Oral History Transcript — Dr. Frederick Seitz
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Interview with Dr. Frederick Seitz
Frederick Seitz; October 7, 1982
ABSTRACT: In this interview, Frederick Seitz discusses his administrative and advisory work. Topics discussed include: National Defense Research Committee; Carnegie-Mellon University; Bill Shockley; solid state physics research; University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Harvey Brooks; David Turnbull; American Physical Society; Karl Darrow; American Institute of Physics; Herb Hollomon; Wheeler Loomis; Louis Ridenour; ILLIAC; Enrico Fermi; National Research Council, National Academy of Sciences; Office of Naval Research; Charles Kittel; Physics Today; Wallace Brode; Elmer Hutchisson; Sam Goudsmit; Society of Exploration Geophysicists; Oak Ridge National Laboratory; Edward Teller; divisions among physicists on defense research; Lewis Strauss; Atomic Energy Commission; Det Bronk; National Academy of Engineering; National Science Foundation; Committee on Science Engineering and Public Policy (COSEPUP); George Kistiakowsky; Rachel Carson's Silent Spring; Emilio Daddario; Ralph Nader; President's Science Advisory Committee; supersonic transport public policy; Harry Hess; Melvin Laird; Rockefeller University.
Session I | Session II
Weart:It’s October 7, now. We’re going to talk mostly about the National Academy of Sciences today, and a little bit about Rockefeller University, but we’ll try to keep close to the physics side of it. You became president of the Academy in 1962. Do you know how that came about?
Seitz:There was a nominating committee. It asked if I’d be interested, and I said I wasn’t sure I really had what it took, but they said they’d gone over the ground. I’d recently been president of the Physical Society. I guess that’s how my name came up.
Weart:Anybody in particular on the nominating committee?
Seitz:Well, Bill Houston was on it. He may have been the person who proposed me since we met frequently. I never looked back at the archives. I’m not even sure they kept minutes. Jay Stratton was also on it. As a matter of fact, he was vice president for a period when I was president of the Academy, a very fine person.
Weart:I see. Det Bronk had been the president just before you. What sort of relations did you have with him? Had you known him much before that?
Seitz:I first met Det at the University of Pennsylvania in 1939 when I was on the faculty. He was then quite a senior person relative to me, and was head of the Johnson Foundation. I was elected to the council of the Academy in the 1950s and got to know him very well there.
Weart:What sort of person was he?
Seitz:He was a brilliant, complicated man, with an enormously sensitive intuition about people and issues, and highly creative. He was the one who essentially brought the Academy into the peacetime world, after the war. I traced his rise within the Academy. It is an interesting topic. Frank Jewett, who had been head of the Bell Labs, was made president of the Academy in 1939, in anticipation of the complications arising from the possibility of war. The Academy was somewhat in the doldrums but he corrected all that. He brought in very good business management and knew exactly what to do. He gave a major speech before he left, I think 1947 — he was in office about eight years — and said that in the future the Academy should focus on the peacetime problems of science. He had done his best to help in the transition. I noted that he had appointed Bronk, head of the National Research Council a couple of years earlier, recognized that Bronk had the qualities of leadership needed for the transition. Bronk was not actually elected president in 1947 when Jewett retired but in 1950. There was an interim president who didn’t like the job namely Newton Richards. He was in medical research at Penn. The work of the academy was much too involved and complicated for his tastes.
Weart:When you took over the Academy, did you have any ideas as to what you wanted to do as president, what direction you wanted to move it in?
Seitz:I knew a lot about the Academy, having served on its Council. But you never really know the complications of such a job beforehand. In the main one it feels as if he were riding a surfboard and trying to keep the wave from dashing over. A lot of new initiatives were possible.
Weart:There were a lot of initiatives, but we can’t talk about all of them. One of the ones that struck me as maybe the most important one in your first couple of years was the creation of the National Academy of Engineering. Maybe you could tell me about that?
Seitz:The proposal actually came in the late 1950’s when I was on the council. It was a very mixed thing. It was clear that the number of engineers who would be elected to the Academy if we continued the procedures that we had was going to go down. The academic scientists were beginning to dominate the choice of membership very strongly, even though there had been a distinct effort after World War I to build a substantial engineering group, because so many of the problems of the academy involved engineering.
Weart:Did it go down because there were so many more academic scientists now?
Seitz:That’s right, and they had more publications and they began to use publications as an index. The same thing was happening in medicine. We were beginning to lose the traction of medical people.
Weart:From the Academy?
Seitz:From the Academy. New individuals in medicine weren’t getting elected. We eventually corrected that by having a quota system for various fields. It is in effect now.
Weart:Did that come in when you were president?
Seitz:Yes. I was the one who instituted that. I picked a committee to analyze how we could preserve something like a balance among the different fields.
Weart:That must have been a difficult thing too.
Seitz:It was complicated, but the problem was recognized by leaders in the Academy. In addition, that was an era when people expected to reach equitable compromises on issues. You had much less division of opinion.
Weart:I would think that people would object. Over the years the balance would change; this would make the Academy rigid.
Seitz:Well, it hasn’t worked out that way. We passed through the critical period because of the strong tendency to reach consensus. When I spent the year and a half we talked about yesterday at NATO, I drew some interesting conclusions about the way American tended to work for consensus at that time. We may lose that quality in the future, but it’s been an important thing for us. The Europeans find consensus much more difficult.
Weart:Back to the engineers, then.
Seitz:The engineers had formed a committee. Eric Walker was its chairman. It had some very good people in it, including some members of the Academy, Gus Kinzel, for example, and Jay Stratton. In essence, Bronk passed the problem over to me. So we worried it through the council. One or two people were strongly opposed because they say, “That will give industry a voice in the Academy which it hasn’t had.” They wanted to keep the structure academic. We finally worked out a compromise in which we decided the new organization would be independent or quasi-independent, but be created under our original charter.
Weart:Did physicists play a particular role on this decision, physics being closest to engineering?
Seitz:No. Some of the individuals who were involved in the engineers’ committee were close to the physics community. They were electrical engineers; Jay Stratton, for example, straddled the two fields once the council evolved a plan the Academy as a whole voted on it and agreed. My own guess was that engineers would go off on their own in about ten years. There were precedents for that. The Swedish Engineering Academy is a very proud, independent and effective organization which stands on its own feet. It is much more influential in Sweden than the Science Academy, which is involved so much in Nobel Prizes.
Weart:You were prepared for this to happen, if it happened.
Weart:It hasn’t, not yet anyway. You were perfectly willing for it to happen, even if it overshadowed the National Academy?
Seitz:It’s hard to say. Our Academy has a lot of prestige. Also the National Research Council was part of the NAS, and if the engineers left, it’s not clear how that would end up.
Weart:What would have happened if there had not been a National Academy of Engineering? Do you think the pressure was so great that it would have had to come about one way or another?
Seitz:It’s hard to say. I think the committee would have got the ear of Congress and been listened to, in the mood of the time. I was afraid that some group of the Congressmen might have decided to re-examine the charter of the NAS and revise it. In which case there is no telling what would have happened.
Weart:Were other people concerned about these kinds of larger issues, the status of the Academy and so on?
Seitz:A few people were, yes, but most of the people had their own interests and didn’t think too much about it. It was a good problem for the president to worry about.
Weart:People voted for it just because it was a good idea and the Academy recommended it?
Seitz:The Council of the Academy which was essentially the executive committee had recommended it.
Weart:I see. Were there any big fights, anything the Council brought up that was not very easily approved?
Seitz:Well, later on they got into discussions of where the social sciences fitted in [words missing on tape…].
Weart:That’s always a problem, as with the National Science Foundation, to know just where to draw the line. Another interesting initiative at this time was COSPUP [Committee on Science and Public Policy]. I’d be interested in why and how that was created.
Seitz:The initial driving force behind it was George Kistiakowsky. When he was Science Advisor to President Eisenhower, he brought up the question if taking an active role on birth control or population control in the White House. Eisenhower refused. He said, “I don’t think the White House should get involved in that matter.” So when George left at the end of the Eisenhower period, he came over to the Academy, and said, “I think we ought to take some initiative on this issue.” I was on the council then. As I recall, Bronk called a special meeting to discuss what ought to be done, and out of it came the decision that the Academy ought to have a Committee on Public Policy, and that the first authorized study should be population control.
Weart:That’s interesting. Kistiakowsky was quite early in thinking about that. The public didn’t really become concerned about that until a good bit later.
Seitz:COSPUP published a report which was first picked up by the press. It was then picked up by Congress, and national concern was stimulated. The idea was there, dormant, but COSPUP brought it to the surface.
Weart:Do you know how he became interested in it?
Seitz:Oh, I think quite naturally. Many scientists began to talk about the explosion of world population and the fact that it was leading to problems. As the death rate of infants went down, many countries attained population growths at the level of say three percent a year.
Weart:How did the Academy, council and so forth feel about getting into such a very touchy issue, especially with Kennedy as President and so forth?
Seitz:Well, it didn’t bother the Academy. The time was right. As a private organization, it had the freedom to do it. Then there always were private foundations ready to help. As a matter of fact, the Rockefeller Foundation was very sympathetic. It had set up the Population Council in the same general period of time.
Weart:Was this the time you became familiar with the Rockefeller Foundation, or had that already happened earlier?
Seitz:No, I was asked to serve on the board of the Rockefeller Foundation about the time I got elected president of the Academy, perhaps a year or two later.
Weart:This was about the same time. I’m interested more generally in the general question about the National Academy’s advice to Congress. I notice that there was a Killian Committee at that time that was warning that the government wasn’t getting enough good advice, we needed more studies of manpower, and there was talk that COSPUP would be giving more advice to Congress. Who was behind all that?
Seitz:This goes back to the experience of the White House. There wasn’t a highly developed mechanism for advising Congress. There was a committee (I guess it was created by George Miller) in the House, which still exists, that emerged from the Space Committee, which supported NASA. They have hearings even now. But that was pretty much the limit. I looked back through the history of the Academy, and found that the last time the Academy had been called on to advise Congress directly on some issue had been about 1908, something like that. I forget what it was, but it’s easy to find out. It may have been weights and measures. But as a result of COSPUP we came to know a number of Congressmen on a first name basis — George Miller, Emilio Daddario and so forth. One day Daddario came over and said “Let’s have a discussion about having Congress fund some appropriate studies by the Academy.” We talked it over.
Weart:It was his idea?
Seitz:His idea, yes. He was a protégé of George Miller, the Congressman from Alameda [California] who had been an engineer, trained at Berkeley. It was finally decided that Congress would fund studies that related to impact of technology on society. I guess the issue was called technological impact. The country was in an optimistic mood at that time and we thought of the issue in terms of trying to estimate all impacts. However, as the revolt against science and technology developed, the whole thing got turned around 180 degrees. The book SILENT SPRING by Rachel Carson generated the thought that all technology is bad.
Weart:That came out just at that time. What kinds of studies did you have?
Seitz:The first one was “Environmental Impact”. As I remember, Harvey Brooks chaired the next committee on technological assessment and probably wrote a book. It’s somewhere in my library. Then the studies became much more routine each year.
Weart:I see. How would these issues be picked?
Seitz:Joint discussion with the committee on the Hill.
Seitz:Yes. I saw him very frequently.
Weart:Did you go up to the Hill and formally testify.
Seitz:That would be part of it, but we’d go to his office with a variety of thoughts and develop ideas.
Weart:Did he ever come to the Academy?
Seitz:Oh yes. We used to invite the Congressman, and they would enjoy coming to dinner.
Weart:What was Daddario like?
Seitz:A very friendly, wise person. He is still closely linked with the scientific community.
Weart:What were your personal relations with him like? A friendly kind of thing, an interest…
Weart:Who else did he interact with at the Academy?
Seitz:Well, different people, like Harrison Brown, whom he got to know and many others, immediately. As a matter of fact, the Academy’s relationship with him became known to other Congressman and later on, many Congressional bills began to contain a statement to the effect that the Academy shall serve as monitor of this bill when it’s passed. In other words the agency carrying through the action of Congress is to be overviewed by an Academy committee. This trend probably went too far. In my opinion, it brought about a form of antagonism between the Academy and some of the agencies of the executive branch. Those antagonisms are by no means healed, as yet, but I hope they will be.
Seitz:In Bronk’s day, practically all our advisory work for the government went directly through the agencies, and we have on the whole very friendly relationships. The head of an agency or some principal staff member would say, “We have this problem, would you help us?” “Let’s develop the work statement.”
Weart:There was a lot of this during your presidency too, wasn’t there?
Seitz:Oh yes. But the balance shifted much further the other way after I left, particularly during the tumultuous years.
Weart:Right, an adversarial period.
Seitz:That’s right. I don’t think we’re out of it yet. It may be that there will be a permanent residual effect. I would never appoint a chairman of a committee that an agency wanted without discussing the chairmanships and candidates with the agency head without abandoning my options. In Phil Handler’s day, the opposite was usually the case.
Weart:But in some sense this was doing what Congress wanted. It wanted to have an eye on the agencies.
Seitz:I have a hunch Frank [Press] will be much more inclined to go back to something more nearly like the older system. He served as part of the White House structure and understands the problems of the agencies.
Weart:Of course, Congress also created its own Office of Technology Assessment. At first they wanted to call it the Office of Science and Technology, then it was OTA. Then in a certain sense, it was to do what the Academy was doing, also. How did that happen, that there was a second structure set up?
Seitz:I think that Senator Edward Kennedy decided he wanted a group that was to some degree advisory to him. He prepared the bill that started it.
Weart:I see, more or less without consulting the Academy on it?
Seitz:No, I don’t think we were consulted.
Seitz:Kennedy had some very strong opinions on things. For example, he in the Senate and Daddario in the House rewrote the National Science Foundation Bill. We were asked to review early versions of the bill. When it was actually passed, several bothersome things which I had never seen were in it. They were put in at the last minute.
Seitz:In the original bill in 1951 the National Science Foundation was to be given a lump sum, and it could decide how it was to be spent. As you may remember, earlier on the science community had even asked that the director of the Foundation be appointed by the Science Board without Presidential approval. That was denied by Truman. A different version was finally passed under Truman, but there were to be no line items in the bills. There was much discussion of what the rules would be, but the NSF was to get a lump sum. The Kennedy-Daddario Bill had a line item rule in it.
Weart:This just sort of appeared along the way?
Weart:That’s the most crucial thing. I didn’t realize.
Seitz:This politicized the Science Foundation in a way which is conventional so to speak but I think acts to the detriments of its effectiveness.
Weart:This again is a general tendency that’s been happening to a lot of organizations.
Seitz:Yes. I think that the first time the head of the Foundation felt he had to leave with a change of administration was when Guy Steever had his resignation accepted when President Carter took office.
Weart:Getting back to the advice to Congress, how did this generally work, do you think? You would work out with Daddario or some of the other Congressmen what their problems were that they wanted to have studied and then you would do a report? How much interaction was there with Congress while the report was being prepared?
Seitz:Congressional staff might sit in on a review meeting occasionally.
Weart:At the last stages, to see what was happening?
Seitz:At the last stages.
Weart:Then the report would be printed up and what happened to these reports generally?
Seitz:They’d be turned over to the Congressional committee for its use.
Weart:And how much impact do you think they had?
Seitz:They had an impact. It’s very hard to assess the magnitude. Ours is a diffuse society. Interestingly enough, I bumped into Daddario two or three weeks ago. We were chatting and he said, “We started something, didn’t we, with regards to Congressional advice?” Then he said, “Perhaps Congress went too far before it was over.”
Weart:How much role did staff members play? Were there any important Daddario staff members or any others who played a really important role?
Seitz:He had a small staff of his own, and we were very close to it.
Weart:I see, so there would be a lot of interaction in terms of what needed to be done, how things should be presented, that kind of thing. There are a few of these studies that I want to talk about, but maybe first we should go on and cover some of the more general things, and one is your appointment in 1965 as a full time president. I picked up from the New York Times that this was seen as auguring a larger role for the Academy as a government advisor. There were probably other things involved too.
Seitz:I never looked on it that way. When I took the job on a part time basis, I said “I’ll try it for two years.” At the end of two years, it was clear that it was just too much to handle on that basis. It was growing all the time.
Weart:Because of these studies for Congress primarily?
Seitz:No, just more and more things. It seemed as though we were creating a new complex committee every month. Some new issues would emerge.
Weart:This wasn’t because you intended to do so. These were just things that were boiling up?
Seitz:Things that were important. Sputnik gave rise to a situation in which science got a new shot in the arm and a much broader teacher into governmental affairs. So more and more agencies began to have scientific orientations in the 1960s.
Weart:And of course the scientific community was doubling in size.
Seitz:At the end of two years, I said that I regarded it as a full time job for whomever they wanted, and I would stay if they so wished, but otherwise I would go back to the University of Illinois. So they appointed a committee to review the issue. As I remember, Herb Carter was probably the individual who chaired it, or it may have been J.C. Warner. In any case, we had an Academy committee that reviewed the situation, with the result that I stayed.
Weart:Were there people who were concerned about these changes in the Academy, not just your becoming full time, but the general larger scope, new committees. The Research Council must have been growing very rapidly in staff.
Seitz:I’m sure there were some who were concerned, but they were a minority.
Weart:It was generally regarded that this was the proper way to go.
Weart:I see. There are various studies here. Maybe you should tell me first what you think were the most interesting studies that are more or less vaguely physics related? We can’t talk about all of them. I have some ideas here that I wanted to talk about.
Seitz:Well, there’s one that I mentioned, regarding the creation of what’s now Fermilab.
Weart:Right, which we talked about a bit. I don’t know if there’s more to say about that. You were saying about two committees?
Seitz:One committee created the University Research Association, and another was involved in the selection of the site. One of the conditions laid down by the White House, with the cooperation of the Atomic Energy Commission, was that we pick a half dozen sites, geographically distributed. The final decision would be made by the President.
Weart:Actually, quite a lot has been written about this. I think the only thing I want to ask you is what specific role you may have played, especially any private meetings or discussions you were at, the kind of things that might not show up in the record.
Seitz:It was done in a fairly straightforward way. As I recall, Manny Piore was the chairman of the committee. We had a good group. It was a geographically distributed committee, and there was obviously some tension among the members, to make sure that a proposal from each area had its bad features completely exposed, as well as the good. There was some of that. We ended up with six recommended sites. One amusing incident occurred. We started out to recommend two sites in Illinois, but one of the communities said, “We don’t want those mad scientists living with us.” It was an upper middle class district.
Weart:It’s been said that Senator Dirksen played an important role in the final decision.
Seitz:You’d have to ask his ghost.
Weart:You weren’t in on that?
Seitz:No. The decision was made by President Johnson, and I’m sure that Senator Dirksen went over and talked to him.
Weart:You don’t have any special inside dope on that particular thing.
Seitz:President Johnson and Dirksen were good friends, even though they were of different parties. They had longstanding relations.
Weart:We were talking about Daddario. What about in the Senate? Did you have many relations with people over there?
Seitz:Far fewer. We developed good relations with Senator Humphrey, but they became strongest when he was Vice President. He knew of the Academy. He enjoyed, you know, saying “I was a scientist. I was trained as a pharmacist,” actually he had a warm interest in all aspects of science. When in the White House, he was given responsibility for worrying about scientific issues, a practice going back to the time when Vice President Johnson asked to be given that role. Humphrey carried on the policy. He would come over to the Academy for lunch about once a month. We’d have to keep something on the back burner, because he was very unpredictable. You couldn’t tell when he’d show up within an hour and a half. We would plan to have some group, staff members, describe an issue, — oceanography or space or something else — and we’d talk and eat. That would go on for two to two and a half hours.
Weart:Were there little presentations during the meal?
Seitz:It was a working lunch. It might go on say from 1:30 to 3:30 or 4:00. He had much to contribute out of his own experience and his imagination. He was a fine person.
Weart:Did he initiate any studies or have any particular interests?
Seitz:No, he was more of a follower. He wanted to know what was going on.
Seitz:Most of the requests we received came from the White House, emerged through PSAC, which had many study panels associated with it.
Weart:I want to ask you about that. I want to find out about how PSAC and the Academy interacted. Maybe we can get to that.
Seitz:Incidentally, one of the best friends the Academy had in that period was Jim Webb, who was head of NASA. We saw a good deal of him.
Weart:That’s right, there was an important Academy panel. I’ve forgotten the name of it.
Seitz:Space Science Board.
Weart:That’s right. Again, he was one of the people who would come around to the Academy and talk about what needed to be done?
Seitz:Yes. Incidentally, the Smithsonian’s Space Museum is opening an exhibit tonight, “James Webb and the Space Program.”
Weart:Is that so? I hadn’t heard about that.
Seitz:It’s not convenient for us to go because of a conflict. But it would be good to get down and see the exhibit.
Weart:I see. Back to the Senate. Senator Edward Kennedy was one of the ones most active in these areas. What kind of relations did you have with him?
Seitz:He and his staff knew all about the Academy. But he is a very complicated individual, and has a complicated staff. He’s quite unpredictable. I remember talking to some of our friends, at Cambridge, and saying, “You know, he’s often hard to understand.” They said, “He’s very difficult for us to… He’s just as apt to be critical of the scientists as to make friends.”
Weart:So you would interact more with his staff than with him personally?
Seitz:It’s hard to draw lines between a senator and his staff. He picks the staff, and they have an enormous influence on him in return. It’s a symbiotic relationship.
Seitz:He’s an individual who is reaching for power in his own way, which is part of the game. He has a staff that reinforces his style, and incidentally does its own thing.
Weart:So it was difficult to get on a kind of close first name basis.
Weart:Back again to some of the studies. One of the things I’m interested in is this succession of studies which began at this time, of which I guess the Pake report was the first one for physics. Even before that, the origin was probably the Wertheimer, I think, the chemists’ study? Can you tell me how that came about?
Seitz:It was part of COSPUP’s objective. Some member or some section of the Academy would say, “We think our field is ripe for review.” COSPUP would study the matter and reach a decision. If it was affirmative, we would go to the Science Foundation or some agency and try to get the money on the basis of mutual interest.
Weart:The idea was invented by the chemists, a special study focused on the needs of a particular field?
Seitz:I don’t think it required any one group to invent it. It grew like Topsy.
Weart:I see, the chemists just happened to be first.
Seitz:I wonder, were they first or was it astronomy? I forget at this stage. It would be interesting to raise that question.
Weart:I think it was the chemists, and then the Pake Report and then Greenstein. I believe that’s the sequence.
Seitz:I am glad to take your word for it. In this case, I would guess that Kistiakowsky played a role, because he was the chairman of COSPUP. It would not be unnatural for him and Wertheimer to have a talk.
Weart:He was close to the chemists.
Weart:The same process could be followed by other groups. Their principal claim was that their area was growing rapidly and needed a lot more money. How did people react to this, first with the chemists, then with the others, when the report came along saying, “Gee, this field is really badly in need of more funds for pure research?”
Seitz:I think the members of the Academy were watchful, in the sense that they didn’t want any one field to get all the money, but they were supportive of the reviews. You could always get an enthusiastic committee.
Weart:I see, just so long as each group got its day in court, so to speak.
Seitz:Yes. For example, the Greenstein Committee was generated just about the time quasars were discovered, so they had new hot items to talk about.
Weart:I know Jesse Greenstein tried to make his report popular in a certain sense, to get a large readership. Was this a general rule?
Weart:What about for the Academy studies in general? To what extent were they aimed at an agency or Congress, and to what extent did you, for example — as president serving as editor-in-chief of a series, try to push things towards or away from popularization?
Seitz:You definitely had to aim it towards the agency, because it had the people who would have enough scientific knowledge and clout. It had to seem reasonable and sustainable to them. You also knew however that there would be Congressional staff members who were less sophisticated, who would have to make an essential part of the decision. So you’d try to get a balance.
Weart:So it’s popularizing in the sense that a Congressional staff member is — you know, in his book The First Three Minutes, Weinberg talks about a smart lawyer as the typical reader. I suppose that would be a good description of a Congressional staff member too?
Weart:It wasn’t so much the smart lawyer sitting in his office out in Kansas. It was the smart lawyer sitting in Washington.
Seitz:Yes. We weren’t trying to reach the really general public. There are other ways to do that, The Scientific American, for example. Incidentally, one of the people who was very sensitive to these issues is Howard Lewis, who has been head of the Information Office for many, many years. He goes way back to Bronk’s time.
Seitz:Howard has wanted to get a journal that would be useful to the public in a much broader sense started. I saw him ten days ago and he was very happy. He says he thinks it’s going to fly.
Weart:From the Academy?
Seitz:From the Academy. He came up with various forms of this which the council considered several times. I think I passed one on to Phil Handler. Of course, it also is a financial risk. The academy would have to obtain funding for it.
Weart:Right. People in general felt this should be left to the press as it already existed?
Seitz:I think it never quite came to have a top priority. There were always more pressing things.
Weart:I wanted to ask about the Pake Report in particular, since this is a Center for History of Physics interview. Do you know more specifically how that came about? Who pressed it? I’ve heard Sam Allison’s name mentioned in connection with it.
Seitz:That’s news to me.
Weart:— well, he was the chairman of the physics committee at the time, so he would be —
Seitz:The physics section, perhaps. I knew Sam very well, from the years in Chicago during the war, but he was never an active individual in this sense.
Weart:Who was it then, do you think, who pushed for that?
Seitz:Oh, I would guess it was someone like Harvey Brooks or William Fowler. Then COSPUP looked around for a good chairman.
Weart:Can you tell me more about it? I’d like to take it as an example of how these reports got put together. For example, how did the group get named? How much did you have to do with how Pake was selected as chairman, and how the committee members were named?
Seitz:COSPUP would come up with a sequence of names. There would be a physicist on the committee who would help. Moreover he would go to friends, come to me and get reviewed by the Council. Various people would toss in names, and finally you’d boil it down to something that looked balanced. I always paid a great deal of attention for national geographic balance. Then we would get these people on the phone and find out if they’d serve.
Weart:You could also check with the funding agency, which I guess is very important now, NSF in this case. How would the Academy staff relate to a study like this?
Seitz:Well, we usually pick someone, say, in the physics division of the National Research Council to serve as aide to the chairman. You might also hire some people to help in writing the report.
Weart:This was to do research or actually to do the writing itself —?
Seitz:Do the writing. I think the Greenstein Report was probably written by Jesse.
Weart:Oh, he’s a great English stylist, he’d have preferred it, but this wouldn’t be the case typically for a scientist.
Seitz:No. In many other cases, people would write sections which would be a little barbarous, and then someone would polish them.
Weart:Smooth it out, I see, and they were essentially working for the chairman of the committee. Would you be in the chain, or did you just sort of turn it all over to the chairman?
Seitz:I’d show up at a typical session of the meeting, stay an hour, hour and a half, and then my secretary would call me out for a good reason.
Weart:You’d just listen, see what was happening. I should think in the physics one particularly you would have had an interest. Did you play any particular role in that one?
Seitz:Not particularly, other than help in the selection of the committee. I had to become a generalist, because there were things in all fields.
Weart:What about at the last stage, when the report gets down to the final stage? You’re the one who finally has to sign the report, so how much would you do?
Seitz:I’d go over it with the chairman, make a few comments, but usually the boys had done their homework pretty well.
Weart:There wouldn’t be many cases where you’d identified something that badly needed to be —?
Seitz:No, I think it’s rare for the president to intercede in a major way. I noticed recently Frank Press voiced a disclaimer about a report that came out of a committee; I think it was in relation to marijuana or something but that’s rare. Usually the issues are settled long before that.
Weart:What about when there are serious disagreements within groups? Is that up to the chairman to settle, or does it sometimes get bumped up to the present?
Seitz:Occasionally you may have to dissolve the committee. There was a case where I reached such a stalemate. I can’t remember what it was.
Weart:They just couldn’t come to a consensus.
Weart:So you dissolve it and call together a new committee or just abandon it?
Seitz:It depends on the circumstance. This is very rare.
Weart:How about the staff? Of course, this was growing quite a lot. I’m interested in how much you were concerned with the internal administration, as well as outside relations. How did you divide your time between Research Council, Congress and so on?
Seitz:You kept running around in a grand circle. You couldn’t ignore the internal things, not the external. It was a seven day a week full-time job.
Weart:You weren’t able to turn over some of the internal things to somebody to whom you could say “Here, you handle the staff?”
Seitz:Well, I had two wonderful people in succession as executive officer. One was Douglas Cornell. He was very sensitive to internal affairs. He was followed by John Coleman. We were in hour by hour contact with one another.
Weart:Were there any strains in terms of the growth of the staff?
Seitz:Nothing particularly, just more complicated. It took more and more time. Cornell for example was often there until 9:00 or 10:00 at night. He was less apt to be there weekends, whereas if I was in town, I usually spent the weekend at the Academy. For one thing, many of our committees met over the weekend.
Weart:I see. That was when people could get time off from their academic duties.
Weart:I would think that with the staff, one of the difficulties would be that you can’t maintain a completely even flow of studies. It would have to be rising and falling. How was that dealt with?
Seitz:We usually had a backlog in my day. So you paced them. I think that may not be the case at the moment. It was during Phil Handler’s day.
Weart:I’m interested in what you feel about the way the Academy has developed, since you left.
Seitz:Well, I feel that its role in advising the agencies is exceedingly important because of the cooperative scientific relations involved. I felt that I was there in part to help the agency. As I said, I believe that Press probably will try to promote that again. There’s some fence-mending to do. That doesn’t say that one shouldn’t work with Congress, but I would favor having the Academy be a much more neutral organization that tries to be fair-minded.
Weart:Is this the main issue, you think, in terms of the Academy and Congress, or have there been others too?
Seitz:No, I think that’s the main one. Nader was one of the people who always hated the Academy.
Weart:Ralph Nader? That’s true. In fact, the whole Academy came under attack, not only from Nader but from other people, in terms of being elitist and so forth. Most of that was after you left, or was it already starting?
Seitz:It was starting. We discovered Nader had a spy in the Academy.
Weart:On the staff?
Seitz:Well, someone who came in with an outside group, as a secretary to the group. Boffey wrote a book about the Academy with Nader’s sponsorship that was not very favorable.
Weart:And this book by Greenberg, which —
Seitz:Yes, I knew Greenberg very well, and somehow, we always had, I don’t want to call it an armed truce, but mutual respect. On the other hand, he and Phil had a terrible time. You probably heard of the famous incident in which he put an item in the Washington Post saying that Handler is the Idi Amin of the scientific community. Phil went over to the Post and had that taken out. I had Greenberg in the office many times, talking about things.
Weart:Things certainly did become more confrontational.
Seitz:Well, he was on the staff of Science. Phil Abelson enjoyed that at one time, but then Dan took out after Phil, and that’s when they parted company. I don’t know how his little publication sells. He charges an enormous price for it.
Weart:“Science and Government Report”?
Weart:I had a few other physics-related reported I wanted to ask you about. One was published by the Academy, but it is a report of a committee by Smoluchowski for the Office of Science and Technology, Committee of the Solid State Sciences Panel, 1968 “Report on Opportunities and Relevance to National Need — Research in the Solid State Sciences,” a specific solid state report. Can you tell me something about that?
Seitz:As I recall, Smoluchowski — forgive me if my memory is hazy — took over the ONR-based committee that we talked about yesterday. As some time he probably went to the White House, and said to Don Hornig “We ought to have a study of solid state.” That’s probably how it was born. I was not involved.
Seitz:I sat on PSAC from 1962 until 1969, and then was involved in the Hagerty Panel dealing with the promotion of productivity.
Weart:Yes, we’ll have to get to that later.
Seitz:So I was close, but usually on a general basis rather than on issues related to solid state physics or anything like that.
Weart:I see. Well, another physics-related issue came up later on in your tenure — Wigner’s study of civil defense, the conclusion that the United States could survive and so on. I notice that was in a 1963 report, but it wasn’t publicized until 1965. I’m curious as to how you interacted with Eugene and others on this particular study.
Seitz:As I remember, the proposal came up through the Office of Emergency Management in the White House. I think the key person at that time was probably L.S. Taylor. He’d been at the Bureau of Standards, and, I think, was advisor to the OEM. Again I may have the acronym wrong. It may have been the Office of Emergency Planning.
Weart:Whatever it was called at that time.
Seitz:The issue came up, and we agreed to have a study. I knew Eugene was interested.
Weart:He had already been interested before.
Seitz:Yes. We had a study at Woods Hole. I think the responsibility was to be shared between Taylor and Wigner, but Wigner took the lead and ran with it.
Weart:Another was the SST, supersonic transport. I guess the most important Academy report came out in 1968, about the impossibility of eliminating the sonic boom. How did you feel about the SST yourself, by the way?
Seitz:That is a complicated issue. Let’s try to backtrack and see what happened. The government decided it would push an SST. There were people on the Hill supporting it and President Johnson was much interested. They wanted to make a test by flying super-sonic planes over a city. Oklahoma City said, with lots of macho, “We want to be the first city that is tested.” They soon had the Air Force buzzing the place which was crazy, because the fliers wanted to see how big the boom could be, rather than how well you could control it.
Weart:They didn’t try a typical pattern; they just used the opportunity to —?
Seitz:They overflew. And then you began to get complaints. Loose windows that would fall out and the like so it became a controversial issue. I had realized earlier that the Academy should try to avoid controversial issues, after they became controversial. In any event, we were hauled into that by the White House, probably by Don Hornig, to conduct a study on sensible grounds. As I remember, we ran some tests in Nevada, with the cooperation of an engineering group. That quieted things down, although we were in the early stages of the anti-science, anti-technology mood.
Weart:I’m interested because the SST seems to be one of the very first anti-technology issues to come up.
Seitz:President Johnson asked, directly from the White House — he was very much interested — if we would appoint a committee to review the viability. We looked around for a member of the Academy, picked John Dunning, and the committee made a favorable report. In the present review system, it probably would have been criticized enough so that it would have been turned down. Sorry, not turned down, but it would have been modified, made more conditional. It was supportive, and played a role in having the decision made to go ahead. It was accepted as a positive thing. I guess at the time, I favored going ahead with the SST, on the theory that you have a technology to explore, and it’s good to move into it.
Weart:Did you recognize at that time that there was an anti-technology element, a general one, in the opposition?
Seitz:Yes. It was beginning to surface. Nader had been hard at work for quite a while, automobile safety and all these things.
Weart:Now, as I recall, the Dunning report as reported in the newspapers advocated the SST, but mainly for cross-ocean travel.
Weart:It was not very enthusiastic about sonic books going across the continent.
Seitz:The conditions placed on its use were limited…(off-tape) …That it be supersonic overland. Of course the thing that really hit it was the rise in the price of fuel by a factor of, what, five?
Weart:Yes. That changed the whole configuration of how people did these things. The next question is the Mohole. It’s been written about a lot, especially by Greenberg. Again, is there anything in particular you want to say about that?
Seitz:Well, it was a well-conceived program by the geophysicists. As a matter of fact, someone once asked Fermi what he would do if he had a million dollars to spend. That was in a time when you could buy a lot more with a million dollars. He thought for a bit and said, “I would dig a hole in the earth as far as I could, and see what I could find.” He thought high energy physics was already in good hands, and did not need an additional push. The individuals like Harry Hess and Lloyd Berkner who proposed it, knew what they were doing. It apparently got out of hand because pressure was brought on the Science Foundation to give it to Brown and Root, who then went big. Even then it might have been a success, but the anti-science attitude was beginning to emerge. Another thing happened. Here I get into personalities. We appointed a chairman, a professor who’d come out of industry after the Mohole had been approved and even started. He sought to change the whole program. This was fatal. He was not familiar with the fact that if Congress writes a bill and says you do this and that then you can’t go contrary. The result was that it led to controversy, and he even went up on the Hill and testified against the plan.
Weart:This was Hollis Hedberg?
Seitz:Yes. The end result was that we had complete pandemonium. And the thing came to a grinding halt. I had words with Hollis, and he resigned and went away, I don’t think he’s appeared at the Academy since.
Seitz:It’s too bad. He was a very fine person, as a geoscientist. But he took his position as chairman more as you would in industry, if you were director of a program.
Weart:That you could run it pretty much as you wanted to run it.
Weart:And this isn’t possible in the government.
Seitz:As I remember, the program got cancelled the same day or within a day or two of the day President Kennedy was assassinated. When the cancellation came, I got calls from a group of geophysicists who were dismayed. We arranged to have a meeting in my office on a Saturday to review the damage that had been done. President Kennedy was assassinated that Friday so we sat around the office very morosely with the Mohole being quite a secondary issue.
Weart:It was a wake in more than one sense of the word.
Seitz:That’s right. Incidentally, I gained enormous respect for Harry Hess in that period. He was a remarkable scientist, to emerge from the earth sciences at that time having flexibility and imagination. There were others too, but he was a very solid citizen.
Weart:Are there any other reports around that time that stand out, either as being particularly controversial or particularly influential? During your whole tenure?
Seitz:Another caused a good deal of trouble. It was related to the disposal of the nerve gas stored out somewhere in Colorado. The issue of getting rid of it was the issue. They had been shipping it by rail, and dumping it in the Atlantic Ocean. The material is such that it undergoes a chemical reaction when in contact with water, and becomes inert. Somehow the news that the disposal involved rail transport got known, and the environmentalists were protesting. Actually it would have been best if they’d just been allowed to continue and get it over with. But there it was. We were asked to help in making a decision.
Weart:Again, you’re reluctant to get into these things, but once you’re asked, you’re stuck.
Seitz:It was dumped on us. And I thought the committee — I forget who headed it, it may have been Kistiakowsky — should have said that we believe that the process should be continued until it was all gone. But instead, they said they should find other means of disposal. I think that if they had done it by other means, it probably would have cost in the neighborhood of a billion dollars. They would have to set up a factory. I haven’t followed it.
Weart:It’s still there.
Seitz:They probably never got funded for an alternate process.
Weart:I don’t believe so. It’s still sitting there.
Seitz:Another case that I didn’t enjoy was the following: There was a question about the use of Agent Orange [herbicide].
Weart:That was already during your period?
Seitz:Yes. People said, “What harm are we doing in the jungle?” The Department of Defense came to me and said, “Would the Academy take this?” I said, “It’s too hot a thing, why don’t you go to the AAAS? They seemed to have strong opinions about this issue, and I know it will be very divisive.” So they went to a professor at Harvard who was the President of AAAS at the time, Don Price, a social scientist who’s much respected. I thought, that’s great. They’re taking care of it. Unfortunately the AAAS had a committee that was all stirred up about the issue. One day Don came over and said, “Fred, this is going to blow us apart. You’ve just got to take it.” I said, “Don, do we have to?” He said, “I don’t see any other way out.” So we did, and it was a gruesome affair. I think the committee finally reported out after I was gone. It was one of those very divisive things.
Weart:On the committee itself?
Seitz:Oh yes. Any way you look at it.
Weart:From the moment you try to appoint people on up?
Seitz:It was with a sinking heart that I brought the thing up to the Council.
Weart:It’s interesting that the Academy would be considered as best able to deal with these things.
Seitz:Less open to public discussion, while it held its discussion.
Seitz:We didn’t need to have the press sitting in the room reporting or misreporting every chance comment in headlines.
Weart:I see, a private organization.
Seitz:Yes. That’s one of the things that annoyed Nader to no end.
Weart:That the committee discussions could take place in private?
Seitz:You know, people sitting at a table sometimes make snappy remarks. That’s just what the press loves, even though when they get rolled over and ground down in the general discussion, they’re found to be hollow —
Weart:Oh, I know. Nobody will even ask me, but I can’t conceive of sitting on something like the Nuclear Regulatory Committee, where everything you say is tape recorded and appears in the press at once. We’ve been touching quite a lot on the changes that took place in the late sixties, and one general thing that comes up is, not only the attitudes but also the funding. I was interested to note that back in 1966 already, in a speech at the Academy, you mentioned that some important public figure had said that his colleagues were saying that for about five years the physical sciences haven’t produced any new breakthrough, and they’re thinking it might be time to cut back. You warned that already we were heading into a time when new values might be forming. I thought that was quite early, because the next year people were still warning about a coming shortage of physicists and it wasn’t until about the end of 1967, early 1968, that it became quite clear that there were going to be federal funding cuts. I wonder how you saw the funding cuts and the other problems coming?
Seitz:Well, I think the first person to my knowledge to realize how sensitive things were was Kistiakowsky who, even at the peak of the post-Sputnik boom, realized that it wouldn’t take much to have Congress decide that scientists might be getting enough money, and warned the community. I sat on PSAC continuously over that period. I began to see signals. It got harder and harder to get new funds. One of the incidents that impressed me very much was the following. The biochemists, who were producing a lot of new stuff, began having international meetings that got bigger and bigger. More and more astronomical sums were needed. One day they went to Jim Shannon at NIH [National Institute of Health], for whom I have much respect, and said, “Here is our program.” They wanted, I don’t know, about a million and a half dollars.
Weart:For a meeting, one meeting.
Seitz:For a meeting. And he said, “I think it’s time that I introduce you to the chairmen of the Congressional committees so that you can go directly to Congress.” That was an indication that the worm was turning at that time. Then you remember, a little later, President Johnson went to NIH and was very critical of the scientists for being concerned about their own activities and not about human affairs.
Weart:What was the reaction to these changes within the Academy?
Weart:Well, both funding and values. I don’t know whether we should talk separately about the end of the federal funds’ increasing — in 1968, all of a sudden the rate of increase stopped, and at the same time there was a very obvious change in values. I don’t know whether to discuss these together or separately. But around 1968 there was clearly something happening.
Seitz:It was growing. President Nixon inherited the Johnson budget. That’s what always happens in the first year for a new president. President Johnson had decided the academic scientific community was getting too much money. That was the mood. So the reversal had begun. There was glumness, people trying to dredge up good arguments why this or that field deserved additional support.
Weart:Do you feel, to put in an extreme way, it became an every man for himself or every field for itself struggle, temporarily?
Seitz:For some individuals, yes. For others, it was a more general problem.
Weart:Was there anything that the Academy as a whole, or the Council tried to do?
Seitz:Well, we worked more frantically on the COSPUP reports, trying to make them more realistic and so forth.
Weart:Both the Greenstein Report and the high energy physics reports were the two where one started to set real priorities in physics.
Weart:Was this just a general feeling in the community?
Seitz:The community felt that way. COSPUP felt that way. The Council felt that the time had been reached when you had to set priorities, to the extent that you could.
Weart:What do you think were the effects of the Vietnam War in all of this?
Seitz:Well, it helped generate the anti-science and anti-technology mood. However I think you can trace it back earlier, to the Berkeley riots and all those things, the stir among the youth.: “Let’s turn away from new technology!”
Weart:Away from authority.
Seitz:You can easily trace the stirring as far back as 1959.
Weart:It seems to me that the first steps were the movement against fallout actually. That’s the first time you could notice it clearly. I have a theory I’m working on that the opposition to fallout and the bomb is a hidden thread within all these things. Fear of nuclear war may play a very major role in all these areas, but that’s not easy to say. What about the direct effects on the Vietnam War on the Academy? There were, after all, strains within the scientific community itself. You mentioned Agent Orange. I wondered whether there were other cases, more general cases of strains within the Academy?
Seitz:There were strains both within and without the Academy. You began to notice it within PSAC, where some of the individuals were critical of the military. It got to be complicated.
Seitz:Regarding strains inside the Academy, at the annual meetings some individuals would propose that the Academy withdraw from anything connected with the military, certainly from classified work. A few members resigning with a brilliant display of fireworks.
Weart:Yes. But this didn’t affect the Academy’s overall activities?
Seitz:It did. I think that when Phil came in, he cut way back on anything related to classified work, and it’s only in the last four years that some of those things have begun to come back again.
Weart:We haven’t really talked about classified work studies at the Academy. This was already going strong when you came in?
Seitz:It went right back to World War II.
Weart:Did it continue at more or less the same level while you were president?
Seitz:In special areas. There was a committee on undersea warfare, which had a very rich tradition.
Weart:Back to World War I, in fact.
Seitz:That’s right, in principle. One wouldn’t hesitate to take up a classified project, you just had a different group of people, different type of security.
Weart:And again these would probably be suggested even more by the agencies than some of the others?
Weart:More or less directly from the agencies.
Seitz:In metallurgy, things like that.
Weart:But you say this was already beginning to be cut back before you left the Academy?
Seitz:What happened was that the military people were beginning to sense criticism from the scientific community and began to pull back.
Weart:I see, so they were beginning to find a more self-contained —
Seitz:Yes. The Defense Science Board began to take on a more significant role.
Weart:I’ve heard that even within the JASON group there began to be some splits. By the way, did you ever attend JASON meetings at that time?
Weart:You didn’t have much to do with that particular group.
Seitz:No. I knew of them and I knew all the people. They were rather an aloof group. They started JASON as a group of people in their thirties, saying “We want to get away from those old buzzards.” Now they’re all in their sixties.
Weart:That’s right, they haven’t recruited much in the way of new people, and have they?
Seitz:Well, I was talking to someone who was younger. They have a few new people, but the individuals who use it as their instrument are in the main the older people. And it has become anti-establishment to a certain degree.
Seitz:Well, there’s an undertone, you know. Take Dick Garwin —
Weart:Oh yes. I don’t think of him as the typical JASON person, though. I don’t think of him as typical anything.
Seitz:No, that’s right. I probably shouldn’t have used him as an example.
Weart:I think it is true from what I’ve heard that around the time of the Vietnam War, the character of the group became more critical.
Weart:Maybe this is the time to talk about what you raised earlier, this question of Americans in consensus that you first became aware of. How did it happen that you became aware of it at NATO?
Seitz:Let me give you an example that brought it home to my mind. Incidentally, yesterday I forgot the name of the committee which was something in the nature of a cousin to my science committee at NATO. It was called the Armaments Committee. It was intended to study possible arms development in the early stages. It attracted far more interest than my committee because there could be procurement at the end of that line and procurement involves manufacture. So there was always a lot of stir around it.
Weart:It was an international committee?
Seitz:Oh yes. It involved representatives from all countries. I sat in on some of their meetings, but I had enough to do that I didn’t do that very much. Let me give you an example. NATO had to build headquarters, and they wanted them to have a certain degree of invulnerability against bombs, so I was asked to create a committee to study the proper structure of the headquarters having the appropriate strength under attack.
Weart:The physical structure.
Seitz:The physical structure: how do you design a headquarters? Well, I looked around, prowled through our Pentagon, and found that the Navy had spent a good deal of time worrying about the question. It had been tossed the ball by the DOD. A Commander Christian was an expert on this. I assembled a committee, wrote to all the countries of NATO and says,” Send a representative.” Then I brought Commander Christian in, intending that he spend several days explaining what had been dome. Presumably this would all be novel to the Europeans, in a real sense. I started the meeting by introducing him and asking, “Before we have him speak, are there comments?” A hand went up from the French chair. A French officer said: “You are very fortunate.” I thought that he had possibly met my wife. He said, “You have three members of the Ecole Polytechnique here. We will solve all of your problems. In addition, I was deeply involved in construction of the Maginot Line.” Well, that went on and on.
Weart:Not just the French?
Seitz:Oh no. Pandemonium. I finally turned the whole committee over to my deputy, and it went on. It may still be going on. I realized that there’s a big difference between U.S. and European experts. The non-U.S. members not only wanted to make sure that their national capability was respected, but also that their personal ability was respected. They were a group of individuals, much more interested in displaying their prowess than in reaching common agreement.
Weart:Do you think it was personal, or do you think in the case of this Polytechnician he had his own sub-national group to defend?
Seitz:They were all like that, to some degree. The French obviously in their own special way. Each nation had its prides and each individual his own. It goes back to elementary schooling. When I walked to the NATO building every morning, I would pass one of the lycees. The kids would be coming to school. The bright kids were always in the lead, eager for the day, and pounding on the door of the school to get it opened. They wanted to get in there and compete. Then I’d walk by the sluggards — thinking of another day with those bright kids dominating the scene. I think somehow we [in the United States] have evolved a system where the bright person has a say, but it’s tempered. I believe that at that time our committees, particularly committees of the Pentagon type were usually trying to reach a final decision. One admitted dissent, even in the report, but concurrence was the goal. I think we lost it for a while. I hope we regain it.
Weart:This was lost around the time you were speaking of, in the late sixties?
Weart:You mentioned that this was particularly clear on PSAC, but before we get to PSAC, which I have just a few questions about, I’m curious about the relations of the Academy with the executive. You’ve mentioned Don Hornig a number of times. I wonder if you could say a little more about him, how he was regarded in the scientific community?
Seitz:Everyone liked Don. He had a hard job in the White House, because President Johnson recognized that there was growing antagonism from parts of the scientific community. He also knew that Hornig was a good friend of Kistiakowsky and that George had become a bitter enemy of the White House. This went very deep.
Weart:This was partly the Cambridge group, not just Kistiakowsky himself?
Seitz:Yes. Gradually, PSAC got cut off from the President. It did some important things, but the President ignored it.
Weart:Where did Hornig stand in relation to PSAC?
Seitz:He was chairman of it, and occasionally the President would call him in on some issue, but you may remember that when the new White House came in, in 1968, the Senator from Wisconsin who took over as Secretary of Defense [Mel Laird] said a condition of acceptance was that PSAC drip its interest in military affairs. That was agreed upon.
Weart:Put on his becoming Secretary of Defense.
Seitz:That’s right. Melvin Laird.
Weart:Melvin Laird, that’s right. I’m interested in knowing more about this. Maybe we should start back a bit earlier, with your earlier time on PSAC. When you joined it, it was functioning as it was supposed to function?
Weart:How did it function? How did it work at that point?
Seitz:It had its regular meetings. It took on serious problems.
Weart:How often did it meet?
Weart:Easy for you because you were living in Washington.
Seitz:It could have been once every two months, but that’s easily determined, or every six weeks, but it was so easy for me.
Weart:And this would be an all-day meeting?
Seitz:It went on for several days, usually two days, maybe two and a half.
Weart:How did the meetings go? What was done? You mentioned for instance, the Defense Science Board. A lot of it was presentations by people. What about on PSAC?
Seitz:Same thing. They you had dozens of panels, and Don or whoever was chairman would follow the work with the panels.
Weart:To what extent did PSAC as a whole have to do with setting up the panels, and to what extent was that mainly Hornig?
Seitz:PSAC played a role; we often discussed such matters around the table — who should serve and so forth. If Don had a hot item, would get on the telephone and pull together a group, get advice.
Weart:Was this PSAC’s main work, you think, getting panels organized, or was there a lot of time spent in discussing specific issues?
Seitz:Both were equally important.
Weart:Would things come up from the panels for review?
Seitz:Yes, or some agency would propose the review of a problem.
Weart:How much of it was dealing with the issue of the month, and how much of it was long term studies?
Seitz:Both. You’d have fires to put out, or long term issues — population, etc. Occasionally, an issue would come up and it would be put out to the Academy for longer study.
Weart:You mentioned PSAC would ask Hornig to make an arrangement with the Academy?
Weart:Of course, you would be sitting in the room, so they would ask you, “How would the Academy like to take on this?”
Seitz:That’s right, but there were formalities to follow. It would go to the Council of the Academy. Usually we accepted those things. There was the cranberry business, for example.
Weart:Oh yes, the cranberry business. I’d forgotten. Did the Academy make a report on that?
Weart:That was one of the first cases of public concern about an environmental agent in food. In fact, I think it was the very first case.
Seitz:It may have been. The SILENT SPRING case was also put to the Academy.
Weart:That came a bit later. How much of it was classified and Defense-related and how much of it was not?
Seitz:Oh, I’d say Defense-related things took possibly a third of the time. One of the things that disturbed me was that there was a certain degree of disrespect for the military among many of the individuals on a scale that I don’t think was justified. These were men that had to lay their lives on the line in combat. Yet many other members would say quietly, “I’m embarrassed at the way we treated that colonel or that general.”
Weart:When they would come in to give their presentations?
Weart:I see. This was already at the beginning?
Weart:Along with the Vietnam War, I suppose.
Seitz:I think somehow it went back to the [M.I.T.] Radiation Lab.
Seitz:I think so. That’s just my hunch. I worked as a subcontractor with the Radiation Lab, contracted, which as you know, work out to universities. I was never part of the inner group. But there was a tendency there, I think, to say, “Now, you’ve got to make the military do this.”
Weart:That’s interesting, because some of the people I’ve talked with said the Rad Lab had a strong respect for the military because they were interacting with them closely — not all of them. I suppose it depends on whether you go as an individual to interact with the military, or whether there’s a whole group who see the military as the outsiders.
Seitz:Rabi always said that it was easier to get along with the captains than the generals.
Weart:We always find that to be the case. And PSAC and the Rad Lab, at the higher levels were dealing with the generals.
Seitz:That’s right, except when they got out in the field.
Weart:Was it largely Cambridge people who had this attitude, or would it be people from anywhere?
Seitz:I’d have to think it over, but certainly the Cambridge group had it, to a degree. But you wouldn’t however get it from Harvey Brooks [of Harvard] or from E. Bright Wilson.
Weart:By the way, where did you get your acquaintance with military people?
Seitz:World War II.
Weart:Were there any people whom you knew during the war that you continued to have contact with right up through this period?
Seitz:Oh, I knew a lot of people in the Navy, for example, that I saw again. The military turns over more rapidly, so eventually they disappear.
Weart:I see. How much of this had to do with the demise of PSAC; that is, their increasing distance from Johnson? Was it largely because of the military issues or do you think the SST and other issues like that also played a role?
Seitz:The President must be a political animal. When the scientists try to play politics, they’re looked upon by the real professional politicians as amateurs. The hard core politicians tend to be afraid of amateurs because of possible bumbling, especially if they go off on their own. PSAC had a meeting with President Johnson just before he was to leave office. We agreed that we should pay our respects to him. And he agreed to meet with us — I think it was the day before his leaving office. So we all filed in and sat around. Someone had agreed that Charlie Townes, who could put on a Deep South accent, ought to say the right words, which he had framed well. Now, it was clear to me that the President had arranged with someone on his staff to call him out at the end of about 15 minutes on a supposedly urgent thing, which I thought was indicative in itself. Charlie said his piece well and the President, who had been sitting at the table, sitting like this —
Weart:Just sitting there listening?
Seitz:He slumped back; he had a special way of relaxing. At the end of 15 minutes the President’s man came in with this message, but President Johnson waved him off and started to talk. He talked for about an hour. The vein of it was, “There has been a lot of criticism in the press about my mistakes. However, some of the mistakes I made may not come to light for years.” This was said in a very informational manner. He was almost talking to himself, a soliloquy. He said “My biggest mistake, however, was that I was a politician at heart and I trusted the experts. I should have trusted the political people. They would have steered me through the realities, whereas I always thought that if I can get help from those experts from Harvard, they will really put me on the right track. And it isn’t so.”
Weart:He wasn’t thinking just of Vietnam, but of a lot of things?
Seitz:A lot of things. Certainly Vietnam.
Weart:To what extent was PSAC unified in opposition, and to what extent was it a problem that PSAC itself was split over these issues?
Seitz:I think it was split. Different people felt differently.
Weart:So did general questions about Vietnam come out at the meetings?
Seitz:Oh yes. There was a lot of talk about it. One of the things that happened, and it used to make Don angry, was that some of the members began to feel as though they had a constituency back home; they would have to tell them what happened at PSAC, and this undoubtedly got known. I’m sure that Johnson knew it. I’m also sure that President Nixon knew it. That’s why when the committee was recreated under President Fore, really, under Vice President Rockefeller, a rather new pattern was adopted. The structure was entirely different.
Weart:So people wouldn’t be representatives of a particular group.
Seitz:As a matter of fact, it probably was Vice President Rockefeller who convinced President Ford that something was needed in the White House.
Weart:I didn’t know that. Who convinced Rockefeller?
Seitz:Let me put it in my own way. He suffered from dyslexia. He had trouble reading. As a result, he obtained information by gathering a group of knowledgeable people about him and asked them questions. As he moved in any political circle, he always had a group of what he regarded as smart people around him. That’s how Henry Kissinger emerged. He was so to speak first discovered by Rockefeller in the 1960s. As Vice President, Rockefeller realized that he would have responsibility toward science in the White House, so he decided to have a group of scientists around him. In the summer after he was appointed Vice President — I guess the Senate elected him — he held a series of meetings of scientific people, to which I was invited. He asked them what ought to be done, how ought it to be done. The legislation came out of this.
Weart:I see. He would also have meetings of his diplomatic advisors, political advisors and so forth, but this was what came out of his scientific advisors.
Seitz:That’s right. Re-creation of OST [(White House) Office of Science and Technology] but on an open basis. The meetings were open to the press, unless they discussed the budget. So it was a completely different thing. Frank Press inherited the Carter version of this with a smaller office and smaller committee. Now it’s even smaller through budget constraints.
Weart:Right. It’s not really a committee at all in the same sense.
Seitz:Quite different. Short of an emergency of great magnitude that united the country, I don’t think the President will ask for more than that. That would be my guess.
Weart:You were chairman of the Defense Science Board, and at the same time you were president of the Academy and a member of PSAC.
Seitz:It was a very different world. You could do these things. Now, the Council of the Academy would probably censure that.
Weart:Is that so? To what extent was there overlap of issues, the three groups or two of them considering the same issue at the same time?
Seitz:There was lots of overlap between PSAC and the Academy, because the social issues related to science came up in PSAC, but not too much with the Pentagon.
Weart:I’m surprised, because I would think that if there was an important military issue, two or three of them would be considering it. Is this because the Defense Science Board has a special character?
Seitz:Yes. It tended to work on things at a slightly lower level, technical problems. Johnny Foster would say, “I’ve got this problem that’s bugging me, can you get a team together with the Defense Science Board?”
Weart:Would these typically be longer lead time problems?
Seitz:They might be shorter or longer.
Weart:I see. And PSAC and the Academy would be doing much more general and politically related ones.
Weart:I see. You mentioned one way it was divided up with that PSAC would decide to turn it over to the Academy to study, but sometimes PSAC would have its own panels. What determined who studied a particular issue?
Seitz:Well, PSAC could determine its own agenda. It could, for example, pick up the issue of Agent Orange on its own.
Weart:Even though the Academy was studying it.
Seitz:As I recall, it was discussed, well into the seventies as the war went on. Another issue PSAC might get involved in was weather modification and its possible military value.
Weart:The Academy might have a study on this kind of thing at the same time. Were there conflicts? Were there times when there would be two studies going on at the same time, with difficulty putting them together?
Weart:There were enough different problems to go around?
Weart:What do you think determined why one issue would go to PSAC, another to the Academy? Did you make any efforts to guide this?
Seitz:If PSAC thought it was something that the President ought to know about first hand, they usually had a panel on it. If they thought it was of longer range interest, they’d turn it over to the Academy, with some noticeable exceptions like the supersonic thing.
Weart:And the Academy would also be dealing more with the specific agencies, without going up through PSAC?
Seitz:That’s right. A thing like the Space Science Board was concerned about space on a long term continuing basis. People like Herb Friedman were active members for years.
Weart:There was much more of a continuing relationship. You’re also on the Naval Research Advisory Committee and the Air Force Office of Aerospace Research Advisory Group. Where did they fit into these kinds of things?
Seitz:As I mentioned yesterday, NRAC spent much more time reviewing ongoing naval problems at its meetings. It rarely had panels.
Weart:This again was at a lower level still, more detailed, more technical?
Weart:And the Office of Aerospace Research Advisors, did they play much of a role?
Seitz:I think they reviewed the program of that office, and the fields they should support. Somewhat like the advisory committees of the Science Foundation.
Weart:Typical kind of a panel. Was there any difficulty in the fact that you were serving on all of these panels? Did you get caught up in any inter-service rivalries? Were you used to carrying messages from one group to another?
Seitz:It was hardly necessary.
Weart:There were enough channels of communication?
Weart:I didn’t notice any NSF committees or connections. I presume you must have had a lot to do with NSF. Have you been on any of their main panels or committees?
Seitz:Once I became president of the Academy, it was rare for them to put me on one of their committees. Requests would come in to the Academy as a whole.
Weart:In a sense, they were mutually exclusive.
Seitz:I’d go around and see Alan Waterman or whoever the Director was.
Weart:What kind of relations did you and the Academy in general, with Alan Waterman and later on with Guy Stevens?
Seitz:Well, Alan was followed by a nuclear physicist, Lee Haworth, who’d been on the Atomic Energy Commission. If we had a problem with Lee, or with Waterman, I’d just go over and talk to him. Some of the staff of NSF resented the Academy, because they felt they could do the work themselves.
Weart:Such work as these reviews of fields, for example?
Weart:I suppose that was the main place where you interacted with NSF, in the reviews of fields.
Weart:I can’t think of any other studies.
Seitz:They provided some general money for COSPUP II, but there was always a certain amount of bitterness on the part of some members of the staff.
Weart:They wanted these studies themselves or perhaps they already knew the fields well enough.
Seitz:Yes. The really smart ones who didn’t suggest too many frustrations knew better.
Weart:We’re getting farther and father now from strictly scientific things, getting into the Rockefeller period. Before we talk about Rockefeller, is there anything else about the governmental advisory structure, NSF, AEC, DOD, DOE, etc.?
Seitz:One of the things I witnessed first-hand, which goes way back, was the way in which NDRC [National Defense Research Council] gained control of the scientific aspects of the military R & D during the war. It was an interesting thing.
Weart:Tell me about that.
Seitz:Well, my first contact was with Frankfurt Arsenal. Up to that time, I hadn’t even been a Boy Scout. My father regarded that as a military organization. He was very anti-military. Some of the scientific group at Frankfurt Arsenal near North Philadelphia came to me when I was at the University of Pennsylvania and said, “We’ve got some problems here that involve the solid state, why don’t you come over and meet with us?” It was during what was called the “phony war” period, the autumn of ’39. I went over and became a kind of consultant. I had some very interesting problems. Then, just a little later, the Navy set up a research center at Dahlgren, Virginia, and some of my friends who had been in the Reserve were appointed there. Ralph Sawyer, who was later one of the chairmen of the governing board of the AIP was there, as well as Norris Bradbury. They asked if I would work with them. They were going to set up a laboratory. At the same time the NDRC set up what was called Division 2 to worry about ordnance. It was preceded by a very informal committee that Harry Smyth ran. I think it was called Committee T or something, whatever that meant. However, whenever that committee tried to approach the military, it was rebuffed. On the other hand, I had these other contacts, and I became a kind of key figure on Committee T because I knew what was going on in the ordnance field.
Weart:The ordnance people actually wanted to talk with you.
Seitz:Committee T had money from the White House, but didn’t know quite what to do. Then came a very famous day in which the NDRC committee was invited by General Barnes, the chief of ordnance, to sit down and tell him how he could serve us. Here was a group of young faculty facing a general who said “Gentlemen, I’ve been informed by the President that I am to call on you and ask you if we can be of service to you.”
Weart:Did that in fact come down from the President?
Seitz:Yes. That was the influence of Vannevar Bush and others in the White House. The same message went right down through the Pentagon. After that it was a different world. It broke the ice, we then developed very good relationships. You remember however that Bush said near the end of the war that he thought the NDRC should be dissolved after hostilities ended because there would be so much technical scientific skill in the services. I think that was a misjudgment. The military has always been proud of its privileges and rights, and it would have been better if some structure had been continued.
Weart:Outside the military itself.
Seitz:Yes, in the form of a partnership. It might have alleged antagonisms.
Weart:I see, the Defense Science Board being essentially within the military.
Seitz:Within the military, and specially chosen.
Weart:I understand. Well, anything else about this chapter?
Seitz:No. I think for the moment I’ve given you everything of any significance.
Weart:OK. Let’s go over Rockefeller then. The first formal connection that I see is that you were on the Rockefeller University Executive Committee and Board of Trustees. I wonder whether you had previous relations with Nelson or David Rockefeller?
Weart:Do you know how you were named?
Seitz:I was on the board of the Rockefeller University, and I met David. I was not on the selection committee for Bronk’s successor but I think Bronk recommended me to the committee. I don’t have a very good idea what went on, but finally there came a point when David asked if I would come to the University.
Weart:You had also been serving on the Rockefeller Foundation board before that.
Seitz:That came out of the Academy. One day George Harrar, the President of the Foundation, stopped by the office and asked if I would be willing to serve on the Foundation board, and if so, he would have my name put before it. I said I’d be glad to.
Weart:I see. So it was essentially because you were the Academy President.
Weart:Subsequently, what kind of relations did you have with David Rockefeller?
Seitz:Well, I saw him regularly. He was chairman of the University Board up to the time in the seventies that Haggerty took over.
Weart:You knew him fairly well.
Weart:What about Nelson? You mentioned that you served on one committee he had when he became Vice President.
Seitz:That’s right. I had met him socially, to a degree, through these connections, but you know, there was that complicated matter in which he divorced his wife and married the wife of one of our faculty members. That meant that they did not mix very much socially with the university. However, when he became Vice President, and created advisory committees, I came to know him, more intimately. I was appointed to one of the two committees, one of which dealt with applied science and the other with basic science. That relationship lasted through the Ford Administration. The Vice President would come to those meetings and sit through a very large part.
Weart:But here at Rockefeller University it was mainly David Rockefeller.
Weart:Did he take much interest in the university?
Seitz:Oh yes. It was his primary outside interest, apart from the Museum of Modern Art. I think his mind was attracted by the university and his heart and artistic sense by the other.
Weart:Now, I’m interested that you were appointed president. You were a physicist and not a life scientist or medical person, as one would have more normally associated with Rockefeller University.
Seitz:Well, by that time, I’d become a generalist, and also there were lots of fiscal problems. Incidentally, Bronk was an electrical engineer and got linked with biology through involvement in nerve conduction.
Weart:Oh, I didn’t realize that. So it wasn’t unprecendented. People here didn’t regard you as a physicist?
Seitz:By that time I was known as the past president of the Academy, I guess.
Weart:I see. Did you try to build up the Physics Department here particularly?
Seitz:No. However we did add high energy experimental physics.
Weart:You mentioned, and it’s certainly true, that when you arrived there were fiscal problems, not unique to Rockefeller University either in those times. But I wondered, when you arrived here, was this the main thing that you saw that something needed to be done about?
Seitz:Yes. Many things triggered it. We were beginning to spend our endowment. We had two successive 15 percent cuts in our NIH grants. It went back to the Johnson Administration, and was continued, I inherited that. That was a rough time, because we wanted to keep the work going — we were already draining our endowment and the only money we had readily at hand was money from our endowment. So it was quite a sweat.
Weart:I understand. So you had to let people go and so forth?
Seitz:We spent some of our capital trying to maintain our structure, but we really had to tighten up, and begin putting young people on grants. I will say this that the staff was so illustrious that it did very well when it really decided to get into the competition in a serious way for NSF and NIH funds.
Weart:I see. So before that time people had been more relaxed about it.
Seitz:Everyone thought that we had an infinite amount of money.
Weart:This is a general question that I always had about the universities, from the late fifties to the late sixties, whether there wasn’t a lot of slack that could be taken up?
Seitz:There was. You remember, in a rather odd way, Mac Bundy, as head of the Ford Foundation, told the universities to stop coming to him for endowment and invest their money in high flier things in the market. He though they weren’t really investing this money properly. Yale, which he actually influenced, tried it and had difficulties. I think it’s true that except for a few institutions, they weren’t sufficiently conscious of the need to go out and get more private funds from a variety of sources.
Weart:I don’t know about Rockefeller, whether there were people here who might just as easily have done without —
Seitz:Well, I wouldn’t put it in those terms, but we expanded by a factor of about three during Bronk’s period in office, which went from, 1952 to 1968.
Weart:That’s awfully fast for any institution.
Seitz:…without a real hard-hitting endowment drive, so we were leaning very heavily on the existing endowment.
Weart:You started essentially the first serious fund drive, didn’t you? Was this your first fund raising experience?
Seitz:No. I raised money for the Academy.
Weart:Yes, that’s right.
Seitz:I collected the money for the auditorium as well as for endowment.
Weart:And of course you raised funds back at Illinois too.
Seitz:Yes, in a different way. That wasn’t a massive drive. I raised some money for the AIP building.
Weart:That’s right, we mentioned that. In this fund drive for Rockefeller, one thing that was mentioned in the publicity was that you wanted to be more independent of the government, have more private support. Is this because you were trying to get grants at the same time and wanted to maintain a balance?
Seitz:Yes. One of the hardest things that I had to do was get some 250 post-docs in a room, all of whom expected tenure here and say “It just isn’t in the cards.” Those were difficult days.
Weart:That was right after you arrived, in fact.
Weart:That was just at the same time that the ABM controversy was coming up. Did you have some difficulties because of Vietnam, ABM, Cambodian invasion and so forth?
Weart:You were identified as part of the military-industrial complex.
Seitz:I remember one amusing incident. The board was meeting and there was picketing outside. Lunch time came. In those days everyone ate lunch at the same time. And these young people were torn — should they continue picketing through the lunch hour, or should they go and eat lunch? The board had its own meals served at a later time. There was an ingathering of the picketers, and finally they laid down their placards and rushed over to the lunch room. The board was greatly amused.
Weart:The board wasn’t too perturbed by all these things, then?
Seitz:The only thing that perturbed them was that there was a small clique which got out some very nasty SDS literature aimed at David Rockefeller.
Weart:Not at Nelson, but at David Rockefeller.
Seitz:Well, the whole family but particularly at David. They distributed this. There was something called The Newspaper that used to come out. We knew who the ringleaders were. You just had to let the thing burn itself out. Some of the faculty told the students in a mild way, “Look, you’re here to get a degree.” But there were a few faculty members who loved it.
Weart:Well, every university had that feature.
Seitz:Yes. We had only one faculty member who really felt his mission in life was to get on a soap box and straighten out the world.
Weart:Was he the fellow in the philosophy department?
Seitz:No. The philosophers were a pretty good group on the whole. The main problem with them was that they didn’t really feel at home here.
Weart:It’s too technically oriented?
Seitz:They liked to take long leaves, go somewhere else.
Weart:I see. How do you feel Rockefeller differed from other universities during this period? Did it have special character?
Seitz:Most of the faculty felt that research was the main thing, that’s what they were here for, and the other activities represented monkey business. Some however had a certain degree of sympathy toward the agitation. Some students and post-docs took to pasting placards around. You know, the anti-war placards. Some of them were homemade, some were boilerplate. A few of the faculty engaged in that, but in the main not; some of them would even go and tear them down. I never had any direct confrontation with a faculty member. Post-docs, yes. I remember the day that what might be called spring came. I was walking along the walk, about this time of year, and a student came up and said, “Oh, you’re the president. I’m so and so. Can I say hello?” I said, “You’re new here,” because it was regarded as bad taste to speak in a friendly way to the president.
Weart:At that time — yes.
Seitz:If you had a complaint, or course, you felt free to speak.
Weart:To turn more to the intellectual and administrative side at Rockefeller, very briefly, what do you think were the main things that got done during your administration, the main changes?
Seitz:Well, we learned how to keep track of the budgets.
Weart:I see, and coordinate. Earlier when you had infinite money, you said, there wasn’t too much attention to that.
Seitz:No. We were among the first of the universities to realize that was absolutely essential.
Weart:Did you have that problem at the Academy too, by the way, keeping track of the budget?
Seitz:No. That was an interesting thing. It went back to Jewett. Jewett had run the Bell Labs and knew how important budget analysis was. The fellow who was the business manager during my period in office had come in as a young man second to the man whom Jewett had brought in. Bronk respected that office. As a matter of fact, we had much better management in the Academy than here and that surprised me.
Weart:I see. So when you arrived you tried to bring some of management.
Seitz:I had to pull it all together and coordinate. Then there was the question of helping people in various fields in sizing up where support was needed, helping people get it.
Weart:Were there significant changes of emphasis, while you were president?
Seitz:We acquired the Center up at Millbrook for behavioral sciences. It has an area of about a square mile. We put up the animal facility. We had very antiquated facilities that were getting condemned. We finished the Tower Building.
Weart:But there weren’t any major changes, like we should do much more in this area, much less in that area? Except as I suppose you mentioned, the philosophers, but not in scientific fields?
Seitz:I was very strongly supportive of the research hospital, because I felt the time would come when the things that were being discovered in the fields of molecular and cellular biology would become important for medicine. I think Bronk felt that the medical people of the fifties were passé. You know, they had the wrong emphasis. So he de-emphasized this unit. I tried to preserve and upgrade it. Josh Lederberg is really interested in the hospital, and it’s now moving ahead. A number of new people are being added in important fields.
Weart:There’s a lot more I could ask about Rockefeller, but maybe I should just finish up by asking whether there are any other important things we should say about the time you were president here?
Seitz:The main thing was to try to retain it as a first class institution and make sure that it would project in a distinguished way into the future.
Weart:It was really a struggle to maintain position during a budget crunch?
Seitz:And to make sure that you had an inflow of private money on a continuing basis.
Weart:Not to become too dependent on the government.
Weart:I see. So you must have spent a lot of time socially, so to speak, raising money.
Seitz:What you find is that there is an enormous number of people who respect the institution, and are willing to help it in one way or another.
Weart:Does this have a lot to do with its biomedical character? That always seems to be popular.
Seitz:Yes. I’d hate to have to sell a high energy physics accelerator to a private group.
Weart:But with a biomedical group, it is much easier to do. I understand that. You’ve had a lot of other advisory things since you came to Rockefeller. One that I particularly noticed was that you were chairman of the NASA Space Program Science Advisory Council, 1973 to 1977. I wonder how that experience went?
Seitz:It was a very interesting period. I was asked to serve. Perhaps I shouldn’t have. I was a pretty busy person.
Weart:Because of Rockefeller and all the other things.
Seitz:Yes, all the things. But I was asked to do it, and decided I ought to give it a try.
Weart:Some people consider the seventies as pretty much the doldrums in terms of science advice to NASA — that NASA beginning after or even before the moonshot became less and less interested in scientific advice. Did you experience that?
Seitz:No. They were interested in advice. What they needed was money. And they began to be the poor relation among the agencies.
Weart:I see, so the frustrations were just that everybody agreed that things should be done, but —
Weart:What about the issue of the shuttle and use of the shuttle, the fact that the shuttle took more and more money away from the scientific side? Did the Council get involved in that?
Seitz:The committee I chaired was an inside committee, so to speak.
Seitz:And it was supportive of the shuttle. The Academy’s committee was not. It asked that it be freed of any discussions of man in space about the time Phil [Handler] came in.
Weart:They just didn’t want to talk about it.
Weart:But your committee was generally supportive of the way NASA did its program?
Seitz:We recognized that Congress was going to insist on the shuttle, and if you’re advisor to an agency that has a mission, you try to help it in its mission.
Weart:What do you think were the main things that came up before this committee, the most important things that they discussed?
Seitz:We discussed the planetary missions. We discussed the equipment, weather satellites, continual review. We had panels that looked into subjects as the Defense Science Board did.
Weart:I see, pretty much the same thing, set some priorities, look into problems as they came up.
Weart:Trouble shooting, to some extent?
Seitz:Yes. I stayed until Bob Frosh came in, in the new administration, and then was replaced by Bill Nierenberg.
Weart:You mentioned the difficulty of being president at Rockefeller and at the same time serving on this panel. I noticed from the mid-sixties on, from the time you were at the Academy, you served on quite a few advisory committees, boards of directors and so on. I see there might have been as many as a dozen is a given year. There were some industrial boards. You were on a visiting committee for a university, this or that government or private thing. I wonder how many of these were pro forma, where you’d spent a few hours a year on it, or were a lot of these more serious things.
Seitz:Some of them were pro forma and some not. Starting with Phil, who came in just at the peak of all the trouble, the Academy insisted on knowing everything the president was involved in. Phil occasionally go tin rows with them over that, because he felt that he ought to have more freedom of choice, and toward the end, he did pretty much what he pleased.
Weart:What do you feel your role was? Did you serve as some kind of communication center, the fact that you were serving on all these various things?
Seitz:That’s right. Yes.
Weart:Did people consciously say “We want Fred Seitz because he’s also on the other things?” Was this part of the role?
Seitz:Most of the things I was on pre-dated my role with the Academy, and initially no one cared whether I continued them or not.
Seitz:Of course, if Jim Webb said, “Fred, will you meet with a group to discuss this aspect of the space program, or what shall we do down at the Johnson Center in connection with the lunar material?” I’d be asked because I was president of the Academy, but most of the other stuff was a holdover.
Weart:Tell me, Fred, why do you think it was that you became a member of all of these different things? For example, that you were at the same time on PSAC, the Academy and Defense Science Board and several other things? What was there special about you? Very few people have served on as many different government and private science-related organizations.
Seitz:The emergence of solid state physics as a major field accounted for a lot. People said “We ought to have someone aboard —”
Weart:And you were the solid state physicist, for a while.
Seitz:Yes. The things that would help in funding your team back home were all to the good. If I had not known Don Stevens intimately, and he as a result had not known what was going on at Illinois, we might have been bypasses in the evolution of the Materials Research Lab, which would have been a tragedy, because there is now a very important materials center on campus.
Weart:I’m interested because you’re not from Berkeley, you’re not from Cambridge, and you’re not from either East or West Coast. You were at Illinois. Did that play any role in it, when they were searching for a geographical balance?
Seitz:That’s possibly the case. People would probably say “Well, we ought to get someone from the Midwest.”
Weart:And again you were the obvious person. What kinds of personal characteristics do you think you brought to these jobs?
Seitz:I think the typical goal has been trying to get people to work together. To achieve a consensus and common goals.
Weart:You don’t seem to have a strong personal statement, have a position that you would take yourself, so much as try to get people together, is that correct?
Seitz:Yes. That’s what I would say if I tried to do self-analysis. Let me make it clear that if at some time we discusses whether or not we should have a new university accelerator at Illinois and the department has said “yes,” then, I would have felt that I had to go out and do my best.
Seitz:To that extent I would have been a claimant.
Weart:Even though it might not have been your own personal desire to have such a thing.
Weart:Another personal question. Would you mind telling me your religious affiliation, if any?
Seitz:I don’t have any especially. My father grew up in a very religious family, but somehow it never took with me.
Weart:You were not raised in a strong religious background?
Seitz:No. I noticed that my father began to go to church again in his later life when he was a widower.
Weart:Do you have any strong convictions, not specifically religious but in relation to science, to the way things are?
Seitz:I think, and this is a subject almost in itself, that reductionism is probably being pushed too hard. Not that it shouldn’t be because I think the things you get out of the reductionist approach toward science are the ones that then are apt to lead to useful things, for the applied scientist and the engineer. But I think that reductionism alone is taken much too seriously by the biologists at the present time.
Weart:I was struck by a talk you gave at Illinois, about the fact that if all the molecules in the universe were computers, one still couldn’t calculate how a paramecium would behave in the next second from the Schrodinger equation. I suppose that applies to some extent to solid state physics too, that there’s a very clear limit to how much you can do?
Seitz:It may be appearing in high energy physics. I noticed that in his Nobel lecture, Salam, who lists all the quarks now needed says, “Have we really reached the end?” And I think this is being voiced by more than one person at the present time. You think you’re going to turn over the page that finally leads to the grand simplifications, and there it is — more complication.
Weart:The idea of the universe being basically complex rather than basically simple.
Seitz:Yes. I had Bram Pais read this little thin volume of Elsasser’s – The Theory of Life after he finished writing his book [on Einstein], and perhaps too early, it turned up a very interesting difference. Elsasser, with whom I’m in much sympathy, believes that there are things inherent in complexity that are perhaps beyond us to comprehend as human beings through reductionist methods. Bram wrote a very brief letter, saying, “There are things that come from God, if I can use Einsteinian terminology, like the Schrodinger equation, and then there are things which arise in science only because of man’s limitations.” He would put the Planck’s constant and the Boltzmann constant on very different levels. One carries a message from God, and the other a message arising from the limitations of man. Whereas I wouldn’t. I would say the whole thing is a construct, a human construct, resulting from our particular way of looking at the universe.
Seitz:I’ve got to get together with Bram some time.
Weart:He’s a very thoughtful person about these things. It doesn’t hurt to study Einstein on them either. I noticed that one of your main outside interests has been music, which has some of these characteristics. Where does that go back to?
Seitz:Oh, my parents liked music. My father had some appreciation of good symphony music and its importance. My mother liked opera. She used to take me to the San Francisco Opera occasionally.
Weart:Is this something that you’ve worked to keep up?
Seitz:I always liked it. I remember at the grade school or high school level, in my case, radio was coming in. You’d get a set of ear phones and a crystal set. The Coolidge String Quartet began playing around the country very early and I’d single out those programs. I loved chamber music.
Weart:What else have you been able to find time to do, outside of your scientific and administrative work?
Seitz:Oh, the usual maintenance problems of a summer place carpentry, cement work and the like.
Weart:Does this go way back?
Seitz:I’d make a great janitor. It does go back.
Weart:You have to do something with your hands, at least.
Weart:Finally, how do you feel about the way things have been developing politically since the war, essentially the whole political development?
Seitz:Well, you know, I feel our country is at a crossroads. It’s become unraveled. The Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies had a meeting. Some admiral got up and said “The trouble with our country is that we have too many leaders and not enough followers.” And this in a sense is bother the strength and the malaise, and I don’t know how we’re going to come out of it. I was talking to Pierre Aigrain about the political situation, and he said, “In Europe it’s this way. If you have a government of the left, you want a government of the right. If you have a government the right, you decide you need a government of the left.”
Weart:Yes, I notice they’ve had a complete switchover. Every country has switched one way or the other.
Seitz:Yes, that’s all right as long as the road stays open, if you don’t have too formidable an enemy.
Weart:Well, maybe this will happen to the Soviets too. Maybe they’re subject to the same pressures over the long term.
Seitz:If you could really get a turnover in the top. But they always seem to find a 65 year old who’s safe and sound to appoint.
Weart:We’re about at an end. Is there anything else, looking back over everything that we’ve talked about and that you have talked about with Lillian [Hoddeson]?
Seitz:Not at the moment. There’s one thing, I thought of last night. You brought up the trouble in the AIP, when geologists, exploration geophysicists, tried to join. I’d almost forgotten that, and I’m glad you brought it up. I think that Henry Barton would have stayed on a few years longer. He was the first director, and was just ideal, for a long period of time. However, I think he took the criticisms somewhat personally.
Weart:I see. So that had something to do with his resigning.
Seitz:I remember talking to him about what had gone on in that famous meeting of the American Physical Society and at which they took me to task. I think that was the point when he decided that he ought to leave, that he’d been there long enough. Another thing about the AIP; when I came to New York in 1968 Bill Koch asked if I would chair a committee, because he was having trouble that was stirred up by the various societies. I had a number of review meetings with him and decided the AIP was doing a good job. The more I urged this viewpoint to the society officers, the more trouble I got into, the more yelling and screaming.
Weart:Trouble from whom?
Seitz:From the Society representatives. This got to be a very, very noisy activity. The then chairman of the governing board, Dick Crane, came to one of these meetings, sized up the situation in a way that I regarded as sheer genius. He said in effect, “We’ve been doing everything wrong. We’re culpable. It’s awful. But we’re going to try to do better.” I looked at him in amazement, because he and I knew what the truth was. It worked. Everyone quieted down. We got back to business. It was just a magic bullet.
Weart:Wonderful. I’ll have to remember that one.
Seitz:The thing I felt that the Institute did wrong, and I said so from the beginning, was when they levied a dollar fee on the societies. It should have been a percent of dues. I said it when the inflation was 3 percent, but I recognized that it was there, and that compound interest was a deadly thing.
Weart:The story I heard was that that was imposed on AIP, and AIP was not happy about that from the start.
Seitz:I think the Societies could have been talked out of it since the world was more rational then.
Good. Let’s go to lunch.Session I | Session II