The Visionaries, Madmen, and Tinkerers Who Created the Future That Never Was
THE LAST SECRET
Every SF fan of a certain age knows of the brouhaha surrounding Cleve Cartmill's story "Deadline." After it appeared in the March 1944 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, FBI agents launched an investigation of Cartmill and Astounding editor John W. Campbell that eventually dragged in SF writers Robert A. Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and Will Stewart (Murray Leinster). Nothing came of the investigation, of course. Information on the possibilities of using U-235 to make a super-powerful bomb had been in the public technical literature for years and that's all that Campbell needed to pass a few basics on to Cartmill. (The others got caught up in a web of coincidences and for being part of a small SF world in which everybody knew and interacted with everybody else.)
What if there were another book by another writer, one totally outside of SF, one who seemed to know not just basic physics but exactly what the government was doing in that fateful year of 1943 when Los Alamos and Oak Ridge and other secret installations were being erected on former wastelands?
There was. It's called The Last Secret and somehow remains an untold story to this day.
Albert Fear Leffingwell was born in 1895 and yes, Fear is his real middle name, taken from his mother's surname. His father, Albert Tracy Leffingwell, was an author and campaigner for animal rights who served as president for the American Humane Association for a year. Young Albert graduated from Harvard, did a rich man's tour of Europe, wrote books and poetry, and finally became a founding partner of the Olmstead, Perrin & Leffingwell advertising agency.
In 1939, for unknown reasons - nobody seems to have bothered to research his life and he apparently was never an insider who would be talked about by his friends - he started writing mysteries. Eight of them - one under his own name, two as by Giles Jackson, and five Jimmy Steele thrillers as by Dana Chambers - appeared by 1943.
The Last Secret came next, apparently at the very end of 1943 because it was mentioned in the February 12, 1944 Saturday Review of Literature along with a number of 1944 releases. The capsule review said "Physicist friend tells Jim Steele, Military Intelligence, about secret weapon. Then Hell pops from Manhattan to Andean airfield and back. ... Verdict: Paging Superman!"
Secret is an understatement; this is the Last Secret. Really.
"The greatest single discovery ... in the history of Mankind! ... The last secret between us and - the millennium." ...
What could qualify as such a secret? The physicist friend explains.
"Jim, a year or so ago there was a write-up in the New York papers about a new explosive. Maybe you saw it. Atomic energy from Uranium 235. Someone complaining that the Government had shut down further news of it. It was so powerful, the story said, that a ten-pound bomb filled with it would blast a hole twenty-five miles across, and level every building within a radius of a hundred miles."
Arthur Leffingwell, well-to-do Manhattan advertising executive, was squarely in the targeted readership of The New York Times. During 1941 the Times had run story after story about scientists using cyclotrons to produce minute amounts of U-235, enough for them to appreciate the vast amount of power it could produce and the havoc it could unleash as a weapon. Leffingwell certainly read the Times, for he copied it almost word-for word. In an article on August 14, 1941, John J. O'Neill, president of the National Association of Science Writers, was quoted for a mention of U-235, "which, if contained in a ten-pound bomb 'would blast a hole twenty-five miles in diameter and more than a mile deep, and would wreck every structure within a hundred miles."
Getting readily available information from the Times (and probably other newspapers: O'Neill worked for the New York Herald Tribune) was one thing. Using it in a story in late 1943 was another. The headline on the article quoting O'Neil read, "WRITER CHARGES U.S. WITH CURB ON SCIENCE/Tells Housatonic Session Work on Uranium 235 Is Censored." Absolutely true. Even before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the government clamped down on legitimate science reporting in what was still peacetime, in a supposedly free press in a neutral country. Except for one minor year-in-review article, the words "uranium atom" never appeared again in the Times until 1944. Cyclotron was a word never used at any time during 1943 in the Times. Yet Leffingwell used it, and went much farther in imparting secrets.
"Know what a cyclotron is? ... Well, there are thirty-five cyclotrons in this country. And every one of them is working overtime. It's a sort of race. A race to find out how to release all the energy which is locked up in the atomic nucleus. And believe me, it's a race for the highest stakes ever hung up, because the Nazis have at least a dozen cyclotrons - and they're working overtime too. On the same lines. Whoever gets there first -"
"Why doesn't the Government take a hand?"
"It has. Constant's National Defense Research Committee is an accredited Government arm now - has been for months and months. There are sixteen or seventeen hundred physicists working on various aspects of this job in I don't know how many different laboratories."
If anyone from the real Military Intelligence had read that far in the book – and we’re only half a dozen pages in, they must have been sweating. The National Defense Research Committee was very real, and so was its head, physicist James Conant, whose name was a trivial pair of letters shorter than Constant. (A postwar edition of the book swept aside the fictionalization and forthrightly called the scientist Conant.) He was not broadcasting the news about cyclotrons, because nobody was, and he certainly wasn't dropping convenient hints that the government had indeed set up a number of laboratories around the country in which atomic research was frantically pursued by hundreds of the best physicists in the country, all of them sent to those locations under orders not to reveal where they had gone.
How Leffingwell knew this is a mystery. Possibly his revelation was simply an educated guess, a bit of verisimilitude to bolster the newspaper-level science. For any readers, though, it surely hit closer to home than Cartmill's ludicrous exporting of the war into outer space, with the two sides cunningly disguised as the "Seilla" and the "Sixa."
Why Cartmill and Leffingwell wanted to use atomic weapons in a story is obvious. The phrase atomic war was coined in 1913 for H. G. Wells' novel The World Set Free, and earlier war stories using atomic power exist. The 1930s were fraught with atomic weapons, some merely picturesque baubles in pulp stories, some serious warnings about future wars. The big question is why their stories were allowed to run.
Byron Price, the U.S. Director of Censorship - not only did we have an official Office of Censorship, but Price won a special Pulitzer Prize for his work in the position - sent out a "Note to Editors and Broadcasters" on July 28, 1943.
The Codes of Wartime Practices for the American Press ... request that nothing be published ... about "new or secret military weapons [or] experiments." In extension of this highly vital precaution, you are asked not to publish ... any information whatever regarding ... Production or utilization of atom smashing, atomic energy, atomic fission, atomic splitting, or any of their equivalents.... [or] The following elements or their compounds: polonium, uranium, ytterbium, hafnium, protactinium, radium, rhenium, thorium, deuterium.
That's why I make a fuss about the publication date of The Last Secret. If it were released in the first half of 1943, the publisher, Dial Press, might have been absolved. But it was published after Price's note and Dial should have known better, as Campbell should have in 1944.
If the government investigated Cartmill's story, then why didn't they spot The Last Secret? They did. The only difference is that the mystery world doesn't have the obsessive fan grapevine that the f&sf world has and had.
The government’s virtually unknown actions are laid out in a wonderfully informative paper by Patrick S. Washburn presented at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (July 2-5, 1988): “The Office of Censorship's Attempt to Control Press Coverage of the Atomic Bomb during World War II."
The Office of Censorship also was frantically battling leaks outside of mainstream magazines and newspapers. On April 11, the Army asked the agency whether The Last Secret, a book published by Dial Press in 1943, had violated the voluntary code. Upon being contacted, the publisher claimed the book was a fictional detective story containing nothing "about atom smashing or atomic energy." However, the Army quickly pointed out an atomic energy reference in the first chapter "which was not very good," and this resulted in the publisher being rebuked. "Ordinarily we do not have any interest in fiction," wrote Lockhart. "But when fiction incorporates factual information dealing with restricted subjects, it can give information to the enemy as readily as any other form of published material." He concluded by asking Dial to be more careful in the future.
Were they? Of course not. When they had a chance to earn a couple of bucks by reprinting the book in paperback, Dial never hesitated. They sold reprint rights, first to Detective Book magazine, where it ran in the Winter 1944 issue, and to Quinn Publishing Company for them to use as one of their paperback Handi-Books. The Last Secret - abridged, but with none of the important atomic stuff touched, was put out as Handi-Book #34, right at the beginning of 1945, when it still mattered. Of course the government noticed.
[Jack] Lockhart [Assistant Director of the New York censorship office] told the Army that the publication could not be halted, but it did not matter since the book was "a lot of poppycock."
What a relief that Leffingwell was even more incompetent at science than Cartmill.
Lockhart's poppycock is another reader's page-turner. The plot of The Last Secret has a twist near the end that might have caused consternation if anybody associated with the Manhattan Project had seen the book. Steele's physicist friend, in the time-honored tradition of pulp science thrillers, has taken the atom a step further than the cyclotrons. All by himself he invented a superduperweapon, far more powerful than a mere atomic bomb.
I can raze Berlin - wait - that's too insignificant an example. I can sweep the whole North German plain, from Pomerania to the Saxon Alps, are bare as the palm of your hand. As empty of life as a billiard-table. I can blot out a hundred, a thousand cities, blast them into a dusty desolation without even a rat left breathing...
He immediately goes missing after this outburst, and the indestructible Steele - he is knocked unconscious for increasingly longer periods four separate times during the few days the book covers - finds a nest of Nazi spies operating in New York. Much incoherent action later, the Nazis spring their secret: they already have the weapon. Indeed, the German government invites the U.S. to an actual demonstration (hence the "Andean airfield") with the assumption that viewing its devastation will cause the U.S. to surrender rather than pursuing the war. That's a discussion that the actual scientists at Los Alamos, along with politicians and military officers elsewhere, were having and a procedure that the U.S. has for seven decades been vilified for not trying.
It might have worked, too, if it weren’t for that meddling Steele. A further twist or seven ends the book with a blaze of action. The closeness of the call causes Steele to end the book with a thoughtful note:
So: for our generation, at least, the secret was better lost. We had to grow up to it … slowly …
We have to wonder today whether Leffingwell had any inkling just how close the U.S. was to creating the atomic bomb. Or to his own end. He barely survived the war, passing away in 1946, at the age of 51. That last year of life, in the shadow of the bomb, must have caused some deep introspection.
The Last Secret survived him, with a British hardcover printing in 1949 and additional paperback editions in 1947 and 1952. Without further production and without an iconic series character, Leffingwell simply dropped into obscurity, not being revived even during the rediscovery of classic mysteries in the 1960s and 70s. Wildside Press has recently published a Jim Steele mystery, The Blonde Died First. As far as I can tell, that's the only Chambers book to be published in the past 60 years.
As a mystery, The Last Secret is standard mid-level 40s fare. As history, it's of near-unparalleled importance as one of the few hints about the power of atomic warfare that the U.S. tried desperately to suppress after Pearl Harbor. The material may have obsoleted itself in less than two years, but it stills packs a visceral kick.