Posts Tagged ‘Manhattan (show)’

Visions

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.

Notes
  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. []
Redactions

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.

Notes
  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).” []
Redactions

The plot against Leo Szilard

Friday, October 23rd, 2015

One of the recurring themes on WGN America’s Manhattan is the willingness of Manhattan Project security to use extreme extrajudicial methods against scientists on the project they found suspicious, problematic, or dangerous. Episode 2 of this second season centered on an extreme case of this, with the main character, fictional scientist Frank Winter, being locked up without Constitutional protections (to say the least) in an effort to discover where his true loyalties lay. As ought to be pretty obvious, this isn’t (as far as we know) something that happened in real life: you can’t lock up all of your scientists if you expect to get a bomb built before the war ends.

However, this aspect of the plot is inspired by a healthy dose of actual history — even if it is history that is not always well-known. General Leslie Groves and the Manhattan Project security services did occasionally dabble in extrajudicial authority, taking advantage of the fact that the bomb project had its own, wholly autonomous security and intelligence force, and that wartime pressures allowed them to do things that were quite a bit outside of business-as-usual.

An agitated, concerned Leo Szilard in 1960. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

An agitated, concerned Leo Szilard in 1960. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Leo Szilard is one of the many historical characters who is distilled into Frank Winter’s personality. Szilard is one of the real characters of the Manhattan Project. A Hungarian émigré, he was the one who came up with the idea of the nuclear chain reaction, he was the one who urged the scientists self-censor their research, he was the one who got his friend Albert Einstein to write a letter to President Roosevelt calling for government coordination of fission research, and he was the one who circulated a petition against the dropping of the atomic bomb during the war. Frank Winter’s moral arc — moving from deep conviction about the need to rapidly build a bomb, to plaguing doubts — is heavily inspired by Szilard.1

But Szilard could also be a huge pain in the neck. He was a natural gadfly, brilliant and utterly lacking respect for authority. It wasn’t just the military he ran into trouble with. The scientists Arthur Compton, Vannevar Bush, and James Conant all eventually ran afoul of Szilard’s views on what they ought to be doing, and each of them in turn found themselves highly irritated with Szilard. If Szilard worked under you, he inevitably became frustrated with you and your decisions, because no one was good enough for Leo Szilard. And his complete inability to just grin and bear it guaranteed that, over time, that feeling of frustration would become mutual. This put even his allies in a tough place, because while no one could deny Szilard’s brilliance or contributions to the bomb project, they also didn’t want to spend too much time with him.

Szilard's folder from the Manhattan Engineer District files.

Szilard’s folder from the Manhattan Engineer District files.

But it was General Groves who really, really took an active dislike to Szilard. His views on him are aptly discussed in a June 1945 memo that Groves had drawn up:

Szilard is a physicist who has worked on the project almost since its inception. He considers himself largely responsible for the initiation of the project, although he really had little to do with it. When the Army took over the project, an intensive investigation was made of Szilard because of his background and uncooperative attitude on security matters. This investigation and all experience in dealing with him has developed that he is untrustworthy and uncooperative, that he will not fulfill his legal obligations, and that he appears to have no loyalty to anything or anyone other than himself. He was retained on the project at a large salary solely for security reasons.2

In the postwar, Groves was even more to the point. Szilard was, he explained to an interviewer, “the kind of man that any employer would have fired as a troublemaker.”3

Szilard and the military were a particularly bad fit. Szilard thought the military did things badly, and, in the end, that there were some bad people at the top. He didn’t hide his feelings on the matter. Rather, he blatantly told many people them — he feared the American military would assert a dictatorship, would use the bombs in a terrible way, and would jeopardize the future peace of the planet.

General Leslie Groves speaking to workers at Hanford in 1944. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

General Leslie Groves speaking to workers at Hanford in 1944. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

And, from a certain perspective, he wasn’t too far off the mark. The Manhattan Project was asserting quasi-dictatorial powers during the war (and the bomb did bring with it rigid hierarchies, abnormal secrecy, and a lack of democratic process wherever it went in the Cold War), they were planning to use the bomb on civilians to make their point (which one can agree with or disagree with as a strategy), and they were decidedly not interested in any approach to world peace other than building up a large American nuclear arsenal (which in Szilard’s mind was a path to global suicide).

So you can see why he occasionally felt he might be better off not connected with such a project, and why he did (multiple times) attempt to jump the “chain of command” to contact civilian authorities (including both Presidents Roosevelt and Truman) to speak to him about his fears.

And you can understand why General Groves found this sort of behavior tantamount to treason. But as long as Szilard was under the watchful eye of the Manhattan Project security apparatus, Groves would tolerate him for the duration of the war — it was better to have Szilard close (and thus known), than it was to have him “in the wind.”

The draft of Grove's order for the internment of Leo Szilard, 1942.

The draft of Grove’s order for the internment of Leo Szilard, 1942.

But in October 1942, for one brief moment, it was feared that Szilard might quit the project. Compton had attempted to move him out of the project in Chicago, and worried that Szilard might just take off. He was wrong — they worked out an agreement — but the fear of a disgruntled Leo Szilard prompted Groves to draw up a draft of an extraordinary order in the name of the Secretary of War:

October 28, 1942

The Honorable,
The Attorney General.

Dear Mr. Attorney General:

The United States will be forced without delay to dispense with the services of Leo Szilard of Chicago, who is working on one of the most secret War Department projects.

It is considered essential to the prosecution of the war that Mr. Szilard, who is an enemy alien, be interned for the duration of the war.

It is requested that an order of internment be issued against Mr. Szilard and that he be apprehended and turned over to representatives of this department for internment.

Sincerely yours,

Secretary of War.4

It was never sent. As far as we know, Groves never interned anyone in this manner during the war — though he did entertain the idea at least one other time, in the case of Hans Halban, another immigrant nuclear scientist with strong opinions and dubious loyalties (Halban was French, which is Groves’ book ranked slightly worse than Hungarian).

The stalking of Leo Szilard: excerpt from a report by a Special Agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps of Szilard's movements during a 1943 trip to Washington, DC.

The stalking of Leo Szilard: excerpt from a report by a Special Agent of the Counter Intelligence Corps of Szilard’s movements during a 1943 trip to Washington, DC.

But he didn’t leave Szilard alone. He kept a close watch on Szilard and Szilard’s associates, even having the scientist tailed by Special Agents are various times during the war. He never learned very much of interest from these tails (and from the reports of Szilard’s actions, one suspects Szilard was at times aware of them), but one can imagine how delighted he would have been to have a good reason to throw Szilard in a cell and lose the key. “The investigation of Szilard should be continued despite the barrenness of the results,” Groves wrote in June 1943. “One letter or phone call once in three months would be sufficient for the passing of vital information.”5

Groves kept up an active Szilard file through 1946. Szilard knew a lot, and Groves did not trust him. There is evidence in the files that Groves was trying to build an espionage case against Szilard around the time Szilard was trying to circulate his petitions against the dropping of the atomic bomb. But, no doubt to Groves’ frustration, it came to nothing.

But Groves kept Szilard on the payroll. Keep your friends close, and your gadfly scientists even closer, I suppose.

Groves and Szilard — two worthy opponents. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Groves and Szilard — two worthy opponents. Source: Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Can we imagine a world in which things had gone another way? In which Groves might have decided that the fear of a free-range Leo Szilard, running around the world doing who-knows-what and talking to who-knows-who, would be worth locking him up without hearing, representation, or appeal? What is one scientist in the light of the stakes that someone like Groves attached to this project?

It is impressive, in retrospect, that Groves, in the end, showed as much restraint as he did — Szilard was a troublemaker. But arguably, some of that trouble needed to be made.

Notes
  1. On Szilard’s petitions, Gene Dannen has compiled them all on his Leo Szilard website. []
  2. Leslie Groves, “Resumé of Szilard and Pregel,” (1 June 1945), in Correspondence (“Top Secret”) of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Folder 12: “Intelligence and Security,” Roll 2, Target 6. []
  3. Quoted in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 502. []
  4. As can be seen from the image, there were several edits made to the draft; I have applied them all in the quotation. Draft letter for the internment of Leo Szilard (28 October 1944), in Manhattan Engineer District records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, Record Group 77, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, Box 88, Folder 201, “Szilard, Leo.” []
  5. Leslie R. Groves to Captain Calvert, “Background Information concerning certain Radiation Laboratories and Los Alamos Employees,” (12 June 1943), in Manhattan Engineer District records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, Record Group 77, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, Box 88, Folder 201, “Szilard, Leo.” See also, Report of Counter Intelligence Corps Special Agent Charles N. Ronan, “Subject; Dr. Leo Szilard,” (24 June 1943), in the same folder. []
Visions

Manhattan noir

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

Season two of the WGN America show Manhattan premieres tonight. I figured this would be a good excuse to plug it, and to talk about the historical consulting I’ve been doing for it.

Manhattan Season 2

The best way I have come up with to describe Manhattan is that it is an alternate-reality version of the Manhattan Project that is heavy on the film noir. Almost all of the characters are entirely fictional, not named after actual World War II figures (there are a couple exceptions to this, that I will come to), and the stories are fictional. However they are set in the same physical universe as ours, and the historical context is based (with some diversions) on the actual one. For Manhattan, the Manhattan Project was not just a specific set of historical events that led to the atomic bomb, but an unfolding historical context that ultimately rendered deep and lasting changes to the United States. It is not so much the story of the creation of a new weapon as it is the creation of a new world.

I was approached about consulting by the head writer, Sam Shaw, last year. I had seen some of Season 1, which took the Los Alamos story up until around the summer of 1944, when the lab had to be radically reorganized to focus on implosion. What I had liked about the first season is that they took something that most people would regard as pretty obscure — the intense effort that had been made for the (eventually abandoned) Thin Man bomb design — and made it into the key pivot around which the drama turned. To me that showed a pretty nuanced historical sensibility, focusing on the “loser” of history (Thin Man) as opposed to the “winner” (implosion).

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

Posting at the gate of the Los Alamos set — David Salzberg (science consultant), Sam Shaw (head writer), Lila Byock (writer), and myself.

The consulting job was for me an unusual one. I have consulted for documentaries in the past, and that is a relatively straightforward gig: they want to know what happened, I want to tell them what happened. Consulting for a fictional show was something else. They did want to know what happened, but less because they were going to replicate it (in many cases, they were not), but because they wanted the “flavor” of it to inform their fictional plots. I can’t go into too many details about what we talked about (not because I am bound to not talk about the show, but because I have been asked not to say anything that might spoil any of this season’s surprises, and I’m not even sure what all of those surprises are), but I found it an immensely fun challenge, trying to give them “options” that would be true to the “color” of the times.

Many of the questions were along the lines of, “we need to do this sort of thing with the story, what were the situations that actually happened that might provide a model for how we could make this happen?” I would sit and scratch my head for awhile and then come up with a plausible narrative or two (taken from actual Manhattan Project events, often quite obscure ones), sometimes providing some documentation that might help the writers get a sense of how it looked back then.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The set of Trinity site base camp while filming the final episode — the rain was fake, but the mud was real.

The Manhattan crew flew me out to Hollywood for a week last winter, and I spent several days just getting my brain picked by the writing team. It was a fun experience — I have never been in an environment with so many very intelligent people who were completely obsessed with Manhattan Project details asking very good questions and delighting in the answers I could give them. The writing team were already impressively well-informed on the subject of this history before I arrived, and were impressively bright and accomplished people. They had read most of the “basic literature” on the subject, and it gave me the feeling of teaching a “master class.” (Sam Shaw, the head writer, Lila Byock, his writerly wife, and Dustin Thomason, the executive producer, spent years steeped in the historical literature before beginning the show. Sam and Lila are both graduates of the Iowa Writers’ workshop; Sam wrote for Harper’s and Lila was a fact-checker for The New Yorker prior to their moving to Hollywood. These are all very smart cookies.)

After that winter, I got many e-mail queries from writers, and also read over several scripts. In the scripts, I looked for anachronisms, occasional scientific mistakes, or things that were just very big divergences from the actual past. The latter were not so much because they would be removed or changed — again, it is explicitly a fictional show — but because the writers wanted to make sure that if they did diverge that they knew about it. The science consulting was done by David Salzberg, a UCLA physicist who also does the science consulting for “The Big Bang Theory,” so scientific mistakes were extremely rare (and mostly in the category of slight anachronism, such as use of scientific terms that came later than World War II).

A billboard from the "Los Alamos" set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

A billboard from the “Los Alamos” set of Manhattan. The sets are very interesting to walk around, in part because of the juxtaposition of the faux old (fake signs), the truly old (vintage equipment), and the not-at-all old (modern technology used for shooting the show).

I was compensated for my work, so I don’t expect you to take my review of the show too seriously, but I will say that my Stevens colleague, the accomplish science journalist John Horgan, watched the first season and enjoyed it, and my wife (who is also a historian of science by training) liked it as well. If you are a buff of Manhattan Project history, you have to accept the show’s central conceit — that it is something of an alternate reality — if you are going to enjoy it, because if you find yourself constantly saying, “well that didn’t happen that way” then you are just going to find it frustrating. Similarly, I know there are many Los Alamos residents who are quick to point out that the area of New Mexico where it was filmed (near Santa Fe) looks very different than Los Alamos did. It’s true, but you either accept it, or you don’t — it is not a documentary, it is historically-informed film noir.

As a historian, I have enjoyed watching the show because I can see lots of very subtle references to things that did actually happen, and I find that fun, as opposed to irritating. But I’m also a big fan of science fiction, so I find the alternate-reality aspect of it pretty fun for that reason as well. The noir/sci-fi axis is where I do much of my reading-for-fun anyway, and does inform some of how I approach the past (my tendencies towards counterfactuals, my interests in the ways in which personal power is expressed and manipulated, my unceasing desire to probe the missing or deleted parts of archival narratives), so I feel like working with them was a good fit for me. But I can also certainly see where those who want a more purist version of the history are coming from, as well. (As a general rule, I don’t watch period dramas set in periods I know a lot about, because I find them frustrating. I think I can sympathize with what Classicists feel when they watch something like Gladiator or 300.) My only caution is that some of the objections I have heard to factual matters are in fact not aware that many of the seemingly fantastical events that take place during the show are based on actual things that happened — the actual history of the Manhattan Project is much more rich, varied, and weird than many of the traditional popularizations indicate.

You can't do the 1940s with a lot of hats. This of course called to mine the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer's pork-pie hat.

You can’t do the 1940s without a lot of hats. This of course called to mind the famous May 1948 cover of Physics Today featuring Oppenheimer’s pork-pie hat.

The characters are, as noted, mostly fictional. They are, however, composites of real people. The main character, Frank Winter, has a lot of interesting figures rolled into him, so much that I suggested to the actor, John Benjamin Hickey, that Winter is really not meant to be an individual physicist so much as a stand-in for the physics community. It does not spoil anything to say that he was enthusiastic and worried about the possibility of a German bomb in the beginning, and gradually became suspicious if not outright terrified of what the US government was going to do with the fruits of his labor. At times there are shades of Leo Szilard, Seth Neddermeyer, Robert Oppenheimer, Josef Rotblat, Richard Feynman, and many others rolled into Winter. Winter has his own personality, of course, which makes it fun to watch. You cannot, just from knowing the history, predict exactly what is going to happen next. Sometimes this is just because things happen differently in the show’s universe; sometimes it is done with a winking eye to the fact that not everything that actually happens gets into the historical record.

One of the few characters who is explicitly meant to be directly based on a historical figure is J. Robert Oppenheimer, who is played with haunting resemblance by Daniel London. London’s performance really hit home for me how much artistic input the actors have, well beyond the script and the writers. London’s Oppenheimer is a chilly, cold, somewhat alien figure. He is not the “chummy Oppenheimer” that some fictionalizations give you. I prefer “cold Oppenheimer” as a tonic to the more traditionally chummy ones — the Oppenheimer I spend most of my time working with, in the files, is not an everyman, is probably not your friend (or if he is, he is probably reporting on your “red” tendencies to Army security behind your back), and is under a huge amount of stress. The real-life Oppenheimer could famously be both hot and cold, whereas London’s is mostly cold, but given the way Oppenheimer comes into the plots of the show (usually he only shows up when something is not going according to plan), it fits pretty well.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

Posing with the Gadget, in the middle of a desert.

This past summer I was invited out to see the sets, see some of the filming of the final episode, meet some of the cast, participate in a press junket, and go to the “wrap party.” The sets were amazingly, lovingly done. Ruth Ammon, the production designer, put a huge amount of passion and detail into them. The main “Los Alamos” set was built inside an abandoned set of hospital buildings from the wartime period, and it is impressively “rich.” Their “Trinity site” is set far out in a desert outside of Santa Fe, made of actual burlap tents and wooden shacks. The sand is real, the bugs are real, the Sun’s heat is real (as I learned while sitting under it for several hours doing press interviews). The rain was not natural, but the mud it created was. The production values are excellent and it makes the 1940s “pop” to life.

I think the approach the writers used on this season is the way that historical consulting for period dramas ought to work. They didn’t just call me in at the last moment to tell them whether this or that hat was the right one to use, or to check if their equations were correct (they actually had a retired Los Alamos scientist do all of their blackboard equations, as an aside). They got me in early, before they started crafting all of the scripts, to help with the big arcs, and then brought me in later to develop the context for smaller (but still important) plot points. That’s the best use of people like me — you can get a lot of people who can do historical fact-checking, but it takes a trained historian to give you that blend of the forest and the trees that makes the period setting be something other than window-dressing.