The atom bomb changed warfare. For the United States, atomic espionage changed peacetime as well. Nothing since has been the same.
Prometheus-like, man stole fire from the gods. Maurice M. Shapiro, now chief scientist emeritus of the Laboratory for Cosmic Physics at the Naval Research Station, in Washington, recalled the scene in the New Mexico desert:
Next came "an oppressive sense of foreboding." J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled a line from Hindu scripture:
The scientists at the site knew that if the test worked it would end the War, as it did within a month, and forever change the nature of warfare. It was the culmination of four years of secret work. Before the next year was out, we would learn that Communist spies had stolen the secret. Our punishment would now begin.
This was a complex fate. But then, so was that of Prometheus. For his audacity he was chained to a mountain where daily his liver (which grew again at night) was consumed by an eagle. He was freed at length by Heracles. So, at length, might the United States be freed from the long torment of secrecy that followed if we will but think more clearly about its uses and its limits.
These were both on display on those hilltops in New Mexico at the moment of the Trinity test. The scientists present had submitted to an unfamiliar and altogether uncongenial secrecy, because they knew what was at stake. Hans Bethe of Germany, Enrico Fermi of Italy, and James Chadwick of Britain would have especially known what was at stake. There was no real scientific secret to atomic fission; German scientists knew it. There are no secrets in science. Oppenheimer and his associates had "simply" figured out the techniques and found the resources to build a bomb before our enemies did. Shapiro recorded the openness of scientific discourse even at that moment of profound concealment:
But this would come; it had to come. Thanks to successful espionage, the Russians tested their first atom bomb in August 1949, just four years after the first American test. As will be discussed, we had learned of the Los Alamos spies in December 1946--December 20, to be precise. The U.S. Army Security Agency, in the person of Meredith Knox Gardner, a genius in his own right, had broken one of what it termed the VENONA messages--the transmissions that Soviet agents in the United States sent to and received from Moscow.
The Soviets had the names of the principal scientists working at Los Alamos. This could only mean they were after the secrets of the bomb. It would be some time before we knew they had gotten them, but alarms now rang throughout the American Government. (American scientists knew that in any event the Soviets would have this capability in time.)
The United States Government set out to forestall a nuclear arms race. President Harry S Truman proposed to the United Nations a plan to control atomic weapons, known as the "Baruch Plan" for his representative, Bernard M. Baruch. This was blocked by the Soviet Union, whose leader Joseph Stalin was determined to have his own bomb. The first Soviet A-bomb test took place in August, 1949. It was a near-exact copy of "Fat Man," the American weapon that destroyed Nagasaki in August 1945.
Now the stakes were raised. This sequence was described in a lecture by Hans Bethe, "My Road From Los Alamos," given at the University of Maryland on December 8, 1994. For a period it was not clear whether a fusion weapon was technically possible. The mathematician Stanislaw Ulam and the physicist Edward Teller demonstrated that it was. Dr. Bethe's lecture describes what followed with the succinctness of the historical moment:
I have listed here the tests of the hydrogen bomb, beginning in 1952, which were made.
First the U.S. tested a device which could not have been delivered in a war, which consisted of liquid deuterium. And it worked. It worked, in fact, impressively, giving a yield of some 10 megatons.
This was followed in August '53 by a Soviet test which Sakharov called the "layer cake," alternate layers of uranium and liquid deuterium to provide the nuclear fuel which is necessary for a fusion reaction. This would have been deliverable, its yield of energy of four-tenths of a megaton.
In '54 the United States made tests in the Pacific where they tested various variations, all with liquid deuterium, and developed some three or four different hydrogen bombs, each giving about 10 megatons.
And finally in November '55, there was an additional Soviet test. Sakharov had, in the meantime, hit upon the idea of Ulam and Teller, and produced a device just like ours. They deliberately reduced the yield of it so they could deliver this bomb from a plane to the . . . test ground and the plane could get away. This could have been three megatons.
As Bethe's remarks make clear, the Soviets did not steal the "Teller-Ulam method." Their own scientists discovered it, as scientists will do once certain principles are abroad. But the hydrogen bomb began, obviously, as a weapon, and as a weapon, for the most obvious reasons, its details were kept as secret as possible.
With, however, an all-important difference. There was no way to keep the whole world from knowing about the secret, for the simple reason that the bombs had to be tested. The weapon was new, and there was much to be learned about it, and the only way to do so was to set one off. Thus began a series of "tests" by assorted nuclear powers which continue almost to this day. But none since has quite seized the world's imagination as did the underwater explosion in 1946 on Bikini, a small coral atoll in the Marshall Islands, designed to test the effect of the atom bomb on naval armament and equipment and on certain forms of animal life. The photographs were unforgettable. One caption reads: "An Awe-Inspiring Mushroom Cloud rises above Bikini atoll in an underwater atomic bomb test. The mighty column of water dwarfs huge battleships." One ship captain, apprised of radioactive fallout, ordered the decks swabbed. Captain Cook might have done as much; such was the suddenness with which this new age came upon us. The Bikini tests were followed in 1948 with the tests of three weapons at Eniwetok atoll, two hundred miles west in what was now termed the Pacific Proving Grounds.
The tension between great publicity and even greater secrecy finally led Life magazine to "tell all." In lengthy articles, "The Atom" in May 1949, and "The Atomic Bomb" in February 1950, the fundamentals of the science and the particulars of the weapon were set forth in layman's language. Americans were not yet used to this much secrecy. Secrecy, that is, which they knew about. The editors of Life were clearly upset by the imbalance of what they termed "Necessary security and unnecessary secrecy. . . ." They were, even so, scrupulous. A preface to the article on "The Atomic Bomb" declares: "This article reveals no secrets. It is based on published, unclassified material that can be found by anyone, including the Russians, in public libraries." The text of the article invokes a number of the nation's most respected journalists and commentators to the effect that secrecy was getting out of hand:
This growing disparity between required security and officially imposed secrecy has recently come in for sharp criticism by many of the country's best-informed observers. Joseph and Stewart Alsop, writing about the world strategic situation and the H-bomb, say, "what the President has said [about the bomb] is not one third, or one tenth, of what it is his bounden duty to say." Hanson Baldwin, in the New York Times, writes: "facts are the foundation of democracy--and facts we do not have." Physicist J.R. Oppenheimer, in a recent television interview, pointed out that wisdom and truth cannot flourish without the give-and-take of debate and criticism, and added that "the facts [about atomic energy] are of little use to an enemy, yet they are fundamental to an understanding of the issue of policy."
The extent of public information about atomic weapons must of course be limited. It cannot and should not include a knowledge of facts that could conceivably be of use to an enemy. It should, but--for reasons of specious security--does not at present include all the facts that are useless to an enemy or known to him.
The article ended with a plea not usual for editors at Time-Life:
There is no possible justification for this kind of overextended secrecy. Enlightened members of the federal government know this, and they have fought its growth. Two years ago David Lilienthal, then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, warned the American people of the harmful effects that such phony security might have: "There is a growing tendency in some quarters to act as if atomic energy were none of the people's business. . . . In my opinion this is plain nonsense, and dangerous nonsense--dangerous to cherished American institutions and for that reason dangerous to genuine national security. . . . If schemers or fools or rascals or hysterical stuffed shirts get this thing out of [the people's] hands, it may then be too late to find out what it is all about."
The restriction of public knowledge Lilienthal feared is being brought about. So stifling are the effects of all-encompassing security that conscientious publications are unwilling to take the responsibility for presenting conclusions which they themselves could draw from the available, nonsecret literature. The government can and should take that responsibility--now, before it is too late.
But it was too late. For a complex of reasons. The most important being that the United States now had reason to fear for its security. Pearl Harbor had seemed devastating, but it represented an external threat which soon passed. Now there appeared an internal threat in the form of American Communists serving as agents of the Soviet Union.
Fear of radical revolutionists had gotten out of hand in 1919-20. There was a good deal of disorder and no small amount of government misconduct. Let us say in extenuation that a world war, followed by what for awhile seemed the onset of world revolution, required a fair amount of adjusting. A measure of balance returned, in part, surely owing to the "isolationist" bent that appeared in national politics in reaction to Wilsonian activism. Just as importantly, the legal profession began to brush up on the Bill of Rights. On May 28, 1920, twelve of the nation's most respected lawyers and legal scholars, including Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound, Harvard law professors Felix Frankfurter and Zechariah Chafee, Jr., and Francis Fisher Kane, former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania (who had resigned on January 12, 1920 to protest the January 2 "Palmer Raids"), issued a 67-page booklet entitled Report upon the Illegal Practices of the United States Department of Justice. The booklet, which has been termed "the most authoritative denunciation of the anti-Red activities of the Justice Department yet made," documented abuses of the Constitution, in particular the Fourth, Fifth and Eighth Amendments, that had been taking place at the behest of the Justice Department.98
Nothing like the Palmer Raids of 1919 and 1920 would happen again in the United States. The Sacco-Vanzetti trial, again involving anarchists, would take place in 1921, but it was a trial, not a raid. Following the Second World War, we would go through much torment over Communism and Communist subversion. There was a good deal of public alarm, and a good deal of histrionics, but there were few of the excesses of this earlier period. No president since has sent a rival candi-date to prison.
On the other hand, there was to be no return to normalcy.
In 1943, the Army Signal Intelligence Service (later the Army Security Agency) began intercepting Soviet intelligence traffic sent mainly from New York City--assigning the code name VENONA to the project. By 1945, some 200,000 messages had been transcribed, a measure of Soviet activity. As recorded earlier, on December 20, 1946, Meredith Gardner made the first break into the VENONA code, revealing the existence of Soviet espionage at Los Alamos. Steadily, the facts accumulated and identities could be established. In January 1949, the British Government was informed that the VENONA intercepts showed that atomic secrets were being passed to the Soviets from the British Embassy in Washington in 1944 and 1945 by an agent code-named HOMER, later identified as Donald MacLean. In the summer of 1948, Army Security Agency cipher clerk William Weisband passed on information about the VENONA project to the Soviets. This was discovered in 1950. (Weisband also served as a Russian translator, and therefore was working closely with those attempting to decrypt the intercepts.)
Now we entered a period of rising tension. Trials arising from charges of espionage, notably those of Alger Hiss for perjury, were taking place in rapid succession. In Great Britain Klaus Fuchs confessed in January 1950 that he had been a Soviet agent at Los Alamos. On February 9, 1950, in a speech at Wheeling, West Virginia, Senator Joseph McCarthy announced he was in possession of a list of 205 Communists serving in the Department of State. In time, he would accuse George C. Marshall of treason, as described below. In June 1950, the FBI identified Julius Rosenberg as the agent coded named "ANTENNA/LIBERAL" in the VENONA decrypts. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg and Morton Sobell were later tried and convicted, on March 29, 1951, of conspiracy to commit espionage by transmitting atomic secrets to the Soviets. In May 1951, Donald MacLean, along with Guy Burgess, defected to Moscow.
But for every accusation there was a denial. For as many who were willing to believe Whittaker Chambers, there appeared to be a corresponding number convinced of Hiss's innocence. For all who could agree there were Communists in government, there were as many who saw the Government as contriving fantastic accusations against innocent persons.
A balanced history of this period is now beginning to appear; the VENONA messages will surely supply a great cache of facts to bring the matter to some closure. But at the time, the American Government, much less the American public, was confronted with possibilities and charges, at once baffling and terrifying.
The first fact is that a significant Communist conspiracy was in place in Washington, New York, and Los Angeles, but in the main those involved systematically denied their involvement. This was the mode of Communist conspiracy the world over. George Kennan would write in his memoirs:
The second fact is that many of those who came to prominence denouncing Communist conspiracy, accusing suspected Communists and "comsymps," clearly knew little or nothing of such matters. And in many instances, just as clearly were not in the least concerned. Hence, the character of the accusers lent credibility to the accused!
There was a political subtext to much of the debate, which only muddled matters more. Often those who were telling the truth about Soviet espionage were discredited or discounted as readily as those who knew little or nothing, but who would accuse others of anything. The ridicule could be devastating, as with the ditty, "Who's going to investigate the man who investigates the man who investigates me?" A fault line appeared in American society that contributed to more than one political crisis in the years that followed, long after President Dwight D. Eisenhower, much in the manner of President Harding, calmed things down.
A compelling question is why the United States Government never let the American public know what it knew. By 1950, at least some in the Government were aware that our VENONA "secret" had been compromised. The Soviets knew that we knew, or could surmise. It was the American public that did not know. (It was not until 1986 that the existence of the VENONA project first was made public in a book by the FBI's liaison to the project, Robert Lamphere,99 and only just now that substantive information is being released.)
It is not even clear how widely the VENONA revelations were shared within the United States Government. Thus, a Soviet cable of March 30, 1945 identified an agent, code-name ALES, as having attended the Yalta Conference of February 1945. He had then journeyed to Moscow where, according to the cable, he and his colleagues were "awarded Soviet decorations." This could only be Alger Hiss, Deputy Director of the State Department's Office of Special Political Affairs; the other three State Department officials in the delegation from Yalta to Moscow are beyond suspicion.100 The party was met by Andrei Vyshinsky, the prosecutor in the Moscow trials of 1936-38. By no later than June 1950, the U.S. Army was persuaded that ALES was Hiss.
But . . . did the State Department know of this VENONA message? Did the White House? As noted in Chapter 1, apparently not. What seems increasingly clear is that the entire VENONA project was kept secret from Harry S Truman and his Attorney General, Tom Clark.101
Not the least astounding revelations of the VENONA intercepts is that a fair number of Americans who almost certainly were atomic spies were never prosecuted. To do so the Government would have had to reveal what it knew. Secrets are not readily shared. For that matter, Weisband, who passed on to the Soviets that we were breaking their code, was never prosecuted for this crime.
96 Maurice M. Shapiro, "Echoes of the Big Bang," New York Times, 15 July 1995, 21.
97 Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986), 676.
98 Robert K. Murray, Red Scare: A Study in National Hysteria, 1919-1920 (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1955; reprint, Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980), 25; Edwin P. Hoyt, The Palmer Raids 1919-1920 (New York: The Seabury Press, 1969), 115-17.
99 Robert Lamphere and Tom Shachtman, The FBI-KGB War (New York: Random House, 1986), 78-98. Six years earlier, in his book Wilderness of Mirrors, David Martin had described the efforts of American cryptanalysts to break the Soviet code. However, he did not cite the VENONA project by name.
100 The three others from the State Department in the U.S. delegation were Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., Secretary of State; H. Freeman Matthews, Director of the Office of European Affairs; and Wilder Foote, Assistant to the Secretary of State. See Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., Roosevelt and the Russians: The Yalta Conference (Garden City: Doubleday, 1949), 30.
101 Benson and Warner, VENONA, xxiv.
Proceed to Part 7 of Appendix A
Go Back to the Top Page of the Commission Report