Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan Project’

Meditations

What remains of the Manhattan Project

Friday, June 12th, 2015

What remains of the Manhattan Project? A lot of documents. Some people. A few places. And a handful of artifacts. Maybe less than one might expect, maybe more than one might expect — it was a very large, expensive undertaking, involving a lot of people, so there being some remnants is not surprising. Though given its size, and importance, perhaps one would expect more.

Some of the attending Manhattan Project veterans. Photo by Alex Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

Some of the attending Manhattan Project veterans. Photo by Alex Levy of the Atomic Heritage Foundation.

The symposium put on by the Atomic Heritage Foundation last week was really excellent — a really important event. The attendance was higher than I would have guessed. At least a dozen Manhattan Project veterans attended, and many children of Manhattan Project veterans (some of whom were born during the war) were there as well. There were also a lot of nuclear historians, scientists, and enthusiasts. I got to spend time talking with a lot of wonderful people who also cared a lot about, and took very seriously, the history of the atomic bomb. Among those who were there included Richard Rhodes (Pulitzer-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb), Stan Norris (biographer of Leslie Groves), Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin (Pulitzer-winning authors of American Prometheus), John Coster-Mullen (major irritant to government censors and author of Atom Bombs), Avner Cohen (author of many books on Israel and the bomb), Ray Smith (the historian at Y-12), and Clay Perkins (physicist and nuclear “collector”), just to name a few. I saw some of my DC friends and former colleagues, and met a lot of nuclear history enthusiasts. All together, it looked like there was well over two hundred people between the two days of it.

There were several themes to the whole event. One was the creation of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. There were representatives from both the National Park Service and the Department of Energy to talk about the process going forward, and there was also an excellent address by Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico.

Richard Rhodes gave the first address of Wednesday by talking about why we save authentic relics of the past. He took a tack I wouldn’t have expected — he started off from the work of the philosopher John Searle on “social reality,” the sorts of facts that exist only by mutual agreement. “When we lose parts of our physical past, we lose part of our social past as well.” Our preference for the originals of things, the “authentic” objects, isn’t just about sentiment, he argued — it is part of what defines us. (And if you don’t believe physical things define you, try losing a wedding ring, or an irreplaceable album of old photographs.) Preserving public memories, spaces of our past, whether positive or negative, help us come to terms with who we are, and what we have done. And he made the point, quite effectively, that we do not just preserve the sites that glorify us — Ford’s Theatre, Manzanar, and the Sand Creek massacre site are all National Historic Sites as well.

Battle deaths in state-based conflicts, 1946-2013, by Max Roser. This is what Rhodes had in mind regarding the decreased amount of deaths from war since World War II. (Note that if WWII was included in this, it would be even more stark: the rate of battle deaths per 100,000 of global population was 300 for the war as a whole.) There are a lot of ways to parse these numbers, as Roser's site makes clear (the raw numbers of wars has been increasing, some of this decline as a unit of population is due to the massive increase in global population), and there are multiple interpretations of the data (whether the bomb has anything to do with it is disputed by scholars), but it is still very interesting. Source: Max Roser, "War and Peace after 1945," OurWorldInData.org

Battle deaths in state-based conflicts, 1946-2013, by Max Roser. This is what Rhodes had in mind regarding the decreased amount of deaths from war since World War II. (Note that WWII’s rate of battle deaths was around 300 per 100,000.) There are a lot of ways to parse these numbers, as Roser’s site makes clear (the raw numbers of wars has been increasing, some of this decline as a unit of population is due to the massive increase in global population), and there are multiple interpretations of the data (whether the bomb has anything to do with it is disputed by scholars), but it is still very interesting. Source: Max Roser, “War and Peace after 1945,” OurWorldInData.org.

Rhodes is no fan of nuclear weapons, and doesn’t believe that the atomic bombs were what caused Japan to surrender in World War II.1 Yet, he argued that when J. Robert Oppenheimer told his recruits that these weapons might end all war, he might not have been wrong. Rhodes noted the marked decrease of deaths by war in the years that followed World War II, paired with the increased risk of a terrible nuclear holocaust. Nuclear weapons, he argued, were the first instance in which science revealed a natural limit to national sovereignty. In Rhodes framing of it, scientists found facts of the natural world which required new political interventions and methods to avoid certain types of war.

As a result, he said, these Manhattan Project sites were potentially among the most significant in the history of the world. It was an interesting way to start things off.

In an event where the participants are present, it is easy to fall into something that feels like just a celebration. And there were those, without a doubt, who felt positively about the Manhattan Project, that it was necessary to end the war, and all of that. There were also those who thought it wasn’t necessary, too. I think my favorite comment came from James Forde, a Manhattan Project veteran who had been employed to clean tubes (later revealed to be gaseous diffusion barriers) near Columbia University during the war. He said that for awhile he felt bad about the atomic bombs, but then he looked more into all of the other damage that non-atomic weapons had done during the war. After that, he lost any enthusiasm for war of any kind. He got solid applause for that.

Age distribution at Los Alamos, May 1945. Top graph is total  civilian personnel, bottom is scientific employees only. Keep in mind this was 70 years ago, so anyone in their 20s then would be in their 90s now. Source: Manhattan District History, Book 8, Volume 2, Appendix, Graph 1.

Age distribution at Los Alamos, May 1945. Top graph is total civilian personnel, bottom is scientific employees only. Keep in mind this was 70 years ago, so anyone in their 20s then would be in their 90s now. Source: Manhattan District History, Book 8, Volume 2, Appendix, Graph 1.

The veterans who were there had all been extremely young at the time. This makes sense, of course — if it is the 70th anniversary, almost nobody older than their early twenties is going to still be around today. And at many of the sites, the youth were in abundance. As a result, most of them had fairly small roles, small jobs, though some of them had rubbed shoulders with the giants. There were a few remarkable anecdotes. Isabella Karle talked about working as a chemist at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, working on plutonium oxide produced at the Oak Ridge X-10 reactor. She had to move it between buildings, and since it was such a small amount, she just carried it in her pocket. Someone found out she was doing this, and required her, a young woman with pigtails, to be escorted between building by burly guards, attracting more attention than she would have otherwise. She also related a story about carrying a radiation counter around with her, and having it go off next to a Coca-Cola machine. Apparently a deliveryman had forgotten some tubing in his car, and borrow a contaminated tube from a Met Lab office, contaminating the machine with who knows what. Fortunately, she said, she had stumbled across this before anyone had used it.

Ben Bederson told some amazing stories about David Greenglass, who he had bunked with as a member of the Special Engineer Detachment. Greenglass, he said, was a “true believer” of a Communist. Bederson pointed out that he, like many New York Jews at the time, had been interested in Communism for awhile (he had grown up in a part of the Bronx that was considered a “Communist neighborhood”) but that most had become disillusioned with it by the time the US was in the war. Greenglass never seemed to take the hint, though, and thought Bederson was a fellow traveler. It was an amusing contrast to people like Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, who hid their politics. Bederson eventually asked to be transferred to a different bunk. Later, Greenglass told the FBI he had wanted to try and recruit Bederson but his courier, Harry Gold, told him not to. The reason Greenglass thought Bederson would be a good recruit is because he gave money to the Roosevelt reelection campaign. “That shows you how smart David Greenglass was,” Bederson remarked with sarcasm.

The arming plugs of the Little Boy bomb.

Holding the arming plugs of the Little Boy bomb.

Along with the veterans and the historians, there were some artifactual pieces of the past there. Clay Perkins had brought the arming switches of the Little Boy bomb, which he purchased over a decade ago. The green (“safe”) one was kept plugged into the bomb until after takeoff. While in flight, the assistant weaponeer, Morris Jeppson, climbed into the unpressurized bomb bay of the Enola Gay and removed it. In its place, he put a red (“armed”) plug, making the bomb electrically “live.” (The red plug that Clay has is a spare, of course — the original was destroyed in the explosion over Hiroshima. Jeppson brought multiple spares with him since if he had dropped one during the operation, it would have aborted the mission.) Clay let me hold them, which was moving.

There was also a very surprising artifact brought by one of the veterans: a lucite hemisphere with pieces of Trinitite embedded in it. The Trinitite is not so rare, but the lucite was cast in the same mold that made the plutonium pits for the Trinity and Fat Man bombs, and included the small hold for the neutron initiator. This is an incredible thing to have kept (and I was also allowed to hold this, as well). I am sure its existence is the result of a violation of untold numbers of security rules. John Coster-Mullen, as I expected would, came up immediately afterwards to trace the dimensions. It looked how we all expected it to, but it still amazing to see something like this, knowing how secret it once was, and even now is supposed to be.2

I knew the plugs existed, I did not know the lucite existed. There is something profound about holding artifacts that had such strong connections to history. That historical empathy I spoke of in my most recent post has something to do with it — the brain suddenly makes this connection with this world that often seems so far away. But of course it really isn’t that far away, and the world we have today is largely a product of it. But sometimes even historians need reminders.

Monthly costs of the Manhattan Project, 1943 through 1946. From the Manhattan District History, Volume 5, Appendix A.

Monthly costs of the Manhattan Project, 1943 through 1946. From the Manhattan District History, Volume 5, Appendix A.

My own contribution to the symposium was a talk about the Manhattan Project as a “Crucible for Innovation.” I didn’t choose the title (it is not really my style, even though I do teach at “The Innovation University“), but it was easy enough to roll with: how much innovation took place during the Manhattan Project, and why was it successful? I talked a bit about the secret Manhattan Project patent program as one way to measure its innovation. By the time the AEC took over, the Manhattan Project patent program approved 2,100 separate secret patent applications for filing, and had already filed 1,250 of them with the US Patent Office. As I noted in an article from a few years ago, that latter number represented 1.5% of all of the patent applications filed in 1946. The Manhattan Project was not just the building of a bomb, but the creation an entirely new industry from scratch.

Why did the Manhattan Project succeed? Well, I argued, it almost didn’t — all you would need for it to have been a “failure” (in the sense of having not produced atomic bombs by the end of World War II) would to have been delayed by likely a few months. Which anyone who has ever tried to run even a small project knows is easy enough to do. I always try to emphasize this lack of an inevitability when I talk about the wartime effort, because it is easy to fall into the fallacy of knowing how the story ends and thus seeing it as predestined. The Manhattan Project was an anomaly: it was not innovation as usual, and it was not the natural or obvious path to take. Which is one reason why the US was the only country who actually went down that path with any seriousness during the war. The Manhattan Project still holds the world record for fastest tested or deliverable nuclear weapon after committing to build one: two and a half years.3

A preview of my forthcoming Manhattan Project sites map. Size is a subjective "prominence" rating given by me, the white dots show the actual location of the sites, and the color corresponds to whether it is government/military, educational institution, or private industry. An interactive version will be unveiled this summer, which will give more information about specific sites and permit zooming in, and etc. This only shows sites in the continental US and lower Canada — there are other non-US sites as well in the final version.

A preview of my forthcoming Manhattan Project sites map. Size is a subjective “prominence” rating given by me, the white dots show the actual location of the sites, and the color corresponds to whether it is government/military, educational institution, or private industry. An interactive version will be unveiled this summer, which will give more information about specific sites and permit zooming in, and etc. This only shows sites in the continental US and lower Canada — there are other non-US sites as well in the final version.

Lastly, I also emphasized the size of the project. I’ve talked on here about the immense cost of the work, and the greater-than-most-people-realize manpower requirements. But I also unveiled a screenshot of a work in progress. For a while now, I’ve been trying to make a database of every site where some sort of work on the Manhattan Project was done. I’ve been combing through the Manhattan District History, through archival files on contracts, and through databases of radioactive Superfund sites. I’ve been keeping a tally of any places listed as having some role in the final outcome, however minor. My current list is well over 200 separate sites. Some of these places were research institutions (about 40 are educational institutions of some nature), some were military or government institutions (some created from scratch, some pre-existing), and about half were private industry. Some places produced materials, some just produced paper. (The symposium took place in the Carnegie Institute of Science, which was where Vannevar Bush’s Office of Scientific Research and Development headquarters were during the war, and I delighted in getting to point this out.) Not all sites were equally important, to be sure. But all played some role, even if most of those places probably did not actually know what their role was. The screenshot above is a preview of the map — it is still a work in progress, and the final version will be fully interactive, sortable into different categories, and so on.

It’s a big list. Bigger than I thought when I started it. It just emphasizes again that the Manhattan Project was responsible for the birth of an industry, not just the bomb. Upon learning about the scale of the project in 1944, Niels Bohr told Edward Teller: “I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.” It was an apt observation.

Very little of this infrastructure remains. The Manhattan Project National Historic Park is an important step in the right direction for preservation of this history. There is a long road yet to go in terms of figuring out how to make it available to the public, and how to properly present the material. I remain optimistic that it will be an opportunity to talk about history in a productive way, and to build bridges between the ever-changing present and the ever-receding past.

Notes
  1. Rhodes is explicitly convinced by the Hasegawa thesis. In his words, though, “I find tragedy but no dishonor in having used atomic bombs to hasten the end of the war,” whether they actually hastened that end or not. It is a nuanced point to make. []
  2. John says it is a bit smaller than the actual pit — the initiator would not have been able to fit in the hole given, and the mass would be off by a few percentage points. So either it was cast in an earlier or alternative pit model, or something happened to it in the meantime. My hypothesis is that it was cast in the actual pit mold, but that it shrunk in some way over time, either because it contracted while it cooled originally (the thermal contraction coefficient for acrylic is around 5X that of uranium, just as a point of comparison), or through some other warping mechanism over the last 70 years. []
  3. The decision to produce nuclear weapons was made in December 1942. The work prior to this was of an exploratory or pilot nature, not a production program. The “Gadget” was ready by mid-July 1945, the other bombs were ready by the end of the month. []
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What did Bohr do at Los Alamos?

Monday, May 11th, 2015

In the fall of 1943, the eminent quantum physicist Niels Bohr managed a dramatic escape from occupied Denmark, arriving first in Sweden, then going to the United Kingdom. He was quickly assimilated into the British part of the Manhattan Project, then well underway. Bohr’s institute in Copenhagen had long been considered the world center of theoretical physics, and in the 1920s, young students from around the world flocked to work with him there. Now, in December 1943, Bohr and his son Aage made their pilgrimage to what was quickly becoming the new, stealth center of nuclear expertise: Los Alamos. At age 59, he would be the oldest scientist on “the Hill,” a place where the average age was 29.

Bohr skiing at Los Alamos, January 1945, seemingly without a care in the world. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

Bohr skiing at Los Alamos, January 1945, seemingly without a care in the world. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

This much is a standard part of Manhattan Project lore. Bohr’s contributions are usually spoken of primarily in psychological and moral terms. Bohr inspired the physicists to think about the consequences of their work, and laid the seeds of what would become the effort for postwar international control. He also spoke with both Churchill and Roosevelt, ineffectively, about the need to avoid an arms race. Bohr was a notoriously poor oral communicator, typically being barely audible. His deeply alienated and disturbed Churchill, who thought he might be proposing to tell the Soviets about the weapon. He probably just bored Roosevelt.

Some of the stories of his conduct at Los Alamos are adorably absent-minded. One of my favorite memos in the Manhattan Project archives is a February 1944 letter from Lt. Col. John Lansdale, head of MED security, to Richard Tolman, a physicist who was a good friend of the Bohrs. “Subject: Nicholas Baker,” it starts out, using Bohr’s wartime codename, and explains that in the process of following Bohr around, to make sure he was safe, some, well, deficiencies in his judgment were encountered:

“Both the father and son appear to be extremely absent-minded individuals, engrossed in themselves, and go about paying little attention to any external influences. As they did a great deal of walking, this Agent had occasion to spend considerable time behind them and observe that it was rare when either of them paid much attention to stop lights or signs, but proceeded on their way much the same as if they were walking in the wood. On one occasion, subjects proceeded across a busy intersection against the red light in a diagonal fashion, taking the longest route possible and one of greatest danger. The resourceful work of Agent Maiers in blocking out one half of the stream of automobile traffic with his car prevented their possible incurring serious injury in this instance.”

… I understand that the Bakers will be in Washington in the near future, at which time you will unquestionably see them. If the opportunity should present itself, I would appreciate a tactful suggestion from you to them that they should be more careful in traffic.1

Nobel-Prize winning physicist nearly run over by a car, because he treats American streets like paths in a forest, saved from disaster only by a trailing secret agent blocking the road with his car? You can’t make this stuff up. These kinds of stories reinforce the playful, harmless, “Uncle Nick” character that Bohr has come to represent in this period.

Bohr and General Groves' personal technical advisor, Richard Tolman, attending the opening of the Bicentennial Conference on "The Future of Nuclear Science," circa 1947. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

Bohr and General Groves’ personal technical advisor, Richard Tolman, attending the opening of the Bicentennial Conference on “The Future of Nuclear Science,” circa 1947. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

But the truth is a little more complicated. For his part, Bohr would later downplay his role in the actual creation of nuclear weapons. He told another physicist in 1950, for example, that he had spent most of his time while in the United States trying to forestall a nuclear arms race. “That is why I went to America… They didn’t need my help in making the atom bomb,” he later said.2

Did they need Bohr? Probably not — they probably would have managed well enough without him. But this is an odd standard for talking about one’s role in making a weapon of mass destruction. They didn’t need almost any individual who worked on the bomb, in the sense that they could have salvaged on without them.3

And not being “needed” does not really get one off the hook, does it? Which gets at what I think is a key point here: in the postwar, Bohr never relied on his contributions to the bomb as a means of claiming moral superiority, responsibility, or political leverage. He was active in attempts to promote international control and avoid an arms race, but he didn’t do so in a way that ever owned up to his own role in making the bomb. As a result, a lot of people seem to believe that Bohr didn’t really do that much at Los Alamos other than provide the aforementioned moral support and provocative questions.

In fact, Bohr did work on the bomb. And not just on esoteric aspects of the physics, either; one of his role was concerned with the very heart of the “Gadget.”

Niels Bohr (r) conversing animatedly with his son Aage in front of a board full of equations. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

Niels Bohr (r) conversing animatedly with his son Aage in front of a board full of equations. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

One of the key parts of the implosion design for the atomic bomb (the same sort of bomb detonated at Trinity and over Nagasaki) is the neutron initiator that sits at the absolute center of the device. It is a deceptively tricky little contraption. At the instance of maximum compression, it needs to send out a small burst of neutrons, to get the whole chain reaction started. It’s not even that many neutrons, objectively speaking — on the order of a hundred or so in the first bombs. But conjuring up a hundred neutrons, at the center of an imploding nuclear assembly, at just the right moment, was a tricky technical problem, apparently.

The details are still classified-enough that figuring out exactly what the nature of the problem is proves a little tough in retrospect. In an interview many years later, the physicist Robert Bacher, head of G (Gadget) Division during the war, recalled that for whatever reason, Enrico Fermi had become particularly focused on the initiator as the lynchpin of the bomb, and maybe his own conscience:

I think Fermi began to be very worried about the fact that this terrific thing that he’d sort of been the father of was going to turn into a great big weapon. I think he was terribly worried about it. … I think he [Fermi] was worried about the whole project, not just the initiator. But focusing on the initiator was the one thing that he thought he could look at. The thing really might not work.

And I think he also felt an obligation to take something that was as hare-brained as this was and try to find a way in which it really wouldn’t work. So he did look into every sort of thing, and I think every second day or so for a period, I’d see him and he’d come up or he’d see Hans [Bethe] and come up with a new reason why the initiator wouldn’t work. …4

Bacher got sick of Fermi’s interference, and eventually went to Oppenheimer to complain. Bacher recalled:

I said, “What I’d like to do is, Uncle Nick is here now, and I’d like to go and explain to him about the initiator and say I’d like his advice and counsel on whether he thinks it will work or not. We’ll answer any question that he puts to us, that we know the answer to.” So we did and he agreed with us and I told him quite frankly, “One of the reasons that we want to do this is that Fermi has so many misgivings about initiators.”

So I talked to him for a long while and then he spent about two days with his son Aage going over every single thing that had been done on this business. I saw him after this and he said, “My that’s very impressive. I think that will work.” I said, “Well now comes the test. Will you talk to Fermi about this? The two of you talk together and give me some counsel of what’s up on this?” So he did. And it made a lot of difference to have Uncle Nick talk to Fermi, because he felt that this wasn’t somebody you had working on some particular model and so on. It was sort of somebody from the outside, and I think it made Fermi feel a lot happier. And it certainly made it a lot easier for us.5

The initiator that “Uncle Nick” convinced Fermi of, the one that they ended up using in the Trinity and Nagasaki bombs, was the “Urchin.”

A schematic of the “Urchin,” as imagined by me, based on a postwar British account.

It was a hollow sphere of beryllium, a mere two centimeters in diameter. The inner side of the sphere was machined with grooves, facing inwards. At the center of these grooves was another sphere of beryllium, centered by pins embedded in the outer shell. On both the inner grooves of the outer shell, and the outer surface of the inner sphere were coated with nickel and gold. Onto the nickel of the inner sphere was a thin film of virulently radioactive polonium. Polonium emits alpha particles; in the non-detonated state of the “Urchin,” these would be absorbed harmlessly by the gold and nickel. But when the bomb came imploding in around it, the beryllium and polonium would be violently mixed, producing a well-known reaction (beryllium + an alpha particle = carbon + neutron) that produced the necessary neutrons.6

Margrethe and Niels Bohr converse in Copenhagen, 1947, in this extremely rare color photo. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

Margrethe and Niels Bohr converse in Copenhagen, 1947, in this extremely rare color photo. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

“Urchin” wasn’t the only initiator design on the table. Fermi apparently favored a design with the codename “Grape Nuts.” What was “Grape Nuts”? I have no idea — it’s still classified. Presumably these names meant something, since “Urchin” seems to reference the internal spikes. A topic listing for a May 1945 laboratory colloquium at Los Alamos discussed three initiator designs and their creators: “Urchin,” attributed to James Tuck and Hans Bethe; “Melon-Seed,” attributed to James Serduke; and, lastly, “Nichodemus,” attributed to… Nicholas Baker, the codename for Niels Bohr.7

In the recently-declassified Manhattan District History, there are several paragraphs on Bohr. Most of them describe theoretical work he did on the physics of nuclear fission after arriving at the lab, which “cleared up many questions that were left unanswered before.” His work affected their understanding the nuclear properties of tamper materials, and he apparently gave them ideas for “new and better methods… of alternative means of bomb assembly.” (All of which apparently just pointed to the superiority of implosion, in the end, but still.)

MHD Bohr contributions to bomb

At least one sentence in the Manhattan District History is still completely blacked out. Maybe it refers to the initiator design (which the previous sentence refers to), maybe it refers to something else. It’s interesting that seven decades later, something of what Bohr worked on was still considered too classified to reproduce — evidence that Bohr’s influence on the bomb was less trivial than he would later make it out to be.8

Why does it matter? In Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, there is, towards the end of the play, an implied asymmetry between Bohr and Heisenberg. Heisenberg is criticized throughout the play for potentially making an atomic bomb for Hitler. The play ultimately says Heisenberg didn’t make an atomic bomb in part because he wasn’t trying to make a bomb. (It does so with perhaps a little bit too much credence to the “he didn’t do it because he was sabotaging it thesis,” which I think there is no evidence for and no reason to believe, but anyway.) Driven by his fears, Bohr goes to the United States and actually does work on the bomb, does contribute to the killing of over a hundred thousand people, and so on. And so there is some irony there, where Heisenberg, supposedly the one in a state of moral jeopardy, is the one who actually contributes to the death of no one, where Bohr, supposedly the moral authority, is the one who helps build the bomb.

Bohr with Elisabeth and Werner Heisenberg in Athens, Greece, 1956. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

Bohr with Elisabeth and Werner Heisenberg in Athens, Greece, 1956. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives, Niels Bohr Library, American Institute of Physics.

Do Bohr’s contributions to the atomic bomb, however major or minor, weaken his moral authority? I don’t really think so. Bohr’s strongest and most lasting contribution was putting the bug of international control into the heads of people like Oppenheimer. That bug might have come up on its own (when they learned about Bohr’s scheme, Vannevar Bush and James Conant were surprised to find that they had been thinking along almost exactly the same lines, completely independently), but Bohr’s influence on openness, candor, the moral obligation of scientists, and so on had a profound effect on postwar political discourse, even if his dreaded arms race was not avoided. In this light, I think Bohr still comes off pretty well, even if the bomb still does contain traces of his fingerprints.

Notes
  1. John Lansdale to Richard Tolman, “Subject: Nicholas Baker,” (5 February 1944), Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD, Box 64, “Security.” []
  2. J. Rud Nielson, “Memories of Niels Bohr,” Physics Today 16, no. 10 (Oct. 1963), 28-29. []
  3. I am occasionally drawn into a game of “who is so important that you absolutely couldn’t remove them and still expect it to be successful?” I am inclined to think that almost everyone would be more or less replaceable, as individuals, though there are a few whose contributions were so pivotal that removing them would create serious issues. Someday I will post some concrete thoughts on this on this. []
  4. Robert Bacher interview with Lillian Hoddeson and Alison Kerr (30 July 1984), Robert Bacher papers, Caltech Institute Archives, Pasadena, CA, Box 48, Folder 5. []
  5. Ibid. []
  6. Accounts of the exact dimensions of the “Urchin” vary from source to source. John Coster-Mullen’s book, Atom Bombs, gives what I find to be convincing evidence that it was 0.8 in./2 cm in diameter. There was 20 curies of polonium deposited in them, and they had to be replaced frequently because of polonium’s low half-life. The inner core of the plutonium pit was about 1 in. in diameter, and apparently both the core and the initiator would be expected to expand slightly due to the heat generated by their radioactivity. Apparently James Tuck gave it the name “Urchin,” on account of its inner ridges. There is some question as to how the grooves were machined, whether they were pyramids (as in the British account) or ridges (e.g. like a theatre in the round). It’s always nice to be reminded that there are still a few secret details out there. []
  7. The list of wartime colloquia comes from the Klaus Fuchs FBI File, Part 49 of 111, available on the FBI’s website, starting on page 49 of the PDF. The only other “Nicholas Baker” contribution mentioned in the document is a November 1944 talk on “nuclear reactions of heavy elements and particularly the various results obtained when a neutron comes in contact with heavy nuclei, such as Uranium 238.” []
  8. Manhattan District History, Book 8 (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), pages II-2 to II-3. []
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To demonstrate, or not to demonstrate?

Friday, March 6th, 2015

As the atomic bomb was becoming a technological reality, there were many scientists on the Manhattan Project who found themselves wondering about both the ethics and politics of a surprise, unwarned nuclear attack on a city. Many of them, even at very high levels, wondered about whether the very threat of the bomb, properly displayed, might be enough, without the loss of life that would come with a military attack.

1945-06-12 - Franck Report

The Franck Report, written in June 1945 by scientists working at the University of Chicago Metallurgical laboratory, put it perhaps most eloquently:

the way in which nuclear weapons, now secretly developed in this country, will first be revealed to the world appears of great, perhaps fateful importance. … It will be very difficult to persuade the world that a nation which was capable of secretly preparing and suddenly releasing a weapon, as indiscriminate as the rocket bomb and a thousand times more destructive, is to be trusted in its proclaimed desire of having such weapons abolished by international agreement…. 

From this point of view a demonstration of the new weapon may best be made before the eyes of representatives of all United Nations, on the desert or a barren island. The best possible atmosphere for the achievement of an international agreement could be achieved if America would be able to say to the world, “You see what weapon we had but did not use. We are ready to renounce its use in the future and to join other nations in working out adequate supervision of the use of this nuclear weapon.”

They even went so far as to suggest, in a line that was until recently totally etched out of the historical record by the Manhattan Project censors, that “We fear its early unannounced use might cause other nations to regard us as a nascent Germany.” 

The evolution of the "Trinity" test fireball, at constant scale, with the Empire State Building for additional scale reference.

The evolution of the “Trinity” test fireball, at constant scale, with the Empire State Building for additional scale reference.

The idea of a “demonstration” was for many scientists a compelling one, and news of the idea spread to the various project sites. The idea would be to let the Japanese know what awaited them if they did not surrender. This would be more than just a verbal or textual warning, which could be disregarded as propaganda — they would set the bomb off somewhere where casualties would be low or minimal, but its nature easy to verify. If the demonstration did not work, if the Japanese were not receptive, then the bomb could be used as before. In the eyes of these scientists, there would be no serious loss to do it this way, and perhaps much to gain.

Of course, not all scientists saw it this way. In his cover letter forwarding the Franck Report to the Secretary of War, the physicist Arthur Compton, head of the Chicago laboratory, noted his own doubts: 1. if it didn’t work, it would be prolonging the war, which would cost lives; and 2. “without a military demonstration it may be impossible to impress the world with the need for national sacrifices in order to gain lasting security.” This last line is the more interesting one in my eyes: Compton saw dropping the bomb on a city as a form of “demonstration,” a “military demonstration,” and thought that taking a lot of life now would be necessary to scare the world into banning these weapons in the future. This view, that the bombs were something more than just weapons, but visual arguments, comes across in other scientists’ discussions of targeting questions as well.

Truman was never asked or told about the demonstration option. It is clear that General Groves and the military never gave it much thought. But the Secretary of War did take it serious enough that he asked a small advisory committee of scientists to give him their thoughts on the matter. A Scientific Panel, composed of J. Robert Oppenheimer, Arthur Compton, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence, weighed in on the matter formally, concluding that: “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.”1

"Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Atomic Weapons," by the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee, June 16, 1945. The full report (which also discusses the possibility of the H-bomb and many other things) is extremely interesting, as well — click here to read it in its entirety.

“Recommendations on the Immediate Use of Atomic Weapons,” by the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee, June 16, 1945. The full report (which also discusses the possibility of the H-bomb and many other things) is extremely interesting, as well — click here to read it in its entirety.

I find this a curious conclusion for a few reasons. For one thing, are these four scientists really the best experts to evaluate this question? No offense, they were smart guys, but they are not experts in psychological warfare, Japanese political thought, much less privy to intercepted intelligence about what the Japanese high command was thinking at this time. That four physicists saw no “acceptable alternative” could just be a reflective of their own narrowness, and their opinion sought in part just to have it on the record that while some scientists on the project were uncomfortable with the idea of a no-warning first use, others at the top were accepting of it.

But that aside, here’s the other fun question to ponder: were they actually unanimous in their position? That is, did these four physicists actually agree on this question? There is evidence that they did not. The apparent dissenter was an unlikely one, the most conservative member of the group: Ernest Lawrence. After the bombing of Hiroshima, Lawrence apparently told his friend, the physicist Karl Darrow, that he had been in favor of demonstration. Darrow put this into writing on August 9, 1945, to preserve it for posterity should Lawrence come under criticism later. In Darrow’s recollection, Lawrence debated it with the other scientists for “about an hour” — a long-enough time to make it seem contentious. On August 17, after the bomb had “worked” to secure the peace, Lawrence wrote back to Darrow, somewhat denying this account, saying that it was maybe only ten minutes of discussion. Lawrence, in this later account, credits Oppenheimer as being the hardest pusher for the argument that unless the demonstration took out a city, it wouldn’t be compelling. I’m not sure I completely believe Lawrence’s later recant, both because Darrow seemed awfully convinced of his recollection and because so much changed on how the bomb was perceived after the Japanese surrendered, but it is all an interesting hint as some of the subtleties of this disagreement that get lost from the final documents alone. In any case, I don’t know which is more problematic: that they debated for an hour and after all that, concluded it was necessary, or that they spent no more than ten minutes on the question.2

1945-08-10 - Groves memo on next bombs

As an aside, one question that sometimes gets brought up at this point in the conversation is, well, didn’t they only have two bombs to use? So wouldn’t a demonstration have meant that they would have only had another bomb left, perhaps not enough? This is only an issue if you consider the timescale to be as it was played out — e.g., using both bombs as soon as possible, in early August. A third plutonium bomb would have been ready by August 17th or 18th (they originally thought the 24th, but it got pushed up), so one could imagine a situation in which things were delayed by a week or so and there would have been no real difference even if one bomb was expended on a demonstration. If they had been willing to wait a few more weeks, they could have turned the Little Boy bomb’s fuel into several “composite” core implosion bombs, as Oppenheimer had suggested to Groves after Trinity. I only bring the above up because people sometimes get confused about their weapon availability and the timing issue. They made choices on this that constrained their options. They had reasons for doing it, but it was not as if the way things happened was set in stone. (The invasion of Japan was not scheduled until November 1st.)3

So, obviously, they didn’t choose to demonstrate the bomb first. But what if they had? I find this an interesting counterfactual to ponder. Would dropping the bomb in Tokyo Bay have been militarily feasible? I suspect so. If they could drop the bombs on cities, they could probably drop them near cities. To put it another way: I have faith they could have figured out a way to do it operationally, because they were clever people.4

But would it have caused the Japanese high command to surrender? Personally, I doubt it. Why? Because it’s not even clear that the actual atomic bombings were what caused the Japanese high command to surrender. There is a strong argument that it was the Soviet invasion of Manchuria that “shocked” them into their final capitulation. I don’t know if I completely buy that argument (this is the subject of a future blog post), but I am convinced that the Soviet invasion was very important and disturbing to the Japanese with regards to their long-term political visions for the country. If an atomic bomb dropped on an actual city was not, by itself, entirely enough, what good would seeing a bomb detonated without destruction do? One cannot know, but I suspect it would not have done the trick.

The maximum size of a 20 kiloton mushroom cloud in Tokyo Bay, as viewed from the roof of the Imperial Palace today, as visualized by NUKEMAP3D. Firebombed Tokyo of 1945 would have afforded a less skyscraper-cluttered view, obviously.

The maximum size of the mushroom cloud of a 20 kiloton nuclear detonation in Tokyo Bay, as viewed from the roof of the Imperial Palace today, as visualized by NUKEMAP3D. Firebombed Tokyo of 1945 would have afforded a less skyscraper-cluttered view, obviously.

Of course, the Chicago scientists suspected that as well, but said it was necessary from a moral point of view. Sure, the Japanese might not surrender, but then, at least, you can say you showed them what was coming first.  As it was, we gave no real warning whatsoever before dropping it on Hiroshima. But here’s the question I come to next: could you demonstrate it, and then drop it on a city? That is, could the United States really say: “we have made this apocalyptic weapon, unleashed the atom, and many other peril/hope clichés — and we have chosen not to use it to take life… yet. But if you don’t give in to our demands, we will unleash it on your people.” How could that not look like pure blackmail, pure terrorism? Could they then turn around and start killing people by the tens of thousands, having announced their capability to do so? Somehow I suspect the public relations angle would be almost impossible. By demonstrating it first, they would be implying that they knew that it was perhaps not just another weapon, not just another way to wage war. And that acknowledgment would mean that they would definitely be seen as crossing a line if they then went on to use it.

As it was, that line, between the bomb as “just another weapon” and something “special,” was negotiated over time. I think the demonstration option was, for this reason, never really going to be on the table: it would have forced the American policymakers to come to terms with whether the atomic bomb was a weapon suitable for warfare on an earlier schedule than they were prepared to. As it was, their imagery, language, and deliberations are full of ambiguity on this. Sometimes they thought it would have new implications for “man’s position in the universe” (and other “special bomb” notions), sometimes they thought it was just an expedient form of firebombing with extra propaganda value because it would be very bright and colorful. Secrecy enabled them to hedge their bets on this question, for better or worse.

Without imagery like this, would the world fear nuclear weapons more, or less?

Without imagery like this, would the world fear nuclear weapons more, or less? When, if ever, would the first use of nuclear weapons in warfare have been?

So who was right? I don’t know. We can’t replay history to see what happened, obviously. I think the idea of a demonstration is an interesting expression of a certain type of ethical ideal, though it went so far against the practical desires of the military and political figures that it is hard to imagine any way it would have been pursued. I am not sure it would even have been successful, or resolved the moral bind of the atomic bomb.

I do find myself somewhat agreeing with those scientists who said that perhaps it was better to draw blood with the smaller, cruder bombs, before the really big ones came around — and they knew those were coming. If we didn’t have Hiroshima and Nagasaki, what would we point to, to talk about why not to use nuclear weapons? Would people think the bombs were not that impressive, or even more impressive than they were? I don’t know, but there is something to the notion that knowing the gritty, gruesome reality (and its limitations) is better than not. It took the Holocaust for the world to (mostly) renounce genocide, maybe it took Hiroshima and Nagasaki for the nuclear taboo to be established (arguably). That, perhaps, is the most hopeful argument here, the one that sees Hiroshima and Nagasaki as not just the first cities to be atomic bombed, but the last, but I am sure this is little solace to the people who were in those cities at the time.

Notes
  1. This was part of a larger set of recommendations these scientists made, including those which touched on the “Super” bomb, future governance of the atom, and other topics of great interest. Report of the Scientific Panel of the Interim Committee (16 June 1945), Harrison-Bundy Files Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1108 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 6, Target 5, Folder 76, “Interim Comittee — Scientific Panel.” []
  2. Karl Darrow to Ernest Lawrence (9 August 1945), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, NV0724362 [note the NTA has the wrong name and date on this in their database]; Ernest Lawrence to Karl Darrow (17 August 1945), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive,NV0724363. []
  3. On the composite core question, see J. Robert Oppenheimer to Leslie Groves (19 July 1945), copy in Nuclear Testing Archive, NV0311426; Leslie Groves to J. Robert Oppenheimer (19 July 1945), Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5B: “Directives, Memorandums, etc to and from Chief of Staff, Secretary of War, etc.” []
  4. To answer one other question that comes up: would such a demonstration create deadly fallout? Not if it was set to detonate high in the air, like at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If it was detonated underwater the fallout would be mostly limited to the area around the bomb detonation itself. It would be hard to actually create a lot of fallout with a bomb detonated over water and not land, in any case. “Local fallout,” the acutely deadly kind, is caused in part by the mixing of heavier dirt and debris with the radioactive fireball, which causes the fission products to descend very rapidly, while they are still very “hot.” []
Redactions

How to die at Los Alamos

Friday, February 13th, 2015

The people who ran the Manhattan Project worried about a lot of different things. Usually when we talk about this, it’s a story about the Germans, or the Japanese, or the physics, or other very specific things of that nature. But they also worried about banal things, like occupational safety: reducing the number of people injured, or killed, as part of doing their job.

Around half of the 500,000 or so people employed by the Manhattan Project were employed in construction. As a result, most of the injuries and fatalities associated with making the bomb were of a banal, construction-related variety. Heavy machinery, ditches, collapsing buildings — these were the most dangerous parts of the project for those who made it. Occasionally there were more exotic threats. Criticality accidents took the lives of two scientists in the immediate postwar, as is well known. Concerns about criticality excursions at the plants used to enrich uranium were a non-trivial concern. And there were other, more unusal ways to die, as you would expect from any body of people that large, working over so great an area, especially when they are concentrated in places that were for much of this period constant construction sites, as were Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford.

Exhibit 14 - Fatalities at Los Alamos

“Exhibit 14: FATAL ACCIDENTS: Since the inception of the Project in the Spring of 1943, until September 1946, twenty-four (24) fatal accidents have occurred. The following history of these incidents was taken from hospital records, reports of investigation boards, and the safety division files.”

Some time ago I happened upon a list of all of the fatal accidents that occurred at Los Alamos between its inception in 1943 through September 1946. There were exactly twenty-four, an even two-dozen ways to die while working at an isolated nuclear weapons laboratory. I reprint them here, not only because there is a morbid fascination with this sort of thing, but because I’ve found that this list gives a really remarkable summary of the people of Los Alamos, the hazards of Los Alamos, and the work that goes into making a bomb, which requires much more than star physicists to pull off successfully. Each death was followed by an inquiry.

My summaries are below; the original document (linked to at the end of this post) contains more details on some of them. The copy of the document I have is very hard to read, so I may have gotten a few of the names wrong.

1943
  1. Estevan Roches, bulldozer operator. Crushed by a rock in his tractor while trying to build an access road to Los Alamos, at night. Died February 11, 1943.
  2. George H. Holtary, diesel motor mechanic. Was working on the power plant at Los Alamos, got crushed between a crankshaft and the housing. Died March 1, 1943.
  3. George J. Edwards, a soldier. Fell into a drainage ditch at night after drinking, injuring his back and puncturing his kidneys. Died July 19, 1943.
  4. Jose Montoya, construction laborer. Was digging an acid sewer ditch between “C” and “D” buildings. The 8-foot ditch was not reinforced and it collapsed on him. Died November 2, 1943. Investigation board recommended reinforcing ditches in the future.
  5. Pfc. Frederick Galbraith, military police. Was accidentally shot by another serviceman while sleeping. Another private was cleaning the gun and did not realize there was a live round in the chamber. It caused a severe wound in Galbraith’s thigh. He died of severe shock, November 4, 1943.
  6. Efren Lovato, construction laborer. Lovato was in the back of a dump truck being used to transport laborers to lunch. The truck’s accelerator got stuck and it crashed into a car at the pass gate and overturned, killing Lovato and another laborer, on November 20, 1943. Investigation board recommended increasing the size of the motor pool so the vehicles could be inspected more regularly.
  7. Fridon Virgil, construction laborer. Killed in the same accident as previous.
1944
  1. Fred Wolcott, contractor engaged to clear woods near the site. Attached a bulldozer to a tree and tried to pull it out. The tree snapped and fell on him. Witnesses say he appeared to be “frozen” to the seat of his tractor. Died May 9, 1944.
  2. Elmer R. Bowen, Jr., age 10 and a half. With a friend, was using a canoe from the former Los Alamos Ranch School in the main pond. His canoe capsized; neither him nor his friend could swim, and he drowned on July 1, 1944. He was the son of a maintenance mechanic, one who remained at Los Alamos for several decades after the war, until his retirement. Canoeing prohibited after death.
  3. Ernesto Freques, truck driver. He was standing next to a pile of reinforcing steel, unaware that workers on top were trying to move pieces and having difficulty because the steel was bent. The pile of steel collapsed on him; he was pinned against the truck, his heart lacerated. Died on July 6, 1944.
  4. Horace Russell, Jr., a research chemist, age 26. Fell from a horse while riding it in a canyon near the project. Suffered a serious head injury. Died August 5, 1944. The first of only four scientists on this list.
  5. Pfc. Hugo B. Kivsto, a member of the Provisional Engineer Detachment. Was fatally injured while driving an Army vehicle on a poorly graded surface of dirt road near Santa Cruz, New Mexico. Lost control of the vehicle while rounding a hazardous curve. Tried to jump clear of the truck as it went over the embankment and was pinned under it. Died on December 3, 1944.
 1945
  1. Pvt. Grover C. Atwell, member of Special Engineer Detachment. Assigned to hospital ward duty, died of an overdose of barbiturates taken from the hospital pharmacy. He died on July 21, 1945, but his body was not found until August 22, 1945. The report does not elaborate on why there was such a delay in finding his body. The investigation concluded he was “depressed over his assignment,” no indication of financial or family difficulties. Declared mentally irresponsible for his death, and thus his “death was in the line of duty and not a result of his own misconduct.”
  2. James W. Popplewell, civilian carpenter. Was working inside a building on August 7, 1945, at the same time a caterpillar tractor was pushing dirt over the roof. The roof collapsed and both tractor and dirt crushed Popplewell. Investigation blamed the foreman for not seeing if the building could support the load of the dirt and the tractor; the foreman was recommended for termination. This is a rare case of any liability being found.
  3. Harry Daghlian, physicist, age 24. Criticality accident with the so-called “demon core.” Report notes he “was exposed to too great radiation” on August 21, died on September 15, 1945. The report carries no further information on him and says that Health Physics is still investigating the matter. Second of the four scientists.
  4. Asa Houghton, civilian carpenter. Was going down the hill from project towards Santa Fe in his truck, front wheels locked and caused vehicle to run off the left side of the road, turned 5 or 6 times. Died of internal injuries on September 27, 1945.
1946
  1. Manuel Salazar, janitor. With three friends (also janitors), got extremely drunk on muscatel wine mixed with ethylene glycol (antifreeze). Died from ethylene glycol poisoning on January 29, 1945. Because deaths were not result of duty, descendants received no benefits of compensation.
  2. Alberto Roybal, janitor. Same event as above, same death date.
  3. Pedro Baca, janitor. Same event as above, same death date.
  4. Levi W. Cain, civilian blacksmith. Struck by car driven by a military sergeant on site. The sergeant was absolved of blame; the visibility was low, but car was not being driven at an excessive speed. Cain died on February 6, 1946.
  5. Louis Slotin, physicist, age 35. Criticality accident with the same core that killed Daghlian. While making measurements, “was exposed to radiation from radioactive materials” to a fatal degree. Third of the four scientists. Died on May 21, 1946. After Slotin’s death, criticality experiments were effectively put on hold until new safety guidelines could be devised.
  6. Livie R. Aguilar, truck driver for Zia Company. For reasons that were unknown (there were no witnesses or obvious evidence), his truck left the road and turned over into a trench, pinning Aguilard beneath it. He died on July 1, 1946.
  7. Joshua I. Schwartz, a scientist, age 21. With two other scientists (Robert A. Huffhines and William E. Bibbs), he was engaged in an experiment to trace air currents in Omega Canyon. They were instructed to use balloons or other non-flammable equipment for this. Instead, they tried to use smudge pots (smoke bombs). One of the smudge pots exploded, fatally injuring Schwartz, and critically injuring his companions (permanent blindness). Schwartz died on 2 August 1946. The investigation faulted their bosses with inadequate supervision. This resulted in at least one lawsuit over compensation. The fourth of four scientists.
  8. Herbert Schwaner, construction laborer. He was driving a bulldozer up a ramp when one of the treads locked, causing it to topple. He was pinned underneath. He was found five minutes later, by his brother, dead. He died on August 7, 1946.

It’s quite a list. Here is a copy of the original report, if you want more details on any of the above.1

Los Alamos population estimates, 1943-1946. For a more detailed breakdown of civilian duties, see this payroll census. The big dip in 1943 seems to be something about reshuffling how construction labor was accounted for when the University of California took over.

Los Alamos population estimates, 1943-1946. For a more detailed breakdown of civilian duties, see this payroll census. The big dip in 1943 seems to be something about reshuffling how construction labor was accounted for when the University of California took over.

Construction dominates, but automobiles, recreational mishaps, and scientific experiments make their appearance. As does suicide — one wonders what the report means by “depressed over his assignment” for the soldier at the hospital. The presence of a child reminds us that families lived at this secret laboratory — by the end of the war there were some 1,500 “dependents,” many of them children, living at the project site.

The Hispanic and/or Indian names point towards Los Alamos’ location. On the list of properties near the site that was seized by the Army (via condemnation), there are many Roybals, Montoyas, and Gomezes. In the list of Los Alamos badges, there are many Bacas, Virgils, Montoyas, and a Salazar.2  These are the people who lived there first, often written out of the more popular narratives of scientific triumph.

Even on the question of scientists, I was surprised to find two names I had not seen before: Russell and Schwartz. Both were young. Russell’s death adds a grim pall to all of that footage of scientists riding around in the woods on horses. Schwartz’s death is also a reminder of how much responsibility was thrust onto the young scientists — though frankly, it is maybe surprising that more people did not die this way, given the haste at which they worked and the toxicity, flammability, and radioactivity of the substances they were using.

Excerpt from a guide produced by the Oak Ridge Safety program.

Excerpt from a guide produced by the Oak Ridge Safety program.

Both Oak Ridge and Hanford had major industrial and public safety programs during the war. This was not just a matter of responsibility (though there was that), but also because industrial accidents caused lost-time problems. The more accidents, the slower it would be until they had an atomic bomb ready to use. At Oak Ridge and Hanford, they claimed an exceptional occupational safety record — their injury rates were (they claimed) 62% below those of private industry. That still translated into 62 fatalities between 1943 and 1945 at the two sites, and a 3,879 disabling injuries. Given that those sites employed some 500,000 people between them, that means your chance of dying there was about one in ten thousand, while your chance of getting disablingly injured was more around one in a hundred.

Sometimes it takes a raw document like this, something a little off the beaten path to get you out of the well-worn narratives of this history. One knows of the criticality accidents, because they are unusual, and they are famous. But who knew of the child drowning? The janitor’s night out gone wrong? The carpenter crushed by a bulldozer? The accidental shooting of a bunkmate? Out of these little details, grim as they are, a whole social ecosystem falls out. It doesn’t have to supplant the traditional scientific story, which is still an important one. But it augments it, and makes it more human.

Notes
  1. Exhibit 14, “Fatal Accidents,” (ca. late 1946) in Los Alamos Project Y, Book II: Army Organization, Administration, and Operation, copy in Manhattan Project: Official history and documents [microform] (Washington, DC: University Publications of America, 1977), reel 12. []
  2. Interestingly, I have found no badges in the list that obviously correspond to the people who died, with the exception of Elmer Bowen, Sr., the father of the little boy, and a few people who may be wives or relatives. There is a “Joe Montoya” but this seems like a common name. I wonder if this is because part of the procedure upon death would be to destroy their security passes? Obviously not everyone would have a security pass, but it is a little unusual to have exactly zero hits, including Daghlian, Slotin, Schwartz, and Russell, the scientists. []
Visions

Preserving, and interpreting, the Manhattan Project

Friday, January 30th, 2015

After 10 years of effort, Cindy Kelly of the Atomic Heritage Foundation has managed to achieve the seemingly-impossible: she got Congress to agree to preserving several former Manhattan Project sites. I have worked with Cindy in the past and am so extremely proud of her and her organization, and am frankly amazed that she managed to get this through this impossible Congress.

Atomic Heritage Foundation

I completely support this preservation, without reservations. I have seen in various places that there are people who think that preserving these sites might somehow lead to “glorification” of the atomic bombs. I find this an extremely un-compelling objection. The atomic bombs will be glorified, or not, whether you preserve the facilities that produced them. We have preserved far more heinous sites for the historical record, because preservation does not mean endorsement. In fact, preservation often can mean an opportunity to reflect upon the past, warts and all. And razing these sites — which is the other alternative — would not change one bit of their history, or how it is remembered. People who worry about the historical legacy of the atomic bomb should be happy these sites are going to be preserved, because in the future, when we are talking about how they should be contextualized and interpreted, everyone will have a place to put their own vision of these places forward.

To clear one thing up, nobody knows what the “interpretation” — the presentation materials, exhibits, what have you — associated with these sites will look like. That is still a long way down the road. The bill which created these sites, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015, signed by President Obama in December, provides no guidance for interpretation, and, non-coincidentally, no funding for it. It merely sets the sites apart, giving the National Park Service the ability to claim custody of them from the Department of Energy. Part of the reason for wanting something like this is evident in the DOE’s destruction of K-25 — the DOE is not really about preservation, and if these sites are not being used by them, they are just as likely to destroy them as anything else.

The relevant section of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

The relevant section of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2015.

Interpretation funds will presumably come later. A few years ago I participated in an NSF-sponsored workshop related to the interpretation of these sites, in preparation for the possibility of this legislation passing. It was an extremely interesting experience, and I blogged a little about it at the time. My key take-away then was that almost everyone there had fairly similar ideas as to what good interpretation of the Manhattan Project would be — not a mindless glorification, or an equally problematic polemic, but something that would try to contextualize the Manhattan Project both within World War II and the Cold War. This includes both its relationship to the bombing of Japan, and questions about whether it was necessary or not, as well as its environmental and personal legacies.

Obviously this is contested ground. I am hopeful that the NPS will reach out to historians, archivists, museum curators, and other stakeholders (including, but not limited to, veterans) when it develops its interpretation materials. Interpretation of the past in a public context can be incredibly controversial, of course. We all know of the 1995 Smithsonian Enola Gay controversy. Does this have an opportunity to turn out the same way?

At left, the floorplan of the planned Enola Gay exhibition; at right, the actual exhibition that aired: the retreat of the political into the refuge of the technical. From Richard H. Krohn, "History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institute's Enola Gay Exhibition," Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (1995), 1036-1063.

At left, the floorplan of the planned Enola Gay exhibition; at right, the actual exhibition that aired: the retreat of the political into the refuge of the technical. From Richard H. Krohn, “History and the Culture Wars: The Case of the Smithsonian Institute’s Enola Gay Exhibition,” Journal of American History 82, no. 3 (1995), 1036-1063.

It’s not clear to me that it would. For one thing, this isn’t the mid-1990s, with all of its immediate post-Cold-War ambivalences, and its fierce battles over the historical memory of the still-living, mixed with the “Culture Wars” of the time. There are far fewer World War II veterans around than there were then, and the historical scholarship itself is not nearly as polarized around rigid ideological positions as it was then. On the whole, my feeling is that there is an increased willingness to acknowledge the complexities of both American and Japanese actions in the Pacific Theatre. There are ways of talking about this history that doesn’t make it seem like it endorses any particular political position on either World War II or the Cold War. The complexity of the historical events and questions being asked require this kind of complex presentation, if they are taken seriously. Very little in good history boils down to easy ideological stances.

Let’s hope that when it comes to interpretation, the NPS will feel emboldened enough to get a balanced text together, and that our politicians will not show themselves to be so frail and afraid of history as they did during the Enola Gay exhibition. I am personally optimistic — so much has changed since the 1990s, in terms of historical memory of the bomb, and we are getting to that place where enough time has passed that things are not so raw and recent. There is still a “Culture War,” to be sure, though the terms seem a little different than the mid-1990s. But in general, there is, I think, more of a middle-ground between the classic “revisionist” and “orthodox” views on the bomb, and this middle-ground is, I think, less problematic to those on both the left and the right. It will be interesting to see, as a preview, the various “70th anniversary of the bomb” overtures that will be made this summer, and how those resonate culturally. (A colleague of mine recently suggested that frankly the more interesting anniversary will be the 80th one, when there will be exactly zero living veterans still around.)

The Enola Gay today, in a relatively decontextualized display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center. Via Wikipedia.

The Enola Gay today, in a relatively decontextualized display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center. Via Wikipedia.

But even if things should get heated, even if old debates over the war and its conduct should bubble up, we should be glad for it. It is better to have a contested site than to have no site at all. We can always argue over the interpretation of the past, and we always will. We should see this as a new an invitation to a discussion, and reasonable people can disagree on key questions and issues, and let us hope that whatever controversies that come from it prove generative. We should keep the experience of the Smithsonian in mind when thinking about the creation of interpretative materials — for example, by making sure that many stakeholders are involved in the planning process, which will lead, at the very least, to fewer surprises down the line.

I look forward to participating in these future discussions. But we can only do that if we preserve the past in the first place, which is what this bill is trying to do. People who object that this bill will just result in the glorification of the past are being short-sighted about its intent and purpose, and making assumptions that, at the moment, are unwarranted. I don’t think there can be any question as to whether preservation is the right move, because the alternative — neglect and destruction — is no alternative at all.