On June 28, 1943, Bryon Price, director of the United States Office of Censorship (OoC) and former executive news editor of the Associated Press, sent out a confidential note to 2,000 daily newspapers and 11,000 weeklies as well as all radio stations in the U.S. The note requested that editors prevent any articles or broadcasts from mentioning:
Production or utilization of atom smashing, atomic energy, atomic fission, atomic splitting, or any of their equivalents.
The use for military purposes of radium or radioactive materials, heavy water, high voltage discharge equipment, cyclotrons.
The following elements or any of their compounds: polonium, uranium, ytterbium, hafnium, protactinium, radium, rhenium, thorium, deuterium.
The specificity of the note should have damped all mentions of proposed atomic weaponry, yet in September 1944, Manhattan Project staff compiled a list of 77 violations and sent them to the OoC. Price’s small staff always played catch-up; they could not preread the material in 13,000 publications. Mentions of secrets, called “busts,” had to attract the attention of someone local before they could be passed on. Editors were encouraged to precheck articles before publication, but that was seldom feasible in the rush of daily deadlines and belied the presumed authority of syndicated copy.
Fiction was overlooked in the original OoC dissemination, probably because the government gave a literal definition to facts and information. Yet this was ahistorical. Fiction birthed the atom bomb. In an 1895 novel by Robert Cromie, The Crack of Doom, a group plots to use an atomic device to “undo creation.” In late 1914, the Saturday Evening Post started serializing “The Man Who Rocked the Earth” by Arthur Train and Robert Wood, which forecast horrifying deaths by radiation poisoning. The phrase “atomic war” first appeared in H. G. Wells’s The World Set Free, published in book form in 1914:
Never before in the history of warfare had there been a continuing explosive; indeed, up to the middle of the twentieth century, the only explosives known were combustibles whose explosiveness was due entirely to their instantaneousness; and these atomic bombs which science burst upon the world that night were strange even to the men who used them.
Wells’s cautionary tale warned that an atomic war might destroy all civilization, a destructive weapon of strength unprecedented and unparalleled. He invented a fictional element, Carolinium, from which the chain reaction would emerge. Real world physicists soon identified uranium as the naturally existing element that would fill this role.
The atom bomb wasn’t a secret known only to a few physicists. Over the next quarter century, hundreds, possibly thousands, of newspaper and magazine articles, books, comics strips, movies, and radio programs made the sensational possibilities headline scare material. A fantasy of an atomic-fueled Nazi takeover of America, Lightning in the Night by Fred Allard, was serialized weekly in Liberty magazine from August 24 to November 16, 1940. The science fiction pulp magazines were a natural home for imaginative uses of weaponized atomic power with stories like Robert A. Heinlein’s “Blowups Happen” and “Solution Unsatisfactory” (as by Anson McDonald) both appearing in Astounding Science-Fiction in 1940.
In 1944, Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline” became the latest addition to these stories. Its triggering of an investigation of the atomic “secrets” it supposedly included has achieved legendary status within the science fiction community. Yet there are three other fictional storylines about atomic energy that engendered similar investigations. These other cases are little known other than to specialists and to my knowledge have not been gathered into a single article before. I have tried to gather the extant facts on those episodes. First, however, a recap of the Cartmill incident.
The Golden Age of science fiction is said to start in the late 1930s after John W. Campbell became editor of Astounding. Still in his twenties, Campbell had a reputation as a top writer of the earlier form of superscience: universe-spanning adventure stories. As editor, he tried to reverse and refocus the magazine from all of space and time to the here and now. By fixing attention on Earth and its future, he hoped to raise the standard of writing by demanding work that studied the consequences of forthcoming technologies on average humans, often suggesting such plotlines. This worked dazzlingly well from 1938 to 1942, now seen as the Golden Age of great stories, starring authors often new to the field or whose careers blossomed by following Campbell’s lead. World War II disrupted that small, intimate, almost incestuous field of science fiction and drained Campbell of inventory, especially when major names like Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp literally decamped for domestic naval research work and mostly stopped writing fiction for the duration.
On August 16, 1943, Campbell sent a letter to Cleve Cartmill, who had suggested a story about a “super-bomb.” Cartmill was at best a journeyman just beginning his career though about the same age as Campbell. Cartmill had a deferment from active service because he was partially paralyzed and he had already sold Campbell over a dozen stories. Campbell, who had studied at MIT, boasted of his scientific acumen, and knew of every article and story ever published on the atom bomb; he seized the opportunity, writing back that it was
fact, not theory, [that researchers have used] new atomic isotope separation methods [to produce a supply of fissionable U-235]. They have quantities measured in pounds. They have not brought the whole amount together, or any major portion of it. Because they are not at all sure that, once started, it would stop its reaction until all of it had been consumed.... They’re afraid that that explosion of energy would be so incomparably violent ... that surrounding matter would be set off.... And that would be serious. That would blow an island, or hunk of a continent, right off the planet. It would shake the whole Earth, cause earthquakes of intensity sufficient to do damage on the other side of the planet, and utterly destroy everything within [thousands of] miles of the site of the explosion.
I think the story would be the adventure of the secret agent who was assigned to save the day—to destroy that bomb.
Several more rounds of letters followed from Cartmill’s home in, ironically, Manhattan Beach, California, asking for more technical detail, with Campbell instantly responding to each with a crash course on how to build an atom bomb. The finished story was in Campbell’s hands by September and was published as “Deadline” in the March 1944 Astounding, available on newsstands in February.
“Deadline” is a story of an agent for the “Seilla,” dropped behind the lines of the “Sixa” to destroy their atom bomb. He is captured by a member of the resistance, giving him many pages to explain his mission, quoting virtually word for word the explanations provided by Campbell. None of the material cited by Cartmill is strictly necessary to the plot except to prove the agent’s knowledge. Much of it is so extraneous that without an awareness of the history of science fiction in which extraneous technical explanations lasting for pages were often the most sought-after sections of the story loosely framed around this core, their presence must have seemed odd and disturbing.
Certainly they disturbed Arthur Riley of the Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC). He appeared unannounced at Campbell’s office on March 8 where Campbell, always eager to expound on his vast knowledge of all things technical, provided a lengthy summary of atomic energy, atom bombs, and the long public history of atomics, dating back to a course he took at MIT.
What followed serves as a case study of both the admirable thoroughness and scary ineptitude of a government investigation during wartime.
Somehow, Riley learned that Campbell recently had had a lunch with Edgar Norton and Will Jenkins. Both names raised suspicions. Norton did classified research at Bell Labs, a company by then deeply enmeshed in the Manhattan Project. Jenkins, under the pseudonym he used for science fiction, Murray Leinster, was the subject of an earlier investigation when he apparently used newly invented and secret submarine technology in a story named “Four Little Ships,” which had been published in, naturally, Astounding in February 1942.
Separately interviewed, Norton and Jenkins each confirmed that Cartmill’s story (which Norton called “childish” and “utterly fantastic” but Jenkins said was “pretty good” and “quite accurate”) contained nothing but easily available public information. Norton was a respected engineer whose work had no connection with atomics. Jenkins, however, had been denied a security clearance when he was with the Office of War Information and left the government. Moreover, his daughter, Mary, was a scientist at the Raytheon Corporation. She had complied with a request to supply “Lt. Azimoff,” a scientist at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia, with what the report called “atomic copper.” That scientist was in fact Astounding’s own Isaac Asimov, a civilian (not military) chemist who worked for and with Robert A. Heinlein (retired USNR) and Lt. Lyon Sprague de Camp, to whom the report granted civilian status. Heinlein, also a Californian, was friends with Cartmill. He had recruited Asimov to the navy yard. He was obsessed with atomic power and its possible military uses.
In the meantime, Special Agent R. S. Killough of the Manhattan Project’s Berkeley office was assigned to investigate Cartmill. He instituted a “mail cover,” examining all of Cartmill’s mail while recording return addresses, and he had Cartmill’s letter carrier interview him about the story. Taking no chances, Killough contrived a personal meeting with Cartmill, during which Cartmill made the mistake of boasting about his scientific expertise to the point of insisting that he had written the story based on general knowledge. “No one individual or group of individuals had given him an[y] scientific facts for the story,” Killough wrote in his report. Special Agent D. L. Johnson confronted Cartmill in May about this palpable lie and Cartmill, a victim of writer’s ego rather than a spy, gave up Campbell, showing Johnson every letter that he had copied and inadvertently revealing that Campbell never warned him about the OoC’s 1943 note, which should have been circulated to all editors in the vast Street & Smith publishing empire.
The final escalation of the matter came from Lt. Col. W. B. Parsons in the Intelligence and Security Division at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Parsons consulted his own technical experts, easily found at a facility creating purified uranium for the Manhattan Project, and realized that, while the information may have been public, gathering it in one convenient package and openly discussing the steps being taken in secret was a massive security issue.
That brought Campbell a stern letter instructing him to comply. The “or else” was implied but easily imaginable by Campbell. The government had the power to ban sending Astounding to its subscribers through the mail, which would have put it out of business. No record of Campbell’s reply is available, but no more atomic war stories were to be found over the next year. Jenkins took immediate advantage of the war’s end, writing the first post-war nuclear holocaust novel, The Murder of the U.S.A. If the enemy had read science fiction magazines, he later said, they might have won the war.
Each of the other three incidents also concerned what we would today term science fiction, though none of them appeared in a science fiction magazine, presumably the reason they have not become insider lore. Each of them mined the easily accessible knowledge base on atomics set forth by newspapers and popular science magazines before and during the war.
The U.S. government badly wanted the world to forget the very words surrounding atomic weapons, those later included in Price’s note. On August 14, 1941, with the U.S. still a neutral nation, the New York Times reported a complaint from John J. O’Neill, president of the National Association of Science Writers, about government censorship, especially about uranium-235, “which, if contained in a ten-pound bomb ‘would blast a hole twenty-five miles in diameter and more than a mile deep, and would wreck every structure within a hundred miles.’” He protested that “no scientist dares discuss what he is doing.” Nor did the Times. After Pearl Harbor, the phrase “uranium atom” disappeared from its pages until 1944 except for one use in a 1941 year-in-review article. No article talked about “atomic war.” The only two which mentioned “atomic bomb” were two that speculated about Nazi bombs. A horse named Atom Smasher got more mentions (five) than actual atom smashers (four) while their more formal appellation, cyclotron, was used only in non-atomic power contexts.
The OoC had an ironic problem. It itself had not been told of the existence of an American atomic program until March 30, 1943. The government’s hand had been forced by increased mentions in the press of the frenetic activity at and around Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington. Although the purpose of the enormous plants and quickly established towns were not known, they were too obvious to go unremarked. The immediate cause for Price’s note had been a slip-up in April by the British Ministry of Information, which leaked the news that a heavy water plant in Rjukan, Norway, had been blown up by saboteurs. The nature of such a plant was made clear in a New York Times article on April 4, 1943, “Nazi ‘Heavy Water’ Looms as Weapon”:
Heavy water or, more correctly, heavy hydrogen water, is believed to provide a means of disintegrating the atom that would release a devastating power.
The unstated but extremely alarming implication was that the Nazis were planning an atomic weapon.
So was Albert Fear Leffingwell, the apposite middle name being his mother’s family name. He was a well-to-do New Yorker, the son of the president of the American Humane Society, educated at Harvard, sent on a tour of Europe for a graduation present, author of stories and verse. He became a founding partner of the Olmstead, Perrin, & Leffingwell advertising agency. In 1939, he suddenly began a sideline of writing mystery novels, usually under the name Dana Chambers, five of which appeared by 1943. The sixth, The Last Secret, contains a 1943 copyright but has a February 23, 1944, date in the 1944 Catalog of Copyright Entries and was mentioned in the February 12, 1944, Saturday Review of Literature along with a number of 1944 releases. The capsule review read, “Physicist friend tells Jim Steele, Military Intelligence, about secret weapon. Then Hell pops from Manhattan to Andean airfield and back.... Verdict: Paging Superman!”
As if to provoke the OoC’s worst fears of spies gleaning information about secret war projects from the newspapers, Steele’s physicist friend gives him a capsule course in atomic power:
Jim, a year or so ago there was a write-up in the New York papers about a new explosive. Maybe you saw it. Atomic energy from Uranium-235. Someone complaining that the Government had shut down further news of it. It was so powerful, the story said, that a ten-pound bomb filled with it would blast a hole twenty-five miles across, and level every building within a radius of a hundred miles.
The nearly exact quote parroting John J. O’Neill followed a passage with additional exact information not allowed in contemporary newspapers:
“Know what a cyclotron is? ... Well, there are thirty-five cyclotrons in this country. And every one of them is working overtime. It’s a sort of race. A race to find out how to release all the energy which is locked up in the atomic nucleus. And believe me, it’s a race for the highest stakes ever hung up, because the Nazis have at least a dozen cyclotrons—and they’re working overtime too. On the same lines. Whoever gets there first—”
“Why doesn’t the Government take a hand?”
“It has. Constant’s National Defense Research Committee is an accredited Government arm now—has been for months and months. There are sixteen or seventeen hundred physicists working on various aspects of this job in I don’t know how many different laboratories.”
The National Defense Research Committee was indeed the body that oversaw the beginnings of the Manhattan Project, although it was superseded by the Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941. It was composed of merely eight men, one of whom was Harvard President James A. Conant, whose name was a trivial two letters away from Constant. (The British hardcover edition in 1949 forthrightly spelled the name as Conant.)
How Leffingwell knew that hundreds of physicists had abandoned their academic jobs to move to government laboratories isn’t as clear although an assiduous Times reader might have noticed stories throughout 1940 mentioning that scientists at Columbia University in New York were frantically using their cyclotron to increase yields of U-235. Perhaps Leffingwell had a physicist friend himself. His plotline was yet another convenient gift from the Times. In an article, “Science Creates New Power Source,” which ran on September 20, 1940, William L. Laurence wrote that:
[C]lose to 200 leading scientists in Germany, with practically unlimited means at their disposal, have been ordered to concentrate all their efforts to solve the problem of utilizing uranium as a practically unlimited source of power....
It is now believed that as a result of the visits to American laboratories, Germany now possesses a cyclotron, though even this fact has never been made public.
Steele, after battling Nazi spies in New York, is made part of an official government delegation to witness a test of the German atomic weapon on an island off the coast of Peru, the Germans assuming that a glimpse of its power will cause an immediate American surrender. That is the sole remaining connection to real world events, as the German device is a earth-scouring ray much like the one in The Man Who Rocked the Earth rather than a bomb. And then several twists follow, restoring the status quo.
Dubious as the book might be, it inevitably caught the attention of the OoC. A series of letters went out in April 1944 from Jake Lockhart, the new head of the Press Division, to editors at Dial Press, the publisher who had printed The Last Secret in hardcovers. The editors defended the book as if they had never read it, saying that it was a mere detective story containing nothing “about atom smashing or atomic energy.” Lockhart dismissed this fatuity. “Ordinarily we do not have any interest in fiction,” he wrote. “But when fiction incorporates factual information dealing with restricted subjects, it can give information to the enemy as readily as any other form of published material.” Dial was asked to be more careful in the future.
They weren’t. Dial exploited their property exactly as hardcover publishers would always do. They sold reprint rights to magazines and paperback houses. The Last Secret was sold twice more before the war ended, first to Detective Book magazine, where it ran in the Winter 1944 issue, and to Quinn Publishing Company for one of their paperback Handi-Books in early 1945. Lockhart learned about the latter when it was too late to stop publication, a circumstance he dismissed because the book was “a load of poppycock.” Leffingwell died in 1946, sufficient time to learn that, while his specifics might have been poppycock, his intelligence gathering was extremely astute.
Paging Superman, indeed. In a world where Mickey Mouse was the most recognizable media creation, far outranking mere movie stars and sports figures, the 1945 version of Superman threatened to leap in a single bound out of his number two position. His first crude appearance in the June 1938 issue of Action Comics created immediate frenzy. One year later he joined himself on newsstands in Superman #1, the first hero to star in a comic book bearing his own name, selling a million copies a month by the 1940s. A radio show, The Adventures of Superman, debuted in February 1940; it would soon be nationally syndicated, broadcasting five days a week. In July the New York World’s Fair held a Superman Day with the first appearance of a live costumed superhero. An 80-foot tall Superman balloon stole the show at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade later that year. A series of seventeen animated cartoons started in 1941. The Adventures of Superman was a full-length YA novel published in 1942, fleshing out the character and inventing tidbits that would become canon.
And starting in 1939, the character starred in both a daily (Monday-Saturday) and a separate Sunday color strip, infiltrating homes seven days a week in what traditionally was one of the most-read sections of the ubiquitous newspapers.
Superman’s powers had been redefined many times since his debut. He could “leap tall buildings in a single bound” but did not have the power of flight until the radio show invented that along with the “whoosh” sound effect for dramatic exits out of whatever room he had been in. His strength and invulnerability increased slowly as well. In a 1941 newspaper story, one strip has Superman knocking a death ray out of its wielder’s hands “with his last remaining strength.” As Superman became more super, the writers had to resort to ever-more ingenuous schemes to give him “realistic” obstacles to overcome.
The 1945 story, “Science and Superman,” began syndicating in newspapers on Monday, April 2. A student named Gilmore has just received a zero on his physics term paper about Superman. “And a well-deserved zero, too!” exclaims Professor Duste. “Claiming that Superman moves faster than light and that he’s invulnerable! Thermo-dynamic nonsense!” The neatly inserted metajoke is that in our world, Duste would be acting perfectly rationally. Not having read newspapers for twenty years (i.e., since before Superman’s comic strip began), he couldn’t be expected to know that his world was inverted. “Superman’s feats are scientifically improbable!” he says, accurately. Yet Superman turns up to try to prove him wrong. Duste sticks to the path of science, proposing a test. In the April 14 strip, he invites Superman to face a cyclotron, “popularly known as an atom-smasher,” which would subject him to “electrons at a speed of one hundred million miles per hour and charged with three millions volts.” Superman accepts. Duste backs down. In his rational mind, such an act would be murder. Although the butt of the joke, Duste is given inviolable standards. Instead, Gilmore pulls the switch to Duste’s horror. Superman, of course, walks out smiling.
The last strip to mention an atom smasher ran on April 23. The next day’s scene takes place elsewhere on campus. After the war, Newsweek reported on the strange twist.
But Superman could take [the electron bombardment]. What he couldn’t take was the Office of Censorship, which asked the publishers to discontinue references to atomic energy. A new series of strips then in production was cancelled, and Superman went into a sequence in which he played a baseball game singlehanded.
The cyclotron censorship is mentioned frequently in comic strip histories. Depending on who is telling it, several “G-Men” or FBI agents appeared at the DC offices to deliver a ukase: stop the strips with the cyclotron. Jack Schiff, the DC Comics editor who had charge of the Superman comics, later remembered, “A pair of FBI agents visited DC Comics publisher Harry Donenfeld in early 1945. They insisted we get rid of the cyclotron and bring the story to a quick conclusion. I refused to make the changes, so Donenfeld arranged for someone else to ghost the changes.” Did he? Someone who would seem to be in a position to know was the actual writer of the strip, Alvin Schwartz. (Although every Superman strip bore the names of Superman’s creators, Joe Schuster and Jerry Siegel, they hadn’t had anything to do with the comic strip for years.) Schwartz’s memory has it that “I’d gotten my material about cyclotrons from a 1935 issue of Popular Mechanics, so I didn’t have any idea about the bomb. I never even knew that the FBI got involved until years later when I saw an article in the New York Post which said, ‘Superman had it first,’ in other words, the Bomb. The FBI had actually gone to Jerry Siegel, who was in the armed forces at the time, but nobody mentioned it to me until years later.” (In fact, the machine shown on April 14 and 16 exactly matches one pictured in the October 1937 Modern Mechanix under the title “German Scientists Construct Huge ‘Atom Smasher’.” This also contradicts William L. Laurence’s 1940 article that German cyclotrons had never been made public. The public was not alone in having short memories.)
If the first mention of a cyclotron in the strip was on Friday, April 14, and the FBI first went to find Jerry Siegel, then it is scientifically improbable that they could have visited the DC offices until the following week. A replacement strip would have caused a frenzy of activity that itself would be memorable because comic strips are normally prepared weeks in advance, and the full slate of Monday through Saturday strips are delivered as a package. (The one headline-driven exception, Garry Trudeau of Doonesbury, has said that “The industry standard for cartoonists is six weeks, but I have worked something more like 10 days ahead ever since Watergate.”) Only time-traveling skills not yet bestowed upon Superman could have brought about the baseball story as a replacement strip in print by April 24, a Tuesday. Moreover, the strips it was purportedly replacing would exist by the hundreds. Even if an order had reached every newspaper to destroy them, many people would have known of their content, including Donenfield, Schiff, and Schwartz. Nobody associated with DC or outside it has ever mentioned seeing a single panel of a single destroyed strip.
Or, for that matter, an order to destroy them, censor them, or write new scripts. The evidence goes the other way. The April 1948 Harper’s published Lt. Col. John R. Lansdale Jr.’s once secret memorandum on the Superman strip sent to Parsons at Oak Ridge. Dated “21 April 1945,” the last three numbered points are pertinent:
3. It is not believed that the pictorialization of Professor Duste’s cyclotron is any great danger to the project.
4. It is further believed that the “funny page” characterization of a cyclotron will considerably de-emphasize any serious consideration of the apparatus to many people.
5. In any case, it would seem that when Superman ruins the machine, Professor Duste commits suicide, and Gilmore gets his degree, the strain will be over.
And that would be that, if it were not for Point 5. Superman does not ruin the machine, and Professor Duste does not commit suicide. (Duste eventually comes to a belief in Superman and gives Gilmore not merely a passing grade but a medal for excellence.) That scenario indicates strongly that Lansdale saw a completely different version of the strip’s ending than what ran. Changing the script was neither required nor physically possible. No individual has since been named as the writer of a changed script. Yet changed it seems to have been. The Superman story is a mystery.
A mystery with a series of confounding footnotes. It seems unlikely that if the DC staff were told not to print strips mentioning an atom smasher and went to the incredible bother of replacing strips already slated to run, they forgot the entire incident in a mere two months. Yet the June 14 strip featured a return of Professor Duste saying, “Probably I’ve been equally in error in refusing to believe in Superman’s super powers.... After all, he did live through the atom-smasher test!” over an image of a smiling Superman taking three million volts.
Moreover, while the strip has both eyewitness testimony and contemporary accounts reporting it, DC lore adds on two similar incidents with no provenance and shaky supporting evidence: Superman #38 (January-February 1946), contained “Battle of the Atoms,” in which archvillain Lex Luthor battles Superman with what he refers to as an “atom bomb” although it is again a destructive beam. That story had supposedly been written in 1944 by Don Cameron and also brought a visit by agents demanding that the story be suppressed. How the government could know of a story that had not been printed is not explained by any of the sources. The same is true for “Crime Paradise,” which ran in Action Comics #101 (October 1946). On its cover, Superman is filming an “atom bomb test.” True to the story inside, the increasingly super Superman finds that an atomic test in the Pacific is just the thing for clearing his mind from a criminal’s drug. Although the story is said to have been delayed for a year, such a plot would have made no sense during the war as images of the now-iconic mushroom cloud did not appear on newspaper front pages until August 13, 1945, after the official end of the conflict. The test referred to is clearly the June 30, 1946, test on Bikini Atoll, and no official censorship would apply to depicting it.
There would, in fact, be but a single instance of government suppression of atomic fiction. It was imposed upon Philip Wylie, who, although he never sold a single story to the science fiction pulp magazines, nevertheless had in 1945 the credentials to be considered America’s most famous science fiction writer. In 1930, he published Gladiator, widely considered today to be the most direct ancestor of and source for Siegel and Schuster’s Superman. The Savage Gentleman from 1932 gave similar inspiration to the long-lived pulp hero, Clark “Doc” Savage. 1931’s The Murderer Invisible plays with Wells’s The Invisible Man theme with “more gruesome elements,” which would be incorporated in the 1933 movie version since Universal had bought rights to both works. Also in 1932, The Blue Book Magazine, one of the most prestigious general fiction pulp magazines, began serializing Wylie’s When Worlds Collide, cowritten with Edwin Balmer, the editor of Redbook. They quickly followed that with a sequel, After Worlds Collide. Both were published by Frederick A. Stokes at a time when virtually no other examples of interplanetary science fiction appeared in hardcover novel form. In 1940, their names appeared over the Speed Spaulding comic strip, an adaptation of When Worlds Collide, with the more evocatively named Speed taking the role of the novel’s Tony Drake. More notoriously, a series of essays “dashed off—between the twelfth of May and the fourth of July in 1942” and published as A Generation of Vipers went into 11 printings by the end of that year. (Wylie was a consummate pulp writer; virtually everything he wrote was dashed off for the sake of hundreds of magazine appearances.) A jeremiad about the bureaucratization of current American society, the book was a favorite among jaundiced progressives like Heinlein.
An early anti-isolationist and supporter of the Stop Hitler Movement, Wylie saw correctly as early as 1938 that America’s growth and strength would inevitably involve it in another world war. Paralleling Heinlein and the other major science fiction writers, he plunged into war work after Pearl Harbor and developed an even greater obsession about the atom bomb, the one weapon he saw as truly capable of destroying society. He dashed off a story about an atomic holocaust.
“The Paradise Crater” is the longest story in the October 1945 Blue Book. Although its pulp origins are easily spotted in the hero’s fist fights, derring-do, and instant romance with a secretary who, like him, happens to possess a PhD in chemistry, the story is perhaps the most perfect example of the Campbellian dictum for science fiction in the 1940s later paraphrased as “stories which could be run in an adventure magazine of the future.” The atomic core of “The Paradise Crater” is surrounded with tidbits about a technologized future as airy and numerous as packing peanuts. Healthy diet and plastic surgery make every American beautiful. Personal helicopters allow for routine travel from Death Valley to Los Angeles for dinner. During the trip, “a rectangle on the instrument panel” issues television news. A mechanical waiter robot rolls up to a table to take orders. Repellers make auto collisions impossible on the ten-lane Lincoln Highway. Fairbanks is a domed city. Miami, a city of three million, uses collecting mirrors to soak up solar power for night-time lighting. Moving sidewalks whisk people around town. Frozen steak is cooked in fifteen minutes by an induction broiler. Indirect fluorescent lighting changes women’s dress colors as they walk by. Men wear shorts all day long. Radiated seeds create hundreds of new fruits and vegetables. Tidal engines generate power, deep-sea heat vents produce steam for turbines, energy is broadcast over radio beams, a new type of electric battery would soon run a car for a week. And a Nazi sleeper cell has stockpiled “hundreds and hundreds” of atomic bombs in a cave in Wyoming.
The hero manages to sneak into the cave, bluff his way into the atomic storeroom, and rig the totally unguarded weapons so they will all go off simultaneously. Fleeing in a helicopter, he sees the result, one that eerily parallels Campbell’s forecast about the effects of a super-bomb:
The night flamed behind them—a white flame that went up and up until it seemed to shoot cleanly above the very atmosphere of the earth....
On the earth below, a quake was spreading across America. Dams collapsed in Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Other rivers were blocked as mountains slid into them. Buildings buckled and collapsed as far away as Salt Lake City, Santa Fe, and Hutchinson. A hurricane of wind snapped trees in a circle with a radius of six hundred miles and some of the redwoods in Yosemite went over. Ten thousand fires sprang up. A glacier in Canada slid bodily four thousand yards. A bridge span fell in San Francisco. Windows broke and signs flew off in Seattle, Tia Juana, Bismarck, and Tulsa. A tidal wave roared west from the shores of California and inundated thousands of Japanese savages on distant Nippon. In Wyoming, the dry lands cracked deep and at one point unsuspected oil gushed forth in quantities. Every seismograph needle in the world shot from its track.
Wylie was placed under house arrest by Army Intelligence.
This, by far the most troubling example of wartime censorship of atomic fiction, has received relatively little attention. All later commentators appear to draw on a single source, the chapter on Philip Wylie in Sam Moskowitz’s Explorers of the Infinite, a 1963 study of early science fiction writers. “Early in 1945, Philip Wylie wrote on order for the American Magazine a long novelette entitled ‘The Paradise Crater,’” he states. Even that seeming fact has been contradicted. Clifford P. Bendau, in Still Worlds Collide: Philip Wylie and the End of the American Dream, claims that the story was written as early as 1939. Paul Brians in Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction has a more precise date, using the records of Wylie’s agent to show that he received the story on January 13, 1944. The earlier date is wildly improbable for a story predicated on Nazi revenge for losing the war. An early 1944 date, long before D-Day, has similar problems, and it also would be within the “best part of a year” that Wylie claimed he worked on Night after Night, a novel published in September 1944. The rest of the discussion, brief as it was, has been shortened, paraphrased, and sensationalized without any further dents in the facts concerning Wylie (although its statement that science fiction magazines could ignore national security revelations is not true, as shown above). Here is the original in full:
The story was set in 1965, and though World War II had not then ended, the story presupposed that the Nazis had been defeated. A band of die-hard Nazis with headquarters in Wyoming were planning to conquer the United States with a deadly new weapon. American Magazine rejected the story as too fantastic, particularly the weapon—an atomic bomb made from Uranium-237.
Harold Ober, Wylie’s agent, sent the story to Blue Book. Though science fiction magazines were exempt, other publications were required to censor any material they felt might involve national security. [Blue Book editor] Donald Kennicott decided to play it safe and sent the story to Washington, D.C. for approval. Security suggested they would be a lot happier if Blue Book didn’t publish the story. Unaware of the storm he had raised, Kennicott returned the manuscript to a thoroughly frightened Ober, with whom Central Intelligence agents had already been in contact. Special agents were on their way to deal with Wylie, who had been placed under house arrest in a Westbury, Connecticut, hotel.
At the hotel, Wylie underwent quite an experience. A major from Army Intelligence arrived with the flat announcement he was prepared to take Wylie’s life if necessary to prevent a security leak. If it were any comfort, he told a somewhat shaken Wylie that he was willing to sacrifice his own for the same cause.
Wylie, who had been doing public relations work for the government on the B-29 bomber, urged that his dossier be checked in Washington. This was done, and Wylie was cleared. In response to Wylie’s offer to tear up the manuscript of Paradise Crater, the major, mellowed by a few drinks, suggested that it be stored in a trunk until after the war.
Wylie’s dossier included being made an honorary lieutenant colonel in the Florida National Guard for civil defense writing and an assignment to write a history of the air war against Japan for the Air Force. A leading anti-Fascist who was also anti-Communist, he was the type of propagandist the government hungered for. After the war, he served as a special advisor to the Joint Committee for Atomic Energy, gaining himself a Q clearance and entrée to the Desert Rock atomic tests in Nevada, allowing him to see to results of a nuclear explosion first-hand.
None of that applied during the war. Kennicott appears to be unique in making the mistake of asking permission instead of seeking forgiveness. A note found in Ober’s records, dated July 3, 1945, reads, “War Dept. objects to the use of this. President Conant of Harvard is working on something similar. He promised not to offer to any magazine. Cancel sale.” That is the same Conant of Harvard, coincidentally also a chemist, alluded to in The Last Secret (aka “Constant”). Conant had been named to the Interim Committee in May 1945, whose first assignment was to advise the government on how to handle the use of an atomic bomb on Japan, the war in Europe deemed over. The Interim Committee, true to its name, was the predecessor to the Atomic Energy Commission.
A mere month after Kennicott returned the story, an atom bomb was dropped on the city of Hiroshima. The end of the war followed quickly and so did Kennicott’s rush order for the return of “The Paradise Crater.” It was mentioned on the cover of the October 1945 Blue Book and was the lead and longest story inside. The editor’s introduction tantalized readers with its prescience: “The story was completed several months ago, but because of very needful censorship restrictions, publication has been withheld until now.”
The Office of Censorship suspended its work on August 15, 1945, the day after the Japanese surrender. Although smatterings of information kept appearing in random locations, the government had mostly succeeded in its quest not merely to avoid publication of atomic secrets but to make people forget that such a weapon had ever been considered. The Hiroshima atomic device appeared to surprise everyone other than the foreign governments whose spies had already reported on its development. The dramatic and successful ending to the war made moot any government actions that defied normal First Amendment rights. Popular culture capitalized on the now-public enormity of atomic weapons for endless plotlines, returning it to prominence as the ultimate world-ending, life-destroying horror. The few examples that slipped into print during the war were quickly forgotten in the rush of more fully developed terrors. They serve today primarily as reminders that information is never forgotten and facts cannot be fully suppressed, no matter how badly non-fully totalitarian governments may wish to do so.
Steve Carper lives in Rochester, New York.