The Cyril Smith Incident

Scope Correspondent
On August 12, 1948, Senator Bourke Hickenlooper was horrified to learn that the secrets of the American atomic energy program were about to be spilled to a roomful of foreign scientists. He sped into action, requesting an emergency meeting with the Secretary of Defense. “Some of the most vital of our weapons secrets were about to be disclosed in full,” he later recounted. He and the Secretary moved immediately to stop the man responsible for the leak.

According to a letter Hickenlooper had been given, that man was one Cyril Stanley Smith. Someone in the Atomic Energy Commission had authorized Smith, a scientist, to visit a British research center and discuss “the basic metallurgy of plutonium.” In 1948, just three years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki shocked the world, wartime fears were far from subsided. The growing Soviet Union had begun to raise its threatening head, and even allies such as Britain and the United States had only just loosened some restrictions on the exchange of scientific information. But according to the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, that exchange was forbidden to include specifics about the development of American nuclear technology.

So how was a trusted American scientist authorized to do exactly that? Cyril Stanley Smith was no double agent. Though British by birth, he’d been educated at MIT and would return as a professor after making his name as a metallurgist. He remained fascinated by the history of metalworking throughout his life, collecting thousands of photos of ancient Japanese swords, medieval coppersmith treatises, and intricate Persian jewelry. Yet it was his understanding of the properties of uranium and plutonium that bound him to the United States’ atomic energy projects starting in 1942.

“I remember the three years at Los Alamos as the most exciting in my whole life,” Smith wrote about the time he spent working on the Manhattan Project. Those three years culminated, of course, in the production of the world’s first atomic bomb. In retrospect, Smith was slightly shamed by how little thought he and fellow scientists had given to the human consequences of their work. The atmosphere of Los Alamos was intoxicating, a time when talents and imaginations “meshed intimately with the liveliest science and the strongest social currents of the time,” Smith later wrote. “Three years when, as rarely before, new discoveries in materials actually controlled the pace of larger events.”

What Smith witnessed at Los Alamos made it impossible for him to return to his humdrum job in the brass industry. He instead spent the rest of his life torn between the intellectual pursuits of academia—and his love of metallurgy—and the duty he felt to the American government in the dawning atomic age. After the war, Smith began teaching at the University of Chicago and founded the Institute for the Study of Metals. While there, Smith served as an advisor to the Atomic Energy Commission, from 1946 until 1952. It was during that time that Smith became the unknowing subject of an alleged political scandal.

Senator Hickenlooper, a Republican from Iowa, recounted the colorful tale of “the Cyril Smith incident” at a congressional hearing in 1950. On that fateful day in 1948, Hickenlooper, the Secretary of Defense, and several other senior officials agreed that Cyril Smith’s disclosure of vital military information had to be stopped. But Smith had left for England two weeks prior, leaving the distinct possibility that they were already too late.

They phoned immediately. Smith was gone—vacationing in Scotland with his family and not expected home until the following day. The officials in the United States sent multiple messages to greet Smith upon his arrival. One of the faded telegrams now sits in the MIT Archives, stapled to a small slip of paper on which is scrawled, “Re: the ‘Cyril Smith’ incident…” The telegram itself reads:

Refer letter from Fisk July 26 STOP
Commission believes item six outside agreed area technical cooperation and should not be discussed STOP
If already begun should be discontinued STOP
Please advise if conversations begun = US Atomic Energy Commission

If that last sentence sounds rather nonchalant, that’s how it appeared to Cyril Smith, too. He later recalled that it had seemed “a routine change of opinion” rather than an urgent directive. He did remember, however, hearing an “audible sigh of relief” when a Washington official reached him by phone on August 13 and learned that he had not divulged the country’s atomic secrets. Smith had not yet met with the British scientists; in fact, he had no idea that anyone else was even interested in what he considered a low-priority, unofficial visit.

The story that Bourke Hickenlooper passionately retold as a near-miss nuclear scandal, Smith regarded as a patent misunderstanding between politicians and scientists. True, Smith had been instructed to discuss “the basic metallurgy of plutonium” with British scientists. But where Hickenlooper and others read that as “our most secret and sacred possessions, as far as atomic weapons were concerned,” Smith thought of it as no more than a discussion with peers on one element of the periodic table. He later wrote that he, of course, had no intention of discussing plutonium’s use in bomb construction.

To a metallurgist like Smith, the lifting of restrictions on scientific communication merely provided a happy occasion to catch up on the metallurgy happenings on both sides of the Atlantic. While Bourke Hickenlooper grew anxious in Washington, Smith and his family were vacationing on the rocky shores of the Isle of Skye.

One might imagine Smith’s amusement, then, reading the congressional record in which over two hours were devoted to parsing out the details of his “incident.” Hickenlooper and other senators obsessed over the sequence of calls and who was ultimately to blame for nearly taking “some other country into the heart of our atomic energy procedures.” In the end, they named the Acting Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission as responsible, and voted against his confirmation as permanent chairman. It seemed “the Cyril Smith incident” had real-world consequences after all, but never for Cyril Smith himself.