Posts Tagged ‘Los Alamos’


The blue flash

Monday, May 23rd, 2016

This last weekend was the 70th anniversary of Louis Slotin’s criticality accident. One slip of a screwdriver; a blue flash and wave of heat; and Slotin had a little over a week to live. It’s a dramatic story, one that has been told before. I tried to give it a little bit of a fresh look in my latest piece for the New Yorker’s Elements Blog: “The Demon Core and the Strange Death of Louis Slotin.”1

Demon Core New Yorker Screenshot

In researching the piece, I looked over a lot of technical literature on the accident, as well as numerous accounts from others who were in the room at the time. A few things stuck out to me that didn’t make it into the piece. One was that it was remarkably non-secret for the time. Los Alamos put out a press release almost immediately after it happened (by May 25th, five days before Slotin’s death, it was in national newspapers), and followed it up with more after Slotin’s death. For mid-1946, when the Atomic Energy Act had not yet been signed and the future of the American nuclear infrastructure was still very much in question, it was remarkably transparent. The press release was where I saw the phrase “three-dimensional sunburn” for the first time.

I also went over the account of Slotin’s case that was published in The Annals of Internal Medicine in 1952.2 Slotin isn’t named, but he’s clearly “Case 3.” Harry Daghlian, who also died from an accident with the same core, is “Case 1,” and Alvin Graves, who was the nearest person to Slotin during his accident, and later became a director of US nuclear weapons testing, is “Case 2.” The article is long and technical, and ends with some of the most disturbing photographs I have ever seen of the Daghlian and Slotin accidents. There is a photo of Daghlian’s hand that has been reproduced many places (including in Rachel Fermi’s Picturing the Bomb), but I’d only previously seen it in black and white. It is much worse in color — the contrast between the white blistered skin and the pink-red stuff under the cut-away area is dramatic and disturbing. There are others in the same series that are just as bad if not worse: blackened, gangrenous fingers. Slotin’s photos in that article are comparatively tame but still pretty unsettling. Blisters. Cyanotic tissue. A photograph of his left hand — the one that was closest to the reacting core — on the ninth day of treatment (his last day alive) looks almost corpselike, or even claw-like. It is unsettling. I will not post it here.

An anonymous e-mail tipped me off that there were more photographs, and more documents, at a collection at the New York Public Library. These were part of a collection deposited by Paul Mullin, who authored the Louis Slotin Sonata, a very interesting, very curious play about Slotin from the late 1990s. I haven’t seen the play, though I had seen mentions of it for awhile. Mullin’s materials were fascinating and very useful. There were two boxes. The first was mostly notes relating to the creation of the play. It is always interesting to see how another researcher takes notes, much less one whose end-product (a play) is very different from the sort of thing I do. It does not take much glancing at his notes to see that Mullin got as deep into this topic as anyone has. The second box contained research materials: four folders of documents obtained from Los Alamos under the Freedom of Information Act, and a folder of photographs.

The hands of Louis Slotin, shortly after admission to the Los Alamos hospital. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, via the New York Public Library (Paul Mullin papers on the Louis Slotin Sonata).

The hands of Louis Slotin, shortly after admission to the Los Alamos hospital. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, via the New York Public Library (Paul Mullin papers on the Louis Slotin Sonata).

The photographs were, well, terrible. They included the ones from the Annals of Internal Medicine article, but also many more. Some showed Slotin naked, posing with his injuries. The look on his face was tolerant. There were a few more of his hand injuries, and then the time skips: internal organs, removed for autopsy. Heart, lungs, intestines, each arranged cleanly and clinically. But it’s jarring to see photographs of him on the bed, unwell but alive, and then in the next frame, his heart, neatly prepared. The photo above, of just his hands, is one of the tamest of the bunch, though in some sense, one of the saddest (there is a helplessness, almost like begging, in the position). I didn’t make copies of the really awful ones. History is often very voyeuristic — I joke with students that I read dead people’s mail for a living — but, as I commiserated with Mullin over Twitter, at some point you start to almost feel complicit, as silly as that notion is.

The documents were invaluable. They mostly covered the period immediately after the accident — people checking in on Slotin’s health, the complicated legal aspects of dealing with the death of a scientist (and with his distraught family), the questions of what to do next. An inordinate amount of paperwork was generated in dealing with the disposition of Slotin’s automobile (a 1942 Dodge Custom Convertible Coupe). The Army’s interactions with Slotin’s family appeared sympathetic and generous. There appears to have been no cloak-and-dagger regarding the entire affair. Slotin was, after all, a friend to many of those at Los Alamos, and a key member of their “pit crew.”

One of the accounts that I found most fascinating was that of the security guard, Patrick Cleary, who was in the room when the accident happened. Cleary was there because you don’t just keep a significant proportion of the nation’s fissile material stockpile unguarded. He seems to have understood little about what risks his job entailed, though:

When the accident occurred, I saw the blue glow and felt a heat wave. I knew something was wrong, but didn’t know exactly what it was, when I saw the blue glow and somebody yelled. … Our instructions are also to keep in sight of all active material that is around, except in the case of a critical assembly, but [I] am not sure about that. I did not actually know what the material or sphere was at the time, or anything about it.3

When Cleary saw the flash and heard yelling, he literally took off for the hills, running. He was called back, as the scientists tried to reconstruct where people were standing for the purposes of dosage calculation. Cleary, in fact, was the last person to leave, because security guards can’t walk off the job — he had to wait until a replacement came.

Close-in shot on the Slotin accident re-creation. The beryllium tamper is on top; the plutonium core is the smaller sphere in the center. Notice in this particular shot, they have a "shim" on the right. Slotin removed the shim right before his fatal slip.

Close-in shot on the Slotin accident re-creation. The beryllium tamper/reflector (they called it a tamper) is on top; the plutonium core is the smaller sphere in the center. Notice in this particular shot, they have a “shim” on the right. Slotin removed the shim right before his fatal slip. The scientist re-creating the photograph is physicist Chris Wright. I wonder if they took extra precautions in making this particular set of photos?

For a long time I had been wondering what happened to the so-called “demon core,” which was also known as “Rufus,” something that strikes me as just too strange to be anything but true. It has been reported many times that it was used at Operation Crossroads, at the Able shot. I found some documentation that suggested this was very unlikely. For example, shortly after the accident (Slotin was still alive), lab directory Norris Bradbury wrote to a few other scientists at Los Alamos about how the accident had affected the forthcoming Crossroads tests. He notes that the sphere in question was getting “its final check” during the accident — so it was definitely slated for Crossroads. But he continues:

Obviously Slotin will not come to Bikini. [Raemer] Schreiber will come although the date of special shipment was postponed one week to allow us to pull ourselves together. Only two shipments will be made at this time as I see no courier for the third. The sphere in question is OK although still a little hot but not too hot to handle. We will save it for the last in any event if it is needed at all.4

Which seemed pretty suggestive to me that they weren’t going to use it: only two shipments were going to be made early on, and “the sphere in question” was not one of them. It would be saved for the “last event.” Which in this case was the “Charlie” shot — which was cancelled.

I wanted some more confirmation, though, because a plan isn’t always a reality. I e-mailed John Coster-Mullen, who I knew had done a lot of research into the Slotin and Daghlian accidents. (John is the one that provided me with these wonderful high-resolution photographs of the Slotin re-enactment, and some of the documents in his appendices to Atom Bombs were very useful for this research.) John suggested I get in touch with Glenn McDuff, a retired scientist at Los Alamos who was also one of the consultants on Manhattan (he drew the equations on the chalkboards, among other things). This turned out to be a great tip: Glenn has been working on an article about the fate of the first eight cores. There is much still to be declassified, but he was able to share with me the fate of the core in question: it had not been used at Crossroads, it had been melted down and the material re-used in another core. Glenn says there was no particular reason it was melted down. It was old, as far as cores went, and they were constantly fiddling with them in those days — the days in which they still gave bomb cores individual nicknames, because there were so few of them.

For nuke nerds, this is the big “reveal” of my New Yorker piece, the one thing that even someone very steeped in Los Alamos history probably doesn’t know. (For non-nuke nerds, I doubt it registers as much!) And even though it is a bit anticlimactic, I actually prefer it to the version that the core was detonated shortly after the accident. The part about them immediately re-using the core in a weapon just always seemed a little suspicious to me — it almost implied that they had done it due to superstition, and that didn’t really jibe with my sense of how these scientists viewed the accident or these weapons. And even the anticlimax has a bit of a literary touch to it: the “demon core” wasn’t expended in a flash, it was melted down and reintegrated with the stockpile. Who knows whether bits of its plutonium ended up in other weapons over the years, whether any of that core is still with us in the current arsenal? There’s perhaps something even a bit more “demonic” about this version of the story.

  1. A few small errata to the piece, based on a few questions I got: 1. Should the beryllium hemisphere be called a tamper or a reflector? In most contexts today we would call it a neutron reflector, because that’s the property that you use beryllium for in a bomb (a tamper’s job, generally, is to hold the core together as long as possible while it reacts, and so heavy, dense metals like uranium are used). But in this case, the scientists at the time referred to it universally as a “beryllium tamper” so the editor and I just decided to keep things simple and call it that, rather than call it a “reflector” and then clarify that it was the same thing as the “tamper” that was cited in the quotes. (This is the kind of linguistic hair-splitting that goes into these pieces — a balance between the historical language, the present-day language, the technical aspects, etc. We try to come to sensible decisions.) 2. At one point, it refers to the “pits” at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is just meant in a colloquial way here to refer to their fissile material cores. The Hiroshima bomb of course was a different design, made of two different pieces, called the Projectile and the Target in the documents at the time. It seemed unnecessary to introduce all that complexity to make a point that they didn’t give it any kind of colorful moniker. 3. There was one legitimate typo in the piece as published, which was my fault. It misstated the amount of time between the Daghlian and Slotin accidents (three months instead of nine). I’m not sure how that got in there — I actually re-looked up the date differences at the time I wrote it, and know the months cold. One of those strange disconnects between the head and the fingers, I suppose, and somehow I missed it in re-reading the drafts. Very frustrating! It’s the little things you aren’t worried about getting wrong that can get you, in the end. It has been fixed. []
  2. Louis H. Hempelmann, Hermann Lisco, and Joseph G. Hoffmann, “The Acute Radiation Syndrome: A Study of Nine Cases and a Review of the Problem,” Annals of Internal Medicine 36, no. 2 (February 1952), Part 1, 279-510. []
  3. Patrick Cleary, account of the Slotin accident (29 May 1946). Copy in the Paul Mullin, “Production materials for the Louis Slotin Sonata, 1946-2006,” New York Public Library. []
  4. Norris Bradbury to Marshall Holloway and Roger Warner (undated, ca. 24-29 May 1946). Copy in the Paul Mullin, “Production materials for the Louis Slotin Sonata, 1946-2006,” New York Public Library. []

Maintaining the bomb

Friday, April 8th, 2016

We hear a lot about the benefits of “innovation” and “innovators.” It’s no small wonder: most of the stories we tell about social and technological “progress” are about a few dedicated people coming up with a new approach and changing the world. Historians, being the prickly and un-fun group that we are, tend to cast a jaundiced eye at these kinds of stories. Often these kinds of cases ignore the broader contextual circumstances that were required for the “innovation” to appear or take root, and often the way these are told tend to make the “innovator” seem more “out of their time” than they really were.

The "logo" of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

The “logo” of the Maintainers conference, which graces its T-shirts (!) and promotional material. I modeled the manhole design off of an actual manhole cover here in Hoboken (photograph taken by me).

Two of my colleagues (Andy Russell and Lee Vinsel) at the Science and Technology Studies program here at the Stevens Institute of Technology (official tagline: “The Innovation University“) have been working on an antidote to these “innovation studies.” This week they are hosting a conference called “The Maintainers,” which focuses on an alternative view of the history of technology. The core idea (you can read more on the website) is that the bulk of the life and importance of a technology is not in its moment of “innovation,” but in the “long tail” of its existence: the ways in which it gets integrated into society, needs to be constantly repaired and upgraded, and can break down catastrophically if it loses its war against entropy. There is a lot of obvious resonance with infrastructure studies and stories in the news lately about what happens if you don’t repair your water systems, bridges, subway trains, and you-name-it.1

I’ve been thinking about how this approach applies to the history and politics of nuclear weapons. It’s pretty clear from even a mild familiarity with the history of the bomb that most of the stories about it are “innovation” narratives. The Manhattan Project is often taken as one of the canonical cases of scientific and technological innovation (in ways that I find extremely misleading and annoying). We hunger for those stories of innovation, the stories of scientists, industry, and the military coming together to make something unusual and exciting. When we don’t think the weapons-acquisition is a good idea (e.g., in the Soviet Union, North Korea, what have you), these innovation stories take on a more sinister tone or get diluted by allusions to espionage or other “help.” But the template is the same. Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb is of course one of the greatest works of the innovation narrative of the atomic bomb, starting, as it does, with a virtual lightning bolt going off in the mind of Leo Szilard.2

How do you service a Titan II? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson's Titan II Handbook.

How do you service a Titan II missile? Very carefully. This is a RFHCO suit, required for being around the toxic fuel and oxidizer. Not the most comfortable of outfits. From Penson’s Titan II Handbook.

What would a history of the bomb look like if we focused on the question of “maintenance”? We don’t have to guess, actually: one already exists. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, which I reviewed on here and for Physics Today a few years ago, can be read in that light. Schlosser’s book is about the long-term work it takes to create a nuclear-weapons infrastructure, both in terms of producing the weapons and in terms of making sure they are ready to be used when you want them to be. And, of course, it’s about what can go wrong, either in the course of routine maintenance (the central case-study is that of a Titan II accident that starts when a “maintainer” accidentally drops a socket wrench) or just in the haphazard course of a technology’s life and interactions with the physical world (dropped bombs, crashed planes, things that catch on fire, etc.). (A documentary film based on Schlosser’s book premieres at the Tribeca Film festival this month, along with what sounds like a nuclear rave.)

There are other approaches we might fold into the “maintenance” of the bomb. Donald MacKenzie’s Inventing Accuracy uses the trope of invention, but the meat of the book is really about the way uncertainty about performance and reliability moved between the domains of engineering and policy. Hugh Gusterson’s anthropological study of the Livermore laboratory, Nuclear Rites, is particularly astute about the questions of the day-to-day work at a weapons laboratory and who does it. And the maintenance of infrastructure is a major sub-theme of Stephen Schwartz‘s classic edited volume on the costs of the nuclear complex, Atomic AuditBut these kinds of studies are, I think, rarer than they ought to be — we (and I include myself in this) tend to focus on the big names and big moments, as opposed to the slow-grind of the normal. 

There are two historical episodes that come to my mind when I think about the role of “maintenance” in the history of nuclear weapons. Non-coincidentally, both come at points in history where big changes were in the making: the first right after World War II ended, the second right after the Cold War ended.

Episode 1: The postwar slump

From the very beginning, the focus on the bomb was about its moment of creation. Not, in other words, on what it would take to sustain a nuclear complex. In our collective memory, a “Manhattan Project” is a story of intense innovation and creative invention against all odds. But there’s a lesser-known historical lesson in what happened right after the bombs went off, and it’s worth keeping in mind anytime someone invokes the need for another “Manhattan Project.”

The Manhattan Project, formally begun in late 1942, was consciously an effort to produce a usable atomic bomb in the shortest amount of time possible. It involved massive expenditure, redundant investigations, and involved difficult trade-offs between what would normally considered “research” and “development” phases. Plans for the first industrial-sized nuclear reactors, for example, were developed almost immediately after the first proof-of-concept was shown to work — normal stages of prototyping, scaling, and experimenting were highly compressed from normal industrial practices at the time, a fact noted by the engineers and planners who worked on the project. The rush towards realization of the new technology drove all other concerns. The nuclear waste generated by the plutonium production processes, for example, were stored in hastily-built, single-walled underground tanks that were not expected to be any more than short-term, wartime solutions.3 When people today refer to the Manhattan Project as a prototypical case of “throw a lot of money and expertise at a short-term problem,” they aren’t entirely wrong (even though such an association leaves much out).

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful "innovation" of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

J. Robert Oppenheimer (at right) was proud face of the successful “innovation” of the Manhattan Project. It is telling, though, that he left Los Alamos soon after the war ended. Source: Google LIFE image archive.

After the end of World War II, though, the future of the American nuclear complex was uncertain. In my mind this liminal period is as interesting as the wartime period, though it doesn’t get as much cultural screen time. Would the US continue to make nuclear weapons? Would there be an agreement in place to limit worldwide production of nuclear arms (international control)? Would the atomic bomb significantly change US expenditures on military matters, or would it become simply another weapon in the arsenal? What kind of postwar organization would manage the wartime-creations of the Manhattan Project? No one knew the answers to these questions — there was a swirl of contradictory hopes and fears held by lots of different stakeholders.

We know, in the end, what eventually worked out. The US created the civilian Atomic Energy Commission with the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, signed by President Truman in August 1946 (much later than the military had hoped). Efforts towards the “international control” of the atomic bomb fizzled out in the United Nations. The Cold War began, the arms race intensified, and so on.

But what’s interesting to me, here, is that period between the end of the war and things “working out.” Between August 1945 and August 1946, the US nuclear weapons infrastructure went into precipitous decline. Why? Because maintaining it was harder than building it in the first place. What needed to be maintained? First and foremost, there were issues in maintaining the human capital. The Manhattan Project was a wartime organization that dislocated hundreds of thousands of people. The working conditions were pretty rough and tumble — even during the war they had problems with people quitting as a result of them. When the war ended, a lot of people went home. How many? Exact numbers are hard to come by, but my rough estimate based on the personnel statistics in the Manhattan District History is that between August 1945 and October 1946, some 80% of the construction labor left the project, and some 30% of the operations and research labor left. Overall there was a shedding of some 60% of the entire Manhattan Project labor force.

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947).

Declines in Manhattan Project personnel from July 1945 through December 1946. Note the dramatic decrease between August and September 1945, and the slow decrease until October 1946, after the Atomic Energy Act was passed and when things started to get on a postwar footing (but before the Atomic Energy Commission fully took over in January 1947). Reconstructed from this graph in the Manhattan District History.

Now, some of that can be explained as the difference between a “building” project and a “producing” project. Construction labor was already on a downward slope, but the trend did accelerate after August 1945. The dip in operations and research, though, is more troublesome — a steep decline in the number of people actually running the atomic bomb infrastructure, much less working to improve it.

Why did these people leave? In part, because the requirements of a “crash” program and a “long-term” program were very different in terms of labor. It’s more than just the geographical aspect of people going home. It also included things like pay, benefits, and work conditions in general. During the war, organized labor had mostly left the Manhattan Project alone, at the request of President Roosevelt and the Secretary of War. Once peace was declared, they got back into the game, and were not afraid to strike. Separately, there was a prestige issue. You can get Nobel Prize-quality scientists to work on your weapons program when you tell them that Hitler was threatening civilization, that they were going to open up a new chapter in world history, etc. It’s exciting to be part of something new, in any case. But if the job seems like it is just about maintaining an existing complex — one that many of the scientists were having second-thoughts on anyway — it’s not as glamorous. Back to the universities, back to the “real” work.4

And, of course, it’s a serious morale problem if you don’t think you laboratory is going to exist in a year or two. When the Atomic Energy Act got held up in Congress for over a year, it introduced serious uncertainty as to the future of Los Alamos. Was Los Alamos solely a wartime production or a long-term institution? It wasn’t clear.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

Hanford reactor energy output, detail. Note that it went down after late 1945, and they did not recover their wartime capacity until late 1948. Source: detail from this chart which I got from the Hanford Declassified Document System.

There were also technical dimensions to the postwar slump. The industrial-sized nuclear reactors at Hanford had been built, as noted, without much prototyping. The result is that there was still much to know about how to run them. B Reactor, the first to go online, started to show problems in the immediate postwar. Some of the neutrons being generated from the chain reaction were being absorbed by the graphite lattice that served as the moderator. The graphite, as a result, was starting to undergo small chemical changed: it was swelling. This was a big problem. Swelling graphite could mean that the channels that stored fuel or let the control rods in could get warped. If that happened, the operator would no longer be in full control of the reactor. That’s bad. For the next few years, B Reactor was run on low power as a result, and the other reactors were prevented from achieving their full output until solutions to the problem were found. The result is that the Hanford reactors had around half the total energy output in the immediate postwar as they did during the wartime period — so they weren’t generating as much plutonium.

To what degree were the technical and the social problems intertwined? In the case of Los Alamos we have a lot of documentation from the period which describes the “crisis” of the immediate postwar, when they were hemorrhaging manpower and expertise. We also have some interesting documentation that implies the military was worried about what a postwar management situation might look like, if it was out of the picture — if the nuclear complex was to be run by civilians (as the Atomic Energy Act specified), they wanted to make sure that the key aspects of the military production of nuclear weapons were in “reliable” hands. In any case, the infrastructure, as it was, was in a state of severe decay for about a year as these things got worked out.

I haven't even touched on the issues of "maintaining" security culture — what goes under the term "OPSEC." There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

I haven’t even touched on the issues of “maintaining” security culture — what goes under the term “OPSEC.” There is so much that could be said about that, too! Image source: (Hanford DDRS #N1D0023596)

The result of all of this was the greatest secret of the early postwar: the United States had only a small amount of fissile material, a few parts of other bomb components, and no ready-to-use nuclear weapons. AEC head David Lilienthal recalled talking with President Truman in April 1947:

We walked into the President’s office at a few moments after 5:00 p.m. I told him we came to report what we had found after three months, and that the quickest way would be to ask him to read a brief document. When he came to a space I had left blank, I gave him the number; it was quite a shock. We turned the pages as he did, all of us sitting there solemnly going through this very important and momentous statement. We knew just how important it was to get these facts to him; we were not sure how he would take it. He turned to me, a grim, gray look on his face, the lines from his nose to his mouth visibly deepened. What do we propose to do about it?5

The “number” in question was the quantity of atomic bombs ready to use in an emergency. And it was essentially zero.6 Thus the early work of the AEC was re-building a postwar nuclear infrastructure. It was expensive and slow-going, but by 1950 the US could once again produce atomic bombs in quantity, and was in a position to suddenly start producing many types of nuclear weapons again. Thus the tedious work of “maintenance” was actually necessary for the future work of “innovation” that they wanted to happen.

Episode 2: The post-Cold War question

Fast-forward to the early 1990s, and we’re once again in at a key juncture in questions about the weapons complex. The Soviet Union is no more. The Cold War is over. What is the future of the American nuclear program? Does the United States still need two nuclear weapon design laboratories? Does it still need a diverse mix of warheads and launchers? Does it still need the “nuclear triad”? All of these questions were on the table.

What shook out was an interesting situation. The labs would be maintained, shifting their efforts away from the activities we might normally associate with innovation and invention, and towards activities we might instead associate with maintenance. So environmental remediation was a major thrust, as was the work towards “Science-Based Stockpile Stewardship,” which is a fancy term for maintaining the nuclear stockpile in a state of readiness. The plants that used to assemble nuclear weapons have converted into places where weapons are disassembled, and I’ve found it interesting that the imagery associated with these has been quite different than the typical “innovation” imagery — the people shown in the pictures are “technicians” more than “scientists,” and the prevalence of women seems (in my anecdotal estimation) much higher.

The question of what to do with the remaining stockpile is the most interesting. I pose the question like this to my undergraduate engineers: imagine you were given a 1960s Volkswagen Beetle and were told that once you were pretty sure it would run, but you never ran that particular car before. Now imagine you have to keep that Beetle in a garage for, say, 20 or 30 more years. You can remove any part from the car and replace it, if you want. You can run tests of any sort on any single component, but you can’t start the engine. You can build a computer model of the car, based on past experience with similar cars, too. How much confidence would you have in your ability to guarantee, with near 100% accuracy, that the car would be able to start at any particular time?

Their usual answer: not a whole lot. And that’s without telling them that the engine in this case is radioactive, too.

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: "Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime." Source: Arnie Heller, "Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon," Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Graph of Livermore nuclear weapons designers with and without nuclear testing experience. The PR spin put on this is kind of interesting in and of itself: “Livermore physicists with nuclear test experience are reaching the end of their careers, and the first generation of stockpile stewards is in its professional prime.” Source: Arnie Heller, “Extending the Life of an Aging Weapon,” Science & Technology Review (March 2012).

Like all analogies there are inexact aspects to it, but it sums up some of the issues with these warheads. Nuclear testing by the United States ceased in 1992. It might come back today (who knows?) but the weapons scientists don’t seem to be expecting that. The warheads themselves were not built to last indefinitely — during the Cold War they would be phased out every few decades. They contain all sorts of complex materials and substances, some of which are toxic and/or radioactive, some of which are explosive, some of which are fairly “exotic” as far as materials go. Plutonium, for example, is metallurgically one of the most complex elements on the periodic table and it self-irradiates, slowly changing its own chemical structure.

Along with these perhaps inherent technical issues is the social one, the loss of knowledge. The number of scientists and engineers at the labs that have had nuclear testing experience is at this point approaching zero, if it isn’t already there. There is evidence that some of the documentary procedures were less than adequate: take the case of the mysterious FOGBANK, some kind of exotic “interstage” material that is used in some warheads, which required a multi-million dollar effort to come up with a substitute when it was discovered that the United States no longer had the capability of producing it.

So all of this seems to have a pretty straightforward message, right? That maintenance of the bomb is hard work and continues to be so. But here’s the twist: not everybody agrees that the post-Cold War work is actually “maintenance.” That is, how much of the stockpile stewardship work is really just maintaining existing capability, and how much is expanding it?

Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

Old warheads in new bottles? Summary of the new features of the B-61 Mod 12, via the New York Times.

The B-61 Mod 12 has been in the news a bit lately for this reason. The B-61 is a very flexible warhead system that allows for a wide range of yield settings for a gravity bomb. The Mod 12 has involved, among other things, an upgraded targeting and fuzing capability for this bomb. This makes the weapon very accurate and allows it to penetrate some degree into the ground before detonating. The official position is that this upgrade is necessary for the maintenance of the US deterrence position (it allows it, for example, to credibly threaten underground bunkers with low-yield weapons that would reduce collateral damage). So now we’re in a funny position: we’re upgrading (innovating?) part of a weapon in the name of maintaining a policy (deterrence) and ideally with minimal modifications to the warhead itself (because officially we are not making “new nuclear weapons”). Some estimates put the total cost of this program at a trillion dollars — which would be a considerable fraction of the total money spent on the entire Cold War nuclear weapons complex.

There are other places where this “maintenance” narrative has been challenged as well. The labs in the post-Cold War argued that they could only guarantee the stockpile’s reliability if they got some new facilities. Los Alamos got DARHT, which lets them take 3-D pictures of implosion in realtime, Livermore got NIF, which lets them play with fusion micro-implosions using a giant laser. A lot of money has been put forward for this kind of “maintenance” activity, and as you can imagine there was a lot of resistance. With all of it has come the allegations that, again, this is not really necessary for “maintenance,” that this is just innovation under the guise of maintenance. And if that’s the case, then that might be a policy problem, because we are not supposed to be “innovating” nuclear weapons anymore — that’s the sort of thing associated with arms races. For this reason, one major effort to create a warhead design that was alleged to be easier to maintain, the Reliable Replacement Warhead, was killed by the Obama administration in 2009.

"But will it work?" With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

“But will it work?” With enough money thrown at the problem, the answer is yes, according to Los Alamos. Source: National Security Science (April 2013).

So there has been a lot of money in the politics of “maintenance” here. What I find interesting about the post-Cold War moment is that “maintenance,” rather than being the shabby category that we usually ignore, has been moved to the forefront in the case of nuclear weapons. It is relatively easy to argue, “yes, we need to maintain these weapons, because if we don’t, there will be terrible consequences.” Billions of dollars are being allocated, even while other infrastructures in the United States are allowed to crumble and decline. The labs in particular have to walk a funny line here. They have an interest in emphasizing the need for further maintenance — it’s part of their reason for existence at this point. But they also need to project confidence, because the second they start saying that our nukes don’t work, they are going to run into even bigger policy problems.

And yet, it has been strongly alleged that under this cloak of maintenance, a lot of other kinds of activities might be taking place as well. So here is a perhaps an unusual politics of maintenance — one of the few places I’ve seen where there is a substantial community arguing against it, or at least against using it as an excuse to “innovate” on the sly.

  1. Andy and Lee just published a great article outlining their argument on Aeon Magazine: “Hail the maintainers.” []
  2. “In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. … The stoplight changed to green. Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.” Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 13. For a critical view of Rhodes, looking at how Rhodes’ mobilizes the trope of invention in his narrative, see esp. Hugh Gusterson, “Death of the authors of death: Prestige and creativity among nuclear weapons scientists,” in Mario Biagioli and Peter Galison, eds., Scientific authorship: Credit and intellectual property in science (New York: Routledge, 2003), 281-307. []
  3. J. Samuel Walker, The Road to Yucca Mountain: The Development of Radioactive Waste Policy in the United States (Los Angeles/Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009), 2-6. []
  4. Hence Edward Teller’s attempt to convince the scientists go to “back to the labs” to solve the H-bomb problem a few years later. []
  5. David E. Lilienthal, The Journals of David E. Lilienthal, Volume II: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950 (New York: Harper and Row, 1964), p. 165. Side-note: As Lilienthal was leaving Truman’s office, Truman told him that, “You have the most important thing there is. You must making a blessing of it or,” — and then Truman pointed to a large globe in the corner of the office — “we’ll blow all that to smithereens.” []
  6. They had bomb cores, they had non-nuclear bomb assemblies, but there is little to suggest that they had anything ready to go on a short term — it would take weeks to assemble the weapons and get them into a state of readiness. The total cores on hand at Los Alamos at the end of 1945 was 2; for 1946 it was 9; for 1947 it was 13. Senator Brien McMahon later said that “when the [AEC] took over [in 1947] there were exactly two bombs in the locker,” Lilienthal himself later said that “we had one [bomb] that was probably operable when I first went off to Los Alamos [January 1947]; one that had a good chance of being operable.” Quoted in Gregg Herken, Brotherhood of the Bomb (New York: Henry Holt, 2002), 137 fn. 84. Lilienthal told Herken: “The politically significant thing is that there really were no bombs in a military sense… We were really almost without bombs, and not only that, we were without people, that was the really significant thing… You can hardly exaggerate the unreadiness of the U.S. military men at this time.” Quoted in Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988 [1981]), 196-197 (in the unnumbered footnote). []

The curious death of Oppenheimer’s mistress

Friday, December 11th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1954 JRO hearing - JRO on Tatlock

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

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

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

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

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

JRO: Yes. 

Q: Why did you have to see her?

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

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

JRO: Because she was still in love with me.

Q: Where did you see her?

JRO: At her home. …

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

JRO: Yes. 

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

JRO: Yes.

Q: Did you think that consistent with good security?

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

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

1954 JRO hearing - Lansdale on Tatlock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. []

Women, minorities, and the Manhattan Project

Friday, November 27th, 2015

One of the things I most appreciate about the writers of the show Manhattan is that they took the effort to get beyond the standard, most common vision of the “Los Alamos scientist.” Several of the leading characters are female scientists, good at what they do, good at navigating a profession dominated by men. In the first season, one of the scientists was Chinese-American, and there is also a recurrent character in both the first and second season who is African-American, played with intelligence, dignity, and self-awareness.

Drs. Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), , and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckermann) at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor from Manhattan episode 107.

Drs. Helen Prins (Katja Herbers), Theodore Sinclair (Corey Allen), and Charlie Isaacs (Ashley Zuckerman) at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor from Manhattan episode 107.

The textbook version of Los Alamos, and the Manhattan Project as a whole, is a bunch of genius white, male scientists (the Europeans getting the designation of “Jewish” and sometimes another nationality, i.e. “Hungarian”), who have largely been deracinated (not a yarmulke to be seen, not a religious belief to be referenced, except maybe Oppenheimer’s dabbling with Hindu mysticism). Women enter in the picture largely as wives, secretaries, and the operators of Calutrons, ignorant of their true roles. Non-whites are basically eliminated, with the exception of the Indians who served as menial laborers at Los Alamos. This is a view of “who matters” taken largely from the 1940s — it is how the earliest chroniclers of the Manhattan Project saw their world. The one exception to this is Lise Meitner, who was triumphed in the early days of the atomic bomb, largely because of irony in her having had to flee Germany, but also, I suspect, at the irony of her having been a woman.

The historical reality is a much more textured one. There were actually many women contributing to the technical side of the bomb — not just as Calutron operators, either, but as physicists, chemists, biologists, and mathematicians, among other scientific specialities. One of the most overlooked books on the history of the bomb is Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg’s Their Day in the Sun: Women and the Manhattan Project (Temple University Press, 1999), and it chronicles the lives of many of the women who worked on the project. Along with their stories of individual lives, they also dig into the numbers:

In September 1943, some sixty women worked in the Technical Area at Los Alamos. By October 1944, about 30 percent, or 200 members of the labor force in the Tech Area, the hospital, and the schools were women. Of these, twenty could be described as scientists and fifty as technicians. Fifteen women worked as nurses, twenty-five as teachers, and seventy as secretaries or clerks.

Although many women’s precise job titles at Los Alamos remain unknown, rough numbers show about twenty-five of them working on chemistry and metallurgy, twenty on bomb engineering, sixteen on theoretical physics, four on experimental physics, eight on ordnance, and four on explosives. Two women worked with Enrico Fermi, who had moved to Los Alamos when it opened in 1943. These numbers are given by divisional assignment instead of by job title, so a few of these women may have held clerical jobs, but it’s clear that most of them were scientists or technicians.

The number of women working on the Manhattan Project contrasts sharply with the Apollo Project of the 1960s, which was comparable in size and scope. At its peak in 1965, when Apollo engaged 5.4 percent of the national supply of scientists and engineers, women accounted for only 3 percent of NASA’s scientific and engineering staff.1

The latter part is kind of a kicker for me: more women worked on the bomb than worked on the program to get Americans on the Moon. Why such a disparity? Because during World War II, the need for scientific labor was desperate and spread among many projects. It’s hard to be a bigot when you need every ounce of brainpower and labor you can get, and indeed World War II is famous overall for its movement of women into spaces they had previously been excluded (i.e. Rosie the Riveter). By the late 1950s and mid-1960s, though, the traditional gender norms had been reinstated, and the problem of technical labor shortages had been largely addressed by massive campaigns to increase the numbers of scientists and engineers in the United States.2 As advertisements from the later period suggest, the role of the space-age woman was as the helpful wife — not the person doing the calculations.

A relatively young Katharine ("Kay") Way. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

A relatively young Katharine (“Kay”) Way, one of the many female scientists of the Manhattan Project, and one of the rare few scientists whose work took her to all of the major Manhattan Project sites. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

There are a lot of interesting lives there, generally ignored when we tell these stories. Katharine Way is one of my favorites. She had a PhD in nuclear physics from University of North Carolina, having been John Wheeler’s first graduate student. She worked on neutron sources at the University of Tennessee early in the war, and, hearing rumors of a big project at Chicago, called up Wheeler and talked her way into the Metallurgical Laboratory. There she worked on many topics key to the operation of reactors: neutron fluxes, “poisoning” by fission products, reactor constants, and eventually the Way-Wigner formula for fission-product decay. Her work was important enough for her to warrant visits to Hanford, Oak Ridge, and Los Alamos — a remarkable feat given the high levels of compartmentalization (many of the scientists who worked at any one of the sites were not allowed to know where the other ones were located). Even before Hiroshima, she questioned the morality of the weapon she had helped produce (signing Szilard’s petition against its use), and in the postwar she was a key player in the postwar Scientists’ Movement, co-editing One World or None with Dexter Masters in 1946.3

The Manhattan character Helen Prins, played by Katja Herbers, reminds me of Way, in terms of the arc of her narrative: her gumption (imagine talking yourself onto the Manhattan Project!); the way in which, despite being relatively low in the hierarchy, her work touches on enough key problems that it leads her all over the place (which works well for a plot, but it somewhat true to life as well), and the way in which she, like many others who worked enthusiastically during the war, came to doubts about the uses to which their science had been put.

Chien-Shiung Wu at the Smith College Laboratory in the 1940s, shortly before joining the Manhattan Project. She is working on an electro-static (Van De Graaff) generator. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Chien-Shiung Wu at the Smith College Laboratory in the 1940s, shortly before joining the Manhattan Project. She is working on an electro-static (Van De Graaff) generator. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

There were also minorities on the project in technical roles, though here the lack of equal opportunity is far more stark and evident. Chien-Shiung Wu, a Chinese-born physicist, completed her dissertation in physics under Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley in 1940. After receiving a phone call from none other than Enrico Fermi, she was the one who identified Xenon-135 as a fission-product that was causing the Hanford reactors to lose their reactivity over time (this is the so-called “poisoning” effect). She also worked with Harold Urey on the problem of gaseous diffusion while at Columbia University, among other things. She would later become the first female president of the American Physical Society, in 1975.4

The Manhattan Project had very large numbers of African-Americans, but they were mostly working at Oak Ridge and Hanford as laborers or janitors. Peter Hales’ Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (University of Illinois Press, 1999) has a thoroughly interesting chapter on the “Others” of the bomb work, including African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and women. Oak Ridge was rigidly segregated during the war, with crude “Negro hutments” that held five men or six women in a single room (white hutments were similarly crude, but only had four occupants). The history of segregation at Oak Ridge is quite interesting — Groves apparently issued orders for a “separate but equal” set of accommodations, but his subordinates instead clearly saw the goal as creating a “Negro shantytown.” Hanford housing was also segregated, but accommodations were generally better, although in many ways the African-American laborers received fewer perks than the white ones (for example, in terms of recreational facilities built for them). These differences among sites were largely the difference of one being in located in Jim Crow Tennessee and the other in Washington State.5

Met Lab chemist Moddy Taylor (photo from 1960) — not the "typical" image of a Manhattan Project scientist. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

Met Lab chemist Moddy Taylor — not the “typical” image of a Manhattan Project scientist. Photo from 1960. Source: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History.

There were a few African-American scientists on the Manhattan Project. Samuel P. Massie, Jr., worked at Iowa State University on uranium chemistry for use in enrichment work. Jasper Jeffries worked as a physicist at the Metallurgical Laboratory, and was one of the signatories of Leo Szilard’s petition to not use the bomb on a city without warning. Benjamin Franklin Scott worked as a chemist at the Met Lab in their instrumentation and measurements section. Moddie Taylor also did chemistry at the Met Lab, analyzing rare-earth metals. There are several others — the American Institute of Physics has a nice compilation of biographies on their website — mostly centered around the University of Chicago. With any kind of “omitted” history of this sort, one wants to honor them without overstating their importance or underestimating the effects of institutionalized exclusion.6

As a side-note, I was asked by a reporter last summer whether there were any known cases of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered (LGBT) on the Manhattan Project. This is a tricky thing to answer. There were some half a million people working on the bomb across all of its many sites — some number of them had to be LGBT based on whatever prevalence one thinks existed in the population at that time. Even if it was only 1% (which is very conservative), that would allow for 5,000 individuals across the entire project. The populations of present-day US states range from around 2% to over 5% in self-identification as LGBT, so that is quite a lot more people (especially if we acknowledge that even at our current point in time, there are certainly many people in the closet or in a state of self-denial). Of course, in the 1940s homosexuality was categorized as a psychiatric disorder and by the late 1940s it was considered a serious security risk (the “Lavender scare”). To be public about such a thing would not be conducive to working on top-secret war work, to say the least — so there had to have been quite a lot of people who were in the closet.

Alumni of the creation of the first nuclear reactor, CP-1, at the University of Chicago's Metallurgical Laboratory. Leona Woods Marshall is conspicuously outside the norm, but there nonetheless. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

Alumni of the creation of the first nuclear reactor, CP-1, at the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory. Leona Woods Marshall is conspicuously outside the norm, but part of the crew nonetheless. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archive.

The issue of women and minorities in STEM fields is still a real one. For those who smugly believe that large portions of the population simply don’t have the ability to contribute on technical matters, I have found Neil deGrasse Tyson’s discussions of his own difficulties as an African-American interested in astrophysics to be a useful reference. In the case of the Manhattan Project, there are interesting trends. At times things were more open on the bomb work, for women in particular, because they could not afford to write off brainpower of a certain type. For issues of labor, however, the local cultures — New Mexico, Washington, and Tennessee — all came through largely as you would expect them to.

The initial stories about the making of the bomb, however, largely wrote out all non-male, non-whites from the story. Partially this was a real recapitulation of the the hierarchy in place: there were women and there were minorities, but they didn’t generally get to run things, and the story of making the bomb was often about who was running things. But partially this was about the biases of the time, and what was considered acceptable from the perspective of the storytellers (and, arguably, society itself — imagine if a woman or minority had tried to get away with Feynman’s hijinks, whether they would be treated as amusing or not). There has been a lot of good work expanding our understanding of who made the bomb in the last 15 years, though it has not quite unseated the popular vision of a handful of brainy white men creating a weapon out of sheer cleverness and equations alone.

  1. Emphasis added. Ruth H. Howes and Caroline L. Herzenberg, Their Day in the Sun: Women and the Manhattan Project (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 13-14. []
  2. On the latter, see the work of David Kaiser on the booms and busts in the sciences from Sputnik onward. []
  3. Howes and Hertzenberg, 42-43. []
  4. Howes and Hertzenberg, 45-46. []
  5. Peter Bacon Hales, Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999), chapter 7. []
  6. There is a very nice paper online about African-American scientists and the atomic bomb: Shane Landrum, “‘In Los Alamos, I feel like I’m a real citizen’: Black atomic scientists, education, and citizenship, 1945-1960,” (Brandeis University, 2005). There is a bit of literature on African-American responses to the bomb, as well: see, e.g., Abby Kinchy, “African Americans in the Atomic Age: Postwar Perspectives on Race and the Bomb, 1945–1967,” Technology and Culture 50, no. 2 (2009), 291-315. []