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“The Hawaii alert was an accident. The dread it inspired wasn’t.”

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 16th, 2018

I wrote a short piece for The Washington Post on the Hawaiian nuclear false alarm last Saturday.

The Hawaiian incident was an unacceptable mistake, indicative of a poorly-designed system. False alarms are dangerous for a lot of reasons, not the least in that there will be a significant amount of doubt about the veracity of any future messages from the same source (or any other governmental source).

But we should at some level take it as a welcome wake-up call. The possibility of a nuclear attack is real. It won't go away tomorrow. People need to know what they ought to do during one, so they don’t (as many were reported to have done) run out into the open —the absolute worst thing one can do, if one is interested in improving one’s chances of survival. And there are things that should be done, at a diplomatic level, to reduce the chances of it happening.

If a missile was in-bound to Honolulu from North Korea, it would only take about 30 minutes to reach its target after launch — less time than it took the Hawaiian agency to revoke its warning! Assuming it was as powerful as the last North Korean nuclear test, it  could kill upwards of 140,000 people almost immediately, and injure another 170,000. Most Hawaiians would survive — and have to deal with the cleanup, the lingering health issues, and the political and literal fallout. It would not be the end of the world for all, but it would be a disaster unparalleled in American history, killing nearly a hundred times more people than the attack on Pearl Harbor or the 9/11 attacks. It could happen. To embrace fatalism, or to simply deny the threat should not exist, is not nearly enough.

News and Notes

2017 in review, and plans for 2018

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 8th, 2018

Last fall was considerably more quiet on here than I intended it to be! I have not stopped blogging; it was just a combination of being unusually busy (nobody could have known that starting new projects could be so complicated), and, if truth be told, I found 2017 as a whole an unusually difficult environment to get work done in. From talking with other academics, I am aware this is not exactly an uncommon complaint. When the news cycle lurches from one horror to another, it is hard to do more than focus on what you need to get done in the immediate (such as teaching), and the blog kept getting short shifted as a result.

I've gotten some things done, to be sure. In fact, with my career, to borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, "the worse things get, the better" — the scarier the world gets, the more my work and expertise gets in demand. Being a "public expert" on top of teaching, project work, advising undergraduates, etc., has taken a fierce toll on my blogging time. I am well aware this is a situation that has its enviable aspects (being "in demand" is a good thing), but it does mean corners have been cut here and there.

I don't have a scholarly/public intellectual bucket list, but if I did, this would probably be on it... for those who track mushroom cloud imagery, this is an unusual one: a vertically compressed British test from 1956, Operation Buffalo, One Tree.

When I did do public writing last fall, it tended to be for other venues:

It's also not escaped my attention that the more scary things get in the nuclear world, the busier I get, for better or worse:

To list just a few of my recent media appearances. I even made an appearance on C-SPAN to discuss Presidential nuclear authority:

This is my serious and concerned face.

And, surreally, got re-tweeted by Edward Snowden:

I'm not 100% sure how I feel about this.

And even more surreally, NUKEMAP (but not me) made an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (and, grossly, Breitbart; at least one can say it is bipartisan). And while this has not been a secret, I have not really talked about it on here, but I have also been a Guest Curator for the Intrepid Museum in New York City, helping to create a new exhibit for their submarine USS Growler, which was part of the first-generation of nuclear-armed submarines fielded by the United States. The exhibit will open this summer. Rest assured I will talk more on that in due time.

Anyway, I've completely revamped and updated my list of Articles and appearances, so if you're really interested in seeing my written output beyond the blog, check it out. In fact, I've revamped the blog a bit in general. The basic stylesheet had not been modified since 2011 or so, which felt like an awful long time in the web world, so I gave it some minor aesthetic improvements. (There is still some work to be done on that front, like making it responsive for phones and whatnot, but I haven't quite committed to that chore yet.)

The biggest functional improvement is that it is in theory much easier to browse the contents of the site, as I have taken my Post archives code and adapted it for tags, categories, and the search function. So now you can very easily see all posts tagged as "Bad ideas," for example. A feature you didn't even know you wanted. I'm also going to make sure that these articles and appearances get more notice on the blog (and not just my Twitter feed), which I've been bad about lately.

More substantively, I have a number of blog posts I am writing for the coming year. I am going to try keeping them mostly short and sweet, because the long ones take a lot of time and a lot more reflection than I suspect my schedule has time for (or to put it another way, the kind of effort that they require is effort I need to put into my book manuscript). I should have a new post discussing my Kyoto thesis (which has evolved a bit over the years, but is now in a publishable form) in the next week or so, with a deep-dive into a rich archival document that has, as far as I can tell, not been studied by historians.

Where does "nuclear weapons historian" fit on this scale? A question I have been pondering the last few months. Source: XKCD

On our prospects for 2018: I remain deeply worried about the possibility of a new war in the next year or so. I would be happy to be wrong. It is very difficult to sort out the bluster from the reality, the threat from the possibility. At some level, I am not sure that they can be sorted out — my reading of history is that things have often been worse behind the scenes than they even look on the surface. We have a very dangerous dynamic set up in the world today — I am certainly not the only one who has said it, but I think it is true that we are closer to a nuclear weapon being used in anger again than we have been since the Cold War, and I suspect if we are fortunate we will look back on 2017-2018 or so as being one of the key "close call" periods along with the Cuban Missile Crisis and the War Scare of 1983. If we are unfortunate we will judge it even worse, and the future will judge us even more poorly. But fatalism is not the answer — we must create the world we want to live in, we must all do our parts (however insubstantial they may feel when taken piecemeal), and I'm trying to do my part, as well. So keep an eye out.


Global Hiroshima: Notes from a bullet train

by Alex Wellerstein, published August 7th, 2017

I am writing this blog post while on a bullet train between Hiroshima and Kyoto, having spent the last seven days in the city that was, 72 years ago, destroyed by the first atomic bomb, but was reborn as something quite vibrant and alive. I intend to write several blog posts about my visit to Japan; this first one focuses on the more formal academic issues that have come up during my stay in Hiroshima.

After a very long plane ride (though frankly I have been on worse ones — ANA, like most foreign air carriers, puts American air carriers to shame), I am in Japan. This visit is part work, part tourism; work provided the excuse to come (and helped defray much of the cost), but as someone who has spent so much time writing and teaching about Japan, especially in the context of World War II, it seemed an absolute requirement that if I could make the time for it, that I ought to spend more time here. So I am staying in country until August 13th, splitting my time between Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Tokyo.

The beginning of the Hiroshima lantern lighting ceremony, August 6, 2017. These photos are all from my trip. Photo by author.

The main “work” reason for coming to Japan was to participate in a conference hosted by Princeton University and the Prefecture of Hiroshima called “Global Hiroshima: The History, Politics and Legacies of Nuclear Weapons,” as well as to sit in on the “Hiroshima  Roundtable.” The former conference focused on the history and legacy of the atomic bomb decision, whereas the latter was focused more on the present day and future of nuclear weapons. Both were of immense interest and I am extremely grateful to Princeton and the Governor of Hiroshima Prefecture for making them all happen (and especially to the indispensable Cynthia S. Ernst and Takuya Tazawa, who together made this trip so much easier than I think it otherwise would have been).

The Roundtable involved an interesting number of political scientists and a few historians, representing at least seven countries. The US representatives, John Ikenberry, Jeffrey Lewis, and Scott Sagan, are all heavy-hitters, and there were a handful of other Americans there (myself included) as observers. The discussion focused on major questions related to the future of nuclear weapons, with three issues really taking center stage.

One was North Korea, whose missile capabilities seem to grow by leaps and bounds each week. I have personally felt, and was glad that other more informed people seemed to feel the same way, that the current US rhetoric about finding a “solution” to the problem of the North Korean ICBM capability seems both misguided and terrifying. (The North Koreans have made very clear that they would consider any attempt at a “decapitation” of any sort of their high leadership as a “line” that, if passed, would result in a nuclear response against either the United States or its allies. I see no reason not to believe them.) I feel quite strange arguing that the old Cold War policy of “containment” seems like a better solution, but really almost anything seems like a better solution that starting (yet another) war, much less one with a state whose nuclear capabilities are not as trivial as people make them out to be. (These discussions inspired me to make some real progress on my new MISSILEMAP web application which I will be launching very soon, with any luck.)

A koi feeding frenzy in the Shukkei-en park, which was completely destroyed by the bombing, but, like most of Hiroshima, eventually rebuilt. The Japanese translate the koi as "carp," and the Carp is the baseball team of Hiroshima. Photo by author.

Another issue that ran through these discussions was the precarious position of the US leadership in nuclear matters. I have been asked several times over the past few months what I, personally, am “afraid of” — i.e., what looms highest on my list of “threats” at the moment? I’m not sure (we live in a world where many very unpleasant possible future paths are acutely visible), but I will say that if the question is which nation do I think is most likely to defy the “nuclear taboo” in the next few years, the United States has shot to the top of the list. Aside from the rather disturbing research by Scott Sagan and Benjamin Valentino which was published last week, which indicates significant American public support for the use of nuclear weapons against Iran (a “clear majority” would be willing to kill millions of Iranians, if they believed it would save a much smaller number of American lives, and even more Americans would be willing to kill 100,000 Iranians if they thought it would “intimidate” Iran into surrendering in a war), nothing I have read and seen about the Trump administration has reassured me that the adults are running the show.

It is hard to believe that a President who cannot follow a rather simple conversation about policy is going to be able to make good decisions on nuclear matters, and I am not as optimistic as many about the supposed restraining force the military would play, or any other imagined restraining force (fear of impeachment, Twenty-Fifth Amendment, etc.). I hope I am wrong, but it seems a dark thing when Kim Jong-un seems like a more traditional “rational actor” (in the sense that his actions seem quite in line with deterrence theory, and you can see the logic of them, even if you don’t agree with them) than the sitting US President.

A small group of the conference attendees stayed in Hiroshima a few more days, to attend the anniversary ceremonies. Here, from behind, I am following Kiichi Fujiwara, David Holloway, and Shampa Biswas into the seating area. Photo by author.

But most of the discussion was focused on the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons passed a few weeks ago (and which the nuclear-weapons states and those under their nuclear umbrellas predictably did not sign). I’ll admit I haven’t wrapped my head fully around that yet — I’ve read some of the arguments for and against it, and given that I have not yet wrapped my head around whether pushing for nuclear disarmament is a good idea (I can see the arguments for and against it very clearly, and am truly not sure whether total disarmament leads to a safer world than, say, a minimal deterrence posture), I suppose that is not a surprise.

But the position emphasized at the Roundtable, though, was one I hadn’t thought about at all: that this Treaty is a reflection of a growing chasm between the nuclear-weapons states and the non-nuclear weapons states. The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, for example, requires relatively close cooperation between these two groups, even as it maintains that they retain different legal statuses. As an American, it is easy to assume that the non-nuclear weapon states recognized, even when they signed it but certainly now, that the United States had no real interest in total nuclear disarmament. That much has always seemed obvious, and it is clear that from the beginning the US regarded the NPT’s requirements for the nuclear-weapon states to pursue “negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to the cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament” as extremely non-binding.

One of thousands of statues at the Daisyoin buddhist shrine complex on the island of Miyajima, about a 30 minute boat ride from Hiroshima. The specific symbolism is unknown to me, but those who study nuclear matters often find themselves contemplating skulls. Photo by author.

But if the non-nuclear weapons states grow frustrated enough with the lack of progress (and the current nuclear “modernization” programs pursued by the major nuclear powers can be easily read as flying right in the face of NPT’s Article VI), what will the results be? I don’t know, and it seems like a development that bodes ill for the long-term goals of arms control, yet another tension that has been a long time simmering, perhaps put temporarily on hold during the hopeful aspects of the Obama administration, but back with a vengeance once those hopes were not realized, and in the face of the present “America first” position on foreign policy.

The historical workshop, "Global Hiroshima," was quite interesting as well. Along with the people already mentioned, there were a great number of others as well: Michael Gordin (Red Cloud at Dawn), Frank Gavin (Nuclear Statecraft), David Holloway (Stalin and the Bomb), Nina Tannenwald (The Nuclear Taboo), Mark Walker (Nazi Science), Sean Malloy (Atomic Tragedy), Shampa Biswas (Nuclear Desire), Campbell Craig (The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War), Sonja Schmid (Producing Power), among others, and a wonderful group of Japanese scholars whose work I (and presumably most American scholars) are less familiar with: Yukiko Koshiro, Wakana Mukai, Takuya Sasaki, and Kiichi Fujiwara, among others. For my own part, I gave the latest version of my research into the sparing of Kyoto. My thoughts on it have evolved since I first wrote about them on this blog; the blog post has aged reasonably well, in my mind, though there are a few things I have nailed down that I did not have at the time. (More on this in a future post.)

Three of the many, many statues of "Jizo" scattered around the Daisyoin complex on Miyajima. The baby-like monks are all wearing knit caps or bibs, usually bright red (these ones are unusual in that they have been allowed to grow moss), and are apparently doted upon by parents who have lost children. Photo by author.

Of the papers (that I cannot hope to do justice in a brief summary), a few brief thoughts on the ones that stuck out to me, to give a flavor of the proceedings: Campbell Craig had a very ambitious paper which attempted to parse Franklin Roosevelt’s feelings about the atomic bomb as an instrument of national strategy, a matter of particularly interesting difficulty given how little of his thinking on this topic Roosevelt shared with others, but I thought the effort interesting and credible (e.g., Craig looked closely at Roosevelt's lack of interest of communicating with the Soviets on the matter, even though he had been told that they had penetrated the project with espionage); Sean Malloy’s paper on the issue of racism and the use of the atomic bomb was provocative and gave me much to think about; Yukiko Koshiro’s discussion of pre-August 1945 projections by the Japanese military about the Soviet entry into the war was new to me (much of it apparently is discussed in her book published a few years ago) and really strengthened, in my mind, Tsuyoshi Hasegawa’s contentions (even as it brought up some contradictions and questions; this is perhaps a subject for another blog post); Nina Tannenwald’s paper on the future of the “nuclear taboo” (the belief that nuclear weapons cannot be used, not just the act of non-use) was important if depressing (there are some worrying indications, as noted already); Kiichi Fujiwara’s discussion of the changing ways in which the Japanese people have viewed Hiroshima (it did not become a “special” city to them until the Bravo accident in 1954, which I thought was interesting), and the way its role in Japanese domestic political discourse has shifted over the decades, was a particularly appropriate and important way to end the conference. There were many other interesting papers, to be sure (two, Holloway's and Schmid's, looked at the Soviet context, while others looked at the postwar nuclear situations of Brazil, Japan, and West Germany); these are the ones that meshed most closely with my present interests (and my ability to process new information — the jet-lag has not been as bad as I thought it might be, but it’s been a factor).

The conference, in a sense, was quadruply juxtaposed. You had the juxtapositions of nationalities (not just American and Japanese, but several others as well: Australia, UK, Sweden, Brazil), and juxtapositions of specialties (political scientists and historians were both heavily represented in several different flavors, but there were other approaches on offer as well).  Does traveling to Japan change the discourse of American scholars? Could we have had this same conference in New Jersey, to the same effect? In some sense, yes; the conversation was entirely in English, considered many of the same topics that we tend to talk about whenever this sort of group comes together (and a nearly identical group had a similar conference in 2015, in Princeton). On the other hand, there is something more resonant and “destabilizing” to have these discussions in a different context, and especially of that context is Hiroshima itself. Historians, at least, will almost always agree that context matters, that who is in the room, and where the room is, affects what is said and thought in the room. As one elderly Japanese man remarked to me and my wife when we visited Shukkei-en, a historic garden in Hiroshima, “there are many sad stories here.”

I will try to write at least two more posts while I am here: one on my thoughts on being in Hiroshima on 72nd anniversary of the atomic bombings, and another on my latest findings on the sparing of Kyoto and its impact on nuclear history. 

News and Notes

The Reinventing Civil Defense project

by Alex Wellerstein, published July 13th, 2017

This has been one busy academic year for me, and the non-stop news cycle has not helped matters. As is painfully obvious by my decreased production of blog posts. Don’t worry — I’m not going anywhere, and I will make up some of the difference in August when I visit Japan for the first time, in time for the Hiroshima bombing anniversary. Below is a description of one of the projects that has been occupying my time these last many months.

I am extremely pleased to be able to announce one bit of “secret” work that is finally going public: a sizable grant that I am involved with has been chosen for funding by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. It is one of 11 projects funded by a joint effort from the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation “to support projects aimed at reducing nuclear risk through innovative and solutions-oriented approaches.”

The project is called “Reinventing Civil Defense,” and it’s been fun to tell people about the proposal and watch their eyes get very wide at the name. That’s intentional. When CCNY and MacArthur put out their call for proposals, they said they wanted new ideas, things from outside the box. So we decided to try and go pretty big in that direction.

Bendix dosimeters, for tracking personal radiation exposure. The two Civil Defense photos accompanying this post were all taken by me in order to illustrate the Reinventing Civil Defense website, from various Cold War bits and pieces I have lying around the apartment. I wanted something that nodded at the Civil Defense imagery we are familiar with, but also indicated that this was going to be a new take on it.

The “we” here is our team of co-PIs at the Stevens Institute of Technology, myself, Kristyn Karl, and Julie Pullen.  Together, we created and will run the Reinventing Civil Defense project, with key contributions from Ed Friedman. Kristyn Karl is a political psychologist who works across the hall from me, in the College of Arts and Letters, and whose work involves studying how people evaluate risk, especially in response to communications about it. She has researched the ways in which people evaluate different types of reporting about terrorism, and how that impacts their emotional responses and subsequent policy support (or lack thereof). Julie Pullen is an associate professor of oceanography and meteorology who I have known since I came to Stevens, who works in the School of Engineering and Science, who has done a lot of research into port and maritime security in the New York City area, and has studied technical issues relating to nuclear terrorism. Ed Friedman is an emeritus professor of physics, and one of the reasons I am at Stevens in the first place: it was Ed whose initial interest in my work brought me here to give a talk, at which point I not only realized where Hoboken was (I grew up on the West Coast, so my East Coast geography was pretty poor), but learned there was a job search going on in my field. Ed has had one of those lives that looks so jam-packed with interesting and important work (as a sample, he worked in Afghanistan for many years before the Soviet-Afghan war, teaching at the engineering school in Kabul) that no matter what one accomplishes, one feels like one has done almost nothing, but he is a generous and concerned scholar who is deeply interested in matters relating to nuclear weapons and terrorism.

Kristyn Karl, Julie Pullen, myself (Alex Wellerstein), taking a somewhat awkward picture (the weather was not entirely behaving) at Castle Point Lookout at the Stevens Institute of Technology.

Ever since I took the job at Stevens, Ed, Julie, and I had been talking about ways in which we could leverage the essential principles and success behind something like the NUKEMAP in a way that would have even wider impact. This led to a lot of discussions about how digital tools might produce different ways to think about science and risk communication, beyond the more traditionally “didactic” modes associated with formal education. Study after study has shown that didactic, lecturing approaches to getting information across only works in a very limited way — and as a teacher, it is clear that it is extremely inefficient even within the confines of a formal educational setting (e.g., people who are taking out massive loans with the idea of getting an education). If your goal is to affect a much broader spectrum of people, about pressing policy issues, you have to find another way. Kristyn's work on science communication and risk perception was a natural fit with these interests, and so we brought her into these discussions not long after she was hired at Stevens.

Around the time of the Carnegie/MacArthur request for proposals (October 2016), I had been thinking about Civil Defense quite a lot. Ed and I were co-teaching a seminar on nuclear policy topics, and had dedicated a week to the subject, having the students (and ourselves) read various Civil Defense texts and critiques from a few different “eras” of US Civil Defense work. I had looked into a lot of these issues when designing the codes for the NUKEMAP (which are still being worked on, as an aside; there will be some interesting new features added in the very near future), and it seemed like there was a lot of discussion of this issue “in the air” then (and even more since). And, when I lived in DC, I had some very productive discussions with my friend Ed Geist (now at RAND Corporation; we recently co-authored an article on the Soviet H-bomb project in Physics Today), who wrote his dissertation on US and Soviet Civil Defense policies. The general feeling I had about Civil Defense was, some of it was nonsense (the quick evacuation of big urban centers always seemed infeasible), some of it certainly expressed a blasé approach to mass destruction, but it was not as crazy as the anti-nuclear activists often made it out to be, and indeed many of its core approaches have been integrated into preparation for other kinds of major hazards (Civil Defense eventually morphed into Emergency Management, which takes a somewhat different approach with regards to engaging the general public). It seemed highly politicized and polarized, by both the anti-nuclear and pro-nuclear folks (having Edward Teller be ones of its chief advocates was not going to “bridge that gap,” either).

A Victoreen radiation detector. The units of this are pretty high — it's not meant to budge unless you're in a bit of trouble. To get it at something other than a zero read I did a circuit check and let it work its way back down again.

So when I was thinking about the Carnegie/MacArthur request, suddenly this idea flashed in my brain (in the way of all of my ideas, both good and bad, it just appeared all at once): what if Civil Defense wasn’t politicized and wasn’t dumb? What if you approached it in a truly even-handed, non-partisan way? What if you thought very seriously about the deficiencies of Cold War Civil Defense, notably its approach to messaging, and thought about what that would look like in the early-21st century, where the more probable nuclear threat is not the multi-megaton, thousands-of-targets exchange of the late-20th century, but single-use detonations of terrorists or so-called “rogue states”? What would that look like? What would it look like if your approach was not the government producing lectures and pamphlets (because American trust in government has notably plummeted from the late 1960s onward), but non-governmental organizations producing digital products and tools?

And, of course, what would be gained from this approach? Potentially much, for people of all political stripes. Those who believe that Civil Defense should be embraced because it would lessen the consequences of a nuclear detonation (and if risk is probability times consequences, then you are reducing the risk by doing this) would be pleased by the reduction of preventable casualties that might come with such an effort. Those who are more concerned with galvanizing public opinion about nuclear weapons would, perhaps, be pleased that the lived experience of nuclear risk — nuclear salience — would be increased, in a way that it has not been since the height of the Cold War. It is my belief, and I will have a piece about this coming out pretty soon, that the elimination of Cold War Civil Defense education ironically allowed nuclear weapons to pass out of public awareness, which was certainly not what the people opposed to Civil Defense were interested in.

The logo of the Federal Civil Defense Administration, from the side of the aforementioned Victoreen detector.

And on top of all that, this kind of project would create an opportunity to explore new kinds of risk communication and messaging (with new media, like Virtual Reality), and its effectiveness (which someone like Kristyn designs experiments to test). So at its most ambitious, this project is about potentially altering American nuclear culture (and maybe non-American, ideally, but you’ve got to start somewhere), and potentially facilitating the means to save thousands of preventable casualties in the event of a nuclear detonation. And even if those very lofty goals are not possible to be achieved (changing culture is obviously a very difficult thing!), it could still be a catalyst for a lot of interesting prototypes.  Much of our budget is earmarked for sub-awards that will generate “deliverables” meant to be focal points for these conversations about nuclear salience (think VR apps, games, graphic novels, along with more traditional output like studies and whitepapers and reports), and two workshops where we will hash over these questions and come up with some recommendations (the workshops are invitation-only, but if you are interested please get in touch and we'll see what we can accommodate within our space and budget).

Ed, Julie, Kristyn, and I bounced this idea around, to great effect. The germ evolved into a full-fledged proposal. We also decided that we would need some kind of Advisory Committee to help make sure that we weren’t barking up the wrong tree, and to give us perspectives that a bunch of engineering-school professors might not have. You can see the list of the Advisory Committee members on our project website — I’m pretty amazed at the people we were able to convince to agree to be part of this project, and just getting them all together in a room, talking about this issue, will no doubt be an interesting conversation.

"Fallout protection: What to know and do about nuclear attack," was a pamphlet created in 1961, intending to spread the word about fallout shelters and radiation protection. Aside from having some pretty interesting graphics (which always brings things to my attention), and being printed in apparently huge numbers, it is notable to me in part because it was one of the few Civil Defense messaging techniques that was actually studied by social scientists at the time, to see how it changed people's views and understanding on fallout. You can buy well-preserved originals of it on eBay for a song.

Anyway, after various rounds of peer review and discussion, we finally got notice that we were funded, though we had to keep it under wraps until all of the coordination between the foundations was completed. I am pleased to be able to reveal it all now, at long last, and to promise that you will be seeing many interesting things coming out of this work in the near future. And if you know of someone whose work might fit into the category of a good project to fund, please send them the website link and tell them to be in touch (or get in touch yourself, if the person is you) — we are going to try and make the application/funding process as streamlined as possible, with a minimum amount of red tape, if we can.

To explicitly invoke Civil Defense — with full recognition of its controversy, its complications, and its ups and downs — was, as I indicated earlier, a very deliberate move. I’m well aware it is a polarizing subject, and the looks my colleagues and friends have given me when I tell them the name of what we’re working on have been... interesting. But I think that approaching nuclear risk through this lens will be productive and stimulating, and I also think that we live in a time when it is time to re-think, and re-invent, our approaches to these issues. And I’m grateful the funders and our peer reviewers agreed!

I just want to finish this note by thanking my three collaborators (Ed, Julie, Kristyn), the Carnegie Corporation of New York (esp. Carl Robichaud), the members of our all-star Advisory Committee who agreed to have their names attached to such an unusual venture, the N Square Collaborative (esp. Erika Gregory, whose efforts at getting nuclear people to network outside of their normal groups are deeply reflected in the makeup of our Advisory Committee and our approach in general),  Alex Glaser at Princeton (whose team also got one of the grants, and who helpfully shared ideas and thoughts with me during the process), and my ever-supportive Dean, Kelland Thomas, who is not just an impressively capable administrator, but has some pretty impressive musical chops.


The Smyth Report: A chemical weapon coverup?

by Alex Wellerstein, published May 2nd, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

Read the full post »