Posts Tagged ‘Speculation’

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.

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H-bomb headaches

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Once again, the US government has gotten itself into a bad situation over the supposed secret of the hydrogen bomb. As The New York Times reported earlier this week, the Department of Energy (DOE) censors demanded that the physicist Ken Ford heavily redact a manuscript he had written on the history of the hydrogen bomb. Ford, however, declined to do so, and you can buy the unexpurgated text right now on Amazon in Kindle format, and in hardback and paperback fairly soon.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ken Ford by Mark Makela for the New York Times.

Ford was a young physicist working with John A. Wheeler during the 1950s, and so a lot of his book is a personal memoir. He is also (in full disclosure) the former head of the American Institute of Physics (my employer from 2011-2014), and I was happy to give him some assistance in the preparation of the manuscript, mainly in the form of tracking down declassified/unclassified sources relating to his story, and helped him get solid citations to them. Ken actually just recently came to Hoboken so we could iron out a few of the final citations in a Starbucks near my apartment. I knew he was having some issues with classification review, but I didn’t know he was going to play it like this — I am impressed by his boldness at just saying “no” to DOE.

Nothing I saw in his work struck me as anything actually still secret. Which is not to say that it might or might not be officially classified — just that the technical information is much the same kind of technical information you can find in other, unclassified sources, like the books of Richard Rhodes and Chuck Hansen, and people on the web like Carey Sublette, among others. And therein lies the rub: is information still a secret if it is officially classified, even if it is widely available?

This has been a tricky thing for the government to adjudicate over the years. The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (and its revisions) charges the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), and later the Department of Energy, with regulating “restricted data” wherever it appears, wherever it comes from. According to the law, they don’t have any choice in the matter. But over the years they changed their stance as to the best way to achieve this regulation.

One of the earliest decisions of the Lilienthal AEC was to adopt a “no comment” policy with regards to potentially sensitive information published by people unassociated with the nuclear weapons complex. Basically, if someone wanted to speculate on potentially classified topics — like the size of the US nuclear stockpile, or how nuclear weapons worked — the AEC in general would not try to get in their way. They might, behind the scenes, contact editors and publishers and make an appeal to decency and patriotism. (Sometimes this got expressed in a comical fashion: they would have “no comment” about one paragraph but not another.) But they generally did not try to use threat of prosecution as the means of achieving this end, because they felt, correctly, that censorship was too blunt an object to wield very effectively, and that telling someone on the outside of the government that they had hit upon classified information was tantamount to revealing a secret in and of itself.

Howard Morland then-and-now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

Howard Morland then and now. On the left, Morland and his H-bomb model, as photographed for the Washington Post in 1981 (at the time his book account of the Progressive case, The Secret that Exploded, was published). At right, Morland and me at a party in Washington, DC, just before I moved to New York. He is wearing his H-bomb secret shirt he had made in 1979 (which he discusses in his book). I felt very honored both to see the original shirt and to see the pose he imagined he might do with it before the press, to reveal the secret to the world.

There were a few instances, however, where this “no comment” policy broke down. The best-known one is the case of United States v. Progressive, Inc. in 1979. This is the famous case in which the DOE attempted to obtain (and was briefly granted) prior restraint against the publication of a magazine that claimed to contain the “secret of the hydrogen bomb,” written by the journalist/activist Howard Morland. The DOE convinced a judge to grant a restriction on publication initially, but in the appeals process it became increasingly clear that the government’s case was on fairly shaky grounds. They declared the case moot when the researcher Chuck Hansen had a paper on hydrogen bomb design published in a student newspaper — in this case, it looked like an obvious attempt to back out before getting a bad ruling. Morland’s article appeared in print soon after and became the “standard” depiction of how the Teller-Ulam design works, apparently validated by the government’s interest in the case.

In this case, the issue was about the most egregious incursion of the Atomic Energy Act into the public sphere: the question of whether the government could regulate information that it did not itself play a part in creating. The “restricted data” clause of the Atomic Energy Act (after which this blog is named) specifies that all nuclear weapons-related information is to be considered classified unless explicitly declassified, and makes no distinction about whether said information was created in a laboratory by a government scientist or anywhere else in the world by private citizens. Thus nuclear weapons information is “born secret” according to the law (unlike any other forms of controlled national defense information), which in cases like that of The Progressive puts it in direct conflict with the First Amendment.

Ford’s book is something different, however. Ford was himself a government scientist and had a security clearance. This means he was privy to information that was most definitely classified as both “restricted data” and national defense information. He worked on Project Matterhorn B at Princeton, which was part of the hydrogen bomb effort in the early 1950s. He signed contracts that governed his behavior, both while working for the government and later. He agreed to let the government evaluate his work for classified information, and agreed he would not give away any classified information.

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

At left, the redacted Bethe article as published in Scientific American, April 1950. At right, the original draft, redacted by the Atomic Energy Commission (photograph taken by me at the National Archives, College Park).

There is a historical parallel here, and a better one than the Progressive case. In 1950, the magazine Scientific American ran a series of articles about the hydrogen bomb. The first of these was by the gadfly physicist Louis Ridenour. Ridenour had no connection with nuclear weapons work and he could say whatever he wanted. But the second was by Hans Bethe, who was intimately involved with classified nuclear work. Bethe obviously didn’t try to publish anything he thought was secret. But the AEC got several passages deleted from the article anyway.

The passages removed were extremely banal. For example, Bethe said that it seemed like they would need to use the deuterium-tritium reaction to achieve fusion. This level of basic information was already in the Ridenour article that was published a month before. So why delete it from the Bethe article? Well, because Bethe was connected with the government. If Ridenour says, “tritium is necessary,” it doesn’t mean that much, because Ridenour doesn’t have access to secrets. If Bethe says it, it could be potentially understood by an adversary to mean that the deuterium-deuterium reaction isn’t good enough (and it isn’t), and thus that the Los Alamos scientists had found no easy short-cut to the H-bomb. So the same exact words coming out of different mouths had different meanings, because coming out of Bethe’s mouth they were a statement about secret government research, and out of Ridenour’s mouth they were not. The whole thing became a major publicity coup for Scientific American, of course, because there is no better publicity for a news organization than a heavy-handed censorship attempt.

I have looked over a lot of Ford’s book. It’s available on Amazon as a e-book, or as a PDF directly from the publisher. I haven’t had time to read the entire thing in detail yet, so this is nothing like a formal review. The sections that I imagine drew the ire of the DOE concern some of the early thinking about how the Teller-Ulam design came about. This is an area where there is still a lot of historical ambiguity, because tracing the origins of a complex technical idea is not straightforward even without classification mucking things up. (I am working on a paper of this myself, and have a somewhat different interpretation than Ken, but that is really neither here nor there.)

Ken Ford Building the H-bomb

There’s nothing that looks classified in Ken’s work on this to me. There are references to things that generally don’t show up in government publications, like “equilibrium conditions,” but the existence of these kinds of technical issues are common in the open literature on thermonuclear weapons, and a lot of them are present in the related field of inertial confinement fusion, which was largely declassified in the late 1990s.1

So why is the DOE pent up over Ford? It is probably not an issue of the content so much as the fact that he is the one talking about it. It is one thing for an unaffiliated, uncleared person like me to say the words “equilibrium conditions” and talk about radiation implosion and tampers and cryogenic cooling of plutonium and things of that nature. It’s another for a former weapons physicist to say it.

It’s also related to the fact that because Ken was a former weapons physicist, they have to review his work. And they have to review it against their official guides that tell them what is technically secret and what is not. And what is allowed by the DOE to talk about is not the same thing about what people on the outside of the DOE do talk about. So, for example, this is pretty much most of what the DOE considers kosher about thermonuclear weapons:

  • The fact that in thermonuclear (TN) weapons, a fission “primary” is used to trigger a TN reaction in thermonuclear fuel referred to as a “secondary.” 
  • The fact that, in thermonuclear weapons, radiation from a fission explosive can be contained and used to transfer energy to compress and ignite a physically separate component containing thermonuclear fuel.  Note: Any elaboration of this statement will be classified.
  • Fact that fissile and/or fissionable materials are present in some secondaries, material unidentified, location unspecified, use unspecified, and weapons undesignated. 

Now you can find a lot more elaboration on these statements in the works of Chuck Hansen, Carey Sublette, and, hell, even Wikipedia these days. (Fun fact: Howard Morland, of The Progressive case, is an active Wikipedian and contributor to that page.) And in fact there is a lot that has been released by the government that does lend towards “elaboration” of these statements, because it is impossible to full compartmentalize all of this kind of information in such neat little boxes.

But the job of the DOE reviewer was to sit down with the guide, sit down with Ken’s book, and decide what the guide said they had to do regarding the book. And in this case, it was about 10% of the book that the guide said they had to get rid of. And in this case, they are bound by the guide. Now, at a certain point, one has to say, if the guide is saying that lots of stuff that is already in Richard Rhodes’ Dark Sun, published 20 years ago, still needs to be kept under lock and key, well, maybe the guide needs to be changed. But there is arguably something of a difference between Rhodes (an outsider) writing things, and Ford (an insider) writing the same things. But it’s hard to see how any of this is going to matter with regard to national security today or in the future — it doesn’t seem like these kinds of statements are going to be what enables or disables future proliferators from acquiring thermonuclear weapons.

"How institutions appear / how institutions are." From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

“How institutions appear / how institutions are.” From one of my favorite comics published on Subnormality, by Winston Rowntree.

What’s amazing, again, is not that the DOE told Ken to delete things from his book. That is somewhat expected given how the classification system works. What’s amazing is that Ken told them to shove off and published it anyway. That doesn’t happen so often, that a once-insider won’t play ball. And it has no doubt put the DOE in a tough situation: they’ve set things up for a good story (like the one in the New York Times) about the silliness of government secrecy, and as a result have probably resulted in a lot of book sales that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. In this case, their attempt at preserving some form of secrecy has certainly resulted in them just calling more attention to the work in question.

What can they do to Ken? Well, technically, they probably could prosecute him under the Atomic Energy Act, or potentially the Espionage Act. But I’m pretty sure they won’t. It would be a public relations nightmare for them, would probably result in the release of even more information they deem sensitive, and Ken is no rogue agent. Which just goes to highlight one of the points I always make when I talk to people about secrecy: from the outside, it can look like government institutions are powerful and omnipotent with regards to classification. But they are usually weaker and more frail than they appear, because those who are bound by secrecy usually end up losing the public relations war, because they aren’t allowed to participate as fully as those who are on the outside.

Notes
  1. The Teller-Ulam design is perhaps better called the Equilibrium Super, to distinguish it from the Non-Equilibrium “Classical” Super design. In a basic sense, it refers to the fact that they were trying to achieve conditions that would result in a lot of fusion all at once, as opposed to a traveling “wave” of fusion along a cylinder of fuel. []
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To demonstrate, or not to demonstrate?

Friday, March 6th, 2015

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

1945-06-12 - Franck Report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1945-08-10 - Groves memo on next bombs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When bad history meets bad journalism

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

A lot of people have been passing around the latest news story about the supposed “Nazi nuclear bunker” that was supposedly discovered in Austria. Normally I would not comment at length about such a thing, originating from tabloids and so obviously (to my eye) devoid of serious merit. But since the passing around has even made it to more austere publications (like the Washington Post) and because a number of people have asked me informally what I thought about it, I thought I could take it as an opportunity to talk about what bad history of the bomb looks like.

The Sunday Times (UK) version of the "bunker" story.

The Sunday Times (UK) version of the “bunker” story.

Cheryl Rofer has compiled some of the basics of the story on Nuclear Diner. The basics are this: an Austrian filmmaker named Andreas Sulzer has been trying to make a film about an Austrian bunker that dates from World War II. He has been claiming there was a nuclear connection to this bunker, and gotten some headline-grabbing tabloid stories about it, since 2013. What’s the evidence for it being a nuclear site? He claims that he has an American intelligence document from 1944 that lists it as a site of possible interest. He has made vague claims about radioactivity. It is part of an existing weapons production plant (a factory that produced rocket engines). Some physicists might have been sent there. Did we mention there was a bunker?

Yeah. That’s it. This stuff is pretty obviously thin, but let’s just say: Allied intelligence about German nuclear sites in 1944 was poor and scattered and means nothing. Radiation is everywhere and can fluctuate from a variety of natural and artificial sources — only by talking about levels of radiation do we start to wonder if something unusual is occurring, and only by talking about specific radioactive isotopes can we start to really wonder if any given radiation is of interest to us or not. (This is not hard to do — there are hand-held devices that can both measure radiation intensity and determine the isotopes in about 30 seconds, these days.1) The fact that it is part of an existing plant is probably evidence against it being a super-secret nuclear installation (compartmentalization). And physicists were involved in practically every technical program during World War II, so their presence tells us nothing one way or the other.

Forbes' version of the same story from February 2014.

Forbes’ version of the same story from February 2014.

The obvious thinness of this evidence, and the obvious motivation of the filmmaker — who has been denied a permit to dig around the site — should already be a sign to any self-respecting journalist that this is not worth touching. Certainly not without talking to some other experts about it. The only person anyone seems to have called up is Rainer Karlsch, whose own work on the German nuclear program is extremely controversial (Karlsch claims the Germans detonated some kind of dirty bomb or pure-fusion bomb — also on very thin evidence). For all of his outsized claims, at least Karlsch did his homework and tries to marshall evidence for his work. I don’t think Karlsch’s evidence fits the strength of his claims, and there are real technical problems with Karlsch’s reasoning, but there is at least a serious scholarly discussion to be had there. There is not one to be had (at least, not yet) about the Sulzer claims, because there is no there there. Karlsch’s only quoted comment is that he thinks the Germans got further along with their nuclear program than most people think (to be addressed below), and doesn’t comment on the Sulzer claims at all — which makes it not really a supporting comment for Sulzer at all.2

But if you slap “Nazi” and “nuclear” onto something, it gets a lot of hits, and that’s what appears to be the motivation here both for the Sunday Times and the many other sources that have picked up the same story and run it without checking in with anybody else to see whether it is even plausible. Which is a sad state of things.

December 2013 version of the story, from the Daily Mail (UK).

December 2013 version of the story, from the Daily Mail (UK).

There is a bunker. No credible evidence has actually been offered to make one think it has a nuclear connection. That the Germans had large underground bunkers for technical projects is well-known — that they had them for their nuclear program is not, because there is no evidence of this. (They did do some reactor work in some caves towards the end of the war, but it was small scale.) Newspapers should stop passing this kind of nonsense around… especially since it is not even “news” at this point — the bunker story has been circulating for over 2 years, without any additional increase in credibility!

About two or three times a year I get contacted by people who are working on things relating to the German or Japanese wartime nuclear programs. The appeal is obvious: there is a built-in audience for this kind of thing, and there are still areas of uncertainty with regards to these programs. I have written on here in the past on a few of the questions I’ve stumbled into with regards to the German program, for example. We don’t know everything about these programs, and there are reasons to think that there is still more to learn. So I’m always willing to engage with people on these questions.

At least the Washington Post hedged the headline a bit, "says he uncovered." Still misleading, but makes the factual basis a little more clear.

At least the Washington Post hedged the headline a bit, “says he uncovered.” Still misleading, but makes the factual basis a little more clear.

Some of the stuff strikes me as improbable or a little crack-pot-ish; some of it seems plausible and interesting. I’m a firm believer in the idea that sometimes non-academic historians stumble onto interesting things and interesting questions (John Coster-Mullen is a great example of this), and I don’t discriminate unless people show themselves to be going down truly untenable paths (like that small segment of the Internet who believes that all nuclear weapons are a hoax, which is just a truly silly “theory”).3 I will hear just about anyone out, and tell them what I find plausible or implausible about their ideas. I am a skeptical person — big claims need big evidence. But I do believe there is still a lot “out there” to be found on these topics, and maybe more than a few surprises yet.

The German nuclear program seems to attract a lot of “theorizing” in particular, ranging from the “they got further in it than most people think” (which is an easy argument to make since most people don’t know much about the German program at all) to the absurd extremes of “they made an atomic bomb and the only way the Americans got one themselves was by stealing it” (conspiracy country).

The 1945 version of the same headline — New York Herald Tribune, August 8, 1945, story about the Norsk Hydro plant, which also over-emphasized the closeness of Germany's getting the bomb for dramatic effect.

The 1945 version of the same headline — New York Herald Tribune, August 8, 1945, story about the Norsk Hydro plant, which also over-emphasized the closeness of Germany’s getting the bomb for dramatic effect. Click the image to read the article.

Public understanding of the German nuclear program is indeed a confused and often incorrect thing, owing to a history of the politicization of the topic. In the very early days after the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the “race with the Germans” narrative was played up very heavily by the Manhattan Project public relations people, both because it made for good drama and because it seemed to justify the US interest in the topic. And, indeed, the scientists who lobbied for the atomic bomb program between 1939 and 1944 or so did believe that the Germans might be ahead of them and that they were “racing” them to make the atomic bomb. It was not until late 1944 that the Alsos program reported back that the Germans had never gotten very far with their work, and that the US had never really been “racing” with them at all. Even today, though, we still see the legacy of this, with television programs and movies over-dramatizing the closeness of the “race,” and the importance of things like the sabotage of the Norsk Hydro facility, all of which makes it look like the Germans were very close indeed.

On the other side of the coin, we also have things like the Copenhagen play, which is an excellent piece of drama (and I am indeed a fan) but has infected a new generation with the idea that the Germans made no progress at all with regards to nuclear weapons — and indeed, had never even seriously considered the matter — because Heisenberg had consciously sabotaged the whole project. Never mind that Heisenberg’s own claims were far more nuanced on this point (he was always vague on this, only implying in a round-about way that they might not have made a bomb because they didn’t really want one). The play and the press around it has led a lot of people to think that the Germans knew really nothing about nuclear weapons development, and that they had intentionally avoided making them.4

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

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

The truth, so far as we know it now, is somewhere other than these two extremes. Mark Walker’s two books (German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949 and Nazi Science: Myth, Truth, And The German Atomic Bomb) are still excellent, though a bit more has come out since then. The basic gist of Walker’s work is that the German program knew a lot on paper, but never quite crystallized everything organizationally or technically to keep their program from being anything more than a side-project, focused primarily on reactor development. They never developed large-scale isotopic enrichment facilities, and they never got a reactor that went critical. Their reactor work was sophisticated given the conditions under which it was being done, but it never achieved criticality. Some members of the various teams that worked on the project had some fairly accurate understandings of how a nuclear weapon might be made, but there was also a lot of confusion circulating around (some members of the team understood it would be a fast-neutron fission reaction in enriched material, some were confused and focused on it being basically an out-of-control pile). Some were considering rather advanced designs (Karlsch has convinced me that they thought a bit about implosion, for example), but the whole thing was mostly a exploratory program.

The plausibility of any new arguments about German successes with their nuclear programs is always limited in part by what we know about the technical requirements of such an endeavor. The Manhattan Project need not be the only model of a successful nuclear program (it was in many ways unusual), but it does provide some baseline metrics for talking about nuclear programs of the 1940s. Any successful plutonium-breeding program is going to require fairly large reactors, because plutonium reprocessing extracts only grams of “product” from each ton of uranium fuel that goes into it. (Each of the three early Hanford reactors extracted only 225 grams of plutonium from every ton of uranium processed.) Any successful isotopic-enrichment program is going to require huge feed supplies of uranium (the Manhattan Project approaches consumed thousands of tons of uranium), pretty large facilities, and a lot of electricity.

When Alsos leader Sam Goudsmit was investigating the Germany nuclear work, he was struck by how little of it was kept very secret — evidence, in his mind, that they had not gotten very far with it. (S.A. Goudsmit and F.A.C. Wardenburg, "TA-Straussburg Mission," (8 December 1944), copy in the Bush-Conant file, Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5.)

When Alsos leader Sam Goudsmit was investigating the Germany nuclear work, he was struck by how little of it was kept very secret — evidence, in his mind, that they had not gotten very far with it. (S.A. Goudsmit and F.A.C. Wardenburg, “TA-Straussburg Mission,” (8 December 1944), copy in the Bush-Conant file, Roll 1, Target 6, Folder 5.)

Separate from the technical argument is a bureaucratic one — if the Germans supposedly made such progress, why is was there no organizational evidence of it in the copious reports, papers, formal and informal statements, and so on that were discovered by the Alsos project, later researchers, and at Farm Hall? Big programs leave big traces. If one wants to claim that the German program was big, one has to show where those traces are, or come up for a plausible argument for why there are no traces.

This does not mean that one might not find more evidence in the future. It just means that any claims and evidence need to fit within the existing technical and bureaucratic narratives. For example, one could argue, “oh, but they did have a massive isotopic enrichment plant, and it was here, and here is evidence of — if one had the evidence. On the bureaucratic side, one could argue that people who we previously thought were important in the program (e.g. Gerlach) were actually out of the loop entirely. Or something along those lines.

Weekly World News, 2002: "Confederacy was Building an Atomic bomb."

Weekly World News, 2002: “Confederacy was Building an Atomic bomb.” No comment!

But you can’t just find a hole in the ground and say, “ah, here is where Hitler was making a bomb.” Aside from the implausibility of a nuclear program existing in a single underground bunker, by itself this kind of claim hasn’t done the work to be plausible. At best, if done in good faith, it is a claim along the lines of “oh, maybe this is worth looking into more.” That is fine — hey, I’d even nominally support that — but one shouldn’t be going to the newspapers about it at that stage, and the newspapers shouldn’t be passing off your claim as having more validity than half of the other implausible claims that circulate around these topics. This is premature, and the net effect is going to be misleading for the readership.

As historians, we need to be open to the idea that there are still mysteries to be solved, secrets to be unearthed, even about ground that superficially looks well-trodden. But I wish journalists would do a little better than just re-printing the overblown claims of unreliable sources, without checking with experts on their plausibility. Couching it as, “this guy made a claim” doesn’t get you off the hook, because we all know that only the initial, big-claim story is the one that will be passed around, and that almost nobody will notice when no follow-ups occur, or the mild “so no evidence turned up for this guy’s big claim” story comes out.

Journalists — You can do better!

Notes
  1. I got to see a demonstration of the lanthanum bromide detectors that U.S. Customs and Border Protection uses at Port Newark a few weeks back — they were pretty neat. Totally hand-held, hold it up to something interesting and click a button and 30 seconds later it tells you what isotope it is, color-coded by whether it is natural in origin, a medical isotope, or something with nuclear weapons relevance. []
  2. Karlsch’s work deserves to be gone over more carefully. Its lack of translation into English has probably inhibited this to some degree. Karlsch has found some interesting documents, but I am not sure they add up to what he claims they do. For example, Karlsch and and Mark Walker published an article in 2005 where they claimed they had a diagram of a Nazi atomic bomb — it is clearly not one. For one thing, it has “plutonium” (the American term for Element 94) labeled on it, which clearly dates it as a postwar creation. And for another thing, it is probably a crib from Hans Thirring’s 1946 Die Geschichte der Atombombe, which itself is explicitly based on the Smyth Report. Karlsch’s work is filled with a muddled discussion of pure-fusion concepts (which wouldn’t work), dirty bombs, atomic bombs of various sorts, “mini-nukes,” and all sorts of other indications of a less-than-complete understanding. []
  3. For those who are curious: The “all nukes are a hoax” theory seems to stem from a couple different sources. The technical argument is that fast neutron chain reactions are impossible, because the fission cross-section of U-235 is small for fast neutrons. The cross-section is indeed small for high-energy neutrons, which is why reactors use a moderator to slow the neutrons down and increase the likelihood of their capture by the small amounts of U-235 in the nuclear fuel. What is weird is that the people making this argument don’t seem to realize that this is exactly why you use 80-90% enriched material in a bomb — it is to overcome this low probability of fissioning by just putting a ridiculous number of targets in the area. It is also why there are tampers, neutron reflectors, and the like, and also why even a relatively sophisticated weapon like the Fat Man only fissioned something like 13-18% of its fissile material, and the Little Boy bomb only fissioned around 1% of its fissile material. They also have weirdly interpreted the “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are not that different from the firebombing of Tokyo” argument (to a rather absurd conclusion, that it was just a firebombing, despite the fact that firebombing and atomic bombing have really different outcomes), believe that the photographs of the mushroom clouds are all faked (despite the fact that such a level of fakery was really quite beyond the technology of the 1940s — similar to the “Apollo moon hoax,” it would have been easier to make an atomic bomb in the 1940s than to fake an atomic bomb convincingly on film, at least to the degree of documentation that we have on them from the time), and believe that every scientist in the entire world (except for the random engineer who came up with this dumb theory) is in on the secret and has reasons to propagate it indefinitely (and I am apparently in on the hoax as well, to my surprise). The one person I e-mailed with about this, just trying to see what the limits of their rationality were and what it spawned from, eventually let on that to him, one of the most convincing pieces of evidence for this theory is the number of Jews who were involved in the creation of the bomb, wink wink, nudge nudge. This probably hits at the real origin of this bad idea — just another form of mis-matched anti-Semitism grafting itself onto another source. That my last name is a Jewish-sounding one did not apparently resonate with the person e-mailing me. []
  4. On the backs-and-forths of the Heisenberg story, see esp. Mark Walker, German National Socialism and the Quest for Nuclear Power, 1939-1949 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 204-221, and the essays in Matthias Dörries, Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen” in Debate: Historical Essays and Documents on the 1941 Meeting Between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg (Berkeley, CA: Office for History of Science and Technology, UC Berkeley, 2005). []
Visions

The button that isn’t

Monday, December 15th, 2014

One of my favorite articles from The Onion concerns the imagined allure of “the button”:

"Obama Makes It Through Another Day Of Resisting Urge To Launch All U.S. Nuclear Weapons At Once" - The Onion

Despite being constantly tempted by the seductive power of having an apocalyptic arsenal at his fingertips, President Barack Obama somehow made it through another day Tuesday without unlocking the box on his desk that houses “the button” and launching all 5,113 U.S. nuclear warheads. …

Though the president confirmed his schedule was packed with security briefings, public appearances, and cabinet meetings, he said he couldn’t help but steal a few glances at the bright red button, which is “right there, staring at [him], all the time.”

The article manages to wring a lot of humor out of the idea that on the President’s desk is a big red button that starts World War III.

Like much of The Onion’s satire, it is exceedingly clever in taking a common trope and pushing it into absurd territory. Even the physicality of the idea of a “button” is toyed with:

“Did you know that if you sort of put enough weight on the button with your fingertip, you can feel a little slack there before it actually clicks?” Obama added. “Thank you, and God bless America.”

I was thinking about this article a few months ago because I was asked by my friend from grad school, Latif Nasser, if I would be interested in talking to him and NPR’s Robert Krulwich about “the button” for a Radiolab episode they were working on. The Radiolab show was initially meant to be about buttons — in all senses of the term — but they kept finding that things that they thought were buttons were in fact either non-buttons or non-functional buttons. You can listen to the full episode here: “Buttons Not Buttons.”

You should listen to the whole episode, but — spoiler alert — the interesting thing about the nuclear “button” is that there isn’t a nuclear button. That is, nuclear war can’t be started by just pounding a big red button. Sorry. Waging a nuclear war requires a lot more activity, spread out across a vast geographical area, and is a complex interaction of technical, organizational, and political issues. In the Radiolab interview, I attempted to paint in broad strokes the kind of vast technical and organizational networks that are needed to maintain the United States’ command and control systems — the systems that let you use nukes when you want to, and make sure that nukes don’t get used when they are not supposed to be used.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

The problem with a big red button is that someone might actually press it. Like a cat. Source: Ren and Stimpy, Space Madness.

The Onion article indicates, in its wry way, one of the key reasons there isn’t a single “button” — it would be way, way too dangerous. Nobody wants nuclear war to be that easy to start. Or, as I like to put it, you don’t want a nuclear weapon that can be set off by a cat. Because you know that, sooner or later, a cat would set it off. Such is the way of cats. There are places in the world where big red buttons exist. But they are usually used to stop activity, not start it. They are emergency shutoff switches, things that you need to push in a big hurry, without too much hassle. And even they might require you to break some glass first.

On the other hand, if you’re a believer in deterrence and all that, you don’t want it to be too hard to start nuclear war. So this is just another variation of the “always/never” problem: you want to be able to start nuclear war if you need to, and start it quickly and effectively, but on the other hand, you want to never start nuclear war accidentally.

"Nuclear C3 [Command, Control, Communication] Transport Systems" — an attempt to characterize the technical, organizational, and political systems needed to actually start nuclear war in the United States today. Source: The Nuclear Matters Handbook, by the Office of the Assistant  Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.

“Nuclear C3 [Command, Control, Communication] Transport Systems” — an attempt to characterize the technical, organizational, and political systems needed to actually start nuclear war in the United States today. Source: The Nuclear Matters Handbook, by the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Defense Programs.

From a technical standpoint, this means that you have to engineer a pretty complex system. In principle, the United States President has complete control over whether nuclear war starts. But the President doesn’t work in a missile silo. So somewhere between the President and the silo has to be a delegation of authority, and a subsequent potential loss of control. One could, in theory, completely automate that control — you could install a single “button” — but aside from the technical difficulty of that, there are a lot of new potential errors that get introduced.

Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control is a great read if you are interested in how this problem gets addressed over the course of the Cold War. Michael Gordin’s Five Days in August is, in part, a great description of how these issues were wrangled with even in the earliest days of nuclear weapons as political control transferred from Potsdam to Washington and Tinian. If I could add footnotes to radio interviews, I would prominently name-check both of these books — they greatly improved my own understanding of this. As did the work of my friend Dan Volmar, who is writing a dissertation on US command and control systems. And I need to give a massive hat-tip to Stephen Schwartz, who clued me into the Roger Fisher “cut the heart out” that I wrote about a few years back.

A submarine-launched ballistic missile trigger. Courtesy of Stephen Schwartz.

A submarine-launched ballistic missile trigger. Photo by the always amazing Paul Shambroom; courtesy of Stephen Schwartz.

Of course, there sometimes are switches, keys, and — yes — buttons, as part of the overall launching systems. But they aren’t centralized, and they are always more complicated than a simple big, red button. US ICBM launches require two simultaneous keys to be turned by two different people, on different sides of the room, the idea being that the odds of two people deciding to collude on an illegal launch are lower than one. SLBM launches, Stephen Schwartz reports, require the use of a pistol-grip “trigger” that is kept in a safe— a button, of sorts, though one that is hard to accidentally set off.

OK, so there isn’t a single nuclear button. Why do we talk about a button? This is a great history of technology question — “the button” is a metaphor, and not a new one. Starting in the 19th century, “the button” (or the “push button” or other variations on the same thing) started becoming a standard English idiom for “quick and easy and automatic.” The idea that you “push a button” and something happens — as easy as that! — shows up in the late Machine Age and continues onward.

So “the button” is just a metaphor for how technology makes things easy. That’s why everything in The Jetsons is button-based — the future was meant to take this to the extreme, where George Jetson would just spend all day at work pressing a single button. (Of course, many of us do press buttons all day — I am pressing quite a few as I type this — but generally not just one button.) If you combine the button imagery with the atomic bomb, it becomes a comment on the way technology has made mass destruction easy.

"Now I am become Edison, Wrecker of Worlds": fictional account of Edison destroying England using "button no. 4," 1896. Source: The Electrical Trade, August 1, 1896.

“Now I am become Edison, Wrecker of Worlds”: fictional account of Edison destroying Great Britain using “button no. 4,” 1896. Source: The Electrical Trade, August 1, 1896, page 9.

In fact, the idea that technology had made it so easy to destroy the world that a single button could set it all off predates nuclear fission. In the 1890s, a Parisian newspaper published a skit about Thomas Edison destroying all of England by joining some wires and pushing “button No. 4.” For this anecdote, and several others relating to “pushbutton” world destruction prior to fission, I am grateful to Spencer Weart’s Nuclear Fear: A History of Images.1

There are other “button” stories I found while searching from newspaper and journal databases. In 1929, the famous American physicist Robert Millikan was quoted as saying that “no ‘scientific bad boy’ ever would be able to blow up the world by releasing atomic energy,” (!), and he later “scoffed at the idea that in the future by pressing a button a man might have an army of atomic servants wash his face, mend his clothing or make his bed.” In a 1932 review of the 1928 proto-atomic-bomb drama “Wings Over Europe,” it is noted that “All the scenes are set in Downing-street and the chief character is a young scientist who has presented to the cabinet a secret that could destroy the world by pressing a button.” In article from the Weekly Irish Times in 1932, it is feared that atomic energy will enable “a time when, by the pressing of a button or turning of a switch, it will be possible for somebody to explode the whole world like a penny balloon. It will be a tremendously lethal opportunity.” On these proto-atomic bomb fantasies, especially in the U.K. context, I found Graham Farmelo’s Churchill’s Bomb very useful. Churchill himself was an atomic-bomb speculator in the H.G. Wells vein, writing about atomic energy as early as 1931.

August 20, 1945: a LIFE magazine correspondent reports on "push-button" battles of the future.

August 20, 1945: a LIFE magazine correspondent reports on “push-button” battles of the future.

So when the actual atomic bomb came along, there was already a ready-made imagery to be applied to it. (And Weart’s book is excellent at demonstrating this well beyond the realm of buttons, too.) So when did people first start applying the button metaphor to the bomb? As early as late August 1945, there are discussions of “push-button” battles. By November 1945, when the physicist Edward Condon argued during Congressional testimony that “The next war should be described as the War of the Pushbuttons,” it was already something of a cliché. The idea of World War III being a “pushbutton war” started pretty early.

I have to admit, I was a little uncertain how the “button” line of discussion was going to come together when I was first contacted by Latif, but the more I thought about it, the more I thought it was a nice way to get into a lot of different, interesting issues both about the history of the bomb (and what “the button” means, metaphorically), but also in explaining why there isn’t a button, it allows for a nice, tangible, interesting way to bring up the questions involved in command and control systems — moving the discussion of the bomb out of the realm of pure imagery and into the tangible and real.

Notes
  1. The specific Edison piece, with “button No. 4,” comes from a source Weart cites: Wyn Wachhorst, Thomas Alva Edison: An American Myth (MIT Press, 1981), 103. A copy of the actual story is reproduced above, via Google Books (and thanks to Latif for finding that copy of it). []