Science Fiction and the Atom Bomb: The Cleve Cartmill Affair:One by Robert Silverberg

Reflections: The Cleve Cartmill Affair:One by Robert Silverberg

The anecdote out of science fiction’s history that almost everyone has heard of is the tale of how Cleve Cartmill, a competent writer of middling abilities, published a story describing the workings of the atomic bomb in a 1944 issue of John Campbell’s magazine Astounding Science Fiction, fourteen months before the first successful atomic explosion at the Alamogordo testing grounds, thus causing a Federal security agency to investigate both Cartmill and Campbell to see if there had been a leak of top-secret military information.

The story has taken on some of the characteristics of an urban legend by now. But it really did happen. I have the official file of the investigation right on my desk today. It was declassified in the summer of 2001, and Michael Ravnitzky, a journalist who works with an outfit called American Lawyer Media in Washington, applied for it from the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command under the Freedom of Information Act and shared it with Gordon Van Gelder, the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, who kindly made a copy of it available to me. (Mr. Ravnitzky has made something of a specialty of obtaining recently declassified government files involving SF people–Isaac Asimov, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein, and Hugo Gernsback among them. He’s even been able to get the files of Project Moon Dust, a UFO-connected enterprise whose existence the Air Force long denied.) It is with Michael Ravnitzky’s permission that I share the Cartmill story with you now.

The file opens with a blurrily reproduced letter from John Campbell (based in New York) to Cleve Cartmill (who lived in Manhattan Beach, California) dated August 16, 1943. Cartmill had evidently proposed writing a story about a super-bomb. After complaining that he has hardly any stories in his inventory, having lost most of his best contributors to the war effort–Cartmill, who was partly paralyzed, was ineligible for military service–Campbell responds to a proposal from Cartmill for a story based on the idea of using atomic weapons in warfare, telling him that it is "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."

Heady stuff, right? It might lead one to think that John Campbell had a pipeline right into the nascent Los Alamos, New Mexico laboratory of the Manhattan Project, where a team of scientists led by J. Robert Oppenheimer was then trying to master the task of controlling an atomic explosion. But in fact he’d simply been reading the technical journals, where all sorts of articles on nuclear fission and chain reactions had been published since 1940.

Campbell, not only a great editor but a superb writer himself, suggested to Cartmill that one way to handle the theme might be to postulate a war on some other planet between powers comparable to the Axis (Them) and the Allies (Us) of World War II, in which the Axis, facing defeat, had decided to set off an experimental A-bomb regardless of consequences. "I think the story would be the adventure of the secret agent who was assigned to save the day–to destroy that bomb."

Cartmill replied a few days later, asking Campbell a few technical questions: "Wouldn’t the consequent explosion set up other atomic imbalances, which in turn–and so on, until the whole damned planet went up in dust? . . . How do you control the explosion time of such a bomb? Isn’t it, once it has been assembled, trying each instant to blow itself apart? . . . In other words, where’s the trigger or fuse? . . . You see, I want to know how to make a U-235 bomb, so that I’ll know how to destroy it, because I think that will be highly entertaining reading. Keeping an eye, of course, on what should or should not be told for social, military, or political reasons."

So Campbell, in the next letter, told Cartmill how to construct an A-bomb, how it would be triggered, and what the probable consequences of an atomic explosion would be. Cartmill wrote the story, "Deadline," and Campbell used it in his March, 1944 issue, which went on sale in early February. It was not a particularly distinguished story. It was, in fact, a klutzy clunker. We have already seen that Campbell was desperate for material in the fall of 1943. (Cartmill had cleverly disguised the Allies and Axis of his imaginary world by calling them the "Seilla" and the "Sixa." The main contending countries were "Ynamre" and "Ytal" on the evil Sixa side and "Acireb" and "Aissu," though not, oddly, "Niatir," among the Seilla.) The readers rated it last, sixth out of six stories, in the monthly story-popularity poll that Campbell conducted.

For all its flaws, however, it remains Cleve Cartmill’s best-known story, overshadowing such nicely done fantasy novellas as "Bit of Tapestry" (1941) and "Hell Hath Fury" (1943). It is, in fact, the only one of his that anyone but a dedicated scholar of the field would likely be able to name today. The reason is very simple. There is this paragraph, quoted virtually verbatim from John Campbell’s letter of August 16, 1943:

U-235 has been separated in quantity easily sufficient for preliminary atomic-power research, and the like. They got it out of uranium ores by new atomic isotope separation methods; they now have quantities measured in pounds. By ‘they,’ I mean Seilla research scientists. But 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 before all of it had been consumed–in something like one micromicrosecond of time.

And also this one:

Two cast-iron hemispheres, clamped over the orange segments of cadmium alloy. And the fuse–I see it is in–a tiny can of cadmium in a beryllium holder and a small explosive powerful enough to shatter the cadmium walls. Then–correct me if I’m wrong, will you?–the powdered uranium oxide runs together in the central cavity. The radium shoots neutrons into this mass–and the U-235 takes over from there. Right?

Someone in Washington happened to read the March, 1944 Astounding. And then the fun began.

On March 8th Arthur Riley, an investigator from the Counter-Intelligence Corps of what was then called the War Department, turned up at Campbell’s office and demanded to know the source of the information used in the Cartmill "article." The copy of the agent’s report, dated April 13, has Campbell’s name carefully whited out, but says that "the editor of this magazine assumed full responsibility for whatever technical disclosures appeared therein. He stated he wrote to Cleve Cartmill requesting him to write a fictional (imaginative) story around the technical material contained in the story and that Cartmill had no technical knowledge whatever." Campbell asserted, Riley said, that "the subject of Atomic Disintegration was not novel to him, since he had pursued a course in atomic physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1933."

But that wasn’t enough to allay the agent’s suspicions. Campbell’s contention that he had learned all about nuclear physics in college "would appear to justify his explanation that it was purely coincidental," Agent Riley wrote, though I suspect he would have been disturbed to learn that Campbell had flunked out of MIT in his sophomore year, 1931. But in any case, he added, "in the opinion of informed persons the story contains more than just an academic course in atomic physics revealing as it does certain things developed since 1940. The theoretical use of boron unless it was coincidental is indicative of quite recent information."

Campbell provided the Military Intelligence man with Cartmill’s address–in Manhattan Beach, California. The link to the top-secret Manhattan Project based in Los Alamos was too obvious to overlook. Riley sent word to the California branch office of Intelligence that Cartmill should be placed under immediate surveillance; plainly he knew too much about our hush-hush A-bomb research. Who had tipped him off ? Both Cartmill and Campbell would need further watching.

And before long it began to seem as though a whole network of science fiction writers might be involved–a chain of conspirators. For example, the report continues, "It is established that Cartmill is very friendly with [ ], Retired U.S.N.R., who is associated with [ ] at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. This [ ] formerly was doing research work at Columbia University, and he is said to have accepted some material thought to be atomic copper from [ ] in order to measure it in the mass spectroscope at Columbia University. [ ] was advised by [ ] that the device was broken. He never received the material back from [ ]. One [ ] who has written for [ ] Magazine is said to be working with [ ] also. The possibility of the transmittal through [ ] to Cartmill has not so far been resolved. . . ."

Well, now it can be told, and you are quite familiar with the names of these sinister people. The retired naval man was Robert A. Heinlein. His Philadelphia Navy Yard associate, the former Columbia man, was Isaac Asimov. The one who sent the copper to Asimov and never got it back was Will F. Jenkins, who wrote science fiction under the pseudonym of Murray Leinster. The blanked-out magazine was Astounding, and the other writer working at the Navy Yard with Heinlein and Asimov was L. Sprague de Camp.

Were all four of these great masters of science fiction slipping nuclear secrets to Cleve Cartmill? We’ll find out next month.