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Reflections: The Cleave Cartmill Affair:Two by Robert Silverberg


Last month I told the tale of how in the wartime year of 1944, while American scientists in New Mexico were planning the first A-bomb, John W. Campbell of Astounding Science Fiction published a story called "Deadline," by Cleve Cartmill, which described in great detail how to construct such a bomb. Fearing that there had been some sort of security leak, the War Department sent a Counter-Intelligence Corps agent to have a little chat with Mr. Campbell.

In the course of that conversation, Campbell insisted that neither he nor Cartmill had any inside information, that the bomb design depicted in "Deadline" was based entirely on information that had been publicly available for the past four or five years. But Riley, the agent, still suspected that Campbell was concealing his sources, and embarked on clandestine observations of Campbell’s activities.

He discovered that Campbell was friendly with Edgar Norton, an engineer doing classified research at Bell Labs in New York City. Norton had no involvement with the A-bomb project himself, but Bell Labs did, and perhaps he had learned something about it from friends there. Norton and Campbell had had lunch recently. Was that when the scientist had slipped the bomb secrets to the SF editor?

Riley interviewed Norton, who said he had read "Deadline" and had told Campbell that he regarded it as "utterly fantastic" and "childish." In any case the technical aspects of the story had long been matters of common knowledge, said Norton. If Campbell or Cartmill had stumbled on anything that was actually the subject of current military research, it must have been purely by coincidence.

But the Bell Labs man did reveal that there had been a third man present at that lunch: Will F. Jenkins, who as "Murray Leinster" had written a great deal of SF for Campbell’s magazine. He too was interviewed. Jenkins had had his own brush with military censors as a result of his story "Four Little Ships" (Astounding, November 1942), involving a method of disrupting enemy shipping through underwater sound transmission that happened to be under actual military development. He also revealed knowledge of how a uranium bomb would work, and he too said that such information was available to anyone who kept up to date with standard technical journals.

Jenkins’ daughter, though, was a scientist employed by the Raytheon Corporation in Massachusetts, and Jenkins revealed that he and his daughter "had conducted experiments designed to acquire quantities of atomic copper." They had turned this material over to "Lt. Azimoff, United States Navy, for analysis at Columbia University." This "Azimoff," who was not a lieutenant at all and spelled his name the way you see it on the cover of this magazine, had now moved along to the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where he was doing wartime scientific work in a group that also included two more of Campbell’s regular writers, L. Sprague de Camp and Robert A. Heinlein. And Heinlein was known to be a friend of Cleve Cartmill!

Was somebody passing classified A-bomb information to Heinlein, who was sending it along to Cartmill? For a moment, things looked pretty bad for Campbell and his crew of star writers, security-wise, although Messrs. Asimov, Jenkins, Heinlein, and De Camp had given no previous evidence of being traitors–and, in any case, turning war secrets into second-rate SF stories might seem, to the dispassionate eye, a very odd way indeed of betraying one’s country. But Heinlein, Asimov, and De Camp were never questioned about the Cartmill affair. The investigation now turned to the unfortunate Mr. Cartmill.

Cartmill was a Californian, thirty-six years old in 1944, married, and a father. He had worked as a newspaperman, a radio operator, an accountant, and at various other things, but currently was supporting himself writing fiction for pulp magazines. Military Intelligence began by pressing Cartmill’s letter-carrier into service as a secret agent. The postman, who read SF and knew that Cartmill wrote it, drew him into a conversation about "Deadline" and was told, according to an Intelligence report dated March 20, 1944, that it "was written from material he has obtained from general reading matter on scientific subjects, also from similar stories he has read, together with a fair working knowledge of physics which he possesses." He did not think a great deal of the story, telling the postman that it "stinks," and was much more interested in talking about one that he had lately sold to the high-paying slick magazine Collier’s.

The part about Cartmill drawing on his own knowledge of physics contradicted Campbell’s claim that Cartmill knew very little science and had received all the A-bomb material from him. A more formal investigation seemed necessary. The chief of police of Cartmill’s home town reported that Cartmill had no police record. The FBI had no dossier for him either. But the files of the Office of Naval Intelligence revealed that Cartmill’s father, having invented a new kind of machine gun and been unsuccessful in an effort to sell it to the War Department, had tried to sell it to the Japanese shortly before the outbreak of World War II. But there was nothing illegal about that, nor had Cleve Cartmill been involved in it in any way. And, in fact, the elder Cartmill was currently employed at the California Shipbuilding Corporation, doing war work.

Special Agent R.S. Killough now visited Cartmill himself, using a pretext unlikely to arouse suspicion in Cartmill that he was under investigation. In a report dated March 16, Killough described Cartmill as "well educated and nicely dressed," and willing to talk freely about all aspects of his writing career. Once again he brushed "Deadline" aside as a minor work and spoke of his hope of writing for "better" magazines than the SF pulps.

Killough felt that Cartmill was intelligent enough to have invented the "Deadline" scenario out of existing non-classified materials–especially when Cartmill revealed that in 1927 he had worked for the American Radium Products Company, a job requiring him to study the properties of radioactive elements in detail. Killough, who referred to Cartmill as "Cleve" in his report, plainly liked him–whereas Riley, the New York agent, had found Campbell irritating and arrogant, calling him "somewhat of an egotist." The New York Intelligence office still was troubled by the case. The link with Heinlein had now turned up, potentially connecting Cartmill with Jenkins and the Bell Labs researchers. The April 11, 1944, Intelligence report on Cartmill also said, darkly but without explanation, "It is also revealed that Cartmill has been receiving letters from Seattle, Washington." Early in May, therefore, Killough went back to Cartmill for a specific discussion of "Deadline."

This time Cartmill admitted that Campbell had indeed helped him with the scientific background of the story, saying that he had claimed sole responsibility earlier "because of his own pride and prestige"– "he would not admit to the general public that he had extracted, word for word, information conveyed by another person." But he also repeated an earlier assertion that "almost anyone who had read a physics textbook would have the facts available." It was Agent Killough’s conclusion that Cartmill "was honest, sincere, and reliable. He made every effort to be cooperative and did not at any time give any impression of evasiveness or reluctance."

And here the great spy quest began to fizzle out.

It was clear by now that Campbell’s Astounding had been publishing stories about atomic energy since 1940, beginning with Heinlein’s "Blowups Happen," all of them based on widely available material. "Deadline" was just the latest such story. No security leak was involved.

On the other hand, a top-secret program to develop an atomic bomb was under way in New Mexico, and the War Department saw good reason to keep discussion of such things out of magazines, even SF magazines. On May 6, 1944, Lt. Col. W.B. Parsons of the Intelligence and Security Division at the laboratory in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where production of uranium for the bomb was taking place, wrote to Lt. Col. John Lansdale of the Military Censorship Department in Washington that "Although the content of the [Cartmill] article is not considered a violation of code of the wartime practices for publication, as the article is purely fictional . . . the inference appears that the country is doing work in such field. Further, such articles can well provoke public speculation. . . ." Parsons suggested that Campbell and his employers, Street & Smith Publications, be reminded of a confidential Code of Wartime Practices that had been circulated to editors and broadcasters in June 1943, forbidding dissemination of any information regarding war experiments involving "atom smashing, atomic energy, atomic fission, atomic splitting, or any of their equivalents." If Street & Smith refused to cooperate, pressure could be brought to bear–in particular, withdrawing the magazine’s right to mail copies to its subscribers, which would put it out of business.

Lt. Col. Lansdale asked Jack Lockhart of the Office of Censorship to handle the "Deadline" situation. Lockhart, as he told Lansdale on May 15, "spent an unpleasant half hour reading this story which relates the experience of a tailed individual named Ybor on the planet Cathor." He made little sense out of it, but he could see that its "pseudo-scientific discussions" verged on forbidden territory and something needed to be done. To his credit, this sort of censorship made him uncomfortable: "We have always been reluctant to interfere with fictional material because of the impossibility of fettering the mind of man," he said. But, "as much as I tremble over venturing into this field," he got in touch with Campbell and asked him not to publish "additional material relating to subjects involved in our special request of June 28, 1943."

Unfortunately, that’s where the file ends. Campbell always maintained that he told the censors that if he deleted all references to atomic power from his magazine, his clever readers would surely deduce that a hush-hush atom-bomb project was in the works. Maybe so. Certainly I can find no further stories about U-235 bombs in the next dozen or so issues of Astounding, though a Fritz Leiber story speaks of a world devastated by "subtronic power," a Raymond F. Jones novel mentions "gigantic atomic projectors" being used as weapons, and a Lewis Padgett story about mutants is set in a world that has been devastated by atomic war.

"Deadline" is often cited today as an example of science fiction’s ability to predict the future. As Campbell went to such pains to demonstrate long ago, it did no such thing. It simply recycled existing data. A far better example of prophetic power is Heinlein’s "Solution Unsatisfactory" of 1941, in which atomic bombs are developed by the United States and the quasi-Soviet "Eurasian Union," a brief atomic war breaks out that we win, and America thereafter finds it necessary to impose a military dictatorship over the rest of the world to prevent future nuclear warfare. Now there’s true extrapolation by a master of the form!

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"Reflections: The Cartmill Affair: Two" by Robert Silverberg , copyright © 2003 Agberg, with permission of the author.

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