Oral History Transcript — Dr. G. Rossi Lomanitz
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G. Rossi Lomanitz; July 28, 2001
ABSTRACT: Giovanni Rossi Lomanitz, was born on October 10, 1921 in Bryan, Texas. He would grow up in Oklahoma and receive his bachelor’s degree from the University of Oklahoma in the spring of 1940. In the fall of 1940 he enrolled in University of California –- Berkeley to pursue a PhD in theoretical physics under the direction of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He continued with his graduate work until June 1942, when he began working at the Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley on topics related to the production of atomic weapons. While employed at the Radiation Laboratory, he was active in attempting to organize a union in the workplace. This continued until September 20, 1943, when he was drafted out of the Radiation Laboratory and into the Army. This drafting occurred in spite of the fact that men such as Ernest Lawrence and Oppenheimer informed officials that they felt his war work was essential and that a deferment was certainly warranted. In the spring of 1949, Lomanitz was called before the House Committee of Un-American Activities to investigate his activities while employed at the Radiation Lab. At this point he invoked the 5th Amendment and in December of 1950 he was indicted for contempt of Congress. The following year he was found not guilty of this charge. He had, however, been effectively, if not officially, blacklisted from any academic work. This oral history focuses primarily on the period of time from 1940, when he first went to Berkeley, through the mid-1950s, when he had to face many problems that resulted from his political views and his appearance before HUAC. The oral history was conducted in July 2001 at his home in Hawaii.
Mullet:This is the second session of an oral history with Dr. Rossi Lomanitz by Shawn Mullet or July 28th, 2001 at his home outside Pahoa, Hawaii. Dr. Lomanitz, earlier we talked a little bit about your family and your decision to major in physics at the University of Oklahoma and your experiences at Oklahoma up to your graduation in the spring of 1940. In the fall of 1940 you began graduate school at Cal Berkeley and when you first moved to Berkeley, aside from your childhood which was spent in part in Texas and New Jersey had you ever been outside of Oklahoma prior to leaving for Berkeley?
Lomanitz:Probably not. I’d been back to Texas, but not that I can think of. There was a short trip with my sister to New York in 1939.
Mullet:So when you first got to Berkeley — When exactly did you get to Berkeley? Did you get there just as the semester was starting or did you get there in the summer?
Lomanitz:Actually it was in August shortly before the school actually opened. The school at Berkeley at that time was opening in August whereas what I had been used to opening after Labor Day at the University of Oklahoma for example and Berkeley had this system which seemed really very good to me that they began in August. They would end with the Christmas, with the winter break and no finals then after the break. Anyway, I got there in August maybe sometime between the 15th and 20th of August probably of 1940, a few days before school began.
Mullet:And what were your first impressions of Berkeley when you first got there?
Lomanitz:Gee. Already just looking — let’s see, it wasn’t just Berkeley itself, but here was this beautiful region with the bay and with the bridges, both the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge had just recently been completed. San Francisco lay on the other side of the Bay Bridge, Marin County on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, and it was just absolutely beautiful — in addition to which it was so much more cosmopolitan than I was used to.
Mullet:Your first semester at Berkeley when you started graduate school what were your experiences like of Berkeley as an institute to learn physics?
Lomanitz:I started out of course taking standard required courses, graduate courses. I began with I guess a graduate course in dynamics, one in quantum mechanics and I’m not sure at the moment whether the other one was in optics yet or not. Anyway, I took three standard courses and I tried auditing a couple more. The impression I got was that the courses were — you really had to study hard to get with them, all except for quantum mechanics. In quantum mechanics you could study hard and still not get with it. And this is — I had not had an undergraduate course in quantum mechanics. I had even spoken to the advisor of all graduate students at that time in theoretical physics [namely J.R.] Oppenheimer as to whether he thought I should take this course yet, and his reply was, “Well, it’ll be tough. There is a lot of physics and a lot of math you are gonna have to learn to make up, but if you’re really good you can learn all that which is really prerequisite to the quantum mechanics while you are taking the quantum mechanics. So I sort of took a deep breath and took the quantum mechanics too. And I found it a very difficult course indeed.
Mullet:What were your impressions of Berkeley with respect to politics, with respect to social issues and things of that sort?
Lomanitz:Well, I was kind of awed about that too. There seemed to be all kinds of clubs on campus or off campus. There seemed to be a great deal of unionization had gone on, particularly across the bay in San Francisco, but also in Berkeley and in Oakland. And there seemed to, almost any time you wanted it you might find, “Hey, there’s a meeting here where somebody is going to be talking.” It could be Norman Thomas from the Socialist Party, it could be William Z. Foster from the Communist Party, it could be Harry Bridges from the International Longshore and Warehouse Union — which by the way, there had been a general strike just a few years before I came. In any case, there was a great deal of political activity going on and it was a bit overwhelming.
Mullet:You said there was a lot of unionization activity, particularly in San Francisco. Were there any particular instances or particular occurrences that kind of struck you? Was there a particular strike or a particular union that struck you or was it just the general environment that struck you more?
Lomanitz:Some of each. I remember walking along the docks in San Francisco, which by the way is just across the bridge from Berkeley just a few miles. And I remember seeing the longshoremen getting off work, and they seemed to be walking with a stride that I hadn’t seen working people walk with in Oklahoma. They had confidence and dignity and were kind of happy. Later on I found out that this was pretty hard won. As I say, there had been a general strike, there had been people killed and so on. But what I saw when I came there was what I just described and then there was — the culinary workers for example had won some victories also. The whole culture just seemed to be more vibrant as far as working people were concerned.
Mullet:In Oklahoma were unions present at all, or how active were the unions in Oklahoma? Obviously they were more active in San Francisco, but what were unions like in Oklahoma?
Lomanitz:As far as I know at that time there were unions of some of the building trades such as carpenters for example, bricklayers and so on and construction laborers. There was very little I know of other than that in the way of unionized labor in Oklahoma and what’s more what there was unionized in Oklahoma at that time was strictly segregated except for one union. The construction workers’ laborers union was actually integrated with both blacks and whites and it was the only one I know of then. So there was some union activity in Oklahoma, but not very much.
Mullet:When you first started at Berkeley were you pretty set from the start as far as being a theoretical physicist as opposed to experimental, or was that a decision that you only arrived at through the course of —? I know you said your first semester you spoke with Oppenheimer who was the advisor for all theoretical students, so you were pretty set in theoretical physics from the start?
Lomanitz:Yeah. With me it wasn’t theoretical or experimental. It was theoretical or none at all. I just didn’t feel that competent with experimental.
Mullet:So you met Oppenheimer very early in your career at Berkeley, correct? The very first semester.
Mullet:What were your first impressions of Oppenheimer?
Lomanitz:Probably the same as I think most people that were graduate students in theoretical physics, including more advanced ones, and that is that he was almost like a guru. You kind of listened with bated breath to whatever remarks he might have to say whether they be about physics or whether they be about the situation of teaching assistants or they be about politics or whatever they might be. Not that he, as far as I can see, I do not know that he wanted to put himself in the position of being a guru or that he knew all that much about or thought he knew all that much about all these various things, but somehow it fit into how we wanted to look upon him.
Mullet:So pretty early in your relationship with him he would discuss political matters with you or with other graduate students?
Lomanitz:Mostly I think with the more advanced graduate students. With me, I had very little conversations with Oppenheimer to start with. As a budding hopeful theoretical physics student he was my advisor so I talked to him about what courses to take and so on like that. Actually it turns out, as I look back on it, I was afraid of the man. And I think maybe — it’s really weird. I’m not sure. I think maybe a lot of other people were too, but why afraid of and at the same time refer to him as a guru? I think it’s because we considered him to be on a higher level somehow or another. In fact I remember some graduate student once saying, “Well, he puts on his pants one leg at a time too, doesn’t he?” and I remember also that it took a lot of time and courage I thought for me to summon up the guts to go into his office once and ask him a question about quantum mechanics that I didn’t understand. It had to do with perturbation theory and I was having a problem with the simplest form of perturbation theory, namely first order non-degenerate case. And I went in to ask him about that. And I remember that he had a very cluttered, messy office. All kinds of stuff was piled on top other things on his desk. And I remember he paced up and down, because that was his style, lit a cigarette and said, “Now let me see. You are certainly not asking about something as simple as the non-degenerate case of first order perturbation theory. Oh, I know! You’re asking about the second order degenerate case. Now that is a very good question.” And he went on ahead I guess to explain to me about the second order degenerate case. I don’t know, but he must have. In any case, I didn’t have the temerity to say, “No, I was really asking about something more basic than that.” And I left with my tail between my legs and the one lesson I learned is don’t go in and do it that way. Ask somebody else, figure it out for yourself, get another textbook. But I had the feeling of really being some kind of an idiot.
Mullet:And when was that experience?
Lomanitz:It was my first year there.
Mullet:First year or first semester?
Lomanitz:First semester, quantum mechanics course.
Mullet:When did you begin to do your independent research?
Actually at Berkeley the situation in theoretical physics at Berkeley was generally that Oppenheimer would propose what he called a little problem. Not a big enough problem for a Ph.D. thesis. And he would say, “We didn’t know the answer to this yet. Would you work on it and see what you can come up with?” And several of these problems would constitute your thesis or in lieu of your thesis, and it was I guess the second year I was there that he threw out a problem he suggested that Stan Frankel and I work on together. Why that, I don’t know, I guess he tried to make his estimate with his students and find out you know who would do better doing this, that or the other. I do not know. Anyway the problem was on hyperfine structure of the nitrogen atom. It turned out to not be quite consistent with experimental work and we were to try to figure out why that was, what was going on. And I remember that Stan and I each worked on it individually not knowing quite what we were doing. I remember I went back I left Berkeley for Christmas once and I got a little — it’s like a phonograph record, later on what would have been a 45 rpm record in which Stan was discussing some of the thoughts that he had and I came on back and neither Stan Frankel nor I had really been able to get a foothold on that problem at all.
As it happened, very shortly after that — oh, what happened then after that was that Oppenheimer also asked me whether I would be willing to revise his notes on the electrodynamics graduate course because the textbooks that were used at that time both in his quantum theory and in his graduate electrodynamics course, there were no textbook really. It was just mimeographed notes of lectures that Oppenheimer had given in previous times. The quantum mechanics had been taken down by Bernard Peters who had been a student of his a year or two before that and from those notes Peters had typed up and had mimeographed a thick little paper bound thing 200 or 300 pages. And this was sold to the students at cost, which was 50 cents at that time. Peters didn’t get any money for the work that he had done, and the electrodynamics was done by Shuichi Kosaka, a Japanese graduate student who later drowned, with the help of Frankel and Nelson, graduate students. And I had been asked then to re-revise the electrodynamics notes. So I had been starting in on that as well as unsuccessfully on this one little research problem when I was taken off the whole thing by being asked by Oppenheimer whether I would look over a certain paper that it turned out had to do with the design of the calutron for the radiation laboratory. You asked me about research. I started in on this one problem with Frankel, also with the revision of the electrodynamics, notes and that was it until the radiation lab days.
Mullet:Up to the point where you left graduate work to work in the radiation laboratory did you feel like things were progressing nicely? Did you feel pretty confident in your future at Cal Berkeley as a physics grad student or what kind of position do you feel you left when you decided to work for the radiation laboratory?
Lomanitz:I really felt uncomfortable. I went around again to see Oppenheimer to ask him whether in his opinion I was good enough to be a theoretical physicist, because the whole confidence, you know, I didn’t know whether I was good enough.
Lomanitz:And I remember Oppenheimer on that occasion treated me more kindly. He said something like, “Well, I cannot tell you whether you are good enough to be a theoretical physicist or not, but I can tell you that all of my best and most successful students have been worried by the same problem,” which I felt was really a very honest and kind thing for him to say at the time. But no, I did not feel comfortable. I did not feel assurance. I did not know whether I was good enough. And in fact I remember talking to another man in the beginning quantum mechanics graduate class named Owen Chamberlain and I remember discussing with Chamberlain, “Well, are you going to be a theoretical physicist?” and he replied to me, “I would if I thought I was good enough, but I don’t know whether I’m good enough so I’m not going to go into theoretical physics.” This was the same Owen Chamberlain who not too many years later shared a Nobel Prize with Emilio Segre for their discovery of the anti-proton.
Mullet:This is something I should have asked earlier but I’ll ask now. You mentioned earlier that the reason you went to Berkeley was because not only you got in but also because you got the financial support. Do you remember the details of that financial support, how much you received as a stipend or as a teaching assistant?
Lomanitz:I do indeed. It was $65 a month spread out over ten months. That was $650 for the academic year as a teaching assistant in the freshman laboratories. But I remember it seemed like a very comfortable amount to me because when I had left the University of Oklahoma, when I had been at the University of Oklahoma I had been making 25¢ and eventually 30¢ an hour, which added up to not much more than a hundred dollars for the academic year. So this was like a sixfold increase in pay — which I put to good use. I bought two suits, both of them blue. I got a record player. In fact I got Towne Conover, who was a very good technician to convert an old Victrola over into a record player. I think I paid him $20 for that. And not very long after that I got my first car. I didn’t really get the first car right away. It took a little while, but it was a 1927 Nash for which I paid $25. So yes, I felt affluent. I was a single guy.
Mullet:When did you begin work at the radiation laboratory?
Lomanitz:June of 1942.
Mullet:A lot of people have said of Oppenheimer that he could be somewhat cruel in the way he dealt with people who asked questions that he felt were inappropriate questions, people that failed to grasp things that he felt they should grasp, and I was curious if you were ever witness to any particular instances where you felt like he was callous or particularly cruel to a student or one of his devotees I suppose you could say.
Lomanitz:Yeah, and in fact I’ve described it already and that was how I felt when I went in to ask him about perturbation theory. And his attitude was not directly, “Oh, you dumb ox, what are you asking me that for?” but his attitude was, “Oh, let’s see. You must not be asking me something that simple. You must be asking about this much more complicated thing,” which to me — I didn’t realize that he was being cruel to me, but I did go away with my tail between my legs. I really felt put down. And in retrospect, yes, he was being cruel.
Mullet:And did you ever see him do that with other students aside from yourself? Or was that a fairly limited instance?
Lomanitz:I don’t think — no, I think he probably did it because I know other students felt, some other students felt that same way. But I wasn’t with them when this happened.
Mullet:I want to just start going over some of the people like you met or crossed paths with over your time at Berkeley. Were people that would become — A pretty or very close friend of yours was David Bohm I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about when you first met Bohm and what your first impressions of Bohm were both as a physicist and as a person and how your relationship with Bohm developed over your time at Berkeley.
Yeah. David Bohm came to Berkeley I think a year after I did, but he came to Berkeley from Cal Tech where he had already been for I don’t know whether a year or two years of graduate work. In any case, he was at least as far along and I think probably a bit further along in graduate work when I first met him than was I. And he was a very shy, retiring guy. I wasn’t all that forward myself, but in time I made a little bit of overtures to get to know him, where he was from and so forth. And in a little further time it turned out my living situation at that time was that I was in a student co-op which meant it was both boarding and rooming. And for I think it was about $12 a month plus some work shift time you could get your board and room. I think they were both included in that. The work shift time you put in like four hours of work under the direction of a work shift manager, which might be anything from helping the breakfast morning cook to being a waiter to being a dishwasher or a pot scrubber, things like that that were needed to keep things going. And for four hours a week of that plus I think $12 a month you’d get room and board. I think you would get board. It may be that I had to pay a little bit extra for the room.
Anyhow, I talked to Dave Bohm about it and I know that to start with, he felt maybe that the board situation would be a pretty good deal, so he indeed did board at Barrington Hall, was the name of the student co-op. Still in existence the last time I know on Dwight Way. And the four hours of work shift he had were in terms of pot scrubbing because I can remember seeing him in a big rubber apron with his head and half his torso buried in a huge cauldron scrubbing it out with a brush. A little after that he and I roomed together for I don’t know whether it was a semester or a year right now. And we had our own — I guess I did a bit more of the housekeeping than he did, but nevertheless we did room together. And my main memory of the housekeeping part of that was that we had a series of coffee makers. Because a kind of coffee maker had just come on the scene very recently. It had a glass top and it was sort of like a dripolator except you didn’t pour the water in from being separately heated. It was more in a certain way I guess like the modern Mr. Coffee’s and so on. It would heat the water, it came on up, went back down to the coffee grounds that you had in the top part of it and made coffee. And I remember that we were too frequently breaking the top parts.
We had a succession whose names I’ve even forgotten except that I remember we had one top named “Chaos” and then we had one top named “Hera”, and there must have been a whole bunch of them. In order to go down through the old Gods all the way. Anyway I remember this with David. I remember that he and I would discuss physics mostly. And I had a great respect for David. I think he had a better background in physics already at that time than I did and I had a great respect for him. And sometimes we would walk on Saturdays when there might be home football games with the University of California Golden Bears, and the football stadium which was high up on the hill. He and I would sometimes walk on up there. He loved to walk. I didn’t so much love to walk but I would traipse along with him, and we would encounter people who were going to the football game and we would conspicuously loudly talk about physics while they were talking about football.
Mullet:Okay. You were talking about your relationship with David Bohm and you were discussing how you would talk with him about physics. And when did you all first start talking about politics, or how often would the conversation turn to politics and what would those conversations be like?
Lomanitz:It seems to me at the beginning that we didn’t really have a great deal of conversations about politics, but that came maybe, oh maybe after he and I became roommates.
Mullet:And when again did you first become roommates?
Lomanitz:I don’t know at the moment. Probably in 1941, but I’m not sure.
Mullet:As you said, when you all became roommates —
Lomanitz:We were — well, the Second World War of course started in September of 1939 in Europe and then the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany in June of 1940 and Pearl Harbor happened. Oh, it was not June of 1940. I take that back. June of 1941 was when the Soviet Union was invaded. And Pearl Harbor was bombed six months later in December of 1941. And so one of the big things on the, you know if anybody was gonna talk politics at all it would be concerned about what was happening in the world. By the time the summer of 1940 was over, the Nazis had not only overrun a great deal of Central Europe but they had also beaten France. They’d gone around the Maginot line and France surrendered. It was a very frightening situation, because the Nazis were — well, I mean I think anybody who was aware of anything knew that the Nazis were a tremendous threat to anything that we might consider important. It wasn’t just what was being done to Jews or to communists or to socialists or to gypsies or to other Europeans fighting Germans; it was the whole Nazi attitude which as expressed by Hitler had been that well, Germany is going to win and for the next thousand years the Nazi ideology will permeate Europe and permeate the world. And this was indeed very frightening.
Mullet:And these were thoughts that were going through your head — as a graduate student at Berkeley. These were the kinds of thoughts you had?
Lomanitz:Yeah, yeah. And the thought that France had fallen so quickly was also frightening because there had been some hope that perhaps they would be able to stop the Germans, Nazis. Britain also — well, Britain had managed to withdraw the bulk of its army that it had sent to help France from Dunkirk and had saved most of its own army, but it was now outside on an island bastion and the Germans, the Nazis had been bombing it very severely and there was a question as whether Britain was going to be able to hold out. And it was a very frightening concept. I mean, we were looking at, “What happens if the Nazis win?” Anyway, that’s just a kind of thing that I think we were consumed with. There was also a question about where was the United States in all this. And for a while the United States was more isolationist I would say than anything else. And I can understand the reasons why. Were we going to be pulled into somebody else’s war as by that time many people figured that we had done to us in World War I? With what kind of benefits coming out of it? With World War I the empires had changed from German Empire to British Empire and French Empire for example, that this wasn’t — is this what guys were dying for? And some of this isolationist statement, that isolationist sentiment was “keep out.” Now I myself was torn, because I felt something had to be done about the Nazis. At the same time I was quite aware that we could be duped both by other powers and frankly by our own leadership, our own government too. And it was a real question is the thing to do for the United States to get into the war and help defeat Nazi Germany or is there going to be a lot of us just slaughtered and for no good reason? The Soviet Union was invaded in June of —
Lomanitz:Forty-one. And then Pearl Harbor in December of ‘41. And this kind of put an end to some of the questions, because it was a fait accompli. We were invaded. We were at war. The Russians were at war. Obviously what we’d better do is have an alliance with the Russians and with the British to try to win the war. Anyway, this was crudely sort of some of the political thinking at the time.
Mullet:The sentiments you expressed were shared by David Bohm? He shared pretty much the views you’ve expressed about the concerns over Nazism and the role of the United States in the effort?
Lomanitz:He was certainly concerned about Nazism. I don’t know whether he was as concerned as I was about the other side of the coin, about keeping the United States out of the war versus going into the war. I don’t think he had as much reservations as I did about the United States getting into the war. Myself, I could see it both ways.
Mullet:And when you all would talk about these issues, was it pretty much focused on Germany or did you ever talk about other issues such as — I know in the Berkeley area at that time the cause of the loyalists in Spain was a popular topic.
Mullet:And I was wondering whether you all ever talked about like more domestic issues, like issues of integration or the conditions of the working class things that have also been associated with the left-wing causes at Berkeley at that time.
Lomanitz:Yeah. And I would say that one of the reasons why was we became so much more acutely aware of them because at Berkeley many groups and peoples were talking about them. And frankly one of things that you would feel was that you would be an ignoramus if you did not try to understand what was going on. And if you did try to understand what was going on, then I think your sympathies had to be on the side of working people, to have to be on the side of integration versus segregation because, you know, I mean if you are simply authentic and honest with yourself there was nothing that I was going to gain by seeing unions beaten down. There was nothing that I was going to gain by seeing blacks continue to be segregated. And one of the things that I think that I really learned in Berkeley much more sharply focused on was that whether we like it or not there is class conflict going on, that there is conflict between the haves and the have nots; between the owners of the means of production and the producers, the workers, and that it’s easy to confuse things with all kinds of rhetoric. One of the big things I learned in Berkeley — and I have not unlearned it yet — is that there is class struggle going on, and if you want to try to understand the situation don’t just listen to some kind of stuff that somebody puts out. I mean you know, I could hear awful stuff like, “Well, I wouldn’t want a little black bottom in the same swimming pool I am in” and the person might admit it who said it, but it was great help that those who wanted to see disunity among blacks and whites, who wanted to see disunity amongst working people to promulgate ideas like that. And this is one of the big things that I learned in Berkeley and that I have never let go of and that is to look whose ox is being gored, look at whose interest is being served in terms of class interest, no matter what the rhetoric may be about it.
Mullet:In 1960 David Bohm made a statement to the American Consul in which he said that he joined the Communist Party in 1942 and stayed in it for a few months through the spring of 1943 and the main reason that he joined was a combination of things — a concern for European Jews in the face of Nazis and the fact that he had grown up in a mining town during the Depression and it gave him an awareness of the suffering of people. While not necessarily with respect to the Communist Party, do you feel you were drawn to the left-wing politics for basically the same reasons as far as the class consciousness and the fate of the European Jews and to what extent did the perception that the Soviets were the primary antagonists of fascism did that further endear you to left-wing causes, or how exactly do you feel you gravitated towards the left politically? Because if I remember correctly, you said that prior to Berkeley you, while you were growing up you had certain political events in your life. For the most part you had not fully developed your political views.
Lomanitz:I had even developed them to the point of saying, “Well, I think that — I hear this talk about how not just great unions and not just integration could make things more equitable but how something like socialism for example might help.” And my reaction to that was this sounds very possibly true that from what I had seen around me I do not see any groups do anything that I would say practically might lead toward that. Mostly what I have seen advocating that was maybe a few intellectuals sitting and talking, and this was not going to accomplish anything. And regardless of what might be wonderful if it were achieved, it had to be achieved. And I did not see a vehicle for doing this in Oklahoma. In California I came much more to see possible vehicles. As I said, there had been a general strike I had heard about in I think 1933. The Longshore and Warehouse Union had become a very powerful union. And the politics, left wing politics, had really helped elect people who would see things more sympathetically to the view point of working people and to the viewpoint of things like integration rather than discrimination. And to me, I was really impressed that hey, maybe something can be accomplished. And when I saw the men coming off of work walking really with pride — and striding along, I thought, “You know? Hey, these are not intellectuals but these are people who maybe can do it. They did it with a general strike.” And this is one of the big things that struck me.
Mullet:Did you ever give consideration to the Soviets being the primary antagonist of fascism? Did that enter into it at all or was it more just strictly a matter of the union?
Lomanitz:I was very happy when the Soviet Union was invaded by Germany in June of 1941 because I was very, very frightened of the Nazis, and I think rightfully so. And when the Soviet Union was invaded it was as though, “Okay. Here is going to be a large force released to fight the Nazis.” At the same time I had been hearing more about, you know, learning more from talks, meetings and so on about the Soviet Union itself. I’m not sure that all that I heard was accurate, but at least I heard what was supposed information. One of the things I heard was that in the Soviet Union there were no capitalists anymore so there could not be this same struggle between the capitalists and working people. There were no people who owned the means of production privately versus the people who did the production. And therefore that there was not the same incentive to try to get as much as possible for as little as possible from the owners of the industry, hence not so much a putdown on working people. I also heard that anti-Semitism was illegal in the Soviet Union according to their Constitution. These things impressed me. It wasn’t just was it this or was it that. In fact I would say that I became more aware of the Soviet Union after — and what perhaps its system was like — after it was invaded by Germany than before.
Mullet:I know for a lot of people in Berkeley prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union the Nonaggression Pact between the Soviets and the Germans was a serious problem for a lot of left-wing intellectuals and a lot of left-wing individuals to try and explain to themselves or to justify given the antagonism between the Nazis and the Soviets. Prior to that invasion whether that ever gave you any cause for concern or whether you noticed any kind of pattern among people at Berkeley that had a hard time dealing with the question of the nonaggression pact.
Lomanitz:The nonaggression pact — when was that, 1939? Yeah. It was shortly before the invasion of Poland. I don’t remember just how long before the invasion of Poland, which was in September of 1939. I know that in Oklahoma my parents were very incensed about the Soviets about doing this. They were quite anti-Soviet at that time. My own self, I really came to form an attitude about that nonaggression pact later, and that is when I realized that the Soviet Union had informed Czechoslovakia that they would go to the aid of Czechoslovakia in 1938 when Germany was going to invade, if Czechoslovakia’s other allies, Britain and France, came to the aid of Czechoslovakia. Well instead of Britain and France doing it, there was this Munich agreement where Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union were not invited at all after but to which Germany, Italy, Britain and France heads of government were invited to work out a solution to the crisis. And their solution to the crisis was to give Germany — this is the Sudetenland land regions of Czechoslovakia which by the way contained almost all the armaments factories that the Czechs had too which could have been used against the Nazis. And I could understand that this was a — you know, where was a chance for collective security, stop the Nazis coming there, and the Soviets had said that they would do so if Britain and France did. And Britain and France did not do so. And in fact I think that Britain and France were more scared of the Soviet Union and more scared of the example that might it might set for people in their country to say, “Now wait a minute. What’s our own government doing?” I think they were more scared of that than they were of the Nazis. I think it was a fatal decision for them to make. I think they should have been more scared of the Nazis. But I came to this conclusion eventually, and to me that meant that the Soviet Union probably was in grave fear that if they entered the war against the Nazis that they would be sold out again as they saw it by Britain and France. So I thought I could understand the situation.
Mullet:I know a lot of the influence you got was from the unions and from that, but as far as individuals were there any individuals not directly associated with the Berkeley community that you feel had a particular impact on your development of your political views?
Lomanitz:Not associated with the Berkeley community?
Mullet:They might be in the Berkeley area but not actually connected with Berkeley per se.
Lomanitz:I don’t know about that to that degree. I did listen to you know various talks, as I said, by Norman Thomas and William F. Foster and by the America First people whom I can’t remember if they were, but sharing these talks is not enough of a kind of thing that’s, “Oh my God, this is what’s going on.” I mean, not reached that sufficiently that I know of.
Mullet:Sure. Another individual that became tied up with own name is Joseph Weinberg, another graduate student at Berkeley at the time you were there. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about when you first met Joe and what your impressions of him were both as a physicist, as a person, and politically.
Joseph Weinberg was definitely ahead of me in physics. You know you come as a freshman graduate student and then there is sort of sophomore graduate students, junior graduate students, on up like that, and Joe was probably somewhere close to three years ahead of me, two years or three years, and I was impressed that he knew a great deal more physics and had a great deal more courses than I had. I was also impressed that he had done a certain little piece of research, theoretical research, for a man named Raymond T. Birge who was the head of the physics department at that time. Birge had tried to approach a problem about what happens when you have a pile of glass plates and light comes in and some light is reflected and some refracted at the first one then the refracted part goes down and some is reflected and some is refracted at is refracted and the other one and so on like that and what you could say happens when you have a whole pile of them. Joe Weinberg approached the problem by setting up what mathematicians would call difference equations — not differential equations but difference equations. Differential equations refer to when you have a continuous situation where things are changing continuously. And a lot known in mathematics is about them.
Difference equations however are when in going from plate number Z to plate number Z+1 then a certain percentage of this happens and so on like that, and then going from Z+1 to Z+2 a certain percentage happens. And the idea of the difference equations, in solving the difference equations, was to put together the result of all that for the whole pile and say, “Therefore the result will be for the whole pile such-and-such.” And this was a sort of a way of taking what happens and form discrete steps in calculating a net result as distinct from the differential equation situation of taking what happens in continuous steps and finding a solution for that. And Birge was very well impressed with what Joe Weinberg did on solving his little problem there. In fact later on Birge would make statements like, “Oh well, yeah, Weinberg is a genius” and that was because he was so impressed by what Joe had done for him. I don’t think it takes a genius to do what Joe did by the way, but he was good and I was impressed by him. I was also impressed by the fact that he was a theoretical physics student who had managed to survive on up to his third year or whatever it was and I hoped I could get there. As far as the rest of things, Joe might talk about physics or whatever and he would talk about it with a certain — let’s say drama. I remember sometimes coming away from a talk he’d given at a colloquium and I would come away feeling, “Gee, that was beautiful. That presentation was absolutely beautiful.” And then I’d say, “Let me see. What did he say?” and I would have a hard time remembering what he said. For which I blamed myself, and I think there was a great deal of truth in that. However, he also had a certain amount drama in the way he put it that I’d be impressed by. Joe also had music in his life. Not firsthand playing, but I mean phonograph records, so on like this; that I thought he was more knowledgeable about than I. In fact I thought he was more knowledgeable about many things than I, and there was certain truth to that although as I look back in retrospect one’s own tastes don’t have to agree with those of somebody that he thinks more knowledgeable. I didn’t feel like I did at Oppenheimer, but I did feel you know somewhat in awe of Joe. I felt greatly in awe of him.
Mullet:What about Joe’s views politically? Did you all ever have occasion to discuss that? And if so, what were your impressions?
Lomanitz:I’m sure we did. And it seemed to me that you know that Joe kind of had it figured out already better than I did. That is, what was that general strike in San Francisco really about. I thought he had it figured out better than I did. What about the Spanish Civil War? The Spanish Civil War by the way I think ended in a bad way from my viewpoint in 1939 before I got there, but it was still being discussed a lot and it was still being — there were still parties to raise money for prisoners who were being released and so on like that. I guess what I would say is it seemed to me that Joe had his ideas developed on these things considerably more strongly than I did, where he could stand up and say yes, this is what happened and so on. Eventually I probably came to develop just as firm ideas as he did, and basically they came to be pretty close, pretty similar to his politically. It’s just that once again he was two or three years ahead of me in physics, it seemed to me like he was two or three years ahead of me in this too.
Mullet:Sure. So do you think kind of at the time when you first met Joe do you feel like because you had such a respect for him within physics that you kind of deferred to his judgment on politics or do you think it was just more a matter that your views coincided and had just thought them out more, or do you think he actually influenced or changed your views in any way?
I don’t think that he actually changed them. I think mine were sort of incubating to be very close to what his were, but they were more in an incubation stage. I don’t think they really got changed.