Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan Project’


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 women of the Manhattan Project. 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 onto 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-137 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 (photo from 1960) — not the “typical” image of a Manhattan Project scientist. 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. Current US states range from around 2% to over 5% in self-identification of LGBT, so that is quite a lot more people. 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. []

Here be dragons

Friday, November 20th, 2015

The most famous experiment conducted by Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, after the Trinity test itself, is the one with the most evocative name. “Tickling the Dragon’s Tail,” also known internally as just “Dragon,” is straightforward about its meaning, compared to the enigma of “Trinity.” Dragons don’t like to have their tails tickled — so watch out for the fire.

On the latest episode of Manhattan (204), protagonist Frank Winter encounters the "dragon" — and pushes it a little further than he ought to have.

On the latest episode of Manhattan (206), protagonist Frank Winter encounters the “dragon” — and pushes it a little further than he ought to have.

The “dragon” moniker was coined by Richard Feynman (who else?) after he heard about it from fellow scientist Otto Frisch. It was one of a category of criticality experiments that Frisch (nephew of Lise Meitner, co-author of the famous Frisch-Peierls report) was working on at Los Alamos. Criticality experiments were dangerous by design: they were attempts to experimentally determine the critical condition of different quantities, types, and geometries of fissile material. Because of the unknowns involved, all of these experiments involved pushing very close to the boundary of an uncontrolled fission chain reaction, an embryonic atomic bomb (or reactor) that, while probably not very explosive (it would likely destroy itself before too much energy was released), would create enough radioactivity to cause serious hazard to those working around the site.1

The experiment Feynman dubbed “dragon” was what Frisch had called the “guillotine,” and was one of the more ambitious and dangerous of Frisch’s many criticality experiments. It involved dropping a slug of enriched uranium hydride through an almost-critical assembly of the same substance. Gravity alone would cause the two pieces to briefly form a critical mass — and then to briefly un-form, before too many fission reactions had occurred. If all worked as planned, the slug would release a burst of neutrons and then stop reacting. But if the slug got stuck in the critical figuration, it would release impressive amounts of radioactivity and potentially cause a (very small) explosion.2

Otto Frisch's original "dragon" reactor — the uranium "guillotine." Source: R.E. Malenfant, "Experiments with the Dragon Machine" (LA-14241-H, August 2005).

Otto Frisch’s original “dragon” reactor — the uranium “guillotine.” Source: R.E. Malenfant, “Experiments with the Dragon Machine” (LA-14241-H, August 2005).

The experiments could produce upwards of 20 million watts worth of energy, increasing the temperature of the fuel by 2 degrees C per millisecond. At their most daring, one burst of the experiment released 1015 neutrons. These experiments were, as the official, secret Manhattan District History notes, “of historical importance,” as they constituted “the first controlled nuclear reaction which was supercritical with prompt neutrons alone.” As far as I can tell, this particular “guillotine” was the original experiment that earned the nickname “dragon,” but the name has been applied to other, similarly close-to-critical experiments as well.3

Criticality experiments were inherently dangerous. They didn’t have to kill you immediately to be a threat: it had been known since the days of the “Radium Girls” that radiation exposure could be cumulatively crippling. The experimental physicists by the 1940s had lost a bit of the “devil may care” air that they had in the early years of radioactivity, when you could spot an X-ray operator by his mangled hands. The Health Group at Los Alamos attempted to keep external radiation exposures within the national radiation standards at the time (0.1 roentgens per day), and optimistically hoped they could aim for zero internal exposures per day. For the time, this was considered conservative, though by the late 1950s the standards for exposure had dropped by a factor of seven.4

Los Alamos scientists keep their distance from a 1,000 ci radiation source used in the RaLa experiments.

The first criticality accident at Los Alamos wasn’t a fatal one, but it did cause some trouble. The experiment was (ironically, or appropriately?) made in the name of safety: it was a question of what would happen if certain geometries and enrichments of uranium were submerged in water. For a weapon that was going to be deployed to the Pacific Ocean, this was not an idle danger — sink Little Boy in the ocean and it becomes a nuclear reactor, because, for enriched materials, regular “light” water acts as a neutron moderator, lowering the effective critical mass. The Manhattan District History outlines the experiment and its outcome:

A large amount of enriched uranium, surrounded by polythene, had been placed in a container in which water was being slowly admitted. The critical condition was reached sooner than expected, and before the water level could be sufficiently lowered the reaction became quite intense. No ill effects were felt by the men involved, although one lost a little of the hair on his head. The material was so radioactive for several days that experiments planned for those days had to be postponed. [emphasis added]5

“Although one lost a little of the hair on his head” — one of those sentences one rarely runs across, especially without any further elaboration, that really sounds disturbing to the modern ear. There were other “minor” exposures too, noted briefly (and anonymously) in the Manhattan District History. Not all were related to criticality; some were related to other experiments, such as the “water boiler” and “power boiler” reactors (more on those in a second), and the RaLa (Radiolanthanum) implosion experiments:

Operation of the power boiler resulted in several instances of mild overexposure to radiation caused by leaks in the exhaust gas line and one serious exposure of several chemists during decontamination of active material. The implosion studies of the RaLa Group which used large amounts of radioactive barium and lanthanum brought a serious situation which the health group monitored closely. A series of accidents and equipment failures caused considerable overexposure of chemists in this group. This condition persisted about six months until the system of remote control operation was finally perfected.6

Interestingly, the Health Group had “no responsibility” over the criticality experiments, “except that of being sure that the men were aware of the dangers involved.” The Manhattan District History notes that the criticality experiments were “especially dangerous” because “there is no absolute way of anticipating the dangers of any particular experiment, and the experiments seem so safe when properly carried out that they lead to a feeling of overconfidence on the part of the experimenter.” The author of this section of the History attributes this overconfidence to the death of Harry Daghlian, who died after accidentally creating a critical mass with a plutonium core. It also notes another accident where “four individuals” received an “acute exposure… to a large amount of radiation” during a similar experiment. The same core would lead to the death of another scientist, Louis Slotin (known for his nonchalance regarding the hazards), less than a year later.7

Harry K. Daghlian's blistered and burnt hand after he received his fatal radiation dose from his own dragon-tickling experiment gone wrong.

Harry K. Daghlian’s blistered and burnt hand after he received his fatal radiation dose from his own dragon-tickling experiment gone wrong.

Reading through the various exposures and radiation hazards in the Manhattan District History can be a bit spine-tingling, even if one tries to have a measured view of the threats of radiation. Radiation risks, of course, are more exciting to most of us than the dozens of other ways to die at Los Alamos during the war. Radiation is relatively exotic and mysterious — simultaneously invisible to our basic senses while very easy to track and follow with the right instruments. You can’t see it until you start looking for it, and then you can find it everywhere.

But even with that caveat, some of these reports are still pretty eyebrow raising. One example: The “water boiler” reactor was a small assembly of enriched uranium used as a neutron source at the laboratory. The scientists knew it presented radiation risks: the fuel inside the reactor would get fiendishly radioactive during and after operation, and if there was a small, inadvertent explosion, it could be a real contamination problem. So they (sensibly) isolated it from the rest of the laboratory, along with the criticality experiments.8

But later study showed that they hadn’t quite solved the problem. Gaseous materials, including fission products, were being discharged “near the ground level at the tip of the mesa just to the south of Los Alamos Canyon.” This, the Manhattan District History notes, was “most unsatisfactory and represented a potential and serious health hazard.” They had warning signs, but they were “inadequate and the area was accessible to any casual visitor.” Radiation intensities “in excess of 50 r/hr were repeatedly measured near the discharge point when the boiler was in operation.” Just to put that into perspective, even by the relatively lax standards of the Manhattan Project, you would hit your yearly limit of acceptable radiation exposure if you spent about 45 minutes near the discharge point when the reactor was running. By the standards from the late 1950s onward, you would hit your yearly limit after only six minutes. (The committee recommended to put a fence around the area, and looking into building a large smoke stack. Later work determined that the larger smoke stack improved things a bit, but did not ultimately solve the problem.)9

The "Water Boiler" reactor at Los Alamos — a neat scientific experiment, but watch where you put the exhaust port. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998.

The “Water Boiler” reactor at Los Alamos — a neat scientific experiment, but watch where you put the exhaust port. Source: Los Alamos Archives (12784), via Galison 1998.

Did these cavalier radiation exposures have long-term consequences for the scientists? (Other, of course, than the two who actually died, or the few people whose acute radiation exposures were so high that they produced obvious physical damage.) Remarkably, very little follow-up seems to have been made. It takes work to know whether there are hazards, and it takes even more work (longitudinal studies, epidemiological work, etc.) to see whether there have been health effects. Radiation-based cancers are probabilistic; exposures to radiation just increases the chance of a cancer, it doesn’t guarantee it. Epidemiological studies, like the ones done on the Japanese who survived the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, look for the statistical excesses, the cancers beyond what you would expect to naturally occur in a given population. This apparently was never done for Manhattan Project employees. There are many anecdotes about exposed employees developing debilitating health effects, but little hard science — not because the exposures or consequences didn’t happen, but because apparently nobody did the studies necessary to establish their existence.10

Why wouldn’t the Manhattan Project or Atomic Energy Commission officials follow up on this question? Two interrelated and non-exclusive hypotheses immediately spring to mind. One is that they were genuinely rather sanguine about the effects of radiation in low exposures. Their standards for “low exposures” were considerably higher than ours are today, and the requirements of war didn’t encourage them to adopt the precautionary principle, to say the least. The second is that there were legal stakes involved. They were eager, especially in the postwar, to avoid claims of radiation damage from former employees. Partially one can see in this the attitude of the bureaucrat who believes they are protecting the government’s interests (at the expense of labor’s), partially this is another reflection of the aforementioned sanguinity regarding radiation exposure (they legitimately believed the claims were probably false, or at least not provable). Following the community of scientists, technicians, and laborers after they had left the laboratory would have been difficult. And what if they had found higher-than-normal rates of injury and death? Better not to look at all, from that standpoint.11

  1. One of the key factors in designing an actual atomic bomb is holding together the reacting mass as long as possible. Without that, once enough energy has been released to separate the reacting material, the reaction will stop. So a chain-reacting critical assembly ought not release more than a few pounds of TNT worth of explosive power — but it would release an awful lot of radiation in the immediate area. []
  2. On Feynman and Frisch, and Frisch’s earlier experiments, see Richard Rhodes, Making of the Atomic Bomb (Simon and Schuster, 1986): 610-611. The description of “dragon” and its dangers in this paragraph comes from Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.7. For an example of the size of the explosion, consider the effect of the accidental criticality excursion on another such device, “Godiva.” []
  3. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.8. The “dragon” experiment had one criticality “excursion” of note, when towards the end of a series of experiments of increasing power, a burst of 6 x 1015 fission reactions occurred, blistering and swelling the cubes that composed the assembly. No one was exposed and there was no contamination, but it got put into a criticality accident report. United States Atomic Energy Commission, Operational accidents and radiation exposure experience within the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington, DC: Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Operational Safety, 1975), 38. []
  4. The 0.1 roentgens per day (so around 37 r per year) standard for whole-body exposure was adopted by the United States in 1934. By 1946, the US had dropped the standard by half that amount. By the late 1950s, the standard for permissible amount of radiation exposure had dropped to around 5 r per year, where it remains for people who work in nuclear settings (the standard for the general public is lower). Note that in the 1940s the roentgen unit changed to the rem, and is now measured in sieverts, but they are pretty easy to convert (~1 r = 1 rem = 0.01 Sv). See George T. Mazuzan and J. Samuel Walker, Controlling the Atom: The Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946-1962 (Washington, DC: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 1997), 35, 39, and 54. On Manhattan Project standards, see Vincent C. Jones, Manhattan: The Army and the Atomic Bomb (Washington, DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1985), 419, and Barton C. Hacker, The Dragon’s Tail: Radiation Safety in the Manhattan Project, 1942-1946 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987). Separately, it is of interest that the “Radium Girls” was not just an oblique connection: scientists from Los Alamos, Chicago, and Oak Ridge visited a luminous (radium) paint company in Boston to learn how they dealt with radiation hazards in industry, and adapted their techniques to the problems of dealing with plutonium. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 3.95. []
  5. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 15.10-15.11. The accident in question took place in June 1945, involved 35.4 kg of 83% enriched uranium cubes. United States Atomic Energy Commission, Operational accidents and radiation exposure experience within the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington, DC: Atomic Energy Commission, Division of Operational Safety, 1975), 37-38. []
  6. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 9.34. []
  7. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 9.34. []
  8. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), 6.60. []
  9. Manhattan District History, Book VIII (Los Alamos Project), Volume 2 (Technical), Supplement, 2.85. []
  10. There have been some very small-sample studies of very specific cohorts from this period, but nothing of the sort one might imagine might exist. []
  11. Gabrielle Hecht’s Being Nuclear: Africans and the Global Uranium Trade (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2012) emphasizes, in the case of exposures from uranium mining in Africa, that the easiest way to avoid worrying about radiation exposures is not to measure them, not to do the work that makes them “exist” as observable scientific facts. []

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

Friday, November 13th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The palpable fears of Arthur Compton, June 1942.

The palpable fears of Arthur Compton, June 1942.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The doubts of J. Robert Oppenheimer

Friday, November 6th, 2015

The latest episode of Manhattan (Ep. 204) pivoted on the internal conflicts of J. Robert Oppenheimer. The standard, popular version of Oppenheimer as Los Alamos Director is one of infinite competence, confidence, and charm. The reality of Oppenheimer as a whole, much less Oppenheimer at Los Alamos, is a far more complex one.

Early on in my education, one of my advisors warned me against careless labeling of historical actors as “complex” or “complicated” without explaining what exactly I meant by that. In this sense, I think what it means is, this is a person who acts in contradictory, not-always-predictable ways — a person who breaks the standard narrative arc we might want to tell about their life. Oppenheimer is someone whose close examination refuses to fit into a simple narrative of heroism, tragedy, or comedy. In other words, he was a real person. And as T.H. White put it: “It is difficult to write about a real person.”

Oppenheimer as rich-rugged-cowboy-Hindu-Jewish-intellectual. At his ranch, "Perro Caliente," with Ernest Lawrence in 1931. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer as rich-rugged-cowboy-Hindu-Jewish-intellectual. At his ranch, “Perro Caliente,” with Ernest Lawrence (cropped out of frame) in 1931. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer’s longtime friend, the physicist I.I. Rabi, later said that the core conflict of Oppenheimer’s personality was a search for identity. It was a perceptive remark. As to which of the many visible Oppenheimers was the “real” one, he suggested that, “Robert doesn’t know himself.” Oppenheimer was, Rabi would later put it, “a man who was put together of many bright shining splinters.”1

Consider the oft-told Oppenheimer biographical details in this light. Oppenheimer grew up on the Manhattan’s Upper West Side, in a family of wealthy, secular, German-Jewish immigrants. This, in and of itself, seems to have driven a lot of Oppenheimer’s initial search for a new identity. He apparently was embarrassed by his father’s hands-on approach to wealth (he was a textile merchant, so nouveau riche of a sort), embarrassed by his father’s approach to secularism (his enthusiastic embrace of Felix Adler’s Ethical Culture philosophy), and simultaneously embarrassed by his Jewishness. He went to Harvard during one of its peak moments of anti-Semitism (the year he started was marked with embroiled public discussions about Harvard’s Jewish quotas), and found himself a socially-awkward exile among blue-bloods from old-American families.

His escape from the identity he was born into was to embrace something entirely different. He found friends who to him represented what a “true American” intellectual might look like — rugged, earthy, wealthy men from New Mexico. Hence Oppenheimer’s great Southwestern obsession, the one that led to the Los Alamos laboratory being situated where it was. What is more of an antonym to “rich Manhattan Jewish German immigrant” than “rugged Southwestern cowboy”? His interest in Hinduism, Sanskrit, and the Bhagavad-Gita might be filed under this antonymic approach to identity as well: leaving behind both the traditional sacred of his heritage (Jewishness) and the Western secularism of his upbringing (Ethical Culture) by embracing the oriental mysticism of Far Eastern philosophy.

Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley, ca. 1939. Note that Oppenheimer has clearly not yet taken on the identity of Scientific Director yet — too much hair. All three of these physicists would eventually recommend dropping the atomic bomb on a civilian target. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Ernest Lawrence at UC Berkeley, ca. 1939. Note that Oppenheimer has clearly not yet taken on the identity of Scientific Director yet — too much hair. All three of these physicists would eventually recommend dropping the atomic bomb on a civilian target. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

One of the more puzzling episodes in Oppenheimer’s life is related to ones of these identity crises. After graduating from Harvard, Oppenheimer went abroad to continue his physics education as a graduate student. He choose his initial venue poorly: he went to Cambridge, in England, where the kind of physics they were interested in was not to his liking (he was doing experimental physics, and he was terrible at it), and he found British class culture even more exclusive and stifling than Harvard’s had been. Oppenheimer experienced a series of crises and failures. The culmination of one of these involved him rushing back to Cambridge, telling his friends that he had laid a “poisoned apple” on the desk of the physicist P.M.S. Blackett. Blackett represented everything Oppenheimer could not be in England: successful experimentalist, movie-star handsome, and well-integrated into British class society. Was this “poison” real, imagined, or metaphorical? Nobody is quite sure — Blackett apparently suffered no physical ill, in any case.

Oppenheimer overcame this crisis and found a way forward, eventually by leaving England and studying instead on the European continent. There he learned the new theoretical physics (quantum mechanics), which he excelled at and emerged as an admired wunderkind. It was in this period, on the continent, that the character of “Oppie” (originally “Opje” in Dutch) was created: mathematically and physically adventurous, confident, quick-witted, eccentric, intellectually ambidextrous.

This trying-on of identities can help explain some of Oppenheimer’s wartime behaviors as well. Oppenheimer-as-Scientific-Director was on of his most successful costume changes, in retrospect, but it was a daring risk for him. General Groves gave him the job despite the fact that Oppenheimer lacked any real administrative experience, much less any practical experience in building anything. Oppenheimer also had extreme liabilities in his past and present: one of his identities in the 1930s had been of a “fellow traveler” to many Communists and Communist-associates in his life, including, but not limited to, his wife (Kitty), his brother (Frank), his friends (Haakon Chevalier), his girlfriend and later mistress (Jean Tatlock — more on her in a future post), and his graduate students.

Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy "E" Award ceremony in October 1945, recognizing the work of Los Alamos in developing the firt atomic bombs. Source: Los Alamos.

Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and University of California President Robert Sproul, at the Army-Navy “E” Award ceremony in October 1945, recognizing the work of Los Alamos in developing the first atomic bombs. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory.

These liabilities were known by Groves and others in the Manhattan Project security apparatus. They may have been one of the reasons Oppenheimer was an appealing choice for the job — he was moldable, he was relatively compliant, and these liabilities gave them leverage, should they need it. Oppenheimer worked so hard to be successful at this newest identity (creator of weapons of mass destruction for the U.S. government) that he overcame his past hang-up of leaving scientific investigations half-finished. He did have such doubts at times that he considered resigning, but he was talked out of the notion by his friends. He cut his hair, and got the job done.

The only trade-off was that in order to assume this new role, he had to prove his loyalties, and he did that by selling out his friends and colleagues. In many of the lengthy FBI files on his students and friends, one can find, very early in the file, an account of how they got on the radar of the anti-Communist agents of the United States government: they were alerted by J. Robert Oppenheimer himself. To be sure, Oppenheimer usually prefaced his denunciations by saying that these people were harmless, but he named names nonetheless.2

Ultimately it was this conflict of identities, I think, that snared Oppenheimer himself, in the end. His own well-documented downfall in the mid-1950s was in part the conflict of two of his identities. One of them was an eccentric, politically left-leaning intellectual who could be friends with anyone and dared to think and say whatever came to mind. The other was the head of a government weapons laboratory and later top-advisor in the area of nuclear arms. For a brief moment during the Manhattan Project, these two identities could overlap. By the 1950s, they could not — they were mutually exclusive, as distinct as a wave and a particle. Oppenheimer’s attempts to embody both of these at the same time, a sort of Complementarity-of-the-self, resulted in his selling out of the ideals of the former, and being rejected by the fears of the latter.

  1. These quotes are from Charles Thorpe’s Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 16. Thorpe’s book devotes much of its study of Oppenheimer to his quest for identity, and I owe many of my thoughts here to Thorpe’s work. []
  2. To put this into perspective for my students, I tell them to replace the label “Communism” with “terrorist,” and imagine how it would go over with the FBI today if you told them that a friend of yours was a little bit of a terrorist in the past, but had seen the error of their ways and was fine now. Would the FBI be comforted? Of course not. []

The improbable William Laurence

Friday, October 30th, 2015

The most recent episode of Manhattan features the arrival of a character based on one of my favorite real-life Manhattan Project participants: William L. Laurence, the “embedded” newspaperman on the project. The character on the show, “Lorentzen,” appears in a somewhat different way than the real-life Laurence does, showing up on the doorstep of Los Alamos having ferreted out something of the work that was taking place. That isn’t how Laurence came to the project, but it is only a mild extrapolation from the case of Jack Raper, a Cleveland journalist who did “discover” that there was a secret laboratory in the desert in 1943, and was responsible for one of the worst leaks of the atomic bomb effort.

William Laurence (left) and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Trinity Site in September 1945, as part of a

William Laurence (left) and J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Trinity Site in September 1945, as part of a “press safari” to the ruins of the first atomic test. I find the contrasts in their physiognomical contrast fascinating. Source: Google LIFE images.

William Laurence, however, was solicited. And he was the only journalist so solicited, invited in to serve as something of a cross between a journalist, public relations expert, and propagandist. (When a character on the show hisses to Lorentzen that they “don’t give Pulitzers for propaganda,” she is, as the show’s writers all know, incorrect — the real-life Laurence did receive a Pulitzer for his reporting on the Nagasaki bombing, and it was a form of propaganda, to be sure.)

William Leonard Laurence was born Leib Wolf Siew, in Russian Lithuania. In 1956 he gave an interview to the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, and, well, I’m just going to let him tell his own “origin story,” because there’s no way I could capture his “flavor” any better than his own words do:

I was born in Lithuania, in a very small village. You know Lithuania was one of the strange never-never-lands, you might say, in a certain culture, because it was there that the Jewish intellectual, the Hebraic scholarly centers, were gradually concentrated.. …

The Lithuanian villages were out of space and time, because you know, a life there, in the ghetto, you might say — because that was the only place where the Russianized government permitted Jews to live — they lived there in the 19th century when I was born and the early part of the 20th century in a way that might have been the 15th century, the 16th century. It made no difference. They wore the same type of clothing. They lived the same kind of life, because it was the same culture, you know.1

You get the picture — the man liked to paint rather elaborate pictures with his words, no stranger to invocation ancient mysticism or cliché. Following the 1905 Russian Revolution, young Leib Siew was smuggled out of the country by his mother, in a pickle barrel, and eventually made his way to the United States. There he refashioned himself as William Laurence, and began an entirely improbable career as one of the first science journalists in the United States.2

The story that brought Laurence to Groves' attention —

The story that brought Laurence to Groves’ attention — “The Atom Gives Up,” Saturday Evening Post, September 1940.

Laurence learned about fission in February 1939. His wife (Florence Laurence — I’m not making this up) remembered that they were walking along Sutton Place in Manhattan, towards the Queensboro Bridge, with their dachshund (named Einstein — again, not making this up), and her husband, Bill, had just come from a meeting of the American Physical Society at Columbia University, where Bohr and Fermi had spoken on fission. In her memory, Bill Laurence had “understood” the implications immediately. A fan of science fiction and a practitioner of scientific hype, he was perhaps uniquely qualified for immediately extrapolating long-term consequences. “We came home I deep gloom,” she later wrote, “The atom had come to live with us from that night on.”3

Laurence’s beat on the New York Times gave him an opportunity to write about fission fairly often. He was hooked on the idea, taking the old clichés from the earlier, radium-based nuclear age (a thimble of water containing the energy to move a cruise ship across the ocean, etc.) and adapting them to this new possibility. He wasn’t the only reporter to do so, but the Times gave him a lot of reach, as did his writing gigs for The Saturday Evening Post.

In early 1945, one of the preoccupations with the question of the bomb’s future use was what kind of information would be released afterwards. Those on the Project called this the problem of “Publicity.” Groves himself seems to have had the idea that Laurence might be a useful resource to tap. He had seen his articles, he knew his style, and he knew he was already fairly scientifically literate. That spring, Groves personally went to the offices of the New York Times to feel Laurence out for the possibility of working with the Army. Laurence said he would, but only if he got to have the whole story. Groves agreed. Laurence began almost immediately.

Part of Laurence's 17-page draft Presidential statement — that was never used. View the whole document here.

Part of Laurence’s 17-page draft Presidential statement — that was never used. View the whole document here.

Laurence’s first job was to help with the writing of draft press releases. They were already planning to drop the bomb, and they wanted to make sure they had a “publicity” blitz (as they called it) in place to advertise to the Japanese people, and the world, what it was that they had created. Laurence’s first job was to give it a shot at a statement that might be read by Truman after the first attack. His draft had that Laurence feel:

This greatest of all weapons, developed by American genius, ingenuity, courage   initiative and farsightedness on scale never even remotely matched before, will, no doubt, shorten the war by months, or possibly even years. It will thus save many precious American lives and treasure. … The tremendous concentrated power contained in the new weapon also has enormous possibilities as the greatest source of cosmic power ever to be tapped by man, utilizing the unbelievable quantities of energy locked up within the atoms of the material universe. … We are now entering into the greatest age of all — the Age of Atomic Power, or Atomics.4

And so on… for seventeen pages. This kind of hyperbolic approach was not to the liking of the others on the project. James Conant, the President of Harvard, remarked that it was “much too detailed, too phony, and highly exaggerated in many places.” Fortunately, Conant wrote, “there is no danger it will be used in any such form.” The Secretary of War had called upon an old friend to write the Truman press release: the Vice President of Marketing for AT&T, and father of American corporate public relations, Arthur W. Page. Page’s work is ultimately what Truman did have issued in his name after the bombing of Hiroshima.

Which isn’t to say Laurence wasn’t otherwise useful. He wrote draft disinformation statements to be released after the Trinity atomic test, claiming it was an ammunition depot exploding. He wrote dozens of news stories that were distributed freely to the press in the days after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, explaining how the bomb worked (in basic terms), explaining how the project was organized, and telling all sorts of other side-stories that Laurence and Groves thought would satiate the demands of the American press corps — and keep them from snooping around too much on this story-of-stories.

A draft of a story about Hanford that Laurence wrote. Among the many edits were getting rid of the phrase

A draft of a story about Hanford that Laurence wrote. Among the many edits were getting rid of the phrase “Atomland-on-Mars,” and removing Laurence’s own name from the story. The stories were given to the press without an author listed, and each newspaper was encouraged to put their own byline on it, making the reporting on the bomb look far more varied than it was. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, Manhattan Project files.

Many of the Laurence stories, in the end, were highly edited. Laurence just couldn’t restrain himself or his writing. He couldn’t talk about Hanford Site — he had to call it “Atomland-on-Mars.” He couldn’t just write about the bomb that had been created — he had to talk about how the next stop would be conquering the solar system. A fleet of Army lawyers reviewed all of Laurence’s contributions before they were released, and the archives are full of Laurence stories that were deeply slashed and thus rendered far more sober.

Laurence was at Trinity, and was on an observation plane flying along for the Nagasaki bombing. You can sometimes see him skulking in the back of photographs from the time: short, with a somewhat disproportioned body, ill-fitting suit, and terrible tie choices.

Today Laurence is a controversial figure in some quarters. He would win a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on Nagasaki, which came out considerably after the bombing itself took place. There are some who have called for the revocation of this prize, because he was effectively acting as a form of Army propaganda. This is true enough, though the line between “propaganda” and “embedded reporting” (or even “privileged source”) is a tricky one, then and now. Did Laurence glamorize the Manhattan Project? Sure — he thought it was the beginning of a new age of humanity, perhaps one in which war would be eliminated and we’d soon be colonizing the stars. That Buck Rogers view of things contrasts sharply with the human suffering enacted at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the forthcoming dangers of the Cold War, but you can see how he got seduced by the sheer sci-fi aspects of the project. He was hardly unique in that view.

William Laurence on the island of Tinian, in the Pacific Ocean, reporting on the bombing of Nagasaki. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, image TR-624.

William Laurence on the island of Tinian, in the Pacific Ocean, reporting on the bombing of Nagasaki. Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory, image TR-624.

Laurence is sometimes criticized today for not reporting more on the effects of radiation from the bomb. Personally, I give Laurence a bit of a pass on this: the experts he was talking to (Oppenheimer and many others) told him radiation was not such a big deal, that anyone who would be affected by radiation would already probably have been killed by the blast and thermal effects of the bomb. They were wrong, we now know. But the US atomic experts didn’t figure that out until after they had sent their own scientists to Japan in the immediate postwar, and they didn’t trust Japanese reports during the war because they suspected they were propaganda. I don’t really think we can fault Laurence for not knowing more than the best experts available to him at the time, even though we now know those experts were wrong. I’ve never seen anything to indicate that Laurence himself thought he was telling any falsehoods.

Laurence continued to write about the bomb for much of his life. He took a strong stance against the creation of the hydrogen bomb (which he dubbed “The Hell Bomb”) and never was closely aligned with the atomic weapons sector again. It’s hard to imagine someone like Laurence — part huckster, part journalist, all wild-card — being allowed into something as secret as the nuclear weapons program today. He’s improbable in every way, a real-life character with more strangeness than would seem tolerable in pure fiction.

  1. William Laurence interview of March 27, 1956, in The Reminiscences of William L. Laurence, Part I (New York: Columbia University Oral History Research Office, 1964). []
  2. I first encountered the story of Laurence in the marvelous work on the history of nuclear imagery: Spencer Weart, Nuclear Fear: A History of Images (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.) Weart’s book has been more recently revised as The Rise of Nuclear Fear. []
  3. Prologue by Florence D. Laurence, in William L. Laurence, Men and Atoms: The Discovery, the Uses, and the Future of Atomic Energy (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959), xi-xiii. []
  4. William Laurence, Draft of Truman statement (unused) on use of the atomic bomb (17 May 1945), copy in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 1, Target 5, Folder 4: “TRINITY Test (at Alamogordo, July 16, 1945).” []