A choice between the quick and the dead

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It was December 1954 and the Royal Commission on Espionage was on the hunt for atomic secrets. In a session closed to the public, lest any dangerous secrets slip, CSIRO physicist George Briggs was questioned about the contents of his safe. 1

Perhaps better known as the Petrov Commission, the Royal Commission on Espionage was well advanced in its investigations. 2 Gone were the days of high drama when the leader of the Opposition, HV (Doc) Evatt, had clashed heatedly with the commissioners over his allegations of a right-wing conspiracy. The Commission had settled down to a methodical examination of the documents that Vladimir Petrov had handed over upon his defection to ASIO. These documents gave names and brief details of certain individuals whom Soviet intelligence (the MVD) believed to be of potential value. As the Commission itself recognized, to be included in these lists was no evidence of wrong-doing, but still it did not hesitate to call many of those named before the enquiry, opening their private beliefs and associations to public scrutiny.

Included amongst these scraps of information were two references to a ‘Don Woods’, described as ‘Secretary of the adviser of Doctor E. on “Enormaz”’. One of the entries added the words ‘of BRIGGS’. ‘Woods’ was identified as Donald Woodward, technical secretary of CSIRO’s Division of Physics, headed by Briggs. But what was ‘Enormaz’? Petrov himself had failed to identify the code word, even after the insightful prompting of the deputy director-general of ASIO, GR Richards, who suggested: ‘The nearest I can think of ENORMAZ is big’. It was Edvokia Petrov who recognized ‘Enormaz’ as a special, top-secret code ‘used for the MVD interest in the matter of research and testing of the atom bomb in Australia’. 3

Woodward was called before the commissioners in November and questioned about his former, brief membership of the Communist Party. 4 There was no evidence that he had ever had access to secret information on atomic energy, but the Commission decided to investigate further by calling Briggs to the stand. Woodward, Briggs explained to the learned inquisitors, was responsible for a number of routine tasks within the division, and had no access to confidential information of any sort. He did, however, test 16mm film projectors against government specifications. ‘There was no secret in that work?’, Mr Justice Philp interrupted. ‘Nothing secret whatsoever’, Briggs replied reassuringly. The nation’s projectors at least were safe from perils of Soviet influence.

After cautioning the witness that the Commission did ‘not want any details of secrets at all’, WJV Windeyer, the senior counsel, asked Briggs about his own involvement in ‘atomic energy questions’. Of particular interest to the inquiry was his stint as scientific adviser to the Australian delegation, originally led by Evatt (the mysterious ‘Doctor E.’), to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission in 1946 and 1947. ‘Did you, when you were at any of these conferences’, questioned Mr Justice Philp, ‘learn any of the secrets of the Western world in relation to nuclear fission?’ Briggs admitted that he had taken the opportunity to inspect atomic energy developments in Canada, and that, upon his return, his notes were stored in the division’s safe. ‘I suppose you had from time to time a certain amount of top secret information in the safe’, pressed Windeyer. ‘Only a small amount’, Briggs replied, ‘very little’. ‘I am not suggesting it was a large amount’, counsel insisted, ‘I am only asking what you had in there’. 5

Eventually the commissioners satisfied themselves that Briggs had gathered few atomic secrets in his work, and that Woodward, in any case, did not have access to the safe in question. Nonetheless, Windeyer suggested that Briggs’ evidence should remain confidential for the time being. ‘There are so many people’, he noted, ‘who can misunderstand or misrepresent things or arrive at wrong conclusions’. 6

The image of the atomic secret meshed ancient fears with superpower ambitions. The bomb was born of science’s determined quest to unlock the mysteries of matter. It was a ‘miracle of man’s mastery over one of the most jealously guarded secrets of nature’, the Argus proclaimed. 7 Moreover, this revolution had itself been wrought in conditions of ‘profound secrecy’, part of a massive, sprawling project, finally revealed to a stunned world in the aftermath of Hiroshima. The construction of the bomb layered secret upon secret in a combination that exploded both in public imagination and in the tense, evolving struggle that was to dominate global politics. ‘At present this grim weapon is in the hands of nations sworn to the outlawry of war’, the Sydney Morning Herald observed with relief, ‘it is their solemn charge to see that it never enters the armoury of an aggressor’. 8 If the world was to avoid an apocalyptic end, knowledge of the bomb had to be closely guarded, the secret had to be controlled. This new power was, in President Truman’s words, a ‘sacred trust’, delivered for safe-keeping unto the stalwart defenders of democracy. 9

History, myth and propaganda all encouraged people to believe that a complex feat of engineering could be reduced to a few vital equations, a key insight, a set of blueprints, a handful of deadly secrets. This ‘sacred trust’ divided the world ‘into “Have” and “Have-not” nations’. 10 The information was too dangerous to be shared without controls, but a continued American monopoly could only add to international suspicion and unrest. Hope lay in the establishment of the United Nations Organisation (UNO). Evatt, who had played a significant role in the formulation of the UNO’s charter, argued that the atomic bomb ‘had made more urgent than ever the establishment of the world organisation for preserving the peace’. 11 Events moved swiftly and, in January 1946, the General Assembly of the UNO unanimously approved the creation of a commission ‘to attain the most effective means of entirely eliminating the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes and promoting its widest use for industrial and humanitarian purposes’. 12 The United Nations Atomic Energy Commission held its inaugural meeting on 14 June 1946, with Evatt as chairman. 13

It was Australia’s alphabetical, rather than international, standing that delivered the opportunity to provide the Commission’s first chairman. But the Australian government, and Evatt in particular, were keen to play a decisive role in what was regarded as ‘one of the most responsible tasks ever placed upon a group of nations’. 14 With George Briggs and Mark Oliphant providing scientific advice, Evatt set about developing strategies that would enable Australia to make the most of its ‘special opportunity’ to set the UNAEC upon its urgent mission. 15 ‘Evatt wants to take a “strong line”—ie. no delay in arriving at decisions’, Briggs wrote to his wife Edna from New York, ‘hence the need to get over here early’. 16 The Australian delegation drafted a set of policy notes, emphasising that any delay would ‘aggravate existing tension between nations’ and ‘arouse the suspicions of the peoples of the world’. 17 ‘The problems at issue are of universal significance’, the draft argued, ‘namely the physical potentialities for mass destruction on the one hand and the great benefits of supply of power and the results of scientific research on the other’. 18

Australian policy reflected the familiar crossroads choice. Controlling atomic energy meant setting the world safely upon the road to a glorious atom-powered future, while at the same time blocking the path of anyone foolish enough to venture down the road to atomic annihilation. Most participants drew upon this broadly accepted duality. ‘We are here today to make a choice between the quick and the dead’, announced the leader of the US delegation, Wall Street financier Bernard Baruch, at the Commission’s first meeting. ‘Behind the black portent of the new Atomic Age’, he continued, ‘lies a hope which, seized upon with faith, can work our salvation’. 19 The point was underlined by the Bikini atomic bomb tests—’Operation Crossroads’—which provided an instructive backdrop to the Commission’s deliberations. After a month of discussions, the incoming chairman, Alvaro Alberto of Brazil, summarised the challenge ahead: ‘there are two different paths we can take for once again the Nations are at the crossroads of destiny’. 20

Unfortunately, this apparent agreement on the nature of the task facing the Commission was not matched by a corresponding agreement on the best means of achieving it. Despite the urgency that Evatt, as chairman, sought to impart to proceedings, his hope for prompt action was quickly thwarted as a fundamental conflict developed between the US and Soviet positions. Whereas the Baruch plan sought the establishment of a wide-ranging system of inspection and control as a first step in the banning of atomic weapons, the Russian alternative proposed that such weapons be outlawed immediately. The Americans were unwilling to give up their atomic monopoly until sufficient safeguards had been formulated to prevent bombs being made in secret. The Russians did not want to open their laboratories and mines to outside inspection while their superpower rival maintained such a dangerous advantage. Their seemed little room for negotiation.

The Australian delegation remained hopeful nonetheless. Briggs reported that Evatt was ‘proving a strong chairman’ and that, besides the USA, the Australians were ‘presenting more concrete proposals and analysis of the position than anyone else’. 21 The conflict between the American and Russian plans had made progress difficult, but not impossible. Outlining Australia’s alternative scheme, Evatt sought to move beyond the fixed positions of the superpowers by reasserting the principles underlying the Commission, by reinforcing the primacy of the choice that confronted the world. Disagreement had centred on the banning of the atomic bomb, but that was only half of the crossroads picture. Evatt argued that the problem of atomic energy had to be treated as ‘one integrated whole’. Any working plan for the control of this new energy had to give ‘special consideration’ to the atom’s ‘beneficial uses as well as to its destructive power’. Calling on the Commission to ‘accelerate all development’ of the peaceful application of atomic energy, Evatt reminded the delegates that the crossroads provided an alternative to destruction. If the nations of the world could be coaxed into taking a few steps along the right path, then the positive momentum might help ‘create that international trust’ that was ‘necessary in order to simultaneously remove the dangers and grasp the benefits presented by this new discovery’. 22

The United Nations Atomic Energy Commission was not, of course, the only suggested means of defusing the bomb’s countdown to oblivion. Proponents of world government offered ‘one world or none’; religious leaders called for a rebirth of spiritual energy to meet the ‘moral test’ that confronted humankind; scientists imagined a vital role for themselves in government; and communists saw the bomb as evidence of the dangerous distortions forced upon science by an oppressive political system. But whether the answer was to be found in law, religion, political or social change, all agreed the world’s options were limited.

Progress was imagined both as a perilous escape and a triumphant journey, as a exercise of denial and an orgy of opportunity. Control over atomic energy was to be gained by emphasising the contrast between the crossroad options, by making the constructive route seem inevitable, the alternative impossible. There was no choice. Religious commentators seeking to understand the implications of the bomb, regularly invoked God’s words to Israel, ‘I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing; therefore choose life that you and your descendents may live’. Free will was to be exercised against the threat of punishment. The choice was loaded: an affirmation of faith, rather than an invitation to consider idolatry. Progress, like God, was to be taken for granted, there was no alternative. The future was defined against a backdrop of fear and division. Just what was being controlled, and by whom?

‘What was the title of it’, asked Mr Justice Owen, the chairman of the Petrov Royal Commission, ‘the United Nations—?’ ‘Atomic Energy Commission’, George Briggs replied. 23 The world’s only chance for survival had already faded from public memory. The Atomic Energy Commission had succumbed to its own sense of inevitability, as the world lurched on from crossroads to crossroads. Evatt’s attempts to wield atomic energy in the cause of global justice had failed, and as ideological conflict gnawed away at postwar idealism, he struggled to contain his own arrogance and insecurities. The Cold War deepened the contrast between progress and destruction, the threat to existence compounded by an insidious, creeping challenge to Australia’s way of life. Control became a issue of national security, rather than international cooperation. ‘Those conferences’, Owen continued, ‘were concerned with ways and means of international control of atomic energy?’ ‘Yes’, Briggs answered. ‘For both peace and war?’, interjected Mr Justice Ligertwood. ‘Yes’, he replied again. 24 And if they had succeeded, the physicist might have wondered, would we now be hunting secrets and spies?


  1. For more on Briggs see Tim Sherratt, ‘A physicist would be best out of it: George Briggs and the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission’, Voices, vol. 3, no. 1, 1993, pp. 17-30.
  2. For contrasting viewpoints on the ‘Petrov affair’ see: Robert Manne, The Petrov affair: politics and espionage, Pergamon, Sydney, 1987; Nicholas Whitlam, and John Stubbs, Nest of traitors: the Petrov affair, Jacaranda Press, Milton, 1974. See also Jack Waterford, ‘A Labor myth?’, in Ann Curthoys and John Merritt (eds), Better dead than red, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1986, pp. 99-119.
  3. See NAA: A6122, 58; Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, 22 August 1955, Sydney, 1955, pp. 138-139, 219-220.
  4. Royal Commission on Espionage, Official Transcript of Proceedings, 11 November 1954, Sydney, 1955, pp.2813-2826.
  5. Royal Commission on Espionage, Official Transcript of Proceedings, 1 December 1954, Sydney, 1955, pp.2829-2832.
  6. Royal Commission on Espionage, Official Transcript of Proceedings, 1 December 1954, p. 2832; Report of the Royal Commission on Espionage, pp. 138-9.
  7. Argus, 8 August 1945, p. 2.
  8. SMH, 9 August 1945, p. 2.
  9. HS Truman, Navy Day address, 27 October 1945.
  10. SMH, 21 June 1946, p. 2.
  11. Argus, 13 August 1945, p. 5.
  12. Yearbook of the United Nations 1946-7, United Nations, New York, 1947, p. 444.
  13. For the history of the UNAEC see Joseph I Lieberman, The scorpion and the tarantula : the struggle to control atomic weapons, 1945-1949, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston, 1970.
  14. CPD, vol. 188, 1 August 1946, p. 3485.
  15. Cable from Australian Delegation, UN, New York, ‘Atomic 10’, 14 June 1946, NAA: A816, 3/301/433 Part 1.
  16. Letter from George Briggs to Edna Briggs, 27 May 1946, Briggs papers, NLA: MS8255, 4/1.
  17. Cable from Australian delegation, UN, New York, ‘Atomic 6’, 30 May 1946, NAA: A816, 3/301/433 Part l.
  18. ‘Draft of Australian observations on the control of atomic energy’, 30 May 1946, NAA: A1196, 2/501/266 Part 1.
  19. UNAEC Official Records, First Meeting, 14 June 1946, p. 4
  20. UNAEC Official Records, Fifth Meeting, 18 July 1946, p. 73.
  21. Letter from Briggs to David Rivett, 5 July 1946, CSIRO Archives: series 3, KA/5/7 and KA/5/12/3. See also cable ‘Atomic 21’ from the Australian delegation, 12 July 1946, NAA: A816, 3/301/433 Pt. 1. Paul Hasluck offers a more critical assessment of Evatt’s forceful style at the UNAEC deliberations in Diplomatic witness: Australian foreign affairs, 1941-1947, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1980, pp. 277-80.
  22. UNAEC Official records, Third Meeting, 25 June 1946, p. 55. A copy of this speech was also included in CPD, vol. 188, 1 August 1946, pp. 3489-92.
  23. Royal Commission on Espionage, Official Transcript of Proceedings, 1 December 1954, Sydney, 1955, pp.2829-2830.
  24. ibid.

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