Posts Tagged ‘Espionage’


The riddle of Julius Rosenberg

Friday, October 17th, 2014

David Greenglass, the key witness in the espionage case of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, has died. He was Ethel Rosenberg’s brother, and his testimony doomed both his sister and brother-in-law. Greenglass explained to the jury how he had, as an engineer at Los Alamos, been drawn into a Soviet spy ring by his brother, and argued that his sister played a non-trivial role in the entire affair. Greenglass also provided, with the sanction of the Atomic Energy Commission’s classification officer, the first public description of an implosion nuclear weapon. Exhibit 8, drawn in Greenglass’ hand, was proclaimed by the prosecution to be a “sketch of the very atomic bomb itself,” and could not be countered by the Rosenbergs’ attorney. Instead, the defense argued that releasing such a sketch into the world was a security risk (even though, again, it had been pre-approved for release), and they had it impounded, where it stayed out of view until the late 1970s. Nevertheless, Greenglass’ description of the bomb quickly entered into the public eye, and “implosion” became part of our nuclear lexicon.1


(Exhibit 8 was later released, in the 1970s, for reexamination as part of a hearing on behalf of Morton Sobell, another defendant at the Rosenberg trial. The physicist Phillip Morrison argued that it was a crude, child-like sketch of the bomb, and of little value to the Soviets. The judge concluded, however, that the basic principle of implosion was still revealed by the drawing, and it was still classified. At the very least, it helped to confirm other espionage data as legitimate. The New York NARA office scanned the above version of it for me.)

Greenglass later admitted to have perjured himself. The deal was that he would implicate Ethel, and in exchange, his wife, Ruth Greenglass, would walk free. Greenglass took the deal — he didn’t want to leave his children unwatched, even while he himself went to prison. And perhaps he felt a tinge of frustration that Julius and Ethel wouldn’t cooperate like he had. Asked about it years later, he said: “My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, O.K.? And she was the mother of my children.”2

David Greenglass (in glasses), conducting some sort of testimony or press conference. Harry Gold is two seats to his right. Source: Google LIFE images.

David Greenglass (in glasses), conducting some sort of testimony or press conference. Harry Gold is two seats to his right. Source: Google LIFE images.

The rules of American Cold War prosecutions, and persecutions, were pretty simple. First, admit that you had done whatever it was you had done. In the case of people accused of being Communists, it meant admitting you had been a member of the Communist Party. In the case of spies, it meant admitting you were a spy. Second, give up the names of your contacts and associates, so that they could then be prosecuted/persecuted. In this way, searches for spies and Communists was something of a security-tinged pyramid scheme, an endless engine for new sources.

What if you hadn’t done what you were accused of? Or wouldn’t confess, even if you had done it? Well, that’s the tricky case, isn’t it? The place where the system breaks down, where there real violence gets done.

In the case of the Rosenbergs, the FBI had pretty good evidence of Julius’ guilt. Not only did they have the confessions of Greenglass and Harry Gold, the “courier” for the spy ring, but they — unbeknownst to almost all at the time — also had the evidence gleaned from the VENONA intercepts, where Soviet communications during World War II had been secretly decrypted. The combination of VENONA and the confessions makes the case against Julius Rosenberg pretty much a slam dunk. Since the revelation of VENONA in the 1990s, I have not yet met a historian who doesn’t think that Julius was a spy. Because VENONA was secret, however, the FBI could not introduce the evidence into court (and secret testimony in criminal cases is generally a “no-no” under American jurisprudence), and so had to rely on the testimony of Greenglass and Gold to make the case, which made it look like a lot less obvious at the time, because both were not extremely reliable witnesses (Gold was a strange supplicant who would say almost anything; Greenglass was angling for a deal and indeed, did perjure himself).

Mugshots of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Source: Library of Congress.

Mugshots of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. What is going on in Julius’ mind? Source: Library of Congress.

Ethel was much more problematic. What she knew, or didn’t know, about the spy operation isn’t as clear. Julius got code-names in the VENONA transcripts (“Antenna” and “Liberal”), which indicate he was something of a key asset. Ethel’s code-name was… “Ethel,” indicating she was not. Did she know what Julius and her brother were up to? It seems hard to imagine she did not. Did she deserve the electric chair? Maybe, maybe not. I happen to be on the side that thinks that capital punishment for an espionage crime committed in the service of a state that was then an ally is extreme. Much less for someone whose role, like Ethel’s, was probably fairly minor. It is clear, from the historical record, that pushing for the death penalty for both was part of a strategy to scare the two into cooperating, and to scare others who dared not to cooperate. I don’t think executing them achieved anything like justice.

But I have some real problems feeling sympathy and empathy for the Rosenbergs. They maintained their absolute innocence all the way through their executions. They left two children as orphans. They created fissures in American politics that still resonate to this day, with Cold War liberals absolutely convinced of their innocence, and Cold War hawks convinced of their being traitors. The by-product was an ugly polarization of American Cold War politics that was potentially avoidable. Now we know that at least Julius was guilty, and that he lied to everyone, repeatedly. He had the choice to avoid the chair. He chose to be a martyr. And, again, to orphan his children.

"Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s sons, Robert, 6, left, and Michael, 10, looking at a 1953 newspaper. They still believe their parents did not deserve to die." Photo from the Associated Press, via the New York TImes

“Ethel and Julius Rosenberg’s sons, Robert, 6, left, and Michael, 10, looking at a 1953 newspaper.” Photo from the Associated Press, via the New York TImes

I find that hard to respect. Who was he protecting? Stalin? The Communist Party? His reputation? It is hard to conceive what cause would be worth what he did. It is one thing to doom himself, but another to doom his wife. And I keep coming back to the children. Who would do that to their children? Both of the children were, until relatively recently, defenders of the innocence of their parents, which makes perfect sense. What a crushing blow to believe the contrary.

Part of the problem, from a latter-day point of view, is that Julius Rosenberg, by the very nature of his lack of confession, is a Sphinx. On his motivations and justifications, he is silent — he never told his side of the story, the real, non-B.S. side of the story. It makes him feel cold to me, gazing out from those pictures. I find myself saying: “Why’d you do it?” We know he spied. If he had just told us why, maybe we could understand, and have some empathy. But he took his side of the story to his grave.

It is a very different situation than with Klaus Fuchs, Theodore Hall, Harry Gold, and even David Greenglass. Fuchs confessed at length about his motivations, his feelings on the subject. He felt the Soviets were owed the information, as those who were bleeding the most during the war against Fascism. Hall was very young at the time of his espionage, but one can recognize and sympathize with the naive politics of youth. And Hall’s central belief, that maybe the world would be safer without just one country having atomic weapons, is not actually a totally naive position — it is the essence of deterrence theory, for better or worse. Gold’s way into espionage was not ideological, but psychological: he was a needy person and fell in with the wrong crowd, who exploited his near-pathological desire to please. (When he was caught by the FBI, they exploited this as well in turning him into a key witness.)3

"Six Principals in the Russian Atomic Spy Ring," New York Times, April 1, 1951.

“Six Principals in the Russian Atomic Spy Ring,” New York Times, April 1, 1951, page 10E.

What if Julius had left a last testament? A confession to be released years later? How would that change the story? What if he pled with us to understand his position? I can completely understand why someone would spy for the Soviets during World War II. The Communists appeared to many to be the only real power willing to fight Fascism, racism, and economic injustice. Was it a big sham? Of course. Stalin was no freedom fighter. The American Communist Party was opportunistic and crass regarding its cause célèbres. But one can at least empathize with the position: you can see the world through their eyes, at that terrible time, and conclude that cutting the Soviets out of the atomic bomb project was a form of injustice.

But can I find a way to understand the silence of Julius Rosenberg? Why he doomed himself and his wife to death? Why he doomed his children to orphanhood? This I struggle with. What could be worth all that? Who, or what, was he saving? It is hard for me to imagine anything worth that. To me, this is much worse, from a human standpoint, than the spying. Spying makes sense to me. It happens all the time. But lying in such a self-destructive way, for seemingly no purpose? This makes no sense.

And so Julius Rosenberg brings a bad taste in my mouth. As a historian, this is not a great thing: one wants to be as objective and neutral as possible with regards to one’s historical actors. One doesn’t want to develop personal animosities, even for terrible people, because it can color your viewing of the past. I don’t think I would be able to be wholly neutral with regard to Julius. Fortunately, he comes into my research only glancingly (I am not interested in him, per se, but I am interested in how the AEC, FBI, etc. handled the trial). If only he had told us what he felt, why he did what he did! Even if it was stupid, even if it was naive, even if it was pathetic — it would be something to go on, something to feel for, something to make a connection to.

Greenglass’s choice of his wife and children over his sister and brother-in-law is an agonizing one. One can hardly fault him for choosing the path he did. Especially since, if Julius had confessed to what we now know for sure that he did, nobody would have been executed. I find myself pitying David Greenglass. He made some bad decisions, and paid a very steep price for them. I have a harder time finding similar pity, or sympathy, for his brother-in-law, Julius, whose historical silence is deafening.

  1. The authoritative account of how Greenglass’ testimony on implosion and the AEC’s role in its release is Roger M. Anders, “The Rosenberg Case Revisited: The Greenglass Testimony and the Protection of Atomic Secrets,” American Historical Review 83, no. 2 (April 1978): 388-400. The response of the Rosenberg lawyers is discussed in Ronald Radosh and Joyce Milton, The Rosenberg File, 2nd. edn. (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997), 188-195. []
  2. As quoted Robert McFadden, “David Greenglass, the Brother Who Doomed Ethel Rosenberg, Dies at 92,” New York Times (14 October 2014), A1. On Greenglass’s lying, see Sam Robert, The Brother: The untold story of atomic spy David Greenglass and how he sent his sister, Ethel Rosenberg, to the electric chair (New York: Random House, 2001). []
  3. On Hall, see esp. Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel, Bombshell: The Secret Story of America’s Unknown Atomic Spy Conspiracy (New York: Times Books, 1997). On Gold, see the really quite remarkable Alan Hornblum, The Invisible Harry Gold (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010). []

Heisenberg’s Dresden story: A wartime atomic mystery

Friday, October 11th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

Physikalische Blaetter, August 1944

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

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

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

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

Werner Heisenberg, later in life

Werner Heisenberg, later in life

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

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

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

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

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

General Groves not amused

General Groves is not amused by spies or leaks

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dresden after the firebombing, 1945

Dresden after the firebombing, 1945

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

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

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

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

The worst of the Manhattan Project leaks

Friday, September 20th, 2013

We live in an era where the press regularly rejoices in printing “national security secrets,” via leaks, as an evidence of its “watchdog” status. This isn’t exactly a new thing, of course. Press leaks and investigations have been around for quite a long time, and ever since the example of Woodward and Bernstein, this has become the ultimate symbol of journalistic power and access. But it does feel like it has accelerated somewhat in the last decade, both in terms of frequency and magnitude of such “antagonistic leaks” (as opposed to, say, “official leaks” — the kind that are secretly sanctioned for whatever reason). I’ve sometimes heard people suggest that were the press like this during World War II, things like the secret of the atomic bomb could never have been kept as well as they were. And while there is something to that, in the sense that American journalists were far more cooperative and acquiescent during the 1940s, it also projects a rosier picture backwards than ever truly existed. Even during the Manhattan Project, there were copious leaks. Some small, some huge.

Saturday Evening Post, November 1945.

Saturday Evening Post, November 1945 — one of the postwar articles lauding the Manhattan Project as the “best-kept secret,” or, in this case, “the big hush-hush.”

During World War II, the United States had a program of voluntary press censorship, coordinated by the Office of Censorship. It was, as stated, voluntary: there were no fines or threats attached to it, just stern official rebuke. It lacked “teeth.” It worked primarily by the Office of Censorship publicly releasing long lists of prohibited topics, and occasionally trying to squelch violating stories before they were syndicated. As such, it was a little clunky, something that usually went into effect after the fact.

The worst violation came in March 1944. John Raper, a reporter for the Cleveland Press, while on vacation in New Mexico, somehow stumbled upon one of the biggest, most secret stories of the day. Below I reprint the entirety of the article — it nearly speaks for itself, both in its security violations and its strange rambling nature. Some commentary follows; minor comments are in the footnotes. The images have been ordered to correspond with the text, not necessarily how they were laid out on the page.1

1944 - Forbidden City - Masthead


Forbidden City

Uncle Sam’s Mystery Town Directed by “2nd Einstein”

Jack Raper, Press columnist, has returned to Cleveland following a vacation in New Mexico, where he found the following story.


SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico has a mystery city, one with an area from eight to 20 square miles, according to guesses. It has a population of between 5000 and 6000 persons, not more than probably half a dozen of whom can step outside of the city except by special permission of the city boss. He grants permission only in the most exceptional circumstances and under the most rigid conditions. And it is even more difficult for a non-resident to enter than for a resident to leave.2

Commonly known as Los Alamos, the place is a thoroughly modern city. It has fine streets, an electric light plant and waterworks with capacity for a city twice as large as Los Alamos, a service department that really services, public library, high, grade, and nursery schools; recreation centers, hospital, apartment houses, cottages, dance hall, an enormous grocery, refrigeration plant, factories and jail.

If you like mysteries and have a keen desire to solve one, here is your opportunity to do a little sleuthing, and if you succeed in learning anything and then making it public you will satisfy the hot curiosity of several hundred thousand New Mexicans.

But you might as well be informed that you will fail and the chances are thousands to one that you will be caught and will be thrown into the hoosegow or suffer a worse fate.3

A Free Country, But —

Of course, this is a free country and you can go where you please — if you are willing to sleep in the smoking car aisle or breathe the exhalations of your fellow sardines packed in a bus. But forget all about that sort of nonsense.

If you have any idea that you can employ a battery of eminent constitutional lawyers and go into court and that eventually the Supreme Court of the United States will decide the case in your favor if the lower courts decide against you, forget about that, too. you would be wasting your time and burning up any money you paid to the lawyer, for the man who owns this city has too much money and too much power in such a legal action.

This city’s site, or at least part of it, at once time was occupied by a private school for boys,4 and is not far from the village of Los Alamos, which is 53 miles almost due east from Santa Fe, the state capital.5 It is in one of the most interesting sections of New Mexico. It has scenery enough for a whole state — peaks and peaks and more peaks, and cliffs and colors that dim the rainbow.

Not far away are the Indian villages occupied by the finest kind of Indians, intelligent, industrious, friendly, skilled in the production of art objects, many of them graduates of Indian schools.

1944 - Forbidden City - Image 2

Cliff Dwelling Remnants

Within a short distance are the remnants of cliff dwellings, excavated ruins of pueblos centuries old, so old that men who have made scientific studies of them will say, when talking of their ages, “They may be,” “Probably,” “Estimates vary,” “We are pretty certain, but—.”

Shortly after the man who thinks he is going to the mystery city of Los Alamos reaches the level on which it is built, he will see, if he looks into the windshield mirror, a man following him on a motorcycle not many feet behind the car and he will be in the same position when the gate is reached. The instant the car stops there is a man directly in front of it and a man on each side. The three men are in military uniform and each has a rifle.

Then you realize that the owner of this strange city is Uncle Sam and you make no kind of protest and answer questions politely. If you have gone through all of the preliminary red tape previously and have been notified that you will be admitted, the men at the gate will know all about you and there will be little delay after you show the necessary papers.

Escorted by 2 Jeeps

You will be escorted to the office of the man whom you are to meet, escorted by two jeeps, one in front and one behind your car, men in each jeep armed with rifles. En route you will notice that the city is fenced in and that mounted soldiers patrol it and you will see scores of buildings.

When you transact your business you will be carefully escorted out of the city, taking the same route as when you entered. If you are a New Mexican and on your return to your home town it becomes known that you were in Los alamos everybody will ask, “What did you see?” The answer will be, “Nothing.” And if anyone asks, “Did you learn what is going on there?” the answer will be, “I don’t know a bit more about it than I did before I went.” Both answers will be true.

Uncle Sam has placed this in charge of two men. The man who commands the soldiers, who sees that the garbage and rubbish are collected, the streets kept up, the electric light plan and the waterworks functioning and all other metropolitan work operating smoothly is a Col. Somebody.6 I don’t know his name, but it isn’t so important because the Mr. Big of the city is a college professor, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, called “the Second Einstein” by the newspapers of the west coast.7

1944 - Forbidden City - Image 3

Residents Must Stay

Dr. Oppenheimer is a Harvard graduate, attended Cambridge a year, received a Ph.D. from Gottingen University, Germany; is professor of physics at the University of California and the California Institute of Technology, and is a “fellow” of too many organizations to enumerate.8

It is the work of Prof. Oppenheimer and the hundreds of men and women in his laboratories and shops that makes Los Alamos such a carefully guarded city. All the residents will be oblige to remain there for the duration and for six months thereafter and it seems quite probable that many of them don’t know much more about what is being done than you do.9

It is gossip that no one mechanic is permitted to finish a piece of work. He starts to make something and it is passed at a certain point in its production to another, who goes a little further with the work and passes it to another and so on until the article is finished.10

One of the public’s guesses is that nothing but research is done.

Thousands believe the professor is directing the development of chemical warfare, so that if Hitler tries poison gas Uncle Sam will be ready with a more terrifying one.11

1944 - Forbidden City - Image 1

Tell of Huge Explosions

Another widespread belief is that he is developing ordnance and explosives. Supporters of this guess argue that it accounts for the number of mechanics working on the production of a single device and there are others who will tell you tremendous explosions have been heard.12

The most interesting story is that Prof. Oppenheimer is working on a beam that will cause the motors to stop so that German planes will drop from the skies as though they were paving blocks.13

In support of this there are stories of the experiences of automobile drivers in the vicinity of Los Alamos. According to these their radios and motors stopped suddenly at the same instant and after 15 or 20 minutes suddenly began to operate as usual.14

Names of the drivers are frequently given, but when I asked “Did any of them tell you, or did you get it secondhand?” the answer invariably was, “Well, he didn’t tell me. A friend of mine told me about it.”

And if you say, “Did you ask your friend if the driver who had the experience told him?” The answer is generally, “Well, I didn’t ask that question.”

One of these days Prof. Oppenheimer may tell the newspapers about what he has done at Los Alamos, there may be another now-it-can-be-told book or the secretary of war may hand out the report made to him. And who knows but that the eminent physicist may deliver an address at the Cleveland City Club or the Rotary Club?

If you’d rather see it in the original spread, uploaded here is my copy of it from the archives. Note the original is a photostat and has black/white reversed, which is why it is a bit washed out after photographing (shop talk: it is very hard to photograph old photostats because they are on glossy paper and thus reflective, so you have to take pictures of them under shadows).

Why do I consider this the worst? Not because it says, in any straight terms, that atomic bombs are being made. But look at the suggestions it is giving to potential spies:

  • It identifies (with some geographical error) the name and location of an obviously classified scientific/military facility
  • It gives an approximate and plausible size of the facility, which gives some hint of its importance
  • It emphasizes the amount of compartmentalization going on at the facility, which again hints at its importance
  • It correctly identifies the scientific director, which to an observed eye would narrow it down to something relating to theoretical physics
  • It reports local accounts of explosive testing on site

If I were a spy thinking about nuclear weapons, I would find that a pretty interesting combination of things, and worth following up on. Of course, it also has a healthy dose of confusion, nonsense, and just plain silliness mixed into it. But even a ray gun that stopped airplanes, or a chemical weapons plant, might be of interest to enemy spies. (Much less Allies who you don’t want snooping around, like the Soviets.) The article has just enough ring of authenticity to it to suggest that something serious was going on at Los Alamos — which makes it much more dangerous than something that was wilder yet potentially closer to the truth.

General Groves — not amused.

General Groves — not amused.

The Manhattan Project security apparatus was not amused. Col. Ashbridge, the military head of Los Alamos, sent a copy to Groves a few days after it was published, noting that he had heard that Groves was already aware of it and that it had been shown to Oppenheimer. Ashbridge wrote:15

We are naturally much perturbed about it and Major [Peer] de Silva [Los Alamos security head] is preparing a memorandum to Lt Col [John] Lansdale [Manhattan Project security head] as to the source of the data collected by the reporter while vacationing in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. There are many rumors around town about this project since thousands of construction workers from this vicinity have been employed at Los Alamos, many of our personnel go into town for shopping and weekends, and Dr. Oppenheimer’s name is fairly well known in Santa Fe.

In discussing this with Major de Silva, he indicated that he felt the “leak” was not something we could have prevented, but that the reporter had doubtless picked up some local gossip, and put it together with information on Dr Oppenheimer in “Who’s Who.”

The late A.J. Connell [director of the Los Alamos Ranch School] informed me several months ago that everyone in Santa Fe knew some sort of scientific project was underway at Los Alamos, but that curiosity had died down when no one found out anything more after several months, and they just accepted us without trying to guess what was done.

The action of the newspaper in printing such an article shows a complete lack of responsibility, compliance with national censorship code and cooperation with the Government in keeping an important project secret. It is hoped that some steps can be taken to deny the paper certain privileges as a result of their disclosure of this project in such an article.

So what did Groves end up doing? First he made sure that it wouldn’t spread further — he put the kibosh on any follow-up stories or further syndication. Time magazine was going to write a follow-up regarding West Coast atom smashing work, but the Office of Censorship stopped them. Then he had the reporter investigated and interviewed. For awhile he thought about getting Raper drafted to the Pacific Theatre — a rather bloodthirsty approach to the problem. He relented on this when, as it turned out, Raper was in his sixties. Not exactly Army grunt material.16

Did the Axis powers notice this? If they did, they don’t seem to have done much with it. Which highlights an important aspect of Manhattan Project secrecy, in a way: how lucky it was. There were a tremendous number of puzzle pieces out there for an enemy power to notice and put together regarding the bomb effort. It was not quite so perfectly secret as we often talk of it as being. We know it was possible to put some of the pieces together, because the Soviets did it, and even a few others did it. (I’m in the process of writing an article about some of the successful efforts, so more on that later.) Groves wanted a hegemonic, all-encompassing, all-controlling secrecy regime. Understandably, he couldn’t accomplish that — but he pulled off just enough that, with a bit of luck, the project stayed more or less below the water line.

  1. Source: John W. Raper, “Forbidden City,” (13 March 1944) The Cleveland Press. Photostat copy in Manhattan Engineer District records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, Record Group 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 99, “Investigation Files.” []
  2. While entry to Los Alamos was heavily restricted, many more than “half a dozen” people were allowed to leave. []
  3. This guy is impressively flip, eh? []
  4. The Los Alamos Ranch School. []
  5. Los Alamos is 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe. []
  6. Probably a reference to Col. Whitney Ashbridge, the post commander of the Los Alamos site. Ashbridge had replaced the original military head, Col. John Harman, because the latter had difficulty getting along with the scientists. Ashbridge himself was replaced by Col. Gerard Tyler in late 1944, after Ashbridge’s health began to fail because of the strain brought on by the job. See Vincent C. Jones, Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb (US Government Printing Office, 1985), 486, 497-498. []
  7. Something of an exaggeration, of course — Oppenheimer’s purely scientific achievements never rivaled Einstein’s. Still, there is some irony in the fact that Oppenheimer would in the postwar take a position as the Director of the Institute for Advanced Study, in the Princeton, New Jersey, and as such effectively become Einstein’s boss. For more on Einstein and Oppenheimer, see S.S. Schweber, Einstein and Oppenheimer: The Meaning of Genius (Harvard University Press, 2010). []
  8. Manhattan Project security speculated that this information came from Oppenheimer’s Who’s Who entry. No comment on whether this “fellow” was a “fellow traveler” or not… []
  9. Again, I don’t really know where he gets this “sealed in” argument from. It is not correct. But it is true that most of the residents were not aware of the final goal of the project. []
  10. This is an exaggeration of the compartmentalization policy, but not so off the mark. Henry Smyth once joked to the New Yorker that because he ran two different divisions in the project, he was not allowed by rules to talk to himself. []
  11. Not entirely off the mark, either in actual purpose or analogy. The first Los Alamos-like installation that I have heard of dates from World War I, the so-called “Mousetrap” factory in Cleveland, where Lewisite (an arsenic-based chemical weapon) was produced. James B. Conant worked on that project. []
  12. Very, very close to the mark. The explosives heard may be related to the implosion studies, which had begun in the summer of 1943. []
  13. The idea of motor-stopping beams is one that pops up in numerous places during speculation about enemy science during World War II. I have even read stories that have said the technology was obvious, though I have no idea what it might have been. []
  14. No, not an electromagnetic pulse. Aside from the fact that no nuclear weapons had been set off by March 1944, the nuclear EMP at ground level is a very short-range effect compared to the blast effects, and if your car was really damaged by an EMP it would not start back up again in 15 minutes. []
  15. Whitney Ashbridge to Leslie R. Groves (18 March 1944), Manhattan Engineer District records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, Record Group 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 99, “Investigation Files.” []
  16. Patrick S. Washburn, “The Office of Censorship’s Attempt to Control Press Coverage of the Atomic Bomb During World War II,” Journalism Monographs 120 (1990), 1-43, on 11-12, and 37 fn. 43. See also Robert S. Norris, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (Steerforth Press, 2002), 275-276. []

What did the Nazis know about the Manhattan Project?

Friday, September 13th, 2013

The primary motivation of much Manhattan Project secrecy was to keep the Germans from finding out that the United States and United Kingdom were feverishly working on developing nuclear weapons. So it seems a pretty sensible question to ask: Did it work? That is, did the secrecy keep the Germans from knowing about Allied progress on the bomb?

Strangely enough, I wasn’t able to find much of anything published on the question of what knowledge, if any, the Axis powers had about the atomic bomb. The fact that they didn’t develop one themselves is not strong evidence — it just might mean that such knowledge was very limited, or not believed, or not shared correctly. I can’t do the topic the justice it deserves, because I’m not conversant enough with the sources of Axis foreign intelligence, but I can present some thoughts and intriguing little discoveries on here regarding the German program. If anyone has further thoughts, or evidence, I’m all ears.

Farm Hall, the British country estate.

Farm Hall, the British country estate.

Where might we look for such evidence? The major, obvious source are the Farm Hall transcripts. Farm Hall was the British country manor where ten of Germany’s nuclear scientists were kept for six months. Their conversations were bugged. They were, on August 7th, told about the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, and the transcripts were carefully probed at the time, and many times since, for any insight given into what the German nuclear weapons program had been at the time. The transcripts are a notoriously tricky primary source, in part because the original German copies have apparently since been lost (so we only have an English translation), and because there are some indications that the scientists were aware they were being bugged. Separately there is the psychological complexity of the issue, as the scientists were trying to come to terms with themselves, an imagined German public, and an imagined world public regarding their participation (or lack thereof) in making nuclear weapons for Hitler.1

With that said, is there anything in the Farm Hall transcripts that enlightens us one way or the other? The most significant part is that the announcement of Hiroshima, first given orally, “was greeted with incredulity.” See, for example, this sort of exchange:

HEISENBERG: Did they use the word uranium in connection with this atomic bomb?

ALL: No.

HEISENBERG: Then it’s got nothing to do with atoms, but the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive is terrific. […]

GERLACH: Would it be possible that they have got an engine [reactor] running fairly well, that they have had it long enough to separate “93”? [neptunium]

HAHN: I don’t believe it.

HEISENBERG: All I can suggest is that some dilettante in America who knows very little about it has bluffed them in saying: “If you drop this it has the equivalent of 20,000 tons of high explosive” and in reality doesn’t work at all. […]

WEIZSÄCKER: I don’t think it has anything to do with uranium. […]

HAHN: If they really have got it, they have been very clever in keeping it secret.2

All of which has been sometimes taken as pretty strong evidence that these guys didn’t know much about the Allied project. But a closer reading is less clear, because, among other things, not everyone is participating in this discussion. One of the many problems with the German nuclear program was a lack of coordination and a lack of shared knowledge. That Otto Hahn knew nothing of it seems entirely believable, but irrelevant, since he wasn’t really working on the nuclear program in any kind of military capacity. Werner Heisenberg and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker worked together so it makes sense that they would be on basically the same page. But what about the others? 

Farm Hall mugshots: Werner Heisenberg, Carl Friederich von Weiszäcker, Otto Hahn, and Kurt Diebner.

Farm Hall mugshots: Werner Heisenberg, Carl Friederich von Weiszäcker, Otto Hahn, and Kurt Diebner.

Walter Gerlach was in a more administrative role, so one might imagine he would know of any foreign intelligence on the subject. He speaks very little in this part of the transcript, only the question about reactors, and he is not one of the outright initial doubters. Asking whether they could have had reactors does not indicate that he was unaware of an Allied bomb project in general, especially given the compartmentalization of the Manhattan Project. He does, much later in the transcript, apparently express private surprise with Heisenberg that “they had known nothing about the preparations that had been made in America,” though. And what of Kurt Diebner? Diebner ran the other major research wing of the German nuclear program, separate from Heisenberg. He says almost nothing in this section of the transcript, only noting that “there is also a photochemical process” for enriching uranium. Again, this tells us nothing about what he knew.3

Probing the transcript further, we find a few other odd exchanges:

HAHN: From the many scientific things which my two American collaborators sent me up to 1940, I could see that the Americans were interested in the business. 

WEIZSÄCKER: In 1940 van der Grinten wrote me, saying he was separating isotopes with General Electric.

HARTECK: Was van der Grinten a good man?

WEIZSÄCKER: He wasn’t really very good but the fact that he was being used showed that they were working on it.4

I read these as Hahn and Weizsäcker trying to recall whether they had any indication of Allied interest. Considering their only memories are from 1940 (before the Manhattan Project really began), they are actually a good indication that they did not have any truly specific intelligence.

Heisenberg three times tells a story about being contacted from someone in the German Foreign Office about uranium questions:

HEISENBERG: About a year ago, I heard from Segner [probably Sethke] from the Foreign Office that the Americans had threatened to drop a uranium bomb on Dresden if we didn’t surrender soon. At the time I was asked whether I thought it possible, and, with complete conviction, I replied: “No.”5

Now that is a strange story. I have no idea what this Sethke would have been referring to — some strange rumor. Whether it is just nonsense, or based on some actual intelligence, it’s impossible to know from just this snippet. Later, when Heisenberg tells another version of the story (this time making his answer that it was “absolutely possible”), he specifies it was in July 1944 and that it was “a senior SS official” who had asked him about the bomb.6

More Farm Hall mugshots: Walter Gerlach, Paul Harteck, Max von Laue, Karl Wirtz.

More Farm Hall mugshots: Walter Gerlach, Paul Harteck, Max von Laue, Karl Wirtz.

There is also one small exchange before the German scientists were told about Hiroshima. On August 4th, Heisenberg, Gerlach, and Hahn had this exchange:

GERLACH: The [British] Major [Rittner] asked me what we had known about scientific work in enemy countries, especially on uranium. I said, “Absolutely nothing. All the information we got was absurd.”

HEISENBERG: In that respect one should never mention any names even if one knew of a German who had anything to do with it.

GERLACH: For instance, I never mentioned the name of that man Albers (?). The “Secret Service” people kept asking me: “From whom did you get information?” and I always replied: “There was an official in Speer’s ministry and in the Air Ministry who gave it out officially.” I did not say it was Albers (?) who did it.

HEISENBERG: I had a special man who sent me amazing information from Switzerland. That was some special office. Of course I have burnt all the correspondence and I have forgotten his name.

HAHN: Did you actually get any new information from him?

HEISENBERG: At that time I always knew exactly what was being discussed in the Scherrer Institute regarding uranium. Apparently he was often there when Scherrer lectured and knew what they were talking about. It was nothing very exciting but, for instance, he once reported that the Americans had just built a new heavy water plant and that sort of thing.7

And there it ends. Other than the mention of heavy water, it is too vague to make much sense of. (The Manhattan Project built several heavy water plants are part of what they called the P-9 Project, as part of their “leave no stone unturned” approach. They upgraded an existing ammonia plant at Trail, British Columbia to produce heavy water, and built three supplementary facilities at military sites in West Virginia, Indiana, and Alabama.)

After the scientists had heard the official BBC radio announcement, they all began to believe it was true, and worked out fairly quickly how it probably would have worked (though even there, they were still impressively confused at times) and famously hashed over why they didn’t get one made. No further invocations of foreign information or intelligence were made that I found.8

My overall impression is that for the bulk of the ten scientists, the Allied atomic bomb probably did come as a genuine surprise of immense magnitude. But there are enough hints there to suggest that various bits and pieces were out there amongst their foreign intelligence officials, whether they shared all of that with the scientists or not. And as we’ve see in the Soviet case, just because the spies know something doesn’t mean it percolates back to the scientists working on it — the use of foreign intelligence is not a straightforward operation. And there are several scientists whose reactions were not individually recorded (e.g. Diebner). Of the scientists who talked a lot, they seemed genuinely clueless about what the Americans had done, but not all of them talked.

Are there any other indications? One thing that one finds on the Internet are assertions that the last attempt by the Nazis to deposit saboteurs on American soil, Operation Elster (Magpie), was supposedly aimed at sabotaging the Manhattan Project. Like all such Nazi efforts, the saboteurs in question were rounded up pretty quickly. Were they really targeting the Manhattan Project? I suspect not. The sources that give such information all seem to trace back to a postwar memoir of one of those captured. David Kahn has written that he thinks it is nonsense; I am inclined to agree.9) The idea that a single pair of spies would be sent to gain information on, much less sabotage, the Manhattan Project is too silly to be believed without corroborating evidence.

J. Edgar Hoover, 1941. Source.

J. Edgar Hoover, 1941. Source.

But there is one last interesting source that I stumbled across. In early February 1945, J. Edgar Hoover wrote a memo to Harry Hopkins (one of Roosevelt’s closest aides) explaining that the FBI had information that indicated German interest in atomic matters. Specifically, Hoover wrote:

As you are well aware, the Army for the past two years has been vitally interested in a highly secret project for the development of an atomic explosive. […]

Recently, in connection with the operation of a radio station by a German agent under control of the Federal Bureau of Investigation but which station the Germans believe to be a free station, an inquiry was received from Germany containing the following questions regarding the status of atomic explosive experimentation in the United States:

First, where is the heavy water being produced? In what quantities? What method? Who are users?

Second, in what Laboratories is work being carried on with large quantities of uranium? Did accidents happen there? What does protection against Neutronic Rays consist of in these laboratories? What is the material and the strength of coating?

Third, is anything known concerning the production of bodies or molecules out of metallic uranium rods, tubes, plates? Are these bodies provided with coverings for protection? Of what do these coverings consist?10

Now this looks like a legitimate technical intelligence inquiry. These are very specific questions regarding reactor construction. Not necessarily bomb construction, mind you. But it does look like someone working on reactors passed some questions up the chain of command. (The fact, incidentally, that this came to the FBI from a double-agent is also telling — the German foreign intelligence networks were notoriously compromised, yet another reason they missed so much.)

The questions reveal, though, that whomever asked them did not realize that the Americans had already been building massive, industrial-sized, carbon-moderated (not heavy water!) nuclear reactors in Hanford, Washington. Note the lack of any queries regarding uranium enrichment. Note that the questions are narrowly technical, the kind of questions you would ask if you are trying to build your own reactor, not ferret out a clandestine bomb program.

That the Germans were asking such basic, ignorant questions so late in the game — the Red Army was bearing down on Berlin and their atomic program, like so many other things, was in a tizzy11is perhaps the greatest indication that they knew very little about the American Manhattan Project indeed. That they were asking questions at all is not surprising, but the lateness perhaps is. The Soviet physicist Georgii Flerov figured out that the Americans must be working on a nuclear program in 1942, when he noticed that nobody was publishing on the subject — specifically, that nobody was citing his publication on the spontaneous fission of uranium-238. One wonders why the Germans were less observant of this fact, especially given the amount of “brain drain” their own institutes suffered.12 They also appear to have missed or misunderstood all of the various leaks, accidental disclosures, and other signs that drove General Groves and others involved with Manhattan Project security so mad. Many pieces were there for them to put together, but they didn’t solve the puzzle.13

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch as part of Alsos.

Lastly, we have the take of Samuel Goudsmit, the head of the Alsos expedition. In an unpublished memorandum written in late 1945, claimed that the Alsos investigation into the German work had shown that “the enemy was equally ignorant of Allied scientific and technical work,” though notes that in 1939, a team of three Germans were sent to the USA to learn about American interest in uranium research. (This was well before there was much American interest in such.) As he was prone to do, Goudsmit generalized greatly from this, assuming that scientific and technical intelligence was too difficult to pick up during that war. The Soviets, as always, proved an important exception to Goudsmit’s generalizations.14 In any case, though, this does indicate that there aren’t probably an exciting espionage gems hiding in the Alsos records.

Wrapping everything up, my basic conclusion is that if German intelligence had an inkling about the American atomic bomb program, they didn’t develop the idea and they didn’t communicate it to several of their top scientists on the program. Heisenberg seems genuinely foolish on the entire subject. Diebner’s lack of participation makes it hard to gauge his knowledge, but it strikes me as strange (though not impossible) that he would know of such things but Heisenberg would be ignorant of them. Entirely separate is the question of who asked the SS to investigate what the Americans were doing with heavy water — but the queries there demonstrate that whomever is asking knows almost nothing about the Allied program, and may in fact be trying to find out how to improve their own reactor work.

A consistent theme in the Farm Hall transcripts and the Alsos investigation is that the Germans seem to have honestly thought that their work on the “uranium problem” was well beyond what anyone else might have been doing, and that the Allies would be desperate to “buy” their reactor research in the postwar. They apparently were not motivated to check to see whether this arrogance was founded, and part of the depression and desperation one sees them going through after Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a remark on their perception of irrelevance. As Otto Hahn chided them right after they learned of Hiroshima: “If the Americans have a uranium bomb then you’re all second raters.”

  1. The best copy of the transcripts is Jeremy Bernstein’s heavily annotated version, Hitler’s Uranium Club: The Secret Recordings at Farm Hall, Second Edition (New York: Copernicus Books, 2001). My quotations and citations refer to this specific version. []
  2. Bernstein, 116-117. []
  3. Photochemical processes for enriching uranium were investigated during the Manhattan Project, but not seriously pursued. []
  4. Bernstein, 119. []
  5. Bernstein, 124. []
  6. Bernstein, 139. []
  7. Bernstein, 108. Note that the (?)’s are in the original transcript. []
  8. There is one small bit about talking about thorium with an (Indian) Japanese spy, but it seems unrelated to the bomb question directly, and the spy in question doesn’t seem to have known anything. []
  9. David Kahn writes in Hitler’s Spies: German Military Intelligence in World War II, “[Erich] Gimpel’s [one of the spies] ghostwritten book, Spy for Germany, must be used with the greatest caution, as it differs in a number of critical points from his statement [to the FBI]. The most important are the book’s claims that he was assigned to ferret out atomic secrets, that he succeeded to some extent, and that he radioed a message to Germany. None of these are supported by his statement or by Colepaugh’s [a collaborator] or by postwar interrogations of his spymasters, and the atomic claim is specifically contradicted by a statement of Schellenberg’s [a top Nazi spy].” There just doesn’t seem to be any hard evidence behind the assertion that Elster had something to do with the Manhattan Project. Gimpel’s books provide zero believable details about the matter — he reports that he was just supposed to figure out what was going on (no list of targets, names, theories, etc. []
  10. J. Edgar Hoover to Harry Hopkins (9 February 1945), in Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Folder 62: “Security (Manhattan Project),” Roll 4, Target 8. []
  11. See Samuel Goudsmit, Alsos (Tomash, 1983 [1946]), 183-185. []
  12. At one point in the Farm Hall transcripts, it is noted that “Hahn remarked on the fact that there had been no publication of work on uranium fission in British or American scientific journals since January 1940, but he thought there had been one published in Russia on the spontaneous fission of uranium with deuterons.” So, at least retrospectively, Hahn realizes that there was this silence, with the exception of Flerov (probably the Russian he is thinking about). []
  13. Goudsmit describes a conversation between Paul Rosbaud and Walther Gerlach in February 1945 in which Rosbaud asks Gerlach, “Have you considered that the American, British, or Russian scientists know as much or perhaps more about it than you do?” If this actually occurred, one wonders if Gerlach didn’t follow up on the issue, ergo the spy query. But this is just supposition. On the conversation, see Goudsmit, Alsos, 185. In any case, the whole conversation, if true, is further evidence of Gerlach’s ignorance at that point — he was still under the delusion that the Allies would have something to gain from the German work on heavy water. []
  14. Samuel Goudsmit to C.P. Nichols, “Scientific Intelligence” (26 November 1945), Goudsmit papers. []

The Spy, the Human Computer, and the H-bomb

Friday, August 23rd, 2013

One of the most enigmatic documents in early Cold War nuclear history is the so-called Fuchs-von Neumann patent. It was Los Alamos secret patent application number S-5292X, “Improvements in method and means for utilizing nuclear energy,” and dates from April 1946. It is mentioned, cryptically, often with heavy redaction, in many official histories of the hydrogen bomb, but also has recently surfaced as an object of historian’s speculation. The most obvious reason for its notoriety comes from its authors, but its importance  goes deeper than that.

The Los Alamos identification badges for Klaus Fuchs and John von Neumann. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The Los Alamos identification badges for Klaus Fuchs and John von Neumann. Courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

The co-inventors were Klaus Fuchs and John von Neumann. Fuchs was a brilliant German physicist who was later exposed as the most important of the Soviet spies at Los Alamos. Von Neumann was a brilliant Hungarian mathematician and physicist, a “ringer” they brought in especially to help manage the explosive lens program, and is generally considered one of the smartest people in the 20th century. As one of the major contributors to the invention of modern computing, it was often remarked in his time that he was much smarter than the machines he was developing — he could do crazy-complicated math in his head without breaking a sweat. And he was a vehement anti-Communist at that — a man who spoke openly about the benefits of instigating thermonuclear war with the Soviets. So on the face of it, it’s an improbable match-up — the Soviet spy and the anti-Communist human computer. Of course, viewed in context, it’s not so improbable: they were both talented physicists, both worked at Los Alamos, and nobody at the lab knew Fuchs was a spy.

The patent is interesting to historians because it allegedly plays a key role in answering the (still quite murky) question of whether the Soviets got the H-bomb through espionage or by their own hard work. We know that Fuchs passed it on to the Soviets — the question is, what did it contain, and how did the Soviets use it? The reason it shows up recurrently is because the patent is allegedly one of the first suggestions of the concept of radiation implosion, that is, using the radiation output of a fission bomb as a means of initiating fusion. In 1951, this would become one of the central components of the so-called Teller-Ulam design of the hydrogen bomb, on which all subsequent hydrogen bombs were based.

Record of invention for the Fuchs-von Neumann design, "Improvements in Method and Means for Utilizing Nuclear Energy."

Record of Invention for the Fuchs-von Neumann design, “Improvements in Method and Means for Utilizing Nuclear Energy.” This copy is from the records of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in the Washington, DC, National Archives.

The contents of the patent itself is still officially secret in the United States. What is officially declassified  is little more than its title and some relevant dates — not much to go on. All descriptive aspects of it are totally classified. Which, generally speaking, makes it very hard to evaluate the aforementioned question of how useful it would have been to the Soviet Union, since we don’t officially know what is in it.

But in the last couple of years, things have changed on this latter point. The patent application is still classified in the United States.1 But the contents of the patent appear to have been declassified, and published, in Russia. I’ve talked a bit in the past about how the Russians have declassified a bunch of information about the American bomb project that they got from espionage, despite the fact that this information is still probably classified in the United States. It would be really, really wonderful to know the back-story on why they do this, and whether there is any discussion with American classification authorities before the Russians start releasing information about old American bomb designs. The book series in question is Atomni’ Proekt SSSR (USSR Atomic Project: Documents and Materials), which is cheerfully described on the inside as “intended for everybody interest in the history of the Soviet Atomic Project.” Indeed!

In this case, the late Herb York told me that the late German Goncharov, one of the editors of the Atomni’ Proekt SSSR series, approached him and told him somewhat informally that he thought this information should be declassified. York told me that he couldn’t really officially respond to Goncharov about this, but he showed it to some people in Livermore, but they weren’t very interested. Anyway, whatever the case, Goncharov apparently got the whole thing published in 2009 in volume 3, book 1 of the series.

Fuchs-von Neumann H-bomb design

The above image, supposedly the Fuchs-von Neumann concept, had appeared in a few other sources prior to that, but not with explanatory text. The only person who has published a serious analysis of it is the physicist and historian Jeremy Bernstein, who wrote about it in Physics in Perspective in 2010.2 At the time, Bernstein only had access to the diagram and its above legend, which was first seen in print in Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb. Bernstein’s caption of the above device (which he credits Carey Sublette for deciphering) is as follows:

The design for thermonuclear ignition that Klaus Fuchs turned over to his Soviet control in March 1948. The detonator (box) on the left represents a gun-type fission bomb consisting of a projectile and target of highly enriched uranium (71 kg of 70% pure U235), which when joined form a supercritical mass and produce an explosive chain reaction. The projectile is carried forward by its momentum, striking the beryllium-oxide (BeO) capsule on the right, which contains a liquid 50:50 D–T mixture, compressing it by a factor of about 3, as represented by the outer circle. The radiation produced in the fission bomb heats up the BeO capsule, producing completely ionized BeO gas, which exerts pressure on the completely ionized D–T gas, compressing the capsule further to an overall factor of about 10, as represented by the inner circle.

The interpretation is pretty good, considering the lack of additional source material! But the Russians have since released the entire document — including its original description of how it is meant to work, in the original English. Here is an excerpt:

The detonator is а fission bomb of the gun type. The active material is 71 kg of 40% pure U233 [sic].3 The plug (48.64 kg) sits in the projectile, which is shot bу the gun into the target, the remaining 22-24 kg sits in the target. The tamper is ВеО. The fission gadget has аn efficiency of 5% (calculated). The tamper, which is transparent for the radiation from the fission bomb, is surrounded bу an opaque shell which retains the radiation in the tamper and also shields the booster and main charge against radiation.  […]

The primer contains 346 gm of liquid D-Т in 50:50 mixture, situated in the tamper. It is first compressed bу the projectile to 3-fold density. This precompression may not bе necessary. As the tamper and primer аге heated bу the radiation, the primer is further compressed, possibly to 10-fold density. (Radiation transport equalises the temperature in primer and tamper, and gives therefore rise to а pressure differential.) The compression opens the “gap” for the ignition of the primer. The primer is likely to have а very high efficiency (~80 %) of energy release.

The booster beyond the radiation shield contains D with about 4% Т. It is ignited bу the neutrons from the primer. Beyond the booster is the main charge of pure D, а cylinder of about 30 сm radius to contain the neutrons and arbitrary length.

So what’s happening here is that the big piece of uranium is being shot against another piece. In the process, it rams into a bunch of fusion fuel (the 50:50 deuterium-tritium mixture), and just mechanically compresses it by a factor of 3. Just brute force. Then the fission bomb starts to detonate, using its radiation to ionize and heat the beryllium-oxide tamper. This causes it to ionize and blow off, compressing that 50:50 DT mixture, and starting a fusion reaction (they hope). This produces a huge number of neutrons, which then go and hit some more fusionable fuel (a DT mixture with only 4% tritium). The neutrons from this then go on to continue and ignite a final reservoir of pure deuterium “of arbitrary length.”

The report then estimates that with 1 cubic meter of deuterium, it would have a blast range of 5 miles, a flash burn range of 10 miles, and prompt gamma radiation for 2 miles. It’s not clear what values they mean exactly for those ranges (is blast 1 psi, 5 psi, 10 psi, 20 psi?), but playing with the NUKEMAP makes me think they are talking about something in the megaton range. For 10 tons of deuterium, it says: “Blast ~ 100 square miles, Flash burn to horizon оr 10,000 square miles if detonated high up. Radioactive poison, produced bу absorption of neutrons in suitable materials, could bе lethal over 100,000 square miles.” Which is something in the many tens of megatons.

So was this radiation implosion? Well, kind of. The design uses the radiation energy to blow up the tamper, basically, compressing some fusion fuel. That’s part of how the Teller-Ulam design would later work. But the entire thing is done in the context of the non-workable Classical Super — the idea that you can start a fusion reaction at one length of a column of fusionable material and it will propagate down the rest of it. Radiation implosion, here, is really just trying to get a better initial “spark” of energy to start the Classical Super reaction. This is very different from Teller-Ulam, where the complete implosion of the secondary is a key and fundamental aspect. All of which is to say, while this is a kind of radiation implosion (mixed in with a lot of other complicated things), it’s pretty far from what is required to make a working hydrogen bomb, because the Classical Super idea just doesn’t work. The fusion reaction of the sort proposed just can’t sustain itself. Even Fuchs and von Neumann appear to have only perceived the importance of their invention as reducing the amount of tritium needed versus other Classical Super designs.4

The "Classical Super" design from 1946. A gun-type design is surrounded by a beryllium oxide tamper. There is a tubealloy (depleted uranium) shield to keep radiation off of the fusion fuel. The idea is to ignite a fusion reaction in a D+T mixture, which then ignites fusion reactions in a pure D mixture of arbitrary length.

The unworkable “Classical Super” design from 1946. A gun-type design is surrounded by a beryllium oxide tamper. There is a tubealloy (depleted uranium) shield to keep radiation off of the fusion fuel. The idea is to ignite a fusion reaction in a D+T mixture, which then ignites fusion reactions in a pure D mixture of arbitrary length. The Fuchs-von Neumann device is, in effect, just an attempt make the initial ignition easier, and does not question the (faulty) underlying assumption about propagation of the fusion reaction.

So what did the Soviets do with this information? Other documents in the series give some indication of that, and I’ve included the full set here (warning: large PDF, 13.5 MB), although it is completely in Russian.

The 1948 intelligence data is identified as “Material No. 713.” It includes a brief, near verbatim summary (Document No. 32) by the physicist Yakov Terletsky (the same one who interviewed Bohr at Beria’s request), as well as a brief report by Terletsky explaining what this material gave them compared to previous information about the American H-bomb work (Document No. 33). The latter is interesting; they seem most interested in the new theoretical information about the conditions required for deuterium fusion than they are about the specifics of the designs given. The strongest phrase is one where Terletsky says that the intelligence information will help them get beyond general, theoretical calculations and move towards the actual design or construction of a ‘deuterium superbomb, and thus reduce the time required for the practical implementation of the superbomb idea.”5

Document No. 34 includes an order by Beria that Kurchatov and Vannikov be required to write analyses of the intelligence information, and that Khariton be consulted on the information. This was made just a few days after Terletsky’s report. Vannikov and Kurchatov’s analysis is included as Document 35. They seemed quite encouraged and interested in the intelligence, and claim it will help them a lot. Of note is that they in particular mention that, among the useful things in the document, they thought that “the ideas about the role of particles and photons in the transmission of the explosion to the deuterium are new.”6 So they do seem to have picked up on that, though it is again mixed into a lot of other details. They then used this material to propose that the USSR start a full-fledged Super program, along the lines of the unanswered questions (and even some of the answered ones) reflected in the intelligence information.

The end of Beria's April 1948 memo written as a result of the Fuchs intelligence, instructing that Khariton's opinion should be sought, especially with respects to the future work of the KB-11 (Arzamas-16) laboratory.

The end of Beria’s April 1948 memo written as a result of the Fuchs intelligence, instructing that Khariton’s opinion should be sought, especially with respects to the future work of the KB-11 (Arzamas-16) laboratory.

One thing that comes out in this as well is that the Soviet scientists at this point only had one other significant intelligence source related to the Super work, from late 1946 (Material No. 462, which I’ve uploaded here.) This appears to be a summary of the Super lectures that Enrico Fermi gave at Los Alamos, and is focused entirely on the Classical Super approach to the bomb, with many uncertainties. If these two caches were the only significant espionage they had on the American Super program before starting their own Super program, that’s pretty interesting in and of itself, and helps put some pretty strict limitations on what they would have gotten out of the data.

Looking at all this, even with the knowledge that there is probably a lot more to the story, I come away with the following conclusions. First, Bernstein is probably right when he says that the Fuchs-von Neumann approach wouldn’t have helped the Soviets very much in terms of arriving at the Teller-Ulam design. As he puts it:

Part of the irony of this story is that the unlikely collaborators, John von Neumann and Klaus Fuchs, produced a brilliant invention in 1946 that could have changed the whole course of the development of the hydrogen bomb, but was not fully understood until after the bomb had been successfully made.

I think perhaps this might go a little too far in praising radiation implosion — it is brilliant of a sort, but it is only one piece in the overall puzzle. The bigger issue on the road to the Teller-Ulam design was not so much the idea that the radiation could be used to transmit the energy, or even to implode the secondary, but getting away from the Classical Super notion of starting a small reaction that would then propagate onward. Indeed, the real breakthrough in the end appears to have been getting out of that mindset altogether. Ulam’s big idea was of total compression of the secondary by putting the whole thing in a “box,” which Teller then realized could be done more efficiently with radiation implosion. Radiation implosion is just a part of the overall mechanism, one which Ulam later insisted was actually not even required.

But my second, perhaps deeper conclusion is that this intelligence appears to have been much more important than has been previously thought. It didn’t give the Soviets the right idea of how to make an H-bomb. But it did seem to convince them that the Americans were taking this work very seriously, and making serious progress, and that they should set up their own dedicated H-bomb program as soon as possible. That’s a big deal, from an organizational standpoint, arguably a much bigger deal than the idea that it gave them some hint at the final design.

The Soviets were talking about a serious H-bomb program in 1948, before they had a fission bomb, and before USA was really committing itself to making a hydrogen bomb. In this sense, while it isn’t clear that this intelligence saved them any real time on the bomb, it did convince them it was worth spending time on. In the end, that was what produced their successful hydrogen bomb models, in the end. Not the intelligence itself, but the program spurred on by the intelligence. And so in that sense, Fuchs does have a very real role in the Soviet hydrogen bomb program, even if his specific ideas were not realized to be relevant until after the fact. Our focus on the importance of individual design secrets can lead us to underestimate the importance of programmatic and organizational decisions in weapons development.7 We tend to focus on the question of, “did this fact get transmitted, and was it appreciated?” But facts, by themselves, do not build bombs. What they can do, though, is inspire scientists to think that the bombs can and should be made, so that they start the laborious process of actually making them. If the Fuchs intelligence did have this result, then it was very important indeed.

  1. Note that it is, and probably will always be, an application. Secret patent applications cannot be granted until they are non-secret. And even then, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 explicitly bans the patenting of atomic bombs. For the long, thrilling history of secret atomic patents, check out my page on them and my various articles on the history of the policy. []
  2. Jeremy Bernstein, “John von Neumann and Klaus Fuchs: an Unlikely Collaboration,” Physics in Perspective 12 (2010), 36-50. []
  3. The “detonator” description is very strange. For one thing, using only 40% enriched uranium (I am sure that the U-233 is a typo, because it is not in the Russian version, but the 40% is repeated in both) seems strange for 1946, and there is a marked difference between the specificity of one part of the gun-type design (48.64 kg) and the other (22-24 kg). This may be some kind of strange transcription error; the original drawing that the above diagram is based on says 22.36 kg. 5% efficiency is ridiculously high for such a description, too — “Little Boy” had about a 1% efficiency with 80% enriched uranium. If 5% of the U-235 in the “detonator” underwent fission, it would be around 24 kilotons in yield — somethings quite achievable by less speculative means. []
  4. The 1946 Record of Invention describes the object of the device as follows: “To provide an improved method and means for initiating a self-sustaining thermo-nuclear reaction which minimizes the amounts of materials employed.” (My emphasis.) When you compare this design with other Classical Super designs, it is clear, I think, that they are really trying to keep the amount of tritium down to a minimum, by starting the fusion with the heavy compression of a very small tritium-rich zone. Given that in 1946, the supply of tritium was minuscule, this would be a pretty appealing aspect of such a design. []
  5. “Материал #713а, в целом, позволяет перейти от общих теоретических расчетов к конструированию дейтериевой сверхбомбы и т[аким] о[бразом] сократить время, необходимое для практического осуществления идеи сверхбомбы.” []
  6. “Приведенные в материале #713а принципиальные соображения о роли трития в процессе передачи взрыва от запала из урана-235 к дейтерию, соображения о необходимости тщательного подбора мощности уранового запала и соображения о роли частиц и квантов при передаче взрыва дейтерию являются новыми.” []
  7. Michael Gordin makes this point excellently in his excellent Red Cloud at Dawn when discussing why the Smyth Report is actually a pretty important document for the Soviets: it didn’t give them any details about how to build a bomb, but it did tell them how to start a bomb-building research program. []