Posts Tagged ‘J. Robert Oppenheimer’


Liminal 1946: A Year in Flux

Friday, November 8th, 2013

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

Washington Post - January 1, 1946

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The worst of the Manhattan Project leaks

Friday, September 20th, 2013

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

Saturday Evening Post, November 1945.

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

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

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

1944 - Forbidden City - Masthead


Forbidden City

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

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


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

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

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

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

A Free Country, But —

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

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

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

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

1944 - Forbidden City - Image 2

Cliff Dwelling Remnants

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

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

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

Escorted by 2 Jeeps

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

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

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

1944 - Forbidden City - Image 3

Residents Must Stay

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

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

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

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

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

1944 - Forbidden City - Image 1

Tell of Huge Explosions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

General Groves — not amused.

General Groves — not amused.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fears of a German dirty bomb

Friday, September 6th, 2013

For good reason, much has been made of the initial fear of a German atomic bomb. But there was another, lesser-known atomic fear as well. If the Germans could make nuclear reactors — which the Americans thought they were probably doing — could they not take the dangerously-radioactive spent-fuel out of them and use them to make dirty bombs? 

Hanford spent fuel rods — the sort of thing that could have been weaponized during World War II as a radiological weapon.

Hanford spent fuel rods — the sort of thing that could have been weaponized during World War II as a radiological weapon.

In the summer of 1942, Arthur Compton, head of the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory, wrote a memo to Harvard President and atomic-bomb big-wig James B. Conant expressing the need for “protection against ionizing bombs”:

We have become convinced there is real danger of bombardment by the Germans within the next few months using bombs designed to spread radio-active materials in lethal quantities. … Since protection against the danger from such bombs will be primarily a matter of detection of radiation and instruction with regards to the dangers, it is essential that the matter be brought at once to the attention of the appropriate military officers.1

Compton and his scientists were, at the time, working under the assumption that the Germans were ahead of the Americans, and had already gotten a nuclear reactor running. They estimated that with a 100 kilowatt reactor, 100,000 Curies of radioactivity could be produced daily for bomb usage.

A radiation survey device of the sort produced during World War II by the Victoreen Instrument Company in Cleveland, in collaboration with the University of Chicago scientists.

A radiation survey device of the sort produced during World War II by the Victoreen Instrument Company in Cleveland, in collaboration with the University of Chicago scientists.

A result of this was that in the fall of 1942, the first steps were taken to, at a minimum, detect whether the Germans used any kind of radiological attack against the Allies. Survey meters were developed that would trigger alarms if they detected high levels of radioactivity. These were secretly dispersed to Manhattan District offices in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. At each location, a small number of officers were trained in their use. Further instruments were held in reserve in case they needed to be deployed further. If the alarms went off,  or if there were other suspicious signs (like reports of a large-scale blackening of photographic film), scientists at the University of Chicago were kept on the ready to be brought in to assess the situation.2

This was a fairly small program, as far as they go. Those involved were acutely aware that the secrecy of the atomic bomb made it impossible to adequately prepare for this possibility. They were stuck in a bind that was very common during the wartime period. The atomic bomb was, at that time, what I like to call an “absolute secret”: the fact that there was a “secret” at all was itself a secret. They could not draw attention to matters relating to atomic energy without drawing attention to the fact that they were engaged in a secret research program with regards to atomic energy. This is a very peculiar situation, one primarily specific to the war, when the secrecy of the project could not be acknowledged (they could not simply say, “oh, the details are secret,” as they could in the Cold War).

What did they think the Germans would do with such a radiological weapon? They considered four possibilities. First, it could be used as an “area-denial” weapon, by making areas uninhabitable. Second, it could be used to contaminate critical war infrastructure (e.g. airports). Third, it could be used as a “radioactive poison gas” to attack troops. Fourth, it could be used “against large cities, to promote panic, and create casualties among civilian populations.”3 Their assessment of the effects, by 1943, was grim:

Areas so contaminated by radioactive material would be dangerous until decay of the material took place, perhaps for weeks or months. … As a gas warfare instrument the material would be ground into particles of microscopic size to form dust and smoke and distributed by a ground-fired projectile, land vehicles, or aerial bombs.  In this form it would be inhaled by personnel.  The amount necessary to cause death to a person inhaling the material is extremely small.  It has been estimated that one millionth at a gram accumulating in a person’s body would be fatal.  There are no known methods of treatment for such a casualty.4

In the time-honored method of worrying about threats, they also then immediately realized that maybe the United States should be weaponizing fission products: “It is the recommendation of this Subcommittee that if military authorities feel that the United States should be ready to use radioactive weapons in case the enemy started it first, studies on the subject should be started immediately.” Note that this isn’t really a deterrent capability, it is a response capability. Deterrence requires your enemy knowing that you have the capability to respond, and secrecy precluded true deterrence.

1943 - Oppenheimer to Fermi

In this context, there is an interesting letter in the J. Robert Oppenheimer papers at the Library of Congress, where Oppenheimer is writing to Enrico Fermi in May 1943 on “the question of radioactively poisoned foods.” From the context, it is clear that both Edward Teller and Fermi had devoted time to this project. The full document is available here. Two parts stand out. One is that one of the acute problems in looking into the issue was, as Oppenheimer put it, difficult to study the subject “without telling anyone about it.” That is, it would be hard to investigate some of the substances in question “without letting a number of people into of the secret of why we want” the substances. The “absolute secret” bind again.

The other is Oppenheimer’s criteria for the project being worth looking into:

…I think that we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men, since there is no doubt that the actual number affected will, because of non-uniform distribution, be much smaller than this.5

Frank Oppenheimer later called this a very “bloodthirsty” statement by his brother; the historian Barton Bernstein instead argued that this was just scientists trying to help the war effort.6 Either way, it makes Oppenheimer look like a very cold fish indeed. And not much of a “dove.” Even if one isn’t clear how much of a “non-uniform distribution” he was assuming.

1943 - Oppenheimer to Fermi - quote

The offensive angle was basically dropped — they didn’t think they’d need it, and they were focused intently on making the actual atomic bomb, a much more devastating weapon. But defensive measures did proceed. By late 1943, it was thought that the use of radioactive poisons against the UK by the Germans was of low probability, but an unpleasant possibility.7 To avoid being completely taken by surprise in such an event, General Groves (with the concurrence of General Marshall) had four officers from the European Theater of Operations staff briefed on the subject “under most complete secrecy,” and a Manual on Use of Radioactive Materials in Warfare was drawn up for these four officers. Signals officers were instructed to report any “peculiar or unexplained effects” on photographic films or personnel, and the officers in question were given radiation detection instruments to use in the case of suspected cases.

In March 1944, General Groves had the matter brought to the attention of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding general of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, fearing that the Nazis might use such weapons to prevent an Allied invasion of Europe. Eisenhower concluded that since the Combined Chiefs of Staff had not brought up the issue, that they must consider that “the enemy will not implement this project.” To keep secrecy, in order to “to avoid a possible scare,” Eisenhower informed only a handful of people, which he acknowledged was not really enough to counter “enemy action of this nature”: “No US or British Commander participating in OVERLORD [the landing at Normandy] has been briefed.” However, radiation detectors were being kept in the UK for deployment on short notice, and a “cover” letter was sent out with symptoms of radiation poisoning listed as a “mild disease of unknown etiology” that was going around, requesting any medical officers to report further cases.8

Dry-run of using radiation detection equipment during a beach landing, as part of "Operation Peppermint." Source.

Team performing a dry-run of a beach landing with radiation detection equipment, as part of “Operation Peppermint.” Source.

The plan to deploy radiation monitoring during the D-Day invasions was dubbed “Operation Peppermint,” one of the more amusing code-names of the war. Dry runs of the detection apparatus were taken before D-Day, and German bomb craters were surveyed for radioactive residues, but since no evidence of German radiological weapons preparations or use were uncovered, the “Peppermint” preparations were never put into effect. 

We now know that the Germans never got anywhere near this kind of plan. They didn’t even get a reactor running by the end of the war, the necessary prerequisite for this kind of operation. It wasn’t a totally crazy fear, though. There are aspects of radiological warfare which would make it preferable to, say, chemical warfare from the German point of view. Still, there’s an aspect to this of the old saying, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” When you’re studying radioactive hazards intently, every threat looks like a radioactive hazard.

The secrecy angle is what intrigues me the most about this story: the secrecy of the bomb made it difficult to enact serious preparation from this related, but separate threat. The secrecy of one fear made addressing another fear difficult, because the relevant information of both fears were too deeply entangled. 

  1. Arthur H. Compton to James B. Conant (15 July 1942), Bush-Conant file, Roll 7, Target 10, Folder 75, “Espionage.” []
  2. Manhattan District History, Book 1, Volume 14, Foreign Intelligence Supplement No. 2 (Peppermint), 31 July 1952. []
  3. Use of Radioactive Material as a Military Weapon” (n.d., c.a. early 1943). []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. J. Robert Oppenheimer to Enrico Fermi (25 May 1943), J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers, Library of Congress. []
  6. Barton J. Bernstein, “Oppenheimer and the Radioactive Poison Plan,” Technology Review, 88 (May-June 1985), 14-17. There is also some follow-up in Barton J. Bernstein, “Four physicists and the bomb: The early years, 1945-1950,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 18, No. 2 (1988), pp. 231-263, on 252-253. []
  7. Leslie Groves to George C. Marshall (30 November 1944), Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 64, “Security.” []
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower to George Marshall (11 May 1944), Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 5, Target 8, Folder 18, “Radiological Defense.” []

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 bomb and its makers

Tuesday, July 30th, 2013

In part of the “make this blog actually work again” campaign, I’ve changed some things on the backend which required me to change the blog url from to Fortunately, even if you don’t update your bookmarks, the old links should all still work automatically. It seems to be working a lot better at the moment — in the sense that I can once again edit the blog — so that’s something!

In all of the new NUKEMAP fuss, and the fact that my blog kept crashing, I didn’t get a chance to mention that I had two multimedia essays up on the website of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I’m pretty happy with both of these, both visually and in terms of the text.

The first was published a few weeks ago, and was related to my much earlier post relating to the badge photographs at Los Alamos. The faces that made the Bomb has so far proved to be the one thing I’ve done that people end up bringing up in casual conversation without realizing I wrote it. (The scenario is, I meet someone new, I mention I work on the history of nuclear weapons, they ask me if I’ve seen this thing on the Internet about the badge photographs, I answer that I in fact wrote it, a slight awkwardness follows.)


Some of the badge photographs are the ones that anyone on here would be familiar with — Oppenheimer, Groves, Fuchs, etc. But I enjoyed picking out a few more obscure characters. One of my favorites of these is Charlotte Serber, wife of the physicist and Oppenheimer student Robert Serber. Here’s my micro-essay:

Charlotte Serber was one of the many wives of the scientists who came to Los Alamos during the war. She was also one of the many wives who had their own substantial jobs while at the lab. While her husband, Robert Serber, worked on the design of the first nuclear weapons, Charlotte was the one in charge of running the technical library. While “librarian” might not at first glance seem vital to the war project, consider J. Robert Oppenheimer’s postwar letter to Serber, thanking her that “no single hour of delay has been attributed by any man in the laboratory to a malfunctioning, either in the Library or in the classified files. To this must be added the fact of the surprising success in controlling and accounting for the mass of classified information, where a single serious slip might not only have caused us the profoundest embarrassment but might have jeopardized the successful completion of our job.” Serber fell under unjustified suspicion of being a Communist in the immediate postwar, and, according to her FBI file, her phones were tapped. Who had singled her out as a possible Communist, because of her left-wing parents? Someone she thought of as a close personal friend: J. Robert Oppenheimer.

Charlotte was also the only woman Division Leader at Los Alamos, as the director of the library. She was also the only Division Leader barred from attending the Trinity test — on account of a lack of “facilities” for women there. She considered this a gross injustice.

What I like about Charlotte is not only that she highlights that many of the “Los Alamos wives” actually did work that was crucial to the project (and there were scientists amongst the “wives” as well, such as Elizabeth R. Graves, who I also profiled), and that the work of a librarian can be pretty vital (imagine if they didn’t have good organization of their reports, files, and classified information). But I also find Charlotte’s story amazing because of the betrayal: Oppenheimer the friend, Oppenheimer the snitch.

I should note that Oppenheimer’s labeling of Charlotte was probably not meant to be malicious — he was going over lists of people who might have Communist backgrounds when talking to the Manhattan Project security officers. He rattled off a number of names, and even said he thought most of them probably weren’t themselves Communists. This, of course, meant that they got flagged as possible Communists for the rest of their lives. Oppenheimer’s attempt to look loyal to the security system, even his attempts to be benign about it, were terrible failures in the long run, both for him and for his poor friends. Albert Einstein put it well: “The trouble with Oppenheimer is that he loves a woman who doesn’t love him—the United States government.”

Kenneth Bainbridge

The other one I want to highlight on here is that of Kenneth T. Bainbridge. Bainbridge was Harvard physicist and was in charge of organizing Project Trinity, the first test of the atomic bomb in July 1945. It was a big job — bigger, I think, than most people realize. You don’t just throw an atomic bomb on top of a tower in the desert and set it off. It had a pretty large staff, required a ton of theoretical and practical work, and, in the end, was an experiment that, ideally, destroyed itself in the process. Here was my Bainbridge blurb:

During the Manhattan Project, Harvard physicist Kenneth Bainbridge was in charge of setting up the Trinity test—afterward he became known as the person who famously said: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” Years later he wrote a letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer explaining his choice of words: “I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.” Oppenheimer’s reply to Bainbridge’s sentiments was simple: “We do not have to explain them to anyone.

I’ve had that Bainbridge/Oppenheimer exchange in my files for a long time, but never really had a great opportunity to put it into print. To flesh out the context a little more, it came out in the wake of Lansing Lamont’s popular book, Day of Trinity (1965). Bainbridge was one of the sources Lamont had talked to, and he gave him the “sons of bitches” quote. Oppenheimer’s full reply to Bainbridge took some digs at the book:

“When Lamont’s book on Trinity came, I first showed it to Kitty; and a moment later I heard her in the most unseemly laughter. She had found the preposterous piece about the ‘obscure lines from a sonnet of Baudelaire.’ But despite this, and all else that was wrong with it, the book was worth something to me because it recalled your words. I had not remembered them, but I did and do recall them. We do not have to explain them to anyone.”

The “obscure lines” was some kind of code supposedly sent by Oppenheimer to Kitty to say that the test worked. In Bainbridge’s files at the Harvard Archives there is quite a lot of material on the Lamont book from other Manhattan Project participants — most of them found a lot of fault with it on a factual basis, but admired its writing and presentation.

Bainbridge makes for a good segue into my other BAS multimedia essay, “The beginning of the Bomb,” which is about the Trinity test and which came out just before the 68th anniversary, which was two weeks ago. It also was somewhat of a reprise of themes I’d first played with on the blog, namely my post on “Trinity’s Cloud.” I’ve been struck that while Trinity was so extensively documented, the same few pictures of it and its explosion are re-used again and again. Basically, if it isn’t one of the “blobs of fire” pictures, or the Jack Aeby early-stage fireball/cloud photograph (the one used on the cover of The Making of the Atomic Bomb), then it doesn’t seem to exist. Among other things related to Trinity, I got to include two of my favorite alternative Trinity photographs.

Trinity long exposure

The first is this ghostly apparition above. What a strange, occult thing the atomic bomb looks like in this view. While most photographs of the bomb are concerned about capturing it at a precise fraction of a second — a nice precursor to the famous Rapatronic photographs of the 1950s — this one does something quite different, and quite unusual. This is a long exposure photograph of several seconds of the explosion. The caption indicates (assuming I am interpreting it correctly) that it is an exposure of several seconds before the explosion and then two seconds after the beginning of the detonation. Which would explain why there are so many pre-blast details available to see.

The result is what you see here: a phantom whose resemblance to the “classic” Trinity explosion pictures is more evocative than definite. And if you view it at full size, you can just make out features of the desert floor: the cables that held up the tower, for example. (Along with some strange, blobby artifacts associated with dark room work.) I somewhat wish this was the image of “the atomic bomb” that we all had in our minds — dark, ghastly, tremendous. Instead of seeing just a moment after the atomic age began, we instead see in a single image the transition between one age and the next.

Trinity mushroom cloud

Most of the photographs of Trinity are of its first few seconds. But this one is not. It may be the only good photograph I have seen of the late-stage Trinity mushroom cloud. It is striking, is it not? A tall, dark column of smoke, lightly mushroomed at the top, with a larger cloud layer above it. “Ominous” is the word I keep coming back to, especially once you know that the cloud in question was highly radioactive.

One of the things I found while researching the behavior of mushroom clouds for the NUKEMAP3D was that while the mushroom cloud is an ubiquitous symbol of the bomb, it is specifically the early-stage mushroom cloud whose photograph gets shown repeatedly. Almost all nuclear detonation photographs are of the first 30 second or so of the explosion, when the mushroom cloud is still quite small, and usually quite bright and mushroomy. The late-stage cloud — about 4-10 minutes, depending on the yield of the bomb — is a much larger, darker, and unpleasant thing.

Why did we so quickly move from thinking of the atomic bomb as a burst of fire into a cloud of smoke? The obvious answer would be Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where we lacked the instrumentation to see the fireball, and only could see the cloud. But I’m still struck that our visions of these things are still so constrained to a few examples, a few moments in time, out of so many other possibilities, each with their own quite different visual associations.