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October 4, 2016

Uncommon Interview: 1945 Maroon Editor-in-Chief Abe Krash

The seventh page of the April 20, 1945 issue of The Maroon which included the article that alluded to the Manhattan Project and almost got the paper shut down.

The seventh page of the April 20, 1945 issue of The Maroon which included the article that alluded to the Manhattan Project and almost got the paper shut down.

Maroon Staff / The Chicago Maroon

The Maroon’s tagline is “The independent student newspaper of the University of Chicago since 1892.” You can find it at the top of the paper, on our website, and even (the more colloquial “Since 1892”) on the back of our sweatshirts. Our longevity is part of our identity, but it’s something I too often take for granted as the Editor-in-Chief of The Maroon in 2016. I realized this in June when I sat down with Abe Krash, who held my job 71 years ago and happened to be on campus for his granddaughter's graduation from the College. Krash told me about his education at the University of Chicago during the golden age of Hutchins and his experience as editor-in-chief, including the time the federal government almost shut down the paper for unknowingly divulging classified information about the Manhattan Project. Here’s how our slogan, and our 124-year streak, almost died.

“I came to the University in September of 1944. I had graduated from high school and the University at that time was "Hutchins College," and Hutchins College began in the 11th grade. You could come here in 11th grade or after you graduated high school, which I did as a conventional freshman. If you came as a conventional freshman that would be the third year of the College. All of the courses were required of you in two years of the College, effectively as a junior and senior. At the end of the second year you got a B.A. degree, after two years. I had grown up in a small town in Wyoming—Cheyenne, Wyoming, which is the capital. I graduated from high school there and I had an unusual newspaper experience for a young fellow. In a small town like Cheyenne, high school sports was important. And they needed someone to write about it. So I started to write articles when I was in 10th grade about the high school team. It was during the war, 1942, and the sports editor was drafted and went off to war. So they asked me to take over writing stuff and I became the sports editor of—there were two daily newspapers, one was called the Eagle and one was called the Tribune, and I was the sports editor of one of the newspapers when I was in high school. Every day I would come down, and they gave me a desk, and I began to learn about the newspaper trade: the other reporters, they trained me. So when I came to UChicago I had been writing every day for several years for a daily newspaper.  

“So about a month after I came here and got adjusted I came over to the Maroon office, which was—we had what was called a Lexington Office, which were back behind Rockefeller Chapel. There were temporary buildings there at that time and we had an office there, The Maroon. And I showed up there and I had a lot more experience than most of the people showing up. So they immediately asked me if I’d like to be a reporter and that’s what I wanted to do so I became a reporter. That would have been the fall of 1944. And sometime around January or February of ’45 the editor[-in-chief] had to go off to the war. This was wartime, so you have to understand what the University was like: there were guards patrolling the quadrangle and in front of the buildings because that’s where the atomic energy research was going on. 

“So, anyway, the editor departed and they had to pick a new editor. I was only a freshman but I was picked as editor because there were very few people around. There were a number of women but very few guys. And so I was picked to be the editor. I was very young—only 17-years-old, just a freshman. This would have been in February or March of 1945. I had had a good deal of experience so I began to reorganize the staff and the paper and the make-up. The Maroon then came out on a Friday once a week. It was circulated around the campus and it was free—they gave it to everybody. So I became editor and the paper took off. I was very interested and spent a lot of time on it and there were some very good people still there working the few years after. David Broder for example, who later became a famous columnist, was editor after me.  

“So anyway, I was running The Maroon. We scored one of the great scoops of the 20th century unknowingly, and I’ll tell you about that. You have to realize that the University was one of the centers of the Manhattan Project. And in the spring of 1945 the war was still on and we were running a series every week of faculty profiles. So I asked a reporter to do a profile on the guy who was the dean of the Division of Physical Sciences. He won the Nobel Prize—his name was Arthur Holly Compton. So the reporter went over to check the University’s public relation files. I had been told when I became editor by the guy who was the director of public relations that I was not to write any stories about the buildings where the guards were patrolling. They didn’t tell me what was going on, just ‘don’t write about that, okay?’ So I sent this reporter to do a story on [Compton] and on Friday the paper came out and we had a long column on page seven about [Compton].  

“On Saturday morning we had an editor’s conference for the following week and I got here around 9:30. I had a little office and the phone in there rang and the guy on the other end says, ‘It’s Major So-and-so of the G2 military intelligence.’ I thought it was some guy pulling my leg over from Burton-Judson, where I was a resident. He said, ‘we want to come see you,’ and I laughed and hung up because I thought it was just a joke. About half an hour later, two guys show up in trench coats and one guy takes out his pass and shows it to me and says, ‘It’s Major So-and-so and Captain So-and-so from G2 military intelligence.’ So we sit down in this little office and he says, ‘We have come to see you because there’s been a real serious security violation you’ve committed.’ I didn’t know anything about a security violation, or security regulations. I was 17 and running a university newspaper. He said he couldn’t tell me what we had done, but he said they were concerned it would be done again.  

“While we were sitting there, the circulation manager pokes his head in the door and says, ‘Abe, great news, man, every paper has been picked up.’ Every copy of The Maroon had been picked up! And this major cleared his throat and said, ‘Well I have to tell you something, we went around campus with agents and picked up every copy of The Maroon we could find and went to the press and destroyed the plates.’ So he said he couldn’t tell me what we had done but that he would arrange for me to see the dean of students, a man by the name of Lawrence Kimpton, who later became the president of the University. His office was in Cobb Hall.  

“On Monday morning (I had dealt with him before as editor of the paper) I went over to his office. It was a sunny morning in April of 1945. You have to bear in mind that the war in Europe is still going on. The war in Europe didn’t end until May—that’s when the Germans capitulated—and the war in Japan ended a couple months later. Kimpton said to me, ‘You know, you’ve given us a really stormy weekend.’ He had The Maroon in front of him and points to page seven, where we said that Compton had been busily engaged in trying to break the atom. One sentence, among other things, [said that] he was trying to break the atom. Every physicist in the world in 1944 was trying to break the atom, Compton included. I said, ‘Yes?’ and he said, “The reason the military was concerned was because they felt this, what was going on at the University, might be revealed to enemy agents.’ That was absurd for reasons I will describe. And he says, ‘We have to tell you something because we don’t want to shut down The Maroon and we want to prevent a recurrence.’ He said the reason they were concerned was they felt this would disclose to the Germans and the Japanese what was going on here at the University. What they were doing at the University, he said, was working on a great new weapon that will revolutionize warfare. He told me that, just like that. ‘A great new weapon that would revolutionize warfare.’ He did not use the words ‘atomic weapon,’ but I never forgot it. That’s exactly what he said. He said, ‘You must not write anything about Compton or anything that’s going on in these buildings that would reveal that face.’ I didn’t understand what he was talking about. ‘Great new weapon’ meant nothing to me.  

“A few weeks later, Compton was named to be the president of Washington University at St. Louis, and that was a big story for The Maroon because the dean was leaving. The next day I get a call and here’s my friend the major on the phone and he said, ‘I assume that you’re going to be running about Dean Compton being named as the president of Wash U St. Louis.’ and I said, ‘Absolutely. That’s a front page story for us.’ And he said, ‘Well we would like to come look at your story before you publish it.’ And here I was, an 18-year-old editor, and I stood up and said, ‘Well in that case, we’ll have to put a slug line on the story that says, “passed by military censor.”’ I remember there was a long silence at the other end and he said, ‘I don’t think that would be advisable.’ And after a few seconds it dawned on me that I would be the editor of The Maroon that gets us shut down. They were going to shut us down! And so then when he asked again I concluded it would be the better part of wisdom to let him come down and look at the article.  

“He came down here and I gave him the article to look at and he didn’t change a comma. We were very careful about what we wrote about Compton. And he smiled and said, ‘No problem,’ and he left and we ran the story, needless to say, without a note that said, ‘passed by military censors.’ So here we were in possession of one of the greatest stories of the 20th century. I was in possession of the story of the atomic weapon! That was a great scoop, I mean, think of that!  

“When I said earlier that the notion that this would tip off enemy agents, here’s what I meant. All you had to do was stroll through the quadrangles and you would see guys pacing back and forth with a rifle. If you had walked into Hutchinson Commons any morning or any lunchtime, you would have seen Enrico Fermi, you would have seen the most famous physicists in the world having breakfast or lunch—and obviously they’re not here engaged in the study of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. You would see these very famous scientists, so the notion that The Maroon would have tipped off enemy agents with this one sentence was preposterous.  

“We ran the story about Compton in May of 1945 and I went home for the summer after I finished my first year. In July the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and then I realized all that Kimpton had been telling me. It suddenly dawned on me what the ‘great new weapon’ was and what they were worried about. Two years later The New Yorker magazine ran an article about security breaches that occurred connected with the Manhattan Project and in the article there’s a paragraph where they say that the managers of the G2 office in Chicago were all exercised. They described this incident and they described us as the schoolboy editors of the University of Chicago student newspaper who revealed what Compton was doing. Of course that was preposterous too when you stop to think about it because to say the guy was breaking the atom was nonsense. Anybody would have said that about anybody doing physics at that time. So I say The Maroon was in possession of one of the greatest stories of the 21st century, and in fact we had, according to G2, tipped the enemy off—even though we didn’t have the foggiest idea of what it was and needless to say we never said anything further about it.  

“I really did not perceive or understand fully what Kimpton said to me, though he did say the words ‘atomic weapon.’ Kimpton, unbeknownst to me, was the personnel director of the Manhattan project. He didn’t say that to me and he didn’t use the term Manhattan Project. So The Maroon sailed through and we were not shut down. Then I came back in the fall of ’45 and I was the editor that quarter. By that time the war had ended and the University changed because veterans were flowing back from the war. I concluded at the end of December that I came here to get a degree and do my studies and I spent an enormous amount of time at The Maroon so I better stop, and I stopped.” 

After Krash and I had talked for about an hour, I pulled out the bound volume of 1945 Maroon issues from our archives, and he found the first article about Compton. Happy that G2 evidently hadn’t picked up every copy, he read through and said, “Here’s the sentence that really busted their balls: ‘Compton and his colleagues are working on the problems fraught with tremendous possibilities to mankind of releasing atomic energy.’” 

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