Posts Tagged ‘Historiography’

Meditations

Hiroshima and Nagasaki at 70

Friday, August 21st, 2015

This month marked the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the cessation of hostilities in World War II. Anniversaries are interesting times to test the cultural waters, to see how events get remembered and talked about. I was exceptionally busy this summer, doing my part to try to participate in the discourse about these events. In case you missed them and wished you had not, here are a few of my appearances:

I also published a second blog post with the New Yorker on the often-overlooked second use of the atomic bomb: “Nagasaki: The Last Bomb.” I am proud of it as a piece of writing, as I was really trying to pull off something deliberate and subtle with it, and feel that I somewhat accomplished that.

New Yorker - Nagasaki - The Last Bomb

On this latter piece, I would also like to say that very little of what I wrote would come as a surprise to historians, though the particular arrangement of Nagasaki-as-JANCFU (that is, with an emphasis on the less-than-textbook aspects of the operation, as a herald of the later chaotic possibilities of the nuclear age) is usually under-emphasized. We tend to lump Hiroshima and Nagasaki together when we talking about the atomic bombings during World War II, and I think they should probably be separated out a bit in terms of how we regard them. The first use of the bomb, at Hiroshima, was in many ways a very straightforward affair, both in terms of the strategic and ethical considerations, and the tactical operation. Whether one agrees with the strategic and ethical considerations is a separate matter, of course, but a lot of thought went into Hiroshima as a target, and into the first use of the bomb. Nagasaki, by contrast, was less straightforward on all counts — less thought-out, less justified, and was very nearly a tactical blunder. For me, it reflects on the very real dangers that can occur when human judgment gets mixed with the extremely high stakes that come with weapons as powerful as these. Any bomber crew can have a mishap of a mission, but when that mission is nuclear-armed, the potential consequences multiply.

The one notable exception to the “very little would come as a surprise to historians” bit in this piece is that Nagasaki was never put on the “reserved” list. For whatever reason, the idea that both Hiroshima and Nagasaki were “reserved” from conventional bombing is very commonly repeated, but it is just not true. The final “reserved” list contained only Kyoto, Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata. Aside from the fact that no documentation exists of Nagasaki being put on the list (whereas we do have such documentation for the others), we also have the documentation actively rescinding the “reserved” status for Hiroshima, Kokura, and Niigata, so that they could become formal atomic targets.1

Detail from a damage map of Nagasaki, produced by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946. I have the original of this in my possession. I find this particular piece of the map quite valuable to examine up close — one gets a sense of the nature of the area around "Ground Zero" very acutely when examining it. There were war plants to the north and south of the detonation point, but mostly the labeled structures are explicitly, painfully civilian (schools, hospitals, prisons). Click to enlarge.

Detail from a damage map of Nagasaki, produced by the United States Strategic Bombing Survey, 1946. I have the original of this in my possession. I find this particular piece of the map quite valuable to examine up close — one gets a sense of the nature of the area around “Ground Zero” very acutely when examining it. There were war plants to the north and south of the detonation point, but mostly the labeled structures are explicitly, painfully civilian (schools, hospitals, prisons). Click to enlarge. Here is a not-great photo of the whole map, to compare it with, and here is a detail of the legend. At some point, when finances allow, I will get this framed for my office, but it is quite large and not a cheap endeavor.

John Coster-Mullen’s book provided a lot of documents and details about the bombing run. One thing I appreciate about John is his dedication to documentation, even though his views on the meaning of the history are not always the same as mine. I thoroughly believe that rational people can look at the same facts and come up with different narratives and interpretations — the trick, of course, is to make sure you are at least getting the facts right.2

It would be interesting at some point for someone to do a scholarly analysis of the popular discourse surrounding each decade of anniversaries since the bombs were dropped. 1955 was a fairly raw time, right after McCarthyism had peaked and the hydrogen bomb had been developed. 1965 marked an outpouring of new books and revelations from those involved in the bomb project, enabled by new declassifications (allowed, in part, because of the fostering of a civilian nuclear industry) and the fact that some of the major participants (like Groves) were still alive. I have no distinct impressions of 1975 being a major anniversary year, but 1985 resulted in a lot of hand-wringing about the relationship between the birth of the nuclear age and the nuclear fears of the 1980s. 1995, of course, was the first post-Cold War anniversary and one of the “hottest” years of controversy, catalyzing around the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibit controversy and the “culture wars” of the mid-Clinton administration. We are still dealing with the hyper-polarization of the narratives of the atomic bombings that became really prominent in the mid-1990s — where there were only two options available, an orthodox/reactionary view or a critical/revisionist view. The 2005 anniversary did not make a large impression on me at the time, and seemed muted in comparison with 1995 (perhaps a good thing), except for the fact that some very noteworthy scholarship made its appearance to coincide with it.

A small sampling of some of the international press coverage of the NUKEMAP around the Hiroshima anniversary.

A small sampling of some of the international press coverage of the NUKEMAP around the Hiroshima anniversary.

And what of 2015? There were, of course, many stories about the bombings. Nagasaki got a better representation in the discourse than usual, in no small part because Susan Southard’s Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War received heavy promotion. (I have not read it yet.) The general discussion seemed less polarized than they have been, though I did see a fair share of hand-wringing and defending editorials pop up on my Google Alerts feed. I have speculated that I think anniversaries from this point forward will be somewhat more interesting and reflective than those in the recent past, in part because of the declining influence of American World War II veterans, who were such a strong force in the more recent ones. My (perhaps overly idealistic) hope is that our narratives of the bombings can settle into something more historically informed, more quietly reflective, and less keyed to contemporary politics than in the past.

For my part, I was impressed by the number of people online who were interested in re-creating Hiroshima on their hometowns. The featuring of NUKEMAP on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog drove an incredible amount of traffic to the site. It was one of those stories that could be essentially lifted and re-written to fit a wide variety of different cities or countries, and there were variations of the “What would happen if Hiroshima happened here?” written in dozens of languages over the days leading up to and beyond the anniversary. The result is that NUKEMAP’s traffic had an all-time high spike over 300,000 people on August 6. The traffic is a typical long-tail distribution, so in the week of August 5-12, there were well over 1 million pageviews for the NUKEMAP. There have been other spikes in the past, but none quite as big as this one.

Locations where the Little Boy bomb was "dropped," August 5-12, 2015. These are unweighted (each dot represents an indeterminate number of detonations). Here is a heatmap (capped at 1,000 detonations — the actual cap is 28,116 — to make it easier to see the broader spread) showing where repeat detonations occurred. Here is a version where I have thrown out all locations where fewer than 10 detonations took place, and scaled their size and color by repetition. Total detonations is 266,483.

Locations where the Little Boy bomb was “dropped,” August 5-12, 2015. These are unweighted (each dot represents an indeterminate number of detonations). Here is a heatmap (capped at 1,000 detonations — the actual cap is 28,116 — to make it easier to see the broader spread) showing where repeat detonations occurred. Here is a version where I have thrown out all locations where fewer than 10 detonations took place, and scaled their size and color by repetition. Total detonations is 266,483.

Where do people nuke, when they recreate Hiroshima? Well, all over the world, not surprisingly, though the biggest single draws are New York (which is a NUKEMAP default if it cannot figure out where you probably live) and Hiroshima itself (re-creating the actual bombing). I’ve exported the log data for people using the Little Boy bomb setting (15 kiloton airbursts) for the week of August 5-12, and the maps are shown and linked to above. Obviously it correlates very heavily with both population and Internet access, but still, it is interesting.

Lastly, a week after the anniversary, what more reflection is there to be had? A new poll came out in late July of a thousand Americans, asking them what they thought about the bombings. Overall, 46% of those polled thought that the dropping of the bombs on Japan was the “right decision” to do, while 29% thought it was the “wrong decision,” and 26% said they were “not sure.” Which one can interpret in a number of ways. The feelings appear to correlate directly with age — the older you are, the more likely you think it was “right,” and the younger, with “wrong.” It also correlates with a few other factors, notably political affiliation (Republicans strongly in favor, Democrats and Independents not so much), race/ethnicity, and income. I suspect all of these variables (age, political affiliation, race/ethnicity, and income) to be pretty highly correlated in general. Separately, the gender gap is pretty extreme — men defend the bombings by a very large margin compared to women.

The head of the Nagasaki mushroom cloud — like a monstrous brain.

The head of the Nagasaki mushroom cloud — like a monstrous brain. Source: National Archives/Fold3.com.

None of this is extremely surprising, I don’t think. But I was taken aback by another question in the same poll, a strictly factual one: “Which country was the first country to build a nuclear weapon?” Only 57% of the total polled correctly identified the United States, and it gets very depressing when one looks at how this breaks down by age. Less than half of Americans under the age of 45 could correctly identify that their country was the first country to develop nuclear weapons. I don’t really mind if a lot of people can’t identify when the first weapons were used (another question in the poll); exact years can be hard for people, especially on the spot, and the differences between the options given were not so vast that they represent much, in my view. But 23% were “not sure” who made the first bomb, 15% thought it was the USSR, and 3% thought it was China! (Almost nobody, alas, thought it was France.) This is not a minor factual error — it is a fundamental lack of knowledge about the historical composition of the world. It reflects, I suspect, the waning attention given to nuclear issues in the post-Cold War.

One last reflection: How do I, a historian of these matters, find myself thinking about Hiroshima and Nagasaki these days? Increasingly I find myself uninterested in the question of whether they were “justified” or not, which contain so much predictable posturing, the same old arguments, with very few new facts or analyses. I think the bombings were a very muddy affair from an ethical, strategic, and historical perspective, and I don’t think they fit into any simplistic view of them. I’ve come to feel my position on these could be described as an “inverse moderate,” where a moderate seeks to make everyone feel comfortable, but my goal is to make everyone feel uncomfortable. If you think this history supports some easy, straightforward interpretation, you are probably throwing out a lot of the data and filling it in with what you’d like to believe. It is complex history; it does not boil down easily.

Notes
  1. See Potsdam cable WAR 37683, July 24, 1945, copy in the Harrison-Bundy files, Roll 10, Target 10, Folder 64, “Interim Committee — Potsdam Cables.” []
  2. And, of course, I am not so naive to believe that “getting the facts right” is a simple or straightforward process. Indeed, contextualization of documents is a large part of understanding what the “facts” often are, and that requires narrative and interpretation, and so we end up in a somewhat circular epistemological loop. But there is a difference between people outright getting them wrong and people who are at least trying to get them right. I have been frustrated to see the number of people who still claim that the US warned the Japanese before the atomic bombings, a myth perpetuated in no small part due to shoddy citation by archivists at the Truman Library on their website. []
Meditations

Were there alternatives to the atomic bombings?

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

As we rapidly approach the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been all sorts of articles, tributes, memorials, and so forth expressed both in print and online. I’ve been busy myself with some of this sort of thing. I was asked if I would write up a short piece for Aeon Ideas about whether there were any alternatives to these bombings, and I figure it won’t hurt to cross-post it here as well.

Unusual photograph of the late cloud of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. This was probably taken by aircraft that arrived several hours after the bombing to do damage reconnaissance; they reported the target was obscured by huge amounts of smoke. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via Fold3.com.

An unusual photograph of the late clouds of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. This was probably taken by aircraft that arrived several hours after the bombing to do damage reconnaissance; they reported the target was obscured by huge amounts of smoke. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via Fold3.com.

The point of the piece, I would like to emphasize, is not necessarily to “second guess” what was done in 1945. It is, rather, to point out that we tend to constrain our view of the possibilities generally to one of two unpleasant options. Many of those who defend the bombings seem to end up in a position of believing that 1. there were no other options on the table at the time except for exactly what did occur, and 2. that questioning whether there were other options does historical damage. As a historian, I find both of these positions absurd. First, history is full of contingency, and there were several explicit options (and a few implicit ones) on the table in 1945 — more than just “bomb” versus “invade.” These other options did not carry the day does not mean they should be ignored. Second, I think that pointing out these options helps shape our understanding of the choices that were made, because they make history seem less like a fatalistic march of events. The idea that things were “fated” to happen the way they do does much more damage to the understanding of history, because it denies human influence and it denies choices were made.

Separately, there is a question of whether we ought to “judge” the past by standards of the present. In some cases this leads to statements that are simply non-sequiturs — I think Genghis Khan’s methods were inhumane, but who cares that I think that? But World War II was not so long ago that its participants are of another culture entirely, and those who say we should not judge the atomic bombings by the morality of the present neglect the range of moral codes that were available at the time. The idea that burning civilians alive created a moral hazard was hardly unfamiliar to people in 1945, even if they did it anyway. Similarly, I will note that the people who adopt such a position of historical moral relativism never seem to apply it to nations that fought against their countries in war.

Anyway, all of the above is meant as a disclaimer, in case anyone wonders what my intent is here. It is not to argue that the leaders of 1945 necessarily ought to have done anything different than they did. It is merely to try and paint a picture of what sorts of possibilities were on the table, but were not pursued, and to try and hack away a little bit at the false dichotomy that so often characterizes this discussion — a dichotomy, I might note, that was started explicitly as a propaganda effort by the people who made the bomb and wanted to justify it against mounting criticism in the postwar. I believe that rational people can disagree on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


What options were there for the United States regarding the atomic bomb in 1945?

Few historical events have been simultaneously second-guessed and vigorously defended as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred seventy years ago this August. To question the bombings, one must assume an implicit alternative history is possible. Those who defend the bombings always invoke the alternative of a full-scale invasion of the Japanese homeland, Operation Downfall, which would have undoubtedly caused many American and Japanese casualties. The numbers are debatable, but estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions — an unpalatable option, to be sure.

These unusual before-and-after images come from the Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Volume I, "Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs," NP-3036 (April 1951). I apologize for the poor image quality. I thought that even so they provide striking contrasts, and are much more easy to grasp that the familiar "view from above" photographs. This one is of the Hiroshima Commercial Museum, only 300 m from ground zero, and now known as the famous "Genbaku dome."

These unusual before-and-after images come from the Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Volume I, “Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs,” NP-3036 (April 1951). I apologize for the poor image quality. I thought that even so they provide striking contrasts, and are much more easy to grasp that the familiar “view from above” photographs. This one is of the Hiroshima Commercial Museum, only 300 meters from Ground Zero, and now known as the famous “Genbaku dome.” The photographs are not labeled with when they were taken; the “before” photos seem like they are from the late 1930s, the “after” photos are likely no earlier than September 1945, and may be from 1946.

But is this stark alternative the only one? That is, are the only two possible historical options available a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands, or the dropping of two nuclear weapons on mostly-civilian cities within three days of one another, on the specific days that they were dropped? Well, not exactly. We cannot replay the past as if it were a computer simulation, and to impose present-day visions of alternatives on the past does little good. But part of the job of being a historian is to understand the variables that were in the air at the time — the choices, decisions, and serendipity that add up to what we call “historical contingency,” the places where history could have gone a different direction. To contemplate contingency is not necessarily to criticize the past, but it does seek to remove some of the “set in stone” quality of the stories we often tell about the bomb.

Varying the schedule. The military order that authorized the atomic bombings, sent out on July 25, 1945, was not specific as to the timing, other than saying that the “first special bomb” could be dropped “as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945.” Any other available bombs could be used “as soon as made ready by the project staff.” The Hiroshima mission was delayed until August 6th because of weather conditions in Japan. The Kokura mission (which became the Nagasaki mission) was originally scheduled for August 11th, but got pushed up to August 9th because it was feared that further bad weather was coming. At the very least, waiting more than three days after Hiroshima might have been humane. Three days was barely enough time for the Japanese high command to verify that the weapon used was a nuclear bomb, much less assess its impact and make strategic sense of it. Doing so may have avoided the need for the second bombing run altogether. Even if the Japanese had not surrendered, the option for using further bombs would not have gone away. President Truman himself seems to have been surprised by the rapidity with which the second bomb was dropped, issuing an order to halt further atomic bombing without his express permission.

"Komiya street (750 meters [from Ground Zero] before and after bombing. The archlike heavy lamp posts have fallen. One lies at the left of the lower photograph."

“Komiya street (750 meters [from Ground Zero] before and after bombing. The archlike heavy lamp posts have fallen. One lies at the left of the lower photograph.”

Demonstration. Two months before Hiroshima, scientists at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, one of the key Manhattan Project facilities, authored a report arguing that the first use of an atomic bomb should not be on an inhabited city. The committee, chaired by Nobel laureate and German exile James Franck, argued that a warning, or demonstration, of the bomb on, say, a barren island, would be a worthwhile endeavor. If the Japanese still refused to surrender, then the further use of the weapon, and its further responsibility, could be considered by an informed world community. Another attractive possibility for a demonstration could be the center of Tokyo Bay, which would be visible from the Imperial Palace but have a minimum of casualties if made to detonate high in the air. Leo Szilard, a scientist who had helped launch the bomb effort, circulated a petition signed by dozens of Manhattan Project scientists arguing for such an approach. It was considered as high as the Secretary of War, but never passed on to President Truman. J. Robert Oppenheimer, joined by three Nobel laureates who worked on the bomb, issued a report, concluding that “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” But was it feasible? More so than most people realize. Though the US only had two atomic bombs in early August 1945, they had set up a pipeline to produce many more, and by the end of the month would have at least one more bomb ready to use, and three or four more in September. The invasion of the Japanese mainland was not scheduled until November. So by pushing back the time schedule, the US could have still had at least as many nuclear weapons to use against military targets should the demonstration had failed. The strategy of the bomb would have changed — it would have lost some of its element of “surprise” — but, at least for the Franck Report authors, that would be entirely the point.

Changing the targets. The city of Hiroshima was chosen as a first target for the atomic bomb because it had not yet been bombed during the war (and in fact had been “preserved” from conventional bombing so that it could be atomic bombed), because the scientific and military advisors wanted to emphasize the power of the bomb. By using it on an ostensibly “military” target (they used scare quotes themselves!), “located in a much larger area subject to blast damage,” they hoped both to avoid looking bad if the bombing was somewhat off-target (as the Nagasaki bombing was), and so that the debut of the atomic bomb was “sufficiently spectacular” that its importance would be recognized not only by the Japanese, but the world at large. But the initial target for the bomb, discussed in 1943 (long before it was ready) was the island of Chuuk (now called Truk), an ostensibly purely military target, the Japanese equivalent of Pearl Harbor. By 1945, Chuuk had been made irrelevant, and much of Japan had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, but there were other targets that would not have been so deliberately destructive of civilian lives. As with the “demonstration,” option had the effect not been as desired, escalation was always available as a future option, rather than as the first step.

"Prefectural Office (900 meters [from Ground Zero]) before and after the bombing. The wooden structure has collapsed and burned. Note displacement of the heavy granite blocks of the wall."

“Prefectural Office (900 meters [from Ground Zero]) before and after the bombing. The wooden structure has collapsed and burned. Note displacement of the heavy granite blocks of the wall.”

Clarifying the Potsdam Declaration. By the summer of 1945, a substantial number of the Japanese high command, including the Emperor, were looking for a diplomatic way out of the war. Their problem was that the Allies had, with the Potsdam Declaration, continued to demand “unconditional surrender,” and emphasized the need to remove “obstacles” preventing the “democratic tendencies” of the Japanese people. What did this mean, for the postwar Japanese government? To many in the high command, this sounded a lot like getting rid of the Imperial system, and the Emperor, altogether, possibly prosecuting him as a “war criminal.” For the Japanese leaders, one could no more get rid of the Emperor system and still be “Japan” than one could get rid of the US Constitution and still be “the United States of America.” During the summer, those who constituted the “Peace Party” of the high council (as opposed to the die-hard militarists, who still held a slight majority) sent out feelers to the then still-neutral Soviet Union to serve as possible mediators with the United States, hopefully negotiating an end-of-war situation that would give some guarantees as to the Emperor’s position. The Soviets rebuffed these advances (because they had already secretly agreed to enter the war on the side of the Allies), but the Americans were aware of these efforts, and Japanese attitudes towards the Emperor, because they had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code. No lesser figures than Winston Churchill and the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had appealed to President Truman to clarify that the Emperor would be allowed to stay on board in a symbolic role. Truman rebuffed them, at the encouragement of his Secretary of State, James Byrnes, believing, it seems, that the perfidy of Pearl Harbor required them to grovel. It isn’t clear, of course, that this would have changed the lack of a Japanese response to the Potsdam Declaration. Even after the atomic bombings, the Japanese still tried to get clarification on the postwar role of the Emperor, dragging out hostilities another week. In the end, the Japanese did get to keep a largely-symbolic Emperor, but this was not finalized until the Occupation of Japan.

Waiting for the Soviets. The planned US invasion of the Japanese homeland, Operation Downfall, was not scheduled to take place until early November 1945. So, in principle, there was no great rush to drop the bombs in early August. The Americans knew that the Soviet Union had, at their earlier encouragement, agreed to renounce their Neutrality Pact with the Japanese and declare war, invading first through Manchuria. Stalin indicated to Truman this would happen around August 15th, to which Truman noted in his diary, “Fini Japs when that comes about.” Aside from cutting Japan off from its last bastion of resources, the notion of possibly being divided into distinct Allied zones of influence, as had been Germany, would possibly be more of a direct existential threat than any damage the Americans would inflict. And, in fact, we do now know that the Soviet invasion may have weighed as heavily on the Japanese high command as did the atomic bombings, if not more so. So why didn’t Truman wait? The official reason given after the fact was that any delay whatsoever would be interpreted as wasting time, and American lives, once the atomic bomb was available. But it may also have been because Truman, and especially his Secretary of State, Byrnes, may have hoped that the war might have ended before the Soviets had entered. The Soviets had been promised several concessions, including the island of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (giving them unimpeded access to the Pacific Ocean) for their entry in the war, but by late July 1945, the Americans were having second thoughts. As it was, once Stalin saw that Hiroshima did not provoke an immediate response from the Japanese, he had his marshals accelerate the invasion plans, invading Manchuria just after midnight, the morning of the Nagasaki bombing.

I find this one to be one of the most haunting — by filling in the missing structures, it contextualizes all of the "standard" Hiroshima photos of the rubble-filled wasteland.  "Rear view of Geibi and Sumitomo Buildings before and after bombing. Taken from Fukuya Department Store (700 meters [from Ground Zero]) looking toward center. Complete destruction of wooden buildings by blast and fire. Concrete structures stand." In other places in the text, they usually point out that where you see a concrete structure like this, it has withstood the blast but was gutted by the fire.

I find this one to be one of the most haunting — by filling in the missing structures, it contextualizes all of the “standard” Hiroshima photos of the rubble-filled wasteland.
“Rear view of Geibi and Sumitomo Buildings before and after bombing. Taken from Fukuya Department Store (700 meters [from Ground Zero]) looking toward center. Complete destruction of wooden buildings by blast and fire. Concrete structures stand.” In other places in the text, they usually point out that where you see a concrete structure like this, it has withstood the blast but was gutted by the fire.

What should we make of these “alternatives”? Not, necessarily, that those in the past should have been clairvoyant. Or that their concerns were ours: like it or not, those involved in these choices certainly ranked Japanese civilian lives lower than those of American soldiers, as is typical in war. None of the “alternatives” come with any confidence, even today, much less for those at the time, and those making the choices were working with the requirements, uncertainties, and biases inherent to their historical and political positions.

But by pointing out the alternatives that were on the table, one can see the areas of choice and discretion, the different directions that history might have gone — perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. We should see this history less as a static set of “inevitable” events, or of “easy” choices, but as a more subtle collection of options, motivations, and possible outcomes.

Redactions

Oppenheimer, Unredacted: Part II – Reading the Lost Transcripts

Friday, January 16th, 2015

This is the second and final part (Part II) of my story about the lost Oppenheimer transcripts. Click here for Part I, which concerns the origin of the transcripts, the unintuitive aspects of their redaction, and the unorthodox archival practice that led me to find their location in 2009.


Oppenheimer photograph courtesy of the Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

The Oppenheimer security hearing transcript is not exactly beach reading. Aside from its length (the redacted version alone is some 690,000 words, which makes it considerably longer than War and Peace), it is also a jumble of witnesses, testimonies, and distinct topics. It is also somewhat of a bore, as there is incredible repetition, and unless you know the context of the time very well, the specific arguments that are focused on can seem arbitrary, pedantic, and confusing, even without the additional burden of some of the content having been deleted by the censor.

The most damning problem for Oppenheimer at his 1954 hearing involved his conduct during the so-called “Chevalier incident,” in which a fellow-traveler colleague of his at Berkeley, Haakon Chevalier, approached Oppenheimer at a party in late 1942 or early 1943 at the behest of another scientist (a physicist named George Eltenton) who wanted to see if Oppenheimer was interested in passing on classified information to the Soviet Union. Oppenheimer, in his recollection, told Chevalier in no uncertain terms that this was a bad idea. Later, Oppenheimer went to a member of the Manhattan Project security team and told him about the incident, calling attention to Eltenton as a security risk, but also trying to not to make too big of a deal of the entire matter. Confronted with the idea of Soviet spying on the atomic bomb project, the security men of course did not take it so lightly, and pressed Oppenheimer for more details, such as the name of the intermediary, Chevalier, which Oppenheimer did not want to give since he claimed Chevalier had nothing truly to do with Soviet spying. Over the course of several years, the security agents re-interviewed Oppenheimer, trying to clarify exactly what had happened. Oppenheimer gave contradictory answers, seemingly to shield his friends from official scrutiny and its consequences. At his hearing, when asked whether he had lied to security officials, Oppenheimer admitted that he had. When asked why, Oppenheimer gave what was become the most damning testimony at a hearing about his character: “Because I was an idiot.” Not a good answer to have to give under any context, much less McCarthyism, much less when you are known to be brilliant.

I mention this only to highlight the difference between what is in the published transcript and what is not. The newly unredacted information does not touch on the Chevalier incident much at all. That is, it does not shed any new light on the central question of relevance towards Oppenheimer’s security clearance. What does it shed light on? We can lump its topics into roughly three categories.

One of the censor's trickier redactions, in which he removed a trouble word, and substituted a different word in its place. "Principle" was too close to a secret, but"idea" was acceptable.

One of the censor’s trickier redactions, in which he removed a trouble word, and substituted a different word in its place. “Principle” was too close to a secret, but”idea” was acceptable. (JB = James Beckerley.)

The first category concerns the creation of the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer had been on a committee that had opposed a “crash” program to build the H-bomb in 1949. This was at a time when it was unclear that such a weapon could be built at all. The then-favored design (later dubbed the “Classical Super”) had many problems with it, and didn’t seem like it was likely to work. It seemed to also require huge quantities of a rare isotope of hydrogen, tritium, the production of which could only be done in nuclear reactors at the expense of producing plutonium.For Oppenheimer and many others, there was a strong technical reason to not rush into an H-bomb program: it wasn’t clear that the bomb could be built, and preparing the materials for such a bomb would decrease the rate of producing regular fission bombs.

How much plutonium would be lost in pursuing the Super? This is an area the newly-reduced transcript does enlighten us. Gordon Dean, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission from 1950 to 1953, explained that:

You don’t decide to manufacture something that has never been invented. Nothing had been invented. No one had any idea what the cost of this thing would be in terms of plutonium bombs. As the debate or discussions waged in the fall of 1949, we had so little information that it was very difficult to know whether this was the wise thing to do to go after a bomb that might cost us anywhere from 20 plutonium bombs up to 80 plutonium bombs, and then after 2 or 3 years effort find that ft didn’t work. That was the kind of problem. So there were some economics in this thing.

The underlined section was removed from the published transcript. This does contribute to the debate at the time — if researching the Super meant depriving the US stockpile of 20-80 fission bombs, that is indeed a high price. We might ask: Why was it redacted? Because the censor wanted to undercut Oppenheimer’s position? Probably not — if the censor had wanted to do that, he would have removed a lot more than just those numbers. More likely it is because you can work backwards from those numbers how much plutonium was in US nuclear weapons at that time, or, conversely, how much tritium they were talking about. Every atom of tritium you make is an atom of plutonium you don’t make — and plutonium atoms are 80X heavier than tritium atoms. So for every gram of tritium you produce, you are missing out on 80 grams of plutonium. If you know that the bombs at the time had around 6 kg of plutonium in them, then you can see that they are talking about the expense of making just 1.5 to 6 kg of tritium. Should this have been classified? It seems benign at the moment, but this was still a period of a “race” for thermonuclear weapons, and nearly everything about these weapons was, rightly or wrongly, classified.

Redaction of a long section on the development of the Teller-Ulam design. Ulam's name was almost totally (but not entirely) removed from the transcript, sometimes very deliberately and specifically. The orange pencil shows the mark of the censor, as does the "Delete, JB" on the right.

Redaction of a long section on the development of the Teller-Ulam design. Ulam’s name was almost totally (but not entirely) removed from the transcript, sometimes very deliberately and specifically. The orange pencil shows the mark of the censor, as does the “Delete, JB” on the right.

But the hydrogen bomb could be built. In the spring of 1951, physicists Edward Teller and Stanislaw Ulam hit upon a new way to build a hydrogen bomb. It was, from the point of view of the weapons physicists, a totally different approach. Whereas the “Classical Super” required using an atomic bomb to start a small amount of fusion reactions that would then propagate through a long tube of fusion fuel, the “Equilibrium Super,” as the so-called Teller-Ulam design was known at the time, involved using the radiation of an atomic bomb to compress a capsule of fusion fuel to very high densities before trying to ignite it. To a layman the distinction may seem minor, but the point is that many of the scientists involved with the work felt this was really quite a big conceptual leap, and that this had political consequences.

The differences between the redacted and un-redacted transcript shows a censor who tried, perhaps in vain, to dance around this topic. The censor clearly wanted to make sure the reader knew that the hydrogen bomb design developed in 1951 (the “Equilibrium Super”) was a very different thing than the one on the table in 1949 (the “Classical Super”), because this is a clear part of the argument in Oppenheimer’s favor. But the censor also evidently feared being too coy about what the differences between the 1949 and 1951 designs were, as such was the entire “secret” of the hydrogen bomb. For example, here is a section where Oppenheimer testified on this point, early on in the hearing:

In the spring of 1951, there were some inventions made. They were not discoveries, really; they were inventions, new ideas, and from then on it became clear that this was a program which was bound to succeed. It might not succeed at first shot; you might make mistakes, but for the first time it was solid. It was not on the end; it wasn’t so that every time you calculated it it was yes or not, but it came out that you knew that you could do not. It was just a question of how rapidly and how well and I am amazed at the speed at which this actually went after we learned what to do. Ulam and Teller had some very bright ideas; why none of us had them earlier, I cannot explain, except that invention is a somewhat erratic thing.

Again, what is underlined above was removed from the original. Read the sentences without them and they still have the same essential meaning: Oppenheimer is arguing that the 1951 design was very different than the 1949 one. Put them back in, and the meaning only deepens a little, adding a little more specifics and context, but does not change. One still understands Oppenheimer’s point, and much is left in to emphasize its import — Oppenheimer only opposed the H-bomb when it wasn’t clear that an H-bomb could be made.

Why remove such lines in the first place? A judgment call, perhaps, about not wanting to reveal that the “secret” H-bomb was not a new scientific fact, but a clever application of a new idea. The censor could have probably justified removing more under the security guidelines, but took pains to maintain coherency in the testimony. In one place, the physicist Hans Bethe referred to Teller and Ulam’s work as a new “principle,” and the censor re-worded this to “idea” instead. A subtle change, but certainly done in the name of security, to shift attention away from the nature of the H-bomb “secret.”

Early 1954 was a tricky time for hydrogen bomb classification. The US had detonated its first H-bomb in 1952, but not told anyone. In March 1954, a second hydrogen bomb was detonated as the “Bravo test.” Radioactive fallout rained down on inhabited atolls in the Marshall Islands, as well as a Japanese fishing boat, making the fact of it being a thermonuclear test undeniable. The Soviet Union had detonated a weapon that used fusion reactions in 1953, but did not appear to know about the Teller-Ulam design. As a result, US classification policy on the H-bomb was extremely conservative and sometimes contradictory; that the US had tested an H-bomb was admitted, but whether it was ready to drop any of them was not.

JRO redaction Rabi mermaids

In this category I would also attribute I.I. Rabi’s “mermaids” redaction, mentioned earlier. As published, it was:

We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it, *** and what more do you want, mermaids?

Restored, it is:

We have an A-bomb and a whole series of it, and we have a whole series of Super bombs, and what more do you want, mermaids?

To the censor, the removed section implied, perhaps, that there was no single H-bomb design, but rather a generalized arrangement that could be applied to many different weapons (which were being tested during Operation Castle, which was taking place at the same time as these hearings). This is a tricky distinction for a layman, but important for a weapons designer — and it is the eyes of the weapon designer that the censor feared, in this instance.

The censor’s fear of foreign scientists scouring the Oppenheimer hearing transcripts for clues as to the H-bomb’s design was not, incidentally, unwarranted. In the United Kingdom, scientists compiled a secret file full of extracts from the (redacted) Oppenheimer transcript that reflected on the nature of the successful H-bomb design. So at least one country was watching. As for the Soviet Union, they detonated their first H-bomb in 1955, having figured out the essential aspects of the Teller-Ulam design by the spring of 1954 (there is still scholarly uncertainty as to the exact chronology of the Soviet H-bomb development, and whether it was an entirely indigenous creation).

Project Vista cover page

The second major category of deletions pertained to Oppenheimer’s role in advising on the use of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe. This involved his participation in Project Vista, a study conducted in 1951-1952 by Caltech for the US Army. Vista was about the defense of continental Europe against overwhelming Soviet ground forces, and Oppenheimer’s section concerned the use of atomic bombs towards this end. (It was named after the hotel that the summer study took place in.)

Oppenheimer’s chapter (“Chapter 5: Atomic Warfare”) concluded that small, tactical fission bombs could be successfully used to repel Soviet forces. In doing so, it also argued against a reliance on weapons that could only be used against urban targets — like the H-bomb. The US Air Force attempted to suppress the Vista report, because it seemed to advocate that the Army into their turf and their budget. It was one of the many things that made the Air Force sour on Oppenheimer.1

In order to emphasize that Oppenheimer was not opposed to the hydrogen bomb on the basis of entirely moralistic reasons, a lot of the discussions at the hearing initiated by his counsel related to his stance on tactical nuclear weapons. They wanted it to be clear that Oppenheimer was not “soft” on Communism and the USSR. Arguably, Oppenheimer’s position was sometimes more hawkish than those of the H-bomb advocates. Oppenheimer wanted a nuclear arsenal that the US would feel capable of using, as opposed to a strategic arsenal that would only lead to a deterrence stalemate.

Another classic Cold War redaction: what we know about the enemy, even if we don't know anything.

Another classic Cold War redaction: what we know about the enemy, even if we don’t know anything.

The debate of strategic arms versus tactical nukes is one that would become a common point of discussion from the 1960s onward, but in 1954 it was still confined largely to classified circles because they pertained to actual US nuclear war plans in place at the time and the future of the US nuclear arsenal. Much of this discussion is still visible in the redacted transcript, but with less emphasis and detail than in the un-redacted original. The essential point — that in the end, the US military pursued both of these strategies simultaneously, and that Oppenheimer was no peacenik — gets filled out a more clearly in the un-redacted version.

Among the sentences that got redacted are long portions that describe the Vista project, its importance, and the fact that it was taken very seriously. It is unfortunate that these were removed, because they would definitely have changed the perception that Oppenheimer was acting on purely “moral” reasons against the hydrogen bomb. Oppenheimer opposed the hydrogen bomb, but he did so, in part, because he advocated making hundreds of smaller fission bombs. Other statements removed is a remark by General Roscoe Charles Wilson about something he heard Curtis LeMay say: “I remember his saying most vigorously that they couldn’t make them too big for him.” One can appreciate why the censor might want to remove such a thing, as a rather unflattering bit of hearsay about the head of the Strategic Air Command. Lest one think that these removals would only help Oppenheimer’s case, many of the other lines removed from Wilson’s testimony concerned the fact that the Air Force did find that they had plenty of strategic targets for multi-megaton bombs — removed, no doubt, because it shed light on US targeting strategy, but the sort of thing that generally went against Oppenheimer’s argument.

Similarly, John McCloy testified that Oppenheimer’s views were fairly hawkish at the time:

I have the impression that he [Oppenheimer], with one or two others, was somewhat more, shall I say, militant than some of the other members of the group. I think I remember very well that he said, for example, that we would have to contemplate and keep our minds open for all sorts of eventualities in this thing even to the point of preventative war.

Did Oppenheimer really advocate preventative nuclear war with the Soviet Union? It’s not impossible — his views in the 1950s could be all over the place, something that makes him a difficult figure to fit into neat boxes. In retrospect, we have made Oppenheimer into an all-knowing, all-rational sage of the nuclear age, but the historical record shows someone more complicated than that. Why would the censor remove the above? Probably because it would be seen as inflammatory to US policy, potentially because it might shed light on actual nuclear policy discussions. In this case, this line potentially could have had a strong impact on the post-hearing memory of Oppenheimer, had it been released, but probably not a positive one.

JRO redaction Groves on Rosenbergs

Lastly, there are a few removals for miscellaneous reasons relating to the conduct of the hearings themselves. As I pointed out at the beginning, when the witnesses at the security hearing took the stand, they were told that their responses would be “strictly confidential,” and not published. This was to encourage maximum candor on their part. When the decision was made to publish the transcript, each of the witnesses were contacted individually to be told this and were asked if there was anything they would not want made public. There is evidence of a few removals for this reason.

General Leslie Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project during World War II, said a number of things that were not classified but would have been embarrassing or controversial if they appeared in print. For example, he was emphatic that “the British Government deliberately lied about [Klaus] Fuchs,” the German physicist who had been part of the British delegation to Los Alamos and was, as it later became known, a Soviet spy. Groves also opined on the importance of Fuchs’ espionage versus that of the Rosenbergs:

I think the data that went out in the case of the Rosenbergs was of minor value. I would never say that publicly. Again that is something while it is not secret, I think should be kept very quiet, because irrespective of the value of that in the overall picture, the Rosenbergs deserved to hang, and I would not like to see anything that would make people say General Groves thinks they didn’t do much damage after all.

Even Groves’ comment at the time made it clear that this was not something he wanted circulated publicly. Should this information have been removed? It is a tricky question. If Groves had known what he said would be printed, he never would have said any of it. Ultimately this becomes not an issue of classification, but one of propriety. Its inclusion does not affect issues relating to Oppenheimer’s clearance. It is part of a much longer rant on Groves’ part about the British, something he was prone to do when confronted with the fact that the worst cases of nuclear secrets being lost occurred on his watch.

In one slightly smaller category, there is at least evidence of one erroneous, accidental removal. There is a line, on page 129 of the GPO version, which, when restored, looks like this: “Having that assumption in mind at the time Lomanitz joined the secret project, did you tell the security officers anything that you knew about Lomanitz’s background?” The restored material contains nothing classified, or even interesting, and its removal is not noted in the official “concordance” of deleted material produced by the Atomic Energy Commission censor. So why was it removed? Looking at the originals, we find that the entire contents of the deleted material comprise the last line of the page. It looks like it got cut off on accident, and marked as a redaction. Such is perhaps further evidence of the rushed effort that resulted in the transcript being published.

* * *

Does the newly released material give historians new insight into J. Robert Oppenheimer? In my view: not really. At best, they may address some persistent public misconceptions about Oppenheimer, but ones that have long since been redressed by historians, and ones that even the redacted transcript makes clear, if one takes the time to read it carefully and deeply. The general public has long perceived Oppenheimer to be a dovish martyr, but even a cursory reading of the actual transcripts makes it clear that this is not quite right — he was something more complex, more duplicitous, more self-serving.

Oppenheimer's two TIME magazine covers: as ascendent atomic expert (1948), and casualty of the security state (1954).

Oppenheimer’s two TIME magazine covers: as ascendent atomic expert (1948), and casualty of the security state (1954).

If the redacted sentences had been released in 1954, they would have fleshed out a little more of the story behind the H-bomb and behind Oppenheimer’s advocacy for tactical nuclear weapons. They would have emphasized more strongly that Oppenheimer opposed the H-bomb not just for moral reasons, but for technical reasons, and that rather than opposing the development of atomic armaments, Oppenheimer supported them vigorously — and even supported using them in future conflicts. The latter aspect, in particular, might have changed a bit the public’s perception of Oppenheimer at the time. Oppenheimer was not a dove, he was just a different sort of hawk, which somewhat reduces the idea of Oppenheimer as a martyr against the warmongers. This latter notion (Oppenheimer as anti-nuke) is a common perception of Oppenheimer, even today, though much scholarly work has tried to go against this notion for several decades.

The recent declassification of the transcript does not tell us anything we essentially did not already know from other sources, including the many of the wonderfully-researched histories of this period published in recent years by scholars such as Jeremy BernsteinKai Bird, David Cassidy, Gregg Herken, Priscilla McMillan, Richard Polenberg, Richard Rhodes, Sam SchweberMartin Sherwin, and Charles Thorpe, among others. These new revelations do not drastically revise our understanding of Oppenheimer or his security clearing. He looks no more nor less of a “security risk” than he did in the redacted version of the transcripts.

At the same conference where I initially was inspired to search for the hearing transcripts, Polenberg asked the group assembled: how would we remember Oppenheimer today, if he had not had his security clearance stripped after the hearing? His own answer is that we would probably have longer focused on the more negative aspects of Oppenheimer’s personality and perspectives. We’d see him not as a dove, but as a different flavor of hawk. He’d see him as someone who was willing to turn in his friends to the FBI, if it served his interests. We’d see him as someone who, again and again, wanted to be accepted by the politicians and the generals. We would see more of his role as an enabler of the Cold War arms race, not just his attempts at tamping it down. By revoking the clearance, Oppenheimer’s enemies may have crushed his soul, but they made him a martyr in the process.

Headlines from 1954 regarding Beckerley and his split with the Atomic Energy Commission — and his turn as a secrecy critic.

Headlines from 1954 regarding Beckerley and his split with the Atomic Energy Commission — and his turn as a secrecy critic.

But just because these transcripts don’t give us much of a revision on Oppenheimer, or the conduct of his security hearing, doesn’t mean they are not  instructive. For one thing, they shed a good deal of light on the process of secrecy itself — and it is only by getting the full story, the record of deletions, that one can pass judgment on whether the secrecy was used responsibility or inappropriately.

In my view, the erasures appear to have been done responsibly. They do not greatly obscure the ultimate arguments for or against Oppenheimer’s character, and primarily hew to legitimate security concerns for early 1954. The choice of what to remove and what to keep was done not by one of Oppenheimer’s enemies, but by Dr. James G. Beckerley, a physicist who was at the time the Director of the Atomic Energy Commission’s Division of Classification. His initials (“JB”) can be found next to many of the specific deletions in some of the volumes. Beckerley was no rabid anti-Communist or promoter of secrecy. He was a moderate, one who often felt that the AEC’s security rules were highly problematic, and believed that only careful and sane application of classification rules (as opposed to zealous or haphazard) would lead to a stronger nation. As it was, he resigned his job in May 1954, not long after the Oppenheimer hearing, and became an outspoken critic of nuclear secrecy. We do not know Beckerley’s personal opinions on Oppenheimer, but in every other aspect of his work he seems not to be the classification villain that one expects of a Cold War drama.

So it is perhaps not surprising that his deletions from the Oppenheimer transcript are, in retrospect, pretty reasonable, if viewed in context. They do not seem overtly politicized, especially in the way that Beckerley carefully carved up some of the problematic statements so that their ultimate argument still came out, even if the classified details did not. Most were plausibly done in the name of security, according to the security concerns of early 1954. In fact, the amount of discussion of the H-bomb’s development allowed in the final transcript is rather remarkable — very little has in fact been removed on this key topic. A few of the removals, were done in the name of propriety, removed because of the changing status of the transcript from “confidential” to public record. None of the comments removed for non-security reasons seem to have had any bearing on the question of Oppenheimer’s character and loyalty, though they are certainly interesting. Groves’ comments on the Rosenbergs, for example, is completely fascinating — but not relevant to Oppenheimer’s case.

Two frames from a 1961 photo session with Oppenheimer by Ulli Steltzer. "He was shy of the camera and I never got more than 12 shots. It is hard to say which expression is most typical." More on this image, here.

Two frames from a 1961 photo session with Oppenheimer by Ulli Steltzer. “He was shy of the camera and I never got more than 12 shots. It is hard to say which expression is most typical.” More on this image, here.

In this case, I disagree with the conclusions given by the other historians in the New York Times article about the release. I don’t think the removals bolster Oppenheimer’s case, and I don’t think there is any evidence to suggest that the redactions were made to aid the government’s case. We are accustomed to a story about classification that involves bad guys hiding the truth. Sometimes that is a narrative that works well with the facts — classification can, and has often been, abused. But in my (someday) forthcoming book, I argue that part of this impression of “the censor” as a shadowy, faceless, draconian “enemy” is just what happens when we, on the outside, are not privy to the logic on the “inside.”

It is somewhat tautological to say that secrecy regimes hide their own logic by the very secrecy they impose, but it is actually a somewhat subtle point for thinking about how they work. When you are outside of a secrecy regime, you can’t always see why it acts the way it does, and it is easy to see it as an oppositional entity designed to thwart you. Peeling back the layers, which is what historians can do many years after the fact, often reveals a more subtle and complex organizational discussion going on. In the case of these transcripts, it is clear, I think, that Beckerley was trying his best to satisfy both the security requirements of the day regarding the key features of the newly-invented hydrogen bomb, as well as avoid saying too much about US nuclear force postures in Europe. And, just as key, he was juggling the problem of witnesses who had been told their original testimony would be confidential. There is no evil intent in these actions, that I can see.

Did these redacted sentences need to be kept classified for 60 years? Of course not. And by releasing them in full, the Department of Energy explicitly agrees that these transcripts contain nothing classified as of today. But they weren’t being hoarded for decades because of their lasting security relevance — they were just forgotten about. These volumes probably could have been fully declassified at least as early as 1992, and probably would have, had the declassification effort not gotten shelved.

Still, it is important that they are finally released. Even a negative result is a result, and even an empty archive can tell us something positive. Knowing that the un-redacted transcripts contain nothing that would either exculpate, nor incriminate, J. Robert Oppenheimer is itself something to know. Secrecy does not just hide information: it creates a vacuum into which doubt, paranoia, fear, and fantasy are harbored. Removing the secrecy here has, at least, removed one last veil and source of uncertainty from the Oppenheimer affair.

Notes
  1. On Vista, see esp. Patrick McCray, “Project Vista, Caltech, and the dilemmas of Lee DuBridge,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences 34, no. 2: 339-370. The Vista cover page image comes from a heavily redacted copy of the report that was given to me by Sam Schweber. []
Redactions

General Groves’ secret history

Friday, September 5th, 2014

The first history of the Manhattan Project that was ever published was the famous Smyth Report, which was made public just three days after the bombing of Nagasaki. But the heavily-redacted Smyth Report understandably left a lot out, even if it did give a good general overview of the work that had been done to make the bomb. Deep within the secret files of the Manhattan Project, though, was another, classified history of the atomic bomb. This was General Leslie Groves’ Manhattan District History. This wasn’t a history that Groves ever intended to publish — it was an internal record-keeping system for someone who knew that over the course of his life, he (and others) would need to be able to occasionally look up information about the decisions made during the making of the atomic bomb, and that wading through the thousands of miscellaneous papers associated with the project wouldn’t cut it.

Manhattan District History - Book 2 - Vol 5 - cover

Groves’ concern with documentation warms this historian’s heart, but it’s worth noting that he wasn’t making this for posterity. Groves repeatedly emphasized both during the project and afterwards that he was afraid of being challenged after the fact. With the great secrecy of the Manhattan Project, and its “black” budget, high priority rating, and its lack of tolerance for any external interference, came a great responsibility. Groves knew that he had made enemies and was doing controversial things. There was a chance, even if everything worked correctly (and help him if it didn’t!), that all of his actions would land him in front of Congress, repeatedly testifying about whether he made bad decisions, abused public trust, and wasted money. And if he was asked, years later, about the work of one part of the project, how would he know how to answer? Better to have a record of decisions put into one place, should he need to look it up later, and before all of the scientists scattered to the wind in the postwar. He might also have been thinking about the memoir he would someday write: his 1962 book, Now it Can Be Told, clearly leans heavily on his secret history in some places.

Groves didn’t write the thing himself, of course. Despite his reputation for micromanagement, he had his limits. Instead, the overall project was managed by an editor, Gavin Hadden, a civil employee for the Army Corps of Engineers. Individual chapters and sections were written by people who had worked in the various divisions in question. Unlike the Smyth Report, the history chapters were not necessarily written near-contemporaneously with the work — most of the work appears to have been started after the war ended, some parts appear to have not been finished until 1948 or so.

General Groves not amused

In early August 1945 — before the bombs had been dropped — a guide outlining the precise goals and form of the history was finalized. It explained that:

Tho purpose of the history is to serve as a source of historical information for War Department officials and other authorized individuals. Accordingly, the viewpoint of the writer should be that of General Groves and the reader should be considered as a layman without any specialized knowledge of the subject who may be critical of the Department or the project.

Which is remarkably blunt: write as if Groves himself was saying these things (because someday he might!), and write as if the reader is someone looking for something to criticize. Later the guide gives some specific examples on how to spin problematic things, like the chafing effect of secrecy:

For example, the rigid security restrictions of the project in many cases necessitated the adoption of unusual measures in the attainment of a local objective but the maintenance of security has been recognized throughout as an absolute necessity. Consequently, instead of a statement such as, “This work was impeded by the rigid security regulations of the District,” a statement such as, “The necessity of guarding the security of the project required that operations be carried on in — etc.” would be more accurate.1

This was the history that Groves grabbed whenever he did get hauled in front of Congress in the postwar (which happened less than he had feared, but it still happened). This was the history that the Atomic Energy Commission relied upon whenever it needed to find out what its predecessor agencies had done. It was a useful document to have around, because it contains all manner of statistics, technical details, legal details, and references to other documents in the archive.

"Dante's Inferno: A Pocket Mural" by Louis C. Anderson, a rather wonderful and odd drawing of the Calutron process. From Manhattan District History, Book 5, "Electromagnetic Project," Volume 6.

“Dante’s Inferno: A Pocket Mural” by Louis C. Anderson, a rather wonderful and odd drawing of the Calutron process. From Manhattan District History, Book 5, “Electromagnetic Project,” Volume 6.

The Manhattan District History became partially available to the general public in 1977, when a partial version of it was made available on microfilm through the National Archives and University Publications of America as Manhattan Project: Official History and Documents. The Center for Research Libraries has a digital version that you can download if you are part of a university that is affiliated with them (though its quality is sometimes unreadable), and I’ve had a digital copy for a long time now as a result.2 The 1977 microfilm version was missing several important volumes, however, including the entire book on the gaseous diffusion project, a volume on the acquisition of uranium ore, and many technical volumes and chapters about the work done at Los Alamos. All of this was listed as “Restricted” in the guide that accompanied the 1977 version.3

I was talking with Bill Burr of the National Security Archive sometime in early 2013 and it occurred to me that it might be possible to file a Freedom of Information Act request for the rest of these volumes, and that this might be something that his archive would want to do. I helped him put together a request for the missing volumes, which he filed. The Department of Energy got back pretty promptly, telling Bill that they were already beginning to declassify these chapters and would eventually put them online.

Manhattan Project uranium production flow diagram, from book 7, "Feed materials."

Manhattan Project uranium production flow diagram, from Manhattan District History, Book 7, “Feed materials.”

The DOE started to release them in chunks in the summer of 2013, and got the last files up this most recent summer. You can download each of the chapters individually on their website, but their file names are such that they won’t automatically sort in a sensible way in your file system, and they are not full-text searchable. The newly-released files have their issues — a healthy dose of redaction (and one wonders how valuable that still is, all these years — and proliferations — later), and some of the images have been run through a processor that has made them extremely muddy to the point of illegibility (lots of JPEG artifacts). But don’t get me started on that. (The number of corrupted PDFs on the NNSA’s FOIA website is pretty ridiculous for an agency that manages nuclear weapons.) Still, it’s much better than the microfilm, if only because it is rapidly accessible.

But you don’t need to do that. I’ve downloaded them all, run them through a OCR program so they are searchable, and gave them sortable filenames. Why? Because I want people — you — to be able to use these (and I do not trust the government to keep this kind of thing online). They’ve still got loads of deletions, especially in the Los Alamos and diffusion sections, and the pro-Groves bent to things is so heavy-handed it’s hilarious at times. And they are not all necessarily accurate, of course. I have found versions of chapters that were heavily marked up by someone who was close to the matter, who thought there were lots of errors. In the volumes I’ve gone the closest over in my own research (e.g. the “Patents” volume), I definitely found some places that I thought they got it a little wrong. But all of this aside, they are incredibly valuable, important volumes nonetheless, and I keep finding all sorts of unexpected gems in them.

You can download all of the 79 PDF files in one big ZIP archive on Archive.org. WARNING: the ZIP file is 760MB or so. You can also download the individual files below, if you don’t want them all at once.

Statistics on the ages of Los Alamos employees, from Ted Hall (19) to Niels Bohr (59). From Manhattan District History, Book 8.

Statistics on the ages of Los Alamos employees, May 1945, from the young spy, Ted Hall (19), to the old master, Niels Bohr (59). From Manhattan District History, Book 8.

What kinds of gems are hidden in these files? Among other things:

And a lot more. As you can see, I’ve drawn on this history before for blog and Twitter posts — I look through it all the time, because it offers such an interesting view into the Manhattan Project, and one that cuts through a lot of our standard narratives about how it worked. There are books and books worth of fodder in here, spread among some tens of thousands of pages. Who knows what might be hidden in there? Let’s shake things up a bit, and find something strange.


Below is the full file listing, with links to my OCR’d copies, hosted on Archive.org. Again, you can download all of them in one big ZIP file by clicking here, (760 MB) or pick them individually from below. Items marked with an asterisk are, as far as know, wholly new — the others have been available on microfilm in one form or another since 1977. Read the full post »

Notes
  1. E.H. Marsden, “Manhattan District History Preparation Guide,” (1 August 1945), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0727839. []
  2. In fact, I used portions of it — gasp! — on actual microfilm very early on my grad school career, when you still had to do that sort of thing. The volume on the patenting program was extremely useful when I wrote on Manhattan Project patent policies. []
  3. Some of the Los Alamos chapters were later published in redacted form as Project Y: The Los Alamos Story, in 1983. []
Meditations

A bomb without Einstein?

Friday, June 27th, 2014

If Albert Einstein had never been born, would it have changed when nuclear weapons were first produced? For whatever reason, I’ve seen this question being asked repeatedly on Internet forums, as odd as it is. It’s kind of a silly question. You can’t go in and tweak one variable in the past and then think you could know what the outcome would be. History is a chaotic system; start removing variables, who knows what would happen. Much less a variable named Albert Einstein, one of the most influential physicists of the 20th century, and whose importance extended well past the equations he wrote… and those were pretty important equations, at that!

1946 - Einstein Time magazine - detail

Einstein’s 1946 cover of Time magazine. The mushroom cloud is a beautifully executed combination of the Trinity and Nagasaki mushroom clouds.

On the other hand, this kind of science-fiction counterfactual can have its usefulness as a thought experiment. It isn’t history, but it can be used to illustrate some important aspects about the early history of the atomic bomb that a lot of people don’t know, and to undo a little bit of the “great man” obsession with bomb history. Albert Einstein has been associated with the bomb both through his famous mass-energy equivalence calculation (E=mc²) and because of the famous Einstein-Szilard letter to Roosevelt in 1939. On the face of it, this gives him quite a primary role, and indeed, he usually shows up pretty quickly at the beginning of most histories of the Manhattan Project. But neither E=mc² nor the Einstein-Szilard letter were as central to the Manhattan Project’s success as people realize — either scientifically or historically.

In terms of the science, E=mc² gets a lion’s share of attention, most perfectly expressed by Einstein’s portrait on the cover of Time magazine in 1946 (above) with his equation emblazoned on a mushroom cloud. A lot of people seem to think that E=mc² played a key role in the development of the bomb, that the weapon just falls out of the physics. This is wrong. The equation can help one understand why atomic bombs work, but it doesn’t really tell you how they work, or whether you would expect them to even be possible.

The way I like to put it is this: E=mc² tells you about as much about an atomic bomb as Newton’s laws do about ballistic missiles. At some very “low level” the physics is crucial to making sense of the technology, but the technology does not just “fall out” of the physics in any straightforward way, and neither of those equations tell you whether the technology is possible. E=mc² tells you that on some very deep level, energy and mass are equivalent, and the amount of energy that mass is equivalent is gigantic. But it says nothing about the mechanism of converting mass into energy, either whether one exists in the first place, or whether it can be scaled up to industrial or military scales. It gives no hints as to even where to look for such energy releases. After the fact, once you know about nuclear fission and can measure mass defects and things like that, it helps you explain very concisely where the tremendous amounts of energy come from, but it gives you no starting indications.

Eddington's famous plate of the 1919 solar eclipse, which helped confirm Einstein's theory of General Relativity. Very cool looking, and interesting science. But not relevant to atomic bombs. Source.

Eddington’s famous plate of the 1919 solar eclipse, which helped confirm Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. Very cool looking, and interesting science. But not relevant to atomic bombs. Source.

What about the rest of Einstein’s main theoretical work, both Special and General Relativity Theory? They are pretty irrelevant to bomb-making. The physical processes that take place inside atomic bombs are what physicists call “non-relativistic.” Relativity theory generally only shows its hand when you are talking about great speeds (e.g. large fractions of the speed of light) or great masses (e.g. gravitational fields), and neither of those come into play with fission bombs. You can neglect relativity when doing the math to make a bomb.1

An intelligent follow-up question might be: “well, just because relativity theory didn’t play a role in the bomb process itself doesn’t answer the question of whether it started physics on a path that led to the bomb, does it?” Without getting into a long timeline of the “science that led to the bomb,” here, I think we could reasonably summarize the situation like this: Einstein’s 1905 papers (of which E=mc² was one) did indeed play a role in the subsequent developments that followed, but perhaps not as direct a one as people think. E=mc² didn’t inspire physicists to start looking into processes that converted mass to energy — they were already looking into those through an entirely separate (and earlier) line of development, namely the science of radioactivity and particle physics. The fact that huge amounts of energy were released through nuclear reactions, for example, had already been studied closely by the Curies, by Ernest Rutherford, and by Frederick Soddy prior (but only just) to 1905.

Arguably, the most important work Einstein did in this respect was his work on the photoelectric effect (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for 1921), which helped establish the physical reality of Max Planck’s idea of a quantum of energy, which helped kick off investigations into quantum theory in earnest. This had a big influence on the later direction of physics, even if Einstein himself was never quite comfortable with the quantum mechanics that developed in subsequent decades.

The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experiment apparatus, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. My own photo.

The Hahn-Meitner-Strassman experiment apparatus, at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. My own photo.

Did any of the relativity work lead, though, down the path that eventually arrived at the discovery of fission in 1939? I don’t think so. The experiments that Hahn, Meitner, and Strassman were doing in Berlin that lead to the discovery of fission in uranium were themselves careful replications of work that Fermi had done around 1934. Fermi’s work came directly out of an experimentalist, nuclear physics context where physicists were bombarding substances with all manner of subatomic particles to see what happened. It was most directly influenced by the discovery of the neutron as a new sub-atomic particle by Chadwick in 1932. This came out of work on atomic theory and atomic modeling that was being done by Rutherford and his students from the early 1910s-1920s. And this early nuclear physics came, most directly, out of the aforementioned context of radioactivity and experimental physics of the late 19th century.

None of which has a strong, direct connection to or from Einstein’s work in my mind. They have some overlaps of interest (e.g. Bohr was a student of Rutherford’s), but the communities working on these sorts of experimental problems are not quite the same as the more theoretical circle that Einstein himself worked in.2 If we somehow, magically, removed Einstein’s early work from the equation here, does the output change much? There would be some reshuffling, probably, but I sort of think that Rutherford would still be doing his thing anyway, and from that much of the other work that led to the bomb would eventually come out, even if it had a somewhat different flavor or slightly different timeline.

My least favorite way of depicting the fission process, where energy (E) is a magic lightning bolt coming out of the splitting atom. In reality, most of the energy comes in the form of the two fission products (F.P. here) repelling from each other with great violence. Source.

This is my least-favorite way of depicting the fission process, where energy (E) is a magic lightning bolt coming out of the splitting atom. In reality, most of the energy comes in the form of the two fission products (F.P. here) repelling from each other with great violence. Source.

Do you even need to know that E=mc² to make an atomic bomb? Perhaps surprisingly, you don’t! There are other, more physically intuitive ways to calculate (or measure) the energy release from a fission reaction. If you treat the fission process as being simply based on the electrostatic repulsion of two fission products, you get essentially the same energy output in the form of kinetic energy. This is how the physics of fission is often taught in actual physics classes, because it gives you a more concrete indication of how that energy is getting released (whereas E=mc² with the mass-defect makes it seem like a magical lightning bolt carries it away). There are other more subtle physical questions involved in making a bomb, some of which have Einstein’s influence on them in one way or another (e.g. Bose–Einstein statistics). But I think it is not totally crazy to say that even if you somehow imagine a world in which Einstein had never existed, that the physics of an atomic bomb would still work out fine — Einstein’s specific technical work wasn’t central to the problem at all. We also have not brought up the question of whether without Einstein, relativity in some form would have been discovered anyway. The answer is probably “yes,” as there were people working on similar problems in the same areas of physics, and once people started paying a close attention to the physics of radioactivity they were bound to stumble upon the mass-energy relationship anyway. This isn’t to denigrate or underestimate Einstein’s influence on physics, of course. What makes Einstein “Einstein” is that he, a single person, pulled off a great number of theoretical coups all at once. But if he hadn’t done that, there’s no reason to think that other people wouldn’t have come up with his theoretical insights individually, if slightly later.

A postwar re-creation of the genesis of the Einstein-Szilard letter.

A postwar re-creation of the genesis of the Einstein-Szilard letter.

What about Einstein’s most direct role, the famous Einstein-Szilard letter of 1939 that influenced President Roosevelt to set up the first Uranium Committee? This is a tricky historical question that could have (and may at some point) an entirely separate blog post relating to it. Its writing, contents, and influence are more complex than the standard “he wrote a letter, FDR created the Manhattan Project” understanding of it that gets boiled down in some popular accounts. My feeling about it, ultimately, is this: if the Einstein-Szilard letter hadn’t been written, it isn’t clear that anything would be terribly different in the outcome in terms of making the bomb. Something like the Uranium Committee might have been started up anyway (contrary to popular understanding, the letter was not the first time Roosevelt had been told about the possibility of nuclear fission), and even if it hadn’t, it isn’t clear that the Uranium Committee was necessary to end up with a Manhattan Project. The road from a fission program whose primary output was reports and a fission program whose primary output was atomic bombs was not a direct one. By early 1941, the Uranium Committee had failed to convince scientist-administrators that atomic bombs were worth trying to build. They had concluded that while atomic bombs were theoretically feasible, they were not likely to be built anytime soon. Had things stayed there, it seems unlikely the United States would have built a bomb ready to use by July/August 1945.

The “push” came from an external source: the British program. Their MAUD Committee (an equivalent of the Uranium Committee) had concluded that a nuclear weapon would be much easier to build than the United States had concluded, and sent an emissary (Mark Oliphant) to the United States to make sure this conclusion was understood. They caught Vannevar Bush’s ear in late 1941, and he (along with Ernest Lawrence, Arthur Compton, and others) wrested control of the uranium work out of the hands of the Uranium Committee, accelerated the work, and morphed it into the S-1 Committee. The name change is significant — it is one of the more vivid demonstrations of the increased degree of seriousness with which the work was taken, and the secrecy that came with it. By late 1942, the wheels for the full Manhattan Project were set into motion, and the work had become a real bomb-making program.

Einstein wasn’t involved with any of the later work that actually led to the bomb. He almost was, though: in late 1941, Bush considered consulting Einstein for help on the diffusion problem, but opted not to push for it — both because Einstein wasn’t regarded as politically reliable (he had a fat FBI file), and his approach to physics just wasn’t very right for practical problems.3 Bush decided that Einstein would stay out of the loop.

Usual, rare anti-Nazi propaganda postcard from 1934, showing Hitler expelling Einstein from Germany, titled "The Ignominy of the 20th Century." It is one of the most blatant visual renderings of Einstein as a "scientific saint." Source.

Unusual, rare anti-Nazi propaganda postcard from 1934, showing Hitler expelling Einstein from Germany, titled “The Ignominy of the 20th Century.” It is one of the most blatant visual renderings of Einstein as a “scientific saint.” Source.

Let’s sum it up. Did Einstein play a role in the creation of the atomic bomb? Of course — his physics isn’t irrelevant, and his letter to Roosevelt did start one phase of the work. But both of these things are less prominent than the Time-magazine-cover-understanding makes them out to be. They weren’t central to what became the Manhattan Project, and if you could somehow, magically, remove Einstein from the equation, it isn’t at all clear that the atomic bomb wouldn’t have been built around the time it actually was built. I don’t think you can really credit, or blame, Einstein for the atomic bomb, in any direct fashion. Einstein did play a role in things, but that role wasn’t as crucial, central, or direct as a lot of people imagine. If you could magically drop him out of history, I think very little in terms of atomic bombs would have been affected.

So why does the Einstein and the bomb myth persist? Why does everybody learn about the Einstein letter, if it wasn’t really was sparked the Manhattan Project? There are two answers here, I think. One is that Einstein was, even before the war, one of the best-known, best-recognized physicists of the 20th century, and was synonymous with revolutionary science and genius. Having him “predict” the atomic bomb with equations in 1905 — 40 years before one was set off — is the kind of “genius-story” that people love, even if it obscures more than it enlightens. It also has a high irony quotient, since Einstein was forced to flee from Germany when the Nazis took power.

But there’s another, perhaps more problematic aspect. In many early copies of the Smyth Report that were distributed by the government, copies of the Einstein letter were mimeographed and loosely inserted. The magnification of Einstein’s role was purposefully encouraged by the government in the immediate period after using the weapon. (And it was even a convenient myth for Einstein, as it magnified his own importance and thus potential influence.) Hanging the atomic bomb on Einstein’s head was an act of self-justification, of sorts. Einstein was the world’s greatest genius in the eyes of the public, and he was a well-known pacifist, practically a scientific saint. After all, if Einstein thought building a bomb was necessary, who could argue with him?

Notes
  1. As Robert Serber puts it: “Somehow the popular notion took hold long ago that Einstein’s theory of relativity, in particular his famous equation E = mc², plays some essential role in the theory of fission. Albert Einstein had a part in alerting the United States government to the possibility of building an atomic bomb, but his theory of relativity is not required in discussing fission. The theory of fission is what physicists call a non-relativistic theory, meaning that relativistic effects are too small to affect the dynamics of the fission process significantly.” Robert Serber, The Los Alamos Primer: The First Lectures on How to Build an Atomic Bomb (University of California Press, 1992), 7. []
  2. For a good, non-teleological, non-bomb-centric approach to the context of 19th- and 20th-century physics, Helge Kragh’s Quantum Generations: A History of Physics in the Twentieth Century (Princeton University Press, 2002), is excellent. []
  3. Einstein wasn’t entirely a head-in-the-clouds physicist, of course. He worked at the patent office, and as Peter Galison has written about, even his famous thought experiments were often motivated by experience with practical problems of time synchronization. And he did help invent a refrigerator with Leo Szilard. But his work on diffusion physics was too abstract, too focused on first-principle analysis, for use in producing a practical outcome. []