Posts Tagged ‘Musings’

Meditations

Were there alternatives to the atomic bombings?

Monday, August 3rd, 2015

As we rapidly approach the 70th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there have been all sorts of articles, tributes, memorials, and so forth expressed both in print and online. I’ve been busy myself with some of this sort of thing. I was asked if I would write up a short piece for Aeon Ideas about whether there were any alternatives to these bombings, and I figure it won’t hurt to cross-post it here as well.

Unusual photograph of the late cloud of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. This was probably taken by aircraft that arrived several hours after the bombing to do damage reconnaissance; they reported the target was obscured by huge amounts of smoke. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via Fold3.com.

An unusual photograph of the late clouds of Hiroshima, as seen from the air. This was probably taken by aircraft that arrived several hours after the bombing to do damage reconnaissance; they reported the target was obscured by huge amounts of smoke. Source: National Archives and Records Administration, via Fold3.com.

The point of the piece, I would like to emphasize, is not necessarily to “second guess” what was done in 1945. It is, rather, to point out that we tend to constrain our view of the possibilities generally to one of two unpleasant options. Many of those who defend the bombings seem to end up in a position of believing that 1. there were no other options on the table at the time except for exactly what did occur, and 2. that questioning whether there were other options does historical damage. As a historian, I find both of these positions absurd. First, history is full of contingency, and there were several explicit options (and a few implicit ones) on the table in 1945 — more than just “bomb” versus “invade.” These other options did not carry the day does not mean they should be ignored. Second, I think that pointing out these options helps shape our understanding of the choices that were made, because they make history seem less like a fatalistic march of events. The idea that things were “fated” to happen the way they do does much more damage to the understanding of history, because it denies human influence and it denies choices were made.

Separately, there is a question of whether we ought to “judge” the past by standards of the present. In some cases this leads to statements that are simply non-sequiturs — I think Genghis Khan’s methods were inhumane, but who cares that I think that? But World War II was not so long ago that its participants are of another culture entirely, and those who say we should not judge the atomic bombings by the morality of the present neglect the range of moral codes that were available at the time. The idea that burning civilians alive created a moral hazard was hardly unfamiliar to people in 1945, even if they did it anyway. Similarly, I will note that the people who adopt such a position of historical moral relativism never seem to apply it to nations that fought against their countries in war.

Anyway, all of the above is meant as a disclaimer, in case anyone wonders what my intent is here. It is not to argue that the leaders of 1945 necessarily ought to have done anything different than they did. It is merely to try and paint a picture of what sorts of possibilities were on the table, but were not pursued, and to try and hack away a little bit at the false dichotomy that so often characterizes this discussion — a dichotomy, I might note, that was started explicitly as a propaganda effort by the people who made the bomb and wanted to justify it against mounting criticism in the postwar. I believe that rational people can disagree on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.


What options were there for the United States regarding the atomic bomb in 1945?

Few historical events have been simultaneously second-guessed and vigorously defended as the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which occurred seventy years ago this August. To question the bombings, one must assume an implicit alternative history is possible. Those who defend the bombings always invoke the alternative of a full-scale invasion of the Japanese homeland, Operation Downfall, which would have undoubtedly caused many American and Japanese casualties. The numbers are debatable, but estimates range from the hundreds of thousands to the millions — an unpalatable option, to be sure.

These unusual before-and-after images come from the Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Volume I, "Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs," NP-3036 (April 1951). I apologize for the poor image quality. I thought that even so they provide striking contrasts, and are much more easy to grasp that the familiar "view from above" photographs. This one is of the Hiroshima Commercial Museum, only 300 m from ground zero, and now known as the famous "Genbaku dome."

These unusual before-and-after images come from the Report of the Joint Commission for the Investigation of the Effects of the Atomic Bomb on Japan, Volume I, “Medical Effects of Atomic Bombs,” NP-3036 (April 1951). I apologize for the poor image quality. I thought that even so they provide striking contrasts, and are much more easy to grasp that the familiar “view from above” photographs. This one is of the Hiroshima Commercial Museum, only 300 meters from Ground Zero, and now known as the famous “Genbaku dome.” The photographs are not labeled with when they were taken; the “before” photos seem like they are from the late 1930s, the “after” photos are likely no earlier than September 1945, and may be from 1946.

But is this stark alternative the only one? That is, are the only two possible historical options available a bloody invasion of the Japanese home islands, or the dropping of two nuclear weapons on mostly-civilian cities within three days of one another, on the specific days that they were dropped? Well, not exactly. We cannot replay the past as if it were a computer simulation, and to impose present-day visions of alternatives on the past does little good. But part of the job of being a historian is to understand the variables that were in the air at the time — the choices, decisions, and serendipity that add up to what we call “historical contingency,” the places where history could have gone a different direction. To contemplate contingency is not necessarily to criticize the past, but it does seek to remove some of the “set in stone” quality of the stories we often tell about the bomb.

Varying the schedule. The military order that authorized the atomic bombings, sent out on July 25, 1945, was not specific as to the timing, other than saying that the “first special bomb” could be dropped “as soon as weather will permit visual bombing after about 3 August 1945.” Any other available bombs could be used “as soon as made ready by the project staff.” The Hiroshima mission was delayed until August 6th because of weather conditions in Japan. The Kokura mission (which became the Nagasaki mission) was originally scheduled for August 11th, but got pushed up to August 9th because it was feared that further bad weather was coming. At the very least, waiting more than three days after Hiroshima might have been humane. Three days was barely enough time for the Japanese high command to verify that the weapon used was a nuclear bomb, much less assess its impact and make strategic sense of it. Doing so may have avoided the need for the second bombing run altogether. Even if the Japanese had not surrendered, the option for using further bombs would not have gone away. President Truman himself seems to have been surprised by the rapidity with which the second bomb was dropped, issuing an order to halt further atomic bombing without his express permission.

"Komiya street (750 meters [from Ground Zero] before and after bombing. The archlike heavy lamp posts have fallen. One lies at the left of the lower photograph."

“Komiya street (750 meters [from Ground Zero] before and after bombing. The archlike heavy lamp posts have fallen. One lies at the left of the lower photograph.”

Demonstration. Two months before Hiroshima, scientists at the University of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, one of the key Manhattan Project facilities, authored a report arguing that the first use of an atomic bomb should not be on an inhabited city. The committee, chaired by Nobel laureate and German exile James Franck, argued that a warning, or demonstration, of the bomb on, say, a barren island, would be a worthwhile endeavor. If the Japanese still refused to surrender, then the further use of the weapon, and its further responsibility, could be considered by an informed world community. Another attractive possibility for a demonstration could be the center of Tokyo Bay, which would be visible from the Imperial Palace but have a minimum of casualties if made to detonate high in the air. Leo Szilard, a scientist who had helped launch the bomb effort, circulated a petition signed by dozens of Manhattan Project scientists arguing for such an approach. It was considered as high as the Secretary of War, but never passed on to President Truman. J. Robert Oppenheimer, joined by three Nobel laureates who worked on the bomb, issued a report, concluding that “we can propose no technical demonstration likely to bring an end to the war; we see no acceptable alternative to direct military use.” But was it feasible? More so than most people realize. Though the US only had two atomic bombs in early August 1945, they had set up a pipeline to produce many more, and by the end of the month would have at least one more bomb ready to use, and three or four more in September. The invasion of the Japanese mainland was not scheduled until November. So by pushing back the time schedule, the US could have still had at least as many nuclear weapons to use against military targets should the demonstration had failed. The strategy of the bomb would have changed — it would have lost some of its element of “surprise” — but, at least for the Franck Report authors, that would be entirely the point.

Changing the targets. The city of Hiroshima was chosen as a first target for the atomic bomb because it had not yet been bombed during the war (and in fact had been “preserved” from conventional bombing so that it could be atomic bombed), because the scientific and military advisors wanted to emphasize the power of the bomb. By using it on an ostensibly “military” target (they used scare quotes themselves!), “located in a much larger area subject to blast damage,” they hoped both to avoid looking bad if the bombing was somewhat off-target (as the Nagasaki bombing was), and so that the debut of the atomic bomb was “sufficiently spectacular” that its importance would be recognized not only by the Japanese, but the world at large. But the initial target for the bomb, discussed in 1943 (long before it was ready) was the island of Chuuk (now called Truk), an ostensibly purely military target, the Japanese equivalent of Pearl Harbor. By 1945, Chuuk had been made irrelevant, and much of Japan had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, but there were other targets that would not have been so deliberately destructive of civilian lives. As with the “demonstration,” option had the effect not been as desired, escalation was always available as a future option, rather than as the first step.

"Prefectural Office (900 meters [from Ground Zero]) before and after the bombing. The wooden structure has collapsed and burned. Note displacement of the heavy granite blocks of the wall."

“Prefectural Office (900 meters [from Ground Zero]) before and after the bombing. The wooden structure has collapsed and burned. Note displacement of the heavy granite blocks of the wall.”

Clarifying the Potsdam Declaration. By the summer of 1945, a substantial number of the Japanese high command, including the Emperor, were looking for a diplomatic way out of the war. Their problem was that the Allies had, with the Potsdam Declaration, continued to demand “unconditional surrender,” and emphasized the need to remove “obstacles” preventing the “democratic tendencies” of the Japanese people. What did this mean, for the postwar Japanese government? To many in the high command, this sounded a lot like getting rid of the Imperial system, and the Emperor, altogether, possibly prosecuting him as a “war criminal.” For the Japanese leaders, one could no more get rid of the Emperor system and still be “Japan” than one could get rid of the US Constitution and still be “the United States of America.” During the summer, those who constituted the “Peace Party” of the high council (as opposed to the die-hard militarists, who still held a slight majority) sent out feelers to the then still-neutral Soviet Union to serve as possible mediators with the United States, hopefully negotiating an end-of-war situation that would give some guarantees as to the Emperor’s position. The Soviets rebuffed these advances (because they had already secretly agreed to enter the war on the side of the Allies), but the Americans were aware of these efforts, and Japanese attitudes towards the Emperor, because they had cracked the Japanese diplomatic code. No lesser figures than Winston Churchill and the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson, had appealed to President Truman to clarify that the Emperor would be allowed to stay on board in a symbolic role. Truman rebuffed them, at the encouragement of his Secretary of State, James Byrnes, believing, it seems, that the perfidy of Pearl Harbor required them to grovel. It isn’t clear, of course, that this would have changed the lack of a Japanese response to the Potsdam Declaration. Even after the atomic bombings, the Japanese still tried to get clarification on the postwar role of the Emperor, dragging out hostilities another week. In the end, the Japanese did get to keep a largely-symbolic Emperor, but this was not finalized until the Occupation of Japan.

Waiting for the Soviets. The planned US invasion of the Japanese homeland, Operation Downfall, was not scheduled to take place until early November 1945. So, in principle, there was no great rush to drop the bombs in early August. The Americans knew that the Soviet Union had, at their earlier encouragement, agreed to renounce their Neutrality Pact with the Japanese and declare war, invading first through Manchuria. Stalin indicated to Truman this would happen around August 15th, to which Truman noted in his diary, “Fini Japs when that comes about.” Aside from cutting Japan off from its last bastion of resources, the notion of possibly being divided into distinct Allied zones of influence, as had been Germany, would possibly be more of a direct existential threat than any damage the Americans would inflict. And, in fact, we do now know that the Soviet invasion may have weighed as heavily on the Japanese high command as did the atomic bombings, if not more so. So why didn’t Truman wait? The official reason given after the fact was that any delay whatsoever would be interpreted as wasting time, and American lives, once the atomic bomb was available. But it may also have been because Truman, and especially his Secretary of State, Byrnes, may have hoped that the war might have ended before the Soviets had entered. The Soviets had been promised several concessions, including the island of Sakhalin and the Kuril Islands (giving them unimpeded access to the Pacific Ocean) for their entry in the war, but by late July 1945, the Americans were having second thoughts. As it was, once Stalin saw that Hiroshima did not provoke an immediate response from the Japanese, he had his marshals accelerate the invasion plans, invading Manchuria just after midnight, the morning of the Nagasaki bombing.

I find this one to be one of the most haunting — by filling in the missing structures, it contextualizes all of the "standard" Hiroshima photos of the rubble-filled wasteland.  "Rear view of Geibi and Sumitomo Buildings before and after bombing. Taken from Fukuya Department Store (700 meters [from Ground Zero]) looking toward center. Complete destruction of wooden buildings by blast and fire. Concrete structures stand." In other places in the text, they usually point out that where you see a concrete structure like this, it has withstood the blast but was gutted by the fire.

I find this one to be one of the most haunting — by filling in the missing structures, it contextualizes all of the “standard” Hiroshima photos of the rubble-filled wasteland.
“Rear view of Geibi and Sumitomo Buildings before and after bombing. Taken from Fukuya Department Store (700 meters [from Ground Zero]) looking toward center. Complete destruction of wooden buildings by blast and fire. Concrete structures stand.” In other places in the text, they usually point out that where you see a concrete structure like this, it has withstood the blast but was gutted by the fire.

What should we make of these “alternatives”? Not, necessarily, that those in the past should have been clairvoyant. Or that their concerns were ours: like it or not, those involved in these choices certainly ranked Japanese civilian lives lower than those of American soldiers, as is typical in war. None of the “alternatives” come with any confidence, even today, much less for those at the time, and those making the choices were working with the requirements, uncertainties, and biases inherent to their historical and political positions.

But by pointing out the alternatives that were on the table, one can see the areas of choice and discretion, the different directions that history might have gone — perhaps for better, perhaps for worse. We should see this history less as a static set of “inevitable” events, or of “easy” choices, but as a more subtle collection of options, motivations, and possible outcomes.

Visions

Trinity at 70: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

Friday, July 17th, 2015

A quick dispatch from the road: I have been traveling this week, first to Washington, DC, and now in New Mexico, where I am posting this from. Highlights in Washington included giving a talk on nuclear history (what it was, why it was important) to a crowd of mostly-millennial, aspiring policy wonks at the State Department’s 2015 “Generation Prague” conference. A few hours after that was completed, an article I wrote on the Trinity test went online on the New Yorker’s “Elements” science blog: “The First Light of Trinity.”

The First light of Trinity

Being able to write something for them has been a real capstone to the summer for me. It was a lot of work, in terms of the writing, the editing, and the fact-checking processes. But it is really a nice piece for it. I am incredibly grateful to the editor and fact-checker who worked with me on it, and gave me the opportunity to publish it. Something to check off the bucket list.

On the plane to New Mexico, I thought over what the 70th anniversary of Trinity really meant to me. I keep coming back to the post-detonation quote of Kenneth Bainbridge, the director of the Trinity project: “Now we are all sons of bitches.” It is often put in contrast with J. Robert Oppenheimer’s more grandiose, more cryptic, “Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds.” Oppenheimer clearly didn’t say this at the time of test explosion, and its meaning is often misunderstood. But Bainbridge’s quote is somewhat cryptic and easy to misunderstand as well.

The badge photograph of Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity project. From a photo essay I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two years ago.

The Los Alamos badge photograph of Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the Trinity project. From a photo essay I wrote for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists two years ago.

Bainbridge’s quote first got a lot of exposure when it was published as part of Lansing Lamont’s 1965 book, Day of Trinity, timed for the 20th anniversary of Trinity. Lamont interviewed many of the project participants who were still alive. The book contains many errors, which many of them lamented. (The best single book on Trinity, as an aside, is Ferenc Szasz’s 1984, The Day the Sun Rose Twice, by a considerable margin.) A consequence of these errors is that a lot of the scientists interviewed wrote letters to each other to complain about them, which means they also clarified some quotes of theirs in the book. Bainbridge in particular has a number of letters related to mixed up quotes, mixed up content, and mixed up facts from the Lamont book in his personal papers kept at the Harvard University Archives, which I looked at several years back.

One of the people Bainbridge wrote to was Oppenheimer. He said he wanted to explain his “Now we are all sons of bitches” quote, to make sure Oppenheimer understood he was not trying to be offensive:

The reasons for my statement were complex but two predominated. I was saying in effect that we had all worked hard to complete a weapon which would shorten the war but posterity would not consider that phase of it and would judge the effort as the creation of an unspeakable weapon by unfeeling people. I was also saying that the weapon was terrible and those who contributed to its development must share in any condemnation of it. Those who object to the language certainly could not have lived at Trinity for any length of time.

Oppenheimer wrote back, in a letter dated 1966, just a year before his death, when he was pretty sick and in a lot of pain. It said:

When Lamont’s book on Trinity came, I first showed it to Kitty; and a moment later I heard her in the most unseemly laughter. She had found the preposterous piece about the ‘obscure lines from a sonnet of Baudelaire.’ But despite this, and all else that was wrong with it, the book was worth something to me because it recalled your words. I had not remembered them, but I did and do recall them. We do not have to explain them to anyone.1

I like Bainbridge’s explanation, because it doubles back on itself: people will think we were unfeeling and terrible for making this weapon, which makes it sound like the people are not understanding, but, actually, yes, the weapon was terrible. I think you can get away with that kind of blanket condemnation if you’re one of the people instrumental in its creation.

The original map of fallout from the Trinity test. There are several more "hot spots" to the South and West than are in the later more simplified drawings of it. Click to see the entire map at full resolution.

The original map of fallout from the Trinity test. There are several more “hot spots” to the South and West than are in the later more simplified drawings of it. Click the image to see the entire map at full resolution.

I have been thinking about how broadly one might want to expand the “we” in his quote. Just those at the Trinity test? Those scientists who made the bombs possible? All of the half-million involved in making the bomb, whether they knew their role or not? The United States government and population, from Roosevelt on down? The Germans, the fear of whom inspired its initial creation? The world as a whole in the 1940s? Humanity as a whole, ever?

Are we all sons of bitches, because we, as a species of sentient, intelligent, brilliant creatures have created such terrible means of doing violence to ourselves, to the extremes of potential extinction?

This is probably not what Bainbridge meant, but it is an interesting road to go down. It recalls the recent discussions about whether we live in a new era of time, the Anthropocene, and whether the Trinity test should be seen as the marker of its beginning,

Notes
  1. Regarding Baudelaire, supposedly, according to Lamont, this was going to be the code that Oppenheimer used to tell Kitty that the test was a success: “If the test succeeded, he would send her a brief message, an obscure line from a sonnet by Baudelaire: ‘You can change the sheets.'” []
Meditations

History in the flesh

Friday, May 29th, 2015

My main mode of interacting with history is through documents. Memos, reports, letters, telegrams, transcriptions, diagrams — the written word. The sociologist of science Bruno Latour calls these kinds of sources inscriptions, that which got written down, fixed into some kind of reproducible media. In Latour’s work, he emphasizes the act of inscription to highlight the gulf that exists between what gets written down and the anarchy of the raw, natural world. The inscription is a limited product of that raw world, a small subset of its multitudes of activities and phenomena and possibilities, and is always an incomplete lens by which to interrogate the world, but its very incompleteness allows it to be fixed, circulated, and analyzed. Without this act of inscription, science (and history) could not move forward, because there would be no such thing as the necessary “data.”

A small sampling of the sort of "inscriptions" I deal with regularly, the raw stuff of conjuring up the past: a typewritten report later turned into a microfilm entry (later scanned into a PDF file); a typewritten copy of a memo I got from an archive (later photographed by me and turned into a PDF); a hand-drawn diagram (evidence from the Rosenberg trial) that was later deposited into an archive (and later scanned as a TIF file).

A small sampling of the sort of “inscriptions” I deal with regularly, the raw stuff of conjuring up the past: a typewritten report later turned into a microfilm entry (later scanned into a PDF file); a typewritten copy of a memo I got from an archive (later photographed by me and turned into a PDF); a hand-drawn diagram (evidence from the Rosenberg trial) that was later deposited into an archive (and later scanned as a TIF file).

All of which might seem a little obvious once I say it. We need sources, of some sort, to do history? Tell me more. But the reason to point this out is to mention that historians are very aware that there’s lots of things that happened in the past that don’t get inscribed, and that the modes of inscription are not always reliable (even when people are trying to do their best, much less when they aren’t), and that the archive is just a proxy for understanding the past, and not in any way a full representation of the past. The job of the historian, stated in this way, is to piece together a fuller, more synthetic understanding of the past based on what is really a very shallow evidentiary base. We take half a dozen pieces of paper marked with symbols, and use those to try and conjure up an entire lost world. We take scribbles on paper and use them to try and reconstruct the subjective states of other human minds. When you put it like that, it is a pretty wonderfully mystical, kind of medieval, style of knowledge production. Which is why I love it — its flaws are obvious, its possibilities are endless, and it requires a very diverse group of skills that both empirical and creative.

But there are other ways to know the past. Being in the physical places of the past does seem to trigger a different response to it, as opposed to just reading about said places. This is one of the reasons I am so supportive of the Manhattan Project National Historic Park initiative. There is something about witnessing a historical landscape in person, that encourages a different sort of empathy with those who lived past, a seeing with other eyes.

A view from the car window, driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. One of about 10 million photographs I took on my trip. Eventually I will post some more. Separately, if you want a Los Alamos Ranch School mug, I was inspired to make them after my trip, and they are based on the actual seal of the school, which I saw for the first time while out there.

A view from the car window, driving from Albuquerque to Santa Fe. One of about 10 million photographs I took on my trip. Eventually I will post some more. Separately, if you want a Los Alamos Ranch School mug, I was inspired to make them after my trip, and they are based on the actual seal of the school, which I saw for the first time while out there.

I haven’t personally been to a lot of these Manhattan Project sites. Sometimes this surprises people, but it’s just been a matter of time and money. For my last Spring Break, though, I had the opportunity to spend a week in New Mexico, teaching a couple classes for my friend Luis Campos at the University of New Mexico (whose book on the history of radium was just published). My wife and I spent a few days in Santa Fe as a guest of the wonderful Cheryl Rofer, who also gave us the best unofficial tour of Los Alamos you could ask for, with assistance from Alan Carr (the Historian for Los Alamos National Laboratory) and the irrepressible Ellen Bradbury Reid, described aptly in an article as the “Eloise of Los Alamos,” which is a phrase I so wish I had come up with.

I had not previously spent too much time in the Southwest before. The landscape out there is stunning and other-worldly. On your left will be nothing but flat, scrubby desert. On your right, a towering mountain. Drive a little further and you find lushness and trees. Drive a little more and you find dryness and rock. Go up high enough and it might be snowing. Look around, feel the vastness of the area. Walk around and see the legacy of the three different peoples who have lived there: the Indians, the Spanish, the Anglos. It is an unusual place that feels as unlike the parts of California I am from as it does the East Coast urban metropolises I have lived for the last ten years. They don’t call it the “Land of Enchantment” for nothing.

All of which deepened, I like to believe, my feeling for Los Alamos during the war. What it must have meant to travel out there, to take the one good road from Santa Fe up onto the Mesa (there is a highway now, of course, but the old road is still there, albeit better paved). The way in which the various Technical Areas were nestled into the tree-lined valleys, and how you could go up those hills and look down on just miles and miles around. Today, of course, Los Alamos is a huge, sprawling laboratory. We didn’t really get to go inside of it to any real extent (there are a lot of rules governing that sort of thing), but Alan Carr took us up a hill which gave us great panoramas of the whole site. The hills around the lab are today full of dead, burned trees, the result of several forest fires that devastated them. But when you drive around the mesas near Bandelier National Monument, you get a sense for that rustic, rocky environment that so appealed to J. Robert Oppenheimer, that seemed such incredible contrast to his secular Jewish upbringing on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue, Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cynthia Kelly and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui at the meeting in New York, just across from the United Nations building. I was sitting a little out of frame, near Mayor Matsui. Source: Japan Times.

Nagasaki Mayor Tomihisa Taue, Atomic Heritage Foundation President Cynthia Kelly and Hiroshima Mayor Kazumi Matsui at the meeting in New York, just across from the United Nations building. I was sitting a little out of frame, near Mayor Matsui. Source: Japan Times.

About a month afterwards, I had another unusual opportunity to experience history in the flesh. Connected with my work with the Atomic Heritage Foundation (I have joined their Advisory Committee), I was invited to take part in a meeting with the mayors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as well as several hibakusha, survivors of the atomic bombings.1 The Japanese delegation was in town for the NPT Review conference, but they wanted to meet with the Atomic Heritage Foundation in a public forum to talk about concerns they had with the Manhattan Project National Historic Park. Most of their concerns were understandable and shared by us: they want the history of the atomic bomb to not be presented in a celebratory mode, and to give credence to the many different perspectives that are held on it. They want the human consequences of the bombings to be made loud and clear. They want these sites to be places where people are encouraged to make up their own minds, rather than simply being told what to think about the past. On this I think everyone was in complete agreement. The details, of course, will be tricky in practice, but such is the nature of these things.

I had never seen hibakusha before, and I was greatly honored to meet them. There are not so many of them left. Many of those who are still alive, as with the remaining Holocaust survivors, were children during World War II. Which points, inadvertently, to the immense human costs of these events, to the innocents swept up into the maw of war. I have of course read much about the Japanese victims of the bomb, but it is another thing to meet them. The incident inspired me to re-read John Hersey’s Hiroshima for the first time in a long while, and the raw humanity of his account hit me in a way that it hadn’t before — the depth of my historical empathy increased measurably.

Which doesn’t tell one how to think about the use of the atomic bomb, I feel compelled to point out. Having sympathy and empathy with the past does not tell one which particular historical point of view one should subscribe to. There are many possible points of view to even non-controversial events, much less intensely controversial ones.2

Several of the still-living Manhattan Project veterans/

Several of the still-living Manhattan Project veterans. It is unclear how many of the nearly half-million people who worked on Manhattan Project are still alive. 

Next week (June 2-3, 2015), as part of a really wonderful symposium on the 70th Anniversary of the Manhattan Project hosted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC, I will also get to spend some more time with other Manhattan Project veterans. These too are becoming an endangered species, along with all World War II-era veterans. It’s not the specific stories or experiences of these people that I often get the most out of. There’s something about just spending time around these historical actors (as historians like to call our human subjects) that helps you understand their world, remind you of the human content of the past.

If you are in town, the talks will be worth going to. Aside from my own talk (which will be great fun, I assure you), the other committed speakers include Kai Bird, Denise Kiernan, Robert S. Norris, Richard Rhodes, and Martin Sherwin. I have it on good authority that John Coster-Mullen will be in attendance, too. There is still time to register.

In a decade it will be the 80th anniversary of the Manhattan Project and World War II. There will probably not be any veterans to talk to then. There is an advantage to that, for the historian: living historical actors are tricky. They can disagree with you. Their individual perspectives can be intoxicating, charismatic, misleading. They can insist that their perspectives on history take precedence over the synthetic version you have constructed from inscriptions. They aren’t always right on that, as all history students are taught, but that doesn’t mean they can’t make trouble for you — the Smithsonian Enola Gay controversy in 1995 was one in part such a conflict of perspectives. It is in some ways easier to deal with the long-since deceased, because you can regard their inscriptions from something of a remove. But you do miss out on something, and its not just nostalgia. You have to work harder to reconstruct these other worlds, these other subjective states, in the absence of a working, functioning example sitting in front of you. This is why we have to preserve these spaces, and these voices, just as diligently as we have to preserve the documents, the inscriptions.

Notes
  1. Among other things, I learned that to an American ear, it is pronounced heh-bak-sha, with the u being essentially silent. []
  2. This was one of the great fallacies of the 1995 Enola Gay controversy — the idea that by talking about the victims of the bombs, you somehow took away from those who thought the bombs were necessary or important. History is complex, and we need to treat the audiences of history as if they were intelligent human beings capable of understanding multiple, possibly contradictory perspectives. If we don’t do that, we are just doing some form of crude activism for one cause or another, and the world has enough of that to go around as it is. []
Visions

The plutonium box

Friday, March 28th, 2014

I’ve found myself in a work crunch (somehow I’ve obligated myself to give three lectures in the next week and a half, on top of my current teaching schedule!), but I’m working on some interesting things in the near term. I have a review of Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control coming out in Physics Today pretty soon, and I’ll post some more thoughts on his book once that is available. And I have something exciting coming up for the 60th anniversary of Oppenheimer’s security hearing.

In the meantime, I wanted to share the results of one little investigation. I’ve posted a few times now (Posing with the plutoniumLittle boxes of doom, The Third Core’s Revenge) on the magnesium boxes that were used to transport the plutonium cores used for the Trinity test and the Fat Man bomb:

The magnesium cases for the world's first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core's case at Los Alamos, 1946.

The magnesium cases for the world’s first three plutonium cores. Left: Herb Lehr at Trinity base camp with the Gadget core. Center: Luis Alvarez at Tinian with the Fat Man core. Right: The third core’s case at Los Alamos, 1946.

Just to recap, they were a design invented by Philip Morrison (the Powers of Ten guy, among other things), made out of magnesium with rubber bumpers made of test tube stoppers. They could hold the plutonium core pieces (two in the case of the Trinity Gadget, three in the case of Fat Man), as well as neutron initiators. Magnesium was used because it was light, dissipated heat, and did not reflect neutrons (and so wouldn’t create criticality issues). All of this information is taken from John Coster-Mullen’s Atom Bombs, an essential book if you care about these kinds of details.

But all of the photographs of the box I had seen, like those above, were in black and white. Not a big deal, right? But I find the relative lack of color photography from the 1940s one of those things that makes it hard to relate to the past. When all of Oppenheimer’s contemporaries talked about his icy blue eyes, it makes you want to see them as they saw them, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just me.

The only place where I almost saw a color photo of the box is in a photo that the late Harold Agnew had taken of himself on Tinian. It’s one of a large series of posing-with-plutonium photos that were taken on the island of Tinian sometime before the Nagasaki raid. Only this one is in color! Except… well, I’ll let the photo speak for itself:

Harold Agnew with plutonium core redacted

Yeah. Not super helpful. This was scanned from Rachel Fermi and Esther Samra’s wonderful Picturing the Bomb book. They asked Agnew what had happened, and he told them that:

I was in Chicago after the war in 1946. The FBI came and said they believed I had some secret pictures. They went through my pictures and found nothing. Then like a fool I said, “Maybe this one is secret.” They wanted to know what that thing was. I told them and they said that it must be secret and wanted the picture. I wanted the picture so they agreed if I scratched out the “thing” I could keep the slide.

Thwarted by nuclear secrecy, once again! You can try to look extra close at the scratches and maybe just make out the color of the “thing” but it’s a tough thing to manage.

Ah, but there is a resolution to this question. Scott Carson, a retired engineer who posts interesting nuclear things onto his Twitter account, recently posted another  photo of the box — in color and unredacted! His source was a Los Alamos newsletter from a few years back. It is of Luis Alvarez, another member of the Tinian team, in the same exact pose and location as the redacted Agnew photograph… but this time, un-redacted! And the color of the box was…

Luis Alvarez with the Fat Man core, Tinian, 1945.

…yellowNot what I was expecting.

Why yellow? My guess: it might be the same yellow paint used on the Fat Man bomb. Fat Man was painted “a mustard yellow rust-preventing zinc-chromate primer” (to quote from Coster-Mullen’s book) that made them easier to spot while doing drop tests of the casings.

The box for the Trinity core doesn’t look painted yellow to me — it looks more like raw magnesium. Maybe they decided that the tropical atmosphere of Tinian, with its high humidity, required painting the box to keep it from oxidizing. Maybe they just thought a little color would spruce up the place a little bit. I don’t know.

Does it matter? In some sense this is pure trivia. If the box was blue, green, or dull metallic, history wouldn’t be changed much at all. But I find these little excursions a nice place to meditate on the fact that the past is a hard thing to know intimately. We can’t see events exactly as they were seen by those who lived them. Literally and figuratively. The difficulty of finding out even what color something was is one trivial indication of this. And the secrecy doesn’t help with that very much.

Visions

Art, Destruction, Entropy

Friday, December 13th, 2013

Are nuclear explosions art? Anyone who has taken even a glance into modern and contemporary art knows that the official mantra might as well be “anything goes,” but I found myself wondering this while visiting the exhibition “Damage Control: Art and Destruction since 1950” that is currently at the Hirshhorn Museum. The first thing one sees upon entering is a juxtaposition of two very different sorts of “work.” On the right is a fairly long loop of EG&G footage of nuclear test explosions, broadcast in high definition over an entirety of a wall. On the left is a piano that has been destroyed with an axe. This, I thought, is at least a provocative way to start things off.

Edgerton, Germeshausen, and Grier (EG&G) was a contractor for the federal government during the Cold War, responsible for documenting nuclear test explosions. Quite a lot of the famous Cold War nuclear detonation footage was taken by EG&G. They are perhaps most famous for their “Rapatronic” photographs, the ultimate expression of MIT engineer Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s work of slowing down time through photography, but this was only a part of their overall contribution. The film they have at the Hirshhorn is something of an EG&G “greatest hits” reel from the 1950s, and its affect on the others in the audience was palpable. Adults and children alike were drawn to the blasts, displayed one after another without commentary or explanation.1 Their reactions didn’t strike me as one of disgust or horror, but of amazement and awe. Most of the footage was from the Nevada Test Site, so the bombs were generally just blowing up desert scrub, and occasionally houses constructed for effects testing.

The destroyed piano, by contrast, got reactions of shock and disgust. It was the remains of a piece of performance art conducted by Raphael Montañez Ortiz, one of several he’s done, apparently. My wife, a piano player and a nuclear historian, also found it disturbing. “If you know what goes into making a piano…,” she started to say. “But then again, if you know what goes into making a city…,” she caught herself. I overheard other people say similar things.

The difference in reactions isn’t too surprising — it’s a common theme that it is easy to appreciate the destruction of something at a human scale, difficult to appreciate it at the scale of nuclear bomb. A lot of what I’ve spent time doing, with the NUKEMAP and my writing, is to try to understand, and to impart, the scale of a nuclear explosion. A lot of this has involved looking at the attempts of others, as well, from official Cold War visualizations made for secret committees to popular films, as they have tried to communicate this to their target audiences. The hardest thing is that our brains appear only to be wired for empathy at the individual level, and don’t readily apply it to large groups or large areas. The best work in these areas conveys both the broad scope of destruction, but then ties it into the personal. They individualize the experience of mass ruination.

And the EG&G footage isn’t trying to do that. It was data meant for very specific technical purposes. It was developed in order to further the US nuclear program, and defense against Soviet nuclear weapons. Which is why I somewhat question its inclusion, or, at least, its decontextualization. It is art only in the sense that it has aesthetics and it has been put into an art gallery. One can read into it whatever one wants, of course, but it wasn’t created to have deep meaning and depth in that sense. (Whether one cares about authorial intention, of course, is its own can of modern art worms.) Just as a small example of what I mean, Andy Warhol famously made a print of mushroom clouds for his own “disaster” series (a few of which, but not this print, were featured in the exhibit):

"Atomic Bomb," Andy Warhol, 1965.

“Atomic Bomb,” Andy Warhol, 1965.

Now Warhol is a complicated character, but since he was explicitly an artist I think it is always fair game to talk about his possible intentions, the aesthetics of the piece, the deeper meanings, and so on. Warhol’s art has generally been interpreted to be about commercialization and commodification. The mushroom cloud in repetition becomes a statement about our culture and its fascination with mass destruction, perhaps. Coming in the mid-1960s, after the close-call terrors of the early years of the decade, perhaps it was maybe too-little too-late, but still, it has an ominous aesthetic appeal, perhaps now more than then.

Because I don’t think this image was widely circulated at the time, I doubt that Warhol knew that Berlyn Brixner, the Trinity test photographer, had made very similar sorts of images of the world’s first nuclear fireball at “Trinity”:

TR-NN-11, Berlyn Brixner, 1945.

“TR-NN-11,” Berlyn Brixner, 1945.

Brixner appreciated the aesthetics and craft of his work, to be sure. But the above photograph is explicitly a piece of technical data. It is designed to show the Trinity fireball’s evolution over the 15-26 millisecond range. Warhol’s instrument of choice was the silkscreen printer; Brixner’s was the 10,000 fps “Fastax” camera. There’s a superficial similarity in their atomic repetition. You could make a statement by putting them next to each other — as I am doing here! — but properly understood, I think, they are quite different sorts of works.

Don’t get me wrong. Re-appropriating “non-art” into “art” has been a common move over much of the 20th century at the very least. But the problem for me is not that people shouldn’t appreciate the aesthetics of the “non-art.” It’s that focusing on the aesthetics makes it easy to lose sight of the context. (As well as the craft — Brixner’s work was exponentially more difficult to produce than Warhol’s!) The EG&G footage in the exhibit doesn’t explain much of how, or why, it was made. It seems to be asking the viewer to appreciate it solely on its aesthetic grounds. Which I think is the real problem. Many of the tests they show resulted in significant downwind fallout for the populations near the Nevada Test Site. Many of them involved the development of new, ever-more elaborate ways of mass destruction. Many of them were the product of years of top scientific manpower, untold riches, and a deep political context. To appreciate them as simply big, bright booms robs them of something — no matter how aesthetically beautiful those big, bright booms actually are. 

Gustav Metzger's "auto-destructive" art.

Gustav Metzger’s “auto-destructive” art.

What makes it more ironic is that the exhibit actually does give considerable context to some of the works that are explicitly “art.” You have to explain the context of Gustav Metzger’s “auto-destructive” art — it involves him filming himself painting on canvases with a strong acid, so the artwork destroys itself in the process. Without the context there, what is left is just a boring, not-very-comprehensible movie of a man destroying a blank canvas. But anyway.

In terms of the audience at the exhibit, which was fairly well-attended when I was there with my wife, the most interesting part was the handling of children. The Smithsonian museums are of course explicitly places that people take their children while visiting the city, so it’s no surprise that you probably find more of them at the Hirshhorn than you would at MOMA or other similar institutions. But children add a level of anxiety to an exhibit about destruction. They were wowed by the wall-o’-bombs but not, it seemed, by the piano. Parents seemed to let them wander free through most of it, but there were several films where I saw kids get yanked out by their parents once the parents realized the content was going to be disturbing. In one of these films, the “disturbing” content was of a variety that might have been hard for the children to directly understand — the famous film of the Hindenburg going up in flame, for example, where the violence was real but seen from enough of a distance to keep you from seeing actual injuries or bodies. The one I saw the kids getting really removed from (by their parents, not the museum) was footage of the 2011 Vancouver riots. I wasn’t impressed too much with the footage itself (its content was interesting in a voyeuristic way, but there seemed to be nothing special about the filming or editing), but the immediacy of its violence was much more palpable than the violence-at-a-distance that one saw in most of the other such works. It’s cliche to trot out that old quote attributed (probably wrongly) to Stalin that one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic, but there’s something deeply true to it about how we perceive violence and pain.

Damage Control exhibit site

There are a lot of works in the exhibit. As one would expect, some hew to the theme very closely, some are a bit more tenuous. Overall, though, it was pretty interesting, and if you’re in town, you ought to check it out. The original comment my wife made about pianos and cities stuck with me as I looked at all of the various meditations on “destruction.” In it, I kept coming back to the second law of thermodynamics. On the face of it, it is a very clinical, statistical law: “the entropy of an isolated system never decreases.” It is actually quite profound, something that the 19th-century physicists who developed it knew. Entropy can be broadly understood as “disorder.” The second law of thermodynamics says, in essence, that without additional energy being put into it, everything eventually falls apart. It takes work to keep things “organized,” whether they are apartments, bodies, or cities.2 Ludwig Boltzmann, who helped formulate the law, stated gnomically in 1886 that:

The general struggle for existence of animate beings is not a struggle for raw materials – these, for organisms, are air, water and soil, all abundantly available – nor for energy, which exists in plenty in any body in the form of heat Q, but of a struggle for [negative] entropy, which becomes available through the transition of energy from the hot sun to the cold earth.

In other words, life itself is a struggle against entropy. Our bodies are constantly taking disordered parts of the world (heat energy, for example, and the remains of other living things) and using them to fuel the work of keeping us from falling apart.

But the other way to think about this law is that generally it is easier to take things apart than it is to keep them together. It is easier to convert a piano into a low-energy state (through an axe, or perhaps a fire) than it is to make a piano in the first place. It is easier to destroy a city than it is to make a city. The three-year effort of the half-a-million people on the Manhattan Project was substantial, to be sure, but still only a fraction of the work it took to make the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and all that they contained, biological and material, in the first place.

Of course, the speed at which entropy increases is often controllable. The universe will eventually wear out — but not for a long time. Human civilization will necessarily go extinct — but it doesn’t have to happen anytime soon. What hits home with the “Damage Control” exhibit is how we as a species have to work so hard to keep everything together, while simultaneously working so hard to find ways to make everything fall apart. And in this, perhaps, it is a success, even if I left with many niggling questions about the presentation of some of the works in particular.

Notes
  1. Various guys in the audience would occasionally try to give explanation to their loved ones, and they were generally incorrect, alas. “That must be at Alamogordo… That’s got to be an H-bomb…” no, no, no. Of course, I was there with my wife, and I was talking up my own little storm (though less loudly than the wrong guys), but at least I know my stuff for the most part… []
  2. The key, confusing part about the second law is the bit about the “isolated system.” It doesn’t say that entropy always increases. It says that in an isolated system — that is, a system with no energy being input into it — entropy always increases. For our planet, the Sun is the source of that input, and you can trace, through a long series of events, its own negative entropy to the Big Bang itself. []