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‘Counsel of despair’

In A-bomb aftermath, Clinton Lab managers were adamant on civilian control

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The papers of the late Ellison Taylor contained a copy of a letter to Sen. Brien McMahon, who chaired the special committee on atomic energy in 1946.
 
The papers of the late Ellison Taylor contained a copy of a letter to Sen. Brien McMahon, who chaired the special committee on atomic energy in 1946.
ORNL’s History Room has a standing invitation to retired or retiring Lab researchers: If you don’t have a home for your papers, the History Room volunteers will take a look at them.

Every once in a while a jewel turns up.

That’s what has happened in the case of the late Ellison Taylor, the Lab chemist and manager who died last year. A box of his papers contained a document that might have helped establish the cornerstone of how the United States manages its nuclear technology, including its arsenal.

It is a carbon copy, signed in ink by 15 Clinton Laboratories managers, of a 1946 letter to Sen. Brien McMahon urging that atomic energy development be placed under civilian control.

In fact, the tone of the letter suggests their experiences under military supervision for the preceding four years of the Manhattan Project left them with strong feelings— mostly negative—about the “Army way” and the prospect of a nuclear age under military control.

“The advocates of such a policy are doubtlessly motivated by the desire to safeguard the security of the nation. To us, who developed atomic energy, who worked under military rule, who have thought for years about this problem, it is all too clear that military control would achieve exactly the opposite—that it would increase immeasurably the very dangers that we wish to avoid,” says the letter, dated March 18, 1946.

A nationwide “scientists movement” sprang up in 1945 to address concerns that the then-War Department was attempting to codify its dominant role over nuclear R&D.

McMahon at the time was chairman of the senate’s special committee on atomic energy. He authored the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, also known as the McMahon Act. If the senator was trying to convince his colleagues about the wisdom of civilian control, the letter provided him with eloquent ammunition.

The letter also exhibits a sense of things to come, including the Cold War and the arms race:

“In the political field, any dominance by the army would announce to the world a lack of faith in a peaceful solution of the present world crisis. It would be considered as the opening gun for an atomic armamets race that can only end in disaster for civilization. (ital) We are not ready to accept this counsel of despair.”

The Clinton Laboratories managers (the Lab would take its current name a year later) gave the military credit for organizing the “gigantic industrial undertaking.” But they refuted the notion that only the military could safeguard the then-secret bomb technology, citing the “voluntary censorship” of researchers before the army became involved in atomic research.

They also faulted the Army for the compartmentalization of information, procrastination in transferring the technology to civilizian use and censorship by officials who had little grasp of facts or technology. It is plainly evident in the language of the letter that these gentlemen, along with others in the Manhattan Project, had gotten their bellies full of the military.

Ellison Taylor’s possession of the carbon copy, which bears the ink signatures of all 15 signers, either is evidence of his authorship or of his recognition of the document’s significance. Bonnie Nestor, who writes for the Lab director’s office, says that Taylor possessed an impeccable style of prose, as did his colleague Alvin Weinberg and, likely, others in this erudite group.

Taylor arrived at the future ORNL in 1945 from Columbia University and directed the Chemistry Division from 1954 to 1974, while still continuing research.

The letter’s Clinton Laboratories signatories, essentially the directors of the chemistry and physics divisions and section chiefs, are

  • L.W. Nordheim, director, Physics Division
  • J.H. Coe, director, Chemistry Division
  • H.S. Brown, assistant director, Chemistry Division
  • A. Longacre, assistant director, Physics Division,
  • K.Z. Morgan, section chief, Health Physics Section
  • P.S. Henshaw, group leader, Biological Section
  • J.H. Snell, section chief, Physics Division
  • E.O. Wollan, section chief, Physics Division
  • H.W. Newson, section chief, Physics Division
  • L.B. Borst, section chief, Physics Division
  • A.M. Weinberg, section chief, Physics Division
  • E.H. Taylor, assistant to the director, Chemistry Division
  • S.G. English, section chief, Chemistry Division
  • N. Elliott, section chief, Chemistry Division

The list reads like an honor roll of ORNL history. Nordheim and Coe were storied scientists and administrators. Morgan was a leader in health physics research. Wollan discovered neutron scattering at the Graphite Reactor with another researcher, Clifford Shull, who lived to receive the Nobel Prize. Weinberg, of course, directed ORNL for nearly 20 years and became an internationally renowned authority on science policy and administration, coining the term Big Science.

McMahon’s legislation as eventually passed lacked the Vandenberg Amendment opposed in the letter’s last paragraph. President Truman signed the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 on August 1. Clinton Laboratories shipped the first radioisotopes for medical use the very next day, on August 2.

But the arms race genie was already out of the bottle. In 10 years the Soviet Union was also a nuclear power and the Cold War was in full swing. Nevertheless, the nation’s nuclear arsenal remains under civilian control.

Ellison Taylor died in Oak Ridge on May 31, 2008, at age 94. His copy of the letter now resides in Lab Records.

If you have documents you would like the History Room crew to examine, contact Debbie Dickerson, 865.574.4160.

The text of the letter from Clinton Laboratories managers to Sen. Brien McMahon.

Oak Ridge, Tennessee
March 18, 1946

The Honorable Brien McMahon
The United States Senate
Washington, D.C.

Dear Senator McMahon:

The undersigned represent research men who still occupy key positions at the laboratories of the Manhattan District. We have experienced war and peace times on the atomic energy project and it is on us that a large share of the responsibility for continuation of atomic energy developments have been placed.

At this time when legislation on atomic energy is to be formulated by Congress, we are in conscience bound to bring into the open our fight against any attempts to reserve for the army a dominant role in the formulation of our national policies.

The advocates of such a policy are doubtlessly motivated by the desire to safeguard the security of our nation. To us, who developed atomic energy, who worked under military rule, who have thought for years about this problem, it is all too clear that military control would achieve exactly the opposite—that it would increase immeasurably the very dangers that we wish to avoid.

In the political field, any dominance by the army would announce to the world a lack of faith in a peaceful solution of the present world crisis. It would be considered as the opening gun for an atomic armaments race that can only end in disaster for civilization. We are not yet ready to accept this counsel of despair.

But even if we concede, which we emphatically do not, that security lies in more and better bombs, we insist that army control is not the method to preserve such superiority. The army has not invented the atomic bomb. Like all the great technical contributions of the war, its development has been due to the vision of civilian scientists whose persistence overcame the inertia of the military system. Any military control of science would inevitably mean the retardation of further progress both in peace time and war time applications. The disintegration of the famed Los Alamos Laboratory, according to General Groves’ own statement, constitutes sufficient indication of army failure to comprehend the essentials of successful research.

It has been argued that only the army can guard the “secret” of the atomic bomb. The completely successful voluntary censorship of the scientists at a time the army did not dream of atomic bombs demonstrates that military supervision is not a prerequisite for security of information where such security is needed.

The delays produced by the army system of compartmentalization, denying the research men on the atomic energy project access to facts that are necessary for their work, the procrastination in releasing results of highest value to the medical and biological sciences though these results are of no military importance, show that it is only detrimental to place the power of censorship into the hands of persons who are in no position to judge the facts.

During the war, the army alone had the power to commandeer the necessary resources and priorities for a gigantic industrial undertaking whose purpose could not be revealed. We recognize the great organizational feats that have been accomplished. However, this achievement in expediting successfully a definite assignment does not qualify the army for tasks that are not its proper function.

We urge that any legislation passed by congress for the control of atomic energy be based on the cardinal principle of final absolute civilian determination of national policy, as in all other fields of government. The military’s legitimate place should be maintained as the instrument of and advisor on but not as the maker of policy.

The Vandenberg amendment to the McMahon bill would create besides the civilian atomic energy commission a military board with an explicit directive to pass on (and to take initiative with regard to) any action, proposed action, or lack of action according to the boards own judgement, restricted only by final arbitration by the President. Such a measure will either result in dangerous confusion of authority or it will give the military board such influence over the decisions of the committee as is inconsistent with the foregoing principle. Therefore, we recommend that provision for the military liaison board be omitted from legislation passed for the control of atomic energy.