Posts Tagged ‘J. Robert Oppenheimer’

Redactions

The curious death of Oppenheimer’s mistress

Friday, December 11th, 2015

The most recent episode of Manhattan, 209, is the penultimate episode for Season 2. There were many aspects that pleased me a lot, in part because I saw my own fingerprints on them: the discussion between Frank and Charlie about the possibility of a demonstration, and Charlie’s later coming around to the idea that the best thing you could do for the future was to make the use of the first atomic bombs usage as terrible as possible; the full-circling of the subplot involving the patent clerk; the tricky politics of the Target Committee. But my favorite part was that the Jean Tatlock subplot finally paid off. The idea that Jean Tatlock might have been murdered by intelligence agents working for Manhattan Project security sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, a totally imaginative take by the writers of the show. But there’s potentially more to it than just that.

Three photographs of Jean Tatlock. The one at left and right come from the website of Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus's An Atomic Love Story, a book about Oppenheimer's loves; the one in the middle comes from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin's American Prometheus.

Three photographs of Jean Tatlock. The one at left and right come from the website of Shirley Streshinsky and Patricia Klaus’s An Atomic Love Story, a book about Oppenheimer’s loves; the one in the middle comes from Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s American Prometheus.

Jean Tatlock is an interesting and curious character. In most narratives about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, she shows up with two purposes: to radicalize him, and to humanize him. He put his relationship this way in his security hearing of 1954:

In the spring of 1936, I had been introduced by friends to Jean Tatlock, the daughter of a noted professor of English at the university; and in the autumn, I began to court her, and we grew close to each other. We were at least twice close enough to marriage to think of ourselves as engaged. Between 1939 and her death in 1944 I saw her very rarely. She told me about her Communist Party memberships; they were on again, off again affairs, and never seemed to provide for her what she was seeking. I do not believe that her interests were really political. She loved this country and its people and its life. She was, as it turned out, a friend of many fellow travelers and Communists, with a number of whom I was later to become acquainted.

I should not give the impression that it was wholly because of Jean Tatlock that I made leftwing friends, or felt sympathy for causes which hitherto would have seemed so remote from me, like the Loyalist cause in Spain, and the organization of migratory workers. I have mentioned some of the other contributing causes. I liked the new sense of companionship, and at the time felt that I was coming to be part of the life of my time and country.

One, of course, doesn’t take such a statement fully at face value, being made, as it was, ten years after her death, and in the middle of a hearing on whether Oppenheimer himself was loyal to the country. It is an interesting fact, as an aside, that it was Tatlock who broke off the official relationship, in 1939, rejecting an offer of marriage. He got seriously involved with Katharine (Kitty), his future wife, a few months later.

1954 JRO hearing - JRO on Tatlock

Tatlock’s name pops up in the Oppenheimer security hearing a number of times, and proved a rather tricky, if not embarrassing, issue for Oppenheimer. Oppenheimer admitted that he had visited Tatlock in San Francisco in June of 1943. It was a secret visit, approved by nobody, at the time when Oppenheimer was director of Los Alamos. Oppenheimer was being tailed by intelligence agents during the entire trip, however. A few choice selections from the transcript:

Oppenheimer: I visited Jean Tatlock in the spring of 1943. I almost had to. She was not much of a communist but she was certainly a member of the party. There was nothing dangerous about that. There was nothing potentially dangerous about that. …

Q: Doctor, between 1939 and 1944, as I understand it, your acquaintance with Miss Tatlock was fairly casual, is that right?

JRO: Our meetings were rare. I do not think it would be right to say our acquaintance was casual. We had been very much involved with one another and there was still very deep feeling when we saw each other. … I visited her, as I think I said earlier, in June or July of 1943.

Q: I believe you said in connection with that that you had to see her.

JRO: Yes. 

Q: Why did you have to see her?

JRO: She had indicated a great desire to see me before we left [for Los Alamos]. At that time I couldn’t go. For one thing, I wasn’t supposed to say where we were going or anything. I felt that she had to see me. She was undergoing psychiatric treatment. She was extremely unhappy. 

Q: Did you find out why she had to see you?

JRO: Because she was still in love with me.

Q: Where did you see her?

JRO: At her home. …

Q: You spent the night with her, didn’t you?

JRO: Yes. 

Q: That was when you were working on a secret war project?

JRO: Yes.

Q: Did you think that consistent with good security?

JRO: It was as a matter of fact. Not a word — it was not good practice.

All of the above was discussed at the security hearing with Kitty present in the room. Ouch.

1954 JRO hearing - Lansdale on Tatlock

Later, they asked Lt. Col. John Lansdale, Jr., the head of Manhattan Project security, about Tatlock and Oppenheimer:

Q: You had no doubt, did you, that Jean Tatlock was a communist?

Lansdale: She was certainly on our suspect list. I know now that she was a communist. I cannot recall at the moment whether we were sure she was a communist at the time.

Q: Did your definition of very good discretion include spending the night with a known communist woman?

L: No, it didn’t. Our impression was that interest was more romantic than otherwise, and it is the sole instance that I know of.

Tatlock, according to the standard version of the story, suffered from intense depression and killed herself in January 1944. Her love of John Donne may have been why Oppenheimer named the first test for the atomic bomb “Trinity.” We don’t know; even Oppenheimer claimed not to know. It makes for a good story as it is, a poetic humanization of a weapons physicist and the first atomic test. Peer De Silva, the head of security for the lLos Alamos laboratory, later wrote that he was the one who told Oppenheimer of Tatlock’s death, and that he wept: “[Oppenheimer] went on at considerable length about the depth of his emotion for Jean, saying there was really no one else to whom he could speak.”1

But there may be more to the story. Gregg Herken’s Brotherhood of the Bomb (Henry Holt, 2002) was the first source I saw that really peeled apart the Oppenheimer-Tatlock story, and got into the details of the 1943 visit. Oppenheimer had told security he was visiting Berkeley to recruit an assistant, though Tatlock was always the real reason for the trip. He was being tailed by G-2 agents the entire time, working for Boris Pash, who was in charge of Army counterintelligence in the Bay Area. They tailed Oppenheimer and Tatlock to dinner (Mexican food), and then followed them back to Tatlock’s house. Army agents sat in a car across the street the entire night. The assistant that Oppenheimer hired was David Hawkins, who had his own Communist sympathies. The whole thing was a very dodgy affair (in many senses of the term) for the scientific head of the bomb project. Pash subsequently got permission to put an FBI bug on Tatlock’s phone.2

Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer at Los Alamos. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

More recently, and more sensationally, there is an entire chapter on Tatlock’s death in Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin’s biography of Oppenheimer, American Prometheus (Knopf, 2005). They suggest that there is evidence that Tatlock’s death might not have been a suicide at all — that it might have been an assassination, murder. Now, just to make sure we are clear, they go to lengths to suggest that the evidence is not clear, and that their argument is speculative and circumstantial. But I also want to point out that Bird and Sherwin aren’t cranks: I know them both personally and professionally, and they are serious about their craft and research, and the chapter on Tatlock’s death, like the others in their book, is meticulously documented. The book itself won the Pulitzer Prize, as well. So this is not something that should be easily dismissed.

Bird and Sherwin paint a messy picture. Tatlock’s father discovered her dead, having broken into her apartment after a day of not being able to reach her. He found her “lying on a pile of pillows at the end of the bathtub, with her head submerged in the partly filled tub.” He found her suicide note, which read: “I am disgusted with everything… To those who loved me and helped me, all love and courage. I wanted to live and to give and I got paralyzed somehow. I tried like hell to understand and couldn’t… I think I would have been a liability all my life—at least I could take away the burden of a paralyzed soul from a fighting world.”

John Tatlock moved her body to the sofa, rummaged through the apartment to find her correspondence, and burnt it in the fireplace. He spent hours in the apartment before calling the funeral parlor, and it was the funeral parlor who called the police. The cause of death was drowning. To quote from Bird and Sherwin directly:

According to the coroner, Tatlock had eaten a full meal shortly before her death. If it was her intention to drug and then drown herself, as a doctor she had to have known that undigested food slows the metabolizing of drugs into the system. The autopsy report contains no evidence that the barbiturates had reached her liver or other vital organs. Neither does the report indicate whether she had taken a sufficiently large dose of barbiturates to cause death. To the contrary, as previously noted, the autopsy determined that the cause of death was asphyxiation by drowning. These curious circumstances are suspicious enough—but the disturbing information contained in the autopsy report is the assertion that the coroner found “a faint trace of chloral hydrate” in her system. If administered with alcohol, chloral hydrate is the active ingredient of what was then commonly called a “Mickey Finn”—knockout drops. In short, several investigators have speculated, Jean may have been “slipped a Mickey,” and then forcibly drowned in her bathtub.

The coroner’s report indicated that no alcohol was found in her blood. (The coroner, however, did find some pancreatic damage, indicating that Tatlock had been a heavy drinker.) Medical doctors who have studied suicides—and read the Tatlock autopsy report—say that it is possible she drowned herself. In this scenario, Tatlock could have eaten a last meal with some barbiturates to make herself sleepy and then self-administered chloral hydrate to knock herself out while kneeling over the bathtub. If the dose of chloral hydrate was large enough, Tatlock could have plunged her head into the bathtub water and never revived. She then would have died from asphyxiation. Tatlock’s “psychological autopsy” fits the profile of a high-functioning individual suffering from “retarded depression.” As a psychiatrist working in a hospital, Jean had easy access to potent sedatives, including chloral hydrate. On the other hand, said one doctor shown the Tatlock records, “If you were clever and wanted to kill someone, this is the way to do it.”3

Interesting — but not in any way conclusive. What becomes more suspicious is when you look a bit more at the person who might have been most interested in Tatlock being “removed from the picture”: Lt. Col. Boris Pash, chief of the Counterintelligence Branch of the Western Defense Command (Army G-2 counterintelligence). A Russian immigrant to the United States who had fought on the losing side of the Russian Civil War, Pash was regarded by fellow Russian émigré George Kistiakowsky as “a really wild Russian, an extreme right wing, sort of Ku Klux Klan enthusiast.”4

Boris T. Pash, head of West Coast G-2 during the war, and later head of the Alsos mission. Image from the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Boris T. Pash, head of West Coast G-2 during the war, and later head of the Alsos mission. Image from the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Aside from bugging Tatlock’s apartment, Pash attempted to get Oppenheimer fired as a potential spy, during the war. He worried that even if Oppenheimer wasn’t himself spying, he might be setting up people within his organization (like Hawkins) who could be spies, with Tatlock as the conduit. He was overruled by Lansdale and Groves, both of whom trusted Oppenheimer. Pash would later be given the job of being the military head of the Alsos mission — to better to harass German atomic scientists rather than American ones? 5

In his memos about Oppenheimer and Tatlock, Pash comes off as fearful, hyperbolic, and hyperventilating.  He did not see this as a matter of idle suspicion, but intense danger. After his recommendations were ignored, could he have taken things into his own hands? It’s a big claim. What seems to give it the whiff of credence is what Pash did after the war. In the mid-1970s, during the Church Committee hearings about the mis-deeds of the CIA, it came out that from 1949 through 1952, Pash was Chief of Program Branch 7 — which was responsible for assassinations, kidnappings, and other “special operations,” but apparently did not perform any.6

Could Pash, or someone working for him, have killed Tatlock? Probably not Pash himself: in November 1943 (two months before Tatlock’s death), he was already in Europe organizing the Alsos mission. The records indicate that in late December 1943 through mid-January 1944, Pash was in Italy. It’s not very plausible that he’d have raced back to San Francisco for a “side mission” of this sort.7 Would someone else in G-2, or the Manhattan Project intelligence services, be willing and capable of doing such a thing? We don’t know.

Might Tatlock’s death just really have been what it appeared to be at first glance — a suicide? Of course. Bird and Sherwin conclude that there just isn’t enough evidence to think anything else with any certainty. What does it do to our narrative, if we assume Tatlock’s death was not a suicide? It further emphasizes that those working on the bomb were playing at a very dangerous game, with extremely high stakes, and that extraordinary measures might have been taken. The number of lives on the line, present and future, could seem staggeringly large. Just because it makes for a good story, of course, doesn’t make it true. But from a narrative standpoint, it does make for a nice area of historical ambiguity — just the kind of thing that a fictional, alternate-reality version of the bomb project, like Manhattan, is designed to explore.

Notes
  1. Peer De Silva, Notes on an unwritten manuscript titled “The Bomb Project: Mysteries That Survived Oppenheimer,” (ca. Spring 1976), copy received from Gregg Herken, who in turn was given them by Marilyn De Silva in 2002. []
  2. Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the bomb: The tangled lives and loyalties of Robert Oppenheimer, Ernest Lawrence, and Edward Teller (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2002), 101-102. []
  3. Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin, American Prometheus: The triumph and tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (New York : A.A. Knopf, 2005): chapter 18. []
  4. George Kistiakowsky interview with Richard Rhodes (15 January 1982), transcript reproduced on the Manhattan Project Voices website. []
  5. Bird and Sherwin, chapter 16. []
  6. Bird and Sherwin, chapter 16. Separately, in an executive (Top Secret) hearing before the Church Committee in 1975, Pash disputed that he was ever an employee of the CIA (“I was never an employee of the Agency. I was detailed from the Army for a normal tour of duty to the Agency.”) and that the unit he was part of “was not an assassination unit.” In the same testimony he did, however, emphasize how rag-tag American counterintelligence was during World War II, having called up a lot of reserve units like himself — he was a schoolteacher originally — sending them briefly to have training with the FBI, and then sending them out into the field extremely fresh. On the early CIA, Pash said: “So, when the CIA was formed, a lot of those people with these wild ideas and wild approaches were there. So of course when you say you’re in charge of all other activities in individual activities, and these fellows might have ideas well, you know, like we did maybe in World War II, I heard they did something like that, well, it’s easier to kill a guy than to worry about trailing him, you see. So maybe that is where something originated.” (The not-entirely-clear phrasing is in the original transcript.) He went on to say that at one point an idea of assassination was floated when he was conveniently out of town, but that his office had rejected it. The testimony is not entirely clear on timing issues, and Pash goes out of his way to emphasize his lack of memory from the period, urging that his time with the CIA was mostly spent planning operations, but not actually carrying them out. Testimony of Boris T. Pash at an Executive Hearing of the Select Senate Study of Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (7 January 1976). As with all of this kind of spy stuff, it can be very hard to sort out who is telling the truth. There are motives upon motives for giving inaccurate portrayals of things in one direction or the other. Many of the allegations against the CIA and Pash came originally from E. Howard Hunt, who is a character of some impressive slipperiness. Pash emphatically denied most of what Hunt said, and insinuated that it might be part of a disinformation campaign, or something Hunt was doing for personal profit. Hunt, in his own executive session testimony, said that Pash himself had a reputation for kidnappings when he worked in the CIA, not assassinations. Interestingly, Hunt told the committee that the reason he had remembered Pash’s name, all those years later, was because he had been reading Nuel Pharr Davis’ book, Lawrence and Oppenheimer (Simon and Schuster, 1968) — which strikes me as a bit meta, having walked down this rabbit hole from another Oppenheimer biography. Confronted with Pash’s denial, Hunt equivocated a bit, not calling Pash a liar, but suggesting that some of what he heard about Pash might not be entirely accurate, but sticking to the basics. It makes for an interesting read. Testimony of E. Howard Hunt at an Executive Hearing of the Select Senate Study of Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities (10 January 1976). The Church Committee staff concluded that while Pash’s group may have had assassinations and kidnappings as part of its responsibility, it performed none of them and did not plan any. Apologies for the digressive footnote, but I thought this was too interesting not to share, or to include the documents in question! []
  7. There are numerous memos and requisition orders written by Pash in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 4, Target 1, Folder 26, “Files Received from Col. Seeman’s Section (Foreign Intelligence),” Subfile 26N, “Alsos Mission to Italy.” []
Visions

The doubts of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Friday, November 6th, 2015

The latest episode of Manhattan (Ep. 204) pivoted on the internal conflicts of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The standard, popular version of Oppenheimer as Los Alamos Director is one of infinite competence, confidence, and charm. The reality of Oppenheimer as a whole, much less Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, is a far more complex one.

Early on in my education, one of my advisors warned me against careless labeling of historical actors as “complex” or “complicated” without explaining what exactly I meant by that. In this sense, I think what it means is, this is a person who acts in contradictory, not-always-predictable ways — a person who breaks the standard narrative arc we might want to tell about their life. Oppenheimer is someone whose close examination refuses to fit into a simple narrative of heroism, tragedy, or comedy. In other words, he was a real person. And as T.H. White put it: “It is difficult to write about a real person.”

Oppenheimer as rich-rugged-cowboy-Hindu-Jewish-intellectual. At his ranch, "Perro Caliente," with Ernest Lawrence in 1931. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer as rich-rugged-cowboy-Hindu-Jewish-intellectual. At his ranch, “Perro Caliente,” with Ernest Lawrence (cropped out of frame) in 1931. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer’s longtime friend, the physicist I.I. Rabi, later said that the core conflict of Oppenheimer’s personality was a search for identity. It was a perceptive remark. As to which of the many visible Oppenheimers was the “real” one, he suggested that, “Robert doesn’t know himself.” Oppenheimer was, Rabi would later put it, “a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters.”1

Consider the oft-told Oppenheimer biographical details in this light. Oppenheimer grew up on the Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in a family of wealthy, secular, German-Jewish immigrants. This, in and of itself, seems to have driven a lot of Oppenheimer’s initial search for a new identity. He apparently was embarrassed by his father’s hands-on approach to wealth (he was a textile merchant, so nouveau riche of a sort), embarrassed by his father’s approach to secularism (his enthusiastic embrace of Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture philosophy), and simultaneously embarrassed by his Jewishness. He went to Harvard during one of its peak moments of anti-Semitism (the year he started was marked with embroiled public discussions about Harvard’s Jewish quotas), and found himself a socially-awkward exile among blue-bloods from old-American families.

His escape from the identity he was born into was to embrace something entirely different. He found friends who to him represented what a “true American” intellectual might look like — rugged, earthy, wealthy men from New Mexico. Hence Oppenheimer’s great Southwestern obsession, the one that led to the Los Alamos laboratory being situated where it was. What is more of an antonym to “rich Manhattan Jewish German immigrant” than “rugged Southwestern cowboy”? His interest in Hinduism, Sanskrit, and the Bhagavad-Gita might be filed under this antonymic approach to identity as well: leaving behind both the traditional sacred of his heritage (Jewishness) and the Western secularism of his upbringing (Ethical Culture) by embracing the oriental mysticism of Far Eastern philosophy.

Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley, ca. 1939. Note that Oppenheimer has clearly not yet taken on the identity of Scientific Director yet — too much hair. All three of these physicists would eventually recommend dropping the atomic bomb on a civilian target. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley, ca. 1939. Note that Oppenheimer has clearly not yet taken on the identity of Scientific Director yet — too much hair. All three of these physicists would eventually recommend dropping the atomic bomb on a civilian target. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

One of the more puzzling episodes in Oppenheimer’s life is related to ones of these identity crises. After graduating from Harvard, Oppenheimer went abroad to continue his physics education as a graduate student. He choose his initial venue poorly: he went to Cambridge, in England, where the kind of physics they were interested in was not to his liking (he was doing experimental physics, and he was terrible at it), and he found British class culture even more exclusive and stifling than Harvard’s had been. Oppenheimer experienced a series of crises and failures. The culmination of one of these involved him rushing back to Cambridge, telling his friends that he had laid a “poisoned apple” on the desk of the physicist P.M.S. Blackett. Blackett represented everything Oppenheimer could not be in England: successful experimentalist, movie-star handsome, and well-integrated into British class society. Was this “poison” real, imagined, or metaphorical? Nobody is quite sure — Blackett apparently suffered no physical ill, in any case.

Oppenheimer overcame this crisis and found a way forward, eventually by leaving England and studying instead on the European continent. There he learned the new theoretical physics (quantum mechanics), which he excelled at and emerged as an admired wunderkind. It was in this period, on the continent, that the character of “Oppie” (originally “Opje” in Dutch) was created: mathematically and physically adventurous, confident, quick-witted, eccentric, intellectually ambidextrous.

This trying-on of identities can help explain some of Oppenheimer’s wartime behaviors as well. Oppenheimer-as-Scientific-Director was on of his most successful costume changes, in retrospect, but it was a daring risk for him. General Groves gave him the job despite the fact that Oppenheimer lacked any real administrative experience, much less any practical experience in building anything. Oppenheimer also had extreme liabilities in his past and present: one of his identities in the 1930s had been of a “fellow traveler” to many Communists and Communist-associates in his life, including, but not limited to, his wife (Kitty), his brother (Frank), his friends (Haakon Chevalier), his girlfriend and later mistress (Jean Tatlock — more on her in a future post), and his graduate students.

Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy "E" Award ceremony in October 1945, recognizing the work of Los Alamos in developing the firt atomic bombs. Source: Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy “E” Award ceremony in October 1945, recognizing the work of Los Alamos in developing the first atomic bombs. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

These liabilities were known by Groves and others in the Manhattan Project security apparatus. They may have been one of the reasons Oppenheimer was an appealing choice for the job — he was moldable, he was relatively compliant, and these liabilities gave them leverage, should they need it. Oppenheimer worked so hard to be successful at this newest identity (creator of weapons of mass destruction for the U.S. government) that he overcame his past hang-up of leaving scientific investigations half-finished. He did have such doubts at times that he considered resigning, but he was talked out of the notion by his friends. He cut his hair, and got the job done.

The only trade-off was that in order to assume this new role, he had to prove his loyalties, and he did that by selling out his friends and colleagues. In many of the lengthy FBI files on his students and friends, one can find, very early in the file, an account of how they got on the radar of the anti-Communist agents of the United States government: they were alerted by J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. To be sure, Oppenheimer usually prefaced his denunciations by saying that these people were harmless, but he named names nonetheless.2

Ultimately it was this conflict of identities, I think, that snared Oppenheimer himself, in the end. His own well-documented downfall in the mid-1950s was in part the conflict of two of his identities. One of them was an eccentric, politically left-leaning intellectual who could be friends with anyone and dared to think and say whatever came to mind. The other was the head of a government weapons laboratory and later top-advisor in the area of nuclear arms. For a brief moment during the Manhattan Project, these two identities could overlap. By the 1950s, they could not — they were mutually exclusive, as distinct as a wave and a particle. Oppenheimer’s attempts to embody both of these at the same time, a sort of Complementarity-of-the-self, resulted in his selling out of the ideals of the former, and being rejected by the fears of the latter.

Notes
  1. These quotes are from Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 16. Thorpe’s book devotes much of its study of Oppenheimer to his quest for identity, and I owe many of my thoughts here to Thorpe’s work. []
  2. To put this into perspective for my students, I tell them to replace the label “Communism” with “terrorist,” and imagine how it would go over with the FBI today if you told them that a friend of yours was a little bit of a terrorist in the past, but had seen the error of their ways and was fine now. Would the FBI be comforted? Of course not. []
Redactions

The improbable William Laurence

Friday, October 30th, 2015

The most recent episode of Manhattan features the arrival of a character based on one of my favorite real-life Manhattan Project participants: William L. Laurence, the “embedded” newspaperman on the project. The character on the show, “Lorentzen,” appears in a somewhat different way than the real-life Laurence does, showing up on the doorstep of Los Alamos having ferreted out something of the work that was taking place. That isn’t how Laurence came to the project, but it is only a mild extrapolation from the case of Jack Raper, a Cleveland journalist who did “discover” that there was a secret laboratory in the desert in 1943, and was responsible for one of the worst leaks of the atomic bomb effort.

William Laurence (left) and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Trinity Site in September 1945, as part of a

William Laurence (left) and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Trinity Site in September 1945, as part of a “press safari” to the ruins of the first atomic test. I find the contrasts in their physiognomical contrast fascinating. Source: Google LIFE images.

William Laurence, however, was solicited. And he was the only journalist so solicited, invited in to serve as something of a cross between a journalist, public relations expert, and propagandist. (When a character on the show hisses to Lorentzen that they “don’t give Pulitzers for propaganda,” she is, as the show’s writers all know, incorrect — the real-life Laurence did receive a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Nagasaki bombing, and it was a form of propaganda, to be sure.)

William Leonard Laurence was born Leib Wolf Siew, in Russian Lithuania. In 1956 he gave an interview to the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, and, well, I’m just going to let him tell his own “origin story,” because there’s no way I could capture his “flavor” any better than his own words do:

I was born in Lithuania, in a very small village. You know Lithuania was one of the strange never-never-lands, you might say, in a certain culture, because it was there that the Jewish intellectual, the Hebraic scholarly centers, were gradually concentrated.. …

The Lithuanian villages were out of space and time, because you know, a life there, in the ghetto, you might say — because that was the only place where the Russianized government permitted Jews to live — they lived there in the 19th century when I was born and the early part of the 20th century in a way that might have been the 15th century, the 16th century. It made no difference. They wore the same type of clothing. They lived the same kind of life, because it was the same culture, you know.1

You get the picture — the man liked to paint rather elaborate pictures with his words, no stranger to invocation ancient mysticism or cliché. Following the 1905 Russian Revolution, young Leib Siew was smuggled out of the country by his mother, in a pickle barrel, and eventually made his way to the United States. There he refashioned himself as William Laurence, and began an entirely improbable career as one of the first science journalists in the United States.2

The story that brought Laurence to Groves' attention —

The story that brought Laurence to Groves’ attention — “The Atom Gives Up,” Saturday Evening Post, September 1940.

Laurence learned about fission in February 1939. His wife (Florence Laurence — I’m not making this up) remembered that they were walking along Sutton Place in Manhattan, towards the Queensboro Bridge, with their dachshund (named Einstein — again, not making this up), and her husband, Bill, had just come from a meeting of the American Physical Society at Columbia University, where Bohr and Fermi had spoken on fission. In her memory, Bill Laurence had “understood” the implications immediately. A fan of science fiction and a practitioner of scientific hype, he was perhaps uniquely qualified for immediately extrapolating long-term consequences. “We came home I deep gloom,” she later wrote, “The atom had come to live with us from that night on.”3

Laurence’s beat on the New York Times gave him an opportunity to write about fission fairly often. He was hooked on the idea, taking the old clichés from the earlier, radium-based nuclear age (a thimble of water containing the energy to move a cruise ship across the ocean, etc.) and adapting them to this new possibility. He wasn’t the only reporter to do so, but the Times gave him a lot of reach, as did his writing gigs for The Saturday Evening Post.

In early 1945, one of the preoccupations with the question of the bomb’s future use was what kind of information would be released afterwards. Those on the Project called this the problem of “Publicity.” Groves himself seems to have had the idea that Laurence might be a useful resource to tap. He had seen his articles, he knew his style, and he knew he was already fairly scientifically literate. That spring, Groves personally went to the offices of the New York Times to feel Laurence out for the possibility of working with the Army. Laurence said he would, but only if he got to have the whole story. Groves agreed. Laurence began almost immediately.

Part of Laurence's 17-page draft Presidential statement — that was never used. View the whole document here.

Part of Laurence’s 17-page draft Presidential statement — that was never used. View the whole document here.

Laurence’s first job was to help with the writing of draft press releases. They were already planning to drop the bomb, and they wanted to make sure they had a “publicity” blitz (as they called it) in place to advertise to the Japanese people, and the world, what it was that they had created. Laurence’s first job was to give it a shot at a statement that might be read by Truman after the first attack. His draft had that Laurence feel:

This greatest of all weapons, developed by American genius, ingenuity, courage   initiative and farsightedness on scale never even remotely matched before, will, no doubt, shorten the war by months, or possibly even years. It will thus save many precious American lives and treasure. … The tremendous concentrated power contained in the new weapon also has enormous possibilities as the greatest source of cosmic power ever to be tapped by man, utilizing the unbelievable quantities of energy locked up within the atoms of the material universe. … We are now entering into the greatest age of all — the Age of Atomic Power, or Atomics.4

And so on… for seventeen pages. This kind of hyperbolic approach was not to the liking of the others on the project. James Conant, the President of Harvard, remarked that it was “much too detailed, too phony, and highly exaggerated in many places.” Fortunately, Conant wrote, “there is no danger it will be used in any such form.” The Secretary of War had called upon an old friend to write the Truman press release: the Vice President of Marketing for AT&T, and father of American corporate public relations, Arthur W. Page. Page’s work is ultimately what Truman did have issued in his name after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Which isn’t to say Laurence wasn’t otherwise useful. He wrote draft disinformation statements to be released after the Trinity atomic test, claiming it was an ammunition depot exploding. He wrote dozens of news stories that were distributed freely to the press in the days after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, explaining how the bomb worked (in basic terms), explaining how the project was organized, and telling all sorts of other side-stories that Laurence and Groves thought would satiate the demands of the American press corps — and keep them from snooping around too much on this story-of-stories.

A draft of a story about Hanford that Laurence wrote. Among the many edits were getting rid of the phrase

A draft of a story about Hanford that Laurence wrote. Among the many edits were getting rid of the phrase “Atomland-on-Mars,” and removing Laurence’s own name from the story. The stories were given to the press without an author listed, and each newspaper was encouraged to put their own byline on it, making the reporting on the bomb look far more varied than it was. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Manhattan Project files.

Many of the Laurence stories, in the end, were highly edited. Laurence just couldn’t restrain himself or his writing. He couldn’t talk about Hanford Site — he had to call it “Atomland-on-Mars.” He couldn’t just write about the bomb that had been created — he had to talk about how the next stop would be conquering the solar system. A fleet of Army lawyers reviewed all of Laurence’s contributions before they were released, and the archives are full of Laurence stories that were deeply slashed and thus rendered far more sober.

Laurence was at Trinity, and was on an observation plane flying along for the Nagasaki bombing. You can sometimes see him skulking in the back of photographs from the time: short, with a somewhat disproportioned body, ill-fitting suit, and terrible tie choices.

Today Laurence is a controversial figure in some quarters. He would win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Nagasaki, which came out considerably after the bombing itself took place. There are some who have called for the revocation of this prize, because he was effectively acting as a form of Army propaganda. This is true enough, though the line between “propaganda” and “embedded reporting” (or even “privileged source”) is a tricky one, then and now. Did Laurence glamorize the Manhattan Project? Sure — he thought it was the beginning of a new age of humanity, perhaps one in which war would be eliminated and we’d soon be colonizing the stars. That Buck Rogers view of things contrasts sharply with the human suffering enacted at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the forthcoming dangers of the Cold War, but you can see how he got seduced by the sheer sci-fi aspects of the project. He was hardly unique in that view.

William Laurence on the island of Tinian, in the Pacific Ocean, reporting on the bombing of Nagasaki. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, image TR-624.

William Laurence on the island of Tinian, in the Pacific Ocean, reporting on the bombing of Nagasaki. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, image TR-624.

Laurence is sometimes criticized today for not reporting more on the effects of radiation from the bomb. Personally, I give Laurence a bit of a pass on this: the experts he was talking to (Oppenheimer and many others) told him radiation was not such a big deal, that anyone who would be affected by radiation would already probably have been killed by the blast and thermal effects of the bomb. They were wrong, we now know. But the US atomic experts didn’t figure that out until after they had sent their own scientists to Japan in the immediate postwar, and they didn’t trust Japanese reports during the war because they suspected they were propaganda. I don’t really think we can fault Laurence for not knowing more than the best experts available to him at the time, even though we now know those experts were wrong. I’ve never seen anything to indicate that Laurence himself thought he was telling any falsehoods.

Laurence continued to write about the bomb for much of his life. He took a strong stance against the creation of the hydrogen bomb (which he dubbed “The Hell Bomb”) and never was closely aligned with the atomic weapons sector again. It’s hard to imagine someone like Laurence — part huckster, part journalist, all wild-card — being allowed into something as secret as the nuclear weapons program today. He’s improbable in every way, a real-life character with more strangeness than would seem tolerable in pure fiction.

Notes
  1. William Laurence interview of March 27, 1956, in The Reminiscences of William L. Laurence, Part I (New York: Columbia University Oral History Research Office, 1964). []
  2. I first encountered the story of Laurence in the marvelous work on the history of nuclear imagery: Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.) Weart’s book has been more recently revised as The Rise of Nuclear Fear. []
  3. Prologue by Florence D. Laurence, in William L. Laurence, Men and Atoms: The Discovery, the Uses, and the Future of Atomic Energy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), xi-xiii. []
  4. William Laurence, Draft of Truman statement (unused) on use of the atomic bomb (17 May 1945), copy in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 5, Folder 4: “TRINITY Test (at Alamogordo, July 16, 1945).” []
Visions

Manhattan noir

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

Season two of the WGN America show Manhattan premieres tonight. I figured this would be a good excuse to plug it, and to talk about the historical consulting I’ve been doing for it.

Manhattan Season 2

The best way I have come up with to describe Manhattan is that it is an alternate-reality version of the Manhattan Project that is heavy on the film noir. Almost all of the characters are entirely fictional, not named after actual World War II figures (there are a couple exceptions to this, that I will come to), and the stories are fictional. However they are set in the same physical universe as ours, and the historical context is based (with some diversions) on the actual one. For Manhattan, the Manhattan Project was not just a specific set of historical events that led to the atomic bomb, but an unfolding historical context that ultimately rendered deep and lasting changes to the United States. It is not so much the story of the creation of a new weapon as it is the creation of a new world.

I was approached about consulting by the head writer, Sam Shaw, last year. I had seen some of Season 1, which took the Los Alamos story up until around the summer of 1944, when the lab had to be radically reorganized to focus on implosion. What I had liked about the first season is that they took something that most people would regard as pretty obscure — the intense effort that had been made for the (eventually abandoned) Thin Man bomb design — and made it into the key pivot around which the drama turned. To me that showed a pretty nuanced historical sensibility, focusing on the “loser” of history (Thin Man) as opposed to the “winner” (implosion).

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

The consulting job was for me an unusual one. I have consulted for documentaries in the past, and that is a relatively straightforward gig: they want to know what happened, I want to tell them what happened. Consulting for a fictional show was something else. They did want to know what happened, but less because they were going to replicate it (in many cases, they were not), but because they wanted the “flavor” of it to inform their fictional plots. I can’t go into too many details about what we talked about (not because I am bound to not talk about the show, but because I have been asked not to say anything that might spoil any of this season’s surprises, and I’m not even sure what all of those surprises are), but I found it an immensely fun challenge, trying to give them “options” that would be true to the “color” of the times.

Many of the questions were along the lines of, “we need to do this sort of thing with the story, what were the situations that actually happened that might provide a model for how we could make this happen?” I would sit and scratch my head for awhile and then come up with a plausible narrative or two (taken from actual Manhattan Project events, often quite obscure ones), sometimes providing some documentation that might help the writers get a sense of how it looked back then.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The Manhattan crew flew me out to Hollywood for a week last winter, and I spent several days just getting my brain picked by the writing team. It was a fun experience — I have never been in an environment with so many very intelligent people who were completely obsessed with Manhattan Project details asking very good questions and delighting in the answers I could give them. The writing team were already impressively well-informed on the subject of this history before I arrived, and were impressively bright and accomplished people. They had read most of the “basic literature” on the subject, and it gave me the feeling of teaching a “master class.” (Sam Shaw, the head writer, Lila Byock, his writerly wife, and Dustin Thomason, the executive producer, spent years steeped in the historical literature before beginning the show. Sam and Lila are both graduates of the Iowa Writers’ workshop; Sam wrote for Harper’s and Lila was a fact-checker for The New Yorker prior to their moving to Hollywood. These are all very smart cookies.)

After that winter, I got many e-mail queries from writers, and also read over several scripts. In the scripts, I looked for anachronisms, occasional scientific mistakes, or things that were just very big divergences from the actual past. The latter were not so much because they would be removed or changed — again, it is explicitly a fictional show — but because the writers wanted to make sure that if they did diverge that they knew about it. The science consulting was done by David Salzberg, a UCLA physicist who also does the science consulting for “The Big Bang Theory,” so scientific mistakes were extremely rare (and mostly in the category of slight anachronism, such as use of scientific terms that came later than World War II).

A billboard from the "Los Alamos" set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

A billboard from the “Los Alamos” set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

I was compensated for my work, so I don’t expect you to take my review of the show too seriously, but I will say that my Stevens colleague, the accomplish science journalist John Horgan, watched the first season and enjoyed it, and my wife (who is also a historian of science by training) liked it as well. If you are a buff of Manhattan Project history, you have to accept the show’s central conceit — that it is something of an alternate reality — if you are going to enjoy it, because if you find yourself constantly saying, “well that didn’t happen that way” then you are just going to find it frustrating. Similarly, I know there are many Los Alamos residents who are quick to point out that the area of New Mexico where it was filmed (near Santa Fe) looks very different than Los Alamos did. It’s true, but you either accept it, or you don’t — it is not a documentary, it is historically-informed film noir.

As a historian, I have enjoyed watching the show because I can see lots of very subtle references to things that did actually happen, and I find that fun, as opposed to irritating. But I’m also a big fan of science fiction, so I find the alternate-reality aspect of it pretty fun for that reason as well. The noir/sci-fi axis is where I do much of my reading-for-fun anyway, and does inform some of how I approach the past (my tendencies towards counterfactuals, my interests in the ways in which personal power is expressed and manipulated, my unceasing desire to probe the missing or deleted parts of archival narratives), so I feel like working with them was a good fit for me. But I can also certainly see where those who want a more purist version of the history are coming from, as well. (As a general rule, I don’t watch period dramas set in periods I know a lot about, because I find them frustrating. I think I can sympathize with what Classicists feel when they watch something like Gladiator or 300.) My only caution is that some of the objections I have heard to factual matters are in fact not aware that many of the seemingly fantastical events that take place during the show are based on actual things that happened — the actual history of the Manhattan Project is much more rich, varied, and weird than many of the traditional popularizations indicate.

You can't do the 1940s with a lot of hats. This of course called to mine the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer's pork-pie hat.

You can’t do the 1940s without a lot of hats. This of course called to mind the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer’s pork-pie hat.

The characters are, as noted, mostly fictional. They are, however, composites of real people. The main character, Frank Winter, has a lot of interesting figures rolled into him, so much that I suggested to the actor, John Benjamin Hickey, that Winter is really not meant to be an individual physicist so much as a stand-in for the physics community. It does not spoil anything to say that he was enthusiastic and worried about the possibility of a German bomb in the beginning, and gradually became suspicious if not outright terrified of what the US government was going to do with the fruits of his labor. At times there are shades of Leo Szilard, Seth Neddermeyer, Robert Oppenheimer, Josef Rotblat, Richard Feynman, and many others rolled into Winter. Winter has his own personality, of course, which makes it fun to watch. You cannot, just from knowing the history, predict exactly what is going to happen next. Sometimes this is just because things happen differently in the show’s universe; sometimes it is done with a winking eye to the fact that not everything that actually happens gets into the historical record.

One of the few characters who is explicitly meant to be directly based on a historical figure is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is played with haunting resemblance by Daniel London. London’s performance really hit home for me how much artistic input the actors have, well beyond the script and the writers. London’s Oppenheimer is a chilly, cold, somewhat alien figure. He is not the “chummy Oppenheimer” that some fictionalizations give you. I prefer “cold Oppenheimer” as a tonic to the more traditionally chummy ones — the Oppenheimer I spend most of my time working with, in the files, is not an everyman, is probably not your friend (or if he is, he is probably reporting on your “red” tendencies to Army security behind your back), and is under a huge amount of stress. The real-life Oppenheimer could famously be both hot and cold, whereas London’s is mostly cold, but given the way Oppenheimer comes into the plots of the show (usually he only shows up when something is not going according to plan), it fits pretty well.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

This past summer I was invited out to see the sets, see some of the filming of the final episode, meet some of the cast, participate in a press junket, and go to the “wrap party.” The sets were amazingly, lovingly done. Ruth Ammon, the production designer, put a huge amount of passion and detail into them. The main “Los Alamos” set was built inside an abandoned set of hospital buildings from the wartime period, and it is impressively “rich.” Their “Trinity site” is set far out in a desert outside of Santa Fe, made of actual burlap tents and wooden shacks. The sand is real, the bugs are real, the Sun’s heat is real (as I learned while sitting under it for several hours doing press interviews). The rain was not natural, but the mud it created was. The production values are excellent and it makes the 1940s “pop” to life.

I think the approach the writers used on this season is the way that historical consulting for period dramas ought to work. They didn’t just call me in at the last moment to tell them whether this or that hat was the right one to use, or to check if their equations were correct (they actually had a retired Los Alamos scientist do all of their blackboard equations, as an aside). They got me in early, before they started crafting all of the scripts, to help with the big arcs, and then brought me in later to develop the context for smaller (but still important) plot points. That’s the best use of people like me — you can get a lot of people who can do historical fact-checking, but it takes a trained historian to give you that blend of the forest and the trees that makes the period setting be something other than window-dressing.

Redactions

Did Lawrence doubt the bomb?

Friday, September 4th, 2015

Ernest O. Lawrence was one of the giants of 20th-century physics. The inventor of the “cyclotron,” a circular particle accelerator, Lawrence ushered in an era of big machines, big physics, big budgets — Big Science, in short. And that came with ups and downs. I’ve recently finished a review for Science of Michael Hiltzik’s new Lawrence biography, Big Science: Ernest Lawrence and the Invention that Launched the Military-Industrial Complex. The full review is online but behind a paywall (if you want a copy, get in touch with me), but I am allowed to post the unedited version that I originally submitted, which in this case is about twice the size of the printed one, so maybe it’s interesting as an essay in its own right (so I may flatter myself). I found it hard to cram the story of Lawrence, and this book, in a thousand words (and brevity has never been my strength), because there is just so much going on and worth commenting on.

My wonderful Stevens STS colleague Lee Vinsel had a review in last week's issue of Science as well.

My wonderful Stevens STS colleague Lee Vinsel had a review in last week’s issue of Science as well.

Lawrence featured early into my education. I was an undergraduate at UC Berkeley, which means I was in Lawrence country. His laboratory literally perches above the campus, looking down on it. In various buildings on campus, it is not uncommon to come across a large portrait of the man. And any geeky child in northern California visits the Lawrence Hall of Science numerous times in the course of their education.

As a budding historian of science, what I found so incongruous about Lawrence was the way in which he embodied something of a paradox at the heart of particle physics. High-energy particle physics is for the most part a pretty “pure” looking form of science, trying to pull-off very elegant experiments with the most abstract of physical entities, and making the experimental evidence jibe with the theoretical understandings. When people want to point to evidence of objectivity in science, or to the places where theory gets vindicated in a very elegant way, they point to particle physics. And yet, to do these experiments, you often need big machines. Big machines require big money. Big money gets you into the realm of big politics. And so this very elegant, above-it-all form of science ends up getting tied to the hip of the military-industrial complex during and after World War II. How ironic is that?

The scientific staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory with magnet of unfinished 60-inch cyclotron. Lawrence is front and center. Oppenheimer stands in back. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

The scientific staff of the University of California Radiation Laboratory with magnet of unfinished 60-inch cyclotron, 1938. Lawrence is front and center. Oppenheimer stands in back. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

As you can pick up from both the published and draft review, I had mixed feelings about Hiltzik’s book. I think people who have never read anything about Lawrence before will find it interesting though potentially confusing, because it bounces around as a genre. One can’t really tell what Hiltzik thinks about Lawrence. Half of the time Hiltzik seems to want to make him out to be the Great Hero of 20th century science. (Sometimes this gets hyperbolic — Lawrence was a big character, to be sure, but he was still of his time, and it does some historical injustice to claim that everything related to Big Science necessarily is laid at his door. To claim that Big Science was “a solitary effort,” as Hiltzik does, is as self-contradictory as it is untrue.) The other half of the time, though, Hiltzik is pointing out what a huge jerk he could be, how bad of a scientist he could be, and how he sullied himself with some of the worst sorts of political engagements during the Cold War. Everyone gets on Edward Teller for being a far-right, pro-nuke, anti-Communist jerk, but even Teller thought Lawrence could be an extremist when it came to these things.

This ambivalent mix — Lawrence as great, Lawrence as terrible — never gets resolved. One could imagine it being talked about as two sides of the same coin, or some sort of synthetic whole emerging out of these two perspectives. But it just doesn’t happen in the book. In my own mind, this is the somewhat Faustian result of Lawrence’s “cult of the machine” (as I titled my review), where the Bigness required for his science ended up driving extremes in other parts of his life and politics as well.

The intense Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

The intense Ernest Lawrence. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Serious historians of 20th-century physics will find little new in Hiltzik’s book, either in terms of documentation or analysis. He relies heavily on secondary sources and the archival sources he does consult are the standard ones for this topic (e.g. the Lawrence papers at UC Berkeley). The book also contains several avoidable errors of a mostly minor sort, but the kinds of misconceptions or misunderstandings that ought to have been caught before publication (some of which I would like to imagine would jump out to anyone who had read a few books on this subject already). I did not mention these in the formal review, because there was really not enough space to warrant it, and the book never hinged on any of these details, but still, it seems worth noting in this more informal space.1

That aside, the book reminded me of one of the strangest aspects of Lawrence’s relationship with the bomb — whether he thought it was a good idea to drop one on Japan without a warning. As I’ve discussed before, the question of whether a “demonstration” should be made prior to shedding blood with the bomb was a controversial one on the project. A Scientific Panel composed of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur H. Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence were asked to formally consider the question in the June of 1945. They formally recommended that the bomb be dropped on a city without warning: “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”

Lawrence and the Machine. (And M. Stanley Livingston, the one-time grad student who got the machines working.) I like the symbolism of this photo — Lawrence looking at the newest piece of hardware, Livingston with a hand on it, staring the camera down. They are with the 85-ton magnet of the 27" cyclotron, circa 1934. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence and the Machine… and M. Stanley Livingston, the one-time grad student who got the machines working. I like the symbolism of this photo — Lawrence looking at the newest piece of hardware, Livingston with a hand on it, staring the camera down. They are with the 85-ton magnet of the 27″ cyclotron, circa 1934. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

But there’s potentially more to it than just this. Case in point: in the archives, one finds a letter from Karl K. Darrow to Ernest Lawrence, dated August 9th, 1945. Darrow was a friend of Lawrence’s, and a fellow physicist, and a noted popularizer of science in his day. And this is an interesting time to be writing a letter: Hiroshima has already occurred and is known about, and Nagasaki has just happened (and Darrow may or may not have seen the news of it yet), but the war has not ended. This period, between the use of the bomb and the cessation of hostilities, is a very tricky one (a topic Michael Gordin has written a book on), because the meaning of the atomic bomb had not yet been cemented. That is, was the atomic bomb really a war-ending weapon? Or just a new way to inflict mass carnage? Nobody yet knew, though many had uncertain hopes and fears.

August 9th is also a tricky period because this is around the time in which the first casualty estimates from Hiroshima were being received, by way of the first Japanese news stories on the bombing. They were much higher than many of the scientists had thought; Oppenheimer had estimated them to be around 20,000, and they were hearing reports of 60,000 or higher. For some, including Oppenheimer, they saw this as a considerable difference with respects to how comfortable they felt with the attacks.

"Best Copy Available," the last excuse of the wicked. Click here for the original with a transcription appended.

“BEST COPY AVAILABLE” is the last excuse of the wicked. Click here for the original with a transcription appended.

This context is relevant to making sense of the Darrow letter. The archival document is hard to read, and in some places illegible, so I’ve included a transcription that I typed up from the best of my reading of it. The import of it is pretty easy to take away, though, even with a few phrases being hard to read. Here is an excerpt of the key parts:

Dear Ernest:

This is written to you to put on the record the fact that you told me, on August 9, 1945, that you had presented to the Secretary of War by word of mouth the view that the “atomic bomb” ought to be demonstrated to the Japanese in some innocuous but striking manner before it should be used in such a way as to kill many people. You made this presentation in the presence of Arthur Compton, Fermi, Oppenheimer and others, and spoke for about an hour. The plan was rejected by the Secretary of War on the grounds that (a) the number of people to be killed by the bomb would not be greater in order of magnitude than the number already killed in the fire raids, and (b) an innocuous demonstration would have no effect on the Japanese. […]

I think that it is not far-fetched nor absurd to conjecture that in time to come, people will be saying “Those wicked physicists of the ‘Manhattan Project’ deliberately developed a bomb which they knew would be used for killing thousands of innocent people without any warning, and they either wanted this outcome or at least condoned it. Away with physicists!” It will not be accepted as an excuse that they may have disapproved in silence. We do not excuse the German civilians who accepted Buchenwald while possibility disapproving in silence.

I think that if the war ends today or tomorrow or next week, this sort of criticism will not be heard for a while, and yet it will be heard eventually — and particularly it will be heard if at a time should come when some other power may be suspected of planning to use the same device on us. In other words, if the use of this weapon without forewarning has really brought quick victory, this fact will delay but will not indefinitely prevent the emergence of such an opinion as I have suggested. It may then be of great value to science, if some scientist of very great prominence has already said that he tried to arrange for a harmless exhibition of the powers of the weapon in advance of its lethal use.2

There is a lot going on in this letter. First, it makes it clear that Lawrence and Darrow had a discussion about the demonstration matter right around the time of the Nagasaki bombing. It is also clear that Darrow came away with the impression that Lawrence was deeply unsure about the logic of bombing without warning. Now the amount of pontificating by Darrow makes it seem like Darrow might be reading into what Lawrence told him more than Lawrence said — Darrow’s concerns are not necessarily Lawrence’s concerns. But it does seem clear that Darrow thinks he is setting something into the record that might be useful later, and that even if the war ended soon, there were going to be doubts to be contended with, and the fact that Lawrence was worried about using the bomb might somehow be exculpatory.

Darrow’s letter was received on August 10th (so it is stamped), but it isn’t clear when Lawrence read it. He did not reply until August 17th, 1945, by which point hostilities with Japan had ended. This is a big thing to point out: the Darrow-Lawrence conversation, and original letter, took place at a time when it wasn’t clear whether the bombs would actually be credited with ending the war. By August 17th, Japan had already pressed for an end of the war and had credited the atomic bomb in part with their defeat.3 If Lawrence ever did have doubts, they were gone by August 17th:

Dear Karl:

In reply to your letter of August 9th, you have the facts essentially straight, excepting that I didn’t believe I talked on the subject of the demonstration of the bomb as long as an hour. I made the proposal briefly in the morning session of the Secretary of War’s committee, and during luncheon Justice Byrnes, now Secretary of State, asked me further about it, and it was discussed at some length, I judge perhaps ten minutes.

I am sure it was given serious consideration by the Secretary of War and his committee, and gather from the discussion that the proposal to put on a demonstration did not appear desirable […] Oppenheimer felt, and that feeling was shared by Groves and others, that the only way to put on a demonstration would be to attack a real target of built-up structures. 

In view of the fact that two bombs ended the war, I am inclined to feel they made the right decision. Surely many more lives were saved by shortening the war than were sacrificed as a result of the bombs. […]

As regards criticism of science and scientists, I think that is a cross we will have to bear, and I think in the long run the good sense of everyone the world over will realize that in instance, as in all scientific pursuits, the world is better as a result.4

To me, this letter reads as something of a kiss-off to Darrow’s doubts — and maybe to doubts Lawrence himself might have once held. Darrow recalls Lawrence telling him it was an hour-long discussion, and a major conflict between the soulful Lawrence and the unfeeling others. In Lawrence’s post-victory recollection, it becomes a 10-minute talk, duly taken seriously but not that hard of a question to answer, and in the end, the ends justified the means, neat and tidy.

Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer operate a cyclotron for the cameras in a postwar photograph. Small historical detail (literally): one can find this photograph sometimes flipped on its horizontal axis. Which is the correct orientation? One can take guesses based on rings, handedness, etc., but the copy of the scan that I have has sufficient resolution that you can read the dials, which I think resolves the question. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence, Glenn T. Seaborg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer operate a cyclotron for the cameras in a postwar photograph. Small historical detail (literally): one can find this photograph sometimes flipped on its horizontal axis. Which is the correct orientation? One can take guesses based on rings, handedness, etc., but the copy of the scan that I have has sufficient resolution that you can read the dials, which I think resolves the question. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

So where lies the truth? Was Lawrence a doubter at the time of the Nagasaki bombing, only to lose all doubts after victory? Was Darrow projecting his own fears onto Lawrence at their meeting? I suspect something in between — with a second bomb so rapidly dropped after the first, Lawrence and Darrow might have both been wondering if these weapons would really end the war (much less all war), if they weren’t just a new-means of old-fashioned mass incineration. Maybe Lawrence exaggerated, or gave an exaggerated impression, of his debate over the demonstration.

One interesting piece is that the story of “doubts” can, as Darrow implied, be made exculpatory without necessarily calling into question the wisdom of the bombing. That is, if the story is about how the scientists really didn’t want to use the bomb, but couldn’t see a better way around it, then you get (from the perspective of the scientists involved) the best of both worlds: they still have souls, but they also have justification. This is how Arthur Compton presents the meeting in his 1956 book, Atomic Quest, which takes more the Darrow perspective of a fraught Scientific Committee, Ernest Lawrence as the final hold-out, but with “heavy hearts” they recommend direct military use.5

Lawrence and the Machine (or, at least, one of them). I like the idea that Lawrence was doing his research wearing a full suit and tie. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Lawrence and the Machine (or, at least, one of them). I like the idea that Lawrence was doing his research wearing a full suit and tie. Credit: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, for his part, later said he had “terrible” moral scruples about the dropping of the bomb, of killing at least 70,000 people with the first one, though, notably, he never said he regretted doing it. He did, however, think that physicists had “known sin” and required an active role in future policy regarding these new weapons, if only to keep the world from blowing itself up. Lawrence parted ways with his former friend and colleague after World War II, remarking that “I am a physicist and I have no knowledge to lose in which physics has caused me to know sin” and chastising those scientists (like Oppenheimer) who thought that they ought to be getting involved with policymaking, as opposed to research — or bomb-building.

If Lawrence had doubts, he left by the wayside once the promise of victory was in the air, and he happily and seemingly without misgivings hitched himself permanently to the burgeoning military-industrial complex. He was part of the anti-Oppenheimer conspiracy that led to the 1954 security hearing, he worked closely with Edward Teller and Lewis Strauss to attempt to scuttle attempts at test bans and moratoriums, he pushed for greater quantities of bigger bombs, he sold out colleagues and friends, participating in McCarthyist purges with gusto. He was also the inventor of the cyclotron, a physicist of great importance, and one of the creators of the Big Science approach to doing research. These are not incompatible takes on a complex human being — but when we celebrate the scientific accomplishments, we do history poorly if we forget the parts that are arguably less savory.

Notes
  1. A short list of the serious errors that jumped out at me follows. Page 227: Hiltzik says that Hanford (as a site) could only produce half a pound of plutonium every 200 days. That this is a misunderstanding should be pretty obvious given that they managed to come up with 27 lbs of it (for Trinity and Fat Man) by late July 1945 despite starting B-Reactor in late 1944. I don’t know where the 200 days figure comes from, but the Hanford reactors could get 225 grams (about half a pound) of plutonium for every ton of uranium they processed, and each reactor was designed to process 30 tons of uranium per month at full power (though it took several months for the plutonium to be extracted from any given ton of exposed uranium). Because there were three reactors, that means that optimally Hanford could produce about 20 kg (45 lbs) of plutonium per month. In practice they did less than that, but half a pound every 200 days is just wrong, and if true would have made two of the World War II bombs impossible. Page 292: The book gets the information about the Trinity core geometry wrong — it says it is a hollow shell that was “crushed into a supercritical ball.” Rather, the Christy core was a mostly solid core (there was a small hole for the initiator) whose density was increased by the high explosives. Hollow shell designs were considered, and were later used in the postwar, but the wartime devices did not use them. This is one of those errors that won’t die — often repeated despite a wealth of evidence to the contrary. Page 386: Hiltzik refers to the Soviet test Joe-4/RDS-6s as a “fizzle.” This is incorrect terminology and implies that it did not achieve its target yield. It was not a staged thermonuclear weapon, but it was not a fizzle — it did what it was supposed to do, and was not a disappointment in any way. Page 405: Hiltzik, perhaps by reading too much Ralph Lapp (who was very smart but sometimes got things wrong), doesn’t seem to understand how the so-called “clean bomb” would have worked. The higher the proportion of the weapon that comes from fusion reactions as opposed to fission reactions, the smaller the amount of fallout that would result. The contamination power of a weapon is not related to its total yield so much as its fission yield. The area of contamination does relate to the yield (so a 10 megaton weapon with only 1% of its yield from fission does spread those fission products over a wide area), but the intensity of the contamination does not (the level of radiation would be extremely low compared to a “dirty” hydrogen bomb that derived at least half of its power from fission). One can object that the “clean bomb” was at best a cleaner bomb, and doubt both its wisdom and the sincerity of its proponents, but the idea itself was not a hoax. Page 416: Hiltzik says that Hans Bethe “flatly refused” to join the hydrogen bomb work. This is not correct. Bethe initially refused, and then later joined the thermonuclear project at Los Alamos and made several important contributions (to the degree that he is sometimes referred to as the “midwife” of the hydrogen bomb). Bethe’s wavering position on this is very aptly discussed in S.S. Schweber’s In the Shadow of the Bomb: Oppenheimer, Bethe, and the Moral Responsibility of the Scientist. There are a few other nitpicks (e.g. saying that “the test ranges remained silent” from 1958-1961… only true if you ignore France), but those are the ones that really stood out as outright errors. The most irritating misrepresentation (not strictly a factual error so much as an omission) is the fact that while Lawrence’s Calutrons were indeed an important part of the overall enrichment system used to make the fuel for the Hiroshima bomb (though not the only part), they were shut down in the early post war because they were not as efficient as the gaseous diffusion method. One would not get that impression from Hiltzik’s book, and it is relevant inasmuch as evaluating the importance of Lawrence’s method to the war — it was a useful stop-gap, but it was not a long-term solution. []
  2. Karl K. Darrow to Ernest O. Lawrence (9 August 1945), Ernest O. Lawrence papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0724362. []
  3. Whether the bomb did or did not actually sway the Japanese high command is not a completely settled question, but does not matter for our purposes here — we are talking about what Lawrence et al., might have thought, not internal Japanese political machinations and motivations. []
  4. Ernest O. Lawrence to Karl K. Darrow (17 August 1945), Ernest O. Lawrence papers, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley. Copy in the Nuclear Testing Archive, Las Vegas, Nevada, accession number NV0724363. []
  5. Arthur Compton, Atomic Quest: A Personal Narrative (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), 239-241. []