Manhattan Episode 5: Secrets, Security & Growing Tensions

Manhattan Episode 5: Secrets, Security & Growing Tensions

Frank Winter and Glen Babbit on Manhattan

The fifth episode of “Manhattan” was more about developing the characters and providing their backstories than it was about progress on the bomb design. The only major technical development was that the Thin Man team was sent back to the drawing board.  Their bomb design turns out to be far too heavy for a B-29 to carry. The team did not know that the plane would be loaded with 26 tons of fuel to make the roundtrip from Tinian to Japan.

Now they have to figure out how to reduce the weight of the bomb dramatically. Is eliminating the redundant trigger going to be sufficient? In the bar, Glen Babbit, who has been part of the implosion team with Frank Winter, gives Charlie Isaacs and his team a big clue in the form of an off-color story. “All she needed was one good bang.”

One of the major tensions of the show so far has been between Frank Winter and wunderkind Charlie Isaacs with “a once in a generation mind,” according to his boss Akley.  Not only are Winter and Isaacs on opposing teams, there are major tensions between them stemming back to Winter’s refusal to approve Isaac’s dissertation for publication. When Isaacs spills a secret that imperils Winter’s friend and colleague Glen Babbit, Winter doesn’t flinch. He makes sure Isaacs’ wife Abbie is listening in as a telephone operator when Winter tells his father that Isaacs had plagiarized in his dissertation.

As soon as Charlie gets home, Abbie tells Charlie what she overheard. Livid, Charlie runs to confront Winter at the Tech Area. Once there, Charlie is forced to admit that he did lift a key paragraph from another scientist’s paper. Now Winter has a card that he can play in extracting Charlie’s support for Winter’s colleague Babbit.

Babbit had been good friends with a physicist, Richard Lavro, who has since defected to the Soviet Union. Babbit lied about knowing this physicist in his initial Manhattan Project interview, and now his deception is coming back to haunt him. Furthermore, Babbit admits that he wasn’t just friends with Lavro, who urged Babbit to run off to Russia with him. Now that he has some leverage over Charlie, Winter is able to convince him to keep what he knows about Babbit quiet. Babbit seems to be safe at Los Alamos—for now.

“Manhattan” has been heavily playing up the Army’s fear of espionage during the project. Most of the episodes so far have highlighted censorship, spying, and intense interrogations. While it is certainly true that the real Manhattan Project tried to keep a very tight lid on leaks, many workers and their families viewed the security measures and military police as more of a nuisance than a malicious force. In this episode, Dr. Liza Winter is exasperated with the security force’s redacting her correspondence with outside scientists on botanical issues. After this outburst, the bees in Dr. Winter’s experimental beehive are mysteriously found dead.

General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, also became exasperated with security and removed his top intelligence officer at Los Alamos, Peer de Silva, who repeatedly raised accusations that J. Robert Oppenheimer was a Communist. Groves had cleared Oppenheimer at the outset and these accusations from his intelligence officers caused considerable disruption to the project.

Many Manhattan Project veterans recall tussles with security officials. Patricia (“Pat”) Krikorian’s brother was serving overseas on General Eisenhower’s staff; coincidentally, he ended up working with a soldier who had grown up at Los Alamos. As a tease, Pat’s brother sent her a letter with inside jokes about Los Alamos. The inside information alarmed a commanding officer, who refused to let Pat write further letters to her brother or to let any more letters from him through for the duration of the war.

Even General Groves was willing to compromise his “compartmentalization” policy that allowed scientists and workers to be informed on a need-to-know-basis. In a 1965 interview, J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled his first meeting with Groves: “I said, ‘This thing will never get on the rails unless there is a place where people can talk to each other and work together on the problems of the bomb. …There has got to be a place where people are free to discuss what they know and what they do not know and to find out what they can.’ And that made an impression on him.”

At Oak Ridge, Ray Stein was assigned to the Y-12 Plant and was told to keep an eye out for possible saboteurs or spies. He remembered, “One time Alice and I went out on a date and I was taking her home. I left her at her dormitory and went back to the bus stop. You were noticed; you were watched. They didn’t like to see any unusual things going on, like a single man out that time of night. They questioned me, what I was doing out and this sort of thing. It was very, very close surveillance.”

In “The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico,” anthropologist Joseph Masco examined the paranoia of the security team at Los Alamos. “One weapons scientist explained to me how he breached security at Los Alamos simply by bringing a sack lunch into the plutonium facility. He left his lunch on his office desk and stepped out for a minute. He came back to find a commotion. A security officer informed him that the orange he left on his desk was, in fact, a classified object. He learned that any spherical object became a nuclear secret once it passes over the line demarcating the secure from the open areas of the laboratory, as it could be taken as a model for the plutonium pit that drives a nuclear weapon.” (See "Forbidden Spheres" by historian Alex Wellerstein for more on the lab's concern over spherical objects.)

While it has achieved great moments of dramatic tension, “Manhattan” falls short in conveying the project’s lighter, more human side: the martini parties at the Oppenheimer’s, hiking and horseback rides, and other recreational activities that were essential to release tension. While there have been a few lighter moments, the constant pressures of the war, interpersonal rivalries, and invasive security measures continue to predominate and elevate the tensions.

For more information about the history of the Manhattan Project, check out our online store, which includes “A Guide to the Manhattan Project in New Mexico” and our bestselling anthology, “The Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of Its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians.”