The plot against Leo Szilard

by Alex Wellerstein, published October 23rd, 2015

One of the recurring themes on WGN America’s Manhattan is the willingness of Manhattan Project security to use extreme extrajudicial methods against scientists on the project they found suspicious, problematic, or dangerous. Episode 2 of this second season centered on an extreme case of this, with the main character, fictional scientist Frank Winter, being locked up without Constitutional protections (to say the least) in an effort to discover where his true loyalties lay. As ought to be pretty obvious, this isn’t (as far as we know) something that happened in real life: you can’t lock up all of your scientists if you expect to get a bomb built before the war ends.

However, this aspect of the plot is inspired by a healthy dose of actual history — even if it is history that is not always well-known. General Leslie Groves and the Manhattan Project security services did occasionally dabble in extrajudicial authority, taking advantage of the fact that the bomb project had its own, wholly autonomous security and intelligence force, and that wartime pressures allowed them to do things that were quite a bit outside of business-as-usual.

An agitated, concerned Leo Szilard in 1960. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

An agitated, concerned Leo Szilard in 1960. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Leo Szilard is one of the many historical characters who is distilled into Frank Winter’s personality. Szilard is one of the real characters of the Manhattan Project. A Hungarian émigré, he was the one who came up with the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, he was the one who urged the scientists self-censor their research, he was the one who got his friend Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Roosevelt calling for government coordination of fission research, and he was the one who circulated a petition against the dropping of the atomic bomb during the war. Frank Winter’s moral arc — moving from deep conviction about the need to rapidly build a bomb, to plaguing doubts — is heavily inspired by Szilard.

But Szilard could also be a huge pain in the neck. He was a natural gadfly, brilliant and utterly lacking respect for authority. It wasn’t just the military he ran into trouble with. The scientists Arthur Compton, Vannevar Bush, and James Conant all eventually ran afoul of Szilard’s views on what they ought to be doing, and each of them in turn found themselves highly irritated with Szilard. If Szilard worked under you, he inevitably became frustrated with you and your decisions, because no one was good enough for Leo Szilard. And his complete inability to just grin and bear it guaranteed that, over time, that feeling of frustration would become mutual. This put even his allies in a tough place, because while no one could deny Szilard’s brilliance or contributions to the bomb project, they also didn’t want to spend too much time with him.

Szilard's folder from the Manhattan Engineer District files.

Szilard’s folder from the Manhattan Engineer District files.

But it was General Groves who really, really took an active dislike to Szilard. His views on him are aptly discussed in a June 1945 memo that Groves had drawn up:

Szilard is a physicist who has worked on the project almost since its inception. He considers himself largely responsible for the initiation of the project, although he really had little to do with it. When the Army took over the project, an intensive investigation was made of Szilard because of his background and uncooperative attitude on security matters. This investigation and all experience in dealing with him has developed that he is untrustworthy and uncooperative, that he will not fulfill his legal obligations, and that he appears to have no loyalty to anything or anyone other than himself. He was retained on the project at a large salary solely for security reasons.

In the postwar, Groves was even more to the point. Szilard was, he explained to an interviewer, “the kind of man that any employer would have fired as a troublemaker.”

Szilard and the military were a particularly bad fit. Szilard thought the military did things badly, and, in the end, that there were some bad people at the top. He didn’t hide his feelings on the matter. Rather, he blatantly told many people them — he feared the American military would assert a dictatorship, would use the bombs in a terrible way, and would jeopardize the future peace of the planet.

General Leslie Groves speaking to workers at Hanford in 1944. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

General Leslie Groves speaking to workers at Hanford in 1944. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

And, from a certain perspective, he wasn’t too far off the mark. The Manhattan Project was asserting quasi-dictatorial powers during the war (and the bomb did bring with it rigid hierarchies, abnormal secrecy, and a lack of democratic process wherever it went in the Cold War), they were planning to use the bomb on civilians to make their point (which one can agree with or disagree with as a strategy), and they were decidedly not interested in any approach to world peace other than building up a large American nuclear arsenal (which in Szilard’s mind was a path to global suicide).

So you can see why he occasionally felt he might be better off not connected with such a project, and why he did (multiple times) attempt to jump the “chain of command” to contact civilian authorities (including both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman) to speak to him about his fears.

And you can understand why General Groves found this sort of behavior tantamount to treason. But as long as Szilard was under the watchful eye of the Manhattan Project security apparatus, Groves would tolerate him for the duration of the war — it was better to have Szilard close (and thus known), than it was to have him “in the wind.”

The draft of Grove's order for the internment of Leo Szilard, 1942.

The draft of Grove’s order for the internment of Leo Szilard, 1942.

But in October 1942, for one brief moment, it was feared that Szilard might quit the project. Compton had attempted to move him out of the project in Chicago, and worried that Szilard might just take off. He was wrong — they worked out an agreement — but the fear of a disgruntled Leo Szilard prompted Groves to draw up a draft of an extraordinary order in the name of the Secretary of War:

October 28, 1942

The Honorable,
The Attorney General.

Dear Mr. Attorney General:

The United States will be forced without delay to dispense with the services of Leo Szilard of Chicago, who is working on one of the most secret War Department projects.

It is considered essential to the prosecution of the war that Mr. Szilard, who is an enemy alien, be interned for the duration of the war.

It is requested that an order of internment be issued against Mr. Szilard and that he be apprehended and turned over to representatives of this department for internment.

Sincerely yours,

Secretary of War.

It was never sent. As far as we know, Groves never interned anyone in this manner during the war — though he did entertain the idea at least one other time, in the case of Hans Halban, another immigrant nuclear scientist with strong opinions and dubious loyalties (Halban was French, which is Groves’ book ranked slightly worse than Hungarian).

The stalking of Leo Szilard: excerpt from a report by a Special Agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps of Szilard's movements during a 1943 trip to Washington, DC.

The stalking of Leo Szilard: excerpt from a report by a Special Agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps of Szilard’s movements during a 1943 trip to Washington, DC.

But he didn’t leave Szilard alone. He kept a close watch on Szilard and Szilard’s associates, even having the scientist tailed by Special Agents are various times during the war. He never learned very much of interest from these tails (and from the reports of Szilard’s actions, one suspects Szilard was at times aware of them), but one can imagine how delighted he would have been to have a good reason to throw Szilard in a cell and lose the key. “The investigation of Szilard should be continued despite the barrenness of the results,” Groves wrote in June 1943. “One letter or phone call once in three months would be sufficient for the passing of vital information.”

Groves kept up an active Szilard file through 1946. Szilard knew a lot, and Groves did not trust him. There is evidence in the files that Groves was trying to build an espionage case against Szilard around the time Szilard was trying to circulate his petitions against the dropping of the atomic bomb. But, no doubt to Groves’ frustration, it came to nothing.

But Groves kept Szilard on the payroll. Keep your friends close, and your gadfly scientists even closer, I suppose.

Groves and Szilard — two worthy opponents. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Groves and Szilard — two worthy opponents. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Can we imagine a world in which things had gone another way? In which Groves might have decided that the fear of a free-range Leo Szilard, running around the world doing who-knows-what and talking to who-knows-who, would be worth locking him up without hearing, representation, or appeal? What is one scientist in the light of the stakes that someone like Groves attached to this project?

It is impressive, in retrospect, that Groves, in the end, showed as much restraint as he did — Szilard was a troublemaker. But arguably, some of that trouble needed to be made.


Manhattan noir

by Alex Wellerstein, published October 13th, 2015

Season two of the WGN America show Manhattan premieres tonight. I figured this would be a good excuse to plug it, and to talk about the historical consulting I’ve been doing for it.

Manhattan Season 2

The best way I have come up with to describe Manhattan is that it is an alternate-reality version of the Manhattan Project that is heavy on the film noir. Almost all of the characters are entirely fictional, not named after actual World War II figures (there are a couple exceptions to this, that I will come to), and the stories are fictional. However they are set in the same physical universe as ours, and the historical context is based (with some diversions) on the actual one. For Manhattan, the Manhattan Project was not just a specific set of historical events that led to the atomic bomb, but an unfolding historical context that ultimately rendered deep and lasting changes to the United States. It is not so much the story of the creation of a new weapon as it is the creation of a new world.

I was approached about consulting by the head writer, Sam Shaw, last year. I had seen some of Season 1, which took the Los Alamos story up until around the summer of 1944, when the lab had to be radically reorganized to focus on implosion. What I had liked about the first season is that they took something that most people would regard as pretty obscure — the intense effort that had been made for the (eventually abandoned) Thin Man bomb design — and made it into the key pivot around which the drama turned. To me that showed a pretty nuanced historical sensibility, focusing on the “loser” of history (Thin Man) as opposed to the “winner” (implosion).

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

The consulting job was for me an unusual one. I have consulted for documentaries in the past, and that is a relatively straightforward gig: they want to know what happened, I want to tell them what happened. Consulting for a fictional show was something else. They did want to know what happened, but less because they were going to replicate it (in many cases, they were not), but because they wanted the “flavor” of it to inform their fictional plots. I can’t go into too many details about what we talked about (not because I am bound to not talk about the show, but because I have been asked not to say anything that might spoil any of this season’s surprises, and I’m not even sure what all of those surprises are), but I found it an immensely fun challenge, trying to give them “options” that would be true to the “color” of the times.

Many of the questions were along the lines of, “we need to do this sort of thing with the story, what were the situations that actually happened that might provide a model for how we could make this happen?” I would sit and scratch my head for awhile and then come up with a plausible narrative or two (taken from actual Manhattan Project events, often quite obscure ones), sometimes providing some documentation that might help the writers get a sense of how it looked back then.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The Manhattan crew flew me out to Hollywood for a week last winter, and I spent several days just getting my brain picked by the writing team. It was a fun experience — I have never been in an environment with so many very intelligent people who were completely obsessed with Manhattan Project details asking very good questions and delighting in the answers I could give them. The writing team were already impressively well-informed on the subject of this history before I arrived, and were impressively bright and accomplished people. They had read most of the “basic literature” on the subject, and it gave me the feeling of teaching a “master class.” (Sam Shaw, the head writer, Lila Byock, his writerly wife, and Dustin Thomason, the executive producer, spent years steeped in the historical literature before beginning the show. Sam and Lila are both graduates of the Iowa Writers’ workshop; Sam wrote for Harper’s and Lila was a fact-checker for The New Yorker prior to their moving to Hollywood. These are all very smart cookies.)

After that winter, I got many e-mail queries from writers, and also read over several scripts. In the scripts, I looked for anachronisms, occasional scientific mistakes, or things that were just very big divergences from the actual past. The latter were not so much because they would be removed or changed — again, it is explicitly a fictional show — but because the writers wanted to make sure that if they did diverge that they knew about it. The science consulting was done by David Salzberg, a UCLA physicist who also does the science consulting for “The Big Bang Theory,” so scientific mistakes were extremely rare (and mostly in the category of slight anachronism, such as use of scientific terms that came later than World War II).

A billboard from the "Los Alamos" set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

A billboard from the “Los Alamos” set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

I was compensated for my work, so I don’t expect you to take my review of the show too seriously, but I will say that my Stevens colleague, the accomplish science journalist John Horgan, watched the first season and enjoyed it, and my wife (who is also a historian of science by training) liked it as well. If you are a buff of Manhattan Project history, you have to accept the show’s central conceit — that it is something of an alternate reality — if you are going to enjoy it, because if you find yourself constantly saying, “well that didn’t happen that way” then you are just going to find it frustrating. Similarly, I know there are many Los Alamos residents who are quick to point out that the area of New Mexico where it was filmed (near Santa Fe) looks very different than Los Alamos did. It’s true, but you either accept it, or you don’t — it is not a documentary, it is historically-informed film noir.

As a historian, I have enjoyed watching the show because I can see lots of very subtle references to things that did actually happen, and I find that fun, as opposed to irritating. But I’m also a big fan of science fiction, so I find the alternate-reality aspect of it pretty fun for that reason as well. The noir/sci-fi axis is where I do much of my reading-for-fun anyway, and does inform some of how I approach the past (my tendencies towards counterfactuals, my interests in the ways in which personal power is expressed and manipulated, my unceasing desire to probe the missing or deleted parts of archival narratives), so I feel like working with them was a good fit for me. But I can also certainly see where those who want a more purist version of the history are coming from, as well. (As a general rule, I don’t watch period dramas set in periods I know a lot about, because I find them frustrating. I think I can sympathize with what Classicists feel when they watch something like Gladiator or 300.) My only caution is that some of the objections I have heard to factual matters are in fact not aware that many of the seemingly fantastical events that take place during the show are based on actual things that happened — the actual history of the Manhattan Project is much more rich, varied, and weird than many of the traditional popularizations indicate.

You can't do the 1940s with a lot of hats. This of course called to mine the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer's pork-pie hat.

You can’t do the 1940s without a lot of hats. This of course called to mind the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer’s pork-pie hat.

The characters are, as noted, mostly fictional. They are, however, composites of real people. The main character, Frank Winter, has a lot of interesting figures rolled into him, so much that I suggested to the actor, John Benjamin Hickey, that Winter is really not meant to be an individual physicist so much as a stand-in for the physics community. It does not spoil anything to say that he was enthusiastic and worried about the possibility of a German bomb in the beginning, and gradually became suspicious if not outright terrified of what the US government was going to do with the fruits of his labor. At times there are shades of Leo Szilard, Seth Neddermeyer, Robert Oppenheimer, Josef Rotblat, Richard Feynman, and many others rolled into Winter. Winter has his own personality, of course, which makes it fun to watch. You cannot, just from knowing the history, predict exactly what is going to happen next. Sometimes this is just because things happen differently in the show’s universe; sometimes it is done with a winking eye to the fact that not everything that actually happens gets into the historical record.

One of the few characters who is explicitly meant to be directly based on a historical figure is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is played with haunting resemblance by Daniel London. London’s performance really hit home for me how much artistic input the actors have, well beyond the script and the writers. London’s Oppenheimer is a chilly, cold, somewhat alien figure. He is not the “chummy Oppenheimer” that some fictionalizations give you. I prefer “cold Oppenheimer” as a tonic to the more traditionally chummy ones — the Oppenheimer I spend most of my time working with, in the files, is not an everyman, is probably not your friend (or if he is, he is probably reporting on your “red” tendencies to Army security behind your back), and is under a huge amount of stress. The real-life Oppenheimer could famously be both hot and cold, whereas London’s is mostly cold, but given the way Oppenheimer comes into the plots of the show (usually he only shows up when something is not going according to plan), it fits pretty well.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

This past summer I was invited out to see the sets, see some of the filming of the final episode, meet some of the cast, participate in a press junket, and go to the “wrap party.” The sets were amazingly, lovingly done. Ruth Ammon, the production designer, put a huge amount of passion and detail into them. The main “Los Alamos” set was built inside an abandoned set of hospital buildings from the wartime period, and it is impressively “rich.” Their “Trinity site” is set far out in a desert outside of Santa Fe, made of actual burlap tents and wooden shacks. The sand is real, the bugs are real, the Sun’s heat is real (as I learned while sitting under it for several hours doing press interviews). The rain was not natural, but the mud it created was. The production values are excellent and it makes the 1940s “pop” to life.

I think the approach the writers used on this season is the way that historical consulting for period dramas ought to work. They didn’t just call me in at the last moment to tell them whether this or that hat was the right one to use, or to check if their equations were correct (they actually had a retired Los Alamos scientist do all of their blackboard equations, as an aside). They got me in early, before they started crafting all of the scripts, to help with the big arcs, and then brought me in later to develop the context for smaller (but still important) plot points. That’s the best use of people like me — you can get a lot of people who can do historical fact-checking, but it takes a trained historian to give you that blend of the forest and the trees that makes the period setting be something other than window-dressing.


Neglected Niigata

by Alex Wellerstein, published October 9th, 2015

Last week I gave a talk at a conference on “Nuclear Legacies” at Princeton University on Kyoto and Kokura, the two most prominent “spared” targets for the atomic bomb in 1945. The paper grew out of ideas I first put to writing in two blog posts (“The Kyoto misconception” and “The luck of Kokura“), and argues, in essence, that looking closely at these targeted-but-not-bombed cities gives us new insights into both the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Importantly, they both end up highlighting different aspects of what Truman did and did not know about the atomic bombings — my thesis is that on several important issues (notably the nature of the targets and the timing of the bombs), Truman was confused.

Niigata city today. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Niigata city today. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The basic stories of how Kyoto and Kokura avoided the bomb are known (though, as I argue, the devil is in the details). Kyoto was the military’s first choice for an atomic bombing target, but vetoed by the Secretary of War and eventually Truman himself. Kokura was the primary target for the second atomic bombing mission, but the target was obscured by clouds, smoke, and/or haze, and so the secondary target, Nagasaki, was bombed instead.

There was another target on the atomic bombing list, however, one the literature almost completely ignores: Niigata.

Niigata had been on the list of possible targets for quite some time. It was a port city in north-west Honshu. The notes of the second Target Committee meeting described it thusly:

Niigata – This is a port of embarkation on the N.W. coast of Honshu. Its importance is increasing as other ports are damaged. Machine tool industries are located there and it is a potential center for industrial despersion [sic]. It has oil refineries and storage. (Classified as a B Target)

That’s not a very enthusiastic write-up, and it’s not surprising that it was the lowest priority recommended target (and had the lowest classification rating by the US Army Air Forces). It was the target about which they had the least to say.

The relative merits of Kokura and Niigata in the notes of the second meeting of the Target Committee, May 1945. Kokura was an exciting target. Niigata, not so much.

The relative merits of Kokura and Niigata in the notes of the second meeting of the Target Committee, May 1945. Kokura was an exciting target; Niigata, not so much.

Groves got a report on  In early July 1945, Groves received “New Dope on Cities” that included a fact-sheet on Niigata. It identified several useful industries, but it is much less exciting than the write-ups for Kyoto, Hiroshima, or Kokura. Niigata was noted as:

Principally important for aluminum, machine tools and railroad equipment. Also located here are small oil refineries, several chemical plants and woodworking plants. The harbor has been much improved and has extensive storage and trans-shipment facilities.

It’s hard not to yawn at this. By contrast, Kyoto was written about as a major city of military and industrial importance, and Kokura was “one of the largest arsenals in Japan.” So they weren’t that enthusiastic about Niigata. But still, it was on the short-list of targets, and it was on the list of targets “reserved” from conventional bombing (unlike Nagasaki). Why didn’t it end up on any of the missions, even as a backup target? (The first bomb’s targets were, Hiroshima, Kokura, and Nagasaki, in that order of priority; the second bomb’s targets were Kokura and Nagasaki, in that order.)

The five atomic targets of 1945, with distances between each other and relevant bases indicated.

The five atomic targets of 1945, with distances between each other and relevant bases indicated. All distance measurements are great-circle routes, approximated with Google Earth.

The easiest and most plausible answer as why it wasn’t on those orders is a geographical one. Niigata was some 440 miles away from Hiroshima, the other closest target on the final list. By contrast, the other three main targets (Hiroshima, Kokura, Nagasaki) were all around 100-200 miles from one another. When you’re flying a B-29 carrying a five-ton bomb, every mile starts to matter in terms of fuel, especially when the trip from Tinian is going to be another 1,500 miles, and ditto the trip back (though Okinawa was only about 470 miles from Nagasaki). Truman’s memoirs say that Niigata “had been ruled out as too distant” for the first two raids. While I am inherently suspicious of postwar memoirs (they tend to smooth out and rationalize what was at the time a rather chaotic series of events and choices), and especially Truman’s, this sounds plausible.

So we don’t talk about Niigata. Would it have been bombed next, if future atomic bombing runs were going to happen? Truman claimed later that this was definitely the case, but we really don’t know whether they would have continued to use them on cities, or whether they would have tried to use them “tactically.” Though there were a number of ideas floating around for what a “third shot” might look like, none of them ever got to a stage of planning that in retrospect looks official. So we just don’t know. I suspect that if they were going to bomb another city, the next one would be Kokura. They had that mission well-planned out (it was, after all, the initial choice for the Nagasaki bombing), and its target profile would make “good use” of the specific types of forces the atomic bomb was capable of (very heavy pressures near ground zero, lighter pressures around — great for a city with a military/industrial arsenal at the center of it and surrounded by workers’ housing), and for a President who was beginning to tire of the loss of civilian life, bombing a military arsenal would look a lot more like what he imagined the atomic bomb was being used for than the horror visions of dead women and children that he was reading about in the newspapers.

There were those at the time (notably General Carl Spaatz) who argued for using the next bomb on Tokyo, but I doubt they would have done that. Killing the Emperor would have severely complicated the surrender process (because it would have set off a crisis of political succession) and the city was too bombed-out for the bomb to look very impressive. My basis for thinking this reasoning would matter to them is based on target discussions prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, though; it is pretty hard to say how they thought about their original target criteria after the bombs were used.

Target map of Niigata, from General Groves' files, summer of 1945.

Target map of Niigata, from General Groves’ files, summer of 1945.

(One of my messages in my talk at Princeton, incidentally, is that scholars of this subject need to be very explicit about where they are making interpretive leaps. We have a few very useful “data points” in terms of documents, recollections, interviews. We are all trying to weave a plausible narrative through those data points. Many writers on this subject smooth over these jumps with “probably,” “it is likely,” “it seems plausible,” and other elisions. I get why they do it — there is an impulse to make things look neat and tidy, and it can wreck a story to constantly point out where you are making a huge assumption. But it often makes this literature look much more “concrete” than it actually is, and the more I dig into the documents and footnotes, the more I find that there are very important and conspicuous gaps in our knowledge of these events, and there are multiple, radically-different narratives consistent with the “data.” So I think we ought to foreground these, both for our readers, and ourselves — the gaps are not things to be embarrassed about, but challenges to be embraced.)

But to return to Niigata: so why was it on the list in the first place, if it wasn’t close to any of the other targets? Ah, but it wasn’t very far from Kyoto, Tokyo, and Yokohama — a few of the other potential targets discussed around the time Niigata was added to the list. (Niigata is 270 miles from Kyoto, 170 miles from Tokyo and Yokohama.) So in that sense, Niigata tells us something else about the removal of Kyoto: if Kyoto had been on the target list, would Niigata have been one of the backup targets, to be used if the weather was better there than Kyoto or Hiroshima? This is just speculation, but that seems plausible to me. If that’s the case, then taking Kyoto off the list spared two cities, not just one. And Niigata’s inclusion possibly a relic of an earlier targeting debate, one made less relevant by August of 1945.

Of course, in this case, “sparing” is a zero-sum game: one city’s reprieve was another’s doom. Just ask Nagasaki, a city that no doubt would have preferred circumstances that would have given it Niigata’s relative lack of attention from historians.

News and Notes

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

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 8th, 2015

Richard Greening Hewlett, the first official historian of the Atomic Energy Commission, has passed away at the age of 92.

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.

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.”

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).

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.

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.


Did Lawrence doubt the bomb?

by Alex Wellerstein, published September 4th, 2015

Ernest O. Lawrence was one of the giants of 20th-century physics. The inventor of the “cyclotron,” a circular particle accelerator, Lawrence ushered in an era of big machines, big physics, big budgets — Big Science, in short. And that came with ups and downs. I’ve recently finished a review for Science of Michael Hiltzik’s new Lawrence biography, Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. The full review is online but behind a paywall (if you want a copy, get in touch with me), but I am allowed to post the unedited version that I originally submitted, which in this case is about twice the size of the printed one, so maybe it’s interesting as an essay in its own right (so I may flatter myself). I found it hard to cram the story of Lawrence, and this book, in a thousand words (and brevity has never been my strength), because there is just so much going on and worth commenting on.

My wonderful Stevens STS colleague Lee Vinsel had a review in last week's issue of Science as well.

My wonderful Stevens STS colleague Lee Vinsel had a review in last week’s issue of Science as well.

Lawrence featured early into my education. I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, which means I was in Lawrence country. His laboratory literally perches above the campus, looking down on it. In various buildings on campus, it is not uncommon to come across a large portrait of the man. And any geeky child in northern California visits the Lawrence Hall of Science numerous times in the course of their education.

As a budding historian of science, what I found so incongruous about Lawrence was the way in which he embodied something of a paradox at the heart of particle physics. High-energy particle physics is for the most part a pretty “pure” looking form of science, trying to pull-off very elegant experiments with the most abstract of physical entities, and making the experimental evidence jibe with the theoretical understandings. When people want to point to evidence of objectivity in science, or to the places where theory gets vindicated in a very elegant way, they point to particle physics. And yet, to do these experiments, you often need big machines. Big machines require big money. Big money gets you into the realm of big politics. And so this very elegant, above-it-all form of science ends up getting tied to the hip of the military-industrial complex during and after World War II. How ironic is that?

The scientific staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory with magnet of unfinished 60-inch cyclotron. Lawrence is front and center. Oppenheimer stands in back. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

The scientific staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory with magnet of unfinished 60-inch cyclotron, 1938. Lawrence is front and center. Oppenheimer stands in back. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

As you can pick up from both the published and draft review, I had mixed feelings about Hiltzik’s book. I think people who have never read anything about Lawrence before will find it interesting though potentially confusing, because it bounces around as a genre. One can’t really tell what Hiltzik thinks about Lawrence. Half of the time Hiltzik seems to want to make him out to be the Great Hero of 20th century science. (Sometimes this gets hyperbolic — Lawrence was a big character, to be sure, but he was still of his time, and it does some historical injustice to claim that everything related to Big Science necessarily is laid at his door. To claim that Big Science was “a solitary effort,” as Hiltzik does, is as self-contradictory as it is untrue.) The other half of the time, though, Hiltzik is pointing out what a huge jerk he could be, how bad of a scientist he could be, and how he sullied himself with some of the worst sorts of political engagements during the Cold War. Everyone gets on Edward Teller for being a far-right, pro-nuke, anti-Communist jerk, but even Teller thought Lawrence could be an extremist when it came to these things.

This ambivalent mix — Lawrence as great, Lawrence as terrible — never gets resolved. One could imagine it being talked about as two sides of the same coin, or some sort of synthetic whole emerging out of these two perspectives. But it just doesn’t happen in the book. In my own mind, this is the somewhat Faustian result of Lawrence’s “cult of the machine” (as I titled my review), where the Bigness required for his science ended up driving extremes in other parts of his life and politics as well.

The intense Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

The intense Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Serious historians of 20th-century physics will find little new in Hiltzik’s book, either in terms of documentation or analysis. He relies heavily on secondary sources and the archival sources he does consult are the standard ones for this topic (e.g. the Lawrence papers at UC Berkeley). The book also contains several avoidable errors of a mostly minor sort, but the kinds of misconceptions or misunderstandings that ought to have been caught before publication (some of which I would like to imagine would jump out to anyone who had read a few books on this subject already). I did not mention these in the formal review, because there was really not enough space to warrant it, and the book never hinged on any of these details, but still, it seems worth noting in this more informal space.

That aside, the book reminded me of one of the strangest aspects of Lawrence’s relationship with the bomb — whether he thought it was a good idea to drop one on Japan without a warning. As I’ve discussed before, the question of whether a “demonstration” should be made prior to shedding blood with the bomb was a controversial one on the project. A Scientific Panel composed of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur H. Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence were asked to formally consider the question in the June of 1945. They formally recommended that the bomb be dropped on a city without warning: “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

Lawrence and the Machine. (And M. Stanley Livingston, the one-time grad student who got the machines working.) I like the symbolism of this photo — Lawrence looking at the newest piece of hardware, Livingston with a hand on it, staring the camera down. They are with the 85-ton magnet of the 27" cyclotron, circa 1934. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence and the Machine… and M. Stanley Livingston, the one-time grad student who got the machines working. I like the symbolism of this photo — Lawrence looking at the newest piece of hardware, Livingston with a hand on it, staring the camera down. They are with the 85-ton magnet of the 27″ cyclotron, circa 1934. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

But there’s potentially more to it than just this. Case in point: in the archives, one finds a letter from Karl K. Darrow to Ernest Lawrence, dated August 9th, 1945. Darrow was a friend of Lawrence’s, and a fellow physicist, and a noted popularizer of science in his day. And this is an interesting time to be writing a letter: Hiroshima has already occurred and is known about, and Nagasaki has just happened (and Darrow may or may not have seen the news of it yet), but the war has not ended. This period, between the use of the bomb and the cessation of hostilities, is a very tricky one (a topic Michael Gordin has written a book on), because the meaning of the atomic bomb had not yet been cemented. That is, was the atomic bomb really a war-ending weapon? Or just a new way to inflict mass carnage? Nobody yet knew, though many had uncertain hopes and fears.

August 9th is also a tricky period because this is around the time in which the first casualty estimates from Hiroshima were being received, by way of the first Japanese news stories on the bombing. They were much higher than many of the scientists had thought; Oppenheimer had estimated them to be around 20,000, and they were hearing reports of 60,000 or higher. For some, including Oppenheimer, they saw this as a considerable difference with respects to how comfortable they felt with the attacks.

"Best Copy Available," the last excuse of the wicked. Click here for the original with a transcription appended.

“BEST COPY AVAILABLE” is the last excuse of the wicked. Click here for the original with a transcription appended.

This context is relevant to making sense of the Darrow letter. The archival document is hard to read, and in some places illegible, so I’ve included a transcription that I typed up from the best of my reading of it. The import of it is pretty easy to take away, though, even with a few phrases being hard to read. Here is an excerpt of the key parts:

Dear Ernest:

This is written to you to put on the record the fact that you told me, on August 9, 1945, that you had presented to the Secretary of War by word of mouth the view that the “atomic bomb” ought to be demonstrated to the Japanese in some innocuous but striking manner before it should be used in such a way as to kill many people. You made this presentation in the presence of Arthur Compton, Fermi, Oppenheimer and others, and spoke for about an hour. The plan was rejected by the Secretary of War on the grounds that (a) the number of people to be killed by the bomb would not be greater in order of magnitude than the number already killed in the fire raids, and (b) an innocuous demonstration would have no effect on the Japanese. […]

I think that it is not far-fetched nor absurd to conjecture that in time to come, people will be saying “Those wicked physicists of the ‘Manhattan Project’ deliberately developed a bomb which they knew would be used for killing thousands of innocent people without any warning, and they either wanted this outcome or at least condoned it. Away with physicists!” It will not be accepted as an excuse that they may have disapproved in silence. We do not excuse the German civilians who accepted Buchenwald while possibility disapproving in silence.

I think that if the war ends today or tomorrow or next week, this sort of criticism will not be heard for a while, and yet it will be heard eventually — and particularly it will be heard if at a time should come when some other power may be suspected of planning to use the same device on us. In other words, if the use of this weapon without forewarning has really brought quick victory, this fact will delay but will not indefinitely prevent the emergence of such an opinion as I have suggested. It may then be of great value to science, if some scientist of very great prominence has already said that he tried to arrange for a harmless exhibition of the powers of the weapon in advance of its lethal use.

There is a lot going on in this letter. First, it makes it clear that Lawrence and Darrow had a discussion about the demonstration matter right around the time of the Nagasaki bombing. It is also clear that Darrow came away with the impression that Lawrence was deeply unsure about the logic of bombing without warning. Now the amount of pontificating by Darrow makes it seem like Darrow might be reading into what Lawrence told him more than Lawrence said — Darrow’s concerns are not necessarily Lawrence’s concerns. But it does seem clear that Darrow thinks he is setting something into the record that might be useful later, and that even if the war ended soon, there were going to be doubts to be contended with, and the fact that Lawrence was worried about using the bomb might somehow be exculpatory.

Darrow’s letter was received on August 10th (so it is stamped), but it isn’t clear when Lawrence read it. He did not reply until August 17th, 1945, by which point hostilities with Japan had ended. This is a big thing to point out: the Darrow-Lawrence conversation, and original letter, took place at a time when it wasn’t clear whether the bombs would actually be credited with ending the war. By August 17th, Japan had already pressed for an end of the war and had credited the atomic bomb in part with their defeat. If Lawrence ever did have doubts, they were gone by August 17th:

Dear Karl:

In reply to your letter of August 9th, you have the facts essentially straight, excepting that I didn’t believe I talked on the subject of the demonstration of the bomb as long as an hour. I made the proposal briefly in the morning session of the Secretary of War’s committee, and during luncheon Justice Byrnes, now Secretary of State, asked me further about it, and it was discussed at some length, I judge perhaps ten minutes.

I am sure it was given serious consideration by the Secretary of War and his committee, and gather from the discussion that the proposal to put on a demonstration did not appear desirable […] Oppenheimer felt, and that feeling was shared by Groves and others, that the only way to put on a demonstration would be to attack a real target of built-up structures. 

In view of the fact that two bombs ended the war, I am inclined to feel they made the right decision. Surely many more lives were saved by shortening the war than were sacrificed as a result of the bombs. […]

As regards criticism of science and scientists, I think that is a cross we will have to bear, and I think in the long run the good sense of everyone the world over will realize that in instance, as in all scientific pursuits, the world is better as a result.

To me, this letter reads as something of a kiss-off to Darrow’s doubts — and maybe to doubts Lawrence himself might have once held. Darrow recalls Lawrence telling him it was an hour-long discussion, and a major conflict between the soulful Lawrence and the unfeeling others. In Lawrence’s post-victory recollection, it becomes a 10-minute talk, duly taken seriously but not that hard of a question to answer, and in the end, the ends justified the means, neat and tidy.

Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer operate a cyclotron for the cameras in a postwar photograph. Small historical detail (literally): one can find this photograph sometimes flipped on its horizontal axis. Which is the correct orientation? One can take guesses based on rings, handedness, etc., but the copy of the scan that I have has sufficient resolution that you can read the dials, which I think resolves the question. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer operate a cyclotron for the cameras in a postwar photograph. Small historical detail (literally): one can find this photograph sometimes flipped on its horizontal axis. Which is the correct orientation? One can take guesses based on rings, handedness, etc., but the copy of the scan that I have has sufficient resolution that you can read the dials, which I think resolves the question. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

So where lies the truth? Was Lawrence a doubter at the time of the Nagasaki bombing, only to lose all doubts after victory? Was Darrow projecting his own fears onto Lawrence at their meeting? I suspect something in between — with a second bomb so rapidly dropped after the first, Lawrence and Darrow might have both been wondering if these weapons would really end the war (much less all war), if they weren’t just a new-means of old-fashioned mass incineration. Maybe Lawrence exaggerated, or gave an exaggerated impression, of his debate over the demonstration.

One interesting piece is that the story of “doubts” can, as Darrow implied, be made exculpatory without necessarily calling into question the wisdom of the bombing. That is, if the story is about how the scientists really didn’t want to use the bomb, but couldn’t see a better way around it, then you get (from the perspective of the scientists involved) the best of both worlds: they still have souls, but they also have justification. This is how Arthur Compton presents the meeting in his 1956 book, Atomic Quest, which takes more the Darrow perspective of a fraught Scientific Committee, Ernest Lawrence as the final hold-out, but with “heavy hearts” they recommend direct military use.

Lawrence and the Machine (or, at least, one of them). I like the idea that Lawrence was doing his research wearing a full suit and tie. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence and the Machine (or, at least, one of them). I like the idea that Lawrence was doing his research wearing a full suit and tie. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, for his part, later said he had “terrible” moral scruples about the dropping of the bomb, of killing at least 70,000 people with the first one, though, notably, he never said he regretted doing it. He did, however, think that physicists had “known sin” and required an active role in future policy regarding these new weapons, if only to keep the world from blowing itself up. Lawrence parted ways with his former friend and colleague after World War II, remarking that “I am a physicist and I have no knowledge to lose in which physics has caused me to know sin” and chastising those scientists (like Oppenheimer) who thought that they ought to be getting involved with policymaking, as opposed to research — or bomb-building.

If Lawrence had doubts, he left by the wayside once the promise of victory was in the air, and he happily and seemingly without misgivings hitched himself permanently to the burgeoning military-industrial complex. He was part of the anti-Oppenheimer conspiracy that led to the 1954 security hearing, he worked closely with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss to attempt to scuttle attempts at test bans and moratoriums, he pushed for greater quantities of bigger bombs, he sold out colleagues and friends, participating in McCarthyist purges with gusto. He was also the inventor of the cyclotron, a physicist of great importance, and one of the creators of the Big Science approach to doing research. These are not incompatible takes on a complex human being — but when we celebrate the scientific accomplishments, we do history poorly if we forget the parts that are arguably less savory.