Oral History Transcript — Dr. Herbert York
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Interview with Dr. Herbert York
Aaserud:What I have proposed to do is to work on the involvement of American physicists in science policy after the Second World War, and I aim at doing my general interviews and documentation search relating to that topic, which I don't think has been covered very well, in the sense that the relationship between physics and the science policy involvement of physicists hasn't been covered much.
What I'm most familiar with, I'm familiar with the whole thing, but what I'm especially familiar with is military policies, strategic policy, deployment and procurement policy of high technology equipment. I've been on the President's Science Advisory Committee and dealt with things more generally as well, but there are more people who are available in public so to speak to talk about that. But your remarks about documents and so on immediately bring up a thought. You really ought, especially now that the Freedom of Information Act is in place and the time is so long, to get as complete a file as you possibly can of the reports of the various von Neumann committees, all of which are tied together. Von Neumann was chairman of the Air Force Science Advisory Board's Nuclear Panel. He was chairman of the Ballistic Missile Advisory Committee that reported to the Secretary of the Air Force, and then later to the Secretary of Defense.
That committee was sometimes called the Teapot Committee, sometimes called the SMEC — Strategic Missiles Evaluation Committee. It is really a series of committees, which are almost a single committee, because von Neumann pulled them all together and had a particular colonel working with him as an aide, whose name was Vincent Ford. So that's one important set of documents. Now, in addition to that, I guess von Karman wasn't a physicist, or maybe he was; he was certainly close enough. He's another extremely influential person when it comes to military policy and technology. He was first chairman of the Air Force Science Advisory Board, the parent committee of one of the von Neumann committees I mentioned, which was very influential in making policy. Which brings up a third point.
What is loosely called strategic policy is really, up through 1960, essentially the product of a continual conversation among three groups. One group was the key scientific advisors — the von Neumanns, the von Karmans, the Killians, the Kistiakowskys, the Wiesners. I came into that group in 1953. Another group was the long range planners within the military; they wouldn't call themselves the strategicians or whatever but they called themselves long range planners, operational planners, or something like that. Here I'm thinking of Bernard Schriever as a key instance but there are a great many others. And then a third group consists of, say, the budget people, who sort of put the brakes on the first two. Operations analysts, formal students of strategy, or systems analysts had essentially nothing to do with setting such policies until about 1960. Since 1960, they're an added group.
They didn't take it over but they became an added group. Since 1960 the whole thing has simply evolved. I mean, all the revolutions occurred before 1960, and all the revolutions were driven primarily by a kind of an ongoing seminar, you might say, between the weapons and military science advisors, and a group of officers who were involved usually with something called long range planning, or it could be just research and development. That's the intersection that essentially produced the strategic policies. And it's the physicists who were in that who did it. Now, they come in a lot of flavors. There are those who were primarily consultants and never became anything else. There are those who were officials, and also in other parts of their career consultants. And then there were a few who worked full time in organizations like RAND, Aerospace and so on. The most influential, in my view, were the ones who became officials, that is, full time members of the government; I'd put them first.
Right close behind them in general and in rare cases surpassing them, was a group of people who spent an awful lot of time on advisory committees, especially as chairmen. Von Neumann and von Karman are two such people. But in my own view, the people who are there full time as officials have, everything else being equal, very much more influence than the people who are advisors. And I think anybody trying to understand the balance of all this ought to have that straight. You only get that conclusion from people like me who have been both. If you talk to somebody who's never been an official you don't get it, and in my view they are mistaken on this. They don't understand the importance of the difference. Nierenberg may be such a case. He's never been a government official. Well, I don't want to come down on him — and I certainly wouldn't want to do it in public — but there are a lot of people who don't understand the difference between advice and authority, but nevertheless it's an important distinction.
Aaserud:My conception of science policy is broad and inclusive in the sense that I would like to include both policy for science and science for policy.
York:Yes. I only know the second. If you want a person who is not often counted, if you want to know the physicist who probably had the most influence on policy taking the whole postwar period, it may very well be Harold Brown, because during his period as Secretary of the Air Force and Secretary of Defense and Director of Defense Research and Engineering — 12 years — he was right there in the intimate decision making councils. The only reason for thinking that he might not be so crucial, the only thing on the other side of the scales as far as he's concerned, is that he didn't actually get started until 1960, by which time the revolution was over. But certainly from the point of view of the evolution which has taken place since 1960, there's no one who's had as much influence as he has. But when you see a list of physicists who were important, he's very often not on it, because he's in an in between situation. You see, if you read a book like The Best and the Brightest, you won't find him in there either, because Halberstam who wrote that book went around and interviewed the political types. They were the ones he understood best. And so you find Mac Bundy and Bob McNamara and others, but you won't find any scientists in there, because I think Halberstam didn't understand them. But all during the period he's talking about, in this group — "the best and the brightest" — Harold Brown was clearly one of the principal ones. He's not in that book. And yet he's not a physicist's physicist either, so he doesn't have the notoriety that Teller or von Neumann or Lawrence, the latter two long dead, have.
Aaserud:That's a difficulty for me too, of course, in this kind of hybrid study. Even if I want to concentrate on physicists, that cannot be done in isolation.
York:Then there's another group of physicists who are in uniform. Lou Allen, at one time Air Force Chief of Staff and now the director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is primarily an Air Force officer who got a graduate degree in physics. There are quite a number of others like him. They never worked as physicists so in that sense you probably wouldn't call them physicists. As for policy about science, even there Harold Brown, when he was DDR&E, was deciding a number of issues with respect to the support of science by elements of the Defense Department. The support of science and rules about classification, security and so on certainly are policy about science.
Aaserud:My premise is that the two are interrelated.
York:Yes. We started the Materials Research Center when I was DDR&E, and that certainly was policy about science.
Aaserud:Well, the other reason that I was talking to Bill Nierenberg yesterday was his involvement in JASON. What I propose to do is to take JASON as a case study of the physicists' involvement in these kinds of things. First of all, what is your response to that, as a case study?
Oh, it's a very interesting one. It ought to be done. It's interesting per se. In recent years they have been more influential than almost any other scientific advisory group; they're unique. I mean, they are the only scientific advisory group that actually does science when they get together — makes calculations and so on. All the other scientific advisory groups give their advice on the basis of their general experience; they don't carry out some additional science at the time. So the JASONs are rather unique in that respect, and the composition of the JASONs is unique. There are no other advisory groups for which the main criterion is a high established reputation in physics. In all the other groups, usually the people play the main role because they have a strong reputation in technology, and they may or may not also have a strong reputation in physics. The result is that many of the most important science advisors are people that other physicists would never have heard of.
It's the rare case where you have somebody who has a great reputation to start with, like von Neumann or Teller or Rabi or someone like that. Those are the exceptions. But I'm diverting from JASON. I think JASON is a very worthwhile special case. Even so, JASON is one of those groups — I guess there were probably a lot of them — whose self-image is substantially exaggerated. Even in the case of JASON, probably the most important influence is not so much JASON as a whole as it is certain individuals in JASON. People like Sid Drell, Ed Frieman, Dick Garwin play a greater role as individuals than they do as JASONs. But JASON provides them with a way to get together. So that it isn't just JASON as a unit doing things and turning out influential papers. They do do that. But I think probably the individual JASONs are more influential as individuals, and that includes Nierenberg himself, and Munk. And it probably includes fully half the JASONs or at least a third of them, that mainly are influential as individuals. They are virtually all of them advisors, and therefore they're not as influential as they might be if they were officials, but they nevertheless are unusually influential people.
Aaserud:You mentioned something in our telephone conversation, if I remember it correctly, that the origins of JASON came at least in part from Wheeler, and that his conception was very different.
York:Yes. I'm writing a memoir and I have a section on JASON, which is certainly very much peculiar to my way of looking at things. If I have a copy, I'll give it to you when you leave. Well, it's actually a chapter on ARPA, but it has JASON in it. I have some other stuff about JASON, but that is just straight normal stuff you'd get from any source; I won't bother you about that. But what happened was that after Sputnik there was widespread concern in the scientific community — maybe not universal but widespread — that took a lot of different forms. Some people just saw it in terms of a need to stimulate education in science and languages and international relations generally. Others saw it as a strictly military challenge that had to be met. As a result a lot of new organizations were established – like the President's Science Advisory Committee, like ARPA, like DDR&E, and then a little later NASA – which were in direct response and did something about it. But in addition to people in those new agencies, there were a lot of individuals who were concerned, and sought ways to contribute. A group centered at Princeton, which included John Wheeler, Eugene Wigner, Oscar Morgenstern, and Marvin Goldberger – "Murph" – who's now president of Caltech.
Aaserud:Yes, I will see him on Wednesday.
They were concerned about doing something, and Wheeler and Wigner and Morgenstern wrote a number of letters and drew up a number of plans and tried to bring into being something they called the National Defense Research Laboratory. They had Livermore and Los Alamos as a kind of a model, but they weren't trying to just copy that. They wanted something like that, but broader, to deal with everything instead of just nuclear weapons. And they made proposals urging that this be done, and what they had in mind was something more like a research laboratory, a place where one could do both theory and experiment. They sometimes spoke of it as a Research Initiation Laboratory. The new ideas could either be brought in or be invented there, and then examined there, and then if they turned out to be good, they'd go to industry. That was the idea. They tried to sell this within the Pentagon.
They tried to bring in others they thought were influential, like Ernest Lawrence, to help sell it in the Pentagon. And there was some discussion of it. But the first round of high level decisions were to set up PSAC, to set up ARPA, none of which really fit what John and Oscar and Eugene were pushing. But they kept promoting it, and eventually their proposals arrived in my hands — and of course also in Jim Killian's — when I was in ARPA, which was for less than a year. As a first step they were proposing that there be a summer study to work up a plan. And I bought the summer study. I mean, I was the one official who actually both thought it was a good idea and had money. I think Jim Killian thought it was a good idea and there were probably others who thought it was a good idea, but I was chief scientist of ARPA and we had money. So we sponsored the summer study, and most of the people I've named were there. I can't be sure they were all there, and there was a lot of others besides — 20-odd persons.
It was called Project 137. Project 137 broke up into subgroups which studied interesting technical questions, and made some proposals and ideas about them. It again concluded that there should be established a national defense research laboratory to examine all these questions further. Well, I did go so far as to ask whether Johnny Wheeler himself would take responsibility for establishing such a lab, and I think I also asked Murph Goldberger, and I'm not sure if I asked anybody else, and they all turned out to be eager to have somebody else do it. Johnny was going on sabbatical, Murph had a good job at Princeton, etc., so they were all in favor of it happening but they weren't in favor of doing it themselves. I don't know whether, if they had been, we really could have done what they were proposing. It would have cost a lot of money. But we might in fact have started something that was a step towards this research initiation laboratory. But none of the people who were pushing it were willing to actually do it.
Aaserud:And they had nobody in mind?
They had nobody further in mind, so that the idea lay fallow. I mean, we had plenty of other things to do when it looked as if this wouldn't go. Well, the idea was lying fallow then, but Goldberger, Ken Watson, and maybe Gell-Mann, who had all been at 137, were consulting for Convair in a way that was at least related to this scheme. They became sensitive about the point that they did the work, while Convair got the money and the glory – can't they be doing this on their own? But now we're talking about consulting rather than a permanent arrangement. We're talking about heavy consulting, but not about a free standing, full time laboratory. This group, maybe with Keith Brueckner, was at Los Alamos one summer. They often went there. And it was the summer, probably of 1959, that they met with Marvin Stern from my office. He was one of my deputies. He was deputy or, as we called it then, assistant director, for strategic systems. Charlie Townes was also probably at Los Alamos.
They cooked up the notion of what we now call JASON. I mean, that is to say a special free standing organization, or nearly free standing organization, that would meet for intensive summer work rather than full time. So it would get into things much more deeply than Project 137, which was only two weeks, but not as deeply as a full time laboratory. That compromise happened to fall right in the middle of what was practical also. And an additional and crucial factor was that Charlie Townes at that time was vice president of IDA, and bringing IDA into it meant that there was a pre-existing administrative structure to just stick it into. IDA did similar work on a full time basis. The new JASON was, from the government's perspective, sort of a special part-time division within IDA – a separately organized, separate group of people. But we were already accustomed to doing work with IDA. So it became a process of serendipity and successive approximations. Out of this particular set of suggestions came something that was both practical as well as quite useful from the government point of view. So that's basically how it got going. It was a compromise between the idea of a large full time laboratory, and a short term summer consulting arrangement. And the form that JASON has today developed really very quickly. I mean, most of the notion of having a long summer study and meetings during the year, and of allowing members of JASON to put in additional time during the year if they were so inclined as individuals, was developed very quickly. It was Goldberger who was the first chairman, so that the connection with the others at Princeton — with Wheeler and Morgenstern's ideas and with Project 137 — is very tight.
Aaserud:The result seems very different from the original conception.
York:Yes, the result is very different from the theoretical conception of Wheeler for a laboratory, but as I say, by 1960 the whole thing had been worked into something which is essentially what we've got today.
Aaserud:So even Wheeler was enthusiastic about the final outcome?
York:Well, I think so, although I'd have to check back with him. I believe that he would still rather have seen us go the other way, but I think in fact what this is is better than what he was looking for. The idea of some sort of central laboratory that did everything that was of interest to defense and did it well is probably not all that great an idea anyway. It's probably a little too diversified.
Aaserud:Has documentation relating to the origins of the discussions and all that been retained?
York:I don't know. I can't answer that. I think that what you'll find is a bit of information here and a bit there. I'm not sure you will find very consistent central files.
Aaserud:I was thinking about in particular for example the correspondence of Morgenstern and others.
York:I have bits and pieces of it. There may be a place where it all exists but I'm not aware of it. I have by chance certain spotty pieces of it.
Aaserud:You see, there is a JASON archive at the MITRE Corporation.
York:Yes, but does it really go back to the two years before JASON?
Aaserud:I don't think so. I think it starts in 1959, maybe 1960, I'm not sure. I have a finding aid.
York:I think that their meeting with Stern was in the summer of 1959. I have the date right in my chapter because I did talk with the principals, and finally I got a consistent story out of Watson. From my point of view it could either have been 1959 or 1960. But I was able to satisfy myself which one of those two years it was. It couldn't have been any other year except 1959 or 1960.
Aaserud:One problem with that archive is, it's heavily tilted toward the period after 1970.
York:They're all like that. I was utterly dumbfounded to discover that even the classified archive at Livermore has almost nothing from the first six years.
Aaserud:That's probably a natural law about institutions.
York:Well, somehow people were cleaning out files and just overdid it.
Aaserud:So who do you think would be the best people to talk to about JASON?
York:The survivors of the first time through and the ones with good memories. Well, you are a professional at this so you know the memory problem. But John Wheeler, maybe Wigner would still remember, Morgenstern is dead, Goldberger was very active, and then the other really active people who were within JASON at that time were Ken Watson, Keith Brueckner, Charlie Townes, all of whom are still around. A person that you might otherwise forget that you really shouldn't is Marvin Stern. I'm not 100 percent sure how you'd locate him. He works as a private consultant in Los Angeles. It's possible that my secretary even has an address for him. We're not much in touch but occasionally. One of his children was a student here ten years ago, and he came down here often then. But he's the person who was on my staff and who met with that group that summer at Los Alamos, when they invented something that is very close to what JASON is, including even the IDA connection, that is, the connection with another existing larger organization, which they've continued with ever since. In other words, although they've always toyed with creating a free standing group, they never did. That very first summer they did, and periodically when they've gotten annoyed with IDA or SRI or MITRE, they've talked about it again — "let's have a free standing group"— but they never do. They always end up as a division of a pre-existing larger organization. So Marvin Stern was the government representative at the critical moment. With regard to the Project 137, there might be something in the ARPA files. There is a history of ARPA.
Aaserud:Yes, I've been in contact with that.
York:Is it in there? I don't think it is.
Aaserud:I wrote ARPA and I haven't got a reply.
York:That's it, right above your head.
Aaserud:That's Huff who wrote that.
York:That's right. I can't recall whether 137 is in there. If it is, it certainly isn't treated as a very big thing.
Aaserud:It was just released, I think. It was just declassified recently.
York:Yes. It was written some time ago. They tried to hold it back because it dealt with personalities, which is precisely what's so good about it. Most official history is so totally dull, you know, because they try to pretend that there weren't real people involved. But even so, within ARPA, no one was importantly involved in JASON except me.
Aaserud:So there wouldn't be much on JASON in that.
York:There just might be. There might be something to be helpful, but I just don't know. There is no doubt that there are files in IDA that deal with getting things going, but that's two years into it, you know.
Aaserud:Yes. I spoke to Joanne Gibson who's working with Bill Nierenberg here in La Jolla on preserving the history of JASON. And both she and he told me that they have been very frustrated about trying to get information out of IDA. They don't seem to be able to find anything. It seems that documentation there is a mess when it comes down to the history of it. They haven't had an archival program or anything like that.
York:No. On the other hand, I asked them just recently for some information from that very same period. I was interested in the scientific staff of ARPA which at the very beginning was hired by IDA. That's part of what made the connection natural. In fact, when I was Chief Scientist of ARPA, and thus sponsoring this Project 137, I was an employee of IDA with compensation, and a government employee without compensation. I asked for lists of names and things of the people, and where they were from and so on. And they had it. The secretary of the board has been there a very long time. I don't think she goes back that far, but the secretary of the board is Mary Groscope. The president and vice president when it all got started were Garry Norton and Charlie Townes. Soon after that others got involved; for instance, Jack Ruina, now at MIT, became president of IDA within a year or two after it was started. Some of the many conflicts between JASON and its parent were conflicts between JASON, particularly Hal Lewis, and Ruina.
Aaserud:He's a person I should talk to?
York:Yes, but he doesn't go back to T equals zero. I do believe that the ARPA files are also largely missing. One reason I say that is that I talked with a historian named Eugene Emme — he was the NASA historian. ARPA actually played a major role in getting not only the military space program reoriented, but an even bigger role in the civilian program during the first six months. And Emme led me to believe that essentially nearly all of those early files are missing. Now, Huff evidently found a lot of paper. I don't know where he found it. I've not been in touch with him. I'd love to be but I have too many other things to do.
Aaserud:I spoke to him. I called him about this because I had heard about it; Robert Sproull told me about the existence of the books and I called him. Well, I didn't get the impression that they had found the papers in a special place. We were talking about ARPA documentation in general terms, however.
York:My impression is that the early documentation is very poor. There's enough, however, so that someone like me can get a paper framework to pin memories to.
Aaserud:But some memories should be there to make sense of the documents.
York:Yes. Anyway, that's the sequence as I see it. There's this kind of idea by Wheeler of a specific notion. That comes up at a time when the entire government is looking for new forms and creating new forms, the major new ones being PSAC, ARPA, DDR&E, and NASA. This reorganization was stimulated by Sputnik, and there were new organizations being created. Alongside of all of that there's this proposal by Wheeler which does lead to a summer conference, but the summer conference then doesn't produce immediate results. The people at that conference, with the notion that something along those lines ought to be done, nevertheless are thinking about it, and two years later they come up with essentially what we now call JASON. So I think there is a direct evolutionary connection among Wheeler's idea, Project 137, this group of people consulting for Convair, and that summer meeting in Los Alamos. Project 137 happened when I was chief scientist of ARPA, the creation of JASON happened when I was DDR&E. There's an interesting phenomenon that somebody who is a historian has to deal with, as far as the people in things like JASON and Project 137 are concerned. The whole government looks more or less uniform, and they regard it as only natural that somebody in ARPA or DDR&E would support them. The people involved do remember that Marv Stern was there with them in July. But they're largely unaware of the fact that it was me who each time personally approved these events, and without my interest and approval, they would never have happened. But I was just part of the bureaucracy, in terms of their memory.
Aaserud:Yes. As I said, I'm going to see Goldberger. I'm also going to see Lee DuBridge.
Aaserud:Yes, he is. And like you he has been interviewed several times about his life. He's also written what he calls his "Memories" of his life. But both these things are very very scarce on his science policy involvement, which was significant. You point that out particularly in your article with Grebb on the military and science in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
York:Yes. Lee was involved twice, in the Eisenhower Administration and then rather unsuccessfully in the Nixon Administration.
Aaserud:He hasn't really touched upon that in any of these places, partly because it was not what he wanted to emphasize.
York:The second time around it didn't work out all that well, so probably that's the kind of thing that does fade from the memory faster. He was unsuccessful. You could say he was a failure in his relations with Nixon. And that's probably partly his fault. I mean he was too old for the job at that time. When Ed David came in and replaced him, it really did perk up. It wasn't just that Haldeman and the others were not interested in DuBridge.
Aaserud:Another interesting thing is to what extent science advising is a generational phenomenon, to what extent you have different generations of science advisors and different generations of approaches to science advising.
York:It's probably the same as in anything else, except that science may change more rapidly in two different ways. The actual substance changed, but also the nature of the scientific community changed, partly because it grew so fast. Right after the war it was a relatively small group with a heavy concentration of immigrants, and now it's a huge group that is much more a cross-section of America, with lots of engineering and technology thrown in too. So it's different. I think just the numerical change is as important as anything else.
Aaserud:Yes, but that has implications. You and Nierenberg belong essentially to the same generation of physicists, I guess.
York:Yes. He's just a couple of years older than I.
Aaserud:And you both had your education interrupted by the war and then got your PhD after the war.
Aaserud:I asked him specifically about whether JASON could be seen as some kind of response or reaction or what not to the older Los Alamos generation of science advisors. He objected to that.
York:Yes, because looking from this perspective, you see the closeness between that group and the Los Alamos generation, but at the time it wouldn't have been thought of that way. It was really a younger — though in reality only five years younger – and different group, and it was precisely made up of those people who were not being otherwise intimately included. In a sense, it was a group of outsiders who were determined to get involved. And so, they were part of the original Los Alamos group, but they were the very next group.
Aaserud:Those few years were particularly important in that period, since it was the Los Alamos group that provided the real beginnings of science advising by physicists in a real large sense.
Aaserud:So these became the statesmen of science very quickly, I suppose.
York:Yes. And the JASON group never did achieve that status. They never did become the statesmen of science, except for a few particular individuals, and even then often in an odd sort of way. I mean, Garwin is enormously influential as an individual, but many people found him so difficult to deal with that he never really achieved statesman status. But he achieved very high status. And a few of the others did as well (Frieman, Nierenberg, Drell).
Aaserud:They have kept their work low key, in a sense. There hasn't been too much public uproar about JASON except for the Vietnam incident.
York:Yes, and I think probably that's one of the reasons. They keep it low key on purpose. Their few experiences with public attention have all been negative. And furthermore, an important element of the JASON work is that they have much greater access in terms of classification and even proprietary information than most groups do. The only way to protect that is with something akin to anonymity, privacy. Its strength is that it has an intimate connection with a lot of government agencies, and the only way to preserve that is by keeping a low profile and behaving in a private way.
Aaserud:That is a problem of course that I might be confronted with, reluctance on their part to talk about their involvement.
York:Yes. But there are so many of them that if one won't talk, another one will. Furthermore, there are defectors. The most notorious is Charlie Schwartz, who was very little involved.
Aaserud:Was he formally a member?
York:He consulted for them one summer. He thus did have a small connection. But there have been others who have been in and out (and even some who have returned a second time), because the Vietnam War affected fully half of the JASONs in the same way that it affected everyone else. It tended to turn them off and disaffect them from what was going on. So there were a number of people who left during that period who never came back, and there were some others who left and did come back.
Aaserud:Well, I have had some negative reaction to my proposed case study. We had an advisory meeting at the American Institute of Physics where I presented my project, and I got some negative reaction from people who thought I intended my study of JASON as the ultimate case study of the physicists' involvement in science policy.
York:Yes, but it's a long long way from that.
York:It's an interesting special case, but it's not a typical case. And it's not a crucial case. If there had never been a JASON, things would not be very different, partly because many of the most important things that JASONs did, they did as themselves rather than as JASONs – like the various kinds of advice that Nierenberg and Drell and Watson, and Garwin especially, gave on their own. If they hadn't been at JASON in the summer, they would have been doing something else that might have been in some cases more useful, in some cases less. Half the JASONs don't have those other connections.
Aaserud:Yes, but they are important within JASON.
York:But as a group of physicists. I named a number of other people who I think had a lot more influence even than the most influential JASONs.
Aaserud:Yes. I do expect to treat it in context. I'm not primarily interested in going into details about their projects per se.
York:The postwar nuclear leadership also had tremendous effect on policy. They were essentially a full-time group, of whom a certain subgroup – usually literally the leadership from the laboratories – was all over the defense establishment all the time. So much of this is interlocking. I mentioned the various von Neumann subcommittees. Until I became a government official, I was on all of them. So was either Norris Bradbury or Darol Froman from Los Alamos. After I left, Harold Brown became a member. Johnny Foster was much connected with the groups in those days. Harold Agnew always was. So that that group of physicists had a lot of connections, and they were part of this inner group that, working with the military, helped to create the strategy that we actually ended up with by 1960, and that is the basis for everything that's happened since. So JASON is not by any means the most influential group of physicists, but it is an influential group, and it is interesting and unique in other ways, but it's not even archetypical. It's not a good example of something, it's an interesting special case.
Aaserud:You and other people, like DuBridge for example, have careers that start out in physics and then go pretty much solely to policy. Those are two different things, both requiring full time attention if they are to be done well. The JASONs have tried to combine them.
York:Yes, and mainly they work in science.
Aaserud:Right, so I think a study of JASON might be interesting from the point of view of science policy as having an impact both on physics and on national security policy.
York:Yes. It's an important special case. And it's intrinsically interesting because it did involve a group of people who were right at the top of their profession. For instance, anybody can identify and try to hire Nobel Prize winners after they get the prize, but JASON actually had con tact with half a dozen of them before they won, and that is unusual. These Nobel Prize winners include some who are not very active in it any more. Glaser at Berkeley was I think very briefly involved. Gell-Mann's been involved a lot. Chandrasekhar was involved in Project 137; I don't think he ever was involved in JASON. And then I think Alvarez was involved before he got his Prize, Richter before he got his, and Val Fitch before he got his. That's a measure of the high poweredness of this group. Of a group of less than a hundred people, half a dozen won Nobel Prizes after they became associated with it.
Aaserud:That has to do of course with the self-appointedness of the group too. They decided essentially their own membership, right?
York:Yes. Always. With, as far as I know, no interference except that you have to have or get clearance. It's absolutely independent otherwise. They don't ask even for any suggestions.
Aaserud:That shows the closeness of the top rank of the physics community of course during that period. I don't know if that is changing now or has changed as the number of physicists increases.
York:It is changing, just because the physics community is so much bigger. It was not physics as a whole, it was a subgroup within physics of people who in 1960 were all in their early thirties eager to do something. They were just younger than the Los Alamos group.
Aaserud:As you say, it reads almost as a Who's Who of the most prominent physicists of that generation.
York:Yes, it always has. Well, they tried very hard to get younger ones. They've never done as well as they did at the beginning, but they still do well. There are bright young people who are drawn into it. I don't know how to make the comparison but my impression is they've never done as well as they did at the very beginning.
Aaserud:I guess the influence of physicists in science policy has varied with time, and JASON has been part of that curve, you might say.
Aaserud:I don't know how that curve goes. I guess it has been declining for a long time.
York:Well, the oscillations at the White House level are much greater than they are at say the Defense Department level. And even in the Defense Department the oscillations are greater at the top than they are at lower levels. The Secretary of Defense may or may not be interested in this gang of people, but the director of ARPA and the Director of Defense Research and Engineering will be. So that it's been fairly constant at the Assistant Secretary level, and it fluctuates at the higher levels.
Aaserud:It's not only that advice might be heeded to different degrees, but the role of the physicist may vary in a more general sense.
York:They don't just give advice, they make conclusions. It's not so much that you ask them, "Should we build a free electron laser?" It's, "What do you think about free electron lasers? What is the promise and status of this new strange thing anyway?" So it's not so much advice as it is conclusions. The higher authorities use JASON to help them understand certain very difficult and esoteric technical questions. Now, there may also be advice that says, "Don't build the FEL," or, "Do build the FEL," or, "Do establish this laboratory," or more likely, "The experiments in this field of infra-red observation so far have been terrible; you've just got to pull this together better" – there might be some advice like that. But they're not going to get advice from JASON: "Do do Star Wars," "Don't do Star Wars." What they'll get out of JASON are some conclusions about whether or not the claims from Livermore about x-ray lasers are correct at the scientific level.
Aaserud:Has JASON never given that kind of general advice?
York:Well, they sometimes do. They try to. But they're more likely to give what you might better call conclusions than advice, if I can make the distinction.
Aaserud:But they're very diverse as a group, politically speaking, so it would be difficult for them to agree on everything.
York:They are diverse. They have gotten more hawkish and conservative as time has gone on, because there's a sort of a selection process there. It's not that they regularly freeze out people with liberal attitudes, although even that happens sometimes, but for the ones with liberal attitudes a crisis comes along and they leave. But it is diverse, and probably more diverse than most such groups. It's certainly more diverse than either the Air Force Science Advisory Group or the Defense Science Board is as I knew them; I'm not all that up to date. The last time I was intimately involved with either of those was about five years ago, and then they were pretty homogeneous. That's because instead of being working physicists, they tend, not exclusively but largely, to be vice presidents for research.
Aaserud:Science policy in America after the Second World War is a tremendous topic. I think what I was aiming at when I talked about the physicists' involvement is to what extent it makes sense to separate out the April 20, 2006physicists in this kind of way.
York:Well, you're not losing many people when you don't do that, because they were the center of the whole thing. If you look at the influential groups, the non-physicists in those groups tended to be certain kinds of engineers. I guess Vannevar Bush was an engineer. Von Karman would probably have called himself an aerodynamicist or something like that. And then there are a few odds and ends of chemists. I think Jerry Wiesner was an engineer. But von Neumann, the advice of whose committees was unusually influential in the field of long range missiles for a period of about four years – a crucial four years when things were getting started — was a mathematician and physicist. Clark Millikan, another member of that committee, was an engineer from Caltech.
Aaserud:Is he the son of Robert?
Yes, son of the president. George Kistiakowsky was a chemist. Darol Froman and I were physicists. Charles Lindbergh was Charles Lindbergh. Jimmy Doolittle is an engineer. We had a man named Bob McMath who was an astronomer and mathematician. We had Hendrick Bothe who was I guess another physicist mathematician from Bell Laboratories, and then Si Ramo and Dean Wooldridge – one's a physicist, the other's an engineer. I guess Ramo is the engineer and Wooldridge the physicist, but maybe I have it backwards. So that committee was not by any means all physicists, although the chairman was a very special one. Now, that's the one that worked on the long range missiles. The Nuclear Advisory Panel of the Air Force, which came first, had myself and Teller and Scoville. I think Scoville is another chemist, technically.
I don't recall who the others were. And then there are the two Killian committees, the one in 1954 (the Technical Capabilities Panel), and the one in 1957 (the President's Science Advisory Committee). There were lots of physicists there, but again it wasn't all physicists, but the physicists were at the heart of it. Someone like Edwin Land was very influential. I guess you have to categorize him like Lindbergh; he is simply Edwin Land. He's not a member of a group of more than one person, anyway. And the Gaither Panel was a mixed bag. Again, there's a certain group of high tech engineers that run all through this. Killian was sort of a science communicator. The PSAC that he set up was certainly very much dominated by physicists, and continued to be all during its important years. So it's physicists and it's the engineers closest to physics, and it's the chemists closest to physics — by the time you take those three groups, you really do have well over 90 percent of the people involved. You don't need to bring in the more general chemists, the more general engineers, or the biologists. You might say it's the physicists and their immediate friends who have been most involved — not just the physicists alone.
Aaserud:But is this an era that is about to end, do you think?
We've evolved away from those times in several ways. It's still the physical sciences that are at the core of the most important policy issues. There are of course the biology issues relating to abortion, life and DNA, but certainly at least those issues that involved defense questions and national security questions are still mainly based on physics. But what's happened is that the number of such people is just so much bigger than it used to be, and the role of technology is so much more pervasive, that you find scientists throughout the higher levels of the bureaucracy – industrial types as well as academic types – with a lot of influence. But I think that it's different in an evolutionary way. At that earlier time (i.e., immediately after the War) it was the academic physicists who dominated things, whereas now, the industrial physicists have at least as much of a role and maybe more in determining policy.
They are a different group with different orientation and influenced by a different milieu. Going from the campus to Washington, you went with a different set of ideas in your head than did a person who went there from Lockheed or North American or Hughes or TRW. I think it's important that the leadership has passed from academic scientists to industrial scientists and think tank scientists. The think tank scientists are something altogether new. They focus full time on policy issues, so it's almost inevitable that if you get bright people in the think tanks, they're going to have more to do with policy than anyone in academia. If you look at who goes in and out of the high positions, in Washington and the Defense Department and NASA, or even the White House or the Science Foundation, the proportion of those from academia is going down rapidly. In fact it's been down for quite a while. And the industrial people have come to dominate the scene.
Aaserud:Why is that?
York:It's probably because what Washington is interested in really is technology and not science. During the immediate years after the war, the people who were best at handling the technology were the people who understood the underlying physics. Now the technologists themselves are doing a pretty good job of understanding it. You really don't have to turn to the physicists any more to find somebody who understands rockets, missiles, guidance, atomic bombs. There are plenty of engineers and hybrid types, applied scientists, who understand. You don't have to go to the basic scientists any more.
Aaserud:Has this been an easy transition, or are there conflicts that you can point to?
York:No, I don't think there are any sharp conflicts. I think it happened slowly and naturally. For example, I don't see the academic physicists fighting to get back in and fighting for recognition. They're perfectly happy to let these other types run it, until some question comes along that they want to protest, you know. Then they line up and sign petitions against SDI or pledge not to work on it or something like that — they also join organizations like the Union of Concerned Scientists. Those organizations are generally made up very largely of academics. But that's rather different; those are public interest groups that try to influence policy. Rather than being direct advisors or responsible officials, they're choosing to do it by exercising their right to assemble, and other democratic rights. I think that method is really another 10 or 20 DB less influential.
Aaserud:In the longer term that might have an impact, though, on how the importance of academic physics is seen.
York:But there are still, if you look at those higher offices, there are still a few people going in and out from academia, but most go in and out from industry. Take the present Director of Defense Research and Engineering and his predecessors, by whatever title. Early on you had Vannevar Bush from MIT, and then you had Bill Webster from industry. Then there was Whitman, again from MIT I think, and then there was Don Quarles from Sandia, really the telephone industry. Then there was Cliff Furnas from the University of Buffalo, and then the next man was from industry. Then I came from the University ofCalifornia – not the academic side but nevertheless the university – and the two following me were Harold Brown and John Foster who also came from the University of California — really academic science, but certainly not entirely what you'd call academic science. But then came Mal Curry from Hughes, and after him Bill Perry who had made his own company in the Silicon Valley area, then came Delauer from TRW, and now it's Don Hicks from Northrup, and the immediate deputies of those people are mainly from industry. Very few of them come from academia any more. The Air Force Science Advisory Board has always been mainly industry, but it did have very important people from aeronautical engineering departments. I think it has fewer of those now, although to be sure I haven't run a survey. So I think one of the important shifts simply involves the fact that there are lots more physicists and related applied scientists than there used to be, and another is that the ones who are moving into positions of authority and high advice are from industry and think tanks rather than from academia, and that's a change from the past.
Aaserud:So people from other academic disciplines like economics or sociology still don't play by far as prominent a role as the physicists do.
No, really a very small role. Economists are in the Council of Economic Advisors, and there are quite a few people from IR and political science who end up in high positions. Henry Kissinger is an example. Mac Bundy is an example. Brzezinski is an example. But again, it's a mixed bag. The last several National Security Advisors have not been academic. I guess Allen, who was Reagan's first one, was, but since then they've been either military or lawyers like Judge William Clark. Since then they've been military or former military. There were some earlier; Al Haig, and Brent Scowcroft recently, Gen. Persons back in Eisenhower's day. At any rate, getting back to the science advisory question, even the NSF is in the hands of a director from industry now, whereas I guess all the previous ones were from academia. The first President's Science Advisor came from Bell, Oliver Buckley, but then there were DuBridge, Killian, Kistiakowsky, Wiesner, and Hornig — all from academia. After him there was DuBridge again, but then Ed David, who was from industry, followed, and Keyworth was from Los Alamos, which is mixed — it's one of the contract research centers run by the University of California, but not strictly academic.