On an overnight train ride from Princeton, New Jersey, to Washington, DC, in January 1953, one of the most influential and well-respected theoretical physicists of the 20th century, John Archibald Wheeler, somehow managed to lose a six-page document that described the breakthroughs the US had made in creating the world’s first hydrogen bomb. The circumstances leading to the Wheeler incident, as it became known, involved a secret intragovernmental conspiracy and the acrimonious debate over whether to build a hydrogen bomb at all. Those missing pages eventually would derail the careers of at least two major Cold War figures. You can read my article about “John Wheeler’s H-bomb blues” in the December 2019 issue of Physics Today.
I first came across the story of Wheeler’s unfortunate train ride while reading about the security hearings of J. Robert Oppenheimer. But it wasn’t until I stumbled across a detail in the records of a secret congressional hearing on the incident from February 1953 that I really wanted to learn more. The lurid detail was a description of Wheeler peering into a bathroom stall to make sure the stranger sitting on the toilet wasn’t looking at Wheeler’s secrets. The story was just too bizarre to ignore, and the more I dug into it, the stranger it got.
To tackle the story in depth, I knew I would need to exhume a lot of once-secret files. There were three major government agencies involved, and they notoriously did not share information very freely with one another: the US Atomic Energy Commission (keeper of nuclear secrets), the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (the congressional watchdog of the AEC), and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (then still run with an iron fist by J. Edgar Hoover).
The AEC files on the Wheeler incident were relatively slim, since the commission was involved only with its aftermath. Much trickier were the files of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. The JCAE was one of the most powerful congressional committees of all time, and most of its work was done under the stamp of classification. Declassified congressional files can be much harder to access in the US than the files of other agencies, because Congress exempted itself from the powers of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Historians can’t really compel Congress to release anything. Congress does release old documents, but it’s on its own schedule.
It turns out the easiest files to obtain were those from the FBI. Despite its penchant for secrecy, the FBI complies with FOIA requests relatively expediently—a “small” file might take only six months, and a large one might take only a year or so. If “a year or so” sounds like a long time to you, then you shouldn’t rely on FOIA requests. Most federal agencies take much longer than that, and you often don’t get much out of the material when it does arrive because the pages are so heavily redacted by censors.
During the Cold War, the FBI investigated a wide variety of people and topics. You can get a sense of the variety by looking at the index on the agency’s online FOIA reading room, The Vault. Some of the investigations are unsurprising, like the espionage case of the Rosenbergs. Some are just bizarre, like the effort the agency put into trying to understand the garbled lyrics to the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie,” because there were allegations that they were obscene (they aren’t). Some are disturbing, like Hoover’s attempts to disrupt the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements.
As a historian of nuclear secrecy, I’m fascinated by FBI files, and especially those of physicists. American physicists—particularly theoretical physicists—were targeted to an extreme extent by the forces of anti-Communism during the late 1940s and early 1950s. As historian of physics David Kaiser discovered, more theoretical physicists were called as “unfriendly” witnesses by the House Committee on Un-American Activities between 1948 and 1953 than were academicians in any other field, by a significant margin.
The targeting of those physicists, Kaiser argues, was due to two perceptions. One was that theoretical physicists were the ones most responsible for the development of nuclear weapons and were thus powerful. The other was that theoretical physicists, though quite technically brilliant, were politically naïve and susceptible to Communist propaganda.
Those stereotypes are incorrect. Theoretical physicists have a monopoly on neither weapons expertise nor political naïveté. But the combination of those two ideas put the physicists in a rough position—they were powerful but suspect. Hence the intensive scrutiny they received, most famously in the cases of Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, and Edward Condon, and in dozens of less prominent cases.
Acquiring a physicist’s FBI file is relatively easy. It helps if the person is dead. Obtaining the files of living people requires their notarized permission; the files of the dead are available to anyone. Then you send a letter to the FBI’s FOIA division requesting the file. You can now do this online. You need to explain why you want the file, for the purposes of fee assessment. Then you wait.
The files themselves are usually a bewildering mess. They are mixtures of interviews and innuendo. Almost all of them are collections of secondhand information, often from informants who are kept confidential. What is real and what is not? This is not something the files are very good at answering. The FBI in 1953 was less about evaluating the quality of allegations so much as documenting their quantity. But the files do give insight into how the American national security state operated, for better and worse.
Wheeler’s file is almost entirely devoted to the Wheeler incident and the FBI’s painstaking attempts to locate the document. The amount of detail the FBI wanted to get is stunning: At exactly what time did Wheeler open the envelope containing the papers? Who shared the cab with Wheeler to the train station? Who were in the berths of the train cars adjacent to Wheeler’s car? It’s hard not to read some of the zeal as performative, to show Hoover (and, through him, President Eisenhower) how seriously the agents took the case.
In the end, the FBI never found the document, nor did it get any real hints as to where it ended up. We may never know what happened to it, unless it shows up in some foreign archive. That’s a little unsatisfying as an ending to a mystery story, but real-life mysteries often lack neat resolutions. Even lacking a resolution, though, this incident—and the FBI file—gives a fascinating peek into a tense moment in the high Cold War.
Alex Wellerstein is an assistant professor in science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey. He is the author of Restricted Data: Nuclear Secrecy in the United States, due out in 2020 from the University of Chicago Press. “John Wheeler’s H-bomb Blues” appears in the December 2019 issue of Physics Today.