I confess that until I saw last week's Newsweek, i thought there was no point to the effort on the part of The Progressive magazine to publish Howard Morland's article on how to make an H-bomb. If the idea was to show that the secret is no secret, surely that could have been stated without providing a blueprint for the bomb. If the idea was to show that the world is in jeopardy, then publishing the article only makes it more so. If the idea was to test the First Amendment, there are less explosive tests. And if the idea was to tie us journalists in knots over the free speech issue, that is certainly no trick.
So I thought there was no point.
Then comes Newsweek and a "My Turn" essay by Mr. Morland, and it occurred I might have been missing the point entirely. For in that essay Mr. Morland makes a statement that places the importance of the issue on a different and thoroughly irresistible level-the level of pure mystery. His statement is this: "The case against publication is based on the proposition that national security would be compromised by revelation of a secret that can be expressed in a single sentence " (italics his).
A single sentence (italics mine). The man is telling us the secret of building an H-bomb resides in a mere few words. Suddenly no other consideration counts. He has proposed a tantalizing puzzle, like "Rosebud" in "Citizen Kane," or the riddle of the sphinx, or the cipher in Poe's "The Gold Bug." Moreover, he has done so like an expert tantalizer, mentioning as if off-hand that he "first heard that sentence" when giving a talk at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. At the end of his talk he asked a question about thermonuclear weapons: "In a single sentence, an anonymous student in the rear of the audience explained the concept that three Carter administration Cabinet officers now insist is a vital national secret."
That did it for me. Not only was it a single sentence; it was uttered by an anonymous student in Tuscaloosa. Could there be any doubt that Mr. Morland was casting the great American lure? Could there be any doubt that I, trout to the bone, would bite? Finally-and here I quivered with anticipation-could there be any better way for Mr. Morland to prove his case than to incorporate that tell-tale sentence within the very article in which he announced its existence? I was sure of it.
I began my hunt for The Sentence by underlining all the words and phrases in Mr. Morland's piece that: a) were unusual (rock, hornet's nest, cartoonists, living-room floor, buried in a rather large knapsack); b) sounded scientific (thermonuclear, mass); c) referred to numbers, such as might be used in a formula (30 years, 1961); and d) were boring (design, concept). The sentence I came up with was: "The concept of the design is to rock a mass of 1,961 thermonuclear cartoonists buried with a hornet's nest in a rather large knapsack for 30 years on the living-room floor." So I moved on.
Next I concluded that the answer had to lie, like the purloined letter, in the phrase itself-"in a single sentence." Reading it backwards accomplished little: "ecnetnes elgnis a ni." Could it be an anagram? Rearrange "in a single sentence," and you get "I sing a lenten scene" or "incense teasing Len," whoever Len might be. Driven to distraction, I even studied the single sentence in the ad for Wild Turkey bourbon directly under the Morland essay: "The wild turkey is an incredible bird, capable of outrunning a galloping horse in a short sprint." I realized I was losing my grip.
Perhaps there was no anonymous student, no single sentence. Perhaps there was no H-bomb. Weary, I began to slide into a doze, envisioning a riot of subjects, predicates, direct objects and indirect objects, subordinate clauses and insubordinate clauses-the pieces changing places like soldiers in a drill.
And then it hit me. If you took the second letter of the 15th word in Mr. Morland's essay, and the second letter of the 24th, and the sixth letter of the 47th, and then added the 17th and 18th words to what you had, there, clear as day, you not only would have the means for making an H-bomb, but also the point of this whole affair-and in a single sentence:
"Buy The Progressive."