Posts Tagged ‘Trinity’


The improbable William Laurence

Friday, October 30th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The story that brought Laurence to Groves' attention —

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Manhattan noir

Tuesday, October 13th, 2015

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

Manhattan Season 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, July 17th, 2015

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

The First light of Trinity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

  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.” []

Mushroom clouds strange, familiar, and fake

Monday, December 1st, 2014

If you spend a lot of time on the history of nuclear weapons, you see a lot of mushroom clouds photographs. There were over 500 atmospheric nuclear tests conducted during the Cold War, and most of these were photographed multiple times. (There were over 50 dedicated cameras at the Trinity test, as one little data point.) The number of unique photographs of nuclear explosions must number in the several thousands.

Castle Romeo

And yet, most of the time we seem to reach for the same few clouds that we’ve always reached for. How many books, for example, have this shot of the Castle Romeo mushroom cloud on their cover? Romeo was an American H-bomb test from 1954, 11 megatons in yield. It gets used, however, for all sorts of things — like the Cox Report’s 1999 allegations about China stealing advanced (much lower-yield) thermonuclear warhead designs, or illustrating Soviet nuclear weapons, or illustrating (most incorrectly) nuclear terrorism (which would not look like this at all). It’s a great photo (dramatic, red, well-framed), but it’s not a generic mushroom cloud — it is a really high yield weapon, and arguably ought to only be used to illustrate very high yield weapons.

OK, I’m a pedant about this kind of thing. I get annoyed with poorly-used mushroom cloud photos, and repetitive photos, because there are just so many good options out there if the graphic designers in question would just search beyond the first thing that comes up when you Google “mushroom cloud.” But re-using known clouds is not as bad as, say, mistaking a fake, computer-generated mushroom cloud for a real one.

Fake Tsar Bomba

This photo is often labeled as the “Tsar Bomba” cloud and it is not even an actual photograph of a nuclear test — it is a CGI rendering, and not even a very good one. I don’t think you even have to be a nuke wonk to recognize that, and that people’s CGI-savvy would be better than this, but I guess not. An animated version is circulating on YouTube — the physics is all wrong regarding the fireball rise, the stem, etc., and the texturing is off. Apparently a lot of people have been fooled, though.1 There is film of the actual Tsar Bomba explosion, and one can readily appreciate how different it is.

The above photo is also sometimes labeled as the “Tsar Bomba,” and was recently featured on the cover a book about the British atomic bomb, labeled as a British thermonuclear weapon. It is actually a French nuclear weapon, specifically the test dubbed “Licorne,” a 914 kiloton thermonuclear shot detonated in 1970 at the Fangataufa atoll in French Polynesia. I do admit finding the confusion about this one amusing, especially when it is mislabeled as a British test. (As an aside: I do not blame authors for the photos on their book covers, because I know they often don’t have anything much to do with the cover images.)

There are actually four shots from this same test that I don’t think most people realize are of a sequence, showing first the brief condensation cloud that formed in the first 20 seconds or so (which exaggerates the width of the actual mushroom cloud, similar to the famous Crossroads Baker photograph), and then tracks the mushroom cloud as it rises. When you resize them to the same scale (more or less), you can see that they are not four different shots at all, just differently timed photographs of the evolution of a single shot’s mushroom cloud:

There is also a film of the test, though the quality isn’t that great. The whole sequence represents less that a minute of the bomb detonation; as I’ve noted previously, most of our photos of mushroom clouds are from the first minute or so after their detonation, and they can get pretty unfamiliar if you watch the cloud evolve for longer than that.

Other clouds that have gotten overused (in my opinion) include Upshot-Knothole Grable, Crossroads Baker, and Upshot-Knothole Badger.

Does it matter that we re-use, and sometimes mis-use, the same mushroom clouds over and over again? In a material sense it does not, because the people who use/misuse these clouds are really not using them to make a sophisticated visual or intellectual argument. Rather, they have chosen a “scary mushroom cloud” image for maximum visual effect. And these fit the bill, except maybe the fake one, which will turn off anyone who can spot a fake.

But it does represent the way in which a lot of our cultural understanding of nuclear weapons has stagnated. The same visuals of the bomb, over and over again, mimic the same stories we tell about the bomb, over and over again. Culturally, there is a deep “rut” that has been carved in how we talk and think around nuclear weapons, a sort of warmed-over legacy of the late Cold War. I am sometimes astounded by how deep, and how deeply held, this rut is — on Reddit, for example, people will fight vehemently over the question of dropping of the atomic bomb, sticking exclusively to positions that were argued about 20 years ago, the last time this stuff was “hot.” They aren’t aware that the historiography has moved quite a distance since then, because you’d never know that from watching or reading most historical discussions of the bomb in mainstream media.

One of the first commercial uses of a fiery mushroom cloud to sell something unrelated to mushroom clouds — in this case, Count Basie's 1958 album, Basie.

One of the first commercial uses of a fiery mushroom cloud to sell something unrelated to mushroom clouds — in this case, Count Basie’s 1958 album, Basie. The test is Operation Plumbbob, shot Hood.

Fortunately, I think, these obvious ruts paradoxically create new opportunities for people who want to educate about the bomb. It is one of the ironies of history that the more firmly entrenched an existing narrative gets, the more interested people are in compelling counter-narratives. The fact that there is a rut in the first place means that there is already a built-in audience (as opposed to history that people just don’t know anything about), and if you can find something new to say about that history, then they’re interested.

“New” here can also mean “new to them,” as opposed to “new to people who spend their lives looking at this stuff.” This is what I was talking about when I was quoted in the New York Times a few weeks ago — things that known to scholars are being discovered and re-discovered by mass audiences who are surprised to find how many different and apparently novel photographs and stories are out there.

As an aside, if I were going to give graphic designers a set of “mushroom cloud use guidelines,” they would be, more or less: 1. don’t use the first cloud you find (there are so many unusual and dramatic ones out there, if you poke around a little bit); 2. don’t use extremely historically-specific clouds (i.e. Hiroshima and Nagasaki) as generic images; 3. don’t use multi-megaton shots (i.e. giant red/orange/yellow cloud fireballs) if you are talking about kiloton-range weapons (i.e. terrorist bombs); and 4. if you are going to label something as British, make sure it is not actually French!


As part of my annual contribution to people becoming better acquainted with “new” mushroom cloud photographs, I have released a new and updated version of my Nuclear Testing Calendar for 2015. It features 12 unusual photographs of nuclear detonations, all of which I have carefully cleaned up to remove scratches and dust spots. All of the images are courtesy of Los Alamos National Laboratory.

Here is a little preview of some of the unusual clouds you will find in this calendar:

2015 Nuclear Testing Calendar preview

There are also over 60 nuclear “anniversaries” noted in the calendar text itself. And because 2015 is the 70th anniversary of the Trinity test, I have also reissued last-year’s Trinity test calendar. Both calendars are being offered for $18.99. The site that publishes them,, also often has a lot of coupons on a regular basis — please feel free to take advantage of them! All proceeds go to offsetting the costs of my web work. More details about the calendars and other nuclear delights at my updated Calendars, gifts, tchotchkes page.

  1. It seems to have been made by whomever made this webpage, who seems to say (if Google Translate is to be trusted), that it was rendered using the volumetric rendering software AfterBurn. []