Posts Tagged ‘Historiography’


The year of the disappearing websites

Friday, December 27th, 2013

I’m a big fan of digital historical research. Which is to say, I’ve benefited a lot from the fact that there are a lot of great online resources for primary source work in nuclear history. These aren’t overly-curated, no-surprises resources. The paper I gave at the last History of Science Society meeting, on US interest in 50-100 megaton weapons, was surprising to pretty much everyone I told about it, yet was based almost exclusively on documents I found in online databases. You can do serious research with these, above and beyond merely “augmenting” traditional archival practices.1

One of the most interesting documents I found in an online database — an estimate for the ease of developing a 100 megaton weapon in a letter from Glenn Seaborg to Robert McNamara. Knowing the estimated yield and weight of the bombs in question allows one to divine a lot of information about their comparative sophistication.

One of the most interesting documents I found in an online database — an estimate for the ease of developing a 100 megaton weapon in a letter from Glenn Seaborg to Robert McNamara. Knowing the estimated yield and weight of the bombs in question allows one to divine a lot of information about their comparative sophistication.

Like all things, digital history comes with its pitfalls. The completely obvious one is that not everything is digitized. No surprise there. That doesn’t really change the digital archival experience from the physical one, of course, since even physical archives always are missing huge chunks of the documentation. As with “regular” archives, the researcher compensates for this by looking at many such databases, and by looking closely at the materials for references to missing documents (e.g. “In response to your letter of March 5″ indicates there ought to be a letter from March 5th somewhere). This doesn’t make digital archives less useful, it just means their role cannot usually be absolute. Being able to quickly search said databases usually more than compensates for this problem, of course, since the volume of material that can be looked at quickly is so much higher than with physical paper. And I might note that one of the best part about many of the digital archives for nuclear sources is that the documents often indicate their originating archive — which can point you to sources you might not have considered (like off-the-beaten-trail National Archives facilities).

But perhaps the biggest problem with digital sources, though, is that like so many things in the digital world, they somehow have the ability to vanish completely when you really want or need them. (As opposed to the normal online trend of things sticking around forever when you wish they would go away.) The fall of 2013 was, among other things, the season of the disappearing websites. At least three major web databases of nuclear history resources that I used on a regular basis silently disappeared.

Fallout from the 1952 "Ivy Mike" shot of the first hydrogen bomb. Note that this is actually the "back" of the fallout plume (the wind was blowing it north over open sea), and they didn't have any kind of radiological monitoring set up to see how far it went. As a result, this makes it look far more local than it was in reality. This is from a report I had originally found in the Marshall Islands database.

Fallout from the 1952 “Ivy Mike” shot of the first hydrogen bomb. Note that this is actually the “back” of the fallout plume (the wind was blowing it north over open sea), and they didn’t have any kind of radiological monitoring set up to see how far it went. As a result, this makes it look far more local than it was in reality. This is from a report I had originally found in the Marshall Islands database.

The first of these, I believe (it is hard to know exactly when things vanished as opposed to when I became aware of them — in this case, September 2013) was the DOE’s Marshall Islands Document Collection. This was an impressive collection of military and civilian reports and correspondence relating primarily to US nuclear testing in the Pacific. Its provenance isn’t completely clear, but it probably came out of the work done in the mid-1990s to compensate victims of US atmospheric testing.

I found this database incredibly useful for my creation of NUKEMAP’s fallout coding. It also had lots of information on high yield testing in general, and lots of miscellaneous documents that touched on all matter of US nuclear developments through the 1960s. It used to be at this URL, which now re-directs you to a generic DOE page. I e-mailed the webmaster and was told that it isn’t really gone per se, it’s just that “Access to the HSS website has been disabled for individuals trying to access our website from the public facing side of the internet. We are working to put mitigation in place that will allow us to enable public access to our web site.” Which was several months ago, right before the government shutdown. What I fear, here, is that a temporary technical disabling of the site — because they are re-shuffling around things on their web domains, as government agencies often do — will lead to nobody ever getting it back up again.

A photograph of an early Hanford reactor that used to be in the Hanford DDRS — one of my favorites, both because of its impressive communication of activity and scale.

A photograph of an early Hanford reactor that used to be in the Hanford DDRS — one of my favorites, both because of its impressive communication of activity and scale.

Next was the Hanford Declassified Document Retrieval System which in November 2013 (or so) went offline. It used to be here, which now gives a generic “not found” message. It used to have thousands of documents and photographs relating to the Hanford Site spanning the entire history of its operation. In my research, I used it extensively for its collection of Manhattan Project security records, as well as its amazing photographs. Again, I suspect it was a creation of the mid-to-late 1990s, when “Openness” was still a thing at DOE.

I’d be the first to admit that its technical setup seemed a little shaky. It required a clunky Java applet to view the files, and its search capabilities left a little to be desired. Still, it worked, and could be actively used for research. I got in contact with someone over there, who said it had to be taken down because it had security vulnerabilities, and that eventually they planned to get it back up again, but that “we don’t have a timeline for accomplishing that right now.” They offered to search the database for me, through queries sent via e-mail, but obviously that doesn’t quite cut it in terms of accessibility (especially since my database process involves many, many queries and glancing at many, many documents, most of which are irrelevant to what I’m looking for).

Will it get back up? The guy I talked to at Hanford said they were trying to resurrect it. But I have to admit, I’m a little skeptical. It’s not at the top of their agenda, and clearly hasn’t been for over a decade. If they do get it up, I’ll be thrilled.

d: Exploratory tunnel dug by a 25-foot-diameter tunnel boring machine at the proposed  Yucca Mountain, Nevada, repository for spent nuclear fuel. From the DOE Digital Archive.

Exploratory tunnel dug by a 25-foot-diameter tunnel boring machine at the proposed
Yucca Mountain, Nevada, repository for spent nuclear fuel. From the DOE Digital Photo Archive.

Lastly, there is the DOE Digital Photo Archive, which was a publicly-accessible database of DOE photographs, from the Manhattan Project through the present. Some of these were quite stunning, and quite rare. One of my all-time favorite photographs of the nuclear age came from this database. The archive used to be here, it now redirects to a generic page about e-mailing the DOE for photographs. Not the same thing. I got in touch with someone who worked there, who said that the database site “has been closed down,” and that instead I could trawl through their Flickr feed. They, too, offered to help me find anything I couldn’t — but that doesn’t actually help me too much, given how much serendipity and judgment play in archival practice.

As an extra “bonus” lost website, Los Alamos‘ pretty-good-but-not-perfect history website was also taken down very recently, and replaced with a single, corporate-ish page that skips from World War II to the present in one impressive leap and gives nothing but a feel-good account of the first atomic bombs. The site it replaced was more nuanced, had a reasonably good collection of documents and photographs, and covered Los Alamos’ history through the Cold War pretty well. It had its issues, to be sure, including some technical bugs. But even a buggy site is better than a dead one, in my opinion. A new site is supposedly in the works, but it seems to not be a high priority and no short-term changes are expected.

None of these sites were taken down because of anything objectionable about their content, so far as I know. The issues cited have been a mixture of technical and financial (which are, of course, intertwined). Websites require maintenance. They require upkeep. They require keeping technically-inclined people on staff, with part of their day devoted to putting out the little fires that inevitably come up over the years with a long-lasting website. Databases and interactive sites in particular require considerable effort to put together, and a lot of time over the years to keep up to date in terms of security practices.

I work on web development, so I get all that. Still, it’s a terrible thing when these things just vanish. Aside from that fact that some people (I imagine more than just myself) find them useful, the amount of resources essentially wasted when such a long-term investment (think of the man-hours that went into populating those databases!) is simply turned off.

What should scholars do about it? We can complain, and sometimes that works. A better solution, perhaps, is to keep better mirrors of the sites in question. This is particularly true of sites with any potential “national security implications.” When Los Alamos took their declassified reports offline after 9/11, the Federation of American Scientists managed to cobble together a fairly complete mirror. (The Los Alamos reports have since been quietly reinstated for public access through the Los Alamos library site.)

Los Alamos Technical Reports

I wish, in retrospect, that in the past I had considered the possibility that the Hanford and Marshall Islands databases might go down. Making a mirror of a database is harder than making a mirror of a static website, but it’s not impossible. ( does not do it, before you offer that possibility up.) For the specific reports, documents, and photographs that I actually use in my work, I always have a local copy saved. But there is so much out there that was yet to be found. I might try filing a FOIA request for the underlying data (it would be trivial for me to turn them into a useful database hosted on my own servers), but I’m not sure how well that will work out (it seems to go a bit beyond a normal FOIA).

After the Hanford database went down, I thought, what are the other public databases that my work depends on? The most important is DOE’s OpenNet database, which contains an incredibly rich (if somewhat idiosyncratic) collection of documents related to nuclear weapons development. Huge chunks of my dissertation were based on records found through it, as are most of the talks I give. If it went down tomorrow, I’d be pretty sunk. For that reason, while the government was going through its shutdown last October (I figured no one would be around to object), I made a reasonably complete duplicate of everything in OpenNet using what is known as a “scraper” script.2 Obviously as OpenNet gets updated, my database will fall out of sync, but it’s a start, and it’s better than nothing if it gets unplugged tomorrow.

The amazing thing about digital databases it that they take the archive everywhere at once, instantly. The terrible thing about them is that it only takes the pull of one plug to shut it down everywhere at once, instantly. Anyone who does research on nuclear history issues should be deeply disturbed by this rash of site closures, and should start thinking seriously about how to make copies of government databases they rely on. (Private databases are more complicated, for copyright reasons.) The government gave, and the government has taken away.

  1. Which databases, you ask? 1. The CIA’s online FOIA database; 2. Gale’s DDRS database; 3. the DOD’s online FOIA database; 4. DTIC; 5. ProQuest’s Congressional hearing database; 6. the JFK Library’s online files; 7. the National Security Archive’s online database; 8. the Nuclear Testing Archive (DOE OpenNet); 9. the OHP Marshall Islands Database; 10. the ProQuest Historical Newspaper database; 11. the UN’s website; 12. the searchable Foreign Relations of the United States. The only other significant non-online archival sources were the Hansen papers at the National Security Archive and some files from the JFK Library that they provided me over e-mail. []
  2. I whipped something together using Snoopy for PHP, which allows you to do all sorts of clever database queries very easily. []

Why Nagasaki?

Friday, August 9th, 2013

Today is the 68th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Nagasaki. Everyone knows that Nagasaki came three days after Hiroshima — but Nagasaki doesn’t get talked about nearly as much. The reason Nagasaki gets “overlooked” is pretty obvious: being the second atomic bombing attack is a lot less momentous than the first, even if the total number of such attacks has so far been two.

The bombing of Nagasaki. Original source. Slightly edited to improve foreground/background distinction.

A temple destroyed by the bombing of Nagasaki. Original source. Slightly edited to improve foreground/background distinction.

We all know, or think we know, why Hiroshima was bombed. This is because the bombing of Hiroshima is synonymous with the use of the atomic bomb in general. But why was Nagasaki bombed?

I don’t mean, why the city of Nagasaki as opposed to another city. That is well-known. Nagasaki only made it on the list after Kyoto was removed for being too much of an important cultural center. The initial target on August 9 was Kokura, but there was too much cloud cover for visual targeting, so the Bockscar moved on to the backup target, nearby Nagasaki, instead. Bad luck for Nagasaki, twice compounded.

What I mean is: Why was a second atomic bomb used at all, and so soon after the first one? Why wasn’t there more of a wait, to see what the Japanese response was? Was less than three days enough time for the Japanese to assess what had happened to Hiroshima and to have the meetings necessary to decide whether they were going to change their position on unconditional surrender? What was the intent?

There are, unsurprisingly, a number of theories about this amongst historians. There are some that think Nagasaki was justified and necessary. There are also many who agree with the historian Barton Bernstein, who argued that: “Whatever one thinks about the necessity of the first A-bomb, the second — dropped on Nagasaki on August 9 — was almost certainly unnecessary.”1 And there are those, like Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, who don’t think either of the atomic bombings had much effect on the final Japanese decision to unconditionally surrender when they did. (I will be writing a much longer post on the Hasegawa thesis in the near future — it deserves its own, separate assessment.)

The following images are screens taken from footage taken of the Fat Man preparations on Tinian, courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Above, preparing the final weapon, sealing the ballistic case joints with red Pliobond and blue Glyptol (plastic film). The different colors made it clear that they were properly applied and overlapped.

The following images are screens taken from footage taken of the Fat Man preparations on Tinian, courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory. Above, preparing the final weapon, sealing the ballistic case joints with red Pliobond and blue Glyptol (plastic film). The different colors made it clear that they were properly applied and overlapped.

The first is the standard, “official” version — the second bomb was necessary to prove that the United States could manufacture atomic weapons in quantity. That is, the first atomic bomb proved it could be done, the second proved it wasn’t just a one-time thing. One wonders, of course, why anyone would think the Japanese would think the atomic bomb was a one-off thing, or that the Americans wouldn’t have the resolve to use it again. They had, after all, shown no flinching from mass destruction so far — they had firebombed 67 Japanese cities already — and while making an atomic bomb was indeed a big effort, the notion that they would be able to make one and no more seems somewhat far-fetched. The idea that the US would have a slow production line isn’t far-fetched, of course.

What did the participants in the decision to bomb have to say about the use of specifically two bombs? General Groves told an interviewer in 1967 that:

…it was not until December of 1944 that I came to the opinion that two bombs would end the war. Before that we had always considered more as being more likely. Then I was convinced in a series a discussions I had with Admiral Purnell.2

Which, if true, would peg this decision fairly early in the process. In his memoirs, Groves also has this little exchange from just after the “Trinity” test:

Shortly after the explosion, [Brig. General Thomas] Farrell and Oppenheimer returned by jeep to the base camp, with a number of others who had been at the dugout. When Farrell came up to me, his first words were, “The war is over.” My reply was, “Yes, after we drop two bombs on Japan.”3

Both of these, of course, are recollections made long after the fact. And Groves is known to have “smoothed” his memories in order to present him in the best possible light to posterity. The actual instructions for the use of the bomb, from late July 1945, only give detailed information about the first bomb:

1. The 509 Composite Group, 20th Air Force will deliver its first special bomb as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945 on one of the targets: Hiroshima, Kokura, Niigata and Nagasaki. [...]

2. Additional bombs will be delivered on the above targets as soon as made ready by the project staff. Further instructions will be issued concerning targets other than those listed above.4

President Truman, in his diary entry, referred to the impending use of the atomic bomb as a singular thing. In his public statements after Hiroshima (which he probably did not write), he claimed that many more atomic bombs would be used until the Japanese surrendered. That being said, he did put a “stop” on any further bombing on August 10th, to wait for a response. This didn’t have any immediate consequences on Tinian, since the next, third bomb wouldn’t have been ready for a few more weeks, and even then, it wasn’t clear whether it would have been immediately dropped or “saved” for a multi-bomb raid.

The bomb prepared, it was then sheathed in canvas and towed out to the loading bay. I find the shot on the right particularly ominous — the second bomb, still a secret, its size and probable importance not quite masked by its shroud.

The bomb prepared, it was then sheathed in canvas and towed out to the loading bay. I find the shot on the right particularly ominous — the second bomb, still a secret, its size and probable importance not quite masked by its shroud.

Oppenheimer, for his part, seems to have expected that both ”Little Boy” and “Fat Man” units would be used in combat. In a memo sent on July 23, 1945, Oppenheimer explicitly discussed the expected performance of “the first Little Boy and the first plutonium Fat Man.” Notably, he expressed near complete confidence in the untested Little Boy:

The possibilities of a less than optimal performance of the Little Boy are quite small and should be ignored. The possibility that the first combat plutonium Fat Man will give a less than optimal performance is about twelve percent. There is about a six percent chance that the energy release will be under five thousand tons, and about a two percent chance that it will be under one thousand tons. It should not be much less than one thousand tons unless there is an actual malfunctioning of some of the components.5

Which raises the interesting secondary question of why Little Boy went first and Fat Man went second. Was it because Little Boy was the more predictable of the two? There’s very little about this that I’ve seen in the archives — it seems like it was taken for granted that the gun-type would be the first one. Groves claimed later that the order was just an issue of when things ended up ready to be used on the island, but the components for both were available on Tinian by August 2, 1945, in any event.6

Oppenheimer had, interestingly, earlier suggested to Groves that perhaps they ought to disassemble the 64 kg enriched-uranium core of Little Boy and use it to create a half-dozen enriched-uranium Fat Man bombs. Groves rejected this:

Factors beyond our control prevent us from considering any decision other than to proceed according to existing schedules for the time being. It is necessary to drop the first Little Boy and the first Fat Man and probably a second one in accordance with our original plan. It may be that as many as three of the latter in their best present condition may have to be dropped to conform with the planned strategic operations.7

All of which is to say that the Los Alamos people seemed to assume without question that at least two bombs would be necessary and would be used. At the higher levels, while Truman did publicly proclaim that further atomic bombings were follow, it isn’t terribly clear he was clued in on the actual schedule of those which followed the first. I wonder if his order to stop bombing, issued immediately after Nagasaki (and the Soviet declaration of war on Japan) wasn’t partially a reaction to the fact that he suddenly felt out of control of the military situation over there.

On the left, the bomb being unshrouded, just before loading into the B-29, Bockscar. On the right, the results: the fireball and mushroom cloud, seen through the window of one of the B-29s on the Nagasaki raid, just a few seconds after detonation, roiling and rapidly rising.

On the left, the bomb being unshrouded, just before loading into the B-29, Bockscar. On the right, the results: the fireball and mushroom cloud, seen through the window of one of the B-29s on the Nagasaki raid, just a few seconds after detonation, roiling and rapidly rising.

The historian Stanley Goldberg proposed another theory: that two bombs were necessary in order to justify the decision to pursue both the uranium and plutonium routes.8 That is, Little Boy would justify the (enormous) expense of Oak Ridge, and Fat Man would justify Hanford. To support this argument, Goldberg points out that during the war Groves was completely afraid of being audited by Congress in the postwar. Groves knew he was engaged in a huge gamble, and he also knew he had made a lot of enemies in the process. This is one of the reasons that he meticulously documented nearly every decision made during the Manhattan Project — he wanted “evidence” in case he spent the rest of his years being subpoenaed.9 It’s a clever argument, though it relies heavily on supposition.

Michael Gordin has argued that this entire question revolves around a false notion: that it was known ahead of time that two and only two bombs were to be used. That is, instead of asking, why were two, and not one, used, Gordin instead looks into why were two, and not three, four, and etc. usedGordin’s book, Five Days in August, argues that it was assumed by Groves and the other planners (but not necessarily Truman) that many more than two bombs were going to be necessary to compel Japan to surrender — that the surprising thing is not that the bombing cycle continued on August 9, but that Truman stopped the bombing cycle on August 10.10

Of these options, I tend to lead towards Gordin’s interpretation. The decision-making process regarding the atomic bomb, once the Army took over the production side of things, was that they would be used. That is, not that it would be used, though the importance of the first one, and all of the import that was meant to be attached to it, was certainly appreciated by the people who were planning it. But it was never intended to be a one-off, once-used, anomalous event. It was meant to be the first of many, as the atomic bomb became yet another weapon in the US arsenal to use against Japan. The use of the bomb, and continued bombings after it, was taken by Groves et al. to be the “natural” case. To stop the atomic bombing would have been the unusual position. Go back to that original target order: the only distinction is between the “first special bomb” and the “additional bombs,” not a singular second special bomb.

So “Why did they bomb Nagasaki?” might not be the right question at all. The real question to ask might be: “Why did they stop with Nagasaki?“ Which, in a somewhat twisted way, is actually a more hopeful question. It is not a question about why we chose to bomb again, but a question about why we chose not to.

  1. Barton J. Bernstein, “The Atomic Bombings Reconsidered,” Foreign Affairs 74, no. 1 (1995), 135-152, on 150. []
  2. Quoted in Robert S. Norris, Racing for the Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, the Manhattan Project’s Indispensable Man (Steerforth, 2003), 655 fn. 29. []
  3. Leslie R. Groves, Now it Can be Told (Harper, 1962), 298. []
  4. General Thomas Handy to General Carl Spaatz (25 July 1945),  U.S. National Archives, Record Group 77, Records of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, Manhattan Engineer District, TS Manhattan Project File ’42 to ’46, Folder 5B. Copy online here. []
  5. J. Robert Oppenheimer to Thomas Farrell (23 July 1945), copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, NV, document NV0103571. []
  6. Groves, Now it Can be Told, 308. All of the Little Boy components were on the island by July 28. The Fat Man core and initiator were on Tinian by July 28, and the HE pre-assemblies arrived on August 2. []
  7. Leslie Groves to J. Robert Oppenheimer (19 July 1945), copy reproduced in John Coster-Mullen, Atom Bombs: The Top Secret Inside Story of Little Boy and Fat Man. []
  8. Stanley Goldberg, “General Groves and the atomic West: The making and meaning of Hanford,” in Bruce Hevly and John Findlay, eds., The atomic West (University of Washington Press, 1998),  39-89. []
  9. And, in fact, he did end up needing some of those records when he was asked to testify at various times. But the scandals weren’t what Groves had guessed they would be: they weren’t about waste, but about people. Groves ended up drawing on his classified Manhattan Project History file when testifying about Klaus Fuchs and, later, J. Robert Oppenheimer. []
  10. Michael Gordin, Five Days in August: How World War II Became a Nuclear War (Princeton University Press, 2007). []

The price of the Manhattan Project

Friday, May 17th, 2013

There’s been a little radio silence over here last week; the truth is, I’ve been very absorbed in NUKEMAP-related work. It is going very well; I’ve found some things that I thought were going to be difficult to be not so difficult, after all, and I’ve found myself to be more mathematically capable than I usually would presume, once I really started drilling down in technical minutiae. The only down-side of the work is that it is mostly coding, mostly technical, not terribly conducive to having deep or original historical thoughts, and, of course, I’ve gotten completely obsessed with it. But I’m almost over the hump of the hard stuff.

Two weeks ago, I made a trip out to the West Coast to hang out with the various wonks that congregate at the Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute for International Studies. This was at the behest of Stephen Schwartz, who teaches a class over there and had me come out to talk to them about nuclear secrecy, and to give a general colloquium talk.

Atomic Audit

Stephen became known to me early on in my interest in nuclear things for his work in editing the book Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940 (Brookings Institute, 1998). This is one of these all-time useful reference books; it is the only book I’ve read, for example, that has anything like a good description of the development of US nuclear secrecy policies. And the list of contributors is a who’s-who of late 1990s nuclear scholarship. The book includes really detailed discussions about how difficult it is to put a price tag on nuclear weapons spending in the United States, for reasons relating both to the obvious secrecy issue, but also the fact that these expenses have not really been disentangled from a lot of other spending.

I’ve had a copy of the book for over a decade now, and it has come in handy again and again. I’m not a numbers-guy (NUKEMAP work being the exception), but looking at these kind of aggregate figures helps me wrap my head around the “big picture” of something like, say, the Manhattan Project, in a way that is often lost by the standard historical approach of tight biographical narratives. Of the $2 billion spent on the Manhattan Project, where did it go, and what does it tell us about how we should talk about the history of the bomb?

Here is a breakdown of cost expenditures for the Manhattan Project sites, through the end of 1945:

Site/Project 1945 dollars 2012 dollars %
OAK RIDGE (Total) $1,188,352,000 $18,900,000,000 63%
K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant $512,166,000 $8,150,000,000 27%
Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant $477,631,000 $7,600,000,000 25%
Clinton Engineer Works, HQ and central utilities $155,951,000 $2,480,000,000 8%
Clinton Laboratories $26,932,000 $430,000,000 1%
S-50 Thermal Diffusion Plant $15,672,000 $250,000,000 1%
HANFORD ENGINEER WORKS $390,124,000 $6,200,000,000 21%
SPECIAL OPERATING MATERIALS $103,369,000 $1,640,000,000 5%
LOS ALAMOS PROJECT $74,055,000 $1,180,000,000 4%
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT $69,681,000 $1,110,000,000 4%
GOVERNMENT OVERHEAD $37,255,000 $590,000,000 2%
HEAVY WATER PLANTS $26,768,000 $430,000,000 1%
Grand Total $1,889,604,000 $30,060,000,000

I’ve taken this chart from here. The “current dollars” are 2012 dollars, with a “production line” labor deflator used (out of all of the options here, it seemed like the most appropriate to the kind of work we’re talking about, most of which was construction).

To break the numbers down a bit more, K-25, Y-12, and S-50 were all uranium enrichment plants. Hanford was for plutonium production. “Special operating materials” refers to the raw materials necessary for the entire project, most of which was uranium, but also highly-refined graphite and fluorine, among other things. Los Alamos was of course the design laboratory. The heavy water plants were constructed in Trail, British Columbia, Morgantown, West Virginia, Montgomery, Alabama, and Dana, Indiana. Their product was not used on a large scale during the war; it was produced as a back-up in case graphite proved to be a bad moderator for the Hanford reactors.

I’m a visual guy, so I of course immediately start looking at these numbers like this:

Manhattan Project costs chart

Which puts things a little more into proportion. The main take-away of these numbers for me is to be pretty impressed by the fact that some 80% of the money was spent on the plants necessary producing fissile materials. Only 4% went towards Los Alamos. And yet, in terms of how we talk about nuclear weapons and the Manhattan Project, we spend a huge amount of the time talking about the work at Los Alamos, often with only token gestures to the work at Hanford and Oak Ridge as the “next step” after the theory had been worked out.

We can also break those numbers down a little finer, by turning to another source, Appendix 2 of Richard Hewlett and Roland Anderson’s The New World. There, they have costs divided into “plant” and “operations” costs:

Site/Project Plant Operations Plant %
OAK RIDGE (Total) $882,678,000 $305,674,000 74%
K-25 Gaseous Diffusion Plant $458,316,000 $53,850,000 89%
Y-12 Electromagnetic Plant $300,625,000 $177,006,000 63%
Clinton Engineer Works, HQ and central utilities $101,193,000 $54,758,000 65%
Clinton Laboratories $11,939,000 $14,993,000 44%
S-50 Thermal Diffusion Plant $10,605,000 $5,067,000 68%
HANFORD ENGINEER WORKS $339,678,000 $50,446,000 87%
SPECIAL OPERATING MATERIALS $20,810,000 $82,559,000 20%
LOS ALAMOS PROJECT $37,176,000 $36,879,000 50%
RESEARCH AND DEVELOPMENT $63,323,000 $6,358,000 91%
GOVERNMENT OVERHEAD $22,567,000 $14,688,000 61%
HEAVY WATER PLANTS $15,801,000 $10,967,000 59%
Grand Total $1,382,033,000 $507,571,000 73%

They do not define how they differentiated between “plant” and “operations” expenses, but the most plausible guess is that the former are various start-up costs (e.g. construction) and one-off costs (e.g. big purchases of materials) and the latter are day-to-day costs (general labor force, electricity, etc.).

Looking at that percentage can tell you a bit about how much of the Manhattan Project was the building of a weapons production system as opposed to building three individual weapons. Nearly three-fourths of the expense was for building a system so large that Niels Bohr famously called it country-sized factory.1

The K-25 gaseous diffusion plant: the single largest and most expensive Manhattan Project site.

The K-25 gaseous diffusion plant: the single largest and most expensive Manhattan Project site.

Another way to look at this is to say that we usually talk about the atomic bomb as project focused on scientific research. But one could arguably say that it was more a project of industrial production instead. This is actually quite in line with how General Groves, and even J. Robert Oppenheimer, saw the problem of nuclear weapons. Oppenheimer, in testimony before Congress in 1945, went so far as to phrase it this way:

I think it is important to emphasize [the role of industry in the Manhattan Project], because I deplore the tendency of myself and my colleagues to pretend that with our own hands we actually did this job. We had something to do with it. If it had not been for scientists, there would have been no atomic bomb; but if there had been only scientists, there also would be no atomic bomb.

This is actually a very important point, and one which shines light onto a lot of other questions regarding nuclear weapons. For example, one of the questions that people ask me again and again is how close the Germans were to getting an atomic bomb. The answer is, more or less, not very close at all. Why not? Because even if their scientific understanding was not too far away — which it was not, even though they were wrong about several things and behind on several others — they never came close to the stage that would be necessary to turn it into an industrial production program, as opposed to just a laboratory understanding. That sheer fact is much more important than whether Heisenberg fully understood the nature of chain reactions or anything like that.

Why do we think of the bomb as a scientific problem as opposed to an industrial one? There are perhaps a few answers to this. One is that from the beginning, the bomb came to symbolize the ultimate fruits of scientific modernity: it was seen as the worst culmination of all of those centuries of rational thought. What grim irony, and what a standard story, that knowledge could lead to such ruin? Another reason is that scientific adventure stories are more interesting than industrial adventure stories. It is much more fun to talk about characters like Szilard, Oppenheimer, and Feynman running around trying to solve difficult logic problems in a desperate race against time, than it is to talk about the difficulties inherent to the construction of very large buildings.

Finally, though, there is the issue of secrecy. The scientific facts of the atomic bomb, especially the physics, were the most easily declassifiable. As discussed in a previous post (with many nods towards the work of Rebecca Press Schwartz), one of the main reasons the Smyth Report was so physics-heavy is because the physics was not terribly secret. Nuclear chain reactions, the idea of critical mass, the basic ideas behind uranium enrichment and reactors: all of these things were knowable and even known by physicists all over the world well prior to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The really hard stuff — the chemistry, the metallurgy, the engineering “know-how,” the specific constructions of the massive fissile-material production plants — was silently omitted from official accounts.

Looking at the costs of the bomb help rectify this perception a bit. It still doesn’t get us outside of the heroic narratives, for they are very appealing, but it can help us appreciate the magnitude of what is left out of the standard story.

  1. Bohr reportedly told Teller upon seeing Los Alamos and hearing about the entire project: “You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.” []

Narratives of Manhattan Project secrecy

Friday, March 29th, 2013

Secrecy suffused every aspect of the Manhattan Project; it was always in the background, as a context. But it’s also a topic in and of itself — people love to talk about the secrecy of the work, and they’ve loved to talk about it since the Project was made public. In the 1940s there was something of a small industry of articles, books, and clichés regarding how secret the atomic bomb was kept. Of course, the irony is… it wasn’t really kept all that well, if you consider “keeping the secret” to involve “not letting the Soviet Union know pretty much everything about the atomic bomb.” (Which was, according to General Groves, one of the goals.)

It’s easy to get sucked into the mystique of secrecy. One way I’ve found that is useful to help people think critically about secrecy (including myself) is to focus on the narratives of secrecy. That is, instead of talking about secrecy itself, look instead at how people talk about secrecy, how they frame it, how it plays a role in stories they tell about the Manhattan Project.

One of many early articles in the genre of Manhattan Project secrecy: "How We Kept the Atomic Bomb Secret," from the Saturday Evening Post, November 1945.

One of many early articles in the genre of Manhattan Project secrecy: “How We Kept the Atomic Bomb Secret,” from the Saturday Evening Post, November 1945.

My first example of this is the most obvious one, because it is the official one. We might call this one the narrative of the “best-kept secret,” because this is how the Army originally advertised it. Basically, the “best-kept secret” narrative is about how the Manhattan Project was sooo super-secret, that nobody found out about it, despite its ridiculous size and expense. The Army emphasized this very early on, and, in fact, Groves got into some trouble because there were so many stories about how great their secrecy was, revealing too much about the “sources and methods” of counterintelligence work.

The truth is, even without the knowledge of the spying (which they didn’t have in 1945), this narrative is somewhat false even on its own terms. There were leaks about the Manhattan Project (and atomic bombs and energy in general) printed in major press outlets in the United States and abroad. It was considered an “open secret” among Washington politicos and journalists that the Army was working on a new super-weapon that involved atomic energy just prior to its use. Now, it certainly could have been worse, but it’s not clear whether the Army (or the Office of Censorship) had much control over that.

Panel from FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

Panel from FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

We might contrast that with the sort of narrative of secrecy that comes up with regards to many participants’ tales of being at places like Los Alamos. Richard Feynman’s narrative of secrecy is one of absurd secrecy — of ridiculous adherence to stupid rules. In Feynman’s narratives, secrecy is a form of idiotic bureaucracy, imposed by rigid, lesser minds. It’s the sort of thing that a trickster spirit like Feynman can’t resist teasing, whether he’s cracking safes, teasing guards about holes in the fence, or finding elaborate ways to irritate the local censor in his correspondence with his wife. All participants’ narratives are not necessarily absurd, but they are almost always about the totalitarian nature of secrecy. I don’t mean “fascist/communist” here — I mean the original sense of the word, which is to say, the Manhattan Project secrecy regime was one that infused every aspect of human life for those who lived under it. It was not simply a workplace procedure, because there was no real division between work and life at the Manhattan Project sites. (Even recreational sports were considered an essential part of the Oak Ridge secrecy regime, for example.)

So we might isolate two separate narratives here — “secrecy is ridiculous” and “secrecy is totalitarian” — with an understanding that no single narrative is necessarily exclusive of being combined with others.1

"Beyond loyalty, the harsh requirements of security": Time magazine's stark coverage of the 1954 security hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“Beyond loyalty, the harsh requirements of security”: Time magazine’s stark coverage of the 1954 security hearing of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

But the Feynman approach looks perhaps unreasonably jolly when we contrast it to the narrative of J. Robert Oppenheimer and his students, for whom secrecy became something more sinister: an excuse to blacklist, a means of punishment. Oppenheimer did fine during the Manhattan Project, but the legacy of secrecy caught up with him in his 1954 security hearing, which effectively ended his government career. For his students and friends, the outcomes were often as bad if not worse. His brother, Frank, for example, found himself essentially blacklisted from all research, even from the opportunity to leave the country and start over. (It had a happy ending, of course, because without being blacklisted, he might never have founded the Exploratorium, but let’s just ignore that for a moment.)

For a lot of the scientists involved in the Manhattan Project, secrecy ended up putting their careers on the line, sometimes even their lives on the line. In response to (fairly ungrounded) suspicions about Oppenheimer’s student Rossi Lomanitz, for example, Groves actually removed his draft deferment and had him sent into the dangerous Pacific Theatre. This narrative of secrecy is what we might classically call the “tragic” narrative of secrecy — it involves a fall from grace. It emphasizes the rather sinister undertones and consequences of secrecy regimes, especially during the period of McCarthyism.

The original "best-kept secret" story, released on August 9, 1945 (the day of the Nagasaki bombing).

The original “best-kept secret” story, released on August 9, 1945 (the day of the Nagasaki bombing).

So what other narratives are there? Here is a short list, in no particular order, that I compiled for a talk I gave at a workshop some weeks ago. I don’t claim it to be exhaustive, or definitive. Arguably some of these are somewhat redundant, as well. But I found compiling it a useful way for me to think myself around these narratives, and how many there were:

  • Secrecy is essential”: early accounts, “best-kept secret” stories
  • Secrecy is totalitarian”: secret site participants’ accounts
  • Secrecy is absurd”: e.g. Feynman’s safes and fences
    • Common hybrid: “Secrecy is absurdly totalitarian
  • Secrecy is counterproductive”: arguments by Leo Szilard et al., that secrecy slowed them down (related to the “absurd” narrative)
  • Secrecy is ineffective”: the post-Fuchs understanding — there were lots of spies
  • Secrecy is undemocratic”: secrecy reduces democratic participation in important decisions, like the decision to use the bomb; fairly important to revisionist accounts
  • Secrecy is tragic”: ruinous effects of McCarthyism and spy fears on the lives of many scientists
  • “Secrecy is corrupt: late/post-Cold War, environmental and health concerns

It’s notable that almost all of these are negative narratives. I don’t think that’s just bias on my part — positive stories about secrecy fit into only a handful of genres, whereas there are so many different ways that secrecy is talked about as negative. Something to dwell on.

What does talking about these sorts of things get us? Being aware that there are multiple “stock” narratives helps us be more conscious about the narratives we talk about and tap into. You can’t really get out of talking through narratives if you have an interest in being readable, but you can be conscious about your deployment of them. For me, making sense of secrecy in an intellectual, analytical fashion requires being able to see when people are invoking one narrative or another. And it keeps us from falling into traps. The “absurd” narrative is fun, for example, but characterizing the Manhattan Project experience of secrecy makes too much light of the real consequences of it.

As an historian, what I’m really trying to do here is develop a new narrative of secrecy — that of the meta-narrative, One Narrative to Rule Them All, the narrative that tells the story of how the other narratives came about (a history of narratives, if you will). Part of talking about secrecy historically is looking at how narratives are created, how they are made plausible, how they circulate, and where they come from. Because these things don’t just appear out of “nowhere”: for each of these narratives, there is deep history, and often a specific, singular origin instance. (For some, it is pretty clear: Klaus Fuchs really makes the “ineffective” narrative spring to live; Leo Szilard and the Scientists’ Movement push very hard for the “counterproductive” narrative in late 1945; the “best-kept secret” approach was a deliberate public relations push by the government.)

As a citizen more broadly, though, being conscious about narratives is important for parsing out present day issues as well. How may of these narratives have been invoked by all sides in the discussions of WikiLeaks, for example? How do these narratives shape public perceptions of issues revolving around secrecy, and public trust? Realizing that there are distinct narratives of secrecy is only the first step.

  1. Both of these might classically be considered “comic” narratives of secrecy, under a strict narratological definition. But I’m not really a huge fan of strict narratological definitions in this context — they are too broad. []
Meditations | Redactions

The Decision to Use the Bomb: A Consensus View?

Friday, March 8th, 2013

One of the great historical arguments of the late-20th century was whether the decision to use the atomic bomb was justified or not, and what the real goals of its use were. I’ve sometimes seen this dismissed by partisans (usually in favor of the use of the bomb) as being a recent sort of argument, only made by people who were well distanced from World War II, but this isn’t the case. People were arguing loudly about this almost immediately. The ambivalence about the use of the bomb was nearly immediate, and even the Japanese were aware of such discussions taking place in the United States a month later.

This was why, in 1947, Secretary of War Henry Stimson put his name on an article in Harpers that February 1947 titled “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” — it was meant to be the “official” response to the on-going debates and speculation. General Groves, of course, had a heavy role in the composition of the article, not only because he was the guy who had all of the documents at hand, but because it was his legacy on the line, too. In fact, Groves seems to have been fairly responsible for pushing Stimson to publishing something on the subject, even offering up multiple pre-fab drafts drafts for Stimson in November 1946:1

Click the image for the full set of drafts.

Click the image for the full set of drafts.

Personally, I don’t wade into these questions much, professionally, or even here on the blog. They honestly don’t interest me very much. Maybe it’s a sign of how post-post-Cold War I am? I don’t know. To me it has always seemed like splitting very fine hairs, trying to make distinctions without much difference. In my mind, the atomic bombings were plainly not ethically very different than the previous firebombings of Japan or Germany. To argue about whether they were justified or not seems to me to be the wrong question — a question that misleads us into mistaking what the core issue was.

For me, the better question is, under what circumstances do we believe the use of weapons of mass destruction on civilians is justified?  That gets one into much more interesting ethical territory, in my opinion, than asking why the bombs were used, a question that seems to presume that the motivations are somehow the most important thing to ask about. It also keeps us from having the same old discussion that people have been having for nearly 70 years. Maybe it’s my post-postness talking, here, but whether people in the past had better or worse intentions before setting a hundred thousand people on fire seems like the least interesting historical question to pose in the face of such actions.

1945: Tokyo at left, Hiroshima at right. Is there a significant moral difference?

Ruins of 1945: Tokyo at left, Hiroshima at right.

Nevertheless, I do pay some attention to these arguments, mostly because I get asked about this sort of thing from time to time (one of the hazards of being an historian of such matters) and it helps to have a snappy answer or two. So I was really interested to hear, at a workshop in DC a few weeks ago convened by the Atomic Heritage Foundation (more on the workshop and its purpose in a later post), the retired NRC historian J. Samuel Walker give a brief talk on the current state of the historiography over the “decision to use the bomb.” Walker wrote an article on this subject in 1990a book in 1997, and another historiographical review in 2005.

I hadn’t met Walker before this, but I’ve reviewed two of his books (one on Three Mile Island, another on US nuclear waste policy), and had appreciated and drawn upon his work as an historian. Walker is, as he put it, “a flaming moderate,” and it comes out in his work. Both of those books are great — for TMI, he has a nice balance of technical detail with political/bureaucratic considerations (and a great chapter on the long-term effects on the nuclear industry); for nuclear waste, he does a great job of being strictly factual while pointing out exactly where he saw the US government underestimating the problem and failing to appreciate how much they were losing public faith. As with all moderates, he runs the risk of disappointing partisans of all sides, but that’s the nature of it.

Portraits from Time magazine covers, 1945: Stalin, Truman, Hirohito.

Portraits from Time magazine covers, 1945: Stalin, Truman, Hirohito. Each kind of tacky in their own way, each kind of brilliant in their own way.

Walker mapped out two major poles on the “decision to use the bomb” question. (I should say up front that this is my synthesis of Walker’s synthesis, re-written from memory. So it’s possible I may be inadvertently mangling this a bit, though I don’t think I am. There are other sub-arguments to this debate, of course, but to me this boils it down to the really crucial bits nicely.) The first is the “traditional” argument, which roughly follows the position put forward by Stimson in 1947. At its core, it argues, in brief:

  • that Truman made a decision to use the bomb on the basis of ending the war quickly;
  • the as far as the US was concerned, Japan would not surrender on acceptable terms without either the bomb or invasion;
  • and that of those two options, the bomb was the option that would cost the least number of American and Japanese lives;
  • and, as the Japanese Emperor acknowledged in his surrender statement, the bomb did in fact end the war promptly.

This is, of course, the argument that most people are familiar with. The other pole, according to Walker, is what is often called the “revisionist” take, a term acknowledged as potentially disparaging, and is expressed most forcefully in the work of Gar Alperovitz. At its core, it argues, in brief:

  • that Japan was already defeated at the time the decision to use the bomb was made, and that US intelligence already knew this;
  • that Japan had been suing for peace and was ready to surrender without an invasion;
  • that the real reason the bomb was used was so to demonstrate its power to the Soviet Union, in an attempt to exert more influence on them in the postwar;
  • and that Japanese Emperor’s surrender statement invoked the bomb only as a politically-acceptable “excuse” for his people, when actually he surrendered primarily because of the Soviet invasion of Manchuria.

There are, of course, more details that people have hashed out over the years, including the infamous “how many casualties in an invasion” question. In the 1990s in particular, these were fiercely debated. It was, of course, the immediate post-Cold War, and everybody was still in a mood of assessment of trying to make out what the Cold War’s legacy actually was.

So where are we now, firmly in the 2010s? Walker reported that in his assessment, the scholarly debate had cooled down quite a bit, and that a new consensus was emerging, something that could be visualized firmly in between the two poles. There were problems, he argued, with both the “traditional” and the “revisionist” views. Specifically:

  • It’s not really clear that Truman ever made much of a “decision,” or regarded the bomb/invasion issue as being mutually exclusive. Truman didn’t know if the bomb would end the war; he hoped, but he didn’t know, couldn’t know. The US was still planning to invade in November 1945. They were planning to drop as many atomic bombs as necessary. There is no contemporary evidence that suggests Truman was ever told that the causalities would be X if the bomb was dropped, and Y if it was not. There is no evidence that, prior to the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Truman was particularly concerned with Japanese causalities, radiation effects, or whether the bombs were ethical or not. The entire framing of the issue is ahistorical, after-the-fact, here. It was war; Truman had atomic bombs; it was taken for granted, at that point, that they were going to be used. 
  • Defeat is not surrender. Japan was certainly defeated by August 1945, in the sense that there was no way for them to win; the US knew that. But they hadn’t surrendered, and the peace balloons they had put out would have assumed not that the Emperor would have stayed on as some sort of benign constitutional monarch (much less a symbolic monarch), but would still be the god-head of the entire Japanese country, and still preserve the overall Japanese state. This was unacceptable to the US, and arguably not for bad reasons. Japanese sources show that the Japanese military was willing to bleed out the country to exact this sort of concession from the US.
  • American sources show that the primary reason for using the bomb was to aid in the war against Japan. However, the fact that such weapons would be important in the postwar period, in particular vis-à-vis the USSR, was not lost on American policymakers. It is fair to say that there were multiple motivations for dropping the bomb, and specifically that it looks like there was a primary motivation (end the war) and many other “derivative” benefits that came from that (postwar power).
  • Japanese sources, especially those unearthed and written about by Tsuyoshi Hasegawa, make it clear that prior to the use of the atomic bombs, the Japanese cabinet was still planning on fighting a long battle against invasion, that they were hoping to exact the aforementioned concessions from the United States, and that they were aware (and did not care) that such an approach would cost the lives of huge numbers of Japanese civilians. It is also clear that the two atomic bombs did shock them immensely, and did help break the stalemate in the cabinet — but that the Soviet invasion of Manchuria also shocked them immensely, perhaps equally, maybe even more (if you have a choice between being occupied by Truman or occupied by Stalin, the decision is an easy one). But there is no easy way to disentangle the effects of the bombs or the Soviet invasion, in this sense — they were both immensely influential on the final decision. That being said, using the bomb as an “excuse” (as opposed to “we are afraid of Russians”) did play well with the Japanese public and made surrender appear to be a sensible, viable option in a culture where surrender was seen as a complete loss of honor.

So what we’re left with is something that, in my view, looks a lot more plausible than either the “traditional” or “revisionist” options, both of which assume way more prescience than actual historical actors usually have. (Much less Truman, of all people. In my view, even wondering what Truman thought about this is the wrong question to ask — Truman was many things, but he was not a thoughtful guy. He makes Eisenhower look like a French philosopher by comparison.)

One of the more post-modern Time magazine covers — where the atomic bomb unseats Truman as Man of the Year.

One of the more post-modern Time magazine covers — where the atomic bomb unseats Truman as Man of the Year. Or something.

The are genres of historical explanation that people find compelling. This is something that goes a bit beyond the historical facts themselves: it is the superstructure in which we interpret the facts, or, to put it another way, it is how we think about everything that’s going on that doesn’t end up in the archival record.

What I find compelling about Walker’s “consensus” view is that it is much more of a muddle than either the “traditional” view or the “revisionist” view. The “traditional” view makes it look like Truman et al. were making carefully reasoned decisions based on an ethics of the bomb that had not developed, based on questions that were not yet being asked. I don’t really believe for a minute that Truman worried much about the first use of the atomic bomb. But the “revisionist” view makes him still look too clever by half — too scheming, too anticipatory, too prescient about both the Japanese war and the Cold War. That’s not the Truman I know. The “consensus” view is much more human looking: the people in it are half-way acting consciously, half-way caught up in things that had been going on for a long time and were by then out of their active control. Of course, in retrospect, everyone wants to re-write history to make them look better, especially when they’re being criticized for past actions. That’s part of being human, too.

Walker also posited that along with this emerging consensus, there was also a cooling in the tone of the debate. This was immediately proved to be somewhat premature, as Peter Kuznik, another attendee to the workshop (who I consider a friend), vigorously defended the “revisionist” point of view. Well, so it goes — there’s no better way to prove an argument among scholars than to propose that there really isn’t much of an argument anymore. Still, I found Walker’s synthesis a useful way of framing the field of historical argumentation, summing up a number of disparate positions (each with books and books of documents and footnotes debating each tiny point) in a fairly convenient format. And what can I say — I’m a sucker for moderate, synthetic arguments.

  1. Citation: Leslie R. Groves to Harvey H. Bundy, drafts of “The Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb” (6 November 1945), Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 5, Folder 20, “Miscellaneous.” []