Although the flow of information about the Manhattan Project was tightly controlled, New York Times reporter William L. Laurence was allowed unique access to the inner workings of the project.
A Lithuanian immigrant who fled Russia in 1905, Laurence graduated from Harvard Law School before becoming a reporter. In an article published in September 1940, “The Atom Gives Up,” he foresaw the awesome potential of harnessing atomic energy.
Laurence’s article was so alarmingly prescient that in 1943, General Leslie Groves ordered that anyone borrowing the article from a library be reported to him. Edward Adler ended up on the “suspect” list after checking out the article to learn more about gaseous diffusion.
In April 1945, Groves decided to retain the services of a reporter and asked the managing editor of the New York Times to provide Laurence. At the time, the newspaper was headquartered in the Times Square Building. The arrangement worked out well for both sides: the Times got the scoop of the century, and the Manhattan Project got an enthusiastic advocate for atomic energy.
Laurence witnessed key historic moments, including the Trinity test near Alamogordo, NM, on July 16, 1945. He was upset that he was forced to remain twenty miles away from Ground Zero but drafted his own obituary—just in case. Among his notes, he described Edward Teller applying sunscreen to prepare for the blast.
Laurence was also on Tinian Island in the Pacific for the departure and return of the Enola Gay from its mission over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. He commissioned Robert Lewis, co-pilot of the Enola Gay, to write a log of the flight. At the last minute, Laurence was allowed on The Great Artiste, the instrument plane that accompanied Bockscar on its mission to drop “Fat Man” over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.
Laurence’s position as both insider and reporter gave him a unique perspective of the Manhattan Project. His good relationship with General Groves, scientists, and members of the 509th Composite Group and his brilliant writing style cemented him as the chronicler of the project.
Nicknamed by his New York Times colleagues “Atomic Bill,” Laurence continued to write about the potential of atomic energy until his death in 1977.
Unlocking the “Cosmic Cupboard” of Atomic Power
On May 16, 1945, Laurence submitted a draft radio address to be delivered by President Truman after the first atomic bomb was dropped over Japan. However, General Leslie Groves did not approve the speech, and all copies – save one – were destroyed. Eventually the job of drafting Truman’s speech was given to Arthur W. Page, Vice President of Marketing for AT&T and a close friend of Secretary of War Henry Stimson.
Patricia Cox Owen, who worked in General Groves’ inner office, saved the only surviving copy of Laurence’s fifteen-page draft address.