Charles A. Fowler

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ORAL HISTORIES
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Interviewed by
Dan Ford
Interview date
Location
Phone interview
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Interview of Charles A. Fowler by Dan

Ford on 2004 November 30,Audio and video interviews about the life and work of Richard Garwin, 2004-2012,Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,College Park, MD USA,www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/40912-4

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Abstract

In this interview Charles A. "Bert" Fowler discusses topics such as: Richard Garwin, Luis Alvarez, President's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), Alain Enthoven, Military Aircraft Panel, military intelligence.This interview is part of a collection of interviews on the life and work of Richard Garwin. To see all associated interviews, click here.

Transcript

**Background noise comes and goes — sirens, traffic, static —. Sounds like a phone call while Fowler was in transit.**

Ford:

There it goes.

Fowler:

Are you a regular writer for The New Yorker?

Ford:

I wrote for them essentially full-time between 1979 and 1989.

Fowler:

I thought your name was familiar. We’ve been old New Yorker readers, especially my wife, for many years.

Ford:

I wrote a lot of things about nuclear energy and nuclear weapons and I wrote things about Perestroika and that’s actually how I ended up moving to Paris. As a result of that I started working for Lazard Frères, the French investment bank that was very active in Russian things.

Fowler:

You weren’t the one that wrote the bio of Luis Alvarez were you?

Ford:

No, no. I think that was possibly Jeremy Bernstein.

Fowler:

Yes, yes it was. Luis was my first big boss so… always followed his stuff.

Ford:

Ah! Do you know Rich Muller?

Fowler:

Yes. I don’t know him well but we talked I think only on the phone.

Ford:

He was a student of Alvarez.

Fowler:

Yes. He sent me some of his stuff and I guess he read some of… I’ve been asked to write a few things on…

Ford:

Have you seen Alvarez’s posthumous testament. It was a chapter which was for publication in a book — I think it was called Hardball Physics — but it was only for publication after his death. I don’t know if it was actually published. I have a copy of the manuscript of it.

Fowler:

No I have not.

Ford:

Oh. You’ve had contact with him; let me just make a note.

Fowler:

I’d very much like to see it. I thought the many people that I’ve sent copies to or… thought that Luis’s own bio… the best books along that line but it’s been credited (??)

Ford:

Who wrote that? I haven’t read…

Fowler:

He did.

Ford:

Oh, his autobiography.

Fowler:

Yes, I’m sorry. It’s just called something like Alvarez: Memoirs of a Physicist. [Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (1987)] It was back when he was alive and well and not long after his son Walter came up with dinosaur extinction.

Ford:

I’m going this afternoon to interview Gerald Holton who is Harvard’s big historian of science and one of the things I wanted to get from him was a list of all the best biographies of scientists. Then I can just sit down and read.

Fowler:

If you’ve never read Luis’s autobiography it is really interesting. Now of course it’s of interest to me because I have worked for him. But I’ve heard of people that never had heard of him, read it, and say that’s one of the most interesting books of that type he’s ever read. … [???]

Ford:

As far as Garwin is concerned, can you tell me what your major interactions with him have been?

Fowler:

They have been primarily committee work. We first met when I went on a panel of the President’s Science Advisory Committee that was formed by Eisenhower back after Sputnik. At that time Jerry Wiesner became [???] head of MIT — he was the President’s Science Advisor. He had been with Kennedy and with Johnson for a year or so. I think I went over there in ’62 or something like that. Luis Alvarez was chairing a subpanel on military aircraft, or something like that, and Dick was on it. And then Luis withdrew from a lot of that stuff and Dick took over the chairmanship of the Military Aircraft Panel. I worked on that plus we did a lot of other things. If they had a special group looking into something why (??) Dick would ask me to serve on it, so I saw him several times a year on various panel assignments. And then…

Ford:

Excuse me. Are there any specific things that you worked on that comes to mind. I don’t know if these are things that are still classified or whether one can talk about them today.

Fowler:

I think the reports probably are still classified. I’ve never seen reference to them. I had the misfortune of having read a good part of one report only to decide to accept an invite to go to the Pentagon. As soon as I got there the report came out and I was given the assignment to respond to it.

Ford:

[Laughter]

Fowler:

That’s just horrible.

Anyhow I can’t think of any particular things you would find in writing. We can talk about that… a couple of cases that I could cite that I think display Dick in his typical insightful way… I have kept [??? sirens] off and on over the years… haven’t been on a committee together in many years but we had… together when he was in San Diego when he was out there on the JASON… We got together — after many years of saying we were going to do so — a few years ago for dinner… daughter who at that time was at Harvard…

Ford:

She’s back. I interviewed her yesterday. She’s the head of some genome research project.

Fowler:

Right… I remember something like that. Anyhow, exchanging [???] papers and things like that… been our interactions for the last many years.

Ford:

Do you have time now to talk about some of the work on the Military Aircraft Panel?

Fowler:

Sure.

Ford:

What stands out in your mind as good examples of Garwin in action?

Fowler:

First let me say the general comment on Dick — he is one of the brightest, broadest, deepest persons that I ever encountered. He reminds me in a different way of Alvarez. He is one of these people that I felt had he chosen to stay in physics that he would have won the Nobel Prize. I think he chose probably for the good of the country to devote a lot of his time to areas in the military and the space intelligence area. You probably know he was honored by the intelligence community… major contributor to the satellite program. But I think that side (??)…

Ford:

Yes. The R.V. Jones [Intelligence] Award.

Fowler:

One of the stories that I have told…[???] whoever was planning to buy… asked Dick’s group to look into the proposed C5A — you know that huge transport that the Air Force had (??)… It’s advocate was not the Air Force but was a… think called Systems Analysis at the Pentagon. That was the group that had been when McNamara took over under Kennedy in ’61 and took over the DoD. Charlie Hitch was the Controller. He formed the group called Systems Analysis under Alain Enthoven… he wrote a book after he left called How Much is Enough?: [Shaping the Defense Program, 1961-1969], or something like that.

Ford:

There is also a book, I think, Hitch and McKeen (??). I remember studying it in college.

Fowler:

Yes. I never read that but I did read…. When they formed that group… tried to put in one of our PSAC reports… too inflammatory. When they formed Systems Analysis they did a real service, I thought. I was the contractor and I was working at a small electronics company in Long (??) Island (??). But they started asking real tough questions which somehow or other hadn’t been asked in the latter part of the Eisenhower Administration and programs were launched at… When you start asking what’s this going to do for us? What military capability it’s going to provide; is that of any value or use? … [???] … never appropriate … like dinosaurs?? Which have been launched on the … program launch … And one of the kind of questions that Systems Analysis asked … never … programs like that were killed. So I was a great fan of Systems Analysis … we got into this C5A … And it turned out that this was an invention — aircraft invention — of Enthoven. So instead of being the objective critic they were guard (??) and advocate in (??) any of the service as I’d ever seen. Lacking in objectivity… we all can get if we’re advocating something. I found it a big disappointment… defense with… broad view of it. Anyhow they set up a scenario of deploying — I think it was something like two divisions anywhere in the world … 30-day (??) kind of an arbitrary (??) goal but anyhow it was something like that. Then they showed that this aircraft was the optimum solution [???] … They argued about it just like I as a contractor would argue in favor of my solution or the Air Force or the Army would. Everything was a plus on one side and negative on the other.

Well Dick with the aid of a staff member in the office of President’s Science Advisory … Vince McCrae … a black guy, very Harvard education … a mathematician. Dick instead of accepting what Enthoven said starts looking at the C-141 I guess it is another big transport (??)… smaller and using the same approach that Enthoven had done, showed that the C-141 was a lower cost solution to the same problem. And so Enthoven came over and met with us and Dick went through that and Enthoven stormed out of the room and a few days later we got a scription (??) from them which added features (??) to the scenario which ruled out the C-141. And it was somewhere along there that I started thinking (??), hey these guys are bit more objection than (??) anybody else. So Dick with Vince was doing a lot of the mathematical work filling in the blanks… looking at the details … Dick … then showed that the proposed fast deployment logistic in ships called FDLs or something like that, we never did know … proposal … McNamara [???] never would have built … Anyhow, Dick showed that the ships now could meet?? all those objectives cost less, [laughter].

Then we put our report together. I think it was … classified … we had a briefing in the (??) on … And they invited Enthoven over and he refused to come but Charlie Hitch (??) did come over and so did Harold Brown — Harold Brown was then the director of the … So Dick got up and briefed (??)… results … put down what the coolants (??) were and then alvitch (??) showed that the ships could meet all the objectives of this sort of fictional scenario that had been created to sell the airplane in the first place at a (??) lower cost… choosing all the Pentagon num… Hitch — I just remembered — he was so irate that he couldn’t speak, literally … stuttered a bit.

I think it was Lee (??) turned to Harold Brown … I met Brown before but I didn’t know him. But I was so impressed by him. He said “Well, look, we need an airplane … wider military …In a way, it was a mistake to buy the C-141 and it’s not … range … as much as it is …. “ He said, the C5A … overcomes that concern … He said, my airplane … talk to my people … the Air Force tell me that this is a reasonably straightforward engineering job and we can build it. And therefore I think it makes a lot of sense and I support it.” I think all of us were so impressed by such simple straightforward briefing (??) that we said well I think that’s pretty good, or words to that effect, but (??) we (??) Never — I don’t know whether we ever supported it per se, but we certainly didn’t oppose it — and that’s how the thing got started.

Anyhow I thought that that was an example of Dick keeping the Defense Department on its toes and also opposing what was just pure advocacy vs. objective analysis… [???]

Ford:

Did Dick have an interchange with Harold Brown at this meeting?

Fowler:

Yeah, but only to the extent that when Harold gave his brief (??) — you know, as I recall, Dick along with the rest of us nodded like, well that’s the first sensible thing we’ve heard about this … all this time we’ve spent looking into it. Dick could probably speak better for himself but that’s my recollection and I don’t think that the PSAC report ever did anything other than document the fact (??) … we were going to try to follow the scenario which was very artificial to start with. … wasn’t (??) really …

By the way Dick is one of these people who can … He may know nothing about jet engines so (??) somebody comes over and he wants to know how they work… in an hour why he is making suggestions … people who are attuned (??) 30 years …[???] You ought to look into that.

Ford:

When I was drafting a book proposal for the publisher to look at, I was saying that he’s like some sort of special-forces person who can be parachuted into a place that he’s never been before and, you know, scout around, and in short order he one of the world’s leading experts on that new thing.

Fowler:

Right.

Ford:

Quite remarkable. In terms of the Military Aircraft Panel are there other cases that come to mind beyond the C5A?

Fowler:

I’m trying to think of some of the ones to talk about … classified but …

I remember the panel on… maybe it was the Alvarez … had a big push on trying to get the Defense Department to pay more attention to vertical take-off and landing aircraft [VTOL]. It had some impact eventually — I think the Marines buying the Harrier.

The only ones I could think of that I was involved in was not … of particular interest or they may still be classified … some of them — overhead photography…

Ford:

I think they’ve declassified a lot of the CORONA stuff if that’s what it was.

Fowler:

[???] … recall about the details … first place, I can’t recall the details, but if I could they probably might still be classified.

Ford:

All of these battles with the Pentagon — I guess battles is the correct word — did he make a lot of enemies in this process?

Fowler:

I would say that he was an irritant to many and a valued asset by many others. I know my boss … Johnny Foster … Harold Brown said … and Foster valued Dick’s opinion on all kinds of stuff. He was on the Defense Science Board for a while and chaired at least a couple of Task Forces … I don’t know the … I don’t remember enough about them ….

Ford:

Some of the people I’ve talked with said essentially that Dick wouldn’t win any prizes for his diplomacy.

Fowler:

Well [laughing] I think that’s true. He pressed points and it didn’t make any difference whether you were the janitor or a four-star general as far as the treatment you got. I think in my experience he was always polite. … did not suffer fools gladly, and if anybody tried to snow him, why he got more and more pointed. I don’t recall any instance where he was impolite in the normal sense of the word but he could be very persistent in pursuing things. Some people took issue with that. But I would say whoever said he wouldn’t win prizes for diplomacy probably was referring to that because there are a lot of cases like that. A lot of people … if you were a figurehead you sure dreaded appearing before anything that Dick was involved in … could ask such sharp questions.

Ford:

I think a lot of times in some of these meetings and presentations, the big chief makes the presentation but he really is just reading a script and if somebody starts asking him about the details of it, he can repeat the script.

Fowler:

Yeah, that can be true… [???] I think a lot of the military wised up when they were briefing people like Dick, or my boss Johnny Foster, or certainly Harold Brown — people like that had a wide grasp of things and so forth and didn’t like to be snowed. So the word would go out is you’re going over to see these people you better know what you’re talking about or have somebody else give the briefing. And I think that helped a lot. Probably Dick played a major role as did Harold Brown and Johnny Foster in making people put together a briefing with substance and have at least that part of it given by the person who more than [???] …

Ford:

In terms of promoting his own agenda, did Dick have a set of favorite projects that he was really trying to push through on his own steam?

Fowler:

I wasn’t involved in that move but I’m told by many people that he played a crucial role in intelligence which he …[???]. I never heard Dick say that but I have heard that from a lot of people. And I think that probably was the basis for his winning the award … CIA people were (??) really involved—people like Bud Wheelon and so forth. Have you talked to Bud?

Ford:

No. He is on my list. I’ve talked with other CIA people and they said that basically within the government there were all sorts of proposals for how to construct an advanced reconnaissance system and that I assume it’s the Air Force had wanted a fairly modest evolution of the photographic satellites — the film satellites — and there was a huge debate as to whether to go to real-time digital imaging and all that stuff and that Dick and Edwin Land and so forth were heavily involved in that decision and that it was Dick’s reassurance that in fact the advanced system was achievable. The Air Force was not against it because they didn’t like it, they were against it because they were afraid they couldn’t pull it off.

Fowler:

Ah-ha.

Ford:

And he played a big role, as I understand it, in helping them pull it off. For example, I think there’s a … called CCD technology which is involved in the digital photography. They had gotten far along with it and the prototypes had all worked great but the production models were failing all the time which is a rather huge problem. The CIA couldn’t figure it out, the manufacturer couldn’t figure it out, so they finally made a ceremonial visit to him at IBM Yorktown Heights operation — presented him with all the data, what was going wrong and so forth. His response was has anybody checked the humidity in the factory? And they did immediately and it was way high.

Fowler:

Wow (laughter).

Ford:

And he said well it looked to him like there must be some moisture in system and that was causing the problem. That was, and the whole program was rescued — one fifteen minute consultation.

Fowler:

I’ve never heard that story before. It’s not relevant to Dick but if you’ve got a minute I’ll tell you a story about moisture and [???].

Ford:

Sure.

Fowler:

I ran the engineering for (??) Raytheon for a number of years … One of the programs we had been involved in … we were a member of the club that built the Polaris Poseidon … worked at Draper Lab and all that. Part of our job … integrated circuit lines at three different companies that built special parts … integrated circuits for [???] … boards working on … All of a sudden there were a number of failures in one of the boards of one of the integrated circuits. I’ve forgotten who made?? it. It might have been Harris; it might have been Ru??; it might have been IBM. But anyhow, we had one of my groups with environmental test lab … they weren’t just people that bolted down stuff … they were real physicists. And so they got one of these circuits … metal lid and put it under a microscope and there was a little nichrome resistor printed on the circuit and that was eaten away. So they got some duplicate?? … [???] lid … moisture … slow motion … looked through the microscope and could see this damned little resistor being eaten away. It was clear that the moisture was getting through the silicon monoxide coating … top of the chip … seal it. It was also clear there was moisture coming out of the glass that was on top of the seal … had the circuit … glass and seal … the glass that formed the bond. It was clearly moisture getting in there and they found there was moisture in the glass and the question whatever?? how did the moisture get in there? There were going through all kinds of … but they finally found out it was just the way the particular?? glass was being shipped — that it was the moisture in there. So of course we took neech(??) to get that moisture out of the glass and meanwhile they found out that if you put(??) silicon dioxide coating on it, even with the moisture in the glass it would hold up(??). …We test ... hundred of these things going out day-after-day. No failures or anything, so change was made. Electrically the thing worked fine. .. more capa(??) brought on by the heavier coating. And the problem was cured and … six months later failure started again. … board back and our guys … took one look at it and he said, “That doesn’t look like silicon dioxide.” At that time we didn’t know what a scanning electron pumel(??) microscope was. We sent it out and sure enough it was silicon monoxide. I have to say that each of these production lines — production line for Polaris or sideandstride(??) whichever one it was — they were very carefully controlled. There were quality control inspectors … company. There were Raytheon people looking over their shoulders and the Navy had a few people looking over our shoulders. But how could this happen? Well it turned out that … backroom … proprietary … and they kept making the monoxide(??) because there was another customer at this … One day somebody got a tray full of monoxide and dioxide ?? interchanged. So I said to our guys, “So much for quality control.” [Laughter] It just seemed so ridiculous to have all these inspectors and yet one of the … part of the process where something like that can happen was totally uncontrolled at least from the government(??). Well anyhow, I’ve told you more than you want to know about it.

Ford:

No. I’ve written about quality control problems in the nuclear power industry where they essentially didn’t believe in quality control, so you can imagine what they did. I remember in one of my books — it was about the civilian nuclear program — there’s a little mention of submarine nuclear program that just has background. And a couple of months after the book was published, I was just sitting here and somebody called and they asked me if I was the person who wrote this book. I said, yes. They said, “One minute for Admiral Rickover.” And Rickover’s on the phone and he says, “On page 183 of your book it says that in the civilian nuclear plant they didn’t have enough physical(??) separation between the primary cables and the backup cables that control the safety equipment.” He said, “Why in the submarines?? we ran them down either side of the hull to separate it. Why didn’t they do that in the commercial plant?” And I said, “I believe that they are quite stupid. I think that explains a lot of what they did.” [Laughter] And we went on and on and he said, “Well I just called to say I liked your book.”

Fowler:

Isn’t that great. I had a few interactions with the Admiral when I was in the Pentagon. A wonderful guy but like some other people stayed a little too long. He did a great job over many years. … I’m a big fan.

Ford:

Great. In any rate I’m going to let you go and I’m going to be going back and forth to Dick’s archives and I’m going to look at what he has about the Military Aircraft Panel. All of the stuff that he shows me is unclassified so that will help to find what we can talk about. But after I do that, if I may, I’ll get back in touch and we’ll have another chat about some of these things.

Fowler:

Dick and I had some interaction … I wrote a paper on National Missile Defense and he liked it very much. He wanted me to polish it up and get it published in some … what ever it was [???]. I didn’t choose to do so … IEEE has a magazine, one of their societies, they’ve got a lot of my stuff … I couldn’t see … we didn’t … he liked the paper. So we had a number of exchanges there. Dick is an inveterate inventor and .. if you don’t know all … one of his own National Missile Defense systems. That’s how we got involved. I guess I sent him a copy.

Ford:

I find this hilarious because he will criticize the whole idea of National Missile Defense and then turn around and say if you want to do it this is what you should do. It isn’t really something that you ought to do but it is the best way of doing the bad thing that you want to do.

Fowler:

Yeah.

Ford:

[Laughter] … which is really amusing. Great. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Fowler:

I’m sorry I haven’t been more helpful. If I can then let me know.

Ford:

No, I think this was great.

Fowler:

I’ll look forward to reading your book when it comes out.

Ford:

Okay. Thank you very much. Bye.