|Born||7 Mar 1888|
|Died||19 Mar 1977|
Contributor: David Stubblebine
ww2dbaseWilliam Leonard Laurence was born 7 Mar 1888 as Leib Wolf Siew in Salantai, a predominantly Jewish village in western Lithuania, then a part of the Czar Alexander III's Russian Empire. Like many passionate teenagers during the Russian Revolution of 1905, Laurence protested against the system which led to a permanently flattened nose from a policeman's rifle butt. To evade imprisonment, his mother took him to Germany, smuggling him across the border in a pickle barrel. From there he made his way to America, settling in Boston, Massachusetts, United States.
ww2dbaseTo start his new life, he took a new name. He took the first name of William, from William Shakespeare, a middle name of Leonard, from Leonardo da Vinci, and a last name of Laurence, from the Roxbury street where he lived (except he changed the W to a U as homage to poet Friedrich Schiller's Laura). Becoming a United States citizen in 1913, Laurence studied at Harvard University but was never granted a degree due a personality clash with the dean, or so Laurence said. In World War I, he served as a translator with the United States Army Signal Corps and afterward studied at the University in BesanĂ§on in France. He returned to the United States and the Boston University School of Law where he received an undergraduate law degree in 1925.
ww2dbaseThe next year, Laurence took a job as a reporter for the newspaper founded by Joseph Pulitzer, the New York World. In 1930, he moved to The New York Times where he wrote articles on the frontiers of scientific discovery whenever possible. In 1931, Laurence married Florence Davidow (yes, she became Florence Laurence). In 1934, Laurence co-founded the National Association of Science Writers and in 1936, he represented the New York Times at the Harvard Tercentenary Conference of Arts and Sciences, a prestigious international display 75 top academics from around the world. For their combined coverage of this conference, Laurence and four reporters from other news outlets shared in the 1937 Pulitzer Prize for Reporting. In 1940, he introduced himself to J. Robert Oppenheimer following a lecture Oppenheimer gave on higher mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
ww2dbaseLaurence was gaining a reputation for being able to explain complicated scientific principles in uncomplicated ways and was establishing himself as perhaps the first dedicated science reporter for a major news outlet. On 5 May 1940, The New York Times ran a front-page feature written by Laurence describing the isolation of a particular isotope of uranium that could be used to generate new and vast forms of energy. Laurence feared that Germany, already at war, was developing an atomic weapons program and hoped to prompt the United States into doing the same. The article had little effect on American policy but, ironically, indirectly led the Soviet Union to begin a nuclear development program of their own. On 7 Sep 1940, the Saturday Evening Post ran Laurence's article titled "The Atom Gives Up" where he described the process of atomic fission in simplified but accurate terms, something he learned quite a bit about at a Feb 1939 conference at Columbia University led by Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr.
ww2dbaseNot known to Laurence, but perhaps suspected, was that the United States was indeed investigating uses for atomic energy and had been since at least 1939. When Army General Leslie Groves was put in charge of the program in Aug 1942, he requested librarians across the country pull from their shelves all copies of Laurence's "The Atom Gives Up" article and report "at once" any inquiries about it.
ww2dbaseGroves' management of the Manhattan Project was wrestling with many questions all at once and one of the smaller ones revolved around when and how to make the information public. Groves and the security officers had been fighting the press over a series of information breaches but they felt it might be time to start embracing the press in limited ways. Groves cast his eye on William Laurence. In Apr 1945, General Groves appeared unannounced at the offices of The New York Times and spoke with managing editor Edwin James. Groves proposed that Laurence would "disappear for a while" but would emerge with the scoop of the century. Groves' terms were that nothing could be published until the project was completed, Groves would control what information was released, and the stories would have to be widely shared with other news outlets. James agreed and brought Laurence in. Groves explained it again and stressed that Laurence would have to submit to government controls and not publish a single word without Groves' express approval. Laurence added one condition of his own: he must have complete, complete access to the program. Groves agreed.
ww2dbaseFollowing a brief and mysteriously uninformative explanation to his wife, Laurence disappeared for a while. He toured the uranium separation plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the plutonium producing reactors at Hanford, Washington, America's first working nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago, and then he was granted admittance to the top-secret inner sanctum at Los Alamos, New Mexico. He spoke to any scientist he wished so long as they had the time and inclination to talk with him, all of whom were nothing but candid about their work and also their opinions. Laurence made voluminous notes but, of course, could publish none of it. He wrote out many samples of phrasing trying to find the best ways to describe complicated and unfamiliar concepts in simpler and more fathomable ways. According to his deal with Groves, Laurence also wrote press releases describing various aspects of the project. Some were drafts intended for release at much later dates and others were for cover stories to protect the project's secrecy.
ww2dbaseLaurence arrived at Los Alamos only weeks before the first and only test of the plutonium device. The scientists were working out the details of the final bomb design, the triggering devices, and finalizing the parallel designs for the uranium and plutonium bombs. On 16 Jul 1945, Laurence stood next to physicist Richard Feynman during the Trinity test and bore witness to the flash brighter than any sun. He was the only member of the press to see it. Afterward, Laurence crafted the press release describing an ammunition depot explosion, the Army's cover story for the Trinity test.
ww2dbaseEvents were moving quickly by this point. The same day the Trinity gadget was detonated, the cruiser USS Indianapolis sailed from San Francisco bound for the Mariana Islands with the uranium fuel that would be loaded into the Little Boy bomb casing. Momentum toward dropping the bomb had been building for months but the official authorization to proceed was given by President Harry Truman on 25 Jul 1945. The focus of events began shifting from New Mexico to Tinian and Laurence followed with the entourage of dignitaries. Laurence was introduced to Colonel Paul Tibbetts and key members of his staff. Laurence, of course, lobbied for a seat on the plane that would drop the first bomb, but it was not to be. For the "big moment," he was relegated to conventional reporting based on interviews after the fact. Three days later, however, for the second bomb drop, Laurence flew in the bomber carrying the scientific measuring instruments. From there, he made observations of the blast over Nagasaki that he described in colorful detail in a feature article published a month later on the front page of The New York Times.
ww2dbaseIn the interim, Laurence drafted several press releases for the Army that were given to all press outlets. One of his pre-written releases was intended as President Truman's statement following the first bomb drop, but it was not even submitted for Truman's consideration. At seventeen pages, it hardly fit with Truman's terse and to-the-point style.
ww2dbaseLaurence's front page article describing the Nagasaki bombing was the first in a series of eleven articles that ran in the Times through Sep and into Oct 1945. Those articles chronicled those things the Army allowed him to say about the secret bomb development process plus more general details about nuclear energy's future potential in non-military uses. The third in the series opened with the words "The Atomic Age...," a phrase he was credited with coining. This series of insightful articles won Laurence his second Pulitzer Prize for Reporting, and this time he had to share it with no one. The post-war interest in atomic energy plus his Pulitzer Prizes boosted Laurence's social standing. He and Flo moved to a more stylish neighborhood in New York where, in between cocktail parties, they were often seen walking their dachshund "Einstein."
ww2dbaseJapanese reports started appearing describing survivors in Hiroshima and Nagasaki developing strange symptoms in the days following the bomb blasts. Radiation sickness was not unknown at the time, but it was not widely known or well understood, and certainly not on the scale then being seen in Japan. Perhaps the Americans did not believe the scope of the Japanese claims or they wanted to discredit them for political reasons, but either way there was a strong push-back against the reports. In Sep 1945, the Army went so far as to invite the press to the scene of the Trinity test in Alamogordo, New Mexico. General Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer were in attendance, as was William Laurence. Geiger counter readings were taken and assurances were made about a lower level of risk than what was being suggested by the Japanese. Laurence wrote an authoritative article saying as much, but it was not true. Whether it was a deliberate lie, an honest mistake, or Laurence was duped by government deception, this defense later harmed his reputation in ways that it never completely recovered from.
ww2dbaseLaurence continued writing articles on science, especially nuclear science, and earned the nickname "Atomic Bill." He published a book in 1946 titled Dawn Over Zero which centered largely on the Trinity test and he was at Bikini Atoll on 21 May 1946 for the "Cherokee" hydrogen bomb test. His articles regularly extolled nuclear energy's many uses for good but also contained warnings based on the growing power of each generation of atomic weapons. His 1951 book The Hell Bomb was very critical of the development of the hydrogen bomb and the cobalt-hydrogen bomb in particular. In 1951 he published his third and final book, Men and Atoms.
ww2dbaseLaurence retired from The New York Times in 1964 after 34 years, first as a reporter and later as the science editor. He consulted with the organizers of the 1964-65 New York World's Fair and also The March of Dimes on scientific matters. He was a frequent lecturer at a wide variety of gatherings, both scientific and otherwise, and received two honorary doctoral degrees.
ww2dbaseHe and Flo retired to the Mediterranean island of Majorca, Spain in 1968 where he died from a blood clot in the brain in 1977 at the age of 89.
ww2dbaseAlmost thirty years after his death, William Laurence came under a new scrutiny from modern-day journalists calling into question the ethics of Laurence's wartime arrangement with the government. His new detractors, some of them even at The New York Times, took issue with the pay arrangements between Laurence and the government and in particular, with Laurence being a willing megaphone for falsely minimizing the risks of radiation exposure. They accused him of being a government apologist at best or a propagandist at worst. These authors even called for stripping Laurence of his Pulitzer Prize. These criticisms, of course, benefited from the luxury of decades of hindsight. Other present-day scientific historians are somewhat more charitable, saying Laurence should not be faulted for not knowing more than the best experts around him, especially when those experts misinformed him, intentionally or not. There is little indication that Laurence himself thought he was publishing any erroneous facts. If there is any culpability around this point, it perhaps would be more properly laid at Oppenheimer's feet.
The New York Times
Wallace and Weiss; Countdown 1945 (2020; Avid Reader Press)
Alex Wellerstein; The Nuclear Secrecy Blog (2012 & 2015)
Mark Wolverton; (2017; UnDark.org)
Pulitzer Prize Board
Amy and David Goodman (2004)
Sean Malloy; Diplomatic History (2012)
Science Magazine (1936)
Atomic Heritage Foundation
The Nuclear Age Peace Foundation
Michael S. Sweeney; Secrets of Victory (2001; University of North Carolina Press)
University of Chicago
United States Army Air Force
Last Major Revision: May 2022
William Laurence Interactive Map
William Laurence Timeline
|7 Mar 1888||William Leonard Laurence was born as Leib Wolf Siew in Salantai, Lithuania, Russian Empire.|
|16 Jul 1945||In Operation Trinity, the Americans successfully detonated an atomic bomb at Alamogordo Bombing Range in New Mexico, United States. The test blast created temperatures 10,000 times the surface temperature of the sun and was felt 200 miles away. The explosion was the equivalent of 20,000 tons of TNT and throws a column of fire and smoke 35,000 feet into the night sky. The authorities hid the blast by claiming that an ammunition dump had gone up.|
|9 Aug 1945||B-29 bomber Bockscar dropped the atomic bomb "Fat Man" on the city of Nagasaki, Japan, killing 40,000 to 75,000 immediately. B-29 bombers The Great Artiste and Big Stink flew on Bockscarâ€™s wing. The Great Artiste carried scientific measuring equipment and Bing Stink carried photography equipment.|
|19 Mar 1977||William Laurence died from a blood clot in the brain at the age of 89.|
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