A hydrogen bomb blast with overlay of Fat Man hydrogen bomb

Book review: ‘Restricted Data’ by Alex Wellerstein

Image credit: Alancotton/Dreamstime

A new history of nuclear secrecy in the US provides a timely reflection on American social history since the Second World War.

Among the exhibits on display at the USA’s National Atomic Museum in Albuquerque, New Mexico are life-size copies of the first American atomic bombs and their Soviet counterparts. Comparing them when I visited the museum, I couldn’t help noticing an uncanny similarity, particularly between the second American bomb - the ‘Fat Man’ dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945 - and the Soviet RDS-1 produced in 1949 and known as ‘The First Lightning’.

The two horrific weapons looked like twins – unsurprising if we remember that the designs of some of the American nuclear, and later hydrogen, bombs were acquired and passed on by a group of well-trained Soviet agents – Klaus Fuchs, the Rosenbergs and such like. Stalin, despite having his own scientists developing similar weapons, never trusted his compatriots and preferred to rely on stolen American designs.

Reading ‘Restricted Data’ (University of Chicago Press, £25.40, ISBN 9780226020389) – an impressive and innovative monograph by Alex Wellerstein, assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey, I kept recalling not just my visit to the Atomic Museum, but also my parents’ own stories about what it was to be part of the Soviet nuclear development effort in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

Unlike some Americans, who saw nuclear secrecy as an impediment to free scientific development leading, even if indirectly, to McCarthyism, the Soviets never had such qualms, and their proverbial lack of openness in nuclear weapons bordered on outright paranoia.

Whereas the whole world was aware of the existence of Los Alamos and its laboratories, Soviet nuclear weapons were developed and manufactured exclusively in so called ‘post-box towns’ - unmapped sites with numbers instead of names, built by slave labour. Anyone with a foreign passport was forbidden to enter, and many were out of bounds even to Soviet citizens. Large numbers of highly qualified scientists and researchers, developing new technologies but isolated from the global research community, were concentrated in them.

I spent the first three years of my life in one such town near Moscow, to where my parents, both young scientists (Mum a chemical engineer, Dad a nuclear physicist) and newly-married graduates of Kharkov University, were dispatched in the early 1950s to work at a top-secret Soviet government facility, developing nuclear and hydrogen bombs. The town of 40,000 people, referred to only as ‘Military Unit BA/48764’ or something similar, was definitely not on the maps.

The early 1950s were tough. Stalin wanted to develop nuclear weapons by hook or by crook to achieve military parity with the West and then, ultimately, superiority over it. My parents had to work for twelve hours a day and there was practically no protection against the excessive radiation.

My mother recalled how skin peeled off her palms when she was pregnant with me. According to her, some of her colleagues literally expired in front of her eyes from overdoses, and my father was particularly affected, since he dealt directly with radioactive substances and often used to travel to a top-secret nuclear weapons testing range in Kazakhstan nicknamed ‘Lemonia’. Banned for life from travelling abroad or from making any contacts with foreigners, he died of a heart attack at the age of 56.

It is tragic to realise that all those sacrifices were largely in vain, and that many thousands of lives were sacrificed because a paranoid Soviet dictator trusted American technologies more than his own home-grown ones which, as it turned out (and as repeatedly asserted by Wellerstein) could have enjoyed much better protection and secrecy.

When I visited the Atomic Museum, the Trinity site and Los Alamos, where I had a chance to talk to several former employees of Robert Oppenheimer’s National Laboratory, I was inclined to believe that Americans were as protective of their atomic programme as the Soviets. Yet it was only from ‘Restricted Data’ that I learned how constantly and persistently that very nuclear secrecy had been contested in the USA. As Wellerstein himself notes in the Introduction, “...many felt the secrecy, even if it had been necessary, was stifling.”

He proceeds to uncover how the origins of that secrecy go to back to the time of the Second World War and the essential wartime secrecy regime. In theory, that need for confidentiality should have grown with the advent of the Cold War, and yet – paradoxically – the opposite started to happen due to the democracy-driven belief, albeit rather perverse and ill-informed in the circumstances, “that once atomic information had been deemed safe (and perhaps profitable), it ought to be distributed as widely as possible.”

That delusion, in its turn, triggered a powerful anti-secrecy movement and created multiple new opportunities for the ever-so-vigilant Soviet spies.

A similar scenario was re-enacted with the invention of the hydrogen bomb, when the National Security Council approved a relaxation of the ‘gag’ around it, which President Truman used to insist upon. The rationale behind it was to give the United States Atomic Energy Commission “the ability to respond to enquiries”.

The final part of the book describes the emergence in the 1970s of the so-called ‘anti-secrecy movement’ as a result of growing social disillusionment in the aftermath of Watergate and the Vietnam War. Wellerstein emphasises that this had nothing to do with the clichés of ‘transparency’ and ‘openness’, because of its deliberately antagonistic stance, aimed at “tearing down the existing regimes of secrecy”. Official secrecy, according to writer Eric Shlosser, is but “the ultimate form of government regulation.”

Like a true historian, however, Wellerstein does not take sides. ‘Restricted Data’ is not just a detailed chronicle of the ongoing secrecy versus anti-secrecy debate, but a profound, well researched and fluently written reflection on American social history since the Second World War, with multiple lessons to be learned.

And here I cannot help but agree with Martin J Shervin, who writes in his own review of Wellerstein’s book that “Restricted Data’ should be read by every concerned citizen, and President Biden should make it required reading for his national security team”.

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