The Manhattan Project was, the director of the Office of Censorship once said, the "best-kept single secret of the war," as The New York Times put it in a piece that ran on August 9, 1945, the day of the bombing of Nagasaki.
And how remarkable this secrecy was! With some 130,000 people involved in building the bomb, how is it possible this story didn't leak out?
Well, as nuclear historian Alex Wellerstein documents frequently at his invaluable site Restricted Data, the secrecy of the Manhattan Project was not all it is cracked up to be. Wellerstein says that the fact that "the Army was working on a new super-weapon that involved atomic energy" was something of an "open secret" in Washington prior to the bomb's use, and, moreover, there were numerous press reports that gave information about the project.
But there is one that stands out, Wellerstein writes, and that is a report from The Cleveland Press, by columnist John W. Raper, who happened upon the clandestine city of Los Alamos, a year and a half before bombs would fall on Japan.
"Forbidden City" the headline proclaimed. It continued: "Uncle Sam's Mystery Town Directed by '2d Einstein.'"
The story was introduced by a brief editor's note: "Jack Raper, Press columnist, has returned to Cleveland following a vacation in New Mexico, where he found the following story."
And then the reporting began:
SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico has a mystery city, one with an area from eight to 20 square miles, according to guesses. It has a population of between 5000 and 6000 persons, not more than probably half a dozen of whom can step outside of the city except by special permission of the city boss. He grants permission only in the most exceptional circumstances and under the most rigid conditions. And it is even more difficult for a non-resident to enter than for a resident to leave.
Commonly known as Los Alamos, the place is a thoroughly modern city. It has fine streets, an electric light plant and waterworks with capacity for a city twice as large as Los Alamos, a service department that really services, public library, high, grade, and nursery schools; recreation centers, hospital, apartment houses, cottages, dance hall, an enormous grocery, refrigeration plant, factories and jail.
If you like mysteries and have a keen desire to solve one, here is your opportunity to do a little sleuthing, and if you succeed in learning anything and then making it public you will satisfy the hot curiosity of several hundred thousand New Mexicans.
But you might as well be informed that you will fail and the chances are thousands to one that you will be caught and will be thrown into the hoosegow or suffer a worse fate.
A Free Country, But —
Of course, this is a free country and you can go where you please — if you are willing to sleep in the smoking car aisle or breathe the exhalations of your fellow sardines packed in a bus. But forget all about that sort of nonsense.
If you have any idea that you can employ a battery of eminent constitutional lawyers and go into court and that eventually the Supreme Court of the United States will decide the case in your favor if the lower courts decide against you, forget about that, too. you would be wasting your time and burning up any money you paid to the lawyer, for the man who owns this city has too much money and too much power in such a legal action.
This city’s site, or at least part of it, at once time was occupied by a private school for boys, and is not far from the village of Los Alamos, which is 53 miles almost due east from Santa Fe, the state capital. It is in one of the most interesting sections of New Mexico. It has scenery enough for a whole state — peaks and peaks and more peaks, and cliffs and colors that dim the rainbow.
Not far away are the Indian villages occupied by the finest kind of Indians, intelligent, industrious, friendly, skilled in the production of art objects, many of them graduates of Indian schools. [Editor's note: WOW]
You can read the entirety of the article over at Wellerstein's site, but what is interesting here, beyond the substance of the report, is what this reveals about the media ecosystem of 1944, and what that, in turn reveals about ours of 2013 by contrast.
Wellerstein writes that people often think of the wartime press as docile, overly compliant with the U.S. government's policy of "voluntary censorship," which admonished any publication of government secrets but had no legal teeth.
By contrast, he says, people tend to see the press today and in recent decades as more aggressive, with a primacy placed on scoring "antagonistic leaks" (in contrast with "official" ones that the government intentionally puts out there for its own reasons). "I’ve sometimes heard people suggest that were the press like this during World War II, things like the secret of the atomic bomb could never have been kept as well as they were," he writes.
Raper's story belies this narrative. There were leaks, "copious leaks," and they were often quite informative, particularly Raper's, which Wellerstein considers "the worst" of the Manhattan Project leaks. No, it doesn't reveal in uncertain terms that atomic bombs were in production, but the report, if you read it in full at Wellerstein's site, is quite informative: It gives the name and location (not exactly accurate but close) of an "obviously classified scientific/military facility." It describes that facility's scale, "which gives some hint of its importance." It identifies J. Robert Oppenheimer as the head of the site, which, Wellerstein writes, "to an observed eye would narrow [the purpose] down to something relating to theoretical physics."
And, perhaps most telling of all, it reports rumors of loud explosions. "Another widespread belief is that he is developing ordnance and explosives," Raper wrote. "Supporters of this guess argue that it accounts for the number of mechanics working on the production of a single device and there are others who will tell you tremendous explosions have been heard."
As Wellerstein writes, "If I were a spy thinking about nuclear weapons, I would find that a pretty interesting combination of things, and worth following up on."
But despite the explosive revelations (no pun intended) contained in the story, it seems to have gone nowhere. And that's a key difference between a revelatory investigative report in 1944 and one today.
In 1944, the government was able to essentially squash the report right where it started. Colonel Whitney Ashbridge, the military commander at the Los Alamos site, sent a copy of the story to Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project. Wellerstein writes:
So what did Groves end up doing? First he made sure that it wouldn’t spread further — he put the kibosh on any follow-up stories or further syndication. Time magazine was going to write a follow-up regarding West Coast atom smashing work, but the Office of Censorship stopped them. Then he had the reporter investigated and interviewed. For a while he thought about getting Raper drafted to the Pacific Theatre — a rather bloodthirsty approach to the problem. He relented on this when, as it turned out, Raper was in his sixties. Not exactly Army grunt material.
And that seems to have been the end of things. The readers of The Cleveland Press knew a thing or two about some weird secretive city in New Mexico, but beyond that paper's readership, it was as though the story never happened.
I asked Wellerstein about this over email and he elaborated:
The main difference between the media situation today and the media situation of the past is that in the 1940s you actually could often geographically limit the impact of an article. That is, something coming out in a local or regional media source could be prevented from circulation and syndication, after the fact. And the Manhattan Project censors did this quite vigorously whenever there was a leak. Even with radio, which feels much more immediate than print, they could prevent re-broadcasting. Even by the 1970s that was getting difficult, though, and certainly today it would be a practically impossible task -- one where the action of trying to stifle the story would draw more attention to it than just ignoring it. [emphasis added]
Perhaps the press of the 1940s was too acquiescent; perhaps it too willingly complied with the government's urging for "voluntary censorship. But the story of the Manhattan Project report in The Cleveland Press shows that something else was at work here. As Wellerstein concludes, the government got lucky -- lucky that no Axis powers seem to have noted this local report; lucky that Time cowed to government pressure; and lucky, I'd say, that there was no email, no Twitter, no Google Alert algorithm scanning the day's headlines, surfacing that odd little story about a secret site in the desert.