Posts Tagged ‘Radiation’


Death dust, 1941

Friday, March 7th, 2014

One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about the Manhattan Project is that prior to Hiroshima, all knowledge of atomic energy and nuclear fission was secret — that the very idea of nuclear weapons was unthought except inside classified circles. This is a side-effect of the narratives we tell about Manhattan Project secrecy, which emphasize how extreme and successful these restrictions on information were. The reality is, as always, more complicated, and more interesting. Fission had been discovered in 1939, chain reactions were talked about publicly a few months later, and by the early 1940s the subject of atomic power and atomic bombs had become a staple of science journalists and science fiction authors.

Campbell's magazine, Cartmill's story. Image source.

Leaks or speculation? Campbell's magazine, Cartmill's story. Image source.

John W. Campbell, Jr., was a prolific editor and publisher of science fiction throughout the mid-20th century. In the annals of nuclear weapons history, he is best known for publishing Cleve Cartmill's story "Deadline" in March 1944, which talks about forming an atomic bomb from U-235. This got Cartmill and Campbell visitors from the FBI, trying to figure out whether they had access to classified information. They found nothing compromising (and, indeed, if you read Cartmill's story, you can see that while it gets — as did many — that you can make atomic bombs from separated U-235, it doesn't really have much truth in the specifics), but told Campbell to stop talking about atomic bombs.

But Campbell's flirtation with the subject goes a bit deeper than that. Gene Dannen, who runs the wonderful Leo Szilard Online website, recently sent me a rare article from his personal collection. In July 1941, Campbell authored an article in PIC magazine with the provocative title, "Is Death Dust America's Secret Weapon?It's a story about radiological warfare in what appears to be rather middle-brow publication about entertainment. Click here to download the PDF. I don't know anything about PIC, and haven't been able to find much on it, but from the cover one wouldn't necessarily expect it to be a source for people looking for hard-hitting science reporting — though the juxtaposition of DEATH DUST, "world's strangest child," and the "DAY DREAM" woman is a wonderfully American tableau.

PIC magazine 1941 - Campbell - Death Dust - cover

The story itself starts off with what has even by then become a clichéd way of talking about atomic energy ("A lump of U-235 the size of an ordinary pack of cigarettes would supply power enough to run the greatest bomb in the world three continuous years of unceasing flight"), other than the fact that it is one of the many publications that points out that after an exciting few years of talk about fission, by 1941 the scientists of the United States had clamped themselves up on the topic. The article itself admits none of this is really a secret, though — that all nations were interested in atomic energy to some degree. It vacillates between talking about using U-235 as a power source and using it to convert innocuous chemicals into radioactive ones.

Which is itself interesting — it doesn't seem to be talking about fission products here, but "synthetic radium powders." It's a dirty bomb, but probably not that potent of one. Still, pretty exciting copy for 1941. (Campbell would much later write a book about the history of atomic energy, The Atomic Story, where he also spent a lot of time talking about "death dust.")

The article contains a really wonderful, lurid illustration of what a city that had been sprayed with "horrible 'death dust'" would look like:

"Even rats wouldn't survive the blue, luminescent radioactive dust. Vultures would be poisoned by their own appetites."

"Even rats wouldn't survive the blue, luminescent radioactive dust. Vultures would be poisoned by their own appetites."

The most interesting parts of the article are when it veers into speculation about what the United States might be doing:

With all the world seeking frantically for the secret of that irresistible weapon, what are America's chances in the race?

It is a question of men and brains and equipment. Thanks to Hitler's belief that those who don't agree with him must be wrong, America now has nearly all the first-rank theoretical physicists of the world. Mussolini's helped us somewhat, too, by exiling his best scientists. Niels Bohr, father of modern atomic theory, is at Princeton, along with Albert Einstein and others of Europe's greatest.

The National Defense Research Committee is actively and vigorously supporting the research in atomic physics that seeks the final secrets of atomic power. Actively, because the world situation means that they must, yet reluctantly because they know better than anyone else can the full and frightful consequences of success. Dr. Vannevar Bush, Chairman of the Committee, has said: "I hope they never succeed in tapping atomic power. It will be a hell of a thing for civilization."

Bohr was in fact still in occupied Denmark in July 1941 — he had his famous meeting with Heisenberg in September 1941 and wouldn't be spirited out of the country until 1943. The photographs identify Harold Urey and Ernest Lawrence as American scientists who were trying to harness the power of atomic energy. Since Urey and Lawrence were, in fact, trying to do that, and since Vannevar Bush was, in fact, ostensibly in charge of the Uranium Committee work at this point, this superficially looks rather suggestive.

PIC magazine 1941 - death dust - scientists

But I think it's just a good guess. Urey had worked on isotope separation years before fission was discovered (he got his Nobel Prize in 1934 for learning how to separate deuterium from regular hydrogen), so if you know that isotope separation is an issue, he's your man. Lawrence was by that point known worldwide for his "atom smashing" particle accelerators, and had snagged the 1939 Nobel Prize for the work done at his Radiation Laboratory. If you were going to pick two scientists to be involved with nuclear weapons, those are the two you'd pick. As for Bush — he coordinated all of the nation's scientific defense programs. So of course, if the US was working on atomic energy as part of their defense research, Bush would have to be in charge of it.

The other illustrations seem to be just generically chosen. They are particle accelerators of various sorts; one cyclotron and many electrostatic (e.g. Van De Graff) accelerators. Cyclotrons did have relevance to isotope separation — they were used to develop the Calutrons used at Y-12 — but the captions don't indicate that this is why these machines are featured.

I've never seen any evidence that Campbell's story in PIC came to any kind of official attention. Why not? In the summer of 1941, there was a lot of talk about U-235 and atomic energy — and Campbell's article really isn't the most provocative of the bunch. There wasn't any official press secrecy of any form on the topic yet. "Voluntary censorship" of atomic energy issues, which is what would get Cartmill and Campbell in trouble later, didn't start up until early 1943. Mid-1941 was still a time when a journalist could speculate wildly on these topics and not get visits from the FBI.

The irony is, there were official fears of a German dirty bomb, but they didn't really crop up until 1942. But the American bomb effort was starting to get rolling in the late summer of 1941. By the end of 1941, Bush would be a convert to the idea of making the bomb and would start trying to accelerate the program greatly. It wasn't the Manhattan Project, yet, but it was on its way. Campbell's article was, in this sense, a bit ahead of its time.

A Campbell publication from 1947 — where he apparently has a better understanding of atomic power. Here he seems to have just scaled down a Hanford-style "pile" and added a turbine to it. It took a little more effort than that in reality...

A Campbell publication from 1947 — where he apparently has a better understanding of atomic power. Here he seems to have just scaled down a Hanford-style "pile" and added a turbine to it. It took a little more effort than that in reality...

What I find most interesting about Campbell's article is that it reveals what the informed, amateur view of atomic energy was like in this early period. Some aspects of it are completely dead-on — that U-235 is the important isotope, that isotope separation is going to matter, that places with particle accelerators are going to play a role, that the acquisition of uranium ore was about to get important, that fears of German use of atomic energy existed. But parts of it are completely wrong — not only would dirty bombs not play a role, he doesn't seem to understand that fission products, not irradiated substances, would play the strongest role. He doesn't really seem to understand how nuclear power would be harnessed in a reactor. He doesn't really seem to get fission bombs at all.

This mixture of accuracy and confusion, of guess and folly, tells us a lot about the state of public knowledge at the time. Atomic energy was a topic, it was an idea — but it wasn't yet something tangible, a reality. So when people found out, in 1945, that the United States had made and detonated atomic fission bombs, they were primed to understand this as the beginning of a "new era," as the realization of something they had been talking about for a long time — even if the details had been secret.


Fears of a German dirty bomb

Friday, September 6th, 2013

For good reason, much has been made of the initial fear of a German atomic bomb. But there was another, lesser-known atomic fear as well. If the Germans could make nuclear reactors — which the Americans thought they were probably doing — could they not take the dangerously-radioactive spent-fuel out of them and use them to make dirty bombs? 

Hanford spent fuel rods — the sort of thing that could have been weaponized during World War II as a radiological weapon.

Hanford spent fuel rods — the sort of thing that could have been weaponized during World War II as a radiological weapon.

In the summer of 1942, Arthur Compton, head of the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory, wrote a memo to Harvard President and atomic-bomb big-wig James B. Conant expressing the need for “protection against ionizing bombs”:

We have become convinced there is real danger of bombardment by the Germans within the next few months using bombs designed to spread radio-active materials in lethal quantities. ... Since protection against the danger from such bombs will be primarily a matter of detection of radiation and instruction with regards to the dangers, it is essential that the matter be brought at once to the attention of the appropriate military officers.1

Compton and his scientists were, at the time, working under the assumption that the Germans were ahead of the Americans, and had already gotten a nuclear reactor running. They estimated that with a 100 kilowatt reactor, 100,000 Curies of radioactivity could be produced daily for bomb usage.

A radiation survey device of the sort produced during World War II by the Victoreen Instrument Company in Cleveland, in collaboration with the University of Chicago scientists.

A radiation survey device of the sort produced during World War II by the Victoreen Instrument Company in Cleveland, in collaboration with the University of Chicago scientists.

A result of this was that in the fall of 1942, the first steps were taken to, at a minimum, detect whether the Germans used any kind of radiological attack against the Allies. Survey meters were developed that would trigger alarms if they detected high levels of radioactivity. These were secretly dispersed to Manhattan District offices in Boston, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. At each location, a small number of officers were trained in their use. Further instruments were held in reserve in case they needed to be deployed further. If the alarms went off,  or if there were other suspicious signs (like reports of a large-scale blackening of photographic film), scientists at the University of Chicago were kept on the ready to be brought in to assess the situation.2

This was a fairly small program, as far as they go. Those involved were acutely aware that the secrecy of the atomic bomb made it impossible to adequately prepare for this possibility. They were stuck in a bind that was very common during the wartime period. The atomic bomb was, at that time, what I like to call an “absolute secret”: the fact that there was a "secret" at all was itself a secret. They could not draw attention to matters relating to atomic energy without drawing attention to the fact that they were engaged in a secret research program with regards to atomic energy. This is a very peculiar situation, one primarily specific to the war, when the secrecy of the project could not be acknowledged (they could not simply say, “oh, the details are secret,” as they could in the Cold War).

What did they think the Germans would do with such a radiological weapon? They considered four possibilities. First, it could be used as an “area-denial” weapon, by making areas uninhabitable. Second, it could be used to contaminate critical war infrastructure (e.g. airports). Third, it could be used as a “radioactive poison gas” to attack troops. Fourth, it could be used “against large cities, to promote panic, and create casualties among civilian populations.”3 Their assessment of the effects, by 1943, was grim:

Areas so contaminated by radioactive material would be dangerous until decay of the material took place, perhaps for weeks or months. ... As a gas warfare instrument the material would be ground into particles of microscopic size to form dust and smoke and distributed by a ground-fired projectile, land vehicles, or aerial bombs.  In this form it would be inhaled by personnel.  The amount necessary to cause death to a person inhaling the material is extremely small.  It has been estimated that one millionth at a gram accumulating in a person's body would be fatal.  There are no known methods of treatment for such a casualty.4

In the time-honored method of worrying about threats, they also then immediately realized that maybe the United States should be weaponizing fission products: “It is the recommendation of this Subcommittee that if military authorities feel that the United States should be ready to use radioactive weapons in case the enemy started it first, studies on the subject should be started immediately.” Note that this isn’t really a deterrent capability, it is a response capability. Deterrence requires your enemy knowing that you have the capability to respond, and secrecy precluded true deterrence.

1943 - Oppenheimer to Fermi

In this context, there is an interesting letter in the J. Robert Oppenheimer papers at the Library of Congress, where Oppenheimer is writing to Enrico Fermi in May 1943 on “the question of radioactively poisoned foods.” From the context, it is clear that both Edward Teller and Fermi had devoted time to this project. The full document is available here. Two parts stand out. One is that one of the acute problems in looking into the issue was, as Oppenheimer put it, difficult to study the subject “without telling anyone about it.” That is, it would be hard to investigate some of the substances in question “without letting a number of people into of the secret of why we want” the substances. The “absolute secret” bind again.

The other is Oppenheimer’s criteria for the project being worth looking into:

...I think that we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men, since there is no doubt that the actual number affected will, because of non-uniform distribution, be much smaller than this.5

Frank Oppenheimer later called this a very “bloodthirsty” statement by his brother; the historian Barton Bernstein instead argued that this was just scientists trying to help the war effort.6 Either way, it makes Oppenheimer look like a very cold fish indeed. And not much of a “dove.” Even if one isn’t clear how much of a “non-uniform distribution” he was assuming.

1943 - Oppenheimer to Fermi - quote

The offensive angle was basically dropped — they didn’t think they’d need it, and they were focused intently on making the actual atomic bomb, a much more devastating weapon. But defensive measures did proceed. By late 1943, it was thought that the use of radioactive poisons against the UK by the Germans was of low probability, but an unpleasant possibility.7 To avoid being completely taken by surprise in such an event, General Groves (with the concurrence of General Marshall) had four officers from the European Theater of Operations staff briefed on the subject “under most complete secrecy,” and a Manual on Use of Radioactive Materials in Warfare was drawn up for these four officers. Signals officers were instructed to report any “peculiar or unexplained effects” on photographic films or personnel, and the officers in question were given radiation detection instruments to use in the case of suspected cases.

In March 1944, General Groves had the matter brought to the attention of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, commanding general of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, fearing that the Nazis might use such weapons to prevent an Allied invasion of Europe. Eisenhower concluded that since the Combined Chiefs of Staff had not brought up the issue, that they must consider that “the enemy will not implement this project.” To keep secrecy, in order to “to avoid a possible scare,” Eisenhower informed only a handful of people, which he acknowledged was not really enough to counter “enemy action of this nature”: “No US or British Commander participating in OVERLORD [the landing at Normandy] has been briefed.” However, radiation detectors were being kept in the UK for deployment on short notice, and a “cover” letter was sent out with symptoms of radiation poisoning listed as a “mild disease of unknown etiology” that was going around, requesting any medical officers to report further cases.8

Dry-run of using radiation detection equipment during a beach landing, as part of "Operation Peppermint." Source.

Team performing a dry-run of a beach landing with radiation detection equipment, as part of "Operation Peppermint." Source.

The plan to deploy radiation monitoring during the D-Day invasions was dubbed “Operation Peppermint,” one of the more amusing code-names of the war. Dry runs of the detection apparatus were taken before D-Day, and German bomb craters were surveyed for radioactive residues, but since no evidence of German radiological weapons preparations or use were uncovered, the “Peppermint” preparations were never put into effect. 

We now know that the Germans never got anywhere near this kind of plan. They didn’t even get a reactor running by the end of the war, the necessary prerequisite for this kind of operation. It wasn’t a totally crazy fear, though. There are aspects of radiological warfare which would make it preferable to, say, chemical warfare from the German point of view. Still, there’s an aspect to this of the old saying, “when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.” When you’re studying radioactive hazards intently, every threat looks like a radioactive hazard.

The secrecy angle is what intrigues me the most about this story: the secrecy of the bomb made it difficult to enact serious preparation from this related, but separate threat. The secrecy of one fear made addressing another fear difficult, because the relevant information of both fears were too deeply entangled. 

  1. Arthur H. Compton to James B. Conant (15 July 1942), Bush-Conant file, Roll 7, Target 10, Folder 75, "Espionage." []
  2. Manhattan District History, Book 1, Volume 14, Foreign Intelligence Supplement No. 2 (Peppermint), 31 July 1952. []
  3. "Use of Radioactive Material as a Military Weapon" (n.d., c.a. early 1943). []
  4. Ibid. []
  5. J. Robert Oppenheimer to Enrico Fermi (25 May 1943), J. Robert Oppenheimer Papers, Library of Congress. []
  6. Barton J. Bernstein, "Oppenheimer and the Radioactive Poison Plan," Technology Review, 88 (May-June 1985), 14-17. There is also some follow-up in Barton J. Bernstein, “Four physicists and the bomb: The early years, 1945-1950,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences, 18, No. 2 (1988), pp. 231-263, on 252-253. []
  7. Leslie Groves to George C. Marshall (30 November 1944), Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 64, "Security." []
  8. Dwight D. Eisenhower to George Marshall (11 May 1944), Correspondence ("Top Secret") of the Manhattan Engineer District, 1942-1946, microfilm publication M1109 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, 1980), Roll 5, Target 8, Folder 18, "Radiological Defense." []

Who knew about radiation sickness, and when?

Thursday, October 18th, 2012

Historians of science love "who knew what, and when?" question in science. We like to do so, in part, because the results are often so counterintuitive when compared with the "traditional" narratives: Mendel wasn't really a Mendelian, Darwin's novelty is often quite overstated, and even superficially straightforward questions like, "when was the electron discovered?" yield a considerable amount of debate about how one knows when the existence and identity of a fundamental particle is "discovered."1 They rarely have answers that come in the form of names and exact dates. In fact, they usually show you something deeper about the way knowledge is produced, circulated, and agreed-upon at any given time in history.

Of all the many questions and sub-questions about the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, one of the ones that occasionally comes up is, "How much was known about the radiation effects of the first atomic bombs before the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki?" Did Harry Truman know, for example, that the bombs would produce both prompt and residual radiation? Would it have changed his decision to use the bomb?

21-year-old soldier at Nagasaki, suffering from what was known as "Disease X" to the Japanese doctors before its identification as radiation poisoning. It took him a little under a month to die from the effects; click the image for the unpleasant details.

The reason it might matter is because arguably the radiation effects of the first atomic bombs are what distinguish them from "traditional" incendiary raids — i.e., the firebombing that had already been going on for quite some time before the Second World War went nuclear. (I personally don't think they do, from an ethical standpoint, but I'll be writing an entire post on this very soon, so let's put that question to the side for now.)

Truman didn't feel it was appropriate to use chemical or "poison" warfare — so perhaps, the argument goes, if he had thought about the atomic bombs not just as "big fire bombs" but instead as "big fire bombs with poison" he would have considered them an inappropriate weapon to actually use on cities inhabited primarily by non-combatants.

This is an interesting question, and one that would take a lot of careful work to answer. So I was really glad that Sean Malloy, an historian at UC Merced and the author of a great biography of Henry L. Stimson, decided to sit down and seriously hash it over. He wrote what I expect is going to be the definitive article on the subject, published this summer in Diplomatic History with the title: "'A Very Pleasant Way to Die': Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb Against Japan." For the very literal out there, Malloy isn't himself saying that radiation sickness is a pleasant way to die; it's from a quote by General Groves. (If you would like a copy of the article and don't have access to the journal, I am sure that Sean would be happy to send you one if you sent him an e-mail.)2

I have written a lengthy review of Sean's article for the online-list H-Diplo. I wrote it a little while back — closer to when Sean's article actually came out — but due to the way H-Diplo schedules things, it's only just come out this week. You can read it online here, if you're interested in getting my extended take on Malloy's article.

What follows here is a summary of my main points from my review of Malloy, which summarizes his main points. So if you're curious about anything said below, read my full review, and if you're still curious, read Malloy's article.

There were certainly physicists at Los Alamos who understood that the first atomic bombs would produce significant amounts of radiation, and were likely to cause both radiation sickness and nuclear fallout effects.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1946. Oppenheimer was curiously incurious about the effects of radiation on the Japanese. Photo via the DOE Digital Archive.

But J. Robert Oppenheimer never seemed to be very interested in that. Why not? It remains something of a mystery — how do you find out why someone wasn't interested in something? Anyway, for whatever reason, he never really paid too much attention to the reports about radiation effects, and spoke almost exclusively of the bomb in terms of heat and blast effects.

Despite much lore to the contrary, the targeting height of the bomb was not chosen in order to minimize radiation effects. It was chosen to maximize blast and thermal effects. The argument that its height was chosen to minimize radiation effects is an after-the-fact argument, though it is not an entirely inaccurate side-effect.3

Because Oppenheimer didn't know/care about radiation effects, General Leslie Groves didn't really, either. Groves actually thought he could march American troops through an area that was recently atomic bombed — had he been given the opportunity to do so, his ignorance would have actually cost American lives. Malloy thinks — and I agree — that such is a good indication that he was pretty confused on the issue.4

And yet, Groves and Oppenheimer did consider radiation in other contexts — such as the health of those involved with witnessing the Trinity test. But they never seemed to have talked about it in the context of the Japanese, the intended victims of the bomb. Why not? Malloy suggests that Groves was subjected to a "self-compartmentalization" — that a side-effect of his compartmentalized project was a compartmentalized self. Health safety and weapons effects were totally different departments as far as he was concerned; he never made the linkage. This is, of course, speculative, but I like it as an explanation, because it jibes with other commonly-observed side-effects of working in highly-compartmentalized environments.

Oppenheimer, Groves, and others take reporters to the Trinity test site in September 1945, as part of their publicity effort to show that the atomic bombs were not too toxic. Many of the visitors picked up Trinitite — radioactive glass — as souvenirs. Some of this was made into jewelry, prompting a later press release saying that radioactive glass shouldn't be worn close to the body. Whoops.

If Groves didn't know/care, then the Targeting Committee and Interim Committee, Secretary of War Henry Stimson's turf, didn't know at all. If Stimson didn't know, Truman didn't know. Question answered, in a sense: some people knew, but they were very low on the hierarchy, and the Manhattan Project was highly hierarchical. The reasons it didn't percolate up the chain aren't because anyone was deliberately holding it down — it's because knowing something and caring about it (that is, thinking it is important) are linked. (This is my formulation of the reason, anyway, and why I like to use know/care as a linked term here.)

They didn't really care, they didn't really know, and it never got passed up. Oppenheimer was a scientific filter to Groves, and Groves was a filter to the politicians — and a good deal of filtering had to take place for something done at Los Alamos to ever make it to Truman's ear. (As an aside, Groves struggled with this even in explaining the basics of the project to Truman in terms the latter could understand and care about, much less technical details.)

Would Truman have stopped the bombing if he had known that 15%-20% of those affected by it would die of radiation sickness?

Would it have mattered? Malloy thinks it might very well have mattered for Truman — he was markedly averse to the idea of poison warfare. Personally I doubt it would have made a difference; you don't call off a massacre because you think it might kill a few more people than you originally intended, and the scientists would have had no way to give a plausible number for the number affected. Later estimates put the number of acute dead from radiation exposure at about 15%-20% of the total casualties from the bombings — a not insignificant number (many thousands of people), but probably not enough to change the direction of the bomb program, and probably a number that would have been dismissed as too high if it had been presented as an estimate before actual use.

Lastly, what about the allegations of an "atomic cover up" that periodically go around, which say that Groves et al. tried to hide the fact of radiation illnesses? Malloy gets into this here fairly well, too. Not long after the bombing, reports started coming in that doctors in Japan were seeing the effects of radiation sickness amongst the (apparent) survivors of the attacks. Groves thought they were just propaganda, trying to make the American people feel sympathetic to the Japanese. He asked his medical experts about it, they told him it was unlikely, and so he enlisted Oppenheimer to help deny that this could have been the case.

A few things here warrant attention:

  1. Oppenheimer was happy to help, even though really he was kind of out of his league. Such was the way of Oppenheimer, but I also suspect he genuinely thought the reports were propaganda, as well.
  2. Prior to this instance, there actually had been fairly uninformed stories circulating about how Hiroshima and Nagasaki would be totally uninhabited for generations and things like that which legitimately were total nonsense. So Groves was already in "defensive mode" when it came to radiation effects, and already primed to see them as nonsense.
  3. The Japanese did release significant propaganda about the bomb during this period. A lot of total nonsense, like the fact that they too had atomic bombs and were just saving them up for a rainy day and now were going to use them. (The Germans did stuff like this too, of course.) It's easy to forget, in the absence of a sense of the day-to-day from that period, how hard it would have been to separate out fact from fiction. If you look through newspapers of the day though you will be amazed at how much weird news — stuff that was clearly propaganda and false — was coming in from abroad.

To his credit, even though he dismissed the Japanese doctors' claims, Groves also sent his own teams to Japan as soon as he could to evaluate the results themselves. They found that indeed, radiation had been a significant factor in mortality at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Groves' testimony to the Special Senate Committee on Atomic Energy, late November 1945: "...they say it is a very pleasant way to die."

By November 1945, Groves had stopped denying that radiation sickness had occurred, even if he did, in his awful way, suggest that they were not all so bad (the aforementioned "very pleasant way to die"). But spinning, however misleading or offensive, is not the same thing as knowingly perpetuating a cover-up.

I find Malloy's account very convincing, not just because it is well-documented and well-argued, but because it generally agrees with my reading of the primary sources. These guys were not really in the "cover-up" business. They certainly were in the "spin" business. They were willing to give in to their internal biases and believe what they wanted to believe in the absence of indisputable information. They weren't shining heros, and they weren't despicable villains. They muddled it out the way most people do when it came to anything other than the business of producing atomic bombs, which they turned out to be fairly good at — though even there, their superhuman prowess is usually exaggerated.

But what I really love about Malloy's work, here, is that instead of saying, "they did know" or "they didn't know," he asks about how knowledge worked in the context of the Manhattan Project, which is a question of how knowledge is created, how it circulates within institutions, and how it is or isn't acted upon. This is a very deep endeavor and one that takes you well beyond the standard ways of thinking not only about the bomb, but in thinking about any other comparable projects and institutions. This is how these sorts of questions should be worked on.

  1. Does it matter, for example, that J.J. Thomson, the so-called discoverer of the electron, thought his results said something quite different than did his contemporaries? Does it matter that the modern understanding of what it means to be an electron is quite different from that of the late 19th century? Does it matter that a low-mass, negatively-charged particle called an "electron" had been proposed well before Thomson claimed the existence of his "corpuscle"? If this sort of question interests you — there must be one of you out there! — you might enjoy Helge Kragh's Quantum Generations, which is full of interesting stuff like this. []
  2. Sean Malloy, “‘A Very Pleasant Way To Die’: Radiation Effects and the Decision to Use the Atomic Bomb Against Japan,Diplomatic History 36, no. 3 (June 2012), 515-545. []
  3. The height of the detonation points did mean that the neutron effects of the bomb were relatively minimal, even if the gamma rays were not; the difference matters because neutrons, and not gamma rays, can induce radioactivity in other substances, and thus produce more contamination. The height also meant less material was sucked up into the fireball than otherwise would have been were it detonated lower. But the fact remains that the height wasn't chosen to minimize radiation effects. []
  4. It should be noted, however, that if the bomb is an airburst, the amount of radioactive contamination on the ground can be quite minimal and short-lived (e.g., if it was just neutron activation, as opposed to fallout and fission products). So this doesn't necessarily reflect ignorance, though it might reflect hubris and overconfidence either on Groves' part or the scientists (because the real world is often quite messy). []