Redactions

Oppenheimer, Unredacted: Part I – Finding the Lost Transcripts

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 9th, 2015

I wrote this piece up several months ago, and was thinking about what to do with it, where to try and publish it, and so forth. Eventually I came to the conclusion that it would require a whole lot of cutting for anyone to take it up, especially as the “news” aspect of it slipped away. So I’ve decided to publish it on the blog, in a series of two parts. Click here for Part II.


Oppenheimer photo courtesy of the of the Emilio Segrè Visual Archive; photo of the hearing transcript by Alex Wellerstein.

Last October, the US Department of Energy released the full, un-redacted, uncensored transcripts from J. Robert Oppenheimer’s 1954 security board hearing. Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb,” had his security clearance revoked in late 1953 after accusations were made that he had been a Communist spy. He appealed the revocation, and set into motion the trial of his life. Over the course of four weeks, the details of Oppenheimer’s actions, allegiances, opinions, and personal failures were rehashed and scrutinized under the pretense of evaluating his “character, associations, and loyalty.” At issue was whether Oppenheimer could have continued access to atomic secrets. The government’s judgment was negative, effectively excluding Oppenheimer from any further government service. The transcripts were published shortly thereafter, but with considerable deletions made in the name of security. Does the unmasking of 60-year-old secrets change our understanding of Oppenheimer and his hearing? And why did it take until now for them to be released?

The Oppenheimer security hearing took place behind closed doors, in a temporary building on the National Mall. But the world soon learned of their contents when they were published by the US Government Printing Office (GPO). This was rather remarkable: normally the contents of a security board review were considered confidential information, for fairly obvious reasons relating to both privacy and national security. Each of the forty witnesses called to testify (including Oppenheimer himself) was told that what he or she said was going to be treated as “strictly confidential,” and that the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) would “take no initiative in the public release of any information relating to these proceedings.” And yet, within days of the conclusion of the hearings, they had become part of public record.

The circumstances behind the publication of the hearings were unusual. Shortly after the Oppenheimer hearing concluded, the Atomic Energy Commission thought they had lost a copy of the transcripts. Assuming they would be leaked to the press anyway, they decided to preemptively publish them. But just before publication, the lost copy was located, yet they decided to publish them anyway. The real reason for the publication was that the primary antagonist of the Oppenheimer affair — AEC Chairman Lewis Strauss — thought that Oppenheimer was getting too much public sympathy. In his mind, if the public could actually see what the decision to deny Oppenheimer’s clearance had been based on, they would see Oppenheimer as the unreliable villain that Strauss felt he was. Strauss’ view was, in retrospect, shortsighted. Almost nobody has read the entire hearing (it is nearly 1,000 pages of dense Government Printing Office typeface, often with no indication of who is answering questions at any given time, and is very repetitive), but the overall tone of the thing is that of an inquisitional character assassination.

First page of the Government Printing Office edition of the Oppenheimer security hearing transcript, which was published soon after the final decision had been made.

First page of the Government Printing Office edition of the Oppenheimer security hearing transcript, which was published soon after the final decision had been made.

Some of the antagonism was inherent to the nature of this sort of hearing. Oppenheimer wasn’t on trial for anything he had specifically done; rather, it was his “character” that was being explicitly evaluated. But some of it was because of dirty dealing on behalf of the Atomic Energy Commission: they were treating it as a prosecutorial trial, except that Oppenheimer was not given any of the legal protections that normally exist in actual criminal prosecutions, such as the assumption of innocence or even prior knowledge of which witnesses would be called. Even worse, as the historian Priscilla McMillan documented in her 2005 book, The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the FBI was wiretapping conversations between Oppenheimer and his counsel and giving them, illegally, to the prosecutor. It is not a coincidence that the overall impression one gets from the hearing transcript is that Oppenheimer was set up.

Oppenheimer himself was not even entitled to a full, unexpurgated copy of the hearing transcript for his own personal use during the hearing. This is perhaps one of the most curious aspects of the hearing and its subsequent release and recent declassification. The hearing was a consequence of Oppenheimer’s appealing the suspending of his security clearance. Because his security clearance was suspended, including during the hearing itself, he was not allowed to have access to classified information — even classified information that he was involved in producing. So while a stenographer recorded every utterance said during the hearing itself, a censored copy had to be made daily for use by Oppenheimer. That Oppenheimer was in the room when most of these “classified” utterances occurred made no difference. There were a few “classified sessions” where Oppenheimer was not present, but otherwise he was present throughout the hearing sessions — including the one that took up the entirety of his 50th birthday.

So in principle the hearings were meant to be unclassified, as the defendant, Oppenheimer, was no longer cleared to hear classified information. The information was meant to be “confidential” but not legally secret (it did not require a security clearance to hear). Given the nature of the material under discussion, which involved at times quite subtle technical disagreements over the history of the American thermonuclear program and the military’s plans for using nuclear weapons against the Soviet Union, quite a lot of classified information did end up being discussed, and thus had to be deleted from the transcripts before Oppenheimer could see them. These deletions were initially made by means of a razor blade or pen-knife, literally cut out of the transcript pages themselves. At the National Archives facility in College Park, Maryland, there is a folder that contains these little cut out secrets — the detritus of Cold War secrecy.

I.I. Rabi denouncing the suspension of Oppenheimer's clearance. "We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it, * * * and what more do you want, mermaids?" The asterisks indicate a removal by the unnamed and unseen censor.

I.I. Rabi denouncing the suspension of Oppenheimer’s clearance, as seen in the GPO version of the hearing transcripts. “We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it, * * * and what more do you want, mermaids?” The asterisks indicate a removal by the unnamed and unseen censor.

When the decision was made to publish the hearings in 1954, the classification officers of the Atomic Energy Commission went over the transcripts one more time. The version released to the public contains many conspicuous deletions, indicated with a series of asterisks. For example, in a supporter of Oppenheimer’s, I.I. Rabi, is famously recorded in the published transcript as saying: “We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it, * * * and what more do you want, mermaids?” Rabi was expressing exasperation of the persecution of Oppenheimer. The asterisks, here, denote something that did not survive the censor’s blade — whether the removal was minor or major could not be known.

That the hearings contained omissions was of course noticed by commentators and later historians. What was missing from the Oppenheimer hearing transcript? Did the censors remove only technical information, or much more? Were the censors themselves biased in their operation? Were the technical omissions crucial or minor? Without access to the originals, one could never know. The problem is, nobody seemed to know where the original, unexpurgated transcript was, or whether it had even been kept.

* * *

I first started looking for the uncensored transcript in 2004. I was at a conference on the 100th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s birth, held at the University of California, Berkeley, the spring before I started graduate school. One of the speakers was Richard Polenberg, a historian who had edited an abridged version of the Oppenheimer hearings. One of Polenberg’s remarks before the conference audience was that the original, uncensored version of the transcript appeared to be lost, and he issued something of an open challenge for people to find it. As a budding historian, I was interested in such challenges. Five years later, in 2009, I was doing research at the National Archives facility (“Archives II”) in College Park, Maryland, where most of the records of US federal agencies are kept. By this point I was in the final stages of writing a dissertation on the history of nuclear secrecy in the United States, and had been on many trips to the National Archives and was used to its idiosyncrasies.

The inner storage carousels at the National Archives II facility, where most of the US federal records are kept. These stacks are off-limit to researchers. Image source.

The inner storage carousels at the National Archives II facility, where most of the US federal records are kept. These stacks are off-limit to researchers. Image source.

People who have not done research in the National Archives either imagine that it is organized and user-friendly or that it is similar to the sprawling warehouse shown at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The reality is somewhere in between these extremes. The archives are indeed vast and sprawling, though they are kept in neat, clean, moveable, high-volume storage shelving. Researchers are not allowed to browse the stacks (I was allowed to see them once, briefly). Instead, the researcher consults paper “Finding Aids” that are bound (sometimes haphazardly) in three-ring binders. The Finding Aids give some hints at what is kept in the stacks, but they can be a crude metric. They are often photocopies-of-photocopies of documents prepared decades previously using typewriters, with handwritten annotations.

Once one has identified something useful from the Finding Aid, one then has to cross-reference the entry with something called a “Master Location Register,” a different set of materials in a different three-ring binder. The Master Location Register tells researchers and archivists which shelves the boxes in question are supposed to be on. Having acquired that information, the researcher can then fill out a records request (“pull”) form, which has its own idiosyncratic rules for how it should be filled out. Having written out the request, the researcher then presents it to a reference librarian who scrutinizes it for formal adherence to a set of unwritten basic requirements. If it is judged to be formally sound, it is time-stamped and put into a bin.

The researcher, mind you, cannot simply request as many boxes as they want. There are limits to how many boxes of records will be retrieved, how many collections you can request records from at once, and how many “pull” requests you can make over the course of a day. There are five designated pull times on weekdays. The earliest is at 10:00am, the last is at 3:30pm. Any requests submitted between the hours of 11:05am and 1:30pm will not start to be processed until the 1:30pm pull time. Miss the 3:30pm pull time, and your records will not be pulled until 10:00am the next day. It can take between 20 minutes and an hour to actually see the fruits of any given records request. Sometimes the results are the records you asked for. Sometimes they are yellow slips of paper indicating that the records were not found in the place you said they should be, or that you violated a rule in filling out the request form, or that another researcher is already using the records (sometimes said researcher is a government employee working in a separate, inaccessible part of the facility).

A familiar sight to Archives II researchers: "You done messed up."

A familiar sight to Archives II researchers: “You done messed up.”

If this sounds like a complicated system where a lot can go wrong, it is, and it is unusual among American archives in its complexity. When novice researchers ask me about using the records at the College Park facility, I tell them to factor in about twice as much research time as they might take at a “normal” archive, and to expect to spend the entirety of the first day learning how the system works to the point where they can actually file research requests that get useful records as a result. Of course, for the researcher, the real work only begins once the records have arrived. The downsides of such a system are obvious. The upside for a historian, though, is that in such a maze of paper there are sometimes still treasures to be found.

I had been at the archives for a week, and had exhausted all of my pull requests, except one. Because a set of records I had wanted to see proved useless, I found myself unexpectedly with some free time. Rather than going back to my hotel, I decided to do a little “fishing.” Sometimes Finding Aids are wrong, and sometimes they are out of sync with the MLR records. Sometimes records in the MLR lack Finding Aids, making them rarely used by researchers. A trick I had found over the years was to go over the MLR very carefully and look for anomalies: things that were in one database but not another, or were mislabeled. Doing this for the records of the Atomic Energy Commission, I found an unusual entry of files relating to the Oppenheimer hearing that was labeled as classified (and thus off-limits to me), but it was housed in a part of the facility that was for unclassified or declassified records. The Finding Aid provided no useful information about it.

I thought it was worth a chance to try and request it, because it seemed like the MLR might just have incorrect information in it, and it wasn’t at all clear what these files actually were. In the worst-case scenario, the pull request would come back as invalid, or it might just be one of the many copious files relating to Oppenheimer that scholars had looked at a dozens of times before over the years.

The cover and first page of the original Oppenheimer hearing transcript. In the left photo, I am holding back a "Top Secret/Restricted Data" cover sheet. I have cropped out my declassification slug. The color photos of the transcripts are from a 2011 follow-up trip to NARA I made; the original photos I took in 2009 were grayscale (as is my usual archival practice), which is why I am illustrating this post with the 2011 photographs.

The cover and first page of the original Oppenheimer hearing transcript. In the left photo, I am holding back a “Top Secret/Restricted Data” cover sheet. I have cropped out my declassification slug. The color photos of the transcripts are from a 2011 follow-up trip to NARA I made; the original photos I took in 2009 were grayscale (as is my usual archival practice), which is why I am illustrating this post with the 2011 photographs. Note that the transcriber, on the first page at right, got Oppenheimer’s name wrong at the top — “Oppenheim” plus a handwritten “er.”

When the “pull” came back, I was genuinely surprised to find that this mysterious, erroneous entry contained many of the original, un-redacted volumes of the Oppenheimer hearing. These were small blue stenography books produced for the use of the security hearing board itself by the Alderson Reporting Company, not for publication. On their covers were the stamps that characterize government document: “ORIGINAL,” “SECRET,” “RESTRICTED DATA.” Hold your breath, open the cover: instead of asterisks denoting classified omissions, they contained the missing text, circled in the red-orange pencil of the censor. I took photographs of all of the pages with removals on them, glancing over m shoulder the whole time, not wanting to let on my excitement.

There was only one problem: not all of the volumes had been declassified. Of 25 books worth of material, I had 17. Enough to see that I had found something wonderful, but not enough to do anything with it — nobody cares about finding most of the original Oppenheimer transcripts. Those that were missing had in their place “Withdrawal Notices,” pieces of card stock which say, in essence, “Sorry, you can’t see this.”  Fortunately they contain notations on them that can tell the archive where the still-officially-secret originals are being kept in in some other, more tightly-guarded part of the archive, and can be used to aid in Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that compel the government to review the materials for release.

In theory, all classified documents contain the record of their classification status, and how it changes over the years, stamped on them. (This procedure, which is now common throughout the American classification system, was begun with Manhattan Project records in early 1946 at the recommendation of a committee of scientists that included Oppenheimer.) A close look at the documents and their containers revealed that the Department of Energy had transferred them to the National Archives in 1991, and that in May 1992, someone had started declassifying them. But after 17 volumes, they stopped. Why? It isn’t clear. The early 1990s were a period of classification reform and “Openness” under President Clinton’s Secretary of Energy, Hazel O’Leary, and it would poetic if the Oppenheimer transcript fell to the wayside because they were too busy declassifying other things (and, eventually, fighting back against Congressional Republicans who eventually stopped the “Openness Initiative” in its tracks). In any case, it looks like things got stopped mid-declassification and that this was responsible for the sort of “limbo” these records ended up in — with an incorrect MLR entry and nobody quite knowing what had happened to them, until I stumbled across them 17 years later.

The stamps on a declassified document can tell you its classification history, if you know how to decode them. The cover of the Oppenheimer transcript indicates evidence of its original review in 1954 for publication, the record of it being catalogued by the AEC office of history (where it stayed until 1991, when it was transferred to NARA), and evidence of its declassification in 1992 by a DOE contractor.

The stamps on a declassified document can tell you its classification history, if you know how to decode them. The cover of the Oppenheimer transcript indicates evidence of its original review in 1954 for publication, the record of it being catalogued by the AEC office of history (where it stayed until 1991, when it was transferred to NARA), and evidence of its declassification in 1992 by a DOE contractor. The “X”s through the “Restricted Data” stamp and the original 1954 note are meant to indicate that they are not longer valid (they should have drawn a line through the “SECRET” stamp, too, but this is often neglected).

When I got back from my archive trip I immediately filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the remaining volumes. I knew this entailed a little bit of risk of being scooped. FOIA requests are not confidential; there are people who file FOIA requests to find out what other people filing FOIA requests on. In principle there is nothing wrong with this. Scholars have no proprietary claims on information that the government created, and once the government declassifies something it is available to everyone. But as with scientists, priority matters for historians: we like to take credit for what we find. But until I had the missing volumes, I felt I to be fairly quiet about the entire thing, telling only a few trusted colleagues.

The speed of response to a FOIA request can vary by the material and by the agency. The FBI, in my experience, is quite fast, despite (or maybe because) of their reputation for secrecy. They manage to process even quite large files usually within six months to a year. The Department of Energy is also relatively efficient. Waiting a year or two when you are trying to finish a dissertation or a book is a long time, but one cultivates a sense of patience about these things. Unfortunately, to get records that are already in the National Archives declassified, you have to file a FOIA request to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), who in turn has to turn them over to the actual declassifying agency (whichever agency, or its heirs, made the information classified in the first place). As the caretaker of all government archives, NARA receives huge volumes of FOIA requests on all topics, and so has a massive backlog. So my FOIA request for the Oppenheimer hearings would have to worm its way through the NARA system in order to be forwarded to the Department of Energy, the institutional heir of the Atomic Energy Commission, so the actual work of declassification review could begin.

Like Oppenheimer, one must cultivate a sense of Zen while waiting for classified documents to be reviewed. Photo source:  Emilio Segrè Visual Archives at the AIP Niels Bohr Library. (The first Oppenheimer photo at the top of this post is also from the ESVA.)

Like Oppenheimer, one must cultivate a sense of Zen while waiting for classified documents to be reviewed. Photo source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives at the AIP Niels Bohr Library. (The first Oppenheimer photo at the top of this post is also from the ESVA.)

So I expected this to be a slow process. But it was much slower than I’d have guessed. For three years, NARA did nothing with my request. At regular intervals I checked in, via e-mail, on its status, and every time was told that it was simply in a very long queue. The NARA employee I corresponded with was sympathetic and friendly, but insisted that he could do nothing to improve the speed of the system. So I waited — not for them to actually declassify the records, but for them to even start processing them, so that they could be sent to the Department of Energy for the actual declassification effort.

Finally, in 2012, I was told they were “out for review,” having finally been sent to the Department of Energy. It seemed like things might finally pick up. Still, I heard almost nothing for another two years. That is, until October, when I saw that the Department of Energy had declassified the entire transcript and posted it onto their OpenNet website… without informing me. A contact of mine at the Department of Energy has assured me that they did not realize there was a FOIA request associated with these records, and my contact at the National Archives has apologized over e-mail for the way this got handled.

As you can imagine, I was more than a little surprised that a process that made no obvious steps forward over the course of six years suddenly burst into the public eye in the most rapid way possible. In their defense, NARA seemed just as surprised as I was that the files had been posted online, which complicated their own screening process — as often happens in the Federal Government, the left hand didn’t quite know what the right hand was doing. As someone who studies the history of nuclear secrecy, I have allowed myself to be amused by the way this has all transpired. To have my priority claims on finding a secret document dashed by excessive openness on behalf of the government is perhaps an appropriately ironic fate, is it not? One of the key points of my (someday) forthcoming book is that revelation can be as much as a problematic activity as concealment, though this in this case it was a bit more personal than usual!


Part II, which contextualizes the newly revealed content and its impact on Oppenheimer’s legacy, is available here.

Meditations

When bad history meets bad journalism

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 7th, 2015

A lot of people have been passing around the latest news story about the supposed “Nazi nuclear bunker” that was supposedly discovered in Austria. Normally I would not comment at length about such a thing, originating from tabloids and so obviously (to my eye) devoid of serious merit. But since the passing around has even made it to more austere publications (like the Washington Post) and because a number of people have asked me informally what I thought about it, I thought I could take it as an opportunity to talk about what bad history of the bomb looks like.

The Sunday Times (UK) version of the "bunker" story.

The Sunday Times (UK) version of the “bunker” story.

Cheryl Rofer has compiled some of the basics of the story on Nuclear Diner. The basics are this: an Austrian filmmaker named Andreas Sulzer has been trying to make a film about an Austrian bunker that dates from World War II. He has been claiming there was a nuclear connection to this bunker, and gotten some headline-grabbing tabloid stories about it, since 2013. What’s the evidence for it being a nuclear site? He claims that he has an American intelligence document from 1944 that lists it as a site of possible interest. He has made vague claims about radioactivity. It is part of an existing weapons production plant (a factory that produced rocket engines). Some physicists might have been sent there. Did we mention there was a bunker?

Yeah. That’s it. This stuff is pretty obviously thin, but let’s just say: Allied intelligence about German nuclear sites in 1944 was poor and scattered and means nothing. Radiation is everywhere and can fluctuate from a variety of natural and artificial sources — only by talking about levels of radiation do we start to wonder if something unusual is occurring, and only by talking about specific radioactive isotopes can we start to really wonder if any given radiation is of interest to us or not. (This is not hard to do — there are hand-held devices that can both measure radiation intensity and determine the isotopes in about 30 seconds, these days.) The fact that it is part of an existing plant is probably evidence against it being a super-secret nuclear installation (compartmentalization). And physicists were involved in practically every technical program during World War II, so their presence tells us nothing one way or the other.

Forbes' version of the same story from February 2014.

Forbes’ version of the same story from February 2014.

The obvious thinness of this evidence, and the obvious motivation of the filmmaker — who has been denied a permit to dig around the site — should already be a sign to any self-respecting journalist that this is not worth touching. Certainly not without talking to some other experts about it. The only person anyone seems to have called up is Rainer Karlsch, whose own work on the German nuclear program is extremely controversial (Karlsch claims the Germans detonated some kind of dirty bomb or pure-fusion bomb — also on very thin evidence). For all of his outsized claims, at least Karlsch did his homework and tries to marshall evidence for his work. I don’t think Karlsch’s evidence fits the strength of his claims, and there are real technical problems with Karlsch’s reasoning, but there is at least a serious scholarly discussion to be had there. There is not one to be had (at least, not yet) about the Sulzer claims, because there is no there there. Karlsch’s only quoted comment is that he thinks the Germans got further along with their nuclear program than most people think (to be addressed below), and doesn’t comment on the Sulzer claims at all — which makes it not really a supporting comment for Sulzer at all.

But if you slap “Nazi” and “nuclear” onto something, it gets a lot of hits, and that’s what appears to be the motivation here both for the Sunday Times and the many other sources that have picked up the same story and run it without checking in with anybody else to see whether it is even plausible. Which is a sad state of things.

December 2013 version of the story, from the Daily Mail (UK).

December 2013 version of the story, from the Daily Mail (UK).

There is a bunker. No credible evidence has actually been offered to make one think it has a nuclear connection. That the Germans had large underground bunkers for technical projects is well-known — that they had them for their nuclear program is not, because there is no evidence of this. (They did do some reactor work in some caves towards the end of the war, but it was small scale.) Newspapers should stop passing this kind of nonsense around… especially since it is not even “news” at this point — the bunker story has been circulating for over 2 years, without any additional increase in credibility!

About two or three times a year I get contacted by people who are working on things relating to the German or Japanese wartime nuclear programs. The appeal is obvious: there is a built-in audience for this kind of thing, and there are still areas of uncertainty with regards to these programs. I have written on here in the past on a few of the questions I’ve stumbled into with regards to the German program, for example. We don’t know everything about these programs, and there are reasons to think that there is still more to learn. So I’m always willing to engage with people on these questions.

At least the Washington Post hedged the headline a bit, "says he uncovered." Still misleading, but makes the factual basis a little more clear.

At least the Washington Post hedged the headline a bit, “says he uncovered.” Still misleading, but makes the factual basis a little more clear.

Some of the stuff strikes me as improbable or a little crack-pot-ish; some of it seems plausible and interesting. I’m a firm believer in the idea that sometimes non-academic historians stumble onto interesting things and interesting questions (John Coster-Mullen is a great example of this), and I don’t discriminate unless people show themselves to be going down truly untenable paths (like that small segment of the Internet who believes that all nuclear weapons are a hoax, which is just a truly silly “theory”). I will hear just about anyone out, and tell them what I find plausible or implausible about their ideas. I am a skeptical person — big claims need big evidence. But I do believe there is still a lot “out there” to be found on these topics, and maybe more than a few surprises yet.

The German nuclear program seems to attract a lot of “theorizing” in particular, ranging from the “they got further in it than most people think” (which is an easy argument to make since most people don’t know much about the German program at all) to the absurd extremes of “they made an atomic bomb and the only way the Americans got one themselves was by stealing it” (conspiracy country).

The 1945 version of the same headline — New York Herald Tribune, August 8, 1945, story about the Norsk Hydro plant, which also over-emphasized the closeness of Germany's getting the bomb for dramatic effect.

The 1945 version of the same headline — New York Herald Tribune, August 8, 1945, story about the Norsk Hydro plant, which also over-emphasized the closeness of Germany’s getting the bomb for dramatic effect. Click the image to read the article.

Public understanding of the German nuclear program is indeed a confused and often incorrect thing, owing to a history of the politicization of the topic. In the very early days after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the “race with the Germans” narrative was played up very heavily by the Manhattan Project public relations people, both because it made for good drama and because it seemed to justify the US interest in the topic. And, indeed, the scientists who lobbied for the atomic bomb program between 1939 and 1944 or so did believe that the Germans might be ahead of them and that they were “racing” them to make the atomic bomb. It was not until late 1944 that the Alsos program reported back that the Germans had never gotten very far with their work, and that the US had never really been “racing” with them at all. Even today, though, we still see the legacy of this, with television programs and movies over-dramatizing the closeness of the “race,” and the importance of things like the sabotage of the Norsk Hydro facility, all of which makes it look like the Germans were very close indeed.

On the other side of the coin, we also have things like the Copenhagen play, which is an excellent piece of drama (and I am indeed a fan) but has infected a new generation with the idea that the Germans made no progress at all with regards to nuclear weapons — and indeed, had never even seriously considered the matter — because Heisenberg had consciously sabotaged the whole project. Never mind that Heisenberg’s own claims were far more nuanced on this point (he was always vague on this, only implying in a round-about way that they might not have made a bomb because they didn’t really want one). The play and the press around it has led a lot of people to think that the Germans knew really nothing about nuclear weapons development, and that they had intentionally avoided making them.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission.

The truth, so far as we know it now, is somewhere other than these two extremes. Mark Walker’s two books (German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949 and Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, And The German Atomic Bomb) are still excellent, though a bit more has come out since then. The basic gist of Walker’s work is that the German program knew a lot on paper, but never quite crystallized everything organizationally or technically to keep their program from being anything more than a side-project, focused primarily on reactor development. They never developed large-scale isotopic enrichment facilities, and they never got a reactor that went critical. Their reactor work was sophisticated given the conditions under which it was being done, but it never achieved criticality. Some members of the various teams that worked on the project had some fairly accurate understandings of how a nuclear weapon might be made, but there was also a lot of confusion circulating around (some members of the team understood it would be a fast-neutron fission reaction in enriched material, some were confused and focused on it being basically an out-of-control pile). Some were considering rather advanced designs (Karlsch has convinced me that they thought a bit about implosion, for example), but the whole thing was mostly a exploratory program.

The plausibility of any new arguments about German successes with their nuclear programs is always limited in part by what we know about the technical requirements of such an endeavor. The Manhattan Project need not be the only model of a successful nuclear program (it was in many ways unusual), but it does provide some baseline metrics for talking about nuclear programs of the 1940s. Any successful plutonium-breeding program is going to require fairly large reactors, because plutonium reprocessing extracts only grams of “product” from each ton of uranium fuel that goes into it. (Each of the three early Hanford reactors extracted only 225 grams of plutonium from every ton of uranium processed.) Any successful isotopic-enrichment program is going to require huge feed supplies of uranium (the Manhattan Project approaches consumed thousands of tons of uranium), pretty large facilities, and a lot of electricity.

When Alsos leader Sam Goudsmit was investigating the Germany nuclear work, he was struck by how little of it was kept very secret — evidence, in his mind, that they had not gotten very far with it. (S.A. Goudsmit and F.A.C. Wardenburg, "TA-Straussburg Mission," (8 December 1944), copy in the Bush-Conant file, Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5.)

When Alsos leader Sam Goudsmit was investigating the Germany nuclear work, he was struck by how little of it was kept very secret — evidence, in his mind, that they had not gotten very far with it. (S.A. Goudsmit and F.A.C. Wardenburg, “TA-Straussburg Mission,” (8 December 1944), copy in the Bush-Conant file, Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5.)

Separate from the technical argument is a bureaucratic one — if the Germans supposedly made such progress, why is was there no organizational evidence of it in the copious reports, papers, formal and informal statements, and so on that were discovered by the Alsos project, later researchers, and at Farm Hall? Big programs leave big traces. If one wants to claim that the German program was big, one has to show where those traces are, or come up for a plausible argument for why there are no traces.

This does not mean that one might not find more evidence in the future. It just means that any claims and evidence need to fit within the existing technical and bureaucratic narratives. For example, one could argue, “oh, but they did have a massive isotopic enrichment plant, and it was here, and here is evidence of — if one had the evidence. On the bureaucratic side, one could argue that people who we previously thought were important in the program (e.g. Gerlach) were actually out of the loop entirely. Or something along those lines.

Weekly World News, 2002: "Confederacy was Building an Atomic bomb."

Weekly World News, 2002: “Confederacy was Building an Atomic bomb.” No comment!

But you can’t just find a hole in the ground and say, “ah, here is where Hitler was making a bomb.” Aside from the implausibility of a nuclear program existing in a single underground bunker, by itself this kind of claim hasn’t done the work to be plausible. At best, if done in good faith, it is a claim along the lines of “oh, maybe this is worth looking into more.” That is fine — hey, I’d even nominally support that — but one shouldn’t be going to the newspapers about it at that stage, and the newspapers shouldn’t be passing off your claim as having more validity than half of the other implausible claims that circulate around these topics. This is premature, and the net effect is going to be misleading for the readership.

As historians, we need to be open to the idea that there are still mysteries to be solved, secrets to be unearthed, even about ground that superficially looks well-trodden. But I wish journalists would do a little better than just re-printing the overblown claims of unreliable sources, without checking with experts on their plausibility. Couching it as, “this guy made a claim” doesn’t get you off the hook, because we all know that only the initial, big-claim story is the one that will be passed around, and that almost nobody will notice when no follow-ups occur, or the mild “so no evidence turned up for this guy’s big claim” story comes out.

Journalists — You can do better!

Redactions

Nuclear history bibliography, 2014

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 2nd, 2015

It’s time for the third-annual Nuclear History Bibliography wrap-up, that special feature of this blog where I spend a few hours searching academic databases for interesting keywords and then give you the results, with the aim of giving a rough guide to the state of the field as it is represented in print. The rules are the same as last time and the time before: the boundary of what is being defined as “nuclear history” is a vague one (the connection to nuclear technology has to be somewhat explicit, and it has to be a mostly historical work, talking about what happened and less about what is happening or should happen), it has to have a 2014 publication date on it (even if it actually was first visible before or after the year), and it has to be primarily something that was “published” (I have not tried to include all websites, but I have added a few “electronic publications” where they seemed too interesting to omit, at the end).

Met Lab - secrecy stamp (photograph by Alex Wellerstein)

If I’ve missed something (extremely likely, especially in the non-English literature), please feel free to let me know in the comment section. I don’t claim to have read even a fraction of these — this citations are just provided so that people (including myself!) can see what they’ve missed in the last year, and maybe follow-up on it later. All I’ve done here is spend several hours searching through various databases (and looking at a few journals that are rather standard for this kind of thing) and filtered out (usually by glancing at the articles themselves) anything that I felt met the above criteria. So it’s not going to be perfect. This year I’ve decided to be civilized about my citation-mongering and have gathered everything together into files for importing into Zotero, EndNote, whatever, here: books: RISBIB; articles: RIS, BIB. In places where I’ve been able to, I’ve linked to the Amazon page of the book, or to the DOI link of the articles.

View the list by clicking here.

Visions

The button that isn’t

by Alex Wellerstein, published December 15th, 2014

One of my favorite articles from The Onion concerns the imagined allure of “the button”:

"Obama Makes It Through Another Day Of Resisting Urge To Launch All U.S. Nuclear Weapons At Once" - The Onion

Despite being constantly tempted by the seductive power of having an apocalyptic arsenal at his fingertips, President Barack Obama somehow made it through another day Tuesday without unlocking the box on his desk that houses “the button” and launching all 5,113 U.S. nuclear warheads. …

Though the president confirmed his schedule was packed with security briefings, public appearances, and cabinet meetings, he said he couldn’t help but steal a few glances at the bright red button, which is “right there, staring at [him], all the time.”

The article manages to wring a lot of humor out of the idea that on the President’s desk is a big red button that starts World War III.

Like much of The Onion’s satire, it is exceedingly clever in taking a common trope and pushing it into absurd territory. Even the physicality of the idea of a “button” is toyed with:

“Did you know that if you sort of put enough weight on the button with your fingertip, you can feel a little slack there before it actually clicks?” Obama added. “Thank you, and God bless America.”

I was thinking about this article a few months ago because I was asked by my friend from grad school, Latif Nasser, if I would be interested in talking to him and NPR’s Robert Krulwich about “the button” for a Radiolab episode they were working on. The Radiolab show was initially meant to be about buttons — in all senses of the term — but they kept finding that things that they thought were buttons were in fact either non-buttons or non-functional buttons. You can listen to the full episode here: “Buttons Not Buttons.”

You should listen to the whole episode, but — spoiler alert — the interesting thing about the nuclear “button” is that there isn’t a nuclear button. That is, nuclear war can’t be started by just pounding a big red button. Sorry. Waging a nuclear war requires a lot more activity, spread out across a vast geographical area, and is a complex interaction of technical, organizational, and political issues. In the Radiolab interview, I attempted to paint in broad strokes the kind of vast technical and organizational networks that are needed to maintain the United States’ command and control systems — the systems that let you use nukes when you want to, and make sure that nukes don’t get used when they are not supposed to be used.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

The Onion article indicates, in its wry way, one of the key reasons there isn’t a single “button” — it would be way, way too dangerous. Nobody wants nuclear war to be that easy to start. Or, as I like to put it, you don’t want a nuclear weapon that can be set off by a cat. Because you know that, sooner or later, a cat would set it off. Such is the way of cats. There are places in the world where big red buttons exist. But they are usually used to stop activity, not start it. They are emergency shutoff switches, things that you need to push in a big hurry, without too much hassle. And even they might require you to break some glass first.

On the other hand, if you’re a believer in deterrence and all that, you don’t want it to be too hard to start nuclear war. So this is just another variation of the “always/never” problem: you want to be able to start nuclear war if you need to, and start it quickly and effectively, but on the other hand, you want to never start nuclear war accidentally.

"Nuclear C3 [Command, Control, Communication] Transport Systems" — an attempt to characterize the technical, organizational, and political systems needed to actually start nuclear war in the United States today. Source: The Nuclear Matters Handbook, by the Office of the Assistant  Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.

“Nuclear C3 [Command, Control, Communication] Transport Systems” — an attempt to characterize the technical, organizational, and political systems needed to actually start nuclear war in the United States today. Source: The Nuclear Matters Handbook, by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.

From a technical standpoint, this means that you have to engineer a pretty complex system. In principle, the United States President has complete control over whether nuclear war starts. But the President doesn’t work in a missile silo. So somewhere between the President and the silo has to be a delegation of authority, and a subsequent potential loss of control. One could, in theory, completely automate that control — you could install a single “button” — but aside from the technical difficulty of that, there are a lot of new potential errors that get introduced.

Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control is a great read if you are interested in how this problem gets addressed over the course of the Cold War. Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August is, in part, a great description of how these issues were wrangled with even in the earliest days of nuclear weapons as political control transferred from Potsdam to Washington and Tinian. If I could add footnotes to radio interviews, I would prominently name-check both of these books — they greatly improved my own understanding of this. As did the work of my friend Dan Volmar, who is writing a dissertation on US command and control systems. And I need to give a massive hat-tip to Stephen Schwartz, who clued me into the Roger Fisher “cut the heart out” that I wrote about a few years back.

A submarine-launched ballistic missile trigger. Courtesy of Stephen Schwartz.

A submarine-launched ballistic missile trigger. Photo by the always amazing Paul Shambroom; courtesy of Stephen Schwartz.

Of course, there sometimes are switches, keys, and — yes — buttons, as part of the overall launching systems. But they aren’t centralized, and they are always more complicated than a simple big, red button. US ICBM launches require two simultaneous keys to be turned by two different people, on different sides of the room, the idea being that the odds of two people deciding to collude on an illegal launch are lower than one. SLBM launches, Stephen Schwartz reports, require the use of a pistol-grip “trigger” that is kept in a safe— a button, of sorts, though one that is hard to accidentally set off.

OK, so there isn’t a single nuclear button. Why do we talk about a button? This is a great history of technology question — “the button” is a metaphor, and not a new one. Starting in the 19th century, “the button” (or the “push button” or other variations on the same thing) started becoming a standard English idiom for “quick and easy and automatic.” The idea that you “push a button” and something happens — as easy as that! — shows up in the late Machine Age and continues onward.

So “the button” is just a metaphor for how technology makes things easy. That’s why everything in The Jetsons is button-based — the future was meant to take this to the extreme, where George Jetson would just spend all day at work pressing a single button. (Of course, many of us do press buttons all day — I am pressing quite a few as I type this — but generally not just one button.) If you combine the button imagery with the atomic bomb, it becomes a comment on the way technology has made mass destruction easy.

"Now I am become Edison, Wrecker of Worlds": fictional account of Edison destroying England using "button no. 4," 1896. Source: The Electrical Trade, August 1, 1896.

“Now I am become Edison, Wrecker of Worlds”: fictional account of Edison destroying Great Britain using “button no. 4,” 1896. Source: The Electrical Trade, August 1, 1896, page 9.

In fact, the idea that technology had made it so easy to destroy the world that a single button could set it all off predates nuclear fission. In the 1890s, a Parisian newspaper published a skit about Thomas Edison destroying all of England by joining some wires and pushing “button No. 4.” For this anecdote, and several others relating to “pushbutton” world destruction prior to fission, I am grateful to Spencer Weart’s Nuclear Fear: A History of Images.

There are other “button” stories I found while searching from newspaper and journal databases. In 1929, the famous American physicist Robert Millikan was quoted as saying that “no ‘scientific bad boy’ ever would be able to blow up the world by releasing atomic energy,” (!), and he later “scoffed at the idea that in the future by pressing a button a man might have an army of atomic servants wash his face, mend his clothing or make his bed.” In a 1932 review of the 1928 proto-atomic-bomb drama “Wings Over Europe,” it is noted that “All the scenes are set in Downing-street and the chief character is a young scientist who has presented to the cabinet a secret that could destroy the world by pressing a button.” In article from the Weekly Irish Times in 1932, it is feared that atomic energy will enable “a time when, by the pressing of a button or turning of a switch, it will be possible for somebody to explode the whole world like a penny balloon. It will be a tremendously lethal opportunity.” On these proto-atomic bomb fantasies, especially in the U.K. context, I found Graham Farmelo’s Churchill’s Bomb very useful. Churchill himself was an atomic-bomb speculator in the H.G. Wells vein, writing about atomic energy as early as 1931.

August 20, 1945: a LIFE magazine correspondent reports on "push-button" battles of the future.

August 20, 1945: a LIFE magazine correspondent reports on “push-button” battles of the future.

So when the actual atomic bomb came along, there was already a ready-made imagery to be applied to it. (And Weart’s book is excellent at demonstrating this well beyond the realm of buttons, too.) So when did people first start applying the button metaphor to the bomb? As early as late August 1945, there are discussions of “push-button” battles. By November 1945, when the physicist Edward Condon argued during Congressional testimony that “The next war should be described as the War of the Pushbuttons,” it was already something of a cliché. The idea of World War III being a “pushbutton war” started pretty early.

I have to admit, I was a little uncertain how the “button” line of discussion was going to come together when I was first contacted by Latif, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a nice way to get into a lot of different, interesting issues both about the history of the bomb (and what “the button” means, metaphorically), but also in explaining why there isn’t a button, it allows for a nice, tangible, interesting way to bring up the questions involved in command and control systems — moving the discussion of the bomb out of the realm of pure imagery and into the tangible and real.

Visions

Mushroom clouds strange, familiar, and fake

by Alex Wellerstein, published December 1st, 2014

If you spend a lot of time on the history of nuclear weapons, you see a lot of mushroom clouds photographs. There were over 500 atmospheric nuclear tests conducted during the Cold War, and most of these were photographed multiple times. (There were over 50 dedicated cameras at the Trinity test, as one little data point.) The number of unique photographs of nuclear explosions must number in the several thousands.

Castle Romeo

And yet, most of the time we seem to reach for the same few clouds that we’ve always reached for. How many books, for example, have this shot of the Castle Romeo mushroom cloud on their cover? Romeo was an American H-bomb test from 1954, 11 megatons in yield. It gets used, however, for all sorts of things — like the Cox Report’s 1999 allegations about China stealing advanced (much lower-yield) thermonuclear warhead designs, or illustrating Soviet nuclear weapons, or illustrating (most incorrectly) nuclear terrorism (which would not look like this at all). It’s a great photo (dramatic, red, well-framed), but it’s not a generic mushroom cloud — it is a really high yield weapon, and arguably ought to only be used to illustrate very high yield weapons.

OK, I’m a pedant about this kind of thing. I get annoyed with poorly-used mushroom cloud photos, and repetitive photos, because there are just so many good options out there if the graphic designers in question would just search beyond the first thing that comes up when you Google “mushroom cloud.” But re-using known clouds is not as bad as, say, mistaking a fake, computer-generated mushroom cloud for a real one.

Fake Tsar Bomba

This photo is often labeled as the “Tsar Bomba” cloud and it is not even an actual photograph of a nuclear test — it is a CGI rendering, and not even a very good one. I don’t think you even have to be a nuke wonk to recognize that, and that people’s CGI-savvy would be better than this, but I guess not. An animated version is circulating on YouTube — the physics is all wrong regarding the fireball rise, the stem, etc., and the texturing is off. Apparently a lot of people have been fooled, though. There is film of the actual Tsar Bomba explosion, and one can readily appreciate how different it is.

The above photo is also sometimes labeled as the “Tsar Bomba,” and was recently featured on the cover a book about the British atomic bomb, labeled as a British thermonuclear weapon. It is actually a French nuclear weapon, specifically the test dubbed “Licorne,” a 914 kiloton thermonuclear shot detonated in 1970 at the Fangataufa atoll in French Polynesia. I do admit finding the confusion about this one amusing, especially when it is mislabeled as a British test. (As an aside: I do not blame authors for the photos on their book covers, because I know they often don’t have anything much to do with the cover images.)

There are actually four shots from this same test that I don’t think most people realize are of a sequence, showing first the brief condensation cloud that formed in the first 20 seconds or so (which exaggerates the width of the actual mushroom cloud, similar to the famous Crossroads Baker photograph), and then tracks the mushroom cloud as it rises. When you resize them to the same scale (more or less), you can see that they are not four different shots at all, just differently timed photographs of the evolution of a single shot’s mushroom cloud:

There is also a film of the test, though the quality isn’t that great. The whole sequence represents less that a minute of the bomb detonation; as I’ve noted previously, most of our photos of mushroom clouds are from the first minute or so after their detonation, and they can get pretty unfamiliar if you watch the cloud evolve for longer than that.

Other clouds that have gotten overused (in my opinion) include Upshot-Knothole Grable, Crossroads Baker, and Upshot-Knothole Badger.

Does it matter that we re-use, and sometimes mis-use, the same mushroom clouds over and over again? In a material sense it does not, because the people who use/misuse these clouds are really not using them to make a sophisticated visual or intellectual argument. Rather, they have chosen a “scary mushroom cloud” image for maximum visual effect. And these fit the bill, except maybe the fake one, which will turn off anyone who can spot a fake.

But it does represent the way in which a lot of our cultural understanding of nuclear weapons has stagnated. The same visuals of the bomb, over and over again, mimic the same stories we tell about the bomb, over and over again. Culturally, there is a deep “rut” that has been carved in how we talk and think around nuclear weapons, a sort of warmed-over legacy of the late Cold War. I am sometimes astounded by how deep, and how deeply held, this rut is — on Reddit, for example, people will fight vehemently over the question of dropping of the atomic bomb, sticking exclusively to positions that were argued about 20 years ago, the last time this stuff was “hot.” They aren’t aware that the historiography has moved quite a distance since then, because you’d never know that from watching or reading most historical discussions of the bomb in mainstream media.

One of the first commercial uses of a fiery mushroom cloud to sell something unrelated to mushroom clouds — in this case, Count Basie's 1958 album, Basie.

One of the first commercial uses of a fiery mushroom cloud to sell something unrelated to mushroom clouds — in this case, Count Basie’s 1958 album, Basie. The test is Operation Plumbbob, shot Hood.

Fortunately, I think, these obvious ruts paradoxically create new opportunities for people who want to educate about the bomb. It is one of the ironies of history that the more firmly entrenched an existing narrative gets, the more interested people are in compelling counter-narratives. The fact that there is a rut in the first place means that there is already a built-in audience (as opposed to history that people just don’t know anything about), and if you can find something new to say about that history, then they’re interested.

“New” here can also mean “new to them,” as opposed to “new to people who spend their lives looking at this stuff.” This is what I was talking about when I was quoted in the New York Times a few weeks ago — things that known to scholars are being discovered and re-discovered by mass audiences who are surprised to find how many different and apparently novel photographs and stories are out there.

As an aside, if I were going to give graphic designers a set of “mushroom cloud use guidelines,” they would be, more or less: 1. don’t use the first cloud you find (there are so many unusual and dramatic ones out there, if you poke around a little bit); 2. don’t use extremely historically-specific clouds (i.e. Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as generic images; 3. don’t use multi-megaton shots (i.e. giant red/orange/yellow cloud fireballs) if you are talking about kiloton-range weapons (i.e. terrorist bombs); and 4. if you are going to label something as British, make sure it is not actually French!


Untitled

As part of my annual contribution to people becoming better acquainted with “new” mushroom cloud photographs, I have released a new and updated version of my Nuclear Testing Calendar for 2015. It features 12 unusual photographs of nuclear detonations, all of which I have carefully cleaned up to remove scratches and dust spots. All of the images are courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Here is a little preview of some of the unusual clouds you will find in this calendar:

2015 Nuclear Testing Calendar preview

There are also over 60 nuclear “anniversaries” noted in the calendar text itself. And because 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the Trinity test, I have also reissued last-year’s Trinity test calendar. Both calendars are being offered for $18.99. The site that publishes them, Lulu.com, also often has a lot of coupons on a regular basis — please feel free to take advantage of them! All proceeds go to offsetting the costs of my web work. More details about the calendars and other nuclear delights at my updated Calendars, gifts, tchotchkes page.