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Clandestine research defined America’s atomic age

Restricted Data: The History of Nuclear Secrecy in the United States

Alex Wellerstein
University of Chicago Press
528 pp.
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Secrecy was a defining aspect of the creation of the atomic bomb and, 75 years later, nuclear secrecy remains a feature of American democracy. In Restricted Data, Alex Wellerstein examines the health of democracy in the face of big science, big government, and big weapons. “The bomb,” he points out, “may have been born in secrecy, but that secrecy was always controversial and always contested.”

Wellerstein conceives of nuclear secrecy as a “regime,” or a bundle of thoughts, activities, and organizations that seek to normalize the performance of secrecy. Seeing secrecy as a set of practices enables him to research widely into not only censorship and clearance but also media releases, publicity, propaganda, and the trade and control of material objects.

Restricted Data explores the discovery of spies within the Manhattan Project, the denial of Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance, and the 1950s paradox of trying to promote peaceful uses of nuclear power while keeping nuclear weapons secret. The book adds to these histories an analysis of the “anti-secrecy” campaigns wherein Americans sought to break the Cold War code of classified nuclear knowledge.

Wellerstein shows that the scientists who produced classified materials were consistently among the chief opponents of secrecy. They grasped, better than nonscientists did, that the bomb itself was its own greatest promoter. Every American detonation offered to Soviets an intelligence windfall in the form of radioactive debris that delivered information about the types of fuel used, the ratios of fission and fusion, and aspects of the bomb’s design.

But not all secrets are equal. The essence of the Teller-Ulam hydrogen bomb (H-bomb) design, for example, was so compact that it could be handed over on the back of a napkin. Wellerstein shows how, in pursuit of the secret of the H-bomb, America shifted its security efforts from stopping the infiltration of foreign entities to scouring for double agents, scrutinizing insiders, and seeking continual affirmations of loyalty.

As the American security regime metastasized, the desire to control classified information fell in step with desires to control ever-larger portions of the globe. With ballooning security budgets, American security officials clandestinely influenced international organizations, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency and nonprofit foundations such as the Rockefeller and Ford Foundations, while engaged in wars and coup d’etats in Asia and Latin America. After the release of the Pentagon Papers, Americans demanded transparency.

Wellerstein explores the frustrated efforts of those who actively sought to establish “anti-secrecy” practices and ideologies aimed at exposing restricted data, revealing how such individuals could fall victim to convoluted logic in much the same way as those who pursued censorship in the name of democracy and freedom. Peppered throughout this section are many quotable passages on the meta-relationship of government, societies, and individuals to state secrets. If knowledge is power, Wellerstein writes, “then nuclear knowledge is a lot of power.”

One comes away with the impression that the only important historical actors in the 20th-century United States were white men who were scientists, administrators, or politicians. There is little in the way of class, race, or gender in this book. This omission takes as a matter of course the question of who decides what is “secret,” who gets clearance, and who acts on behalf of everyone else, while failing to mention that the people making these decisions were almost always white, male professionals. Declassification campaigns, meanwhile, were often waged by nonwhites, members of the working class, Indigenous people, and women.

By following only a small portion of the population, Wellerstein omits a major facet of nuclear security. The vast majority of people directly exposed to radioactive fallout were soldiers, prisoners, children, minorities, and colonial subjects. This was perhaps one of the most guarded secrets the US government held—that the public it had vowed to protect and defend was under daily bombardment from radioactive debris from the testing and production of nuclear weapons.

Carl Schmitt, a political theorist and prominent Nazi, noted famously that during emergencies, the public hands over its rights to the state, and that the state rarely gives them back. Unrestricted Data illustrates that insight in spades. It is easier, Wellerstein concludes, “to imagine the elimination of nuclear weapons than an elimination of the secrecy surrounding them.”

About the author

The reviewer is at the Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA.