Posted July 13, 2021
By Byron King
The Secrets of “Atomic Bill”
In April 1945, a Major General of the U.S. Army walked unannounced into the lobby of the New York Times building. He asked to see the newspaper’s science reporter.
After meeting with the general, the reporter simply disappeared. No one at the Times heard from him again until many months later.
Yet when the Times reporter resurfaced, what a tale he had to tell! He was a proverbial “fly on the wall” of one of the most secret programs of the 20th century.
And even today, 76 years later, we live in a world much shaped by this reporter’s stories, by the spellbinding chronicles of a man known as “Atomic Bill.”
Let’s dig in…
We’ll begin not with Atomic Bill, however. We’ll meet him in a moment. But as you’ll soon understand, this story must start with that Army general who visited the Times. His name was Leslie Groves (1896-1970; and in fact, he died 51 years ago today, July 13).
Army Major General Leslie Groves. National Archives.
Groves was not a combat general. His fame came not for exploits on the front lines, or tactical and operational contributions to the decisions of America’s cadre of wartime brass.
No, Gen. Groves was an engineer who barely set foot outside the U.S. during World War II. And to be sure, he never heard the sound of enemy guns. But he was and remains a critical contributor to wartime victory.
In the late 1930s, engineer Groves played key roles in an oft-overlooked aspect of war — namely, peacetime preparation. He oversaw many aspects of a massive, pre-war buildout of new facilities that the U.S. Army and Navy would eventually use when war came. And to be sure, in the late 1930s, war loomed. Many people saw conflict coming.
Among many significant other credits, Groves oversaw the design and early construction of the Pentagon, on which ground was broken in September 1941.
By mid-1942, though, Groves was pulled away to another task. Army leadership appointed him to run a research and development program from an office at 270 Broadway in New York. It even had a name that went along with the address: the Manhattan Project. And its mission was to develop the atomic bomb.
At the time, in those early days of World War II, Groves sought a combat assignment. When he was ordered to New York to work on a scientific program involving little-known and poorly understood principles of physics, he was disappointed. “Oh, that thing,” he quipped.
Dutifully though, Groves took charge. And he soon realized that to build “that thing” — the atom bomb — he had the resources of the entire nation at his disposal, beginning with a massive budget in the vicinity of $2 billion (over $100 billion today).
And Groves and his project had highest wartime priorities for people and materials as well.
By comparison, when tasked to build the Pentagon, Groves was under pressure to minimize the use of steel, a metal necessary for other wartime needs such as ships, tanks, trucks, etc. Hence the Pentagon is primarily built of reinforced concrete.
But with the Manhattan Project, Groves could requisition tonnages of steel that were equal to entire battleships. And he used that steel to build out vast complexes in places with obscure names, like Oak Ridge, Tenn., Hanford, Wash., and Los Alamos, NM.
On another occasion, when told that there was not enough copper for a critical program at Oak Ridge, Groves requisitioned 14,000 tons of silver from the U.S. Treasury. Groves’s engineers formed the silver into wire and used it inside devices called Calutrons.
Groves employed major elements of U.S. industry too. He hired companies like Westinghouse, Union Carbide, General Electric and many more to build and operate facilities that became essential to the U.S. wartime effort to develop the atom bomb.
And Groves had vast armies of service providers and direct labor at his disposal as well. He controlled fleets of trucks and entire rail lines. He employed excavators, builders, welders, electricians, plumbers, carpenters and much more.
In fact, as the Manhattan Project evolved, Groves had entire faculties of mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering working for him, almost all from many of America’s greatest research universities.
Everything was top-secret of course. Under the circumstances, anything and everything about nuclear energy was classified. At one point, a zealous security officer even proposed classifying the periodic table of elements.
Yet at the same time, Groves also realized that there was a major story unfolding within this massive program. Eventually, in April 1945, he walked from 270 Broadway down the street to Time Square and entered the doors of the New York Times.
“I’d like to speak with William Laurence,” said Gen. Groves to the receptionist at the front desk. And a few minutes later, the two men were sitting in a small conference room.
William Laurence (1888-1977) is the Anglicized name of Leib Siew, born in the former Russian Empire in what’s now Lithuania. In 1905, aged 17, Siew/Laurence participated in an uprising against the tsar and became a wanted man. With the alternative being time in jail, he emigrated to the U.S. where he learned to speak English and then attended Harvard, Boston University and Harvard Law School.
William Laurence, courtesy New York Times.
Laurence served in the U.S. Army in World War I. After discharge, he went into journalism in New York, a pursuit which eventually landed him on the payroll of the New York Times.
Laurence’s strong suit was science reporting, and in 1940 he wrote a remarkable article about new breakthroughs in nuclear fission and atomic energy research. The article prompted Laurence’s colleagues at the Times to call him "Atomic Bill."
Among other things, Laurence’s article was so insightful and impactful that Soviet agents forwarded it to no less than Joseph Stalin, who in turn ordered that a Soviet nuclear research program be set up along the same lines.
Eventually, back in the U.S. and after the country formally entered World War II, FBI agents visited libraries across the nation and seized old copies of the article.
Meanwhile, Gen. Groves also knew about Laurence and his ability to understand and discuss atomic energy. And this brings us to that visit by Groves to the New York Times offices.
Groves offered Laurence a job as a "special consultant" on a top-secret project. Groves told Laurence to expect to see astonishing things while traveling extensively.
There were rules, though. Laurence could and would be expected to write news stories of Times-level quality. But none of them would be published, said Groves, "until sometime in the future."
Laurence would tell the Manhattan Project story by first vanishing. Groves told Laurence, "You will, for all intents and purposes, disappear off the face of the earth." And that is exactly what happened.
Within days, Laurence was at Oak Ridge, Tenn., in a city that few knew existed and which did not appear on any public map until 1948. And he carried an ID card that granted him access to virtually everything that happened there.
Every day, Laurence talked with physicists, chemists, engineers and technicians who worked on components for the atom bomb. Then he would return to his office and write "news" articles for review by Manhattan Project censors.
In all cases, Laurence's articles about the Manhattan Project were stamped TOP SECRET and placed in a locked safe in a well-guarded vault. No one was permitted to see them.
At night, the Oak Ridge custodial staff emptied the trash can in Laurence's office. At the end of their rounds, they burned the contents and then sifted through the ash to ensure complete destruction. As an extra measure of security, the janitors were illiterate.
When Laurence wasn't at Oak Ridge, he traveled across the U.S. He visited other secret nuclear sites like Hanford, Los Alamos and many industrial facilities and university labs. He met with scientists, industrialists and military officers who worked on the atom bomb.
It’s important to note how few people really had a big picture of the Manhattan Project. People worked in relative isolation. Everyone had a job, but few knew what people next door, or down the road, let alone across the country were doing.
And yet, within a few weeks of arriving at Oak Ridge, Laurence knew more than almost anyone else in the country about the Manhattan Project. Later, Laurence joked that he knew so much that Gen. Groves had the option of either keeping him on the payroll or shooting him.
With all this knowledge inside his head and in the secure privacy of his workspace, Laurence was prolific. He wrote tens of thousands of words about nuclear developments. All of his articles went into the TOP SECRET vaults.
In July 1945, Laurence was invited to a remote site in the high desert of New Mexico, southeast of Albuquerque. Late one night, (July 16 to be exact) he stood next to physicist Richard Feynman. Both men wore heavy, dark glasses. As they stared out, the sky suddenly lit up. It was the Trinity Test, the world's first nuclear detonation.
Laurence described the Trinity explosion as "the first cry of a new-born world." He wrote about it and his series of news articles on Trinity went into that TOP SECRET vault.
A few days later, Gen. Groves asked Laurence for something quite extraordinary. Would the Times reporter write a series of statements for Pres. Harry Truman?
The setup was that U.S. forces were about to drop an atom bomb on Japan. And no one really knew what might happen. Indeed, one of the most senior members of the national security staff, Navy Adm. William Leahy, was of the opinion that the atom bomb would never work operationally. (It was one of Leahy’s very few bad calls across an otherwise brilliant career.)
There were several possibilities for the outcome of dropping an atom bomb: success, partial-success or failure. And Groves asked Laurence to anticipate what the president of the United States should say in any event.
Soon after writing notes for the U.S. president, Laurence was on an airplane headed to the South Pacific. Due to bad weather, he was delayed and missed flying on the B-29 aircraft — called Enola Gay — that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima.
A few days later, Laurence was onboard another B-29 on a subsequent mission and he witnessed the bombing of Nagasaki.
"And here I am," wrote Laurence in his notepad while flying over the clouds towards Japan, or “towards the Empire” as he described the target locale in his 1947 book “Dawn Over Zero: the Story of the Atomic Bomb.”
"I am destiny,” wrote Laurence. “I know. They don't know. But I know this is their last night on earth."
And after the two bombs fell on Japan, U.S. military authorities began to declassify and release Laurence's news reports, among the greatest “scoops” of all time.
Of all the war correspondents to cover all the events of World War II, Laurence was unique. He was the one and only reporter who covered the atom bomb story from the inside. Laurence had full access to everything and everyone.
As you can imagine, the New York Times broke each atom bomb story by Laurence with banner headlines on the front page. And some days when Laurence's articles ran, every single copy of the Old Gray Lady sold off the newsstands.
Readers devoured Laurence's news. Radio announcers read Laurence's articles on the air, word for word. College professors read his articles aloud in class. Some pastors even read excerpts from the pulpits.
From the outside looking in, Laurence was the only public source of information on the Manhattan Project. Soon, his articles were reprinted verbatim in other U.S. newspapers from coast to coast. They were translated into dozens of foreign languages and reprinted across the world.
And thus did William Laurence (aka Atomic Bill) shape the initial reaction of the American people, if not the world community, to the news of the atom bomb.
Laurence wrote in a literary, readable style. It was polished, yet folksy. He put a positive, uplifting spin on the nuclear news, which was exactly as Gen. Groves had hoped, if not planned.
That is, Groves was paranoid about news leaks concerning the Manhattan Project. Top U.S. military and political leaders were concerned with how national and global public opinion would absorb news of horrid slaughter that was due to come from employing nuclear weapons.
This is why Groves wanted an eminent journalist, with impeccable credibility and pedigree, to write and shape the atom bomb story as it unfolded, and certainly after the news broke. With William Laurence, Groves got his money's worth and more.
Laurence depicted the power of atomic energy not just favorably, but in terms that were heroic. In one series of articles, Laurence described uranium as "a cosmic treasure house," and a "goose that lays golden eggs." Laurence described nuclear energy as "a new kind of fire" that would deliver mankind to the "fabled seven golden cities."
Per Laurence, nuclear energy would "create a new civilization, transform the earth into a paradise of plenty, abolish poverty and disease and return man to the Eden he had lost."
But then, within a relatively short time, other journalists began to cover atomic issues. News reports showed grim, horrifying images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which in turn penetrated the public consciousness.
The optimistic Laurence viewpoint of all things nuclear began to lose its luster. Indeed, nuclear reality was far from what Laurence depicted in his rosy columns.
Americans began to debate the issues, but then came the first Soviet atom bomb test in 1949, a product of both excellent Soviet science and effective espionage.
And irony of ironies, the Soviet nuclear program traced at least some origins back to Laurence’s 1940 article on atomic fission, which caught the eye of Stalin.
By the end of the decade and moving into the 1950s, the world was divided by a nuclear-armed Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Along the way, serious people made hard-nosed assessments of the world-altering consequences of global nuclear war.
And we’ve lived with it all ever since. The weapons are there, but no one has used them to fight a real war. (Not yet anyhow.) And then there’s nuclear energy. It’s fair to say that atomic power is neither all good nor all bad.
Which brings us back to William Laurence, whose initial post-war reports set a certain public tone towards the power of the atom as a force for both war and peace; it all depends on who directs the focus of this power.
This last point is in many ways the Laurence legacy. Massive programs can create great power, but the issue is who uses it all and for what purpose. With Laurence, the world had a serious man behind the wires, watching history being made in a secret city. And eventually, the story was told.
Looking ahead, in this world of secrets in which we dwell today, we should all be so fortunate again.
On that note, I rest my case.
That’s all for now… Thank you for subscribing and reading.
Byron W. King