Posts Tagged ‘William L. Laurence’


Little boxes of doom

Wednesday, October 23rd, 2013

I was at a (very interesting) conference last week and didn’t get a chance to do a regular blog post. I’ll have a real post on Friday, as usual, but I thought in the meantime people might enjoy this little passage I came across in William L. Laurence’s Dawn Over Zero: The Story of the Atomic Bomb (1946):

The secrecy frequently led to tragicomic situations. A trusted courier was dispatched by automobile to deliver a small box of material, the nature of which he was not told, to a certain locality several hundred miles away. He was cautioned that at the first sign of any unusual behavior inside the box he was to abandon the automobile in a hurry and run as far away from it as his legs would carry him.

The magnesium box used for transporting the plutonium core to the Trinity site. Via Los Alamos.

The magnesium box used for transporting the plutonium core to the Trinity site. Via Los Alamos.

Our courier asked no questions and went his way, taking frequent glances at the strange box behind him. Things went well until he came to the middle of a long bridge. Suddenly, from directly behind him, came a terrific boom. Out of the car he dashed like one possessed, running faster than he had ever run in his life. Out of breath and exhausted, he stopped to examine himself to make sure that he was still in one piece. Meantime a long line of traffic had gathered behind his driverless car and the air was filled with the loud tooting of impatient motorists.

Slowly he made his way back to his automobile and found to his amazement that it was still all there. Peering cautiously inside, he was even more amazed to find his precious box on the same spot as before. He was used to strange things, this courier, so he took his place at the wheel and was about the continue on his mission when once again he heard a loud boom directly behind him.

Once again he made a dash for his life, heedless of the angry horns that by this time were sounding from a line more than a mile long. Still exhausted from his previous mad dash, he nevertheless managed to put a considerable distance between himself and his mysterious box.

Eventually he made his way back, to find his car and his box in the same spot where he had left them. This time, however, he found an irate traffic officer waiting for him. Beyond showing the officer by his credentials that he was a Government employee, there was nothing he could tell him. It turned out that there had been blasting going on underneath the bridge.

Who knows how much of the story is true and how much of it is embellished by either Laurence or the original teller, but I thought it was highly amusing. One suspects, by the description of the box, the particular safety concerns, and the distance, that they are talking about the movement of the Trinity core from Los Alamos to the Trinity site.

John Coster-Mullen, in his fantastically interesting Atom Bombs (a newly-updated copy of which he recently sent me), has a somewhat related anecdote from the plane that transported the Fat Man core to Tinian in late July 1945: “During the flight to Tinian, they ran into a storm. [Raemer] Schreiber was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat and one of the guards came forward and tapped him nervously on the shoulder. ‘Sir, your box is bouncing around back there and we’re scared to touch it.’ Schreiber went back, corralled it, got a piece of rope and tied it to one of the legs of the cots.”


The Week of the Atom Bomb

Friday, August 10th, 2012

This week is, as you all no doubt know, the 67th anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. These anniversaries happen to fall on the same days of the week as the original ones. So the bombing of Hiroshima on August, 6, 1945, was a Monday — just as with August 6, 2012. The bombing of Nagasaki, August 9, was a Thursday. The Smyth Report would be released on August 12, a Sunday. Hirohito’s “surrender” message would come on August 15, the next Wednesday.

For some reason, conceptualizing all of this as happening within a few weeks makes it seem awfully short in time. What a week that would have been.

Headline for the New York Times, August 7, 1945.

One of the things I really enjoy doing as an historian is looking through old newspaper front pages. You find so much out about past societies that way — the juxtaposition of related and unrelated articles provides a fascinating kaleidoscope of the day in question. Put a bunch of different newspaper headlines together, from different parts of the country, and you get an even more interesting portrait of a specific time and place.

In closing out the 67th anniversary of the Week of the Atom Bomb, I want to share a number of newspaper front pages with you. I’m limited in what I can conjure up, but I’ve managed to collect some 38 different front pages from newspapers in different parts of the country for the work week of August 6th through August 10th, each of which I thought was interesting or revealing in some way. Some of these newspapers will be immediately familiar to you — the New York Times, the Washington Post — some will be quite obscure — the Big Spring Daily Herald, from Big Spring, Texas, for example. Some represent quite specific markets: the Atlanta Constitution, for example, is an African-American newspaper in the age of segregation, and there are interesting differences between how they cover the issue versus the big city newspapers or the small town newspapers.

One additional point: the headlines are different, but the stories are almost exactly the same. This is because in the first week of the bomb, all of the stories were essentially written by William L. Laurence of the New York Times and released to the press by the Army. Not until the Smyth Report was released, on August 12th, do you start to see much independent reporting. The content of the “official” stories is interesting, but today I just want to focus on the headlines.

In an effort to keep this post from sprawling out forever, I’ve arranged all of the images in a little gallery below. If you are reading this on an RSS feed or an aggregator, you may have to visit the main site to view these.

August 6, 1945: Big Spring Daily Herald, Big Spring, Texas.

"Five Cities Hit, One By New Bomb": I find it interesting here that they've explicitly lumped the firebombed cities in with the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. The subheadline, "Atoms Harnessed for Destruction," is more vivid. But note that far more space is given to the firebombing than the atomic bomb -- likely because they had only just received word of the atomic bomb and had to fit it in later. There is an interesting ambivalence in describing the "helpless Japs" in the headline about the firebombs.

Picture 1 of 32
Picture 1 of 32

There are two images from the set that I’d really like to draw your attention to. The first is from the August 9, 1945, edition of the Indiana Evening Gazette, from Indiana, Pennsylvania. (A bit confusing, that.) It appears to have been used in a lot of newspapers that day in different parts of the country, so it probably originates on the AP wire service. Anyway, here’s the image:

DEATH KNOCKS AT EVERY JAP’S DOOR,” the main announcement reads. The caption is completely insane:

The utter desolation facing the Japanese, unless they surrender, as result of development of the atomic bomb is illustrated on the map above. Scientists say that if 1000 of the new weapons were exploded within each of the five circled areas, they would destroy virtually all life and property in the enemy homeland.

It’s not every day that you see small-town American newspapers cheerfully contemplating genocide, is it?

The second detail is a little illustration from the Kingsport Times, in Kingsport, Tennessee, published on August 9, 1945. It attempts, in visual form, to make sense of the force of an atomic bomb as described by President Truman (” …Ruin from the Air, The Like of Which Has Never Been Seen On Earth”):

On the left, a colorful illustration of an atomic bomb going off under the Empire State building: “The atomic bomb is the most terrible engine of destruction every conceived. One pound of U-235 could blast a great city, like New York, off the face of the map.”

In the middle, a train being blasted to oblivion: “To get a comparable explosion from TNT, you would have to set off 15,000 tons, or 300 carloads of 50 tons each. If U-235 exploded at TNT’s speed, pressure would be 1,000,000 times as great.” I don’t really know what they mean by the last line, there, but going from “trainloads of TNT’ to “an exploding train” is somewhat imaginative.

On the right, a dead fleet — presaging Operation Crossroads. “Exploded amid a great fleet at sea, an atomic bomb would sink most of the ships, send a great tidal wave shoreward. Most tightly compartmented ship would be crushed by air pressure.” Some original typos, there, but you get the picture.

As I’ve mentioned previously, there was a tremendous mixing of exaltation and  anxiety that first week of the bomb. It wasn’t just one thing or the other; it wasn’t all positive. Looking at these front pages, you see a real mixture of expressions, and a real diversity of types of coverage, even given the limitations imposed by secrecy. For some, the story is the secrecy itself — for others, the bomb gets mixed into an existing narrative about firebombingOut of the mixture of these narratives, our “standard narrative” of the history of bomb is derived. But it’s all too easy to turn that into a condensed, one-size-fits-all assessment of how Americans thought about the atomic bombs, when there was quite a diversity of opinion and expression, even from the start.


Editing Truman’s Announcement of the Bomb (1945)

Wednesday, March 7th, 2012

President Harry Truman gets quoted a lot for his justly famous statement announcing the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. The language is, for a Presidential press release, florid, and powerful:

It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East. … The fact that we can release atomic energy ushers in a new era in man’s understanding of nature’s forces.

The thing is, not only did he never say it — it was released while he was at sea, coming home from Potsdam — he didn’t write it, either.

Harry Truman and Secretary of War Henry Stimson, 1945.

It may seem a pedantic thing to point out that a modern President did not personally write a statement sent out under their name. In this case, though, the process of writing the Presidential statement, and releasing it, was deeply tied up with ideas about how and whether a “secret” of the atomic bomb could be preserved in the face of an inevitable media flurry, as well as the psychological effect the atomic bomb would likely have on the Japanese.

The job of writing the Presidential statement was initially given to the New York TimesWilliam Laurence, but he was found to be pretty poor at affecting a Presidential voice. The task was transferred to Arthur W. Page, the Vice President of Marketing for AT&T and a personal friend of Henry Stimson, the Secretary of War. Page is considered one of the fathers of corporate public relations in the United States, and a much more sober character than the ebullient Laurence.

This week’s document is a letter from Lt. Colonel William A. Consodine to Arthur Page from June 19, 1945, about a month before the “Trinity” test.1 Consodine was an Army lawyer who worked in the security wing of the Manhattan Project, and was central to General Groves’ Manhattan Project public relations planning. (Consodine would later be involved with the MGM turkey of a film about the bomb, The Beginning or the End?)

Click the image for the full PDF.

It’s a pretty interesting document, as Consodine nit-picks his way over a draft of Page’s Presidential statement, as well as a statement to be released by the Secretary of War,  with four pages of suggestions. A few of my favorites are below, ordered by Consodine’s own paragraph numbering.

Read the full post »

  1. Citation: William A. Consodine to Arthur W. Page (19 June 1945), in Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 31, “Releasing Information.” []

Illustrating the Manhattan Project (1945)

Friday, March 2nd, 2012

Only two weeks after the bombing of Hiroshima, Life magazine devoted a huge portion of an issue to the Manhattan Project, in particular the “Trinity” test. It was mostly a popular distillation of the various press releases that the War Department had released (penned primarily by William Laurence of the New York Times) and the Smyth Report.

What they lacked, though, were good pictures. The only photos of the “Trinity” test that had been released at that point were of the familiar fireball at a few milliseconds (what I always think of as a nuclear “blob”), and most of the other photos that existed were generic headshots of personnel. Not exactly up to Life‘s visual standards. So Life instead hired someone to illustrate all of those things about the Manhattan Project that were previously only described in text. The results are pretty interesting — both as illustrations of the unseen, and because they attracted official attention for being a little too accurate.1

First drawing of interest: we have an early drawing of the bomb itself. (This is one of my obsessions, as you may have figured out. I’ve been working on how people draw the bomb for a long time now, and have collected quite a set of these drawings.) It’s a curious rendering of a gun-type plutonium weapon, implausible not just because they didn’t know that plutonium couldn’t be used in a gun-device (implosion was still secret), but because the “projectile” piece, even if it actually made it to the “target” (that gun barrel is pretty short), would probably fly through the other side of it. But hey — it’s not an engineering diagram, just an attempt to get a concept across. (Oddly, you might think that the “target” is meant to be a ring, but the caption makes it clear that it is not — it’s really meant to be the top and bottom of a sphere, disconnected. Really pretty odd.) And for the record, they make it pretty clear in the caption that this is just how it “may” work: they aren’t staking too strong a claim to this drawing.

Richard Tolman, General Groves’ technical advisor, reviewed this article shortly after it was published. He wasn’t too concerned with the drawing. “There is a picture of the gun method of assembly,” he wrote to Groves. “This is not very much like the actual gun assembly used, and is probably only a good guess.” More troublesome for Tolman was a note on the same page that said two neutrons per fission were emitted. This, he noted, “is closer to the correct number than we allowed in the Smyth Report.”2

Second drawing of interest: the “Trinity” tower. Now unfortunately, Google’s scan of this is rather dark, so it’s hard to get a real sense of. Of note is that it is a sphere — and is not too far off in terms of what the actual “Trinity” test tower looked like, though it lacks any kind of roof. This attracted Tolman’s attention more critically:

There is a picture of the Trinity tower and of the sphere surrounding active [fissile] material which is perhaps too near the real thing to be merely a good guess. … The Trinity tower is described as a ‘hundred foot structure,’ and the bomb as a big black ball. The above items are not of a such a character as to be of appreciable assistance to an enemy except for the possibility that the ‘big black ball’ and its picture would suggest implosion.

That’s the kicker. If you knew that “Trinity” was a sphere, you might ask, why make a gun into a sphere? Unless it wasn’t a gun. Which, as we now know, it wasn’t. (This is why photos of the “Fat Man” and “Little Boy” casings were kept secret for so long.)

So did “Life” just guess well, or did somebody talk? I suspect, along with Tolman, that somebody talked. There were a lot of “somebodies” involved in the “Trinity” test, and, ironically, those who knew the least about the actual mechanism of the bomb (e.g. the many soldiers who must have seen them hoisting the “Gadget” to the top) probably would have been the most likely to describe it as a sphere — they wouldn’t have known that even the rough shape of the bomb was revealing of its intimate internal nature. But this is just speculation on my part. (Laurence, for his part, would have known that the sphere was considered quite sensitive.)

Of course, it didn’t really matter, since the Soviets already knew about implosion, thanks to their spies, but that wouldn’t come out for some years.

There are a few other wonderfully dramatic drawings as well. I really like the one above, of the scientists laying down with their backs to the blast. The use of light and shadow by the illustrator (a certain Matt Greene, who seems to have done a lot of illustration for Life over the years) is pulled off quite well.

I love the above — both for the pulpy quality of the guy holding up his hand as his hat flies off, as well as the guy in the back there who is being dramatically flung off of his feet. I think the illustrator got a little carried away in this one.

Speaking of illustrating the Manhattan Project, on Friday, May 11, 2012, the Center for History of Physics at the American Institute of Physics (my ever-patient employers) are going to be hosting an evening event to celebrate Richard Feynman’s birthday. The keynote speakers are going to be Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick, the writer and illustrator behind the recently-released graphic novel FEYNMAN. The plans are firming up, but if you’re in the DC area (we are a short walk from the College Park station) and are interested, shoot me an e-mail and I’ll make sure you’re in the loop.

  1. All of these images are taken from numerous articles scattered throughout Life 19, no. 8 (20 August 1945). []
  2. Richard Tolman to Leslie R. Groves, “Security Analysis of Articles in ‘Time’ and ‘Life’ for August 20,” (n.d., ca. 20 August 1945), in Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 32, “Censorship.” Note that despite the name of the folder, there was no censorship exercised here. []

Trinity test press releases (May 1945)

Thursday, November 10th, 2011

Let’s get this out there: I’m a confessed “Archive Rat.” While I may not actually be thrilled while in the archives themselves (which are often dusty, bureaucratic, uncomfortable places), I love the thrill of finding something old, something new, something once secret. I get a lot out of that, and I love having thousands of documents at my fingertips, digitized and easy to search. This is a fortunate thing, because if you want to do the history of the bomb, you’d better love sifting through paperwork — because there’s a lot of it. 

OK, so technically this is an FBI facility from World War II, and has nothing specific to do with the bomb. But it’s a pretty great image for the modern bureaucratic-security state. Source: Google LIFE image archive. See the bottom of the post for discussion of what’s really going on in this photo.

The Big Science of the atomic bomb was accompanied by a Big Bureaucracy, the majority of which was kept in secret. This turns out to be great for historians, even if it was arguably lousy for the nation. As Richard G. Hewlett, put it the first volume of his official history of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission:

The records have survived. For this, scholars can thank two much-maligned practices of the bureaucracy: classification and multiple copies. Classified documents endure; they do not disappear from the files as souvenirs. As for copies in sextuplicate, their survival is a matter of simple arithmetic. If the original in one agency is destroyed, the chances are better than even that one of the five carbons will escape the flames in another.1

What Hewlett doesn’t say here is that the reason people don’t take them home as souvenirs, or throw them out haphazardly, or lend them to their friends, or accidentally mutilate or staple them, is that because the maximum penalty for doing these sorts of things was death for much of the Cold War.2

In this spirit, once a week I will pick out an interesting or exceptional document from my research database and share it with you here, with a little contextualization and commentary.

I want to start with a favorite: a series of press releases written by William L. Laurence to be sent out after the Trinity test in July 1945. Laurence, as I mentioned earlier this week, was the only newspaper reporter brought in to view the Manhattan Project. General Groves had decided that Laurence, a science journalist at the New York Times, would be useful for writing press releases, newspaper articles, and official statements. (He soon discovered Laurence was lousy at the latter — too “gee-whiz!” — and assigned those duties to Arthur W. Page, the Vice President of Marketing at AT&T and a close friend of the Secretary of War.)

One of Laurence’s duties was to compose a series of press releases issuing cover stories for the Trinity test. The Manhattan Project folks knew that Trinity would make a big noise, and so they needed some sort of excuse — an exploding ammunition dump, for example — to give out immediately afterwards to the surrounding area. What they didn’t know was how big of a noise it was going to be, so Laurence wrote up a series of escalating press releases depending on how awful the test was.

Read the full post »

  1. Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The New World, 1939/1946: A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, Volume I (University Park, Pennsylvania: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962), on 657. []
  2. In 1969, when the Supreme Court temporarily ruled the death penalty unconstitutional, the Atomic Energy Act was amended to remove the death penalty and make the maximum penalties life imprisonment. It was never added back to the law even when it was made constitutional again. Small miracles, eh? []