Sherman Frankel’s Stand against the End of the World (and Dirty Streets)

Written by Cory Austin Knudson

Sherman Frankel (center, 1923-2019) with Andrei Sakharov (left, 1921-1989) and Yelena Bonner (right, 1923-2011) likely circa May 1987. Sakharov was a Soviet physicist who designed the USSR’s first nuclear weapons. He later became a political dissident and reform activist, winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 1975. Bonner was a lifelong human rights activist.

For nearly thirty years, Sherman Frankel’s professional life revolved around what could happen in thirty minutes. Specifically, his life revolved around what could happen in the period between the moment an intercontinental ballistic missile equipped with a nuclear warhead is launched and the moment it reaches a target up to ten thousand kilometers away. Astoundingly, horrifyingly, this period would last about thirty minutes. Maybe less.

Sherman Frankel was a professor of particle physics at the University of Pennsylvania for over forty years. After earning his bachelor’s degree at Brooklyn College in 1943, he first worked for the MIT Radiation Lab during World War II. There, he helped develop radar technology, some fascinating early photos of which are included in Box 1 Folder 3 of the newly available Sherman Frankel papers (Sherman Frankel papers, 1972-2008, Ms. Coll. 1419, Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, University of Pennsylvania).

After the war, Frankel enrolled as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, where he studied under the celebrated physicist Maurice Goldhaber, completing his dissertation in 1949. Despite his obvious qualifications, he was denied interviews at several institutions to which he had applied for a job as an assistant professor. In one fragmentary document (Box 2 Folder 10), Frankel relates that Gertrude Scharff Goldhaber—a nuclear physicist and the wife of Frankel’s dissertation advisor—had served on the faculty search committees for two of the universities to which Frankel had sent applications, and she confided to him that the FBI had warned against hiring Frankel on the grounds that he was a communist. Though Frankel denies any such affiliation, he does admit to attending one meeting of the Young Communist League in college out of curiosity, as well as to a general interest in left-wing politics, some evidence of which can be found in his early papers.

A page from a war effort questionnaire Frankel filled out in 1942, while still an undergraduate at Brooklyn College, showing his profound interest in international affairs and politics.

Frankel indeed always had a profound interest in politics and human rights in general, and wrote about current affairs in scores of op-eds and letters to the editor throughout his life. (Interestingly, the earliest letter to the editor included in this collection is a caustic response to an article that called for banning the Young Communist League from the University of Illinois.) Frankel also wrote passionately about arms control and nuclear policy as the nuclear age began to set in—it is therefore no surprise that, at the beginning of the “red scare,” this outspoken and unafraid young intellectual met some resistance on the job market.

Until he met Gaylord Probasco Harnwell in 1950, that is. A colleague who knew of Frankel’s difficulty securing a position suggested that he speak to Harnwell, who was then chair of the Physics Department at Penn. Frankel’s colleague suspected that Harnwell would be less inclined to follow the “suggestions” of the FBI. And in fact after what Frankel claims was just a 20-minute conversation, Harnwell offered Frankel a job at Penn, where the latter would work for the next forty-three years. Not coincidentally, I think, Frankel relates that his boss (who would eventually be elected president of the university) worked tirelessly to keep Penn as free as possible from the political persecution that characterized much higher education during the mid-twentieth century. When the subject of reporting suspected subversives to the authorities came up, for example, Harnwell suggested implementing a circuitous and deliberately confusing game of interdepartmental telephone which would ultimately muddy any notion of whose political allegiances might lie where. After that, the matter as a whole was dropped.

At Penn Frankel continued to be deeply engaged in politics and current affairs at both global and local levels. He wrote about the trash on his street, which the Philadelphia Department of Sanitation seemed never to clean up, with the same wit and vigor as he wrote about so-called “Patriot Bombs” or what an idiot he thought Dan Quayle was. His satirical articles, published and unpublished, demonstrate the intensity of Professor Frankel’s social and political commitments, as well as how wildly funny he could be. Submitted as evidence:

Sometimes adopting the pseudonym “Frank Shim,” Frankel wrote scores of humorous letters to the editor, op-eds, and articles for largely Philadelphia and New York-based newspapers. This is an example from April 1978. Uncleanliness generally, and animal droppings specifically, would often feature among his many send-ups of Philadelphia life.

Even as a scholar, Frankel’s main interest appears not to have been particle physics proper, but politics. Specifically, he situated himself in the field of what he called “International Security and Arms Control/Physics and Public Policy” (ISAAC/PAPP for short), and wrote extensively on these themes in both specialist and popular publications throughout his career. It is during the eighties that he began writing on a subject that would consume the most significant portion of his professional life, however. This is when he began writing near-exclusively on the subject of accidental nuclear launch and post-launch controls (PLCs) for nuclear weapons. In a word, this is when he became obsessed with those thirty short minutes between nuclear launch and impact when we could, just maybe, avert global disaster.

This subject is by far the most well-represented in the Sherman Frankel papers. In processing this collection I learned that in both the United States and Russia, who have held the world’s largest nuclear arsenals since the dawn of the atomic age, nuclear-equipped ICBMs are kept on what’s called “hair-trigger alert,” meaning that they can be launched within minutes of authorization. Unlike many modern bombs, however, nuclear bombs have no post-launch diversion or self-detonation mechanisms. This means that once they are launched, there is no turning back. But–we may ask–what if a nuclear launch was a mistake, stemming from human error, technical malfunction, or bad information? Wouldn’t there be some way to prevent nuclear annihilation if all it would take is an incompetent technician, a bad circuit board, or a misinformed president? We might think so, but there isn’t. There has never been. From Frankel’s day to ours, there have never been any PLCs in place when it comes to the most destructive weapons the world has ever known.

Maps showing nuclear forces of the U.S. and the Soviet Union circa 1988 from Frankel’s notes.

When I began processing the Sherman Frankel papers, I did not think I would learn that we are always—even right now, at this very moment—possibly thirty short minutes from that pie-throwing scene at the end of Dr. Strangelove. Such a miniscule amount of time seems close to incomprehensible. But as Professor Frankel tried to show for nearly thirty years, it doesn’t really make sense that nothing can be done within this window, however small it may be. Thirty minutes would be enough time for the president or other authorized personnel to divert or self-destruct a missile launched by mistake and thus avoid precipitating a war that would likely result in the destruction of the lion’s share of life on the planet. It certainly doesn’t seem unreasonable to give as much time as we can to the possibility of avoiding outright Armageddon. Frankel even shows, again and again, how the process of retrofitting our nuclear missile systems with post-launch controls would not be prohibitively difficult or costly, especially when compared with the various ludicrously expensive and nearly impossible to implement missile defense systems that have populated military-industrial imaginings since Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (better known by its derisive moniker, “Star Wars.”) Frankel even wrote an entire book on the subject of post-launch controls, which was being prepped for publication in 1991.

Typescript for a book on PLCs, c. 1991.

Frankel’s efforts, sadly, had little impact on nuclear policy, and his book on PLCs was never published. In December 2001, New York Times journalist (and later executive editor) Bill Keller contacted Professor Frankel about why PLCs had been and continued to be ignored in nuclear policy (Box 2 Folder 9). Frankel responds that insecure funding for researchers, along with a general animus in the arms control community against what it sees as “improving weapons that it wants decommissioned” had helped put PLCs on the back burner for decades. Thereafter, Professor Frankel’s writing on the subject appears to have slowed, though he continued to write op-eds and letters to the editor on ISAAC/PAPP for some time after.

If I myself sound passionate about PLCs, it is only because I have spent so much time with the Sherman Frankel papers, learning about this incredible man and the thirty minutes to which he dedicated so much of his life. This collection is a treasure trove of resources on the nuclear age, and in document after document we can see that someone at our own university was taking a stand against the end of the world, trying to give us half thirty more minutes to turn back the doomsday clock if (when?) it finally hits midnight.

One response to “Sherman Frankel’s Stand against the End of the World (and Dirty Streets)”

  1. I enjoyed your piece about Professor Frankel. I reached it while reading about his interest in helping society deal with demented people who wished to end their lives. He clearly was not a man who shunned controversial subjects.

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