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The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

Wendy Swanberg
University of Wisconsin-Madison
Submitted to the History Division
Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Annual Conference, Chicago IL

August 2008
The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950


In March of 1950, the U.S, Atomic Energy Commission forcibly destroyed a 3,000-copy

run of the popular magazine, Scientific American. At issue were a few lines of technical

information about the hydrogen bomb, written by physicist Dr. Hans Bethe as part of a Scientific

American series on the worldwide implications of the controversial nuclear weapon -- commonly

called the “H-bomb” -- which had yet to be perfected.

The magazine’s publisher Gerard Piel objected, insisting the article in question contained

only information that previously had been made public elsewhere. While Piel ultimately conceded

to government demands, his was an early voice of dissent in the relative government-press

complicity of the early Cold War. Before long the AEC’s censorship animated a simmering

discourse among scientists, journalists, and government officials about warfare in the atomic age,

and about the parameters of press freedom in the uneasy peace after World War II. The debates

that followed in 1950 resemble the more famous discussions that arose nearly thirty years later,

with the 1979 censorship of The Progressive magazine for its technical article on the H-Bomb.

Focusing on the role of journalist and publisher Gerard Piel, this essay will explore the

near-forgotten censorship of Scientific American in 1950 in light of the broader debate about civil

liberty and national security taking place among three groups of professionals during the early

Cold War. It also will compare briefly this censorship’s context with that of the 1979 Progressive

case. Using news accounts, congressional testimony, oral history, and the records of the American

Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), this paper describes the struggles encountered by

scientists, government officials and journalists as they confronted the intricacies of redefining First

Amendment freedoms in a nuclear age.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

I am committed to the proposition that

the wisdom of any government increases in
direct ratio with the breadth, depth, and intensity
of public discussion that surrounds it.1

On March 15, 1950, in the early years of the long Cold War, the U.S. Atomic Energy

Commission sent an urgent telegram to the editors of the popular monthly magazine Scientific

American. The telegram directed the magazine to stop printing immediately its forthcoming April

issue, which was at that moment on press at a facility in Greenwich, Connecticut.2

The magazine agreed. Scientific American publisher Gerard Piel first stopped the presses,

then demanded an explanation. He was told that the AEC – which recently had been granted

broad regulatory authority over all atomic information in the country -- was concerned that certain

technical material in an article on the H-bomb, written by renowned nuclear physicist Dr. Hans

Bethe, was “restricted data” that must not be disclosed. Piel disagreed, insisting that Bethe’s

article contained only information that either was common scientific knowledge or previously had

been made public elsewhere. But the government insisted on suppressing publication, and after

hasty arrangements a group of AEC security officers arrived at the printing plant to supervise

destruction of the offending article. Some days later Gerard Piel described the censorship process

to the New York Times: “A total of thirty-two pages were cut apart and burned in the incinerator,”

the Times reported. In addition to destroying the 3,000 magazine copies themselves, the AEC

brought the linotype slugs to the “smelting room,” destroyed the printing plates, and confiscated

Gerard Piel, “Need for Public Understanding of Science.” Science, New Series, Vol. 121, No.
3140 (March 4, 1955), pp. 318.
The Grenwich facility was operated by Conde Nast Publications. See William R. Conklin, “U.S.
Censors H-Bomb Data; 3,000 Magazine Copies Burnt.” New York Times, 1 April 1950, p. 1. Piel’s oral
history recollection places the facility in Hartford, CT.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

the complete “galley, page and foundry” proofs.3 In short, the government destroyed all printing

evidence of Bethe’s original article on the hydrogen bomb.4

From a modern vantage, such heavy-handed censorship may seem a clear breach of the

First Amendment’s protection against prior restraint of the press. But as this essay will illustrate,

the circumstances surrounding Bethe’s article were exceptional, and 1950 was a singular year in

the history of America’s nuclear enterprise. In addition, the American judicial system never

wrestled with this particular censorship case, for despite some talk that Piel wanted to challenge

the AEC in on First Amendment grounds, the matter was never litigated.5

Circumstances were quite different three decades later when a similar instance arose – the

now-famous case of The Progressive magazine’s censored article, “The H-Bomb Secret: How We

Got It, Why We Are Telling It.”6 In that 1979 case a freelance writer for The Progressive had

prepared a meticulously researched article illustrating, in detail, the design and construction of a

hydrogen bomb. The federal government, this time through the Department of Energy, sued to

stop publication. Unlike Scientific American three decades earlier, The Progressive fought the

censorship in court, insisting that its article contained no classified data and therefore posed no

present danger. Eventually the Progressive case was litigated in a federal district court in the

magazine’s home state of Wisconsin. While it never went before the U.S. Supreme Court, United

States v. Progressive, Inc.7 holds a unique place in the canon of First Amendment law as the first

New York Times, 1 April 1950, p. 1.
The hydrogen bomb (which in 1950 had not yet been perfected) operates by nuclear fusion,
rather than by the nuclear fission process used in all prior atomic bombs. The H-bomb would be many
times more powerful than the A-bomb.
In discussions with the New York Times, Piel reportedly said, “If the Commission makes it an
issue, this case may go before the United States Supreme Court.” New York Times, 1 April 1950, p. 7.
This was the title as originally proposed by The Progressive’s freelance writer Howard
Morland. The article Morland eventually published in November 1979 was titled, “The H-bomb Secret:
To know how is to ask why.” The Progressive, November 1979, p. 14 et seq.
U.S. v. Progressive, 467 F. Supp. 990 (1979).

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

occasion in American history where a court used the tool of “preliminary injunction” to stop a

publication before it was printed and circulated.8

In both of these matters, then, an American magazine had planned to print detailed

scientific information about the hydrogen bomb, and in both instances a government agency

intervened to stop publication. In both cases the government alleged that the objectionable

material was “restricted data,” while the authors and publishers insisted the information was

already in the public domain and posed no danger to national security. From there, the cases

differ considerably -- in the eras of their occurrence, the motives of the censored authors, the state

of nuclear science at the time, the political context of the censorship, and the evolution of First

Amendment jurisprudence. Some of those differences will be discussed in the body of this essay.

But one similarity is striking in both its fundamental nature and its force, a tenet as quietly central

to the significance of these cases as it is to the functional role of the First Amendment. It is a

notion put forth by the authors of both articles: That any future use of the hydrogen bomb was a

serious matter of public policy in which the stakes were immeasurably high. Therefore, it was not

sufficient for determinations about the H-bomb to be made by a handful of government men

huddled in secrecy. If the American people were to make informed and prudent decisions about

nuclear weaponry, it was imperative that they understand the science behind the bomb.

See comments by David Rudenstine, dean of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, in
“Symposium” Transcript of Weapons of Mass Destruction, National Security, and a Free Press: Seminal
Issues as Viewed Through the Lens of The Progressive Case.” Cardozo Law Review (Vol. 26, No. 4.,
March 2005), p. 1338. This symposium was convened to explore concerns about government secrecy
surrounding the ongoing conflict in Iraq. The issues discussed in the 2005 symposium parallel closely
those addressed in both the 1979 Progressive matter and the lesser-known 1950 Scientific American
matter, underscoring the complexity and tenacity of tensions between press freedom and national security.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

Gerald Piel and Scientific American

I thoroughly agree with the sentiment that

national security could be much better secured
by totally open publication . . . This would
guarantee the rapid advance of science.9

Anyone who knew Gerard Piel in 1950 would not have been surprised to find him at odds

with the government on matters of science and secrecy. Piel was trained as both an historian and a

science journalist. He graduated magna cum laude with a history degree from Harvard University

in 1937, then fell into science journalism almost by happenstance after an editorial traineeship at

Time, Inc. Eventually Piel became a science editor for Life magazine, where he honed his passions

both for history and for science journalism. Some have gone so far as to assert that Gerard Piel

“virtually invented modern science journalism” by combining the rigor of scientific explanation

with the clarity of journalistic prose.10

Then in 1947, moved by a personal concern for the role of science in American public life,

Piel brought together a group of investors to purchase and renovate Scientific American magazine,

which recently had been put up for sale after a long and respectable run. Initially, Piel had

intended to start a new magazine called “The Sciences.” But his colleague Dennis Flanagan, a

fellow science editor for Life, learned through a family connection that the venerable monthly

Scientific American was about to be sold. Piel and Flanagan ultimately changed course and

decided to launch their new magazine as a reincarnation of Scientific American – a decision aided

by the fact that the magazine’s assets included a Manhattan address and a working telephone line,

Reminiscences of Gerard Piel, recorded between 1 July 1981 and 28 August 1996, Columbia
University Oral History Research Office Collection (hereinafter CUOHROC), 188.
See the obituaries for Piel at;and
/Piel,%20Gerard. Piel has his own observations about the need for a journalistic sensibility to convey
scientific information to the public. “There is a certain amount of autism,” he recalled, “in the writings
that we get from the scientists.” See Reminiscences of Gerard Piel, CUOHROC, 180.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

amenities hard to come by in the immediate postwar years.11 So with the help of a handful of

investors, Piel and Flanagan set about recreating the magazine.

Their first issue of the new magazine, published in May 1948, scarcely resembled its

predecessor. The former Scientific American had been in continuous publication since 1845; it

was a popular periodical for many years and at one point was considered at the top of its craft.

But by the 1940s circulation had fallen steeply, and the magazine gradually was “outdistanced by

livelier rivals,” despite a loyal readership of technically-inclined consumers interested in industrial

or hobbycraft science. 12 Piel himself held a harsher view: “The old magazine consisted largely of

press handouts from large corporations,” he noted, “and speeches written by the Public Relations

Counsel for the heads of those corporations.”13

Piel and Flanagan’s first reformulated issue in 1948 was another creature altogether – a

sleek, visually attractive blend of in-depth technical articles, science news briefs, national

commentary, and sophisticated graphics -- including the striking four-color cover that would

become the magazine’s hallmark.14 From the start Piel and Flanagan set their editorial standards

high, soliciting articles from top researchers in science and engineering. “Piel clearly foresaw the

rise of a new breed of technological man,” wrote Time magazine. “It was his conviction that a

magazine beamed at this burgeoning breed would grow right along with it.”15

By 1950, the year of the censorship in question, the new Scientific American had hit a

stride. Its readership and advertising revenue were growing and its format and layout had begun

John Rennie, “Dennis Flanagan: A Proud ‘Renaissance Hack,” Scientific American, 25 January
2005. Piel’s own description of the procurement of Scientific American is full of color and detail,
particularly with regard to the initial group of investors. See Reminiscences of Gerard Piel, 148-165.
“Transfusion,” Time magazine, 6 October 1947.
Reminiscences of Gerard Piel, 161, sic.
The magazine became famous for its beautiful, artful covers. One good online compilation of
cover art can be found at
“Window on the Frontier,” Time, 21 December 1959.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

to stabilize. One significant feature was a monthly section called “Science and the Citizen,” a

roundup of news highlighting the relevance of science to everyday life. Many of the section’s

brief articles dealt with general news -- developments in things like color television, the polio

vaccine, the Nobel Prize competition, even the release of L. Ron Hubbard’s first Scientology

book, Dianetics. But over the course of the year1950, in what appears to be an editorial shift or at

least an editorial concentration, more and more space in “Science and the Citizen” was devoted to

matters of atomic science and nuclear weaponry, and often included commentary on the political

aspects of nuclear science. A sampling of article titles illustrates the new focus of “Science and

the Citizen:”

• The Specter of Defense (about civil defense plans for nuclear attack)

• The Insecurity of Security (about government fear of atomic spies)

• AEC Reorientation (about changes at the Atomic Energy Commission)

• Scientific Intelligence (about government interference in research exchanges)

• Effects of Atomic Weapons

• Radiological Warfare16

Scientific American was moving beyond the realm of pure science and further into the

realm of science as cultural and political force, with nuclear matters at the heart. Of chief concern

was the growing government restriction on scientists’ ability to exchange information with one

another, and the fear that such restriction would lead to bad science. This became a recurring topic

for the magazine. Nowhere was this editorial priority more evident than in a four-part series of

Scientific American, various issues January 1950 - December 1950.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

articles, beginning in March 1950, devoted to frank discussion of the hydrogen bomb – the series

that led to the magazine’s eventual censorship by the AEC.

Given the tenor of the times, Gerard Piel’s decision to commission this series in the spring

of 1950 was notable for its context amid the string of events that preceded it. The previous

September, President Harry S. Truman announced that the Soviets had detonated their first-ever

atomic fission bomb, ending America’s nuclear monopoly and raising the Cold War ante. (It

should be reiterated that the bombs used in WWII were atomic fission bombs, while the new

hydrogen bomb would operate using the more volatile and powerful process of atomic fusion.) 17

In January 1950, former Los Alamos physicist Klaus Fuchs confessed to having passed American

nuclear secrets to the Soviets, and former State Department official Alger Hiss was convicted of

perjury in a communist espionage trial. That same month, to the surprise of many scientists,

Truman directed the AEC to proceed with development of the hydrogen bomb.18 In February,

Sen. Joseph McCarthy gave his now-famous speech alleging communist infiltration of the

government.19 In March, the House of Representatives passed a bill requiring the FBI to screen

certain scientists for loyalty.20 Meanwhile, rumblings of war were intensifying between Soviet-

backed North Korea and U.S.-backed South Korea.21 The communist enemy was all around us in

1950, and pressure to increase government secrecy was prodigiously high. To many, the Soviets’

uncertainty about America’s mysterious new H-bomb seemed a valuable strategic advantage for

See Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1986),
Ibid, 768; also Jessica Wang, American Science in an Age of Anxiety, (Chapel Hill, NC:
University of North Carolina Press, 1999) 236-238.
McCarthy’s speech on 9 February 1950 before the Republican Women’s Club in Wheeling,
West Virginia is widely considered to have launched the senator’s anticommunist career.
The bill referred to employees of the National Science Foundation. See Wang, 257.
When the Korean conflict (for the conflict was never technically a “war”) began with North
Korea’s invasion of South Korea, Scientific American had just published the fourth article on the H-

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

the United States. So when Scientific American published its first technical article on the H-bomb

in the March 1950 issue, government scrutiny was understandably intense.

Government Arguments about Nuclear Secrecy

“Why is it necessary, because you spend

public money, to go out and blah blah
all over the country about these

Before exploring the details of Scientific American’s series of H-bomb articles, more must

be said about the state of conversation at the government level. Although American

anticommunism was growing and fears of Soviet designs were widespread, not everyone in the

executive and legislative branches was of the same mind about how to proceed. In fact, this

period presents a rare Cold War glimpse at some frank discussion about the dangers of too much

secrecy. Certain members of Congress, and some officials in Truman’s own administration, were

openly skeptical about the direction the country was taking and its implications for the democratic

process.23 Where Piel and his colleagues worried about the corrosive effect secrecy was having on

the integrity of science and the free exchange of research, some U.S. politicians worried about the

corrosive effect secrecy might have on democracy itself. In many ways these were parallel

arguments, both corollary to the “marketplace of ideas” metaphor: Scientific research depends

absolutely on peer review, on careful evaluation by other scientists to prevent error and to advance

knowledge. In a similar way the democratic process of self-government requires the free

Sen. Thomas Connally, D-TX, Hearing before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy,
Congress of the United States. Eighty-first Congress, First Session on Atomic Energy Report to
Congress, February 2, 1949, p. 7.
For a succinct summary of the dynamic of arguments within the Truman administration, see
Melvyn P. Leffler, A Preponderance of Power, National Security, the Truman Administration, and the
Cold War (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992), 327-332. Jessica Wang provides a thorough
discussion from the view of science in American Science . . . 232-288.

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exchange of ideas and a tolerance of dissent, particularly about matters relevant to public life. In

Cold War terms, this free exchange of ideas was one of the core principles distinguishing the

American system from the Soviet system. Yet the national security-civil liberty conundrum

seemed inescapable: Too little control of information and we might lend advantage to our

totalitarian enemy. Too much control, and we risked becoming totalitarian ourselves.24

The dispute about secrecy went on for a number of years and in a number of government

contexts, but one particularly succinct conversation took place before a joint congressional

committee on 2 February 1949. At this point in history Cold War tensions were well established,

and American fears of Soviet motives increasingly were part of the nation’s political and cultural

architecture. Excerpts of this 1949 congressional dialogue distill perfectly the difficulties faced by

scientists, politicians and journalists alike. The occasion was AEC Chairman David E.

Lilienthal’s 1949 report to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. The congressmen speaking are

Sen. Joseph Tydings (D-MD), and Sen. Thomas Connally (D-TX).

It does occur to me . . . that there is a great deal to be said for not giving out information which
has to do with the improvement of the atomic-bomb-weapon. . .

. . . It is a mistake, as I see it, for us to rush into the press every time we make any progress
whatever, and tell our enemies just what we are doing here . . . It has the double effect of putting
the enemy on alert, and nursing our people into a state of indifference . . .

It is a very difficult question because we are expending public funds.

This is, of course, an oversimplification of an exceedingly complex political time. One
historian places these disputes in the context of a cross-party struggle between an “older political culture”
that distrusted internationalism and military government, and the postwar “national security state.” See
Michael J. Hogan, A Cross of Iron (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), esp. 463-468.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

Why is it necessary, because you spend public money, to go out and blah blah all over the country
about these bombs?

It is the principle of public accountability of reporting within the limits of security . . .

It seems to me that one of the strong points about the atomic weapon is the fact that it creates
mystery. . .
The more we talk about them, and the more we deduce about them, the more we rush into the
papers and get a headline, the more they find out about our lack of preparation or our preparation.
And it takes away from the appeal that might otherwise be made . . .

Senator, this is of course a subject that is our daily difficulty, because we today live in a country
which has a habit of openness and is not inclined to secrecy. That is the kind of country it is.
What we are trying to do is balance that wholesome habit with the necessity of secrecy and the
requirements of public accountability. I am sure the Senator is aware that that is a difficult

I furthermore believe that the American people will not criticize the wholesome and sound
secrecy that has to do with such a devastating weapon as the atomic bomb . . . I am hoping the
day will come when we can outlaw it. Pending that day I believe we would be very wise to err on
the side of secrecy rather than publicity.

(Tydings then suggests that AEC reports be screened by CIA before release)

I hope you will hear us on at least, to indicate how costly this kind of secrecy will be in making
progress ourselves.
If we could have both that kind of secrecy and democracy, then obviously I would be for it.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

If we could have that kind of secrecy and rapid scientific progress in our country, then we would
be all for it, but we cannot have them both and we have to decide how to modify it.25

This exchange displays the kind of genuine and often vigorous disagreement that arose in

the early Cold War among American government officials, most of whom certainly wished to

protect American interests and preserve a democratic system of government. The uncertainties

wrought by atomic weaponry had thrust the Truman administration into an unfamiliar relationship

with both the public and the press. For many government officials, the threat posed by a Soviet

nuclear program eclipsed the far less apparent threat posed by constrictions of press freedom and

government transparency.

The H-Bomb Series

It was against the backdrop of this political struggle about nuclear secrecy that an article

titled “The Hydrogen Bomb: Presenting an account of the theoretical background of the weapon

and a discussion of some questions it has raised in regard to our present policy of security,”

appeared in the March 1950 issue Scientific American.26 This first article (which was not

censored) was written by Louis N. Ridenour, dean of graduate studies at University of Illinois

and a physicist who had worked on radar research during the war. In the second paragraph of the

five-page article Ridenour threw down a gauntlet for the Truman administration: “On January 31

the President of the U.S. announced that he had instructed the Atomic Energy Commission to

work on the hydrogen superbomb,” he wrote. “Thus a major issue of public policy, one quite

Hearing before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Congress of the United States. Eighty-
first Congress, First Session on Atomic Energy Report to Congress, February 2, 1949, p, 7-18.
“The Hydrogen Bomb, Scientific American, (March 1950, Vol. 182, No. 3), p.11-15.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

possibly involving our national existence, was decided in a fully authoritarian way.”27 Ridenour

was unrelenting in his criticism of the secrecy surrounding development of the H-bomb program.

He went on to make the point that it was critical for the public to understand the specific

properties of the H-bomb – the physics behind its operation -- in order to engage in any kind of

meaningful discussion about whether or not it was prudent to embark on a military program to

develop the weapon. “The military and political questions . . . cannot be dissociated from the

physical problems surrounding the bomb’s design,” he argued, going on to describe that while

the fission process that gave birth to the A-bomb could be harnessed for peaceful purposes, there

were no such peaceful uses conceivable for nuclear fusion. “Thus when we discuss the

‘hydrogen bomb’ we are clearly speaking of a weapon, and a weapon only.” Since its sole

purpose was mass destruction, Ridenour maintained, the H-bomb was a beast wholly different

from its predecessor. “And we can dispose of the ‘morality’ argument at once,” he wrote.

“Once it is decided that people are to be killed, the ‘moral’ question is fully settled. . . .”28

The anger in Ridenour’s piece is unmistakable, and toward the end of the article he hinted

at something that soon would be echoed by many other scientists: That America’s H-bomb

program actually made the U.S. more vulnerable, not more secure. Hence, the national security

justification for secrecy was not legitimate. In a final paragraph he made his position clear with

one last shot at government secrecy:

A government does not adequately protect its citizens by taking decisions for them that
they can neither know about nor take part in . . .

Ibid, p. 11, emphasis added.
Ibid, p. 14.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

We may appreciate the bankruptcy of our secrecy policy when we see how it excludes us
from decisions vital to us without in any way hiding the question under discussion.29

Ridenour’s points certainly invite argument, but the extraordinary thing about this article was that

Scientific American chose to print it in such contentious times, when scientists and journalists both

were under the heavy scrutiny brought on by anti-Soviet fears. No doubt Piel and his editors were

aware they might be poking a beehive, and it is reasonable to suggest that they were taking a

calculated risk.

The next article in the series proved to be riskier still: “The Hydrogen Bomb: II, In which

the technical and strategic discussion of last issue is continued, and a proposal is made for a first

step toward the international control of atomic weapons.”30 This was the article eventually

censored by the Atomic Energy Commission. Its author was one of the most accomplished

nuclear physicists in the world, German-born Hans A. Bethe, professor of physics at Cornell

University who from 1943 to 1946 was chief of the theoretical physics division at Los Alamos

Scientific Laboratory, the very heart of America’s wartime nuclear weapons program. He was

among the pioneers of nuclear physics in the 1930s and one of the most credible scientists in the

world on atomic fusion, so when Bethe wrote about the H-bomb his words carried authority of the

Ibid, p. 15. It should be noted that the nation’s atomic scientists had been issuing warnings
about the dangers of a security policy based on atomic weaponry since shortly the bombs were dropped
on Japan. In 1946 the world’s foremost nuclear scientists published a best-selling collection of essays
addressing somber realities of atomic science and its dangers. See Dexter Masters and Katharine Way,
eds., One World or None (New York: The New Press, 2007. Originally published in 1946 by McGraw-
Hill, New York.) Between 1946 and 1950 this discord grew, coming to a head in 1948 when the House
Committee on Un-American Activities questioned the loyalty of respected physicist Edward Condon.
Wang discusses this fully in American Science. . . pp. 130-152; for a good description of the political
climate see Walter Goodman, The Committee: The Extraordinary career of the House Committee on Un-
American Activities (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1968), pp. 143-156.
Hans A Bethe, “The Hydrogen Bomb: II,” Scientific American (April 1950, Vol. 182, No. 4), p.
18-23. This citation refers to the censored article eventually published.

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highest order.31 Bethe’s article was to be published in both Scientific American and Bulletin of the

Atomic Scientists, and in advance of publication he had sent it to a number of colleagues as a

professional courtesy.32 The pre-circulated article found its way to the AEC, prompting the

Commission to issue its “request” to stop the presses. 33

The AEC initially insisted that all technical information about the H-bomb be deleted from

the article. But Piel and his editor strenuously objected on the grounds that every one of Bethe’s

technical descriptions had been published previously and posed no threat to security. Ultimately

the AEC settled for deletion of just a few technical sentences, and the altered article was published

in the reassembled April 1950 issue. Yet reading the published article in full invites speculation

that Bethe’s political and moral statements may have caused the government at least as much

consternation as his deleted technical statements. Reflecting on Ridenour’s earlier article, Bethe

wrote, “I agree entirely with his view that the creation of the H-bomb makes our country more

vulnerable rather than more secure . . .”34 Later in the piece he issued a forthright statement of

doubt about the ultimate value of the H-bomb program: “I believe the most important question is

the moral one . . . Can we who have always insisted on morality and human decency between

nations as well as inside our own country, introduce this weapon of total annihilation into the

world?”35 Some uncensored technical information underscores his point: Illustrations

accompanying the article’s text show that the “blast effect” of an H-bomb was 1,000 times greater

than that of an A-bomb, and that while the “flash effect” of the A-bomb over Hiroshima caused

See Rhodes, 188-189; also the Bethe biography at the Nobel Foundation Web site,
Reminiscences of Gerard Piel, 201.
Gerard Piel, address to American Society of Newspaper Editors, 21 April 1950. In Problems of
Journalism: Proceedings of the 1950 Convention, American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 20, 21,
22, Hotel Stadler, Washington, D.C., p. 148.
Bethe, p. 18.
Ibid, p. 21.

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fatal burns up to 5,000 feet, the flash effect of an H-bomb could cause fatal burns at distances of

“20 miles or more.”36 “Whoever wishes to use the hydrogen bomb in our conflict with the USSR,

either as a threat or in actual warfare,” Bethe wrote, “is adhering to the old fallacy that the ends

justify the means . . . We would invalidate our cause if we were to use in our fight means that can

only be termed mass slaughter.37

One last part of Bethe’s article raises another issue entirely, one that I argue lies in the very

marrow of the clash over government secrecy. Bethe wrote:

I believe there was a deep feeling in this country right after the war that the use of atomic bombs in
Japan had been a mistake, and that these bombs should be eliminated from national armaments . . .
But our inability to eliminate atomic bombs is no reason to introduce a bomb which is a thousand
times worse.38

Here, five years after the atomic bombings that ended WWII, the nation’s foremost nuclear

physicist was giving voice to something that in 1945 would have been unutterable, but that in the

postwar years had become a common refrain among nuclear scientists.39 Some of the very

scientists who created the atomic bomb were now regretting its wartime deployment. Just weeks

before the Scientific American H-bomb series began, Dr. Albert Einstein said this in a speech at

Princeton University: “The idea of achieving security through national armament is, at the present

state of military technique, a disastrous illusion.”40 Einstein was setting American science at clear

odds with national policy. Yet it was atomic science itself that had determined the state of Cold

Ibid, p. 19.
Ibid, p. 21.
Ibid, p. 22.
Jessica Wang offers a comprehensive description of atomic scientists’ organized efforts to raise
awareness and prevent nuclear weapons proliferation after the war. See Wang, 12-25.
Dr. Albert Einstein, “Peace in the Atomic Era: Peaceful Cooperation Depends Primarily on
Mutual Trust.” Speech delivered at Princeton, N.J., for broadcast on N.B.C. Television Program,
Debruary 19, 1950. Reprinted in Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. 16 (New York: The City News Pub.
Co., 1950), p. 302.

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War foreign policy in 1950! The trajectories of science and politics seemed at cross-purposes,

made more difficult by the relative public ignorance of the science behind the politics.

Perhaps, then, one important element of the nation’s ambivalence about nuclear secrecy

was linked to a deeper ambivalence about its leaders’ 1945 choice to unleash the world’s first

atomic bombs on Japan, and also to a discomfort with America’s consequent postwar status as

world superpower. By this light, the Cold War broadly construed was more than a competition

between two superpowers. It was also an arena for each superpower’s struggle to define the

boundaries of human scientific activity in the face of the searing realities of the atomic age.41

Journalists Argue over Secrecy

We in the press. . . have been stuck with

the generalizations and the abstractions, because
secrecy makes it difficult and many times impossible
to discuss a question of secrecy.42

The government’s arguments about science and secrecy mirrored arguments that had

aroused American newspeople for a long time. By 1950, American journalists had engaged in

discussions about peacetime government secrecy for a number of years. Records of the annual

meetings of the main national organization for news editors, the American Society of Newspaper

Editors (ASNE), for 1947, 1948 and 1949 are full of discussions, debates and floor motions about

the proper relationship between journalists and government. The details of these ASNE

proceedings at times seem trivial, but it is important to note that in the late 1940s, newspapers

were the primary source of government information for the American public; the editorial

For two thoughtful discussions of this ambivalence, see Robert J. Lifton and Greg Mitchell,
Hiroshima In America: Fifty Years of Denial (New York: Putnam, 1995); and the concluding essay by
Anthony Weller in George Weller’s First Into Nagasaki: The Censored Eyewitness Dispatches of Post-
Atomic Japan and its Prisoners of War (New York: Crown Publishers, 2006).
Gerard Piel, address to American Society of Newspaper Editors, 21 April 1950. Problems of
Journalism: Proceedings of the 1950 Convention… p. 146.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

decisions made by newspapers often determined the extent to which the citizens understood the

workings of their government.

In 1947, two years after the end of WWII, the country in some ways was still transitioning

from a wartime footing to a peacetime footing, and most of the ASNE discussions had to do with

American journalists’ efforts to spread press freedom across the globe -- a movement historian

Margaret Blanchard called “Exporting the First Amendment.” 43 There was little contention at the

1947 ASNE meeting when guest speaker Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower lavished praise on the

gathered press for its cooperation in helping to spread the American message abroad, and for

helping to inform the American people of the importance of recruiting and maintaining a strong

and ready Army.44 Likewise, there was no evident argument when ASNE President Wilbur

Forrest issued this warning to the assembled editors about a just-completed, off-the-record speech

by Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson: “Nothing is to be printed about it. The candor with

which the Under Secretary was able to speak was with that understanding.” 45

By the following year’s ASNE conference, the tenor had altered slightly. By this time

ASNE had formed a standing committee on Atomic Information whose charge it was to

negotiate the rules for reporting sensitive scientific information, and this committee worked

closely with the government to define those parameters. (Politics were heating up for the

November 1948 presidential election, so there was a partisan flavor to some of these ASNE

proceedings.) But wartime press consensus was beginning to wobble: Earlier that year the news

wire services Associated Press (AP) and United Press (UP) had stopped supplying stories to the

Margaret A. Blanchard, Exporting the First Amendment: the press-Government Crusade of
1945-1952, (New York: Longman, 1985).
Problems of Journalism: Proceedings: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Convention, American
Society of Newspaper Editors, April 17-19. 1947. Hotel Statler, Washington, D.C., 198-201.
Ibid, 139. Acheson’s was one of many off-the-record speeches by government officials typical
of ASNE gatherings.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

government-run radio service Voice of America (VOA), concerned that cooperation with an

agency of government propaganda would compromise their journalistic integrity.46 The VOA

matter set the press-government relationship into high relief at the ASNE meeting, where some

editors balked at government pressure on ASNE to persuade the wire services to cooperate with

VOA requests. By 1948 the wartime government-press cooperation was beginning to show signs

of stress.47

By 1949 the wire service/VOA standoff had intensified, and the tone at ASNE had

changed significantly. One group of editors made a floor motion urging AP and UP to work

with the government. A rival group objected and moved to table the original motion, making the

comment that “To exert pressure on editors even collectively to influence their opinion is the

beginning of thought control.”48 Later in the proceedings, a group of editors from smaller papers

proposed a resolution to prohibit all off-the-record government speeches at ASNE gatherings – a

resolution that was denounced, tabled, and allowed to fade away. So while journalists over all

by no means were refusing to work with the government, by 1949 their skepticism about

cooperating with secrecy requests was growing.

For American newspaper editors, then, the period between 1947 and 1949 was one of

gradual and mounting skepticism about secrecy compacts between journalists and government.

By the April 1950 meeting, the transformation away from a cooperative, wartime footing had

begun in earnest. The 1950 ASNE agenda was full of government-secrecy-related items, and

one of the main speakers was Scientific American publisher Gerard Piel. The censorship of Hans

While it is not considered in this essay, the conflict between the wire services and the VOA
impacted some political aspects of American broadcasting. A forthcoming paper will address that matter.
Problems of Journalism: Proceedings: American Society of Newspaper Editors, April 15, 16,
17, 1948. Hotel Statler, Washington, D.C., 18-19; 36-50.
Dr. Carl Ackerman, Graduate School of Journalism (no affiliation noted), Ibid. p. 150. The
VOA discussion continues through p. 160.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

Bethe’s article on March 15 (just weeks before the ASNE meeting) had caught the attention of

ASNE, prompting leaders to arrange a morning discussion titled, “What Price Security?” The

speakers were Dr. Henry De Wolf Smyth of the AEC, and Piel. The comments of these men are

abbreviated here, though their discussion went on for many transcribed pages.

Dr. Smyth was a respected physicist who had authored a controversial 1945 report about

the Manhattan Project detailing the historical development of the atomic bomb.49 His present

service was with the Atomic Energy Commission, and his message to the ASNE editors in 1950

was one of caution. After giving a nod to concerns about the role of a free press in modern

democracy, Smyth turned directly to the Bethe article, noting Bethe’s service with the U.S.

government and referring to the “twilight zone” of information that appeared when civilian

scientists have had access to classified information: “We believe such men share with us the

responsibility for seeing to it that no significant information is revealed.”50 It was precisely Dr.

Bethe’s credibility, Smyth argued, that made his article a threat to national security.

Gerard Piel had another opinion. In a measured speech that managed to sidestep high

emotion, Piel described generally the information in Bethe’s censored article on the H-Bomb.

Being careful not to disclose “restricted data,” Piel averred that the censored portions of the article

fell into one of four categories:

• Statements formerly declassified by the AEC

• Statements previously made by Bethe in print or via radio
• Statements previously published in the March 1950 article by Ridenour
• Statements cleared by the AEC for a speech given in Los Angeles in March 1950.

This report, formally titled “Atomic Energy for Military Purposes” and commonly called the
Smyth Report, was a detailed account of the WWII Manhattan Project. Some felt the report was too
forthcoming and compromised national security. So, Dr. Smyth as its author could not be considered a
hard-line opponent of Piel’s freedom of information appeals at the ASNE meeting.
Problems of Journalism: Proceedings of the 1950 Convention, American Society of Newspaper
Editors, April 20, 21, 22, Hotel Statler, Washington, D.C., p. 144.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

Piel’s point was that the AEC’s censorship of Scientific American was not an attempt to protect

national security – it was really a message to all atomic scientists to “keep their traps shut.”51 He

went on to question whether the government censorship of atomic information could ever

genuinely be in the public interest. “Because [atomic questions are] so walled off by secrecy from

the legitimate enquiry of the press,” Piel noted, the AEC “has not enjoyed the advantage of public

surveillance and even public controversy . . .” 52 By keeping a shroud over frank discussion of the

H-bomb, the government not only deprived scientists of valuable critique by their colleagues, it

also deprived citizens of the chance to scrutinize a singularly crucial public policy decision. Piel

then admonished the press for their complicity:

For the pall of secrecy which so dangerously frustrates its legitimate activities, the press must

blame itself . . . Our newspapers and magazines have sold themselves a gold brick. When you

extract a banner in 64 point type out of a mislaid milligram of Uranium, you have helped to create

an environment in which books are burned.53

In closing Piel offered a quote from Los Alamos physicist and AEC advisor J. Robert

Oppenheimer: “We know that the only way to avoid error it to detect it. We know the wages of

secrecy are corruption. We know that in secrecy error undetected will flourish and subvert.”54 To

Gerard Piel, the hazards of censorship were every bit as threatening to the integrity of democracy

as they were to the integrity of science.

Ibid, 149.
Ibid, 154.
Ibid, 154. Here Piel refers to a recent, widely publicized controversy over misplaced nuclear
material – one that most scientists thought trivial but that was nonetheless reported with some fanfare.
Ibid, 154.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

H-Bomb Secrecy circa 1979: The Progressive Magazine Case

This Court can find no plausible reason why

the public needs to know the technical details
about hydrogen bomb construction to carry on
an informed debate on the issue…55

The story of Gerard Piel and Scientific American is something of a neglected piece of First

Amendment history. Since the matter never was litigated, it holds no place in the canon of

American censorship history or law. But a strikingly similar case does -- United States v.

Progressive, Inc.56 By the time the Progressive case arose in 1979 the Cold War was three

decades old. U.S-Soviet tension had settled in, saturating American policy and public life. The

hydrogen bomb was no longer theoretical: Following Truman’s 1950 directive, American

scientists worked to perfect the “superbomb” and on 1 November 1952 they managed the first

successful detonation of an H-bomb, at a test site in the Marshall Islands. The 10.4 megaton bomb,

nicknamed “Mike,” was 500 times more powerful than the fission device dropped on Nagasaki.57

Nine months later in August 1953, the Soviets detonated their own, smaller H-bomb, and the

world entered a new phase of atomic competition.

Something about the nature of the hydrogen bomb kept it in the shadows, more of a dark,

potential menace than an active, present threat. Perhaps the kind of scientific warnings published

in Scientific American in 1950 had exposed the bomb’s destructive power sufficiently to arouse

caution among Cold War decision-makers and their publics. In any event, by 1979 when The

Progressive magazine was poised to publish its article exposing the H-bomb’s secrets, the science

behind the bomb was still a tightly-held secret, its release still punishable under American law.

District Judge Warren, United States of America v. Progressive, Inc.
467 F. Supp. 990, 1000 (W.D. Wisc. 1979).
Richard Rhodes’ epilogue offers a thorough description of the personal, political and scientific
complexities surrounding America’s development of the H-bomb. See Rhodes, 749-788.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

In the Progressive matter, freelance writer Howard Morland spent many months

researching the H-bomb, trying to determine its precise construction and operation. Morland

would later refer to himself as a “nuclear abolitionist.” He wrote that one of his article’s goals had

been “to demystify the bomb, show it to be a product of industry, and assemblage of

components.”58 Unlike Hans Bethe, Morland was not a trained physicist and had no access to

classified material, but he had managed to tease out the H-bomb’s construction through research

and diligent questioning. His editor at The Progressive had sent one of Morland’s freehand H-

bomb drawings to an MIT physicist, who then dutifully sent it along to Washington for


When the U.S. Department of Energy got wind of the article they asked The Progressive to

withhold publication. The magazine refused, insisting that nothing classified would be released

since all data in Morland’s article was gleaned from public sources – encyclopedias, libraries,

published papers, etc. The case landed in federal district court in Wisconsin, where Judge Robert

Warren granted first a temporary restraining order and later a preliminary injunction – the first

time in American history that such an injunction had been issued against the press.59 The

Progressive appealed, convinced it was within its rights and determined to fight the censorship.

Even the government prosecutor in charge of the Progressive case, U.S. Attorney Frank

Tuerkheimer, had serious doubts about the government’s case for prior restraint. Upon reviewing

the file and seeing what was marked as “restricted data,” Turkheimer was stunned. “I saw that

there was information in those boxes that was not new to me,” he recalled, “in fact, I had known it

for literally twenty-five years.”60 When he conveyed his misgivings to the other government

Howard Morland in Cardozo “Symposium . . ,” p. 1367.
See Rudenstine’s description in Cardozo “Symposium . . ,” 1338.
Tuerkheimer in Cardozo “Symposium . . ,” 1363..

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

attorneys, they were less than receptive, but Tuerkheimer maintained very serious concerns about

the First Amendment implications of the government’s suppression of Morland’s article. He spent

the next weekend at the University of Wisconsin-Madison physics library, photocopying

published articles that contained precisely the information the DOE had labeled “restricted.”

Tuerkheimer passed the copies along to his superiors at the Department of Energy. He went on to

make numerous attempts to have the case dropped, even contacting President Carter’s Attorney

General Griffin Bell, but the government would not back down.61

Then, within weeks of The Progressive’s appeal of the injunction, another writer published

information on the H-bomb that was so similar to Morland’s that the government dropped the

Progressive case altogether. Morland’s article – newly titled “The H-Bomb Secret: To Know

How is to Ask Why” -- was published in the November 1979 issue of The Progressive, nine

months after its first intended publication.62

In comparing these two instances of H-bomb censorship, the differences are not nearly as

notable as the similarities. In 1950 the H-bomb was still in development, while by 1979 the

Soviets had possessed the H-bomb “secret” for over a quarter century, yet both censorships took

place in peacetime rather than wartime. Bethe was a physicist while Morland was an anti-nuclear

activist, yet both authors felt strongly that the American public needed access to the science

behind the bomb in order to fully understand the weapon’s implications. Piel was a publisher and

Tuerkeimer was a prosecutor, yet both were convinced that the government was engaged in grave

constitutional violation by censoring a magazine for publishing non-restricted scientific

Interview by author with Tuerkheimer, 19 November 2007, Madison, Wisconsin.
Howard Morland, “The H-Bomb Secret: To Know How is to Ask Why,” The Progressive
(November 1979), p. 14 et seq.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

information. And in a curious twist of time and orientation, Hans Bethe, the author of the 1950

censored article, had filed an affidavit on behalf of the government in the Progressive case

asserting that some of Morland’s information was indeed properly “restricted.”

The comparison of these two stories of science and censorship brings some larger

questions of government secrecy into focus. Upon learning that Bethe’s affidavit had supported

censorship of The Progressive, nuclear weapons designer Dr. Ray Kidder – a scientist at

California’s Livermore Laboratory who had objected to the censorship of The Progressive and had

testified on the magazine’s behalf -- became convinced Bethe had been misled by the government

about the details of Morland’s original article. While the Progressive case was still in litigation,

Kidder suggested that he and Bethe continue discussing the matter through private

correspondence. Beginning in April 1979, Drs. Bethe and Kidder exchanged a series of detailed

letters discussing the implications of the Progressive censorship, and debating which information

had and had not been properly classified. Near the end of this correspondence, Kidder reiterated

his conviction that certain technical information in the Morland article -- called “Exhibits 3 and 5”

throughout the correspondence – had been in the public domain long before 1979, and that much

of the material at issue in Progressive had never been “restricted data” at all. In the last of his

responses, handwritten and undated, Hans Bethe ultimately agreed with Kidder that the

government had improperly suppressed some information:

Dear Dr. Kidder:

Thanks a lot for the interesting documents. I still disagree with your assessment of the French.63
On exhibits 3 and 5, you are right.
Best Regards,
Hans Bethe64

Bethe and Kidder had disagreed about why France did not get the H-bomb until 1968.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

The Bethe-Kidder letters remained classified for twenty-two years, long after the Progressive

matter was dropped. The letters finally were released in 2001 at the urging of Howard Morland.


Today, the Progressive case is well known to students of media and First Amendment

history, while the Scientific American matter is omitted from most academic histories of press

freedom. During the early Cold War, certainly some journalists objected to government secrecy

and to restrictions on press freedom, but these objections were submerged by the safer and more

compelling “Cold War consensus” that moored so much of American journalism through the

1960s. By the time of the Progressive case, the country had been through the war in Vietnam, the

Pentagon Papers matter, the Watergate trauma, and the 1975 congressional disclosure of CIA and

FBI misadventures; by 1979 journalists had regained some of their pre-WWII muscle and

skepticism. Yet the underlying issues in both matters were nearly identical.

This comparison makes Gerard Piel’s resolve in 1950 all the more notable. He took a

position on press freedom that was almost directly opposite the one held by the U.S. Supreme

Court of the time – the Court was likely to permit prior restraint in matters where a “clear and

present danger” was alleged. But Piel appeared to believe that it is precisely in those times of

“present danger” that the country was most in need of unrestricted communication, particularly

among scientists.65

Transcribed correspondence between Bethe and Kidder, Federation of American Scientists
Web site, Emphasis added.
In this regard, Piel’s idea closely mirrors that of philosopher Alexender Meiklejohn whose
classic text on the First Amendment was published the same year Piel took over Scientific American. See
Meiklejohn, Free Speech and its Relation to Self-Government (New York: Harper, 1948).

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

Piel remained a strident opponent of censorship for the rest of his life. Under his

stewardship Scientific American became perhaps the world’s most widely-read and respected

magazine of science – it retained that reputation for many subsequent years under the direction of

his son Jonathan Piel. The magazine currently is published in 18 countries, and for many years

was published in the Soviet Union where Piel had been trying to make inroads since the 1960s.66

In 1983, near the end of the Cold War, and after five years of negotiations with the Soviets, Piel

secured an agreement with Moscow to publish a Russian-language version of Scientific American.

The first 20,000 copies were distributed behind the “Iron Curtain” in February 1983. Predictably,

the Soviets reserved the right to censor any article they found unsuitable. “Among taboo

subjects,” reported Time magazine, were “social and economic sciences and defense matters.” 67

In 1955, five years after the censorship of the Bethe article, Piel wrote a piece for Science

magazine, reflecting on the deeper matters embedded in questions of science and journalism in a

free society. He stressed once again the importance to democracy of a free flow of scientific

thought, and his brief statement brings a proper close to this story:

In our increasingly complete and connected knowledge of the

cosmos we have an ever clearer understanding of ourselves and our
place in nature . . . Science thus bears upon the ends as well as the
means of the life of man.

We have need for a better understanding of science among members

of our society not only that we may use the power which such
understanding gives us, but that we may use it well.68

Reminiscences of Gerard Piel, 189-190..
“Mir Science; a Soviet-U.S. Magazine,” Time, 28 February 1983.
Gerard Piel, “Need for Public Understanding of Science” Science, (New Series, Vol. 121, No.
3140, Mar. 4, 1955), 317-322.

The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950


Reminiscences of Gerard Piel, recorded between 1 July 1981 and 28 August 1996, in
the Columbia University Oral History Research Office Collection.

McCoy, Alfred. (Relative of Gerard Piel.) Interviews by author, October 2007-

March 2008, Madison, WI.

Tuerkheimer, Frank. Interview by author, 19 November 2007, Madison, WI. Written


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The Forgotten Censorship of Scientific American in 1950

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