-Hiroshima) that radiation sickness was a consequence. And, to be sure, Groves and others worked very hard to try and spin/suppress/deny that information, because they feared it would generate sympathy for the Japanese and antipathy towards the using of the bomb. But the chronology here is very clear: these efforts came well after the Smyth Report had been written (it was finalized by July 31).9

Which is to say, I think Canales’ argument has problems on two fronts. First, there is really no strong, direct evidence for it. To believe it, you have to believe that somehow there was this massive, important motivating factor that somehow never, ever was hinted at or revealed by anyone working on the Smyth Report, except in a few, rare, unrelated conversations. I think this is unlikely, and I don’t think the other explanations for the physics-bias in the Smyth Report are inadequate for explaining said bias. Second, I think it misreads some of the chronology of things, taking post-Hiroshima attitudes and superimposing them into people's heads pre-Hiroshima. It fails, in this sense, to understand the historical actors in the context that they were actually working in, and is misleading about what their preoccupations actually were. It is one of the things that makes doing work on the history of the atomic bomb very difficult: as Michael Gordin has argued at length, the pre-use and post-use (and post-surrender, etc.) attitudes were remarkably different, for a lot of reasons. It is one of the reasons that the bomb memoirs are so unreliable, and means that to do good history here, you really have to get yourself into the earlier mindsets without prejudicing them with your knowledge of what is to come later.10

Being tied to the documents has its methodological dangers — they can only tell you so much, both because not all of them survive or are accessible, and because not everything is written down. This was, amusingly, General Groves’ critique of historians, who, in his mind, “almost invariably accept as authentic anything that has appeared in print unless it disagrees with what they are trying to prove. ... The historian's preoccupation with pieces of paper and disregard of the characteristics of the men involved lead to excessive use of such source material and thus distort history.”11 It’s a fair-enough criticism, albeit the alternatives — like relying on your historical actors to self-report with fallible/self-serving memories — are not so great, either.

But I’m always enthusiastic about historians making interpretive arguments about what is really driving people and organizations. The gaps between what is written down, and what people were thinking, are where the real interpretive and creative activity of the historian is done. I engage in this activity myself; it is not only unavoidable, but the lifeblood of historical scholarship. But in this case, I think Canales' article gets it wrong: there were several reasons that the Smyth Report ended up the way it did, but I don’t think the reason she is proposing is one of them. I would definitely need more evidence to be convinced, something that actually showed that this was a guiding concern either during the writing of the Smyth Report, or during the decision to release it. The article does not present such evidence, and I am doubtful that it exists.

[Note: Canales was made aware of my views of her argument prior to the publication of her article. After I published the above, her response (on Facebook, where I posted my blog post, and later reiterated via e-mail) was "Now I am even more convinced of the strength of my thesis:" I invited her to elaborate on this in a comment to this post, to which she replied that this would be her "only comment." I continue to welcome her engagement on the subject.]

  1. Vannevar Bush recalled in his memoirs that on the morning of August 9, he, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, James Conant, General Leslie Groves, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, and Stimson’s assistant George L. Harrison went to the White House to consult with Truman on the question of release, which it had been decided had to wait for the President’s return from the Potsdam conference. They presented the pros and cons of releasing it. Finally, Truman sat back in his chair, and stared at the ceiling, and said: “I regret that I have to make decisions such as this.” Then, after a pause: “You will release the report; the meeting is adjourned.” Such fits with Truman’s abrupt governance style. Vannevar Bush, Pieces of the action (New York: Morrow, 1970), 294. []
  2. This is a lesson, incidentally, that Groves learned the hard way at Hanford earlier in the war. He had attempted to impose a total ban of information about the site on the local press there, and found that if you tell reporters nothing about what you are doing, they will dig up a lot of information anyway. If you tell them something, even a very limited something, they will tend to be happy they have their story and file it away. This lesson influenced a lot of Groves’ thoughts on “Publicity” and it is one of the reasons his approach to secrecy is so interesting — it’s never just about holding things back, but a delicate balance between holding back and giving away. I write much about this in my dissertation. []
  3. Much of this comes from my dissertation, and is also part of my someday forthcoming book on the history of nuclear secrecy. []
  4. 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). []
  5. Press Schwartz, iii. []
  6. The earliest written-down set of “rules” for the Smyth Report are from May 1945: Leslie Groves to Henry DeWolf Smyth (21 May 1945), copy in Correspondence ("Top Secret") of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Folder 12: "Intelligence and Security," Roll 2, Target 6. There were some very slight changes in the rules made as late as July 31, 1945, e.g. changing “that it can be deduced” to “that it will surely be deduced.” []
  7. On the effect of World War II on interdisciplinary work, see esp. Peter Galison, Image and logic: A material culture of microphysics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997), esp. chapter 4, “Laboratory War: Radar Philosophy and the Los Alamos Man.” []
  8. The explicitly “physics” divisions made up about 20% of the personnel at Los Alamos, while chemistry made up 22%, engineering and ordnance 28%. It gets a little complicated using divisions as proxies — many were interdisciplinary — but it serves our point here well-enough. Data comes from graph 6 in David Hawkins, "Project Y: The Los Alamos Project," Los Alamos Report LAMS-2532, Vol 1, on 302. []
  9. A more plausible argument would be to assert that this affected Groves’ desire to release the Smyth Report. Even this gets tricky from a timeline perspective. On August 8, 1945, there was an argument published in the New York Times that said that Hiroshima would be radioactively contaminated for seven decades, originating with a scientist who had been connected the Manhattan Project. It was entirely incorrect. Groves squashed the author like a bug, more or less. That’s pretty much the only event prior to the meeting with Truman about the Smyth Report that ties into chemical weapons directly. Groves had always been gung-ho about releasing it. The Japanese radiation sickness claims came only on August 25, which is to say, nearly two weeks after it had been released. See Malloy’s article: Sean Malloy, “‘A Very Pleasant Way To Die’: Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb Against Japan,” Diplomatic History 36, no. 3 (June 2012), 515-545. When the Smyth Report was released to journalists on August 11, its message to them carried an addendum that added a few sentences to a paragraph of the report: specifically, that the airburst of the weapon meant that most of its radioactivity would not be deposited on the ground, and that even at Trinity the amount of ground contamination was not very high. (See everything in 12.18 after the asterisk here.) That looks like it is a response to August 8 story, but again does not in any way support the idea that they were worried about such things before the bombing of Hiroshima. See Manhattan District History, Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8, which contains the release. []
  10. Michael Gordin, Five days in August: How World War II became a nuclear war (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007. []
  11. The historian Groves was taking issue with was Herbert Feis, whose Japan Subdued (Princeton University Press, 1961), irritated him. Quoted in Barton Bernstein, “Reconsidering the ‘Atomic General’: Leslie R. Groves,” Journal of Military History 67, No. 3 (July 2003), 883-920, on 890. []

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12 Responses to “The Smyth Report: A chemical weapon coverup?”

  1. Cheryl Rofer says:

    Nice summary, Alex.

    As a chemist who has worked with physicists, I can support the idea of physicists’ “professional self-interest.” It is very easy for a physicist to think that their part of a project is the only important part, and the execution (done by others) trivial. I’ve seen that lead to a couple of durable misunderstandings, but somehow the physicists get the last word.

  2. Asa says:

    Have you seen the Israeli movie Footnote? You just paraphrased a line from it (from a professor to a grad student, so maybe it’s a trope going around academia): “There are many new and true things in this paper. Sadly, the things that are true are not new and the things that are new… are not true.”

  3. Jonah Speaks says:

    In a footnote to footnote 9, I believe Oppenheimer used colorful language to deny the bomb caused radioactive contamination.

    A broader philosophical or legal issue is whether a bomb that spews or creates radioactive substances constitutes a “chemical weapon” that is outlawed (either then or now)? Is suffering and death caused by radiation the same thing as being chemically poisoned?

    • Oppenheimer was dragooned by Groves into defending the bomb as not all that radioactive after the attack on Hiroshima. It was not his finest moment and there were critics amongst his colleagues for him jumping so eagerly into that fray, given that there were many unknowns.

      As for whether the bomb should be considered on par with chemical weapons — that’s a somewhat different question. I think it is definitively worse than chemical weapons in nearly every way. So I think it may be clouding the matter to wonder whether it should be regarded as such. Malloy’s article directly discusses this question, though, and whether if the radioactivity issue had been more carefully considered/understood prior to the use of the bombs, would they have instead chosen not to use the weapon (or used it differently).

      • Jonah Speaks says:

        The question I had was whether death caused by radiation from a nuclear weapon “is” (at least partly) chemical caused. I can imagine a situation where radiation causes death primarily from a source outside the body (e.g., neutron bombardment), which is arguably physical, not chemical. I can also imagine a situation where a radioactive substance is absorbed into the body (e.g., radioactive iodine), so that the main source of deadly radiation comes from within the body. In the second case one could argue that death is being caused by a radioactive chemical poison.

        • I mean, in some sense, sure, chemical reactions do become involved on a microlevel. (Ionizing radiation is hazardous because it can rip the electrons off of cellular machinery — that is, ionize them — and that changes their chemistry and makes thing go haywire, usually killing the cell but occasionally causing genetic damage, cancer, etc.) But I don’t think it’s a good way to think about the health effects. Suffocation is ultimately a chemical process (interrupting the metabolism of oxygen), and so is burning someone at the stake (combustion), but to think of these as being essentially “chemical” in their nature is not very helpful, even if chemistry is going on at some level.

  4. Charles Day says:

    If I’d been given the job of writing the Smyth report, I would also have emphasized the theoretical physics—for two reasons.

    First, starting with the underlying concepts of fission, chain reactions etc makes sense. Nuclear weapons are not scaled-up versions of conventional bombs. They are fundamentally different, and the physics explains why.

    Second, emphasizing the physics while skimping on the applied physics, chemistry, mathematics, metallurgy and the various flavors of engineering is one way to explain how nuclear weapons work without divulging how to make one.

    So as a science writer, I consider the Smyth report’s physics bias as neither surprising nor necessarily conspiratorial.

  5. Bob says:

    Although I have not read the Smyth report, I can believe that it deliberately minimized Chemistry, not because of an association with chemical weapons, but because it is a difficult but very important step that many would have liked to keep secret at the time. Describing a critical mass of fissile material can explain how a bomb works to the public. However, describing how the isotopes are separated and purified is not particularly important to the public, but very important to anyone trying to actually build a bomb. I am pretty sure that General Groves would not want to say any more than we ship Uranium ore to a secret factory and U235 comes out.

    • The Report describes the isotope separation modes in their very basic principles. For example, there is a chapter on gaseous diffusion, and it describes the basic principles and very basic calculations behind it, to a degree that might look like a detailed account to an untrained eye, because the Smyth Report does not really tell you what it is leaving out. So it does not give any hints at the process used for producing the specialized barriers that are necessary (which are still largely classified), and it only just hints at the major problems caused by corrosion (uranium hexafluoride is extremely reactive, and the whole plant has to be designed with this in mind, or it will fall apart very quickly). It does not hint at all about how they solved the corrosion problem (coat everything in a layer of nickel — a simple-enough idea, later declassified, but too specific to make it through the security net in 1945, it seems). So this is characteristic of how it talks about these things — it looks, superficially, like a lot of information is in such a chapter, but it is almost entirely treating the question from the perspective of first-principles physics, with almost no discussion of how you actually make these principles a reality, and no serious discussion about the practical problems you’d run into trying to do it. In the cases of the production processes, I think the “security” argument is sufficient to understand why they look the way they do.

      Some of the chemical processes, like how to strip plutonium out of spent reactor fuel, were not declassified until the 1960s. Some of the processes missing in the report (like the aforementioned barrier method) are still classified today, though we know much more about them than was revealed in 1945.

  6. In a 1969 essay called The Sin of the Scientist Isaac Asimov makes a case that the advent of chemical weapons in 1915 single-handedly soured the public on the idea of “Science” bringing a glorious utopian future. That does make it slightly more plausible the idea that the Smyth Report would go to some pains to lessen the association between nuclear weapons and chemical warfare.

    • I think that goes a bit far, though chemical weapons (and other deadly wonders of the Great War, notably the submarine) did have a large effect on how politicians and the public thought about the relationship between science, technology, and warfare.

      The people who made the atomic bomb, and publicized it, were definitely concerned about how the public would react. But I’ve still seen no evidence that chemical weapons was part of what they worried about. To put it another way, creating a city-destroying weapon, using it on several cities, and then projecting that in the future many states would have many of these, and have them on the tips of rockets… all of this seems like quite a bit to be concerned with without bringing a dubious chemical weapons analogy into the picture.

      To put it yet another way: I can document, for example, that the submarine was an invention that played strongly into the creation of the first patent secrecy laws at the tail-end of World War I. It was the invention that Congressmen discussed in closed hearings, the “superweapon” that they thought would revolutionize warfare, etc., and they used that sort of language to justify creating a new form of control for it. Chemical weapons just didn’t figure into any records of that discussion — so to posit that they played a role would be at best speculative or interpretive. I could say, as a historian, maybe they were part of it, but nobody wrote it down. But I could much more strongly say that the submarine was actually part of that discussion, because, well, they actually discuss it.

      Is it possible that chemical weapons could have played a role in the discussion of the Publicity of the Manhattan Project? I mean, in an infinite number of universes, why not? But did they? Again, I have not seen any real evidence that they have, whereas there is lots of evidence for the other matters on their mind. The notion that they were worried about it seems superfluous to me: its only appeal in introducing it is, at best, to draw a connection between the chemical weapons of WWI and the atomic bombs of WWII (which you can do in some contexts, to be sure — you can also draw connections between biological weapons and early thinking on atomic control, but I don’t see evidence of the domain of Publicity as being one of those sites), and at worst, to posit that there was some kind of conspiratorial cover-up (always good for a popular article, and sometimes justified, but it needs to be true, which I don’t think is the case in this specific instance).

      Which, to state it briefer: I’m not saying the notion is entirely implausible, in the sense of being “ruled out” in some categorical way. But I don’t think it’s supported by the evidence, and I think there are strong reasons to believe it not to be true.

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