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From Major Jordan's Diaries


“The Story of Heavy Water”

     One morning in November, 1943, Colonel Kotikov protested against the manner in which a C-47 had been packed. He showed me tiers of large bottles. The necks and stoppers, secured with wire, protruded from wooden crates. Alternate bottles had been loaded bottom-up to conserve space. The Colonel insisted that they all had to be topside down, with each bottle lashed down separately. “We must repack,” he ordered.

     Though all our loading was done by a crew of American civilians, freight was checked in the warehouse, from duplicate manifests, by a young Russian non-com, Senior-Sergt. Andrei Vinogradsky. He was a mysterious character whom we suspected of spying on Colonel Kotikov for me Fairbanks host, Alexei A. Anisimov. The Sergeant seemed to understand little English, and communicated with the air-stevedores through signs and interpreters.

     I gave orders to repack the cargo. It may be that Sergeant Vinogradsky pointed to the wrong entry, or that crewmen mistook the line to which his finger pointed. At any rate, one of them astonished me by asking: “What is it – that heavy water stuff?”

     “Heavy water?” I echoed, for I had never heard the expression. Yes, said the worker, that was what was listed on the manifest. Thereafter, for all of us, such carboys were “heavy water,” on this and other transports. Many times I heard the shout: “Be careful of that heavy water!”

     The fact is that the five-gallon demijohns actually contained sulfuric acid. It was demonstrated six years later, during the Fulton Lewis broadcast of December 6, 1949, that this misunderstanding was general. Three former members of the Gore Field ground crew – Elmer Williams, John Kukay and Leonard Woods – were quoted as declaring stoutly that with their own hands they had loaded “big carboys of heavy water.”

     Unwittingly Colonel Kotikov helped the mistake along by asking over the phone whether the “heavy water plane” had taken off. I said no. He directed me to hold it and drop by his office for a bundle of papers to be handed to the pilot. While leafing through the folder, I caught sight of the words, “heavy water,” and asked the Colonel what they meant. “Something for our new chemical plants,” came the answer.

     What is popularly known as “heavy water” is technically called deuterium oxide. It is in crystal form, not liquid.

     In alledging medical and other grounds for its needs of uranium oxide and uranium nitrate, Russia had taken care to observe an appearance of truth, for such use is not unknown to therapeutics. It had been tried out in throat sprays and lent its name to Uranwein, a German specific against diabetes. Uranium oxide had been tested as an alloy for toughening steel, but it was found difficult to handle and had erratic results. Therefore when Moscow asked for heavy water, they let the cat out of the bag. Except for curious experiments regarding plant growth, heavy water boasts only one useful property: it is the best of moderators for slowing down the speed of neutrons in nuclear reactions.

     Records of evidence [1] prove that on August 23, 1943, Hermann Rosenberg of Chematar received an application from the Soviet Purchasing Commission for 1,000 grams of deuterium oxide. The purpose stated was “research.”

     A supplier was found in the Stuart Oxygen Co. of San Francisco, which shipped the merchandise on October 30, by railway express, to Chematar’s New York office. Rosenberg forwarded the consignment to the Purchasing Commission in Washington, which dispatched it on November 29, by way of the Pipeline to Rasnoimport, USSR, Moscow U-1, Ruybjshova-22.

     The order was packed with as much tenderness as if it had been a casket of jewels. Forty pyrex ampoules, each containing 25 grams, were enclosed in mailing tubes and wrapped in layers of cotton. The ampoules were divided in lots of 10 among four cartons, which were placed, with further precautions against damage, in a large wooden box. This was strapped and sealed. The overall weight was 41.12 pounds. The cost of the fluid content was that of expensive perfumes - $80 an ounce.

     The export of heavy water to the Soviet Union was approved by a release certificate, No. 366, dated November 15, with the signature of William C. Moore, Division for Soviet Supply, Office of Lend-Lease Administration.

     If General Groves had been consulted, the heavy water would not have left this country. Had it been known at the time, he said, that 1,000 grams were available, unquestionably he would have bought the treasure himself. He added: “If it had been pure.” [2] That it was between 99.7 and 99.8 per cent pure was attested by an independent analysis made for Rosenberg in the laboratories of Abbot A. Hanks, Inc., San Francisco.

     At the beginning of 1945, the Soviet Purchasing Commission placed with Rosenberg a second order for heavy water. Only 100 grams were sought. He applied once more to the Stuart concern, which expressed the “liquid diamonds”* to Chematar on February 7. One week later Rosenberg forwarded the parcel to the commission. Its subsequent adventures have not been traced. In August of the same year Rosenberg was naturalized as an American citizen.

* From General Groves’ testimony on Dec. 7, 1949: “It is just like somebody would tell me they shipped a dozen Hope diamonds.”

     In good faith, I assured the Un-American Activities Commission at the first hearing that passed through Gore Field “we had separate loads of carboys of heavy water that we could hardly move.” [3] At my second hearing before the committee on March 3, 1950, I admitted confusing “heavy water” with sulphuric acid, and I explained how the confusion occurred. [4]

Was one kilogram of heavy water and were mere hundreds of pounds of uranium chemicals too insignificant for important use?

     Specialists agree that the quantities delivered were inadequate for producing one A-bomb or even one experimental pile. They point out, however, that scarcely any fraction of a substance can be too small for laboratory research. The head of a pin could not have formed with the first plutonium ever made. From 500 micrograms were determined most of the properties and the chemical behavior of an element which 18 months earlier had been entirely unknown.

     On the presumption that 1,465 pounds of uranium salts were contributed to the Soviet Union, metallurgists estimate that they were reducible in theory to 875 pounds of natural uranium, which in turn would yield 6.25 pounds of fissionable U-235. But 4.4 pounds of the latter, or nearly two pounds less, are capable of producing an atomic explosion. Authority for this assertion may be found in the celebrated report which Dr. Henry DeWolf Smyth of Princeton University wrote at the request of General Groves and published in 1945.

     The Shattuck and Eldorado purchases totaled 1,420 pounds. With their third requisition the Russians expected so confidently to acquire another 500 pounds that papers to that effect were drafted and sent to us in Montana. If the full amount had been available, instead of 45 pounds, the aggregate would have been 1,920 pounds, or virtually one ton.

     At his Paris laboratory, while chief of the Atomic Energy Commission of France, Frederick Joliot-Curie built an experimental pile to which he gave the affectionate name of “Zoe.” It actually ran, though the wattage was feeble. The quantity of uranium crystals, said Dr. Joliot-Curie, was “something in the order of one ton.”

     It seems fair to take into account not merely what the Russians got, but what they tried to get. With Communist tenacity and ardent support from both White House and Lend-Lease, the Soviet Purchasing Commission strove again and again to obtain 8½ tons each of the uranium oxide and uranium nitrate, plus 25 pounds of uranium metal. The campaign started in February, 1943,* and persisted until the Russians were squelched by Secretary Stimson during April, 1944.

*Captain Kavanagh of the U.S. Army replied as follows in 1943 to a Russian request for uranium: “The amount of eight and one-half tons of uranium requested is unavailable in this country.”

     There are memorable instances of what can be achieved with less than 17 tons of uranium powders. One was a model atomic pile which went into operation at Chicago University on December 2, 1942. “So far as we know,” Dr. Smythe recounts, “this is the first time that human beings ever initiated a self-maintaining nuclear chain reaction.” With a power level of 200 watts, the device served as a pilot plant for the Hanford Engineer Works. The uranium supply available to them was six tons.

     Even earlier, before the Manhattan Project was dreamed of, a group of scientists at Columbia University began a course of hazardous experiments under the leadership of two foreign-born savants, Leo Szilard of Hungary and Enrico Fermi of Italy.

    They were so ill-supported with cash that 10,000 pounds of uranium oxide had to be “rented” at a nominal fee of 30 cents a pound fromBoris Pregel, president of the Canadian Radium & Uranium Corp. of New York who was later unjustly made a scapegoat by the press for the secret Canadian shipment.

     Here was done all the preparatory work moving toward the eventual creation of the first man-made elements in history, neptunium-93 and plutonium-94. From the group’s creative imagination rose in time the vast plutonium plant at Hanford, Washington and, in a large sense America’s atom bomb itself. The materials of that triumph were not 17 but 10 tons of uranium compounds.

     One of my lucky experiences was that of chancing upon the February 27, 1950 issue of the magazine Life shortly before the Un-American Activities Committee. I bore the copy with me to the witness chair. It contained an illustrated article on the atomic bomb.

     I learned for the first time that a plutonium pile consists of giant blocks of graphite, surrounded by heavy walls of concrete and honeycombed with aluminum tubes. In these tubes, it was related, are inserted slugs of natural uranium, containing 1 per cent of U-235. The intensity of the operation was declared to be governed by means of cadmium rods.

     Graphite, cadmium, aluminum tubes – where had I met the words before? In the Russian Lend-Lease figures* which I had added to the Jordan diary. Re-examining those pages, I discovered that during the four-year period 1942-45 we contributed to the Soviet Union, 3,692 tons of natural graphite, 417 tons of cadmium metals and tubes in an entry designating 6,883 tons of “aluminum tubes.”

* See Chapter 9, Anatoli B. Gromov, First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy and chief of the NKVD in the U.S., granted my request for the Soviet lists of Lend-Lease figures, in view of my work with the Russians at Great Falls.

     The figure for cadmium was arresting in view of its extreme scarcity in this country and because of the fact that it occurs, so far as we know, sparsely if at all in the Soviet Union. Under war stimulus, American production of cadmium rose from 2,182 short tons in 1940 to 4.192 in 1945.

     It was interesting to find that in 1942-45 we shipped to Russia 437 tons of cobalt – a staggering amount when collated with American production, which was nothing before the war, and increased to 382 tons in 1942 and 575 in 1945.

     That cobalt is valuable in the A-bomb for retarding radioactive emanations, and could be equally so in the hydrogen bomb, has been affirmed by a chemical engineer who was consultant to one of the war agencies. “Cobalt,” says he, “was one of our highest scarcity materials. If I had known that so large a proportion was going to the Russians, I should have suspected them of being at work on the bomb.” Incidentally, cobalt was the first item to be restricted by President Truman in the Korean emergency.

     Almost as curious was the discovery that we shipped to Russia more than 12 tons of thorium salts and compounds. Two other elements alone, besides uranium and plutonium, are fissionable. They are protactinium and thorium. The former may be disregarded because of its rarity in nature. But thorium, which is relatively plentiful, is expected by physicists to rival uranium some day, or even supplant it, as a source of atomic energy.

     Then there were cerium and strontium, of which the Soviet Purchasing Commission obtained 44 tons. Both metals, along with cadmium, thorium and cobalt, figured in Colonel Kotikov’s dossier on experimental chemicals. They are useless for atomic purposes. But Russian scientists may have been working their way through the rare earths and metals, on a well-founded suspicion that something momentous was afoot in that group.

     Everyone is aware, of course, that these elements have industrial or military functions unrelated to the atomic bomb, but Russia had a very critical interest in procuring A-bomb components from America. Red scientists are said to have been the first in Europe to announce the theory of nuclear fission.

     As America discovered at a cost of billions of dollars, it is a far cry from setting down speculations on paper to putting them in practice at the dimensions imposed by modern war. Thus the Kremlin was frantically inquisitive about large-scale production techniques developed by the Manhattan Project.

     The following incident occurred after my first broadcast from the private studio at the home of Fulton Lewis, Jr., in Maryland: A few minutes after we went off the air, a long-distance call rang in. The speaker was General Groves, from his residence in Connecticut. He wished to verify a particular quotation from the memorandum I made of my night examination of the “diplomatic suitcases.” Mr. Lewis read the passage: “Walls five feet thick, of lead and water, to control flying neurons.” There was a long silence. Putting a hand over the mouthpiece, the commentator remarked: “I think the General must have fallen out of his chair!”

     One ground for minimizing my evidence is a claim that Russia had abundant uranium of its own, in connection with massive radium deposits in the former area of Turkestan, the Kazakh Republic and the state of Tannu Tuva, north of Mongolia. More than 30 years ago, it is said, Soviet physicists worked out the correct formula for separating uranium from radium. On the other hand, as atomic experts are fond of pointing out: “You can never have too much uranium.”

     If a blunder occurred, such objections proceed, it was no the shipment of minor quantities of uranium compounds to the Soviet Union, but the publication of Dr. Smyth’s book, which told not only how to make a nuclear bomb but how not to make one. The chief atomic authority of Norway, Gunnar Randers, is cited as having pronounced that the indiscretion of this publication saved Russia and every other country two years of research.

     According to Professor Szilard, “one half of the atomic bomb secret was given away when we used the bomb, and the other half when we published the Smyth report.” After the espionage trials, however, one may ask whether the Smyth revelations were not more informative to the American public than to the Politburo.

     W. L. White, noted war correspondent and author of Report on the Russians, tells the following first-hand account of how much more they knew in Russia in 1944 than Americans did:

     Just what do they know in the Soviet Union about our atomic secret? When I visited Russia in 1944 they knew more than I did. A Soviet guide took our party on a tour of Leningrad. At the badly bombed Kirov electrical plant, a curious contraption of rusty steel caught my attention.

     “What is that?” I asked Kirilov, our guide.

     “Oh, that,” said Kirilov, “is cyclotron. Is used by our great Soviet physicist, Professor Joffe, when he makes, how you say, splitting of atom. But this is old,” continued Kirilov. “The new ones we move them behind Ural mountains. Behind Urals Professor Joffe has much newer, much better.”

     “Of course,” I was humoring him. I could see he was trying to make the point that, even with the enemy at its gates, in the Soviet Union this research in the theoretical science will continue.

    But Kirilov doggedly went on. “Behind Urals we have many big things. We have like you call in America, Manhattan Project. You know this, yes?”

     “Oh, of course,” I said. “We have lots of war projects in New York.” “Not in New York,” said Kirilov, looking at me intently, “Manhattan Project. You know of this?”

     “But Manhattan,” I said, “is a part of New York. Of course I know Manhattan. I live there!”

     It was not until an entire year passed – and the atomic bomb went off at Hiroshima – that I understood, at last, exactly what that poor, stammering Kirilov had been trying to ask me. [5]

     In any event, it is heartening to know that, on the whole, our uranium embargo stood firm. Moscow was prevented from winning its grand objective of 17 tons, in contrast to the delivery of 15 tons of uranium chemicals to Great Britain, which the Manhattan Project authorized.

     The steadfastness of the General Groves organization against Russia was the more admirable in that it was challenged by Mr. Hopkins, with the power of the White house behind him. After the Un-American Activities Committee closed its hearing on March 7, 1950, I was examined searchingly by Government investigators.

          They tried to lure me into admitting a possibility, however faint, that the person to whom I spoke might have been Edward R. Stettinius, Jr., who had died five months earlier, on October 11, 1949.

My answer was that never once, during my two years at Newark and Great Falls, did I hear so much as a mention of Stettinius, though reference to Hopkins was daily on the lips of the Russians.

     It is common knowledge that on August 28, 1941, Stettinius succeeded Hopkins as titular chief of Lend-Lease, and held the post until September 25, 1943, when the agency was merged with kindred bodies into the Foreign Economic Administration, with Leo A. Crowley as Administrator. But even the official biographer of Mr. Hopkins does not hesitate to write:

     Hopkins knew that policy governing Lend-Lease would still be made in the White House and that the President would continue to delegate most of the responsibility to him. Stettinius was his friend and they could work together – and that was that. [6]

     Another effort to clear Hopkins was based on the supposition that he acted in ignorance of what it was all about. Even if he helped the Russians to get A-bomb materials, the implication ran, it was as the unsuspecting tool of Soviet cunning.

     The Hopkins papers for Mr. Sherwood’s book were organized by Hopkins’ longtime friend, Sidney Hyman. A fortnight after my first broadcast he was quoted as affirming that, until Hiroshima, Harry Hopkins had not “the faintest understanding of the Manhattan Project,” and “didn’t know the difference between uranium and geranium.”

     On the contrary, Harry Hopkins was one of the first men anywhere to know about the atom bomb. Dr. Vannevar Bush chose Hopkins as his intermediary for presenting to Mr. Roosevelt the idea of the atom bomb. It was in consultation with Hopkins that Dr. Bush drafted the letter, for Mr. Roosevelt’s signature, which launched the A-bomb operation on June 14, 1941! Where do we learn this?

     In the official biography of Mr. Sherwood, on pages 154 and 155. Finally, on page 704 we are told that the head of a state, Winston Churchill, “was conducting this correspondence on the atomic project with Hopkins rather than with the President, and that he continue to do so for many months thereafter.”

     A witness on the topic, General Groves testified that to the best of his recollection and belief he never met Harry Hopkins, talked with him on the telephone, or exchanged letters or dealt with anyone claiming to represent him. But the General thought it incumbent to remark: “I do know, of course, that Mr. Hopkins knew about this project. I know that.” [8]

     An early symptom of White House obsession for “reassuring Stalin” has been described by General Deane. In letters to American war agencies, dated March 7, 1942, Mr. Roosevelt ordered that preferential position, in the matter of munitions, should be given to the Soviet Union over all other Allies and even the armed forces of the United States.

     Then and there, decided the former chief of the U.S. Military Mission to Moscow, was “the beginning of a policy of appeasement of Russia from which we have never recovered and from which was are still suffering.” [9]

     This obsession was also observed by William G. Bullitt, during a conversation in which Mr. Roosevelt outlined his Russian policy. From three years’ experience as an Ambassador to Moscow, Mr. Bullitt answered with reasons, now wholly vindicated, why the program was sure to fail.

     “Bill, I don’t dispute your facts,” said Mr. Roosevelt. “They are accurate. I don’t dispute the logic of your reasoning. I just have a hunch that Stalin is not that kind of man. Harry (Hopkins) says he’s not, and that he doesn’t want anything but security for his country.

     And I think that if I give him everything that I can and ask nothing from him in return, noblesse oblige, he won’t try to annex anything and will work with me for a world of peace and democracy.” [10]



The Story of the “Heavy Water”

1. Hearings, testimony of Hermann H. Rosenberg, Jan. 24, 1950, p. 1035.

2. Hearings, General Groves, p. 954.

3. Hearings, testimony of Major Jordan, Dec. 5, 1949, p. 932.

4. Ibid., March 3, 1950, p. 1155.

5. Kansas City Star, March 17, 1950.

6. Roosevelt and Hopkins, pp. 376-377.

7. Newsweek, Dec. 19, 1949.

8. Hearings, General Groves, p. 947.

9. The Strange Alliance, p. 89.

10. Life, June 30, 1949.

Continue with Chapter 8

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