You’ve read the conventional wisdom, and it usually has some truth in it. “Until December 7, 1941, nobody knew that America would get dragged into World War II.” “The A-bombing of Nagasaki was cruel and unnecessary—everybody knew the Japanese were ready to surrender after Hiroshima.” “On October 4, 1957, the Soviets stunned the world. Nobody knew they were on the brink of launching the Earth’s first artificial moon.”
You’ve read the confident cynics, too. “Everybody knew John F. Kennedy was having extramarital affairs.” “Everyone knew the reason Nixon ‘killed’ Apollo was that he was jealous of JFK’s role in starting it.” And of course, “Everybody in Hollywood knew about Harvey Weinstein. They had to know.”
Let me address the most trivial one first because I saw the truth up close: Weinstein’s Miramax was a (very) small New York company that bought and distributed rock concert films. That’s how most people first met Harvey and his brother Bob, who named their company after their parents, Miriam and Max. In the Eighties it branched out, cheaply buying the US rights to foreign films that, then and now, had little chance of entering the US market. They shrewdly got maximum publicity at minimum expense, never taking a genuinely controversial stand, and parlayed that marketing ability into making lots of money and getting acquired by the Walt Disney Company. Those are the basic facts.
Harvey, arrogant and defensive to begin with, became a detested tyrant early on. Everyone who worked with him admitted his skill and freely admitted they hated him. We encountered him dozens of times, at AFI screenings in LA., and at festivals like Cannes and Sundance. At the 2002 Oscars, Robin Williams joked, “I see we have a nominee this year called ‘Monsters, Inc’, a documentary about the Weinstein brothers,” and the audience roared. He was a bully, physically loathsome and hated throughout the industry. I knew dozens of Miramax people who were fired by him or quit. A number were in protracted lawsuits against him. And yet, none of them—not one, man or woman—told the stories we heard in 2017, even privately. Because we didn’t know.
When the stories came out, there was a horrifying glee all over town that somebody brought him down, but we were as shocked as anyone else how it happened. Why didn’t we know? Basically, because we weren’t actresses, especially European ones. Weinstein was right to make foreign film festivals his happy hunting ground. He got sloppy and disgusting—everything about him is—and he got caught.
Roll back the clock. In 1940 magazine articles and subsequent history books, it was clear that the European war wasn’t going to be as brief as initially hoped. But it was also clear that the US was staying neutral, not getting dragged in like we were in 1917. We learned our lesson with WWI. This time we were going to let the dictators fight this one out. In his re-election campaign, FDR swore up and down that we were staying out of it. The news writers were unanimous because it was obvious what Americans wanted.
Yet the same writers, ten years later, were just as firm in insisting that once FDR won an unprecedented third term, of course we knew we were in it up to our necks. The German Navy was already attacking US-UK shipping in 1941. Well before Pearl Harbor, the Atlantic pact and other ‘foreign entanglements’ made America’s neutrality in name only, and everyone knew it. Auto plants started converting for war. Few expected Japan to strike the first blow against us, but few expected us to skate through 1942 at peace. What happened to convert “everyone knows we’re staying out” to “everyone knows we’re getting in”? It’s reasonable to deduce that the pro-FDR press did its best to help him out, tacitly believing that the 1940 electorate needed to be lied to.
How about the best-kept secret of World War II, the atomic bomb? It was certainly a shock to the world in August 1945. But weirdly, it seems to fall somewhere in the “everyone knew/nobody knew” spectrum. When Alfred Hitchcock was planning the Ingrid Bergman-Cary Grant movie, Notorious, he made inquiries whether uranium could be used as a weapon. He was told no, told to take it out of the script, and there was a (probably exaggerated) plan to place Hitch under surveillance. My father-in-law, who had some scientific knowledge, used to recount a story about meeting a former classmate from City College during the war, who was working for an Eastman chemical plant in Tennessee. After hearing about what few fragments his friend knew, he said casually, “Sounds like you’re making an atomic bomb down there.” “The Nazi radio has been throwing out hints that Germany has ready an explosive more devastating than anything yet dreamed of (there was talk a while back about an “atom-smashing” element capable of destroying whole cities).—from Danton Walker‘s syndicated column carried in the Philadelphia Inquirer, September 11, 1944.
But the king of all Manhattan Project leaks happened on March 13, 1944, in the pages of the Cleveland Press. Weary homeward commuters read the headline, “Forbidden City—Uncle Sam’s Mystery Town Directed by ‘2nd Einstein’” In several jaw-dropping paragraphs, they learned about Los Alamos, a giant top secret Army installation doing secret work involving explosions and death rays, directed by Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, already listed before the war in Who’s Who as one of America’s top nuclear scientists. It would not have taken a Nazi version of Sherlock Holmes to figure out what Oppenheimer and the Army were doing. There were details that were off, and conjecture that proved wrong, but by WWII standards, this was a breathtaking breach of security.
How did it happen? There was a fearsome mechanism to deal with the press and press censorship, which was mostly voluntary anyway. But the reporter, John Raper, didn’t apply for credentials, wasn’t doing an assigned story, and didn’t approach the front gate. He was on vacation in New Mexico and fell into talking with excessively loose-lipped plant workers having a drink after work. He wrote up his story in total ignorance of what it meant, and the Cleveland Press staff that vetted it for wartime censorship requirements were too ill-informed to realize that physicists had become a key national strategic asset. Los Alamos was stunned at the leak and managed to quash the routine circulation of the story on the Associated Press wire.
Even after the war ended, when Life Magazine did a now-it-can-be-told story about the Manhattan Project, one of the artist illustrations of the story shows a ball-like bomb on top of the Trinity tower. Accurate—far too accurate for General Groves, because all the stories approved for publication described the already obsolete Hiroshima bomb’s design, basically a gun that fired a U235 ‘bullet’ into a U235 target at the end of a gun barrel. But Trinity, the prototype of the Nagasaki bomb and nearly all the nuclear weapons to follow, was triggered by implosion, The simple fact that the bomb was spherical, trivial as it sounds now, was such an important clue to the way it worked that implosion would continue to be the bomb project’s biggest secret for another half-dozen years or so. Yet by August 1945, somehow someone knew the right shape, indicating that somebody talked, probably an eager GI workman who had no idea he was betraying a secret. The Army was never able to find out who. The Russians, like the Germans in the 1944 Cleveland case, didn’t even notice the article. Then again, the Russians already had a great deal of spy information; they didn’t need Life Magazine.
I’ve mentioned other cases in the “Everybody knew”/”Nobody Knew” spectrum. Maybe we’ll do more. Maybe you have some, too.Published in