Redactions

Oppenheimer, Unredacted: Part II – Reading the Lost Transcripts

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 16th, 2015

This is the second and final part (Part II) of my story about the lost Oppenheimer transcripts. Click here for Part I, which concerns the origin of the transcripts, the unintuitive aspects of their redaction, and the unorthodox archival practice that led me to find their location in 2009.


Oppenheimer photograph courtesy of the Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

The Oppenheimer security hearing transcript is not exactly beach reading. Aside from its length (the redacted version alone is some 690,000 words, which makes it considerably longer than War and Peace), it is also a jumble of witnesses, testimonies, and distinct topics. It is also somewhat of a bore, as there is incredible repetition, and unless you know the context of the time very well, the specific arguments that are focused on can seem arbitrary, pedantic, and confusing, even without the additional burden of some of the content having been deleted by the censor.

The most damning problem for Oppenheimer at his 1954 hearing involved his conduct during the so-called “Chevalier incident,” in which a fellow-traveler colleague of his at Berkeley, Haakon Chevalier, approached Oppenheimer at a party in late 1942 or early 1943 at the behest of another scientist (a physicist named George Eltenton) who wanted to see if Oppenheimer was interested in passing on classified information to the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer, in his recollection, told Chevalier in no uncertain terms that this was a bad idea. Later, Oppenheimer went to a member of the Manhattan Project security team and told him about the incident, calling attention to Eltenton as a security risk, but also trying to not to make too big of a deal of the entire matter. Confronted with the idea of Soviet spying on the atomic bomb project, the security men of course did not take it so lightly, and pressed Oppenheimer for more details, such as the name of the intermediary, Chevalier, which Oppenheimer did not want to give since he claimed Chevalier had nothing truly to do with Soviet spying. Over the course of several years, the security agents re-interviewed Oppenheimer, trying to clarify exactly what had happened. Oppenheimer gave contradictory answers, seemingly to shield his friends from official scrutiny and its consequences. At his hearing, when asked whether he had lied to security officials, Oppenheimer admitted that he had. When asked why, Oppenheimer gave what was become the most damning testimony at a hearing about his character: “Because I was an idiot.” Not a good answer to have to give under any context, much less McCarthyism, much less when you are known to be brilliant.

I mention this only to highlight the difference between what is in the published transcript and what is not. The newly unredacted information does not touch on the Chevalier incident much at all. That is, it does not shed any new light on the central question of relevance towards Oppenheimer’s security clearance. What does it shed light on? We can lump its topics into roughly three categories.

One of the censor's trickier redactions, in which he removed a trouble word, and substituted a different word in its place. "Principle" was too close to a secret, but"idea" was acceptable.

One of the censor’s trickier redactions, in which he removed a trouble word, and substituted a different word in its place. “Principle” was too close to a secret, but”idea” was acceptable. (JB = James Beckerley.)

The first category concerns the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer had been on a committee that had opposed a “crash” program to build the H-bomb in 1949. This was at a time when it was unclear that such a weapon could be built at all. The then-favored design (later dubbed the “Classical Super”) had many problems with it, and didn’t seem like it was likely to work. It seemed to also require huge quantities of a rare isotope of hydrogen, tritium, the production of which could only be done in nuclear reactors at the expense of producing plutonium.For Oppenheimer and many others, there was a strong technical reason to not rush into an H-bomb program: it wasn’t clear that the bomb could be built, and preparing the materials for such a bomb would decrease the rate of producing regular fission bombs.

How much plutonium would be lost in pursuing the Super? This is an area the newly-reduced transcript does enlighten us. Gordon Dean, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1950 to 1953, explained that:

You don’t decide to manufacture something that has never been invented. Nothing had been invented. No one had any idea what the cost of this thing would be in terms of plutonium bombs. As the debate or discussions waged in the fall of 1949, we had so little information that it was very difficult to know whether this was the wise thing to do to go after a bomb that might cost us anywhere from 20 plutonium bombs up to 80 plutonium bombs, and then after 2 or 3 years effort find that ft didn’t work. That was the kind of problem. So there were some economics in this thing.

The underlined section was removed from the published transcript. This does contribute to the debate at the time — if researching the Super meant depriving the US stockpile of 20-80 fission bombs, that is indeed a high price. We might ask: Why was it redacted? Because the censor wanted to undercut Oppenheimer’s position? Probably not — if the censor had wanted to do that, he would have removed a lot more than just those numbers. More likely it is because you can work backwards from those numbers how much plutonium was in US nuclear weapons at that time, or, conversely, how much tritium they were talking about. Every atom of tritium you make is an atom of plutonium you don’t make — and plutonium atoms are 80X heavier than tritium atoms. So for every gram of tritium you produce, you are missing out on 80 grams of plutonium. If you know that the bombs at the time had around 6 kg of plutonium in them, then you can see that they are talking about the expense of making just 1.5 to 6 kg of tritium. Should this have been classified? It seems benign at the moment, but this was still a period of a “race” for thermonuclear weapons, and nearly everything about these weapons was, rightly or wrongly, classified.

Redaction of a long section on the development of the Teller-Ulam design. Ulam's name was almost totally (but not entirely) removed from the transcript, sometimes very deliberately and specifically. The orange pencil shows the mark of the censor, as does the "Delete, JB" on the right.

Redaction of a long section on the development of the Teller-Ulam design. Ulam’s name was almost totally (but not entirely) removed from the transcript, sometimes very deliberately and specifically. The orange pencil shows the mark of the censor, as does the “Delete, JB” on the right.

But the hydrogen bomb could be built. In the spring of 1951, physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam hit upon a new way to build a hydrogen bomb. It was, from the point of view of the weapons physicists, a totally different approach. Whereas the “Classical Super” required using an atomic bomb to start a small amount of fusion reactions that would then propagate through a long tube of fusion fuel, the “Equilibrium Super,” as the so-called Teller-Ulam design was known at the time, involved using the radiation of an atomic bomb to compress a capsule of fusion fuel to very high densities before trying to ignite it. To a layman the distinction may seem minor, but the point is that many of the scientists involved with the work felt this was really quite a big conceptual leap, and that this had political consequences.

The differences between the redacted and un-redacted transcript shows a censor who tried, perhaps in vain, to dance around this topic. The censor clearly wanted to make sure the reader knew that the hydrogen bomb design developed in 1951 (the “Equilibrium Super”) was a very different thing than the one on the table in 1949 (the “Classical Super”), because this is a clear part of the argument in Oppenheimer’s favor. But the censor also evidently feared being too coy about what the differences between the 1949 and 1951 designs were, as such was the entire “secret” of the hydrogen bomb. For example, here is a section where Oppenheimer testified on this point, early on in the hearing:

In the spring of 1951, there were some inventions made. They were not discoveries, really; they were inventions, new ideas, and from then on it became clear that this was a program which was bound to succeed. It might not succeed at first shot; you might make mistakes, but for the first time it was solid. It was not on the end; it wasn’t so that every time you calculated it it was yes or not, but it came out that you knew that you could do not. It was just a question of how rapidly and how well and I am amazed at the speed at which this actually went after we learned what to do. Ulam and Teller had some very bright ideas; why none of us had them earlier, I cannot explain, except that invention is a somewhat erratic thing.

Again, what is underlined above was removed from the original. Read the sentences without them and they still have the same essential meaning: Oppenheimer is arguing that the 1951 design was very different than the 1949 one. Put them back in, and the meaning only deepens a little, adding a little more specifics and context, but does not change. One still understands Oppenheimer’s point, and much is left in to emphasize its import — Oppenheimer only opposed the H-bomb when it wasn’t clear that an H-bomb could be made.

Why remove such lines in the first place? A judgment call, perhaps, about not wanting to reveal that the “secret” H-bomb was not a new scientific fact, but a clever application of a new idea. The censor could have probably justified removing more under the security guidelines, but took pains to maintain coherency in the testimony. In one place, the physicist Hans Bethe referred to Teller and Ulam’s work as a new “principle,” and the censor re-worded this to “idea” instead. A subtle change, but certainly done in the name of security, to shift attention away from the nature of the H-bomb “secret.”

Early 1954 was a tricky time for hydrogen bomb classification. The US had detonated its first H-bomb in 1952, but not told anyone. In March 1954, a second hydrogen bomb was detonated as the “Bravo test.” Radioactive fallout rained down on inhabited atolls in the Marshall Islands, as well as a Japanese fishing boat, making the fact of it being a thermonuclear test undeniable. The Soviet Union had detonated a weapon that used fusion reactions in 1953, but did not appear to know about the Teller-Ulam design. As a result, US classification policy on the H-bomb was extremely conservative and sometimes contradictory; that the US had tested an H-bomb was admitted, but whether it was ready to drop any of them was not.

JRO redaction Rabi mermaids

In this category I would also attribute I.I. Rabi’s “mermaids” redaction, mentioned earlier. As published, it was:

We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it, *** and what more do you want, mermaids?

Restored, it is:

We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it, and we have a whole series of Super bombs, and what more do you want, mermaids?

To the censor, the removed section implied, perhaps, that there was no single H-bomb design, but rather a generalized arrangement that could be applied to many different weapons (which were being tested during Operation Castle, which was taking place at the same time as these hearings). This is a tricky distinction for a layman, but important for a weapons designer — and it is the eyes of the weapon designer that the censor feared, in this instance.

The censor’s fear of foreign scientists scouring the Oppenheimer hearing transcripts for clues as to the H-bomb’s design was not, incidentally, unwarranted. In the United Kingdom, scientists compiled a secret file full of extracts from the (redacted) Oppenheimer transcript that reflected on the nature of the successful H-bomb design. So at least one country was watching. As for the Soviet Union, they detonated their first H-bomb in 1955, having figured out the essential aspects of the Teller-Ulam design by the spring of 1954 (there is still scholarly uncertainty as to the exact chronology of the Soviet H-bomb development, and whether it was an entirely indigenous creation).

Project Vista cover page

The second major category of deletions pertained to Oppenheimer’s role in advising on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. This involved his participation in Project Vista, a study conducted in 1951-1952 by Caltech for the US Army. Vista was about the defense of continental Europe against overwhelming Soviet ground forces, and Oppenheimer’s section concerned the use of atomic bombs towards this end. (It was named after the hotel that the summer study took place in.)

Oppenheimer’s chapter (“Chapter 5: Atomic Warfare”) concluded that small, tactical fission bombs could be successfully used to repel Soviet forces. In doing so, it also argued against a reliance on weapons that could only be used against urban targets — like the H-bomb. The US Air Force attempted to suppress the Vista report, because it seemed to advocate that the Army into their turf and their budget. It was one of the many things that made the Air Force sour on Oppenheimer.

In order to emphasize that Oppenheimer was not opposed to the hydrogen bomb on the basis of entirely moralistic reasons, a lot of the discussions at the hearing initiated by his counsel related to his stance on tactical nuclear weapons. They wanted it to be clear that Oppenheimer was not “soft” on Communism and the USSR. Arguably, Oppenheimer’s position was sometimes more hawkish than those of the H-bomb advocates. Oppenheimer wanted a nuclear arsenal that the US would feel capable of using, as opposed to a strategic arsenal that would only lead to a deterrence stalemate.

Another classic Cold War redaction: what we know about the enemy, even if we don't know anything.

Another classic Cold War redaction: what we know about the enemy, even if we don’t know anything.

The debate of strategic arms versus tactical nukes is one that would become a common point of discussion from the 1960s onward, but in 1954 it was still confined largely to classified circles because they pertained to actual US nuclear war plans in place at the time and the future of the US nuclear arsenal. Much of this discussion is still visible in the redacted transcript, but with less emphasis and detail than in the un-redacted original. The essential point — that in the end, the US military pursued both of these strategies simultaneously, and that Oppenheimer was no peacenik — gets filled out a more clearly in the un-redacted version.

Among the sentences that got redacted are long portions that describe the Vista project, its importance, and the fact that it was taken very seriously. It is unfortunate that these were removed, because they would definitely have changed the perception that Oppenheimer was acting on purely “moral” reasons against the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer opposed the hydrogen bomb, but he did so, in part, because he advocated making hundreds of smaller fission bombs. Other statements removed is a remark by General Roscoe Charles Wilson about something he heard Curtis LeMay say: “I remember his saying most vigorously that they couldn’t make them too big for him.” One can appreciate why the censor might want to remove such a thing, as a rather unflattering bit of hearsay about the head of the Strategic Air Command. Lest one think that these removals would only help Oppenheimer’s case, many of the other lines removed from Wilson’s testimony concerned the fact that the Air Force did find that they had plenty of strategic targets for multi-megaton bombs — removed, no doubt, because it shed light on US targeting strategy, but the sort of thing that generally went against Oppenheimer’s argument.

Similarly, John McCloy testified that Oppenheimer’s views were fairly hawkish at the time:

I have the impression that he [Oppenheimer], with one or two others, was somewhat more, shall I say, militant than some of the other members of the group. I think I remember very well that he said, for example, that we would have to contemplate and keep our minds open for all sorts of eventualities in this thing even to the point of preventative war.

Did Oppenheimer really advocate preventative nuclear war with the Soviet Union? It’s not impossible — his views in the 1950s could be all over the place, something that makes him a difficult figure to fit into neat boxes. In retrospect, we have made Oppenheimer into an all-knowing, all-rational sage of the nuclear age, but the historical record shows someone more complicated than that. Why would the censor remove the above? Probably because it would be seen as inflammatory to US policy, potentially because it might shed light on actual nuclear policy discussions. In this case, this line potentially could have had a strong impact on the post-hearing memory of Oppenheimer, had it been released, but probably not a positive one.

JRO redaction Groves on Rosenbergs

Lastly, there are a few removals for miscellaneous reasons relating to the conduct of the hearings themselves. As I pointed out at the beginning, when the witnesses at the security hearing took the stand, they were told that their responses would be “strictly confidential,” and not published. This was to encourage maximum candor on their part. When the decision was made to publish the transcript, each of the witnesses were contacted individually to be told this and were asked if there was anything they would not want made public. There is evidence of a few removals for this reason.

General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project during World War II, said a number of things that were not classified but would have been embarrassing or controversial if they appeared in print. For example, he was emphatic that “the British Government deliberately lied about [Klaus] Fuchs,” the German physicist who had been part of the British delegation to Los Alamos and was, as it later became known, a Soviet spy. Groves also opined on the importance of Fuchs’ espionage versus that of the Rosenbergs:

I think the data that went out in the case of the Rosenbergs was of minor value. I would never say that publicly. Again that is something while it is not secret, I think should be kept very quiet, because irrespective of the value of that in the overall picture, the Rosenbergs deserved to hang, and I would not like to see anything that would make people say General Groves thinks they didn’t do much damage after all.

Even Groves’ comment at the time made it clear that this was not something he wanted circulated publicly. Should this information have been removed? It is a tricky question. If Groves had known what he said would be printed, he never would have said any of it. Ultimately this becomes not an issue of classification, but one of propriety. Its inclusion does not affect issues relating to Oppenheimer’s clearance. It is part of a much longer rant on Groves’ part about the British, something he was prone to do when confronted with the fact that the worst cases of nuclear secrets being lost occurred on his watch.

In one slightly smaller category, there is at least evidence of one erroneous, accidental removal. There is a line, on page 129 of the GPO version, which, when restored, looks like this: “Having that assumption in mind at the time Lomanitz joined the secret project, did you tell the security officers anything that you knew about Lomanitz’s background?” The restored material contains nothing classified, or even interesting, and its removal is not noted in the official “concordance” of deleted material produced by the Atomic Energy Commission censor. So why was it removed? Looking at the originals, we find that the entire contents of the deleted material comprise the last line of the page. It looks like it got cut off on accident, and marked as a redaction. Such is perhaps further evidence of the rushed effort that resulted in the transcript being published.

* * *

Does the newly released material give historians new insight into J. Robert Oppenheimer? In my view: not really. At best, they may address some persistent public misconceptions about Oppenheimer, but ones that have long since been redressed by historians, and ones that even the redacted transcript makes clear, if one takes the time to read it carefully and deeply. The general public has long perceived Oppenheimer to be a dovish martyr, but even a cursory reading of the actual transcripts makes it clear that this is not quite right — he was something more complex, more duplicitous, more self-serving.

Oppenheimer's two TIME magazine covers: as ascendent atomic expert (1948), and casualty of the security state (1954).

Oppenheimer’s two TIME magazine covers: as ascendent atomic expert (1948), and casualty of the security state (1954).

If the redacted sentences had been released in 1954, they would have fleshed out a little more of the story behind the H-bomb and behind Oppenheimer’s advocacy for tactical nuclear weapons. They would have emphasized more strongly that Oppenheimer opposed the H-bomb not just for moral reasons, but for technical reasons, and that rather than opposing the development of atomic armaments, Oppenheimer supported them vigorously — and even supported using them in future conflicts. The latter aspect, in particular, might have changed a bit the public’s perception of Oppenheimer at the time. Oppenheimer was not a dove, he was just a different sort of hawk, which somewhat reduces the idea of Oppenheimer as a martyr against the warmongers. This latter notion (Oppenheimer as anti-nuke) is a common perception of Oppenheimer, even today, though much scholarly work has tried to go against this notion for several decades.

The recent declassification of the transcript does not tell us anything we essentially did not already know from other sources, including the many of the wonderfully-researched histories of this period published in recent years by scholars such as Jeremy BernsteinKai Bird, David Cassidy, Gregg Herken, Priscilla McMillan, Richard Polenberg, Richard Rhodes, Sam SchweberMartin Sherwin, and Charles Thorpe, among others. These new revelations do not drastically revise our understanding of Oppenheimer or his security clearing. He looks no more nor less of a “security risk” than he did in the redacted version of the transcripts.

At the same conference where I initially was inspired to search for the hearing transcripts, Polenberg asked the group assembled: how would we remember Oppenheimer today, if he had not had his security clearance stripped after the hearing? His own answer is that we would probably have longer focused on the more negative aspects of Oppenheimer’s personality and perspectives. We’d see him not as a dove, but as a different flavor of hawk. He’d see him as someone who was willing to turn in his friends to the FBI, if it served his interests. We’d see him as someone who, again and again, wanted to be accepted by the politicians and the generals. We would see more of his role as an enabler of the Cold War arms race, not just his attempts at tamping it down. By revoking the clearance, Oppenheimer’s enemies may have crushed his soul, but they made him a martyr in the process.

Headlines from 1954 regarding Beckerley and his split with the Atomic Energy Commission — and his turn as a secrecy critic.

Headlines from 1954 regarding Beckerley and his split with the Atomic Energy Commission — and his turn as a secrecy critic.

But just because these transcripts don’t give us much of a revision on Oppenheimer, or the conduct of his security hearing, doesn’t mean they are not  instructive. For one thing, they shed a good deal of light on the process of secrecy itself — and it is only by getting the full story, the record of deletions, that one can pass judgment on whether the secrecy was used responsibility or inappropriately.

In my view, the erasures appear to have been done responsibly. They do not greatly obscure the ultimate arguments for or against Oppenheimer’s character, and primarily hew to legitimate security concerns for early 1954. The choice of what to remove and what to keep was done not by one of Oppenheimer’s enemies, but by Dr. James G. Beckerley, a physicist who was at the time the Director of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Classification. His initials (“JB”) can be found next to many of the specific deletions in some of the volumes. Beckerley was no rabid anti-Communist or promoter of secrecy. He was a moderate, one who often felt that the AEC’s security rules were highly problematic, and believed that only careful and sane application of classification rules (as opposed to zealous or haphazard) would lead to a stronger nation. As it was, he resigned his job in May 1954, not long after the Oppenheimer hearing, and became an outspoken critic of nuclear secrecy. We do not know Beckerley’s personal opinions on Oppenheimer, but in every other aspect of his work he seems not to be the classification villain that one expects of a Cold War drama.

So it is perhaps not surprising that his deletions from the Oppenheimer transcript are, in retrospect, pretty reasonable, if viewed in context. They do not seem overtly politicized, especially in the way that Beckerley carefully carved up some of the problematic statements so that their ultimate argument still came out, even if the classified details did not. Most were plausibly done in the name of security, according to the security concerns of early 1954. In fact, the amount of discussion of the H-bomb’s development allowed in the final transcript is rather remarkable — very little has in fact been removed on this key topic. A few of the removals, were done in the name of propriety, removed because of the changing status of the transcript from “confidential” to public record. None of the comments removed for non-security reasons seem to have had any bearing on the question of Oppenheimer’s character and loyalty, though they are certainly interesting. Groves’ comments on the Rosenbergs, for example, is completely fascinating — but not relevant to Oppenheimer’s case.

Two frames from a 1961 photo session with Oppenheimer by Ulli Steltzer. "He was shy of the camera and I never got more than 12 shots. It is hard to say which expression is most typical." More on this image, here.

Two frames from a 1961 photo session with Oppenheimer by Ulli Steltzer. “He was shy of the camera and I never got more than 12 shots. It is hard to say which expression is most typical.” More on this image, here.

In this case, I disagree with the conclusions given by the other historians in the New York Times article about the release. I don’t think the removals bolster Oppenheimer’s case, and I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest that the redactions were made to aid the government’s case. We are accustomed to a story about classification that involves bad guys hiding the truth. Sometimes that is a narrative that works well with the facts — classification can, and has often been, abused. But in my (someday) forthcoming book, I argue that part of this impression of “the censor” as a shadowy, faceless, draconian “enemy” is just what happens when we, on the outside, are not privy to the logic on the “inside.”

It is somewhat tautological to say that secrecy regimes hide their own logic by the very secrecy they impose, but it is actually a somewhat subtle point for thinking about how they work. When you are outside of a secrecy regime, you can’t always see why it acts the way it does, and it is easy to see it as an oppositional entity designed to thwart you. Peeling back the layers, which is what historians can do many years after the fact, often reveals a more subtle and complex organizational discussion going on. In the case of these transcripts, it is clear, I think, that Beckerley was trying his best to satisfy both the security requirements of the day regarding the key features of the newly-invented hydrogen bomb, as well as avoid saying too much about US nuclear force postures in Europe. And, just as key, he was juggling the problem of witnesses who had been told their original testimony would be confidential. There is no evil intent in these actions, that I can see.

Did these redacted sentences need to be kept classified for 60 years? Of course not. And by releasing them in full, the Department of Energy explicitly agrees that these transcripts contain nothing classified as of today. But they weren’t being hoarded for decades because of their lasting security relevance — they were just forgotten about. These volumes probably could have been fully declassified at least as early as 1992, and probably would have, had the declassification effort not gotten shelved.

Still, it is important that they are finally released. Even a negative result is a result, and even an empty archive can tell us something positive. Knowing that the un-redacted transcripts contain nothing that would either exculpate, nor incriminate, J. Robert Oppenheimer is itself something to know. Secrecy does not just hide information: it creates a vacuum into which doubt, paranoia, fear, and fantasy are harbored. Removing the secrecy here has, at least, removed one last veil and source of uncertainty from the Oppenheimer affair.

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.