How the Secret of the Atomic Bomb was Stolen
FROM THE FIRST CHAPTER:
"The security restrictions [at Los Alamos] have been more rigid than on any other portion of the entire Manhattan Project."
Lieutenant Colonel Stanley L. Stewart
August 18, 194512
Lieutenant Colonel Stanley L. Stewart's words, uttered within days of the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945, were widely believed in the United States military and in the nation as a whole at the end of World War II. Without the tightest security at Los Alamos, how could the United States have secretly developed a highly technical nuclear weapon at the cost of millions of dollars and the labor of thousands of loyal Americans? How could the product of this labor have been dropped on Hiroshima (August 6, 1945) and Nagasaki (August 9, 1945) in acts that rivaled the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor for surprise and nerve at the outset of World War II in 1941? Security at Los Alamos must have been ironclad indeed to produce such remarkable results in just twenty-eight short months, March 1943 to July 1945.
Security at Los Alamos began with its selection in November 1942 as the best of several western sites considered for the location of a secret lab to invent and produce an atomic bomb. It was clearly favored by Manhattan Project leaders J. Robert Oppenheimer, a University of California physicist chosen to lead the scientific community at Site Y, and Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves, the military commander chosen to oversee the entire Manhattan operation as of September 23, 1942.13 Oppenheimer and Groves favored Los Alamos for several good reasons.
First, Los Alamos was isolated. Formerly an exclusive boys school set 7,200 feet above sea level on the Pajarito Plateau of northwestern New Mexico, Los Alamos was removed from population centers but relatively close to major transportation routes; the small Indian pueblo of San Ildefonso lay eight miles to the east and the Hispanic village of Espanola lay eighteen miles to the northeast. The nearest railhead, at Santa Fe, lay forty-two miles to the southeast, while the nearest airport, at Albuquerque, lay sixty miles further on. Los Alamos could be reached from only two directions, with main access up a treacherously winding road that reminded one traveler of an ascent into the foreboding mountains of Tibet; riding down this perilous route reminded a second traveler of a wild amusement park ride often experienced by passengers "with eyes closed, and white, white knuckles from holding the seat in front."14 Such a remote location allowed for scientific experiments and the noisy testing of explosives far removed from the prying eyes and ears of unwelcome observers. High on a mesa two miles wide and eight miles long, Los Alamos could also be easily guarded against enemy espionage, sabotage, and military attack. Distant from the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, Los Alamos was less vulnerable to detection by the Japanese from the west, by the Germans from the east, or by Soviet agents from the east or west.15
Site Y's isolated location gave U.S. security personnel the additional advantage of carefully scrutinizing resident scientists on a relatively confined, 54,000 acre mesa. On one level, top scientists and their families had been recruited from major universities and labs to help facilitate the exchange of information and better coordinate the early completion of an atomic weapon. But on a security level, often loquacious scientists had been brought to Los Alamos to make sure they did not intentionally or unintentionally share secrets about their work with overly inquisitive strangers. Accustomed to reporting their experimental findings and conclusions at scientific conferences and in academic journals, the demands of tight security and secrecy were new and uncomfortable to many scientists at Los Alamos. In fact, some scientists saw their remote mesa (usually referred to as The Hill) as a place to keep them and their advanced ideas in as much as a place to keep enemy spies out. European scientists who had escaped probable confinement in German concentration camps were most prone to recognize The Hill as a virtual prison where people often vanished for years with little contact with the outside world. Only half facetiously, some believed that a better name for Los Alamos was Lost Almost.16
Recruitment of Scientists:
J. Robert Oppenheimer forewarned scientists of the need for tight security and secrecy when he recruited them to live and work at Site Y. A memorandum sent to prospective scientists told of certain amenities of life on The Hill, such as varied outdoor activities and pleasant weather, but added that security would be strictly enforced, making it necessary "to rupture completely our normal social associations with those not on the project"; the memo itself was marked "restricted," meaning that its contents were not to be freely discussed with others.17 But Oppenheimer did not want to frighten potential workers away. With nuclear scientists "the country's scarcest labor commodity," and an estimated 315 physicists needed for all high priority projects in 1943, the challenge was to candidly warn scientists of security restrictions at Site Y without scaring them (and their families) off.18 The best way Oppenheimer could put it in 1943 was that "we shall all be one large family doing vital work within the wire."19
Oppenheimer met with mixed success. Of the original thirty-three scientists recruited, only fifteen agreed to work at Los Alamos.20 Many agreed with Leo Szilard of the Chicago Metallurgical (Met) Lab that "Nobody could think straight in a place like that. . . . Everyone who goes there will go crazy."21 Despite such dire predictions, Oppenheimer's recruitment record improved with time, especially when many eminent scientists joined his team, often bringing an entourage of colleagues, graduate students, and valuable scientific equipment with them from their former labs at Berkeley, Princeton, Chicago, Purdue, and elsewhere.22 But recruitment remained one of Oppenheimer's greatest problems throughout the war. Unable to find enough civilian experts, Manhattan Project leaders arranged for young, qualified soldiers to be transferred from Army units across the country. Most were mechanical, electrical, and chemical engineers or men with strong scientific or technical backgrounds prior to entering the service; many were graduate students who had not yet completed their advanced degrees when they were drafted or volunteered for military service. The first thirty-nine members of this Special Engineer Detachment (SED, 9812th Technical Service Unit) arrived at Site Y in late 1943. By mid-1944 almost a third of the scientific staff were SEDs. At war's end this highly respected detachment numbered about sixteen hundred.23 As many as fourteen hundred specially selected members of the Women's Army Corps (WAC) were similarly recruited to serve as staff members, if not scientists, starting with a detachment of only seven in April 1943.24
Oppenheimer would have had additional difficulties in recruiting scientists to The Hill if General Groves had carried out his original plan to make all Manhattan Project scientists into military officers. The general believed that giving scientists Army commissions would help establish a chain of command (with Oppenheimer as their colonel), instill discipline, and improve security overall. In short, Groves hoped to control his civilian scientists just as he controlled his own troops. A product of West Point (graduating fourth in the class of 1918) and a career officer, Groves had developed a well-deserved reputation for completing large projects, including the construction of the War Department's Pentagon complex just prior to his assignment to the Manhattan Project. A no-nonsense, by-the-book military man, he had little understanding of, no less patience for, civilian workers, including most civilian scientists. Groves thought of most scientists as intellectual snobs. He alienated many of them in an early Manhattan Project meeting by insisting that although he lacked a Ph.D., "I think you should know that after I left West Point I spent ten years doing nothing but studying. No outside jobs, no teaching-just ten years of pure study. Now, that should be about equal to two Ph.D.s shouldn't it?"25 Declaring that he didn't care if the scientists in his charge liked him, Groves asserted that his only objective was "to have things running well," not to win popularity contests with the civilians he described as longhairs, prima donnas, and "the largest collection of crackpots ever seen."26
The best General Groves could say about most scientists was that they were "temperamental people" who "detested the [military] uniform" and did everything possible to make his life "hell on earth."27 The worst Groves could say was that "If this were a country like Germany, . . . there were a dozen [scientists] we should have shot right off. And another dozen we could have shot for suspicion and carelessness."28 If the general had had his way, all scientists would have worn signs around their necks like the one that hung on the wall in his Washington, D.C., office: "O Lord! Help me to keep my big mouth shut!"29 Unable to appreciate the scientists' academic culture, Groves attempted to transform them by forcing them into his military culture-with its strict security regulations and punishments-by giving them commissions as officers in the U.S. Army.
At first, Oppenheimer complied with Groves' wishes, going so far as to order his officer's uniform and taking an Army physical at the Presidio in San Francisco.30 But key scientists balked at the idea of militarizing the planned lab at Los Alamos. Robert F. Bacher of Cornell, Isidon I. Rabi of Columbia, Robert R. Wilson of Princeton, Louis W. Alvarez of the University of California, and Hans Bethe of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were among those who were "horrified" by Groves' intentions, arguing that to be effective and creative in their thinking scientists needed the freedom to disagree with one another at all times. This freedom would be severely limited if junior officers felt they could not challenge the authority of higher-ranking officers, including Oppenheimer himself.31 Militarization would also "make the exchange of ideas much too formal, and hence too slow," in Bethe's words.32 Finally conceding to these objections, Groves grudgingly agreed that Site Y's technical lab would remain in civilian hands until the atomic bomb was built, at which time Los Alamos would become a completely military operation.33 Charles L. Critchfield refused to join the Los Alamos staff when Oppenheimer and Edward Teller approached him in late 1942 until he was assured in 1943 that his family could live with him and that he and his colleagues "didn't have to be majors in the Army."34 At least one scientist remained so skeptical and adamantly opposed to military control that he submitted his resignation from the Manhattan Project effective the day the Army took over. Such a transition never occurred, and Robert Bacher never felt compelled to resign for this reason.35
Security Clearance Procedures:
Once recruited, all Site Y personnel and their accompanying families underwent a thorough security clearance process. Detailed questionnaires asked for information about one's relatives, schools, military service (including which country's military), membership in organizations since 1930, employment since 1935, and foreign countries visited (with reasons for each visit) since 1935. The names and addresses of three references were also needed to complete this government form.36
Most scientists and staff members were scrupulous in their answers. Charles Hjelmgren, a Swedish-born resident of Chicago, listed the Chicago Swedish Male Chorus among his organizations, while Devona Perry listed the Kings Herold, an innocent church organization to which she had belonged since childhood. Unfamiliar with this group, security officers questioned Perry about the Kings Herold "in great detail."37 MacAllister "Mac" Hull, a SED from LaGrange, Illinois, recalled that even the librarian for whom he had worked in high school was questioned when he listed her as a reference on his security clearance form.38 Security checks could take as long as a month for scientists like Edward Hammel, although Hammel had been working on highly sensitive atomic research at Princeton University for two years prior to his transfer to New Mexico in 1944.39
Potential personnel could be denied security clearance for several main reasons. Those who tried to cover up major (or minor) criminal records were usually denied clearance, although the need for men with particular skills could influence final decisions. However, no exceptions were made if a person had been convicted of rape, arson, or narcotics charges. "Such persons," wrote Groves in his memoirs, "were felt to be unreliable because of their demonstrated weakness in moral fiber and their liability to blackmail" by foreign agents.40
But of all the reasons for being denied security clearance, association with a Communist or Communist front organization was the most important, according to Colonel John Lansdale, Jr., the Army officer responsible for security in the Manhattan Project as a whole. Lansdale recalls two or three scientists from the University of California who were denied clearance for this reason, especially after Oppenheimer told Lansdale that one of them was "quite a red." Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, a young Berkeley physicist thought to have questionable political ties, was not only denied security clearance to come to Los Alamos, but was also denied a draft deferment. Lomanitz was promptly drafted into the Army where he and his political ideas were considered less of a threat than in the politically sensitive labs of Berkeley or Los Alamos.41
Intelligence officers may have been justified in their evaluation and treatment of Lomanitz, but they were clearly inaccurate in their appraisal of physicist Arthur Holly Compton. The Army's investigation of Compton had supposedly revealed that he had "been associated with certain Communist-front organizations." Security officers refused to approve Compton, concluding that "We must not have in such a key position a man about whose loyalty there is a shadow of a doubt." Only after Colonel Lansdale "took pains to acquaint himself personally" with Compton was the confusion about the scientist's background cleared up. Ironically, Compton was cleared in November 1943 when, he later recalled, "the most critical aspects of my assignment [in the Manhattan Project] were already completed."42
Arrival in Los Alamos:
Those who cleared the security clearance hurdle faced the often mysterious experience of traveling to Los Alamos from points across the nation and, in the case of British scientists, overseas. Various methods were used to keep Site Y's location a secret during these travels. Richard Feynman and his colleagues from Princeton, New Jersey, were told "not to buy our train ticket[s] in Princeton . . . because Princeton was a very small station, and if everybody bought train tickets to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in Princeton there would be some suspicions that something was up" in or around Albuquerque. Ever the maverick, Feynman bought his ticket in Princeton anyway because he reasoned that if his colleagues bought their tickets elsewhere, his lone ticket purchase would neither attract attention nor compromise secrecy. He was right, of course, unless everyone in his group jumped to the same conclusion.43
Enrico Fermi's wife, Laura, remembered her first railroad trip to New Mexico quite well. Traveling without her husband, she was relieved to see an old friend and well-known scientist on the same train with her. Aware that they were instructed not to reveal where they were headed, Laura Fermi and Harold Urey talked of many things en route west, "but neither of us mentioned our destination or the purpose of our trip." They simply got off at Lamy, New Mexico, and were "whisked away" in separate cars to Los Alamos, forty-odd miles further north.44
Military personnel often believed that they were headed overseas to the Pacific when they received orders to travel west from posts back East. Some, like Mac Hull, were given a packet of envelopes and ordered to travel by train in small groups. At each train stop they were to open the next designated envelope, call the telephone number written inside, report that they were safe, and proceed to the next stop where the process would be repeated. In this fashion, Hull and his seven companions completed their odyssey from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to Lamy without incident.45
From Lamy newcomers were transported in soldier-driven cars to 109 East Palace Avenue, a stone's throw from the centuries-old Spanish plaza in Santa Fe. There they found a small, adobe-walled office with only one regular employee, Dorothy S. McKibbin. Years later McKibbin wrote that
Most of the new arrivals were tense with expectancy and curiosity. They had left physics, chemistry, and metallurgical laboratories, had sold their homes or rented them, had deceived their friends, and then had launched forth into an unpredictable world. They walked into 109 East Palace expecting anything and everything, the best and the worst.46
Only McKibbin's calming influence reassured most scientists and their wives, despite long journeys and frayed nerves. One of Oppenheimer's favorite, most trusted staff employees, McKibbin efficiently arranged for transportation "upstairs" to the scientists' final destination, The Hill.