Center for History of Physics, American Institute of Physics
Knowledge and the Bomb: Nuclear Secrecy in the United States
"When the American people know the reasons for secrecy, they can be depended upon to keep silent."
Ernest O. Lawrence, 1943.
When the idea of a nuclear chain reaction first occurred to the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, he wondered immediately whether this thought, this mere fantasy of the mind, should be kept secret. When an atomic bomb first exploded over Hiroshima, chief among the questions asked was how it had been kept secret, and whether secrecy should — or could — be maintained over the long term. When the Cold War began to get hot, the very idea of atomic secrets, and their possible release or theft, appeared to many to be all that stood between the life or death of the free world. When the threat of global terrorism seemed destined to go nuclear, the question of whether the right secrets had been kept, or whether secrecy itself was more of a liability than an asset, became paramount.
From the beginning, nuclear secrecy raised tough questions, questions that got at the heart of pre-existing ideas about the goal of the state, the meaning of science, and the nature of technology. What is a nuclear secret? A blueprint? A substance? An equation? A fact? A set of processes? What sort of control can be put on scientific knowledge—and what sort should be? Are scientific facts qualitatively different than military facts? What is the relationship between nuclear knowledge and nuclear technology? And how should a free state, one where the Enlightenment principle of transparent government has been considered a central ideal since the 18th century, function in a world of dangerous technology and dangerous knowledge?
My Ph.D. dissertation, Knowledge and the bomb: Nuclear secrecy in the United States, 1939-2008 (filed in October 2010), is a history of attempts to control nuclear technology through the control of nuclear knowledge. Beginning with the Manhattan Project and ending with the "War on Terror," the project looks at the overall dynamics of secrecy policies as they unfolded over the course of the latter-half of the twentieth century and at the beginning of the twenty-first. It examines how, and why, the question of nuclear secrecy in particular became an arena in which competing ideas about the nature of science, technology, and governance fought regular and heated battles.
The dissertation breaks the history of nuclear secrecy into five primary parts. Part I traces the early history of nuclear secrecy from its emergence in the years just before World War II through its massive implementation during the wartime Manhattan Project, emphasizing that most scientific, administrative, and military participants believed that secrecy would be a strictly temporary condition. Part II covers the attempts to address the immediate postwar problem of what to do about nuclear secrecy, as the wartime project was brought into the realm of public discourse. Part III covers the efforts of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) to develop a coherent secrecy policy as it grappled with a fraught domestic and international political scene, and discusses the emergence of a Cold War model of secrecy. Part IV covers a series of major confrontations as the brittleness of the Cold War model became evident over the course of the 1970s, when new historical actors, threats, and public perceptions came to challenge the once-stable regime. Part V, the epilogue and conclusion, looks at the legacy of secrecy as it was viewed in the late Cold War, the immediate post-Cold War, and the beginning of the "War on Terror."
"I am afraid the scientists have led us into a terrible world," a retiring General Leslie Groves, former chief of the Manhattan Project, lamented in 1948. "I can't figure out how we can keep the knowledge from spreading, except to have a complete iron curtain." The issues raised by nuclear secrecy lead us, eventually, beyond the bomb itself. This is a story about the troublesome quandary raised by the co-existence of science, technology, and the state — for purposes of advancement as well as terrible destruction — in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. The bomb, because it represented the extreme of possible evil, focused and sharpened these concerns, but the center of interest in this study remains on questions about the survival of democracy in an era of big science and big government. This work is about the difficulties posed when the connection between knowledge and power reaches epic, planet-destroying potential through the evolution of technology. The "problem of secrecy," as it was called in 1945, is the problem of modern knowledge in its ultimate sense.
"We are, I rather assume, going to have a whole series of crises as a result of
increasing scientific knowledge that is adaptable to blowing the hell out of world."
David E. Lilienthal, 1945.
My dissertation was filed and accepted by the Department of the History of Science at Harvard University in October 2010. My dissertation committee consisted of Peter Galison, Sheila Jasanoff, Mario Biagioli, and David Kaiser. Work relating to this project has been aided by grants and fellowships from the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, the American Institute of Physics, and the Office of History and Heritage Resources, United States Department of Energy. My final year of writing and research was assisted by a Dissertation Completion Fellowship from the Andrew W. Mellon/American Council of Learned Societies Early Career Fellowship Program.