Posts Tagged ‘Leslie Groves’


The Smyth Report: A chemical weapon coverup?

Tuesday, May 2nd, 2017

Two weeks ago, The Atlantic published an article on its website that made an interesting and provocative claim about the history of the atomic bomb. The thesis, in short, is that the Manhattan Project officials deliberately misconstrued their own history to avoid the general public thinking that the atomic bomb had effects similar to the reviled and banned gas warfare of World War I. If true, that would be rather remarkable: while it is clear that the Manhattan Project personnel did care very much about their own history and how it would affect how people thought about the atomic bomb, an association with chemical weapons has not traditionally been hypothesized as one of the several motivations for this.

"Atomic Bombs," the original name for the Smyth Report, was meant to be applied with a red stamp. But in the hurry to release it, this was forgotten, and its terrible subtitle became its actual title, hence everyone calling it "the Smyth Report." It was, in other words, a report so secret that it forgot its own title! The only version with the red stamp applied was the one deposited for copyright purposes at the Library of Congress.

The author, Jimena Canales, is a professional historian of science who I’ve known for a long time. I’ve been asked about the article several times by other scholars who wanted to know whether the thesis was plausible or not. What’s tricky is that most people don’t know enough about the history of Manhattan Project publicity to sort out what’s new from what’s old, and what’s plausible from what’s not. Ultimately there are many parts of this article which are correct, but are not new (as Canales acknowledges in her article); the parts that are novel are, in my view, not likely to be true.

Canales’ article is about the creation of the Smyth Report. The argument is, essentially, that the Smyth Report is overly focused on physics at the expense of chemistry (which is the correct but not new argument), and that the reason it is focused on physics is so that people wouldn’t associate the atomic bomb with chemical weapons (which is the new but I think not correct argument). My problem with the piece is really the last part of it: I just don’t think there’s any evidence that this was a real concern at the time of writing the Smyth Report, and I don’t think it’s necessary to posit this as a reason for the way the report turned out the way it did (there are other reasons).

Those who have read this blog for a while probably know that I find the Smyth Report fairly fascinating and have written about it several times. It’s a highly unusual document that sits at several intersections: it hovers between secrecy and openness, it hovers between the end of the Manhattan Project and the beginning of the postwar era. In the remainder of this overly-long blog post, I am going to lay out a thumbnail sketch of the history of the Smyth Report as I understand it, what the key historiographical issues are, and why I disagree with the ultimate conclusions of Canales' piece.

Read the full post »


FDR and the bomb

Friday, September 30th, 2016

Franklin D. Roosevelt is one of the most enigmatic figures of the early American atomic bomb program. The four-term US president always features briefly in any story of the Manhattan Project: first, for his creation of the Advisory Committee on Uranium, an exploratory research effort in response to a letter urging government action that was sent by Albert Einstein in August 1939; second, for his approval of a broader expansion of that research into a "pilot" program in late 1941, just before the US entry into World War II, which resulted in more intensive investment into uranium enrichment and reactor design; and third, in mid-1942, Roosevelt approved bringing in the US Army Corps of Engineers to manage a full-scale bomb-production project. This latter action is often subsumed by the attention given the first two, but it is the production program decision that actually resulted in the US getting an atomic bomb by 1945, and is the decision that makes the United States unique among powers in the Second World War, as while several powers had research programs, only the US turned it into a production program. It was the beginning of the Manhattan Project as we tend to characterize it, the kind of program that produces weapons and not just data.

A little history trick I always tell my students: if you see Truman and FDR in the same photograph, that means Truman doesn't know about the atomic bomb. Photo source:

A little history trick I always tell my students: if you see Truman and FDR in the same photograph, that means Truman doesn't know about the atomic bomb. Photo source:

So Roosevelt looms large, as he ought to. Without Roosevelt's actions, there would have been no atomic bomb in World War II. And yet... What did FDR really think about the atomic bomb? Did he see it as a true end-the-war weapon? Did he think it was meant to be used in war (as a first-strike weapon) or did he think of it primarily as a deterrent (i.e., against the Germans)? The question isn't just an idle one, because Roosevelt's sudden death, on April 12, 1945, left his successor, Harry Truman, with major decisions to make about the future of the war, and Truman, in part, thought he was acting in accordance with FDR's wishes on this matter. But, as is well known, FDR never told Truman about the atomic bomb work, and never set out his wishes on this matter — so there was a tremendous amount of assumption involved.

I get asked about FDR's views on a fairly regular basis, and it's one of those wonderful questions that seems simple but is really quite complex, and quickly gets you into what I think of as "epistemological territory": How do we know what someone's views were, in the past? How do we get inside the head of someone dead? Well, you might say, obviously we can't completely get inside someone's head (we can barely get inside the heads of people who are alive and in front of us, and a Freudian might argue that we barely have conscious access to our own motivations and thoughts), but we can look at what evidence there is that was written down that might reveal some of their inner thoughts.

But with FDR, this is very tricky: he didn't write that much down. He didn't keep a diary or journal. He didn't send that many letters. He didn't record phone calls, conversations, write "memos to self," or any of the other documenting habits that are common to major political figures. He was notoriously secretive and private. He didn't explain himself. If Truman was comparatively straightforward in his thinking and action, Roosevelt was a grand schemer, trying to out-wit and out-charm the world (sometimes successfully, sometimes not). He could be downright gnomic. At one point, Vannevar Bush (FDR's top science advisor) asked Roosevelt whether the Secretary of the Navy ought to be included in discussions on the bomb project. He later recalled that FDR "looked at me with one of his strange smiles and said, 'No, I guess not, not now.'" End of anecdote, no real indication as to what FDR was thinking, other than a "strange smile" that no doubt concealed much.1

What approval of a nuclear weapons program looked like under Roosevelt: "VB OK FDR." Report by Vannevar Bush of June 16, 1942, asking to expand the fission work into an all-out effort.

What approval of a nuclear weapons program looked like under Roosevelt: "VB OK FDR." Report by Vannevar Bush of June 16, 1942, asking to expand the fission work into an all-out effort.

As this example indicates, we do sometimes have accounts, including contemporary ones, by people who met with Roosevelt and talked with him. But even these can be quite tricky, because FDR did not, again, generally explain his full thinking. So people like Bush were left with half-versions of the story, knowing what FDR said but not what he thought, and while this is, to be sure, a common-enough human experience, with FDR the gap between thought and expression was exceptionally large.

Separately, there is another, related issue that complicates our understanding: people who met with FDR would often use tales of his agreement as a form of authority. Vannevar Bush did this repeatedly, and this is no doubt a pretty standard mode of operation regarding advisors and presidents. Bush would go to FDR with an idea, convince FDR to sign off on Bush's idea, and then claim it was FDR's idea, because while people might feel free to disagree with Bush, they couldn't really disagree with FDR. One of the most famous examples of this is Bush's report on postwar American science policy, Science—The Endless Frontier, which is constructed to look like it is a reply to a letter by FDR for guidance, but was entirely engineered by Bush as a means of pushing his own agenda, with FDR being a complicit as opposed to a driving force.2

So what do we know? The number of documents that give insight into FDR's personal thoughts about the atomic bomb — what it was, what it could be used for, what his plans were — are very slim. Some of this is a function of timing: FDR died right around when they were getting concrete estimates for when the atomic bomb would be ready to use, and had he lived until, say, May 1945, he might have been faced with more direct questions about his plans for it. (The first Target Committee meeting was on April 27, and the Interim Committee was created in early May, just to give an indication of how things rapidly started to come together right after FDR died.) So he wasn't part of the conversations that directly led to the use of the atomic bombs on Japanese cities.

But there are a few other documents that are useful in assessing FDR's views. It seems fairly clear that FDR's approval of the Uranium Committee in 1939 was initially because he was interested in the deterrent quality of the bomb. Alexander Sachs, who had the meeting with Roosevelt, related that FDR had confirmed that the goal was "to see that the Nazis don't blow us up."3 Again, this wasn't yet a bomb-making program, it was just a "see if bombs are worth worrying about" program, but that's still a little insight: it shows, perhaps, that the initial, explicit attraction was not in making a new wonder-weapon, but deterring against another one.

Roosevelt, Truman, and FDR's previous VP, Henry Wallace. Truman is the only one here who doesn't know about the bomb program. Image source: Truman Library via Wikimedia Commons

Roosevelt, Truman, and FDR's previous VP, Henry Wallace. Truman is the only one here who doesn't know about the bomb program. Image source: Truman Library via Wikimedia Commons

Between 1939 and 1941 there are big gaps in anything that would indicate FDR's views on the bomb. This is not surprising, because this was a period of relative lack of movement in the US fission program, which was not yet a bomb program. FDR was occasionally involved in discussions about the program, but there was no "bomb" yet to worry about one way or the other. In late 1941, FDR approved accelerating and expanding the research, at the urging of Bush, James Conant, Ernest Lawrence, and Arthur Compton, and in mid-1942 he approved of a full bomb production program, as previously noted. None of these documents indicate intent for use, however. The June 1942 report by Vannevar Bush and James Conant, whose approval by Roosevelt is indicated only by a scrawled "VB OK FDR" on its cover letter, indicates that a weapon made with 5-10 kilograms of U-235 or Pu-239 (then just called "Element 94") would have an explosive power of "several thousand tons of TNT." It goes into great detail on the types of plants to be constructed and the organization of the research. It predicts a "bomb" would be ready by early 1944. But at no point does it indicate what the point of such a weapon was: as a deterrent, as a first-strike weapon, as a demonstration device, etc. There is only point, towards the end, which suggests that a committee be eventually formed to consider "the military uses of the material," but even this is primarily concerned with research and development for the plants. This is not to say that Bush, Conant, et al. did not have their views on whether it would be a weapon to use or not — but the report does not indicate any such views, and so FDR's endorsement of it doesn't tell us much.4

Bush met with Roosevelt many times during the war, and sometimes would write down, afterwards, what they talked about. Clearly this is FDR-as-filtered-through-Bush, but we'll take what we can get. In late June 1943, Bush wrote to Conant with an account of a recent meeting he had with FDR on "S-1," their code for the bomb work. In it, Bush related that FDR was curious about the progress of the work and the schedule for having a bomb. Bush told him things were going well but still tentative, and that the date of a bomb had been pushed back to early January 1945, but that this could shift in either direction. FDR also wanted to know how the Germans were doing. Bush explained that they didn't really know, that they were trying to find ways to slow down any German work, and that they were still worried about being behind the Germans. (They would eventually come to understand they had surpassed them.) Then there is this really interesting passage which is worth quoting from the original:

He [FDR] then himself discussed what the enemy attitude of mind would be if they felt they had this coming along, and were inclined to remain on the defensive until it could eventuate. We then spoke briefly of the possible use against Japan, or the Japanese fleet, and I brought out, or I tried to, that because at this point I do not think I was really successful in getting the idea across, that our point of view or our emphasis on the program would shift if we had in mind use against Japan as compared with use against Germany.5

After which the conversation then shifted to other matters. Such a tantalizing snippet of discussion, but not as fleshed out as one might want! What did Bush and FDR understand the difference to be between the Japanese versus the Germans? Who initially brought up the possibility of use against the Japanese? What did FDR think about the German "attitude of mind"? This snippet hints at exactly the topics one might care about but doesn't actually reveal anything about FDR's views on them! Impressively frustrating!

Most of FDR's interactions with Bush, Groves, and others during this period concerned diplomatic issues, specifically cooperation with the British (a rather long, drawn-out saga), and even a meeting with Niels Bohr (from which FDR mostly took away a fear that Bohr might alert the Soviets, or others, to the US work). FDR helped, for example, in helping to shut down unionization activities at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, and was kept abreast of efforts made to monopolize global uranium ore resources. He was not "checked out" in any respect; he was dramatically more concerned with the ins-and-outs of the fission work than, say, Truman would later be. But again, very little of this left any record about what he thought they were going to do with the bomb.6

Atomic diplomacy: Roosevelt and Churchill at Quebec, in September 1944. Source: NARA via Wikimedia Commons

Atomic diplomacy: Roosevelt and Churchill at Quebec, in September 1944. Source: NARA via Wikimedia Commons

Two of the only documents that reveal any FDR-specific thoughts about the use of the bomb were agreements he made with Winston Churchill. In August 1943, Churchill and Roosevelt met in Quebec, Canada, and hammered out the secret "Quebec Agreement." It said, among other matters, that the US and UK would pool their efforts at both making the bomb and securing global uranium reserves, that they would never nuke each other, that they would never nuke anyone else without mutual agreement, and they would not reveal the secrets of the bombs without mutual agreement. So this at least provides a framework for using the bomb, but it is a limited one — FDR was willing to deliberately tie the US's hands with regards to dropping of the atomic bomb to the approval of a foreign power, quite an amazing concession!7

Another meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill, in Hyde Park, New York, produced yet another fascinating agreement. The Hyde Park Aide-Mémoire of September 1944 contained the following clause:

The suggestion that the world should be informed regarding tube alloys, with a view to an international agreement regarding its control and use, is not accepted. The matter should continue to be regarded as of the utmost secrecy; but when a “bomb” is finally available, it might perhaps, after mature consideration, be used against the Japanese, who should be warned that this bombardment will be repeated until they surrender.

Here they were explicitly rejecting the appeal by Niels Bohr (which he was able to make personally to both FDR and Churchill, on separate occasions) to alert the world about the atomic bomb. But it is of interest that they were, at this point, specifically thinking about using the bomb against the Japanese (not Germany), but that they thought it would require "mature consideration" before use, and that they were putting "bomb" in scare-quotes. This is one of the few indications we have of FDR's awareness and acceptance of the idea that the bomb might be used as a first-strike weapon, and against the Japanese in particular.

Lastly, there is one other significant FDR-specific datapoint, which I have written about at length before. In late December 1944, with Yalta looming, Roosevelt and Groves met in the Oval Office (along with Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War). In Groves' much later recollection (so we can make of that what we will), Roosevelt asked if the atomic bomb might be ready to use against Germany very soon. Groves explained that for a variety of reasons, the most important one being that their schedule had pushed the bomb back to the summer of 1945, this would not be possible. It is an interesting piece, one that simultaneously reveals Roosevelt's potential willingness to use the atomic bomb as a first-strike weapon, his willingness to use it against Germany specifically, and the fact that FDR was sufficiently out of the loop on planning discussions to not know that this would both be impossible and very difficult. In other words, it reveals that FDR wasn't aware that by that point, it was expected that the bomb could only be used against Japan, and that is a rather large thing for him not to know — further evidence, perhaps, that he was not completely abreast of these kinds of discussions. At the meeting, Groves gave FDR a report that predicted a weapon ready for use in early August 1945, and specified that it was time to begin military planning, which Groves annotated as having been "approved" by the Secretary of War and the President. But there doesn't seem to have been any specifics of targets, or even targeting philosophy, agreed upon at this point.8

What can we make of all this? Frequently I have seen people take the position that Truman himself took: assuming that Roosevelt would have used the bomb in the way that Truman did, because what else might he have been planning? I would only caution that there were more "options" on the table even for Truman than we tend to talk about, which is just another way to say that dropping two atomic bombs in rapid succession on cities is not the only way to use an atomic bomb even militarily. That is, even if one thinks it was inevitable that the bombs would be used in a military fashion (which I think is probably true), it is unclear what position FDR might have taken on the question of specific targets (e.g., the Kyoto question), the question of timing (e.g., before or after the Soviet invasion; how many days between each strike?), and diplomatic matters (e.g., would Roosevelt be more open to modifying the Potsdam Declaration terms than Truman was?). So there is room for considerable variability in the "what if Roosevelt hadn't died when he did?" question, especially given that Roosevelt, unlike Truman, had been following the bomb work from the start, and was as a result much less reliant on his advisors' views than Truman was (he frequently bucked Bush, for example, when it came to matters relating to the British).

Would Roosevelt have dropped the bomb on Japan, had he not died? I suspect the answer is yes. One can see, in these brief data points, a mind warming up to the idea of the atomic bomb as not just a deterrent, but a weapon, one that might be deployed as a first-strike attack. In some ways, FDR's query to Groves about Germany is the most interesting piece: this was a step further than anyone else at the time was really making, since Germany's defeat seemed inevitable at that point. But, again, the strict answer is, of course, that we can't really know for sure. Perhaps if FDR had confided his inner thoughts on the bomb to more people, perhaps if he had written them down, perhaps if he had been more involved in the early targeting questions, then we would be able to say something with more confidence. Unless some new source emerges, I suspect Roosevelt's thoughts on the bomb will always have something of an enigma to them. It is not too far-fetched to suggest that this may have always been his intention.

  1. Vannevar Bush, Pieces of the action (New York: Morrow, 1970), 134. []
  2. See Daniel J. Kevles, "The National Science Foundation and the Debate over Postwar Research Policy, 1942-1945: A Political Interpretation of Science–The Endless Frontier," Isis 68, no. 1 (1977), 4-26. Another example of this behavior, from my own research, is when Bush wanted to seize patent rights relating to atomic research during the war — this was an idea cooked up by Bush, approved by FDR, and then presented as an idea of FDR's, to give it more political, legal, and moral heft. See Alex Wellerstein, "Patenting the Bomb: Nuclear Weapons, Intellectual Property, and Technological Control," Isis 99, no. 1 (2008), 57-87, esp. 65-66. []
  3. Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986), on 314. []
  4. Vannevar Bush and James Conant, "Atomic Fission Bombs," (17 June 1942), with attached cover letter initialed by Roosevelt, 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), Folder 58: "Vannevar Bush Report - March 1942," Roll 4, Target 4. []
  5. Vannevar Bush to James Conant, "Memorandum of Conference with the President," (24 June 1943), copy in Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 2, Target 5, Folder 10, "S-1 British Relations Prior to the Interim Committee [Fldr.] No. 2 [1943, some 1944, 1945]." []
  6. For a very nice discussion of Roosevelt's wartime "atomic diplomacy," see Campbell Craig and Sergey Radchenko, The atomic bomb and the origins of the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2008), chapter 1, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Atomic Wartime Diplomacy," 1-33. On the UK-US atomic alliances, see Barton Bernstein, “The uneasy alliance: Roosevelt, Churchill, and the atomic bomb, 1940-1945,” Western Political Quarterly 29, no. 2 (1976), 202-230 []
  7. And just to follow up on that: the US did, in the summer of 1945, request formal UK approval for the dropping of the atomic bomb, and for the release of the Smyth Report and other publicity. The UK readily gave assent to using the weapon against the Japanese, but they did question the wisdom of releasing the Smyth Report. They eventually consented to that as well, after stating their reservations. []
  8. Just as an aside: the meeting, by Stimson's diary account, was only 15 minutes long, and most of it pertained to questions of diplomacy (specifically potential British violations of the Quebec Agreement with respect to French patent arrangements). Stimson's diary entry mentions nothing about targeting question, German, Japanese, or otherwise. So either the discussion of Germany and Japan did not make much impression on him, or he did not think it prudent to write it down. See Henry Stimson diary entry for December 30, 1944, Yale University. Groves own contemporary record of the meeting also neglects to mention anything relating to targets, and instead is entirely focused on diplomatic questions. Leslie Groves, Memorandum on Meeting with President (30 December 1944), Correspondence ("Top Secret") of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 3, Target 7, Folder 24, "Memorandums to (Gen.) L. R. Groves Covering Two Meetings with the President (Dec. 30, 1944, and Apr. 25, 1945)." []

My conversation on secrecy with a Super Spook

Friday, March 18th, 2016

One of the unexpected things that popped up on my agenda this last week: I was asked to give a private talk to General Michael Hayden, the former director of the National Security Agency (1999-2005), and the Central Intelligence Agency (2006-2009). Hayden was at the Stevens Institute of Technology (where I work) giving a talk in the President's Distinguished Lecture Series, and as with all such things, part of the schedule was to have him get a glimpse of the kinds of things we are up to at Stevens that he might find interesting.

The group that met with General Michael Hayden last Wednesday. Hayden is second from left at the far side of the table. The President of Stevens, Nariman Farvardin, is nearest to the camera. I am at the table, at the back. All photos by Jeffrey Vock photography, for Stevens.

The group that met with General Michael Hayden last Wednesday. Hayden is second from left at the far side of the table. The President of Stevens, Nariman Farvardin, is nearest to the camera. I am at the table, at the back. All photos by Jeffrey Vock photography, for Stevens.

What was strange, for me, was that I was being included as one of those things. I am sure some of my readers and friends will say, "oh, of course they wanted you there," but I am still a pretty small fry over here, an assistant professor in the humanities division of an engineering school. The other people who gave talks either ran large laboratories or departments with obvious connections to the kinds of things Hayden was doing (e.g., in part because of its proximity to the Hudson River, Stevens does a lot of very cutting-edge work in monitoring boat and aerial vehicle traffic, and its Computer Science department does a huge amount of work in cybersecurity). That a junior historian of science would be invited to sit "at the table" with the General, the President of the Institute, and a handful of other Very Important People is not at all obvious, so I was surprised and grateful for the opportunity.

So what does the historian of secrecy say to one of the "Super Spooks," as my colleague, the science writer (and critic of US hegemony and war) John Horgan, dubbed Hayden? I pitched two different topics to the Stevens admin — one was a talk about what the history of secrecy might tell us about the way in which secrecy should be talked about and secrecy reform should be attempted (something I've been thinking about and working on for some time, a policy-relevant distillation of my historical research), the other was a discussion of NUKEMAP user patterns (which countries bomb who, using a dataset of millions of virtual "detonations" from 2013-2016).1 They opted for the first one, which surprised me a little bit, since it was a lot less numbers-driven and outward-facing than the NUKEMAP talk.

Yours truly. As you will notice, there was a lot of great gesturing going on all around while I was talking. I am sure a primatologist could make something out of this.

Yours truly. As you will notice, there was a lot of great gesturing going on all around while I was talking. I am sure a primatologist could make something out of this.

The talk I pitched to the General covered a few distinct points. First, I felt I needed to quickly define what Science and Technology Studies (STS) was, as that is the program I was representing, and it is not extremely well-known discipline outside of academia. (The sub-head was, "AKA, Why should anyone care what a historian of science thinks about secrecy?") Now those who practice STS know that there have been quite a few disciplinary battles of what STS is meant to be, but I gave the basic overview: STS is an interdisciplinary approach by humanists and social scientists that studies science and technology and their interactions with society. STS is sort of an umbrella-discipline that blends the history, philosophy, sociology, and anthropology of science and technology, but also is influenced, at times, by things like the study of psychology, political science, and law, among many other things. It is generally empirical (but not always), usually qualitative, but sometimes quantitative in its approach (e.g. bibliometrics, computational humanities). In short, I pitched, while lots of people have opinions about how science and technology "work" and what their relationship is with society (broadly construed), STS actually tries to apply academic rigor (of various degrees and definitions) to understanding these things.

Hayden was more receptive to the value of this than I might have guessed, but this seemed in part to be because he majored in history (for both a B.A. and M.A., Wikipedia tells me), and has clearly done a lot of reading around in political science. Personally I was pretty pleased with this, just because we historians, especially at an engineering school, often get asked what one can do with a humanities degree. Well, you can run the CIA and the NSA, how about that!


I then gave a variation on talks I have given before on the history of secrecy in the United States, and what some common misunderstandings are. First, I pointed out that there are some consequences in just acknowledging that secrecy in the US has a history at all — that it is not "transhistorical," having existed since time immemorial. You can pin-point to beginnings of modern secrecy fairly precisely: World War I has the emergence of many trends that become common later, like the focus on "technical" secrets and the first law (the Espionage Act) that applies to civilians as well as military. World War II saw a huge, unrelenting boom of the secrecy system, with (literally) overflow amounts of background checks (the FBI had to requisition the DC Armory and turn it into a file vault), the rise of technical secrecy (e.g. secrecy of weapons designs), the creation of new classification categories (like "Top Secret," created in 1944), and, of course, the Manhattan Project, whose implementation of secrecy was in some ways quite groundbreaking. At the end of World War II, there was a curious juncture where some approaches to classification were handled in a pre-Cold War way, where secrecy was really just a temporary situation due to ongoing hostilities, and some started to shift towards a more Cold War fashion, where secrecy became a facet of American life.

The big points are — and this is a prerequisite for buying anything else I have to say about the topic — that American secrecy is relatively new (early-to-mid 20th century forward), that it had a few definite points of beginning, that the assumption that the world was full of increasingly dangerous information that needed government regulation was not a timeless one, and that it had changed over time in a variety of distinct and important ways. In short, if you accept that our secrecy is the product of people acting in specific, contingent circumstances, it stops you from seeing secrecy as something that just "has to be" the way it is today. It has been otherwise, it could have been something else, it can be something else in the future: the appeal to contingency, in this case, is an appeal to agency, that is, the ability for human beings to modify the circumstances under which they find themselves. This is, of course, one of the classic policy-relevant "moves" by historians: to try and show that the way the world has come to be isn't the only way it had to be, and to try and encourage a belief that we can make choices for how it ought to be going forward.


General Hayden seemed to accept all of this pretty well. I should note that throughout the talk, he interjected with thoughts and comments routinely. I appreciated this: he was definitely paying attention, to me and to the others. I am sure he has done things like this all the time, visiting a laboratory or university, being subjected to all manner of presentations, and by this point he was post-lunch, a few hours before giving his own talk. But he stayed with it, for both me and the other presenters.

The rest of my talk (which was meant to be only 15 minutes, though I think it was more towards 25 with all of the side-discussions), was framed as "Five myths about secrecy that inhibit meaningful policy discussion and reform." I'm not normally prone to the "five myths" sort of style of talking about this (it is more Buzzfeed than academic), but for the purpose of quickly getting a few arguments across I thought it made for an OK framing device. The "myths" I laid out were as follows

Myth: Secrecy and democracy necessarily conflict. This is the one that will make some my readers blanche at first read, but my point is that there are areas of society where some forms of secrecy need to exist in order to encourage democracy in the first place, and there are places where transparency can itself be inhibiting. The General (unsurprisingly?) was very amenable to this. I then make the move that the trick is to make sure we don't get secrecy in the areas where it does conflict with democracy. The control of information can certainly conflict with the need for public understanding (and right-to-know) that makes an Enlightenment-style democracy function properly. But we needn't see it as an all-or-nothing thing — we "just" have to make sure the secrecy is where it ought to be (and with proper oversight), and the transparency is where it ought to be. Hayden seemed to agree with this.

My best look.

I suspect I look like this more than I wish I did.

Myth: Secrecy and security are synonymous. Secrecy is not the same thing as security, but they are often lumped together (both consciously and not). Secrecy is the method, security is the goal. There are times when secrecy promotes security — and there are times in which secrecy inhibits it. This, I noted, was one of the conclusions of the 9/11 Commission Report as well, that lack of information sharing had seriously crippled American law enforcement and intelligence with regards to anticipating the attacks of 2001. I also pointed out that the habitual use of secrecy led to its devaluation — that when you start stamping "TOP SECRET" on everything, it starts to mean a lot less. The General strongly agreed with this. He also alluded to the fact that nobody ought to be storing any kind of government e-mails on private servers thees days, because the system was so complicated that literally nobody ever knew if they were going to be generating classified information or not — and that this is a problem.

I also noted that an impressiontrue or not, that secrecy was being rampantly misapplied had historically had tremendously negative affects on public confidence in governance, which can lead to all sorts of difficulties for those tasked with said governance. Hayden took to this point specifically, thought it was important, and brought up an example. He said that the US compromise of the 1970s was to get Congressional "buy-in" to any Executive or federal classified programs through oversight committees. He argued that the US, in this sense, was much more progressive with regards to oversight than many European security agencies, who essentially operate exclusively under the purview of the Executive. He said that he thought the NSA had done a great job of getting everything cleared by Congress, of making a public case for doing what it did. But, he acknowledged that clearly this effort had failed — the public did not have a lot of confidence that the NSA was being properly seen over, or that its actions were justified. He viewed this as a major problem for the future, how US intelligence agencies will operate within the expectations of the American people. I seem to recall him saying (I am reporting this from memory) that this was just part of the reality that US intelligence and law enforcement had to learn to live with — that it might hamper them in some ways, but it was a requirement for success in the American context.

I forget what provoked this response, but I couldn't not include it here.

I forget what provoked this response, but I couldn't not include it here.

Myth: Secrecy is a wall. This is a little, small intervention I made in terms of the metaphors of secrecy. We talk about it as walls, as cloaks, and curtains. The secrecy-is-a-barrier metaphor is perhaps the most common (and gets paired a lot with information-is-a-liquid, e.g. leaks and flows), and, if I can channel the thesis of the class I took with George Lakoff a long time ago, metaphors matter. There is not a lot you can do with a wall other than tolerate it, tear it down, find a way around, etc. I argued here that secrecy definitely feels like a wall when you are on the other "side" of it — but it is not one. If it was one, it would be useless for human beings (the only building made of nothing but walls is a tomb). Secrecy is more like a series of doors. (Doors, in turn, are really just temporary walls. Whoa.) Doors act like walls if you can't open them. But they can be opened — sometimes by some people (those with keys, if they are locked), sometimes by all people (if they are unlocked and public). Secrecy systems shift and change over time. Who has access to the doors changes as well, sometimes over time. This comes back to the contingency issue again, but also refocuses our attention less on the fact secrecy itself but how it is used, when access is granted versus withheld, and so on. As a historian, my job is largely to go through the doors of the past that used to be locked, but are now open for the researcher.

Myth: Secrecy is monolithic. That is, "Secrecy" is one thing. You have it or you don't. As you can see from the above, I don't agree with this approach. It makes government secrecy about us-versus-them (when in principle "they" are representatives of "us"), it makes it seem like secrecy reform is the act of "getting rid of" secrecy. It make secrecy an all-or-nothing proposition. This is my big, overarching point on secrecy: it isn't one thing. Secrecy is itself a metaphor; it derives from the Latin secerno: to separate, part, sunder; to distinguish; to set aside. It is about dividing the world into categories of people, information, places, things. This is what "classification" is about and what it means: you are "classifying" some aspects of the world as being only accessible to some people of the world. The metaphor doesn't become a reality, though, without practices (and here I borrow from anthropology). Practices are the human activities that make the idea or goal of secrecy real in the world. Focus on the practices, and you get at the heart of what makes a secrecy regime tick, you see what "secrecy" means at any given point in time.

And, per my earlier emphasis on history, this is vital: looking at the history of secrecy, we can see the practices move and shift over time, some coming into existence at specific points for specific reasons (see, e.g., my history of secret atomic patenting practices during World War II), some going away over times, some getting changed or amplified (e.g., Groves' amplification of compartmentalization during the Manhattan Project — the idea preceded Groves, but he was the one who really imposed it on an unprecedented scale). We also find that some practices are the ones that really screw up democratic deliberation, and some of them are the ones we think of as truly heinous (like the FBI's COINTELPRO program). But some are relatively benign. Focusing on the practices gives us something to target for reform, something other than saying that we need "less" secrecy. We can enumerate and historicize the practices (I have identified at least four core practices that seem to be at the heart of any secrecy regime, whether making an atomic bomb or a fraternity's initiation rites, but for the Manhattan Project there were dozens of discrete practices that were employed to try and protect the secrecy of the work). We can also identify which practices are counterproductive, which ones fail to work, which ones produce unintended consequences. A practice-based approach to secrecy, I argue, is the key to transforming our desires for reform into actionable results.

Hayden's lecture in De Baum auditorium, at Stevens.

Hayden's lecture in De Baum auditorium, at Stevens.

Myth: The answer to secrecy reform is balance. A personal pet peeve of mine are appeals to "balance" — we need a "balance of secrecy and transparency/openness/democracy," what have you. It sounds nice. In fact, it sounds so nice that literally nobody will disagree with it. The fact that the ACLU and the NSA can both agree that we need to have balance is, I think, evidence that it means nothing at all, that it is a statement with no consequences. (Hayden seemed to find this pretty amusing.) The balance argument commits many the sins I've already enumerated. It assumes secrecy (and openness) are monolithic entities. It assumes you can get some kind of "mix" of these pure states (but nobody can articulate what that would look like). It encourages all-or-nothing thinking about secrecy if you are a reformer. Again, the antidote for this approach is a focus on practices and domains: we need practices of secrecy and openness in different domains in American life, and focusing on the effects of these practices (or their lack of existence) gives us actionable steps forward.

I should say explicitly: I am not an activist in any way, and my personal politics are, I like to think, rather nuanced and subtle. I am sure one can read a lot of "party lines" into the above positions if one wants to, but I generally don't mesh well with any strong positions. I am a historian and an academic — I do a lot of work trying to see the positions of all sides of a debate, and it rubs off on me that people of all positions can make reasonable arguments, and that there are likely no simple solutions. That being said, I don't think the current system of secrecy works very well, either from the position of American liberty or the position of American security. As I think I make clear above, I don't accept the idea that these are contradictory goals.

Hayden seemed to take my points well and largely agree with them. In the discussion afterwards, some specific examples were brought up. I was surprised to hear (and he said it later in his talk, so I don't think this is a private opinion) that he sided with Apple in the recent case regarding the FBI and "cracking" the iPhone's security. He felt that while the legal and Constitutional issues probably sat in the FBI's camp, he thought the practice of it was a bad idea: the security compromise for all iPhones would be too great to be worth it. He didn't buy the argument that you could just do it once, or that it would stay secret once it was done. I thought this was a surprising position for him to take.

In general, Hayden seemed to agree that 1. the classification system as it exists was not working efficiently or effectively, 2. that over-classification was a real problem and led to many of the huge issues we currently have with it (he called the Snowden leaks "an effect and not a cause"), 3. that people in the government are going to have to understand that the "price of doing business" in the United States was accepting that you would have to make compromises in what you could know and what you could do, on account of the needs of our democracy.

Hayden's last slide: "Buckle up: It's going to be a tough century." Though the last one was no walk in the park, either...

Hayden's last slide: "Buckle up: It's going to be a tough century." Though I know he'd agree that the last one was no walk in the park, either...

Hayden then went and gave a very well-attended talk followed by a Q&A session. I live-Tweeted the whole thing; I have compiled my tweets into a Storify, if you want to get the gist of what he said. He is also selling a new book, which I suspect has many of these same points in it.

My concluding thoughts: I don't agree with a lot of Hayden's positions and actions. I am a lot less confident than he is that the NSA's work with Congress, for example, constitutes appropriate oversight (it is plainly clear that Congressional committees can be "captured" by the agencies they oversee, and with regards to the NSA in particular, there seems to have been some pretty explicit deception involved in recent years). I am not at all confident that drone strikes do a net good in the regions in which we employ them. I am deeply troubled by things like extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo Bay, water boarding, and anything that shades towards torture, a lack of adherence towards laws of war, or a lack of adherence towards the basic civil liberties that our Constitution articulates as the American idea. Just to put my views on the table. (And to make it clear, I don't necessarily think there are "simple" solutions to the problems of the world, the Middle East, to America. But I am deeply, inherently suspicious that the answer to any of them involves doing things that are so deeply oppositional to these basic American military and Constitutional values.)

But, then again, I'd never be put in charge of the NSA or the CIA, either, and there's likely nobody who would ever be put in charge of said organizations that I would agree with on all fronts. What I did respect about Hayden is that he was willing to engage. He didn't really shirk from questions. He also didn't take the position that everything that the government has done, or is doing, is golden. But most important, for me, was that he took some rather nuanced positions on some tough issues. The core of what I heard him say repeatedly was that the Hobbesian dilemma — that the need for security trumps all — could not be given an absolute hand in the United States. And while we might disagree on how that works out in practice, that he was willing to walk down that path, and not merely be saying it as a platitude, meant something to me. He seemed to be speaking quite frankly, and not just a party or policy line. That's a rare thing, I think, for former high-ranking public officials (and not so long out of office) who are giving public talks — usually they are quite dry, quite unsurprising. Hayden, whether you agree or disagree with him, is neither of these things.

  1. I wrote a preliminary analysis of NUKEMAP patterns up a few years ago, but my 2013 upgrade of the NUKEMAP dramatically increased the kinds of metrics I recorded, and the dataset has grown by an order of magnitude since then. Lest you worry, I take care to anonymize all of the data. There is also an "opt out" option regarding data logging on the NUKEMAP interface. []

Why spy?

Friday, December 4th, 2015

It's impossible to talk about the work at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project without mentioning the spies. And yet, for the first five years of the atomic age, nobody would have mentioned them, because they had escaped the view of the security services. It's one of the great ironies of the top-secret atmosphere: despite listening to phone lines, reading mail, and endlessly snooping, the security forces of General Groves caught not one spy at Los Alamos.

"Security theater" at Los Alamos — lots of effort made, but no spies were caught this way. Source: LANL.

"Security theater" at Los Alamos — lots of effort was made to create the culture of a top-secret, security-conscious environment, but no spies were caught this way. Source: LANL.

The Los Alamos spies are the ones we spend the most time talking about, because they were the ones who were closest to the parts of the bomb we associate with real "secrets": the designs, the experiments. They were also the most sensational. There is a bit of an error in looking at them in this way, an over-exaggeration of the work at Los Alamos at the expense, say, of Oak Ridge. But they do make for fascinating study. None of them were James Bonds — crack-trained intelligence experts who could kill you as much as look at you. (I appreciate that in the latest James Bond movie, much is made of the fact that Bond is more assassin than spy.) They are really "moles," volunteers who were doing more or less their normal jobs, just working for two masters at once.

This sense of the term "mole," as an aside, was popularized (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) by John Le Carré's classic Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974): "Ivlov's task was to service a mole. A mole is a deep penetration agent so called because he burrows deep into the fabric of Western imperialism." It is remarkable to me how much of our language of intelligence work is indebted to fictional depictions. I admit I am much more a fan of the Le Carré approach to espionage writing than the Ian Fleming approach — I like my spies conflicted, middle-aged, and tormented. In a word, I like them human. James Bond seems to me to be nothing but a standard male ego fantasy (a well-dressed killer with gadgets who gets and then promptly discards the girl), and it makes him boring. (Daniel Craig's Bond is, at least, middle-aged and tormented, so it makes the character tolerable, even if the plots are just as silly as ever.) Even this, though, is misleading, because occasionally there are spies who are in something like a Bond mode, destroying factories and assassinating enemies and wielding gadget-guns. But I suspect most intelligence workers look more like George Smiley (or, even more to the point, Connie Sachs, the "librarian" of Smiley's "Circus" who is crucial but ever behind-the-scenes) than Bond.1

Why would someone become a mole? There are several short-hand ways of talking about motivations for espionage, like M.I.C.E.: Money, Ideology, Coercion, Ego. They are as valuable as these kinds of short-hands can ever be — tools for generalizing cases, not understanding the individual motivations, which are always tailored by a million tiny specifics.

The invisible, bland, inconspicuous Harry Gold. Source: NARA, via Wikimedia Commons.

The invisible, bland, inconspicuous Harry Gold. Source: NARA, via Wikimedia Commons.

One of my favorite members of the atomic spy rings, for example, is Harry Gold, a "courier" to others. Gold was the one who ferried information between the moles (scientists at the lab) and the "real" Soviet espionage agents (NKVD officers working under diplomatic cover at the Soviet embassy). The courier was a crucial part of the network, because without him you have the problem of two "watched" groups (weapons scientists and Soviet officials) having to come together, a conspicuous thing. Gold, by contrast, was completely inconspicuous: a chubby little man with a dim-witted facial appearance. But he was a hard worker. Why'd he do it? Not for money — he wouldn't take any, not in any great amounts. Not so much for ideology — he had favorable thoughts towards the Soviet Union, but he doesn't appear to have been especially radicalized. He wasn't being coerced.

So that leaves ego, and that isn't the worst way to think about Gold, though it doesn't quite do him credit. As Allen Hornblum explains in great detail in his fascinating The Invisible Harry Gold (Yale University Press, 2010), Gold had a "needy," vulnerable personality that made him desperate for friendship and approval. He fell in with a group of Communists who realized how far he would go for that approval, and gradually worked towards bigger and bigger assignments. All the agents needed to do to get Gold to work his damnest, and to put his life on the line, was to give him encouragement. In the end, this same trait made Gold a nightmare for the other spies, because once he was caught, he wanted the FBI agents to be his friends, too. So he told them everything. What goes around comes around, I suppose.

Klaus Fuchs — the quiet enigma, the man against himself.

Klaus Fuchs — the quiet enigma, the man against himself.

What about Fuchs? Ideology, all the way. Fuchs wasn't new to that game — he had been putting his life on the line years before he became a spy, as a Communist student in Germany during the rise of the Nazis. It's probably a very a different thing to go from a very proud, spoken form of politics to the quiet subterfuge of becoming a mole. Fuchs himself, in his various confessions and later statements, indicated that he found this work to be an unpleasant struggle. In his 1950 confession to William Skardon, he put it this way:

In the course of this work, I began naturally to form bonds of personal friendship and I had to conceal from them my inner thoughts. I used my Marxist philosophy to establish in my mind two separate compartments. One compartment in which I allowed myself to make friendships, to have personal relations, to help people and to be in all personal ways the kind of man I wanted to be and the kind of man which, in a personal way, I had been before with my friends in or near the Communist Party. I could be free and easy and happy with other people without fear of disclosing myself because I knew the other compartment would step in if I approached the danger point. I could forget the other compartment and still rely on it. It appeared to me at the time that I had become a "free man" because I had succeeded in the other compartments to establish myself completely independent of the surrounding forces of society. Looking back at it now the best way of expressing it seems to be to call it a controlled schizophrenia.2

From the point of view of those who knew him at Los Alamos, Fuchs succeeded greatly — they were entirely caught off-guard by the revelation that he was a spy. Hans Bethe took pains to emphasize (to a fault, the FBI seems to have thought) that Fuchs worked very hard for everyone he worked for: the Americans, the British, and the Russians.

(I have written elsewhere on David Greenglass and will not go back over him. He is another curious case, to be sure.)

And what about Ted Hall? Hall was the youngest scientist at Los Alamos, and, as such, the youngest atomic spy of note. He was only 19 years old when he decided that he ought to be giving secrets to the Soviet Union. 19! Just a baby, and his Soviet codename, "MLAD," reflected that: it means "youngster." (In retrospect, that is a pretty bad codename, a little too identifying.) When I show his Los Alamos badge photograph to my students, I always emphasize that they've met this kid — the 19-year-old genius who thinks he knows better than everyone else, who thinks he has the world figured out, who is just idealistic enough, and just confident enough, to do something really terribly stupid if the opportunity was made available.

Ted Hall's Los Alamos badge photograph — teenage angst, Soviet mole.

Ted Hall's Los Alamos badge photograph — teenage angst, Soviet mole.

Why did Hall spy? Ideology, apparently. I say "apparently" because most of what we know about Hall's motivations is what he said, or seemed to have said, much later, far after the fact, decades later. A much-older Hall rationalized his spy work as being about the balance of power, an easier thing to say in 1997 than in 1944. Having known 19-year-olds, and having been one, I view this post-hoc rationalization with a bit of suspicion. Even Hall himself seems to recognize that his 19-year-old was brash and arrogant, that ego might have played a large role in his decision.

I have been thinking about Hall a lot recently while watching Manhattan. Towards the end of season 1, it is revealed that one of the scientists the show has been following was a spy, based loosely on the case of Hall. I don't want to speak too much to the specifics on here, because if you haven't been watching the show, there are many spoilers involved with just talking about this aspect of the plot, but it's been pretty interesting to see how the writers handled a spy. He's not a James Bond, to say the least. He's someone who, like most real people, see himself as a "good" person fundamentally — but whose actions give him grave doubts as to this proposition. This season there is another figure in the show who is loosely based on Lona Cohen, a courier of Hall and a fascinating figure in her own right, and a complicating factor for the spy scientist. Those interested in learning more about Hall and Cohen should definitely take a look at Joseph Albright and Marcia Kunstel's Bombshell (Times Books, 1997).

In current season of Manhattan, the spy character has realized that what started as something of a "game" is no game at all, no game any sane or sensitive person would want to play. The actor who plays him (who I regret not naming, do to aforementioned spoiler concerns!) manages to convey perfectly that panicky feeling one gets when one realizes one has gotten in too far, that one has taken on too much risk, that one cannot turn back, cannot turn off the ride, cannot get off the carousel. It's a sickening feeling, that feeling of being trapped.

Did Hall feel trapped? One wonders. Of the identified wartime Los Alamos spies (Fuchs, Greenglass, Hall), he is the one who got away, the one who lived out a free life until the end, even though the FBI had a pretty good idea of what he had done by the 1950s. The lack of enough evidence for a "clean case" against him (Hall used a different courier than Fuchs and Greenglass, so the testimony of Harry Gold was worthless in his case), and his isolation for further work on weapons, seems to have allowed them to let him alone. But does one ever "get away" with such a thing? Was there any time in which he was truly at ease, wondering if the hammer might drop? His spying was eventually revealed two year before his death, but he was still never charged with anything.

Ted Hall in his 70s, being interviewed for CNN's Cold War series (episode 21).

Ted Hall in his 70s, being interviewed for CNN's Cold War series (episode 21): "We were pretty close to being consumed."

Hall was interviewed for CNN's (excellent) Cold War documentary miniseries in the late 1990s. To my eyes, he seems somewhat hollow. Is this just how he was, or an artifact of his age? (He died not too long afterwards, at the age of 74.) Or an artifact of a life staring down the barrel of a gun? On the Rosenberg execution, Hall is recorded saying, grimly: "It certainly brought home the fact that there were flames consuming people, and that we were pretty close to being consumed."

Can you come out of the cold without resolution of one form or another? Maybe Hall was lucky that, by the end of his life, he got to contribute to the narrative about himself, about his actions, even if he did it in a roundabout admitting-but-not-quite-confessing way. Hall claimed, in his 70s, that the youth of 19-years-old had the right idea, in the end, even if the Cold War went places that that youth couldn't have anticipated. Hall's motivations seem to come somewhere out of that unconscious land between ideology and ego, where many monsters live.

Hall, Fuchs, Gold, and Greenglass — not a James Bond among them. They are strictly out of the Le Carréan mold. Conflicted, scared, self-sabotaging: the Le Carréan spy is always his own worst enemy, his friends barely friends at all, his punishment always of his own making. There's no right way out of a John Le Carré story. If you think things are going to end up well, just you wait — any victory will be bittersweet, if you can call it a victory at all.

  1. My greatest disappointment with the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, is that it focuses almost exclusively on the Bond-like persona, to the extent of devoting a large amount of their space to stupid James Bond plots as opposed to actual history. The best thing in the entire museum, in my opinion, is an exhibit on the catching of Aldrich Ames. Ames was no Bond, and he was caught by no Bond. The women who caught him look unassuming, but were shrewd, clever, and careful. No gadgets, just a lot of hard work, and the experienced application of psychology. []
  2. Klaus Fuchs statement (27 January 1950), copy online here. []

When did the Allies know there wasn’t a German bomb?

Friday, November 13th, 2015

Fears of a German nuclear weapons program were the initial motivating concerns behind pushes in both the United States and the United Kingdom. Leo Szilard and Albert Einstein in the United States, and Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls in the United Kingdom, among others, were worried sick of the prospect of a Nazi atomic bomb. That these scientists were European émigrés of Jewish descent played no small role in their fears.

Diagram (left) and replica (right) of the Haigerloch reactor that Heisenberg and his team were trying to complete by the end of the war. Source: diagram is from Walker's German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949, replica photo is from Wikipedia.

Diagram (left) and replica (right) of the  Haigerloch heavy-water moderated reactor that Heisenberg and his team were trying to complete by the end of the war. The cubes are of unenriched uranium metal. Source: The diagram is from Walker's German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949, the replica photo is from Wikipedia.

But eventually we came to find that the German atomic bomb project was stillborn. The Germans had a modest atomic power project, researching nuclear reactors, but were in no great rush for an atomic bomb. Of course, they are not necessarily unrelated projects — you can use nuclear reactors to produce plutonium. But it would require a much greater effort to do so than the Germans were engaged in. By any metric, the Germans were involved in a research program, not a production program. Their work was relatively small-scale, not a crash effort to get weaponized results.1

When did Manhattan Project officials know that the German program was not a serious threat, though? That is, when did they know that there was virtually no likelihood that the Germans would develop an atomic bomb in time for use in World War II? This is a question I get a lot, and a question that comes up in this season of Manhattan as well. It's an important and interesting question, because it marks, in part, the transition from the Anglo-American bomb project from being an originally defensive project (making an atomic bomb as a deterrent against a German bomb) to an offensive one (making a bomb as a first-strike weapon against another non-nuclear country, Japan).

What makes this a tricky question to answer is that the word "know" is more problematic than it might at first seem. Historians of science in particular, because we are historians of knowledge, are quite aware of the ways in which "knowing" is less of a binary state than it might at first appear. That is, we are ordinarily accustomed to talk about "knowing" as if it were a simple case of yes or no — "they knew it or they didn't." But knowledge often is more murky than that, a gradient of possibilities. One might have suspicions, but not be sure. The amount of uncertainty can vary in all knowledge, and sometimes be deliberately encouraged or exaggerated to create a space for action or inaction. One's knowledge can be incomplete or partially incorrect. And there are many different "levels" of knowledge — one might "know" that the Germans were working on reactors, but not know to what ends they were intending to use them.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission. Source: Wikipedia.

Allied troops disassembling the German experimental research reactor at Haigerloch, as part of the Alsos mission. Source: Wikipedia.

At one end of the "knowledge" question, we can point to the success of the Alsos mission. Alsos (Greek for "Groves") was an effort in which Allied scientific and intelligence officers moved into German sites along with the invading troops, seizing materials, facilities, and even scientists (the latter being eventually detained at Farm Hall). By November 1944, Samuel Goudsmit, the scientific leader of the Alsos mission, had concluded that the German program appeared stillborn. By the spring of 1945, of course, they had made sufficient progress into Germany to know for sure. So that is a definite back-end on when they "knew" that the Germans had no bomb.2

But what did they know before that? At what point did the Germans stop being the fear that they had once been? This is the far more interesting, trickier question.

Among the American scientists, the fears of a German bomb peaked sometime in mid-1942. This, not coincidentally, is exactly when the Americans decided to accelerate their program from the research phase into the production phase: when their work changed from thinking about whether atomic bombs were possible to actually trying to build them. As the Americans became more convinced that atomic bombs were feasible to build in the short-term, they became more worried that the Germans were actually building them, and might have started building them earlier than the Americans. Arthur Compton, Nobel Prize winning physicist and head of the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, wrote several particularly impassioned memos in the summer of 1942, urging an acceleration of atomic work largely out of fears of a German bomb:

"We have recently become aware that the threat of German fission bombs is even more imminent than we supposed... If the Germans know what we know — and we dare not discount their knowledge — they should be dropping fission bombs on us in 1943, a year before our bombs are planned to be ready."3

Compton's fears appear genuine, and rest on the conservative assumption that the Germans were just as smart, and just as aware of the possibilities, as the Americans. (And we know that they were, in fact, aware of all of these possibilities at the exact same time — but the Germans judged the effort more difficult, and more risky, than the Americans did.) There is no other basis for Compton's assumptions, as he had no access to intelligence information on German efforts (and, indeed, his memo calls for more work in that field). But they were also self-serving, because they encouraged more effort towards his own goal, which was to accelerate the American bomb program. Compton was not at all alone in these fears; Harold Urey, James Conant, and Ernest Lawrence were all quick to point out that the American effort had been relatively slow to start, and that the Germans had clever scientists who ought not be underestimated.

The palpable fears of Arthur Compton, June 1942.

The palpable fears of Arthur Compton, June 1942.

Up until 1942, these fears were not, arguably, unwarranted. The Germans and the Americans were in similar positions. But, in a touch of irony, at the moment the Americans decided to switch towards developing a workable bomb, the Germans instead were deciding that they no longer needed to prioritize the program. They had concluded it would be an immense effort that they could ill afford to undertake, and that it was extremely unlikely that the Americans (or anyone else) would find success in that field.

So when did the picture change with regards to US knowledge, and who was told? Over the course of 1943 and 1944, more and more intelligence was gathered that, added up, began to suggest that the Germans did not have much of a project. In late 1943, General Leslie Groves appointed a specific intelligence group to try and suss out information about the enemy's work. One of their avenues of approach was better collaboration with the intelligence services of the United Kingdom, who had far better networks both in Germany and in neutral countries than did the Americans. They even had a spy within Germany, the Austrian chemist Paul Rosbaud, who worked at Springer-Verlag, the scientific publisher. By the end of 1943, the British had concluded that the German program was not going anywhere. They were able to account for Heisenberg's movements all too easily, and there seemed to be no efforts to industrialize the work on the scale necessary to produce concrete results in the timescale of the war. This information was duly passed on to the Manhattan Project intelligence services.4

Did it have any effect? Not immediately. The Americans were not entirely sure whether the British assessments were accurate. As Groves put it in a memo to Field Marshall John Dill in early 1944:

We agree that the use of a TA ["Tubealloys" = atomic] weapon is unlikely. The indirect and negative evidence developed by your agencies to date is in support of this conclusion. But we also feel that as long as definite possibilities exist which question the correctness of this opinion in its entirety or in part we cannot afford to accept it as a final conclusion. Repeated reports that the enemy has sufficient raw material and the fact of the early interest of enemy scientists in the problem must be explained away before we can safely disregard the possible use of this weapon.5

Groves was being conservative about the intelligence — none of it definitely proved that the Germans weren't working on a bomb, they just were reporting that they couldn't see a bomb project. This is a common bind for interpreting foreign intelligence: just because you don't see something, doesn't mean it isn't there (you may have missed it), but on the other hand, proving a negative can be impossible. (This problem, as I am sure the reader appreciates, still exists with regards to alleged WMD programs today.) In Groves' mind, until there was really zero basis for doubt, they had to proceed as if the Germans were building a bomb.

1944-01-17 - Groves to Dill - R05 T08 F18

But over the course of 1944, there are many accounts which indicate that the Americans at the top of the project, at least, were fearing a German bomb less and less. When Secretary of War Henry Stimson briefed several select Congressmen on the bomb work in February 1944, he had emphasized that "we are probably in a race with the enemy." By contrast, when he briefed some of the same Congressmen that June, Stimson told them that "in the early part of this effort  we had been in a serious race with Germany, and that we felt that at the beginning they were probably ahead of us." Note the past tense — at this point, they were using the fears of the German bomb project to justify their earlier efforts, not their current ones. Vannevar Bush, who was at the meeting, emphasized in his notes that he told the Congressmen a bit more about "what we know and do not know about German developments," but concluded with the thought that since the Allies began the heavy bombing of German industrial sites, the odds were that the Americans were "probably now well ahead of them."6

Finally, in late November 1944, Samuel Goudsmit, head of the Alsos project, concluded that after inspecting documents, laboratory facilities, interviewing scientists, and doing radiological surveys of river water, that "Germany had no atom bomb and was not likely to have one in a reasonable time." This was reported back to Groves, who appears to have not been entirely convinced until the total confiscation of German material and personnel was completed in the spring of 1945 and the end of the European phase of World War II. Even Goudsmit was unsure whether the conclusion was justified until they had confirmed it with further investigations.7

By the end of 1944, even the scientists at Los Alamos seem to have realized that Germany was no longer going to be the target. Joseph Rotblat, a Polish physicist in the British delegation to the laboratory, was the only one who left, later saying that "the whole purpose of my being in Los Alamos ceased to be" once it was clear the Allies weren't really in a "race" with the Nazis.8

Several members of the Alsos mission, with Samuel Goudsmit, the scientific director, at far left. Source: Wikipedia.

Several members of the Alsos mission, with Samuel Goudsmit, the scientific director, at far left. Source: Wikipedia.

So, in a sense, the final confirmation — the absolute confirmation — that the Germany didn't have an atomic bomb only came when the Germans had totally surrendered. By late 1944, however, it had become clear that their bomb project was, as Goudsmit put it, "small-time stuff." By mid-1944, the top American civilian official (Stimson) was already minimizing the possibility of German competition. By the end of 1943, British intelligence had concluded the German program was probably not a serious one. We have here a sliding scale of "knowledge," with gradually increasing confidence, with no clear point, except arguably the "final" one, to say that the Allies "knew" that they were not in a race with the Germans. For someone like Groves, it was convenient to point to the uncertainty of the intelligence assessments, because the possibility of a German bomb, even one very late in the war, was so unacceptable that it could be used to justify nearly anything.

How much does it matter? Well, it does complicate the moral or ethical questions about the bomb project. If you are making an atomic bomb to stop Hitler, well, who could argue with that? But if you are making a bomb to use it against a non-nuclear power, to use it as a military weapon and not a deterrent, then things start to get problematic, as several scientists working on the project emphasized. Even Vannevar Bush, who supported using the bomb on Japan, emphasized this to Roosevelt in 1943, telling the President that "our point of view or our emphasis on the program would shift if we had in mind use against Japan as compared with use against Germany."9

The degree to which the goals of the atomic bomb program shifted — from building a deterrent to building a first-strike weapon — is something often lost in many historical descriptions of the work. It makes the early enthusiasm and later opposition of some of the scientists (such as Leo Szilard) seem like a change of heart, when in reality it was the goals of the project that had shifted. It is, in part, a narrative about the shifting of perspective from Germany to Japan. Like the Allied knowledge of the German program, it was not an abrupt shift, but a gradual one.

  1. The best source for what the Germans were actually doing is still Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), and Mark Walker, Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, And The German Atomic Bomb (New York: Plenum Press, 1995). []
  2. Of course, this assumes Alsos got everything right, and it is not entirely clear that they did. There are still several interesting historical questions to be answered about the German program. As I've written elsewhere, I don't think Rainer Karlsch's work on the German atomic program is compelling in its final thesis, but many of the documents he has found do point towards the Alsos mission having some limitations in what it was able to find and recover, and towards further work to be done in fully understanding the German program. []
  3. Arthur Compton to Vannevar Bush (22 June 1944), copy in Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 7, Target 10, Folder 75, "Espionage." Compton refers to "copper," which was then the American code-name for plutonium, and "magnesium," a code-name for enriched uranium. []
  4. The best overall source on US efforts to get information about the German bomb program, and the source of much of this paragraph's information, Jeffrey Richelson, Spying on the Bomb: American Nuclear Intelligence from Nazi Germany to Iran and North Korea (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006), chapter 1. []
  5. Leslie R. Groves to John Dill (17 January 1944), copy in Correspondence ("Top Secret") of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 5, Target 8, Folder 18, "Radiological Defense." []
  6. Vannevar Bush to H.H. Bundy (24 February 1944), and memo by Vannevar Bush on meeting with Congressmen (10 June 1944), copies in Correspondence ("Top Secret") of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 2, Target 8, Folder 14, "Budget and Fiscal." []
  7. Samuel Goudsmit, Alsos (New York: H. Schuman, 1947), on 71; see also Richelson, Spying on the Bomb, chapter 1. []
  8. Joseph Rotblat, "Leaving the bomb project," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (August 1985), 16-19, on 18. See also my post discussing some of the alternative/contributing factors regarding Rotblat's leaving the project, as discussed by Andrew Brown in his book, The Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012). []
  9. Vannevar Bush, "Memorandum of Conference with the President" (June 24, 1943), copy in Bush-Conant File Relating the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945, Records of the Office of Scientific Research and Development, RG 227, microfilm publication M1392, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., n.d. (ca. 1990), Roll 2, Target 5, Folder 10, "S-1 British Relations Prior to the Interim Committee No. 2." []