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Credit: Sandia National Laboratories
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Interview of C. Paul Robinson by David Zierler on March 26, 2021,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Interview with Ambassador C. Paul Robinson, retired as President of Sandia Corporation. He discusses his advisory work since retirement, and the various ways he has remained connected to Sandia. He recounts his childhood in Memphis and his early interests in physics, and he describes the opportunities that led to his graduate research at Florida State University. Robinson describes his thesis work under the direction of Robert H. Davis, who headed the nuclear accelerator laboratory, where he worked on alpha particle scattering on Calcium 40. He describes his interest in pursuing postgraduate work at Los Alamos, and he explains how the academic and the national security sides of the Lab worked to mutual benefit. He describes the Lab’s early work in internal fusion and laser-induced chemistry, and his steadily rising responsibilities at the Lab, including that for the design and certification of nuclear weapons. Robinson discusses his work on nuclear strategy and policy, and he explains the difference between mutually assured destruction and maintaining a second-strike capability. He explains his decision to leave Los Alamos in 1985, and the circumstances leading to him becoming Head of the US Delegation and Ambassador and Chief Negotiator during nuclear testing talks with the Soviet Union. Robinson discusses how the end of the Cold War reformulated U.S. nuclear weapons policy, and the circumstances that led to him joining Sandia. He conveys his pride in Sandia’s leadership work on technology transfer and applying supercomputing toward energy security. At the end of the interview, Robinson reflects on what he has learned in his career in U.S. national security policy, and he speculates on the threats the U.S. faces in an uncertain future.
Okay. This is David Zierler, oral historian for the American Institute of Physics. It is March 26, 2021. I am delighted and honored to be here with Ambassador C. Paul Robinson. Paul, it’s great to see you. Thank you so much for joining me.
To start, tell me what you have been involved in since your retirement in 2006?
Well, I got elected to the National Academy of Engineering, instead of the Academy of Sciences, because I’d just been named President and Laboratories Director of Sandia, that is known as the nation’s predominant engineering lab. Some wise person concluded that my Lab would be prouder of me as their Director if I were inducted into the Academy of Engineering. I was later asked right after I retired if I might spend more time in support of the Academies’ missions, and it was easy to say Yes! And I’d already been active in the Academies to the extent that I had been on the Membership Committee and chaired it for one year, which is a large and difficult piece of work. But I was also pleased to spend some time supporting in several important technical studies. In early 2006 I was asked, “How would you like to run for the Board of Directors of the NAE?” So, I did, and it’s been a stair-step of the adage of “If each day you do a little more than is expected of you; they’ll expect more each day.” After I served two terms on the Board of Directors of NAE, I was asked to join the Governing Board for all three Academies. Next, I was asked to serve as a member of a new committee who would help to pull the three Academies together into a single entity, working more multi-disciplinary, than ever before. Were you aware that that was done?
That was done within the last five years, and to me, it made great sense. My section is Multidisciplinary, which fits well with what I’d done over a lifetime, I’ll tell you that. But it is now one academy. It took two and a half years to get it done just because there were some things still in the by-laws as Abraham Lincoln had signed it; that we had to get changed to allow the new functioning. But the new name has the worst acronym, NASEM! You must have seen that written.
National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. That’s the official name now for the last two years, and we’re none the worse for wear. So, after I finished two terms on the Governing Board for all the Academies, I now sit on a committee with an even worse acronym! Have you ever heard of COSEMPUP?
COSEMPUP stands for the Committee on Science, Engineering, and Medicine for Public Policy.
Oh, dear. That’s a doozy also!
It’s just horrible! But it is probably the top committee of all the Academies’ committees. We join with the President’s Science Advisor and the heads of the five major science and medicine institutes in Washington, and that’s the committee.
Paul, in what ways have you remained connected, if at all, with Sandia since your retirement?
Well, I had worked at Sandia for fifteen years, ten of those as President and Laboratories Director, one of the longest stints in modern times for a Sandia president. It was the best period of my work life; even though I was on call 24/7 for that decade of service. I still always attend Sandia’s Emeritus Lectures (annually, except for this year’s cancellation because of COVID). I also participate in some in-depth conversations with the Sandia current President, along with several other past Presidents, to discuss the Future of the Lab. I also have lectured at their Senior Management Training courses, to be sure they know the legacy of this great Lab. I also passed along that we must always give full attention to Sandia’s highest goal of “Providing Exceptional Service in the National Interest.”
The other thing that I had been doing in the prior six years was to still contribute to many classified studies, the Academy does a small number of classified studies each year, and with Sandia’s support I served as the Chairman of the Academy’s Classified Studies Committee for those six years. It was an interesting period because we were providing help to a wide variety of government agencies, especially in reviewing and critiquing the complete menu of science and defense agencies and projects as well. It was something I enjoyed doing. It was in 1967 that I first got involved such studies and had served on many committees associated with those tasks. So, in retirement I was able to support a wider diversity of U.S. agencies.
Well, Paul, let’s take it all the way back to the beginning. Let’s start first with your parents. Tell me about them and where they’re from.
Okay. My dad was born and raised in Minnesota, but unfortunately, he had become an orphan with the death of both his parents during the yellow fever epidemic. He and five others decided to leave the orphanage at the beginning of World War I to volunteer to fight in the war. But they had to join the Canadian Army, since the U.S. delayed providing troops until later; until the war became widespread. Thus, as you know, President Franklin Roosevelt kept delaying the time until the U.S. would enter that war effort, while the Canadians joined up with the European defense forces from the very start. This is such a refreshing analogy for me, and seems quite wonderful, as compared to what happened in the Vietnam War where people would go to Canada to escape the draft, while my Dad and his companions all went to Canada to join up to fight in World War I. By the way, Canada has just been super to those who chose to serve. I still get correspondence from the Canadian government honoring his service and saying how proud they still are of him.
He became a field captain, and that is where he finished his service after the war, but then he later did a variety of things, joining the Fisher Body company. I was born in Detroit, which is where he met my mother, who worked as a nurse then. But after my brother and I were born there, he soon moved to other duties for Fisher to support the new second World War. So, now let’s talk about World War II. Do you know the magnificent story of World War II and the major transformation that got the U.S. ready to support the war effort?
Yeah! Biggest mobilization in American history.
Two rivers flow nearby to the Detroit area. Since you can easily reach both the Mississippi and the Missouri Rivers, with the U.S. largest industrial factories concentrated in Michigan, they started running the large forges day and night to make a variety of parts for the war effort. They then put them onto barges to be assembled into the war-time hardware at sites much further south, within the U.S.A. The process to assemble those parts into trucks, tanks, guns, etc. to support the war effort began as these key decision makers rode down each river, making a list of the size of the labor pools at each town or city they encountered along the river. They then determined what size factory would be needed for each of these and each site was assigned the tasks to establishing factories and workers for the assigned roles. Detroit was to immediately begin sending parts to be unloaded at each site: “That one will be a jeep manufacturer,” “This one a tank manufacturer” etc. One great achievement is that in one area where there was a quite large labor pool, they built a very large factory for building fighter airplanes, with the parts to be unloaded at the river’s edge, and then a major assembly facility. And, on the far side of the plant they constructed an airstrip. Remarkably, the first airplane was assembled there, and then flown off to join the war in northern Europe all in less than 8 months.
Dad was still working for Fisher Body in Detroit at that time, and he volunteered to move down-river to set up a very large airplane-assembly plant in Memphis, Tennessee. He soon became a key supervisor for this operation in Memphis, which had a huge labor pool there. He stayed there throughout the war, and then returned to Detroit, where my mother had remained, along with my brother and me, for the entire time. He only had one visit during those war years. But after he came home for two very cold winters, with the third winter being especially horrible. He said, “You know, Mom, you wouldn’t believe how nice the weather is down there in Memphis,” (laughter) and so he packed up the family, and we all moved to Memphis. I was a Yankee in the South, which I have since claimed that’s where I got my first diplomatic training.
Paul, how old were you when you moved to Memphis?
I must have been about five.
Do you have any memories of Detroit at all?
No direct ones, but we would later go back for visits in most years. That was the family’s primary vacation spot.
And then did you spend the rest of your childhood in Memphis?
In what neighborhood? Mostly in the suburbs?
In south Memphis. I went to a school called South Side High School. There’s a very good school downtown, called Christian Brothers College, now Christian Brothers University, where I first went to college. I was not a Catholic, attending a Catholic school, but it gave me one terrific benefit, due to a rule that all who were Catholic had to take two classes in religion every semester. As a Protestant, I was expected to fill those hours with liberal arts courses. There was a huge set of choices that I could choose from. So, I learned how to write! I also studied the great American novels, and those kinds of things. All of these really changed me. It really did. So even though I had majored in physics there, I received a liberal arts schooling as well a B.S. degree in the process.
Now, was it your intent to major in physics from the beginning, or you picked up that interest later?
The first year there I was convinced I wanted to do that, and it is one of the very fortunate decisions in my life. It’s probably the first time I was given attention as someone who might succeed in science and mathematics. I was a sophomore when the Mathematics Club happened to sponsor a contest that involved “Diophantine equations”. You ever heard of those?
It’s very easy to understand. They’re equations wherein the number of variables exceeds the number of equations that are present. A lot of them are unsolvable, but in special cases they can be solved. Today, they constitute a separate area of mathematics wherein you can learn how to set up these equations into parallel systems and calculate your way up to solutions!
I was quite curious when I heard about the puzzle. The entire student body also seemed excited to try and solve it- the coconut problem. “Five men and a monkey are on a Pacific island, and they decide to gather coconuts and put them in a pile. They’re so tired when they finish, they decided to go to bed, planning to divide them up in the morning.” So, one guy wakes up and he goes over to the pile and thinks “You know, I’m worried: I think they’re going to cheat me out of getting my fair share.” So, he divides it up into five equal blocks of coconuts, but there’s one coconut left over. The monkey is there watching him, so he hands it to the monkey. He then takes what he believes is his rightful share and hides it in the woods; and puts the rest back into a big pile. In turn each of the guys then wakes up, goes through the same thought process, and divides the (now much smaller) remaining pile into five parts, but with one left over, which is given to the monkey. He too takes away what he believes to be “his rightful share” and hides it in the woods, giving the monkey the leftover extra one. The question is, “what’s the minimum number of coconuts that could have been in that original pile?” You can very quickly see it’s not your usual math problem, but an intriguing one! You must start with just a blank sheet of paper and the story!
Well, I really focused in on it and worked like crazy until I got an answer. It took several trips to the library, where in the process I devoured a couple of books on Number Theory. Of course, it’s very easy to prove whether the answer you come up with is the right answer, or not, because once you do perform the five steps, taking away 1/5 of the coconuts in each cycle of division of the ever-smaller piles– after the last step the remaining number can no longer be divided by five, without a coconut left over for the monkey! While in each cycle you got an ever-dwindling number of coconuts, with always one left over, however, after doing it five times, the number is no longer divisible by five with the required one coconut as a remainder! So that’s where it terminates the various matrices you have built up.
The answer to the problem is 3,121! I completed the problem late one night and was so happy; I got the idea of driving to the fruit markets (open all hours along the Mississippi River), to try and buy a coconut. I was in luck. I then carefully carved the answer on the coconut and darkened it with ink. I delivered my write-up of how I solved the problem, but since Dr. Hatz had not yet arrived, his Secretary told me to put it on his desk, and she would make sure he got it. I placed the writeup of the solution on the center of his office desk, anchored by the coconut on top!
Dr. Hatz told me several days later, that my answer was correct; and that in addition to a monetary reward, he said that the Math Club would invite me to be the next speaker to give an evening speech to the Club on how I went about solving it. In the weeks after I had won the cash prize, I earned a lot of attention from other students, but especially from many professors; who, as I’d go to class, would stop me and say, “You’re the man who solved the coconut problem, aren’t you?” and I would say, “Yes, that’s me.” The night of my speech was the first time in my career, when I had the pleasure of giving “a highly technical talk”, even though it was the launch point as the first time I’d ever been invited to do so. Though looking back over my career, it was the very first of what at this point in my long career has now proved to be an uncountable number of such highly technical talks. Looking back, this unique experience did change my life, and the changes were immediate. Have you taught ever?
Okay. When you teach, you tend to look for “key faces” among your students to be sure that they are “tuning in” and “receiving the info which you are trying to impart.” Right?
So, likely as you observed your own professors, you could tell whether they were looking closely at you, and at a few others (and they’d likely chosen you and others eager and energetic and looking for new understandings.) Usually, they could only watch carefully one or two people as they lectured—to see if they were communicating well. If you were fortunate to become one of their “feedback loop students,” they’d look to see that you, and a few others, actually were understanding and “in tune” with what they are trying to impart. When later I taught, which I did part-time, teaching advanced calculus while I was at Los Alamos at the UNM (university extension) there, I did the same thing. The people that you know are interested and are likely to understand, you are naturally drawn to watch their reactions. I think that one extra commendation, which came my way after winning the coconut prize in my sophomore year, gave me the energy and pumped me up to be sure that I always did pay close attention in the rest of my undergraduate and graduate studies. You automatically know it when a person begins to expect a lot from you. So ever since that time, in any course I ever took, I made sure that I was always attentive and “in tune” with their intended messages. Like clockwork, after winning the “coconut prize” most of my CBU teachers had begun to seek me out in the first classes, and carefully study my reactions. This same phenomenon followed me throughout graduate school in Physics at Florida State University as well.
Paul, is it your sense that even at a small school in the early 1960s, that you and your program were beneficiaries of American support for basic science and physics in general, you know, after Sputnik and with Kennedy and the space race? Did you even feel that even at a small school in Memphis, would you say?
Well, I didn’t see it there, but in my next step I did. I’ll tell you about that now. The natural thing happened. My undergraduate professors nearly all began to ask, “Well, where are you going to go to graduate school; you really should get a Ph.D.!”
That is: “What are your plans?” The truth is, each of them was unique in how they brought the subject up to me, but the effect on me has lasted a lifetime. They gave me advice which was outstanding and motivating! And by the way, I now tell that to people who ask me how they can best succeed. A popular question I get from younger folks is “Should I go to graduate school? Do you think it is worth it”? I usually tell them the same basic points (that my best professors had told me) that unless you get a Ph.D., you’ll likely always be working for somebody else. But if you really want to lead and do original work yourself, you’d better get a graduate degree! That sure turned out to be the case for me.
Now, did you [David], get a chance to open the script of what I prepared for the physics colloquium I presented to the graduate students at Florida State University, last February?
I did. Yes.
I’m convinced that the advice I gave is still spot on. It’s such a great step forward to motivate others toward advanced studies. Once you understand things at a greater depth, it also changes you in many ways.
Paul, as you were thinking about graduate programs, were you more focused on theory or experimentation at that point?
(Laughter) I was open-minded, but I can tell you that when I got there, and got into the throes of things, something just stuck in my mind: and I’m sure you’ve heard this by other physicists: Problem solving is everything. There are various ways to go about it, and one of the best learnings from my studies is that I suddenly became not so favorable to being a theorist, or as I now say; “I never trust theorists by themselves.” Here is the maxim that made me adopt one critical point of view in doing physics over the years: “Never fudge the data. We can always fudge the theory.”
(Laughter) I like that!
There’s nothing like depending on actual experiences to become your teacher. You really are always fighting or working with nature to find out what the real truths are. I follow that with a quote “Experience is the best teacher, but it charges you the highest tuition!”
Paul, why Florida State? Was there a particular professor you wanted to work with? Was there a program there?
Oh, I’m pleased to tell you about that now, because very few people know the full story. I had applied to three schools around the U.S. In Florida, it was about the time they were competing for the NASA lead role to become the state where the U.S. would base a lot of the space work. The people in the Florida legislature began to worry whether their state could be picked, e.g., they’d say “You know, we just don’t have the quality of science schools which could support such a new effort as this, and we ought to do something to change that.” One man, with uncommon common sense, who was a member of the legislature in Florida, then came up with how they might change this situation, and quickly. He asked his colleagues: “What do we have that is really the greatest advantage that could place a main space facility here in Florida, and could be our advantage to attracting the university brain power to both help us win and to provide people to staff it? What would you think it is? “It’s the climate!”
Yeah! That’s right!
And here is how they went about it: they started to propose and invite professors who were Nobel prize winners, or near Nobel-quality, to come and teach at the key Florida colleges and universities for the winter semester, along with an attractive stipend, just for that semester.
(Laughter) Who can turn that down?
Well, after they got these very bright folks to come to Florida for “one semester,” leaving their cold and snowy northern environments of their present universities, nearly half of them never went back to the north. And, later, when they then re-negotiated full-year salaries; the amounts these folks would agree to accept- to stay there for the full academic year- were more than they had earned before, and the costs of living in Florida were so much lower (and there were no state income taxes either!)
Oh, wow. That’s great.
That plan had been in place for about three years when I showed up at FSU, and they were well into putting both Florida State and the University of Florida on the brainpower map! The University of Florida was big in engineering, and they used such a plan to attract the best engineering professors. Florida State did the same to get the best physics professors. Along the way there were some Nobel Prizes given while I was there to these new members of the faculty. They also encouraged the other schools to schedule major physics and engineering workshops and conferences, of course, they held these in “the dead of winter.” The attendances at these were just remarkable!
Paul, who ended up being your advisor?
Bob Davis, i.e., Dr. Robert H. Davis, who was the head of the nuclear accelerator laboratory and contract holder for the Tandem Van de Graaff nuclear accelerator.
And that’s what you wanted to do? You wanted to work in nuclear physics, accelerator physics?
Well, here’s how it happened. Dr. Davis told me that I had been picked because of the letter I wrote them; including the fact that, for two years, I had also been repairing all the lab equipment, and teaching the undergraduate labs during both my junior and senior years. It was a big advantage for me, unique to Christian Brothers. C.B.U. would pick someone in their sophomore or junior years in physics to teach labs, and it was not only to just teach but they expected you to repair all the equipment and set it up before the labs. Talk about transforming my life! You really had to understand and know in depth how all these instruments really worked at that level; because you are the one who bore the responsiblity to get it all running. I grew enormously during those two years, when repairing, or showing others how to use them.
When I had first written to Dr. Davis, I told him, “I already know all of the nuclear counters. I taught the labs the last two years here, and I’ll be ready to do research day one.” He said, “Why don’t you come early for the summer trimester as well? Don’t wait till the fall.” So, I spent my first summer doing research in the FSU Tandem Van de Graaff labs.
At the end of that summer, a marvelous thing happened. He noted my involvement with trying to get the whole thing running and run well, which I think probably came from, if not only from my dad, but having taught labs. You learn how to push people to do things right, and how to keep them moving ahead. You’re unhappy if people are moving too slow. One of the things that he noticed and asked- and this is a total problem and it’s human nature, when he said “It bothers me that people don’t volunteer as much as they should, right? It’s like pulling teeth to get volunteers to staff all the shifts for our allotted times (which always required 24/7 full staffing coverage, of course). The Van de Graaff always must run 24/7, seven days a week, right, and so everybody must balance their lives, lectures, studies, test, etc. and the experimental program demands your total attention when you are running it or using it. The team that’s working on their own experiment must be there, but for the other members required to serve shifts, it was always harder to convince them to accept assignments for overnight shifts, especially. So, at the planning meetings it was always difficult to fill out the schedule to make sure you had each of the positions filled, in fact, it was “like pulling teeth” (laughter).
You will love this. Within my first year there, Dr. Davis asked if I would also take over the responsibility for staffing coverage of the Van de Graaff for our allotted days. He said, it’s the worst task I have, and if you’ve been used to motivating and directing undergraduates, you might have a better idea as to how motivate our team to be more flexible in filling out the full coverage we must have, with the right people. Remarkably, I was able to do so. Let me tell you that I thought it was fairly simple, and an obvious way to fix the problems our group was facing. But later on, I learned that my solution became a huge and important practice world-wide for running twentyp-four-hour experiments!
Even I was shocked at what a difference my scheduling solution had made: Professor Hans Plendl, an FSU professor and nuclear physicist, who led teams for research on the Van de Graaff, was my host for a visit about seven years after I had graduated and gone on to Los Alamos. He volunteered to show me around and update me on the changes made to the research lab and the accelerator machine. He opened by telling me that “You have now become famous around the world for your solution on how to schedule full coverage of Accelerators around the world. He said, “And it has spread to most of the Telescopes and Observatories everywhere, that require 24/7 manpower coverage, as well.” I didn’t know that such a thing had happened until I went to Florida State to be their graduation speaker. In that visit, Dr. Plendl, filled me in completely, on how that had all come about. He said, “You remember how you changed all the work schedules here?” and I said, “Oh, you mean when I moved the daily shift schedules to “ten, eight, and six hours”. He said, “Yes. Well, when you left here, all the research groups here also began to adapt to what you had done in Davis’s group, and in most of our other research teams, and now it has spread around most of the world, as seeming everyone has been adopting it.”
I must tell you here that such a change, I thought, was just good common sense! I said: “Eight-hour shifts seemed crazy, as they would disrupt your sleep patterns, your meals, and your ability to be a good student for at least three or four days after working “either an evening or an over-night shift.” These were especially hard on people who would also have to attend classes and stay awake, all because of the shifts they had just put in. Therefore, to try and get people to volunteer for day shifts or evening shifts or (especially) the graveyard shift, for which you never could get people who would be willing to do; I suggested: “How about if we built each shift around eating, as well as sleeping?” I then proposed that we have eight a.m. till six p.m. for the day shift. It is ten hours, but no one need ever disrupt their lives, or their stomach’s needs, as you can eat lunch anytime, if you will eat in the control room. If you like, you could easily eat dinner with your family after six pm. Plus, you never need to have your sleep schedule be wholesale interrupted! That is the best tradeoff of all.
And, if you volunteered to work on the “swing shift,” its start and finish times were now six pm till two am; but it still was a regular eight-hour shift, right? But the students that came in for the graveyard shift had to work for only a six-hour shift: two am till eight am. By only working a six-hour shift, by going to work at two a.m. instead of midnight, they can get three- or five-hours’ sleep before going to work. [We all soon learned that those few hours of sleep would easily sustain you through the next day’s classes as well.] And you could easily fit in three meals in the rest of the time each day. [These schedules proved to allow enough sleep to charge most people up, while keeping them going.] And it’s proved its worth around the world now!
By the way, in my original suggestion of this schedule to Dr. Davis, at the point when he heard that; he said, “Great We’ll go to that.” And after it became the standard shifts for the Davis group, he took me aside and said “You’ve got a real knack for this. Can I get you to help me run the research group?” So, I’ve sort of became “the guy in-charge for almost any job I’ve been given ever since,” but I certainly never did it because I wanted to be “in charge”! I wanted to do it because I wanted to help make things work better. In my group, they all loved the new schedules.
Paul, what was your actual thesis research? What did you study?
I did alpha particle scattering on Calcium 40. It was a fine topic for a thesis, it’s not as important, as the second story I’ll tell you now: We were scattering with alpha particles and trying to understand and map the nucleus of intermediate-size atoms: to understand how the nucleons arrange themselves within Calcium 40. The alpha beam was initially achieved by creating a low energy beam of ionized helium + gas, which you then could add two extra electrons on each ion by scattering them through low pressures of hydrogen gas; and as it was directed through the high voltage central portion and shaped into a high energy beam of He-, a scattering foil in the center knocked all electrons turning it into a 2+ beam of charged atoms, ion (or sometime a low pressure of gas scattering to strip off all the electrons. As the beam excited the central portion inside a Faraday cage within the Van de Graff, it got accelerated by twice the voltage kick it got when it entered the center, but then additionally got two times that much of an energy kick in exiting the center and flying to our target chamber. So, depending on the voltage you had on the V d G machine (say seven million volts, its energy when it hit the calcium target would be about twenty-one MeV( million electron volts), but could be adjusted in a range lower or a little higher, But the amount of beam you got was typically only thirty nanoamps maximum beam in the beam current, whereas with proton scattering you might get as much as several microamps of accelerated protons at the target. So, it was harder work than proton scattering, and we were always interested in ways to increase the beam current for alpha particles, which were typically creating only a maximum of thirty nanoamperes when I began to work at the FSU accelerator.
In my second year, Dr. Davis called me to tell me about a paper he’d found where a team was looking at how to improve the first step of helium acceleration. They were examining the substitution of using a sodium vapor (rather than hydrogen gas as the first step (to accelerate and add an extra electron to the neutral helium ions.) The production appeared within our range of interest to possibly yield more than fifty to one hundred times more -1 Helium ions. Instead of using hydrogen gas to attach the extra electron on, they were studying a substitution of metallic vapors, and we picked sodium as perhaps the best chance to improve our beam intensity.
Over the course of that summer, we enjoyed great success with these changes. My partner (Joseph John) and I are both well-known for raising the alpha particle scattering current by ~800 times. So, we were well into the several microamps of beam current that we could put on the targets! One immediate result that came from this major improvement was that I was able to go back and redo the alpha scattering on Ca 40 data I had done during the first three years, but this time with far better accuracy and statistics, due to the enormously more beam current on the targets.
Later on, when I was wrapping up my dissertation, I applied to Los Alamos, which I knew was where I wanted to go when I finished. Their recruiters came to visit the FSU physics department, looking for recruits. That increase in the Van de Graaff accelerator was the thing that had first attracted Los Alamos to my work, because I soon received a letter that they’d like to make that very same conversion at their Van de Graaff accelerator to increase their alpha beam as well.”
Paul, on that point, did you recognize during your thesis research that the stuff that you were doing might be valuable for you to learn about the inner workings of the nuclear weapons program?
Not at all. I’d always respected Los Alamos and the work they had done there, and I was intrigued by it. I mean, it saved the world as well as our country, and it’s maintained us ever since. When I went to Los Alamos, I was given a choice between several areas, and when the J-17 Experimental Group within the Test Division (J Division) offered a job to me, doing experiments on nuclear rockets and nuclear weapons tests, I said, “I’d love to do that.” It turned out to be a dream job. Everybody in the testing business believed that “we’re not going to be able to test for much longer.” We’d better do all we can right now because they’re going to shut us down from any test that might further pollute the atmosphere.” [Even though very little fallout actually returns to Earth, as its high temperatures drives it up to extremely high altitudes- well up into the stratosphere; so, it doesn’t return to the earth’s surface for ten to thirty years, somewhere in that range.]
Paul, what was your initial appointment at Los Alamos? Were you a postdoc or you were a member of the staff right off the bat?
I was made a staff member in a special position that had just been created. Nationally, many people all within the U.S. science community would propose experiments to Los Alamos, and of course, they too also had that same feeling of, “We’re not going to be able to do this much longer; so, we’d better get all we can now.” Quite eminent scientists would also write, proposing “Here’s an idea I’d sure like to do,” and my Division Leader would hand it to me and say, “We’d like you to study this. Will you see if you think it makes good sense to do, and if so; we’ll pull together a budget for you. Thus, we’ll also need you to give us a reasonable cost estimate as well” (laughter). That’s when I became more and more of a multi-disciplinary scientist. I mean, I worked on everything! For example: noise generation from hydrogen jets, high radiation conversion of para-hydrogen to ortho- hydrogen, and infrasound from explosions.
Paul, on that point, of course--
Yes, and it was an enormous learning experience, but it was just the start of a marvelous ride that has continued throughout my lifetime. In all my National Lab experiences, at both Los Alamos (eighteen years of service) and at Sandia (for fifteen plus years), I loved the work I would get to be involved in. It has been a multitude of truly interesting science and national security experiences, and they gave me a ride to some of the top jobs at each Lab. Not only did I work on nuclear weapons explosions, but also experiments and test processes on the nuclear rockets. I also had to be very active in all of the satellite tests we did. Were you aware of these?
So, I did experiments there, and along the way, the group leader said, “Hey, if you really want to know how to do anything around here, why don’t you join the control room for a time? Then you study everything to understand their inter-workings.” I said, “Sure, I’ll do it,” so I was first assigned to be the Cool-Down Operator on nuclear rocket tests. People trained me day and night; to be sure I wasn’t going to screw it up, but after several reactor tests that we did; one of the top guys, above me, experienced a heart attack during a test -very likely due to the high stress of his responsibilities.
My group leader then said to me, “Paul, I think you’re ready. I’d like you to now become the chief test operator.” I then began “captaining the operating team.” The job was to lead and guide the control room team through all of the planned and unplanned events that might take place, including a plethora of major accident conditions, and a requirement that you were expected to understand in every detail how any part of the system might interact with other parts and systems; and make the tough decisions of what to do to achieve the experimental goals and to prevents major accident, or if these occurred, to rapidly find a way to minimize the hazards locally on off-site. In short, it was no small order. One of the “come-to-Jesus’ moments” was when you do a major test with rockets that are white hot, 4600°R—2700 C, as they exhaust, the hydrogen gas coolant jets are at such “white hot” temperatures! It really requires you to develop some skills in “overall systems thinking,” as when you are operating or performing tests at such unique amounts of powerful energy releases. There was always the chance that you might well set the whole thing into a Roman candle, that would then emit high-altitude radioactivity over the near-by communities and might travel to Las Vegas, which was always the ultimate fear. Fortunately, we never did.
Paul, on the point of being multidisciplinary, as you’re understanding the whole landscape at Los Alamos, you’re already rising in seniority, I’d like to ask. In some ways, there are almost like two Los Alamos’s. There’s the Cold War Los Alamos, but then there’s also the “university” of Los Alamos where you have the theory group, and you have experimentation that could be happening as if it was an academic department. Did you operate in both worlds or more one or the other, or how did you think about those things?
I always did operate in both of those worlds, and I developed a dislike for anybody who only wanted to do the academic research. That just didn’t appeal to me at all. I mean, we live in this world. It needs a lot of new ideas and constant “fixing up.” You must be sure to contribute to the future of “mankind and its welfare” in whatever you do.
So, you always looked for opportunities for both sides of Los Alamos to build off of each other.
I did, and that’s what made the career so enjoyable. When they finally did close nuclear testing in the atmosphere, a new scientist- you’ve surely heard the name Harold Agnew, became the new Laboratory Director/Leader.
Harold had come to Los Alamos along with his major professor from the University of Chicago: the eminent Enrico Fermi. Harold was a get-things-done Experimental Physicist, and he said, “You know, this is going to be terrible for us not to be able to test because you can’t really do new things without it.” Early-on after becoming the Lab Director, Harold had decided to create what he called the “Advanced Concepts Group”, and I was asked to join it. It was originally staffed by twelve people, and you’ll love this: No two of them were experts in the same field. They were to work with within many other fields, to move rapidly in creating new programs. and in answering challenges that were plaguing the ongoing work. In the end our tasks were to examine and recommend new Advanced Concepts for the future of the Lab.
Here’s how it worked: You would look at the possibilities that could come down the line that might really make huge differences, both scientifically for the first time, but also with the potential to make important contributions to our work and to the world. When you got sufficiently able to elucidate key proposals that the scientists in a part, or parts, of the Lab would get excited about their possible futures; it was expected that at point you would then leave the Advanced Concepts Group to pursue those ideas and proposals. You, and the others who were involved with you, would be assigned to go with you (of course, if they wanted to, it was all voluntary.) We together were expected to then go out into the lab and set up a new organization and start pursuing these new things.
At the time we started, the idea of inertial fusion began to gain a lot of interest. Originally the emphasis was on igniting thermonuclear fusion, not by x-rays (as is done within “a hydrogen bomb”); but instead to ignite the fusion of deuterium/ tritium mixtures using high powered focused pulses of laser light to compress and heat until the fusion components would ignite. There were many challenges! E.g., how could we get extremely high energies into a laser pulse short enough in a short-enough time and very focused into small spots to compress pellets of deuterium-tritium. We began by examining the possibilities for the best ways to create very powerful laser light pulses. I don’t know whether it was the longest straw or the shortest straw, but I drew the creation of chemical lasers as my first item to investigate; and you can likely guess what types of chemistry we began to look at in our earliest attempts to harness the chemical reactions to produce other effects. If you guessed “Explosives” you would be right. And I learned enormous amounts about new technologies, very rapidly. At Los Alamos, we likely had the world’s best explosives chemists including some “true geniuses” about explosives, and this changed me in my next job, as you’ll learn in a minute because I became the first to successfully construct an explosive-powered laser, followed by a lot of others along the line. We started with some chemical lasers which took advantage of the new modeling codes being developed in the Lab’s Theoretical Division, as well as by the explosive experts continuing work to construct new, powerful, and safer explosives for nuclear weapons use, including one where we did a construct such a device and got lots of laser light. We even investigated a miniature underground “nuclear flashlamp,” to detonate a chemical laser mix in an underground-cavity.
Our new partners in these tasks were just great guys. We had a lot of former Caltech folks who had become the leaders of the conventional explosives group. They were brilliant, and they worked with me to do both theory and calculations of the chemistry of a great many explosives to try and get “a laser mix” in the explosive products. It involved a lot of theory development and calculational development along the way. It was exciting, and as well, we were always plowing new ground.
Regarding myself, I think maybe this was where I showed that I really was starting to become even more and more into a “multidisciplined” scientist. I woke up one night saying, “Wow, this is so hard.” But soon an idea came to me that we shouldn’t restrict ourselves only to using chemistry to make laser light. The thought appeared as to what would happen if we turned these two ideas around? That is, instead of using mostly Bunsen burners to make chemistry happen, what if we did the opposite? What if we used lasers to make the chemistry happen? Could we get large volumes of energetic gases or liquids to ignite and produce higher inverted energy states that could be swept by other short pulse lasers; tuned to the dominant light emission levels, and we thereby might create laser amplifiers!” We brought in experts for each of the relevant technology pieces to evaluate and study the possibilities of realizing such laser-controlled chemical laser devices. We started talking with experts for all of the various technologies and science needed. And I had theorists who worked with me and joined our team, and one of my theorists got really into it, saying “Wow, now you’re talking!” But others said, “Look, what’s really wrong with chemistry?” The answer: When you go through chemistry training, you have only one main tool? The answer was the same: A Bunsen burner.
So, what happens when you slowly heat something up? Answer: It’s always in thermodynamic equilibrium. That very unlikely to achieve population inversions that would enable light amplification (i.e., prevent lasing from happening). You’ve got to get a population inversion, right? We said, but what would happen if we turned it around, and we could tune in many smaller lasers (in short pulses) to rapidly invert the populations of higher energy states in laser media, and then, apply other frequencies to extract and amplify the most favorable laser levels from that energized states, by extracting energy put there by very many smaller lasers?
We also looked at throwing out the use of the Bunsen burners and, instead, start doing chemistry that way. It was an idea that picked up steam, and that’s where we started to collect a lot of patents. I don’t know exactly how many patents, we generated, but around 180 patents, and they’re everything from soup to nuts and multi-authored, because we usually teamed up on these. [Note that, within the National Labs, the government owns the patents, which is a defensive act to avoid the government having to pay others for ideas developed through government funding!]
But first we also looked at the obvious issue of what if we used laser-induced chemistry for purifying substances. It was a hit overnight! When you start looking at this concept, the first problem is matching a laser frequency to the absorbing molecule. That is achievable using tunable laser techniques, which were already appearing. We rapidly became the world center for tunable lasers, capable of trying out such ideas early-on at small scale, to prove its feasibility. We got funding to start developing a “stable of tunable lasers” so we could rapidly map the absorption features to tailor and control the subsequent chemical reactions. We called that Lab the LASL-squared Facility, as the first LASL was the original acronym for the “Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory,” with the second LASL to denote the “Laser Applied Spectroscopy Laboratory.” Once you start with a new idea, others get interested in joining in with you, and many successfully jumped in with ideas as to how to improve it. I traveled the world giving talks about new lasers and tried to spread the ideas for the new possibilities we were exploring, and to seek their help in “finding new ways to make chemistry happen in very controlled and unique ways.” The key thesis was that “if one can tune lasers to excite only certain species within complex mixtures, then you open up many possibilities to control the subsequent chemistry that will happen!”
We started sponsoring joint research between ourselves and universities from all around the country to build, invent, and devise tunable lasers until, finally, we were able to tune laser light from the far-infrared through the near-infrared, and all the way through the visible and as far as we could get into the UV. We had the world’s greatest stable of lasers to ever perform chemical studies of new processes. I mean, talk about a heyday! Interested people would come from all over to learn of these techniques and to do joint work with us. People from MIT and Stanford set up groups there with us. It was a great time in the lives of those researchers. That was the period when many of my own patents blossomed.
The first major application to be realized was purification. If we had undesirable impurities, that interfered with what we were trying to do, by “just zapping them with tuned laser light” and we could chemically react them out of the mixture. Soon that idea led immediately to the feasibility of one of the most powerful applications: Laser Isotope Separation. That idea was so inviting, that our effort was escalated to create a separate division of the Lab, AP Division. I was suddenly named as a division leader at Los Alamos, and we started to grow into a large division, all organized around the use of lasers light to purify a great many chemicals and to separate isotopes of many elements. Many other new and exciting possibilities of Applied Photochemistry (using lasers) and controlled chemistry in general began to blossom.
Paul, the laser work, did you see this as part of the larger national security program?
I never looked only at security. We tried to look widely at first, then narrow our focus to advantageous targets. However, I have always been a great believer in National Security because if you’re fighting wars, progress stops! All new thinking comes to a halt, and developments that would benefit people’s lives on earth get stopped or postponed, while the fighting leads only to a great many human lives being lost. The extra security, readily available at Los Alamos, was never real difficulty to doing our research.
But in our heyday of exploring laser-induced chemistry, many new ideas were being produced, and new products and applications were coming to the forefront. I could sit with you all day and tell you how these interesting ideas would bounce into our hopper, and the decision would be: “That’s it. Let’s get to work on that!” Laser purification was just one small example. The new ability to tune in and eliminate, through controlled chemistry, any and all of the impurities was very powerful. People were just beginning to use solid state radiation detectors with germanium and germanium silicon detectors, cryogenic cooled, etc., but their performance was often limited because of impurities. We said, “You know, we’ll just zap out the impurities,” and so we looked at what the chemistry was, what the chemicals were that we could start with. Within a single month you could make a major breakthrough just by applying this new science using tunable lasers. We had quickly made the world’s purest germanium, and the purest silicon ever, and where do you think that moved?
No! But into every electronic solid-state semiconductor application world-wide circuit in the world! It was a key advance that enabled “Moore’s law” to be continued, to allow the fabrication of functional solid-state electronics at smaller and smaller size-scales, once the impurities could be removed from the base materials.
Oh, I see. I see.
We revolutionized the electronics industry and started things that allowed the creation of the very tiniest sizes, because no longer were the impurities interfering with their performance. I mean, it was just another heyday. And, of course, that adage (from Arthur C. Clarke) that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” brought many other amazing minds to visit with us so they could fully understand and help us further advance these new technologies. Some of the great names from that period are Hans Bethe, Edward Teller, and Dick Garwin, along with a many young scientists from far and wide.
Hans Bethe, in my view, was one of the greatest theoretical physicists ever. He had led the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos all during the World War II years and was the first of the truly great notables to take an interest in our work. He was fascinated with the work and his understanding and suggestions were of great value to us, as were Teller’s and Garwin’s. I’ll cover them in the reverse order because I have a quite amazing story about Hans Bethe that I want to save for last.
Dick Garwin was one of the physicists who Harold Agnew had suggested should learn about what we were up to, and who could provide sound advice to us. The two of them were both graduate students together working under Professor Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago, when the Manhattan project swallowed up all three of them to come to Los Alamos, where they worked on the Atomic Bomb project. All three of them had made major, but different contributions its success.
On a visit to Los Alamos, Harold Agnew asked Teller if he would visit with my team and me, to hear of the new possibilities we were exploring. After our first discussion, he became sufficiently interested, that he asked me if I would come to Livermore periodically to keep him up to speed on the work, as his ability to travel was limiting his coming at the frequency he would like to hear about our progress. I usually took one of our Theoretical Division physicists with me on my visits with Edward, which was a way for me to truly personally “reward them” for the amazing theoretical foundation they were building for our work. Teller continued to take a great interest in the work I’m telling you about, and he would also come to Los Alamos and spend time in the summers to collect the new results and any new thinking on what we were doing.
Now for the greatest Hans Bethe story, which I saved until now-
Have you ever been to Los Alamos?
I have not, no.
For many years after World War II, Hans Bethe had made visits back to Los Alamos each summer from the University of Rochester, where he had lived ever since all during WWII. He usually spent a week or more there each visit and would get briefings and discussions on many programs and projects while there. He was one of the first of the “great physicists” to get deeply interested in our work. He would devote nearly a week to our work progress, which were always a wonderful opportunity to display our Laser Isotope Separation work that was becoming very highly classified. He was amazing in telling us exactly what he learned on his previous visit.
One thing you’ll find about Los Alamos even today is there are not many restaurants within easy driving distance. What became the norm in the sixties and seventies was that if you were having a special person visiting in town, you, and your wife (or husband) had to cook and hold dinner parties for the special guest, and a few others, and that’s where we started, i.e., if you knew any really special people. My list started with Hans Bethe. Hans was my ideal as the preeminent physicist, and the most important human being I’d ever met. He would walk down to my house from the Los Alamos Inn for our dinners, as he liked to walk; and he’d come early and babysit my kids, which was a one-year-old and a five-year-old, right? They all loved him, of course. My daughter- I think when she was probably five or six then, asked me one day after such a dinner, “Dad, everybody sure treats Dr. Bethe so wonderfully.” You know, the kids would bounce around in the pre-dinner before we all sat down at the table, and they’d listen to the conversations and all. She could tell that Dr. Bethe was special, as everybody treated him so well. So, she asked me one night, “What did Dr. Bethe do that made him so famous?” I thought about it, and what do you think I answered?
Oh, gosh. I mean, it could be so many things.
So many things, but this one is something that’s the most important of them all, but it’s something I needed to get my daughter to understand, so here’s what I said, “Paula, he’s the man who invented the sun.” Now do you know what I’m talking about?
I think I know where you’re going with this.
He was given the Nobel Prize in 1967 for work he did at Los Alamos during the war years on the fundamentals of thermonuclear fusion, and its abundance as a process happening throughout the entire universe. It was entitled, “The Theory of Stellar Nucleosynthesis.”
And within that most important paper, he derived all the important equations of how the sun and all of the stars work. He also had showed by his calculations that all their huge amounts of energy are likely only coming from the process of nuclear fusion.
And that you could put that in a bomb if you figure out how to do it.
That’s right. And eventually, this process will likely be harnessed to power the machines which we use on the earth through steady-state or pulsed thermonuclear fusion. And as long as he lived, he would keep up with what I was doing, and I loved the man. He was like a second father to me, through much of my career.
Paul, when did you get involved in the Photochemistry Division?
Well, that’s where I started this discussion. This idea began as I first started with the goal of building large chemical lasers to work on the fusion ignition problem: pulsed fusion, inertial confinement fusion, etc., but then I had this disrupting thought that, maybe we’re likely doing all this in the opposite direction. We could, and perhaps should, instead of just using chemicals to make chemical lasers in order to “trigger” fusion, we should also explore the new science that arise and revolutionize chemistry if we were to use lasers to make unique chemistry happen. It was just a heyday that really got going strong in the early 1970’s. Not only were we able to make the world’s purest silicon for all the new electronic chips, and that’s still the case today. Everything gets laser purified before you build up any of the chip material. But we also explore uranium and all the other things. Uranium was a lot harder, but it’s still all classified. In fact, the worst time of my life was when I gave some Congressional testimony, and it was released as unclassified. I started getting attacks from some people and the press, that we were trying to destroy the world, because if this is successful, “they’ll be making even more bombs.” I’m going, “Oh please!” Okay, this is a perfect time to shift to what happened next.
That was the heyday scientifically for me. No question. As a scientist- and here, even though I still consider myself a research and development scientist to this day, I worked on applications a lot more after that point. Harold Agnew retired in 1979 and Don Kerr was appointed the lab director. Don had known me from J Division. He was in one of the other J Division groups. (J is the Test Division.) He was having a problem with the weapons program management, and everybody knew, hey, it’s not working like it used to. He asked if I’d come to his office at the end of one day. He wanted to talk with me about taking on a new responsibility. Dick Baker was the head of the Lab’s weapons programs. He had previously been the most important U.S. plutonium specialist at Los Alamos and was still widely known as “Mr. Plutonium.” Dick had told Don earlier that week, that he had decided to retire. Don then said, “It’s time to get somebody new to run the weapons program” he looked me in the eye and said, “I know you’re devoted to this place. I think you’d make a great guy to now run the weapons program.” Shocker, shocker! He said, “You don’t have to decide right now. Tell me tomorrow” (laughter). That offer was the turning point for me to emphasize “applications” as my driving ethos, and it has certainly become one of the major turning points in my life.
Right! I suddenly was to become in charge of everything that Oppenheimer had overseen when he was the lab director, and that did change my life.
Paul, just to get a sense of the hierarchy, how much of a step up is this, because you’re on a career track right now where every couple of years your job and your responsibilities get bigger. How much did this skip over that normal trajectory?
Well, it was two steps above the strict position order up the line, from Division Leader to the Principal Associate Director of the Laboratory, and the Budget responsibilities was about several hundred times more. We then had one Lab Director, and then there were five associate directors in chemistry, research, and various special other things, and the word: eventually “Principal” was added because the weapons program was more than one half of the entire Laboratory budget. The portfolio included: all the weapons in the active nuclear stockpile, the far-out development of new weapons, and included the testing of all of them, in which I had personally participated in a lot of such experiments in Nevada during my early days. But it also included the complete responsibility for the design and certification of both new and current Los Alamos nuclear weapons in the U.S. stockpile, all of the other defense programs, both nuclear and non-nuclear, advanced concepts, and weapons production (including oversight on the weapons being produced in the U.S. production plants, and also the Verification and Arms Control programs, satellites, and all). There are things you could only do with very large teams of specialists. Don also remarked, “I think you’re well-versed and you’ve learned to manage.” He was a believer that it was not only just the science skills, but the human skills had the same importance as the management or science knowledge. It was more a human thing that people develop an interest to take on such major responsibilities, and some do it much better than others. How could I possibly have said no? My office at home now has a long wall devoted to the awards and medals I’ve been fortunate to receive over the new responsibilities over my long career Los Alamos, as a U.S. Ambassador in Geneva, Switzerland, and at Sandia, and the many responsibilities, that focused my efforts also on Washington, DC in many ways over the balance of my career.
My wife added to it all kinds of photos, awards, and plaques. One is a duplicate set “of signing pages for the Verification Protocols, and I’ll tell you in a minute about how I became Ambassador. Yes, there are several Presidents with me pictured on that line, a photo with a great Vice President there too. I received many medals and awards from State, from the Pentagon, from Admirals and Generals who were commanders of the U.S. Strategic Command and its precursor: The Strategic Air Command. There is a picture of my wife and me inside a nuclear submarine looking through at a periscope. Oh, and also, I have about six outstanding public service awards from various U.S. agencies over the time: DoD, State, Joint Chiefs, NASA, and the Energy Department but I also served a major role in US nuclear weapons policy as Chairman of the Policy Committee for STRATCOM for thirteen plus years and a member for twenty years. Don Kerr was very attuned to this area and had put me into that world during my Los Alamos years. He said, “Look. We’re not just going to build these things dumbly. We need to help people know how to use them, and what not to do, and what would make a bad weapon, and what weapons would not be good for the Earth to have.” The more intricate aspects and questions on deterrence I would have to learn in a crash course. But it still remains a life-long study and participatory activity for me.
From where, Paul? Who would school you on these kinds of topics?
Oh. Well, a lot of the people who were the icons at Los Alamos helped me out. Do you know Dick Garwin personally?
I do. I know him well.
Okay. Dick would be in my lab and in my home during those Los Alamos years and since. Also, Dick and I love to argue, but we like each other. And we’ve stayed great friends. He is very much interested that each of us needs to look at the total picture of what is being done with the stuff you’ve invented. We’ve had some debates as well. I once did a nationally televised debate on “Star Wars,” i.e., the Missile Defense Initiative Ronald Reagan embraced. The debate was on “Should we be working on missile defense?” It was nationally televised from the historic Faneuil Hall, in Boston. Dick was on one side and I was on the other, with two other people in the debate, two on each side. I think we each convinced each other to change our positions somewhat. But Don Kerr having asked me to take on the weapons and national security leadership position at Los Alamos really forced me to work hard to understand their true purposes, and the most important things we should be doing.
Paul, I’ll just note that during these years, these were some particularly tense years during the Cold War.
I have written so many papers about deterrence and nuclear weapons; you’d have to invent them if you didn’t have them.
And I do believe deterrence has provided more good years for people in which to live their lives, than not, and if we do it right, I think we can keep that up. It was Don Kerr that first suggested that I should join one of the advisory boards at STRATCOM. [In fact, it was not STRATCOM then. It was the Air Force Targeting Group of the U.S. Strategic Air Command.] I’ve kind of even forgotten what all of the names were, but all the committees that existed today existed under names that didn’t include the purposes of nuclear weapons and the strategies for use or nonuse of nuclear weapons. Because that became one of my jobs there, a lot of these things and the awards resulted from the work I did in Omaha. I used to fly out and spend a lot of time there. Again, the Commands included some of the people I have admired the most. They have all been outstanding, the CINC’s, commanders in chief of STRATCOM. Only very thoughtful people are elevated into those jobs. They would call me to come out and brief, if they had a President or a Secretary of State; and even when Rumsfeld, as Def Sec came (laughter). I once got a call and Rich Mies (Admiral Mies) the CINC-STRAT, said, “Paul, Sec. Rumsfeld wants to come out STRATCOM and talk about what we’re doing in strategic thinking and how we’re thinking about it. I don’t want to see him without you being there. Will you come and participate?” It was just one of the finest days ever because all of a sudden- and Rich put me up to give the first talk and set the background to it, when all of a sudden Rumsfeld asked me, “Please, please. Stop right there. Stop,” and I’m thinking “What did I just say?” He reached into his coat, and he took out a notebook and started writing. I said something, and he said, “No, no, no. Stop. I want to capture this before it gets away.” I looked over at Rich, as I didn’t know what was happening. Did I say something wrong? Rich was winking at me with the thumbs-up. Later, he said: “Hey, you have hit the man where he lives.” Rumsfeld is a wonderful man as well and has unique talents. He is not an ordinary thinker. He thinks out of the box.
Paul, in what ways did Reagan’s decision to ramp up military spending filter to your level, and how did that affect your day-to-day?
(Laughter) You’re going to love this! I had left Los Alamos, and it was partly due to fact that the job was starting to wear me out, I think. I was probably burning eighty, ninety-hour work weeks then, and I was unhappy with the University of California. They were starting to let a set of “ban-the-bomb” professors gain positions of power there. They were having more weight than anyone else, and it was a worrisome time to oversee the nuclear weapons work at the design lab, run by UC.
And what you mean is since they have the contracts, they’re the bosses, essentially.
Yeah, they were the bosses: so, they began trying to narrow us down. “We’ve got to stop this! You guys need to be taking our directions.” And I replied, “You don’t understand what we’re doing,” and they clearly didn’t. We were the strongest voices against the use of nuclear weapons. If we could show that you can deter nations, if they should ever attempt to start a major aggression, nuclear or otherwise, that the consequences to them would be so totally paralyzing, and the fear of our swift retaliation would be total, it would deter them from ever attempting that course of action. The result becomes: nobody fights. Have you ever read or seen any of these lectures about how in our world- for many centuries- three percent to five percent of the people on Earth were killed in wars? But, since World War II, that pattern changed. It’s been less or approx. one percent in any year ever since. And I believe it will continue to decline.
Okay? Except when nuclear weapons appeared on the scene. Oh, and by the way, during World War I and II, we came as high as destroying eight percent to ten percent of the populations, right? Those were truly “the worst of times.”
So, we were looking hard at a way for us to get past it. In fact, you’ll enjoy this. I’ve been trying to get some of my notes out. I do want to mention somebody else. Freeman Dyson. Did you ever meet him?
No, I wish. I wish.
He died in February of last year.
And, let me add an afterthought that I only recently learned. Our world sometimes seems very small, especially in encountering this fact that Freeman Dyson, himself a great American physicist, was a doctoral student of Hans Bethe! These truly great ones lived in a small world.
Okay. At the time I traveled to debate Dick Garwin in Boston’s Faneuil Hall, and it was televised across the nation. Dick invited me to spend the weekend with him and his wife, Lois; and they included their very close friend: Freeman Dyson. That’s the first time I really got to know him. I’d seen him at meetings, and we’d talked a lot (laughter). I also got to know another guy I hope you know, Will Happer from Princeton, a brilliant and thoughtful human being, who was also a good friend of Freeman’s.
Sure! Yeah. Sure.
They were very close. I also got to know Will through the JASONs. I was also invited to the JASON’s meetings, until I found just too little time in my schedule. They would still invite me to be an occasional speaker and to participate in their discussions. I always tried my best to clear my schedule for their meetings. Along the way when I started my visits to STRATCOM, where I was asked to chair the policy committee of U.S. Strategic Command which I did for twelve years, I really got into thinking thru various “psy-ops” regarding how we go about making vital decisions, and what the right decisions should be. And deterrence was critically a part of my portfolio, and it all too soon it occupied a lot of my time, which it still does. When I took on the leadership of Los Alamos’ nuclear weapons efforts, I observed how amazing it is, that the currents of society constantly move in and out. Another movement started up in the early seventies “to ban the bomb,” in what became known as the Nuclear Freeze proposals. Later on, it involved, rather than getting rid of all nuclear weapons, the question moderated to “Maybe we should just keep a very smaller number of them?” I was asked to join in the debates. I’d fly out anywhere, if I could spare the time to try and convince them that, “No, these are good things we’re doing. We’re not just trying to kill people, but quite the opposite, we’re trying to prevent wars and their destruction!” Freeman Dyson also made many contributions in such areas and came up with some new ideas. We all agreed that as Americans, we of course believe that our country is wonderful, a country that is built to fit the human condition. We naturally abhor war, preferring live Americans over any number of dead Russians or dead Chinese. Right?
That’s right. Right.
But we kept saying that, while we do keep an arsenal of such weapons, we most strongly disagreed with the phrase that their purpose is for Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). [What a vapid useless phrase!] None of us ever embraced that; and I can’t believe how it ever came to be a popular notion! We prefer a world where everyone can enjoy their lives in safety and security, thus we should make our earth into a world where we never directly target human lives. If we all believe and can agree that human life is the most important commodity on this globe, we ought to do everything we can do, and go as far as we can, to preserve it! MAD was a phrase a former U.S. Secretary of Defense used to say, which just made me shudder when I heard it. We are not trying to just to kill people. The right answer is to protect every life as sacred! I can’t believe that true Americans would ever want less. We would like to end any senseless loss of lives uselessly taken in wars of aggression!
Let me see if I have in some notes, I once put together after a visit with Freeman Dyson. Have you ever heard of Don Brennan?
No, I don’t know that name.
Don was a really smart, down-to-earth guy at the Hudson Institute who became a “doomsday theorist.” I spent some time there with him; Don Kerr asked me to attend a four week’s symposium just talking to the “deterrence thinkers” there; and it was very good for me. I kept up with them over the years. They too eschewed the term, “Mutual assured destruction”. No one I know, who’s steeped in defense planning, has ever embraced that school of thought.
One might say it’s “MAD” (laughter).
You’re right! I’m here to tell you, MAD has never been the U.S. policy, ever.
But it is U.S. policy to maintain a second-strike capability. What’s the difference?
First, the U.S. refuses to say that we would never adopt a policy, or a posture, that would prevent us from employing a first strike with nuclear weapons. We reserve the right to do so, because we are all too aware that some nations, even after they signed the United Nations treaty banning both biological and chemical weapons from being used in warfare, they are not living up to that obligation. They instead maintain large factories to manufacture such weapons and have secret stores of such biological and chemical armaments, (even though all nations claim that they adhere to the United Nations Global Ban on any such weapons.) Should any such nation start to use such illegal weapons against us, in strikes on Americans, and if it appeared that lives could still be saved from retaliating with nuclear weapons; that is exactly what the U.S. would intend to do in that eventuality.
Let me pick up this cudgel a little more, especially now that Freeman is no longer with us to do that. I wrote up the following treatise after a visit with him. “While Freeman and I both had rejected mutual-assured destruction as a sensible goal, we each believed that throughout the Cold War and to the present day, neither the Russians (nor the Chinese) have clearly never accepted it (to our knowledge), nor was it ever a widely-held belief on our side, particularly among the US military.” We both suggested that “a live-and-let-live strategy” is what needs to replace it, and it should begin with a declaration that we are affirming human life as the most important element on this Earth. [That’s what makes our Earth different from any other planet, and it needs to be preserved.] Let me do so by first talking about the alternatives. The first alternative I think you’ve got to object to is non-violent resistance.
Because it’s unrealistic.
You don’t have to look far, Mahatma Gandhi, and thoughtful voices from other populations, who have proposed non-violent resistance as a national strategy. It has never been, nor can it ever be, robust. I’m convinced that when one applies it to nuclear weapons theory and strategies, it also fails totally as an answer to how to guarantee the future of human life on Earth. Thus, Freeman Dyson and I both believed that our nuclear deterrence statement should become: “We affirm human life as the highest cause of our defense policies which we need to protect forever. With our nuclear arsenal, we could damage you as much as we expect you could to us, or perhaps we might even be able to do a little more, but we strictly would rather no one die because of aggression or military differences. Thus, we prefer and can say we would want to not only let you live, but we would make sure we’re not the cause of your death as long as you will not attack us massively.” It’s just a solid deterrence and I believe a moral statement. “Therefore, the deterrence of war of any type is what we want rather than ever waging war against you, or you against us.”
Paul, was your struggle with these issues, did that inform your decision to leave Los Alamos and go into the private sector in 1985?
No. It may have been I was partly overworked, or the pressure of my job, but life is funny. It always presents to you interesting opportunities, and I was really getting upset, as certain activist faculty members were becoming very destructive at the University of California and seemingly running the place, (in trying to sever the relationship with Los Alamos) rather than its President, nor anyone else, who was in charge. Nor could you get UC officials to listen.
Did your decision reverberate? Did that signal that some things needed to change?
No, let me tell you why. First, living in Los Alamos is not a paradise. A guy that had met me after I’d given a talk on nuclear energy at the San Francisco meeting of ANS, who oversaw the building of nuclear plants around the world, intervened. Have you ever heard of Ebasco Corporation?
No, I have not, not before I met you.
Okay. Electric Bond and Share Corporation was Edison’s original company, and it was the largest purveyor of electricity for the world. They were broken up in an antitrust suit, on allegations that they were simply too powerful. Our government (then) couldn’t let any company be that powerful again, so they had split it up into a holding company, an electric utility, and EBASCO (who was the engineering/design co. and provided all the technical aspects of electricity). This fellow also ran the advanced concepts portion of the company. Remember what had projected my career forward the most was when I joined the Advanced Concepts group had been started at Los Alamos by Harold Agnew. This fellow would contact me from time to time. Suddenly one day, he called to say, “I understand there are problems going on at Los Alamos, and with the university and all.” He also told me that Don Kerr was leaving Los Alamos to take an industrial post at EG&G. He further said “It’s timely because when I met you and heard your talks, I had a different purpose in mind. I knew I was going to retire in a few years, but I said I want somebody that I’d be proud to have replace me. I thought you would be ideal to do that! If they don’t keep making you happy, why don’t you come and join us? At least come and interview and look at our kingdom.” His news about our Director’s departure, further fueled my pessimism, that Los Alamos would be sure to lose control over its own destiny.
Now this really gets crazy. Guess where they were located?
In New York City’s World Trade Center, Tower Two, taking up three-quarters of the building. I then was officed in his former quarters on the ninety-third floor. They really welcomed me. I remember his exact words as “I want somebody really good to replace me, and I’ve been watching you for a while. Why don’t you try something new?” I talked to a lot of people and they said, “You know, it’s a good company in U.S. industry, you might enjoy that, particularly if you’re feeling in a rut,” and I was. Then there was also the thought of “If we don’t leave Los Alamos now, maybe we’ll never leave. So, I said, “Yeah, I think that’s what I’m going to do,” and I accepted it and went there. But I didn’t stay long, and you’ll be shocked at why I didn’t stay longer.
I still had all my security clearances in force, as they were all continued in order that I could still serve on panels and studies; and provide advice to other agencies. Ebasco execs had said, “As long as you can still find the time to serve on government committees, we would love for you to spend time like that for the nation.” So, under President Ronald Reagan, the National Security Council asked for a study and created a compliance panel, which I agreed to serve on. Have you heard of such panels?
That I have not.
The National Security Council had asked for a review to look at compliance with arms-controlled agreements and had asked us to seriously dig deep. The people who were being appointed were many of the past icons I respected, and believed in, and I was asked to be a member. I said, “Well, what a chance. I can do this other job, and I’ll do that as well.” The CEO of Ebasco said, “We’ve never had anybody asked to do things like that, so yeah, of course we’ll support you.” Our small panel visited all the major sites that do the actual workup of the data of what’s happening with arms control compliance and where I knew a lot of the people over the years. I’d gotten to know them, and one result of that familiarity is the inevitable expectation, when senior people are asked to review an important issue, they all then have high expectations that “You’re going to help us, right?” And I wanted to, and so I did. Well, you’ll never guess who was asked to form up the committee for the White House?
It was William Casey, who was the head of the CIA.
Now, did you have contact with Casey much before this?
He knew me, and I had advised their agency on certain issues. They did a lot with Los Alamos and the other labs. I felt honored. When I saw the list of the others, I thought this was probably the highest-level group I had ever served with. As I looked around the room, they were all icons. So, we went into a very quiet site, and we were going to spend three days. On the first day, the guy who was chairing the committee said, “You know, I’ve worked with the staff here, and I think we’ve gotten a draft that’s going to make this very quick. We probably won’t have to use all of our time here. I’ll give you a few words about it, but then I’d like to take a break for the rest of the morning and let you each go into one of the quiet areas” (they had spaces for us to go and read) and then were to get back together.” But I got very angry when I read the proposed draft. I thought it was worthless.
Why? What was the issue?
It’s going to be a little hard for me to do this, as I can’t go into details at all.
Sure. I understand.
The technologies are not even talked about in these. But I said, when it was my turn to give my assessment: Look. I’ve been on a lot of such committees over my life, of this type of committee, and they’ve usually involved real challenges. Now, what will we do? I think that there’s nothing that I can find here in this report, that is really going to be helpful to the nation. Let me talk a here a bit about scientists versus non-scientists. Of everyone who sits on the President’s National Security Council, maybe one or two have a little bit of understanding of the science involved in these strategic things, but probably nobody is really deep into that. That’s not how to do it right. That hasn’t been their specialty. I think what they should be asking is, are there some real bastards around our world that are trying to do things that they shouldn’t be doing, and trying to get by with it, which could affect our free country? These people don’t have any idea how to go about it. That’s why they’re asking us. I said that I thought the number one question in our minds should be ‘Are these other nations cheating on us, or are they not?” I was getting a lot of heads nodding as I said this, and I said, “I’ve read it cover to cover. I think you’ve done the same. Please tell me on what page I can find the answer to that question addressed.” Well, you’ve never heard such silence. Just total silence. And I won’t tell you the name of the person, but it was someone I’ve respected all my life. He raised his hand to talk. Everybody was just solemn. A pin drop would have stirred us all.
You didn’t get any pushback.
The fellow sitting exactly opposite me at this long table raised his hand and said, “Mr. Chairman, I know I’ve already spoken, and I had my chance to give my opinions, but I wish you’d please make an exception for me now.” He looked up and down the table and he said, “Please. Will you all forgive me for what I said in my remarks? I’m now going to sign up totally with what Robinson just said.” Up one side and down the other, we all suggested we throw out that draft. We developed a new outline and sent people off into the area to write new sections. That is what was presented to the NSC; and that is what was acted on.
Paul, counterfactual question. What was saved as a result?
I think we would have fallen into a terrible trap.
Set by who?
Other nations. Or perhaps, by people who just wanted to avoid confrontation.
You mean this was intentional. You thought this was what they wanted the Americans to do.
If we had done these things, it would have only accelerated our path to get weaker as a national state.
You mean beyond strategic defense. You mean that this would bleed into other areas as well.
In our whole fundamentals of what we are as a nation. You can’t let other nations cheat on vital agreements when this nation’s security is at risk, and yet ours was.
This is American credibility you’re talking about.
I think its American lives that were at stake that day. I really do. In fact, I’ll give you a counter to it, and you’ll understand my whole life because this led, without my knowing it, into an interruption in my plans. My career at Ebasco suddenly was cut short, not for any bad reason, but for a good reason. Two or so months later, I took an “unexpected call” from the White House with the President’s National Security Advisor, Frank Carlucci. He said, “At the summit with Gorbachev last week, we got them to agree to open talks to renegotiate the Threshold Test Ban Treaty and the Peaceful Nuclear Explosion Treaty, as those two treaties aren’t working. This is going to be pretty important to us.” The idea appeared on the table that is scientific. We asked, why don’t we do a verification experiment? We’ve been arguing for years that the only way you can verify the yields of weapons is by onsite measurements, but they would never allow anybody to come behind the Iron Curtain. They had to “preserve their secrecy and they trusted their secrecy more than anything else, so they wouldn’t do it.” They have now said, ‘That might be a great idea. Could we, as a part of the negotiation path, perform “a joint experiment,” i.e., a nuclear test at their test site with a full cadre of U.S. people making a variety of measurements of how best to verify its yield without revealing all their technical secrets, and then have a similar test at the Nevada test site? He said, “Your name came up, and it looks like everybody would like to have you do it because you’ve got experience that nobody else has in this” (laughter).
Then he said, “I’m going to put a guy on the line that’s going to talk to you about the particulars that would go with your agreeing to be Head of the U.S. delegation and the Ambassador to these talks and its Chief Negotiator. He’ll tell you what the details are of the job, but the question I need to have you answer for me. We had several candidates put forward. If your name should emerge at the end of our process, which what I’m doing is part of that process, would you agree to serve the president?” I thought, “That’s devilishly clever!” I couldn’t find an exit. Nobody’s in the room. I’m talking on the phone. I looked this way and that. I first wondered: Where is the escape from this?
And it was a direct appointment? In other words, you wouldn’t report to the secretary of state first?
Oh, no. All Ambassadors report to the President through the Secretary of State.
Right, right. But your sense was that you were going to get access to the president.
Oh, yes, and the full government on this issue. I was going to be carrying the ball for the U.S.A. for what was a critical national security issue.
Was this a Senate-confirmed position?
Oh, yes! And once you’re Senate-confirmed, you carry the Ambassador title for your life, so now I’m Ambassador for Life, which is nice. I had uprooted my family to make my recent move, which I hadn’t ever done in my career. But then, I asked, “When do you need my answer? Can I call you tomorrow morning?” He said, “Oh, that would be perfect!” So, the following morning I called, and what do you think he said to me?
(Laughter) “I hope you have good news.”
No, he said, “You must fly to Washington all the time from New York, either by the shuttle or the train. Could you come and meet the Secretary of State?”
No! George Shultz. I later did report to James Baker, when our work flowed over into the George Herbert Walker Bush presidency in 1980.
Oh, Shultz. Shultz.
I said, “Of course.” So, I did travel to DC as well as warning my CEO of what might be coming. He said, “Oh my God. How are you going to not turn that down?” So, I went down to DC. I never knew the Secretary of State has a roaring fireplace in his office. Did you know that?
I have not had the pleasure of being in the Secretary’s office.
Well, it was a cold day, and he had the fire roaring. We sat there and talked for an hour. He told me what the process was with the interagency. I’d worked on interagency things before; so, I knew them, but I didn’t know when the process leaves the interagency, what the steps were. We went through all of that.
Paul, was your sense that they were after you more because of your technical skills or because of your political skills?
I’m going to tell you I think it was it was that I had been willing to talk truth to power, which I was doing that day and feeling it hard in my stomach that I had to do that. Someday I’ll write a book about that part.
Let’s see. I accepted to be the Ambassador, in the autumn. Then, I began spending time in DC and in New York, finishing up my work at EBASCO and learning the expectations and getting to know all the various components that would to be supporting us for the negotiations. I also spent a lot of time in the White House and the State Department where I had some brief training on what’s expected of a U.S. Ambassador. I had my own initial visits with the six agencies that both provided U.S. members of the U.S. delegation and the key officials in those six agencies who would have a Vote over positions that were to be taken or rejected within the negotiations. The agencies ultimately answered to the White House, as did I, for official positions to be adopted by the U.S side in the upcoming negotiations. The President’s National Security Advisor Frank Carlucci, and his staff met with me often to bring me up to speed of the past work and to gain a full understanding of the plans and the organization of the Interagency Group - which would support the delegation (and which reported to the National Security Advisor). The IG Voting Members included senior personnel from six Departments and Agencies (Energy, State, Defense, Joint Chiefs, Intelligence, and the ACDA [Arms Control & Disarmament Agency]).
In under a month, I greeted a flight of Russian experts and diplomats at the John F. Kennedy Airport in New York and flew with them to Las Vegas, on the way to the Nevada Test Site, where we were to carry out the first familiarization visit of the Nevada Test Site. The U.S. test would later take place (nearly two year’s later), with their Russian teams present to measure its yield. Knowing how impressive Las Vegas can be at night, I set up with the transportation company to drive the full extent of the Las Vegas Strip to get them to their hotel: (Talk about Potemkin Villages!) The next day after they had most of the today to fight Jet Lag, we took them to them to a Las Vegas dinner-show that night. After a shopping center experience the next morning, we all drove to the Mercury site, at the Nevada Test Site, and held some preliminary formal talks to prepare a plausible schedule of our future work, in addition to slide shows and site visits to show them how we carried out underground tests. It all went off without a hitch. A similar visit to their Nuclear Test Site at Semipalatinsk, within the Russian test state of Kazakhstan was carried out to familiarize the U.S. side with the Russian Test Site. On the way back, there was a stopover for the Russians in New York City where I hosted a tour of the city, before they boarded their plane to Moscow.
I had begun working to prepare to lead the Negotiations, and nearly immediately we began working what became our regular schedule of around one-hundred-hour work weeks (i.e., with seven workdays a week) that extended for nearly four years, counting the time in Washington, DC to get organized and prepare to go overseas, and several years to negotiate how the Nuclear Tests were to be conducted, and then set up and carried out. The treaty language for the new Verification Protocols, which specified in fine detail what right and privileges the other’s participants in the work and in preparing for and carrying out the JVE tests, were to be conducted and the data exchanged and analyzed by the sides. All of that was negotiated based on the experiences of the actual initial test on each site, and finally “hewn” into the final text which was further negotiated by the two sides in Geneva prior to their ratification and entry into force.
But right after we got it renegotiated and thought we’d really set something up that could work, we went into full scale negotiations to develop and agree on the final treaty language for two agreements: The Limited Test Ban Treaty with its shorthand title: The Threshold Test Ban Treaty (or TTBT) and the Treaty on Nuclear Explosions for Peaceful Purpose (or PNET). During this period, I got to know some of the best people in State, and in the other five agencies, and some of the real experts and diplomats on treaty verification. Of course, after the Presidents of each nation signed their approval of the two agreements on June 1, 1990 at the Washington Summit between President George H.W.Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev; I and a much smaller group from the agencies and the White House continued our seven day schedules in Washington in meetings with the Senate and their staffs for about five months. We did multiple briefings and testimonies for designated U.S. Congressional Senate Committees and then for U.S. Senators. I held private (one-on-one) meetings with each Senator to try and convince them it was worthy of being ratified and entering into force. Only when I had buttoned up the operations in Washington and moved to Albuquerque to join the Sandia National Laboratories, did we learn that the Russian Duma had also unanimously ratified both Agreements as well.
The total work was rewarded by a ratification that was voted with unanimous approval (ninety-eight to zero) by the Russian DUMA as well. It remains in force today; but there have of late been indications that the Russian side may still be carrying out some low yield nuclear tests for the several past years, without notifying the U.S. so we could carry out on-site measurements of the yields of those tests. The language of the treaty is very clear that these nuclear explosions were definitely in excess of the permitted yields and clearly fit the treaty definition of “a nuclear test,” for which the U.S. has the right to measure those yields on-site; but without the Russian/Commonwealth of Independent States providing the required notice to the U.S., thereby denying the U.S. of their rights that were to be guaranteed under the agreed terms of the Treaties and their Protocols (i.e. the Agreements.)
Paul, would you write your own cables? Would you dictate them to an assistant? How did you get information back to main State?
Well, I would get help on various things, but no, I wrote my cables. I should tell you about one cable I wrote. That’s why I need to write a book, just to get this out. This occurred late in the negotiations. It was clear we were going to finish, narrowing down and yeah, all the right signals. And by the way, the verification experiments which turned out to be amazing events, we flew a drill rig and all its support on multiple C-5A flights into Kazakhstan from the US; because they didn’t know how to drill satellite holes that could be very close, but not interfere with the area around the emplacement point. We believed that was critical. No, you never get to touch our stuff, but you’ll be close enough to make the measurements that you need to make. We were sure that this was coming together and likely to be completed. We had a few things left to do. Do you know anything about negotiating treaties?
I sure do.
Do you know the word brackets?
Well, anytime text is provided, you try and work on it right away. You know, the parts that are easy to accept you accept, but you bracket the text you can’t agree with yet. The work of the delegation is to work out brackets so you can remove the bracketed text or revise what’s in it; so, you’ll be happy to remove the brackets around it. You become in the “removing brackets” business. That’s what it’s all about.
We’d had some text within the preamble that had been bracketed since the first day that it had been presented to us. I’m telling you I believed, and certainly my experts and translators all believed, that it has to be a translation error. They likely don’t understand what we’re saying here. If they really understood it, why could they possibly object to “their tests” having to be within their own territory? But it said the territories in which tests may occur must be within the state of the party. And we said, “How can you possibly object to that? Or are you going to contract it out to some other part of the world?” That would be ridiculous. What’s going on? There’s got to be a misunderstanding!” And so, until that night, we never took it up again, until very near the completion of the negotiations. The later discussion of that issue turned out to really historic and eye-opening to those of us who attended one of the final “Heads of Delegation Meetings.”
To open their reply, the USSR number two guy, named Golovko, their Deputy to the Ambassador, said, “Well, let me phrase it differently. What if we were “just reorganizing things within our country” and “one state where we were testing before, might no longer be within our territory” but would have to be in a new state where we wanted to carry out the test. We ought to be able to find a way to work that out,” and we said, “No way! That’s crazy.” So, after giving us a look like the Ambassador and his deputy were suddenly just told they had to face a firing squad, they said, “Well, what if the Soviet Union was to be no more?”
You mean purely hypothetically, or that people were starting to read the writing on the wall?
No one on our side had ever heard what they had shared with us, but even that far ahead they were looking at a probable dissolution of the then “Union of Soviet Socialist Republics”. It was an incredible admission. My own State Department chief representative, who was a bright guy, then shoved a note to me under the table. He’s not a technical guy at all, and his note said, “The hell with nuclear testing. This was far from being a casual mistake? Can you find out what they’re really talking about!” (laughter) Right? I winked back at him, and said to the assembled attendees, “Well, why would you be thinking about doing such a reorganization of your country now?”
Well, to our total amazement the whole story did come out! “Their nation had become impossible to govern! And with the many differences that exist there, they thought it was a waste of time to continue it as one nation, any longer. And “they had been already planning to reduce the size and membership within the Soviet Union into a collection of fewer states, and such decisions had already been made but not announced!” They were not sure what the final outcome would be, at that point. So, we spent another two hours from that moment, until we ended the meeting; talking about nothing else. As it was a Heads of Delegation meeting, there were only four on each side, plus an interpreter. Then, we Americans all went back to the Geneva mission, our minds having been boggled by what we had heard. We stayed up all night writing an eyes-only cable to President Bush (i.e., George Herbert Walker Bush). This was about two months before the TTBT and PNET agreements were supposed to be completed! So, I communicated that, “The Soviet Union is going to disband. We don’t think this is idle gossip, as all of this was said at an official meeting.” We’ve been working with these folks over these treaties, and it would clearly cause big parts of what’s going on to have to be rethought of what’s still agreed now. We think this is serious and should be taken very seriously right now.”
Paul, from a nuclear security perspective, the first rumblings about the collapse of the Soviet Union, would that mean that nuclear concerns, nuclear security concerns would melt away or that they would simply transform and perhaps there would be new dangers, different dangers?
Different is all I can say. They were losing their whole nation, and they had decided they could no longer “hold it together.” Ever since, in my public speeches, I’ve given the view that this was more akin to this, rather than tell anyone that I believe the Soviets lost the Cold War, I instead say that they realized that there were lots of very major problems in their country as it was barely able to operate; so, they then declared Chapter eleven. They expected that it would take at least several years to reorganize the country. How far they’ve now come is anyone’s guess.
Did you have a fixed-term appointment in this role? Did you know when was the right time was to step down?
I was going to step down when my job was done, and that’s when I did.
But how did you define that? What was the endpoint for your job?
Oh! Getting the two nuclear testing limitation agreements completed and getting them ratified by the U.S. Senate. And let me tell you the truth, I’m very pleased with the result. We finally did succeed in our quest! I certainly can’t say it’s was my doing, but I am so pleased with the outcome that our large delegation achieved! These agreements were the first arms control treaties in more than eighty-four years to be ratified unanimously by both the U.S. Senate and by the Russian Duma. It had never happened before.
Paul, on the Russian side or the Soviet side, is there any counterpart, anybody that you recognize in particular for being a partner in this process?
The person who changed the most in my mind is a guy who led their nuclear weapons program for years himself: Victor Mikhailov (or sometimes in some translations: Mikhaylov). He normally did drink far too much, but the night before the JVE test explosion in Kazakhstan, while we were all at the Semipalatinsk Test Site, he asked if I could talk with him after dinner. He brought over his interpreter; and I brought mine. It was just the four of us at a table. He was drinking that night, I was not. While I would occasionally taste the cognac just to keep my mouth wet, as he told me the story of his growing up in the Crimea during the period when Stalin had tried to starve out the Crimea. He said, “My twin sister died of starvation and I nearly died.” He then suddenly clenched his teeth together like I had never seen. I’ve got to tell you, just seeing the sudden red-flush on his face, I was stunned! I knew he was telling the truth. He said, “I vowed at that moment I will never submit to any man or power in my life like what I was put through.” Here he was, their top guy: He was the strongest power behind their negotiations. He didn’t speak any English, so he couldn’t have been made the Ambassador, but he had one hundred percent of the power for their delegation. Soon after we all left Geneva, we saw on TV Dr. Mikhailov, as one of just four people standing on the tank in front of the Russian “White House”, next to the new President Boris Nikolayevich Yeltsin. He was standing strong in his defense. Soon after that Mikhailov was formally appointed as the Minister of Atomic Energy, for Russia; and he served in that role for the years 1991 to 1999 thereafter.
Paul, did Sandia know that your term was coming to an end? Did they reach out to you proactively?
Now you’re asking for me to share the secret goodies, but these I can share because it’s a people thing. Did you ever know George Dacey?
George Dacey had been a key executive at AT&T, and AT&T ran Sandia for the AEC and the later agencies. They took it over soon after World War II. The AEC was realizing that UC can still manage Los Alamos, but half the work was at Sandia in Albuquerque, and both institutions will now have to grow in size. We’ll give it a new name and we’re going to get an industrial set rather than a university contract to manage it. So, they picked AT&T, which was a fabulous choice. When I finished my term, I went to Sandia, where I worked for AT&T for four years, and when the Sandia contract was up for bid, they selected Lockheed Martin. From where I sat, it was one of the greatest things to ever happen, and the biggest surprise of my life. Let me tell you how that came about.
After that whole period when it looked like the Cold War really had stopped, all the military-industrial contractors were restructuring, while others were just going out of business. At a now famous dinner, labeled by the press as a “The Last Supper”, in Washington, DC, where the sitting Secretary of Defense told a large number of military-industrial contractors, “There are going to be far fewer of you next year because of our success during the Cold War. Peace has broken out.” The contract to run Sandia for the DOE was also changed, and even though a lot of people said, “Oh, AT&T was great.” They were perfect for it, but certainly when Norm Augustine came on the scene as the top guy, you know, people always make the difference. Norm Augustine was the CEO of Lockheed Martin, and they were just buying up companies, and having other strong companies or parts of companies join them. They more than doubled the Lockheed Martin Company in the next two years. I have admiration for him like nobody else in the corporate world.
He once told me why he wanted to manage Sandia for the government: He said that when he was in the Pentagon, (in the period when you could have people who would be seconded from industry to work within the government on special programs; they could see how both sides of the arrangement, industry and government, to try and get those relationships to work much better.) These were always exceptional best people. He said that he loved the Sandia “motto” [our strategic intent] of “To render exceptional service in the national interest,” beats anything we have, and I proudly watched your people be true to it in every way.
Paul, what were some of the new strategic directions that Sandia went in after the shock of the end of the Cold War wore off and they realized, “There’s a new future out there. Time to grab it”?
(Laughter) You asked the right question, and I’m the right person to have this question asked of. I too, believed strongly that Sandia, and in fact every one of the U.S. National Labs should apply the same strategic intent as Sandia’s (which by the way was a quote we pulled out of the Harry Truman letter that created Sandia as a separate lab after World War II). Truman’s first sentence tin his letter to the head of Bell Laboratories read “You have an opportunity to render exceptional service in the national interest.”
Let me go back to tell you about a phone call from James Baker, the second Secretary of State that I had while still serving as Ambassador in Geneva. He was a great guy to have as a boss. But once, quite late in our process to compete the treaties, James Baker called me on a classified line and said, “Paul, this is not going to be a good phone call. I think within a week I’m going to have to shut you down as well as all the negotiations there,” which really got my attention.
He said the reason why this was happening was, “There was first one defector who came over to the U.S. side, and now a second defector, “an even more important defector who was really in one of the command positions of this activity. He provided us with the full story of how and where the Soviet Union has been working on an enormous biological and chemical weapons program, which is still going on in Russia.” Were you [David] aware of any of this?
You probably knew that.
Yeah. Not before.
Yeah. “We can’t in real honesty not let this go on unnoticed. The agreement banning all development and stockpiling of biological weapons and chemical weapons is a United Nations treaty that everybody else has signed and, yet, the Soviet Union and Russia have still been doing it for years, while we’ve been trying to wipe it out everywhere. Plus, theirs is a huge program! The Russians had started up, and pursued it for several decades in Secret, and they even have such weapons carried on missiles, to deliver of their stuff.
So, here I was heading up all this Geneva negotiation, with all these people who were very loyal and who had literally worked day and night to achieve our two agreements. They’d been working there with me all those years, with its one-hundred-hour work weeks. And it appeared that with this revelation, it was all going to be suddenly shut down and abandoned. So, what did I do? First, as it was Thursday, I stopped all our work, and encouraged everyone to take a three-day weekend off (something I had never done before!) What happened over that weekend is that a U.S. and Russian summit took place between the heads of State, which was not announced (at the time). They met on a small island off Sweden, Gorbachev and his top three with President George H W Bush with a similar three from our side. They’d spent that three-day weekend figuring what to do. The Russians promised to shut down all of that and open it up for U.S. inspection. [It still hasn’t been totally shut down!] I’m still not satisfied with what was in fact done, but anyway, relations between the States continued. And what have I done about it since? Only when I later arrived at Sandia Labs, could I really address that issue, and begin to make a difference in solving the problem.
Let me first go back in time to give you the background of how I ended up next at Sandia. When I had taken the job to be an executive in New York working out of the World Trade Center, Los Alamos made a press release that I was leaving Los Alamos to join a company in New York city. I had received a call from George Dacey (then the President of Sandia) who said, “Oh my, Paul. I’m so shocked by this. You’re going to leave, I know, because you and I have talked about the troubles with the hierarchy at UC really making it hard to do your job, but this is just terrible. I have so much confidence in you. Sandia, and Los Alamos, and then Livermore, are supposed to be teaming together, but the teaming has become strained of late.” [And this next part comes across too good to be true, but it is!] The next words that George said to me were amazing, in retrospect! Again, this took place five and a half years before I’d became Ambassador! In that call he said, “I’m so sorry to see you leave, we needed you.” He said, “I know you’ll enjoy industry. I’ve worked in industry and it’s very different, but I loved it the very same. I know you’re going to be successful in it, too. But I always had this inkling of what needed to be done. Things have gotten so bad in this teaming relationship between our lab and certainly with Livermore, but also with you guys at Los Alamos. We are not the team we should be. What we need to do is negotiate a peace treaty between the labs.” Then he said, “I thought it could only be done from Sandia, and you were the only guy capable of doing that.”
Now can you believe that? He had nothing to do with my later being offered to be an Ambassador and become a negotiator, but he seemed to have predicted what actually happened. I mean, it seemed an amazing prediction of the future, which foretold exactly what was to happen! As he said that, he followed it with “I want to say to you, that when you get up there to New York; if for any reason you don’t think industry is all you expected it would be, or you wanted it to be, why don’t you instead come here to Sandia? You’d make a great successor for me. Are you ready for that?
So, when life’s events took me to New York, and Geneva, and finally, I did just that, I made a call when my diplomatic career finished, and I went to Sandia. And the first thing I did was to start an advanced concepts group, as that’s what we needed to do as many of our missions were changing. We needed to be able to change and be more flexible in taking on new missions, and to have our plans ready to go for whatever the country needed. The fact of the large threat represented by Russia’s Chem & Bio threats took precedence in my mind. The first initiative I started at Sandia was to learn as much as we could about those CW and BW threats and to make the development of defenses against those threats into a high priority Mission for Sandia.
You may not be aware of Sandia’s portfolio, but have you heard of it? We developed biosensors, the “lab on a chip” strategy for detection of both chemical warfare or biowarfare agents, and sensors that can find biological weapons and chemical weapons in the air, or on surface. Oh, and for COVID! You know that? We had developed this useful “Sandia foam” back during the anthrax scare, that occurred about the same time as 9/11 happened. Just when that scare came up and there were anthrax letters sent into the Congress the day that 9/11 occurred. The day after 9/11, it all happened, and somehow the other folks in the Middle East might well have been involved, because that’s where it much of the Russian work ended up migrating! But Sandia had developed the foam just in time! Already by that time when I arrived there, several of our guys had started to develop a foam to kill anthrax and other BW agents completely, without leaving anything hazardous behind. On the night of 9/11, I sent a full planeload of Sandians and their equipment into Washington, D.C. Do you know of this story?
I don’t know this story.
They found all the anthrax. They found all the letters. They then used the Sandia foam. They did not mess up any senator’s offices. It only leaves a little light dust that you can brush off, but that’s it. And our team went throughout the Washington area to any of the likely areas that the mailboxes or mail trucks may have handled the anthrax. They were all cleaned with the Sandia foam. How much have you heard of the Sandia foam?
I don’t know anything about this story.
Sandia foam is a neat story. They realized we needed something that would be like fireman’s foam, but it’s got to kill the bio and chem threats; without leaving anything hazardous behind.
Everybody said, “Oh, hell. You’re never going to get that approved by the EPA.” But they met with the EPA people and said, “Here is our dream. We need your help. Will you partner with us to help us succeed in this?” and they did! The formula is still secret, but it’s only because variations have been licensed to commercial companies for hospital and clinical use, there is even a version to wash patients! I don’t know why, but the ingredients are toothpaste, shampoo, and hair rinse put into a mixture with foaming agents to work just like fireman’s foam. We have them in small and large dispensing machines now, as we did then, and it’s one hundred percent effective. We never had anything that was not there. So, the only flight in the air over the U.S. the night of 9/11 was my team.
And guess where they landed them?
Wow! Right there!
They said, “the airport was a ghost town. It was palpable. But DC itself also seemed to be a ghost town as well.” They were escorted out to a set of buses, that took them to hotels. And on a busy next day, they did a great job in cleaning up the threat. We still have lots of work trying to do that. Do you know about Super Bowls and other big events around the country?
That same Sandia team goes out to help protect any mass attacks on the attendees. Members change as people age and don’t want to do it anymore, but it is another example of service in the national interest.
Paul, what was it about Sandia that allowed it to pivot so nimbly as our national security threats had changed over the decade?
Okay. Don’t quote this one because I don’t want to get into a fight with all my physicist friends, but when I got to Los Alamos, I found it difficult to manage physicists. What a surprise (laughter).
Like herding cats.
Indeed. Herding cats. It was even worse (laughter).
But engineers maybe are team players. They take direction.
Yes. They come to you and say, “What can I do? You’d like that? Oh, well, okay. Can I make suggestions to improve it?” “Oh, you must do that! Yes, yes.” The happiest years of my life were as the top guy at Sandia. The whole staff was/is like that. I mean, Sandia is just remarkable in that ability. It is a place that runs like clockwork. Recently, they all made a major contribution during this pandemic they quickly developed a foam tailored to destroy COVID, in the air and on surfaces. It is applied by robots and is coming into wide use in airports and other key facilities. It leaves the areas sanitized and safe.
Paul, when did you become more involved in mentoring the next generation in roles of leadership?
At Los Alamos.
So even that early you were doing this.
Oh, yes! We had some top consultants to help us do it. I believed in what they were doing, and a lot of them would ask me, “Hey, my next time I’m now doing this ( for a particular) division, but would you come and give that same talk you gave the last time? It’s no more extra work, other than the time to spend with I, because just what you said, they all need to know and they need to hear it from you, not from me.” So, I did that for a lot of my time there.
What kind of interaction did you have with the DOE during the Sandia years, during the latter part of the Sandia years?
I had a wonderful relationship. (I was even given the DOE Gold Award.) But we tried to get everybody there to understand we’re not doing anything for ourselves, we’re all trying to do what’s best for the country. When you know that and can absolutely believe that, above all other considerations, I know we work better together.
On the issue of mentoring, I wonder what some of the other things are you might have learned from Bethe that you might have wanted to pass down.
We learned so much from him. Hans Bethe was the “gentlest” man I think I’ve ever known, as well as the most “genteel.” We could still have real debates over physics, or work, that would go just fine. I never saw him lose his temper in my time with him. When you’re there, you all want the right answer. You don’t want to just be right yourself. That’s the reason any of us is there, to reach the right answer, the right methodology, and achieve results that are lasting. The story I told you about my daughter, “Honey, he’s the man that invented the sun,” that appeared in essentially every newspaper around the nation at the time of Bethe’s death. I was asked early to write it, and they just kept calling, saying, “Could we publish that as well?” So, they did, and it was my tribute to him then.
Paul, of course it’s a very different career stage for you, but to contrast Los Alamos and Sandia, at Los Alamos you were so close to the science. You were really right there, right in the middle of it. What opportunities at a very different career stage, at a very different place in the hierarchy did you see opportunity at Sandia to be as close to the science as you could be?
If you think about it for a few minutes, you can answer it for me, because what becomes obvious is, we can achieve so much more because of the engineering discipline and their drive and eagerness to cooperate, and to trust the physicists to lead them down the right paths.
Okay? At Sandia we physicists and other scientists are presently about half of the professionals.
You were part of that transformation, bringing more physics on board.
Absolutely, and it was easy to do without casting stones at anyone because when you want to be involved with solving different problems and urgent problems for the nation, everybody will jump to do that. Of course, Sandia needs physicists as well as other scientists and engineers of all stripes. It’s never been a problem. But it could be the source of our legendary problem-solving strengths.
Paul, Sandia’s physical growth from a single-site laboratory to five, where were you during this transition?
I didn’t start it, but I was right there. I mean, I’m old enough now, I’m seventy-nine, to be at that “leave a legacy spot.” I try to look at what legacy did I leave, or can I leave? I think you achieve that putting the problem to be worked on a higher pedestal than anything else. That’s what matters most, the problem to be solved, because when you start it, you don’t know what science is needed, what skills are needed. Sandians are keen at problem-solving. It’s also important to have diverse teams doing the work, because they just naturally come up with a wider variety of insights and ideas that you could not likely get someplace else. Most of the truly fabulous stuff that happened on my watch happened in that way. I had little or nothing to do with, but I was lucky enough to be there. Of course, I would try to ask the right questions and articulate important national needs. Let me give you a powerful example of that ingenuity. In our program to develop a “lab on a chip,” we first asked “What do we need within that lab?” You don’t only need sensors to make measurements, but you must move the sampled stuff around, i.e., the air or liquids (and occasionally solids) which you want to analyze. Our folks first thought that, ideally, they needed a pressure source to move stuff through a small, capillary tube. But as that could take a very large apparatus to do, which was contrary to the goal of putting it all on a microchip, they needed a better solution. Then, one of our folks wondered “What if we made the tube out of a semiconductor, like silicon, and put a voltage difference on it, and then used a polar liquid as the fluid? Have you heard about that, or perhaps you can guess what happened?
Using just a small battery which provided 16 volts across the two ends of a capillary tube, which was made of semiconductor material (and closed off with a pressure gauge at one end). The amazing result was that the pressure went up at first to hundreds of psi; and it climbed up to thousands of psi! It was the most amazing result. As a result, we now use quite small batteries within the Lab on a Chip to move our fluids around. Turning the voltage on and off, we can drive fluid samples all the way, in separate movements, through our “miniature lab.” So even though you can’t see it, this thing moves fluid here and there, adds this solvents or indicators, and gets the answers out, as it moves through. In the process, it was so unbelievably effective with a battery, small battery, and by going to a small scale, we learned that you can also develop thousands of psi, enough to steer rockets around, with an array of these small actuators. I mean, that’s magic, right? Once again Arthur C. Clarke’s statement, re advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, was proven to be true. That same phenomenon has now been harnessed into many other similar uses, e.g., it allows you to build small rockets which you can maneuver in flight within the air, or even in space, with low voltages, by using just such small capillaries to drive its small guidance fins. Amazing!
Well, that’s one that happened on my watch. None of us could believe it. So, it’s known it’s important to the satellite business and all sorts of stuff that you may need to maneuver. And the reason why it’s so good, like flying rockets, where you’ve can use such actuators and fins, to rapidly steer them. And, when you have a huge array of these capillaries built into an actuator block, the rapid response of changes in electricity allows you to fly it perfectly with only a battery’s worth of voltage.
Paul, on the topic of cutting-edge technologies, who put together intellectually that supercomputing could be applied toward the all-important endeavor of the United States attaining energy self-sufficiency?
Oh, let me tell you how proud I am. I should mention here one of the things that I am probably as close as anybody who can take some credit for technology transfer. I realized when I arrived at Sandia and discovered that we had developed so many great things that our nation could use, as well as the entire world, to great advantage, but which no one was aware of. We then set up a program to provide a way to advertise successful Sandia inventions and new technologies. We petitioned DOE to create a means by which we could advertise such advances to U.S. companies; so, they would always be the first-in-line to learn of them, and to be able to bid to license the Sandia patents for commercial uses. In my comments much earlier, re the emphasis on obtaining the intellectual property rights through filing patents at Los Alamos by creating a close partnership between the Los Alamos Patent Office and our Advanced Concepts Group which we did. All American National Labs need to embrace those same goals and always be ready to raise the level of science and technology capabilities and spread those science and technologies for use and for profit to U.S. companies. When I had first started leading the work in laser chemistry, at every one of our group meetings, they would have people from the patent office sitting in the room to keep up with us in writing patents for all this stuff. We do that at Sandia now, too. But one of the problems that was on the table, (and this would make a great story to write regarding the fact that the rest of the U.S. national labs also perform a great deal of leading-edge science and technology science in general. We need to ensure that the same mechanisms and policies make their way to all the U.S. national labs to be certain that we provide maximum benefit in return to boost our national security, as well as our national prosperity. We need to continue to bring the U.S. national labs into the realization of the great importance to allow U.S. companies to be the first in line to benefit from such government-sponsored R&D.
You are certainly aware of the importance of oil exploration within the U.S., but you may not know about the awork done by the three defense labs: Sandia, Los Alamos, and Lawrence Livermore. Together, we created a joint program to use the advanced supercomputing capabilities to try to advance the exploration of new U.S. oil reserves. You’re old enough that you’ll remember this as well about gushers and all of that? How many holes had to be drilled to start a new area of oil extraction? And next, how many test holes do you think you had to drill before you could strike an oil deposit?
You mean like how many would end up being dry.
Right. How many dry holes?
Well, you’ve got to figure if you’re in the right area, maybe a few, three or four.
It used to be sixteen, but then it’s been working its way down. That’s when we said, “There ought to be a better way of doing that.”
We looked for clues, and we started what was mostly a supercomputing, number-crunching operation with all three labs coming together. By the way, once we came together, and I was at Los Alamos when we started it, we never separated in computers. There’s no competition between the labs. (We’re all always trying to get better computers. Usually it works by: if I get the first one of a kind, other labs will get the next. That is, we now team, and then take turns!) For at least twenty years, maybe it’s twenty-five years by now, in exploring for new oil fields, it’s a hole-in-one every time, even for oil from new areas. And it’s even better than that because we find areas by scanning for certain parameters and number-crunching the data. I’m here to tell you that: The information so obtained is more heavily protected by security than anything I’ve ever seen. Especially, the world and regional maps the labs have delivered to the US oil companies that shows our results as to where there are oil deposits around our world, are among the most protected information records on earth. They represent many billions, if not trillions of dollars of profits for American oil companies.
Similarly, on April 14, 2021, there was a press release and a press story published in the Los Alamos Reporter an Independent Economic Impact that is the first publication I’ve seen to assess through an independent organization for the NNSA the major economic impact of Sandia’s Technology Transfer, which the NNSA (National Nuclear Security Administration) of the Department of Energy. NNSA oversees the work of all the U.S. National Security labs, as well as the production plants and sites. The major headline of the study featured the Technology Transfer Programs at Sandia National Laboratories. The highlights were: The current Economic Impact that Sandia’s Technology Transfer program alone has achieved to date has resulted in ninety-five billion dollars of total economic from 2000 to 2020 while at the same time supporting around 21,000 jobs per year!
I had first joined the Sandia National Laboratory on October 27, 1990 (after completing the ratification process for the two treaties and verification agreements between the U.S. and the USSR in November of 1990.) I had returned to the U.S and when I finished my work at the State Department and the Congress in winning approval to ratify the Nuclear Treaties, I began my duties at Sandia as the Director of Systems Analysis. During the next year I was promoted to be the Vice President of Laboratory Development, including the newly formed Technology Partnerships Center, Quality Assurance, and Change Management. With the assistance of Dr. Dan Arvizu and Sherman McCorkle, a local bank President, Sandia launched a major initiative to build a new Center for Technology Transfer, launched first in 1999, within the new Sandia Science and Technology Park, a 340-acre master-planned technology just outside the southern boundary of Sandia, which now includes forty-five companies and organizational entities with a public/private investment value of $384.4 million and twenty-five major buildings. That initiative was the first project that I focused on when I first joined Sandia, and with my Laboratory Development hat on, I worked with Senator Pete Domenici from New Mexico, and his staff to create the Technology Transfer processes and the Legislation that put it into effect within the nation, for all National laboratories and similar sites. It is perhaps my most important contribution to the nation, or at least, will soon be the most remembered advantage provided to the nation.
Paul, I wonder if you see these developments in specifically national security terms that we don’t have to rely on Iran and Saudi Arabia and Venezuela and countries like this.
Of course, but while we don’t have to be the hegemons of commercial things, we have an obligation to the people of our nation to do what we can to make sure that, as we improve the state of the art in a great many science and engineering fields, we open that information to U.S. businesses to provide commercial benefits and the concomitant financial rewards to our nation and its industries as well, as it is their taxes that pay for the R&D that allow us to make breakthroughs that our inventions, advanced concepts, and the many advances in the state of the art which the National Labs can bring to the commercial market place.
Paul, when it was time to step down from Sandia, and you were in a legacy-thinking mode, what were some of the things that you felt most confident about that Sandia’s long-term viability would be assured into the future?
There is no doubt that Sandia has minimized regrets among the people there in teaming. They are all on the same team. I think a lot of it is natural, but once you start seeing it play itself out, it becomes easy to get people to jump into new projects for the good of the country and world, and they do get enthused about such possibilities. They think of things we can’t think of. It’s a disease that infects the whole place, with a very good disease.
Paul, we already talked about your membership into the National Academy of Engineering, but of course, you always were and remain a physicist.
How did you feel when the APS awarded you the Pake Prize? What did that feel like for you?
It was for some things I’d done with satellite instruments, of all things, and YES! I was very pleased. Yeah. But look, I’ve stopped seeing the differences. There’s not a value chart other than the human value that’s added. People are really driven by the same compass.
That’s right. That’s right.
You set the conditions, and they always strive to please you.
Well, Paul, for the last part of our talk, because we already worked up to the present, at the beginning of our talk we talked about your work in more recent years, I’d like to ask some broadly retrospective questions, and then we’ll look to the future. But first, a question that sort of bridges both the past and looking into the future, and that is your perspective on where we are currently with US support, government support for basic science. Of course, you came of age in the heyday of US support for government science, so much of it spurred because of national security considerations. We still have national security considerations, but of course times have very much changed. Do you see the federal government today, the Biden administration, 2021, are you more or less satisfied with what the government is doing to support basic science? If not, what improvements do you see are necessary?
I still think most people don’t know what they have in the amazing science capabilities in this country. We should be producing a whole lot more of good things to help improve everyone’s life. I think we’ve done a marvelous step by having opened some of our security walls (at least partway) for other U.S. interested parties, rather than sequestered apart from our own citizens. Science and inventions can help everything. There’s no field that can’t be helped by it; we don’t want to withhold valuable (but unclassified) information that Americans can use to their advantage. We should want the Labs staff members to be free to look at spinoffs into other areas. I can say that is an attitude that is still growing at Sandia, and I hope it’s growing at the other labs, too.
Paul, a very broad question retrospectively. Of course, most of your experience is at Los Alamos and Sandia, but we’ll put Livermore in the mix as well because my question is this: I think if you ask the average American, “Who controls the U.S. nuclear arsenal?” they’re going to say the Pentagon, the military. I’d like to ask you what have been some of the key advantages, both from a scientific and a national security perspective, that we have weapons labs that are in the Department of Energy system and that are run by outside contractors? What are some of the academic, scientific, and national security advantages and disadvantages of this system?
That’s a tough one because there are rights and wrongs still in existence. In the Academy, we looked at- what was it- the seventy-fifth year of the Vannevar Bush report “Science, The Endless Frontier Report?” Remember, it was done to celebrate the enormous advances that were made during the superheated activity levels Americans expended to win World War II. And to encourage use of the remarkable tools of science to help America prosper in peacetime (i.e., economic strengths) as well as in keeping the nation secure from military attacks.
Vannevar Bush, who ran the Manhattan Project. Oh, here’s something to know about me, and I did not know this about myself until I was at Los Alamos and in command of the nuclear weapons program. My birthday is October 9, 1941. The Manhattan Project and I were born on the same date. I never knew that because it was top secret. All that stuff has been very top secret of how they started it. I found it in a book that one of Kennedy’s aides wrote. He was a good guy, so I bought and started reading the book. It opens with this sentence: “It all began on October 9, 1941.” That is the first sentence of the book. I practically fainted! (laughter) But, that’s the same date that Vannevar Bush took the Plan for the Manhattan Project to discuss it with President Roosevelt and VP Harry A. Wallace. After discussing it, Roosevelt provided his signature to the plan which officially started the Manhattan Project at that point in time.
Sounds like a little bit of destiny there.
Yep! It sure makes me have a weird feeling, as both the Manhattan Project and I got our start on that same day in history! I hope most people would say we have both been successful beyond our wildest dreams!
Paul, for my last question looking to the future, I know as a strategic thinker, as an intellectual who cares about American national security over the decades, it seems to me that you have something of a mantra where America’s defensive posture should have a permanence to it, no matter the time, no matter the enemy. There should be some pillars of American national security policy, and so looking to the future, which of course is going to be a much different strategic landscape than the one in which you came of age: cyber war, international security threats, bio war, China, etc. In this new strategic landscape, what gives you confidence that this idea of having a permanence to American national security policy, to have these pillars will continue to afford Americans the best possible security in a dangerous global environment?
I’ll tell you just how hard the problem is. The only way we’re going to live through it is we’ve got to think our way out of it, and anything that can encourage us to place a high priority on national and world security, the better for both America and the world. And that’s why I’m such a great believer. In every organization I’ve been in ever since, I ‘ve made sure they get an advanced concepts group with the same basis as it was done at Los Alamos by Harold Agnew.
This brings to mind an interesting factor which made an important difference to (and in) me. Harold told us that during the Manhattan project, even though the scientists and engineers there were on extended work schedules, they couldn’t easily turn their brains off. Many people would have breakthrough thoughts in other areas of life but were told only take enough time off now to write down some particulars so, when war was over, either you or someone else, could pick it up to follow up on it. He remembered that in writing up the basis for his idea to create the Adv. Concepts Group. Since I was a voracious reader and had already done a number of highly classified projects while working in the Test Division in Nevada; I was one of two people chosen to be given “blanket access” to the Los Alamos Report Library, which held documents at all levels of classification, as well as brief suggestions for new ideas (which had not yet been evaluated to assign whether they were Top Secret or unclassified, or levels in between). The leadership had chosen as a repository that library because any unreviewed documents were assumed to be highly classified and controlled, until someone, after the war, could review their appropriate level. Therefore, the Report Library files of memo’s/papers/etc. were kept under strict custody control (without anyone else having evaluated them, much less to evaluate their scientific potential). Thus, the two of us, were awarded “blanket access” to the Report Library’s holdings, to seek out “Gems,” i.e., ideas or concepts that should urgently be used by the staff of the Adv. Concepts. Grp. It was a remarkable privilege with which to be entrusted. Thus, I would spend a one day a week in that Library with full access to those documents. I believe one of the reasons I was chosen was because my previous work in Nevada had ensured both that I had already become a highly multi-disciplinary scientist, as well as someone who would be very careful not to reveal material that should have been marked within a strict classification control level. It was a truly fascinating task, as of course much the material I read, ranged from “vital importance” to “junk science,” but there were a number of “true gems” that I was pleased to bring to the attention of my colleagues.
One rule of life seems to be whenever a new idea is born, you’ve got to leave your current focus, and begin to think more broadly how best to ensure our world continues without major or world wars occurring. I’ve spent my life devoted to that purpose. When a major threat arises, then you must recalibrate your perspectives, and develop new concepts and ideas once again. We must create some very significant tools that can be used to blunt whatever new threats have arisen to threaten our nation, people, and world. Until we can see way clear to achieve such goals, we all must not rest.
There is no doubt that the decision to trust me to find the best ideas within the very rich holdings of the Los Alamos Report Library, was a personal turning point for me. The task I was given and the richest and diversity of its scientific and technical content was new, even broader education in advanced science than anyone could have guessed.
Yeah. Well, Paul, this has been an absolute pleasure spending this time with you. I’m so grateful that you were able to share your perspective. All of your contributions and your answers through and through were phenomenal, and they’ll be a historical treasure, so thank you so much for doing this.
Well, thank you.