Oral History Transcript — Dr. Robert R. Wilson
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Robert Wilson; November 19, 1980
ABSTRACT: The interview focuses on the creation of Fermilab. Also discussed: early origins of Wilson's involvement in high energy physics, Cornell University, Princeton, Los Alamos, Harvard and University of California, Berkeley.
Wilson:It wasn’t a ... for one thing, we hoped to get some help from them, and they needed the money, to put the leverage? on. It was a way of keeping going, keeping something happening. There’s a list that comes before that one.
Hoddeson:Let me just tell the tape recorder … (someone is talking off tape) … This is a continuation of yesterday’s interview, at a different address. This is 410 West Riverside Drive and Jane Wilson is here today too. For a while anyway. We got off the track yesterday. We were going to talk about Oakbrook, and we started instead talking about Los Alamos. Before we were interrupted by the phone call. And we got into the question of, how much the women knew, and Bob told me about lots of discussions people would have after hours, and weekends and so on, on politics, and all sorts of issues having to do with weapons and so on, and I wondered, if you didn’t know anything? JANE
Wilson:Your perplexity, if there is such a word, is well taken. Remember that before we went to Los Alamos, Robert was working on what was known as the isotron. It wasn’t all that secret. I knew he was working on isotopes of uranium. I knew that there was a possibility of an explosion from the properly used isotopes of uranium, that they could create — well, anything, a bomb, run a submarine, the works, in terms of energy. All right. Now, you know me, Lillian, I’m a very loose mouthed lady, and Robert was really taking his oaths of secrecy seriously. On the other hand, I’m not a fool. So, I certainly knew that Los Alamos was involved in atomic energy, if you want to put it that way, or thermonuclear energy. I think anybody who wasn’t a fool knew that, particularly with our background, where we’d been at Princeton for two years, and he had been building this. On the other hand, if you had specifically said to me, “Jane, is it a bomb?” I’d have said, “Yes.” On the other hand, if you’d said, “Jane, it is power for nuclear subs? Is it a more diffuse affair?” I’d have probably said yes too. It was certainly nothing we discussed, but sort of mutual agreement, all the time we were at Los Alamos. But you can’t ignore all the times we’d talked before. On the other hand, there were lots of wives who know exactly what was happening. There were lots of more loose mouthed people than Robert. I remember when they went down to the desert, someone dancing with me and saying, “They’re going to test something that I consider highly over designed,” and you know, that sort of thing. Other men would tell me more than Robert, in short.
Hoddeson:Did you go down?
Mrs. Wilson:No. I knew Robert was going to the desert. As a matter of fact, I went to San Francisco. I had written an operetta about Los Alamos, which fortunately was never produced, which had some sort of authentic words, which we called... which went ... “We’re living in anticipation of a Congressional investigation, “and it went, “You’d better watch your P’s and Q’s, against the day Hearst spreads the news,” and ironically, Hearst spread the news to me, because I was in San Francisco on a street car with my mother, and I saw, “Atomic Bomb Rips Japan.” I said, “I’ve got to get off and get the paper.” Mother said, “We’re not at our destination.” I said, “Still, I want to get the papers. Something very real has happened, it concerns me and my life.” “So I went off, and that was it.”
Hoddeson:I don’t have the dates straight, but certainly there was a big period, wasn’t there, between the desert test, and the bomb at Hiroshima?
Wilson:Not really. The test went off on the 16th, I believe, of July, and August 6th was the date that it was dropped, so that’s —
Hoddeson:A bit more than two weeks.
Wilson:More than two weeks, yes.
Mrs. Wilson:I know I was in San Francisco when the bomb —
Wilson:So it was ... I guess, I, knowing that I was going to be down in the desert — I remember sending, not sending her, but suggesting, that was a good time for her to go and visit her mother. It also shows that we weren’t you know, completely held to the project. We could go around and do pretty much what we wanted to do.
Mrs. Wilson:Well, right at that point, things were extremely loose, as opposed to an earlier period when Thought any minute, at the gates, would be closed against us, and when for a long period of time, the rules were, no further north than Taos, no further south than Albuquerque — which was very easy for us to do, because Robert never went anywhere.
Hoddeson:And then that changed in the last year? MRS.
Wilson:It got looser and looser, yes. I don’t know when it was that — shortly after the event, I think, shortly after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that Robert went to the hospital for ...(off tape) — he only had This operation was a minor operation, but a major operation. I mean, I knew nothing was going to happen. And it was one that had been hanging over him for a while, and he felt, I guess, after this, that it was a good time to do it. Medical care was free. And I had planned to do something else. I had planned to go down to Mexico City, with my friend Jenna Farles, my friend Missie Teller and my fired Klaus Fuchs, because it had been pointed out to me that it was a very inexpensive trip and they had room in the car for me, and I’d never been to Mexico before, and I thought it was a great idea. Just at the last minute I pulled out. I thought, a good wife doesn’t leave her husband alone in a hospital. And of course, that was the luckiest thing I ever did, because Klaus Fuchs was throwing Marxist stuff or something around in Mexico City, and anyone who was on that trip was going to be grilled by the FBI to the day he or she died, and intensively, because Klaus was passing out secrets.
Hoddeson:He was passing out secrets in Mexico?
Mrs. Wilson:I think so.
Wilson:That was the time he did go to Mexico City, and did have — Yellow box which torn —
Mrs. Wilson:— no, I think that was gold —
Wilson:— to match with gold, I think, to — they met there, somehow, and he did — that was an occasion on which he passed secrets to —(Crosstalk)— in Mexico City, and had Jane gone along on that trip, she would have been in such trouble.
Mrs. Wilson:Just being grilled over and over again, asked, every time you had a ham sandwich or tied your shoe lace, and it was really quite a break for me, (after all, I was going to see Mexico City eventually) that I didn’t happen to go on this rather ill fated, spy laden tour.
Hoddeson:I love that story, that’s —
Mrs. Wilson:I was rather close to Klaus, because he was a single person and I was a young lady, and there weren’t that many young ladies around, and there were certainly more single gentlemen than there were young married ladies. Anyhow, just an old — wife... it paid off.
Hoddeson:Right. There was one other question that we didn’t answer yesterday, before we get to Oakbrook. I was trying to figure out what the impact of — everybody, in particular Bob, said that Niels Bohr affected people, his views about —
Mrs. Wilson:— I think that’s true —
Hoddeson:— nuclear energy —
Mrs. Wilson:He was around, more or less. It was a terrible bore to go to a dinner party with him, because of his famous habit of lowering his voice when he had anything to say. So what you had would be, say, 12 people sitting at a dinner party, trying to chatter away, and suddenly this great man would open his mouth and there’d be dead silence. I never had very good hearing, and you know, it was just terribly boring. I never knew what was going on.
Hoddeson:Why was he so boring? You couldn’t hear him, make out what he was trying to say? Then why did he have such an impact? And what was the impact?
Mrs. Wilson:Well for one thing, he was a very fine man, and two, physicists have always been very charitable about good physicists as opposed to bad physicists, socially, I mean. They accept an awful lot. God, I could give you a long list of Nobel Prize Winners who misbehaved socially, who kept being invited around indefinitely. You know —?— Guys who would never go home, guys who’d read the dictionary, guys who were rude to the hostess. I could write a book. But Bohr was none of these things. He was obviously a very fine gentleman. He was, you know, a great shining light. He was obviously a very moral person, he was supposed to be — it was supposed to be very hot stuff to be invited to a dinner party with him. If you were a person like myself, you might have thought that there was a big price to pay, like being bored for the evening, but that’s a terrible thing to say.
Wilson:You’re being very practical. Weren’t you at one of those parties, I think I was working that night, but you told me about it later, maybe it had to do with something else, but you used to play the game a lot. You know what THE Game is?
Mrs. Wilson:It’s a charade game.
Wilson:It’s charades, where you say something like, just some words —
Mrs. Wilson:No, it’s usually a quotation like — “Age could not wither her no custom stale her —”
Wilson:Something of that sort.
Wilson:You had two teams chosen up, and then you acted out, and the —
Mrs. Wilson:Yes, and Niels Bohr did say to me, and of course I was literary —
Wilson:Jane was on, I think, Niels Bohr’s team. What did he say? (Crosstalk)
Mrs. Wilson:I was an antagonist of Niels Bohr on the Game, and he turned to me and said, “But how can I compete with you? You’re so clever.” That’s a cute story. But, of course, I mean, I’d been an English major, not a physicist major. I knew a quote or two. What else do you come out with?
Hoddeson:I guess I haven’t gotten to what’s bothering me. As I understand it, his political views, on atomic energy and so on, giving away —
Mrs. Wilson:Well, that he didn’t talk about to me.
Wilson:I think there was a tendency, for one thing, for, as a European custom partly, but for men and women to separate.
Wilson:Not so much at Los Alamos as other places, but even there, because they were Europeans, and after dinner there’s a tendency for the men to go talk about things, because, partly what you talk about probably was secret, women were not to talk about it.
Mrs. Wilson:I went to a party just the other evening.
Wilson:Well, anyway, Jane always resented that kind of thing, as it happened particularly at Princeton when we were there. I think it happened especially when we went to European parties at Los Alamos, because the talk tended among the physicists to become very technical, even if it didn’t have to do with bombs. Then it would be, I remember John van Neumann, I was very fond of him, and almost any subject that came up, away one would go following that subject in a technical manner, that is, especially if say Fermi was present. Then we would all chime in and make an analysis of the subject, from a political, or if it had to do with, how many words are there in the Bible, or how many words are necessary to be used, or how many scales can a horny toad have and how fast can a horny toad possibly — no matter what it was that came up, then the game in the physicist ’s thing was to apply physics to that problem and come up with a very physical approximation, somehow, and the person who did it sort of the most cleverly won. And usually Fermi won, because he was very clever, but John van Neumann was good. I wasn’t so bad myself at making some kind of a, getting some kind of a rough approximation by, you know, pulling a number out of the sky in some miraculous way that was appropriate. That would I think always bore the ladies, because it was a —
Mrs. Wilson:— ladies were never invited, even if the ladies could have joined it.
Wilson:So the men would go off and do that, and the subject would go sort of in what we would consider a humorous way of amusing ourselves, and getting on to some serious discussion that might have to do with classified information, and that just happened to come up then, and the women would be out of ear shot — although I don’t think we cared that much about whether they were or were not.
Mrs. Wilson:I thought generally there were less of these parties than there was, say, at Princeton. (crosstalk)
Wilson:Well, it was formal, there, if you went some place. Then there was a time when the women went upstairs or off and talked about sewing. The men stayed at the dinner table —
Mrs. Wilson:They talked about cooking and raising kids, if you didn’t have a recipe or any kids —
Wilson:Then after a certain length of time at the dinner table, then someone said, “Should we join the ladies?” I mean, it was that formal kind of thing. Jane used to just hate it.
Hoddeson:Did you talk about what to do with the Bomb, assuming that the Bomb —
Wilson:— well, that might be the kind of thing —
Hoddeson:— that you would talk when the ladies were upstairs?
Wilson:Not upstairs, at Los Alamos the ladies were always in the room, but there was a tendency to be one side of the room and another side of the room.
Mrs. Wilson:There was no upstairs.
Wilson:There wasn’t an upstairs.
Mrs. Wilson:But Robert, may I ask you, most of your discussions with Niels Bohr of what comes after the Bomb didn’t occur after the Bomb?
Wilson:No, a certain part of those came before the Bomb went off. A lot of them came just before, so at the time that Jane would have gone to San Francisco, then I would have been a kind of a bachelor, and around where those, that kind of conversation would have been going on, because Niels Bohr was a — and the visitors were essentially bachelors. Niels Bohr was there with his son — Who was just a boy 15 years old perhaps taking care of him, and then, somebody like Johnny van Neumann —
Mrs. Wilson:— Clare —
Wilson:But Clare, that was later, I don’t think during the war it came, Clare, and Rabi was present, he wouldn’t be, Helen I don’t recall ever coming —
Mrs. Wilson:No, Helen never came to Los Alamos.
Wilson:So there were a goodly number of people who would be around having discussions. Now, those discussions, the kind of discussion that I’m talking about I think began to happen when Frank Oppenheimer came, and Hawkins, and with Bohr around and Phil Morrison, somehow then we began really to talk. Now, you had asked the question, had such things happened earlier? And I had, perhaps because I was from Princeton, that I had worried about it, and I called a meeting at one time ... It was the only time I know of where these questions were formally addressed, and at Princeton there was something that was called, we had a series of meetings, of the impact of this on that — Fascism on Democracy, or — there was a series of programs, usually involving a man by the name of Wilson, the writer — not Mitchell Wilson, no — he was a critic — (Edmund Wilson? -EE)
Mrs. Wilson:Critic of what?
Wilson:Oh dear. He had a different name. He’s the man who wrote somebody, Hecate County (MEMOIRS OF HECATE COUNTY) —
Mrs. Wilson:Oh, Edmund Wilson. Yes, he was a critic. He wasn’t around — (Los Alamos)
Wilson:Anyway, he came to Princeton a number of times. I remember him being at Princeton. He had given a talk called, the Impact of something on somebody, something else, so at one point —
Mrs. Wilson:It probably was “The Impact of F. Scott Fitzgerald on Princeton” or something.
Wilson:It could be. Whatever it was. I remember I then, in imitation of that, put up posters all over the lab, calling a meeting down in our Building X, which is where I was a group leader —
Hoddeson:This is at Los Alamos?
Wilson:At Los Alamos, and the announcement was —
Wilson:That’s what I’m trying to think of, which one. It was either late ‘44 or very early in 1945. In January. And the announcement said, “The impact was just, a meeting at X, at such and such in time — “The Impact of the Gadget,” which is what we called the Bomb, “The Impact of the Gadget on Civilization,” you know, the old sanctimonious, and the first thing that happened was that Oppie then had me in, and said I shouldn’t do that, because the security people wouldn’t like it. And I remember asking him, wee, what in the hell did it matter what the security people, whether they liked it or not? That came sort of as a bombshell to Oppie, who was usually rather sensitive to what the security people thought. Well, I think he was sensitive to it because they had so much on him. In any case, he suggested that it might not be a good idea to have that meeting because of the security, they didn’t like it. I took vigorous exception with him and said we were going to hold it in any case. Then he came to the meeting, I recall that.
Hoddeson:How many people came to the meeting?
Wilson:It was enough so that I remember, it was wintertime, because I remember the people came with their mackinaws and heavy gear, and it was held in a room about the size of these two rooms, and it was pretty well filled up.
Hoddeson:Maybe 50 people?
Wilson:Could have been 50 people, probably 35 but it might have been 50 people. I know Vicky came and all the theorists came plus all the people that we considered the radicals, and — I explained to you about the Princeton group, and other people that would come to the — But the people who were considered to be radicals were not very many, for some reason, but some — like Frisch —
Hoddeson:He was considered a radical?
Wilson:He wasn’t a radical, but I guess you might — the difference between an intellectual and radical is hard to tell. Someone who would think about such things. Radicals were — somehow you couldn’t tell the difference — I don’t think people tended to be radical, so someone like Hawkins, who really was a radical, as I recall, wasn’t a radical there, as I explained to you. He was part of the establishment. In any case, they came down, we did have a thorough going discussion about, whether we should continue to work on the Bomb and why really we were working on it, and what effect it would have to build this terrible thing, this object that we were working on. The result, Oppenheimer had quite an effect on it, and particularly argued that we should work as hard as we could, and other people did too, and the main reason that we should was, and this was — In some way, was that there was going to be a meeting in San Francisco at which the United Nations was to be set up, and that was coming up. That may have been in April but it was a few months away, and that it would be a terrible thing if that meeting were to be held and it was not know, at the time the United Nations rules were being made, and whether there was to be a United Nations, whether all that was to be set up, to keep people ignorant of the fact that there would be an atomic bomb, and our business was to have demonstrated that there would be such a thing, before that meeting. So that probably means it was very early in 1945. I think that meeting, I’ve forgotten, but in ‘45 — I’m looking up numbers. That was the only meeting that I know of at which that kind of discussion was held. We went off from it feeling that the best thing that we could do was to demonstrate that there was a bomb, because if we didn’t demonstrate there was a bomb, then the military people who were our enemies would keep it classified and secret and nobody would ever know whether there was a bomb or not, so that there would be, all of the United Nations would be set up ignorant, everybody ignorant of the fact that there was an atomic bomb, and that that would be the wrong thing to do, as the military people would want to keep it secret until the next war.
Wilson:I remember, our conclusions was, we should work as hard as we could and get that thing demonstrated before the San Francisco meeting. A few months or a few weeks later on, there was another meeting held that I did not attend, and that was a meeting that had to do with whether the people should unionize or not, whether they should form unions.
Hoddeson:Was this also at Los Alamos?
Wilson:This was also at Los Alamos. It was a later meeting. I didn’t go to that meeting. There, the question was, whether there would be a union, a real union like the Teachers’ Union. A lot of the people there had been members of the Teachers’ union —
Wilson:Oppie, and a lot of people were, and they I think felt that it should be discussed, whether the way of solving these problems was by unions, through the union movement, or not. They concluded that no, that would be wrong, and one shouldn’t be talking about questions like, what are salaries, they also were concerned about salary problems, working hours as well — because in those days it was felt that all those problems were connected. That is, how much people were paid as well as the idealism of it, because as we went into the war, for example in San Francisco, there was the Longshoremen’s strike, and there all sorts of, the people who were involved in that at the University like Oppie were idealists. They felt that all the idealism came out of the workingman and the unionization of the workingman. A lot of baloney of that kind which I didn’t accept, and whether I didn’t go to the meeting because I was not asked to, because my views about unions were very well known, I was very anti-union, or not, was another question. But those were the two meetings that I know of, before the Bomb went off. But just as it was going to go off, there certainly were discussions about it, and these discussions were largely, as I recall, initiated by Bohr, and then after —
Hoddeson:He actually initiated them?
Wilson:He initiated these discussions. Then, what happened — but this would have been within weeks of the time it went off — then after it had gone off —
Hoddeson:Was he at Los Alamos at the time it went off?
Wilson:Yes, I think so.
Wilson:He might have been away for a few days.
Hoddeson:I can look that up somewhere.
Wilson:But he would have been around, certainly around in spirit, and I guess I was very much involved in these discussions, because, I’d forgotten, Jane was away in San Francisco and didn’t come back till maybe a week after, when did you come back?
Mrs. Wilson:I came back a few days after the Bomb explosion.
Wilson:During that time I knew then there were intense discussions, and especially with Bohr, Weiskopf, myself and Frank Oppenheimer, who was a very dear friend of mine as I explained. We were then constantly just nagging away at that, and organizing, actually, to do something about it, after the Bomb. Within minutes we’d started to organize to do something about it.
Hoddeson:Were these discussions somehow related to the later organization of the Federation of American Scientists? Is there a direct connection?
Wilson:It led to the FAS. But before there was such a thing, when there was something called ALAS, Association of Los Alamos Scientists, that was formed at Los Alamos and it was organized within days I think of the time of the Bomb.
Mrs. Wilson:I remember coming back and being met by you at, was it in Laney? Station? And I said, “Congratulations,” and you said, “Don’t congratulate me, I think it’s terrible.” Then you said, “Jane, I’ve got a big problem. I’ve been invited to join the staff of every university in the country.” All that must have happened in two or three weeks after the bomb. We spent a time when we were young saying, you know, “Where do we want to go?” and suddenly he had this option, and then we were like babes in the woods. We didn’t know where in the world would be the best place to go.
Wilson:Mostly we organized and had meetings, mass meetings. It was a very dramatic —
Mrs. Wilson:Ladies helped out. Ladies helped out. I went around to various people. I went to the chaplain? And I said, “We want to be sure that this kind of thing never happens again. We need your assistance.” He said, “Madame, you don’t — where have you been in the three years I’ve been here? Why don’t you ever come to church, if you’re so holy?” and he was mad at me.
Hoddeson:What kind of help had you expected?
Mrs. Wilson:Support. Not money. We wanted names. We wanted ideas. People were immediately, almost immediately going to local places, or as far away as they could get, giving talks. I remember Phil talking everywhere.
Wilson:Yes, we started going down trying to meet people in Santa Fe. We did. We started to give talks to them, radio talks.
Mrs. Wilson:I remember, Willy — I can write, and I remember Willy? — Coming to me for a kind of a radio talk —
Wilson:And I wrote a, I know I wrote something for the — it was published in the TIMES — that was one of the first, I guess was the first thing that I sent out.
Mrs. Wilson:And that got into TIME MAGAZINE. Under Science.
Wilson:Because we had written as a group, we organized loosely, and we had written some kind of a manifesto, and as a result, that was censored, because General Groves wouldn’t allow us to put it out, and so I simply wrote something down myself and sent it off without asking anybody’s by your leave, sent it off to the NEW YORK TIMES, where it was published.
Hoddeson:So that must be somewhere in September or something like that?
Wilson:No, it would have been late — well, I suppose. I don’t have a date. I remember I wrote it with the — “The Specter Stalking this Nation,” something like that, you know, like the Communist Manifesto, I don’t know why, but the Specter — I have it around someplace.
Hoddeson:You think it might be in your files that you left at — Lab?
Wilson:Oh, I’m sure it is, yes.
Hoddeson:Probably be easier to find it there than to go through the NEW YORK TIMES.
Wilson:I wrote two things, one I think that got published in — that was published in TIME, and another thing that then was published in the NEWS YORK TIMES, that I wrote for the group, a group thing but it was something that I had written about — and that I’m sure is in my papers on the early ?— days. In fact I think I have probably a complete record in there of all of the early — period. (EVAS?)
Hoddeson:I’ll have to go through that some time. Just one last question. What did you think of Niels Bohr’s idea of just letting everybody know about the Bomb?
Wilson:I must have been very much influenced by him, because I can remember that I would go to something, there was some kind of a meeting, let’s see, it had to do with, I think it was the, it was a meeting I guess of the group heads or rather the section heads, such as, whatever, probably half a dozen. I remember George Kistkiakowsky. He’d (I’d) go to that, and Bacher and, just the various organization groups, divisions. I was a division leader so I would go to those, and we, in the days just following the war, there was complete chaos. There were no instructions coming through from Washington whatsoever. So we had to make a determination as to, I remember, whether to work on the Super, as we called it, that is, to work on the hydrogen bomb, or not. That was one of the discussions that would come up. We had to sit around and make a decision on it, should we work on the hydrogen bomb or shouldn’t we be working on the hydrogen bomb? What should we be doing about declassification? I think those general basic problems — because Washington was just a mess then, with no, it was chaos, and people were only worried about having the war over and getting the troops back, and I remember hearing what a terrible thing it was that here were these problems, and that, they were none of our business, as a bunch of dummy, you know, narrowly oriented physicists, to discuss them, yet there we were discussing them. I was perfectly willing to discuss them, and I would always get into a fight with Zacharias, who seemed to hold just the opposite views from myself, for some reason, and I argued strongly against maintaining any kind of secrets, strongly against working on the Super, that we had to wait to let a United Nations be formed, and then when there was a United Nations, then a decision might be made about that kind of a problem. But for us to be making a decision to go ahead and deal with a super weapon was just outrageous. I also remember, I’m sure that it was only because I’d been influenced by Bohr so strongly, that we really should be declassifying, getting ready to declassify …(off tape)
Mrs. Wilson:…so good, never had any kind of —
Hoddeson:Besides you and Niels Bohr, did other people share that view, that it should be declassified and so on?
Wilson:Well, as I say, Niels Bohr was like a guru. And there was a whole group of us that would have felt the same way. I mean, I’m sure that because of his beliefs, that probably Weisskopf and you’d have to ask Vicky but I’m pretty sure that Vicky would have felt such reverence for Niels Bohr —
Mrs. Wilson:— He shared that —
Wilson:— That there’d be no question but what it would never have occurred to Vicky to think otherwise. And I suppose because Vicky was a good friend of mine, I would have been influenced then by Vicky too, and again, I had — then there were people like the Tyrols? who where more realistic. I don’t think he would have felt that necessarily, or someone like Fermi, would have felt — he was always very cynical, and especially with regard to the young people. He used to bait us by saying, “Well, this is just nonsense, idealism of the worst kind. You haven’t thought this through. It’s not logical. You don’t know what you’re talking about, physicists talking about politics —” And he would bring up, you know, contradictions in our thinking, because our thinking was pretty loose, and Fermi would always point out any contradiction in our thinking.
Mrs. Wilson:Oh, he loved that — and he hated abstract nouns. On the other hand, don’t forget that Laura, his wife, always was sort of avant garde for sort of causes and he never stopped her, and he never knew, I think it was just some persons —
Wilson:— Oh, yes, he later on —
Mrs. Wilson:He also was terrified of the soldiers.
Wilson:Yes, but, I remember, when there was an occasion once when, in Washington, when Fermi — it’s a long story, but where we were sitting with, one politician, one physicist, one politician, Senator or congressman, and so on — and vice President — Truman? Wallace was present, I remember that. It was a high level thing, and the Senators then would ask questions, and because they had heard of Fermi quite a bit, they could direct their question to whomever they wanted to, they’d either direct them to Oppie or Fermi. Well, Fermi went right down the Federation line, gave all of the things that he’d been cynical about. When asked questions by these people, knowing it would get into the newspapers, when it would make a real difference, then he was not a cynic at all and he was saying exactly what it was that we young people had been saying. That was an interesting example of a person, not exactly saying what he believed, but testing us and trying to make us, you know, think things through, not just be a bunch of soft headed, which we generally were, muddle headed, you know, liberals, mouthing not very well thought through ideas. I think that that’s what he was trying to get us to do, among other things, and also —
Mrs. Wilson:He had a true distrust, I feel, as a first thing and he liked to think of himself as a terribly 100 percent pragmatic person.
Wilson:And then some like Teller also tended to be skeptical and more realistic, and — oh, but idealistic too, in those days, but his idealism took extreme form, such as Union Now was one of the thins, there should be a union between United States and Britain. I know he was a great champion of that idea. But he was very skeptical that we would ever be able to make an accord with the Communists.
Mrs. Wilson:I mean, what we really are saying is that the line was drawn between the people who were scared to death of Communism, and the people who thought that there could be some sort of … (crosstalk)
Wilson:… And the Europeans generally, though, older Europeans, present tended to be more skeptical than would be, someone like Johnny van Neumann was more skeptical that there would be a real change in humanity that would accommodate the atomic bomb, as opposed to the bomb being used. I remember Johnny van Neumann would tell me — you couldn’t just use a slogan and get anything out of him, it had to be logically correct, or it got no place, and he would just point out that your statement was illogical, why were you saying such a dumb thing?
Hoddeson:Did Bethe participate in these discussions?
Wilson:Yes. I’ve forgotten, I think that Bethe would have, as a very logical person, was not what you’d call a wild eyed liberal in any sense. On the other hand, he would have —
Mrs. Wilson:— he was never paranoiac though about the Soviet Union.
Wilson:No, no, he would have come down very strongly with the young people, that’s my memory.
Mrs. Wilson:There was Agler? and later on Wigner, Wigner and another — didn’t happen to be there — that were really so upset about this —
Wilson:— upset is a strong word.
Mrs. Wilson:But I remember Fermi saying to me once, he said, “Jane, they’re against all humanity,” and I almost jumped, because this was a man who never used words like beauty or truth or humanity, and it was the only time I ever heard his say anything like that, because he generally distrusted these fat capitalized nouns.
Wilson:But Bethe, as I recall, although he wasn’t — there were a lot of us who were really pushing hard. We were organizing, you know, like you’d organize a union, and some of the things we would do meant that we had to take some risk with regard to the — to flaunting? the security people — and so there were certain risks. I don’t think Bethe would do things of that kind. On the other hand, ideologically he was right behind us. I’m sure that he was part of the general group that were — and it was a large, almost unanimous group, and in most respects even including Teller. I think we were on agreement on almost everything and that would include Teller, for example, how long it would take to make another bomb, what kind of, would there be a defense against the bomb. We had all sorts of statements that we made over and over, and as I recall, Edward agreed with those statements, even joined with us in making them. It was only when it came to questions about, well, could we find some way, some accord with the, a general United Nations with participation by the Communists, where I think that he would have had some — he was somewhat cynical about that. Because of bad experiences that he somehow had in Hungary or somewhere, that just bumped him into the —
Mrs. Wilson:— Missie’s godfather was, all her life under — She was raised as a Social Democrat. Her father was a big person in Social Democrats, were the guys that — split off into the various internationals. The Social Democrats in Germany were allied with Karl Marx. It isn’t that they were unaware of this. I don’t think their fear was Marxism. Their fear was always the Soviet Union.
Wilson:In any case, in the organization that we had, I remember that Edward was always a part of it. He was always there, because I can remember Edward and I would always tilt with one another during these things, and I think it had to do more with fine points than it had to do with real ideological difference, because —
Mrs. Wilson:— I don’t think Edward ever joined the —
Wilson:— No, he came to the, I think he did, he came to these because we would go to, I remember going, after one of those meetings, we’d always go to somebody’s house, and discuss the meeting, and like as not it would be Edward’s house, I remember once going to one of those and having a discussion with Edward, that, well, when a certain point came up, when he said such and such, I said I knew what he was attacking he was really attaching something else. He said, “Yes” —, he knew what I was talking about,” and then you said such and such and I knew what you were talking about, because I came back and got you on this one,” and I would say, “Oh, no you didn’t, because I said, you figured out” — and you know, we were going over it like a couple of smart ass kids. Only we were comfortably jousting with one another because we had really rather fundamentally different points of view, and yet it was because he was a member of that organization that we would have been discussing it, and anyhow the organization could go various ways, and have various kinds of cooperation. I’m sure that he was a member of that —(crosstalk)
Mrs. Wilson:I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I don’t think he ever joined.
Wilson:That’s something that one could find out. My guess is that he did join.
Mrs. Wilson:I think — joined.
Wilson:Oh, I’m sure he joined —
Hoddeson:Well, that’s something —
Mrs. Wilson:It must be a matter of record.
Hoddeson:Yes, that can be looked up. Most of these meetings took place when?
Wilson:They took place in the days, it seemed to me, following the use of the Bomb, the dropping of the Bomb on Hiroshima, yes, and probably at the end of August, taking some days. I think that we would have written some things probably, maybe within a week. I’d have to look at my papers, maybe two weeks.
Mrs. Wilson:Very quick.
Mrs. Wilson:There were sort of statements in the NEW YORK TIMES, on the front pages, very quickly. Everybody was supposed to be a key man in the atomic bomb project. I said it had more — than a
Hoddeson:Did you go to these meetings?
Wilson:(crosstalk) … Jane would probably have gone to the meetings.
Mrs. Wilson:Mostly, you know, I’m a publicist and I could help them with the writing, and then again, as I say, I ran around trying to enlist support, from the standpoint for this famous case with the Episcopalian minister.
Hoddeson:After the Bomb was dropped, were there still secrets kept from you?
Hoddeson:Everything changed at that point.
Mrs. Wilson:Everything changed. And remember, the secrets — it’s a very hard question to answer. There were a lot of ladies that knew precisely what was happening. It all depended upon how blabber mouthed their husbands were. As I say, I could go to a dance, and someone would say, “They’re going out in the desert to test this and I think, Jane, is a terribly over designed Fat Boy” or something like that. You know, I’d hear these names, even, and of course I sort of — I tried awfully hard not to think about it, because I am not a very discreet person, and because Robert and I, once we were at Los Alamos, really never discussed it. I mean, there was a horror, you know, of somebody getting your secret from you. In the course of the war, I may have reported two or three people, for example, that I was worried about. I’ve never reported anybody since in my whole life, one was just as —
Hoddeson:Reported them for what?
Mrs. Wilson:For being too — a character — unsafe, enemies, possible traitors. (crosstalk)… Three people are…(crosstalk)
Wilson:This is the sort of thing that —
Hoddeson:Oh wow, dorm parties. (Mrs. W. off mike) Dancing from 9:30, bar opens at 10. (more murmuring off mike…) No conversation outside the —
Wilson:Here was a guard stealing from — a wonderful picture — stealing from our icebox. Beer was being missing from our icebox. You’d put in money, you know. It was an honor system. And it all began to disappear, so we rigged up a camera with a micro switch and look who we caught.
Wilson:We blew this up and pasted it on the icebox. This poor guy had to pass by it every night. He was on the night shift. And he finally came around and said to us, “Well, fellows, don’t you think I’ve suffered enough?” and we said, “Yes, I guess you have,” so we tore it down and never did anything about it, of course, but he certainly stopped.
Wilson:Yes, we certainly stopped that.
Hoddeson:Great. Oh, this is great material (crosstalk)
Mrs. Wilson:I’ve got whole boxes of pictures that you’re going to have to just throw away.
Hoddeson:You’re going to throw away pictures? Don’t say that.
Mrs. Wilson:Oh, not these. Some of them are terrible pictures.
Hoddeson:Certainly never throw away usable pictures. Gee, I’d better not tell the archivist at Los Alamos about these pictures.
Wilson:They probably have some.
Mrs. Wilson:There are always requests to us for movies and pictures.
Hoddeson:What is this one?
Wilson:That’s the tower. The Bomb is up here, and this was the piece of equipment that I put on in order to, a little shelter, and I had to go up the last thing. I was one of the last people to go up, because I had to go up and turn this piece of equipment on, just before the Bomb went off, see.
Hoddeson:What was the equipment? What did it do?
Wilson:It was a thing to measure the rate of multiplication of the bomb, that is, something called alpha, it goes as E to the alpha T, the number of neutrons in the beginning, and this measured the multiplying time.
Wilson:It was a rather fundamental measuring —
Hoddeson:I was wondering what your role was at Trinity?
Wilson:I was in charge of all nuclear measurement.
Hoddeson:All nuclear measurement?
Wilson:And in particular I was in charge of some specific measurement. I thought I had those … probably papers from that, maybe they’re in those papers that I left at Los Alamos, or at Fermilab.
Hoddeson:Well, they’re somewhere around.
Wilson:I’ve got these —
Mrs. Wilson:Are you getting tired?
Mrs. Wilson:I’m wondering about — me I’d rather hear about it, I have to — the doctor’s ? bill. (???)
Wilson:I suppose they’re at Los Alamos. I thought I had the things here.
Mrs. Wilson:No stress, no over work, no nothing. I mean, really he shouldn’t be doing this …
Wilson:What I thought I had was that calculator (card -?) thing. A time, which would have indicted how rapidly it was that —
Mrs. Wilson:Yes, you do have it somewhere.
Wilson:How rapidly we had organized.
Mrs. Wilson:… (inaudible, off mike)
Wilson:I think it is, yes. TIME, August 20.
Hoddeson:Time, August 20th?
Wilson:And the question is —
Mrs. Wilson:That’s the only reason we have —
Hoddeson:Actually, TIME wouldn’t be so hard to scan through, because there aren’t as many issues, as many pages, as —
Mrs. Wilson:I think you were there under Science, buy you may have had a letter in it.
Wilson:I have a letter.
Mrs. Wilson:Let Dr. — It says, “See Letters,” I remember that one. Things happened very fast.
Wilson:Yes, here it is
Hoddeson:If you just give me the date, then I can tell. I don’t want to take that away from you. I can get a copy.
Wilson:The date is October 22nd.
Hoddeson:Uh huh and what page?
Wilson:It’s page 10.
Hoddeson:Ok, so —
Mrs. Wilson:That’s your letter?
Mrs. Wilson:Yes, and you’re mentioned in the book too.
Wilson:Here’s what it is. This doesn’t sound like the Communist Manifesto. I don’t know what it does. “A Spectre is Haunting This country, the spectre of nuclear energy. As a scientist who worked on the atomic bomb, I am appalled that the public is so apathetic and so uninformed about the dangerous social consequences of our development. There is no secret of the atomic bomb. In my opinion, in two to five years, other countries can also manufacture the bomb, and bombs ten, hundreds, even thousands of times more effective than those which produced such devastation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This country with its concentrated industrial centers is entirely vulnerable to such weapons, nor can we even expect effective counter measures. Unless strong action is taken within the near future toward a positive control, this country will be drawn into an armaments race which will inevitably end in a catastrophe for all participants.” I was wrong. That’s from Los Alamos.
Wilson:I said, “It was our hope in developing the bomb that it would be a great force for world cooperation and peace.” Boy, how sanctimonious. That then was October 22nd. So it was later than I thought. It took a while.
Hoddeson:I have these things. Someday I may want to borrow these and make some copies.
Wilson:Ok, yes, I probably have some pretty good — some of those things are, might be worth —
Hoddeson:They look wonderful. Maybe the best thing would be to take them to Columbia and use the Xerox machine and then I wouldn’t — that would be the easiest thing.
Wilson:Yes. There are pictures of people —
Hoddeson:Oh, who’s that?
Wilson:That’s Thomas Snyder.
Hoddeson:I’ve seen his name in — (or a famous name)
Wilson:There were members of my group who were … Out in the desert — here we are sitting around at the McDonald ranch — that’s John
I think I’m going to turn off the recorder…