Posts Tagged ‘Leo Szilard’


Narratives of Manhattan Project secrecy

Friday, March 29th, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

Panel from FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

Panel from FEYNMAN by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Martian perspectives

Friday, September 28th, 2012

Of the four Hungarian “Martians” who worked the Manhattan Project — so known for their incomprehensible language, their European proclivities, and their exceptional intelligence — Leo Szilard and Edward Teller are tied, in my mind, as the most fascinating and intense personalities. (John von Neumann, the hawkish human computer, comes in a close second. Eugene Wigner, important as he was in the history of nuclear developments, just doesn’t compare to either of the other three when it comes to eccentricity.)

A rare photo of Szilard and Teller together. From a 1960 televised debate they participated in. Source.

Neither need much by means of an introduction on this blog, I don't think. Leo Szilard was the guy who got the bomb project rolling, but quickly soured on military management. Edward Teller was the future father of the hydrogen bomb, among many other things.

Szilard was one of the strongest advocates of the idea that the atomic bomb should not first be used against an actual civilian target, but should be “demonstrated” in some way, such as on an island or a remote location. He had begun activity on this front as early as the summer of 1942, before the bomb project was truly under way.

His last attempt was a petition he circulated for scientists to sign, with the idea was that it would be presented to the President of the United States. It said, in part:1

We, the undersigned scientists, have been working in the field of atomic power. Until recently we have had to fear that the United States might be attacked by atomic bombs during this war and that her only defense might lie in a counterattack by the same means. Today, with the defeat of Germany, this danger is averted and we feel impelled to say what follows.

The war has to be brought speedily to a successful conclusions and attacks by atomic bombs may very well be an effective method of warfare. We feel, however, that such attacks on Japan could not be justified, at least not unless the terms which will be imposed after the war on Japan were made public in detail and Japan were given an opportunity to surrender.

If such public announcement gave assurance to the Japanese that they could look forward to a life devoted to peaceful pursuits in their homeland and if Japan still refused to surrender our nation might then, in certain circumstances, find itself forced to resort to use of atomic bombs. Such a step, however, ought not to be made at any time without seriously considering the moral responsibilities which are involved. The atomic bombs at our disposal represent only the first step in this direction, and there is almost no limit to the destructive power which will become available in the course of their future development. Thus a nation which sets the precedent of using these newly liberated forces of nature for purposes of destruction may have to bear the responsibility of opening the door to an era of devastation on an unimaginable scale.

The petition continued; you can read the full version here. It was apparently signed by “approximately sixty other scientists" at Chicago.

But Edward Teller was not one of those scientists who signed it.

Edward Teller and Gregory Breit, 1976. (Aside: Breit had been the head of bomb design physics on the Manhattan Project, and was the person who Oppenheimer replaced when he was brought in on the project.) Via the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

To many, the idea that Teller would not oppose using the bombs would not be surprising. After all, he was the maker of megatons, right? But this is a misconception, in a sense. Teller was a sensitive soul. He spent a good part of the Cold War trying to argue that he would never have chosen to use the bombs if he had been given a chance. He insisted that his work on the bombs was solely to avoid nuclear war, not encourage it. He was not, I don't feel, truly bloodthirsty.

Over the later course of his life, Teller occasionally argued that he had opposed the bombing of Hiroshima. This was, as the historian Robert Crease has pointed out, a "truthy" approach — a revisionism based on the history that Teller may have wanted to exist.2

But this is what Teller wrote to Szilard, in early July 1945, a few weeks before the Trinity test:3

Dear Szilard:

Since our discussion I have spent some time thinking about your objections to an immediate military use of the weapon we may produce. I decided to do nothing. I should like to tell you my reasons.

First of all let me say that I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls.

This much is true: I have not worked on the project for a very selfish reason and I have gotten much more trouble than pleasure out of it. I worked because the problems interested me and I should have felt it a great restraint not to go ahead. I can not claim that I simply worked to do my duty. A sense of duty could keep me out of such work. It could not get me into the present kind of activity against my inclinations. If you should succeed in convincing me that your moral objections are valid, I should keep working. I hardly think that I should start protesting.

This is a strikingly honest way to discuss one’s motivations for working on weapons of mass destruction. Not because of duty — but because of curiosity. Teller worked on the bomb because he thought the bomb was interesting. He wanted to use the bomb because it was the ultimate fruition of that interest. That he could admit such a thing is actually pretty stunning. He did think, though, that morality could stop him from such a project — if he could be convinced.

Teller continued:

But I am not really convinced of your objections. I do not feel that there is any chance to outlaw any one weapon. If we have a slim chance of survival, it lies in the possibility to get rid of wars. The more decisive a weapon is the more surely it will be used in any real conflict and no agreements will help.

Our only hope is in getting the facts of our results before the people. This might help to convince everybody that the next war would be fatal. For this purpose actual combat-use might even be the best thing.

This is an interesting and perhaps not wholly predictable turn, if one subscribes only to a Strangelovian caricature of Teller. Szilard wanted Teller to agree that the bomb should not be used without warning. Teller in turn says that as a scientist who worked on the bomb, he had no responsibility for how it would be used — he was the maker of tools, not the user of them.

A picture of Edward Teller as he probably looked in the early 1940s. Date unknown. From the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, photo by Francis Simon.

What he felt a responsibility for was in informing people about the bomb, about its consequences, about the reason that it should be a weapon that ends all wars. And, as he argues, “for this purpose actual combat-use might even be the best thing.”

If his responsibility is to show the world what dangers lie ahead, what would be a better way for doing so that utterly destroying at least one city?

Teller concluded:

And this brings me to the main point. The accident that we worked out this dreadful thing should not give use the responsibility of having a voice in how it is to be used. This responsibility must in the end be shifted to the people as a whole and that can be done only by making the facts known. This is the only cause for which I feel entitled in doing something: the necessity of lifting the secrecy at least as far as the broad issues of our work are concerned. My understanding is that this will be done as soon as the military situation permits it.

All this may seem to you quite wrong. I should be glad if you showed this letter to Eugene [Wigner] and to [James] Franck who seem to agree with you rather than with me. I should like to have the advice of all of you whether you think it is a crime to continue this work. But I feel that I should do the wrong thing if I tried to say how to tie the little toe of the ghost to the bottle from which we just helped it to escape.

Teller’s “main point” was that the moral work of the scientists should begin just after the bomb was used. It should be to remove the secrecy and make the facts known, because their special knowledge of how bad things could get — and this is Edward Teller speaking, so we know he was pretty imaginative on this front — gave them the moral imperative to warn the world.4

Teller attempting to make himself understood, in 1963. Via the AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

In writing his memoirs, some five decades later, Teller noted that,

Rereading the letter, I cannot really agree with the person, my earlier incarnation, who wrote it. I stand fully behind my strong statement against secrecy, but I would no longer say that helping the “ghost” escape was terrible at all. That was our job as scientists, a point that became clearer when I became aware of the great progress that the Soviet Union had made on a nuclear explosive. The responsibility of scientists is to describe and demonstrate what is possible, to disseminate that knowledge as fully as possible, and, with everyone else in our democracy, to share the decisions that are necessarily connected with knowledge.5

Teller’s anti-secrecy stance may seem incongruous given his reputation for nuclear hawkishness. But for Teller, secrecy was something that slowed bomb innovation down — and bomb innovation was the ultimate goal. In such a light, an anti-secrecy hawk makes perfect sense, even if it goes against the conventional political mapping.

Returning to Szilard’s petition five decades later, Teller concluded three things:

First, Szilard was right. As scientists who worked on producing the bomb, we bore a special responsibility. Second, Oppenheimer was right. We did not know enough about the political situation to have a valid opinion. Third, what we should have done but failed to do was to work out the technical changes required for demonstrating the bomb over Tokyo and submit that information to President Truman.6

The first two are fairly straightforward positions, but the last is interesting and provocative. The Manhattan Project scientists spent a huge amount of time thinking up ways to make the bombs more deadly. Whether it was in racing towards a megaton age (Teller’s approach), or calculating the best way to kill Japanese firefighters (Penney’s approach), or — the subject of a future post — a proposal for generating radioactive thunderclouds (seriously), an enormous effort was put into making deadly weapons. Absolutely no technical effort was put into figuring out how one might use the bombs to end the war without bloodshed. The idea was proposed — even urged — but exactly zero effort was put into making it look like a realistic possibility.

The issues raised in this "Martian dialogue" didn't go away after Hiroshima. If anything, they got more intense, more immediate. What is the responsibility of the tool-maker for his or her tools? What is the responsibility of the scientist to the public? Szilard chose his path and never strayed from it — he never made another weapon again. Teller, if anything, became more extreme on his own path, becoming synonymous with the scientist co-opted by the military-industrial complex, and not just a touch of self-delusion.

  1. Leo Szilard, “Petition to the President of the United States,” (17 July 1945), copy in Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 5, Folder 76, "Interim Comittee — Scientific Panel." []
  2. Robert P. Crease, "Biography: Envy and Power," Nature 468 (2 December 2010), 629-630. []
  3. Edward Teller to Leo Szilard (2 July 1945), copy in the J. Robert Oppenheimer papers (MS35188), Library of Congress, Washington, DC, Box 71, Folder, “Teller, Edward, 1942-1963.” []
  4. Teller forwarded a copy of this letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer, of all people. He prefaced it with a hand-written note, scrawled in an elegant, old-world calligraphy. “What I say is, I believe, in agreement with your views,” he wrote. “At least in the main points.” []
  5. Edward Teller with Judith Schoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth Century Journey in Science and Politics (Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books, 2001), 208. []
  6. Teller, Memoirs, 206. []