Oral History Transcript — Alexander Flax
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Interview with Alexander Flax
Alexander Flax; July 29, 1991
ABSTRACT: Interview primarily related to his involvement with JASON. Some other topics include: his work as a stress analyst with aircraft at Curtis Wright Corp. in early 1940s; work at Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory; his appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.
Aaserud:We're in Dr. Alexander Flax's office in the National Academy of Science in Washington on the 29th of July, 1991, and I am here to talk to you about most of all your experience with the JASON group, but I would like to introduce that discussion with some background on how you got into such questions and how it relates to your scientific engineering career in general terms now. So you got your first degree in engineering in 1940, is that correct?
Aaserud:And then you had a whole lot of work experience after that and you got your Ph.D. in 1958.
Aaserud:I don't know how relevant or not relevant that is. I'll leave it to you to talk about it.
Flax:Alright. I'll make this very brief, and you will have to ask me if you want elaboration.
When I graduated from my course in aeronautical engineering in 1940 of course the war in Europe had turned for the worse for the Allies, and it was the beginning of a big buildup in this country actually, and I went to work in June of 1940 on the day France fell as a matter of fact, and from that time onward I was just completely immersed in military aircraft for the war. And you might say that was my beginning as a weapons engineer. Before the end of the war, but through a period after the war, I entered the then new helicopter industry.
Helicopters had not played a great role in World War II but they were beginning to appear, and I was with the Piasecki Helicopter Company, which is now the division of Boeing that produces helicopters. We produced the first twin tandem and they are still operating that particular configuration, although it may be the last of the breed, but you noticed all the heavy lift in the Persian Gulf War was CH-47s which were Chinook.
Aaserud:But before that, from 1940 to 1944, it says here you were Stress Analyst at the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.
Flax:I did structural analysis work. I also did vibration analysis and design work for them.
Aaserud:And that was in connection with?
Flax:with aircraft. That was aircraft.
Aaserud:But in a civilian capacity.
Flax:I was a civilian. Although I was in the ROTC in schoolI was never commissioned and I never served in the armed services. Because all of the people who were early on in the aircraft industry essentially were exempted from the draft.
Aaserud:But you were expected to feed into the effort in other ways.
Flax:Yes, right. You were exempted just so long as you worked in the war effort.
Aaserud:Right. Which you did.
Flax:And so I had a good bit of experience with various types of military aircraft ranging from transports to C-46, which served in the war, the P-40, which was the earliest modern fighter that the U.S. had available. It really didn't get the next generation of Thunderbolts, Mustangs, etc., until two years later.
Aaserud:What it an interference in your career, as far as you judged then, or did it come naturally?
Flax:No, it was not particularly interference. Also I began my career as an educator, because I was drafted to teach courses for people we brought in to convert them to aeronautical engineering. We had people from other fields, and we also had people who had degrees in physics, chemistry, mathematics, and we tried to give them a series of intensive courses which would make them useful in the engineering officewhich was fairly successful. I also began my connection with a research organization, although I was never part of it. The Curtiss-Wright Corporation formed its research laboratory and its building was across the street, and many of our problems were carried out jointly with people in the laboratory. So I got that exposure as well. In fact I was assigned over there part-time for a period.
Aaserud:Was this in New York City?
Flax:No, this was in Buffalo, New York. That was the headquarters of the Airplane Division. The Engine Division of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation was down in New Jersey, close to New York City. And so, I got a very varied background in various types of aircraft, Naval dive bombers for example, the Hell-diver was a Curtiss design. And also the weapons that had to be carried on them and dropped from them, which were then mainly old iron bombs. And then after my period in helicopters I was invited to join the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory. That laboratory had been based on a gift to Cornell University of the Curtiss-Wright Laboratory in Buffalo, which had a wind tunnel and an altitude chamber and many useful facilities for aeronautical research. They got started the first of January, 1946 and I joined them in the fall of 1946 as I recall.
Aaserud:Right from the beginning?
Flax:Practically the beginning. And they were interested in all of my background because they were doing research on aircraft, and particularly were much interested in my background in helicopters which were then relatively new. They were doing some work in the field, but they had nobody who had ever actually worked on one in hardware, and seen what happened when you made it fly.
Aaserud:You might have known some of the people building up this place.
Flax:Oh, I knew all of them practically, from my wartime exposure, and they hadn't picked up many new people. They did later. And that was a very interesting institution. It was determined to branch out and apply aeronautical technologies to civilian fields. It was not always successful, but it was an effort, and one of the areas was automotive safety. You may notice if you see American TV ads that sometimes the car that's crashing, even the Volvo that's crashing, has got on the side a little block which has some numbers on it, but it says Calspan. Calspan is what Cornell Laboratory turned into when Cornell University sold it to Arvin Industries.
Aaserud:When was that?
They started trying to sell it back in 1967. Again, this was a product of the Vietnam War, the upheavals on the campus. There were a lot of lawsuits connected with it, and actually the sale did not take place until the 1970s. But anyway, they continued to do some of that work. The other interesting area was the application of aeronautical stability and control concepts to the automobile, and for that the group received the Gold Medal of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers in the U.K. Never recognized in this country. There was a lot of resistance in the automotive industry in our automotive industry to any ideas from the outside.
And safety was a forbidden subject. But that of course has all changed over time. Anyhow, that was one of the fields, but across the board we were working in radar, we were working in computers, we were working in guided weapons, particularly in the guided weapon program the Navy ran, which was coordinated by Johns Hopkins University, the Applied Physics Laboratory. It was called Bumblebee, and its aim was to build supersonic missiles based on ram jet propulsion.
It was later modified, but that was the original objective. So we were working on supersonic ram jets and supersonic test vehicles which were flown, and we had a very active and diverse program. In other words, I was being well prepared for a later role, in which the engineering of the aircraft was only a part of the weapons system problem. And I rose through the ranks. I first was an Assistant Department Head, then became a Department Head, then became an Assistant Director, then became Technical Director of the laboratory.
Aaserud:So you were involved in all these projects from an administrative perspective.
Aaserud:Probably from a technical perspective as well.
Flax:We never separated those quite as clearly as you sometimes see in industry. We didn't separate the administration of the project from its technical management, except for accounting. Somebody had to keep the books. But all other management, administrative and technical management, was combined.
Aaserud:Well, I am sorry to bring you back again, but just one question. You said that the war didn't disrupt your career plans necessarily, but it certainly was a great disruption. So I would ask you a little differently: What were your career plans before the war came?
Flax:I had planned to work in the aircraft industry for ten years or so before deciding whether I wanted to stay there or branch out or do something. I realize this is not a typical experience, and most people were displaced by the war, but I just happened to be in one industry where what you did in the war was not very different from what you did in peacetime.
Aaserud:It fit with your plans, to put it crudely.
Flax:I was one of those war beneficiaries you might say, even though that's a term of opprobrium in some quarters, but I couldn't help it; that's what happened. And so that while I was at the laboratory I began being involved in the advisory committees of the government, and that's how I met people in JASON and people other than the people in JASON people in the Defense establishment and so forth and I think that's what eventually led to my being appointed Assistant Secretary of the Air Force.
Aaserud:Well JASON wasn't established for a long time yet.
Flax:I said people who were later in JASON.
Flax:Right. People like Charles Townes, Murph Goldberger, John Wheeler, they were the early fathers of the JASONs.
Flax:And they came and talked to me. They told me what they were planning to do and how they were going about it and all of that, not so much because they sought my advice, but because they thought I would be interested.
Aaserud:So it was more a personal kind of—
Flax:It was a personal contact, although it was personal contact based on technical and scientific interests.
Aaserud:Do you remember any kind of specific meeting or some special kind of help you gave to these people at that time?
Flax:No, I don't think I did give them help. I just gave them some sympathetic encouragement, said I thought it was a good idea to involve some of these people. But the basic theory was we had come out of World War II with a large part of the science establishment in this country having served in places like the Radiation Laboratory or the Underwater Sound Laboratory or Los Alamos and the nuclear weapons program, and so these people were all very knowledgeable and could continue to render scientific advice. We were coming into a next generation which didn't have that background.
Aaserud:Yes, already then, and then of course Sputnik put a special emphasis on that problem.
Flax:No doubt if Sputnik hadn't happened we probably wouldn't have gone ahead and formed the JASONs in that particular way at that particular time. When I say "we" it's the, you know, collective, we the United States. It was a good time for forming new scientific institutions in this country.
Aaserud:And you may not have changed positions either.
Flax:I might not have, that's right.
Aaserud:We have talked about the span from 1946 until 1959 now. It's a period of ten years during which you rose in the ranks at the Cornell Aeronautics Lab.
Flax:Well actually you have to include two more years, because I went to the Air Force first as Chief Scientist, which is a rotating position of one- or two-year duration, and I stayed 18 months. Then I went back to the lab for two years. So I didn't actually leave until 1963 to become Assistant Secretary.
Aaserud:That's right. I didn't read the next line. I stand corrected. But the job as chief scientist, even if it was temporary and for two years, to what extent did it constitute a change in your career and outlook?
Oh, it was a big change. I mean, serving on advisory committees is one thing, and actually being involved in government affairs was another. Well, to give you one example, most people will give you a different story of how permissive action links came to be put on nuclear weapons. They will tell you the services were all dragged in kicking and screaming. In fact, after the uprising in Turkey in May, 1960, I was appointed with Joe Charyk, who was Assistant Secretary, and believe it or not, General LeMay, who was the Vice Chief of Staff.
We were the committee for the Air Force to study the implications, because we knew that those weapons had not been under our control had the local revolutionaries chosen to grab them. And so we came back with the suggestion, recommendation, that the overseas weapons be put under this kind of control. Later, almost parallel with it but several months later, that became a national policy instead of just something the Air Force wanted to do.
But we were particularly vulnerable because we did not have large troop concentrations with our weapons. The Army did. When we put somebody at an air base in Turkey, they were not protected by other than the local troops and police.
Aaserud:Could you describe perhaps a little bit the job of Chief Scientist at the U.S. Department of Air Force? How long had that job been in existence, for example?
Flax:It had been existence since about 1950, and previous incumbents had been Louis Ridenour, who was a strong force in the Radiation Lab in World War II, and Ivan Getting, who later became the President of the Aerospace Corporation he was then at Raytheon and Guy Stever, Courtland Perkins, Joe Charyk. Quite a distinguished group of people at that time.
Aaserud:But serving by intent for one to two years at a time.
Flax:For a very short period. Yes. And most of them came from academic or nonprofit institutions. And the job, as you asked, really was a job which the incumbent helped create. One of the things that I was told early on by Thomas White, who was the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and he was nominally my boss, although I had several others, but he said, "Well, you have a hunting license. You can go find out anything that's going on not subject to maybe some special classification, and if you run into that problem you will have to come talk to me. But other than that, if you see anything that needs improvement or could be done better or it's a field for innovation, that's what I want you to look into."
Aaserud:You must have had some degree of classification.
Flax:Oh yes. I had a fairly high level. But there always is some level beyond what you have, as I found out, even when I was Assistant Secretary.
Aaserud:Who did you talk to? Well, you had a staff, I suppose.
No, I had one military assistant and a secretary. That was my entire staff. Then, of course I had a special relationship with the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, because I was ex-officio on the steering committee and the executive committee of that group, which decided what the scope of their tasks should be and how they should go about it and who the members should be, and things of that nature.
So, there is no dearth of activity that a Chief Scientist can engage in, but I did get these special assignments. One of them was on the Bowmarc missile, which was having terrible trouble in flight tests. That was the first ram jet propelled missile the Air Force had and also the first one which had a "modern" "modern" in quotes pulse Doppler radar, which was capable of looking down at the terrain. And so I learned quite a lot from that, and I think I helped them get out of the woods, but also I had to appear for the first time in a congressional hearing. That was a novel experience for me.
Aaserud:Did they treat you kindly?
Aaserud:What was that in connection with?
Flax:Bomarc. That was the Bomarc problem.
Aaserud:The same thing, yes.
Flax:And I also got involved with some of the safeguards that we had on aircraft beyond the permissive action links for assuring that nuclear weapons were not inadvertently dropped or detonated because we found a number of flaws. I actually disassembled some of the mechanical equipment, and after I did it, somebody told me, "Well you just spent $10,000, because the certification procedure for that particular bomb release device requires that it go back to the factory." I said, "I can reassemble it for you right here," but they said, "No, you can't." But anyway, I learned quite a lot from that, and I made some suggestions in the area, and that's the way it went. As things came up, there were some things that were troubleshooting, there were some things that were longer ranger planning, in a ballistic missile program, such as penetration aids, that fell in the category of longer range planning.
Aaserud:So a little policy and a little technical.
Flax:Yes, right. It was a good bridging operation for me.
Aaserud:So who did you have most contact with? You had contact with the service laboratories probably.
Flax:With the laboratories, yes, with the product divisions, which actually administered the contracts for things like Minuteman and Atlas and the F-111 airplane and things of that nature.
Aaserud:How was the response to a civilian engineer like that?
Flax:Well, there are a lot of civilian engineers in the Air Force, and this one had a particular amount of clout, so you know, I always got deferential treatment. But whether my ideas and recommendations got the same sort of treatment, that was another matter. That was a mixed bag. In some quarters it was welcomed, in other quarters it was resisted, but that's not unusual. That happens all the time in government affairs.
Aaserud:Were you able to follow up your recommendations to see whether they were acted on?
Flax:In some cases, yes. And in some cases I didn't see them again until after I returned two years later.
Aaserud:So, is there any recommendation that you are particularly proud of or that you would like to mention in particular, to talk about?
Well, one of the interesting things that I got started on, I already knew, but I discovered that very little progress had been made, that in dropping conventional weapons there was tremendous inaccuracy. I had learned this of course during World War II in many ways. It was brought home to me on my wedding trip down into Italy in 1951. I found that the bombed out areas around the bridge heads were still bombed out, and it had a radius of about 2,000 feet. So I began nudging people there to do more work on precision guided weapons. And I don't know that I could point to anything specially, but the Air Force did mount some efforts.
They had dropped out of the conventional weapons business, and became almost solely focused on nuclear weapons in the mid-1950s, during the era of massive retaliation. Remember that was U.S. policy, declaratory policy at least. And they started getting back into it, but not with great enthusiasm, and I think I helped urge them on and helped initiate a few projects that didn't reach fruition until after I came back as Assistant Secretary. One of them was the precursor of the Maverick missile, which is an electro-optical anti-tank weapon.
And that was one area, and there was another where I felt we needed to exert more effort, particularly since NASA was pulling out. Well see, we previously had the old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, where the central focus was aeronautical research. That became the National Aeronautics and Space Agency, and it became clear early on that they were gonna concentrate most of their efforts, especially early on, on the space side.
Aaserud:And that happened precisely when you were in this job.
Flax:Yes. And so I felt we had to fill the gap in some basic aeronautical technology particularly in engines. And I helped push that, and continued to push that after I became Assistant Secretary. And I think that was probably the most important precursor of some of the later aircraft that came out, both military and civilian. The high-bypass engine that made the wide body jets possible were originally the result of a whole series of developments to raise the turbine inlet temperatures from about, when it started, about 1800, and maybe as high as 2000, to 2500. And in the earliest implementations it was maybe only 2350, but it's gotten up to 2500. Now there are new research programs to go beyond that, but that was the big step which made the high bypass engine possible.
Aaserud:And this was the time too of course of trying to coordinate the scientific work and development work of the different services, through ARPA and such things.
Flax:Yes, yes. Well, that was the time when the Director of Defense Research and Engineering Office was created. Herb York was its first incumbent. And I knew Herb , and I had a lot of communication with Herb informally.
Aaserud:Even from before your appointment?
Flax:Yes. We have always had a very cordial relationship. We still have it.
Aaserud:But you were caught a little perhaps. Did you feel that you were caught between the Air Force and the coordination effort?
Oh yes. It was a traumatic experience for the Air Force. They had pretty much been allowed to run free in weapons development before, and now there was somebody always overseeing what they did. Now, Herb York originally did not apply a heavy hand to everything. He really looked for those areas where interservice coordination was very important ballistic and submarine-launched missiles, for example, or the Army's programs with Jupiter and the Air Force's program with Thor and Atlas.
Things of that nature. I think even the Air Force would grudgingly admit that some higher authority was really necessary. On the other hand, he originally did not meddle very much in airplanes or engines. But gradually, as he built up his organization, he built a bureaucracy which was knowledgeable in all of these areas. So with the passing of time, there was more and more oversight of the entire research and development program.
Aaserud:Did you report to him in some sense?
Flax:No, in no sense did I ever report to him. We had lots of lateral relations, but no direct line reporting.
Aaserud:So in that sense you were independent.
Flax:I was clearly an agent of the Air Force itself, not of the Defense Department. By the time you get to be a Presidential appointee, that line is no longer so clear. That is, an Assistant Secretary is appointed with the consent of the President and with the Senate and all of that, and the legislation on the Air Force make it perfectly clear that it is a part of the Department of Defense, lock, stock and barrel.
Aaserud:Was there any line of contact in that way?
Flax:Not while I was Chief Scientist, but of course after, as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force. For example, John Foster, who by then in 1965, became the DDR&E, and that's about the time these JASON recommendations on the barrier were being implemented, formed a committee which had on it the senior military and civilian R&D people from each service and from DARPA, ARPA at that time, and we all sat around and said, "How are we best going to accomplish this?" without regard to service.
Aaserud:But that was the first time in fact that you got together on a formal basis like that.
Flax:Harold Brown, when he was the DDR&E succeeding Herb York used to hold luncheons regularly once a week and bring the service Assistant Secretaries and some people from his office, and occasionally somebody from the White House Science Advisors Office, and we would all sit around and discuss mutual problems. Very informal, no records kept of what went on, but it was very useful. And there again, that's one of the forums in which I would hear of what the JASONs were doing.
Aaserud:I see. From whom, then?
Flax:Well, from either Harold Brown or from one of the people from ARPA, Charlie Herzfeld or somebody, whoever was the DDR&E at that time. We went through several.
Aaserud:So it was broad ranging discussions taking place.
Flax:Yes. So, for example, all of those people knew what the JASONs were studying, why they were studying it, that is was going to be briefed to McNamara, and so forth.
Aaserud:Well was it the barrier question especially? I guess under Brown there must have been other questions.
Flax:They discussed almost anything that came up. I'm just saying that the barrier being something so big and having such broad implications came up for more than the usual amount of discussion.
Aaserud:Of course, of course. But what I'm getting at is that this implies that the JASON work, or much of the JASON work, or JASON work other than the barrier work, was seen as important enough to be discussed.
Flax:Occasionally. I mean, I couldn't tell you exactly what they were doing at that time, because my recollection isn't that good. I was hearing about it in too many different contexts. But I know that we occasionally discussed some JASON finding or recommendation bearing on one of the programs.
Aaserud:I think I should turn the tape.
Aaserud:So that was your two years as Chief Scientist. Well, we jumped ahead a little bit.
Flax:Yes. It's difficult to keep this in exact chronological sequence, because subjects flow from one era to another.
Aaserud:No, we shouldn't feel forced to do that I don't think, and I'll take you back and forth too, so that's fine. But at any rate from 1959 to 1961 you were the Chief Scientist of the U.S. Department of the Air Force, and that was a full-time thing of course.
Flax:Oh yes. However it was not until I became that I had to sell all my stock, because I had procurement responsibility. So, as a result of my work in the helicopter industry pioneering the tandem I had acquired stock which had been converted as the company grew and was sold and taken over, and by that time it was Boeing stock. Well, I couldn't hold Boeing stock and be Assistant Secretary.
Aaserud:Or Chief Scientist, yes.
Flax:Well as Chief Scientist I just signed a waiver form. Because I didn't have any power to grant contracts, and I agreed not to say anything favorable about Boeing, in any context whatever that might come up.
Aaserud:Did you have any contact with the establishment of the JASON group? Were you aware of the establishment of it?
Flax:As I said, I knew about it vaguely, from talking to people like Charles Townes, but I was not in contact with IDA at the time it was being established, although I knew Jack Ruina. I don't remember if his tenure at IDA extended over that period. No, I think Maxwell Taylor must have been there by then. No, no, it wasn't even Ruina. Who was it? Who was the IDA person at that time?
Flax:I should remember, but I don't.
Aaserud:Well Garry Norton was the president.
Flax:Garry Norton. Yeah, okay. I knew Garry, but not that well.
Aaserud:He was a Navy person.
Flax:Yes. He had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy in an earlier era than mine. I came to know him better later, but I didn't know him very well at that time.
Aaserud:Well, Charles Townes was the Chief Scientist of IDA.
Flax:And I knew Charles Townes of course, and talked to him regularly. In fact, when I got to IDA I found a letter that I wrote to him. He wanted to borrow some personnel from Cornell Laboratory, and I wrote to him when I was still at Cornell, just before I came down to Washington in 1959.
Aaserud:Well I think it was McCormack who was the director until Norton took over in 1957 I believe. And Albert Hill was the Chief Scientist in 1958.
Flax:Right. I remember Al Hill, and I knew him from other connections, not IDA.
Aaserud:Well, I will talk to him in Cambridge in a few days actually. During this time as Chief Scientist you were on a leave of absence from Cornell?
Flax:Yes, yes. And again, that was possible in the Chief Scientist position. It was not possible in the Assistant Secretary position.
Aaserud:Okay, so you expected all the time to go back.
Flax:Yes, yes, and I did go back.
Aaserud:You saw this as just a little small chapter.
Flax:Yes. It was the nature of the position that it was set up to accommodate people for a year or two.
Aaserud:Did I ask you how you came to take the position, how you were offered it?
Flax:How I was offered it. I am trying to remember. It was my immediate predecessor Joe Charyk I think. He was going to be moved to be Assistant Secretary right away. He'd only served four or five months. And he called me. Of course I'd had prior contacts with him for many years. And I guess they had had an informal poll of the former Chief Scientists as to who should be the next one, and that's how they decided to ask me. Obviously they asked the Chief of Staff and the Assistant Secretary for R&D first, but that was their recommendation, and I was offered the position.
Aaserud:And you said yes please, yes thank you, right away?
Flax:Well, I said, "Let me think about it. I have to consult with my wife. It's a kind of disruption of our day-to-day existence." And I talked to her, and we had a young child who was not yet in school but would no, she was in school, that's right. She was let's see, I'm trying to remember. She was in some sort of a pre-kindergarten school at the time.
Flax:No no. In Buffalo. Remember the laboratory is in Buffalo. No, my only connection with Ithaca was just after the war when they were starting their aeronautics department, and I went up there at the request of Bill Sears, who was the department head. He was short of faculty in many areas, and so I would go up there once a week and teach a course.
Aaserud:So that the Cornell facility was in Buffalo.
Flax:The Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory was in Buffalo.
Aaserud:We'll have to get that clear. And it was also during this period in fact, or just before you became Chief Scientist, that you got your Ph.D.
Flax:It was just before. That's an interesting thing, because when I realized I was interested in staying at the lab and that the spectrum of activity at the lab was so broad I felt that I certainly didn't want to pursue any more specialized aeronautical education. In fact in all modesty I think I had educated myself up to the Ph.D. level in aeronautics without ever having had any formal opportunity to go beyond my elementary training. But then I decided I had to broaden out, and so I decided to go back and get my degree in physics which would cover a broader spectrum of the activity. And I think that was the right decision, looking by hindsight.
Aaserud:What kind of work did you do for your Ph.D. then?
Flax:I did nuclear particle scattering studies and methodologies for low-energy physics. At that time there was a great deal of interest in low-energy scattering. I don't know quite that that maintains to this day, but I was always racing, because somebody would publish what I was working on before I got there. It was a very active field at the time.
Aaserud:Who were you working with, or under?
Flax:Up at the University of Buffalo, not Cornell although I did receive credit for some courses that Cornell gave in Buffalo. And I even received credit for some mathematics courses that I took back in New York. But I was working with Professors Kerner and Mrorzowski. Kerner was a theoretician and Mrorzowski was an experimentalist, and you know, they both had something to contribute to this thing, because this was still very much an area where the definitive experiments were still being done as well, particularly in nuclear particles.
Aaserud:And the institution was the University of Buffalo?
Aaserud:So you received your Ph.D. while working at the lab.
Flax:Well, I took a year off. I did take most of the course work and began my thesis work working weekends and things like that, and when I felt I was within one year of it and had my professors' acquiescence that I probably was, no promises, then I took a year off.
Aaserud:Was that something you were encouraged to do by the Cornell facility?
Flax:Well, no, they had mixed feelings about it, but, you know they said, "Really, if that's what you want to do, we want to keep you here, and so go do it."
Aaserud:So it was your decision, it was your initiative, it was you who wanted to do it.
Aaserud:Good. It was not much connected with your work at the laboratory.
Flax:Well, yes and no. It was not connected with my own immediate past areas of expertise. But of course as I began working in solid-state physics, taking at least the course work I didn't do my thesis in that area and in electromagnetic theory, quantum mechanics, and all of those, obviously that had some relevance to everything else that was going on in the lab. Because we were doing a lot of work in electronics and radar and things of that nature. So it was a learning process.
Aaserud:It had implications both ways.
Flax:But I avoided like the plague anything to do with fluid mechanics or acro dynamics or elasticity or things that I already felt were behind me.
Aaserud:That you knew. After your tenure as Chief Scientist of the Air Force, you went back to Cornell and became the Vice President.
Flax:It was organized as a separate corporation, wholly owned by Cornell University, and President of the lab was Ira Ross. He was nearing retirement age, and this was a clear kind of signal that I was expected to succeed him, and this was a step along the way. And when I went to become Assistant Secretary, of course we couldn't make a commitment on either side, but they said we hope you will come back here as the first thing and see if we have a job for you.
Aaserud:They had. So you were there for two more years.
Aaserud:Is there anything in particular you'd like to say about that?
Flax:Well, that was a continuation of what had gone before, and the lab was a place where innovation was rampant. I mean, for example, the first of what would now be called neural network computers was being worked on there.
Aaserud:At that time.
Flax:A fellow named Frank Rosenblat, who was in the Psychology department at the university, had this idea in the 1950s.
Aaserud:At Cornell University?
Flax:At Cornell University. And he couldn't get anybody to work on it at the university with him, and he couldn't get any money. He came to see us, and we said, "Well, that sounds interesting. We'll give it some thought." And we finally decided it was something we wanted to branch out into, something beyond the current generation of computers. Well, we were only 30 years too early, but it gave you a feeling for the nature of the place.
Aaserud:Where did the support for the work come from?
Flax:It came from our own funds. We actually had some limited funds of our own. We received a few percent of fee, but not being a university but a separate organization responsible for our own financial stability, we got the typical fee of a nonprofit corporation from the government, which is a few percent. And we hoarded that, and we would occasionally embark on something that nobody was willing to sponsor, and this was one of them.
Aaserud:So you were not dependent on any agency or anything else?
Flax:No, no. We didn't have to get approval. Now, usually if we started something on our own and it looked good, we would rush out and try to get somebody to fund the rest of it, because we didn't have that much money of our own.
Aaserud:But you had the opportunity to start.
Aaserud:Well that's important. So that was two years, and then in 1963 you were asked to become the Assistant Secretary for Research and Development for the U.S. Department
Flax:Of the Air Force. Yeah, which is called a military department, not a cabinet department, because when the Defense Department was put together they distinguished between the Department of Defense, which was a cabinet department, and the Department of Air Force, which they called a military department. However, I was a Level 4, just like Assistant Secretaries of the Department of Defense. So the ranks were exactly equivalent.
Aaserud:So what were the circumstances for your being offered that position?
Flax:Well, no doubt the fact that I already had a great deal of the experience that was useful. It was not uncommon for Chief Scientists to become Assistant Secretary. It wasn't automatic, and certainly hasn't been since then, but as a matter of fact the current incumbent served as Chief Scientist. But before me Joe Charyk and Courtland Perkins had followed this track, so it was not unusual that I should have been considered. It certainly was good preparation for the job.
Aaserud:When was this job established, do you know?
Flax:You have me there. I think it was established in the 1950s, but I don't know the exact date.
Aaserud:And it has existed since then.
Flax:It has expanded in scope since then. But everything that I had is folded into the present job. It is now the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, and he has more responsibility for procurement policies than I had. That was split, and most of the procurement policy responsibility was in another Assistant Secretary for Installations and Logistics.
Aaserud:Who hires you in that? Is it the Air Force?
Well, nominally it is the Secretary of Defense, but I had to go clear myself through the White House. I mean, the President had a director of political appointments, presidential appointments. You have to realize at that time there are many more today there were only about 300 presidential appointees in the government. So every President wants to get the best possible people, but he also wants to get as much political mileage out of it as he can. So after I was selected, I was asked by the President's director of that office of appointments, who was named Ralph Dungen this was President Kennedy, and he was one of the Boston Mafia, Irish Mafia from Boston to come in and he probed me as to how much I had been involved in Democratic political activity and whether I knew the local Democratic Party head. As it turned out, I vaguely knew him, but not really, and he asked me if I would mind going and talking to him.
I said, "Yes, but I don't think I have much to say to him. I am not really involved in local political activity." But he said, "Well, you go talk to him." And really all he wanted, as far as I could tell, was, this was a kind of a courtesy, since I was from that area, to make the local political leader of the Democratic Party feel that he had been introduced to the person and could say that he had the opportunity to look at him before the appointment was made. But near as I could tell, it had no effect. McNamara was the ultimate arbiter of the people who were appointed to serve under him.
Aaserud:It wasn't much substance to your discussion, in other words.
Aaserud:So how does that position compare to the Chief Scientist position?
Flax:Well, it's very different. That is a line position where you have the political and legal responsibilities for programs amounting to billions of dollars. So I took it very seriously. Of course, as I had been used, I used the Chief Scientist to help. Whenever I saw a problem area where he could pitch in, I would ask him.
Aaserud:And that again was a temporary thing of course. That was under the Administration, under the Kennedy Administration.
Flax:I got there in May, and Kennedy was assassinated in November.
Aaserud:The same year, yes.
Flax:I was not actually confirmed, because there was a filibuster in the Senate that summer over something in civil rights, and I was not actually confirmed until mid-July. Before then I was acting as a consultant. I was there, I sat in my office, but anything that required approval or action, I would have to make a recommendation to my predecessor, who by that time had moved up to become Undersecretary of the Air Force. Fortunately he was still there. He knew all the workings of the office. He didn't have time to go into detail, so he accepted in most cases what I told him, but he was the one who had the authority to do anything.
Aaserud:So he was the Undersecretary for the Air Force.
Flax:Right. Which was the number two position under the secretary. We only had one Undersecretary at that time.
Aaserud:So you were the one who took care of research and development.
Flax:Yes. We had four Assistant Secretaries and one Undersecretary financial Management, Installations and Logistics, Manpower and Personnel, and Research and Development.
Aaserud:What was the main tasks and accomplishments in that job?
Well, I had to cover a tremendous range of things. Most of them are still out there. I mean, the satellites that looked down and saw the Scud missiles being launched from Iraq are still numbered among those I procured during that period. They lasted a terribly long time, not anticipated, so that the last of them is actually still up there. The F-15 Fighter, the C-5 Transport, F-111s although that was very controversial, but the contract award took place before I got there, between the time I was Chief Scientist and the time I was Assistant Secretary.
But I had to try to help straighten it all out, and it was a mess. And then all the guided weapons, the laser guided bomb, that was really something that I intervened in very heavily, because it was encountering a lot of resistance from the uniformed military. They didn't understand how a laser worked, and they didn't understand how you could keep a spot on the target and all of that. So they were very wary of it.
Aaserud:Yeah, that's where communication problems between scientists and military people come up.
Flax:Right, right. And again, essentially what you saw in the Persian Gulf War was what was developed then, with minor improvements. All weapons undergo what the Japanese call "continuous improvement." It's frowned on by the Congress, because they say, "You guys are always puttering around with these things. They never work right the first time." Well, that's true.
Aaserud:It's no surprise. And you continued to have some contact with the JASON people, and probably with JASON projects also.
Flax:Well, they still invite me to their annual get togethers and things like that, but no, I don't have any direct relation to their projects. I do see their people still.
Aaserud:No, but I mean at that time, at that time?
Flax:Oh, at that time? Yeah, oh, of course, yes.
Aaserud:I mean that was when the committee was established.
Flax:Right. The committee to oversee the barrier R&D, which was under Johnny Foster, was established in, well, sometime in 1965, 1966 the dates are hazy. Do you know when the study was completed? Do you have the date when this? I don't remember it.
Aaserud:Well, was it in 1967?
Flax:I think it was 1966, 1967.
Aaserud:Yeah. I think it was 1967.
Flax:We obviously didn't form that committee until after that. But, you know, again, we had contacts with people in ARPA and heard about what was going on from time to time. But if you asked me to make a list of the projects that the JASONs were working on in that era, I'd be hard pressed to do it.
Aaserud:Well I know that in addition to being involved in the Vietnam barrier study, JASON gradually also worked more and more on Navy projects, such as ASW.
Flax:Yes. They were moving more strongly into Navy projects at that time, but I think the overwhelming preponderance of work for the Navy didn't occur until much later. There was one particular person that I trace it to and not all of the JASONs might agree with this but there was a David Mann who worked in ARPA and then eventually became Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and he was sort of the moving spirit in bringing JASON more and more in my perception, which was very much second or third hand into Navy problems. And of course, by the time I became President of IDA, the JASON tenure there was very, very short. But I thought I detected that same thread.
Aaserud:Well, in one sense that may be good, because at least we can time the experience that you had with them. I mean, if it's a short period we can be pretty sure that we are talking about one particular period. David Mann is still around?
Flax:Oh, he's around town somewhere. He has a little private consulting organization, and we exchange Christmas cards, but I haven't seen him in quite a long time.
Aaserud:Was he close enough to JASON that he would be a good person to talk to?
Flax:Yes. I would talk to him if I were you. He must be listed in the phone book, and if not, my wife has on our Christmas card list his address. The thing is, I don't know what the name of his company is, whether it's David Mann Associates or some less informative name. It's probably in northern Virginia or District of Columbia rather than Maryland. You know, you have to search three sets of phone books here.
Aaserud:Exactly. Well, I'll do that. I have such limited time here anyway. I should probably try to write him from Copenhagen. So there was no specific involvement with JASON as a group that you had during your period as Assistant Secretary.
That's right. Except toward the end, whenever it was that we implemented the DCPG, and John Foster created this regular, formal set of meetings to implement the needs. And then of course we became, all the services became, very directly involved supplying the particular equipment that was called for. In our case it was the ARN-101 Loran D Bombing Computer System. Because they called for these packages to be delivered very accurately. Almost everything that could be put together to fulfill the JASON needs already existed. You know, because of the time frame we couldn't start afresh and develop anything, but these things were in various stages of development. In some cases they were pretty far along, but the services had not been enthusiastic about buying them.
They were sort of laboratory on the shelf kinds of things. And what we did in the whole operation of supporting DCPG was to try to put these things on a schedule that brought them in at the times they were needed to work together. And we did that. Then of course other weapons were integrated into the operation of the barrier. For example, the Air Force had its gun ships. And the first generation were in old C-47s, DC-3 transports. And then we went to the AC-130s, more modern versions, you know.
They had infrared detectors so they could work at night, and they had not what we would call good computers today, but rudimentary computers, so that you could do a firing pattern solution, leave a place and come back to it fairly accurately, and things of that nature. Those all had to be integrated into the operation of the barrier, because of course the barrier only detected that something was there.
And then you had to do something about it. We had a special squadron of F-4s, for example, that were equipped with the ARAN-101 bombing computers that were used to deliver these sensor packages. And then they would be able to record fairly accurately, within a few hundred feet certainly, where they were.
Aaserud:So this was a collaboration between the services under the Defense Department?
Flax:Under the direction of the Secretary of Defense.
Aaserud:Yes. And JASON fed into all of that?
By that time, see, JASON was very much sort of in an overview position rather than trying to follow the detailed implementation, because that was all taking place in Vietnam. And we here in Washington were trying to bridge the ditches between what was going on in the laboratories and what was needed in the field. The Navy was of course a very strong player in that, because the acoustic sensors were Naval sensors.
And, you know, since they routinely used those in ASW, this was a different application that had its own problems. I actually went out there to the control center in Thailand spent a whole night there listening and watching what was happening, and it was very confusing. I must say that. You will probably never get a definitive evaluation of how well the barrier worked or didn't work. We would be picking up all these things, and I actually was tuned in and listening to the sensors picking up lots of explosions. The only problem was, in some cases the explosions were occurring in places we weren't attacking.
Aaserud:But JASON did not take part in that part of the work, I mean going on site.
Flax:No. They did not. No, that was strictly for military and government people. I mean, when I went over there I had to have an equivalent rank card that said, "If captured, this guy has to be treated like a 4-star General."
Aaserud:Well, the JASONs didn't get that I'm sure.
Flax:The government was not at all and still isn't anxious to put non-government civilians into that position, although in fact they did it all the time with contractors. You would contract with somebody to build a bridge or an air field or something like that, and they were there, in the war zone. But they figured well, losing a bulldozer operator was not as severe as losing an eminent professor of physics from the University of California.
Aaserud:It would probably reach the headlines more easily too. We're out of tape again.
Aaserud:So in the last phase of your tenure as Assistant Secretary, you participated in discussions in groups in which JASON participated, or at least certain members of JASON.
Flax:Well, I only heard secondhand about what JASON was doing. No JASON ever appeared in these groups.
Aaserud:Oh! Even with the barrier.
Even with the barrier. Not the groups I was in. I knew that the JASONs had had a very high level meeting with the Secretary of Defense to persuade him that this was the right thing to do. But once it was decided to do it, most of the action passed into the government and did not heavily involve outside advisors. Now they remained very strong advocates and critics of the way it was being implemented. I am sure if you talk to the JASONs they will tell you that nobody ever did exactly what they told them to do. Partly that was because the means to do it did not exist.
I mean it was all very well to postulate that certain types of equipment could be put out there, and some of the JASONs, particularly, my good friend Dick Garwin who worked then and works now for IBM, used to tell me how we ought to put things out there in nine months. And I said, "Dick, I don't know how to put anything out there in nine months if I haven't already got it on the shelf. It's just in the nature of things that American government policies, procedures, and its relations with industry are such that we can cobble something up in nine months if we have to do it two at a time or something.
Tell me to equip one airplane, I'll do that in the skunkworks. But if you want widespread deployment, we can't do it in that time period. We have to use the equipment we have." Well, this was a perennial battle, which still goes on to this day with Dick Garwin. But you can say that in the best of all possible worlds that's the way it ought to be. Well, I could do this thing with highly classified programs, as in some of the reconnaissance programs, and I had to make a major change of equipment. That could be done in three or four months, but it was only on two particular vehicles.
Aaserud:That's another problem of communication. So that you took part at a somewhat later stage.
Flax:I heard from Garwin all the time. I used to communicate, correspond, in fact I even picked up a minor mathematical error in one of his papers it made me feel good that I wasn't a total bureaucrat and administrator. I could still read the paper and find that he should have had three halves instead of one half.
Aaserud:He probably appreciated that too.
Flax:But, as I say, I had this sort of communication. I had communication with Murph Goldberger about all sorts of things, including the fact that his brother had been drafted and was serving in the Air Force, and so on.
Aaserud:But not in a JASON capacity as such.
Flax:Not in the capacity of their relaying to me JASON results except perhaps incidentally, and I don't even remember that.
Aaserud:By this time you have left Cornell, I mean the Buffalo aeronautics lab in Cornell because you had to.
Yeah, that's right. And I'm simply down there as Assistant Secretary. I served to the end of Johnson's first term. We pro forma have to put in a letter of resignation, which the President can accept or not. But he didn't accept it, so I continued to serve, actually into the first three months of the Nixon Administration. Because Mel Laird, who had been on the Defense Appropriations Committees, knew many of us from hearings, and he decided he didn't want to disrupt the R&D, that they were good people in the R&D jobs.
So he was going to be the next Secretary of Defense in the Nixon Administration, and he sent one of his fellow congressmen and I've forgotten the man's name, he died, he was a very nice fellow, I knew him too very well to talk to three of us: Bob Frosch, who was by then the Assistant Secretary of the Navy for R&D, myself, and John Foster. And he said he wanted us to stay. I said that I would stay long enough for him to feel comfortable with a successor, but I had already been there longer than any of the others, six years, and I thought it was time for change both for me and for the Air Force. So that was agreed upon, and I did actually stay three months into the Nixon Administration and helped transition the new person into the job. Foster and Frosch did stay for a much longer period.
Aaserud:But they had come in later.
Flax:Yes, they had come in later.
Aaserud:So you actually stayed there for ?
Aaserud:Three months into the Nixon Administration.
Aaserud:So that you left in 1969. And, well, how did the question of your ?
Flax:Going to IDA?
Aaserud:How did you handle the continuation? I mean, was that something that was offered to you while you were still Assistant Secretary?
Yes, it was. As Assistant Secretary of the Air Force I had nothing whatever to do with the IDA contracts. That's what made it possible. I couldn't give them work; I was forbidden actually to give them work. They were strictly to work for DoD at that time. That was modified later, but that's the way it stood at that time. And, it was very interesting. I had some of the people on my staff who had found that there were a great many good technical experts on the IDA staff who could give them independent judgments about things. And so they began bringing them in when we had issues.
And so I knew some people at IDA already. And as I say, I knew Jack Ruina, who by then had been President of IDA. So I had had some contact, but it was not any official government contract or relationship. And Maxwell Taylor was then the President, and he had decided he wanted to retire. He'd been there almost three years. And, as I remember, he called me one day and asked if I would be interested, and I said, "Well, I have a number of other possibilities that I am working on at the moment, but I am certainly interested. I'd be glad to hear what's involved and what they have in mind." I didn't know whether they would talk about.
Aaserud:What were the other possibilities?
Well, there were some in industry, and even one to become a Vice-President of the Association of American Railroads, believe it or not. They wanted to get into modern technology, and they have been doing that, as a matter of fact. And they wanted somebody from some of the more frontier sectors of industry, and also had some background with government research programs because they hoped to involve the government in some of their research programs as well, which they have done. That was one. The industrial connection with Martin Marietta was one.
That was perhaps the most definite. There were some feelers out from three or four others. I had to be very wary, I felt, because many of these organizations had received contracts that I had been responsible for, and the last thing I wanted was any situation where it looked as though I had awarded them a contract with the purpose of going there and working. But I had legal counsel there, and they advised me on how to handle it, and what restrictions would have to apply. So it was not impossible, others had done it. I was a little wary though. And oh, the other job that was being offered me was to come back and take over Cornell Laboratory, because legal impediments had preventing them from selling it. They were still trying to sell it, but they hadn't sold it.
So the university was still responsible for it, and the chairman of the board of trustees of the university came down and tried to persuade me to go back there, but, you know, that was a situation that was highly unstable. If they could sell it the next day they would, and to whom they would sell it was not at all clear. Well anyway, after considering all these various things, they made the job of IDA President look attractive enough, and I decided to take that. It involved the least disruption of my family, because it was right here in Washington.
Aaserud:And you succeeded Maxwell Taylor?
Flax:I succeeded Maxwell Taylor. And I was succeeded by Andy Goodpastor. I was between two 4-star Generals. IDA, unlike some of the other federal contract research centers, has had a fairly strong tradition of alternating military and civilian. Garry Norton, as you say, was one, but then they had Jim McCormack.
Aaserud:He was also military.
Flax:He was military. Right.
Aaserud:But, you know, part of the MIT crowd too.
Flax:Yes. He had been sort of sanitized by MIT. He was a very scholarly military man, I can tell you that even when he wore his uniform.
Aaserud:Yes. You knew him.
Aaserud:He seems like an interesting person he had ideas with IDA.
Flax:And so then I discovered I was responsible for JASON among other things. It was a good thing that I knew a great deal about JASON, because your first reaction is that, "Here I'm stuck with something that's really unmanageable." I mean, the JASONs insisted on a high degree of independence. And nothing had ever been written down granting them that, either by IDA or by the sponsors. But it had to be a kind of a gentleman's agreement, a common understanding. Well, with the turnover of personnel you didn't always find people who understood that or were willing to accept it, and it sometimes caused a great deal of friction.
Aaserud:Formally they were a division of IDA, right?
Flax:They were formally listed as a division of IDA, and that was again to give them the degree of independence within IDA that a division had.
Aaserud:No more, no less.
That's right. But they actually had more. And a lot of it had to do with the choice of topics to work on while I was there, and this had not come up so much in the earlier era, but as their interests broadened and subject matter that they wanted to get involved in was regarded as sensitive or not requiring any further study by people in the government, you could see where strains would develop. And they wanted complete freedom to embark on the study of anything within the DoD orbit. Well formally they only worked for ARPA. I mean, ARPA was the contract holder. Johnny Foster was not as permissive as Herb York was. Herb York himself was an ex-JASON.
Harold Brown, well, he was sort of intermediate, but John Foster was a little more wary. He couldn't conceive of just giving somebody a blank check to do anything whatever within the Department of Defense. So there were a lot of delicate negotiations all the time that I found myself in the middle of. I wanted to give the JASONs as much latitude as was possible, but I couldn't give them more than the persons who paid out the money were willing to give them. And so this was a constant kind of debate every year as to what the subjects for the summer study were going to be. And it was getting more and more difficult each time, and then something entirely unexpected happened: The Congress decided that all such organizations as IDA were wasteful and outrageously expensive for the DoD to operate, and furthermore that they exercised undue influence over what should be the prerogative of government officials.
It was a big exaggeration, but anyway, they arbitrarily, in the appropriations bill, which didn't pass until the fiscal year was half over so, mind you, we'd been spending at one rate for six months reduced our budget 25 percent, which amounted to 50 percent, because we'd already spent at too high a rate. And that was a shocker. And so, I immediately set about with the chairman of our board, who was Bill Burden, and with John Foster to try to fix it, but we could see that we were never gonna get entirely whole again soon. And so John Foster asked us, "Well, why don't you take some of the activities that you're carrying out for us as a matter of convenience like JASON.
Because you're not managing JASON, are you?" I said, "No, I'm not managing JASON." And the Journal of Defense Research, and a couple of other things for which we were a convenient place to house them, but they really had nothing to do with the primary role of IDA. And with JASON it was much less so, because IDA staff actually did contribute something to JASON. But there was no reason why they couldn't continue to do that. They only needed to be invited to a meeting. Anyway, Foster took about several hundred thousand dollars worth of activity that IDA had been managing for him out, and JASON was one of them, and he transferred them to was it Batelle at that time or ?
Aaserud:No. Stanford Research Institute.
Flax:Stanford, Stanford, yes. They negotiated with Batelle, but it finally turned out to be Stanford.
Aaserud:And Wheeler left because he thought it was going to Batelle and he felt there was a conflict of interest there, so they were obviously fairly serious about Batelle at the time.
Flax:And so that's how JASON came to leave IDA. Now in the interim we actually negotiated back with the appropriations committee. It turned out that the chairman of our board was a close friend of the chairman of the appropriations committee. They were both regents of the Smithsonian, and they had never mentioned IDA to one another, the relationship. And I knew him too. I had testified before his committee. And we disabused them of their erroneous conception of what went on at places like IDA, and we straightened it out. But of course the other moves were never reversed.
Aaserud:But they may not have been necessary by hindsight.
Aaserud:Well, to go back a little bit, you talked about the mechanism or you didn't, but you mentioned the mechanism by which JASON chose their summer study projects, and that that was a problem because they wanted to do whatever they wanted to do.
Flax:They felt they could judge where their talents could best be applied, across the board, in the DoD.
Aaserud:But do you have examples of that, or a description of how this took place? In fact, were you actually involved in meetings between say the chairman of JASON and John Foster I suppose, the three of you?
Flax:Actually the negotiation was with the director of ARPA, because ARPA held the contract. And I tried to avoid mixing into that as far as possible, but inevitably from time to time when the director of ARPA got exasperated with the JASONs he would call me.
Aaserud:Director of ARPA at the time was Steve Lukasik.
Flax:Steve Lukasik was the last one at the time this transition took place. And so, he would complain to me, and he would complain to Foster, and Foster would complain to me. It went round and round that way. I tried to ameliorate these differences by saying, "Look," you know, "you can't really lose very much by letting them work in this area. You might even benefit. How do you know they can't contribute? They say they can, and their track record is reasonably good, they've contributed to a great many things." But, you know, I had no answer to the counter-argument that "Well, you know, we have to make the judgement about where we want to apply more effort, and we don't think we want anymore effort there; we want it on something else."
Aaserud:Did JASONs come to you too to try to sort these things out?
Flax:Yes. The chairman of JASON was always around, telling me what his difficulties were, and why he wanted to do what he wanted to do. But I don't remember strangely. I should, because they were probably a dozen specific things that they wanted to do that the DoD didn't want them to do. And I can't remember one of them today. Maybe blissfully I have shut them out of my memory.
Aaserud:Now, was it Hal Lewis who was the chairman of JASON at the time?
Flax:Hal Lewis was the chairman at that time. I was the middle man, see, the broker who had to try to arrange this. When their negotiations broke down, they dragged me in.
Aaserud:Did you participate in summer meetings at times?
Flax:Not really participate. I went out, I always made a point of going out and showing up for their cocktail party when they started or some event, and showing an interest on the part of IDA in how it was going, but never to the point of participation. I was never there long enough to do that. You see, they used to spend six weeks. Maybe they still do. I suppose they still do.
Aaserud:They do. They do. I was in La Jolla earlier this month and talked to JASONs there.
Flax:Yeah. One of the areas that we got complaints about from DoD was that they were getting inbred; that they weren't bringing in new people. Well of course with the Vietnam War on you could hardly recruit new people from the campus. We were doing pretty well not to lose the old ones.
Aaserud:They lost some of course.
Flax:And they lost some. Subsequently I understand that they have brought some new people in. Another criticism was they were too narrowly focused as physicists. Well of course that was a strength as well as a weakness, because they understood one another very well and knew what the frames of reference were for judging things as physicists. They tried at various times to bring others in. I have to say my perception is it wasn't very successful. Now since then they may have been more successful. I don't know that. You know, since 1979 or thereabouts I really lost contact with them.
Aaserud:They have brought in some computer scientists and mathematicians and things like that, but they haven't brought in all that much. There was an attempt, or a discussion at least, in the late 1960s, to involve social scientists.
Flax:Yes, yes, and biologists.
Aaserud:And biologists, right. But that never happened. Well, I have been looking at records at the MITRE Corporation, which holds the JASON archives, and there have been a few references to you. Not many there. I would have to go other places for that. So that's why I don't have all that much material to show you of letters you've written or received and things like that.
Flax:Yes. And I don't have copies of them obviously. I've forgotten long since. But I will say this: You probably won't find much of a written record. Most of these arrangements that we talked about were made in meetings orally. When they were agreed to, I didn't send them out or sign them. They were sent out by the JASON division.
Aaserud:Now JASON maintained a record of their steering committee meetings.
Aaserud:So that is one source, but it's not all that rich really. I see here you were invited to the fall meeting in 1970, and you were going to discuss or take part in the discussion between Lewis, Foster and Bengston. That's all it says, you know.
Flax:Oh. I don't remember whether that ever happened. I went to a number of their meetings on invitation, but I don't remember whether that happened.
Aaserud:Then I come across a letter from Edmund Muskie, the Congressman, to you from July, 1971, where he asked whether Congress could receive some help from JASON.
Flax:Oh yes. I remember that. And of course that was not up to me. That was up to the DoD which held the JASON contract. And we did two things. One, informally we said well, you know, he could certainly organize a group of the same people. He was free to do that. But we were not free to do anything under the ARPA contract unless they authorized it. I don't think he ever came back at us after we said that. I mean, we gave him the idea that, you know, if the Congress wanted to muster this group, draw on this group as individuals, they certainly could. I mean, we didn't have them under a contract that forbid them to work for Congress.
Aaserud:But that wasn't the idea though.
Flax:Yeah. I think he wanted to tap into the funding as well. That was my impression. It was left vague and obscure, and I don't remember how it was finally straightened out, but he dropped the matter, as I recall.
Aaserud:Well I think your return letter was rather negative. I have the text of it in my computer, if you are interested in seeing it.
Flax:Yes, as I say, we also informally, in addition to the letter, we informally got in touch with his staff and said, you know, "We don't want to be the instigators of this, telling you to organize your own group, but of course you are free. We don't have the JASONs under exclusive contract."
Aaserud:You are saying that in relation to the transfer from IDA to SRI there wouldn't be much of a written record, you would think.
Flax:I don't think that as far as IDA is concerned there is much of a written record.
Aaserud:No. And IDA records would have to be sought through
Aaserud:Through IDA, yes. It would not have to be sought through the Freedom of Information Act, for example. I mean, does IDA have an archive for unclassified persons?
Flax:I can't answer that question. I don't know the answer. I mean, they've changed so much since I was there and grown so big. I occasionally go there. I do some consulting work, actually advisory kinds of things, go there about once a month, but I don't get involved in the workings of the entire organization very much.
Aaserud:Would you suggest anybody to talk to about this?
Flax:Well let's see, who's president now? It's a military man again. It's Larry Welsh, former Chief of Staff of the Air Force. I must say, I don't really know the rest of the organization that well anymore, the administrative side. There's been a lot of turnover. I do know some people in the technical organization, but they wouldn't be the ones you want to reach. I don't know if they have an unclassified archive, but I don't think the Freedom of Information Act would directly apply to them although if it was a report that was made to the Department of Defense and is in the Defense files, it's Freedom of Information.
Aaserud:Well there's a gray area there too, so it's difficult. But you think it might be best to start highest up.
Flax:That's the only advice I can give you, unless one of the JASONs themselves would know a particular person who was handling things like their old files.
Aaserud:When I started the project I spoke to William Nierenberg.
Flax:Yeah. I remember him very well.
Aaserud:Who was chairman of the JASONs at that time. And he had tried to reach IDA himself about whatever material because he was interested in establishing an institutional record of JASON.
Aaserud:And he was disappointed as to what he found. And when he had difficulties, I may not stand a better chance.
Flax:Is Joel Bengston still affiliated with the JASONs?
Aaserud:No, he is not. I have talked to him, but he is not affiliated any more.
Flax:Well most of the records were under his direct control at the time the JASONs were associated with IDA. Now that doesn't mean he knows where they are today. He knows what was there at that time.
Aaserud:I probably asked him at the time. I don't remember now, but I would guess I did. He would be a natural person to ask.
Flax:It's amazing how little thought is given to preserving records of these things, I must say.
Aaserud:It is really frustrating for a historian to see that.
Flax:As a matter of fact, the last couple of weeks I've had an Air Force officer who was a student at their war college. He was trying to reconstruct the history of some weapons developments in the same era we are talking about. So I have been on tape for the last two weeks.
Aaserud:Oh, so you are used to this.
Aaserud:What about yourself? Do you have any papers, or have you retained any papers?
Flax:Disappointingly few, I must say. And certainly I can't think of any that relate to the JASONs. Now, I have some unsorted papers that I just scooped up as I was leaving my office that are in my basement and there might conceivably be something there, but I think the yield from a search would be disappointingly low.
Aaserud:Yes, well, that is true, but sometimes it is not just the quantity, but also the quality that counts. That one document in a thousand might be crucial.
Flax:One student of the space program dug up one letter that I wrote when I was the chairman of the President's Scientific Advisory Committee Panel on the space shuttle. And after the shuttle accident he dug up a paper that I wrote. It was appended to a report that went into it in detail. But it said, "In view of the tightness of funding that is proposed for the shuttle and for the NASA program generally, which will affect the funds available for the shuttle, the future does not bode well for this program." And the arguments were they're gonna cut corners, they're gonna not do everything that should be done right, and so on. And so John Logston, who's at George Washington University picked it up. I did not remember that letter. I did not remember that that letter existed at all. I saw it again for the first time when he quoted it in Science magazine.
Aaserud:Well, what was the circumstances for your writing that?
Flax:Well, I was submitting the report to the President's Science Advisor, Ed David. But what happened was that, again, political exigencies caused the President to approve the program in spite of any negative advice that he got, in fact before the committee could formally report. You see, this was an interim report. He decided not to wait for the final one. Tape 2, Side 2
Aaserud:See, I have a meeting right after lunch, and that's one o'clock, and so I have to go down to lunch by twelve-thirty. And I'm going to talk to Donald Levine this afternoon, who you might know. He was the executive secretary.
Flax:Yes. It was after they left IDA, but I did know him, yes. I occasionally went to some of their events, so I met him.
Aaserud:Now, I would like your advice. As I said at the outset, I have interviewed some 40 JASONs, but much fewer people who have been involved with JASON from the outside, and one of my purposes of doing the latter is to get a better feeling for their impact in some way or other. So that I would appreciate any advice as to who I could talk to from that perspective people who experienced JASON both from general administrative position such as you, but also people, program directors for example, or program managers, who had a more hands-on feel for what they did about individual projects.
Flax:A lot of that would be in the later phase. They got more intimately involved in some more specific programs in the work they did for the Navy, and that's why I suggested Dave Mann.
Aaserud:That you did already, yes.
Flax:The other person I think you would get a different perspective from would be John Foster, who had to manage this whole DCPG thing and all of that.
Aaserud:I will talk to him tomorrow.
Flax:And also was responsible, in the final analysis, for the JASONs. I'd talk also to Charlie Herzfeld, who was Director of ARPA and is now in the DoD.
Aaserud:Yes, I did speak to him.
Flax:You have spoken to him.
Aaserud:And I have spoken to Lukasik and Rechtin.
Flax:And Eb Rechtin. Well, my list kind of runs out at that point, although I should be able to conjure up some more names. You see, the people, Dodd Starbird ? who ran DCPG is dead, unfortunately.
Aaserud:I don't know if Robert McNamara was close enough.
Flax:McNamara is still around, and he might be accessible; I don't know.
Aaserud:But do you think he was close enough to contribute something?
Flax:His role was very singular; it was in that one area of the barrier.
Flax:And that's it. Most of the rest of the time he was hardly conscious of what the JASONs were doing. And you would expect it. He was hardly conscious of what I was doing. If I think of any other names and you leave me an address, I'll try to do that, but right at the moment I don't have any. John Foster might have some leads for you and Dave Mann might have some leads for you. Dave Mann particularly might be able to get you down to some programmatic level.
Aaserud:And, if I understood you correctly, you think that the barrier study by far is the study by JASON that had the most impact.
Flax:It had the most impact. Oh, of course, yeah.
Aaserud:But the problem with that is that it was rather untypical as a JASON involvement.
Flax:That's right. It was very, very untypical. If there hadn't been a JASON group though, it probably would never have happened. I think that's an important point. It formed the nucleus around which this larger formation could take place.
Aaserud:Well that's an important statement.
Flax:And it did have the right linkages. I mean, it had the formal linkages to the DoD. They were not simply a group of physicists holding a protest meeting out in the square. And I don't really want to diminish the value of other things the JASONs did; it's just that my memory is very, very hazy. I know they did a lot of work on in fact I have some of their reports on non-acoustic anti-submarine warfare, on the internal wave generation and so forth. And it influenced a lot of the ARPA and Navy programs in the process. They also, in their aborted forays into air traffic control, tried to move the FAA into the modern age, but without much success. They tried to get them to use satellite navigation and so forth. Others have tried that to equally without success. Dick Garwin still carries it on, as his personal crusade.
Aaserud:I have spoken to him. So that's one thing, people to talk to. The other thing is projects. Well, if I don't take Vietnam, I need some other project.
Flax:I think another nucleus of projects would be the work in ASW. Some of it is classified, some of it is not, but it was extensive enough that I think you could write meaningfully on it. And it does go back to when they were with IDA but became more focused and more intense, I think, later.
Aaserud:You see that is a difficult balance to keep, the balance between what is representative and what is accessible to me.
Aaserud:Because most of what they did and most of what can be labeled representative is classified of course.
Flax:You probably know about Nick Christofilos's work, and ground wave propagation, and all of that.
Flax:That certainly had an impact. But I'm not the best person to write a definitive history of the achievements of the JASONs.
Aaserud:No no. But I think it's good to have the perspective of JASON from anybody who worked with it from the outside.
Flax:I think most of the directors of ARPA under-appreciated what JASON was doing. Because you have to remember, a lot of these things were not ARPA programs.
Aaserud:Yes, that's right.
Flax:And ARPA was always restive about this business of being told by superiors that they had to support this activity which they didn't see as having a direct relationship to many of their programs.
Aaserud:Yes. But to what extent did that just lead to problems in ARPA and to what extent did this lead to ARPA stopping JASON from doing certain projects?
Flax:It was a little of each probably. ARPA, particularly Steve Lukasik, would give them lists of his favorite topics. The JASONs would say ho-hum to many of them: "That's not what we want to work on, that's not sufficiently cutting edge, not really exciting. I mean, other people can do that just as well, and they are doing it."
Aaserud:But you wouldn't think that there are written records of these discussions? That would be interesting, you know, to compare Lukasik's lists to that.
Flax:Well, I was in the middle of some of those discussions, but I think it was the sort of thing we wanted to avoid writing down. We wanted to leave enough flexibility in everybody's position so they could gracefully back away.
Aaserud:But I mean to understand the freedom they had and the impact they had, it would be interesting to have access to at least some of those discussions to get an overview.
Flax:Well I certainly didn't keep any written records of them. No. I don't know if anybody else did. Have you looked in the ARPA files?
Aaserud:No. I haven't had access to them.
Aaserud:I've been told that I need to use Freedom of Information Act for individual documents, you know.
Flax:That's a cumbersome process.
Aaserud:Very cumbersome, yeah. For ARPA, I mean that's probably necessary. For IDA it might be more questionable. Alright, well, we could go on of course, and go on with your later career and all that.
Flax:I don't think that's your main subject of interest. Some other time you could embark on it.
No, it's not my main subject of interest perhaps, but you have had an interesting career.