altEarly Tales of the Atomic Age by Daniel Lang (Doubleday, 1948)

My father was employed by General Electric his entire career, but much of his work was actually done for the federal government. As a child, I was never very curious about what he did when he "went to work," which was a good thing, since he usually couldn't talk about it. Much later, I picked up glimpses, as when we were visiting the Franklin Institute Museum in Philadelphia, and he casually pointed to a (formerly) top-secret military jet in the Aviation exhibit, saying "I helped build that plane." And when he revealed that the maps and information that "The Customer" had provided for my sixth-grade project on Ethiopia actually came from the CIA.

In his early years, he worked on the Manhattan Project, hence the number of books in his library (now mine) on Hiroshima and what was called the Atomic Age. This one is fascinating on several levels.

First, and this is of no little importance, Daniel Lang writes very well. I no longer take that for granted. He could make any subject sound interesting.

Second, it provides perspective on our own time. Here is a well-known, respected, seasoned writer for the New Yorker magazine, in an age generally considered much more concerned with civility and politeness than our own, casually using phrases like "the Japs" to refer to our then-enemy, "girls" when talking about female employees, and "the lady of the house has no servant problem, because Spanish maids from Santa Fe and Indian maids from the pueblos in the Pojuaque Valley are both available and efficient," when speaking about life in Los Alamos.

Most of all, the subject itself is fascinating. The world stood at the very beginning of a new era, and no one was quite sure what to do with the genie we had let out of the bottle. What surprised me the most was the naïveté, driven by fear, with which otherwise highly intelligent and experienced people, not to mention the general public, embraced the idea of putting one, internationally-controlled organization in complete charge of everything pertaining to nuclear materials, from mining and storage to what research might be done and who would be permitted to do it to who would control any bombs that were made. The United Nations had just been born, in much hope, and people had an almost worshipful attitude toward scientists, who had done this wonderful and terrible deed. An elite collection of right-thinking people could and should rule the world!

The broad fear ... was that by recommending an international monopoly they might be helping to create a Frankensteinian bureaucracy which, once it got going, would threaten this nation's civil liberties as well as its economic system. "But the stakes ... were too high for those men not to overcome the fear eventually. They knew that we would have to pay a price for security."

Although during this time the United States was the only country with nuclear technology, no one expected the monopoly to continue for long. The hope was that international control would keep the world's stock of nuclear weapons down to one or two for research purposes, too few for any country to start anything other than a conventional war. They could never have imagined that the Cold War would stay nuclear-free not because there were too few atom bombs, but because there were too many!

What I liked best about Early Tales of the Atomic Age were the stories of the people at all levels of the Manhattan Project (called "Manhattan District," the Army's term, throughout the book), especially when they coincide with what little I remember of my father's business (mostly trips to exotic places like New Mexico), or with what I've read in Richard Feynman's books.

Herewith a few tidbits:

One of the special headaches for the C.I.C. [Counter-Intelligence Corps] was handling the top scientists. Most of the people the Army was trying to keep quiet didn't actually know what the District wanted to produce. The scientists, however, knew more about it than the Army did. An inadvertent tidbit from one of them to an enemy agent, or even to a patriotic gossip, about the state of our plutonium research or some new idea that had been figured out for our electromagnetic separation process might bolix the works. Nor could the Army afford to fire its civilian geniuses for talking loosely. The nuclear boys wanted very much to co-operate, but, owing to a set of apparently ineradicable habits and eccentricities, they failed valiantly on occasion. "Free interchange of information" had been a lifelong practice with them. They were itching to discuss their work.

Also, they didn't take care of themselves, which disturbed the Army, since it was vital that the scientists stay alive at least until the first bomb was dropped. "Some of the world's lousiest auto drivesrs developed the bomb," a lieutenant told me. He added that they didn't walk so well either. ... Dr. Bohr was quite a jaywalker.... They used to say down in General Groves' office, in Washington, that they could always tell when he was coming to call by the sound of screeching brakes. Bohr was a problem from the beginning. When the British smuggled him out of Sweden in the bomb bay of a Liberator, they had to fly very high on the way to England to avoid being intercepted by the Luftwaffe. The crew put on oxygen masks and tried to put one on Bohr, too. The scientist's head, however, proved to be so massive that it wouldn't go on. The plane landed with its precious passenger out cold.

Why he couldn't have held the mask up to his face, since he didn't need his hands to fly the plane, the author does not explain.

A single shelf holds the library [of the newly-formed Federation of American Scientists], which consists of three books—the "Congressional Directory," "American Men of Science," and a copy of the Smyth Report.

The Smyth Report, a.k.a. Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, is also in my father's library and on my list of books to read. What is notable about the above quote is that Lang apparently thought it needed no explanation to his reading public. Similarly, although he clarifies place names like Los Alamos and Oak Ridge in detail, when he mentions Schenectady, he doesn't even add "New York," as if the home of the General Electric Company should be familiar to every American citizen. (It is to me, but I grew up there.)

U-235 becomes so radioactive if more than a certain amount of it—the critical size—accumulates in one pile that it can kill people in the vicinity and that it also soon becomes useless. Yet there was a time when only a few men working on the project, at Los Alamos and the University of Chicago, knew what that critical size was. Meanwhile, Oak Ridge was producing and storing the stuff. A Los Alamos scientist, visiting Oak Ridge on some unrelated errand, inadvertently discovered that the whole installation was heading for trouble. Possibly violating Army rules, he let his colleagues in on the secret.

That story is told, from the other side, in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Writing in 1985, Feynman still refers to women as "girls.")

These scientists had worked for the Manhattan District on various phases of nuclear research, and the Army, temporarily abandoning its policy of "compartmentalization of information," had recently brought them together to pool their knowledge in an effort to determine whether control of atomic energy could be achieved solely by inspecting plants engaged in developing it.

At that time, this method of control was widely regarded as a likely way out. ... The consultants had a variety of reasons for being skeptical about the effectiveness of plant inspection. To begin with, many of the steps involved in developing atomic energy for peaceful purposes are the same as those required to make atomic explosives. ... [A]lthough an international group of inspectors might systematically check on a nation's atomic plants, the possibility of quickly converting those plants to the production of bombs would remain. ... Inspectors working in countries in which they were strangers might easily be given the run-around. ... Moreover, some inspectors might not be particularly interested in doing a good job and might feel not the least insulted if they were offered bribes....

Oops. Tell me again about that treaty we negotiated with Iran?

I knew that at the end World War II the United States had acquired many high-level German scientists, but I hadn't realized that we also plundered a large collection of V-2 rockets. These were employed for many research projects, military and civilian, after the war.  I'm certain that this was part of my father's work.

Besides the research, a program of educating personnel in the mechanics and principles of guided missiles is under way. ... The make-up of the student body is international. In addition to Americans, the class includes officers from Canada, Britain, Turkey, Chile, Denmark, France, India, Ecuador, Argentina, the Philippines, China, Mexico, Iran, and Guatemala—all countries, it would appear, that are at the moment considered to be among our likely allies.

Oops again. Emphasis on at the moment.

[Many fears, mostly irrational] manifested themselves during the spring of 1947, when there was nothing radioactive anywhere on the [Brookhaven National Laboratory] site [said director Philip Morse]. Then he corrected himself. "I beg your pardon. In May, one of our physicists did send away to the Kix Cereal Company for an Atom Bomb Ring. They give it to children who save Kix box tops. It has just enough radioactivity in it to keep making little sparks. Rather cute."

Note that both the director and the author were concerned about the public's irrational fears of atomic research, not that an American cereal company was sending a radioactive product to children.

Like most men of research, Dr. Green was reluctant to discuss the possible applications of the White Sands data. Military uses, as I expected, were absolutely secret.... Dr. Green did, however, speculate on one general possibility from which a number of other possibilities could flow. This was the idea of an orbital satellite—a missile that would revolve indefinitely around the earth.... At the height of a hundred miles, the G.E. expert remarked, the satellite would circle the world in one hour and thirty-three minutes. He felt reasonably sure that such a satellite could become a reality in perhaps ten years if this country cared to spend the great sums necessary for its manufacture and maintenance. ... Equipped with the right instruments ... a satellite of this sort would undoubtedly improve weather forecasting. ... A satellite ... could serve as a repeater, or relay, station for transmitting programs or messages. ... Dr. Green abruptly ended his speculations. "Pretty soon I'll start talking about trips to the moon," he said, "and you won't believe anything I tell you."

Posted by sursumcorda on Wednesday, November 2, 2016 at 10:02 am | Edit
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Interesting to see things from the opposite side.
My senior year term paper for English class was on the effects of the atomic bomb strike on Hiroshima. :D

Posted by Diane Villafane on Wednesday, November 02, 2016 at 10:49 am

Diana, you might be interested in the first two reviews of this series:
Hiroshima Diary: The Journal of a Japanese Physician, August 6 - September 30, 1945 and Hiroshima: The Unforgettable Account of the Event that Opened the Atomic Age.

Posted by SursumCorda on Sunday, May 05, 2019 at 11:27 pm
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