In a world steeped in regular government leaks, there’s a tendency to believe that journalists’ exposure of government secrets is a new phenomenon. We think of the press of the past – during wartime, especially – as more willing to obey censorship laws to protect government secrets. Bob talks to nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein who says this isn’t so, and he tells us about the leak of one of the government’s most-protected secrets to prove it.
BOB GARFIELD: In a world glaringly illuminated by WikiLeaks, not to mention Edward Snowden, it’s easy to believe we’re living in an unprecedented era of revelation. There's a tendency to witness the breathtaking exposure of secrets and imagine a more circumspect time, during World War II, for instance. Then the press, of course, was more cautious, even docile under the weight of censorship laws and a sense of patriotic duty.
As it turns out though, that wasn't necessarily always the case. Alex Wellerstein, a nuclear historian, has been looking back at the numerous, albeit less publicized, leaks spread during World War II, including the most closely held secret in American history, the Manhattan Project.
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: In March 1944, a reporter for the Cleveland Press named John W. Raper wrote a story called “Forbidden City Uncle Sam’s Mystery Town Directed by ‘2nd Einstein.’” And this was an account he pieced together, talking with people in Santa Fe about rumors that were going around about a camp of scientists near Los Alamos, secretly working on projects that nobody in the town really knew what they were doing. And he managed to piece together quite a lot of these rumors into a coherent story, including figuring out who ran the town, which was scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. And some of the rumors, in particular, about explosions and work on physics problems, and even the amount of secrecy itself, were actually fairly on the mark.
BOB GARFIELD: He talked about the armed escorts that anybody who had the temerity [LAUGHS] to enter Los Alamos were subjected to. He talked about the infrastructure of a town of 6,000 people, which could have supported twice the number, and clearly portrayed a place where something very, very big was goin’ on. But when he tried to figure out what that very big thing was, he kind of flailed a bit.
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: He flailed but all of the things he proposed are suspicious. So one of them was that they were working on poison gas as a deterrent against Germany, which is a little too close to the truth. Another was that they were working on explosives and even maybe just one big explosive, which is extremely close to the truth. It was close enough that the Manhattan Project security people were extremely, extremely displeased. They could imagine if there was an enemy spy looking for information about any American atomic bomb work, this would all stand out as being where the work was happening.
BOB GARFIELD: It's astonishing to me [LAUGHS] that this story, which appeared in a broadsheet of general circulation in one of America’s probably ten largest cities at the time, Cleveland, Ohio, apparently, neither the Nazis nor the Japanese ever got wind of this story. Now, I know this is a little pre-Internet, but that just blows me away.
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Some of this is because the Axis intelligence in America was not very good. All the pieces were out there, and what it required was somebody to put them all together. There are, are lots of rumors. In the New York Times there were articles about potential freeze bombs and what today sound like fanciful inventions. To be able to pick out the correct thing from a sea of rumor is a really difficult task.
BOB GARFIELD: When the story did appear in the Cleveland Press, General Leslie Groves, who was the military officer in charge of the Manhattan Project, wigged out. What did he do?
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: The first thing that they tried to do was contain the story. Talking to the press itself and telling them that they did something real bad and they shouldn’t follow up on it. Time Magazine was interested in running a story potentially along these lines, ‘cause they saw this, and they were thoroughly discouraged from pursuing that line of inquiry.
The second thing that Groves did, because he was somewhat vindictive, was to find a way to potentially punish or neutralize the reporter in question.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm gonna guess that it didn't involve him trying to get Raper reassigned to the police beat or obits.
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Groves tried to draft him and send him to the Pacific Theater –
- a fairly murderous approach to dealing with a pesky reporter. But he found out that Raper was in his sixties, and so not exactly GI material.
BOB GARFIELD: I'm laughing now at the notion of it. It's ultimately not really funny at all. And it makes me wonder, while the First Amendment determined that this program of censorship would be voluntary, is there evidence that they abused the power of the draft or any other mechanism to punish wayward reporters?
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: This is the only instance I've seen of them trying to use it with reporters. They've used it with scientists, and they did occasionally even talk about incarceration, though they didn’t go forward on this. If there were leaks, they tried to get to the source of the leaks, the person who had signed a contract that said, I won't reveal any secrets, because they did have leverage over them.
BOB GARFIELD: We began this conversation with the premise that wartime press was more compliant with the government. Are there other highlights of journalism that did not yield to the intimidation of the Department of War?
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Every couple of weeks there would be a story in some major newspaper that violated, in one way or the other, the specifically atomic bomb-related censorship. There was even one [LAUGHS] really embarrassing one, where the president of the University of California, who was the manager of the Los Alamos Laboratory, and didn't know what they were doing there but he gave a speech, said they had a big secret laboratory that was working on some sort of death ray that would end the war overnight. This was the sort of thing that they were desperately afraid of, that one little slip would tip off some sort of enemy agent into what to look for and what they were doing.
BOB GARFIELD: World War II was a life-and-death struggle against the Nazis, who had already overtaken most of Europe. And the Japanese were committing atrocities all throughout Asia. I wonder if I were the editor of the Cleveland Press in 1944 and Raper’s story crossed my desk, and I knew that it could change the tide of World War II, whether Imyself would have published? Have you given any thought to what you would have done, had it been up to you to make that decision?
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Well, that's a hard question. [LAUGHS] I'm not sure that I would be bold enough as to publish such a story, personally. It’s easy to take for granted that all of the secrecy was for the ultimate good, that it saved us from the Nazis, that it ended the War. And historians can argue about that. But this was one of the most monumental decisions that was ever taken in human history. There was no oversight. There was no debate. And I'm not surprised that there were journalists at the time, especially those who only knew a piece of the full story, who thought that some of this should be something that was talked about, wider than the very small circle of people who were privy to the knowledge.
BOB GARFIELD: Alex, thank you so much.
ALEX WELLERSTEIN: Thank you so much.
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BOB GARFIELD: Alex Wellerstein is an associate historian at the American Institute of Physics.