Posts Tagged ‘1940s’


The curious death of Oppenheimer’s mistress

Friday, 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.”1

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.2

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.”3

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.”4

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? 5

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.6

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.7 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.

  1. Peer De Silva, Notes on an unwritten manuscript titled “The Bomb Project: Mysteries That Survived Oppenheimer,” (ca. Spring 1976), copy received from Gregg Herken, who in turn was given them by Marilyn De Silva in 2002. []
  2. Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the bomb: The tangled lives and loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002), 101-102. []
  3. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York : A.A. Knopf, 2005): chapter 18. []
  4. George Kistiakowsky interview with Richard Rhodes (15 January 1982), transcript reproduced on the Manhattan Project Voices website. []
  5. Bird and Sherwin, chapter 16. []
  6. Bird and Sherwin, chapter 16. Separately, in an executive (Top Secret) hearing before the Church Committee in 1975, Pash disputed that he was ever an employee of the CIA (“I was never an employee of the Agency. I was detailed from the Army for a normal tour of duty to the Agency.”) and that the unit he was part of “was not an assassination unit.” In the same testimony he did, however, emphasize how rag-tag American counterintelligence was during World War II, having called up a lot of reserve units like himself — he was a schoolteacher originally — sending them briefly to have training with the FBI, and then sending them out into the field extremely fresh. On the early CIA, Pash said: “So, when the CIA was formed, a lot of those people with these wild ideas and wild approaches were there. So of course when you say you’re in charge of all other activities in individual activities, and these fellows might have ideas well, you know, like we did maybe in World War II, I heard they did something like that, well, it’s easier to kill a guy than to worry about trailing him, you see. So maybe that is where something originated.” (The not-entirely-clear phrasing is in the original transcript.) He went on to say that at one point an idea of assassination was floated when he was conveniently out of town, but that his office had rejected it. The testimony is not entirely clear on timing issues, and Pash goes out of his way to emphasize his lack of memory from the period, urging that his time with the CIA was mostly spent planning operations, but not actually carrying them out. Testimony of Boris T. Pash at an Executive Hearing of the Select Senate Study of Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (7 January 1976). As with all of this kind of spy stuff, it can be very hard to sort out who is telling the truth. There are motives upon motives for giving inaccurate portrayals of things in one direction or the other. Many of the allegations against the CIA and Pash came originally from E. Howard Hunt, who is a character of some impressive slipperiness. Pash emphatically denied most of what Hunt said, and insinuated that it might be part of a disinformation campaign, or something Hunt was doing for personal profit. Hunt, in his own executive session testimony, said that Pash himself had a reputation for kidnappings when he worked in the CIA, not assassinations. Interestingly, Hunt told the committee that the reason he had remembered Pash’s name, all those years later, was because he had been reading Nuel Pharr Davis’ book, Lawrence and Oppenheimer (Simon and Schuster, 1968) — which strikes me as a bit meta, having walked down this rabbit hole from another Oppenheimer biography. Confronted with Pash’s denial, Hunt equivocated a bit, not calling Pash a liar, but suggesting that some of what he heard about Pash might not be entirely accurate, but sticking to the basics. It makes for an interesting read. Testimony of E. Howard Hunt at an Executive Hearing of the Select Senate Study of Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (10 January 1976). The Church Committee staff concluded that while Pash’s group may have had assassinations and kidnappings as part of its responsibility, it performed none of them and did not plan any. Apologies for the digressive footnote, but I thought this was too interesting not to share, or to include the documents in question! []
  7. There are numerous memos and requisition orders written by Pash in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 4, Target 1, Folder 26, “Files Received from Col. Seeman’s Section (Foreign Intelligence),” Subfile 26N, “Alsos Mission to Italy.” []

Why spy?

Friday, December 4th, 2015

It’s impossible to talk about the work at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project without mentioning the spies. And yet, for the first five years of the atomic age, nobody would have mentioned them, because they had escaped the view of the security services. It’s one of the great ironies of the top-secret atmosphere: despite listening to phone lines, reading mail, and endlessly snooping, the security forces of General Groves caught not one spy at Los Alamos.

"Security theater" at Los Alamos — lots of effort made, but no spies were caught this way. Source: LANL.

Security theater” at Los Alamos — lots of effort was made to create the culture of a top-secret, security-conscious environment, but no spies were caught this way. Source: LANL.

The Los Alamos spies are the ones we spend the most time talking about, because they were the ones who were closest to the parts of the bomb we associate with real “secrets”: the designs, the experiments. They were also the most sensational. There is a bit of an error in looking at them in this way, an over-exaggeration of the work at Los Alamos at the expense, say, of Oak Ridge. But they do make for fascinating study. None of them were James Bonds — crack-trained intelligence experts who could kill you as much as look at you. (I appreciate that in the latest James Bond movie, much is made of the fact that Bond is more assassin than spy.) They are really “moles,” volunteers who were doing more or less their normal jobs, just working for two masters at once.

This sense of the term “mole,” as an aside, was popularized (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) by John Le Carré’s classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974): “Ivlov’s task was to service a mole. A mole is a deep penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism.” It is remarkable to me how much of our language of intelligence work is indebted to fictional depictions. I admit I am much more a fan of the Le Carré approach to espionage writing than the Ian Fleming approach — I like my spies conflicted, middle-aged, and tormented. In a word, I like them human. James Bond seems to me to be nothing but a standard male ego fantasy (a well-dressed killer with gadgets who gets and then promptly discards the girl), and it makes him boring. (Daniel Craig’s Bond is, at least, middle-aged and tormented, so it makes the character tolerable, even if the plots are just as silly as ever.) Even this, though, is misleading, because occasionally there are spies who are in something like a Bond mode, destroying factories and assassinating enemies and wielding gadget-guns. But I suspect most intelligence workers look more like George Smiley (or, even more to the point, Connie Sachs, the “librarian” of Smiley’s “Circus” who is crucial but ever behind-the-scenes) than Bond.1

Why would someone become a mole? There are several short-hand ways of talking about motivations for espionage, like M.I.C.E.: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. They are as valuable as these kinds of short-hands can ever be — tools for generalizing cases, not understanding the individual motivations, which are always tailored by a million tiny specifics.

The invisible, bland, inconspicuous Harry Gold. Source: NARA, via Wikimedia Commons.

The invisible, bland, inconspicuous Harry Gold. Source: NARA, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite members of the atomic spy rings, for example, is Harry Gold, a “courier” to others. Gold was the one who ferried information between the moles (scientists at the lab) and the “real” Soviet espionage agents (NKVD officers working under diplomatic cover at the Soviet embassy). The courier was a crucial part of the network, because without him you have the problem of two “watched” groups (weapons scientists and Soviet officials) having to come together, a conspicuous thing. Gold, by contrast, was completely inconspicuous: a chubby little man with a dim-witted facial appearance. But he was a hard worker. Why’d he do it? Not for money — he wouldn’t take any, not in any great amounts. Not so much for ideology — he had favorable thoughts towards the Soviet Union, but he doesn’t appear to have been especially radicalized. He wasn’t being coerced.

So that leaves ego, and that isn’t the worst way to think about Gold, though it doesn’t quite do him credit. As Allen Hornblum explains in great detail in his fascinating The Invisible Harry Gold (Yale University Press, 2010), Gold had a “needy,” vulnerable personality that made him desperate for friendship and approval. He fell in with a group of Communists who realized how far he would go for that approval, and gradually worked towards bigger and bigger assignments. All the agents needed to do to get Gold to work his damnest, and to put his life on the line, was to give him encouragement. In the end, this same trait made Gold a nightmare for the other spies, because once he was caught, he wanted the FBI agents to be his friends, too. So he told them everything. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

Klaus Fuchs — the quiet enigma, the man against himself.

Klaus Fuchs — the quiet enigma, the man against himself.

What about Fuchs? Ideology, all the way. Fuchs wasn’t new to that game — he had been putting his life on the line years before he became a spy, as a Communist student in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. It’s probably a very a different thing to go from a very proud, spoken form of politics to the quiet subterfuge of becoming a mole. Fuchs himself, in his various confessions and later statements, indicated that he found this work to be an unpleasant struggle. In his 1950 confession to William Skardon, he put it this way:

In the course of this work, I began naturally to form bonds of personal friendship and I had to conceal from them my inner thoughts. I used my Marxist philosophy to establish in my mind two separate compartments. One compartment in which I allowed myself to make friendships, to have personal relations, to help people and to be in all personal ways the kind of man I wanted to be and the kind of man which, in a personal way, I had been before with my friends in or near the Communist Party. I could be free and easy and happy with other people without fear of disclosing myself because I knew the other compartment would step in if I approached the danger point. I could forget the other compartment and still rely on it. It appeared to me at the time that I had become a “free man” because I had succeeded in the other compartments to establish myself completely independent of the surrounding forces of society. Looking back at it now the best way of expressing it seems to be to call it a controlled schizophrenia.2

From the point of view of those who knew him at Los Alamos, Fuchs succeeded greatly — they were entirely caught off-guard by the revelation that he was a spy. Hans Bethe took pains to emphasize (to a fault, the FBI seems to have thought) that Fuchs worked very hard for everyone he worked for: the Americans, the British, and the Russians.

(I have written elsewhere on David Greenglass and will not go back over him. He is another curious case, to be sure.)

And what about Ted Hall? Hall was the youngest scientist at Los Alamos, and, as such, the youngest atomic spy of note. He was only 19 years old when he decided that he ought to be giving secrets to the Soviet Union. 19! Just a baby, and his Soviet codename, “MLAD,” reflected that: it means “youngster.” (In retrospect, that is a pretty bad codename, a little too identifying.) When I show his Los Alamos badge photograph to my students, I always emphasize that they’ve met this kid — the 19-year-old genius who thinks he knows better than everyone else, who thinks he has the world figured out, who is just idealistic enough, and just confident enough, to do something really terribly stupid if the opportunity was made available.

Ted Hall's Los Alamos badge photograph — teenage angst, Soviet mole.

Ted Hall’s Los Alamos badge photograph — teenage angst, Soviet mole.

Why did Hall spy? Ideology, apparently. I say “apparently” because most of what we know about Hall’s motivations is what he said, or seemed to have said, much later, far after the fact, decades later. A much-older Hall rationalized his spy work as being about the balance of power, an easier thing to say in 1997 than in 1944. Having known 19-year-olds, and having been one, I view this post-hoc rationalization with a bit of suspicion. Even Hall himself seems to recognize that his 19-year-old was brash and arrogant, that ego might have played a large role in his decision.

I have been thinking about Hall a lot recently while watching Manhattan. Towards the end of season 1, it is revealed that one of the scientists the show has been following was a spy, based loosely on the case of Hall. I don’t want to speak too much to the specifics on here, because if you haven’t been watching the show, there are many spoilers involved with just talking about this aspect of the plot, but it’s been pretty interesting to see how the writers handled a spy. He’s not a James Bond, to say the least. He’s someone who, like most real people, see himself as a “good” person fundamentally — but whose actions give him grave doubts as to this proposition. This season there is another figure in the show who is loosely based on Lona Cohen, a courier of Hall and a fascinating figure in her own right, and a complicating factor for the spy scientist. Those interested in learning more about Hall and Cohen should definitely take a look at Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel’s Bombshell (Times Books, 1997).

In current season of Manhattan, the spy character has realized that what started as something of a “game” is no game at all, no game any sane or sensitive person would want to play. The actor who plays him (who I regret not naming, do to aforementioned spoiler concerns!) manages to convey perfectly that panicky feeling one gets when one realizes one has gotten in too far, that one has taken on too much risk, that one cannot turn back, cannot turn off the ride, cannot get off the carousel. It’s a sickening feeling, that feeling of being trapped.

Did Hall feel trapped? One wonders. Of the identified wartime Los Alamos spies (Fuchs, Greenglass, Hall), he is the one who got away, the one who lived out a free life until the end, even though the FBI had a pretty good idea of what he had done by the 1950s. The lack of enough evidence for a “clean case” against him (Hall used a different courier than Fuchs and Greenglass, so the testimony of Harry Gold was worthless in his case), and his isolation for further work on weapons, seems to have allowed them to let him alone. But does one ever “get away” with such a thing? Was there any time in which he was truly at ease, wondering if the hammer might drop? His spying was eventually revealed two year before his death, but he was still never charged with anything.

Ted Hall in his 70s, being interviewed for CNN's Cold War series (episode 21).

Ted Hall in his 70s, being interviewed for CNN’s Cold War series (episode 21): “We were pretty close to being consumed.”

Hall was interviewed for CNN’s (excellent) Cold War documentary miniseries in the late 1990s. To my eyes, he seems somewhat hollow. Is this just how he was, or an artifact of his age? (He died not too long afterwards, at the age of 74.) Or an artifact of a life staring down the barrel of a gun? On the Rosenberg execution, Hall is recorded saying, grimly: “It certainly brought home the fact that there were flames consuming people, and that we were pretty close to being consumed.”

Can you come out of the cold without resolution of one form or another? Maybe Hall was lucky that, by the end of his life, he got to contribute to the narrative about himself, about his actions, even if he did it in a roundabout admitting-but-not-quite-confessing way. Hall claimed, in his 70s, that the youth of 19-years-old had the right idea, in the end, even if the Cold War went places that that youth couldn’t have anticipated. Hall’s motivations seem to come somewhere out of that unconscious land between ideology and ego, where many monsters live.

Hall, Fuchs, Gold, and Greenglass — not a James Bond among them. They are strictly out of the Le Carréan mold. Conflicted, scared, self-sabotaging: the Le Carréan spy is always his own worst enemy, his friends barely friends at all, his punishment always of his own making. There’s no right way out of a John Le Carré story. If you think things are going to end up well, just you wait — any victory will be bittersweet, if you can call it a victory at all.

  1. My greatest disappointment with the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, is that it focuses almost exclusively on the Bond-like persona, to the extent of devoting a large amount of their space to stupid James Bond plots as opposed to actual history. The best thing in the entire museum, in my opinion, is an exhibit on the catching of Aldrich Ames. Ames was no Bond, and he was caught by no Bond. The women who caught him look unassuming, but were shrewd, clever, and careful. No gadgets, just a lot of hard work, and the experienced application of psychology. []
  2. Klaus Fuchs statement (27 January 1950), copy online here. []

Women, minorities, and the Manhattan Project

Friday, November 27th, 2015

One of the things I most appreciate about the writers of the show Manhattan is that they took the effort to get beyond the standard, most common vision of the “Los Alamos scientist.” Several of the leading characters are female scientists, good at what they do, good at navigating a profession dominated by men. In the first season, one of the scientists was Chinese-American, and there is also a recurrent character in both the first and second season who is African-American, played with intelligence, dignity, and self-awareness.

Drs. Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), , and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckermann) at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor from Manhattan episode 107.

Drs. Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), Theodore Sinclair (Corey Allen), and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor from Manhattan episode 107.

The textbook version of Los Alamos, and the Manhattan Project as a whole, is a bunch of genius white, male scientists (the Europeans getting the designation of “Jewish” and sometimes another nationality, i.e. “Hungarian”), who have largely been deracinated (not a yarmulke to be seen, not a religious belief to be referenced, except maybe Oppenheimer’s dabbling with Hindu mysticism). Women enter in the picture largely as wives, secretaries, and the operators of Calutrons, ignorant of their true roles. Non-whites are basically eliminated, with the exception of the Indians who served as menial laborers at Los Alamos. This is a view of “who matters” taken largely from the 1940s — it is how the earliest chroniclers of the Manhattan Project saw their world. The one exception to this is Lise Meitner, who was triumphed in the early days of the atomic bomb, largely because of irony in her having had to flee Germany, but also, I suspect, at the irony of her having been a woman.

The historical reality is a much more textured one. There were actually many women contributing to the technical side of the bomb — not just as Calutron operators, either, but as physicists, chemists, biologists, and mathematicians, among other scientific specialities. One of the most overlooked books on the history of the bomb is Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg’s Their Day in the Sun: Women and the Manhattan Project (Temple University Press, 1999), and it chronicles the lives of many of the women who worked on the project. Along with their stories of individual lives, they also dig into the numbers:

In September 1943, some sixty women worked in the Technical Area at Los Alamos. By October 1944, about 30 percent, or 200 members of the labor force in the Tech Area, the hospital, and the schools were women. Of these, twenty could be described as scientists and fifty as technicians. Fifteen women worked as nurses, twenty-five as teachers, and seventy as secretaries or clerks.

Although many women’s precise job titles at Los Alamos remain unknown, rough numbers show about twenty-five of them working on chemistry and metallurgy, twenty on bomb engineering, sixteen on theoretical physics, four on experimental physics, eight on ordnance, and four on explosives. Two women worked with Enrico Fermi, who had moved to Los Alamos when it opened in 1943. These numbers are given by divisional assignment instead of by job title, so a few of these women may have held clerical jobs, but it’s clear that most of them were scientists or technicians.

The number of women working on the Manhattan Project contrasts sharply with the Apollo Project of the 1960s, which was comparable in size and scope. At its peak in 1965, when Apollo engaged 5.4 percent of the national supply of scientists and engineers, women accounted for only 3 percent of NASA’s scientific and engineering staff.1

The latter part is kind of a kicker for me: more women worked on the bomb than worked on the program to get Americans on the Moon. Why such a disparity? Because during World War II, the need for scientific labor was desperate and spread among many projects. It’s hard to be a bigot when you need every ounce of brainpower and labor you can get, and indeed World War II is famous overall for its movement of women into spaces they had previously been excluded (i.e. Rosie the Riveter). By the late 1950s and mid-1960s, though, the traditional gender norms had been reinstated, and the problem of technical labor shortages had been largely addressed by massive campaigns to increase the numbers of scientists and engineers in the United States.2 As advertisements from the later period suggest, the role of the space-age woman was as the helpful wife — not the person doing the calculations.

A relatively young Katharine ("Kay") Way. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

A relatively young Katharine (“Kay”) Way, one of the many female scientists of the Manhattan Project, and one of the rare few scientists whose work took her to all of the major Manhattan Project sites. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

There are a lot of interesting lives there, generally ignored when we tell these stories. Katharine Way is one of my favorites. She had a PhD in nuclear physics from University of North Carolina, having been John Wheeler’s first graduate student. She worked on neutron sources at the University of Tennessee early in the war, and, hearing rumors of a big project at Chicago, called up Wheeler and talked her way into the Metallurgical Laboratory. There she worked on many topics key to the operation of reactors: neutron fluxes, “poisoning” by fission products, reactor constants, and eventually the Way-Wigner formula for fission-product decay. Her work was important enough for her to warrant visits to Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos — a remarkable feat given the high levels of compartmentalization (many of the scientists who worked at any one of the sites were not allowed to know where the other ones were located). Even before Hiroshima, she questioned the morality of the weapon she had helped produce (signing Szilard’s petition against its use), and in the postwar she was a key player in the postwar Scientists’ Movement, co-editing One World or None with Dexter Masters in 1946.3

The Manhattan character Helen Prins, played by Katja Herbers, reminds me of Way, in terms of the arc of her narrative: her gumption (imagine talking yourself onto the Manhattan Project!); the way in which, despite being relatively low in the hierarchy, her work touches on enough key problems that it leads her all over the place (which works well for a plot, but it somewhat true to life as well), and the way in which she, like many others who worked enthusiastically during the war, came to doubts about the uses to which their science had been put.

Chien-Shiung Wu at the Smith College Laboratory in the 1940s, shortly before joining the Manhattan Project. She is working on an electro-static (Van De Graaff) generator. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Chien-Shiung Wu at the Smith College Laboratory in the 1940s, shortly before joining the Manhattan Project. She is working on an electro-static (Van De Graaff) generator. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

There were also minorities on the project in technical roles, though here the lack of equal opportunity is far more stark and evident. Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-born physicist, completed her dissertation in physics under Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley in 1940. After receiving a phone call from none other than Enrico Fermi, she was the one who identified Xenon-135 as a fission-product that was causing the Hanford reactors to lose their reactivity over time (this is the so-called “poisoning” effect). She also worked with Harold Urey on the problem of gaseous diffusion while at Columbia University, among other things. She would later become the first female president of the American Physical Society, in 1975.4

The Manhattan Project had very large numbers of African-Americans, but they were mostly working at Oak Ridge and Hanford as laborers or janitors. Peter Hales’ Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (University of Illinois Press, 1999) has a thoroughly interesting chapter on the “Others” of the bomb work, including African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and women. Oak Ridge was rigidly segregated during the war, with crude “Negro hutments” that held five men or six women in a single room (white hutments were similarly crude, but only had four occupants). The history of segregation at Oak Ridge is quite interesting — Groves apparently issued orders for a “separate but equal” set of accommodations, but his subordinates instead clearly saw the goal as creating a “Negro shantytown.” Hanford housing was also segregated, but accommodations were generally better, although in many ways the African-American laborers received fewer perks than the white ones (for example, in terms of recreational facilities built for them). These differences among sites were largely the difference of one being in located in Jim Crow Tennessee and the other in Washington State.5

Met Lab chemist Moddy Taylor (photo from 1960) — not the "typical" image of a Manhattan Project scientist. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

Met Lab chemist Moddy Taylor — not the “typical” image of a Manhattan Project scientist. Photo from 1960. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

There were a few African-American scientists on the Manhattan Project. Samuel P. Massie, Jr., worked at Iowa State University on uranium chemistry for use in enrichment work. Jasper Jeffries worked as a physicist at the Metallurgical Laboratory, and was one of the signatories of Leo Szilard’s petition to not use the bomb on a city without warning. Benjamin Franklin Scott worked as a chemist at the Met Lab in their instrumentation and measurements section. Moddie Taylor also did chemistry at the Met Lab, analyzing rare-earth metals. There are several others — the American Institute of Physics has a nice compilation of biographies on their website — mostly centered around the University of Chicago. With any kind of “omitted” history of this sort, one wants to honor them without overstating their importance or underestimating the effects of institutionalized exclusion.6

As a side-note, I was asked by a reporter last summer whether there were any known cases of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) on the Manhattan Project. This is a tricky thing to answer. There were some half a million people working on the bomb across all of its many sites — some number of them had to be LGBT based on whatever prevalence one thinks existed in the population at that time. Even if it was only 1% (which is very conservative), that would allow for 5,000 individuals across the entire project. The populations of present-day US states range from around 2% to over 5% in self-identification as LGBT, so that is quite a lot more people (especially if we acknowledge that even at our current point in time, there are certainly many people in the closet or in a state of self-denial). Of course, in the 1940s homosexuality was categorized as a psychiatric disorder and by the late 1940s it was considered a serious security risk (the “Lavender scare”). To be public about such a thing would not be conducive to working on top-secret war work, to say the least — so there had to have been quite a lot of people who were in the closet.

Alumni of the creation of the first nuclear reactor, CP-1, at the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory. Leona Woods Marshall is conspicuously outside the norm, but there nonetheless. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

Alumni of the creation of the first nuclear reactor, CP-1, at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. Leona Woods Marshall is conspicuously outside the norm, but part of the crew nonetheless. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

The issue of women and minorities in STEM fields is still a real one. For those who smugly believe that large portions of the population simply don’t have the ability to contribute on technical matters, I have found Neil deGrasse Tyson’s discussions of his own difficulties as an African-American interested in astrophysics to be a useful reference. In the case of the Manhattan Project, there are interesting trends. At times things were more open on the bomb work, for women in particular, because they could not afford to write off brainpower of a certain type. For issues of labor, however, the local cultures — New Mexico, Washington, and Tennessee — all came through largely as you would expect them to.

The initial stories about the making of the bomb, however, largely wrote out all non-male, non-whites from the story. Partially this was a real recapitulation of the the hierarchy in place: there were women and there were minorities, but they didn’t generally get to run things, and the story of making the bomb was often about who was running things. But partially this was about the biases of the time, and what was considered acceptable from the perspective of the storytellers (and, arguably, society itself — imagine if a woman or minority had tried to get away with Feynman’s hijinks, whether they would be treated as amusing or not). There has been a lot of good work expanding our understanding of who made the bomb in the last 15 years, though it has not quite unseated the popular vision of a handful of brainy white men creating a weapon out of sheer cleverness and equations alone.

  1. Emphasis added. Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun: Women and the Manhattan Project (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 13-14. []
  2. On the latter, see the work of David Kaiser on the booms and busts in the sciences from Sputnik onward. []
  3. Howes and Hertzenberg, 42-43. []
  4. Howes and Hertzenberg, 45-46. []
  5. Peter Bacon Hales, Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), chapter 7. []
  6. There is a very nice paper online about African-American scientists and the atomic bomb: Shane Landrum, “‘In Los Alamos, I feel like I’m a real citizen’: Black atomic scientists, education, and citizenship, 1945-1960,” (Brandeis University, 2005). There is a bit of literature on African-American responses to the bomb, as well: see, e.g., Abby Kinchy, “African Americans in the Atomic Age: Postwar Perspectives on Race and the Bomb, 1945–1967,” Technology and Culture 50, no. 2 (2009), 291-315. []

Here be dragons

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The most famous experiment conducted by Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, after the Trinity test itself, is the one with the most evocative name. “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail,” also known internally as just “Dragon,” is straightforward about its meaning, compared to the enigma of “Trinity.” Dragons don’t like to have their tails tickled — so watch out for the fire.

On the latest episode of Manhattan (204), protagonist Frank Winter encounters the "dragon" — and pushes it a little further than he ought to have.

On the latest episode of Manhattan (206), protagonist Frank Winter encounters the “dragon” — and pushes it a little further than he ought to have.

The “dragon” moniker was coined by Richard Feynman (who else?) after he heard about it from fellow scientist Otto Frisch. It was one of a category of criticality experiments that Frisch (nephew of Lise Meitner, co-author of the famous Frisch-Peierls report) was working on at Los Alamos. Criticality experiments were dangerous by design: they were attempts to experimentally determine the critical condition of different quantities, types, and geometries of fissile material. Because of the unknowns involved, all of these experiments involved pushing very close to the boundary of an uncontrolled fission chain reaction, an embryonic atomic bomb (or reactor) that, while probably not very explosive (it would likely destroy itself before too much energy was released), would create enough radioactivity to cause serious hazard to those working around the site.1

The experiment Feynman dubbed “dragon” was what Frisch had called the “guillotine,” and was one of the more ambitious and dangerous of Frisch’s many criticality experiments. It involved dropping a slug of enriched uranium hydride through an almost-critical assembly of the same substance. Gravity alone would cause the two pieces to briefly form a critical mass — and then to briefly un-form, before too many fission reactions had occurred. If all worked as planned, the slug would release a burst of neutrons and then stop reacting. But if the slug got stuck in the critical figuration, it would release impressive amounts of radioactivity and potentially cause a (very small) explosion.2

Otto Frisch's original "dragon" reactor — the uranium "guillotine." Source: R.E. Malenfant, "Experiments with the Dragon Machine" (LA-14241-H, August 2005).

Otto Frisch’s original “dragon” reactor — the uranium “guillotine.” Source: R.E. Malenfant, “Experiments with the Dragon Machine” (LA-14241-H, August 2005).

The experiments could produce upwards of 20 million watts worth of energy, increasing the temperature of the fuel by 2 degrees C per millisecond. At their most daring, one burst of the experiment released 1015 neutrons. These experiments were, as the official, secret Manhattan District History notes, “of historical importance,” as they constituted “the first controlled nuclear reaction which was supercritical with prompt neutrons alone.” As far as I can tell, this particular “guillotine” was the original experiment that earned the nickname “dragon,” but the name has been applied to other, similarly close-to-critical experiments as well.3

Criticality experiments were inherently dangerous. They didn’t have to kill you immediately to be a threat: it had been known since the days of the “Radium Girls” that radiation exposure could be cumulatively crippling. The experimental physicists by the 1940s had lost a bit of the “devil may care” air that they had in the early years of radioactivity, when you could spot an X-ray operator by his mangled hands. The Health Group at Los Alamos attempted to keep external radiation exposures within the national radiation standards at the time (0.1 roentgens per day), and optimistically hoped they could aim for zero internal exposures per day. For the time, this was considered conservative, though by the late 1950s the standards for exposure had dropped by a factor of seven.4

Los Alamos scientists keep their distance from a 1,000 ci radiation source used in the RaLa experiments.

The first criticality accident at Los Alamos wasn’t a fatal one, but it did cause some trouble. The experiment was (ironically, or appropriately?) made in the name of safety: it was a question of what would happen if certain geometries and enrichments of uranium were submerged in water. For a weapon that was going to be deployed to the Pacific Ocean, this was not an idle danger — sink Little Boy in the ocean and it becomes a nuclear reactor, because, for enriched materials, regular “light” water acts as a neutron moderator, lowering the effective critical mass. The Manhattan District History outlines the experiment and its outcome:

A large amount of enriched uranium, surrounded by polythene, had been placed in a container in which water was being slowly admitted. The critical condition was reached sooner than expected, and before the water level could be sufficiently lowered the reaction became quite intense. No ill effects were felt by the men involved, although one lost a little of the hair on his head. The material was so radioactive for several days that experiments planned for those days had to be postponed. [emphasis added]5

“Although one lost a little of the hair on his head” — one of those sentences one rarely runs across, especially without any further elaboration, that really sounds disturbing to the modern ear. There were other “minor” exposures too, noted briefly (and anonymously) in the Manhattan District History. Not all were related to criticality; some were related to other experiments, such as the “water boiler” and “power boiler” reactors (more on those in a second), and the RaLa (Radiolanthanum) implosion experiments:

Operation of the power boiler resulted in several instances of mild overexposure to radiation caused by leaks in the exhaust gas line and one serious exposure of several chemists during decontamination of active material. The implosion studies of the RaLa Group which used large amounts of radioactive barium and lanthanum brought a serious situation which the health group monitored closely. A series of accidents and equipment failures caused considerable overexposure of chemists in this group. This condition persisted about six months until the system of remote control operation was finally perfected.6

Interestingly, the Health Group had “no responsibility” over the criticality experiments, “except that of being sure that the men were aware of the dangers involved.” The Manhattan District History notes that the criticality experiments were “especially dangerous” because “there is no absolute way of anticipating the dangers of any particular experiment, and the experiments seem so safe when properly carried out that they lead to a feeling of overconfidence on the part of the experimenter.” The author of this section of the History attributes this overconfidence to the death of Harry Daghlian, who died after accidentally creating a critical mass with a plutonium core. It also notes another accident where “four individuals” received an “acute exposure… to a large amount of radiation” during a similar experiment. The same core would lead to the death of another scientist, Louis Slotin (known for his nonchalance regarding the hazards), less than a year later.7

Harry K. Daghlian's blistered and burnt hand after he received his fatal radiation dose from his own dragon-tickling experiment gone wrong.

Harry K. Daghlian’s blistered and burnt hand after he received his fatal radiation dose from his own dragon-tickling experiment gone wrong.

Reading through the various exposures and radiation hazards in the Manhattan District History can be a bit spine-tingling, even if one tries to have a measured view of the threats of radiation. Radiation risks, of course, are more exciting to most of us than the dozens of other ways to die at Los Alamos during the war. Radiation is relatively exotic and mysterious — simultaneously invisible to our basic senses while very easy to track and follow with the right instruments. You can’t see it until you start looking for it, and then you can find it everywhere.

But even with that caveat, some of these reports are still pretty eyebrow raising. One example: The “water boiler” reactor was a small assembly of enriched uranium used as a neutron source at the laboratory. The scientists knew it presented radiation risks: the fuel inside the reactor would get fiendishly radioactive during and after operation, and if there was a small, inadvertent explosion, it could be a real contamination problem. So they (sensibly) isolated it from the rest of the laboratory, along with the criticality experiments.8

But later study showed that they hadn’t quite solved the problem. Gaseous materials, including fission products, were being discharged “near the ground level at the tip of the mesa just to the south of Los Alamos Canyon.” This, the Manhattan District History notes, was “most unsatisfactory and represented a potential and serious health hazard.” They had warning signs, but they were “inadequate and the area was accessible to any casual visitor.” Radiation intensities “in excess of 50 r/hr were repeatedly measured near the discharge point when the boiler was in operation.” Just to put that into perspective, even by the relatively lax standards of the Manhattan Project, you would hit your yearly limit of acceptable radiation exposure if you spent about 45 minutes near the discharge point when the reactor was running. By the standards from the late 1950s onward, you would hit your yearly limit after only six minutes. (The committee recommended to put a fence around the area, and looking into building a large smoke stack. Later work determined that the larger smoke stack improved things a bit, but did not ultimately solve the problem.)9

The "Water Boiler" reactor at Los Alamos — a neat scientific experiment, but watch where you put the exhaust port. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998.

The “Water Boiler” reactor at Los Alamos — a neat scientific experiment, but watch where you put the exhaust port. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998.

Did these cavalier radiation exposures have long-term consequences for the scientists? (Other, of course, than the two who actually died, or the few people whose acute radiation exposures were so high that they produced obvious physical damage.) Remarkably, very little follow-up seems to have been made. It takes work to know whether there are hazards, and it takes even more work (longitudinal studies, epidemiological work, etc.) to see whether there have been health effects. Radiation-based cancers are probabilistic; exposures to radiation just increases the chance of a cancer, it doesn’t guarantee it. Epidemiological studies, like the ones done on the Japanese who survived the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, look for the statistical excesses, the cancers beyond what you would expect to naturally occur in a given population. This apparently was never done for Manhattan Project employees. There are many anecdotes about exposed employees developing debilitating health effects, but little hard science — not because the exposures or consequences didn’t happen, but because apparently nobody did the studies necessary to establish their existence.10

Why wouldn’t the Manhattan Project or Atomic Energy Commission officials follow up on this question? Two interrelated and non-exclusive hypotheses immediately spring to mind. One is that they were genuinely rather sanguine about the effects of radiation in low exposures. Their standards for “low exposures” were considerably higher than ours are today, and the requirements of war didn’t encourage them to adopt the precautionary principle, to say the least. The second is that there were legal stakes involved. They were eager, especially in the postwar, to avoid claims of radiation damage from former employees. Partially one can see in this the attitude of the bureaucrat who believes they are protecting the government’s interests (at the expense of labor’s), partially this is another reflection of the aforementioned sanguinity regarding radiation exposure (they legitimately believed the claims were probably false, or at least not provable). Following the community of scientists, technicians, and laborers after they had left the laboratory would have been difficult. And what if they had found higher-than-normal rates of injury and death? Better not to look at all, from that standpoint.11

  1. One of the key factors in designing an actual atomic bomb is holding together the reacting mass as long as possible. Without that, once enough energy has been released to separate the reacting material, the reaction will stop. So a chain-reacting critical assembly ought not release more than a few pounds of TNT worth of explosive power — but it would release an awful lot of radiation in the immediate area. []
  2. On Feynman and Frisch, and Frisch’s earlier experiments, see Richard Rhodes, Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986): 610-611. The description of “dragon” and its dangers in this paragraph comes from Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.7. For an example of the size of the explosion, consider the effect of the accidental criticality excursion on another such device, “Godiva.” []
  3. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.8. The “dragon” experiment had one criticality “excursion” of note, when towards the end of a series of experiments of increasing power, a burst of 6 x 1015 fission reactions occurred, blistering and swelling the cubes that composed the assembly. No one was exposed and there was no contamination, but it got put into a criticality accident report. United States Atomic Energy Commission, Operational accidents and radiation exposure experience within the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington, DC: Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Operational Safety, 1975), 38. []
  4. The 0.1 roentgens per day (so around 37 r per year) standard for whole-body exposure was adopted by the United States in 1934. By 1946, the US had dropped the standard by half that amount. By the late 1950s, the standard for permissible amount of radiation exposure had dropped to around 5 r per year, where it remains for people who work in nuclear settings (the standard for the general public is lower). Note that in the 1940s the roentgen unit changed to the rem, and is now measured in sieverts, but they are pretty easy to convert (~1 r = 1 rem = 0.01 Sv). See George T. Mazuzan and J. Samuel Walker, Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946-1962 (Washington, DC: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 1997), 35, 39, and 54. On Manhattan Project standards, see Vincent C. Jones, Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1985), 419, and Barton C. Hacker, The Dragon’s Tail: Radiation Safety in the Manhattan Project, 1942-1946 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Separately, it is of interest that the “Radium Girls” was not just an oblique connection: scientists from Los Alamos, Chicago, and Oak Ridge visited a luminous (radium) paint company in Boston to learn how they dealt with radiation hazards in industry, and adapted their techniques to the problems of dealing with plutonium. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 3.95. []
  5. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.10-15.11. The accident in question took place in June 1945, involved 35.4 kg of 83% enriched uranium cubes. United States Atomic Energy Commission, Operational accidents and radiation exposure experience within the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington, DC: Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Operational Safety, 1975), 37-38. []
  6. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 9.34. []
  7. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 9.34. []
  8. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 6.60. []
  9. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), Supplement, 2.85. []
  10. There have been some very small-sample studies of very specific cohorts from this period, but nothing of the sort one might imagine might exist. []
  11. Gabrielle Hecht’s Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012) emphasizes, in the case of exposures from uranium mining in Africa, that the easiest way to avoid worrying about radiation exposures is not to measure them, not to do the work that makes them “exist” as observable scientific facts. []

When did the Allies know there wasn’t a German bomb?

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Fears of a German nuclear weapons program were the initial motivating concerns behind pushes in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein in the United States, and Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls in the United Kingdom, among others, were worried sick of the prospect of a Nazi atomic bomb. That these scientists were European émigrés of Jewish descent played no small role in their fears.

Diagram (left) and replica (right) of the Haigerloch reactor that Heisenberg and his team were trying to complete by the end of the war. Source: diagram is from Walker's German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949, replica photo is from Wikipedia.

Diagram (left) and replica (right) of the  Haigerloch heavy-water moderated reactor that Heisenberg and his team were trying to complete by the end of the war. The cubes are of unenriched uranium metal. Source: The diagram is from Walker’s German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949, the replica photo is from Wikipedia.

But eventually we came to find that the German atomic bomb project was stillborn. The Germans had a modest atomic power project, researching nuclear reactors, but were in no great rush for an atomic bomb. Of course, they are not necessarily unrelated projects — you can use nuclear reactors to produce plutonium. But it would require a much greater effort to do so than the Germans were engaged in. By any metric, the Germans were involved in a research program, not a production program. Their work was relatively small-scale, not a crash effort to get weaponized results.1

When did Manhattan Project officials know that the German program was not a serious threat, though? That is, when did they know that there was virtually no likelihood that the Germans would develop an atomic bomb in time for use in World War II? This is a question I get a lot, and a question that comes up in this season of Manhattan as well. It’s an important and interesting question, because it marks, in part, the transition from the Anglo-American bomb project from being an originally defensive project (making an atomic bomb as a deterrent against a German bomb) to an offensive one (making a bomb as a first-strike weapon against another non-nuclear country, Japan).

What makes this a tricky question to answer is that the word “know” is more problematic than it might at first seem. Historians of science in particular, because we are historians of knowledge, are quite aware of the ways in which “knowing” is less of a binary state than it might at first appear. That is, we are ordinarily accustomed to talk about “knowing” as if it were a simple case of yes or no — “they knew it or they didn’t.” But knowledge often is more murky than that, a gradient of possibilities. One might have suspicions, but not be sure. The amount of uncertainty can vary in all knowledge, and sometimes be deliberately encouraged or exaggerated to create a space for action or inaction. One’s knowledge can be incomplete or partially incorrect. And there are many different “levels” of knowledge — one might “know” that the Germans were working on reactors, but not know to what ends they were intending to use them.

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.

At one end of the “knowledge” question, we can point to the success of the Alsos mission. Alsos (Greek for “Groves”) was an effort in which Allied scientific and intelligence officers moved into German sites along with the invading troops, seizing materials, facilities, and even scientists (the latter being eventually detained at Farm Hall). By November 1944, Samuel Goudsmit, the scientific leader of the Alsos mission, had concluded that the German program appeared stillborn. By the spring of 1945, of course, they had made sufficient progress into Germany to know for sure. So that is a definite back-end on when they “knew” that the Germans had no bomb.2

But what did they know before that? At what point did the Germans stop being the fear that they had once been? This is the far more interesting, trickier question.

Among the American scientists, the fears of a German bomb peaked sometime in mid-1942. This, not coincidentally, is exactly when the Americans decided to accelerate their program from the research phase into the production phase: when their work changed from thinking about whether atomic bombs were possible to actually trying to build them. As the Americans became more convinced that atomic bombs were feasible to build in the short-term, they became more worried that the Germans were actually building them, and might have started building them earlier than the Americans. Arthur Compton, Nobel Prize winning physicist and head of the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, wrote several particularly impassioned memos in the summer of 1942, urging an acceleration of atomic work largely out of fears of a German bomb:

We have recently become aware that the threat of German fission bombs is even more imminent than we supposed… If the Germans know what we know — and we dare not discount their knowledge — they should be dropping fission bombs on us in 1943, a year before our bombs are planned to be ready.”3

Compton’s fears appear genuine, and rest on the conservative assumption that the Germans were just as smart, and just as aware of the possibilities, as the Americans. (And we know that they were, in fact, aware of all of these possibilities at the exact same time — but the Germans judged the effort more difficult, and more risky, than the Americans did.) There is no other basis for Compton’s assumptions, as he had no access to intelligence information on German efforts (and, indeed, his memo calls for more work in that field). But they were also self-serving, because they encouraged more effort towards his own goal, which was to accelerate the American bomb program. Compton was not at all alone in these fears; Harold Urey, James Conant, and Ernest Lawrence were all quick to point out that the American effort had been relatively slow to start, and that the Germans had clever scientists who ought not be underestimated.

The palpable fears of Arthur Compton, June 1942.

The palpable fears of Arthur Compton, June 1942.

Up until 1942, these fears were not, arguably, unwarranted. The Germans and the Americans were in similar positions. But, in a touch of irony, at the moment the Americans decided to switch towards developing a workable bomb, the Germans instead were deciding that they no longer needed to prioritize the program. They had concluded it would be an immense effort that they could ill afford to undertake, and that it was extremely unlikely that the Americans (or anyone else) would find success in that field.

So when did the picture change with regards to US knowledge, and who was told? Over the course of 1943 and 1944, more and more intelligence was gathered that, added up, began to suggest that the Germans did not have much of a project. In late 1943, General Leslie Groves appointed a specific intelligence group to try and suss out information about the enemy’s work. One of their avenues of approach was better collaboration with the intelligence services of the United Kingdom, who had far better networks both in Germany and in neutral countries than did the Americans. They even had a spy within Germany, the Austrian chemist Paul Rosbaud, who worked at Springer-Verlag, the scientific publisher. By the end of 1943, the British had concluded that the German program was not going anywhere. They were able to account for Heisenberg’s movements all too easily, and there seemed to be no efforts to industrialize the work on the scale necessary to produce concrete results in the timescale of the war. This information was duly passed on to the Manhattan Project intelligence services.4

Did it have any effect? Not immediately. The Americans were not entirely sure whether the British assessments were accurate. As Groves put it in a memo to Field Marshall John Dill in early 1944:

We agree that the use of a TA [“Tubealloys” = atomic] weapon is unlikely. The indirect and negative evidence developed by your agencies to date is in support of this conclusion. But we also feel that as long as definite possibilities exist which question the correctness of this opinion in its entirety or in part we cannot afford to accept it as a final conclusion. Repeated reports that the enemy has sufficient raw material and the fact of the early interest of enemy scientists in the problem must be explained away before we can safely disregard the possible use of this weapon.5

Groves was being conservative about the intelligence — none of it definitely proved that the Germans weren’t working on a bomb, they just were reporting that they couldn’t see a bomb project. This is a common bind for interpreting foreign intelligence: just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it isn’t there (you may have missed it), but on the other hand, proving a negative can be impossible. (This problem, as I am sure the reader appreciates, still exists with regards to alleged WMD programs today.) In Groves’ mind, until there was really zero basis for doubt, they had to proceed as if the Germans were building a bomb.

1944-01-17 - Groves to Dill - R05 T08 F18

But over the course of 1944, there are many accounts which indicate that the Americans at the top of the project, at least, were fearing a German bomb less and less. When Secretary of War Henry Stimson briefed several select Congressmen on the bomb work in February 1944, he had emphasized that “we are probably in a race with the enemy.” By contrast, when he briefed some of the same Congressmen that June, Stimson told them that “in the early part of this effort  we had been in a serious race with Germany, and that we felt that at the beginning they were probably ahead of us.” Note the past tense — at this point, they were using the fears of the German bomb project to justify their earlier efforts, not their current ones. Vannevar Bush, who was at the meeting, emphasized in his notes that he told the Congressmen a bit more about “what we know and do not know about German developments,” but concluded with the thought that since the Allies began the heavy bombing of German industrial sites, the odds were that the Americans were “probably now well ahead of them.”6

Finally, in late November 1944, Samuel Goudsmit, head of the Alsos project, concluded that after inspecting documents, laboratory facilities, interviewing scientists, and doing radiological surveys of river water, that “Germany had no atom bomb and was not likely to have one in a reasonable time.” This was reported back to Groves, who appears to have not been entirely convinced until the total confiscation of German material and personnel was completed in the spring of 1945 and the end of the European phase of World War II. Even Goudsmit was unsure whether the conclusion was justified until they had confirmed it with further investigations.7

By the end of 1944, even the scientists at Los Alamos seem to have realized that Germany was no longer going to be the target. Joseph Rotblat, a Polish physicist in the British delegation to the laboratory, was the only one who left, later saying that “the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be” once it was clear the Allies weren’t really in a “race” with the Nazis.8

Several members of the Alsos mission, with Samuel Goudsmit, the scientific director, at far left. Source: Wikipedia.

Several members of the Alsos mission, with Samuel Goudsmit, the scientific director, at far left. Source: Wikipedia.

So, in a sense, the final confirmation — the absolute confirmation — that the Germany didn’t have an atomic bomb only came when the Germans had totally surrendered. By late 1944, however, it had become clear that their bomb project was, as Goudsmit put it, “small-time stuff.” By mid-1944, the top American civilian official (Stimson) was already minimizing the possibility of German competition. By the end of 1943, British intelligence had concluded the German program was probably not a serious one. We have here a sliding scale of “knowledge,” with gradually increasing confidence, with no clear point, except arguably the “final” one, to say that the Allies “knew” that they were not in a race with the Germans. For someone like Groves, it was convenient to point to the uncertainty of the intelligence assessments, because the possibility of a German bomb, even one very late in the war, was so unacceptable that it could be used to justify nearly anything.

How much does it matter? Well, it does complicate the moral or ethical questions about the bomb project. If you are making an atomic bomb to stop Hitler, well, who could argue with that? But if you are making a bomb to use it against a non-nuclear power, to use it as a military weapon and not a deterrent, then things start to get problematic, as several scientists working on the project emphasized. Even Vannevar Bush, who supported using the bomb on Japan, emphasized this to Roosevelt in 1943, telling the President that “our point of view or our emphasis on the program would shift if we had in mind use against Japan as compared with use against Germany.”9

The degree to which the goals of the atomic bomb program shifted — from building a deterrent to building a first-strike weapon — is something often lost in many historical descriptions of the work. It makes the early enthusiasm and later opposition of some of the scientists (such as Leo Szilard) seem like a change of heart, when in reality it was the goals of the project that had shifted. It is, in part, a narrative about the shifting of perspective from Germany to Japan. Like the Allied knowledge of the German program, it was not an abrupt shift, but a gradual one.

  1. The best source for what the Germans were actually doing is still Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), and Mark Walker, Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, And The German Atomic Bomb (New York: Plenum Press, 1995). []
  2. Of course, this assumes Alsos got everything right, and it is not entirely clear that they did. There are still several interesting historical questions to be answered about the German program. As I’ve written elsewhere, I don’t think Rainer Karlsch’s work on the German atomic program is compelling in its final thesis, but many of the documents he has found do point towards the Alsos mission having some limitations in what it was able to find and recover, and towards further work to be done in fully understanding the German program. []
  3. Arthur Compton to Vannevar Bush (22 June 1944), copy in Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 7, Target 10, Folder 75, “Espionage.” Compton refers to “copper,” which was then the American code-name for plutonium, and “magnesium,” a code-name for enriched uranium. []
  4. The best overall source on US efforts to get information about the German bomb program, and the source of much of this paragraph’s information, Jeffrey Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), chapter 1. []
  5. Leslie R. Groves to John Dill (17 January 1944), copy in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 5, Target 8, Folder 18, “Radiological Defense.” []
  6. Vannevar Bush to H.H. Bundy (24 February 1944), and memo by Vannevar Bush on meeting with Congressmen (10 June 1944), copies in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 2, Target 8, Folder 14, “Budget and Fiscal.” []
  7. Samuel Goudsmit, Alsos (New York: H. Schuman, 1947), on 71; see also Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, chapter 1. []
  8. Joseph Rotblat, “Leaving the bomb project,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (August 1985), 16-19, on 18. See also my post discussing some of the alternative/contributing factors regarding Rotblat’s leaving the project, as discussed by Andrew Brown in his book, The Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). []
  9. Vannevar Bush, “Memorandum of Conference with the President” (June 24, 1943), copy in Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 2, Target 5, Folder 10, “S-1 British Relations Prior to the Interim Committee No. 2.” []