The Hanford site, in rural Washington state, was not a very fun place to work during World War II. The conditions were unpleasant, the site was remote, and, well, almost nobody really knew what they were doing there. The amount of compartmentalization was intense: out of the tens of thousands of workers, only a few hundred likely had any real inkling of what was really going on there. They were, of course, building the world’s first industrial-sized nuclear reactors, in order to produce the plutonium that fueled the first atomic bombs. Not exactly the first thing you’d guess you’d be doing if you were a construction worker in 1943, is it? Not knowing what you are building sort of takes some of the fun out of it, especially when you thought you were working on an important war-related project but instead you find yourself building giant concrete cathedrals with no obvious purpose. Concrete cathedrals full of toxic chemicals, at that.
The secrecy at Hanford at Oak Ridge led to lots of speculation about what they were about from those who worked on them and those who lived near them. The Manhattan Project security people, of course, tracked these rumors, both because they occasionally resulted in problems (like inquiries from Congressmen, including a very dubious Senator Harry Truman) and could also potentially lead to attention from journalists, which could in turn lead to real leaks. In general the whole point of Manhattan Project security was to keep people from noticing there was an entirely new industry being created under their noses, and so curious rumors didn’t really help that.
In a sense, this was an inevitable result of the very secrecy they were trying to impose. “Absolute secrecy,” where the fact that there is a secret is itself a secret, leads to all sorts of rampant speculation. Into a total vacuum marches total speculation. My favorite wartime rumor about Oak Ridge is that it was a model socialist community following the beliefs of Eleanor Roosevelt. One can contrast this “absolute secrecy” approach to the “known secret” approach that followed after Hiroshima and Nagasaki: finally, the security people could say, “it’s involved in the atomic bomb, and thus its a secret.” It’s a very different type of secrecy regime.
Squirreled away in the Manhattan Project security files is a really remarkable poem, penned by an unknown source. (I was reminded of it when posting about that “Secret song” earlier this week.) The poem is really quite amazing, in that it ties the bad working conditions at Hanford and the secrecy up into one neat package, and does so to verse as well! I reproduce the poem, “Restricted Information,” below in its entirety.1
It is a “Military Secret”
And I shouldn’t breath a word
But if you will promise not to tell
I’ll tell you what I’ve heard.
What is building here at Hanford
Is quite a mystery
But I’ve found out what it is
And will confide in thee.
It is a torture ground for Hitler
And all his Nazi bunch
And all the other Axis rats
After the final punch.
That he’ll have to live here
Should be bad enough itself
But nothing is quite appropriate
When it comes to his future health.
And so we are spending millions
And considerable effort too
To perfect conditions unbearable
For all the motley crew.
I’ve told you more than I should have
And the details — I wouldn’t dare
That is why it is such a secret —
It would give Hitler too great a scare.
The war might be prolonged
Hitler staving off defeat
With knowledge of his Hanford fate
He would be truly hard to beat.
So promise not to tell a soul
Unless they swear secrecy
For what I have just told
Might put off Victory.
So, in other words, Hanford was so secret, and so miserable, because someday Hitler and his Axis buddies would have to go live there. If they found out how miserable it was to work there, they’d all fight to the death. Pretty cute. You can view the original here.
You’ll note that they classified the entire thing “RESTRICTED,”2 which is somewhat ironic, given the content, no? But it makes sense, given the logic of “absolute secrecy” – when the secret is itself a secret, even things that lampoon the secret are thus secret as well.
- Citation: “Restricted Information,” (n.d., ca. 1945), Manhattan Engineer District (MED) records, Records of the Army Corps of Engineers, RG 77, National Archives and Records Administration, Box 66, “Security (317-2).” [↩]
- “RESTRICTED” was the lowest ranking of classification during World War II. It went from “SECRET” to “CONFIDENTIAL” to “RESTRICTED,” and during the war they added “TOP SECRET” as well. In the 1950s they got rid of “RESTRICTED” as a classification category because it was confusing to have both it and “restricted data” together in the same schema. [↩]