Telling Secrets

Alex Wellerstein introduces us to the strange world of nuclear secrecy.

By Michal Meyer | November 9, 2015
Alex Wellerstein

Alex Wellerstein leans against an Mk-17 hydrogen bomb casing at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Ellen Bales

Alex Wellerstein studies the often bizarre history of nuclear secrecy and nuclear weapons, but this work keeps him very much in the present. He is a professor of history of science at Stevens Institute of Technology; is an adviser to the Atomic Heritage Foundation; writes the popular blog, Restricted Data; and consults for the fictional television show Manhattan. In an interview with Distillations editor in chief Michal Meyer, Wellerstein talks about the history of secrecy, the ups and downs of working with declassified material, and what it’s like to be a historian on a fictional show.

Q: Why did you choose to study nuclear history?

A: I was at Berkeley as an undergraduate, and Berkeley played a big role in the history of nuclear weapons as a university and as a region. That local connection drew me in initially. And I found that you practically can’t help but tell an interesting story when talking about something that people are afraid will destroy the world or will save the world. Anything that’s mundane that mixes into that binary suddenly becomes interesting. Water supply is a mundane topic, but if you’re asking what happens to it after a nuclear war, then the question becomes fantastical. Among other things, it led scientists to ask what happens to beer after a nuclear war. To find out, they took beer and exposed it to a nuclear test and then did taste tests. That’s surreal. What happens to housing prices after nuclear war? These sorts of questions end up leading to absurd answers very quickly.

Q: What’s it like to work with formerly classified material?

A: The secrecy makes it a fun but frustrating topic. It feels something like detective work, trying to ferret out what people were thinking in the past. Sometimes there’s an X’ed out part or a part cut out of a document. I know I’m not getting the whole story, so what can I say despite the gaps? Most of the time the enemy of historians is the violence of a past that destroys archives, that doesn’t write things down, and that doesn’t remember. What makes secrecy interesting is that we usually know the document exists. What’s limiting our access is this changing policy of security and secrecy. The censor is not allowed to tell you why they’re not giving you something and can’t even give you anything that would indicate context because that is secret. One of the side effects of classification is that no one is legally allowed to lose or destroy the classified document. Losing it is a crime; destroying it without filling out all the forms is a crime. The record base is very good. Richard Hewlett, the one-time historian for the Atomic Energy Commission, pointed out an irony: records are well kept because of the combined effects of secrecy and bureaucracy. You can’t legally destroy the document, and that document probably has five copies of itself.

Part of my job, since I write on secrecy and its history, is to reconstruct the mind-set of the censor. There is stuff that can be known to anybody with an Internet connection that the censors can’t release because they don’t want to confirm something is true, even though people know it’s true. It’s not about the sheer fact of knowing; it’s that there are consequences when one piece of knowledge is released. There are diplomatic and legal consequences, for example, in acknowledging that a country has nuclear weapons. Once the U.S. officially acknowledges something, it’s truly hard to take it back. The system is inherently conservative for that reason.

Q: How far back does official secrecy go?

A: The biggest story about secrecy in the United States and the biggest surprise to a lot of people is that official secrecy here is not very old. Some countries have long histories of official secrets, like Britain. The United States, by contrast, was founded by a bunch of people who believed in lofty Enlightenment principles; they believed in things like transparency and openness in government, which favor the transmission of information. There’s nothing in the Constitution that explicitly lets the government keep secrets. We had informal secrecy, diplomatic secrecy, but there weren’t big laws behind them. We didn’t have laws for punishing civilians for sharing secrets until the 20th century. The real secrecy infrastructure doesn’t come until World War I when we get the Patent Secrecy Act, the Espionage Act, and other legislation allowing for harsh punishments for giving secrets away as well as the first laws for restricting technical information.

In World War II that secrecy infrastructure becomes massive. The FBI starts processing hundreds of thousands of security clearances. They had to rent out the D.C. Armory, a mixed-use stadium, to have enough physical space for all the paperwork. These aren’t even the secrets; it’s the paperwork authorizing people to see the secrets.

The Manhattan Project’s existence was itself a secret. Around half a million people worked on it, a little under 1% of the entire civilian workforce at the time. They were enrolled in making the atomic bomb, and only a handful of people know how all the pieces go together. They pioneered some of the extreme secrecy practices. After World War II that secrecy got exported to all federal agencies: there are people in the Post Office who have security clearances. Secrecy became regularized, and some words have become normal: classified, declassified, top secret. In World War II people put quotation marks around these words because they were so new.

Q: There is a mythology surrounding some of the major figures in nuclear history. How do you separate the historical reality from myth?

A: J. Robert Oppenheimer is a good example, often thought of as somebody who was always against the hydrogen bomb. Sometimes he supported it; sometimes he opposed it. At the time, he was most strongly against the hydrogen bomb because he wanted to build small, tactical nuclear weapons: he wanted lots of little nuclear bombs instead of a few big nuclear bombs. That’s a much more nuanced position than a lot of people realize. In many cases a lot of the heroes we have are a little less heroic then we like to say, and some of the villains are a little less villainous. The secrecy can sometimes obscure this, too.

Q: What are the ways in which nuclear history can help us better understand contemporary challenges?

A: I don’t have any sound bites about what the history of nuclear weapons tells us going forward, except to say that from a purely technical standpoint nuclear weapons are in principle really easy to regulate and to control. They require massive factories, huge amounts of money and electricity, and thousands of tons of uranium—all of which is hard to hide. In many ways regulating nuclear technology and weapons is much easier than regulating some of the emerging technologies like cyber warfare, nanotechnology, and synthetic biology. And that should disturb people because we haven’t done the greatest job of regulating nuclear weapons.

Q: You consult for a television show. What is it like for a historian to work with Hollywood?

A: I consult for Manhattan on the network WGN America, which has plots in a heavily fictionalized version of Los Alamos during World War II. They just finished filming the second season in July. The way it works is they tell me the sorts of plots they have in mind or the sorts of questions they might have, and I try to come up with interesting answers. They like that this history was a lot more messy and sometimes more seedy and sometimes more accidental than most people realize. I go into these familiar stories and pick out something that is completely overlooked and is often just bizarre, but actually occurred. For example, in one paragraph in an official, internal history of the Manhattan Project, the author notes that everything went fine with a minor accident they had while soaking enriched uranium in water, except that someone’s hair fell out. I think, “Oh, my God, I wonder what happened there.” I feed stuff like that to the writers, and it gives them raw material to play with while they create their fictional stories. I don’t write fiction myself, so it’s interesting to see how it all works out in the end.

I’m grateful for the opportunity to do this, and for me it’s the perfect example of how this kind of interaction between historians and fictional television should be done. You want somebody who can give the script writers a texture of the past and help make it feel real as opposed to making it feel neat and tidy. Any historian knows that history is a mess of people trying to figure out what is the right thing to do and often being completely wrong, or going down the wrong path and revising it all in hindsight to say they were right all along.