In 1979, a federal judge in Milwaukee blocked The Progressive from publishing an article regarding H-bomb design. The case has inspired two books, a play, and dozens of articles. Yet what this extraordinary event really merits is a major motion picture. Here's how I envision the opening scene:
There's a sharp clicking of shoes as a messenger walks down hallways and through guarded doors before handing an envelope marked "Top Secret" to an important-looking man, who nods, then continues the envelope's journey into the Oval Office. President Jimmy Carter cracks open the seal, and reads a one-page memo from U.S. Attorney General Griffin Bell, notifying him of the government's determination to block publication.
Rows of perfectly square white teeth disappear into a frown as Carter scrawls his response on the memo's top: "Good move, proceed. J"
Instantly, the scene shifts to a small, messy office in Madison, Wisconsin, where an ill-dressed middle-aged man is rifling frantically through mountains of clutter on his desk. Erwin Knoll, editor of The Progressive, at last locates a crumpled manuscript entided "The H-Bomb Secret: How We Got It, Why We're Telling It." He grabs his coat and dashes out the door, accompanied by Sam Day, the magazines managing editor, as they head to meet a delegation of high-ranking officials from the U.S. Departments of Energy and Justice. "I love it!" exclaims Knoll on the way.
These are the events that played out on March 2, 1979, as the full might and authority of the U.S. government was about to come crashing down on a tiny political magazine in the Midwest.
The meeting between The Progressive's editors and attorneys and the government delegation ended without resolution. The officials said the article, written by an ambitious freelancer named Howard Morland, contained "restricted data" that, if published, would threaten national security. Knoll responded that he was "incredulous that a writer with Morlands limited background... could so readily penetrate what you are describing as perhaps the most important secret possessed by the United States."
In short order, The Progressive formally rejected the governments offer to rewrite Morlands article, removing the "restricted data." On March 9, 1979, Federal Judge Robert W. Warren of Milwaukee granted a temporary restraining order blocking publication. It was the first time in U.S. history that the government had censored a publication on national security grounds.
For the next six months and nineteen days, The Progressive and its editors were prohibited, under the 1954 Atomic Energy Act, from "publishing or otherwise communicating, transmitting or disclosing" the restricted information in the H-bomb article. It was a historic confrontation between the rights of the press and the power of the state, and, in the end, The Progressive prevailed--but only to a point.
In early 1978, Sam Day left his job as editor of The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and came to The Progressive with a mandate to make nuclear issues a main focus of the magazine. In April, he traveled to Indiana for a formal debate against Charles Gilbert of the Department of Energy (DOE), which runs the nation's nuclear weapons program. Afterward, over a beer, Day expressed his desire to tour the nation's nuclear factories, and Gilbert, to his surprise, agreed.
While preparing for his travels, Day learned about a New Hampshire activist named Howard Morland who had put together an interesting slide show on nuclear weapons. The two met and decided that Morland would accept the DOE's offer to tour the plants, in pursuit of the Teller-Ulam Idea, a closely guarded "secret" of H-bomb design. Morland, a former Air Force pilot, found it egregious that such a secret still existed, providing a pretext for shutting off public access to information about nuclear weapons.
Knoll, formerly a reporter for The Washington Post, had seen often how government officials...