Posts Tagged ‘Books’

Visions

Visualizing fissile materials

Friday, November 14th, 2014

I’ve had some very favorable interactions with the people at the Program on Science and Global Security at Princeton University over the years, so I’m happy to announce that four of the faculty have collaborated on a book about the control of fissile material stockpiles. Unmaking the Bomb: A Fissile Material Approach to Nuclear Disarmament and Non-Proliferation, by Harold Feiveson, Alex Glaser, Zia Mian, and Frank von Hippel, was recently published by MIT Press. Glaser, who does some pretty far-out work at the Nuclear Futures Lab (among other things, he has been working on really unusual ways to verify weapons disarmament without giving away information about the bombs themselves — a really tricky intersection of policy, technical work, and secrecy), asked me if I would help them design the cover, knowing that I like to both dabble in graphic arts as well as bomb-related things. Here is what we came up with, in both its rendered and final form:

Unmaking the Bomb cover and render

The “exploded” bomb here is obvious a riff on the Fat Man bomb, simplified for aesthetic/functional purposes, and was created by me using the 3-D design program Blender. (The rest of the cover, i.e. the typography, was designed by the art people at MIT Press.) The idea behind the image was to highlight the fact that the fissile material, the nuclear core of the bomb, made up a very small piece of the overall contraption, but that its importance was absolutely paramount. This is why the non-nuclear parts of the bomb are rendered as a sort of grayish/white “putty,” and the core itself as a metallic black, levitating above.

The original idea, proposed by Glaser, was to do sort of a modern version of a drawing that appears in Chuck Hansen’s U.S. Nuclear Weapons: The Secret History (Aerofax: 1988). Hansen’s image is a thing of beauty and wonder:

1988 - Chuck Hansen - Fat Man

I first saw this diagram when I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, working on a project relating to nuclear weapons — one of my first exposures to this kind of stuff. I had checked out pretty much every book on the subject that was in the Berkeley library system, which meant I found lots of unexpected, un-searched-for things serendipitously amongst the stacks. (This is something that I think has been lost, or at least not replicated, with increased reliance on digital sources.) I saw this diagram and thought, “Wow! That’s a lot of information about an atomic bomb! I wonder how he got all of that, and how much of it is real and how much is made up?” I don’t want to say this diagram is what made me want to study nuclear secrecy — origins and interests are always more complicated than that, and a close friend of mine recently reminded me that even in elementary school I used to talk about how nuclear bombs were made, armed with the beautiful-but-highly-inaccurate drawings from Macaulay’s The Way Things Work), but it did play a role.

Eventually I did track down a lot of information about this particular diagram. I found Hansen’s own original sketch of it (in his papers at the National Security Archive) that he gave to the artist/draftsman who drew the piece, Mike Wagnon:

Chuck Hansen Fat Man sketch

I also tracked down Wagnon, some years back now. He told me how he drew it. The original drawing was made many times larger than it was going to be in the book — it was four feet long! After being finished, it was reduced down to the size on the page in the book, so that it just looked like it was packed with fine detail. He also confirmed for me what I had come to suspect, that the diagrams in Hansen’s book, as Wagnon put it to me in 2004, “advertise an accuracy they do not have.” A lot of it was just deduced and guessed, but when you draw it like an engineering diagram, people assuming you know what you’re doing.1

Looking at it now, I can see also sorts of really serious errors that show the limits of Hansen’s knowledge about Fat Man in 1988. An obvious one is that it is missing the aluminum pusher which sits in between the tamper and the high explosives. There are other issues relating to the most sensitive parts of the core, things that John Coster-Mullen has spent several decades now working out the details of. Hansen, in his later Swords of Armageddon, corrected many of these errors, but he never made a diagram that good again. As an aside, Wagnon’s version of Little Boy — which we also now know, because of Coster-Mullen, has many things wrong — was the source of the “blueprint” for the bomb in the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy:

At top, Wagnon's diagram of Little Boy from Hansen's 1988 U.S. Nuclear Weapons. At bottom, a screenshot from the 1989 film, Fat Man and Little Boy, shows Oppenheimer pondering essentially the same image.

At top, Wagnon’s diagram of Little Boy from Hansen’s 1988 U.S. Nuclear Weapons. At bottom, a screenshot from the 1989 film Fat Man and Little Boy shows Oppenheimer pondering essentially the same image.

Anyway, I am getting off the thread a bit. Unmaking the Bomb, aside from having an awesome cover, is about fissile materials: enriched uranium and separated plutonium, both of which can be readily used in the production of nuclear weapons. The authors outline a series of steps that could be taken to reduce the amount of fissile materials in the world, which they see as a bad thing both for non-proliferation (since a country with stockpiles of fissile materials can basically become a nuclear power in a matter of weeks), disarmament (since having lots of fissile materials means nuclear states could scale up their nuclear programs very quickly if they chose to), and anti-terrorism (the more fissile materials abound, the more opportunities for theft or diversion by terrorist groups).

The Princeton crew is also quite active in administering the International Panel on Fissile Materials, which produces regular reports on the quantities of fissile materials in the world. Numbers are, as always, hard for me to visualize, so I have been experimenting with ways of visualizing them effectively. This is a visualization I cooked up this week, and I think it is mostly effective at conveying the basic issues regarding fissile materials, which is that the stockpiles of them are extremely large with respect to the amounts necessary to make weapons:

world fissile material stockpiles

Click the image to enlarge it. The small blue-ish blocks represent the approximate volume of 50 kg of highly-enriched uranium (which is on order for what you’d need for a simple gun-type bomb, like Little Boy), and the small silver-ish blocks are the same for 5 kg of separated plutonium (on order for use in a first-generation implosion weapon). One can play with the numbers there a bit but the rough quantities work out the same. Each of the “big” stacks contain 1,000 smaller blocks. All references to “tons” are metric tons (1,000 kg). The “person” shown is “Susan” from Google SketchUp. The overall scene, however, is rendered in Blender, using volumes computed by WolframAlpha.

I made this visualization after a few in which I rendered the stockpiles as single cubes. The cubes were quite large but didn’t quite convey the sense of scale — it was too hard for my brain, anyway, to make sense of how little material you needed for a bomb and put that into conversation with the size of the cube. Rendering it in terms of bomb-sized materials does the trick a bit better, I think, and helps emphasize the overall political argument that the Unmaking the Bomb authors are trying to get across: you can make a lot of bombs with the materials that the world possesses. If you want the run-down on which countries have these materials (spoiler: it’s not just the ones with nuclear weapons), check out the IPFM’s most recent report, with graphs on pages 11 and 18.

To return to the original thread: the bomb model I used for the cover of Unmaking the Bomb is one I’ve been playing with for a while now. As one might imagine, when I was learning to use Blender, the first thing I thought to try and model was Fat Man and Little Boy, because they are subjects dear to my heart and they present interesting geometric challenges. They are not so free-form and difficult as rendering something organic (like a human being, which is hard), but they are also not simply combinations of Archimedean solids. One of my goals for this academic year is to develop a scaled, 3D-printed model of the Fat Man bomb, with all of the little internal pieces you’d expect, based on the work of John Coster-Mullen. I’ve never done 3D-printing before, but some of my new colleagues in the Visual Arts and Technology program here at the Stevens Institute of Technology are experienced in the genre, and have agreed to help me learn it. (To learn a new technology, one always needs a project, I find. And I find my projects always involve nuclear weapons.)

For a little preview of what the 3D model might end up looking like, I expanded upon the model I developed for the Unmaking the Bomb cover when I helped put together the Unmaking the Bomb website. Specifically, I put together a little Javascript application that I am calling The Visual Atomic Bomb, which lives on the Unmaking the Bomb website:

The Visual Atomic Bomb screenshot

I can’t guarantee it will work with old browsers (it requires a lot of Javascript and transparent PNGs), but please, give it a shot! By hovering your mouse over the various layer names, it will highlight them, and you can click the various buttons (“hide,” “show,” “open,” “close,” “collapse,” “expand,” and so on) to toggle how the various pieces are displayed. It is not truly 3D, as you will quickly see — it uses pre-rendered layers, because 3D is still a tricky thing to pull off in web browsers — but it is maybe the next best thing. It has more detail than the one on the cover of the book, but you can filter a lot of it on and off. Again, the point is to emphasize the centrality of the fissile material, but to also show all of the apparatus that is needed to make the thing actually explode.

I like to think that Chuck Hansen, were he alive today, would appreciate my attempt to take his original diagrammatic representation into a new era. And I like to think that this kind of visualization can help people, especially non-scientists (among which I count myself), wrap their heads around the tricky technical aspects of a controversial and problematic technology.

Notes
  1. I wrote a very, very, very long paper* in graduate school about the relationship between visual tropes and claims to power through secrecy with relation to the drawing of nuclear weapons. I have never quite edited it into a publishable shape and I fear that it would be very hard to do anything with given the fact that you really need to reproduce the diagrams to see the argument, and navigating through the copyright permissions would probably take a year in and of itself (academic presses are really averse to the idea of relying on “fair use“), and funds that nobody has offered up! But maybe someday I will find some way to use it other than as a source for anecdotes for the blog. *OK, I’ll own up to it: it was 93 pages long (but only 62 pages of text!) when I turned it in to the professor. I was told I should either turn it into a long article or a short book. []
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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.

Notes
  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. []
Redactions

Leo Szilard, war criminal?

Friday, February 14th, 2014

Could Leo Szilard have been tried as a war criminal? Now, before anyone starts to wonder if this is a misleading or inflammatory headline, let me say up front: this was a question that Szilard himself posed in a 1949 story published in the University of Chicago Law Review titled, “My Trial as a War Criminal.” It is a work of fiction, but Szilard was serious about the questions it raised about the morality of the atomic bomb.1

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

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

Leo Szilard is one of the most colorful characters in the story of how the atomic bomb got made. An eccentric Hungarian, one of the “Martians” who emigrated to the United States during World War II, Szilard aspired to always being one step of head of the times. You didn’t have to be much ahead to make a difference, he argued, just a little bit. One example of this he gave in a later interview regards his decision to flee Germany shortly after the Reichstag fire. On the day he left, it was an easy trip on an empty train. The next day, the Germans cracked down on those trying to flee. “This just goes to show that if you want to succeed in this world you don’t have to be much cleverer than other people, you just have to be one day earlier than most people. This is all that it takes.”2 In 1939, Szilard was the one who famously got Albert Einstein to write to President Roosevelt, launching the first US government coordination and funding of fission research. During the Manhattan Project itself, Szilard worked at the University of Chicago, helping to develop the first nuclear reactor (CP-1) with Enrico Fermi. After this, though, his active role in the bomb project declined, because General Groves hated the man and worked to exclude him. He attempted in various ways to influence high-level policy regarding the bomb, but was always shut out.

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

Szilard - My Trial as a War Criminal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Stimson’s section gets the closest to the meat of the question — whether the atomic bombs were justified. Stimson’s defense is the same as his 1947 article from Harper’s — that the bombs were used to hasten the war and to save a net number of lives. The Russians point out, however, that even the US Strategic Bombing Survey concluded that the atomic bombs were not necessary to end the war,3 and that Stimson had access to sufficient intelligence about Japanese communications to know that Japan was on its last legs.

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

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

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

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

One can also read the piece as being instead a complaint about the definition of “war crimes” from Nuremberg — are they nothing more than using new weapons and talking about war? The actual Nuremberg principles, also include “wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.” Now whether the atomic bombings fall under that is a tricky question — how does one define “justified by military necessity”? On this sort of unclear requirement, the whole edifice hinges.4

Szilard glasses 1960 LIFE

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

A number of us discussed it. It was about a war between the USSR and the USA, a very devastating one, which brought victory to the USSR. Szilard and a number of other physicists are put under arrest and then face the court as war criminals for having created weapons of mass destruction. Neither they nor their lawyers could make up a cogent proof of their innocence. We were amazed by this paradox. You can’t get away from the fact that we were developing weapons of mass destruction. We thought it was necessary. Such was our inner conviction. But still the moral aspect of it would not let Andrei Dmitrievich and some of us live in peace.5

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

Notes
  1. Leo Szilard, “My Trial as a War Criminal,” University of Chicago Law Review 17, no. 1 (Autumn 1949), 79-86. It was later reprinted in Szilard’s book of short stories, The Voice of Dolphins. []
  2. Spencer Weart and Gertrude Weiss Szilard, eds., Leo Szilard: His version of the facts; Selected recollections and correspondence (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1978), 14. []
  3. “Based on a detailed investigation of all the facts, and supported by the testimony of the surviving Japanese leaders involved, it is the Survey’s opinion that certainly prior to 31 December 1945, and in all probability prior to 1 November 1945, Japan would have surrendered even if the atomic bombs had not been dropped, even if Russia had not entered the war, and even if no invasion had been planned or contemplated.” []
  4. Szilard’s story also notes that just because these principles were developed after the war ended did not prohibit them from being applied to activities during the war — otherwise all of the Germans would have gotten off the hook. []
  5. Richard Rhodes, Dark sun: The making of the hydrogen bomb (Simon & Schuster, 1995), 582. []
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Conant’s war: Inside the Mouse-Trap

Friday, January 17th, 2014

I’ve started teaching my “Science and the Cold War” course again, this time in the History Department at Georgetown University.1 The course starts with World War I and goes all the way through the early 1990s — quite a whirlwind tour of how science, technology, and the state got to be so seriously intermingled. On Tuesday I gave a lecture that forced me to go over some material I hadn’t thought about for awhile: what James B. Conant did during the war. No, not the war you’re probably thinking about.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"WAS REALLY GREAT PLAYER."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British football/soccer team in gas masks, 1916.

British football/soccer team in gas masks, 1916.

Conant drove his team hard, and was noticed for it. He moved from mustard gas to a new assignment — a nasty chemical called Lewisite, an arsenic-based compound that was advertised by Harper’s Monthly as some 72X more deadly than any other gas developed during the war (modern classifications seem to put it at only 3X more deadly than mustard gas2), but unlike mustard gas it was very acute in its effects and dissipated quickly, allowing it to be considered for offensive maneuvers.

An article in Harper’s Monthly from 19193 has one of the more florid descriptions of Lewisite that I’ve come across:

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

Lewisite identification poster from World War II.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time Magazine - James Conant

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes
  1. It is not a permanent gig, before anyone congratulates me on landing a new job! Just a temporary thing. []
  2. See, e.g., the LD50 doses for Sulfur Mustard (mustard gas) and Lewisite. []
  3. Frank Parker Stockbridge, “War Inventions That Came Too Late,” Harper’s Monthly (November 1919), 828-835. []
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Nuclear history bibliography, 2013

Monday, January 6th, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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