Alexei Panshin's The Abyss of Wonder

Sympathy for the Devil

“We did the devil’s work.”
                                                        –  J. Robert Oppenheimer

A lie is no good if it's not believed -- unless it is told to be disbelieved.
                                        –  Mellrooney


1.    The Riddle of “Solution Unsatisfactory”

    After World War II was brought to a sudden conclusion in August 1945 by the detonation of a new American superweapon over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, there was a change in the status of science fiction.

    Science fiction was the last pulp magazine genre, named as recently as 1929.  It was rarely published in hardcover book form.  It wasn’t reviewed by reputable newspapers and magazines.  And it wasn’t to be found on the shelves of most libraries, and only by people prepared to hunt to find it.

    Now, with the appearance of atomic weapons in the world, it stood vindicated.  Its direst imaginings had come true.

    In the new postwar climate of elation and dread, it was suddenly possible to present science fiction as a form of literature almost as serious and farseeing as its most ardent fans and boosters had always wanted to believe it was.

    In February 1946, just six months after the United States dropped the Bomb, the first hardcover science fiction anthology, The Best of Science Fiction, edited by Groff Conklin, was published by Crown.  This was a fat book of forty stories intended to demonstrate the breadth and depth of the genre, from the near and infinitesimal to the most remote times and places – the far future, the stars and other dimensions.
    As an acknowledgment of the major new concern of the day (as well as to stake science fiction’s claim to special regard) the initial seven stories were grouped under the heading “The Atom.”   

    The lead story, a novelet entitled “Solution Unsatisfactory,” told of the end of war between England and Germany in 1945 after the dropping of an atomic superweapon made in America.

    That was close enough to what had just happened to get people’s attention.

    The author of “Solution Unsatisfactory” was given as “Anson MacDonald.”  This was the byline the story had appeared under when it was originally published in the May 1941 issue of Astounding Science-Fiction.  But it had actually been written by Robert Heinlein the previous December.

    A year before Pearl Harbor and four years prior to the termination of the war currently being fought in Europe, Heinlein had dared to imagine the conflict brought to a conclusion by an atomic weapon of unprecedented deadliness made at a US Army facility in Maryland.  In the story, the lab’s director, Col. Clyde Manning, then maneuvers to make himself dictator of the world in order to keep the overwhelming weapon he’s brought into existence in safe hands, namely his own.

    The title Heinlein placed on the story was “Foreign Policy.”  This suggests that he saw its central subject not so much as the development of atomic weapons as the impact their existence would have on the international balance of power.

    It was the editor of Astounding, John W. Campbell, Jr., who altered the title to “Solution Unsatisfactory” in order to make it clear to the readers of his magazine that in his view the story was a thought experiment which didn’t offer an adequate answer to the problem it posed of controlling this demonic weapon once it had been made and used.

    Four years later, as the architect and chief promoter of modern science fiction, as well as the original editor of one-third of the stories included in The Best of Science Fiction, John Campbell would be asked to contribute a preface to this pioneering anthology to justify and explain science fiction to an audience presumed to be unfamiliar with it.

    Campbell viewed himself as a practical engineer concerned with what works. So in his preface he took advantage of the moment to use “Solution Unsatisfactory” as an example of science fiction in action.  In the context of this book for a general readership he wouldn’t dwell on any inadequacy the story might have. Instead, he began by describing it as “uncannily accurate prophecy.”

    This would be true, of course.  But it would also not be true, as he had reason to know.

    For one thing, Heinlein hadn’t been a very good predictor of the future course of the war.  Almost as soon as his novelet was published, it had been contradicted by events.  In this story neither the Soviet Union (here called the “Eurasian Union”) nor Japan nor the United States ever directly participates in World War II.  

    On the timeline in which “Solution Unsatisfactory” was written and read however, just two months after the story appeared on the newsstand, in June 1941, Germany would invade the Soviet Union.  And before the end of the year, Germany’s ally Japan would launch a surprise attack on the US Pacific Fleet stationed in Hawaii and America would be brought into the war, as well.

    Having not foreseen this radical expansion of World War II, Heinlein hadn’t envisioned that the cities attacked to bring the war to an end would be Japanese.  Instead, the metropolis atomically sterilized in his story was Berlin, the capital city of Germany.

    There’d be another major difference between what had been written by Heinlein and what actually did take place.  The weapon he imagined was radioactive dust – what today would be called a radiological weapon or “dirty bomb.”  It wouldn’t be the brilliant humungous explosion capped by a roiling mushroom cloud that we’ve all become familiar with.

    Writing in the immediate postwar moment, however, Campbell felt no inclination to linger on minor details like these.  Instead he wanted to establish the premise that the projections of science fiction deserved to be taken seriously, and for this it was sufficient that in “Solution Unsatisfactory” Heinlein had foreseen the United States developing an atomic weapon which had then been used to end the war.  What’s more, he’d even gotten the year right.  That was close enough to pass for uncannily accurate prophecy.

    By contrast, even though Groff Conklin, too, saw the story as possibly predictive, the editor of The Best of Science Fiction would regard this more negatively than Campbell did.  What concerned him about “Solution Unsatisfactory” wasn’t the part that had come true more or less, but the part which hadn’t happened yet, but still might.    

    In Conklin’s introduction to the anthology, printed after Campbell’s preface, he said:  “The story which leads off in this book, Solution Unsatisfactory, is included here with the greatest reluctance.  It is one instance where science fiction has dangerously sinister overtones of possibility.”

    What disturbed the editor was not the invention of atomic weapons or the prospect of atomic war.  What made him resist the story was its second half – the coming to power of a dictator who means to keep the Bomb under control by keeping the world in line.

    The narrator of “Solution Unsatisfactory” says:  “…Manning was no ordinary man.  In him ordinary hard sense had been raised to the level of genius.  Oh, yes, I know that it is popular to blame everything on him and call him everything from traitor to mad dog, but I still think he was both wise and benevolent.  I don’t care how many second-guessing historians disagree with me.”

    Conklin didn’t want to endorse anything like that.  He had no use for dictators.  If there’d ever been any doubt about the matter, World War II had just shown what dictators were like.  Yet the storyteller would end his account by inviting the reader to empathize with poor Clyde Manning, reluctant dictator of the world who is only doing what circumstances determine must be done.

    The editor saw this as giving Manning far too much credence.  In his introduction, he wrote, “I do not agree … with the author’s political bias as it is exemplified in this tale.  It seems quite dangerous to me.”

    The person who would ultimately be responsible for the inclusion and privileged placement of “Solution Unsatisfactory” in The Best of Science Fiction was Conklin’s editor at Crown, Edmund Fuller.  While working on this book, he’d developed so much of a taste for science fiction that Conklin sometimes suspected him of wanting to hijack the project and make it his own.

    Fuller was particularly impressed by the stories of Robert Heinlein and Anson MacDonald.  Struck by the timeliness of “Solution Unsatisfactory,” he wanted to use it to lead off the book.

    But Conklin didn’t want the story in his collection at all.  He only gave in at last – “against my better judgment” – after seeing a headline in the Washington Post for November 2, 1945, which read:  “‘ATOMIC WAR THREAT MAY FORCE U.S. TO SELECT DICTATOR.’”

    The story below the headline said that Harold Urey – a Nobel Prize-winning chemist who had helped develop the atomic bomb – had offered the opinion that the United States might have to establish a dictatorship in order to react to the threat of atomic war.

    “‘I do not see any way to keep our democratic form of government if everybody has atomic bombs,’ Urey said.  ‘If everyone has them, it will be necessary for our government to move quickly in a manner now not possible under our diffused form of government.’”

    If an actual Bomb-maker of prominence was ready to suggest that with the Bomb on the loose, America might need to have a dictator in control, then, perhaps, distasteful though it might be, “Solution Unsatisfactory,” the story of a master Bomb-maker who carries out a coup d’etat and makes himself just such a dictator, should be in the book, if only as a cautionary tale.

    Nevertheless, Conklin continued to harbor great reservations about this story, so that even though he may finally have given his assent to its inclusion, he still found it necessary to make it clear to everyone who read his book that he hadn’t wanted to do it.

    So just what was “Solution Unsatisfactory” – this story that was both celebrated and condemned in The Best of Science Fiction even before it led the way in the first showcase anthology of science fiction?

    Was “Solution Unsatisfactory” an uncannily prescient anticipation of American invention of the Bomb, as John Campbell’s preface and Edmund Fuller’s premier placement of the story encouraged readers to perceive?  Or was it an ultimately unsatisfactory first attempt to solve the problem of how a horrendous superweapon might be brought under control, as its Campbell-chosen title declared?  
    Was the story really about American foreign policy and how the existence of atomic weapons would force this policy to change, as indicated by Heinlein’s original title? Or was it a dangerously sinister story about power politics and how a man makes himself world dictator, as Groff Conklin thought?

    A case may be made for each of these interpretations.  But objections can be raised to all of them, too.  And none of them explains everything in “Solution Unsatisfactory.”   Unless, of course, the story is really an elephant in the dark, giving the appearance of being any number of different things while actually being something of another kind.

2.  Manning Takes a Job

    If for no other reason than because its narrator is not a reliable voice, it isn’t easy to be sure what Heinlein’s actual intention was when he wrote this story in December 1940.

    If we believe the character who tells us the tale,  Col. Manning never entertained any ambitions to make himself dictator.  It was all a kind of accidental inevitability, something that circumstances happened to make necessary.

    Before the war Manning was a military officer – “one of the Army’s No. 1 experts in chemical warfare” – until a heart condition forced him into early retirement.  Then he became a first-term congressman, a liberal.

    Manning may be a liberal, but he’s also said to be “tough-minded.”  Once he’s come to recognize the logical necessity of a dictator controlling atomic weapons, he’s not one to turn away from the job, even though he may find what he’s called upon to do personally distasteful.

    We could even think of what happens to Manning as a tragic act of self-sacrifice and empathize with the pain he must be feeling as he does what is necessary, even though it goes against his nature.

    The full name of the all-but-invisible man behind the narrative voice of “Solution Unsatisfactory” is never given in one place, but we can add it up as John DeFries.  As a high school teacher of sociology and economics, he was a member of the political search committee that chose Manning as an insurgent candidate for congress.  He becomes Manning’s campaign manager, and after that Congressman Manning’s executive secretary.  And then, when Manning is asked to rejoin the Army and head its atomic weapons program, at Manning’s insistence DeFries is instantly commissioned and brought along as his adjutant.

    DeFries is no disinterested bystander.  He’s Manning’s main man.  And when it is Manning’s man who assures us that Manning is really wise and benevolent and a genius of hard sense, can his words be believed?

    At times in the story, DeFries seems to be only half-aware.  Manning even calls him “downright stupid” to his face, and he accepts this as a compliment.  It’s possible that he is a bit dim and is kept around as a convenient tool when one is needed. Or perhaps he really knows more than he’s telling and is acting as a loyal mouthpiece, like a Presidential news secretary covering his boss’s ass and passing on to us what the boys upstairs think we should be told.  It’s even possible that DeFries is a secret spindoctor himself, actively seeking to manipulate our perceptions and sentiments from the outset.

    Whatever the case may be, however, it’s apparent that DeFries is never frank with us.  There’s a great deal that he doesn’t bother to explain, there are crucial points of transition that he slides right past, and much of what he does tell us doesn’t stand up under examination.

    If we persist in pursuing the questions that he fails to address, a very different picture of Manning begins to emerge.

    At the outset, the narrator tells us that Manning is a strong liberal.   He ought to know since he helped select Manning as a candidate and then worked for him while he was in Congress.  But liberals, even of the tough-minded sort, are by definition dedicated to achieving gradual progress by working for changes in the system.  They don’t turn themselves into dictators.  You have to be an extremist of one kind or another to take over the system altogether and make all decisions yourself.

    It seems highly doubtful, then, that Manning, whatever he may actually have been, could really have ever been a liberal – which ought to make us question both DeFries’s truthfulness and Manning’s sincerity from the start.

    Then we learn that despite his bad heart, Manning was personally singled out to be called back to active duty by the Army to head its atomic research and development program.  And that seems unlikely, too.

    In fact, this may have been the expression of a Robert Heinlein wish fulfillment.  He’d been a Lieutenant (jg) when he was involuntarily retired from the Navy in 1934 after he developed tuberculosis.  And he kept clinging to the hope that he would be recalled to duty when the US finally became an active participant in World War II.

    However, this would never happen, even though Heinlein went knocking on a lot of doors after Pearl Harbor trying to make it happen.  The best that he’d been able to do was to have an old service friend take him on as a civilian engineer at the Naval Air Experimental Station in Philadelphia.

    Life moves on.  And officers like Manning (or Heinlein) who’ve been retired from the service for a serious uncured ailment are seldom if ever unretired and called back to active duty, let alone singled out to be given crucial command assignments.

    Moreover, Manning already has a job, and one of some significance, too.  He’s a Congressional Representative with a district and a party and his own strong liberal principles to stand up for.

    So when the congressman is first called to come to the War Department for a chat about returning to duty, he tells his secretary,  “‘It’s impossible, of course.’”  He thereupon sets off for the meeting at so eager a pace that DeFries worries about his heart.

    And, of course, it is every bit as impossible as Manning says it is.  Congressmen with bad hearts don’t jump ship in mid-stream to go off and be Army colonels, even important ones.

    Sorry – I’m going to have to take that back, because DeFries goes on to say:  “But it was possible, and Manning agreed to it, after the Chief of Staff presented his case.”

    A pretty impressive case it must have been, too, since the narrator tells us that no one has the power to make a congressman leave his post, and Manning had to be convinced.

    But DeFries doesn’t share any details with us of how this was done – nor even what the exact nature of the task offered to Manning was.  These are points he goes gliding past, leaving us to try to figure out for ourselves what must have been said from what we see Manning do.

    All we know for certain is that the general talked for a time and Manning, who’s declared that leaving Congress is impossible and who must have reason to change his mind, found what he was told so compelling and persuasive that he agreed to the proposal.  But, hey, if it was the Chief of Staff himself asking – I mean the top man in the whole damned Army – how could he say no?

    We might not be permitted to hear the siren song that was sung for him, but we can hazard a guess as to what it may have been, since not much later the narrator says of Manning:

    “…There was certainly no one else in the United States who could have done the job.  It required a man who could direct and suggest research in a highly esoteric field, but who saw the problem from the standpoint of urgent military necessity.”

    DeFries can’t possibly be talking from his own knowledge here.  He’s just been sworn into the service himself and he isn’t any better qualified than the next former high school teacher to offer opinions about the Army or military necessity or who else other than Manning might be capable of carrying out this job.  What’s more, he admits that he knows no more about atomic physics than he’s read in the Sunday newspaper supplement.  He has to be repeating what he’s heard from someone else.

    However, if the source he had it from was the Army Chief of Staff as he was making his case to Manning, then we can understand how Manning’s mind might have been changed.  It has to be pretty heady stuff for someone who was a career military officer retired before his time to have the person in command of the whole Army tell you that he has a critical job and you’re the only person who is capable of doing it.

    But if indeed this was what convinced Manning, then he screwed up badly in allowing himself to be sweet talked into making such a disastrously wrong move.  If Manning ever had it in him to be wise, this was the moment for him to speak.

    If he were farseeing, he might have said something like this:
  “Sir, the offer you are making is very flattering, but I’m afraid I must refuse for a number of reasons any one of which would be sufficient.

  “First, I have a previous obligation to my constituents that I must honor.  Having asked them to elect me to office, I can hardly turn my back on them now and walk away after serving for only a few months.

  “Second, as you know, my heart isn’t in great shape.  I’m not sure it would withstand the stress of the work you’re asking me to undertake.  If I were to die along the way, or be forced to withdraw for reasons of health, and I’m as crucial to the task as you say, the program could be unnecessarily compromised.

  “Third, as a human being and a liberal, I couldn’t possibly direct a project like this one.  I can see where it’s headed, and its end is a weapon that will kill every living thing it affects, and that can only be used on helpless civilians massed in cities.  In my opinion, to make and use that kind of weapon would be a crime.

  “Lastly, speaking as a member of Congress, I have to tell you I think it would be a bad precedent and bad policy for us to introduce a weapon of indiscriminate terror.  We would likely frighten our allies as much as our enemies, set off an arms race and destabilize the world.  If you make an omelet, you have to eat it – you can’t turn it back into an egg.  With a weapon like this, we may find that we’ve won the war, but at the cost of the freedom for which we’re fighting.”
    If indeed Manning is the only person in the country capable of directing this particular project – and he really were as wise and benevolent as DeFries says he is – then perhaps speaking out this way at this pivotal moment might have killed a bad idea at the very outset and spared both him and the world a lot of future grief.

    But, of course, Manning doesn’t say no to the Chief of Staff’s offer.  Rather, he accepts immediately and the two of them begin to discuss how his job switch is to be accomplished.

    As a matter of fact, the only thing Manning is reported to have said during this entire meeting is to be sure that he can have his man DeFries with him in his new post:

    “There was talk of leaving me in Washington to handle the political details of Manning’s office, but Manning decided against it, judging that his other secretary could do that, and announced that I must go along as his adjutant.  The Chief of Staff demurred, but Manning was in a position to insist, and the Chief had to give in.”

    How sweet to be needed so desperately that you can even make the top general in the Army jump through a hoop!

3.  The Invention of K-O Dust

    So eager is Congressman Manning to get back into the familiar comfort of a pair of Army boots that he doesn’t linger in Washington long enough to make necessary phone calls and clear his desk.  By the very next day, he and DeFries – now an instant new-made Army officer – are off to Maryland to begin taking charge of the Federal nuclear research lab Manning’s been given to command.

    He doesn’t pause at Walter Reed Army Hospital first for a routine physical checkup, either, just to be sure he’s fit for duty.  Nor, most strangely, does the Chief of Staff or anyone else in the Army bother to insist that Manning undergo an exam before he begins his new assignment, even though you would think the state of his health would be everybody’s first concern.

    So why is everyone in such a hurry?  What’s so unique and pressing about this particular task that the Army would find it necessary to look outside its own ranks and reach into Congress for a one-time officer with heart problems to place in charge here?  And what military necessity could possibly be so urgent as to convince Manning to abandon his constituents and go rushing off to Maryland to assume this post?

    We aren’t told.

    It’s not because America is losing World War II and has its back to the wall.  In the world of the story, it’s as late as 1943, and the United States, while continuing to supply England with ships and planes to keep her fighting, still isn’t an active combatant in the war.

    In fact, rather than being immediate and pressing, the research the lab is doing into an Atom Bomb seems prospective and hypothetical.  Things here at the lab are handled in a leisurely and informal way.  Ordinary military discipline isn’t observed.  And there doesn’t appear to be anyone from outside overseeing what they’re doing.

    The narrator says:
  “We were searching, there in the laboratory in Maryland, for a way to use U235 in a controlled explosion.  We had a vision of a one-ton bomb that would be a whole air raid in itself, a single explosion that would flatten out an entire industrial center.  …

  “The problem was, strangely enough, to find an explosive which would be weak enough to blow up only one county at a time, and stable enough to blow up only on request.  If we could devise a really practical rocket fuel at the same time, one capable of driving a war rocket at a thousand miles an hour, or more, then we would be in a position to make most anybody say ‘uncle’ to Uncle Sam.”
    But despite this happy dream of a war rocket armed with the Bomb and America with its foot on the neck of the world, the development of a reliable and controlled A-Bomb eludes them.  DeFries says:  “We fiddled around with it all the rest of 1943 and well into 1944.”

    But if this is the case, what was the rush to get Manning on the job?

    Eventually, however, the fiddling around has to come to an end.  They’re forced to conclude “that there existed not even a remote possibility at the time of utilizing U235 as an explosive,” and to abandon their quest for a convenient one-county-size nuclear Bomb.

    All is not lost, however.  It isn’t necessary to close down the atomic weapons program with its unlimited budget and Manning doesn’t have to admit defeat and go back to Congress.  Instead, he’s able to recognize the potential for an even more awful weapon in another of the projects under his authority.

    In taking command of the lab, Manning has inherited the ongoing research of a Dr. Estelle Karst into the medical application of radioactive isotopes.  Dr. Karst has no use for Manning and the work he’s doing and complains to him that her investigations have been hampered by lack of access to Dr. Obre, a spectroscopist whose services are being monopolized by the Bomb development project.  She declares to Manning that Manning is “‘a warmonger’” because he cares more about killing than curing.

    She could be right about that, too.  Manning was formerly one of the Army’s top experts in poison gas – the horror weapon of World War I, eventually banned – and  when he familiarizes himself with her work, and sees the radioactive dust her program produces glistening in the air and hears of fish kills in Chesapeake Bay from her waste water, he gets a gleam in his eye.  Saying, “‘I think we may turn up a number of interesting things,’” he takes over Dr. Karst’s research and pours men and resources into it.

    Manning will demonstrate the gratitude he feels toward Dr. Karst for the preparatory work she’s done by naming the radiological weapon he develops “Karst-Obre dust.”  And after it has been used to kill every living thing in Berlin and Dr. Karst commits suicide, he’ll express his regret to DeFries.

    “‘I wish,’ Manning added slowly, ‘that I could explain to her why we had to do it.’”

    If Manning never lets Dr. Karst know why it’s necessary to commandeer her medical dust and alter it into a weapon of mass extermination, neither does he report to his superiors about what he’s up to.  The Army Chief of Staff may have set him up here in the atomic research lab, given him all the money and resources he could ask for, and put him to work making a Bomb, but when Manning closes the Bomb project down and begins making Karst-Obre dust instead, he neglects to inform anyone that he’s doing it.

    Nobody keeping an eye on the program.  No limit on funds.  And a colonel with a secret weapon and no sense of obligation to follow the chain of command.  What an unusual way to run an army!

    It isn’t that Manning entertains no doubts.  At one point, he declares, “‘John, I wish that radioactivity had never been discovered.’”

    And the narrator says, “Manning told me that he had once seriously considered, in the middle of the night, recommending that every single person, including himself, who knew the Karst-Obre technique, be put to death in the interests of all civilization.”

    But DeFries can’t understand these apprehensions.  To him, the dust is just another weapon, only more potent, and we’re the ones who have it.

    He says to Manning, “‘I still don’t see what you are fretting about, Colonel.  If the stuff is as good as you say it is, you’ve done just exactly what you set out to do – develop a weapon which would give the United States protection against aggression.’”

    Now, is that what DeFries thought they’ve been doing?  If it is, then why didn’t he just tell us so at the time Manning was given his assignment?  More to the point, if Manning’s goal all along has been to protect the United States from aggression, what on earth has he been doing trying to develop a one-ton A-Bomb capable of laying flat an entire industrial city?

    It’s no wonder that Manning tells DeFries he’s stupid.  

    Manning spells out for his typist, go-fer and apologist that this weapon is a loaded gun held to the head of every man, woman and child on the planet.  And if any nation should use it, every nation will have to have it, and nobody will be safe.

    Manning says:  “‘Once the secret is out – and it will be out if we ever use the stuff! – the whole world will be comparable to a room full of men, each armed with a loaded .45.  They can’t get out of the room and each one is dependent on the good will of every other one to stay alive.  All offense and no defense.  See what I mean?’”
    So concerned is Manning that two weeks after this, he calls the Army Chief of Staff and tells him that he needs to speak to the President.  And he won’t tell his superior why.

    If it should seem out of line for someone who’s only a colonel to insist on bypassing the chain of command to talk directly to the President of the United States, we have to understand that Manning is a special case.  He reminds the Chief of Staff:  “‘I took this job under the condition that I was to have a free hand.’”

    We’ve heard nothing of this previously.  It seems to mean that from the outset Manning has not only had no explicit orders, no one to report to, and no ceiling on expenses, but even a guarantee that he can do as he pleases.  No wonder he leaped to take the job.  Under those circumstances, it might almost make sense for him to think he could see the President alone if he should want to.

    If this reminder of the autonomy he’s been given weren’t enough, Manning plays again on his personal dominance over the Chief of Staff.  He says:  “‘Don’t go brass hat on me.  I knew you when you were a plebe.’”

    This suggestion that the Chief of Staff should ignore the difference in their rank and do as Manning says is a reminder of the long-ago situation when Manning was an upperclassman at West Point and the Chief of Staff was a first-year man and Manning could make him snap to.

    We aren’t permitted to hear what the Chief of Staff has to say in response to this impertinence and insurbordination.  But it doesn’t seem to be to inform Manning that he’s forthwith relieved of his command and should hold himself ready for court martial.

    Rather, he responds by doing exactly as Manning desires, running his request for a personal meeting with the President upstairs to his own superior, who just might be able to arrange it.  And what he has to say to him is apparently so compelling that within the hour the Secretary of War himself is calling up Manning on the phone.

    We never learn what the Secretary has to say, either.  We’re just allowed to overhear Manning telling him, “‘All I want is thirty minutes alone with the President.  If nothing comes of it, no harm has been done.  If I convince him, you will know all about it.’”

    This is really remarkable stuff – an Army colonel telling his ultimate superior, the Secretary of War, to get him an appointment with the President of the United States, but refusing to tell him what for.  If he can’t convince the President of what he has in mind, the Secretary doesn’t need to know any more about it.  And if he does convince the President, what it’s about will be revealed to the Secretary in good time.

    Underlings don’t usually talk to their superiors this way and get away with it, yet somehow this wide-eyed insolence is enough to convince the Secretary of War to place himself at the service of his subordinate and use his influence to set up the appointment that Manning desires.  Even more marvelously, the White House is so responsive to the urgency and persuasiveness of the Secretary when he calls that it agrees to give this obscure congressman/colonel exactly what he’s seeking – a thirty-minute meeting alone with the President with no indication of what it might be for.  And as soon as tomorrow!

    This readiness to cooperate with Manning is all the more extraordinary since he will later tell DeFries that the President has a nose like a bloodhound:  “‘In his forty years of practical politics he has seen more phonies than you or I will ever see and each one was trying to sell him something.  He can tell one in the dark.’”

    DeFries waits patiently outside the Oval Office while Manning’s half-hour one-on-one with the President stretches into two-and-a-half hours.  In view of the qualms Manning has expressed to DeFries, we can imagine that he’s been unburdening himself to the President, telling him about this horrible new weapon he’s made which is so awful in its consequence and so irrevocable that he hasn’t even dared to mention its existence to his superiors.

    Instead, however, when DeFries is called within at last, it’s to be told that in keeping with Manning’s recommendation the dust is going to be given to the British to use to end their war with Germany.  And DeFries has been chosen to take it to them because he knows about it but understands nothing of how it was made.

    It seems that far from working to convince the President that the dust must never be used, Manning has spent his time talking him into injecting this new super-weapon into the European conflict the United States still has no official part in.  The price of our intervention will be that we get to dictate the terms of peace to the Germans and British.

    In short, it seems that Manning’s intent all along in insisting on speaking privately with the President hasn’t been to spare the Army Chief of Staff and the Secretary of War unnecessary and intolerable knowledge.  Rather, it’s been to evade any intervening authority, including theirs, which might be inclined to stand in the way of his determination to see K-O dust – this weapon he’s said he should be put to death for knowing how to make, this weapon he’s said must never be used – employed as an instrument of war.

    And he’s right to anticipate that such opposition would have been forthcoming, since later the Secretary of Labor will declare:  “‘The dust must never be used again.  Had I known about it soon enough, it would never have been used on Berlin.’”

    But Manning has an uncanny ability to operate the system without ever being held to account for it by acting as though its structure and rules are going to be observed by everyone but him, while somehow convincing people in positions of authority to order the things he wants done.  

    And whether it’s through the warmth of his smile or his possession of the secret power to cloud men’s minds, in the space of just two-and-a-half hours alone with a President of the United States who knows a phony with a dubious scheme when he sees one, he’s been able to mesmerize him into not only ignoring established governmental and military procedure and trashing the Constitution, but also, more practically, into foregoing the counsel of all his usual associates and advisors in order to introduce a hideous and destabilizing new weapon into someone else’s war and send Capt. John DeFries on a special mission to see that it’s done.

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[Note:  The full story "Solution Unsatisfactory" can be read here.]

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