THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING H-BOMB PAPER
Tue 10th Aug 2021
It's one of the most gripping stories in my latest book Two Minutes to Midnight - the day John Archibald Wheeler, a key figure in the H-Bomb project, lost a vital Top Secret paper on a sleeper train. President Eisenhower was furious - and confessed himself frightened - and Vice-President Richard Nixon was not alone in thinking it was the work of a Soviet agent....
ON THE MORNING OF WEDNESDAY JANUARY 7 1953, atomic physicist John Archibald Wheeler stood on his toes on the lavatory seat of a Pullman sleeper train to Washington DC and peered over into the next door cubicle at another man doing his business.
Wheeler might well have asked himself what on earth he was doing. A happily-married man, he risked being caught and labelled a sexual deviant. His prestigious university position at Princeton, and his standing at the very top of the American scientific community, would surely be destroyed by the scandal that would ensue.
But at the moment of his Peeping Tom act, Wheeler had no thought for any of those consequences. His focus was not on the man sat on the toilet seat, but on the wall next to him, where a manila envelope was tucked behind the steam pipes of the lavatory system. It contained nothing less than the biggest secret on the planet – and Wheeler had to get it back.
The absent-minded scientist had left it there on his visit to that cubicle just a few minutes earlier. In the envelope was a six-page document with details of the history of the making of the H-Bomb – the new terrifying weapon of mass destruction that only America possessed – and enough up to date technical detail to hugely excite a foreign power. Had he, Wheeler, thought, been burgled by a Soviet agent?
When he saw the man had finished, Wheeler darted in and grabbed the manila envelope. Greatly relieved, he returned to his berth and began packing up his suitcase to go. Everything completed, he pulled out the manila envelope for a final double-check on the H-Bomb document. To his complete horror, the envelope only contained another, more mundane document – the H-Bomb paper had vanished.
A desperate search of his berth and the entire Pullman sleeping car, followed by a frantic tour of Washington’s Union Station rooms and restaurants to try and identify any of his fellow passengers, proved fruitless. An utterly dejected Wheeler had no alternative but to report his loss to the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), three of whose members rushed down to the station to add fresh eyes to the search. But eventually, soon after midday, JCAE director William Borden bowed to the inevitable and picked up the phone to the FBI’s Washington office.
In the five weeks that followed Special Agent Charles Lyons, leading the investigation, was able to identify and rule out as suspects five men who had taken neighboring berths on the Pullman Wheeler had travelled in from Philadelphia. But there remained some worrying gaps in his knowledge.
Firstly, Lyons was unable to track down an ‘ordinary, plainly dressed’ couple, thirty to forty years old, and their small child, who had bought a last-minute ticket from the conductor and taken up the lower and upper bunks in berth No 1.
Even more tantalizing was his failure to find the occupant of lower berth No 8, next to Wheeler. Lyons had this individual’s ticket – a last minute one, bought over the counter sale in Philadelphia – but frustratingly, the name written on railroad company’s seating chart could not be identified, despite being poured over in the FBI laboratory in Chicago. This mystery man – or woman – was something like ‘Magenbright’, ‘Wagenbright’, or ‘Wagenknight’ – but no-one could be sure which.
The loss of the H-bomb document could not have come at a more critical time in the Cold War - and at a more febrile moment in American history. The war in Korea, two and a half years old, showed no signs of ending. An atmosphere of worry, even paranoia about Communists at the heart of the United States government was being effectively stoked by the witchfinder-in-chief, Joe McCarthy.
Then there were the atomic spies. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the latest of these, had been tried, convicted and sentenced to death. The couple had just been given a new stay of execution for a further appeal to the Supreme Court.
Now came this disappearance, which could have come right out of the pages of s spy thriller - perhaps from the pen of someone like Ian Fleming, who in 1953 was about to introduce James Bond to the world in Casino Royale.
Forty-one-year-old ‘Johnny’ (as he was known to friends) Wheeler had been a key figure in the wartime Manhattan Project which developed the first atom bomb, and was currently head of Project Matterhorn B, America’s H-Bomb project based at Princeton University, where he had been professor of physics since 1938.
Wheeler had taken the overnight train from his home to the capital in order to attend a conference (on the latest developments on the H-bomb) at the US Naval Research Laboratory. Settling down in his berth, lower No 9, on the night of Tuesday January 6, he pulled out the document to read and make notes on before he went to sleep.
What he read that night remains highly classified, even today. But we can glean something of what it said from Wheeler’s interview with the FBI. The document confirmed that the US was on its way to a successful thermonuclear weapon (it had successfully tested a rough and ready prototype, codenamed ‘Mike’, in November 1952). It also revealed there were several varieties of the thermonuclear weapon considered to be available for practical use.
Wheeler told his inquisitors that the top secret document also revealed technical details about the making of the ‘super’ fusion bomb – that ‘Lithium-6 was useful, that compression was useful, and that radiation heating provided a way to get that compression’.
The physicist believed that mention of Lithium-6 as a vital ingredient would have aroused the interest of the Kremlin. But he told FBI investigators that the ‘qualitative idea of radiation implosion … is the most important revelation’ – and could be crucial information for Russian atomic scientists.
Wheeler had a record of carelessness with official documents, but no-one seriously believed he was a Soviet spy. As Agent Lyons pursued the case, he first accounted for the movements of all Soviet diplomatic personnel on the morning of January 7. He then initiated a probe into what he described as a ‘delegation of radicals’ heading for the capital on Wheeler’s train.
This was a group bound for the White House where they would carry placards urging the President to commute the death sentence of the Rosenbergs. FBI agents shot numerous still photographs and reels of film of this protest, and made Wheeler study it to see if he recognized any of the individuals from his train journey on 6 and 7 January. But the scientist was unable to provide a positive identification, and that trail quickly went cold.
The H-Bomb paper could simply have slid away from Wheeler’s grasp as he dropped off to sleep on that Tuesday night, somehow vanishing into the structure, equipment or bedding of the Pullman. But when the newly-elected President Dwight Eisenhower had the embarrassing task of revealing the paper’s disappearance to his National Security Council a month later, most of them were convinced it was the work of the Russians – none more so than Vice-President Richard Nixon, who urged the FBI to carry out a complete check on each and every member of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy. Eisenhower asked his deputy to liaise with J.Edgar Hoover about taking into ‘custody’ all the committee’s files – before any more papers were lost.
Eisenhower’s mood that day was a mixture of deep anxiety and anger that such a calamity should happen so soon on his watch. Rarely had a President of the United States laid bare his feelings so starkly before his closest colleagues. He frankly confessed that he was ‘frightened’, and had no idea how to proceed. He expressed bewilderment that the H-Bomb document had been erroneously labelled as ‘Secret’ rather than “Top Secret’, and sent merely by registered mail to a ‘college professor’ in Princeton rather than being escorted to him by armed guard.
If those responsible for this disastrous breach of security – the staff of the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) – had been in the army, they ‘should have been shot’, exploded the President. The JCAE would soon have a new chairman and a new set-up, but, as Eisenhower bemoaned, that would simply be to ‘lock the barn door after the horse had been stolen’.
There was no serious thought given to briefing the British about the loss. As more and more evidence was coming to light about the Cambridge spies, and with the treachery of Klaus Fuchs – the German-born British scientist who had passed on A-Bomb secrets to the Soviets – still raw, there was little collaboration on the nuclear front between Washington and London. Eisenhower had been unimpressed when he had met ageing prime minister Churchill in January, reflecting he was ‘as charming and interesting as ever – but definitely showing the effects of the passing years’.
In the end, after FBI agents all over the eastern side of the United States had interviewed hundreds of people and supervised the search of miles and miles of railway track and dozens upon dozens of railway carriages, they were none the wiser. The hunt petered out and Eisenhower had more immediate day-to-day preoccupations, primarily trying to end the war in Korea.
Maybe the H-Bomb paper will turn up one day in one of Putin’s files in the Kremlin. What is a fact is that only seven months later the Soviet Union drew level with America in August 1953 when she successfully tested her own prototype H-bomb on the steppe in the north-east Kazakhstan.
As for ‘Johnny’ Wheeler, he escaped with a dressing-down from Gordon Dean, chairman of the Atomic Energy Committee: he was too valuable a member of the H-Bomb project to be fired.
Years later, musing about the incident in his memoirs, Wheeler wrote; ‘It is interesting, even now, to wonder whether my document was purloined by a Soviet agent. It could hardly have vanished into thin air’.