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.
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.
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.
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.”
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 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.
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).
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.
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.