A Half-Century of Atomic Secrecy


Fifty years ago today, on July 16, 1945, the United States exploded the first atomic bomb. It wasn't over Hiroshima or Nagasaki, but in New Mexico. And somehow, the cause of this brilliant light, this enormous blast, remained a secret until the end of World War II.

It wasn't the first secret of the war, by any means. And atomic secrecy was such a habit by war's end that it continued for years afterward. Most journalists willingly obliged; physicists, whose discoveries had sprung from freedom of information before the war, found their avenues of communication shut off; and any American without a security clearance lacked the facts necessary to learn to guide such a terrifying force.

While wartime secrecy sprang from a very real fear of losing the war, it also strikes an unnerving, Orwellian tone. The secret explosion in the desert in July 1945 was the Office of Censorship's greatest triumph, but the censors had had a lot of practice by then.

The strongest legacy of total censorship in the United States came from World War I's "Creel Committee," which inspired public fears of suppression and propaganda that arose after the war and lingered for many years. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was among those wary of the uses of propaganda; he had been in Woodrow Wilson's administration during World War I. But his reservations did not prevent him from creating the Office of Censorship on Dec. 19, 1941, three days after Byron Price was appointed as chief censor.

Security measures used to hide the Manhattan Project, the code name for the U.S. Army's World War II effort to develop the atomic bomb, were only a small part of the effort undertaken by the Office of Censorship under Price. He and his staff were concerned with everything from weather reports -- which presumably might help the enemy -- to pressuring editors to kill newspaper stories they considered to be security risks.

A 1942 editorial in Advertising Age explained why journalists cooperated: "No one is intimidated by the threat of fine or imprisonment because of running counter to the rules and regulations laid down in the administration of the censorship program, but no one wants to be labeled an enemy of his country."

The office's caution was understandable, if extreme. Not only did the censors fear that Nazi Germany might be developing a bomb; they also worried about the Soviets doing the same.

The Manhattan Engineer District (MED), or Manhattan Project, came into being on Aug. 11, 1942, headed by Maj. Gen. (later Lt. Gen.) Leslie R. Groves. The secrecy surrounding the project was intense. It was also extremely difficult to maintain, for the project involved thousands of participants at three major sites in the development of the bomb: plants at Oak Ridge, Tenn.; "piles" for plutonium production at Hanford, Wash.; and a laboratory for design and production of the bomb at Los Alamos, N.M.

For the first year of the project, internal security was supervised by War Department Counter Intelligence and was the responsibility of Maj. Gen. G. V. Strong, who worked with J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. But a reorganization of the War Department in 1943 led to a decentralization that Groves found unsatisfactory, so the MED's own small, supplemental security staff was turned into a security organization under Maj. John Lansdale Jr. By the time the bomb exploded, the MED retained a force of 485 "creeps," as they became known.

One of Groves' goals was to keep information about the project from showing up in magazines and newspapers.

An inadvertent tip

The irony is that the very absence of information in the press helped the Russians to guess that the United States was poised to develop the atomic bomb. One young Soviet researcher, Georgy Nikolayovich Flyorov, urged development of a Soviet bomb in 1940, but research was halted by the German invasion in 1941.

Flyorov and a colleague published an account of the spontaneous fission of uranium that went unacknowledged in the West. The omission of nuclear fission in Western scientific journals convinced him that this research was being done secretly in the United States.

When President Harry S. Truman told Josef V. Stalin in the summer of 1945 that the United States had developed an unusually powerful weapon, Stalin "showed no special interest," Truman said. But the very next day, Stalin ordered five Soviet physicists to catch up with the Americans in atomic weapons development.

The Office of Censorship and Groves went to great lengths to prevent news of the project from appearing in the press. The press would have to be told to make no mention of uranium, security officer Strong determined.

Offhand, even flippant, references to atomic research were just as dangerous as hard facts in the eyes of the Office of Censorship, and any mention of such research prompted warnings from the censors. Even Superman was scolded. The comic strip hero survived a bombardment of electrons from a cyclotron, and the Office of Censorship, while insisting that it did not censor comic strips, wrote the "Superman" syndicate and said that it could be dangerous to pursue the story line. The McClure Newspaper Syndicate obligingly rearranged the plot.

But the one incident in the war with the greatest potential for slips was the explosion of the first atomic bomb. The test, code-named Zero, was to take place in Alamogordo, N.M., on what is now the White Sands Missile Range, just before 5:30 a.m. on July 16, 1945.

The War Department prepared a half-dozen explanations for the explosion, including one that would explain civilian deaths, if all did not go as planned -- and there was certainly potential for disaster.

The explosion was seen as far away as Amarillo, Texas, 450 miles east of Zero. Windows rattled at Gallup, New Mexico, 235 miles to the northwest. And a blind girl scores of miles away asked, "What's that brilliant light?"

The Army was quick to make a statement: "A remotely located ammunition magazine containing a considerable amount of high explosives and pyrotechnics exploded. There was no loss of life or injury to anyone." The Office of Censorship decided not to suppress the story filed by the Associated Press reporter, for fear that doing so might tip off journalists that they were missing something important.

The strategy worked: Few newspapers gave the story prime coverage, and Groves commended the Office of Censorship, saying he was "most pleased." But the "voluntary" censorship code was not alone in suppressing the story -- the FBI also played its part by visiting the publishers of several major newspapers the day after the test to make sure no stories appeared that would raise questions about it.

One of the worst potential leaks, in Censorship's view, was prevented only because Dwight S. Perrin, managing editor of the Philadelphia Bulletin, refused to publish a sensational eyewitness account of the test, given to the paper by an AWOL civilian employee of the Manhattan Project.

The result of the almost unconditional compliance of the press was that the U.S. possession of the bomb was for the most part unsuspected, even just before the end of the war. One day before the bombing of Hiroshima, science writer William L. Laurence of the New York Times was quoted in a Times article evaluating the status of the Japanese:

"On the record, this is the pre-invasion period, but there are a surprising number of people here [on Guam], as well as in the United States, who think the Japanese may be forced into unconditional surrender without the necessity of even a token invasion. The existence of that sentiment here is the more important because lots of the people who talk that way wear stars and may, therefore, be presumed to know what they are talking about."

Laurence also knew what he was talking about. He was the first -- and for some time only -- journalist who knew about the project, after Groves invited him to be the official chronicler of the Manhattan Project in April 1945. Laurence's words in the Times, obviously, in hindsight, a reference to the atomic bomb, were interpreted by the unnamed author of the article to mean only that Japan was vulnerable as an air target.

A cult of secrecy

When the atomic bomb was finally used as a weapon, it meant one thing to the Allies: victory. But in the midst of the atomic fever that swept popular culture, there was confusion and an underlying sense of horror at what this weapon could do, a sense that the world had changed forever. Laurence said later that the secrecy surrounding the bomb fundamentally affected the way Americans thought about the bomb -- and that was the crux of the difficulty in achieving freedom of information that journalists and scientists faced after the war:

"Here was a case where for the first time scientific information was going to be kept secret. The results of that we cannot even evaluate today, because if that information had been known, instead of the atomic bomb having been sprung on an unsuspecting world all of a sudden as something fully grown, probably the world would have been psychologically prepared to meet that problem, and we wouldn't have the terrible situation of nations being armed with nuclear weapons and the danger of proliferation of nuclear weapons, and small nations having them -- probably that problem would have worked out during the years we would have had time to think about it."

The passage of the Atomic Energy Act on Aug. 1, 1946, set up a civilian Atomic Energy Commission and ensured a tight lid on atomic information. The act in practice was merely an extension of the practices of the War Department, which were based on wartime precedents. In fact, censorship continued almost in the form it did during the war: The press voluntarily submitted articles to the commission to be screened, at the AEC's request, in order to keep anything harmful to national security out of the papers. Even Herbert S. Marks, general counsel for the commission, blamed secrecy for the lack of public debate on the AEC's affairs.

Scientific papers were similarly suppressed, and physicists, often under the banner of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, campaigned for more freedom of information -- which had always been the key to technological progress -- with little success.

In April 1949, the coordinator of the University of Chicago's atom and metal research, Lynn A. Williams, told the Chicago Headline Club of Sigma Delta Chi that "the newspapers, traditional champions of freedom for knowledge, seem to favor secrecy," even though the AEC wanted to make more facts known. "What a paradox!" Williams said. "The bureaucrats pleading for public knowledge and public criticism and the newspapers aiding and abetting the cause of secrecy."

The AEC's own policies came back to haunt it when AEC Chairman Lewis L. Strauss learned of one of the country's first serious nuclear accidents -- which occurred Nov. 29, 1955, at an Idaho breeder reactor -- when a reporter asked him about it five months after it happened. The Cold War was indeed a war for many patriotic journalists. Even in 1958, news media agreed to keep Cape Canaveral missile launches secret. Civilian launches.

Years later, there can be no doubt that the effects of secrecy linger. After the accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, how many of us can say that we fully trust statements made about nuclear safety? And, more recently, revelations about radiation experiments on humans have shown how little we still know about the atomic bomb's legacy.

Wartime censorship may have been useful in keeping secrets away from the enemy, but one can also argue that an informed, democratic debate might have prompted President Truman, for instance, to demonstrate the power of the bomb before dropping it, giving the Japanese a chance to surrender.

We have given up our freedoms lightly in wartime. Remember the Persian Gulf war? And in peacetime -- when it comes to these doomsday weapons, or the hazards of nuclear waste disposal, or the lingering effects of nuclear testing -- we should remember how much is at stake before we agree to silence. National security is a valid concern, but it does not eclipse the need for public debate.

Kris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor for The Baltimore Sun.

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