TCS Daily

They ALSOS Served

By Russell Seitz - July 21, 2003 12:00 AM

America started trying to fathom the nuclear ambitions of hostile powers before the birth of the atomic bomb. It's never been easy.

Early in World War II, General George Marshall ordered secret missions to "cover all principal scientific military developments ... to gain knowledge of enemy progress." To carry out the missions, the US created a program whose code name was ALSOS. It led to the preemptive sabotage and destruction of parts of the German nuclear bomb effort, like the Norwegian heavy water plant that would have supplied its first nuclear reactor.

Not all of the missions of ALSOS were as successful. Knowing that Germany's chief nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg sometimes lectured at Swiss universities, OSS station chief Alan Dulles suggested that an ALSOS agent should attend. If Heisenberg expressed optimism about a Nazi A-bomb program, he was to be assassinated forthwith.

Dulles approached ALSOS chief scientist Samuel Goudschmit with this sporting proposal, but Goudschmit declined on the grounds that "Physicists do not shoot other physicists." So Dulles found a more willing agent: Moe Berg. An erudite Boston Red Sox catcher who had photographed Japanese military facilities during a prewar All Stars tour of Japan, Berg took a pistol along to Heisenberg's next Swiss colloquium, and chatted with him afterward. But Berg decided not to waste a bullet on the author of the Uncertainty Principle -- or risk a murder rap. Most of Heisenberg's colleagues had fled Germany for America, leaving him pretty clueless as to how to design a reactor, let alone a bomb.

But that was by no means the end of ALSOS. Word reached Goudschmit that a sophisticated industrial firm, Auer Gesselschaft, was in the market for large quantities of another material with nuclear potential -- thorium. Demand for it had waned as electric lights supplanted glowing thoria gas lamp mantles, but suddenly Auer was seeking to corner the market.

An ALSOS agent in Paris submitted an explanation of this gambit so ludicrous that it simply had to be a cover story. Who would believe that, with World War II raging, the Third Reich's agents were scouring the ends of the Earth for a toothpaste ingredient? ALSOS suspected very foul play.

But before a thorium skunkworks could be located -- and targeted like Norway's heavy water works -- Allied forces in France seized the premises of Terres Rares, the uranium and thorium importer that Auer had taken over under the Vichy regime. But its thorium stockpile was already headed east

Goudschmit's people pursued a Terres Rares executive named Petersen, and near the German lines collared him, a boxcar full of the missing thorium oxide, and a suitcase full of documents revealing that Petersen had frequented Hechingen, where the Allies unearthed a ton of fabricated uranium cubes. ALSOS was ecstatic -- talk about a smoking gun!

But the atomic detectives' elation faded as they read their way through to the bottom of Petersen's suitcase. Auer Gesselschaft, it seemed, had seen the handwriting on the wall, long before D-day, and planned to be a postwar industry leader not in strategic weapons, but cosmetics.

Its executives dreamt of tons of patented thorium toothpaste in gleaming tin tubes taking the market by storm, supplanting Europe's best-selling radium toothpaste, Radiogen, with a less life threatening product. They had a selling point. Everybody knew that a thoria gas mantle glowed brighter than a smile: "Use toothpaste with thorium! Have sparkling, brilliant teeth -- radioactive brilliance!"

It was not one of Wild Bill Donovan's better days when Petersen's confessed he visited Hechingen because his aged mother happened to live in the shadow of the castle housing Heisenberg's headquarters.

What Auer coveted came out of Africa. Some of the radioactive ores of Niger and Gabon are very rich indeed. When the world was 1.8 billion years younger, and Uranium-235 proportionally more abundant, one deposit lit up as a natural nuclear reactor. Moderated by groundwater, its chain reaction bubbled on for a quarter of a million years, creating tons of that rarest of earth's, God's own plutonium. Not an atom of it remains today. It all decayed away into stone cold nuclear ashes a million millennia before the vertebrates evolved. Including those of the Genus Homo.

Ours is the only species in this planet's long natural history to agonize about the long-term disposal of nuclear waste, or for that matter, the less than perfect batting average of those assigned the Herculean task of spotting nuclear needles within haystacks enshrouded by the fog of war. No one belabored FDR for invading Normandy before ALSOS had sorted out the toothpaste question, or using the All Star team to smuggle a spy into the heart of the Japanese Empire, because the imperative of overthrowing tyrranny existed independently of the desire to stop the Axis from developing more of its self styled vengeance weapons.

As to Niger, Director of Central Intelligence Tenet may find consolation in the classics. While "There is always something new coming out of Africa" what's new isn't necessarily true -- Pliny's Natural History includes tales that are pretty tall, even for a time when Roman policy depended on analyzing the entrails of sheep, or the flight of eagles.

The eagle watchers and SheepInt providers made it a habit to laugh at their colleagues' mistakes whenever they met, a custom exemplifying The Wisdom of the Ancients. Seldom was an Augur or Haruspex hauled before the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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