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Interview of Lew Kowarski by Spencer Weart on 1974 November 20, Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics, College Park, MD USA, www.aip.org/history-programs/niels-bohr-library/oral-histories/4718-1
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History of French accelerators, 1946-1950; events in French atomic energy, 1951.
OK, there was something on one of Charlie’s (Dr. Weiner’s) interviews that I’d like to pick up, because it was frustrating, to me. You told him you were going to tell him all about the discovery of artificial radioactivity, and then you never told him about it.
Oh. Let me see exactly. We were concerned with positrons then, which were freshly discovered by Blackett and Joliot, I think was the first of the positrons — no, in the cloud chamber he was not the first. There was the famous story that in one of his (?) seized on a — caused an electron which for some reason goes in the opposite direction.
But at that time he did not yet understand it. So, the work on positrons, and the emission of positrons, let’s see how it goes. I think magnesium, irradiated by alpha particles, or something — I don’t quite remember it now, your question is rather sudden — and he observed the positrons. And the counters at that time were a very, very exotic novelty, and were considered to be very temperamental animals. In fact, everybody made them in a very complicated way. It was considered that they were practically some kind of a magic operation, that you have to observe this precaution and this precaution, and this is totally unnecessary really. Actually, I would say it’s not until Pontecorvo came and broke Rossi’s techniques that people became — began to be a little bit more sure about their counters. But that was a period when we really knew very little about the counters, then. The great authority on counters was Gentner, who came from Bothe. Joliot once switched something off and was surprised to see that the positrons were still being emitted — I mean, the counter still clicked. And here comes a scurrilous piece of — he told it to Gentner, “How come that the counter still clicks after I took the source of alpha particles away?” And Gentner said, “Oh, you know, counters, space charges.” And so — But Joliot told me that he was surprised that the clicking went down. It was a very nice exponential … But here again comes the factor of helpful ignorance. If it had been some kind of space charge phenomenon, it would be very natural that this would come down exponentially. But for Joliot, coming down exponentially meant radioactivity. And so he began to muse — “well, why not? why not an unstable nucleus, which comes down? If it is so, then the particle emitter must have chemical properties different from that of the original aluminum.” I don’t remember exactly which reaction it was. It was aluminum, or alpha particles and aluminum.
Or phosphorus, I believe, here.
I think finally the emitter was phosphorus or something like that. And so he told it to Irene (Curie), and they did a very simple chemical experiment together, and saw it. And in this, their note in Comptes Rendus, it was the type of something, something, and then chemical proof of (?) transmutation, which was the first chemical proof of any transmutation. In the interest which arose at the creation of a gaseous element, this little point was somewhat overlooked, but it was itself very important, because it was (?) lab demonstration(?). So all this was in the first war. It was Joliot who noticed this delayed emission of positrons, and then it was he who devised the possible chemistry to do it, and it was Irene and he who did it together.
I see. This is according to what Joliot said. I see, very interesting. You mentioned Gentner, and that brings me — jumping very far forward — to the question of what went on during the war. You mentioned that you knew something about what Gentner’s role was?
No. I didn’t know. I pieced things together. Gentner came to Paris as a Kind of Nazi supervisor — well, no, he never was a Nazi, but a supervisor sent by the occupant to Paris. And you know, in agreement with the first policies of occupation, they were very gentle. And sort of, as between you know, Europeans and colleagues and so on. All against the Bolshevisms — you know? And Joliot greeted Gentner as a colleague, and they made this famous agreement, that Joliot will not sabotage anything or will not — provided that the Germans do not use (?) de France lab for wartime effects. And this was known, put in — by other physicists, and so on.
There were two snags about it. In my opinion. Now comes my opinion. First of all, during the war, one shouldn’t make pacts of this sort with the occupant. The Dutch knew better. And second, the Germans didn’t keep their part. Because in Rietzler's book which appeared in 1944, book on nuclear chemistry, nuclear physics, there is a mention of attempts to make plutonium, and they specifically say that the Paris cyclotron was used for that.
Crowther in his book, do you know Crowther’s book on SCIENCE AND LIBERATED EUROPE?
He went there shortly after the war, and frankly talked with Joliot and some people, and he mentions that came and tried to use the cyclotron to irradiate uranium, used it, dissembled that it was for peace science, pure research; and that the cyclotron when he came was sabotaged so that he was unable to use it. This is according to Crowther.
Crowther is not a very reliable source, because after the war he was a friend of (?) and therefore had to concoct and stick to the concocted story. The story concocted somehow by itself. The important fact for me is, since it was necessary to present Joliot as an orthodox practically a Communist from the very beginning, which he mast definitely was not, I’m quite sure, he became Communist pretty early. Joliot was above all a patriot. The attitude of the Communist party, before Russia was attacked, was a bit dubious in France. I don’t know exactly when Joliot — I think Joliot became Communist in early ‘42. And it was necessary for the hagiographers to back-date the whole thing. And so Joliot’s pact with Gentner was presented in a language, I am sure, a little bit touched, by the Orwellian rewriting of history.
I find, too, I think the corridor — Joliot, right after Solomon was shot, and that’s —
— well, I think this, all this again, — contrived, yes. Joliot became Communist. Joliot was definitely very critical of Communism, by the time of the outbreak of the war. That Joliot did become a Communist does not surprise me, because when the Communists became all out patriotic, in June ‘4l, the Communists came to Joliot, so to speak, not the other way round. And then it was quite natural. The whole Gentner thing was a bit more — OK, you see this whole point, I mentioned it before, that German scientists were not anti-Nazi. They were above the Nazis. They were considered to be above vulgar politics. Vulgar politics is hardly worth the attention of the holders of superior German cultural values, and they were — well, I put it already in my earlier tapes. They were thinking that Hitler was, probably something had to be done about the undue preponderance of Jews in certain walks of German life, but Hitler went about it in a very uncouth way, which they really couldn’t approve of. But anyhow, this whole business is politics — oh, this was politics, this wasn’t science. And Gentner I think came to Paris in that mood. Later on, he was made out to be an active anti-Nazi, practically. And that was necessary in order to explain why Joliot made a pact with him. And this of course contributed to the foundation of Gentner’s career, during the de-Nazification period, when Germany was occupied. He was one simon pure scientist who, from the best circles could be certified as being ardently anti-Nazi. So it was, the Russian saying, one hand washed another hand. They wash each other, quite a bit. Which was really unnecessary, because I’m quite sure that this whole behavior was quite honorable. But in the atmosphere after the war, certain rewriting of history was necessary.
— gets translated into conspiracy –-
What’s more, I have to stress again and again that all this is my personal surmises. I have no proof anyway.
Of course. Let’s turn to what you yourself were doing then. You started telling me about your war with the British Empire.
Yes. I think (?)’s book is a very good framework for w I have to say. During the year 1941, Halban was extremely active by establishing more and more close link with Imperial Chemical Industries, ICI. In this he was very actively helped by Franz Simon and Peierls. And they were — Simon was a friend of Lindeman. Lindeman was close to Churchill. Peierls was close to Simon. And they formed a kind of trio — Simon, Peierls ad Halban, but Halban was the most probably active in pushing over to ICI the postwar prospects of exploitation of atomic energy. And ICI hailed him as (?) one of those German wizards. ICI after all was founded by one of the German wizards, Ludwig Mond. So, by summer of ‘41, there was a kind of open conspiracy, preparing to transfer the whole direction of atomic effort to ICI, which was disguised as the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. All this is recorded, and Halban was very active in preparing it. Halban’s great ambition in life was to be a kind of top scientist in this future semi-industrial or not even semi-industrial project, and of course, it was in his interest that it was firmly directed by the British, in British hands. Now, when the MAUD Report appeared, the MAUD Report very finitely recommended complete fusion of efforts with the Americans, and American effort was at that time still very weak. I’m now talking of October, ‘41 — no, July, ‘41, and if you remember the Italian meeting of May, ‘41, it was only two months later. And American attitudes were still, I think, incredibly (?) in this affair. So, it was therefore the official result of an official government committee that it should be somehow combined with the American effort. But the MAUD Committee was already a very serious lame duck, because this other outfit was already more or less standing in the wings, ready to enter the stage. So when Churchill made — Roosevelt made his famous proposal to Churchill in October, ‘41, that there would be a joint American-British project with factories in Canada, which was exactly the thing which I wanted all along, the British turned it down.
Were you aware of this happening at the time?
About Churchill? No. I didn’t know at all. About Roosevelt’s proposal. I knew there was some — that the MAUD Report was being considered in American, that I knew. I knew that there were some recommendations going in that direction. That of course I knew. That Roosevelt reacted in such a dramatic way, I didn’t know, did not now. I learned it much much later. So, several months later — I think I put it in the Weiner tapes, I don’t remember — I asked Cockcroft what the hell is going on. The MAUD Committee approved that it should be, there should be fusion with the Americans. Who is against that? And Cockcroft in his very way said, “Halban and the ICI, I suppose.” (half hour break)
I guess we were up through the end of ‘41, weren’t we?
Yes. I ended with Cockroft saying, “Halban and the ICI, I suppose.” Well, by the end of ‘41, I saw that the overlordship of the whole affair, went to ICI, disguised as (?) Directorate. But there was still Appleton, who was a great scientist and a gentleman, who was the director of the DSIR, but (?)’s department was quickly (?)-autonomous and was in the hands of ICI people. I was convinced that the sands were running out very quickly, on the British program, that very soon Americans, there were various rumors one heard, various reports that began to arrive, that the project was getting in its stride, and then I thought so that the small beginnings which existed in Britain would very quickly be completely overshadowed.
Why do you think you saw this when so many others did not?
Who? What others? Chadwick definitely was not convinced. He had doubts. But he was in a position of doubt. Oliphant had more or less the same ideas that I had. And it appeared quite clearly in ‘41 that Oliphant was not involved very much in the (?)’s work at all. He was a voice of an independent critic, so to speak. Who else? Cockcroft was very much involved in radar. What do you mean?
Halban, why didn’t Halban see it?
Well, I don’t know how to express it, without much candor — no. Could we turn it off for a moment?
I think what I was really getting at in the question is not about Halban so much as, what sort of sources of information you had for what was going on in America and what was going on in the higher policy circles?
Well, we began to receive reports from America, particularly about Fermi’s work.
You mean written reports?
Written reports, yes. And we saw that the work was… the kind of work we were doing, in a rather elementary way, was of a much greater level of scientific competence, and immeasurably enormous forces. And we knew that we had all sorts of elementary problems — supply of graphite, and aluminum vessels and whatever it is, and in America of course we knew it would be enormously easier. And so, considering the huge industrial resources, and very extremely competent scientific force, by that time already began to arrive for example the news about Seaborg’s first work with plutonium, this very original method of us, by using another isotope of uranium. Of plutonium. There was an atmosphere of thinking which began to very soon grow to completely full blossom a — the full blossom was enormously more than they could do. So obviously, this temporary situation has to be cashed in as quickly as possible. And what I saw around me was, everybody was setting up some kind of a postwar British project in England. Even Canada was not at that time very much mentioned. And people were really talking of sending a delegation to America to explain our ideas, and that by the time they would come to America, which could be probably in the early forties too, it would be already too late. That I knew at once, that there was a telegram, but I don’t remember when it was. It was in late ‘41 or early ‘42. Formerly offering… (short break)
Now, this was the situation at the end of 1941.
Or early ‘42, very early ‘42.
When you were talking about a telegram.
There was a telegram offering that Halban and one co-worker, it was specified, Halban and one co-worker would join the Fermi team. I said, well, that’s what we want to do, isn’t it. And I noticed that nobody paid any attention to it, practically.
That was about when?
That, I don’t quite remember when it was. I think, either very late 1941 or very early ‘42. And by that time, I had a pretty definite opinion of what was happening. What was happening is, the idea that the work should continue on certain lines which would safeguard the postwar British interests, as they were seen by people who were pushing that line — and I was convinced that they were wrong.
Who did you tell about this, who did you talk to?
It was extremely difficult to talk about it, because all the negotiations on this kind of thing were done by Halban in London, and I was strictly kept in the back room. I never saw anybody of importance. There was one remarkable exception, when Urey and Pegram came to England in November, ‘41. I saw them in Cambridge, with Halban. And then Oliphant invited me to a dinner in London with Urey and Pegram. It was understood that, provided Halban doesn’t know. This was not quite in my habits. I felt like a criminal in a detective story. When I took the train to London, I all the time wished that Halban were taking the same train or arriving on the platform opposite, where I had to explain what I’m doing. And I came to London. I had this very pleasant dinner. I remember I remarked with some interest that this was on 7th of November, the anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The Leninist Revolution. It was a revolutionary date. And after that, after the event, I told to Halban that Oliphant invited me and I saw no reason not to come, and Halban was very much displeased with it, sort of considering Oliphant is a fool, and he only tries to stir up mischief, and it was very foolish of me to hobnob with a person who is so definitely hostile to what the very direction that the project was envisaging and doing, and so on.
This is 1941.
Yes. November. I played a complete innocence, which I never succeed in pleading complete innocence. People just don’t believe me.
Even if you are innocent.
Well, I was not quite innocent, really. I knew perfectly well that Oliphant wanted me to talk to Urey and Pegram outside of Halban’s presence.
This sort of thing did not happen very often?
No. You see, he wanted to I think his aim was to present me as a kind of independent, slightly independent force. Of course I never said anything derogatory or anything. But just my being invited as a separate entity, on a separate occasion, to meet Urey and Pegram separately — and well, that was enough, because, I don’t know whether Halban was fooled or not, but Paris(?) wasn’t. And about a month later, shortly before Christmas, the stories began to spread that Oliphant considers that Kowarski and Halban are falling out. And well, there were some unpleasant things, Halban asking me to make a written declaration that this is not true, and things like that. I will pass that. But by this Christmas of ‘41 I began already to be established as a kind of dissident. And everybody explained this very easily – “Well, Kowarski doesn’t like Halban, and tries to stir mischief.” But the fact is that I was not interested at all in Halban, I was interested in what’s happening between Britain and the United States. And things went, by the way, almost exactly as I foresaw. In the early ‘42, there was an ICI plus Peierls plus Halban delegation to the States, and they were received rather coolly, and —
What were you doing during 1942? You were still working with Halban.
Oh, in 1942 Halban was most of the time away, and this was the American trip, then he spent a short time in England but mostly in London, and then he went again to America, towards the end of ‘42. So I was officially Halban’s deputy. I was running the Cambridge team, which by that time had something like 10 or 15 graduates and postgraduates.
You still had not much contact with people farther up above, all that?
Oh, some. There was a question, which I tell on the Weiner tape, my relations with Appleton. I asked to be released from the famous patent agreement. There is a possible moment. I was all the time strongly opposed to it. There was this interesting episode that there was a paragraph — I think I told him about it. You have the copy of the?
— yes, right —
That Halban undertakes to use his best endeavors to — and at first I asked, why Halban? Why not Halban and Kowarski? And I stirred a bit of a protest about it. And then suddenly it dawned on me that I would be better off if that was the only paragraph in which I was not mentioned. That was a pure piece of political intuition. It turned out that again I was right, you see. I’m not always right, but sometimes I am. That that paragraph, without me, played a considerable role later on in the — in Halban’s downfall.
Right. Well, I think that gives me a pretty good picture.
But I repeat again and again — people could not understand that I am — I’m taking a dissident view, which coincided more or less with Oliphant’s, but Oliphant was not in the project, I was — a dissident view against the whole British Empire about what should be done about America. And this was too big, so they used it in small proportions, of my being at loggerheads with Halban.
On a personal basis.
OK. Well, since time is short, let me skip ahead now to a couple of things. The technical aspects of the commissariat. Now, you’ve explained pretty well on this previous interview, but there are a few political things that I’m not at all sure about, that we didn’t talk about, that you just mentioned. One is, these two geologists, Jean Orcel and Louis Barrabe — who were they? Were they Communists?
Probably. Of Orcel, I’m nearly sure. Barrabe I knew less, I knew him less. But they were, if you like, members of a certain academic political creed. They were very competent geologists, but so far as I remember, they never undertook anything very important. Roubault, who was not at all Communist and was a much more energetic person, not that he got enormous results the first years, but at least he took with considerable more energy. So what else can I say about it? They were sort of on a consulting basis for the —
When they left did it have anything to do with their Communism? Were there any attacks on them?
Oh — probably. That was a little bit outside of my competence. There was a gradual, a tendency to free the Commissariat from too many Communists, and of course Communists you know, it’s like during McCarthy’s America, practically everybody could be considered — I, of course, was a Communist too. At the same time, the Communists attacked me, for my Americanism.
At the same time that they attacked you for being Russian.
Who attacked me?
Were you attacked for being Russian?
Yes, and also — for being Russian, even a Jew, and you know I’m not quite a Jew. Who cares?
What about the attack, there was an attack on the Commissariat budget in April, 1949, and (?) mentions, and I think you mentioned to me too, that the Academy of Science came to the defense. Do you recall that incident?
I think you’re confusing two incidents. Let’s see — there are now all the time attacks, political attacks. But here I’m a little bit uncertain of my dates. There was a big, what they call, interpellation, question to the government, two of them successively — one put by very strong reactionary politician, Frederick-Dupont. I think Frederick-Dupont is more or less equivalent to the John Birch Society. And the other was a much more finer politician, Soustelle. They both were in the same direction, but Soustelle’s was a bit more —
— was this at the same time, or?
They were on the same day, but they were two — deposited separate questions. (Or: They posited separate questions.) Now, I don’t remember now whether the Frederick-Dupont and Soustelle interpellations were in ‘49 or ‘51. It possibly was in ‘51, and when sort or the attempt was — well, occasion (?) look, all this Communist —
— I believe it was in ‘51. And I believe in ‘49, from what I can gather, from (?) was not an open attack in the parliament or whatever, it was simply questions in the Ministry of Finance or whatever.
No, by ‘49 — I don’t know the details, but in ‘49 the position was clearly established, The Cold War was already more or less in full swing. You had a situation in which the Commissariat, which was constitutionally a semi-military establishment, (that people always forget, and I think we can’t forget it) — was in the hands of a prominent Communist, and whatever form this took, in ‘49, I don’t know. It certainly started in ‘49.
Do you know of any Academy of Sciences lending formal support to the Commissariat?
No. I know that in ‘51, in the crisis of October, ‘51, which was a very serious crisis, which was directed against Francis Perrin, there the Academy took a stand.
I see. What was that about? I haven’t seen that reported.
Well, we didn’t talk about that. October, ‘51, the attacking forces made an overt assault. Dautry died in August, ‘51. There was a question of picking Dautry’s successor. And of making, starting a real purge in the Commissariat. Here comes the thing that the persons most involved knew less, least about these things. It’s like the (?) you know. But I did talk to various people, knowledgeable people on occasion. It seems that the plan was as follows: In October, ‘51, the government would ask Francis Perrin to make plans for making military explosives. Francis Perrin would refuse. Francis Perrin would be fired, and at the same time as the new, Dautry’s successor, Francis Perrin’s successor would be named. This successor was already designated: it was Yves Rocard. The administration would replace Dautry. There were various names proposed, among them some politicians. The idea was that they would be kind of a figurehead, and Lescop would run everything. That was the idea. But Lescop was not all-powerful, and the first attack that the scientific committee supervising should recommend, that there should be a plutonium problem, that Francis Perrin would refuse after which he would be fired — almost happened in October — and I was told that Rocard’s first action would be to fire me.
Who told you that, by the way?
Well, I have to protect my sources. Besides, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s, you know, it’s the grapevine. But everything was prepared. There was a dramatic meeting in October, ‘51, of the scientific advisory committee. Francois de Rose, Goldschmidt and myself worked on Francis like mad, saying that he has to be more diplomatic, that he has not to refuse outright to make any plutonium, that plutonium is necessary for further researches and so that things would be left a little in abeyance, how much and when, but he would not come out — When, during the meeting, it became apparent that most of the members of the meeting were prepared in advance by Lescop, that this will happen –- and then Francois de Rose, who was so to speak on our side, came out more or less outlining the plan I just said — everybody was completely confused. Then, after the meeting, it was explained to the Academicians, particularly Leprince Ringuet and Maurice de Broglie, that this was really a personal attack to unseat Francis Perrin. And then they rose up in arms. “Francis, what, son of Jean Perrin — never!” And the whole thing petered out. The successor to Dautry was named in early November. That turned out to be Guillaumont, a character who is not at all of the caliber to be set easily aside by Lescop. He set Lescop aside within a few months. Really tremendous force, tremendously forceful character. There was another interesting personal detail, which I might add as a personal detail — that as you remember, in ‘51 I was supposed to leave France to go to (?) and in the spring of ‘51, this was countered by some denunciations which arrived at the American embassy, and therefore I was not given a visa. The same grapevine says that when Rocard learned it, he became completely furious, said, “What the hell have you done? We had got rid of this guy — and now he is here! Again.” They said, “Yes, and now no, he’s completely now.” Rocard said, “With this man, you never know.” And of course this time he was right, because when Francois de Rose was able to suddenly break this conspiracy in October, he was very well prepared by Goldschmidt and me!
Yes. In talking about this same period, Scheinman brings up the question of forces (who are not known) that are arguing that the CEA should not have a large program but should have a small research program, and there was someone who wrote an anonymous article in l’Observateur in early 1952, also advocating a research only program. Was this ever much advocated by anyone in the Commissariat?
Well, when was it, I think in July, ‘51, there was a meeting of a kind of scientific committee or a Gif(?) in which the scientific staff was asked to express their views. And my views were very much the same as I expressed in NATURE in the 1950 article, that it was a question of money. We have to know in which scale we work. If we have enough money to do certain big things, then in my opinion we should immediately start making some plutonium, in small quantities, for experimental purposes, enriched material and so on. If there was no money, we should not undertake these things, because they would fail.
Did anyone say that even if the money was given, you should not undertake the big program?
No. That was — you see, Lescop was the secretary and could write in the minutes anything he wanted, and gave any accounts he wanted. I know that later on it was said that at that time, I had advocated a small program. Yes, I did — if there is no money. That was omitted. And I very definitely advocated a bigger program if there is money. That was also omitted.
Would that have been Francis Perrin’s or Goldschmidt’s view also?
Goldschmidt had the same views as me exactly. Francis Perrin was not against making small quantities of plutonium. But very soon after that meeting, he came with this first note against making plutonium. And it was then that Goldschmidt and I started working on him. In October he came with a much milder note. I still have these two notes. In Paris, in the — Two notes on the program.
These were internal.
I’d like to have copies of those by the way. I think you may have sent me one.
Yes — that I should send you — I certainly have the second I know, whether I have the first, I’m not sure. By that time, Goldschmidt and I began definitely to push towards a modest plutonium making program. All this of course was completely unknown outside of the Commissariat. We were not allowed to talk outside, and Lescop — whatever Lescop said, I don’t know what he said. I don’t know what he, what documents Scheinman has seen.
So far as you know there wasn’t anybody, except perhaps Francis Perrin in a very temporary way, who advocated not making plutonium.
Oh no, there were lots of people advocated not making plutonium. But they were not Goldschmidt, they were not me.
Who were they?
Well, the more or less open fellow travelers.
Oh, I’m a big afraid of any names.
But these were people who were high up? Or are you talking about rank and file?
Well, no — no. Well, Berthelot was probably — but Berthelot was a pure physicist, and always considered himself a pure physicist. But he expressed his opinion, that France should stay away from anything remotely military, and so on. And there were a few others who were openly Communist and also vociferous.
I see, these would be people of the second rank.
Much much lower ranks. Not within the higher ranks.
I see. There was quite a lot of agitation even among those lower rank engineers and so forth, wasn’t there?
Oh yes, there was quite a lot of them in the Communist party, quite a lot of demonstrations and so on. But these things were being decided on the higher level. On the higher level there was practically nobody against plutonium, except Francis’s hesitations. Francis took the line that France could develop natural uranium reactors without extracting plutonium, more or less that. And the picture that Lescop was for plutonium, the scientists were against it, was completely wrong. And it’s wrong, it’s based on, partly false declarations, partly false documents which I’ve never seen, and suppression of those very real things which — it’s chiefly Goldschmidt and myself were making the first beginnings of a plutonium program.
OK, you make that very clear.
— I have very little proof of it, but I have some. You’ve seen some of my early notes about what can be done, with what resources and so on.
That’s right. That’s right. It makes a consistent story, and it’s not even inconsistent with what Simon wrote, because he never said exactly…