It’s been a busy week. Yesterday I went to an interesting session hosted by the Atomic Heritage Foundation on the life and influence of Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash movement. I learned some things I hadn’t known before. Of particular interest is that the common story about Rotblat leaving the Manhattan Project out of strong ethical convictions (he was supposedly the only person who left Los Alamos after the war in Europe had concluded without use of the bomb) is more complicated than it seems on the surface of it.
The story itself apparently wasn’t a matter of public record until Rotblat wrote an article about it for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1985 (“Leaving the Bomb Project“), which is a lot more recent than I had guessed. Andrew Brown, whose book Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience: The Life and Work of Joseph Rotblat has just recently come out (I haven’t read it yet, but I bought a copy there), notes that Rotblat himself initially put a heavy caveat on the story: “All extraneous personal elements are left out, but their exclusion does not mean that they are unimportant.”
These “personal elements,” Brown argues, include things like the fact that Rotblat’s wife and family were stuck in Nazi and Soviet-occupied Poland, and that Rotblat, though a member of the British delegation to Los Alamos, had refused to take on either British or American nationality. This factor was overlook-able by General Groves at the explicit intervention by James Chadwick, the head of the British mission to Los Alamos, but not until Groves himself had personally interviewed Rotblat. Why would Groves care? Because he didn’t want Manhattan Project participants diffusing their bomb-making information all over the planet after the war was ended.
Why all this matters is that in fact, Brown argues, Rotblat didn’t simply leave the project… he was actually pushed out. The reasons are part of complex Manhattan Project diplomatic history: Groves had, with the insistence of the British, allowed a number of French scientists to join the project. (He compartmentalized them in Canada and didn’t give them access to US data, but still.) When
the war in Europe ended the Nazis had been pushed out of France,1 they wanted to return to Paris and to see their old boss, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, who was by then a known Communist. Groves was pretty uncomfortable with this and it created quite a diplomatic row between the US and the UK;2 it was thus in Chadwick’s interests to simplify the situation by removing all non-Brits from the British delegation, which included Rotblat (who was, again, still a Polish citizen).
In any case, Brown points out, Rotblat didn’t totally get out of the nuclear business for a number of years; he continued to teach nuclear physics to people whom he knew would be working on the UK atomic program for a number of years after the war ended, before he started his real, devoted activism.
None of this diminishes Rotblat’s work or his obvious deep ethical convictions — he was clearly deeply opposed to war and worked tirelessly on disarmament issues for most of his life — but it does make a too-perfect story seem a bit more realistic. (Stan Norris was there, and asked whether Brown believed that Groves really did, as Rotblat claimed, announce that he had always thought the USSR was the key target. Brown thought it not implausible. I don’t find it too implausible, myself, given that it would have been pretty natural for the US to be looking to the USSR as its “natural” enemy after the war was ending, but it does have an element of being “too perfect” to it.)
My other busy-ness has been pulling together a presentation I’m giving at the Policy History Conference in Richmond, Virginia, on Thursday, relating to the early classification policies (and the failure of classification reform) during the David Lilienthal years at the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), 1947-1950. I don’t want to go into details on here, but the paper is basically about the fact that numerous times in the first (and most ambitious) years of the AEC, the technocratic liberals who were running it attempted to re-think and re-work US nuclear classification policy from the ground up. It didn’t work, for a variety of reasons, the most damning of these being the series of shocks of late 1949 and early 1950 (Joe-1, the H-bomb debate, Klaus Fuchs).
The document I want to share this week is somewhat tangentially related to both of these issues. It is a letter from General Leslie Groves to David Lilienthal from November 1946, which was just on the cusp of the Manhattan Project’s transfer of all atomic responsibilities to the newly-created Atomic Energy Commission.3
It’s a short letter; so here’s the transcription:
Dear Mr. Lilienthal:
I desire to bring to your attention that in the past I have considered it in the best interests of the United States to clear certain individuals for work on the Manhattan Project despite evidence indicating considerable doubt as to their character, associations, and absolute loyalty.
Such individuals are generally persons whose particular scientific or technical knowledge was vital to the accomplishment of the Manhattan Project mission. In some instances, lack of time prevented our completely investigating certain persons prior to their working for the Manhattan Project; so that in some cases individuals, on whom it was subsequently determined that derogatory information existed, had access to Project information.
With the appointment of the Commission and the legal provisions for investigation of personnel by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, I see no reason why those people on whom derogatory information exists cannot be eliminated. I unhesitatingly recommend that you give the most careful consideration to this problem.
The FBI is cognizant of all individuals now employed on the Manhattan Project on whom derogatory information exists.
Major General, U.S.A.
Quite a curious sort of thing to send and receive. Imagine being in Lilienthal’s position: here’s General Groves, handing off the bomb project to you, saying, “by the way, I hired a bunch of people who I now want to tell you might not be loyal. You might want to get rid of them. Anyway, I completely agree you should think about this pickle you’re now in. Good luck!”
Who were these “doubts”? Probably people like Leo Szilard, Frank Oppenheimer, and Philip Morrison. It may even have included Arthur Compton, who was always “on the line” for the security people (Compton wasn’t very discreet and signed too many petitions). It probably would have included Joseph Rotblat if he was still on the project (but as we know, he left). It did not, apparently, include J. Robert Oppenheimer, though the letter did re-surface at his security hearing.
Lilienthal wrote back to Groves noting that since Groves had kept a lot of these people on well beyond Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Groves apparently did not regard them as “a source of critical hazard.” Groves then wrote back to Lilienthal saying that actually they couldn’t just be fired and removal was a slow process, so their presence didn’t imply anything about how non-hazardous they were.4
What’s going on here, plainly, is an elaborate game of CYA — Groves is trying to imply that if these “doubts” became a problem, they were passed off to the AEC and shouldn’t hang on his head. Lilienthal, shrewdly, tries to turn it around to make sure that they do, in fact, hang on Groves’ head — he isn’t willing to just take all of the responsibility here if they are kept on, and he doesn’t also just want to do whatever Groves is implying he ought to do. Groves, in turn, was trying to deflect some of that themselves. They’re creating a paper trail — one that was, indeed, later followed up.5
I find this sort of bureaucratic activity fascinating. It’s not the sort of thing that gets into the grand narratives of history — either the Groves-Lilienthal exchange, or the diplomatic flareup that (apparently) led to Rotblat leaving the Manhattan Project. It’s this sort of thing that gets washed away by straightforward, coherent narratives, replaced with stories of high ethics and morality, when so much of what went on from day-to-day was much more down to Earth in its considerations. This is one of the reasons I prefer working with archival materials more than secondary sources, personally; not because I don’t trust the scholarship (I generally do) or that I don’t get something out of it (ditto), but because I never feel I really understand what’s going on until I’ve gone through all of the bureaucratic and minor miscellany myself, unearthing the mundane.
- I hadn’t checked my dates before writing this; the “French problem” surfaced in December 1944, when the war in Europe was still going on, but the Nazis were no longer occupying France. Rotblat left the project that December as well, for England. [↩]
- I discuss this “French Problem,” as it was called at the time, in my “Patenting the Bomb” article, because a large part of the dispute centered around promises the British had made the French regarding early French patents on nuclear reactors and bombs. [↩]
- Citation: Leslie R. Groves to David E. Lilienthal (14 November 1946), Records of the Atomic Energy Commission, RG 326, National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Maryland, Office of Secretary, General Correspondence 1946-1951, Box 11, “Security Clearance of Personnel, Volume 1.” [↩]
- The back-and-forth is contained in the Oppenheimer security hearing, page 169. [↩]
- When asked about this in the Oppenheimer hearing, Groves was pretty straightforward about it:
If I put it in writing, that they would always be thinking about the record. That is the reason that the letter was written. I have never made a practice of trying to protect myself on the record, but I thought this was one time that I could secure action, and it was not written really with the idea of clearing my skirts for something that might come up, such as this, many years hence. It was to make him do it whether he wanted to do it or not.
It’s also clear that this was born out of the difficult relationship between Groves and Lilienthal. “Mr. Lilienthal had made it very plain that he wanted no advice of any kind from me. He wanted nothing whatsoever to do with me. He thought that I was the lowest kind of human being, and he was not going to get anything from me.” Oppenheimer hearings, page 169. [↩]