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Alex Wellerstein Interview Transcript

Historian specializing in nuclear weapons and nuclear secrecy

Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies at the Stevens Institute of
Interviewed on November 5, 2014 by the Manhattan Project Group
GROUP: How tight was the security around the Manhattan Project? Were there any
WELLERSTEIN: The security of the Manhattan Project was pretty tight, but you have to
remember that it was an extremely large project. The work was done at over 30 different
sites across the United States, the United Kingdom, and Canada, and around half a
million people worked on the program over the course of its entire existence. Maintaining
absolute control over something so far-flung was impossible and the people who were in
charge of the security knew this. The main forms of security they used were isolation
(putting the really secret stuff in isolated places, away from big population centers) and
compartmentalization (not letting most people who worked on the project know what
they were working on).
The most secret sites, Los Alamos, Hanford, and Oak Ridge, were entirely new creations,
purposefully located in relative isolation, so their work would attract little outside
attention. At these sites, especially Oak Ridge and Hanford, which had the most
employees working, very few people were allowed to know what they were developing.
They were told only as much as they were thought to need to know to do their specific
Despite all of this effort, there were several serious leaks, and there were also
penetrations by foreign spies. The worst of the leaks was in early 1944, and basically
described Los Alamos, who was in charge, the amount of security that was there, and
speculated on their work
There were also a number of "moles" in the project who were spying for the Soviet
Union. These included David Greenglass, Theodore Hall, and Klaus Fuchs at Los
Alamos. As a result, Joseph Stalin knew more about the atomic bomb work than did Vice
President Harry Truman, who was not told about the work until after President Roosevelt
What is remarkable about the Manhattan Project is that despite the leaks, despite the
spies, and despite there being a lot of indirect evidence hiding "in plain sight" about the
fact that the US was probably working on an atomic bomb (e.g. all of its nuclear
physicists had stopped publishing research papers), nobody in Germany or Japan seems
to have had any kind of clue that the US was working on the bomb. If the Germans or
Japanese had looked for an atomic bomb project, they might have seen evidence of it, but
they apparently never thought to look.

GROUP: Did the government and military leaders have complete trust in the scientists
leading the project?
WELLERSTEIN: No. They had enough trust in them to put them in charge of scientific
decisions. But they did not generally let them make very many policy decisions. The
scientists did not get to decide what to do with the bomb, or whether the Soviet Union
should be told about the bomb, or whether the US government should try to outlaw
atomic bombs in the future, or anything like that. They were allowed to make technical
determinations how would the bomb be built, what height should it be detonated at,
things like that. A handful of scientists were invited to share their views on policy
questions but ultimately whether they were supported or rejected relied entirely on what
the government and military leaders thought.
GROUP: What made Hiroshima and Nagasaki the ideal bomb sites?
WELLERSTEIN: The above meeting took place in May 1945, and concerned what kinds
of targets would be ideal for the bomb. You will see that the #1 target they wanted was
Kyoto, which they thought was ideal because it contained the best-educated Japanese
citizens, who would best appreciate the importance of the bomb. Kyoto was removed
from the list by the Secretary of War, who argued it had no military justification.
Hiroshima was #2 on the list, because it had a military base in it. Nagasaki was not even
on the list at this point. Nagasaki was not even the primary target on the day it was
bombed; the primary target was Kokura, a nearby city, but by the time the bombers got
there, it was obscured with smoke, so they went to Nagasaki instead.
One of the main criteria for any city on the list is that it had to have not already been
bombed with firebombs. By August 1945, the US had already attacked 67 Japanese cities
with firebombs, leaving very few targets to atomic bomb. The US Army Air Force agreed
to "reserve" some cities so that the atomic bomb could be used against them.
GROUP: Was it necessary for the US to drop the bombs?
WELLERSTEIN: "Necessary" is a difficult word for me to make sense of. Very little in
life is "necessary," though it may look like a good idea at the time, or may appear better
than other alternatives. To consider this, let us think about the alternatives.
One is the one that is always cited, an invasion of mainland Japan. This would have had
many American and Japanese casualties. The invasion, called Operation Olympic, was
scheduled to begin in November 1945 so several months after the atomic bombs were
dropped. An invasion would have been very bad for everybody involved, the worst of all
possible options. But we should remember that it was still several months away.
Another is to try to seek a diplomatic solution to the end of the war. The US had
intercepted and decrypted Japanese diplomatic communications (known as MAGIC) and
knew that some parts of the Japanese high command were hoping that the Soviet Union
(who was not yet at war with Japan) could convince the United States to change its

surrender demands. What the Japanese wanted was an assurance that the Emperor would
still be allowed to retain some form of power in Japan, because they considered the
Emperor to be a god. The United States purposefully did not clarify what the role of the
Emperor would be in the postwar. Some people at the time (including Winston Churchill
and the US Secretary of War, Henry Stimson), and some later, think that if the US had
clarified this, the Japanese might have been willing to surrender even without the atomic
Another option would be to "demonstrate" the atomic bombs somehow before dropping
them on an inhabited city. A bomb could have been dropped, say, in the middle of Tokyo
Bay, which would have been visible to millions of people, but not killed many/any of
them. This idea was rejected by the military and a few representatives of the scientists,
because they did not think it was guaranteed to work, and because they thought that the
power of the bomb was largely in its propaganda effect.
Another option was to wait until the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, which was
scheduled to happen in mid-August 1945. (After the bombing of Hiroshima, the Soviet
Union immediately declared war on Japan, because they feared the war might be over
soon.) The US knew that the Japanese were afraid of the Soviet Union, and afraid of what
would happen if their country ended up divided like Germany was. Some scholars have
argued that it was the Soviet declaration of war and invasion of Manchuria, and not the
atomic bombs, that convinced Japan to surrender when they did anyway.
Lastly, one option was to just continue firebombing and a naval blockade and wait for the
Japanese to run out of food and options. There are some scholars who think the Japanese
would have ended the war before November 1945 anyway, because they were running
out of resources and they had no possibility of anything other than death in front of them.
With the benefit of hindsight, we might suggest that clarifying the surrender terms might
have been something worth trying, because even if it had failed to produce the right
outcome, it wouldn't have hurt anything much. We might consider whether a
"demonstration" would have been more humane. But we also should consider that one of
the reasons the US dropped the bombs when they did was because they did hope it would
end the war quickly, before the Soviet Union got involved in the Pacific Theatre (which
by that point they saw as a complication and not an advantage), and well before an
invasion was planned.
It is very hard to judge these things in retrospect. But I think it is important to keep in
mind that there were more than one alternative on the table at the time. It is not just a
question of "atomic bomb" vs. "invasion" there were several other possibilities that the
politicians and military men were aware of at the time, but decided not to pursue.
I don't think the US politicians and military men dropped the atomic bombs because they
thought they were "necessary." They dropped them because they had a new weapon, and
they thought that there were a lot of benefits to dropping them (militarily, diplomatically,
politically), and they did not do a very long and calculated weighing of the pros and cons.

They did not particularly care about killing Japanese civilians (they had already killed
many with firebombing), they did not particularly think of it as a "do we bomb or do we
invade" question they were planning to bomb and, if necessary, invade (and drop more