A Half-Century of Atomic Secrecy

July 16, 1995|By CHRIS KRIDLER

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An inadvertent tip

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

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

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

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

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