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.