Archive for the ‘News and Notes’ Category

In Memoriam: Richard G. Hewlett (1923-2015)

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

Richard Greening Hewlett, the first official historian of the Atomic Energy Commission, has passed away at the age of 92.1

I never knew Hewlett, but nobody can work in this field without acknowledging the huge debt they owe him for his work. Hewlett began working for the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) in 1957, working to write a volume on the Manhattan Project and establishment of the AEC. In doing so he was also establishing the History Office of the AEC, which was dedicated to cataloguing and preserving these vital records. One of his greatest coups was discovering, entirely by chance, a locked safe in a basement of an AEC building that turned out to contain the Bush-Conant files relating to the creation of the atomic bomb, one of the most important document bases for any history of the Manhattan Project (and one which I have relied upon extensively).

Richard G. Hewlett, posing in 1958 with the Bush-Conant document collection.

Richard G. Hewlett, posing in 1958 with the Bush-Conant document collection.

Hewlett continued at his post through the abolishment of the AEC and the subsequent creations of its successors, the Energy Research and Development Administration and the Department of Energy. He retired in 1980, and went on to co-found History Associates, one of the only private companies dedicated to doing serious historical work.

Hewlett’s volumes on AEC history are extremely useful resources, and I end up citing them often. They can be tricky to work with, though, since Hewlett was not always able to cite his sources very precisely (on account of many of them being classified or kept internally), and the sort of “official historian” he was meant that he rarely strayed too far beyond the most “orthodox” versions of these histories (he was never courting controversy). I have found in many instances that when I look up a document that Hewlett cited, it turns out that he basically just paraphrased what the document said and presented that as what happened — and sometimes that is valid, sometimes that is not. Documents require their own contextualization, their own careful reading, to get the full story, and Hewlett’s approach can feel a little naive in retrospect. It is an old-style of history, official or not.

Still, he was essentially carving out the first draft of this historical work, and approaching it seriously, and that required a Herculean effort in its own right, both in terms of collecting the source material and navigating the federal bureaucracy to get these histories published. In a 1997 interview with Public Historian, Hewlett described how Admiral Hyman G. Rickover essentially abused classification restrictions in order to force Hewlett to write a book on the nuclear Navy, with Rickover at the center of it. Hewlett ran into further complications later when he attempted to write about nuclear waste — a topic that does not make the AEC look extremely on top of things.2

I’ve read a number of narratives from public historians working with secret topics. It seems like a tricky prospect. Barton Hacker, who wrote on the history of radiation exposure and protection, told me that his security clearance rarely got him anything that wasn’t basically already knowable from the “outside,” and caused interminable difficulties when he tried to get things published that made anybody currently in office, or any still-existing agency, look anything but perfect. As he put it later, some bureaucrats “objected to what they called ‘editorializing,’ which seems to be the bureaucratic term for drawing conclusions.”3

I have never wanted a security clearance, and would never accept one, for this reason. To learn something interesting but not to be able to tell anyone about it seems like a bad exchange. I want to know things, but I also want to tell things — storytelling is my profession, in a sense. To get a clearance means you are in an entirely different category from the perspective of a classifying agency, and even innocuous information that everybody knows can end up on the cutting-room floor. No thanks.

AEC histories, volumes 1-3

Hewlett’s AEC histories are all scanned and online, posted in various archives by the US federal government, some on the Department of Energy’s History Publications page. Because they are all in the public domain (they are all “work for hire” for the US government, which makes them uncopyrightable), and they are all out of print, I am going to mirror them here:

I find these scanned copies perhaps most useful of all, because they are searchable. The Hewlett volumes can be dull reads in places (he embodies a certain model of official historian that tries to keep up an appearance of “just the facts”), but they make excellent resources to run keyword searches through. It is too bad nobody has really tried to do one of these kinds of volumes for the final chapter of the AEC’s history (1962-1974).4

The source note to The New World has one of my favorite lines about nuclear history and the reason why there are more resources that one might expect:

The records have survived. For this, scholars can thank two much-maligned practices of the bureaucracy: classification and multiple copies. Classified documents endure; they do not disappear from the files as souvenirs. As for copies in sextuplicate, their survival is a matter of simple arithmetic. If the original in one agency is destroyed, the chances are better than even that one of the five carbons will escape the flames in another.5

To this we must add that people like Hewlett took the time to track them down, catalogue them, and get them eventually transferred into repositories (like the National Archives and Records Administration, for all their difficulties). This final action, so crucial for the later historian, does not happen on its own. This may be Hewlett’s greatest legacy in the end. The texts he wrote will inevitably be superseded by later works of history — but those superseding works will be utterly reliant on the preservation work he did, those acts of finding and saving and cataloging of the records. Rest in peace.

  1. I thank Stan Norris for bringing this to my attention. []
  2. Richard G. Hewlett and Jo Anne McCormick Quatannens, “Richard G. Hewlett: Federal Historian,” The Public Historian 19, no. 1 (Winter 1997): 53-83,  esp. 73-77. []
  3. Barton C. Hacker, “Writing the History of a Controversial Program: Radiation Safety, the AEC, and Nuclear Weapons Testing,” The Public Historian 14, no. 1 (Winter 1992): 31-53, on 45. []
  4. My favorite, detail-heavy books that cover the latter period of AEC history well are Brian Balogh’s Chain Reaction: Expert Debate and Public Participation in American Commercial Nuclear Power 1945-1975 (Cambridge University Press, 1991), and J. Samuel Walker’s The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (University of California Press, 2009), though they only cover the power and waste aspects of it (as opposed to, say, the weapons angles). []
  5. Richard Hewlett and Oscar Anderson, A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Volume 1: The New World, 1939-1946 (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), 657. []

“Nagasaki: The Last Bomb”

Friday, August 7th, 2015

This is just a quick place-holding note (a longer post on this will follow next week): I have an article up on the New Yorker’s Elements blog about the bombing of Nagasaki, which took place 70 years ago this Sunday. Check it out: Nagasaki: The Last Bomb.

New Yorker - Nagasaki - The Last BombAnd a few other media appearances by yours truly from this crazy, busy week:


H-bomb headaches

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Once again, the US government has gotten itself into a bad situation over the supposed secret of the hydrogen bomb. As The New York Times reported earlier this week, the Department of Energy (DOE) censors demanded that the physicist Ken Ford heavily redact a manuscript he had written on the history of the hydrogen bomb. Ford, however, declined to do so, and you can buy the unexpurgated text right now on Amazon in Kindle format, and in hardback and paperback fairly soon.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ford was a young physicist working with John A. Wheeler during the 1950s, and so a lot of his book is a personal memoir. He is also (in full disclosure) the former head of the American Institute of Physics (my employer from 2011-2014), and I was happy to give him some assistance in the preparation of the manuscript, mainly in the form of tracking down declassified/unclassified sources relating to his story, and helped him get solid citations to them. Ken actually just recently came to Hoboken so we could iron out a few of the final citations in a Starbucks near my apartment. I knew he was having some issues with classification review, but I didn’t know he was going to play it like this — I am impressed by his boldness at just saying “no” to DOE.

Nothing I saw in his work struck me as anything actually still secret. Which is not to say that it might or might not be officially classified — just that the technical information is much the same kind of technical information you can find in other, unclassified sources, like the books of Richard Rhodes and Chuck Hansen, and people on the web like Carey Sublette, among others. And therein lies the rub: is information still a secret if it is officially classified, even if it is widely available?

This has been a tricky thing for the government to adjudicate over the years. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (and its revisions) charges the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and later the Department of Energy, with regulating “restricted data” wherever it appears, wherever it comes from. According to the law, they don’t have any choice in the matter. But over the years they changed their stance as to the best way to achieve this regulation.

One of the earliest decisions of the Lilienthal AEC was to adopt a “no comment” policy with regards to potentially sensitive information published by people unassociated with the nuclear weapons complex. Basically, if someone wanted to speculate on potentially classified topics — like the size of the US nuclear stockpile, or how nuclear weapons worked — the AEC in general would not try to get in their way. They might, behind the scenes, contact editors and publishers and make an appeal to decency and patriotism. (Sometimes this got expressed in a comical fashion: they would have “no comment” about one paragraph but not another.) But they generally did not try to use threat of prosecution as the means of achieving this end, because they felt, correctly, that censorship was too blunt an object to wield very effectively, and that telling someone on the outside of the government that they had hit upon classified information was tantamount to revealing a secret in and of itself.

Howard Morland then-and-now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

Howard Morland then and now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

There were a few instances, however, where this “no comment” policy broke down. The best-known one is the case of United States v. Progressive, Inc. in 1979. This is the famous case in which the DOE attempted to obtain (and was briefly granted) prior restraint against the publication of a magazine that claimed to contain the “secret of the hydrogen bomb,” written by the journalist/activist Howard Morland. The DOE convinced a judge to grant a restriction on publication initially, but in the appeals process it became increasingly clear that the government’s case was on fairly shaky grounds. They declared the case moot when the researcher Chuck Hansen had a paper on hydrogen bomb design published in a student newspaper — in this case, it looked like an obvious attempt to back out before getting a bad ruling. Morland’s article appeared in print soon after and became the “standard” depiction of how the Teller-Ulam design works, apparently validated by the government’s interest in the case.

In this case, the issue was about the most egregious incursion of the Atomic Energy Act into the public sphere: the question of whether the government could regulate information that it did not itself play a part in creating. The “restricted data” clause of the Atomic Energy Act (after which this blog is named) specifies that all nuclear weapons-related information is to be considered classified unless explicitly declassified, and makes no distinction about whether said information was created in a laboratory by a government scientist or anywhere else in the world by private citizens. Thus nuclear weapons information is “born secret” according to the law (unlike any other forms of controlled national defense information), which in cases like that of The Progressive puts it in direct conflict with the First Amendment.

Ford’s book is something different, however. Ford was himself a government scientist and had a security clearance. This means he was privy to information that was most definitely classified as both “restricted data” and national defense information. He worked on Project Matterhorn B at Princeton, which was part of the hydrogen bomb effort in the early 1950s. He signed contracts that governed his behavior, both while working for the government and later. He agreed to let the government evaluate his work for classified information, and agreed he would not give away any classified information.

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

There is a historical parallel here, and a better one than the Progressive case. In 1950, the magazine Scientific American ran a series of articles about the hydrogen bomb. The first of these was by the gadfly physicist Louis Ridenour. Ridenour had no connection with nuclear weapons work and he could say whatever he wanted. But the second was by Hans Bethe, who was intimately involved with classified nuclear work. Bethe obviously didn’t try to publish anything he thought was secret. But the AEC got several passages deleted from the article anyway.

The passages removed were extremely banal. For example, Bethe said that it seemed like they would need to use the deuterium-tritium reaction to achieve fusion. This level of basic information was already in the Ridenour article that was published a month before. So why delete it from the Bethe article? Well, because Bethe was connected with the government. If Ridenour says, “tritium is necessary,” it doesn’t mean that much, because Ridenour doesn’t have access to secrets. If Bethe says it, it could be potentially understood by an adversary to mean that the deuterium-deuterium reaction isn’t good enough (and it isn’t), and thus that the Los Alamos scientists had found no easy short-cut to the H-bomb. So the same exact words coming out of different mouths had different meanings, because coming out of Bethe’s mouth they were a statement about secret government research, and out of Ridenour’s mouth they were not. The whole thing became a major publicity coup for Scientific American, of course, because there is no better publicity for a news organization than a heavy-handed censorship attempt.

I have looked over a lot of Ford’s book. It’s available on Amazon as a e-book, or as a PDF directly from the publisher. I haven’t had time to read the entire thing in detail yet, so this is nothing like a formal review. The sections that I imagine drew the ire of the DOE concern some of the early thinking about how the Teller-Ulam design came about. This is an area where there is still a lot of historical ambiguity, because tracing the origins of a complex technical idea is not straightforward even without classification mucking things up. (I am working on a paper of this myself, and have a somewhat different interpretation than Ken, but that is really neither here nor there.)

Ken Ford Building the H-bomb

There’s nothing that looks classified in Ken’s work on this to me. There are references to things that generally don’t show up in government publications, like “equilibrium conditions,” but the existence of these kinds of technical issues are common in the open literature on thermonuclear weapons, and a lot of them are present in the related field of inertial confinement fusion, which was largely declassified in the late 1990s.1

So why is the DOE pent up over Ford? It is probably not an issue of the content so much as the fact that he is the one talking about it. It is one thing for an unaffiliated, uncleared person like me to say the words “equilibrium conditions” and talk about radiation implosion and tampers and cryogenic cooling of plutonium and things of that nature. It’s another for a former weapons physicist to say it.

It’s also related to the fact that because Ken was a former weapons physicist, they have to review his work. And they have to review it against their official guides that tell them what is technically secret and what is not. And what is allowed by the DOE to talk about is not the same thing about what people on the outside of the DOE do talk about. So, for example, this is pretty much most of what the DOE considers kosher about thermonuclear weapons:

  • The fact that in thermonuclear (TN) weapons, a fission “primary” is used to trigger a TN reaction in thermonuclear fuel referred to as a “secondary.” 
  • The fact that, in thermonuclear weapons, radiation from a fission explosive can be contained and used to transfer energy to compress and ignite a physically separate component containing thermonuclear fuel.  Note: Any elaboration of this statement will be classified.
  • Fact that fissile and/or fissionable materials are present in some secondaries, material unidentified, location unspecified, use unspecified, and weapons undesignated. 

Now you can find a lot more elaboration on these statements in the works of Chuck Hansen, Carey Sublette, and, hell, even Wikipedia these days. (Fun fact: Howard Morland, of The Progressive case, is an active Wikipedian and contributor to that page.) And in fact there is a lot that has been released by the government that does lend towards “elaboration” of these statements, because it is impossible to full compartmentalize all of this kind of information in such neat little boxes.

But the job of the DOE reviewer was to sit down with the guide, sit down with Ken’s book, and decide what the guide said they had to do regarding the book. And in this case, it was about 10% of the book that the guide said they had to get rid of. And in this case, they are bound by the guide. Now, at a certain point, one has to say, if the guide is saying that lots of stuff that is already in Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun, published 20 years ago, still needs to be kept under lock and key, well, maybe the guide needs to be changed. But there is arguably something of a difference between Rhodes (an outsider) writing things, and Ford (an insider) writing the same things. But it’s hard to see how any of this is going to matter with regard to national security today or in the future — it doesn’t seem like these kinds of statements are going to be what enables or disables future proliferators from acquiring thermonuclear weapons.

"How institutions appear / how institutions are." From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

“How institutions appear / how institutions are.” From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

What’s amazing, again, is not that the DOE told Ken to delete things from his book. That is somewhat expected given how the classification system works. What’s amazing is that Ken told them to shove off and published it anyway. That doesn’t happen so often, that a once-insider won’t play ball. And it has no doubt put the DOE in a tough situation: they’ve set things up for a good story (like the one in the New York Times) about the silliness of government secrecy, and as a result have probably resulted in a lot of book sales that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. In this case, their attempt at preserving some form of secrecy has certainly resulted in them just calling more attention to the work in question.

What can they do to Ken? Well, technically, they probably could prosecute him under the Atomic Energy Act, or potentially the Espionage Act. But I’m pretty sure they won’t. It would be a public relations nightmare for them, would probably result in the release of even more information they deem sensitive, and Ken is no rogue agent. Which just goes to highlight one of the points I always make when I talk to people about secrecy: from the outside, it can look like government institutions are powerful and omnipotent with regards to classification. But they are usually weaker and more frail than they appear, because those who are bound by secrecy usually end up losing the public relations war, because they aren’t allowed to participate as fully as those who are on the outside.

  1. The Teller-Ulam design is perhaps better called the Equilibrium Super, to distinguish it from the Non-Equilibrium “Classical” Super design. In a basic sense, it refers to the fact that they were trying to achieve conditions that would result in a lot of fusion all at once, as opposed to a traveling “wave” of fusion along a cylinder of fuel. []

Public lecture: “The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion”

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Sorry for the radio silence last week! A lot has been going on over here. More on all that pretty soon. Tomorrow morning I will be putting up a post on the death of David Greenglass.

I wanted to let people in the greater New York City metro area know about a public lecture I am giving on Wednesday, October 29, 2014, as part of the New York City History of Science Society Consortium, at Columbia University.

Meeting of the New York City History of Science Society Consortium

Wednesday, October 29th, 2014, 6:00-7:30 PM

Faculty House, Columbia University, 64 Morningside Drive

Wellerstein - Laser fusion talk

“Clean, Limitless, Classified: The Secret Histories of Laser Fusion”

Alex Wellerstein, Stevens Institute of Technology

The invention of the laser and its proliferation in scientific settings created a unique problem for the United States government starting in the 1960s. The Cold War regime of nuclear secrecy had required an absolute legal distinction between “peaceful” civilian technology and “dangerous” military technology: the former needing wide dissemination and development by the private sector, the latter being tightly regulated under penalty of imprisonment and death. But the emergent technology of laser fusion began to challenge and blur these Cold War categories. For its proponents, which included both international scientists and private entrepreneurs, laser fusion held out the hope of clean, limitless power generation during a time of increasing energy instability. But at its heart was a form of physics that was, for government censors, far too near to the methods used in the design of advanced thermonuclear weapons. This talk will use newly declassified files to tell the international history of laser fusion in the 1960s and 1970s as a case study for looking at the unusual classification problems of late Cold War nuclear technology. 

This is a very fun talk, one I’ve been working on (and workshopping on) for a few years now. It is based on interviews with some of the pioneers of laser fusion technology, and a whole lot of documents I got declassified by the Department of Energy relating to the declassification of laser fusion technology in the 1970s, the KMS Fusion affair, and international development of inertial confinement fusion. In a world where some new fusion hype seems to be bursting out (or petering out) on a weekly basis, this is a history with more relevance than ever, and has some moments in it that are sure to shock and delight. For those who are more interested in the weapons side of the nuclear picture, there’s a lot going on related to that in this as well, in describing the back-and-forth between the work of H-bomb designs and the work on “civilian” applications, and the complete mess that this put the Atomic Energy Commission in as they tried to figure out their classification policies and priorities. There’s a lot going on in this one.

All are welcome — there doesn’t seem to be a need to RSVP. I don’t know if it is being recorded. I don’t think it is being streamed.

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

Monday, 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.