Posts Tagged ‘David E. Lilienthal’


Liminal 1946: A Year in Flux

Friday, November 8th, 2013

There are lots of important and exciting years that people like to talk about when it comes to the history of nuclear weapons. 1945 obviously gets pride of place, being the year of the first nuclear explosion ever (Trinity), the first  and only uses of the weapons in war (Hiroshima and Nagasaki), and the end of World War II (and thus the beginning of the postwar world). 1962 gets brought up because of the Cuban Missile Crisis. 1983 has been making a resurgence in our nuclear consciousness, thanks to lots of renewed interest in the Able-Archer war scare. All of these dates are, of course, super important.

Washington Post - January 1, 1946

But one of my favorite historical years is 1946. It’s easy to overlook — while there are some important individual events that happen, none of them are as cataclysmic as some of the events of the aforementioned years, or even some of the other important big years. But, as I was reminded last week while going through some of the papers of David Lilienthal and Bernard Baruch that were in the Princeton University archives, 1946 was something special in and of itself. It is not the big events that define 1946, but the fact that it was a liminal year, a transition period between two orders. For policymakers in the United States, 1946 was when the question of “what will the country’s attitude towards the bomb be?” was still completely up for grabs, but over the course of the year, things became more set in stone.

1946 was a brief period when anything seemed possible. When nothing had yet calcified. The postwar situation was still fluid, and the American approach towards the bomb still unclear.

Part of the reason for this is because things went a little off the rails in 1945. The bombs were dropped, the war had ended, people were pretty happy about all of that. General Groves et al. assumed that Congress would basically take their recommendations for how the bomb should be regarded in the postwar (by passing the May-Johnson Bill, which military lawyers, with help from Vannevar Bush and James Conant, drafted in the final weeks of World War II). At first, it looked like this was going to happen — after all, didn’t Groves “succeed” during the war? But in the waning months of 1945, this consensus rapidly deteriorated. The atomic scientists on the Manhattan Project who had been dissatisfied with the Army turned out to make a formidable lobby, and they found allies amongst a number of Senators. Most important of these was first-term Senator Brien McMahon, who quickly saw an opportunity to jump into the limelight by making atomic energy his issue. By the end of the year, not only did Congressional support fall flat for the Army’s Bill, but even Truman had withdrawn support for it. In its place, McMahon suggested a bill that looked like something the scientists would have written — a much freer, less secret, civilian-run plan for atomic energy.

So what happened in 1946? Let’s just jot off a few of the big things I have in mind.

January: The United Nations meets for the first time. Kind of a big deal. The UN Atomic Energy Commission is created to sort out questions about the future of nuclear technology on a global scale. Hearings on the McMahon Bill continue in Congress through February.

Igor Gouzenko (masked) promoting a novel in 1954. The mask was to help him maintain his anonymity, but you have to admit it adds a wonderfully surreal and theatrical aspect to the whole thing.

Igor Gouzenko (masked) promoting a novel in 1954. The mask was to help him maintain his anonymity, but you have to admit it adds a wonderfully surreal and theatrical aspect to the whole thing.

February: The first Soviet atomic spy ring is made public when General Groves leaks information about Igor Gouzenko to the press. Groves wasn’t himself too concerned about it — it was only a Canadian spy ring, and Groves had compartmentalized the Canadians out of anything he considered really important — but it served the nice purpose of dashing the anti-secrecy lobby onto the rocks.

Also in February, George F. Kennan sends his famous “Long Telegram” from Moscow, arguing that the Soviet Union sees itself in essential, permanent conflict with the West and is not likely to liberalize anytime soon. Kennan argues that containment of the USSR through “strong resistance” is the only viable course for the United States.

March: The Manhattan Engineer District’s Declassification Organization starts full operation. Groves had asked the top Manhattan Project scientists to come up with the first declassification rules in November 1945, when he realized that Congress wasn’t going to be passing legislation as soon as he expected. They came up with the first declassification procedures and the first declassification guides, inaugurating the first systematic approach to deciding what was secret and what was not.

Lilienthal's own copy of the mass-market edition of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, from the Princeton University Archives.

Lilienthal’s own copy of the mass-market edition of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, from the Princeton University Archives.

March: The Acheson-Lilienthal Report is completed and submitted, in secret, to the State Department. It is quickly leaked and then was followed up by a legitimate publication by the State Department. Created by a sub-committee of advisors, headed by TVA Chairman David Lilienthal and with technical advice provided by J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report argued that the only way to a safe world was through “international control” of atomic energy. The scheme they propose is that the United Nations create an organization (the Atomic Development Authority) that would be granted full control over world uranium stocks and would have the ability to inspect all facilities that used uranium in significant quantities. Peaceful applications of atomic energy would be permitted, but making nuclear weapons would not be. If one thought of it as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, except without any authorized possession of nuclear weapons, one would not be too far off the mark. Of note is that it is an approach to controlling the bomb that is explicitly not about secrecy, but about physical control of materials. It is not loved by Truman and his more hawkish advisors (e.g. Secretary of State Byrnes), but because of its leak and subsequent publication under State Department header, it is understood to be “the” position of the United States government on the issue.

April: The McMahon Act gets substantial modifications while in committee, including the creation of a Military Liaison Committee (giving the military an official position in the running of the Atomic Energy Commission) and the introduction of a draconian secrecy provision (the “restricted data” concept that this blog takes its name from).

June: The Senate passes the McMahon Act. The House starts to debate it. Several changes are made to the House version of the bill — notably all employees with access to “restricted data” must now be investigated by the FBI and the penalty for misuse or espionage of “restricted data” is increased to death or life imprisonment. Both of these features were kept in the final version submitted to the President for signature in July.

June: Bernard Baruch, Truman’s appointee to head the US delegation of the UN Atomic Energy Commission, presents a modified form of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report to the UNAEC, dubbed the Baruch Plan. Some of the modifications are substantial, and are deeply resented by people like Oppenheimer who see them as torpedoing the plan. The Baruch Plan, for example, considered the question of what to do about violations of the agreement something that needed to be hashed out explicitly and well in advance. It also argued that the United States would not destroy its (still tiny) nuclear stockpile until the Soviet Union had proven it was not trying to build a bomb of their own. It was explicit about the need for full inspections of the USSR — a difficulty in an explicitly closed society — and stripped the UN Security Council of veto power when it came to enforcing violations of the treaty. The Soviets were, perhaps unsurprisingly, resistant to all of these measures. Andrei Gromyko proposes a counter-plan which, like the Baruch Plan, prohibits the manufacture and use of atomic weaponry. However, it requires full and immediate disarmament by the United States before anything else would go into effect, and excludes any international role in inspection or enforcement: states would self-regulate on this front.

Shot "Baker" of Operation Crossroads — one of the more famous mushroom clouds of all time. Note that the mushroom cloud itself is not the wide cloud you see there (which is a brief condensation cloud caused by it being an underwater detonation), but is the more bulbous cloud you see peaking out of the top of that cloud. You can see the battleships used for target practice near base of the cloud. The dark mark on the right side of the stem may be an upturned USS Arkansas.

Shot “Baker” of Operation Crossroads — one of the more famous mushroom clouds of all time. Note that the mushroom cloud itself is not the wide cloud you see there (which is a brief condensation cloud caused by it being an underwater detonation), but is the more bulbous cloud you see peaking out of the top of that cloud. You can see the battleships used for target practice near base of the cloud. The dark mark on the right side of the stem may be an upturned USS Arkansas.

July: The first postwar nuclear test series, Operation Crossroads, begins in the Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands. Now this is a curious event. Ostensibly the United States was in favor of getting rid of nuclear weapons, and in fact had not yet finalized its domestic legislation about the bomb. But at the same time, it planned to set off three of them, to see their effect on naval vessels. (They decided to only set off two, in the end.) The bombs were themselves still secret, of course, but it was decided that this event should be open to the world and its press. Even the Soviets were invited! As one contemporary report summed up:

The unique nature of the operation was inherent not only in its huge size — the huge numbers of participating personnel, and the huge amounts of test equipment and number of instruments involved — it was inherent also in the tremendous glare of publicity to which the tests were exposed, and above all the the extraordinary fact that the weapons whose performance was exposed to this publicity were still classified, secret, weapons, which had never even been seen except by a few men in the inner circles of the Manhattan District and by those who had assisted in the three previous atomic bomb detonations. It has been truly said that the operation was “the most observed, most photographed, most talked-of scientific test ever conducted.” Paradoxically, it may also be said that it was the most publicly advertised secret test ever conducted.1

August: Truman signs the McMahon Act into law, and it becomes the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. It stipulates that a five-person Atomic Energy Commission will run all of the nation’s domestic atomic energy affairs, and while half of the law retains the “free and open” approach of the early McMahon Act, the other half has a very conservative and restrictive flavor to it, promising death and imprisonment to anyone who betrays atomic secrets. The paradox is explicit, McMahon explained at the time, because finding a way to implement policy between those two extremes would produce rational discussion. Right. Did I mention he was a first-term Senator? The Atomic Energy Commission would take over from the Manhattan Engineer District starting in 1947.

A meeting of the UN Atomic Energy Commission in October 1946. Bernard Baruch is the white-haired man sitting at the table at right behind the “U.S.A” plaque. At far top-right of the photo is Robert Oppenheimer. Two people above Baruch, in the very back, is General Groves. Directly below Groves is Manhattan Project scientist Richard Tolman. British physicist James Chadwick sits directly behind the U.K. representative at the table.

A meeting of the UN Atomic Energy Commission in October 1946. At front left, speaking, is Andrei Gromyko. Bernard Baruch is the white-haired man sitting at the table at right behind the “U.S.A” plaque. At far top-right of the photo is a pensive J. Robert Oppenheimer. Two people above Baruch, in the very back, is a bored-looking General Groves. Directly below Groves is Manhattan Project scientist Richard Tolman. British physicist James Chadwick sits directly behind the U.K. representative at the table.

September: Baruch tells Truman that international control of atomic energy seems nowhere in sight. The Soviet situation has soured dramatically over the course of the year. The Soviets’  international control plan, the Gromyko Plan, requires full faith in Stalin’s willingness to self-regulate. Stalin, for his part, is not willing to sign a pledge of disarmament and inspection while the United States is continuing to build nuclear weapons. It is clear to Baruch, and even to more liberal-minded observers like Oppenheimer, that the Soviets are probably not going to play ball on any of this, because it would not only require them to forswear a potentially important weapon, but because any true plan would require them to become a much more open society.

October: Truman appoints David Lilienthal as the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Lilienthal is enthusiastic about the job — a New Deal technocrat, he thinks that he can use his position to set up a fairly liberal approach to nuclear technology in the United States. He is quickly confronted by the fact that the atomic empire established by the Manhattan Engineer District has decayed appreciably in year after the end of the war, and that he has powerful enemies in Congress and in the military. His confirmation hearings start in early 1947, and are exceptionally acrimonious. I love Lilienthal as an historical figure, because he is an idealist who really wants to accomplish good things, but ends up doing almost the opposite of what he set out to do. To me this says a lot about the human condition.

November: The US Atomic Energy Commission meets for the first time in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. They adopt the declassification system of the Manhattan District, among other administrative matters.

December: Meredith Gardner, a cryptanalyst for the US Army Signal Intelligence Service, achieves a major breakthrough in decrypting wartime Soviet cables. A cable from 1944 contains a list of scientists working at Los Alamos — indications of a serious breach in wartime atomic security, potentially much worse than the Canadian spy ring. This information is kept extremely secret, however, as this work becomes a major component in the VENONA project, which (years later) leads to the discovery of Klaus Fuchs, Julius Rosenberg, and many other Soviet spies.

On Christmas Day, 1946, the Soviet Union’s first experimental reactor, F-1, goes critical for the first time.

The Soviet F-1 reactor, in 2009. It remains operational today — the longest-lived nuclear reactor by far.

The Soviet F-1 reactor, in 2009. It remains operational today — the longest-lived nuclear reactor by far.

No single event on that list stands out as on par with Hiroshima, the Cuban Missile Crisis, or even the Berlin Crisis. But taken together, I think, the list makes a strong argument for the importance of 1946. When one reads the documents from this period, one gets this sense of a world in flux. On the one hand, you have people who are hoping that the re-ordering of the world after World War II will present an enormous opportunity for creating a more peaceful existence. The ideas of world government, of the banning of nuclear weapons, of openness and prosperity, seem seriously on the table. And not just by members of the liberal elite, mind you: even US Army Generals were supporting these kinds of positions! And yet, as the year wore on, the hopes began to fade. Harsher analysis began to prevail. Even the most optimistic observers started to see that the problems of the old order weren’t going away anytime soon, that no amount of good faith was going to get Stalin to play ball. Which is, I should say, not to put all of the onus on the Soviets, as intractable as they were, and as awful as Stalin was. One can imagine a Cold War that was less tense, less explicitly antagonistic, less dangerous, even with limitations that the existence of a ruler like Stalin imposed. But some of the more hopeful things seem, with reflection, like pure fantasy. This is Stalin we’re talking about, after all. Roosevelt might have been able to sweet talk him for awhile, but even that had its limits.

We now know, of course, that the Soviet Union was furiously trying to build its own atomic arsenal in secret during this entire period. We also know that the US military was explicitly expecting to rely on atomic weapons in any future conflict, in order to offset the massive Soviet conventional advantage that existed at the time. We know that there was extensive Soviet espionage in the US government and its atomic program, although not as extensive as fantasists like McCarthy thought. We also know, through hard experience, that questions of treaty violations and inspections didn’t go away over time — if anything, I think, the experience of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty has shown that many of Baruch’s controversial changes to the Acheson-Lilienthal Report were pretty astute, and quickly got to the center of the political difficulties that all arms control efforts present.

As an historian, I love periods of flux and of change. (As an individual, I know that living in “interesting times” can be pretty stressful!) I love looking at where old orders break down, and new orders emerge. The immediate postwar is one such period — where ideas were earnestly discussed that seemed utterly impossible only a few years later. Such periods provide little windows into “what might have been,” alternative futures and possibilities that never happened, while also reminding us of the forces that bent things to the path they eventually went on.

  1. Manhattan District History, Book VIII, Los Alamos Project (Y) – Volume 3, Auxiliary Activities, Chapter 8, Operation Crossroads (n.d., ca. 1946). []

Nuclear This, That, and “Them”

Monday, July 2nd, 2012

I’ve just returned to (broiling) DC from the annual meeting of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR, variously pronounced “shafe-er” or “shaffer”). Diplomatic historians are a sartorially conservative bunch — much more so than historians of science, who are still far, far more conservative than science studies people — so it highly amusing that the convention center was also host to a meeting of ministers wives and widows (almost entirely African-American, by contrast to the mostly-white SHAFR crowd) and an exhibition of body builders. So the line at the convention center Starbucks would be three fairly dull looking historians (full suit, etc.), two ministers’ wives/widows (fantastic dresses, impressive hats, enormous broaches), and at least one leathery-skinned, overly-tanned, veins-bulging guy or gal wearing workout clothes. A fun mix. I should have taken a picture.

My talk was part of a two-panel series titled “After the Nuclear Revolution.” (Revolutions were part of the conference theme.) The papers actually marched quite interestingly along chronologically. On the my panel were (in order of presentation) Mary McPartland, a grad student at GWU, myself, and Mara Drogan, a recent Ph.D. recipient from the University of Albany (SUNY), who was the one who organized the two panels.

Mary’s paper was about Farm Hall, the English country house where ten German scientists were detained for six  months (July 1945 to early January 1946). In particular, Mary used Farm Hall as a way to explore the immediate postwar nuclear relationship between the US and the UK (problematic to the point of eventual collapse), and their lack of clear understanding as to what they were meant to do with German nuclear scientists in the postwar period.

Three of the Farm Hall heavies: Werner Heisenberg, Otto Hahn, and Kurt Diebner. The British Farm Hall report noted that Hahn was the “most friendly” of the group, that Heisenberg was “genuinely anxious to cooperate with British and American scientists,” and that Diebner was “outwardly friendly but has an unpleasant personality and cannot be trusted.”

The Americans didn’t want to use (or, in their terminology, “exploit”) the German physicists for their own programs (they didn’t trust them, and they didn’t think they knew that much, after all — compare this with their attitude towards the rocket scientists), but they didn’t want them going over to the Soviet Union, either. They also didn’t want the new German states to suddenly have access to nuclear technology, either. At one point someone apparently joked about just executing them, though it isn’t clear that was ever really floated as a realistic option. The UK, on the other hand, had already promised the scientists they’d let them go fairly soon after the war had ended, and eventually that’s what happened.

My paper picked up, chronologically, and looked at efforts to reform secrecy during the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission under David Lilienthal’s chairmanship. There is an apparent paradox in the fact that Lilienthal saw himself an ardent foe of secrecy, yet some of the worst abuses of secrecy (e.g. hiding the plutonium injection experiments) took place under his watch and often with his explicit approval.

AEC Chief David Lilienthal (center) between a rock (Sen. Tom Conally, left) and a hard place (Sen. Brien McMahon, right). You can see the stress on Lilienthal’s face: this is from an emergency AEC-JCAE meeting to discuss the recent arrest of Klaus Fuchs. From the Library of Congress.

The answer to this little riddle is that the early AEC, despite its far-reaching powers, was actually quite weak when it came to the DC political ecosystem — it had no natural political allies except, perhaps, the not-very-well-organized scientists, but they were such a contrarian (and otherwise disconnected) lot that they proved quite unreliable. In an effort to protect the AEC from scandal — and thus perhaps lead to its dissolution in favor of military control — Lilienthal was willing to use secrecy as a weapon for the “ultimate good.” His very idealism (in favor of civilian control) became his worst enemy when it came to actually reducing secrecy (because it proved too tempting).

Mara‘s paper was about Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program. Specifically, Mara looked at the ways in which the desires to push “peaceful” atomic power by officials in the State Department and the White House were out of sync with the technical assessments by the Atomic Energy Commission, and the consequences of this difference. Exporting power reactors was a key feature of Eisenhower’s proposal, but it wasn’t seen as a good idea by the AEC — as one member of the National Security Council put it, “before the Council decides upon such a course, it should be aware that it is doing so for psychological reasons alone, and that there are risks, costs, and other problems (such as site selection) involved.”

Whaley-Eaton Service Atoms for Peace letterhead, from 1956.

One of the most interesting parts of Mara’s paper related to the issue of proliferation. The US of course somewhat dodged the issue in the 1950s, despite the fact that it was sending reactors and expertise worldwide. Internally, the AEC recognized the issue, that “nearly all of the reactors which today appear economically promising for power generation will produce fissionable material in the course of their operation… in significant amounts.” Publicly, they were required to be silent. In 1954, though, Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov confronted John Foster Dulles on the issue, asking, “What do you Americans think you’re doing proposing to spread stockpiles of bomb-grade material all over the world under the Atoms for Peace?” Dulles said he was sure that wasn’t the case — but after checking back with his staff, found that Molotov had been better briefed on the issue than he had.

Our commentator, Princeton’s Michael Gordin (whose work I have previously praised), poked at our papers in variously interesting ways. One thing he did ask was where the Soviets were in any of them — and suggested that their apparent absence was because they just didn’t appear in the documents, which itself seems somewhat paradoxical given the Cold War context of all of this.

I noted that in the area of classification matters, for the early AEC, the Soviets were more of an abstract entity than a specific concern. Part of this is because until the detection of the first Soviet test, the US didn’t really know much of anything about the Soviet atomic program. They were almost totally in the dark, lacking either human intelligence (e.g. defectors or spies) or technical intelligence (the fallout monitoring became the first real blow at this; there was also, of course, VENONA, but that was just getting under way, and not shared with the AEC).

The Soviets, when referred to, were often just mentioned as “the enemy,” and sometimes, even more cryptically, as them.” Everyone knew who “them” was, of course — it was the leitmotif of their efforts — but they knew so little about “them” that it never got much more specific than that. After the detection of the first atomic test (September 1949), and the confessions of Klaus Fuchs (February 1950), there was some effort made to revise the classification system on the basis of what was apparently already known to the Soviets (e.g. plutonium implosion, which was something that not only was verifiable with the technical intelligence, but was explicitly something Fuchs told them about), but it didn’t add up to much change. It’s always easier to be conservative with secrecy policies than liberal with them — a fact which does not seem to have changed, as our own, current President, who rode in on a promise of greater transparency, seems to have fully embraced the “national security state” mentality that he inherited. (A depressing but, again, not surprising fact.)

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The “Doubts” of General Groves (1946)

Wednesday, June 6th, 2012

It’s been a busy week. Yesterday I went to an interesting session hosted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation on the life and influence of Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash movement. I learned some things I hadn’t known before. Of particular interest is that the common story about Rotblat leaving the Manhattan Project out of strong ethical convictions (he was supposedly the only person who left Los Alamos after the war in Europe had concluded without use of the bomb) is more complicated than it seems on the surface of it.

The story itself apparently wasn’t a matter of public record until Rotblat wrote an article about it for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1985 (“Leaving the Bomb Project“), which is a lot more recent than I had guessed. Andrew Brown, whose book Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat has just recently come out (I haven’t read it yet, but I bought a copy there), notes that Rotblat himself initially put a heavy caveat on the story: “All extraneous personal elements are left out, but their exclusion does not mean that they are unimportant.”

These “personal elements,” Brown argues, include things like the fact that Rotblat’s wife and family were stuck in Nazi and Soviet-occupied Poland, and that Rotblat, though a member of the British delegation to Los Alamos, had refused to take on either British or American nationality. This factor was overlook-able by General Groves at the explicit intervention by James Chadwick, the head of the British mission to Los Alamos, but not until Groves himself had personally interviewed Rotblat. Why would Groves care? Because he didn’t want Manhattan Project participants diffusing their bomb-making information all over the planet after the war was ended.

Why all this matters is that in fact, Brown argues, Rotblat didn’t simply leave the project… he was actually pushed out. The reasons are part of complex Manhattan Project diplomatic history: Groves had, with the insistence of the British, allowed a number of French scientists to join the project. (He compartmentalized them in Canada and didn’t give them access to US data, but still.) When the war in Europe ended the Nazis had been pushed out of France,1 they wanted to return to Paris and to see their old boss, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who was by then a known Communist. Groves was pretty uncomfortable with this and it created quite a diplomatic row between the US and the UK;2 it was thus in Chadwick’s interests to simplify the situation by removing all non-Brits from the British delegation, which included Rotblat (who was, again, still a Polish citizen).

In any case, Brown points out, Rotblat didn’t totally get out of the nuclear business for a number of years; he continued to teach nuclear physics to people whom he knew would be working on the UK atomic program for a number of years after the war ended, before he started his real, devoted  activism.

None of this diminishes Rotblat’s work or his obvious deep ethical convictions — he was clearly deeply opposed to war and worked tirelessly on disarmament issues for most of his life — but it does make a too-perfect story seem a bit more realistic. (Stan Norris was there, and asked whether Brown believed that Groves really did, as Rotblat claimed, announce that he had always thought the USSR was the key target. Brown thought it not implausible. I don’t find it too implausible, myself, given that it would have been pretty natural for the US to be looking to the USSR as its “natural” enemy after the war was ending, but it does have an element of being “too perfect” to it.)

General Groves (left) and David Lilienthal (right) share a moment. I imagine that most of their interactions looked like this, private or public. Photo by Ed Westcott.

My other busy-ness has been pulling together a presentation I’m giving at the Policy History Conference in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday, relating to the early classification policies (and the failure of classification reform) during the David Lilienthal years at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), 1947-1950. I don’t want to go into details on here, but the paper is basically about the fact that numerous times in the first (and most ambitious) years of the AEC, the technocratic liberals who were running it attempted to re-think and re-work US nuclear classification policy from the ground up. It didn’t work, for a variety of reasons, the most damning of these being the series of shocks of late 1949 and early 1950 (Joe-1, the H-bomb debate, Klaus Fuchs).

The document I want to share this week is somewhat tangentially related to both of these issues. It is a letter from General Leslie Groves to David Lilienthal from November 1946, which was just on the cusp of the Manhattan Project’s transfer of all atomic responsibilities to the newly-created Atomic Energy Commission.3

Click image to view full PDF.

It’s a short letter; so here’s the transcription:

Dear Mr. Lilienthal:

I desire to bring to your attention that in the past I have considered it in the best interests of the United States to clear certain individuals for work on the Manhattan Project despite evidence indicating considerable doubt as to their character, associations, and absolute loyalty.

Such individuals are generally persons whose particular scientific or technical knowledge was vital to the accomplishment of the Manhattan Project mission. In some instances, lack of time prevented our completely investigating certain persons prior to their working for the Manhattan Project; so that in some cases individuals, on whom it was subsequently determined that derogatory information existed, had access to Project information.

With the appointment of the Commission and the legal provisions for investigation of personnel by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I see no reason why those people on whom derogatory information exists cannot be eliminated. I unhesitatingly recommend that you give the most careful consideration to this problem.

The FBI is cognizant of all individuals now employed on the Manhattan Project on whom derogatory information exists.

Sincerely yours,
L.R. Groves
Major General, U.S.A.

Quite a curious sort of thing to send and receive. Imagine being in Lilienthal’s position: here’s General Groves, handing off the bomb project to you, saying, “by the way, I hired a bunch of people who I now want to tell you might not be loyal. You might want to get rid of them. Anyway, I completely agree you should think about this pickle you’re now in. Good luck!”

Who were these “doubts”? Probably people like Leo Szilard, Frank Oppenheimer, and Philip Morrison. It may even have included Arthur Compton, who was always “on the line” for the security people (Compton wasn’t very discreet and signed too many petitions).  It probably would have included Joseph Rotblat if he was still on the project (but as we know, he left). It did not, apparently, include J. Robert Oppenheimer, though the letter did re-surface at his security hearing.

Lilienthal wrote back to Groves noting that since Groves had kept a lot of these people on well beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Groves apparently did not regard them as “a source of critical hazard.” Groves then wrote back to Lilienthal saying that actually they couldn’t just be fired and removal was a slow process, so their presence didn’t imply anything about how non-hazardous they were.4

What’s going on here, plainly, is an elaborate game of CYA — Groves is trying to imply that if these “doubts” became a problem, they were passed off to the AEC and shouldn’t hang on his head. Lilienthal, shrewdly, tries to turn it around to make sure that they do, in fact, hang on Groves’ head — he isn’t willing to just take all of the responsibility here if they are kept on, and he doesn’t also just want to do whatever Groves is implying he ought to do. Groves, in turn, was trying to deflect some of that themselves. They’re creating a paper trail — one that was, indeed, later followed up.5

I find this sort of bureaucratic activity fascinating. It’s not the sort of thing that gets into the grand narratives of history — either the Groves-Lilienthal exchange, or the diplomatic flareup that (apparently) led to Rotblat leaving the Manhattan Project. It’s this sort of thing that gets washed away by straightforward, coherent narratives, replaced with stories of high ethics and morality, when so much of what went on from day-to-day was much more down to Earth in its considerations. This is one of the reasons I prefer working with archival materials more than secondary sources, personally; not because I don’t trust the scholarship (I generally do) or that I don’t get something out of it (ditto), but because I never feel I really understand what’s going on until I’ve gone through all of the bureaucratic and minor miscellany myself, unearthing the mundane.

  1. I hadn’t checked my dates before writing this; the “French problem” surfaced in December 1944, when the war in Europe was still going on, but the Nazis were no longer occupying France. Rotblat left the project that December as well, for England. []
  2. I discuss this “French Problem,” as it was called at the time, in my “Patenting the Bomb” article, because a large part of the dispute centered around promises the British had made the French regarding early French patents on nuclear reactors and bombs. []
  3. Citation: Leslie R. Groves to David E. Lilienthal (14 November 1946), Records of the Atomic Energy Commission, RG 326, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, Office of Secretary, General Correspondence 1946-1951, Box 11, “Security Clearance of Personnel, Volume 1.” []
  4. The back-and-forth is contained in the Oppenheimer security hearing, page 169. []
  5. When asked about this in the Oppenheimer hearing, Groves was pretty straightforward about it:

    If I put it in writing, that they would always be thinking about the record. That is the reason that the letter was written. I have never made a practice of trying to protect myself on the record, but I thought this was one time that I could secure action, and it was not written really with the idea of clearing my skirts for something that might come up, such as this, many years hence. It was to make him do it whether he wanted to do it or not.

    It’s also clear that this was born out of the difficult relationship between Groves and Lilienthal. “Mr. Lilienthal had made it very plain that he wanted no advice of any kind from me. He wanted nothing whatsoever to do with me. He thought that I was the lowest kind of human being, and he was not going to get anything from me.” Oppenheimer hearings, page 169. []


Atomic TIME (Magazine)

Friday, April 6th, 2012

Time magazine has featured the bomb on its covers regularly over the years, and its cover archives are actually searchable online. Some of them are pretty iconic, others are just plain weird. Below are a few of my favorites, annotated and in chronological order.

First on the list, chronologically and thematically, is the July 1, 1946 issue featuring Albert Einstein (“All matter is speed and flame”) and a mushroom cloud (which is interestingly an amalgam of the Trinity and the Nagasaki clouds) across which, amazingly, “E=mc2” is emblazoned. This is visually fascinating for at least two reasons: 1. Einstein = E=mc2 = the atomic bomb! Has the connection between theoretical physics and nuclear weapons ever been stated in a graphically more oversimplified way? 2. Einstein is wearing a suit! This might not sound very exciting, but consider that in both of Einstein’s two other Time covers from his lifetime (19291938), he was exclusively wearing pajamas. Because that’s what kooky, head-in-the-clouds theoretical physicists do, right? Until the bomb comes along, and then they get serious and put on a tie. (And shortly thereafter, the FBI shows up.)

Next we have our good buddy J. Robert Oppenheimer (“What we don’t understand, we explain to each other”), from November 8, 1948. Here we essentially have the emblematic physicist-of-the-state — a concerned, serious, well-dressed man surrounded by an ocean of equations. The drawing of Oppenheimer (which is on display in the National Portrait Gallery, I can attest) captures his likeness well (compare with this Eisenstaedt photo, which is very similar), and also captures the ice-blue cool of his eyes (something which is not evident in the black and white photos of him, but can be seen in some photos of him when he was elderly). But moreover, it is a stunning contrast to the Oppenheimer depicted in 1954, just after losing his security clearance, who looks drawn and severe. Also note that when Edward Teller got his Time cover, in 1957, the visual scheme was essentially identical. I like to see this parallel as signifying, in a clean, visual way, Oppenheimer’s decline and Teller’s ascent as the model of what it meant to be a “government scientist” in the early Cold War. Both of these covers are framed in my office — the Yin and Yang of the early atomic age.

There are a lot of other “atomic portrait” photos — David Lilienthal (1947) and a flaming electric horse; Gordon Dean (1952) with a mushroom-cloud periodic table; Lewis Strauss (1953) with a searing radioactive sun, Archbishop Bernadin (1982) using his papal powers to bombard you with ICBMs and doves, just to pick a few creative ones — but none of them “do it for me” as much as the Oppenheimer one does.

The cover for the April 12, 1954, issue of Time is easy to underestimate. It’s clearly recognizable as the mushroom cloud from the first hydrogen bomb test, Ivy Mike, from November 1952. But it’s being shown in April 1954, not long after the Castle Bravo testing accident (in which an island of Marshallese and a Japanese fishing boat, along with a considerable amount of fish in the Pacific Ocean, were irradiated). Why didn’t they put this on the cover in 1952? Because the test was secret, and images from it weren’t widely released until April 1954. So even though it was a year and a half late, it still had a lot of symbolic relevance. And notice that Time chose not to depict it in color, but instead went with an austere black, white, and red scheme. (Life magazine also featured an Ivy Mike image on the cover that week, but chose the fireball instead of the cloud.)

Click here to see the rest of them.


The Custody Dispute Over the Bomb

Monday, January 30th, 2012

The term “custody dispute” is one we usually associate with acrimonious divorce proceedings. But there was a very real nuclear custody dispute in the 1950s, one which I’ve often been surprised that even folks fairly well-versed in nuclear history weren’t aware of.1

Some fifty B61 bombs in a US Air Force base “igloo.” Courtesy Federation of American Scientists.

The issue in a nutshell: When Eisenhower took office in 1953, there were around 1,000 nuclear bombs in the US nuclear arsenal and all but a few dozen were in the hands of the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). When he left office in 1961, the nuclear stockpile contains some 18,000 weapons (of widely varying size, yield, and delivery mechanism), and 90% of them were under military control.2 That shifting of control — of whether it was a civilian or a military organization that physically had responsibility over the bombs — was the essence of the custody dispute.

The backstory to the dispute is rather simple. As part of the Congressional battle over postwar domestic legislation to regulate atomic energy, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (the McMahon Act) assigned all control of the manufacture, development, and possession of nuclear weapons to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This was not accidental — the key push by Senator Brien McMahon was that this was “civilian control” of the atom, as opposed to “military control.” (The bill the McMahon Act was meant to replace, the May-Johnson Act, was castigated as a “military” bill, which was not entirely true.) The fear, in 1946, was that a military-controlled nuclear complex would result in an un-reflective arms race, preempt democracy, and make an unpleasant atmosphere for scientists. (Thank goodness civilian control resulted in none of those ills!)

The Atomic Energy Act allowed for the possibility that the President could, “from time to time,” direct the AEC to give the military access to fissile material and weapons “for such use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense.” Otherwise, all weapons would be kept by the AEC.

Thus the custody dispute: the military was, over the course of the late 1940s and 1950s, meant to be ramping up its integration of nuclear weapons into its war plans. And yet, they did not physically have access to live nuclear weapons. In fact, they didn’t even have access to weapons casings to practice with, on account of the weapons casings being classified as “restricted data,” and required Q-clearances (with full FBI investigations) to even look at!

Read the full post »

  1. My source for this is a rather classic document for information about US nuclear deployments: History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons, July 1945 through September 1977 (8MB PDF here), prepared by the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy), in February 1978. What I mean by “classic,” here, is that lots of other folks seem to have known about this document for a long time, but I was only made aware of it when I asked a former Harvard colleague of mine, Dan Volmar, who is doing a dissertation on nuclear command and control systems, for something about the custody issue. []
  2. Peter J. Roman, “Ike’s Hair-Trigger: Nuclear Predelegation, 1953-60,” Security Studies 7, no. 4 (Summer 1998), 121-164, on 121. []