Narratives of Secrecy

How people talked about the secrecy surrounding the Manhattan project.

Posted on April 2, 2013 at 6:02 AM • 10 Comments

Comments

HumphApril 2, 2013 6:44 AM

it wasn’t really kept all that well, if you consider “keeping the secret” to involve “not letting the Soviet Union know pretty much everything about the atomic bomb.
We were at war with Germany during WWII, not Russia. We dropped the bomb on Japan, not Russia.

An odd way to start the article.

MichaelApril 2, 2013 9:06 AM

I don't get it -- were nuclear secrets a big deal worth being silly about (Jan 2013) or not so secret after all (this article, April 2013)?

From comments on http://www.schneier.com/blog/archives/2013/01/classifying_a_s.html in January, the story about the forbidden orange: "It really is worth classifying an abstract shape and annoying an officeful of scientists and others to protect the nuclear secrets."

Michael JApril 2, 2013 11:50 AM

The Manhattan Project had some unique qualities. It was "The Thing" to make for WWII. The Weapon to End All Weapons. And now, globally, we are screwed. But, it was inevitable.

Point is, however, it was guessable and the concept was not alien. There were not many choices, there was one choice.

Today, we have seen more "Manhattan Projects" go on since then in various countries, with various new, related stories.

But, there are also many new non-nuclear Manhattan Projects, even in the US. Maybe even some the public does not know about at all. It would be more difficult to guess because there are so many options.

But, one probable Manhattan Project we likely do have going on today is the grabbing of everyone's data and the processing of that.

Like the nuclear bomb, it is The Thing to do.

Michael JApril 2, 2013 12:04 PM

@humph

Yeah, I saw that, and I think it was reflected through out the article. The secret was kept safe from both Germany and Japan.

Unfortunately, the real world flaws of the project included the trust of the Soviets and trust of people with potential Soviet friendly ideology. And some leaks came from working with other countries. [offspring come out and play, 'gotta keep em separated'...]

There were secret surveillance/counterintelligence/decrypting projects during WWII which had better success.

Much smaller in scope then the Manhattan Project, but some of those projects were pretty large.


Clive RobinsonApril 2, 2013 4:00 PM

One point that did come up was. the supposed inefficient use by the Russia's of the leaked information from Fuchs (pleasse remember he was not thhe only source Russia had, they also had a secretary of a senior UK official).

The problem they had was the same one the Poles had with Enigma and the leaked documents they had on code settings etc.

That is do you just give it to your scientists / mathematicians and in effect make them dependent on the information sorce, or do you just give them occassional hints etc when they become stuck?

The former behaviour lthough faster makes the team almost totaly dependent, the second makes them independent and thus more able to come up with new ways and methods and test them and develop skill and resilience.

Compartmentalized security is not always about minimizing contact, it is also (occasionaly) about stoping "group think" and all the problems that involves.

This happened at Oak Ridge with runing several teams in parrellel on the seperation process. It actually turned out that each method was valid but worrked better at different levels of refinment. The result was that the methods were in effect used together to get the original fisile material.

NASA developed it's independant teams process from knowing how other large projects had failed and showed that it realy does work and produce dividends in "time saved".

joequantApril 3, 2013 12:42 AM

One thing that I find interesting is how the relationship between the press and the government has changed. The Manhattan Project had a reporter from the New York Times on staff, which is something that would be unthinkable today. A lot of having the government and the press think of each other as the "enemy" seems to have come from the Vietnam War and the Watergate era.

The other thing is that I don't think that "keeping information from the Soviets" was a high concern in 1944 because at the time the Soviets were the allies of the United States.

Things change. Also, things change some more. There are a rather large number of Russian scientists working in US national labs, and no one really cares now if the Russians have "nuclear secrets."

phred14April 3, 2013 7:48 AM

@Humph, Michael J

We may have been allies with Russia during WWII, but even as we were allies we knew that the Cold War was coming. The threats-of-the-day were so horrifying that we all had to work together, and WWII might have gone the other way had we not. But make no mistake, we knew where things were headed. Look into the Yalta Conference a little.

wumpusApril 3, 2013 1:52 PM

@Clive Robinson,

Coming up with a rational use of such intelligence would be complicated in a sane place. In Stalin's USSR, the issue would be further complicated by the inevitable politicking and purges of such a high profile operation. While I doubt we will get much real data from how the USSR got the bombs (other than the obvious bits about Solzenitzen and picking up bikini isotopes) both Solzenitzen and various rocketry luminaries tended to spend a lot of time in the gulag, so I assume that the politics of purges was brutal. I also suspect that certain high officials would assume (or simply bet their lives) that their pet underlings would to the job better with such intelligence than current thinkers without it, thus making them open to purging.

Pretty much what happened to Oppenheimer without such intelligence, without the dangerous starvation and crippling injuries.

Clive RobinsonApril 3, 2013 2:48 PM

@

In Stalin's USSR, the issue would be further complicated by the inevitable politicking and purges of such a high profile operation

It undoubtedly was, however Stalin's purges often happened in odd ways with sometimes strange results. That is there were from the top orders from Stalin etc against specific individuals and blanket purges actually carried out at a much lower level by what was in effect an administrative process.

The blanket purges happened where the workforce etc was fairly easily replaced and thus did not overly effect the overal function of that part of the plan/project.

If you look at the CCCP space race which like the nuclear project was critical, it appears that the personal purges from the top were mainly amied at administrators and those senior scientists and engineers who were in effect administrators.

That is the lower ranks of scientists and engineers were almost "invisable" to Stalin and Co and thus the version of purgatory they suffered was directed by the project administration. As such the administrators knew that the scientists and engineers could not be taken out and shot or sent off to the various prison camps because many of them were not easily replacable and the project would noticeably suffer and thus the administrators would be painting a target on their own back for the more personal treatment. Thus it was the families and the way they were treated that was used against the scientists and engineers.

That said the CCCP space program was surprisingly riddled with "in fighting" amongst the more senior engineers and scientists actualy vying for attention at the very top.

Much as the subject of both the Russian nuclear and space projects interests me (in many ways they did considerably more with considerably less than the US) not being able to read or speak Russian makes what little primary information there is available difficult to access because it tends to get "translated in a personal perspective" by those who do.

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