Controversial H-Bomb Article Raised Profile Of Progressive Magazine

Over the past 100 years, contributors including senators, Supreme Court justices, Nobel Prize winners, investigative journalists and activists have printed articles in the Progressive magazine.

The monthly publication based in Madison with a national circulation is celebrating its 100th anniversary with a two-day conference at the Monona Terrace on Friday and Saturday. Robert Redford is the keynote speaker, and other speakers include Naomi Klein, Howard Zinn, Amy Goodman, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Barbara Ehrenreich.

Howard Morland, a freelance journalist and anti-nuclear activist, is also speaking on a panel at the conference. Morland has the distinction of writing the most notorious article to appear in the Progressive: “The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It, Why We’re Telling It.”

But the controversial article didn’t actually appear in the pages of the magazine until six months after it was intended to run in 1979 because it was tied up in federal court under a restraining order.

“On Monday, March 26, 1979, a federal judge did what no other federal judge had ever done before in the 203-year history of the American republic: He issued a preliminary injunction, at the request of the government of the United States, barring a publication from printing and distributing an article,” wrote Progressive editor Erwin Knoll in an article called “Born Secret: The Story Behind the H-Bomb Article We’re Not Allowed To Print” that ran in the May 1979 issue of the magazine.

A version of that article, and a shortened version of Morland’s H-Bomb article, are available in a new book, “Democracy in Print: The Best of The Progressive Magazine, 1909-2009,” from the University of Wisconsin Press.

Morland said he wrote his article to awaken the public to the buildup of nuclear weapons and to call into question the veil of secrecy around all aspects the government’s nuclear program. That secrecy, he said, served to curtail public scrutiny of the nuclear weapons program and its aims.

“I am telling the secret to make a basic point as forcefully as I can: Secrecy itself, especially the power of a few designated ‘experts’ to declare some topics off limits, contributes to a political climate in which the nuclear establishment can conduct business as usual, protecting and perpetuating the production of these horror weapons,” Morland wrote in his 1979 H-Bomb article.

Although Morland was able to piece together how a hydrogen bomb works using openly available sources such as physics texts, encyclopedia articles, magazine pieces, unclassified government documents and by talking with experts, when the U.S. government learned about the impending publication of the H-bomb “secret” in the Progressive, it took the magazine to court, saying it was in violation of the Atomic Energy Act of 1954.

In 1979, TIME quoted Progressive lawyer Earl Munson Jr., who said, “If Howard Morland can do it, then there is no secret, and the government is only fooling the public.”

To read about how Morland went about piecing together the H-bomb secret, read this slideshow presentation that he gave at the Cardozo Law School Symposium in 2004.

After six months, the federal government dropped its lawsuit and Morland’s entire article was published without any changes in the November 1979 issue of the Progressive. The publication of the article is viewed as a landmark victory for freedom of the press and First Amendment rights.

Channel 3000 recently spoke with Morland about his H-bomb article and the movement to abolish nuclear weapons.

Channel 3000: How did you get involved in the peace movement and anti-nuclear activism?

Howard Morland: The Vietnam War. The Vietnam War was such a simple problem. All we had to do was not be there and everything else would take care of itself. And somehow we just couldn’t seem to do it — we had to drag it out for 10 years.

And I realized that one the architects of Vietnam War was Robert McNamara, who was one of the architects of the Cold War ballistic missile race — and these people were all fundamentally wrong about really important things, and it gave me a fairly pessimistic outlook on life. It’s been reinforced recently when I heard the radio program “This American Life” explaining how the present financial crisis arose. And it was once again a system designed by people who should have known this wasn’t going to work but they were making millions of dollars hand over fist and they were walking around acting like kings and being admired and lauded by people, and they just sort of drove the buggy off the cliff. And we’re constantly in that sort of situation. We’re in a train being driven by lunatics.

So, by the time I got out of the Air Force, back in the 60s, I was pretty much, not a revolutionary, but someone who is very skeptical of the people who are running things and the kind of job they’re doing.

C3K: How did you end up getting the assignment to write the H-bomb article for the Progressive magazine?

HM: I was in graduate school at Dartmouth, and I joined Clamshell Alliance, which was a grassroots environmental anti-nuclear group that focused all its attention on nuclear power.

Nuclear power was dangerous because the radioactivity wasn’t really under control. And my only concern really was reactor meltdown, the kind of thing that later happened at Chernobyl.

So I decided to join this group of people who were trying to shut down the thing by using the tactics of the civil rights movement, which I had been somewhat involved in back in the 60s in Atlanta. I had a little bit of time in the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, the Vietnam War, so I decided to join the environmental movement trying to shut down this nuclear power plant.

And I got arrested and spent two weeks in fake jail. There was no jail space so they held us all in National Guard armories, and it was quite an amazing experience of all these pacifists and environmentalist all being locked up in National Guard armories. So we turned it into a two-week-long seminar, and one of the people there said, “After this is all over, you should come down and help us try to stop the next nuclear submarine at the electric boat plant in Groton, Conn.,” so I did. And while there were 2,000 of us at the power plant demonstration, there were only 200 of us at nuclear submarine demonstration, but I decided that the movement needed to look at the military half of the industry, because that’s were it all came from in the first place.

So, I just assigned myself the job of creating a new movement against nuclear weapons that would mirror the one against nuclear power plants that was attracting a lot of attention back in 1979, which is when this was.

And I noticed that, at the Clamshell Alliance meetings and demonstrations, people were all carrying around copies of the Progressive magazine, because a man named Harvey Wasserman, one of the founders of Clamshell Alliance, was writing articles in every issue, and the activists were using the Progressive magazine sort of like a newsletter.

So I thought the Progressive should start carrying stuff about the bomb as well as about nuclear power plants. Sure enough, one of the editors, Sam Day, soon had a nice article there, and Sidney Lens and Robert Aldridge had articles about nuclear weapons and nuclear war planning strategy and so forth, but still the facilities of the nuclear system were fairly well hidden.

So I thought I’d just go around and find out where they make the bomb, and get the whole fuel cycle down, find out where the components go, what roads they use to go from one factory to another, that sort of thing. So I had been working on this for about six months on my own when Sam Day, the managing editor of the Progressive magazine, came to Washington and said, ‘We need somebody to help us write articles about nuclear bombs.’ Which was exactly what I had thought they should be doing, and he ran into somebody who knew me and said, “You got to talk to this guy, because he’s already doing it.”

So Sam met with me, and said. “I’ve just been offered a chance to visit all the nuclear bomb production factories as a guest of the Department of Energy, and I don’t really know enough about it,” despite the fact that he was the former editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. He wasn’t really much of a tech guy, and he asked me if I would be willing to step in for him and be the person who went to all these sites and try to write up something about it.

So that’s how it happened, and the second article I wrote got us all tied up in court for six months.

C3K: What was your educational background?

HM: I went to college thinking I’d major in physics and get a Ph.D., but I got bored with that and tried a whole bunch of things and ended up majoring in economics and going into the Air Force and doing flight training instead of graduate school.

I had two courses in physics my freshmen year and a third course my junior year, so I had three courses in physics and two in chemistry.

C3K: So as far as your research of the H-bomb, a lot of it was self-taught?

MH: Yeah, but it’s not that complicated. Once I decided that I needed to know this, I went up to MIT and started hanging out in their library and found a man, Philip Morrison, who had been a member of the Manhattan Project, and he was a retired professor there. I used to drop by his office and tell him, “I think I decided I need to know the H-Bomb secret in order to figure out how these factories work.”

And he said that he didn’t know it because he left the business right after World War II, but Herb York (a nuclear physicist who was involved in the Manhattan Project) had once told him, “If you think about it for a year, you’ll figure it out.” So I came back six months later and told him, “I think I figured it out.” And he was very surprised, and I told him my theory and he said, ‘Well, I hadn’t thought of that one — could work.”

And I said, “Herb York said you could figure it out if you think about it.”

And he said, “Yeah, but you’d have to think about it a year, and you’ve only been thinking about it for six months.” And I said, “That’s not true; I started thinking about it six months before I came to see you, so we’re right on schedule.”

C3K: Did you expect action from the government regarding the article as you were writing it?

HM: Yeah, I did, that’s why I tried to keep the government from finding out what I was doing, and I was alarmed and dismayed when I found the editors of the Progressive had mailed my manuscript to the government.

We never did come to a mutual understanding of how that happened, and I’m the only surviving member of this group now, so I guess my story is the only one that’s still being told. I still don’t know.

When I went to MIT, when I thought I put the thing together, I wanted to talk to a couple of the graduate students up there, and they said that their professor George Rathjens knows the answer.

And for 10 or 15 years, (Rathjens) had been challenging all his graduate students to figure it out. I don’t know why, if he thought it was immoral to tell it, why he thought this was a good idea because his students didn’t have security clearances and he did. So I don’t know what he expected, but I think it was a game he played with them: “I know something that you don’t know and you’re never going to figure it out, so ha, ha.”

And it worked. Until I came up with the answer, and I thought, well, I really don’t want him to see it, because he’s got a legal obligation to tell the government if he thinks it’s about to be published. (Rathjens also served as a government consultant at the time).

But I did want to show it to these two students, and they both looked it at and said, “That’s interesting; haven’t heard of that — could work.” And I said, “Can you run this by George Rathjens, just don’t tell him where you heard about it. Just tell him this theory and see what his reaction is, because he’s been challenging people to figure it out, and just go in and say, ‘Hey, I think I figured it out; here it is.'”

Well, that worked OK, except at least one of the students told him where the idea came from, and that it was about to be published in the Progressive magazine. So Rathjens called up the Progressive and said, “I understand your guy is about to publish the H-Bomb secret. What’s going on?”

And Sam Day — this is his story — he said, “Well, we’re trying to get knowledgeable people to look at it and give us some feedback so we can find out if we’re going to make fools out of ourselves.” And George said, “Well, I’ll be willing to look at it for you, and so they sent it to him.”

And I had been real careful to keep that from happening, and I didn’t find out about it until a couple weeks later when I got this phone call, and (the editors) said, “OK there’s been some changes here. We sent to manuscript to George Rathjens, and he sent it to the Department of Energy, and the Department of Energy sent a team of lawyers to our office.”

And I said, “Oh, darn, this is not how I wanted this to work out.” And they said, “But we think if they take us to court, this could be a great test case. We could challenge the Atomic Energy Act and take it all the way to the Supreme Court.”

And I said, “But you’ll lose. If the thing had gone to print before they knew about it, they wouldn’t have said anything about it. Now we’re in a fix.” They said, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of all the legal expenses; you will be a defendant but it’s a civil case not a criminal case, and we think this could be a lot of fun. We think the way to do this is just to fight it in court. We have good lawyers and we can do something with it.”

And I thought, well, actually, if they’re willing to back it that way, then the thing will be worth a lot more as test case then it ever would’ve been as one article in a magazine that hardly anyone would read.

So I (agreed to going to court). I mean, our goal is to do battle with the federal government and get them to quit the nuclear arms race, so I don’t mind doing battle with them in court over freedom of speech, as a first step. So by that point, we were all onboard.

But I never have figured out exactly what there thinking was when they sent it to George Rathjens. They probably didn’t know as much as I did about how the system works and how George would behave. They might have been a little naive about that, but they might have thought, “Hey, this is our chance to really get the government’s goat,” as they say. And it could have been either one of those or a combination, but it couldn’t have worked out better for us. Looking back, the ideal situation is what happened. You can’t buy that kind of free publicity.

C3K: What was your reaction to the judge’s ruling prohibiting the article’s publication?

HM: I just thought, “Well, now that we’re in to this, let’s drag it out as long as we can.” I just thought, “That’s good — they took the bait.”

C3K: So you were never worried about the outcome?

HM: No, there was no doubt about the outcome. I had made sure about that in the beginning. I had copies of the manuscript all over the place. I passed out 50 or more copies of the manuscript to friends and told them, “If the government moves against us, distribute this in some way.”

And then when we decided we were going to obey the court order, I had to get in touch with everybody who had a copy and say, “Hey, we changed out mind. We want to let this thing go through the courts, so don’t start passing out your copies.”

Except that once something becomes a curiosity item like this, I’m sure everybody who had a copy made more copies and squirreled them away or something as souvenirs. There was a guy in Hawaii who, when the government finally dropped its case six months later, his version of it was at the printer being run off. He had decided to just violate copyright and the government restraining order and everything else and start passing out copies of it on the streets of Honolulu.

And we kept getting calls at the magazine from people who would say, “Hey, I got a copy of your manuscript, should I hand it out?” And we said, “No, no, let’s see what the court does.”

So there was no doubt that this manuscript was going to get out, but by the time the government finally threw in the towel, I had picked up enough information to realize that half of what I’d said was wrong anyway. So the very first thing we did after the article came out was publish all my corrections in the next issue.

C3K: How would you characterize the media coverage of the article and the case at the time?

HM: Well, it was disappointing, and the thing I was really interested in was what our nuclear targeting policy is. And I wanted to call attention to the fact that nuclear weapons are weapons of aggression, not defense, not national security, and that all of our targeting schemes were aggression — that the U.S. was always planning to strike first in every scenario, and that’s what the weapons were designed for; that’s what the delivery systems were designed for. And the magazine had actually stated this in two articles, one by Sidney Lens and also the one by Robert Aldridge, so that was the story I was trying to get out.

It wasn’t my assignment and it wasn’t really part of any of the coverage of this thing, but when I went on the lecture circuit for most of the 1980s, sort of traveling on the basis of my notoriety, I called my slideshow “First Strike Nuclear Warfare,” and it wasn’t so much about how the bomb works and how it was built but how we planned to use it. So I did get to have my say as a result of being invited around to give talks.

In terms of what we were trying to do, the reason I wanted to tell the H-bomb secret was that it was a roadmap — you had to see the product that was being made in order to tell why they had factories in Oak Ridge, Tenn., and Denver, Col. So it tied all the factories together by showing this — like having a diagram of a car and saying the pistons are made over here and the engine block is made over there and that sort of thing. None of that got into the news coverage; that was all lost.

The only thing the news coverage was interested in was the First Amendment — will the press win, or will the government win? The whole horse race thing. And the first coverage, it was great in out point of view, because all of the heavy-hitters, the New York Times (and) the Washington Post, the stars of Watergate and the Pentagon Papers, they all came out and editorialized against us and said, “This is terrible. This is the one thing you should never publish, and we’re in favor of publishing government secrets, but not this secret. This is the perfect example of something that no one should ever talk about.”

And I think (Progressive editor) Erwin Knoll actually got kind of discouraged when he heard that, and he seemed to kind of act like all his friends had turned on him. He really expected more support from the press.

I wasn’t surprised at all, and I thought, “This is great, because we’re going to win this one easily.” I told him, “The government affidavit says this information has never been published before. I can show you exactly where each item of it has been published before,” and they had no idea that I could do that.

So I started writing a big affidavit, and we did get four signers from the Argonne National Laboratory who were willing to come in and say, “Yeah, it’s true. We’ve seen all this stuff in bits and pieces in the scientific literature.” So they wrote some affidavits, and then Sam Day took those affidavits and my affidavit and went out to California, and he ended up at Livermore, (Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) and he ran into a guy named Hugh DeWitt, who I had met at a Berkley peace movement meeting. (DeWitt) was working at Livermore but not as a bomb designer. He was one of their non-bomb designers — one of the people who were working on astrophysics.

And DeWitt was part of this grassroots movement in Berkley saying that the University of California should not be the contractor for one of the bomb factories, the bomb design labs at Livermore and Los Alamos. That campaign went on for decades and finally succeeded, and now they don’t do it anymore. But somehow (Sam Day) ran into him and gave DeWitt all the affidavits and the manuscript, because he had security clearance, and he came back and said his first reaction was, “This is shocking. I’ve never seen this stuff before. People who work in the lab are just shocked at the idea that this stuff would appear outside of a lab publication.”

So DeWitt read the affidavits and the manuscript, and a couple hours later came back and said, “You’re right — it’s all out there. It’s not a secret anymore.”

So DeWitt wrote an affidavit, and he found Ray Kidder, who actually was a bomb designer. And it turns out that Ray Kidder — I didn’t find this out until 2000, much later — Kidder had been running a similar campaign inside the lab telling people that this information is already out there and you need to declassify it because we look like fools — we go to conferences in Europe to talk about fusion energy, and everybody out there is talking about the H-bomb secret and we have to act like we’ve never heard it before, and we look silly. So he had already put together this case and written a letter and then our case hits the news, and Hugh DeWitt asks Ray Kidder if he’d like to join our team.

Kidder agreed, and he became our chief technical expert, and he had more credibility in this than anybody in our team because he was an actual bomb designer from Livermore Laboratory.

So, the other team, the government team, had a couple bomb designers who were saying how this is all awful and somebody’s trying to destroy America, and Ray Kidder came along and said, “No, I’ve been saying for years, this is not a secret anymore. The whole world knows it, and you’re not really protecting anything.”

Since Kidder wrote everything as a security-cleared person, his stuff had to be redacted before anybody could see it. But the press people who were covering this for the New York Times and Washington Post were able to look at the redacted version of this debate between Ray Kidder and bomb designers (on the government’s team), and (the press) started to say, “Hey, there’s two sides to this story.” So gradually, over the course of six months, there were several hearings and we kept generating little drips and drabs of news, and the coverage started to swing in our direction. And at that point, I was just hoping that the thing would last long enough for us to milk a little more free ink out of it. But eventually the government got tired of looking bad and threw in the towel.

C3K: It’s interesting that the government claimed you were trying to publish “restricted data” pertaining to the nuclear program although all your information came from openly available, non-classified sources.

HM: Well, there’s nothing about this technology that violates the laws of physics. The H-bomb secret was figured out in 1951, and so we’re talking about 1979, so this was a quarter century later. So the things that were very mysterious in 1951 were already in college textbooks for freshman by the time I went to college. I mean, there’s no way this thing was going to stay secret or get more secret. You just kind of had to put some ideas together. The whole thing was explained in a two word phrase “radiation implosion,” and if anybody said that then, anybody who had a background in physics could have said, “Radiation implosion, oh yeah, sure.”

C3K: In the end, do you think your article accomplished what you set out to do?

HM: Yeah, sure; it didn’t end the arms race, but the arms race did eventually end. And right now our problem is even though the arms race is over and Cold War is over, we’ve still got strategic nuclear warheads on Cold War alert, to launch in three minutes warning and blow up the world, and we can’t seem to figure out how to unplug that machine. So we didn’t succeed in doing that yet, but maybe in the next eight years we’ll make some progress in that direction.

C3K: What’s your outlook for the future of the nuclear disarmament movement and reaching those goals?

HM: I think it’s pretty good. My outlook on other things is much less optimistic. We’re running out of resources. We’ve burned up half the oil; mined half the copper; we’re melting the ice caps. The world has twice too many people for a sustainable system. Those things are all going to haunt the 21st century.

But I think that the chances of avoiding a thermonuclear holocaust are a lot better now than they were 30 years ago.

I think the most interesting thing to happen with nuclear weapons is that (President) George Bush, the first, unilaterally disarmed the entire Army and surface Navy, and that’s where half of our nuclear weapons were. There was no act of Congress, no agreement or anything; he just made a presidential order. And the reason was that military people have never liked nuclear weapons. They can’t fight wars with them — all you can do is destroy the earth. And they really didn’t like having thousands of nuclear weapons in Europe, so (Bush) got rid of (the nuclear weapons) for them.

And the Air Force, unfortunately, kept its tactical nuclear weapons in Europe, and we’ve still got the strategic nuclear weapons, but they’re in lower numbers now.

And the chance of an accidental nuclear war is less because nobody actually expects Russia to attack us. So even though we haven’t been able to stand down the alert forces, at least we’re not primed to think any sign of attack might be the real thing. That’s the best thing that’s happened.

But I think young people mostly don’t know much about (nuclear weapons) and care even less, and I think for people born after 1980, I would imagine the vast majority of them would be just fine with getting rid of nuclear weapons. And so, one of these days, it’ll probably happen. America is still pretty asleep to the dangers of nuclear weapons, but it’s not as urgent a problem as it used to be, and there are plenty of urgent problems now — any of which could overwhelm us.

In the 21st century, it’s kind of hard to figure out how the growth of human population is going to stop without pandemics and genocides or whatever, and how we’re going to create sustainable systems to catch just as many fish as the ocean will produce and no more and that sort of thing.

That’s going to be more difficult than nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons are in the hands of nine national governments. These other problems are in the hands of billions of individual actors. So getting everybody to work together on carbon emissions or something is much more difficult than getting nine nations to abolish nuclear weapons.

Related Links:

Read the entire November 1979 Progressive magazine issue, including, “The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It, Why We’re Telling It” here.

Read 1979 TIME article titled “H-Bomb Ban”.

Read “The Holocaust Bomb: A Question of Time,” an essay by Howard Morland.

Read Morland’s “First Strike Nuclear Warfare” slideshow presentation here.

Read “Born Secret,” (PDF) an essay by Howard Morland on legal and political aspects of H-bomb technology published in the Cardozo Law Review.