Posts Tagged ‘1960s’


Accidents and the bomb

Friday, April 18th, 2014

When I first heard that Eric Schlosser, the investigative journalist was writing a book on nuclear weapons accidents, I have to admit that I was pretty suspicious. I really enjoyed Fast Food Nation when it came out a decade ago. It was one of those books that never quite leaves you. The fact that the smell of McDonald’s French fries was deliberately engineered by food chemists to be maximally appealing, something I learned from Schlosser’s book, comes to mind whenever I smell any French fries. But nuclear weapons are not French fries. When writing about them, it is extremely easy to fall into either an exaggerated alarmism or a naïve acceptance of reassuring official accounts. In my own work, I’m always trying to sort out the truth of the matter, which is usually somewhere in between these two extremes.

Schlosser - Command and Control book

This is especially the case when talking about nuclear weapons accidents — the many times during the Cold War when nuclear weapons were subjected to potentially dangerous circumstances, such as being set on fire, being accidentally dropped from a bomber, crashing with a bomber, having the missile they were attached to explode, and so on. The alarmist accounts generally inflate the danger of the accidents achieving a nuclear yield; the official accounts usually dismiss such danger entirely. There are also often contradictory official accounts — sometimes even the people with clearances can’t agree on whether the weapons in question were “armed” (that is, had intact fissile pits in them), whether the chance of detonation was low or high, and so on. I’ve always been pretty wary about the topic myself for this reason. Sorting out the truth seemed like it would require a lot of work that I wasn’t interested in doing.

Well, I’m happy to report that in his new book, Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of SafetySchlosser has done that work. I reviewed the book recently for Physics Today. You can read my PT review here, but the long and short of it is that I was really, really impressed with the book. And I’m not easily impressed by most works of nuclear weapons history, popular or academic. I’m not surprised it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, either.

Titan II silo complex. There's a lot going on in one of these. This, and all of the other Titan II images in this post, are from Chuck Penson's wonderful, beautiful Titan II Handbook.

Titan II silo complex. There’s a lot going on in one of these. This, and all of the other Titan II images in this post, are from Chuck Penson’s wonderful, beautiful Titan II Handbook.

What I ask out of a new book is that it teach me something new — either novel facts or novel spins on things I already knew about. Schlosser’s book does both. He clearly did his homework when it came to doing the work, and it’s not really surprising it took him about a dissertation’s worth of time to write it. It’s not just a document dump of FOIA’d material, though. He really shines when contextualizing his new information, writing a very rich, synthetic history of nuclear weapons in the Cold War. So the new and the old are woven together in a really spectacular, unusually compelling fashion.

The book has two main threads. One is a very specific, moment-by-moment account of one accident. This is the so-called Damascus Accident, which is when a Titan II missile in Damascus, Arkansas, exploded in its silo in 1980, resulting in one fatality. It’s not one of the “standard” accidents one hears about, like the 1961 Goldsboro bomb, the 1958 Tybee bomb, the 1968 Thule crash, or the 1966 Palomares accident. But Schlosser’s journalist chops here really came through, as he tracked down a huge number of the people involved in the accident and used their memories, along with documentary records, to reconstruct exactly how one dropped spanner — itself just an apparently innocuous, everyday sort of mistake — could lead to such explosive outcomes.

The other thread is a more historical one, looking at the history of nuclear weapons and particular how the problem of command and control runs through it from the beginning. “Command and control” is one of those areas whose vastness I didn’t really appreciate until reading this book. Nominally it is just about making sure that you can use the weapons when you want to, but that also includes making sure that nobody is going to use the weapons when you don’t want them to, and that the weapons themselves aren’t going to do anything terrible accidentally. And this makes it mind-bogglingly complex. It gets into details about communication systems, weapons designs, delivery system designs, nuclear strategy, screening procedures, security procedures, accident avoidance, and so much more.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

Schlosser weaves this all together wonderfully. I found very few statements, technical or otherwise, that struck me as genuine outright errors.1 Of course, there are places where there can be differences of interpretation, but there always are. This is pretty good for any book of this length and scope — there are many academic books that I’ve read that had more technical errors than this one.

What I found really wonderful, though, is that Schlosser also managed to give a compelling explanation for the contradictory official accident accounts that I mentioned before. It’s so simple that I don’t know why it never occurred to me before: the people concerned with nuclear weapon safety were not the same people who were in charge of the weapons. That is, the engineers at Sandia who were charged with nuclear safety and surety were institutionally quite remote from the Air Force people who handled the weapons. The Air Force brass believed the weapons were safe and that to suggest otherwise was just civilian hogwash. The engineers who got into the guts of the weapons knew that it was a more complicated story. And they didn’t communicate well — sometimes by design. After awhile the Air Force stopped telling the Sandia engineers about all of the accidents, and so misinformation became rampant even within the classified system.

The fate of the world in a few punched holes. Penson: "Targeting information was stored on Mylar-backed punched paper tape. Though primitive by today's standards, punched paper tape will retain data decades longer than magnetic tapes or CDs. This tape is somewhat worse for wear from 20 years of museum use, but probably would still work."

The fate of the world in a few punched holes. Penson: “Targeting information was stored on Mylar-backed punched paper tape. Though primitive by today’s standards, punched paper tape will retain data decades longer than magnetic tapes or CDs. This tape is somewhat worse for wear from 20 years of museum use, but probably would still work.”

We usually talk about nuclear weapons safety as a question of whether they are “one-point safe.” That is, will the weapon have a chance of a nuclear yield if one point on the chemical explosives surrounding the fission pit detonated inadvertently? Most of the time the answer is no, of course not. Implosion requires a very high degree of detonation symmetry — that’s why it’s hard to make work. So a one-point detonation of the explosive lenses will produce a fizzle, spreading plutonium or uranium like a “dirty bomb” but not producing a supercritical chain reaction.

But some of the time, answer is, “well, maybe.” We usually think of implosions as complex affairs but some weapons only require two-point implosion to begin with. So now you’re no longer talking about the possibility that one out of 36 explosive lenses will go off; you’re talking about one out of two. This isn’t to say that such weapons aren’t one-point safe, just to point out that weapons design isn’t limited to the sorts of things present in the first implosion weapons.

But even this doesn’t really get at the real problem here. “One-point safe” is indeed an important part of the safety question, but not the only one. Consider, for example, what would happen if the firing signal was only a simple amount of DC electrical current. Now imagine that during a fire, the firing circuit board soldering melts and a short-circuit is formed between the batteries and the firing switch. Now the bomb is actually trying to truly set itself off as if it had been deliberately dropped — and full implosion, with nuclear yield, is totally possible.

The injector plate of a Titan II. I thought the somewhat abstract pattern of holes and corrosion on the recovered plate made for a beautiful image. The diagram at left shows you what you are looking at — this is where fuel and oxidizer would come together, propelling the missile.

The injector plate of a Titan II. I thought the somewhat abstract pattern of holes and corrosion on the recovered plate made for a beautiful image. The diagram at left shows you what you are looking at — this is where fuel and oxidizer would come together, propelling the missile.

How likely is this kind of electrically-activated nuke scenario? What the Sandia engineers discovered was that in some weapons it was really not implausible at all. Under the “abnormal environment” of a weapons accident (such as a crashing or burning B-52), all sorts of crazy things could happen with electronic circuits. And unless they were really carefully designed for the possibility of this kind of accident, they could arm themselves and fire themselves. Which is the kind of thing you’d expect an engineer who is deeply connected with the electrical technology of the bomb to conclude.

And of course, as Schlosser (and his engineer sources) point out — this kind of thing is only one small detail in the broad, broad question of nuclear safety. These systems are big, complex, and non-linear. And so much hinges on them working correctly.

The sociologist of science Donald MacKenzie has proposed (in a slightly different context — nuclear weapons accuracy, not safety) that a “certainty trough” exists with regards to complex questions of technological uncertainty. He draws it somewhat like this:2

MacKenzie's Certainty Trough

So this divides people into three groups. On the left are the people who actually build the technology and the knowledge. These people have reasonably high levels of uncertainty about the technology in question — they know the nuts and bolts of how it works and how it could go wrong. (I’ve added “confidence” as a label because I find it more straightforward than “uncertainty” at times.) They also know what kinds of failure situations are not likely as well. In the middle, you have people who are completely committed to the technology in question. These people aren’t completely divorced from solid knowledge about it, but they are just consumers of knowledge. They look at the final data, but they don’t really know how the data was made (and all of the uncertainty that gets screened out to make the final version of the data). They have very low uncertainty, and so very high confidence in the technology. At far right you have the people who are either total outsiders, or people who are totally committed to another approach. These have the highest levels of uncertainty and the lowest levels of confidence.

So if we were mapping Schlosser’s actors onto these categories, we’d have the Sandia engineers and other weapons scientists on the far left. They know what can go wrong, they know the limits of their knowledge. They also know which accident situations are outlandish. In the middle we have the military brass and even the military handlers of the weapons. They are committed to the weapons. They have data saying the weapons are safe — but they don’t know how the data was made, or how it was filtered. They think the weapons are totally safe and that anyone who suggests otherwise is just ignorant or foolish. And lastly, at far right, we have total outsiders (the activists, perhaps, or sometimes even politicians), or people who really are looking to amplify the uncertainty for their own purposes.

Titan II Launch Control Center, with the facilities console at center. From Penson.

Titan II Launch Control Center, with the facilities console at center. From Penson.

The disconnect between the far left group and the middle group is the one that disturbs me the most in Schlosser’s account. It also reflects what I’ve seen in online discussions of weapons accidents. People with a little bit of knowledge — e.g. they know about one-point safety, or they once handled nukes in the military — have very high confidence in the safety issues. But they don’t know enough to realize that under the hood, things are more complicated and have been, in the past at least, much more dangerous. Not, perhaps, as dangerous as some of the more alarmist, outsider, activist accounts have stressed. But dangerous enough to seriously concern people whose jobs it is to design the weapons — people who know about the nuts and bolts of them.

Anyway. Schlosser’s book is a great read, as well. Which it needs to be, because it is long. But it’s also segregable. Don’t care much of the details of the Damascus accident? You can skip those sections and still get a lot out of the book (even though the Damascus accident is really a perfect account of all of the little things that can go wrong with complex, non-linear systems). But part of that length is a copious amount of endnotes, which I applaud him and his publisher for including. For a book like this, you can’t skimp on the documentation, and Schlosser doesn’t. The only thing he did skimp on was illustration, which I — as a pretty visual guy — thought was too bad. So much of the Damascus story takes place inside of a Titan II silo, and while the inner flap of the cover did have a simplified illustration of one, I still felt like I didn’t really know what was happening where at times. (I wonder if this was a trade-off with the publisher in having so many notes and pages.)

Chuck Penson's Titan II Handbook, and one of its several amazing fold-out diagrams. Adorable pupper (Lyndon) for scale.

Chuck Penson’s Titan II Handbook, and one of its several amazing fold-out diagrams. Adorable pupper (Lyndon) included for scale.

Fortunately, there is a solution for this. If it were up to me, every copy of Schlosser’s book would be accompanied by a copy of Chuck Penson’s Titan II Handbook: A civilian’s guide to the most powerful ICBM America ever built. Penson’s book is a richly illustrated history of this particular missile, and contains lots of detailed photographs and accounts of daily life on a Titan II base (such as those seen above) It’s utterly fascinating and it gives so much visual life to what Schlosser describes. It also includes giant fold-out diagrams of the missiles themselves — the printing quality is really impressive all around. It includes fascinating technical details as well. For example, in the early days of the Titan II silos they had large motor-generators that constantly ran in case they needed to convert DC power into AC in the event of a failure of commercial power. Penson then notes that:

The motor-generator ran with a loud, monotonous high-pitched whine… noise in the [Launch Control Center] turned into a serious issue. Crew members complained of temporary hearing loss due not only the incessant buzz of the motor-generator, but also to the constant drone of the air conditions, fans and blowers in equipment. Eventually the Air Force covered the tile floor with carpeting, and acoustic batting was hung in the in the area of the stairway leading up to level 1 and down to level 3. … These changes made a tremendous improvement, but one that came too late for many of the crew, a significant number of whom now need hearing aids.

This kind of detail fits in perfectly with Schlosser’s approach to the facility, which itself seems strongly influenced by the sociologist Charles Perrow’s notion of “Normal Accidents.” That the devices in the facility would affect the hearing of the crew was certainly not something that anybody thought of ahead of time; it’s one of those little details that gets lost in the overall planning, but (at least for those who suffered the hearing loss) had real consequences. Ultimately this is the thesis of Schlosser’s book: that the infrastructure of nuclear command and control is much larger, much more complex, much more problematic than most people realize, and is one of those high-complexity, high-risk systems that human beings are notoriously pretty bad at managing.

If you’re the kind of person who geeks out on nuke history, both Schlosser’s and Penson’s books are must-reads, must-buys.

  1. The two biggest mistakes I noted, which I’ve told Schlosser about and may be fixed in the paperback, are that he misstates the size of the neutron initiator in the Fat Man bomb — he confuses the diameter for the radius — and he got the story of Szilard’s 1933 chain reaction work wrong, which lots of people do. Szilard’s patent is such a common source of misunderstanding even amongst scholars that I will be writing a blog post about it soon. Neither of these are terribly important to his argument or narrative. []
  2. Adapted from Donald MacKenzie, Inventing Accuracy: A Historical Sociology of Nuclear Missile Guidance (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1990), figure 7.2. []

Kilotons per kilogram

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

Nuclear weapons can be made to have pretty much as much of a bang as one wants to make them, but with increased explosive yield comes an increased weapon weight. We always talk vaguely about being able to make H-bombs to arbitrarily high yields, but recently I’ve been mulling over this fact somewhat quantitatively. I gave a talk last month at the History of Science Society Meeting on US interest in 50-100 MT bombs around the time of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, and while working on this paper I got  slightly obsessed with what is known as the yield-to-weight ratio.

Little Boy — a big bang compared to a conventional bomb, but still a very crude nuclear bomb.

Little Boy — a big bang compared to a conventional bomb, but still a very crude nuclear bomb.

What makes nuclear weapons impressive and terrible is that their default yield-to-weight ratio — that is, the amount of bang per mass, usually expressed in terms of kilotons per kilogram (kt/kg) — is much, much higher than conventional explosives. Take TNT for example. A ton of TNT weighs, well, a ton. By definition. So that’s 0.001 kilotons per 1,000 kilograms; or 0.000001 kt/kg. By comparison, even a crude weapon like the Little Boy bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima was about 15 kilotons in a 4,400 kg package: 0.003 kt/kg. That means that the Little Boy bomb had an energy density three orders of magnitude higher than a regular TNT bomb would. Now, TNT isn’t the be-all and end-all of conventional explosives, but no conventional explosive gets that much boom for its buck compared to a nuke.

The Little Boy yield is much lower than the hypothetical energy density of uranium-235. For every kilogram of uranium-235 that completely fissions, it releases about 17 kt/kg. That means that less than a kilogram of uranium-235 fissioned in the Little Boy bomb to release its 15 kilotons of energy. Knowing that there was 64 kg of uranium in the bomb, that means that something like 1.3% of the uranium in the weapon actually underwent fission. So right off the bat, one could intuit that this is something that could probably be improved upon.

Fat Man — a lot better use of fissile material than Little Boy, but no more efficient in terms of yield-to-weight.

Fat Man — a lot better use of fissile material than Little Boy, but no more efficient in terms of yield-to-weight.

The Fat Man bomb had a much better use of fissile material than Little Boy. Its yield wasn’t that much better (around 20 kilotons), but it managed to squeeze that (literally) out of only 6.2 kilograms of plutonium-239. Pu-239 releases around 19 kilotons per kilogram that completely fissions, so that means that around 15% of the Fat Man core (a little under 1 kg of plutonium) underwent fission. But the bomb itself still weighed 4,700 kg, making its yield-to-weight ratio a mere 0.004 kt/kg. Why, despite the improve efficiency and more advanced design of Fat Man, was the yield ratio almost identical to Little Boy? Because in order to get that 1 kg of fissioning, it required a very heavy apparatus. The explosive lenses weighed something like 2,400 kilograms just by themselves. The depleted uranium tamper that held the core together and reflected neutrons added another 120 kilograms.  The aluminum sphere that held the whole apparatus together weighed 520 kilograms. The ballistic case (a necessary thing for any actual weapon!) weighed another 1,400 kg or so. All of these things were necessary to make the bomb either work, or be a droppable bomb.

So it’s unsurprising to learn that improving yield-to-weight ratios was a high order of business in the postwar nuclear program. Thermonuclear fusion ups the ante quite a bit. Lithium-deuteride (LiD), the most common and usable fusion fuel, yields 50 kilotons for every kilogram that undergoes fusion — so fusion is nearly 3 times more energetic per weight than fission. So the more fusion you add to a weapon, the better the yield-to-weight ratio, excepting for the fact that all fusion weapons require a fission primary and usually also have very heavy tampers.

I took all of the reported American nuclear weapon weights and yields from Carey Sublette’s always-useful website, put them into the statistical analysis program R, and created this semi-crazy-looking graph of American yield-to-weight ratios:

Yield-to-weight ratios of US nuclear weapons

The horizontal (x) axis is the yield in kilotons (on a logarithmic scale), the vertical (y) axis is the weight in kilograms (also on a log scale). In choosing which of the weights and yields to use, I’ve always picked the lowest listed weights and the highest listed yields — because I’m interested in the optimal state of the art. The individual scatter points represent models of weapons. The size of each point represents how many of them were produced; the color of them represents when they were first deployed. Those with crosses over them are still in the stockpile. The diagonal lines indicate specific yield-to-weight ratio regions.

A few points of interest here. You can see Little Boy (Mk-1), Fat Man (Mk-3), and the postwar Fat Man improvements (Mk-4 — same weight, bigger yield) at the upper left, between 0.01 kt/kg and 0.001 kt/kg. This is a nice benchmark for fairly inefficient fission weapons. At upper right, you can see the cluster of the first H-bomb designs (TX-16, EC-17, Mk-17, EC-24, Mk-24) — high yield (hence far to the right), but very heavy (hence very high). Again, a good benchmark for first generation high-yield thermonuclear weapons.

What a chart like this lets you do, then, is start to think in a really visual and somewhat quantitative way about the sophistication of late nuclear weapon designs. You can see quite readily, for example, that radical reductions in weight, like the sort required to make small tactical nuclear weapons, generally results in a real decrease in efficiency. Those are the weapons in the lower left corner, pretty much the only weapons in the Little Boy/Fat Man efficiency range (or worse). One can also see that there are a few general trends in design development over time if one looks at how the colors trend.

First there is a movement down and to the right (less weight, more yield — improved fission bombs); there is also a movement sharply up and to the right (high weight, very high yield — thermonuclear weapons) which then moves down and to the left again (high yield, lower weight — improved thermonuclear weapons). There is also the splinter of low-weight, low-yield tactical weapons as well that jots off to the lower left. In the middle-right is what appears to be a sophisticated “sweet spot,” the place where all US weapons currently in the stockpile end up, in the 0.1-3 kt/kg range, especially the 2-3 kt/kg range:

Yield-to-weight ratios -- trends

These are the bombs like the W-76 or the B-61 — bombs with “medium” yield warheads (100s rather than 1,000s of kilotons) in relatively low weight packages (100s rather than 1000s of kilograms). These are the weapons take advantage of the fact that they are expected to be relatively accurate (and thus don’t need to be in the multi-megaton range to have strategic implications), along with what are apparently sophisticated thermonuclear design tricks (like spherical secondaries) to squeeze a lot of energy out of what is a relatively small amount of material. Take the W-76 for example: its manages to get 100 kilotons of yield out of 164 kilograms. If we assume that it is a 50/50 fission to fusion ratio, that means that it manages to fully fission about 5 kilograms of fissionable material, and to fully fuse about 2 kilograms of fusionable material. And it takes just 157 kg of other apparatus (and unfissioned or unfused material) to produce that result — which is just a little more than Shaquille O’Neal weighs.

Such weapons aren’t the most efficient. Weapon designer Theodore Taylor wrote in 1987 that 6 kiloton/kilogram had been pretty much the upper limit of what had even been achieved.1 Only a handful of weapons got close to that. The most efficient weapon in the US stockpile was the Mk-41, a ridiculously high yield weapon (25 megatons) that made up for its weight with a lot of fusion energy.

The components of the B-61 nuclear weapon — the warhead is the bullet-shape in the mid-left. The B-61 was designed for flexibility, not miniaturization, but it's still impressive that it could get 20X the Hiroshima bomb's output out of that garbage-can sized warhead.

The components of the B-61 nuclear weapon — the warhead is the bullet-shape in the mid-left. The B-61 was designed for flexibility, not miniaturization, but it’s still impressive that it could get 20X the Hiroshima bomb’s output out of that garbage-can sized warhead.

But given that high efficiency is tied to high yields — and relatively high weights — it’s clear that the innovations that allowed for the placing of warheads on MIRVed, submarine-launched platforms are still pretty impressive. The really magical range seems to be for weapons that in the hundred kiloton range (more than 100 kilotons but under a megaton), yet under 1,000 kilograms. Every one of those dates from after 1962, and probably involves the real breakthroughs in warhead design that were first used with the Operation Dominic  test series (1962). This is the kind of strategic miniaturization that makes war planners happy.

What’s the payoff of thinking about these kinds of numbers? One is that it allows you to see where innovations have been made, even if you know nothing about how the weapon works. In other words, yield-to-weight ratios can provide a heuristic for making sense of nuclear design sophistication, comparing developments over time without caring about the guts of the weapon itself. It also allows you to make cross-national comparisons in the same fashion. The French nuclear arsenal apparently developed weapons in that same miniaturized yield-to-weight range of the United States by the 1970s — apparently with some help from the United States — and so we can probably assume that they know whatever the United States figured out about miniaturized H-bomb design in the 1960s.

The Tsar Bomba: a whole lot of boom, but a whole lot of weight. The US thought they could make the same amount of boom for half the weight.

The Tsar Bomba: a whole lot of boom, but a whole lot of weight. The US thought they could make the same amount of boom for half the weight.

Or, to take another tack, and returning to the initial impetus for me looking at this topic, we know that the famous “Tsar Bomba” of the Soviet Union weighed 27,000 kilograms and had a maximum yield of 100 Mt, giving it a yield-to-weight ratio of “only” 3.43 kilotons/kilograms. That’s pretty high, but not for a weapon that used so much fusion energy. It was clear to the Atomic Energy Commission that the Soviets had just scaled up a traditional H-bomb design and had not developed any new tricks. By contrast, the US was confident in 1961 that they could make a 100 Mt weapon that weighed around 13,600 kg (30,000 lb) — an impressive 7.35 kiloton/kilogram ratio, something well above the 6 kt/kg achieved maximum. By 1962, after the Dominic series, they thought they might be able to pull off 50 Mt in only a 4,500 kg (10,000 lb) package — a kind of ridiculous 11 kt/kg ratio. (In this estimate, they noted that the weapon might have an impractically large diameter as a result, perhaps because the secondary was spherical as opposed to cylindrical.) So we can see, without really knowing much about the US had in mind, that it was planning something very, very different from what the Soviets set off.

It’s this black box approach that I find so interesting about these ratios. It’s a crude tool, to be sure, but a tool nonetheless. By looking at the broad trends, we get insights into the specifics, and peel back the veil just a tiny bit.

  1. Theodore B. Taylor, “Third Generation Nuclear Weapons,” Scientific American 256, No. 4 (April 1987), 30-39, on 34: “The yield-to-weight ratios of pure fission warheads have ranged from a low of about .0005 kiloton per kilogram to a high of about .1 kiloton per kilogram. […] The overall yield-to-weight ratio of strategic thermonuclear warheads has been as high as about six kilotons per kilogram. Although the maximum theoretical ratios are 17 and 50 kilotons per kilogram respectively for fission and fusion reactions, the maximum yield-to-weight ratio for U.S. weapons has probably come close to the practical limit owing to various unavoidable inefficiencies in nuclear weapon design (primarily arising from the fact that it is impossible to keep the weapon from disintegrating before complete fission or fusion of the nuclear explosive has taken place.” []

Art, Destruction, Entropy

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Are nuclear explosions art? Anyone who has taken even a glance into modern and contemporary art knows that the official mantra might as well be “anything goes,” but I found myself wondering this while visiting the exhibition “Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950” that is currently at the Hirshhorn Museum. The first thing one sees upon entering is a juxtaposition of two very different sorts of “work.” On the right is a fairly long loop of EG&G footage of nuclear test explosions, broadcast in high definition over an entirety of a wall. On the left is a piano that has been destroyed with an axe. This, I thought, is at least a provocative way to start things off.

Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier (EG&G) was a contractor for the federal government during the Cold War, responsible for documenting nuclear test explosions. Quite a lot of the famous Cold War nuclear detonation footage was taken by EG&G. They are perhaps most famous for their “Rapatronic” photographs, the ultimate expression of MIT engineer Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s work of slowing down time through photography, but this was only a part of their overall contribution. The film they have at the Hirshhorn is something of an EG&G “greatest hits” reel from the 1950s, and its affect on the others in the audience was palpable. Adults and children alike were drawn to the blasts, displayed one after another without commentary or explanation.1 Their reactions didn’t strike me as one of disgust or horror, but of amazement and awe. Most of the footage was from the Nevada Test Site, so the bombs were generally just blowing up desert scrub, and occasionally houses constructed for effects testing.

The destroyed piano, by contrast, got reactions of shock and disgust. It was the remains of a piece of performance art conducted by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, one of several he’s done, apparently. My wife, a piano player and a nuclear historian, also found it disturbing. “If you know what goes into making a piano…,” she started to say. “But then again, if you know what goes into making a city…,” she caught herself. I overheard other people say similar things.

The difference in reactions isn’t too surprising — it’s a common theme that it is easy to appreciate the destruction of something at a human scale, difficult to appreciate it at the scale of nuclear bomb. A lot of what I’ve spent time doing, with the NUKEMAP and my writing, is to try to understand, and to impart, the scale of a nuclear explosion. A lot of this has involved looking at the attempts of others, as well, from official Cold War visualizations made for secret committees to popular films, as they have tried to communicate this to their target audiences. The hardest thing is that our brains appear only to be wired for empathy at the individual level, and don’t readily apply it to large groups or large areas. The best work in these areas conveys both the broad scope of destruction, but then ties it into the personal. They individualize the experience of mass ruination.

And the EG&G footage isn’t trying to do that. It was data meant for very specific technical purposes. It was developed in order to further the US nuclear program, and defense against Soviet nuclear weapons. Which is why I somewhat question its inclusion, or, at least, its decontextualization. It is art only in the sense that it has aesthetics and it has been put into an art gallery. One can read into it whatever one wants, of course, but it wasn’t created to have deep meaning and depth in that sense. (Whether one cares about authorial intention, of course, is its own can of modern art worms.) Just as a small example of what I mean, Andy Warhol famously made a print of mushroom clouds for his own “disaster” series (a few of which, but not this print, were featured in the exhibit):

"Atomic Bomb," Andy Warhol, 1965.

“Atomic Bomb,” Andy Warhol, 1965.

Now Warhol is a complicated character, but since he was explicitly an artist I think it is always fair game to talk about his possible intentions, the aesthetics of the piece, the deeper meanings, and so on. Warhol’s art has generally been interpreted to be about commercialization and commodification. The mushroom cloud in repetition becomes a statement about our culture and its fascination with mass destruction, perhaps. Coming in the mid-1960s, after the close-call terrors of the early years of the decade, perhaps it was maybe too-little too-late, but still, it has an ominous aesthetic appeal, perhaps now more than then.

Because I don’t think this image was widely circulated at the time, I doubt that Warhol knew that Berlyn Brixner, the Trinity test photographer, had made very similar sorts of images of the world’s first nuclear fireball at “Trinity”:

TR-NN-11, Berlyn Brixner, 1945.

“TR-NN-11,” Berlyn Brixner, 1945.

Brixner appreciated the aesthetics and craft of his work, to be sure. But the above photograph is explicitly a piece of technical data. It is designed to show the Trinity fireball’s evolution over the 15-26 millisecond range. Warhol’s instrument of choice was the silkscreen printer; Brixner’s was the 10,000 fps “Fastax” camera. There’s a superficial similarity in their atomic repetition. You could make a statement by putting them next to each other — as I am doing here! — but properly understood, I think, they are quite different sorts of works.

Don’t get me wrong. Re-appropriating “non-art” into “art” has been a common move over much of the 20th century at the very least. But the problem for me is not that people shouldn’t appreciate the aesthetics of the “non-art.” It’s that focusing on the aesthetics makes it easy to lose sight of the context. (As well as the craft — Brixner’s work was exponentially more difficult to produce than Warhol’s!) The EG&G footage in the exhibit doesn’t explain much of how, or why, it was made. It seems to be asking the viewer to appreciate it solely on its aesthetic grounds. Which I think is the real problem. Many of the tests they show resulted in significant downwind fallout for the populations near the Nevada Test Site. Many of them involved the development of new, ever-more elaborate ways of mass destruction. Many of them were the product of years of top scientific manpower, untold riches, and a deep political context. To appreciate them as simply big, bright booms robs them of something — no matter how aesthetically beautiful those big, bright booms actually are. 

Gustav Metzger's "auto-destructive" art.

Gustav Metzger’s “auto-destructive” art.

What makes it more ironic is that the exhibit actually does give considerable context to some of the works that are explicitly “art.” You have to explain the context of Gustav Metzger’s “auto-destructive” art — it involves him filming himself painting on canvases with a strong acid, so the artwork destroys itself in the process. Without the context there, what is left is just a boring, not-very-comprehensible movie of a man destroying a blank canvas. But anyway.

In terms of the audience at the exhibit, which was fairly well-attended when I was there with my wife, the most interesting part was the handling of children. The Smithsonian museums are of course explicitly places that people take their children while visiting the city, so it’s no surprise that you probably find more of them at the Hirshhorn than you would at MOMA or other similar institutions. But children add a level of anxiety to an exhibit about destruction. They were wowed by the wall-o’-bombs but not, it seemed, by the piano. Parents seemed to let them wander free through most of it, but there were several films where I saw kids get yanked out by their parents once the parents realized the content was going to be disturbing. In one of these films, the “disturbing” content was of a variety that might have been hard for the children to directly understand — the famous film of the Hindenburg going up in flame, for example, where the violence was real but seen from enough of a distance to keep you from seeing actual injuries or bodies. The one I saw the kids getting really removed from (by their parents, not the museum) was footage of the 2011 Vancouver riots. I wasn’t impressed too much with the footage itself (its content was interesting in a voyeuristic way, but there seemed to be nothing special about the filming or editing), but the immediacy of its violence was much more palpable than the violence-at-a-distance that one saw in most of the other such works. It’s cliche to trot out that old quote attributed (probably wrongly) to Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic, but there’s something deeply true to it about how we perceive violence and pain.

Damage Control exhibit site

There are a lot of works in the exhibit. As one would expect, some hew to the theme very closely, some are a bit more tenuous. Overall, though, it was pretty interesting, and if you’re in town, you ought to check it out. The original comment my wife made about pianos and cities stuck with me as I looked at all of the various meditations on “destruction.” In it, I kept coming back to the second law of thermodynamics. On the face of it, it is a very clinical, statistical law: “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases.” It is actually quite profound, something that the 19th-century physicists who developed it knew. Entropy can be broadly understood as “disorder.” The second law of thermodynamics says, in essence, that without additional energy being put into it, everything eventually falls apart. It takes work to keep things “organized,” whether they are apartments, bodies, or cities.2 Ludwig Boltzmann, who helped formulate the law, stated gnomically in 1886 that:

The general struggle for existence of animate beings is not a struggle for raw materials – these, for organisms, are air, water and soil, all abundantly available – nor for energy, which exists in plenty in any body in the form of heat Q, but of a struggle for [negative] entropy, which becomes available through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth.

In other words, life itself is a struggle against entropy. Our bodies are constantly taking disordered parts of the world (heat energy, for example, and the remains of other living things) and using them to fuel the work of keeping us from falling apart.

But the other way to think about this law is that generally it is easier to take things apart than it is to keep them together. It is easier to convert a piano into a low-energy state (through an axe, or perhaps a fire) than it is to make a piano in the first place. It is easier to destroy a city than it is to make a city. The three-year effort of the half-a-million people on the Manhattan Project was substantial, to be sure, but still only a fraction of the work it took to make the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all that they contained, biological and material, in the first place.

Of course, the speed at which entropy increases is often controllable. The universe will eventually wear out — but not for a long time. Human civilization will necessarily go extinct — but it doesn’t have to happen anytime soon. What hits home with the “Damage Control” exhibit is how we as a species have to work so hard to keep everything together, while simultaneously working so hard to find ways to make everything fall apart. And in this, perhaps, it is a success, even if I left with many niggling questions about the presentation of some of the works in particular.

  1. Various guys in the audience would occasionally try to give explanation to their loved ones, and they were generally incorrect, alas. “That must be at Alamogordo… That’s got to be an H-bomb…” no, no, no. Of course, I was there with my wife, and I was talking up my own little storm (though less loudly than the wrong guys), but at least I know my stuff for the most part… []
  2. The key, confusing part about the second law is the bit about the “isolated system.” It doesn’t say that entropy always increases. It says that in an isolated system — that is, a system with no energy being input into it — entropy always increases. For our planet, the Sun is the source of that input, and you can trace, through a long series of events, its own negative entropy to the Big Bang itself. []

Nixon and the bomb: “I just want you to think big, Henry!”

Friday, October 25th, 2013

Richard Nixon was a President so utterly fascinating that if he didn’t exist, historians would have had to invent him. He was both clever and odious, politically appealing but personally unpleasant. Flawed enough that he managed to pointlessly lose the Presidency because of his insecurities, his desire for even more of a landslide than he already had. Anti-semitic, homophobic, racist — but also canny, both with regards to foreign policy and American domestic politics. And what a gift for historians of the future, that he compulsively recorded himself saying awful things? It’s almost too much to be believed, the truth being much more stranger than any fictionalized President could be.

Nixon portrait cropped

We don’t talk much about Nixon and the bomb, which is perhaps a little odd. The Nixon years were those of détente, which has something to do with it, and there were no “close calls” or fiery public rhetoric about the bomb. Nixon only rarely shows up personally in my work; he didn’t appear to get involved with nuclear matters to the degree that Kennedy or Eisenhower did, for example, much less those like Reagan or Truman.

But this is an oversight. Nixon and the bomb is an immensely interesting subject, as I recently learned. Last week I was at a nuclear history/policy conference hosted by Francis Gavin, among a few others, that was itself immensely interesting and fruitful. Before going, I thought I should get around to reading Gavin’s latest book, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age, since he had bothered to invite me and all.1

Gavin - Nuclear Statecraft - cover

It’s incredibly interesting as a book of history written with a mind towards those who care about policy. Each chapter tackles a major issue in nuclear history and gives a unique perspective or new findings on it. For example, the Kennedy and Johnston administrations get lots of credit for adopting a “flexible response” approach to nuclear targeting, but Gavin reports that while they gave speeches on this, in practice their war plans were little more flexible than Eisenhower’s, because privately they judged flexibility to be difficult and dangerous. That was new to me, and a nice point about the difference between public statements and official policy, and the trickiness of divining information about secret programs from the party line.

The chapter that really wowed me was on Nixon. Again, I hadn’t given Nixon and the bomb all that much thought. But Gavin points out that it deserves much more attention, because while on paper Nixon looked like an exemplary arms controller, but in private, he is revealed as a total maniac something much more complicated.

For his arms control cred, just consider that Nixon was the one who signed the SALT treaty, the ABM treaty, and the Biological Weapons Convention. He was also President when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was ratified, and when the SALT II talks began. Kind of a non-trivial list of treaties and agreements — an impressive record for any US President. But as Gavin puts it:

The documents, however, reveal that Kissinger and, especially, Nixon had a different notion of how nuclear weapons affected international relations. … Theirs was a realist view—they believed that world politics was driven, as it had been for centuries, by geopolitical competition between great powers. The “nuclear revolution” had not changed this core feature of the international system. In relations with the Soviets, the message to their opponents was clear: “Look, we’ll divide up the world, but by God you’re going to respect our side or we won’t respect your side.”2

As evidence of this, Gavin has lots of excerpts from conversations between Nixon and Kissinger about nukes and treaties. They are universally disdainful of arms control. While Nixon was beginning the bomb the hell out of Cambodia (one of his least popular policies), he remarked to Kissinger: “Looking back over the past year we have been praised for all the wrong things: Okinawa, SALT, germs, Nixon Doctrine. Now [we are] finally doing the right thing.” Which tells you a lot about Nixon’s worldview: what mattered to him, in the end, was winning in Vietnam. Full stop. Everything else was just a distraction.

Nixon contemplative

As for arms control, Nixon told Kissinger that “I don’t give a damn about SALT; I just couldn’t care less about it.” On the kinds of technical matters that concerned security wonks, like the number of radars or missile interceptors, Nixon privately explained that “I don’t think it makes a hell of a lot of difference,” and that he thought the arms controllers were real chumps about this kind of thing. He opposed an anti-ballistic missile site in the nation’s capital because:

I don’t want Washington. I don’t like the feel of Washington. I don’t like that goddamn command airplane or any of this. I don’t believe in all that crap. I think the idea of building a new system around Washington is stupid.

Which you have to admit is sort of a novel argument against anti-ballistic missiles, right? Because you don’t actually like the nation’s capital that you’re President of. He dismissed the Biological Weapons Convention as “the silly biological warfare thing, which doesn’t mean anything,” as opposed to what he considered the really important stuff — again, the war in Vietnam.3

For Dick and Henry, treaties were just pieces of paper that would probably be violated the moment they proved less than useful for a state. Realpolitik, plain and simple. But they were not just flying by the seat of their pants. Their approach to international politics was, Gavin argues, coherent. It just didn’t give a lot of credence to the idea that nuclear weapons had any special importance with regards to international order, since they really didn’t think that they were going to get into a genuine shooting war with the USSR anytime soon. Worse, they thought that arms control successes could lead towards the Soviets attempting to take concessions elsewhere — that if they were “good” in one arena they could then get away with being “bad” in another.

Dick and Henry

But my favorite quotes are from Nixon about Vietnam. During a spring offensive by the North Vietnamese in 1972, Nixon told Kissinger:

We’re going to do it. I’m going to destroy the goddamn country, believe me, I mean destroy it if necessary. And let me say, even the nuclear weapons if necessary. It isn’t necessary. But, you know, what I mean is, what shows you the extent to which I’m willing to go. By a nuclear weapon, I mean that we will bomb the living bejeezus out of North Vietnam and then if anybody interferes we will threaten the nuclear weapons.

A week later, he continued to a somewhat horrified Kissinger:

Nixon: I’d rather use the nuclear bomb. Have you got that ready?
Kissinger: That, I think, would just be too much.
Nixon: A nuclear bomb, does that bother you?… I just want you to think big, Henry, for Christ’s sake! The only place where you and I disagree is with regard to the bombing. You’re so goddamned concerned about civilians, and I don’t give a damn. I don’t care.
Kissinger: I’m concerned about the civilians because I don’t want the world to be mobilized against you as a butcher.4

Yeesh. Which just goes to show, that Nixon’s realpolitik approach to nuclear weapons does seem to be slightly unhinged at times — that nukes were not necessarily off the table when he thought about the things he really cared about, at least when he was trying to get a rise out of Kissinger.

As for the NPT, Nixon opposed it during his election campaign, both because he felt treaties were by themselves unenforcible and because he thought there might be some American allies who could use their own nukes. (As a possible example of the kind of difficulty the NPT created, consider that Nixon was the one who helped formulate the pact with Golda Meir that involved Israel never admitting it possessed nuclear weapons so as to maintain good relations with the USA. The NPT put limitations on the US with regards to its Middle Eastern ally, which is not something Nixon would have been happy about.)

Nixon madman

Lastly, there is the “madman” approach that Nixon and Kissinger cooked up — that Kissinger should convince the Soviets that Nixon was unhinged enough to start nuking if things went too sour in Vietnam or elsewhere. This is perhaps Nixon’s most significant engagement with the nuclear question, and it was all psychological, all ploy. And, as Gavin points out, of questionable effectiveness.

Gavin doesn’t defend Nixon’s position on nukes and treaties; he just points out that Nixon actually had a position, and that it was actually deeply at odds with his (mostly positive) public record. The reason Nixon felt free to sign so many agreements is in part because he didn’t take them very seriously. How’s that for an ironic twist? If you don’t think arms control treaties actually matter, then what’s the harm in signing a few more of them?

  1. Francis Gavin, Nuclear Statecraft: History and Strategy in America’s Atomic Age (Cornell University Press, 2012). []
  2. Gavin, 108. []
  3. Gavin, 109-110. []
  4. Gavin, 116, with some of the rest of the quote filled out from elsewhere. []

Heisenberg’s Dresden story: A wartime atomic mystery

Friday, October 11th, 2013

One of the weirdest stories I’ve come across regarding the Nazis and the atomic bomb is the one that the German physicist Werner Heisenberg told at Farm Hall about being asked about an apparent rumor that the United States was planning to use an atomic bomb against Dresden.

The Farm Hall transcripts reports him telling it several times during his internment, and it changed slightly each time he told it. Here’s the first version:

About a year ago, I heard from Segner from the Foreign Office that the Americans had threatened to drop a uranium bomb on Dresden if we didn’t surrender soon. At the time I was asked whether I thought it possible, and, with complete conviction, I replied: “No.

In a later version, he says he replied that it was possible — perhaps a face-saving maneuver, since by the second time Heisenberg tells the story, he has now started to believe that the reports of the atomic attack against Hiroshima were accurate.

My initial inclination is to think of this as strange idle chatter amongst a group of interned German scientists. A little bit of rumor-swapping, bragging about being in-the-know and being someone worth consulting. But I don’t think Heisenberg just made it up. That’s not really his style, I don’t think, and he repeated it several times over the course of their six month stay at Farm Hall.

Physikalische Blaetter, August 1944

Recently, while looking into some other wartime leaks, I came across an interesting follow-up on this story. The leak in question is a weird one and worth sharing. In August 1944, a German science magazine, the Physikalische Blätter (Physical Newspaper/Gazette/Pages), ran a short, anonymous piece titled “Another Utopia“:1

Transocean Service transmits a report cabled to “Stockholm’s Tidnigen” from London: “In the United States scientific research for a new bomb is underway. The material is uranium, and if the forces bound in this element could be liberated, explosive forces of so far unimagined power could be created. A 5-kilogram bomb could made a hole one kilometer deep and with a radius of 40 kilometers. In a circle of 150 kilometers all buildings were be smashed.”2

That’s a pretty weird thing to just appear in a German magazine, no? To save you the effort: their math on the energy release is way off by any measure — the damage radius described is well over 100 megatons, which is around what you’d get if you combined 5 kg of uranium with 5 kg of anti-matter (a pure E=mc2 conversion), much less if it fissioned with perfect efficiency (which would “only” release 85 kilotons).3 Either they’ve carried a few decimal points incorrectly or they’re just really confused. I suspect the latter.

Was this a “legitimate” leak? That is, did it derive from disclosure of confidential information? It’s hard to tell. The fact that it pinpoints the United States as making an atomic bomb out of uranium seems accurate, but everything else seems to be sketchy and confused. It’s true that the plutonium bomb used only around 6 kg of material… but that almost seems like a coincidence given the rest of what they’re talking about here. I’m inclined to file this under “fantastic atomic energy rumors” which were common even before the discovery of fission.

Werner Heisenberg, later in life

Werner Heisenberg, later in life

Anyway. The interesting bit comes 20 years later, in 1964. Physikalische Blätter was (and is) still around, and they ran a story on their wartime leak story. Much of it is repetitive fluff, a by-the-book (for 1964) accounting of Allied and German nuclear research. But along with this, they did attempt to track down the origin of the leak — with no success. But they did decide, thoughtfully, to try and assess the impact of the leak by surveying a few of the Farm Hall physicists to see whether they were aware of the “Another Utopia” story.

Otto Hahn wrote back that he “knew nothing” of the article at the time, and added that while they knew that there were people abroad probably working on the subject of atomic bombs, and that the stopping of all publications about the subject probably indicated the work was secret, that nonetheless they didn’t suspect that the United States would actually be able to produce such weapons in time for use in the war. He then suggested that the Physikalische Blätter should get in touch with Heisenberg, since he was more plugged into such matters than Hahn.4

And they did get in touch with Heisenberg, whose first response was that he hadn’t seen the article, was surprised to hear about it, suspected it was based on “vague rumors,” but said he would love if they sent him a copy so he could evaluate it further.5 They did this, of course, and his second response was the more interesting one. He said that rumors of this sort occurred repeatedly because of articles related to atomic energy that had already been published, and he did not let such rumors occupy him much during the war. But then Heisenberg wrote (my awkward translation — original German is in the footnotes):

Perhaps I should mention here an exception. In the summer of 1944 (probably early July), an aide of Göring’s came to me with a message from a German representative in Lisbon that there was a pronounced American threat against the German government, that an atomic bomb would be dropped on Dresden in the next six weeks if the government did not immediately sue for peace. The exact conditions of where the message came from were not communicated to me. I was asked by Göring’s adjutant if I thought it was possible that the Americans had already created an atomic bomb. I was understandably made very uncomfortable by this question, because of the large responsibility connected to my answer. I said that I thought it was extremely unlikely, but not impossible, for the Americans to have such a weapon at this time, and I tried to explain that the production of the weapon would in any case require an enormous industrial effort, and that I could not imagine that the Americans had already done it.6

And so the Dresden atomic bomb rumor raises its head again, no less confounding than before! But here we have a little more information on the source: it is supposedly from an agent in Lisbon, Portugal. Which is interesting.

General Groves not amused

General Groves is not amused by spies or leaks

Because as Stan Norris communicated to me when I wrote about German espionage efforts, there was a Nazi double-agent in Lisbon who was assigned to learning about the Manhattan Project. Stan has since sent me a “note to file” that General Groves had written about a meeting he had with the Military Policy Committee on June 21, 1944, where he describes this incident and his response to it. In his notes, Groves wrote the following:

This refers to the German agents who came to this country through Portugal, and the messages that were sent back to Germany in their behalf. These people were picked up as soon as they got into the United States and the messages were framed by me. There was considerable argument by my creeps as to these messages. I overruled them and did not deny that certain work was being done. It was pinpointed at certain universities and certain people, none of whom had anything to do with the project. The amount of the work was minimized, and an attempt to convince the Germans that it was an academic effort and that nothing would come of it. The creeps wanted to say that nothing was being done and that checks at various places had indicated that all potential personnel was being used on other work — I think radar.7

Ah, so now this gets really interesting, right? Because this coincides very well with the timing of Heisenberg’s supposed query — apparently originating in Nazi agents in Portugal — regarding whether Dresden would be atomic bombed! (And no, I don’t know why he calls whomever he is talking to “creeps.”)

Obviously I don’t have the whole story here, but the geographical and chronological proximity is a rather impressive overlap, is it not? Could something have gone wrong, or gotten scrambled, in Groves’ attempt to manipulate one of the few German atomic espionage attempts? I.e., Groves had wanted to suggest that the American program was small and unimportant; somebody instead reported back that it was massive and almost ready to go. It seems not impossible, though this is admittedly scant evidence. Either way, it’s clear that Groves would have been mighty mad to find out this question was being asked of Heisenberg.

But, here’s the twist. Arguably the exaggerated outcome would have been (and in fact was!) as good an outcome as Groves’ intended minimization, if not a better one! Heisenberg looked at the six-weeks-to-an-atomic-Dresden claim and said, no way — that doesn’t make any sense. He came away from the whole thing convinced it was just ridiculous wartime nonsense. If the report he had gotten was, “do you believe that the only people working on nuclear fission are a bunch of no-names, instead of Bethe and Fermi and Oppenheimer and Wheeler and all of those other physics luminaries we know the Americans have?,” might that not have raised his suspicions even more?

Of course, that doesn’t explain where Dresden, specifically, would have come into the picture. So there’s still something missing here. And it should be noted that Lisbon was a notorious hub of espionage activity for both sides during the war — so it isn’t necessarily the same guy. So some sobriety intrudes.

Dresden after the firebombing, 1945

Dresden after the firebombing, 1945

Lastly, is it possible the Dresden threat could have been real? The Physikalische Blätter story got picked up by the Washington Post, and they got in touch with Richard G. Hewlett, the Atomic Energy Commission’s official historian. He thought Heisenberg’s story was pretty nuts: “I can’t possibly believe there was an actual threat from the U.S. Government.”8 This was, obviously, because the US was still a year away from an atomic bomb at the time, and the idea of it being some kind of legitimate, diplomatic threat seems pretty out of character. Though do remember that Roosevelt asked Groves about using the bomb against Germany in December 1944 — so maybe, somewhere, this kind of idea was kicking around inside the heads of some people who knew about the Manhattan Project work but didn’t know how close it was to completion — maybe even someone who was working some kind of diplomatic/espionage backchannel. I don’t know.

As it was, Dresden was of course catastrophically attacked. Over the course of three days in February 1945, some 1,250 Allied heavy bombers pounded the city with incendiaries and high explosives, killing well over 20,000 people and burning the heart out of a city that until that point had been spared the horrors of area bombing. Could Dresden have been kept “pristine” on the theory that it might have been a good atomic bombing target, in the same way that Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Kokura, and Niigata had been? The Physikalische Blätter speculated that maybe this was the case, though there is no evidence that supports this conclusion.9 I doubt it, personally — the selection of Dresden as a target has its own trajectory that seems independent of any possible atomic narrative, and the idea that it would have been selected as a possible atomic bomb target as early as the summer of 1944 seems rather far-fetched. It should be noted, as well, that the narrative about the atomic bomb in mid-1960s Germany was very much tinged by the Cold War context; it was a common thread of discussion in both the West and the East that the United States would be willing to throw Germany under the bus if it came to a real confrontation with the Soviets.

Still, it’s an interesting constellation of stories: the leak, Heisenberg’s query, and Groves’ attempt at misinformation. If Groves’ misinformation attempt was really did result in the query to Heisenberg, what tremendous irony would abound. Ironic that Groves’ attempt to minimize the effort would result in a exaggerated interpretation; irony that the exaggerated interpretation would lead to total dismissal by the expert.

  1. Noch eine Utopie,” Physikalische Blätter 1, No. 8 (1944), 118. I was surprised to find all of PB online and without a paywall. This particular article is appended to a longer report on “Science and War.” []
  2. “Transozean-Innendienst verbreitet eine Nachricht, die sich “Stockholms Tidningen” aus London melden läßt: “In den Vereinigten Staaten werden wissenschaftliche Versuche mit einer neuen Bombe ausgeführt. Als Material dient Uran, und wenn die gebundenen Kräfte in diesem Element frei würden, dann könnten Sprengwirkungen· von bisher nicht geahnter Kraft erzeugt werden. Eine 5-kg-Bombe könnte dann ein Loch von 1 km Tiefe und 40 km Radius hervorbringen. In einem Umkreis von 150 km würden alle festen Gebäude in Trümmer gehen.” []
  3. The rule of thumb is that the completely fissioning of a kilogram of fissile material produces about 17 kilotons of yield. []
  4. “Ich wußte gar nichts von dem Inhalt des Artikels im Augustheft 1944 der Physikalischen Blätter, und so möchte ich daraus schließen, daß er mir auch damals nicht bekannt war. Wir alle waren natürlich während des Krieges der Meinung, daß man im Ausland, vor allem in Amerika, wohl an einer Herstellung von Atombomben arbeiten wird, denn es wurden ja auch in Deutschland Vorversuche darüber gemacht mit dem Versuch der Aufstellung eines Atomreaktors. Und da nach Kriegsanfang alle Publikationen aus dem Gebiete aufhörten, schlossen wir natürlich, daß im Ausland geheime Arbeiten gemacht würden. Andererseits glaubte keiner von uns, daß während der Kriegszeit eine Atombombe fertiggestellt werden könnte. Ich erinnere mich an das Erstaunen, das wir alle hatten, als wir von der Bombe im August 1945 in englischer Gefangenschaft erfuhren. Da Prof. Heisenberg der Vorsitzende des sogen. Uran-Vereins war, also die Arbeiten zur Herstellung eines Kernreaktors geleitet hat, ist wohl Herr Heisenberg die beste Quelle, zu erfahren, ob jemand von uns die Mitteilung in den Phys. Blättern kennt.” Otto Hahn, quoted in E. Brüche, “Was wußte man 1943/44 in Deutschland von der Atombombe?Physikalische Blätter 20, No. 5 (1964), 220-225, on 222. []
  5. “Sie schreiben davon, daß in den Phys. Blättern bereits 1944 eine Notiz über die amerikanischen Versuche mit Atombomben erschienen sei. Dies ist mir völlig neu, aber zugleich interessant und unbegreiflich; denn die ersten amerikanischen Atombombenversuche haben ja bekanntlich im Frühjahr 1945 stattgefunden. Es kann sich also eigentlich nur um ziemlich vage Vermutungen gehandelt haben. Ich wäre Ihnen sehr dankbar, wenn Sie mir eine Kopie jenes Artikels in den Phys. Blättern zukommen lassen könnten; dann kann ich besser beurteilen, ob ich diesen Artikel jemals gesehen habe und wie ich darauf reagiert habe.” Werner Heisenberg, quoted in E. Brüche, “Was wußte man 1943/44 in Deutschland von der Atombombe?” Physikalische Blätter 20, No. 5 (1964), 220-225, on 222. []
  6. “An die von Ihnen erwähnte Notiz in den Phys. Blättern aus dem Jahr 1944 konnte ich mich nicht mehr erinnern, aber Gerüchte dieser Art sind – schon aufgrund des Flüggeschen Artikels in den “Naturwissenschaften” – immer wieder aufgetreten und haben mich daher nicht allzu sehr beschäftigt. Vielleicht sollte ich hier eine Ausnahme erwähnen. Im Sommer 1944 (wahrscheinlich Anfang Juli) kam einmal der Adjutant von Göring zu mir mit der Mitteilung, es sei über die deutsche Vertretung in Lissabon eine amerikanische Drohung gegen die deutsche Regierung ausgesprochen worden, es werde innerhalb der nächsten sechs Wochen eine Atombombe über Dresden abgeworfen werden, wenn die Regierung nicht in irgendeiner Art um Frieden bäte. über den genauen Inhalt der Bedingungen wurde mir nichts mitgeteilt. Ich wurde von dem Adjutanten Görings gefragt, ob ich es für möglich hielte, daß die Amerikaner bereits über eine Atombombe verfügten. Mir war diese Frage begreiflicherweise sehr unangenehm, weil mit der Antwort auf jeden Fall eine große Verantwortung verbunden war. Ich habe dann gesagt, daß ich es zwar für außerordentlich unwahrscheinlich, aber nicht für völlig unmöglich hielte, daß die Amerikaner zu diesem Zeitpunkt über eine solche Waffe verfügten, und habe versucht zu erklären, daß die Herstellung der Waffe auf jeden Fall einen enormen industriellen Aufwand erfordern müßte, von dem ich mir nicht denken könnte, daß die Amerikaner ihn schon geleistet hätten.” Ibid. An article on uranium fission by Siegfried Flügge appeared in Die Naturwissenschaften in June 1939; Heisenberg cites this as the reason for all of the speculation. Flügge himself was asked about the “Another Utopia” article as well and he responded with a diatribe about how nobody credits him for anything. []
  7. Leslie Groves, Notes on the Military Policy Committee of June 21, 1944 (undated, but prior to 1964), Leslie R. Groves Papers, National Archives and Records Administration, RG 200, Entry 7530M, Box 4, “Working Papers.” Courtesy of Robert S. Norris. []
  8. Howard Simons, “Were We Vulnerable: Swedish Report in World War II Tipped U.S. A-Bomb Hand,” Washington Post (27 December 1964), E3. Simons’ story butchers many of the facts, including getting the nationality of Physikalische Blätter wrong (which PB took issue with in its reprinting of it), and even misspells Hewlett’s name. []
  9. “Dresden – Schicksal und Warnung,” Physikalische Blätter 21, no. 4 (1965), 196. []