Posts Tagged ‘J. Robert Oppenheimer’

Meditations

Feynman and the Bomb

Friday, June 6th, 2014

Richard Feynman is one of the best-known physicists of the 20th century. Most of those who know about him know he was at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project — some of the best “Feynman stories” were set there. But Feynman’s own stories about his wartime hijinks were, like most of his stories about himself, half just-for-laughs and half lookit-mee! Feynman’s always got to either be a lucky average Joe, or the one brilliant mind in a sea of normals. His Los Alamos antics are mostly just tales of a genius man-child running around a secret laboratory, picking safes and irritating security guards. They aren’t very good gauges of what he actually did towards making the bomb. So what did Feynman actually do with regards to making the bomb? And does it matter, for thinking about his later career, especially the work that won him a Nobel Prize two decades later? 

Los Alamos colloquium from 1946, featuring (foreground, from left-to-right), Norris Bradbury, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Manley, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi. This version is cropped from the scanned copy at the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives. I will note that unlike the more common copies of this photo that have circulated, you can actually get a sense for how many other people were in the room — it looks like a really packed house.

Los Alamos colloquium from 1946, featuring (foreground, from left-to-right), Norris Bradbury, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Manley, Richard Feynman, and Enrico Fermi. This version is cropped from the scanned copy at the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives. I will note that unlike the more common copies of this photo that have circulated, you can actually get a sense for how many other people were in the room — it looks like a really packed house.

Feynman’s own stories of his wartime work are centered around things other than the work itself. So he describes doing calculations, but doesn’t really say what they were for. He describes going to Oak Ridge, but only as a pretext for a story about dealing with generals and engineers. He describes the Trinity test, but a lot of that is about his claim to being the only person who saw it without welding glass on. And so on. These give glimpses, but not a very complete picture.

The historian of physics (and my advisor) Peter Galison wrote an article on “Feynman’s War” several years back, looking closely at what it actually was that Feynman was doing at the lab, and how it played into the style that he later became famous for in physics.1 Galison argues that Feynman’s postwar work is uniquely characterized by being “modular, pictorial, and proudly unmathematical.” He contrasts this with the work of several of his contemporaries, including Julian Schwinger, who came up with equivalent solutions to the same physical problems but through a very different (much more mathematical) approach. Feynman’s famous diagrams, which had a huge influence on the teaching and practice of postwar physics, exemplify this approach. What in Schwinger and Tomonaga’s hands (the other people Feynman shared his Nobel Prize with in 1965) was solvable only through massive, lengthy, laborious math could, in Feynman’s hands, be solved through a series of clever diagrams which came up with equivalent results. Feynman’s solutions to quantum electrodynamics weren’t the only way to do it — but they were easier to comprehend, to teach, and to apply to new questions.

The first Feynman diagram, published in R. P. Feynman, "Space—Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics,"Physical Review 76 (1949), 769-789, on 772.

The first published Feynman diagram, from Richard P. Feynman, “Space-Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics,”Physical Review 76 (1949), 769-789, on 772.

OK, so what does this have to do World War II? Well, Galison’s argument is that you can see the same sort of thinking at work in what Feynman did at Los Alamos, and he argues that it is during the war that he really started applying this mode of physics. He divides Feynman’s work into several “projects.” They were:

  • Neutron measurements for determining critical mass (including the famous “tickling the dragon’s tail” experiment” involving creating brief, barely-subcritical masses)
  • Work on the “Water Boiler” reactor at Los Alamos, which provided further data on nuclear chain reactions
  • Work as a safety supervisor at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, at Oppenheimer’s request (which in his own writings is distilled down to a single humorous anecdote where Feynman is simultaneously clueless and brilliant)
  • Developing formulae relating to criticality and implosion efficiency (including the Bethe-Feynman formula)
  • His work on the hydride bomb, an abortive, Teller-inspired approach to make a “cheaper” fission weapon which involved devilishly difficult calculation (because not all of the neutrons produced in the weapon would be of the same energy)

Galison argues that in each of these instances, you can see the germs of his later approaches. He credits this to both Feynman’s own personal scientific style and inclinations as a theorist (Feynman didn’t seem to like to work with fundamental equations, but with “shortcuts” that lead to quicker, more efficient solutions, for example), but also to the requirements of the wartime goal, where theorists had to come up with tangible, practical results in a very short amount of time.  For example, Galison notes that the formulae relating to how the implosion bomb worked “brought the abstract differential equations to the bottom line: how hot, how fast, how much yield?” The practical needs of the war favored a particular “theoretical style” in general, Galison argues, one that could be most easily meshed with engineering concerns, rapid prototyping, and the lack of time to ruminate on fundamental physics questions.2

The "Water Boiler" reactor at Los Alamos. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998.

The “Water Boiler” reactor at Los Alamos that Feynman worked on. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998, p. 404.

Galison’s article is fairly technical. He goes through Feynman’s work (what of it that is declassified, anyway) and tries to follow his thinking in a very “internal” way, and then match that up with the requirements imposed by the specific wartime context. If you are well-versed in physics you will probably find the details interesting. I’m more of a big-picture person myself, and I like the structure of Galison’s argument even if I don’t feel fully capable of digesting all of the physics involved. One small example of Galison’s work can probably suffice. Feynman was sent to Oak Ridge, as noted, to serve as a safety supervisor. He was taking over for Robert Christy, who got pneumonia in April 1944. The safety question was not a general one, but a very specific one: how many barrels of uranium (in various degrees of enrichment) could be safely stored in a room without running a risk of a criticality accident? Feynman himself relates the problem like this in his famous bit, “Los Alamos from Below” (reproduced in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman):

It turned out that the army had realized how much stuff we needed to make a bomb — twenty kilograms or whatever it was — and they realized that this much material, purified, would never be in the plant, so there was no danger. But they did not know that the neutrons were enormously more effective when they are slowed down in water. In water it takes less than a tenth — no, a hundredth — as much material to make a reaction that makes radioactivity. It kills people around and so on. It was very dangerous, and they had not paid any attention to the safety at all.

In Feynman’s account, he more or less walks in and figures out what the problems were and how to fix them. The story is about ignorance — in particular systemic ignorance due to secrecy — and Feynman’s attempts to cut through it.

Feynman's diagrammatic sketch of storage of barrels of uranium at Oak Ridge, prepared for his "Safety Report." Source: Galison 1998, p. 408.

Feynman’s diagrammatic sketch of storage of barrels of uranium at Oak Ridge, prepared for his “Safety Report.” Source: Galison 1998, p. 408.

Galison’s account is more technical. Feynman told them that pretty much any amount of unenriched uranium could be stored safely in the facility, but that 5% enriched and 50% enriched had to be handled fairly carefully. 50% enriched uranium in water, for example, would dangerous at a mere 350 grams of material unless there was a neutron absorbing material (cadmium) present. Feynman developed a series of safety recommendations for all grades of enrichments, and had to use reasonable safety margins to make up for potential errors in the calculations. He became the “point man” for safety questions involving fissionable materials, and developed (as Galison puts it) “visualizable” methods for answering basic (but important) questions about hypothetical systems (e.g. for “Gunk storage tanks,” whether they had to be coated with cadmium or not). His methods, Feynman himself emphasizes, were “only approximate, as accuracy has been sacrificed to speed and simplicity in calculation” — the kind of computational “short cut” that was both needed for the practical requirements, but also was common to Feynman’s general approach to physics. Galison concludes the section thus:

The admixture of approximation methods, neutron diffusion, nuclear cross sections, floods, fires and wooden walls marked Feynman’s correspondence with the Oak Ridge engineers. From April of 1944 to September 1945, whatever else Feynman was doing, he was also deeply enmeshed in the barely-existing field of nuclear engineering. Out of this interaction came characteristic rules and modular reasoning: visualizable, approximate, from-the-ground-up calculations applied to neutrons, pans, sheds and sludge. Visionary statements reinterpreting established laws of physics ceded to the exigencies of living in a world he had to reach outside the home culture of theoretical physics as he knew it before the war. Now a billion dollar plant was churning out U-235, and only a calculation stood between thousands of workers and nuclear disaster.

Which is a lot more serious-sounding that Feynman’s own somewhat jokey accounts of the work. In the latter part of the article, Galison connects all of these methods for thinking — and sometimes even the specific problems — with Feynman’s postwar work, showing the influence of his time at Los Alamos.

Diagram of neutron fluctuations from a report by F. de Hoffmann, R.P. Feynman, and R. Serber. Galison notes: "Significantly, Feynman and his collaborators captured the situation in a spacetime diagram drawn with time in the vertical direction and space horizontal. Such an image must be kept in mind when viewing Feynman's early postwar spacetime 'Feynman diagrams,' where again particles are absorbed, emit other particles, and scatter as reckoned by a concatenation of independent algebraic rules." Galison 1998, 405-406.

Diagram of neutron fluctuations from a report by F. de Hoffmann, R.P. Feynman, and R. Serber. Galison notes: “Significantly, Feynman and his collaborators captured the situation in a spacetime diagram drawn with time in the vertical direction and space horizontal. Such an image must be kept in mind when viewing Feynman’s early postwar spacetime ‘Feynman diagrams,’ where again particles are absorbed, emit other particles, and scatter as reckoned by a concatenation of independent algebraic rules.” Galison 1998, 405-406.

Feynman stayed at Los Alamos until the fall of 1946, when he relocated to Cornell University. He never worked on weapons again, but he never took a particularly strong stand on it. What did Feynman think about nuclear weapons, and his role in making them? There is some evidence in his private correspondence, much of which was published not too long ago,3 but it is scant. Most of his responses to inquiries were along the lines of “we feared the Nazis would get one first.”4That’s it. No comment on their use at all, or the end of the war, or any of the other common responses from Los Alamos veterans. When asked in the 1970s about his thoughts on nuclear weapons in general, he demurred: “Problems about the atomic bomb and the future are much more complicated and I cannot make any short  statement to summarize my beliefs here.”5

Feynman gave an interview in 1959 where he was asked directly about the bomb. His response was a little lengthier then, but still said very little:

Now, with regard to our own things as human beings, naturally—I myself, for example—worked on the bomb during the war. Now how do I feel about that? I have a philosophy that it doesn’t do any good to go and make regrets about what you did before but to try to remember how you made the decision at the time. …if the scientists in Germany could have developed this thing, then we would be helpless, and I think it would be the end of the civilization at that time. I don’t know how long the civilization is going to last anyway. So the main reason why I did work on it at the time was because I was afraid that the Germans would do it first, and I felt a responsibility to society to develop this thing to maintain our position in the war.6

This, of course, ignores the question of “so why did you continue when the Germans were known not to have made much progress?” and much more.

Charles Critchfield, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and an unidentified scientist, at Los Alamos. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, via Los Alamos.

Charles Critchfield, Richard Feynman, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and an unidentified scientist, at Los Alamos. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, via Los Alamos.

During the interview, Feynman was asked, point blank, whether he worked on any secret projects. Feynman said no, and that this was “out of choice.” Pushed further, he elaborated:

I don’t want to [do secret work] because I want to do scientific research—that is, to find out more about how the world works. And that is not secret; that work is not secret. There’s no secrecy associated with it. The things that are secret are engineering developments which I am not so interested in, except when the pressure of war, or something else like that, makes me work on it. … Yes, I am definitely anti-working in secret projects. … I don’t think things should be secret, the people developing this. It seems to me very difficult for citizens to make a decision as to what’s going on when you can’t say what you’re doing. And the whole idea of democracy, it seems to me, was that the public, where the power is supposed to lie, should be informed. And when there’s secrecy, it’s not informed. Now, that’s a naive point of view, because if there weren’t secrecy, there’d be the Russians who would find out about it. On the other hand, there’s some awfully funny things that are secret. It becomes secret that we know what the Russians are keeping secret from us, for instance, or something like that. It seems to me that things go too far in the secrecy.7

After that point in the interview, he steered away from political opinions, explaining that he had strong ones, but he didn’t think they were any more valuable than anyone else’s opinions.

There were those, of course, who did try to recruit Feynman for military work. John Wheeler, his doctoral advisor at Princeton, and the man who had roped him into Los Alamos in the first place, appealed to him strongly to join the Princeton work on the hydrogen bomb (Matterhorn) in late March 1951. Wheeler had heard the Feynman was trying to spend his sabbatical in Brazil, but Wheeler thought the chance of global war was “at least 40%,” and that Feynman’s talents might be better spent helping the country. It was a long, emotional letter, albeit a variation on one that Wheeler sent to many other scientists as well. Wheeler tried to win him (and others) with flattery as well, telling Feynman that “You would make percentage-wise more difference there than anywhere else in the national picture.” In response to Wheeler’s long, many-pointed letter, Feynman simply responded that he didn’t want to make any commitments until he found out whether the Brazil idea would work out. End of story. Nothing specific about the hydrogen bomb one way or the other.

High resolution detail of Feynman's Los Alamos security badge photograph. A this resolution you can see a lot more strain on his face than the one I posted awhile back. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives.

High-resolution detail of Feynman’s Los Alamos security badge photograph. At this resolution you can see potentially more strain on his face than the one I posted awhile back. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory Archives.

What should we make of this? Feynman is a complicated man. Much more complicated than the zany stories let on — and I suspect the stories themselves were some kind of defense mechanism. As Feynman’s friend Murray Gell-Mann said at Feynman’s memorial service, Feynman “surrounded himself with a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.” They were stories “in which he had to come out, if possible, looking smarter than anyone else.”8 He was not a moralizer, though. His work on the bomb fit into his stories only as a context. He no doubt drew many lessons from his work on nuclear weapons, and he no doubt had many opinions about them in the Cold War, but he kept them, it seems, much to himself.

Oppenheimer famously said that, “In some sort of crude sense, which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin…” Perhaps Feynman agreed — perhaps no more humor could be wrung out of the bomb after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Maybe it’s harder to write a zany story about the hydrogen bomb. And maybe he was just truly not interested in them from a technical standpoint, or, as he said in 1959, just didn’t think his opinions on these matters, one way or another, were worth a damn, going against the notion held by many of his contemporaries that those who made the bomb had a special knowledge and a special responsibility. To me, he’s still something of an enigma, just one that wrapped himself in jokes, rather than riddles.

Notes
  1. Peter Galison, “Feynman’s War: Modelling Weapons, Modelling Nature,” Stud. Hist. Phil. Mod. Phys. 29, No. 3 (1998), 391-434. []
  2. This is an argument that Galison also makes at length about wartime work in his 1997 book Image and Logic: A Material Culture of Microphysics, both for Los Alamos and for the MIT Rad Lab, which if you’re interested in this kind of thing, is a must-read. []
  3. Michelle Feynman, ed., Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (Basic Books, 2005). []
  4. See e.g., Ibid., 268: “I did work on the atomic bomb. My major reason was concern that the Nazi’s would make it first and conquer the world.” []
  5. Ibid., 305. []
  6. Ibid., 421. []
  7. Ibid., 422-423. []
  8. James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (Pantheon, 1992), on 11. []
Visions

Oppenheimer and the Gita

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

What was going through J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head when he saw the great fireball of the Trinity test looming above him? According to his brother, Frank, he only said, “it worked.” But most people know a more poetic account, one in which Oppenheimer says (or at least thinks) the following famous lines:

I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.

This particular version, with a haggard Oppenheimer, was originally filmed for NBC’s 1965 The Decision to Drop the Bomb. I first saw it in Jon Else’s The Day After Trinity (1980), and thanks to YouTube it is now available pretty much anywhere at any time. There are other versions of the quote around — “shatter of worlds” is a common variant — though it did not begin to circulate as part of Los Alamos lore until the late 1940s and especially the 1950s.

It’s a chilling delivery and an evocative quote. The problem is that most of the time when it is invoked, it is done purely for its evocativeness and without any understanding as to what it actually supposed to mean. That’s what I want to talk about: what was Oppenheimer trying to say, presuming he was not just trying to be gnomic? What was he actually alluding to in the Gita?

An Indian greeting card for Diwali from 1998, celebrating India's nuclear tests. Source.

An Indian greeting card for Diwali from 1998, celebrating India’s nuclear tests. Source.

I should say first that I’m no scholar of Hindu theology. Fortunately, many years back, James A. Hijiya of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth wrote a wonderful article on “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer” that covers all of this topic as well as one might ever want it to be covered.1 Everything I know about the Gita comes from Hijiya’s article — so read it if you want much more discussion of this than I have here. I am particularly fond of Hijiya’s opening line, that Oppenheimer’s paraphrase of the Gita is “one of the most-cited and least-interpreted quotations” of the atomic age.

Oppenheimer was not a Hindu. He was not much of anything, religiously — he was born into a fairly secular Jewish family, embraced the Ethical Culture of Felix Adler, and saw philosophy as more of a boon to his soul than any particular creed. He enjoyed the ideas of the Gita, but he was not religious about it. Hijiya thinks, however, that much can be understood about Oppenheimer’s life through the lens of the Gita as a philosophical and moral code, something necessary in part because Oppenheimer rarely discussed his own internal motivations and feelings about making the bomb. It helps explain, Hijiya argues, that a man who could utter so many public statements about the “sin” and “terror” and “inhumanity” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could also have been the one who pushed for their use against Japan and who never, ever said that he actually regretted having built the bomb or recommending its use. It helps resolve one of the crucial contradictions, in other words, at the heart of the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, from the Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

It’s not clear when Oppenheimer was first exposed to the Gita. I have seen accounts, in oral histories, that suggested that he was spouting Gita lines even while he was a young graduate student studying in Europe. What is definitely known is that he didn’t start studying Sanskrit seriously until 1933, when he started studying with the renown Sanskrit scholar Arthur W. Ryder while he was a professor at Berkeley. In letters, he wrote gushingly about the book to his brother, and much later he quoted from it at the service held at Los Alamos in April 1945 upon the death of President Roosevelt.

The story of the Gita is that of Arjuna, a human prince who has been summoned to a war between princely cousins. Arjuna doesn’t want to fight — not because he lacks courage, or skill, but because it is a war of succession, so his enemies are his own cousins, his friends, his teachers. Arjuna does not want to kill them. He confides in his charioteer, who turns out to be the god Krishna2 in a human form. The text of the Gita is mostly Krishna telling Arjuna why Arjuna must go to war, even if Arjuna does not want to do it.

Krishna’s argument hinges on three points: 1. Arjuna is a soldier, and so it is his job — his duty — to wage war; 2. It is Krishna’s job, not Arjuna’s, to determine Arjuna’s fate; 3. Arjuna must ultimately have faith in Krishna if he is going to preserve his soul.

Arjuna eventually starts to become convinced. He asks Krishna if he will show him his godlike, multi-armed form. Krishna obliges, showing Arjuna an incredible sight:

Krishna revealing himself to Arjuna. Source.

Krishna revealing himself to Arjuna. Source.

A thousand simultaneous suns
     Arising in the sky
Might equal that great radiance,
     With that great glory vie.

Arjuna is awestruck and spellbound:

Amazement entered him; his hair
     Rose up; he bowed his head;
He humbly lifted folded hands,
     And worshipped God. . . .

And then, in his most amazing and terrible form, Krishna tells Arjuna what he, Krishna, is there to do:

Death am I, and my present task
     Destruction.

Arjuna, suitably impressed and humbled, then agrees to join in the battle.

The above quotes are from Ryder’s translation of the Gita. You can see that Oppenheimer’s is not especially different from that, even if it is somewhat changed. Personally I find Ryder’s version of the last part more impressive — it is more poetic, more stark. Ryder’s translation, Hijiya explains, is a somewhat idiosyncratic but defensible one. What Ryder (and Oppenheimer) translate as “Death,” others have translated as “Time,” but Hijiya says that Ryder is not alone for calling attention to the fact that in this context the expanse of time was meant to be a deadly one.

If you would like to see the famous “death” verse in the original, it is chapter 11, verse 32 of the Gita, and looks like this:

Gita verse 11:32

This website (from which I got the above) translates it as:

Lord Krsna said: I am terrible time the destroyer of all beings in all worlds, engaged to destroy all beings in this world; of those heroic soldiers presently situated in the opposing army, even without you none will be spared.

While I find Ryder’s more poignant, the longer translation makes it extremely clear what Krishna has in mind. All will perish, eventually. In war, many will perish whether you participate or not. For Oppenheimer and the bomb, this may have seemed especially true. The cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (and others on the target list) were on it not because they were necessarily the most important, but because they had so far been spared from firebombing. They were being actively preserved as atomic bomb targets. Had the bomb not been used or made, they probably would have been firebombed anyway. Even if the physicists had refused to make nuclear weapons, the death toll of World War II would hardly have been altered.

Trinity long exposure

“A thousand simultaneous suns”: a long-exposure shot of the Trinity test.

So let’s step back and ask who Oppenheimer is meant to be in this situation. Oppenheimer is not Krishna/Vishnu, not the terrible god, not the “destroyer of worlds” — he is Arjuna, the human prince! He is the one who didn’t really want to kill his brothers, his fellow people. But he has been enjoined to battle by something bigger than himself — physics, fission, the atomic bomb, World War II, what have you — and only at the moment when it truly reveals its nature, the Trinity test, does he fully see why he, a man who hates war, is compelled to battle. It is the bomb that is here for destruction. Oppenheimer is merely the man who is witnessing it. 

Hijiya argues that Oppenheimer’s sense of Gita-inspired “duty” pervades his life and his government service. I’m not sure I am 100% convinced of that. It seems like a heavyweight philosophical solution to the relatively lightweight problem of a life of inconsistency. But it’s an interesting idea. It is perhaps a useful way to think about why Oppenheimer got involved with so many projects that he, at times, seemed ambivalent about. Though ambivalence seemed readily available in those days — nobody seems to be searching for deep scriptural/philosophical justifications for Kenneth Bainbridge’s less eloquent, but equally ambivalent post-Trinity quote: “Now we’re all sons-of-bitches.”

A rare color photograph of Oppenheimer from October 1945, with General Groves and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy "E" Award ceremony. Source.

A rare color photograph of Oppenheimer from October 1945, with General Groves and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy “E” Award ceremony. Source.

One last issue that I find nagging me. We have no recording of Oppenheimer saying this except the 1965 one above. By this time, Oppenheimer is old, stripped of his security clearance, and dying of throat cancer. It is easy to see the clip as especially chilling in this light, given that is being spoken by a fading man. How would it sound, though, if it was coming from a younger, more chipper Oppenheimer, the one we see in photographs from the immediate postwar period? Would it be able to preserve its gravity?

Either way, I think the actual context of the quote within the Gita is far deeper, far more interesting, than the popular understanding of it. It isn’t a case of the “father” of the bomb declaring himself “death, the destroyer of worlds” in a fit of grandiosity or hubris. Rather, it is him being awed by what is being displayed in front of him, confronted with the spectacle of death itself unveiled in front of him, in the world’s most impressive memento mori, and realizing how little and inconsequential he is as a result. Compelled by something cosmic and terrifying, Oppenheimer then reconciles himself to his duty as a prince of physics, and that duty is war.

Notes
  1. James A. Hijiya, “The Gita of J. Robert Oppenheimer,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 144, no. 2 (June 2000), 123-167. []
  2. Oppenheimer, in his 1965 interview, identifies the god as Vishnu, perhaps in error. Krishna is an avatar of Vishnu, however, so maybe it is technically correct along some line of thinking. []
Meditations

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.

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

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

THE CLEVELAND PRESS – MONDAY, MARCH 13, 1944

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.

By JOHN W. RAPER

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.

Notes
  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. []
Redactions

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. 

Notes
  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.” []