Leo Szilard, war criminal?

Posted February 14th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

Could Leo Szilard have been tried as a war criminal? Now, before anyone starts to wonder if this is a misleading or inflammatory headline, let me say up front: this was a question that Szilard himself posed in a 1949 story published in the University of Chicago Law Review titled, “My Trial as a War Criminal.” It is a work of fiction, but Szilard was serious about the questions it raised about the morality of the atomic bomb.

Szilard testifying before Congress in the postwar. From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Szilard testifying before Congress in the postwar. From the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Leo Szilard is one of the most colorful characters in the story of how the atomic bomb got made. An eccentric Hungarian, one of the “Martians” who emigrated to the United States during World War II, Szilard aspired to always being one step of head of the times. You didn’t have to be much ahead to make a difference, he argued, just a little bit. One example of this he gave in a later interview regards his decision to flee Germany shortly after the Reichstag fire. On the day he left, it was an easy trip on an empty train. The next day, the Germans cracked down on those trying to flee. “This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier than most people. This is all that it takes.” In 1939, Szilard was the one who famously got Albert Einstein to write to President Roosevelt, launching the first US government coordination and funding of fission research. During the Manhattan Project itself, Szilard worked at the University of Chicago, helping to develop the first nuclear reactor (CP-1) with Enrico Fermi. After this, though, his active role in the bomb project declined, because General Groves hated the man and worked to exclude him. He attempted in various ways to influence high-level policy regarding the bomb, but was always shut out.

But after the war, Szilard found his place — as a gadfly. He wasn’t a great bomb developer. He was, however, a great spokesman for the dangers of the atomic bomb. Irrepressible, clever, and impossible-to-look-away-from, Szilard could steal the stage, even if no American could pronounce his name. It is in this context that his article, “My Trial as a War Criminal,” was written. The notes on the University of Chicago Law Review version note that it was written in June 1948, but because of “political tensions” Szilard put it off. With the “relaxation” of tensions, Szilard deemed it possible to publish in the Autumn 1949 issue. One wonders exactly what Szilard had in mind; in any case, given that the US first detected the Soviet atomic bomb in September 1949, and from there launched into the acrimonious debate over the hydrogen bomb, it seems like Szilard’s sense of timing in this instance was either perfect or terrible.

Szilard - My Trial as a War Criminal

My Trial as a War Criminal” starts right after World War III has been fought. The Soviet Union has won, after using a new form of biological warfare against the United States.

I was just about to lock the door of my hotel room and go to bed when there was a knock on the door and there stood a Russian officer and a young Russian civilian. I had expected something of this sort ever since the President signed the terms of unconditional surrender and the Russians landed a token occupation force in New York. The officer handed me something that looked like a warrant and said that I was under arrest as a war criminal on the basis of my activities during the Second World War in connection with the atomic bomb. There was a car waiting outside and they told me that they were going to take me to the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. Apparently, they were rounding up all the scientists who had ever worked in the field of atomic energy. 

In the story, Szilard was given a choice: he could stand trial for being a war criminal, or he could go to Russia and work with them over there. Szilard opted for the former, claiming he had no capability to learn Russian at that point in his life, and that he had no interest in making himself a servant of Soviet science. He is then interrogated at length about his political views and his work on atomic energy. The Soviets have read his articles in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (“Calling for a Crusade” and “Letter to Stalin“) but think they are naive. Szilard reports no real acrimony, however.

His trial for war crimes begins a month later in Lake Success, New York. He was, “apparently as a special favor,” one of the first to be tried. Two major charges were levied against him. The first was that he had tried to push the United States towards developing nuclear weapons in 1939 (the Einstein-Szilard letter). In the eyes of the prosecutor, this was when World War II was still “an imperialist war, since Germany had not attacked Russia until 1941.” The second charge was that he contributed “to the war crime of dropping an atomic bomb on Hiroshima.”

Szilard has several defensive arguments in his favor. First, he points out that he in fact presented a memorandum to (future) Secretary of State James Byrnes in May 1945 which argued that the atomic bomb should not be first used against Japan cities. This memo had been published in the Bulletin as well in December 1947. Second, he also noted that he circulated a petition in July 1945 that called for not using the bomb as a military weapon before giving the Japanese a chance to surrender first, and that he attempted to put it in front of President Truman himself.

Leo Szilard at the University of Chicago in 1954. Source.

Leo Szilard at the University of Chicago in 1954. Source.

Both of these defenses, however, were easily countered. In the case of the memo to Byrnes, an original copy could not be found, and the Bulletin copy had many deletions for security reasons, any one of which could have contradicted the published material. In the case of the petition to Truman, it was noted that it never made it to Truman, because Szilard submitted it by way of General Groves, who of course squashed it. The Russian prosecutor said that Szilard should have known that the architect of the Manhattan Project would never have transmitted such a thing up the chain of command. So neither were considered adequate at exculpating Szilard.

Szilard is then released on bail. The rest of the story concerns the trials of Secretary of War Stimson, Secretary of State Byrnes, and President Truman. This part revolves around a legal discussion of what it means to be a “war crime.” In the story, the tribunal adopts the definition used at Nuremberg that a war crime was any “violations of the customs of war” and “planning a war in violation of international agreements.” The use of the atomic bombs was necessarily a violation of the customs of war, because it was not customary to drop atomic bombs on other nations during World War II. And the Russian prosecutor was able to gather ample evidence that various US officials had urged war with the Soviet Union under conditions not allowed by the United Nations charter, which only allows war in the face of armed attack. So when Byrnes wrote in a book that the United States should consider “measures of last resort” if the Soviets refuse to leave East Germany, this was taken as evidence of the latter charge. (Refusing the leave occupied territory is not an “armed attack,” and “measures of last resort” can only be understood as implying war.)

Stimson’s section gets the closest to the meat of the question — whether the atomic bombs were justified. Stimson’s defense is the same as his 1947 article from Harper’s — that the bombs were used to hasten the war and to save a net number of lives. The Russians point out, however, that even the US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that the atomic bombs were not necessary to end the war, and that Stimson had access to sufficient intelligence about Japanese communications to know that Japan was on its last legs.

Szilard receives notice — in his bathrobe — that he has won the "Atoms for Peace" award in 1960. Source.

Szilard receives notice that he has won the “Atoms for Peace” award in 1960. At the time, he was in a hospital, being treated (successful) for bladder cancer. Source.

In the end, Szilard notes that practically all of them were expected to be found guilty. But a deus ex machina saves the day — the Soviets’ viral biological agents somehow get out to their own populations, their vaccines fail, and the United States is desperately appealed to for assistance. Under new settlement terms, all war crime prosecutions were ended, and “all of us who had been on trial for our lives were greatly relieved.”

Such ends Szilard’s story. It’s a curious one, and doesn’t go where you might think based on the title alone. Szilard seems to be making a strong point about the way in which war crime tribunals always favor the winners, and that if you apply the Nuremberg standards to the United States’ conduct during World War II and the early postwar, it is clear that no one, even a dissident like Szilard, would be safe. It isn’t a hand-wringing, self-flagellating confession. There is none of the “physicists have known sin” moralizing of J. Robert Oppenheimer. It isn’t even a discussion of what happened regarding the atomic bombing, whether it was justified or not, whether it was terrible or not. It is a gentle story, albeit one that subtly introduces a revisionist argument about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one that continues to be debated to this day.

One can also read the piece as being instead a complaint about the definition of “war crimes” from Nuremberg — are they nothing more than using new weapons and talking about war? The actual Nuremberg principles, also include “wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.” Now whether the atomic bombings fall under that is a tricky question — how does one define “justified by military necessity”? On this sort of unclear requirement, the whole edifice hinges.

Szilard glasses 1960 LIFE

This whole story came to my attention because Bill Lanouette, author of the Szilard biography Genius in the Shadowse-mailed me after seeing my post on Andrei Sakharov. He noted that according to Rhodes’ Dark Sun, Sakharov was very affected by Szilard’s story. Sakharov showed it to his colleague Victor Adamsky, who reported that:

A number of us discussed it. It was about a war between the USSR and the USA, a very devastating one, which brought victory to the USSR. Szilard and a number of other physicists are put under arrest and then face the court as war criminals for having created weapons of mass destruction. Neither they nor their lawyers could make up a cogent proof of their innocence. We were amazed by this paradox. You can’t get away from the fact that we were developing weapons of mass destruction. We thought it was necessary. Such was our inner conviction. But still the moral aspect of it would not let Andrei Dmitrievich and some of us live in peace.

What’s interesting to me is that the Soviet weapon designers seem to have read Szilard’s story in a much more moralistic light than I did. For me, Szilard’s story is more about the difficulty of having anything like a consistent stand on what “war crimes” might be — that the actions of the United States could easily be seen from another nation’s perspective as highly damning, even if from a more sympathetic position they might be justifiable. Sakharov and Adamsky apparently understood the story to be about the indefensibility of working on weapons of mass destruction full-stop. It is a curious divergence. Assuming my reading is not naive, I might suggest that the Soviet scientists saw not so much what they wanted to see, but what confirmed their existing, latent fears — something in Szilard’s story resonated with something that they already had inside of them, waiting to be released.


Silent Nagasaki

Posted February 7th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

Teaching and other work has bogged me down, as it sometimes does, but I’m working on a pretty fun post for next week. In the meantime, here is something I put together yesterday. This is unedited (in the sense that I didn’t edit it), “raw” footage of the loading of the Fat Man bomb into the Bockscar plane on the island of Tinian, August 9th, 1945. It also features footage of the bombing of Nagasaki itself. I got this from Los Alamos historian Alan Carr a while back. I’ve added YouTube annotations to it as well, calling out various things that are not always known.

You have probably seen snippets of this in documentaries and history shows before. But I find the original footage much more haunting. It was filmed without sound, so any sound you hear added to this kind of footage is an artifact of later editing. The silent footage, however, makes it feel more “real,” more “authentic.” It removes the Hollywood aspect of it. In that way, I find this sort of thing causes people to take the events in the footage more seriously as an historical event, rather than one episode in “World War II, the Movie.”

I posted it on Reddit as well, and while there was some share of nonsense in the ~700 comments that it accrued, there was also a lot of expression of empathy and revelation, and a lot of good questions being asked (e.g. Did the people loading Fat Man into the plane know what they were loading? Probably more than the people who loaded Little Boy did, because they knew what had happened at Hiroshima). So I think some learning has happened, and I think the fact that this has gotten +100,000 views in just a day is some sign that there is quite an audience out there for this sort of stripped-down history.

There is also Hiroshima footage, but it isn’t quite as good, on the whole. It is largely concerned with the crew of the plane taking off and arriving. Which is interesting, in a sense, but visually doesn’t mean much unless you know who everybody is.

There is a lot of Trinity test footage as well which I will upload and annotate in the future as well.

Until next week!


Sakharov’s turning point: The first Soviet H-bomb test

Posted January 31st, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

The Soviets set off their first megaton-range hydrogen bomb in November 1955. It was the culmination of many years of effort, in trying to figure out how to use the power of nuclear fission to release the power of nuclear fusion in ways that could be scaled up arbitrarily. The Soviet bomb was designed to be a 3-megaton warhead, but they set it off at half strength to avoid too much difficulty and fallout contamination. Unlike the US, the Soviets tested their version version by dropping it out of a bomber — it was not a big, bulky, prototype like the Ivy Mike device. But it was not an uneventful test. The details are little talked about, but it serves as an impressive parable about what can go wrong when you are dealing with science on a big scale.

Andrei Sakharov, from nuclear weapons designer to aged dissident.

Andrei Sakharov, from young nuclear weapons designer to aged dissident. Source.

Andrei Sakharov has a stunning chapter on it in his memoirs. It makes for an impressive story in its own right, but Sakharov also identifies the experience as a transformative one in his own thinking about the responsibility of the scientist, as he made his way from nuclear weapons designer to political dissident.

Sakaharov starts out by talking about going to Kazakhstan to see the test. He had by this time been assigned two armed KGB officers, known euphemistically as “secretaries,” whose jobs were to act as bodyguards and “to prevent undesirable contacts.” Sakharov claims not to be have been too bothered by them. They lived next door.

The test of the device, code-named RDS-37, was to be the 24th Soviet nuclear test, and was the largest ever tested at the Semipalatinsk test site. This created several logistical difficulties. In order to avoid local nuclear fallout, it was going to be an airburst. The size of the bomb, however, brought up the possibility that it might accidentally blow the bomber that delivered it out of the sky. To avoid this, the bomber was painted white (to reflect the thermal radiation), and a big parachute was applied to the bomb so that the bomber could get away fast enough. Sakharov was satisfied enough with the math on this that he asked if he could ride along on the bomber, but the request was denied.

Sakharov’s account lingers on the incongruity between testing nuclear weapons in beautiful, wild places. Siberia was “a new and spellbinding experience for me, a majestic, amazingly beautiful sight.” He continued: “The dark, turbulent waters of the Irtysh, dotted with a thousand whirlpools, bore the milky-blue ice floes northward, twisting them around and crashing them together. I could have watched for hours on end until my eyes ached and my head spun. Nature was displaying its might: compared to it, all man’s handiwork seems paltry imitation.

The RDS-37 test device. Source.

The RDS-37 test device. Source.

A test trial-run on November 18th went smoothly, but the first test attempt, on November 20th, did not. As David Holloway recounts in Stalin and the Bomb, that same Siberian wintery majesty that dazzled Sakharov made for difficult testing conditions. The fully-loaded Tu-16 bomber had to abort when the test site was unexpectedly covered by clouds, making them unable to see the target aiming point and rendering the optical diagnostic systems inoperable. The plane was ordered to land, only now it had a fully-armed experiment H-bomb on board. There was concern that if it crashed, it could result in a nuclear yield… destroying the airfield and a nearby town. The airfield had meanwhile iced over. Igor Kurchatov, the lead Soviet nuclear weapons scientist, drove out to the airfield himself personally to see the airfield. Sakharov assured him that even if it crashed, the odds of a nuclear yield were low. An army unit at the airfield quickly worked to clear the runway, and so Kurchatov ordered the plane to land. It did so successfully. Kurchatov met the crew on the field, no doubt relieved. Sakharov recalls him saying, “One more test like [this one] and I’m retiring.” As for Sakharov, he called it “a very long day.”

Two days later, they gave it another go. This time the weather cooperated, as much as Siberian weather cooperates. The only strange thing was a temperature inversion, which is to say, at higher altitudes it was warmer than at lower altitudes, the opposite of the usual. The meteorologists gave the go-ahead for the testing.

Sakharov stayed at a laboratory building on the outskirts of a small town near the test site. An hour before the test, Sakharov saw the bomber rising above the town. It was “dazzling white,” and “with its sweptback wings and slender fuselage extending far forward, it looked like a sinister predator poised to strike.” He recalled that “for many peoples, the color white symbolizes death.” An hour later, a loud-speaker began the countdown.

The white bomber. Source.

The white bomber. Source.

Sakharov described the test in vivid detail:

This time, having studied the Americans’ Black Book, I did not put on dark goggles: if you remove them after the explosion, your eyes take time to adjust to the glare; if you keep them on, you can’t see much through the dark lenses. Instead, I stood with my back to ground zero and turned around quickly when the building and horizon were illuminated by the flash. I saw a blinding, yellow-white sphere swiftly expand, turn orange in a fraction of a second, then turn bright red and touch the horizon, flattening out at its base. Soon everything was obscured by rising dust which formed an enormous, swirling grey-blue cloud, its surface streaked with fiery crimson flashes. Between the cloud and the swirling durst grew a mushroom stem, even thicker than the one that had formed during the first [1953] thermonuclear test. Shock waves crisscrossed the sky, emitting sporadic milky-white cones and adding to the mushroom image. I felt heat like that from an open furnace on my face — and this was in freezing weather, tens of miles from ground zero. The whole magical spectacle unfolded in complete silence. Several minutes passed, and then all of the sudden the shock wave was coming at us, approaching swiftly, flattening the feather-grass.

“Jump!” I shouted as I leaped from the platform. Everyone followed my example except for my bodyguard (the younger one was on duty that day); he evidently felt he would be abandoning his post if he jumped. The shock wave blasted our ears and battered our bodies, but all of us remained on our feet except for the bodyguard on the platform, who fell and suffered minor bruises. The wave continued on its way, and we heard the crash of broken glass. Zeldovich raced over to me, shouting: “It worked! It worked! Everything worked!” Then he threw his arms around me. [...]

The test crowned years of effort. It opened the way for a whole range of devices with remarkable capabilities, although we still sometimes encountered unexpected difficulties in producing them.

But they soon learned that a bruised bodyguard was the least of the injuries sustained in the test. Scientists and soldiers had been stationed far closer to the blast than Sakharov was. The scientists were fine — they were lying flat on the ground and the blast wave caused them no injury. One of them lost his cool and ran away from the blast, but he was only knocked down by it. But a nearby trench held a platoon of soldiers, and the trench collapsed. One young soldier, in his first year of service, was killed.

RDS-37 detonation

RDS-37, detonating. This is considerably sped up; it shows about 50 seconds of footage compressed into only a few seconds. Video source here.

There was also a nearby settlement of civilians affected by the blast wave. In theory it was at a distance remote enough to avoid anything serious; this had been calculated. But the aforementioned inversion layer reflected the shock wave back down to Earth with unusual vehemence — underscoring how even a little misunderstanding of the physics can translate into real problems when you are talking about millions of tons of TNT (something learned by the US a year earlier, at the Castle Bravo test). The inhabitants of the town were in a primitive bomb shelter. After the flash, they exited to see the cloud. Inside the shelter, however, was left a two-year-old girl, playing with blocks. The shock wave, arriving well after the flash, collapsed the shelter, killing the child. 

The ceiling of a woman’s ward of a hospital in another nearby village collapsed, seriously injuring many people. Glass windows broke at a meat-packing plant a hundred miles from the test site, sprinkling ground beef with splinters. Windows broke throughout the town where Sakharov was stationed.

RDS-37, seen from a local town. Also sped up. Same source as the previous.

The consequences of an explosion are hard to predict,” Sakharov concluded.

Had we been more experienced, the temperature inversion would have caused us to delay the test. The velocity of the shock wave increases as the temperature does: if the air temperature rises with altitude, the shock wave bends back towards the ground and does not dissipate as fast under normal conditions. This was the reason the shock wave’s force exceeded our predictions. Casualties might have been avoided if the test had been conducted as scheduled on November 20, when there was no temperature inversion.

As with Castle Bravo, there was a grim, almost literary connection between technical success and human disaster. They had shown the way forward for deployable, multi-megaton hydrogen bombs, but with a real cost — and that cost only an insignificant hint of what would happen if the weapons were used in war. Sakharov concluded:

We were stirred up, but not just with the exhilaration that comes with a job well done. For my part, I experienced a range of contradictory sentiments, perhaps chief among them a fear that this newly released force could slip out of control and lead to unimaginable disasters. The accident reports, and especially the deaths of the little girl and the soldier, heightened my sense of foreboding. I did not hold myself personally responsible for their deaths, but I could not escape a feeling of complicity.

That night, the scientists, the politicians, and the military men dined well. Brandy was poured. Sakharov was asked to give the first toast. “May all of our devices explode as successfully as today’s, but always over test sites and never over cities.”

Sculpture of Andrei Sakharov by Peter Shapiro, outside the Russia House Club & Restaurant on Connecticut Ave in Washington, DC. Image source.

Sculpture of Andrei Sakharov by Peter Shapiro, outside the Russia House Club & Restaurant on Connecticut Ave in Washington, DC. Image source.

The immediate response was silence. Such things were not to be said. One of the military higher-ups flashed a crooked grin, and stood to give his own toast. “Let me tell a parable. An old man wearing only a shirt was praying before an icon. ‘Guide me, harden me. Guide me, harden me.’ His wife, who was lying on the stove, said: ‘Just pray to be hard, old man, I can guide it myself.’ Let’s drink to getting hard.

Sakharov blanched at the crudity (“half lewd, half blasphemous”), and its serious implications. “The point of his story,” he later wrote, “was clear enough. We, the inventors, scientists, engineers, and craftsmen, had created a terrible weapon, the most terrible weapon in human history; but its use would lie entirely outside our control. The people at the top of the Party and military hierarchy would make the decisions. Of course, I knew this already — I wasn’t that naive. But understanding something in an abstract way is different from feeling it with your whole being, like the reality of life and death. The ideas and emotions kindled at that moment have not diminished to this day, and they completely altered my thinking.


Conant’s war: Inside the Mouse-Trap

Posted January 17th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

I’ve started teaching my “Science and the Cold War” course again, this time in the History Department at Georgetown University. The course starts with World War I and goes all the way through the early 1990s — quite a whirlwind tour of how science, technology, and the state got to be so seriously intermingled. On Tuesday I gave a lecture that forced me to go over some material I hadn’t thought about for awhile: what James B. Conant did during the war. No, not the war you’re probably thinking about.

James B. Conant (fourth from left) at a meeting with Uranium Committee principles, March 1940. Left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur C. Compton, Vannevar Bush, Conant, Karl Compton, Alfred L. Loomis.

James B. Conant (fourth from left) at a meeting with Uranium Committee principles, March 1940. Left to right: Ernest O. Lawrence, Arthur C. Compton, Vannevar Bush, Conant, Karl Compton, Alfred L. Loomis.

James B. Conant’s wartime work is usually thought of as being part of the Second World War, but what I’m interested here is what he did during the First. During World War II, Conant was part of the scientist-administrator cabal that launched the National Defense Research Committee, the Office of Scientific Research and Development, and the Manhattan Project. He was Vannevar Bush’s right hand man, an interested, similarly-thinking scientist who tried to take the long view of things. And as President of Harvard since 1933, he commanded a lot of academic clout. He was at the Trinity test. He and Bush bent Roosevelt’s ear about making the bomb, and later trying to control it.

But Conant’s work during World War I is in some ways even more interesting, especially in that it gives an eerie prelude of things to come. I only learned about it while preparing for this class the first time around, reading James G. Hershberg’s authoritative biography, James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age (Knopf, 1993). Everything I know about Conant comes from Hershberg; if you’re interested in more, check out the book.

Conant longed to be a Harvard man. He got his B.A. there in 1914, and his Ph.D. in 1917, both in chemistry. He longed to stay. (He ended up marrying the daughter of one of the more senior professors there, potentially for careerist reasons, Hershberg hints.) But unlike many in the Yard, when war broke out in Europe, he tried to stay neutral — he brooked no anti-German sentiment, even though reports of German “atrocities” in Belgium, even after the use of chemical gas at Ypres in 1915, even after the Lusitania. Harvard itself became very politicized, mostly against the Germans.

Revenge of the Nerds: James Conant, 1921. That's right — four years after World War I ended, he still looked like an alter boy. Source: Harvard University Archives.

Revenge of the Nerds: James Conant, 1921. Don’t let the “innocent geek” look fool you — the guy could cook up some nasty brews. Source: Harvard University Archives.

What Conant did realize, though, was that there might be money to be made. With the war came shortages of organic chemicals. With shortages came the possibility of profiteering for a chemist like Conant. So Conant and two of his college friends tried to create their own little “start-up” to manufacture several key, in-demand chemicals. They bought a “shack” in Queens, and set it up to produce benzoic acid (a food preservative). It promptly burned down. Undeterred, they rented at a new location in Newark — an abandoned slaughterhouse.

Conant then received a sudden offer to teach back at Harvard. Conant promptly raced back to Cambridge — this was what he really wanted more than anything else. His company in Newark (“Aromatic Chemical”) got set up without him. And on the first production day, in November 1916… the building exploded. Which killed one Conant’s college buddies and two of the staff they had hired. (The other college buddy was merely “blown off of a ladder” and had his face and eyes scorched by corrosive chemicals, leading to only temporary blindness.)


Poor Stan Pennock — “WAS REALLY GREAT PLAYER,” but was not so great chemist. Boston Daily Globe, November 29, 1916.

The 23-year-old Conant felt terrible. He blamed himself for not helping set up the plant better. Conant the social-climber managed to have his name kept out of newspaper accounts, but his dabbling in war profiteering was over. At the same time, his dabbling in war was now beginning.

By 1917, Conant’s initial skepticism of the war had faded. Unrestricted submarine warfare, the Zimmerman telegram revelation, and no doubt the fact that US entry seemed unavoidable seems to have swayed his feelings. In late March 1917 he looked for a foot-hold into the war, even though he thought of himself as a pacifist. (His one major regret at the time was that it was threatening to derail his perfect Harvard career, right when he got his foot in the door.) He ended up doing something he knew well — making chemicals. Nasty chemicals.

Fritz Haber at Ypres, 1915. (Haber is the one pointing.)

Fritz Haber at Ypres, 1915. Haber is the one pointing; chlorine gas vials sit before him.

Chlorine gas had been used first by the Germans at Ypres in 1915. Fritz Haber, one of the great chemists of the 20th-century, personally oversaw the first use. It killed a lot of Frenchmen, but didn’t get the Germans any ground, since the German troops were not exactly eager to march into trenches where gas still lingered. Still, the propaganda effect was huge — and the outcry even huger. The French and the British went from protesting the German use to developing gas masks and their own offensive chemicals. The number of agents rapidly grew, from chlorine to phosgene, from that to mustard gas. The gas didn’t end up giving anyone a major tactical advantage, though — it just became another way to make war hell.

The US was late to the chemical game, just as it was late to the war. Even though gas warfare had become a major component of the war after 1915, the US government made only feeble efforts to reach out to chemists on the issue. By the time they entered the war in 1917, they still had no gas masks, no offensive gases of their own, and no training of troops in gas procedures. They sent out an emergency plea to chemists, and to the American Chemical Society, to get them up to speed.

Mustard gas, the most noxious of the German gases, is what pushed Conant towards chemical warfare more than anything else. He talked to a colleague at MIT who set him up at American University, in Washington, DC, as a group leader for the sprawling American chemical weapons effort. At American University, there were some 60 campus buildings dedicated to chemical weapons issues, employing some 1,700 chemists, testing some 1,600 compounds on animals. In September 1917, Conant became the head of Organic Research Unit #1. His job was to make the US capable of mustard gas production — within a year it was producing 30 tons a day. Conant was hardly alone in this — it seems that practically the entire Harvard chemistry department got involved in this effort. Conant himself received a lieutenant’s commission for the job, though he later remarked that: “We were not soldiers. We were chemists dressed as officers.”

British football/soccer team in gas masks, 1916.

British football/soccer team in gas masks, 1916.

Conant drove his team hard, and was noticed for it. He moved from mustard gas to a new assignment — a nasty chemical called Lewisite, an arsenic-based compound that was advertised by Harper’s Monthly as some 72X more deadly than any other gas developed during the war (modern classifications seem to put it at only 3X more deadly than mustard gas), but unlike mustard gas it was very acute in its effects and dissipated quickly, allowing it to be considered for offensive maneuvers.

An article in Harper’s Monthly from 1919 has one of the more florid descriptions of Lewisite that I’ve come across:

Lewisite is described as “an oily liquid of an amber color and the odor of geranium blossoms.” It is highly explosive, and on contact with water it bursts into flame. Let loose in the open air, it diffuses into a gas which kills instantly on the inhalation of the smallest amount that can by any means be measured. A single drop of the liquid on the hand causes death in a few hours, the victim dying in fearful agony. The pain on contact is acute and almost unendurable. It acts by penetrating through the skin or, in the gaseous form, through the lung tissue, poisoning the blood, affecting in turn the kidneys, the lung tissue, and the heart.

Lewisite identification poster from World War II.

Lewisite identification poster from World War II. Are geraniums one of those common smells that everyone knows?

The plant to make Lewisite was located in Willoughby, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland. It was apparently referred to the people who worked there as “the mouse-trap.” Harper’s explained the name:

Men who went in never came out until the war was over; each of the eight hundred workers signed an agreement of voluntary imprisonment before going to work. They could write letters, but could give no address but that of a locked box in the Cleveland post-office… The hours were long, the work hard, the risk tremendous. But in spite of the frightfully poisonous nature of the stuff they were making, not a man was poisoned; the only death in the plant was from influenza. To protect the men while at work there was devised a mask and overall suit that rendered them absolutely immune. Masks that gave full protection against the most powerful German gases were useless against Lewisite.

Conant at Mouse-Trap, 1918. Source: Daily Boston Globe, May 27, 1933.

Conant at Mouse-Trap, 1918. Source: Daily Boston Globe, May 27, 1933.

Conant’s group at American University helped devise the process by which Lewisite would be manufactured. He was promoted to major and sent to Cleveland to supervise the production of the gas, officially code-named G-34, at the “Mouse-Trap” facility. The facility practiced strict compartmentalization. Conant was one of the few who knew the whole story of what they were making, and he was the top technical man at the plant. He worked around the clock and gained a reputation for easy leadership — a must for people working under those conditions. He wanted to make Lewisite because he hoped it would be “the great American gas which would win the war.

The facility was a commandeered automobile factory, and was under strict guard. Conant’s only address was Lock Drawer 426, Cleveland. I don’t know if it was really a “voluntary imprisonment” situation — that sounds possibly exaggerated, though perhaps not — but it was high security. By the end of the war the plant was producing 10 tons of Lewisite a day, ready to be shipped to Europe to be packed into artillery shells. Harper’s claimed that “half a dozen 300-pound bombs of Lewisite, exploded windward of the city of Berlin, would have killed the entire population of the German capital.” Furthermore, they reported that the preferred method for this kind of delivery was via an “automatic airplane” — a drone.

But Lewisite was never used in battle. The war ended too soon. The US stockpile of Lewisite, save for a few small samples kept for future research, was loaded onto a boat in barrels at Baltimore, taken 50 miles offshore, and sunk into the deep.

Time Magazine - James Conant

It’s hard to not see so many interesting parallels here with the atomic bomb. The eventual call of the scientists to war. The race towards a new weapon that will “win the war” — no matter how destructive. The transformation of university campuses into laboratories for weapons of mass destruction. The creation of new, top-secret facilities where compartmentalization, isolation, and secrecy rule the day. And the fact that it’s Conant resonates too. Conant was one of the earliest scientists in the uranium work to call for compartmentalization, one of the first to call for creating an isolated laboratory (Los Alamos). It’s hard not to see Conant’s lessons of World War I affecting his approach to the bomb situation in World War II. It wasn’t his first rodeo.

In 1927, Conant took his first trip to Germany. He held no ill-will towards the Germans for the First World War. While there, he met none other than Fritz Haber, who was then 60 years old. No one knows exactly what the talked about, but apparently it included both politics and, well, oxidation. Conant’s only note on Haber was that “he paid me the greatest compliment an older man can pay a younger; he listened when I spoke.”

Haber’s story ended up much more sadly than Conant’s. Haber died while being exiled from his country, a hero turned into a martyr by a government that could not tolerate the fact that he had been born a Jew. Conant went on to be President of Harvard for 20 years, to help reform the American academy, to help make the atomic bomb, and, much later, to be the US Ambassador to West Germany. It’s fascinating that these two chemical weapons pioneers — one of whom became a nuclear weapon pioneer — managed to intersect, if only briefly.

James Conant, President of Harvard, 1933. Source: Harvard University Archives.

James Conant, President of Harvard, 1933. Source: Harvard University Archives.

Conant apparently had no moral scruples with working on toxic gas. Which perhaps isn’t that surprising. The Germans used it first, after all, and it had quickly become “the norm” in the First World War. His most toxic work, in any case, was never used against anybody. The fact that his “government work” came after a shameful failure probably made it feel redeeming, as well. More generally, he wrote in the late-1960s that:

I did not see in 1917, and I do not see in 1968, why tearing a man’s guts out by a high-explosive shell is to be preferred to maiming him by attacking his lungs or his skin. All war is immoral. Logically, the 100 percent pacifist has the only impregnable position. Once that is abandoned, as it is when a nation becomes a belligerent, one can talk sensibly only in terms of the violation of agreements about the way war is conducted, or the consequences of a certain tactic or weapon.

It’s a legitimate stance, and one taken by a lot of scientists who have worked on WMDs. But it seems like kind of a cop-out to me. There are better and worse ways to wage war. Both ethically, from the point of view of who gets killed and how they get killed, but also from the standpoint of achieving practical ends that you can live with in the peacetime. If one declares that the only options are pacifism or “anything goes,” one slides down a pretty nasty slope awfully quickly. One gets what Conant is trying to indicate — that war itself is the problem, not the means — but saying that the means are just details of immorality seems to be just a bit too dismissive for me. Nations that decide that the methods of war are just practical details become the stuff of nightmares.


Nuclear history bibliography, 2013

Posted January 6th, 2014 by Alex Wellerstein

It’s that time again. With the New Year comes new lists, and like I did last year, I’ve tried to put together a bibliography of nuclear history scholarship that was published over the course of the year. All of the same caveats about completeness and inclusion apply — it has to be something primarily about the past, it has to be more or less a work of “history” relating to nuclear technology (I’ve left out a lot of quantitative political science because while it can be quite interesting, I’m not sure it is history), and it had to have been published in 2013. I haven’t tried to track down chapters in books (sorry) or most web-only content (which means I’ve omitted the great stuff on Able Archer 83 that the National Security Archive published, but such is life).

"Any books on atomic power?" From the New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1945.

“Any books on atomic power?” New York Times Book Review, November 18, 1945.

Looking at the list, I don’t see any obvious trends from the titles alone. Last year was the anniversary of the Cuban Missile Crisis, so that was the one obvious trend there. This year, I don’t see anything that stands out (other than sampling issues like the fact that the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists ran an issue on nuclear culture).

I‘m sure there is much missing — so please leave me a note below in the comments section, or send me an e-mail, if you know of something that might belong here, and if I think it meets my (somewhat loose) criteria I’ll add it to the list.

As an aside, it would be great if other scholars out there would produce similar lists for their own sub-fields! It takes a lot less time than one might imagine (hooray for academic search engines), and is a great way to get a quick survey of all of those things that you didn’t know you had missed.


Brown, Kate. Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Creager, Angela. Life Atomic: A History of Radioisotopes in Science and Medicine. University of Chicago Press, 2013.

Farmelo, Graham. Churchill’s Bomb: How the United States Overtook Britain in the First Nuclear Arms Race. Basic Books, 2013.

Foertsch, Jacqueline. Reckoning Day: Race, Place, and the Atom Bomb in Postwar America. Vanderbilt University Press, 2013.

Frederickson, Kari. Cold War Dixie: Militarization and Modernization in the American South. University of Georgia Press, 2013.

Freedman, Lawrence. Strategy: A History. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hill, C.N. An Atomic Empire: A Technical History of the Rise and Fall of the British Atomic Energy Programme. Imperial College Press, 2013.

Kiernan, Denise. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II. Simon & Schuster, 2013.

Krupar, Shiloh R. Hot Spotter’s Report: Military Fables of Toxic Waste. University of Minn. Press, 2013.

Lanouette, William with Bela Silard. Genius in the shadows: A biography of Leo Szilard, the man behind the bomb. [Revised edn.] Skyhorse Publishing, 2013.

Lavine, Matthew. The First Atomic Age: Scientists, Radiations, and the American Public, 1895-1945. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.

Melosi, Martin V. Atomic Age America. Pearson, 2013.

Monk, Ray. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center. Doubleday, 2013.

Phalkey, Jahnavi. Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth-Century India. Permanent Black, 2013.

Ramana, M.V. The Power of Promise: Examining Nuclear Energy in India. Viking, 2013.

Schewe, Phillip F. Maverick Genius: The Pioneering Odyssey of Freeman Dyson. St. Martin’s Press, 2013.

Schlosser, Eric. Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety. Penguin, 2013.

Sokolski, Henry D. , and Bruno Tertrais. Nuclear Weapons Security Crises: What Does History Teach? Strategic Studies Institute, 2013.

Seed, David. Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives. Kent State University Press, 2013.

Wilson, Ward. Five Myths about Nuclear Weapons. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013.

Wolfe, Audra J. Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War AmericaJohns Hopkins University Press, 2013.


Alvarez, Robert. “Uranium Mining and the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program.” Public Interest Report 66, no. 4 (Fall 2013).

Broughner, Kerry. “Art and nuclear culture.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 6 (November/December 2013).

Dennis, Michael A. “Tacit Knowledge as a Factor in the Proliferation of WMD: The Example of Nuclear Weapons.” Studies in Intelligence 57, No. 3 (Extracts, September 2013).

Dvorak, Darrell. “The First Atomic Bomb Mission: Trinity B-29 Operations Three Weeks Before Hiroshima.”Air Power History 60, no. 4 (Winter 2013).

Gallagher, Carole. “Nuclear photography: Making the invisible visible.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 6 (November/December 2013).

Gainor, Christopher. “The Atlas and the Air Force: Reassessing the Beginnings of America’s First Intercontinental Ballistic Missile.” Technology and Culture 54, no. 2 (April 2013).

Gerson, Michael S. “The Origins of Strategic Stability: The United States and Surprise Attack.” In Strategic Stability: Contending Interpretations, edited by Elbridge Colby and Gerson. Strategic Studies Institute, 2013.

Gheorghe, Eliza. “Atomic Maverick: Romania’s negotiations for nuclear technology, 1964–1970.” Cold War History 13, no. 3 (2013).

Harrison, Henrietta. “Popular Responses to the Atomic Bomb in China 1945–1955.” Past and Present 218, no. 1 (2013).

Harrell, Eben and David E. Hoffmann. “Plutonium Mountain: Inside the 17-Year Mission to Secure a Legacy of Soviet Nuclear Testing.” Report, Project on Managing the Atom, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School (August 2013).

Harris, Ian M. and Charles F. Howlett. “‘Duck and cover’: The evolution of peace education at the beginning of the nuclear age.” Journal of Peace Education 10, no. 2 (2013).

Hargittai, Istvan. “Los Alamos and ‘Los Arzamas.’” Structural Chemistry 24, no. 5 (October 2013).

Hecker, Siegfried S. “The story of Plutonium Mountain.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 5 (September/October 2013).

Hughes, R. Gerald, and Thomas Robb. “Kissinger and the Diplomacy of Coercive Linkage in the ‘Special Relationship’ between the United States and Great Britain, 1969–1977.” Diplomatic History 37, no. 4 (2013).

Hultman, Nathan, and Jonathan Koomey. “Three Mile Island: The driver of US nuclear power’s decline?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 3 (May/June 2013).

Hymans, Jacques E. C. “The Threat of Nuclear Proliferation: Perception and Reality.” Ethics & International Affairs 27, no. 3 (2013).

Jameson, Robert P. “Armageddon’s Shortening Fuse: How Advances in Nuclear Weapons Technology Pushed Strategists to Mutually Assured Destruction, 1945-1962.” Air Power History 60, no. 1 (Spring 2013).

Jones, Loh, Sato, “Narrating Fukushima: Scales of a Nuclear Meltdown” East Asian Science, Technology, and Society (2013) 7: 601-623.

Jones, Nate. “Countdown to declassification: Finding answers to a 1983 nuclear war scare.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 6 (November/December 2013).

Khlopkov, Anton. “How the United States Helped Iran Build a Laser Enrichment Laboratory.” Nonproliferation Review 20, no. 1 (March 2013).

Komine, Yukinori. “Okinawa Confidential, 1969: Exploring the Linkage between the Nuclear Issue and the Base Issue.” Diplomatic History 37, no. 4 (September 2013).

Lifton, Robert J. “The dimensions of contemporary war and violence: How to reclaim humanity from a continuing revolution in the technology of killing.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 4 (July/August 2013).

Masco, Joseph P. “Terror as normality.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 6 (November/December 2013).

McKellar, Shelley. “Negotiating Risk: The Failed Development of Atomic Hearts in America, 1967-1977.” Technology and Culture 54, no. 1 (January 2013).

Norris, Robert S. “The History of the U.S. Nuclear Stockpile 1945-2013.” Public Interest Report 66, no. 3 (Spring 2013).

Nye, Jr., Joseph S. “From bombs to bytes: Can our nuclear history inform our cyber future?” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 5 (September/October 2013).

Parr, Helen. “‘The Nuclear Myth’: Edward Heath, Europe, and the International Politics of Anglo-French Nuclear Co-Operation 1970–3.” International History Review 35, no. 3 (2013).

Perrow, Charles. “Nuclear denial: From Hiroshima to Fukushima.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 5 (September/October 2013).

Reader, Joseph and Charles W. Clark. “1932, a Watershed Year in Nuclear Physics.” Physics Today 66, no. 3 (March 2013).

Rothschild, Rachel. “Environmental Awareness in the Atomic Age: Radioecologists and Nuclear Technology.” Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences 43, no. 4 (September 2013), 492-530.

Singh, Jasjit. “India’s Nuclear Policy: The Year After.” Strategic Analysis 37, no. 6 (2013).

Sylvest, Casper. “Technology and Global Politics: The Modern Experiences of Bertrand Russell and John H. Herz.” International History Review 35, no. 1 (2013).

Tal, David. “‘Absolutes’ and ‘Stages’ in the Making and Application of Nixon’s SALT Policy.” Diplomatic History 37, no. 5 (2013).

Tzeng, Peter. “Nuclear Leverage: US Intervention in Sensitive Technology Transfers in the 1970s.” Nonproliferation Review 20, no. 3 (November 2013).

Veys, Lucy. “Joseph Rotblat: Moral Dilemmas and the Manhattan Project.” Physics in Perspective 15, no. 4 (December 2013).

Volmar, Axel. “Listening to the Cold War: The Nuclear Test Ban Negotiations, Seismology, and Psychoacoustics, 1958–1963.” Osiris 28, No. 1 (January 2013), 80-102.

Wellerstein, Alex. “Bomb Appétit!” Lucky Peach no. 6 (Winter 2013), 144.

Wellerstein, Alex. “We Don’t Need Another Manhattan Project,” Public Interest Report 66, no. 4 (Fall 2013).

Weiss, Leonard. “The Lavon Affair: How a false-flag operation led to war and the Israeli bomb.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 69, no. 4 (July/August 2013).

Yellen, Jeremy A. “The Specter of Revolution: Reconsidering Japan’s Decision to Surrender.” International History Review 35, no. 1 (2013).

Young, Ken. “Revisiting NSC 68.” Journal of Cold War Studies 15, no. 1 (Winter 2013).

Young, Ken. “Special Weapon, Special Relationship: The Atomic Bomb Comes to Britain.” Journal of Military History 77, no. 2 (April 2013).

Young, Ken. “The Hydrogen Bomb, Lewis L. Strauss and the Writing of Nuclear History.” Journal of Strategic Studies 36, no. 3 (December 2013).