Military history


Different Animals

The 59,000 acres of Appalachian semiwilderness along the Clinch River in eastern Tennessee that Brigadier General Leslie R. Groves acquired for the Manhattan Engineer District as one of his first official acts, in September 1942, extended from the Cumberland foothills in a series of parallel, southwestern-running ridge valleys. Groves liked the geology, which offered isolation for his several enterprises, but the new reservation was nearly as primitive as Los Alamos would be. The Clinch, a meandering tributary of the Tennessee, defined the reservation’s southeastern and southwestern boundaries. Eastward twenty miles was Knoxville, a city of nearly 112,000, farther east the wall of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Five unpaved county roads traversed the ninety-two square miles of depleted valleys and scrub-oak ridges, an area seventeen miles long and seven miles wide that supported only about a thousand families in rural poverty. In the ridge-barricaded valleys of this impoverished hill country, far from prying eyes, the United States Army intended to construct the futuristic factories that would separate U235 from U238 in quantity sufficient to make an atomic bomb.

To do so it had first to improve communications and build a town. Into the gummy red eastern-Tennessee clay in the winter of 1942 and the spring of 1943 its contractors cut fifty-five miles of rail roadbed and three hundred miles of paved roads and streets. They improved the important county roads to four-lane highways. Stone & Webster, the hard-pressed Boston engineering corporation, laid out a town plan so unimaginative that the MED rejected it and passed the assignment to the ambitious young architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill, which produced a wellsited arrangement of housing using innovative new materials that saved enough money to allow for such amenities in the best residences as fireplaces and porches. The new town, planned initially for thirteen thousand workers, took its name from its location lining a long section of the northwesternmost valley: Oak Ridge. The entire reservation, fenced with barbed wire and controlled through seven guarded gates, was named, after a nearby Tennessee community, the Clinton Engineer Works. Its workers would come to call it Dogpatch in homage to the hillbilly comic strip “Li’l Abner.” The new gates closed off public access on April 1.

Groves planned to build electromagnetic isotope separation plants and a gaseous-diffusion plant at Clinton; plutonium production, he realized during his first months on the project, would proceed at such a scale and generate so vast a quantity of potentially dangerous radioactivity that it would require a separate reservation of its own. Of the three processes, Ernest Lawrence’s electromagnetic method was farthest along.

Electromagnetic isotope separation enlarged and elaborated Francis Aston’s 1918 Cavendish invention, the mass spectrograph. As a 1945 report prepared by Lawrence’s staff explains, the method “depends on the fact that an electrically charged atom traveling through a magnetic field moves in a circle whose radius is determined by its mass”—which was also a basic principle of Lawrence’s cyclotron.1875 The lighter the atom, the tighter the circle it made. Form ions of a vaporous uranium compound and start them moving at one side of a vacuum tank permeated by a strong magnetic field and the moving ions as they curved around would separate into two beams. Lighter U235 atoms would follow a narrower arc than heavier U238 atoms; across a four-foot semicircle the separation might be about three-tenths of an inch. Set a collecting pocket at the point where the U235 ion beam separately arrived and you could catch the ions. “When the ions strike the bottom of the collecting pocket . . . they give up their charge and are deposited as flakes of metal.”1876 Schematically, with slotted electrodes to accelerate the ions, the arrangement would look like the illustration on page 488.

Late in 1941 Lawrence had installed such a 180-degree mass spectrometer in place of the dees in the Berkeley 37-inch cyclotron. By running it continuously for a month his crews produced a partially separated 100-microgram sample of U235.1877 That was several hundred million times less than the 100 kilograms Robert Oppenheimer had originally estimated would be necessary to make a bomb. The demonstration proved the basic principle of electromagnetic separation even as it dramatized the method’s monumental prodigality: Lawrence was proposing to separate uranium atom by individual atom.


Magnetic field perpendicular to plane of drawing

Enlarging the equipment, increasing the accelerating voltage, multiplying the number of sources and collectors set side by side between the poles of the same magnet were obvious ways to improve output and efficiency. Lawrence had committed his time to winning the war; now he committed his beautiful new 184-inch cyclotron. Instead of cyclotron dees he had D-shaped mass-spectrometer tanks installed between the pole faces of its 4,500-ton magnet. Making the new instrument work, through the spring and summer of 1942, solved the most difficult design problems. It acquired a name along the way: calutron, another tron from the University of Cali fornia.

To separate 100 grams—about 4 ounces—of U235 per day, Lawrence estimated in the autumn of 1942, would require some 2,000 4-foot calutron tanks set among thousands of tons of magnets. If a bomb needed 30 kilograms—66 pounds—of U235 for reasonable efficiency, as the Berkeley summer study group had just worked out, 2,000 such calutrons could enrich material enough for one bomb core every 300 days. That assumed the system worked reliably, which so far its laboratory predecessors had hardly done. Yet in 1942 electromagnetic separation still looked so much more promising to James Bryant Conant than either the plutonium approach or gaseous barrier diffusion that he had offered up for debate the possibility of pursuing it exclusively. Lawrence was self-confident but not foolhardy; he insisted that the two dark horses should continue to run the race alongside the favorite.

Groves was less impressed. So was the first Lewis committee that had visited Chicago and Berkeley when Fermi was building CP-1 in the winter of 1942. The Lewis committee judged gaseous diffusion the best approach because it was most like existing technology—diffusion was a phenomenon familiar to petroleum engineers and a gaseous-diffusion plant would be essentially an enormous interconnected assemblage of pipes and pumps. Electromagnetic separation by contrast was a batch process untested at such monumental scale; Berkeley planned a system of 4-foot tanks set vertically between the pole faces of large square electromagnets, two tanks to a gap and a total of 96 tanks per unit. To reduce the amount of iron needed for the magnet cores the arrangement would be not rectangular but oval, like a racetrack:


And racetrack it was called, though its official designation was Alpha. Berkeley could promise only 5 grams of enriched uranium per day per racetrack, but Groves thought 2,000 tanks well beyond Stone & Webster’s capability and cut the number back to 500, reasoning, as Lawrence recalled later, “that the art and science of the process would go forward and that by the time the plant was built substantially higher production rates would be assured.”1878 Five grams per day per racetrack with only five racetracks wouldmean 1,200 days per 30-kilogram bomb even if the Alpha calutrons produced nearly pure U235, which they did not—their best production was around 15 percent. Groves counted on improvements and forged ahead.

He had to begin building before he knew precisely what to build. He worked from the general to the particular, from outline to detail. Fully six months before he decided how many calutrons to authorize, his predecessors, Colonel James Marshall and Lieutenant Colonel Kenneth Nichols, had moved to solve one serious problem of supply. The United States was critically short of copper, the best common metal for winding the coils of electromagnets. For recoverable use the Treasury offered to make silver bullion available in copper’s stead. The Manhattan District put the offer to the test, Nichols negotiating the loan with Treasury Undersecretary Daniel Bell. “At one point in the negotiations,” writes Groves, “Nichols . . . said that they would need between five and ten thousand tons of silver. This led to the icy reply: ‘Colonel, in the Treasury we do not speak of tons of silver; our unit is the Troy ounce.’ ”1879 Eventually 395 million troy ounces of silver—13,540 short tons—went off from the West Point Depository to be cast into cylindrical billets, rolled into 40-foot strips and wound onto iron cores at Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee. Solid-silver bus bars a square foot in cross section crowned each racetrack’s long oval. The silver was worth more than $300 million. Groves accounted for it ounce by ounce, almost as carefully as he accounted for the fissionable isotope it helped separate.

Stone & Webster had only foundation drawings in hand when its contractors broke ground for the first Alpha racetrack building on February 18, 1943. Groves had initially approved three buildings to house five racetracks. In March he authorized a second, Beta stage of half-size calutrons, seventy-two tanks on two rectangular tracks, that would further enrich the eventual Alpha output to 90 percent U235. Alpha and Beta buildings alone eventually covered more area in the valley between Pine and Chestnut ridges than would twenty football fields. Racetracks were mounted on second floors; first floors held monumental pumps to exhaust the calutrons to high vacuum, more cubic feet of vacuum than the combined total volume pumped down everywhere else on earth at that time. Eventually the Y-12 complex counted 268 permanent buildings large and small—the calutron structures of steel and brick and tile, chemistry laboratories, a distilled water plant, sewage treatment plants, pump houses, a shop, a service station, warehouses, cafeterias, gatehouses, change houses and locker rooms, a paymaster’s office, a foundry, a generator building, eight electric substations, nineteen water-cooling towers—for an output measured in the best of times in grams per day. An inspection trip in May 1943 awed even Ernest Lawrence.

By August, twenty thousand construction workers swarmed over the area.1880, 1881 An experimental Alpha unit saw successful operation. Lawrence was urging Groves then to double the Alpha plant. With ten Alpha racetracks instead of five he estimated he could separate half a kilogram of U235 per day at 85 percent enrichment. An Army engineer’s less exuberant summary, written six days after Lawrence’s, predicted 900 grams per month with existing Alpha and Beta stages beginning in November 1943, for a total of 22 kilograms of bomb-grade U235 in the first year of operation. Faced with new estimates from Los Alamos that summer that an efficient uranium gun would probably require 40 kilograms—88 pounds—of the rarer uranium isotope, Groves bought Lawrence’s proposal.1882 The doubling would add four new 96-tank tracks of advanced design designated Alpha II and a proportionate number of Beta tracks, at a cost of $150 million more than the $100 million already authorized. If everything worked at Y-12, Groves justified his proposal to the Military Policy Committee, he would then have a 40-kilogram bomb core around the beginning of 1945.

The Army had contracted with Tennessee Eastman, a manufacturing subsidiary of Eastman Kodak, to operate the electromagnetic separation plant.1883 By late October 1943, when Stone & Webster finished installing the first Alpha racetrack, the company had assembled a work force of 4,800 men and women. They were trained to run and maintain the calutrons—without knowing why—twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

The big square racetrack magnets wrapped with silver windings were encased in boxes of welded steel. Oil that circulated through the boxes was supposed to insulate the windings and carry heat away. The first magnets tested at the end of October leaked electricity. If moisture in the circulating oil was shorting out the coils, the normal heat of operation would correct the problem by evaporating the water. Tennessee Eastman pushed on. Vacuum leaks in the calutron tanks were numerous and hard to find—one supervisor remembers spending most of a month looking for one leak.1884 Inexperienced operators had trouble striking and maintaining a steady ion beam. Groves recalls that the powerful magnets unexpectedly “moved the intervening tanks, which weighed some fourteen tons each, out of position by as much as three inches. . . . The problem was solved by securely welding the tanks into place, using heavy steel tie straps. Once that was done, the tanks stayed where they belonged.”1885

The magnets dried out but continued to short. Something was seriously wrong. Early in December Tennessee Eastman shut the entire 96-tank racetrack down. The company’s engineers would have to break open one of the windings and examine it. That was major trauma; the unit must then be returned to Allis-Chalmers and rebuilt.

The inspectors found disaster: two major troubles. “The first lay in the design,” writes Groves, “which placed the heavy current-carrying silver bands too close together.1886 The other lay in the excessive amount of rust and other dirt particles in the circulating oil. These bridged the too narrow gap between the silver bands and resulted in shorting.” Groves arrived seething from Washington on December 15 to view the remains. The design’s inadequacy forced the general to order all forty-eight magnets hauled back to Milwaukee to be cleaned and rebuilt. The second Alpha track would not come on line until mid-January 1944. They would lose at least a month of production.

Tennessee Eastman’s 4,800 employees reported for work in the shambles of gloomy halls. Rather than lose them from boredom the company scheduled classes, conferences, lectures, motion pictures, games. Serious men in double-breasted suits scouted the state for chess and checker sets. At the end of 1943 Y-12 was dead in the water with hardly a gram of U235 to show for all its enormous expense.

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Gaseous-diffusion research had progressed at Columbia University since John Dunning and Eugene Booth had first demonstrated measurable U235 separation in November 1941. By the spring of 1942 Harold Urey could note in a progress report that “three methods for the separation of the uranium isotopes have now reached the engineering stage. They are the English and the American diffusion methods, and the centrifuge method.” With the authorization of the full-scale plant Dunning’s staff, which had grown to include about ninety people, increased in early 1943 to 225.1887, 1888 Franz Simon’s diffusion method would have operated at low gas pressures and in incremental ten-unit stages but required extremely large pumps; Columbia designed a high-pressure system with more conventional pumps, a continuous, interconnected cascade of some four thousand stages. In a postwar memoir Groves reviews the design, which was both reliably simple and expensively tedious:

The method was completely novel. It was based on the theory that if uranium gas was pumped against a porous barrier, the lighter molecules of the gas, containing U-235, would pass through more rapidly than the heavier U-238 molecules. The heart of the process was, therefore, the barrier, a porous thin metal sheet or membrane with millions of submicroscopic openings per square inch. These sheets were formed into tubes which were enclosed in an airtight vessel, the diffuser. As the gas, uranium hexafluoride, was pumped through a long series, or cascade, of these tubes it tended to separate, the enriched gas moving up the cascade while the depleted moved down. However, there is so little difference in mass between the hexafluoride of U-238 and U-235 that it was impossible to gain much separation in a single diffusion step. That was why there had to be several thousand successive stages.1889

In schematic cross section the stages looked like this:


“Further development of barriers is needed,” Urey had concluded in his progress report, “but we now feel confident that the problem can be solved.”1890 It had not been solved when Groves committed the Manhattan Project to a $100 million gaseous-diffusion plant, however; no practical barrier was yet in hand. The American process required finer-pored material than the British; the material also had to be rugged enough to withstand the higher pressure of the heavy, corrosive gas.

Columbia had been experimenting with copper barriers but abandoned them late in 1942 in favor of nickel, the only common metal that resisted hexafluoride corrosion. Compressed nickel powder made a suitably rugged but insufficiently fine-pored barrier material; electro-deposited nickel mesh made a suitably fine-pored but insufficiently rugged alternative. A self-educated Anglo-American interior decorator, Edward Norris, had devised the electro-deposited mesh originally for a new kind of paint sprayer he invented; he joined the Columbia project in 1941 and worked with chemist Edward Adler, a young Urey protégé, to adapt his invention to gaseous diffusion. The resulting Norris-Adler barrier in its nickel incarnation seemed in January 1943 to be improvable eventually to production quality, whereupon Columbia began installing a pilot plant in the basement of Schermerhorn Laboratory and Groves authorized full-scale barrier production. The Houdaille-Hershey Corporation took on that assignment on April 1, the day the gates began operating at Oak Ridge, planning a new factory for the purpose in Decatur, Illinois.

Suitable barrier material was the worst but not the only problem Columbia studied and Groves engineered. Hex attacked organic materials ferociously: not a speck of grease could be allowed to ooze into the gas stream anywhere along the miles and miles of pipes and pumps and barriers. Pump seals therefore had to be devised that were both gastight and greaseless, a puzzle no one had ever solved before that required the development of new kinds of plastics. (The seal material that eventually served at Oak Ridge came into its own after the war under the brand name Teflon.) A single pinhole leak anywhere in the miles of pipes would confound the entire system; Alfred O. Nier developed portable mass spectrometers to serve as subtle leak detectors. Since pipes of solid nickel would exhaust the entire U.S. production of that valuable resource, Groves found a company willing to nickel-plate all the pipe interiors, a difficult new process accomplished by filling the pipes themselves with plating solution and rotating them as the plating current did its work.

The plant that would hold thousands of diffusion tanks, the largest of them of 1,000 gallon capacity, would be necessarily monumental: four stories high, almost half a mile long in the shape of a U, a fifth of a mile wide, 42.6 acres under roof, some 2 million square feet, more than twice the total ground area of Y-12’s Alpha and Beta buildings. K-25, as the gaseous-diffusion complex was designated, needed more than a narrow ridge valley. The building and operating contractors, Kellex and Union Carbide, found a relatively flat site along the Clinch River at the southwestern end of the reservation; the first surveying, for the coal-fired power plant needed to run the factory, began on May 31, 1943.

Rather than designing and setting thousands of different columns for footings the construction contractors leveled and compacted the entire K-25 foundation area, plowing, drying and moving in the process nearly 100,000 cubic yards of red clay. That took months; the first concrete—200,000 cubic yards—was not poured until October 21. By then the continuing failure to develop an adequate barrier material had led Groves to decide to lop off the unfinished plant’s upper stages and limit its enrichment potential to less than 50 percent U235—it would have been capable of taking natural uranium all the way to pure U235 with its full complement of diffusers—and to use this enriched material to feed the Beta calutrons at Y-12.

Kellex succeeded in devising a promising new barrier material in the autumn of 1943 that combined the best features of the Norris-Adler barrier and the compressed nickel-powder barrier. The problem then was what to do about the Houdaille-Hershey plant under construction in Decatur, which was designed to produce Norris-Adler. Should it be stripped and reequipped to manufacture the new barrier at the price of some delay in starting up K-25? Or should the several barrier-development teams make a final concerted effort to improve Norris-Adler to production quality? Over these significant questions Groves and Harold Urey violently clashed.

Kellex wanted to strip the Houdaille-Hershey plant and convert it, preferring delay to the risk of failure. Urey thought abandoning the Norris-Adler barrier would mean forgoing the production of U235 by gaseous diffusion in time to shorten the war. In which case he saw no reason to continue building K-25; its high priority, he argued, would even hinder the war effort by displacing more immediately useful production.

Groves decided to submit the dispute to an unusual review committee: the experts who had worked on gaseous diffusion in England. With the renewal of interchange between the British and American atomic bomb programs that autumn the British had arranged to send a delegation to work in America. Led by Wallace Akers of ICI, the group included Franz Simon and Rudolf Peierls. It met with both sides—Kellex and Columbia—on December 22 and then settled in to review American progress.

The participants reconvened early in January 1944. The new barrier, the British concluded, would probably be superior eventually to the Norris-Adler, but they thought the months of research on the Norris-Adler must count decisively in its favor if time was of the essence. The new barrier had been manufactured so far only by hand in small batches. Yet K-25 would require acres of it to fill the planned 2,892 stages of the diffusion plant’s cascade.1891

Then Kellex set a trap: it proposed to produce the new barrier by hand by piecework—thousands of workers each duplicating the simple laboratory process Kellex had initially devised—and claimed that by doing so it could match or beat the Norris-Adler production schedule. When the British had recovered from their surprise at the novelty of the proposal they signaled their preference for the new barrier by agreeing that if production was possible it ought to be pursued. That agreement sprang the trap; with the British implicitly committed, the American engineers revealed that they could only manufacture the new barrier by stripping the Houdaille-Hershey plant and forgoing Norris-Adler production entirely.

Groves in any case had already decided, the day before the January meeting, to switch over to the new barrier; the British review then simply ratified his decision. By changing barriers rather than abandoning gaseous diffusion he confirmed what many Manhattan Project scientists had not yet realized: that the commitment of the United States to nuclear weapons development had enlarged from the seemingly urgent but narrow goal of beating the Germans to the bomb. Building a gaseous-diffusion plant that would interfere with conventional war production, would eventually cost half a billion dollars but would almost certainly not contribute significantly to shortening the war meant that nuclear weapons were thenceforth to be counted a permanent addition to the U.S. arsenal. Urey saw the point and withdrew; “from that time forward,” write his colleague biographers, “his energies were directed to the control of atomic energy, not its applications.”1892

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Twelve days after Enrico Fermi proved the chain reaction in Chicago on December 2, 1942, Groves had assembled a list of criteria for a plutonium production area and definitely and finally ruled out Tennessee. “The Clinton site . . . was not far from Knoxville,” he comments, “and while I felt that the possibility of serious danger was small, we could not be absolutely sure; no one knew what might happen, if anything, when a chain reaction was attempted in a large reactor. If because of some unknown and unanticipated factor a reactor were to explode and throw great quantities of highly radioactive materials into the atmosphere when the wind was blowing toward Knoxville, the loss of life and the damage to health in the area might be catastrophic.” Such an accident might “wipe out all semblance of security in the project,” Groves could imagine, and it might render the electromagnetic and gaseous-diffusion plants “inoperable.”1893 Better to site plutonium production somewhere far away.

The production piles needed plentiful electricity and water for blowing and cooling the helium that was planned to cool them. For safety they needed space. Those criteria suggested the great river systems of the Far West, particularly the Columbia River basin. Groves sent out an officer who would administer the plutonium reservation along with the civilian engineer who would supervise construction for Du Pont. Besides picking the site he wanted the two men to get used to working together. They did, agreeing on a promising location in south-central Washington State, and arrived back in Groves’ office on New Year’s Eve to report. The general received a real estate appraisal on January 21, 1943.1894 By then he had already personally walked the ground.

Eastward of the Cascade Range, twenty air miles east of the city of Yakima, the blue, cold, fast-running Columbia River bends east, then northeast, abruptly ninety degrees southeast and finally due south through a flat, arid scrubland on its last excursion toward the continental interior before it makes its great bend below Pasco to course directly westward two hundred fifty miles to the sea. Even that far inland the river is wide and deep and veined in season with salmon, but the sandy plain surrounding wins little of the river’s water and the barrier of the Cascades denies it more than six inches a year of rain.

The site Groves’ representatives discovered, and Groves acquired at the end of January at a cost of about $5.1 million, was contained within the eastward excursion of the Columbia: some 500,000 acres, about 780 square miles, devoted primarily to sheep grazing but varied with a few irrigated orchards and vineyards and a farm or two thriving in wartime on irrigated crops of peppermint. Temperatures ranged from a maximum of 114° in the long, dry summers to rare −27° winter lows. Roads were sparse on the roughly circular thirty-mile tract. A Union Pacific railroad line crossed one corner; a double electric power line of 230 kilovolts traversed the northwest sector on its way from Grand Coulee Dam to Bonneville Dam. Gable Mountain, an isolated basalt outcropping that rose five hundred feet above the sedimentary plain a few miles southwest of the ninety-degree river bend, divided the riverside land at the bend from the interior. Midway down the tract where a ferry crossed the Columbia, a half-abandoned riverside village, population about 100, supplied a base of buildings and gave the Hanford Engineer Works its name.1895

Groves could hardly build Hanford until he knew more about the plant that would go there. It was clear that he would need enormous quantities of concrete to shield the production piles and chemical processing buildings; his Hanford engineer searched out accessible beds of gravel and aggregate to quarry. An accident might release radioactivity into the air; that called for thorough meteorological work. The river water needed study; so did the river’s valuable salmon, to see how they would take to mild doses of transient radioactivity from pile discharge flow. Roads had to be paved, power sources tapped, hutments and barracks built for tens of thousands of construction workers.

What had come up once again for discussion early in 1943 was how the plutonium production piles—the Du Pont engineers were beginning to call them reactors—should be cooled. Crawford Greenewalt, in charge of plutonium production for Du Pont, continued to plan for helium cooling because the noble gas had no absorption cross section at all for neutrons. But it would need to be pumped through the piles under high pressure; that would require large, powerful compressors Greenewalt was not at all sure he had time to build. Enormous steel tanks would be needed to contain the gas; they would have to allow access to the pile but still remain airtight, a formidable challenge to engineer or even simply to weld.

Eugene Wigner came to the project’s rescue. Fermi had found k for CP-1 higher than he expected. The Stagg Field pile had been assembled largely from uranium oxide. Its graphite had varied in quality, improving along the way. A production pile of pure uranium metal and high-quality graphite would find k higher yet—high enough, Wigner calculated, to make water cooling practical.

Wigner’s team designed a 28- by 36-foot graphite cylinder lying on its side and penetrated through its entire length horizontally by more than a thousand aluminum tubes. Two hundred tons of uranium slugs the size of rolls of quarters would fill these tubes. Chain-reacting within 1,200 tons of graphite, the uranium would generate 250,000 kilowatts of heat; cooling water pumped through the aluminum tubes around the uranium slugs at the rate of 75,000 gallons per minute would dissipate that heat. The slugs would not go naked into the torrent; Wigner intended that they also should be separately sheathed in aluminum—canned. When they had burned long enough—100 days—to transmute about 1 atom in every 4,000 into plutonium the irradiated slugs could be pushed out the back of the pile simply by loading fresh slugs in at the front.1896, 1897 The hot slugs would fall into a deep pool of pure water that would safely confine their intense but short-lived fission-product radioactivity. After 60 days they could be fished out and carted off for chemical separation.

The Wigner design was elegantly simple. Greenewalt saw engineering problems—in particular the question whether corrosion of the aluminum tubes would block the flow of cooling water—and studied helium and water side by side until the middle of February. Corrosion studies were promising. “With water of high purity,” writes Arthur Compton, “the evidence indicated that no serious difficulties from this source should arise.”1898 Greenewalt opted then for water cooling. Wigner, whom Leo Szilard calls “the conscience of the Project from its early beginnings to its very end,” who worried constantly about German progress, wondered angrily why it had taken Du Pont three months to see the value of a system he and his group had judged superior in the summer of 1942.1899

With that basic decision construction could begin at Hanford. Three production piles would go up at six-mile intervals along the Columbia River, two upstream and one downstream of its ninety-degree bend. Ten miles south, screened behind Gable Mountain, Du Pont would build four chemical-separation plants paired at two sites. The former town of Hanford would become a central construction camp serving all five construction areas.

The work proceeded slowly, dogged by recruiting problems. The nation at war had moved beyond full employment to severe labor shortages and men and women willing to camp out on godforsaken scrubland far from any major city were hard to find. Frequent sandstorms plagued the area, writes Leona Woods, now Leona Marshall after marrying fellow physicist John Marshall of Fermi’s staff. “Local storms were caused by tearing up the desert floor for roads, and construction sites were suffocating. Wind-blown sand covered faces, hair, and hands and got into eyes and teeth. . . . After each storm, the number of people quitting might be as much as twice the average. When the storms were at their worst, buses and other traffic came to a stop until the roads were visible through the greyblack clouds of dust.”1900 Stoics who stayed on called the dust “termination powder.”

“The most essential thing to bring with you is a padlock,” a project recruiting pamphlet ominously announced. “The next important things are towels, coat hangers and a thermos bottle. Don’t bring cameras or guns.”1901 Hanford, says Marshall, “was a tough town. There was nothing to do after work except fight, with the result that occasionally bodies were found in garbage cans the next morning.”1902 Du Pont built saloons with windows hinged for easy tear-gas lobbing. Eventually some 5,000 construction workers struggled in the desert dust and Du Pont built more than two hundred barracks to house them. Meat rationing stopped at the edge of the reservation; there were no meatless Tuesdays in the vast Hanford mess halls, a significant enticement for recruiting. The gray coyotes of the region fed sleek in turn on rabbits killed by cars and trucks driving the new reservation roads.

By August 1943 work had begun on the water-treatment plants for the three piles, capacity sufficient to supply a city of one million people. Du Pont released pile-design drawings in Wilmington, Delaware, on October 4 and the company’s engineers staked out the first pile, 100-B, beside the Columbia on October 10. After excavating, reports an official history, “work gangs began to lay the first of 390 tons of structural steel, 17,400 cubic yards of concrete, 50,000 concrete blocks, and 71,000 concrete bricks that went into the pile buildings.1903 Starting with the foundations for the pile and the deep water basins behind it where the irradiated slugs would be collected after discharge, the work crews were well above ground by the end of the year.” The forty-foot windowless concrete monolith they were building was hollow, however: installation of B pile would not begin until February 1944.1904

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“There was a large change of scale from the Chicago to the Hanford piles,” Laura Fermi remarks. “As Fermi would have put it, they were different animals.”1905 So also were Ernest Lawrence’s behemoth mass spectrometers and John Dunning’s gaseous-diffusion factory with its 5 million barrier tubes. The mighty scale of the works at Clinton and Hanford is a measure of the desperation of the United States to protect itself from the most serious potential threat to its sovereignty it had yet confronted—even though that threat, of a German atomic bomb, proved to be an image in a darkened mirror. It is also a measure of the sheer recalcitrance of heavy-metal isotopes. Niels Bohr had insisted in 1939 that U235 could be separated from U238 only by turning the country into a gigantic factory. “Years later,” writes Edward Teller, “when Bohr came to Los Alamos, I was prepared to say, ‘You see . . .’ But before I could open my mouth, he said, ‘You see, I told you it couldn’t be done without turning the whole country into a factory. You have done just that.’ ”1906

The monumental scale reveals another desperation as well: how ambitiously the nation was moving to claim the prize. And to deny it to others, even to the British until Winston Churchill turned Franklin Roosevelt’s head at the conference in Quebec in August 1943, where Operation Overlord, the 1944 invasion of Europe across the beaches of Normandy, was planned. Before then, in June, Groves had demonstrated this last desperation at its most overweening: he proposed to the Military Policy Committee that the United States attempt to acquire total control of all the world’s known supplies of uranium ore. When the Union Minière refused to reopen its flooded Shinkolobwe Mine in the Belgian Congo, Groves had to turn to the British, who owned a significant minority interest in the Belgian firm, for help; after Quebec the partnership evolved into an agreement between the two nations known as the Combined Development Trust to search out world supplies. That uranium is common in the crust of the earth to the extent of millions of tons Groves may not have known. In 1943, when the element in useful concentrations was thought to be rare, the general, acting on behalf of the nation to which he gave unquestioning devotion, exercised himself to hoard for his country’s exclusive use every last pound. He might as well have tried to hoard the sea.

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Work toward an atomic bomb had begun in the USSR in 1939. A thirtysix-year-old nuclear physicist, Igor Kurchatov, the head of a major laboratory since his late twenties, alerted his government then to the possible military significance of nuclear fission. Kurchatov suspected that fission research might be under way already in Nazi Germany. Soviet physicists realized in 1940 that the United States must also be pursuing a program when the names of prominent physicists, chemists, metallurgists and mathematicians disappeared from international journals: secrecy itself gave the secret away.1907

The German invasion of the USSR in June 1941 temporarily ended what had hardly been begun. “The advance of the enemy turned everyone’s thoughts and energies to one single job,” writes Academician Igor Golovin, a colleague of Kurchatov and his biographer: “to halt the invasion. Laboratories were deserted. Equipment, instruments and books were packed up, and valuable records shipped east for safety.”1908 The invasion rearranged research priorities. Radar now took first place, naval mine detection second, atomic bombs a poor third. Kurchatov moved to Kazan, four hundred miles east of Moscow beyond Gorky, to study defenses against naval mines.

In Kazan at the end of 1941 he heard from George Flerov, one of the two young physicists in his Moscow laboratory who had discovered the spontaneous fission of uranium in 1940 and reported their discovery in a cable to the Physical Review.1 Flerov had attended an international meeting of scientists in Moscow in October and heard Peter Kapitza, Ernest Rutherford’s protege, when asked what scientists could do to help the war effort, respond in part:

In recent years a new possibility—nuclear energy—has been discovered. Theoretical calculations show that, if a contemporary bomb can for example destroy a whole city block, an atomic bomb, even of small dimensions, if it can be realized, can easily annihilate a great capital city having a few million inhabitants.1909

Thus recalled to their earlier work, Flerov challenged Kurchatov as he had already in a similar letter challenged the State Defense Committee that “no time must be lost in making a uranium bomb.”1910 The first requirement was fast-neutron research, he wrote. The MAUD Report had only just made that necessity clear to the United States.

Kurchatov disagreed. Research toward a uranium weapon seemed too far removed from the immediate necessities of war. But the Soviet government in the meantime had assembled an advisory committee that included Kapitza and the senior Academician Abram Joffe, Kurchatov’s mentor. The committee endorsed atomic bomb research and recommended Kurchatov to head it. Somewhat reluctantly he accepted.

“So it was that from early 1943 on,” writes his colleague A. P. Alexandrov, “work on this difficult problem was resumed in Moscow under the leadership of Igor Kurchatov.1911 Nuclear scientists were recalled from the front, from industry, from the research institutes which had been evacuated to the rear. Auxiliary work began in many places.” Auxiliary work included building a cyclotron. Kurchatov moved his institute out of the Soviet capital to an abandoned farm near the Moscow River in the summer of 1943. An artillery range nearby offered an area for explosives testing; “Laboratory No. 2” would be the Soviet Union’s Los Alamos. By January 1944 Kurchatov had assembled a staff of only about twenty scientists and thirty support personnel. “Even so,” writes Herbert York, “they did experiments and made theoretical calculations concerning the reactions involved in both nuclear weapons and nuclear reactors, they began work designed to lead to the production of suitably pure uranium and graphite, and they studied various possible means for the separation of uranium isotopes.”1912 But the Soviet Bear was not yet fully aroused.

*   *   *

“The kind of man that any employer would have fired as a troublemaker.” Thus Leslie Groves described Leo Szilard in an off-the-record postwar interview, as if the general had arrived first at fission development and Szilard had only been a hireling.1913 Groves seems to have attributed Szilard’s brashness to the fact that he was a Jew. Upon Groves’ appointment to the Manhattan Project he almost immediately judged Szilard a menace. They proceeded to fight out their profound disagreements hand to hand.

The heart of the matter was compartmentalization. Alice Kimball Smith, the historian of the atomic scientists whose husband Cyril was associate division leader in charge of metallurgy at Los Alamos, defines the background of the conflict:

If the Project could have been run on ideas alone, says Wigner, no one but Szilard would have been needed. Szilard’s more staid scientific colleagues sometimes had trouble adjusting to his mercurial passage from one solution to another; his army associates were horrified, and to make matters worse, Szilard freely indulged in what he once identified as his favorite hobby—baiting brass hats. General Groves, in particular, had been outraged by Szilard’s unabashed view that army compartmentalization rules, which forbade discussion of lines of research that did not immediately impinge on each other, should be ignored in the interests of completing the bomb.1914

The issue for Szilard was openness within the project to facilitate its work. “There is no way of telling beforehand,” he wrote in a 1944 discussion of the problem, “what man is likely to discover and invent a new method which will make the old methods obsolete.”1915 The issue for Groves, to the contrary, was security.

At first Szilard bent the rules and Groves threatened him. In late October 1942, while Fermi moved toward building CP-1, Szilard apparently badgered the Du Pont engineers who arrived in Chicago to take over pile design. Arthur Compton saw this activity as obstructive but not necessarily subversive; on October 26 he wired Groves that he had given Szilard two days TO REMOVE BASE OF OPERATIONS TO NEW YORK. ACTION BASED ON EFFICIENT OPERATION OF ORGANIZATION NOT ON RELIABILITY. ANTICIPATE PROBABLE RESIGNATION.1916 Compton did not know his man. Szilard would not resign, for the simple reason that he believed he was needed to help beat Germany to the bomb. Compton proposed surveillance: SUGGEST ARMY FOLLOW HIS MOTIONS BUT NO DRASTIC ACTION NOW. Two days later Compton hurriedly wired Groves to desist: SZILARD SITUATION STABILIZED WITH HIM REMAINING CHICAGO OUT OF CONTACT WITH ENGINEERS. SUGGEST YOU NOT ACT WITHOUT FURTHER CONSULTATION CONANT AND MYSELF.1917

Groves had prepared drastic action indeed. On the stationery of the Office of the Chief of Engineers, over a signature block reserved for the Secretary of War, he had drafted a letter to the U.S. Attorney General calling Leo Szilard an “enemy alien” and proposing that he “be interned for the duration of the war.”1918 Compton’s telegram forestalled an ugly arrest and the letter was never signed or sent.1919

But the incident raised the issue of Szilard’s loyalty and prejudiced Groves implacably against him. Szilard responded forthrightly; he assembled a large collection of documents from the 1939–40 period demonstrating his part in carrying the news of fission to Franklin Roosevelt and, pointedly, his efforts to enforce voluntary secrecy among physicists in the United States, Britain and France. Compton, waffling, sent the documents to Groves in mid-November with an implicit endorsement of Szilard’s stand. The first Groves-Szilard confrontation thus ended in stalemate. Szilard saw how much raw power Groves commanded. Groves learned how deep were Szilard’s roots in the evolution of atomic energy research and perhaps also that men he considered vital to the project—Fermi, Teller, Wigner—were Szilard colleagues of long standing and would have to be taken into account.

As political dissidents have done in the Soviet Union, Szilard embarked next on a careful campaign to negotiate changes by insisting meticulously on the enforcement of his legal rights. His opening sally came December 4, two days after Fermi proved the chain reaction. In a quiet memorandum to Arthur Compton he noted that the official responsible for handling NDRC patents had requested patent applications “for inventions relating to the chain reaction.” That raised the question, Szilard wrote, of how to deal with inventions “made and disclosed before we had the benefit of the financial support of the government.”1920 He and Fermi would be glad to file a joint application, but only if they could be sure they retained their rights to their earlier separate inventions. The memorandum continues in this straightforward style until its final paragraph, which throws down the gauntlet:

My present request clearly represents a change of [my] attitude with respect to patents on the uranium work, and I would appreciate an opportunity to explain to you and also to the government agency which may be involved, my reasons for it.

Previously Szilard had believed he would have equal voice in fission development. Since he had now been compartmentalized, his freedom of speech restrained, his loyalty challenged, he was prepared to actuate the only leverage at hand, his legal right to his inventions.

Compton sent Szilard’s request to Lyman Briggs, whose responsibilities within the OSRD included patent matters; Briggs thought the Army ought to handle it.1921 Szilard waited until the end of December, heard nothing and advanced further into the field. In a second memorandum he told Compton he wanted to apply for a patent on “the basic inventions which underlie our work on the chain reaction on unseparated uranium . . . which were made before government support for this research was forthcoming.”1922 The patent could be registered in his name alone or jointly with Fermi; he would be willing “to assign this patent at this time to the government for such financial compensation as may be deemed fair and equitable.” The memorandum mentions no amount; according to Army security files Szilard asked for $750,000.1923 But the issue was not compensation; the issue was representation:

I wish to take this opportunity to mention that the question of patents was discussed by those who were concerned in 1939 and 1940. At that time it was proposed by the scientists that a government corporation should be formed which would look after the development of this field and . . . be the recipient of the patents. It was assumed that the scientists would have adequate representation within this government owned corporation. . . .

In the absence of such a government owned corporation in which the scientists can exert their influence on the use of funds, I do not now propose to assign to the government, without equitable compensation, patents covering the basic inventions.

Burdened by Manhattan Project security, with Du Pont taking over plutonium production and the Army moving hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of earth in unprecedented construction, Leo Szilard was advancing singlehandedly to attempt to extricate the process of decision from governmental restraints and to return it to the hands of the atomic scientists.

Compton understood the extent of the challenge. He sent Szilard’s two memoranda directly to Conant, whose office received them on January 11, 1943. “Szilard’s case is perhaps unique,” Compton wrote the NDRC chairman, “in that for a number of years the development of this project has continuously occupied his primary attention. . . . There is no doubt that he is among the few to whom the United States Government can look for establishing basic claims for invention. The matter is thus one of real importance to our Government.”1924

Before Washington could respond Szilard had to fight off a harassing attack from the flank. It strengthened his resolve. He discovered that a French patent filed originally by Frédéric Joliot’s group had been published in Australia and he and Fermi had missed the deadline for filing challenges. Some of their claims overlapped the French work. “This is, I am afraid, an irreparable loss,” he told Compton. He had now started writing down his own inventions, he said, and hoped to file a number of patents in the near future. Until he had done so he wanted to be removed from the payroll of the University of Chicago to avoid legal complications. In the meantime he would toil on once again as a free volunteer: “It would not be my intention to interrupt or slow down the work which I am doing in the laboratory at present.”1925

Conant bumped Compton’s letter up to Bush, who answered it personally and to the point with Yankee canniness. Inventions scientists made after joining the project belonged to the project, Bush told Compton; unless Szilard had disclosed his previous inventions to the University of Chicago at the time of his employment he had only a very short leg to stand on, if any at all. Genially the OSRD director outlined the proper legal procedure for secret patent filings and then kicked at the leg Szilard had left: “It is my understanding that none of this procedure has been gone through with in the case of Dr. Szilard.” Bush either did not understand or chose to misunderstand Szilard’s idea of an autonomous organization of scientists to guide nuclear energy development: “I gather that Dr. Szilard is particularly anxious that the proceeds arising from his early activity in invention in this field, if such eventuate, should in some way become available for the furtherance of scientific research.”1926 He thought that was admirable, but he also thought it had nothing to do with the government. Nor did he intend that it should.

By the time Bush’s letter reached Compton the Met Lab director had gone another round with Szilard. Szilard asked for a raise based upon the value to the project of his inventions. Compton took the position that Szilard had signed over all his rights to his inventions to the government for as long as he was in the government’s employ. Szilard would not sign a renewal contract under those terms. Trying to keep him aboard, Compton proposed raising his salary from $550 to $1,000 a month on the basis that the higher level was “comparable with the other original sponsors of this project, Messrs. Fermi and Wigner.”1927 That might have been acceptable to Szilard, since it tacitly acknowledged the special worth of the three physicists’ participation, including presumably their early inventions, but Compton had to clear it with Conant. Until the arrangement was cleared and a new contract signed Szilard would remain off the payroll.

Compton reported Bush’s response to Szilard in late March. There matters stood until early May, when Szilard with restrained exasperation proposed to proceed with filing patent applications. He asked that Groves designate someone to act as his legal adviser. The Army general supplied a Navy captain, Robert A. Lavender, who was attached to the OSRD in Washington, and Szilard met frequently with Lavender in the spring and early summer to discuss his claims.

Somewhere along the way Groves put Szilard under surveillance. The brigadier still harbored the incredible notion that Leo Szilard might be a German agent. The surveillance was already months old in mid-June when the MED’s security office suggested discontinuing it. Groves rejected the suggestion out of hand: “The investigation of Szilard should be continued despite the barrenness of the results. One letter or phone call once in three months would be sufficient for the passing of vital information and until we know for certain that he is 100% reliable we cannot entirely disregard this person.”1928 He apparently equated disagreement with disloyalty and scaled the ratio of the two conditions directly: anyone who caused him as much pain as Leo Szilard must be a spy. It followed that he ought to be watched.

The surveillance of an innocent but eccentric man makes gumshoe comedy. Szilard traveled to Washington on June 20, 1943, and in preparation for the visit an Army counterintelligence agent reviewed his file:

The surveillance reports indicate that Subject is of Jewish extraction, has a fondness for delicacies and frequently makes purchases in delicatessen stores, usually eats his breakfast in drug stores and other meals in restaurants, walks a great deal when he cannot secure a taxi, usually is shaved in a barber shop, speaks occasionally in a foreign tongue, and associates mostly with people of Jewish extraction.1929 He is inclined to be rather absent minded and eccentric, and will start out a door, turn around and come back, go out on the street without his coat or hat and frequently looks up and down the street as if he were watching for someone or did not know for sure where he wanted to go.

Armed with these profundities a Washington agent observed the Subject arriving at the Wardman Park Hotel at 2030 hours—8:30 P.M.—on June 20 and composed a contemporary portrait:

Age, 35 or 40 yrs; height, 5’6”; weight, 165 lbs; medium build; florid complexion; bushy brown hair combed straight back and inclined to be curly, slight limp in right leg causing droop in right shoulder and receding forehead. He was wearing brown suit, brown shoes, white shirt, red tie and no hat.1930

Szilard worked the next morning at the Carnegie Institution with Captain Lavender. Wigner arrived at the Wardman Park for an overnight stay (“Mr. Wigner is approximately 40 years of age, medium build, bald head, Jewish features and was conservatively dressed”) and the two Hungarians, both of them presumably with justice on their minds, went off for a tour of the Supreme Court (the cabbie “said that they did not talk in a foreign tongue and there was nothing in their conversation to attract his attention. . . .1931He said they more or less gave him the impression that they were ‘on a lark’ ” ). In the evening they sat “on a bench by the [hotel] tennis courts where both pulled off their coats, rolled up their sleeves and talked in a foreign language for some time.”

Wigner checked out early in the morning; Szilard took a cab to the Navy Building at 17th and Constitution Avenue, “entered the reception room . . . and told one of the ladies that he wished to see Commander Lewis Strauss about personal business. He stated that he had an appointment. . . . He also told the lady that he was a friend of Commander Strauss’ and was interested in getting into a branch of the Navy.” The Naval Research Laboratory had continued work on nuclear power for submarine propulsion independently of the Manhattan Project and that institution may have been the one Szilard had in mind. Or he may have been practicing misdirection. Strauss took him to lunch at the Metropolitan Club and apparently discouraged him from transferring; back at his hotel he wired Gertrud Weiss that he expected to arrive at the King’s Crown at 8:30 P.M. and left that afternoon for New York.

Since he worked for Vannevar Bush, Lavender was hardly a disinterested consultant; when he met again with Szilard on July 14 he informed the physicist that his documents “failed to disclose an operable pile,” meaning that in his opinion Szilard could not claim a patentable invention.1932 (Ten years after the end of the war Szilard and Fermi won a joint patent for their invention of the nuclear reactor.) Szilard realized then, if not before, that he needed private counsel and asked that an attorney who could act in his behalf be cleared.

The battle was almost decided. Szilard retreated to New York. He negotiated now not only with Lavender but with Army Lieutenant Colonel John Landsdale, Jr., Groves’ chief of security. In an October 9 letter to Szilard, Groves summed up the blunt exchange over which the three men bargained: “You were assured [by Lavender and Landsdale] that as soon as you were able to convey full rights [to any inventions made prior to government employment], negotiations would be entered into with a view to acquisition by the Government of any rights you may have and your reemployment on Government contracts. . . . I repeat this assurance.”1933 That is, Szilard could trade his patent rights, if any, for the privilege of working to beat the Germans to the bomb.

Groves and Szilard arranged a temporary truce—the general may have imagined it was a surrender—at a meeting in Chicago on December 3.1934 The Army agreed to pay Szilard $15,416.60 to reimburse him for the twenty months when he worked unpaid and out-of-pocket at Columbia and for lawyers’ fees.

The general had attempted several times to force Szilard to sign a document promising “not to give any information of any kind relating to the project to any unauthorized person.”1935 Szilard had consistently agreed verbally to that restriction and just as consistently refused as a matter of honor to sign. He meant to continue protesting and on January 14, 1944, he began again with a three-page letter to Vannevar Bush. He knew fifteen people, he told Bush, “who at one time or another felt so strongly about [compartmentalization] that they intended to reach the President.”1936 The central issue as always was freedom of scientific speech: “Decisions are often clearly recognized as mistakes at the time when they are made by those who are competent to judge, but . . . there is no mechanism by which their collective views would find expression or become a matter of record.”

In this letter for the first time Szilard emphasized a purpose to his urgency beyond beating the Germans to the bomb: that the bomb might be used and become grimly known.

If peace is organized before it has penetrated the public’s mind that the potentialities of atomic bombs are a reality, it will be impossible to have a peace that is based on reality. . . . Making some allowances for the further development of the atomic bomb in the next few years . . . this weapon will be so powerful that there can be no peace if it is simultaneously in the possession of any two powers unless these two powers are bound by an indissoluble political union . . . . It will hardly be possible to get political action along that line unless high efficiency atomic bombs have actually been used in this war and the fact of their destructive power has deeply penetrated the mind of the public.

Which was the explanation Szilard now gave for challenging the Army and Du Pont: “This for me personally is perhaps the main reason for being distressed by what I see happening around me.”

Bush insisted in return that all was well. “I feel that the record when this effort is over,” he wrote Szilard, “will show clearly that there has never at any time been any bar to the proper expression of opinion by scientists and professional men within their appropriate sphere of activity in this whole project.”1937 But he was willing to meet with Szilard if that was what the physicist wanted. In February, preparing for that meeting, Szilard drafted forty-two pages of notes. Much in those notes is specific and local; here and there basic issues are joined.

Since invention is unpredictable, Szilard writes, “the only thing we can do in order to play safe is to encourage sufficiently large groups of scientists to think along those lines and to give them all the basic facts which they need to be encouraged to such activity. This was not done in the past [in the Manhattan Project] and it is not being done at present.”1938 He tracked the consequences of the government’s policies of restriction:

The attitude taken toward foreign born scientists in the early stages of this work had far reaching consequences affecting the attitude of the American born scientists.1939 Once the general principle that authority and responsibility should be given to those who had the best knowledge and judgment is abandoned by discriminating against the foreign born scientists, it is not possible to uphold this principle with respect to American born scientists either. If authority is not given to the best men in the field there does not seem to be any compelling reason to give it to the second-best men and one may give it to the third- or fourth- or fifth-best men, whichever of them appears to be the most agreeable on purely subjective grounds.

Wigner’s early discouragement was an “incalculable loss,” Szilard thought; the fact that Fermi was excluded from centrifuge development work at Columbia “visibly affected” him “and he has from that time on shown a very marked attitude of being always ready to be of service rather than considering it his duty to take the initiative.”

Finally, Szilard judged the Met Lab moribund, its services rejected and its spirit broken, and pronounced its epitaph:

The scientists are annoyed, feel unhappy and incapable of living up to their responsibility which this unexpected turn in the development of physics has thrown into their lap. As a consequence of this, the morale has suffered to the point where it almost amounts to a loss of faith. The scientists shrug their shoulders and go through the motions of performing their duty. They no longer consider the overall success of this work as their responsibility. In the Chicago project the morale of the scientists could almost be plotted in a graph by counting the number of lights burning after dinner in the offices in Eckhart Hall. At present the lights are out.1940

But Leo Szilard at least was not yet done with protest.

*   *   *

Enrico Fermi took the initiative at least once during the war. Perhaps influenced by the enthusiasm he found at Los Alamos for weapons-making, he proposed at the time of the April 1943 conference—privately to Robert Oppenheimer, it appears—that radioactive fission products bred in a chain-reacting pile might be used to poison the German food supply.1941

The possibility of using radioactive material bred in a nuclear reactor as a weapon of war had been mentioned by Arthur Compton’s National Academy of Sciences committee in 1941. German development of such a weapon began worrying the scientists at the Met Lab late in 1942, on the assumption that Germany might be a year or more ahead of the United States in pile development.1942 If CP-1 went critical in December 1942, they argued, the Germans might have had time by then to run a pile long enough to create fiercely radioactive isotopes that could be mixed with dust or liquid to make radioactive (but not fissionable) bombs. Germany might then logically attempt preemptively to attack the Met Lab, if not American cities. German development of radioactive warfare, another vision in a dark mirror, seemed to the leaders of the Manhattan Project to require countering by examination into parallel U.S. development; the S-l Committee gave such assignment to a subcommittee consisting of James Bryant Conant as chairman and Arthur Compton and Harold Urey as members. That subcommittee went to work sometime before May 1943, probably before February.1943

Fermi would have known of the Met Lab discussions. His proposal to Oppenheimer at the April conference was different from those essentially defensive concerns, however, and clearly offensive in intent. He may well have been motivated in part by his scientific conservatism: may have asked himself what recourse was open to the United States if a fast-fission bomb proved impossible—it could not be demonstrated by experiment for at least two years—and have found the answer in the formidable neutron flux of CP-1 and its intended successors. Oppenheimer swore Fermi to intimate secrecy within the larger secrecy of the Manhattan Project; when the Italian laureate returned to Chicago he went quietly to work.

In May Oppenheimer traveled to Washington. Among other duties he reported Fermi’s ideas to Groves and learned of the Conant subcommittee. Back at Los Alamos on May 25 he wrote Fermi a warm letter reporting what he had found. He attributed the subcommittee assignment to a request from the Army Chief of Staff, George Marshall, although it seems far likelier that the study originated within the Manhattan Project. “I therefore, with Groves’ knowledge and approval, discussed with [Conant] the application [i.e., poisoning German food supplies] which seemed to us so promising.”1944

Oppenheimer had also discussed Fermi’s idea with Edward Teller. The isotope the men identified that “appears to offer the highest promise” was strontium, probably strontium 90, which the human body takes up in place of calcium and deposits dangerously and irretrievably in bone. Teller thought that separating the strontium from other pile products “is not a very major problem.” Oppenheimer wanted to delay the work until “the latest safe date,” he told Fermi further, so that they would have “a much better chance of keeping your plan quiet.” He did not even want to include Compton in any immediate discussion. Summarizing, he wrote in part:

I should recommend delay if that is possible. (In this connection I think that we should not attempt a plan unless we can poison food sufficient to kill a half a million men, since there is no doubt that the actual number affected will, because of non-uniform distribution, be much smaller than this.)

There is no better evidence anywhere in the record of the increasing bloody-mindedness of the Second World War than that Robert Oppenheimer, a man who professed at various times in his life to be dedicated to Ahimsa (“the Sanscrit word that means doing no harm or hurt,” he explains) could write with enthusiasm of preparations for the mass poisoning of as many as five hundred thousand human beings.1945

Mid-1943 was in any case a season of great apprehension among the atomic scientists, who saw Nazi Germany beginning to lose the war and sensed that country’s desperation. The Manhattan Project expected to produce atomic bombs by early 1945; if Germany had begun fission research in 1939 at similar scale it should have bombs nearly in hand. Hans Bethe and Edward Teller wrote Oppenheimer in a memorandum on August 21:

Recent reports both through the newspapers and through secret service, have given indications that the Germans may be in possession of a powerful new weapon which is expected to be ready between November and January.1946 There seems to be a considerable probability that this new weapon is tubealloy [i.e., uranium]. It is not necessary to describe the probable consequences which would result if this proves to be the case.

It is possible that the Germans will have, by the end of this year, enough material accumulated to make a large number of gadgets which they will release at the same time on England, Russia and this country. In this case there would be little hope for any counter-action. However, it is also possible that they will have a production, let us say, of two gadgets a month. This would place particularly Britain in an extremely serious position but there would be hope for counter-action from our side before the war is lost, provided our own tubealloy program is drastically accelerated in the next few weeks.

The memorandum goes on to criticize the handling of production “entirely by large companies”—the Hungarian threnody Szilard and Wigner also sounded—and to propose a crash program directed by Urey and Fermi to build heavy-water piles. Nothing seems to have come of the Bethe-Teller proposal—Hitler’s secret weapons proved to be the V-l and V-2 rockets then in development at Peenemünde, the first of which crossed the English coast on June 13, 1944—but it captures the mid-war mood.

Less worrisome was radioactive dusting. Conant’s subcommittee considered the possibilities and concluded that they were “rather remote.”1947 Conant emphasized that he thought it “extremely unlikely that a radioactive weapon will be used against the U.S. and unlikely the weapon will be used at all.” Groves eventually proposed to George Marshall that a handful of officers be trained in the use of Geiger counters and sent to England to observe. Preparing for the Normandy invasion, Marshall approved.

*   *   *

It was easier for Americans guarded by the wide moat of the Atlantic than for the British to dismiss the possibility of radioactive attack. Sir John Anderson, Chancellor of the Exchequer, a scientist and the member of Churchill’s cabinet responsible for the Tube Alloys program, discussed the question with Conant at lunch at the Cosmos Club in Washington in August 1943.1948 He was concerned particularly about German heavy-water production because British scientists believed they had found a way to separate light from heavy water at five times the efficiency of existing processes and feared their German counterparts might have made the same discovery. Heavy water would certainly work to moderate a chain-reacting pile. And such a machine might be used to breed radioactive isotopes for dusting London.

The British therefore kept closer watch on the High Concentration Plant at Vemork in Norway.1949 It had not been damaged beyond repair. To the contrary, intelligence sources reported that summer, it had begun production again in April; German scientists had shipped heavy water from laboratory stocks in Germany to refill the various cells and speed restoration of the cascade.

When Niels Bohr escaped from Stockholm to Scotland on October 6, 1943, he carried with him Werner Heisenberg’s drawing of an experimental heavy-water reactor. Bohr met more than once in London that autumn with Sir John Anderson; Anderson matched up Bohr’s information with the Conant subcommittee’s radioactive-warfare study and the Norwegian underground’s news of Vemork’s renewed production and concluded that the plant once again urgently required attack. The Nazis had significantly increased security at Vemork, which ruled out another commando raid. After British and American representatives discussed the problem in Washington George Marshall authorized precision bombing.

American Eighth Air Force B-17’s climbed northeast from British bases before dawn on the morning of November 16. To minimize Norwegian casualties the aircraft were scheduled to drop their bombs during the Norsk Hydro lunch period, between 11:30 A.M. and noon. No German fighters came up from the defensive airfields of western Norway to delay them and they elected to circle over the North Sea to kill time before penetrating the Scandinavian peninsula. That alerted German flak, which took a limited toll as the bombers crossed the coast. One hundred forty got through to Vemork and released more than seven hundred 500-pound bombs. None hit the aiming point but four destroyed the power station and two damaged the electrolysis unit that supplied hydrogen to the High Concentration Plant, effectively shutting it down.

Abraham Esau of the Reich Research Council decided then to rebuild in Germany. To expedite construction the council planned to dismantle the Vemork plant and remove it to the Reich. The Norwegian underground reported that decision to London. Anderson was less concerned with the plant itself—Germany had only limited hydroelectricity to divert to its operation—than with the heavy water preserved in its cascade. British intelligence asked the Norwegians to keep watch.

Word came by way of clandestine shortwave radio from the Rjukan area on February 9, 1944, that the heavy water would be transported under guard to Germany within a week or two—not enough warning to prepare and drop in a squad of saboteurs. Knut Haukelid, who had spent the past year living on the land and organizing future military operations, was the only trained commando in the area except for the radio operator. He would have to destroy the heavy water alone with whatever amateur help he could assemble.

Haukelid slipped into Rjukan at night and met secretly with the new chief engineer at Vemork, Alf Larsen. Larsen agreed to help and they discussed possible operations. The heavy water, of enrichments varying from 97.6 down to 1.1 percent, would be transferred to some thirty-nine drums labeled potash-lye.1950 “A one-man attack on Vemork,” writes Haukelid, “I considered out of the question. . . . The only practical possibility, therefore, was to try to carry out an attack on the transport in one way or another.”1951 He and Larsen, joined later by the Vemork transport engineer, considered the various stages of the journey. The drums of water would go by train from Rjukan to the head of Lake Tinnsjö. From there the cars would be run onto a rail ferry to travel the length of the lake, proceeding beyond Tinnsjö again by train to the port where they would be loaded aboard a ship bound for Germany. Blowing up the trains would be difficult and bloody, since they would be crowded with Norwegian passengers; Haukelid finally decided to attempt to sink the ferry, which also carried passengers, into the 1,300-foot lake. The transport engineer agreed to arrange to dispatch the heavy water on a Sunday morning, when the ferry was usually least crowded.

Sabotaging the boat would almost certainly mean the deaths of some of the shipment’s German guards, which would call down heavy reprisals in the Tinnsjö area against the Norwegian population. Haukelid radioed London for permission, emphasizing that his engineer compatriots had questioned if the results were worth the reprisals:

The fact that the Germans were using heavy water for atomic experiments, and that an atomic explosion might possibly be brought about, was a thing we now talked of openly. At Rjukan they doubted very much whether the Germans had come in sight of a solution. They also doubted whether an explosion of the kind could be brought about at all.1952

The British begged to differ:

The answer came from London the same day:1953

“Matter has been considered. It is thought very important that the heavy water shall be destroyed. Hope it can be done without too disastrous results. Send our best wishes for success in the work. Greetings.”

So Knut Haukelid laid his plans. He put on workman’s clothes, packed his Sten gun into a violin case, identified which ferry would make the run on Sunday, February 20, 1944, the appointed day, and rode it with one eye on his watch. The Hydro was flat and bargelike with twin smokestacks jutting up side by side through its boxy superstructure. It reached the deepest part of the lake about thirty minutes after sailing and took twenty minutes then to cross to shallower waters. “We had therefore a margin of twenty minutes in which the explosion must take place.”1954 For even such generous leeway Haukelid needed something better than a time fuse: he needed electric detonators and a clock. He visited a Rjukan hardware-store owner at night for the detonators but was suspiciously turned away. One of his local compatriots had better luck. A handyman retired from Norsk Hydro donated one alarm clock to the cause; Alf Larsen supplied a backup. Haukelid modified them so that their hammers struck not bells but contact plates, closing a battery-powered electrical circuit that could fire the detonators.

Months earlier the British had dropped supplies to the Norwegian commando that included sticks of plastic explosive. Haukelid strung the stubby sticks together to make a circumferential loop to cut a hole in the bottom of the ferry. “As the Tinnsjö is narrow, the ferry must sink in less than five minutes, or else it would be possible to beach her. I . . . spent many hours sitting and calculating how large the hole must be for the ferry to sink quickly enough.”1955 To test his timing mechanism he hooked up a few spare detonators at his cabin on the mountain above Rjukan after a long night’s work, set the alarm for evening and lay down to sleep. The detonators went off on schedule; he bolted bewildered from bed, grabbed the nearest gun and reflexively covered the door. “The timing apparatus seemed to be working properly.”1956

On Saturday Haukelid and a local compatriot, Rolf Sörlie, slipped into Rjukan. It was crowded with German soldiers and SS police. An hour before midnight “Rolf and I went over to the bridge which crossed the river Maan and had a look at our target.” The freight cars “had been run up under some lamps, and were guarded. . . . The train was to go at eight next morning, and the ferry was due to leave . . . at ten.”1957

From the bridge the two men slipped to a back street where they met their driver in a car Haukelid had arranged with its owner to steal in the name of the King and return on Sunday morning. The owner had modified the car to run on methane and they were a long hour starting it. They picked up Larsen, who was prepared to escape Norway to avoid arrest after the work was done. He brought a suitcase of valuables and had come directly from a dinner party where he had heard a visiting concert violinist mention plans to leave on the morning ferry and had tried unsuccessfully to convince the musician to stay in the area one more day to sample its excellent skiing. Another Rjukan man also joined them. They drove to the lake well past the middle of the night:

Armed with Sten guns, pistols and hand-grenades, we crept . . . down toward the ferry. The bitterly cold night set everything creaking and crackling; the ice on the road snapped sharply as we went over it. When we came out on the bridge by the ferry station, there was as much noise as if a whole company was on the march.1958

Rolf and the other Rjukan man were told to cover me while I went on board to reconnoitre. All was quiet there. Was it possible that the Germans had omitted to place a guard at the weakest point in the whole route to the transport?

Hearing voices in the crew’s quarters, forward, I stole to the companion[way] and listened. There must be a party going on down there, and a game of poker. The other two followed me on to the deck of the ferry. We went down to the third-class accommodation and found a hatchway leading to the bilges. But before we had got the hatch open we heard steps, and took cover behind the nearest table or chair. The ferry watchman was standing in the doorway.

Haukelid thought fast. “The situation was awkward, but not dangerous.” He told the watchman they were escaping the Gestapo and needed a place to hide:

The watchman immediately showed us the hatchway in the deck, and told us that they had several times had illicit things with them on their trips.

The Rjukan man now proved invaluable. He talked and talked with the watchman, while Rolf and I flung our sacks down under the deck and began to work.

It was an anxious job, and it took time.

Haukelid and Sörlie found themselves standing on the bottom plates of the boat in a foot of cold water. They had to tape the two alarm-clock timers to one of the steel stringers that braced the ferry’s hull, attach four electric detonators to the timers, attach high-speed fuses to the loop of plastic explosive, lay the charge of explosive on the bottom plates and then, most dangerously, hook up batteries to detonators and detonators to fuses.

“The charge was placed in the water and concealed. It consisted of nineteen pounds of high explosive laid in the form of a sausage. We laid it forward, so that the rudder and propeller would rise above the surface when water began to come in [to prevent navigating the boat to shallower water]. . . . When the charge exploded, it would blow about eleven square feet out of the ship’s side.”1959 The sausage was some twelve feet around.

Sörlie went up on deck. Haukelid set his alarms to go off at 10:45 A.M. “Making the last connection was a dangerous job; for an alarm clock is an uncertain instrument, and contact between the hammer and the alarm was avoided by not more than a third of an inch. Thus there was one third of an inch between us and disaster.”1960 Everything worked and he finished at 4 A.M.

The Rjukan man had convinced the watchman by then that the escapees he had sheltered needed to return to Rjukan to collect their possessions. Haukelid considered warning their benefactor but decided that might endanger the mission and only thanked him and shook his hand.

Ten minutes from the ferry station Haukelid and Larsen left the car to ski to Kongsberg, forty miles away around the lake, where they would catch a train for the first leg of their escape to Sweden. Sörlie carried a report for London to the clandestine radio. The driver returned the stolen car and he and the Rjukan man strolled home. At Haukelid’s suggestion the Norsk Hydro transport engineer had arranged a foolproof alibi: over the weekend doctors at the local hospital operated on him for appendicitis, no questions asked.

With fifty-three people aboard including the concert violinist the Hydro sailed on time. Forty-five minutes into the crossing Haukelid’s charge of plastic explosive blew the hull. The captain felt the explosion rather than heard it, and though Tinnsjö is landlocked he thought they might have been torpedoed. The bow swamped first as Haukelid had intended; while the passengers and crew struggled to release the lifeboats, the freight cars with their thirty-nine drums of heavy water—162 gallons mixed with 800 gallons of dross—broke loose, rolled overboard and sank like stones. Of passengers and crew twenty-six drowned. The concert violinist slipped high and dry into a lifeboat; when his violin case floated by, someone was kind enough to fish it out for him.

Kurt Diebner of German Army Ordnance counted the full effect on German fission research of the Vemork bombing and the sinking of the Hydro in a postwar interview:

When one considers that right up to the end of the war, in 1945, there was virtually no increase in our heavy-water stocks in Germany . . . it will be seen that it was the elimination of German heavy-water production in Norway that was the main factor in our failure to achieve a self-sustaining atomic reactor before the war ended.1961

The race to the bomb, such as it was, ended for Germany on a mountain lake in Norway on a cold Sunday morning in February 1944.

*   *   *

Despite Pearl Harbor and the subsequent Japanese sweep across a million square miles of Southeast Asia and the western Pacific, the Pacific theater commanded less attention in the United States in the earlier years of the war than did the European. Partly that neglect was a result of the deliberate national policy that gave priority to Europe. “Europe was Washington’s darling,” Pacific Fleet Admiral William F. Halsey would write in a memoir, “the South Pacific was only a stepchild.”1962 But Americans also found it difficult at first to take seriously an Asian island people who were small in stature and radically different in culture. Reporting from the Solomon Islands east of New Guinea late in 1942, Time-Life correspondent John Hersey found the typical U.S. marine “very uneasy about what he feels is Washington’s ignorance of the Pacific. Sure, he argues, Hitler has to be beaten, but that doesn’t mean we have to go on thinking of the Japs as funny little ring-tailed monkeys.”1963 The U.S. Ambassador to Japan at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Boston-born Joseph C. Grew, confronted a similar skepticism when he returned from Japanese internment and battled it by traveling the nation lecturing:

The other day a friend, an intelligent American, said to me: “Of course there must be ups and downs in this war; we can’t expect victories every day, but it’s merely a question of time before Hitler will go down to defeat before the steadily growing power of the combined air and naval and military forces of the [Allies]—and then, we’ll mop up the Japs.” Mark well those words, please. “And then we’ll mop up the Japs.”1964

Grew thought such bravado ill-advised. “The Japanese have known what we thought of them,” he told his audiences—“that they were little fellows physically, that they were imitative, that they were not really very important in the world of men and nations.”1965To the contrary, said Grew, they were “united,” “frugal,” “fanatical” and “totalitarian”:1966

At this very moment, the Japanese feel themselves, man for man, superior to you and to me and to any of our peoples. They admire our technology, they may have a lurking dread of our ultimate superiority of resources, but all too many of them have contempt for us as human beings. . . . The Japanese leaders do think that they can and will win. They are counting on our underestimates, on our apparent disunity before—and even during—war, on our unwillingness to sacrifice, to endure, and to fight.1967

So far Grew’s lecture might have been merely exhortation. But he went on to emphasize a phenomenon that Americans fighting in the Pacific were just then beginning to encounter. “’Victory or death’ is no mere slogan for these soldiers,” Grew noted. “It is plain, matter-of-fact description of the military policy that controls their forces, from the highest generals to the newest recruits. The man who allows himself to be captured has disgraced himself and his country.”1968

Which was exactly what Marine Major General Alexander A. Vandegrift was finding at the time, late 1942, in the Solomons at Guadalcanal. “General,” he wrote the Marine Commandant in Washington, “I have never heard or read of this kind of fighting. These people refuse to surrender. The wounded will wait until men come up to examine them . . . and blow themselves and the other fellow to death with a hand grenade.”1969

It was frightening. It required a corresponding escalation of violence to combat. John Hersey felt the need to explain:

A legend has grown up that this young man [i.e., the U.S. marine] is a killer; he takes no prisoners, and gives no quarter. This is partly true, but the reason is not brutality, not just vindictive remembrance of Pearl Harbor. He kills because in the jungle he must, or be killed. This enemy stalks him, and he stalks the enemy as if each were a hunter tracking a bear cat. Quite frequently you hear marines say: “I wish we were fighting against Germans. They are human beings, like us. Fighting against them must be like an athletic performance—matching your skill against someone you know is good. Germans are misled, but at least they react like men. But the Japs are like animals. Against them you have to learn a whole new set of physical reactions. You have to get used to their animal stubbornness and tenacity. They take to the jungle as if they had been bred there, and like some beasts you never see them until they are dead.”1970

As an explanation for unfamiliar behavior, bestiality had the advantage that it made killing a formidable enemy easier emotionally. But it also, by dehumanizing him, made him seem yet more alien and dangerous. So did the other common attribution that evolved during the war to explain Japanese 'font-size:10.0pt;font-family:"MinionPro",serif; color:blue'>1971 The historian William Manchester, a marine at Guadalcanal, argues more objectively from a longer perspective postwar:

At the time it was impolitic to pay the slightest tribute to the enemy, and Nip determination, their refusal to say die, was commonly attributed to “fanaticism.” In retrospect it is indistinguishable from heroism. To call it anything less cheapens the victory, for American valor was necessary to defeat it.1972

Whether bestiality, fanaticism, or heroism, the refusal of Japanese soldiers to surrender required new tactics and strong stomachs to defeat. In his best-selling 1943 book Guadalcanal Diary war correspondent Richard Tregaskis reported those tactics from the first land battles of the Pacific war at Guadalcanal:

The general summarized the fighting. . . . The toughest job, he said, had been to clean out scores of dugout caves filled with Japs. Each cave, he said, had been a fortress in itself, filled with Japs who were determined to resist until they were all killed. The only effective way to finish off these caves, he said, had been to take a charge of dynamite and thrust it down the narrow cave entrance. After that had been done, and the cave blasted, you could go in with a submachine gun and finish off the remaining Japs. . . .

“You’ve never seen such caves and dungeons,” said the general. “There would be thirty or forty Japs in them. And they absolutely refused to come out, except in one or two isolated cases.”1973

The statistics of the Solomons campaign told the same story: of 250 Japanese manning the garrison on Guadalcanal when the marines first landed only three allowed themselves to be taken prisoner; more than 30,000 Japanese shipped in to fight died before the island was secure, compared to 4, 123 Americans. Similar patterns obtained elsewhere. The proportion of captured to dead Japanese in the North Burma campaign was 142 to 17, 166, about 1:120 when a truism among Western nations is that the loss of one-fourth to one-third of an army—4:1—usually bodes surrender. Paralleling Japanese resistance, Allied losses grew.

As the slow, bloody push up the Pacific toward the Japanese home islands gained momentum through 1943, the question the behavior of Japanese soldiers raised was whether such standards applied not only to the military but to the civilians of Japan as well. Grew had sought to answer that question in his lectures the year before:

I know Japan; I lived there for ten years. I know the Japanese intimately. The Japanese will not crack. They will not crack morally or psychologically or economically, even when eventual defeat stares them in the face. They will pull in their belts another notch, reduce their rations from a bowl to a half bowl of rice, and fight to the bitter end. Only by utter physical destruction or utter exhaustion of their men and materials can they be defeated. That is the difference between the Germans and the Japanese. That is what we are up against in fighting Japan.1974

In the meantime the United States manufactured flamethrowers to burn Japanese soldiers from their caves. A seasoned journalist who had traveled in Japan before the war, Henry C. Wolfe, called in Harper’s for the firebombing of Japan’s “inflammable,” “matchbox” cities. “It seems brutal to be talking about burning homes,” Wolfe explained. “But we are engaged in a life-and-death struggle for national survival, and we are therefore justified in taking any action that will save the lives of American soldiers and sailors. We must strike hard with everything we have at the spot where it will do the most damage to the enemy.”1975

The month Wolfe’s call to aerial battle appeared in Harper’s—January 1943—Franklin Roosevelt met with Winston Churchill at Casablanca. In the course of the meeting the two leaders discussed what terms of surrender they would eventually insist upon; the word “unconditional” was discussed but not included in the official joint statement to be read at the final press conference. Then, on January 24, to Churchill’s surprise, Roosevelt inserted the word ad lib: “Peace can come to the world,” the President read out to the assembled journalists and newsreel cameras, “only by the total elimination of German and Japanese war power. . . . The elimination of German, Japanese and Italian war power means the unconditional surrender of Germany, Italy, and Japan.”1976 Roosevelt later told Harry Hopkins that the surprising and fateful insertion was a consequence of the confusion attending his effort to convince French General Henri Girard to sit down with Free French leader Charles de Gaulle:

We had so much trouble getting those two French generals together that I thought to myself that this was as difficult as arranging the meeting of Grant and Lee—and then suddenly the Press Conference was on, and Winston and I had had no time to prepare for it, and the thought popped into my mind that they had called Grant “Old Unconditional Surrender,” and the next thing I knew I had said it.1977

Churchill immediately concurred—“Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort”—and unconditional surrender became official Allied policy.

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