Historical thoughts on Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 26th, 2016

When I meet new, educated-but-not-academic people for the first time, and the subject of what I study for a living comes up, I almost invariably get two questions. The first is almost always some variant on the question of whether Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary. The second is almost always about Werner Heisenberg.

Werner Heisenberg (at right) with Niels Bohr (center) and Elisabeth Heisenberg (left), 1937. (Victor Weisskopf makes a cameo appearance on the left, in the back.) Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive, American Institute of Physics.

Werner Heisenberg (at right) with Niels Bohr (center) and Elisabeth Heisenberg (left), 1937. (Victor Weisskopf makes a cameo appearance on the left, in the back.) Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive, American Institute of Physics.

Did Heisenberg try to sabotage the German bomb project? Does the failure of the Germans to produce a bomb during World War II reflect on Heisenberg’s technical knowledge, his moral choices, or Allied sabotage? What do historians think, in the end, that Heisenberg was trying to do when he visited his mentor Niels Bohr in occupied Copenhagen in the fall of 1941?

These questions, often without saying so explicitly, tend to stem from one source these days: Michael Frayn’s Tony Award-winning play Copenhagen, first performed in 1998 but often re-performed, and having also been turned into a PBS film in 2002.

This pair of questions, as a pair of cities (Hiroshima and Copenhagen), is interesting to me as a historian. These appear to be the touchstone of American intellectuals’ knowledge of nuclear history, broadly speaking. One rooted in a controversial act of war, the other in a controversial piece of theatre. It is, perhaps, more of a testament to the theatre to get people (at least some people) thinking about history than one might typically suspect — that Americans think about Hiroshima is perhaps as it ought to be, that they think about Copenhagen is far more curious.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen

When I was an undergraduate majoring in the history of science at UC Berkeley in the early 2000s, Copenhagen was very much in the air. It had just come to America (I saw the San Francisco production twice), and it resulted in the early release, in 2002, of several sealed letters in the Niels Bohr Archive relating to Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg’s 1941 meeting. My undergraduate advisor was a Heisenberg scholar, and I took several classes with her that touched very directly on the history of the American and German bomb projects. One of my last acts at Berkeley was to design the cover for an excellent volume of historical essays on the play. So the play has had a remarkably large role in my early interest in nuclear history.

Last fall I was asked to take part in a Q&A about the play at the Central Square Theatre in Cambridge with Alan Brody of MIT, where it was showing. Aside from giving me a chance to visit my old grad school stomping grounds (the first time, I think, since I started my current job), it also gave me a fresh excuse to revisit the play, about a decade after I last spent any real time thinking about it. What follows is based on what I said at the panel.

What did Heisenberg and Bohr talk about in 1941? I think the main response from historians that you are likely to get is: we’ll never know, and it probably isn’t that important in the scheme of things anyways. Which is to say, not much of an answer. All we have to go on regarding that conversation are a few later recollections from the only two people who were there — Bohr and Heisenberg — and all of those recollections have been fairly “tainted” by quite a lot of other events that came afterwards, and do not match up with each other. What I mean by “tainted” is that there became high stakes for both sides for remembering the events in different ways, and the effects of the successful Allied atomic bombs, coupled with the full revelation of the crimes of Nazi Germany, makes it hard for anyone to be anything like objective after the fact.

Niels and Margrethe Bohr, on the motorcycle of George Gamow, 1930. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Niels and Margrethe Bohr, on the motorcycle of George Gamow, 1930. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

The Bohr letters released in 2002 are an example of this. Bohr’s letters to Heisenberg, which are very condemnatory, have been sometimes naively cited as “proof” of whatever took place. They are not. They were written after Bohr had read an account of the German bomb project (Robert Jungk’s Brighter than a Thousand Suns) which implied (in a footnote) that Heisenberg was claiming to have sabotaged the German project on moral grounds. Bohr, infuriated that Heisenberg might be saying such a thing, wrote a strongly-worded language arguing for the opposite. Historians now know — having looked at Jungk’s papers — that in fact Heisenberg’s letter to Jungk was mis-quoted by the latter, missing sentences where Heisenberg clearly backs away from such an implication. In any case, the point is simple enough: Bohr’s letters, written a decade later, were the angry assertions of someone who thought Heisenberg was trying to make a specific sort of claim, and Bohr was intent on disabusing him of the notion. One might also point out (as the play does) that in the end, Bohr was the one who did contribute towards making a weapon of mass destruction, not Heisenberg, and for Bohr to think that Heisenberg was attempting to claim a moral high-ground as a result would have been particularly galling.

It doesn’t mean there isn’t a grain of truth in Bohr’s letters. But decade-old memories conjured up in a moment of anger and misapprehension, at best, are the subjective memories of one individual, and at worst, may be unreliable even as those. And memories are, of course, tricky things, as any psychologist will tell you.

In any case, a historian would probably also argue that this doesn’t matter too much. One meeting is generally not the stuff that history is made of. Even if Heisenberg had said, in the strongest terms, that the Germans weren’t building a bomb, it would have not changed much of history — the momentum was far too great in the Allied project by the time Bohr got to it, and there are few who likely would have believed him without concrete proof.

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

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

But it might appear to give an one of those questions that people have been asking since 1945: why did the Germans fail to get an atomic bomb? But here also is where the historians might be annoying and pedantic. There are very few historians who believe that Heisenberg (or any of the Germans working on the project) were actively trying to avoid making an atomic bomb. Frayn’s play in many ways tries to “sit on the fence” on this issue, but in doing so the play ends up creating something of the “false balance” fallacy, giving equal time to a side that is not considered very plausible by most. It leaves up in the air whether Heisenberg was trying to sabotage (consciously or not), making it seem that this is as equally plausible an interpretation as any other.

This can be misleading. Some members of the German atomic program — Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker was the main one — did try to claim, after the war, that the reason the Germans didn’t make an atomic bomb was because they didn’t want to make an atomic bomb. Heisenberg himself generally danced elliptically around this claim, never quite (to my knowledge) advocating it, but also describing his actions during the war with enough vagueness as to leave open the possibility that part of him, perhaps subconsciously, didn’t succeed because he didn’t want to. The “Heisenberg was a saboteur” thesis was given prominence in Thomas Power’s Heisenberg’s War (2000), but other than that, it is not present in the claims of pretty much any other recent history on the topic.

The reason why is simple enough: there isn’t any proof of it. In fact, it seems to have been offered up, quite post-hoc, as an explanation while the German scientists were being interred at Farm Hall and trying to grapple with the meaning of Hiroshima. It also doesn’t really square with any of the actions of the Germans during the war: they were working quite hard. If one is to assume they did any “sabotage,” it must have been extremely subtle, so subtle as to be indistinguishable from them doing the opposite of sabotage.

Instead, through many other books (which I have discussed in another post), we have a pretty good picture of the German atomic program, how it was decided that it would pursue reactors, not bombs, and how paltry it was in comparison to the Allied effort. As I have stated elsewhere, the interesting historical question for me is less why didn’t the Germans but rather why did the Americans? Because the American case is the anomaly, not the German case. To decide whether an atomic bomb could be made rapidly with the knowledge available in 1941 involved a non-trivial prediction of the future. The Americans ended up (for various reasons) thinking it could be done; the Germans thought it was not worth the risk and expense. The Americans, in any case, barely pulled it off. Had their schedule been off by a few months, there would have been no atomic bombs ready for use during World War II, and the Manhattan Project still holds the world record for fastest time between deciding to make a nuclear weapon and actually having one.

Heisenberg and Bohr in Copenhagen in the early 1930s. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Heisenberg and Bohr in Copenhagen in the early 1930s. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

But I digress. If Copenhagen errs this is where it errs: it presents, on balance, a case that is remarkably sympathetic to the idea that Heisenberg et al. purposefully sabotaged the German bomb program. This is not what most historians see in the historical record. In its fallback position, the play presents the idea that the German bomb program was a failure on a very basic technical level — that nobody had run the critical mass equation correctly, that nobody had realized a few very basic ideas. And while it is true that there were some errors in the German calculations, they were not nearly so ignorant of these matters as the play would have you believe. They knew what plutonium was. They knew what atomic bombs could be. There were those within the German program (which was not one single program in any case, but several different groups) who knew that the critical mass of enriched uranium would be fairly low (German Army Ordnance thought in 1942 that between 10-100 kg of U-235 would give you a bomb, which is a spot-on estimate). Their problem was not one of basic technical errors. Heisenberg made some technical errors, but he was not the only one on the project.

There are many other, more interesting reasons to attribute the failure of the German bomb project. They lacked the fear of an Allied project that the Allies had of them. They feared over-promising with regards to a risky endeavor. During the later parts of the war, they suffered from supply setbacks due to their being targets of bombing and sabotage raids. They lacked anything like a Leslie Groves or Lavrenty Beria figure who could push the work through, against all odds and setbacks, in the limited amount of time that it might have been successful. But this is an area where I don’t want to overrepresent a historical consensus, though: practically every historian who writes on the topic of the German atomic bomb has a slightly different reason to argue why they didn’t make one. (If you read the volume of essays on Copenhagen I mentioned earlier, Copenhagen in Debate, the overwhelming feeling one gets is that practically every historian in there thinks Frayn is wrong, but they disagree greatly on exactly why the Germans didn’t get the bomb.)

So, does this mean that that I don’t like Frayn’s play? No! I actually like the play a lot. It just shouldn’t be anyone’s primary source for information about what happened during the German bomb project. But I don’t think it’s any worse in terms of confusing people than, say, many History Channel documentaries are. Popularizations of history often get things a bit wrong, sometimes a lot wrong — that doesn’t keep me up at night.

Same scene as above, different moment. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

Same scene as above, different moment. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, American Institute of Physics.

The moral questions the play raises, the way it encourages people to view historical record as something complex and evolving, and the way in which it emphasizes that changing the questions you ask of history can lead you to see different aspects of it (in a deliberate analogy to Bohr’s Complementarity), are all quite important and interesting things to think about. I think Frayn’s play manages to get a lot right about what history itself is, and how it is formed on the back of inscriptions and memories and uncertainties and understandings that shift over time. In my mind, those are the really important things to get out of a play.

And let’s be honest: how many people — even professional historians! — would care about the ins-and-outs of the history of the German atomic project if not for this play? It raised the awareness of historical scholarship on this question to new heights, even if much of that scholarship is arguing against some of the implications people take away from the play. But it made that scholarship seem relevant. It makes people ask me about Heisenberg. That’s a good thing, and a needed thing. I would much rather people take an interest in this subject, and maybe run the risk of having different views than the majority of historians, than the contrary, which is that they don’t know or care anything about it at all. Of course, there are limits to this sort of attitude.

Frayn’s errors are ones of subtle historical interpretation, and don’t seem (in Frayn’s case) to be motivated by any sort of overarching political or historical agenda. (Unlike the case of von Weizsäcker, for example.) I’m inclined to give them a “pass” for the sake of making interesting entertainment that gets people asking questions. The one error that Frayn’s play essentially avoids is the more common popular error about the German bomb project, which claims that there was a true “race for the bomb” in which the world very narrowly avoided the Nazis getting nuclear weapons before the Americans did. This is a much more insidious sort of erroneous history, in my mind, because it is used to paper over the moral questions on the American side of things, and commits a multitude of factual sins in the process. The question of whether Heisenberg was a saboteur or not is not on that level, even if I think the bulk of the historical profession would not agree with Frayn that it is as likely an explanation for the German failure as any other.


Solzhenitsyn and the Smyth Report

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 12th, 2016

The Smyth Report is one of the more improbable things to come out of World War II. It is one thing to imagine the United States managing to take nuclear fission, a brand-new scientific discovery announced in 1939, and to have developed two fully-realized industrial-methods of enriching uranium, three industrial-sized nuclear reactors (plus several experimental ones), and three nuclear weapons by the summer of 1945. That improbable enough already, especially since their full-scale work on the project did not begin until late 1942. What really takes it into strange territory is to then imagine that, right after using said superweapon, they published a book explaining how it was made. I can think of no other parallel situation in history, before or since.

The original press release about the Smyth Report, issued only a few days after the Nagasaki bombing. Truman himself personally made the final decision over whether the report should be issued. Source: Manhattan District History Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8.

The original press release about the Smyth Report, issued only a few days after the Nagasaki bombing. Truman himself personally made the final decision over whether the report should be issued. Source: Manhattan District History Book 1, Volume 4, Chapter 8.

I have written on the Smyth Report before, talking about the paradoxical mix of motivations that led to its creation: the civilian scientists wanted the American people to have the facts so they could be good citizens in a democracy, while the military wanted something that set the limits of what was allowable speech. Groves and his representatives (namely Henry Smyth and Richard Tolman) devised the first declassification criteria for nuclear weapons in deciding what to allow into the report and what not to. Groves was concerned about secret details, but not the big picture (e.g., which methods of producing fissile material had worked and how they roughly worked), which he thought would be too easy to learn from newspaper accounts. There were those even at the time who criticized this approach, since it is the big picture that might provide the roadmap to a bomb, and the details would emerge to anyone who started on that journey.

The Soviets, in any case, quickly translated the Smyth Report into Russian. The Russian Smyth Report is a very faithful and careful translation. The American physicist Arnold Kramish reviewed it in 1948, and noticed that the Soviets managed to produce a document that showed they were paying very close attention to the original — specifically, that they had multiple editions of the Smyth Report, and noticed differences. The first edition of the Smyth Report was a lithoprint created by the Army, and only around 1,000 copies were printed and released a few days after the bombing of Nagasaki. A spiffed-up edition was published by Princeton University Press, under the title Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, in September 1945. Most of the differences between the two editions are cosmetic, like using full names for scientists instead of initials. In a few places, there are minor additions to the Princeton University Press edition.

Now you see it, now you don't... comparing the sections on "pile poisoning" in the original lithograph edition of the Smyth Report (top) and the later version published by Princeton University Press (bottom) reveals the omission of a crucial sentence that indicates that this problem was not merely a theoretical one.

Now you see it, now you don’t… comparing the sections on “pile poisoning” in the original lithograph edition of the Smyth Report (top) and the later version published by Princeton University Press (bottom) reveals the omission of a crucial sentence that indicates that this problem was not merely a theoretical one. (Note: the top image is a composite of a paragraph that runs across two pages, which is why the font weight changes in a subtle way.)

But there is at least one instance of the Manhattan Project personnel deciding to remove something from the later edition. The major one noted by Kramish is what was called the “poisoning” problem. In the lithoprint version of the Smyth Report that was released in August 1945, there was a paragraph about a problem they had in the Hanford piles:

Even at the high power level used in the Hanford piles, only a few grams of U-238 and of U-235 are used up per day per million grams of uranium present. Nevertheless the effects of these changes are very important. As the U-235 is becoming depleted, the concentration of plutonium is increasing. Fortunately, plutonium itself is fissionable by thermal neutrons and so tends to counterbalance the decrease of U-235 as far as maintaining the chain reaction is concerned. However, other fission products are being produced also. These consist typically of unstable and relatively unfamiliar nuclei so that it was originally impossible to predict how great an undesirable effect they would have on the multiplication constant. Such deleterious effects are called poisoning. In spite of a great deal of preliminary study of fission products, an unforeseen poisoning effect of this kind very nearly prevents operation of the Hanford piles, as we shall see later.

Reactor “poisoning” refers to the fact that certain fission products created by the fission process can make further fissioning difficult. There are several problematic isotopes for this. There are ways to compensate for the problem (namely, run the reactor at higher power), but it caused some anxiety in the early trials of the B-Reactor. The question of whether to include a reference to this was considered a “borderline” secret by Groves when Smyth was writing the report, but it got added in. Apparently someone had second thoughts after it was released, and so the sentence I’ve put in italics in the quote above was deleted from the Princeton University Press edition. The Russian Smyth Report claimed to be — and shows evidence of — having used the Princeton University Press edition as its main reference. However, that particular sentence about poisoning shows up in the Russian edition, word-for-word.

"Atomic Energy for Military Purposes," first edition of the Soviet Smyth Report translation made by G.M. Ivanov and published by the State Railway Transportation Publishing House, 1946. Source.

“Atomic Energy for Military Purposes,” first edition of the Soviet Smyth Report translation made by G.M. Ivanov and published by the State Railway Transportation Publishing House, 1946. Source.

Kramish concluded:

I think it is significant in that here we have evidence that at least one Soviet technical man has screened the Smyth Report in great detail and it is very unlikely that some of the references which we have hoped “maybe they won’t notice” have not been noticed. With particular regard to the statement that fission product poisoning very nearly prevents the operation of the Hanford piles, we must realize that that information most certainly has been compromised.

This serves as a wonderful example of a very common principle in secrecy: if someone notices you trying to keep a secret, you will serve to draw more attention to what you are trying to hide.

But who read the Russian Smyth Report? I mean, other than the people actually participating in the Soviet atomic bomb project. Apparently it was published and available quite widely in the Soviet Union, which is an interesting fact in and of itself. One imagines that the American works that were chosen to be translated into Russian and mass-published must have been pretty selective during the Stalin years; a report about the United State’s atomic energy triumphs made the grade, for whatever reason.

Solzhenitsyn's Gulag mugshot from 1953. Source: Gulag Archipelago, scanned version from

Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag mugshot from 1953. Source: Gulag Archipelago, scanned version from

Which brings me to the event that got me thinking about the Russian Smyth Report again. For the past few years, on and off, I’ve been making my way through the unabridged edition of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago. It’s a long work, and historians take it with a grain of salt (it is not a work of academic history to say the least), but I find it fascinating, at times darkly humorous, at times shocking. Some of the chapters are skimmable (Solzhenitsyn has axes to grind that mean little to me at this point — e.g. against specific Soviet-era prosecutors). But occasionally there are just some really unexpected and surprising little anecdotes. And one of those involves the Smyth Report.

Timofeev-Ressovsky. Source.

Timofeev-Ressovsky. Source.

At one point, Solzhenitsyn talks about his time in the Butyrskaya prison, a “hub” for transferring Gulag prisoners between different camps, albeit one that it was (in Solzhenitsyn’s account) easy to get “stuck” in while they were figuring out what to do with you (and perhaps forgetting about you). Shortly after he arrived, he was approached by “a man who was middle-aged, broad-shouldered yet very skinny, with a slightly aquiline nose.” The man, another prisoner, introduced himself: “[I am] Professor Timofeyev-Ressovsky, President of the Scientific and Technical Society of Cell 75. Our society assembles every day after the morning bread ration, next to the left window. Perhaps you could deliver a scientific report to us? What precisely might it be?” He was none other than the eminent biologist and geneticist Nikolai Timofeev-Ressovsky, a victim of Lysenkoism who had taken up a post in Germany before the rise of the Nazis, been re-captured in the Soviet invasion, and thrown into prison. Timofeev-Ressovsky, though not a name that rolls of the tongue today, was one of the most famous Russian biologists of his time, and one of the world experts on the biological effects of ionizing radiation. And, true to form, he had organized a science seminar in his cell while in Butyrskaya.

Solzhenitsyn continued:

Caught unaware, I stood before him in my long bedraggled overcoat and winter cap (those arrested in winter are foredoomed to go about in winter clothing during the summer too). My fingers had not yet straightened out that morning and were all scratched. What kind of scientific report could I give? And right then I remembered that in camp I had recently held in my hands for two nights the Smyth Report, the official report of the United States Defense Department on the first atom bomb, which had been brought in from outside. The book had been published that spring. Had anyone in the cell seen it? It was a useless question. Of course no one had. And thus it was that fate played its joke, compelling me, in spite of everything, to stray into nuclear physics, the same field in which I had registered on the Gulag card.

After the rations were issued, the Scientific and Technical Society of Cell 75, consisting of ten or so people, assembled at the left window and I made my report and was accepted into the society. I had forgotten some things, and I could not fully comprehend others, and Timofeyev-Ressovsky, even though he had been in prison for a year and knew nothing of the atom bomb, was able on occasion to fill in the missing parts of my account. An empty cigarette pack was my blackboard, and I held an illegal fragment of pencil lead. Nikolai Vladimirovich took them away from me and sketched and interrupted, commenting with as much self-assurance as if he had been a physicist from the Los Alamos group itself.

What are the odds of all of this having happened? The Smyth Report itself was pretty improbable. The Soviets deciding to publish it themselves strikes me as unpredictable. That Solzhenitsyn would run across it in a camp seems entirely fortuitous. And finally, that Solzhenitsyn would be the one who would end up explaining it to Timofeyev-Ressovsky, an expert on the radiation effects, seems like a coincidence that a writer would abhor — it’s just too unlikely.

And yet, sometimes history lines up in peculiar ways, does it not? I am sure it never occurred to Smyth, or to Groves, that the report would end up being much-sought-after Gulag reading.


Nuclear history bibliography, 2015

by Alex Wellerstein, published February 5th, 2016

It’s (roughly) that time of the year again: my annual nuclear history bibliography for the previous year. (It’s a little later than usual this time around, but I’ve been busy teaching and writing.) The game is more or less the same as it was for 2014, 2013, and 2012: I’ve tried to compile any and all references to scholarly or at least semi-scholarly articles and books I’ve founded that were published in 2015 that would be relevant and of interest to those people (like myself) who consider themselves interested in “nuclear history,” construed broadly. As before, I’ve avoided listing websites (except the Electronic Briefing Bulletins of the National Security Archive, because they are a really uniquely valuable form of “publication”), have avoided anything that was simply an updated edition of a book published prior to 2015, and have stuck mostly to scholarly articles (with my own publications being an exception, because, well, I made the list).

The hands of the censor: Charles L. Marshall, Director of Classification, declassifying a document as part of the Atomic Energy Commission's 1971-1976 "declassification drive." Source: Nuclear Testing Archive. Click for the uncropped version.

The hands of the censor: Charles L. Marshall, Director of Classification, declassifying a document as part of the Atomic Energy Commission’s 1971-1976 “declassification drive.” Click the image for the full-sized version. Source: Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, document NV0148015.

This list is no doubt missing a lot, but it’s a start. If you think I missed something, or think something ought not be on here, add it as a comment below (comments that are just references will be read but probably not “approved” — consider them just a way to send me a quick message). I have not read the vast majority of the references below (one only has so much time…), and do not vouch for them in any way. In most cases, I’ve just glanced enough to confirm that they seem to have a historical component that relates to nuclear technology.

The list was compiled by (tediously) searching through broad keyword searches in a variety of online databases, along with looking at the titles and abstracts of specific journals that are known to carry a lot of this sort of thing.

In the past, it has usually taken about a week for this list to fully stabilize, as people remind me of all the things I’ve missed. So check back then if you want the most up-to-date version. (I will also update the 2014 bibliography at the same time, with a few extra references I found.) At that point, I will also post the bibtex and RIS version for those who want to import these into a citation manager. Note that some of the processing below is done mechanically (I export from Zotero then use PHP to clean up the links/etc. because it is easier than figuring out how to modify Zotero’s internal style sheets), so there may be a few weird little bugs related to that here and there.

And if you’re bored to death by bibliographies — don’t worry. I’m starting up the regular blog posts again next week.

See the bibliography by clicking here

News and Notes

Rumbles from North Korea

by Alex Wellerstein, published January 9th, 2016

This past week and this next week are the last of my winter break before the new semester starts, which in the true fashion of academia means I am more busy than I usually am trying to cram as much non-teaching “work” into every day as possible. North Korea’s test of a nuclear weapon earlier this week, of course, just added to the workload. Thanks, Kim Jong-un. I am behind on my annual Nuclear History Bibliography, but it is coming, soon. NUKEMAP usage has been about 10X higher than normal — over 300,000 users last week.

New Yorker - An H-bomb by Any Other Name

I have written up a piece for the New Yorker’s Elements blog on the historical-technical-political dimensions of calling something a “hydrogen bomb,” or disputing it, that went up yesterday. I also talked a bit to Business Insider about how the true “Teller-Ulam design” of a thermonuclear weapon is not merely a single bomb design but an entire system of designing a getting of possible effects — so one ought not necessarily be expecting the North Koreans to make something that looks like Ivy Mike, Castle Bravo, or, god forbid, the Tsar Bomba. The North Koreans themselves, in their official statement (a wild read in and of itself), claimed that the “technological specifications of the newly developed H-bomb for the purpose of test were accurate and scientifically verified the power of smaller H-bomb” — a lot of little qualifications that seem to be saying, “we’re trying for miniaturization, not high yields, and this was a scientific test of a principle, not of a full-yield warhead.”

Given their strategic situation, a smaller bomb would make a whole lot more sense than something the size of a school bus. And I would note that the tendency to test all weapons at full power (or even more than the projected yield) is something that, while characteristic of the American program, is not necessarily the only way to do things. (The Soviets typically tested large bombs at half-power, on purpose.)

The seismic waveform of the North Korean test.

The seismic waveform of the 2016 North Korean nuclear test, as detected by a station in Mudanjian, China. Click here to listen to it rendered as audio. Source: Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology.

Which is just to say, I don’t think we (at least those of us in the unclassified world) quite have enough information to really parse out what the North Koreans were trying to do in that test. The yield estimates coming out — ranging from 6 to 30 kilotons or so — don’t sound like much, in and of themselves. But there’s still a lot we don’t know, and might not know.

Somewhere in between hysterically overestimating North Korea’s capabilities and smugly underestimating them is some sort of middle ground, a place where we need to acknowledge that this is 60-year-old technology, and the sheer technical difficulty alone is probably not going to stop them from becoming a fully-fledged nuclear power.


The curious death of Oppenheimer’s mistress

by Alex Wellerstein, published December 11th, 2015

The most recent episode of Manhattan, 209, is the penultimate episode for Season 2. There were many aspects that pleased me a lot, in part because I saw my own fingerprints on them: the discussion between Frank and Charlie about the possibility of a demonstration, and Charlie’s later coming around to the idea that the best thing you could do for the future was to make the use of the first atomic bombs usage as terrible as possible; the full-circling of the subplot involving the patent clerk; the tricky politics of the Target Committee. But my favorite part was that the Jean Tatlock subplot finally paid off. The idea that Jean Tatlock might have been murdered by intelligence agents working for Manhattan Project security sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, a totally imaginative take by the writers of the show. But there’s potentially more to it than just that.

Three photographs of Jean Tatlock. The one at left and right come from the website of Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus's An Atomic Love Story, a book about Oppenheimer's loves; the one in the middle comes from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus.

Three photographs of Jean Tatlock. The one at left and right come from the website of Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus’s An Atomic Love Story, a book about Oppenheimer’s loves; the one in the middle comes from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus.

Jean Tatlock is an interesting and curious character. In most narratives about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, she shows up with two purposes: to radicalize him, and to humanize him. He put his relationship this way in his security hearing of 1954:

In the spring of 1936, I had been introduced by friends to Jean Tatlock, the daughter of a noted professor of English at the university; and in the autumn, I began to court her, and we grew close to each other. We were at least twice close enough to marriage to think of ourselves as engaged. Between 1939 and her death in 1944 I saw her very rarely. She told me about her Communist Party memberships; they were on again, off again affairs, and never seemed to provide for her what she was seeking. I do not believe that her interests were really political. She loved this country and its people and its life. She was, as it turned out, a friend of many fellow travelers and Communists, with a number of whom I was later to become acquainted.

I should not give the impression that it was wholly because of Jean Tatlock that I made leftwing friends, or felt sympathy for causes which hitherto would have seemed so remote from me, like the Loyalist cause in Spain, and the organization of migratory workers. I have mentioned some of the other contributing causes. I liked the new sense of companionship, and at the time felt that I was coming to be part of the life of my time and country.

One, of course, doesn’t take such a statement fully at face value, being made, as it was, ten years after her death, and in the middle of a hearing on whether Oppenheimer himself was loyal to the country. It is an interesting fact, as an aside, that it was Tatlock who broke off the official relationship, in 1939, rejecting an offer of marriage. He got seriously involved with Katharine (Kitty), his future wife, a few months later.

1954 JRO hearing - JRO on Tatlock

Tatlock’s name pops up in the Oppenheimer security hearing a number of times, and proved a rather tricky, if not embarrassing, issue for Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer admitted that he had visited Tatlock in San Francisco in June of 1943. It was a secret visit, approved by nobody, at the time when Oppenheimer was director of Los Alamos. Oppenheimer was being tailed by intelligence agents during the entire trip, however. A few choice selections from the transcript:

Oppenheimer: I visited Jean Tatlock in the spring of 1943. I almost had to. She was not much of a communist but she was certainly a member of the party. There was nothing dangerous about that. There was nothing potentially dangerous about that. …

Q: Doctor, between 1939 and 1944, as I understand it, your acquaintance with Miss Tatlock was fairly casual, is that right?

JRO: Our meetings were rare. I do not think it would be right to say our acquaintance was casual. We had been very much involved with one another and there was still very deep feeling when we saw each other. … I visited her, as I think I said earlier, in June or July of 1943.

Q: I believe you said in connection with that that you had to see her.

JRO: Yes. 

Q: Why did you have to see her?

JRO: She had indicated a great desire to see me before we left [for Los Alamos]. At that time I couldn’t go. For one thing, I wasn’t supposed to say where we were going or anything. I felt that she had to see me. She was undergoing psychiatric treatment. She was extremely unhappy. 

Q: Did you find out why she had to see you?

JRO: Because she was still in love with me.

Q: Where did you see her?

JRO: At her home. …

Q: You spent the night with her, didn’t you?

JRO: Yes. 

Q: That was when you were working on a secret war project?

JRO: Yes.

Q: Did you think that consistent with good security?

JRO: It was as a matter of fact. Not a word — it was not good practice.

All of the above was discussed at the security hearing with Kitty present in the room. Ouch.

1954 JRO hearing - Lansdale on Tatlock

Later, they asked Lt. Col. John Lansdale, Jr., the head of Manhattan Project security, about Tatlock and Oppenheimer:

Q: You had no doubt, did you, that Jean Tatlock was a communist?

Lansdale: She was certainly on our suspect list. I know now that she was a communist. I cannot recall at the moment whether we were sure she was a communist at the time.

Q: Did your definition of very good discretion include spending the night with a known communist woman?

L: No, it didn’t. Our impression was that interest was more romantic than otherwise, and it is the sole instance that I know of.

Tatlock, according to the standard version of the story, suffered from intense depression and killed herself in January 1944. Her love of John Donne may have been why Oppenheimer named the first test for the atomic bomb “Trinity.” We don’t know; even Oppenheimer claimed not to know. It makes for a good story as it is, a poetic humanization of a weapons physicist and the first atomic test. Peer De Silva, the head of security for the lLos Alamos laboratory, later wrote that he was the one who told Oppenheimer of Tatlock’s death, and that he wept: “[Oppenheimer] went on at considerable length about the depth of his emotion for Jean, saying there was really no one else to whom he could speak.”

But there may be more to the story. Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb (Henry Holt, 2002) was the first source I saw that really peeled apart the Oppenheimer-Tatlock story, and got into the details of the 1943 visit. Oppenheimer had told security he was visiting Berkeley to recruit an assistant, though Tatlock was always the real reason for the trip. He was being tailed by G-2 agents the entire time, working for Boris Pash, who was in charge of Army counterintelligence in the Bay Area. They tailed Oppenheimer and Tatlock to dinner (Mexican food), and then followed them back to Tatlock’s house. Army agents sat in a car across the street the entire night. The assistant that Oppenheimer hired was David Hawkins, who had his own Communist sympathies. The whole thing was a very dodgy affair (in many senses of the term) for the scientific head of the bomb project. Pash subsequently got permission to put an FBI bug on Tatlock’s phone.

Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

More recently, and more sensationally, there is an entire chapter on Tatlock’s death in Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus (Knopf, 2005). They suggest that there is evidence that Tatlock’s death might not have been a suicide at all — that it might have been an assassination, murder. Now, just to make sure we are clear, they go to lengths to suggest that the evidence is not clear, and that their argument is speculative and circumstantial. But I also want to point out that Bird and Sherwin aren’t cranks: I know them both personally and professionally, and they are serious about their craft and research, and the chapter on Tatlock’s death, like the others in their book, is meticulously documented. The book itself won the Pulitzer Prize, as well. So this is not something that should be easily dismissed.

Bird and Sherwin paint a messy picture. Tatlock’s father discovered her dead, having broken into her apartment after a day of not being able to reach her. He found her “lying on a pile of pillows at the end of the bathtub, with her head submerged in the partly filled tub.” He found her suicide note, which read: “I am disgusted with everything… To those who loved me and helped me, all love and courage. I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and couldn’t… I think I would have been a liability all my life—at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world.”

John Tatlock moved her body to the sofa, rummaged through the apartment to find her correspondence, and burnt it in the fireplace. He spent hours in the apartment before calling the funeral parlor, and it was the funeral parlor who called the police. The cause of death was drowning. To quote from Bird and Sherwin directly:

According to the coroner, Tatlock had eaten a full meal shortly before her death. If it was her intention to drug and then drown herself, as a doctor she had to have known that undigested food slows the metabolizing of drugs into the system. The autopsy report contains no evidence that the barbiturates had reached her liver or other vital organs. Neither does the report indicate whether she had taken a sufficiently large dose of barbiturates to cause death. To the contrary, as previously noted, the autopsy determined that the cause of death was asphyxiation by drowning. These curious circumstances are suspicious enough—but the disturbing information contained in the autopsy report is the assertion that the coroner found “a faint trace of chloral hydrate” in her system. If administered with alcohol, chloral hydrate is the active ingredient of what was then commonly called a “Mickey Finn”—knockout drops. In short, several investigators have speculated, Jean may have been “slipped a Mickey,” and then forcibly drowned in her bathtub.

The coroner’s report indicated that no alcohol was found in her blood. (The coroner, however, did find some pancreatic damage, indicating that Tatlock had been a heavy drinker.) Medical doctors who have studied suicides—and read the Tatlock autopsy report—say that it is possible she drowned herself. In this scenario, Tatlock could have eaten a last meal with some barbiturates to make herself sleepy and then self-administered chloral hydrate to knock herself out while kneeling over the bathtub. If the dose of chloral hydrate was large enough, Tatlock could have plunged her head into the bathtub water and never revived. She then would have died from asphyxiation. Tatlock’s “psychological autopsy” fits the profile of a high-functioning individual suffering from “retarded depression.” As a psychiatrist working in a hospital, Jean had easy access to potent sedatives, including chloral hydrate. On the other hand, said one doctor shown the Tatlock records, “If you were clever and wanted to kill someone, this is the way to do it.”

Interesting — but not in any way conclusive. What becomes more suspicious is when you look a bit more at the person who might have been most interested in Tatlock being “removed from the picture”: Lt. Col. Boris Pash, chief of the Counterintelligence Branch of the Western Defense Command (Army G-2 counterintelligence). A Russian immigrant to the United States who had fought on the losing side of the Russian Civil War, Pash was regarded by fellow Russian émigré George Kistiakowsky as “a really wild Russian, an extreme right wing, sort of Ku Klux Klan enthusiast.”

Boris T. Pash, head of West Coast G-2 during the war, and later head of the Alsos mission. Image from the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Boris T. Pash, head of West Coast G-2 during the war, and later head of the Alsos mission. Image from the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Aside from bugging Tatlock’s apartment, Pash attempted to get Oppenheimer fired as a potential spy, during the war. He worried that even if Oppenheimer wasn’t himself spying, he might be setting up people within his organization (like Hawkins) who could be spies, with Tatlock as the conduit. He was overruled by Lansdale and Groves, both of whom trusted Oppenheimer. Pash would later be given the job of being the military head of the Alsos mission — to better to harass German atomic scientists rather than American ones? 

In his memos about Oppenheimer and Tatlock, Pash comes off as fearful, hyperbolic, and hyperventilating.  He did not see this as a matter of idle suspicion, but intense danger. After his recommendations were ignored, could he have taken things into his own hands? It’s a big claim. What seems to give it the whiff of credence is what Pash did after the war. In the mid-1970s, during the Church Committee hearings about the mis-deeds of the CIA, it came out that from 1949 through 1952, Pash was Chief of Program Branch 7 — which was responsible for assassinations, kidnappings, and other “special operations,” but apparently did not perform any.

Could Pash, or someone working for him, have killed Tatlock? Probably not Pash himself: in November 1943 (two months before Tatlock’s death), he was already in Europe organizing the Alsos mission. The records indicate that in late December 1943 through mid-January 1944, Pash was in Italy. It’s not very plausible that he’d have raced back to San Francisco for a “side mission” of this sort. Would someone else in G-2, or the Manhattan Project intelligence services, be willing and capable of doing such a thing? We don’t know.

Might Tatlock’s death just really have been what it appeared to be at first glance — a suicide? Of course. Bird and Sherwin conclude that there just isn’t enough evidence to think anything else with any certainty. What does it do to our narrative, if we assume Tatlock’s death was not a suicide? It further emphasizes that those working on the bomb were playing at a very dangerous game, with extremely high stakes, and that extraordinary measures might have been taken. The number of lives on the line, present and future, could seem staggeringly large. Just because it makes for a good story, of course, doesn’t make it true. But from a narrative standpoint, it does make for a nice area of historical ambiguity — just the kind of thing that a fictional, alternate-reality version of the bomb project, like Manhattan, is designed to explore.