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This transcript is based on a tape-recorded interview deposited at the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics. The AIP's interviews have generally been transcribed from tape, edited by the interviewer for clarity, and then further edited by the interviewee. If this interview is important to you, you should consult earlier versions of the transcript or listen to the original tape. For many interviews, the AIP retains substantial files with further information about the interviewee and the interview itself. Please contact us for information about accessing these materials.
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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of Edward Condon by Charles Weiner on 1973 September 11,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
In this interview, Edward Uhler Condon discusses topics such as: his family background; early education; influence of high school physics teacher, William Howell Williams, 1914-1918, and later teacher at University of California, Berkeley; interval as boy reporter. Undergraduate years at Berkeley, beginning in 1921 in chemistry department; Ph.D. in physics, 1926; association with Fred Weinberg. Discovery of Erwin Schrödinger's wave mechanics papers; International Education Board fellowship to study quantum mechanics at Göttingen, 1926. Work on Bell Systems technical journal for six months before accepting lectureship at Columbia University; teaching post at Princeton University; Condon and Philip Morse's Quantum Mechanics, result of Columbia and Princeton courses. Relations with University of California; role in persuading Ernest Lawrence to go to Berkeley from Yale University. Recollections of Michigan summer school. Work at Westinghouse on applications of nuclear physics to industry, including completion of Van de Graaff machine, 1937-1940; setting up Westinghouse research fellowships, 1938; Massachusetts Institute of Technology conference on applications of nuclear physics, October 1940; war work on microwave radar. J. Robert Oppenheimer asks Condon to come to Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory; tour of Los Alamos with Leslie Groves; reasons for leaving Los Alamos after a few weeks. Work as head of theoretical section of Lawrence's laboratory, August 1943-1945; British scientists. Evaluation of Westinghouse's four million-volt machine. Description of Nimitron, a physical computer, designed for 1939 World's Fair. Discussion of 1928 radioactivity. Reminiscences of Ronald Gurney's later career and his trouble with security. Discussion of postwar events, such as the Quebec Conference, McMahon Act, Moran's book about Winston Churchill. Peacetime development of atomic energy; establishment of the Senate's Special Committee on atomic energy. Directorship of the National Bureau of Standards (NBS), 1945-1951. Work on superconductivity; W. Emmanuel Maxwell and John Pelham. Accomplishments at NBS. Hearings in 1948 and 1952 before the Department of Commerce under Truman's loyalty program; Averell Harriman. Director of Research at Corning, 1951. House Un-American Activities Committee hearing, 1954; J. R. Oppenheimer and Bernard Peters; reopening of clearances, loss of Corning position; becomes Corning consultant. Head of Washington University physics department, 1956-1963; Oberlin College, 1962; interest in modernizing teaching; Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics (JILA), from 1963; editor of Reviews of Modern Physics, 1957-1968; establishment of the National Accelerator Laboratory (Chicago); the UFO story. Comments on his most satisfying and his least satisfying work. Also prominently mentioned are: Raymond T. Birge and Henry Wallace.
In our conversation, we were talking about these earlier interviews, which were done in '67 and '68, taking us more or less to the end of the war, and I'd like to review a few things, to set the stage. What I have in mind is just a review. For example, you mentioned the meeting in Chicago, where Robert Hutchins was presiding, and people like Leo Szilard and Henry Wallace and others were there. This was a meeting concerned with the peacetime development of atomic energy. I'm not clear about exactly the purpose of that meeting.
Well, it was all of the social and political problems as we recognized them at that time. Perhaps the emphasis was a little more on the kind of domestic legislation that would be needed to control atomic energy. That was the beginning of the fight against General Groves' contingent, to get a civilian Atomic Energy Commission, instead of the old May-Johnson Bill that he had produced. But there was a little of everything involved there. Of course, domestic control was thought of as international control too, and what kind of political steps would be needed to further that. You may recall, you see, this was about mid-September of '45, I believe. Maybe it was nearer October 1st. Anyway, remember, the United Nations had just itself come into being via a conference in San Francisco in June of '45, and so everybody had very high hopes, and was hoping that we could have a political action through the UN, whereby we could get control of weapons then, at a time when nobody had them but us. So that we would not have the kind of development that we did have, you know, in subsequent years, with mass production of these weapons. It's hard to put an exact boundary on the discussion. It ran all over all such topics, but not technical topics. There was nothing about how to make a bomb or how to separate isotopes or anything. It was a social and political thing.
The thing that interested me especially about it was that you said that Henry Wallace went for a walk with you and Szilard, and brought up the question about you taking the directorship of the Bureau, and either in your autobiographical chapter or maybe in the interview, you said that prior to the meeting, you had said to your wife, "If Henry offers me a job, should I take it?"
This was just a kind of a coincidence.
You had no prior impression about it?
You had not talked to them, or known they were considering you?
No, no. I found it out—actually, there was a go-between at the meeting, you know, a man of that position usually has some younger fellow get some inkling of my attitude before he really makes the offer. Phil Hauser, who's a sociology professor at Chicago and who at that time was on leave to be assistant director of the Census, but who was a kind of a personal aide to Henry Wallace in the Secretary's office said, "They're looking for a new director of the Bureau of Standards, do you think you might be approachable on it?" And I said, "Yes, I'd love to hear about it." It was he who then set up the meeting. But that was at the meeting. I hadn't had any prior reason to think—well, I might have had some private notion. Well, no, not anything of their idea. It was a job that sort of attracted me, and it was generally known that they did need to find somebody. But that was just in the privacy of my own thinking. Not anything else.
And when you did discuss the job with Henry Wallace, did he have any ideas about what the postwar role of the Bureau would be? Had he done any thinking on that?
Oh, not a great deal,I don't think so. We talked about it. Of course, our minds were mostly on these atomic energy problems. You see, the atomic energy project had really started at the Bureau, and I think he sort of took it for granted that it would play a bigger role in it. He didn't realize how effectively it had been taken away from the Bureau by the formation of the Manhattan District—which of course was necessary just because it was such a whopping big project. The Bureau would have fitted into one tiny corner of the Manhattan Project. We talked about things in general. Of course, there was a lot of talk just—it was the first time I had ever met him. We talked about New Deal and Roosevelt politics and things of that sort. It didn't last very long. I don't imagine we took more than half an hour. I think you said Szilard went along. I think he didn't. It was just Wallace and myself. We walked down, sort of from the campus, past that Museum of Science and Industry to the lake and back, about like that, one nice autumn afternoon. Well, I didn't fool around. I said, "Sure, I'll do it if you want me to." And so that's how that got set in motion. As a matter of fact, I was terrifically ignorant of procedures then, because I had the impression that he was just plain offering it to me and if I accepted it, why, all that remained was to pick a date. I didn't realize that there was a Senate confirmation involved. So, that was that. That's as far as the...
Let me tell you what I remember about what we discussed. That clarifies it. You said that you then went down to Washington in October, not realizing that it wasn't definite, that it depended on confirmation. In Washington you immediately got involved in the atomic energy legislation that was developing.
Yes. You see, I was associate director of research at Westinghouse, and at that level you have a certain free hand. I didn't leave them in the sense of telling them that I was leaving or retiring. I was still on their payroll. But I had a certain freedom of action to do what I felt was needed, you know, I could leave for something important. A man in an industrial lab kind of makes his own schedule of where he goes and what meetings he attends and things, and I got very concerned. So that later after that Chicago meeting, I've forgotten how much later—the end of September, early October—I went down, and then was when I was palling around a good deal with Leo Szilard, and we would go call on all kinds of people, just everybody we could get. I remember when we first called on Abe Fortas, who was at that time Assistant Secretary, maybe Under Secretary of Interior under Harold Ickes, just telling all of them about atomic energy, because you see, the thing had been so secret that they really hadn't assimilated any attitudes toward it as a big major problem.
So scientists, those few that were able to talk about it and had concerns especially about the political problems, were very much in demand. A good, a very politically active couple that had a big fine home in Washington was Gifford Pinchot and his wife, Cornelia Pinchot. They had always had a kind of a political salon, and we would have talks by atomic scientists to audiences of 20 and 30 people after dinner. So it was devoted to just the kind of a highly spontaneous and unorganized activity as the two of us running around trying to get as many people alerted to the problem as possible, and especially on this theme of taking it away from the military. Not only taking it—one has also I guess to take a little time out to cover the flavor, try to.
See, we had just gone through the war, with Russia as an ally, and the cold war hadn't started yet, and so although there were strong anti -Russian forces and forces of people who mistrusted the Russians and had an anti-Russian point of view, it was still possible to have an opposite view spoken outwardly, that we had to make every effort possible to get along with them and continue the alliance and so on. In other words, the cold war wasn't really declared yet. I would say that, from the point of view of where I sat, wasn't until, oh, about the autumn of '46, a full year later, when this kind of policy issue came to a head with James Byrnes, the Secretary of State under Truman, being a very anti-Russian sort of fellow, and Henry Wallace being one who wanted to make great efforts to preserve the alliance. I kind of date the cold war from then. Of course, it was coming on, and you can't tell, but I'd say it was around October of '46, a full year later, when Truman summarily bounced Wallace out of his Cabinet. And he sort of had an ultimatum, to choose between Byrnes and Wallace, and he chose Byrnes.
Now, I'm trying to say this in a way that doesn't go beyond the immediate issue. There were all kinds of other things, like Russian penetrations into Greece and penetrations down to Iran that we were resisting, and all of the things that Stalin is accused of. I don't know much about that. So I was just trying to say what happened rather to atomic energy. But even so, sticking to myself and Szilard, there was a second conference that was put on, talking about these same problems, a sort of continuation of the first one.
It was held at the Westchester Country Club in Rye, New York, about the first ten days of October, also University of Chicago sponsorship, but for the convenience of the East Coast peopleit was held there.
Edward Condon on working for a Senator.
Now, by that time, there had been a lot of agitation, that the Senate really ought to have a special committee on Atomic Energy, and Brian McMahon, although he was a junior Senator in his first term, took a great interest in it and sort of made it his baby. I don't think he had to fight for it because the old time Senators were treating at arm's length. They didn't quite know what to do about it. So a resolution was passed that established that committee, and he proceeded to have a staff, well, really, just two or three people, the staff, nothing like it later became. The Chicago group at Westchester, which was all friendly to me, carried on a kind of campaign like is often done, of sending telegrams to McMahon, which were supposed to look as if they were all independent, views coming from different parts of the country, but they were all people urging that McMahon choose me as scientific advisor, which he did. Then James R. Newman—who wrote that book The World of Mathematics that was so successful, he was a Columbia-trained lawyer—was legal counsel to the committee. And the two of us worked together regularly. Except for a fellow that did more or less just clerical work, we were the staff. Well, it was soon—let's see—so that got started, to have McMahon head that committee, and McMahon had chosen me for the science advisor and Newman for legal counsel.
Then of course I had to be confirmed. In the meantime my nomination, I guess the call had been sent up by Truman for head of the Bureau of Standards, and I had to kind of wait for confirmation. So that came about the 1st of November. Now, in point of fact, they were not long drawn out hearings and controversy sort of thing. It was amusing—this came up one day on the floor of the Senate, and McMahon requested the confirmation, and nobody said anything except Senator Taft. He said, "What's the hurry?" And McMahon replied with some vague statement, as they so often do, about it having something to do with national security and atomic bombs, and Senator Taft immediately withdrew his objection, so I was confirmed in about five minutes. And that was that.
This confirmation was for the Bureau Directorship?
For the Bureau Directorship. The other job didn't require anything, and the other job didn't—you know, you only get one salary out of the federal government, so I—but I suddenly found myself, along about the first week in November, as both Director of the Bureau and science advisor to the committee, and no prior experience in Washington. So then of course I had to move my family from Pittsburgh down to Washington. So I was a busy boy, trying to get all that put together. So we began to hold hearings to try to educate the Senators. We had a couple of sessions there at the Bureau where the Senators came out and sat around a table out there, and I gave one of my lectures on nuclear physics. But they weren't very good students. I remember Senator Tom Connally, the old boy from Texas, who kind of grumblingly said, "We don't want to become nuclear physicists, Doctor." And I said, "Well, I wasn't expecting to recruit any staff from this group." So we engaged in a certain amount of banter back and forth. But although at the time it was reported that I was teaching the Senators nuclear physics, it really was just one or two sessions, in which they learned that there were such things as protons and neutrons. We had the usual standard displays or radioactivity setting off Geiger counters and things like that. How much of this do you want to go into?
Well, let me tell you what—some of this is covered in pretty good detail in the autobiographical section. You have about 49 pages on atomic energy legislation.
Oh, have I?
It goes through 49 double spaced pages, so some of this is going to be familiar to me. So what I'd like to do is ask you not to go over that, but...
The trouble is, right now I don't remember exactly what's in that.
I just read it over last night to be sure. There are a couple of points.
Well, did we talk about the May-Johnson Bill and how that was a kind of a rival to McMahon's point of view?
Yes, it goes into detail on that. And I had a couple of questions about things that I didn't either understand or—so we'd better do it that way. And if you're covering ground that I feel is really parallel to that, without adding anything significant, I'll tell you and we'll just go on to something else.
One of the points you made in the autobiographical account is that—about the story of this Colonel Peterson?
Peterson from Chicago.
I don't know which one it was, but the point of the story was, when you were discussing this man with Groves, Groves no longer addressed him by his military title. You gathered that this man was a civilian and you learned that the military people said, "Yes, we're getting ready for the civilian control of atomic energy," which was their way of saying that their people were going to be involved in
Well, of course, I think it's fair to say, political slogans always get oversimplified, you know. It was always talked about as if it was civilian versus military control. That was a nice thing that you could rally around. Actually the May-Johnson Bill, which was the military-sponsored bill, also had a civilian commission, but the commissioners were all sort of part time fellows, and it was so fixed up that General Groves could have been made the general manager, and since the commissioners were part time fellows, you had the picture that they'd be really just rubber stamps to an administration that he'd carry out. See, Groves was a peculiar fellow, in that he wasn't very subtle. He was aggressive but not very subtle about his aggressiveness. In the bill he had provision, it was stated so that unless you studied the law you wouldn't know what it meant. The general manager could be appointed not withstanding the provisions of federal act number so and so. But if you looked that up, that's the law that says no man can be an active military officer and hold a civil service position at the same time. Well, he was such a hog that he wanted to be both. He could have—but that was a giveaway that he wanted it, because nobody else was in the running where that would have come up.
So, this thing kind of centered around that. Now, you see, the May-Johnson Bill was introduced—May was the chairman of the House Military Affairs Committee and Johnson of Colorado was the Senator, the opposite number in the Senate. And this was kind of pushed through the administrative channels of the White House and nominally had Truman's approval, but Truman was so damn busy that it later turned out, he'd never read it, he had just trusted his staff to prepare a bill, and the military did it. I don't think there was anything wrong in their attempting to be prompt and timely about it, because, you know, the issue ought to be settled before Los Alamos and the other things started to fall apart, with people feeling uncertain about the future.
So the fact that they had studied it before the use of the bomb and the end of the war and come up with this bill wasn't so bad, but for example, Harold Ickes once told me—see, the custom is with a major bill of that sort, when the administration has sort of tentatively adopted a bill that they're going to transmit to Congress, copies are taken around or sent around for comments from all the Cabinet officers, and they can of course consult their own staff of sub-Cabinet officers, and get sort of a check on it. But Ickes told me that in the first place, General Groves had tried to get this bill passed as a secret bill. I don't know whether we have any secret bills in this world, but the concept was that Congress would pass the bill without even reading it and it would be law without ever being published, and so if you violated this unknown law, why, then off to jail you'd go. Very stringent policies about secrecy. And the idea was that—See, Groves always had the notion that the making of the bomb was such a complicated and difficult thing that we would have a monopoly on it for, oh, a century or something. And various others used to try to talk him out of that crazy point of view, saying that anybody can do it, and of course, at that time we didn't have any inkling that there had been any kind of espionage, and we meant, anybody can do it just from the bare knowledge of nuclear physics and that the limiting factor would be the big industrial expense involved. Russia could do it or France or Germany—not Germany because it was destroyed, but Britain. And he just never accepted that point of view. Of course, that too made a lot of stress and strain, because when the Russians finally did get it in '49, this could only be interpreted by him as absolute proof of how effective the Russian espionage had been.
Now, to my mind, doubtless people do know it in the archives of Washington, but I've never been able to judge from just reading about the prosecution of people like David Greenglass and the Rosenbergs and later Klaus Fuchs and Allen Nunn May, to what extent espionage really contributed to the Russian success. They certainly had some benefit of espionage, but I don't think they got—well, I certainly know that the Rosenbergs were technically incompetent people, so all they could have done would have been to pass papers along that they themselves didn't understand. It was different in the case of Klaus Fuchs because he was a first rate theoretical physicist, and if he was engaged in espionage, he sure could have been effective. So that's one of the great unsolved historical problems right now, of unknown historical problems.
You see, this whole fission business, when it was first discovered in the pre-war period by a year or two, '38, '39, was all wide open. They had a strong nuclear physics gang, and it was perfectly reasonable to suppose that they too thought of making an atomic bomb.
Yes, they published quite a few papers that first year. There's a REVIEW article Lou Turner did, January, 1940—there must have been about 100 papers on fission published, and 1 don't remember the Russian percentage, but it was—
Oh yes, as far as fission goes, they were active on that.
So was England.
Yes. That was the exciting thing of the year. But what I meant was that, to what extent they began—did their government have a bomb project, an explosives project—I just don't know. Of course, now, Groves, with us who were in the project during the war, used to keep telling us that the Russians were doing this, but he never told us with any specific detail, and I always kind of thought, well, that may be true, but it may be that he's just using that as a kind of incentive to whip us on to further efforts, not to lose the race. But in any case, that's a long chapter.Let's see, how did I get off on that?
I asked you about the military—guys going out of uniform so that they could play a role, if the McMahon Bill triumphed over the May-Johnson Bill.
Well, there may have been some of that, but I don't-
—you mentioned the one instance, of the one colonel who was out of uniform.
Oh, yes. Well, there may have been several. I don't know. You see, there's quite a time delay. The hearings and the study and the stuff of the Senate bill, the Senate committee, lasted all winter and on into the early spring, and some time or other which I can't remember in late spring, the Senate passed it and it was introduced in the House by Helen Gahagan Douglas, so that some people call it the McMahon-Douglas Bill on that account. The House didn't make an elaborate study, in the sense of having other hearings and so forth, and they passed it in the summer of '46. Now, I was sent out to Bikini and was out there, so I don't have any first hand knowledge of any kind of maneuvering that went on to get it through the House. But it was law by the time I got back, and—in August guess of '46, a short time after the second test—and then, arrangements started to be made. It wasn't until later in the fall that Truman appointed the first set of five commissioners, of which Lilienthal was the head. That's all down so I don't need to list them. And they took over January of '47, January 1st about. That was the end of the Manhattan District and the whole thing was transferred to this.
Let me ask you about the period when the May-Johnson bill was a possibility. Do you recall having conversations with people like Fermi who had come out in support of May-Johnson? Also I'd like to know something about Oppenheimer's role there, if you remember conversations.
Yes. Well, as far as I can make out, they were, both of those fellows, they thought alike somewhat on this particular topic. They were concerned that something be done, and they regarded this whole McMahon business as a great diversion—we would lose a year of time in which the labs and organization would start to fall apart. Groves sort of encouraged this feeling by pointing out that his mandate was interrupted now, and he was just doing a holding operation, and therefore he couldn't really do anything, and in a way I guess he couldn't, you know, with the war powers expired.
So I think their attitude was to kind of minimize the dangers inherent, thatthought were inherent, in the May-Johnson military side, and play up the importance of continuity, of keeping the labs running, and therefore better to accept this bill and modify it later than to carry on the fight that we were carrying on. Now, of course, maybe a paragraph ought to be said. You see, separately from—this was all domestic stuff and it was all in Congress. It ought to be mentioned here, so as to tie in with something else that I don't know—see, there was set up a committee in the State Department to study a proposal and policy for international control, for us to propose to the UN, and that emerged as the Acheson-Lilienthal report, though it was mostly written by Robert Oppenheimer. They had a kind of a dual policy with the British, so Chadwick was involved a great deal, and they had a group. They had a lot of meetings during that same winter that I was working on the domestic legislation. But there was practically no intercourse between the two groups. One was preparing domestic legislation and the other was trying to make international policy, a proposal that would be presented to the UN. Barnie Baruch was later appointed to be the guy that actually headed up our presentation. And a good deal of the tightness of security that got worked into the domestic thing was really having in mind the necessary steps that would help international control—that is to say, if we didn't have the whole thing kind of firmly under government control in this country, we couldn't be a party to a negotiation that made international promises that we weren't in a position to keep.
But otherwise, there was very little contact, except I can tell you an amusing anecdote or two. Of course it was a big public relations issue, and when the Acheson-Lilienthal report was finally ready, Acheson came down on executive session. This would have been about January or February of '46. And presented it to an executive session of the committee for discussion, the Senate committee, McMahon's committee, because they had jurisdiction also over that subject in the Senate. And he made a nice presentation of this thing. It was a 75 page mimeographed document that was handed out to all of us. But it was still under wraps. It wasn't publicly released. But the State Department knew it had a big public education program on its hands, so at the same time that we were dealing with it as a mimeographed thing, they were making 150,000 copies go through the Government Printing Office, to make it be a mass distribution to political groups all over the country.
Well, everything was going fine, when this same old Tom Connally of Texas started to mutter about— "Oh," he says, "I don't think this report ought to be made public. It's got a lot of classified material in it" and so on. Well, he having a vast amount of seniority compared with everybody present, McMahon and everybody else, all that happened then was that they all nodded agreement with him, and poor Acheson, who had 150,000 copies being printed, was under wraps. He couldn't make it public with that kind of a—not a formal vote, it was just general consensus.
So there was a period of several weeks there in which the thing was like that. Well, of course the press had known that Acheson had come up with this and they were keen to get this. I never forget, see, one gets personally acquainted with various newspaper men, and there was a reporter, in those days a very good one, he's dead now, named Anthony Laveiro, for the New York Times. And he called me up—oh, this must have been a couple of weeks later, and I'd been so damn busy that I hadn't looked at this mimeographed document, but finally I had a free evening and was going to sit and read it and find out myself. The phone rang and it was Tony, and Tony says, "Doc, I understand the Herald Tribune has got a copy of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, and I wondered if you had one and could let me see it, because I don't want to be scooped. My New York office is badgering me." I said, "Well, Tony, I can't do it, but if you get McMahon to call me up so I hear his voice and he says it's all right, I do have a copy and I was going to read it this evening, and you can come out and look at it too." He says, "Fine." In a little while the phone rings and McMahon, and he explains the situation. But in the true devious way that politicians have he says, "He's going to ask you if you have a copy of the report. You ain't got it, see." McMahon had told Tony he could see it if I had it; then he was going to tell me to say I didn't have it. It was seeming to be all right on his part, but— So I said, "Brian, it's too late, I already told Tony I've got it." "Oh, damn it," says McMahon. So then he said, "Well, let him see it, but don't let him touch it" I suppose this was going to be some verbal business that he had in mind, saying that Laveiro had never had it.
—in his possession—
Yes, he had just seen it. So I said, "OK, if that's what you mean." Well, Tony in the meantime was in a taxicab coming out to my place. And I got to thinking; there was another reporter in town who had been very friendly to us. His name was Al Friendly; he was then a reporter but later became managing editor of the Washington Post. And I thought, hell, he oughtn't to be scooped; if this is the way it's coming out. So I called up Al at home and told him what was going on, and he was annoyed because he had a social engagement, but this was so important that he dropped it and came on out too. Well, so we took this, unstapled it, and spread it out in pages all over the floor of my living room, with these guys crawling around— without touching it. (I think they did touch it occasionally). Well, it would be interesting, if you really were to go into it because just anyway, aside from this anecdote, that Acheson and Lilienthal report was, as I say, the actual composition of it was largely Oppenheimer's, and it was written in a very—in Oppenheimer's style, where there are about three subjunctives in every sentence, and long, and no summarizing paragraphs and no breaking up into convenience of eye spots. And here were these poor fellows trying to digest this turgid English, spread out on the floor. So along about 10 o'clock was Tony's deadline. Friendly could have had till midnight, but—Tony was really getting very frantic. He was a very highstrung nervous sort of fellow. And I finally had an inspiration. I said, "Look, the only reason we're doing this is because Tony is under the impression that the Herald Tribune has it. The Herald Tribune has a close working relationship with the Washington Post, so if Friendly will call up the Post and find if they have it—and if they don't have it, why, hell, Tony can quit, he's not under pressure to get it tonight." So they did that, and it turned out that the Herald Tribune said, "No, we don't have it, have you got it? Where can we get it?" So we all had a beer and they went home. And then it was a few days later that, because of this incident, it was officially made public.
Was it within McMahon's authority to release it? The report came from the State Department?
Well, I'm not quite sure. You know, so much of these things are done by mutual consent. McMahon and Acheson got together and it was released, but I don't know how that came about.
Let me get back to Oppenheimer and Fermi—did you have any personal discussions, arguments with them on their position as opposed to your position? Do you recall any conversations with them?
Yes.I don't recall them in any very great detail. We used to—I don't recall that Fermi, Fermi was much more likely to stick at home in his lab. He was in Washington a time or two. I found out Fermi's views more or less indirectly from other people. Oppenheimer was there a great deal, because he was doing in parallel the international thing. Yes, we talked about it. But as I said earlier, my main lasting impression was that he was willing to take a chance on more military control in order to get a prompter passage of a bill, thought that was on the whole better; and I thought that if you once adopted one kind of bill, you weren't going to change it later, and I didn't think the details of the amount of disruption or lack of continuity would be so great. Of course, you realize that we're always trying to forecast how something might be. I didn't think that the Senators would take so long to get action on the McMahon Bill, as they in fact did, and so I tended for that reason to think of it as less of a disruption than Oppenheimer did. I don't know. It was that sort of thing. There was nothing—you know, no acrimony, we weren't at swords' points with each other or anything of that sort.
At that time Bob Wilson I guess was the president of the FAS.
Gee, I've sort of forgotten who actually held the...
I think, if not president then, he was pretty close after that. He was involved in lobbying in Washington.
Did you have discussions with him?
No, not specifically. There were an awful lot of those young fellows that came through, Joe Rush and Bob Wilson and lots of them, and there were a great many social events, like the Pinchots giving dinner parties for groups, to mix political people with scientists, so that it was sort of like informal salon-type political talk, rather than having a meeting to decide something. It's awfully hard for me to remember. I didn't keep a diary, and I just have a memory—and of course, as I say, I had—I was just terribly busy. I used to go down and spend whole mornings with the Senate committee, and yet I was Director of the Bureau of Standards, which was itself not only a full time job nominally but was especially demanding at that time because the Bureau had had a tremendous amount of military contract work that had to be terminated and decisions made about giving people different jobs and all that, and with me having no experienced background—fortunately there were two associate directors who were Bureau old timers, and I could lean heavily on them. One was E. C. Crittenden, who was an old-timer on electrical measurements, and then the other was Hugh Dryden, who later became, I don't know the precise title, but anyway the big shot of NACA, which was predecessor to NASA. And they were both very steady, knowledgeable guys, and so I didn't do nearly as badly as if I hadn't had them. But...
This involvement with the McMahon Committee kept up through '47, but would you say that the most intense involvement ended with that period when the bill was passed, pretty much?
Oh yes. Well, where did you get the basis for saying '47? My recollection was—of course, there may have been some nominal continuations, but you see, after the Senate passed the bill, toward the end of the summer of—or the spring of '46— I had very little to do with them. We were still on cordial terms and all that, but there were no big sessions and long demanding times. And so for myself, in the fall of '46, I was able to get back to the Bureau almost entirely. I still had a friendly...
Now, we ought to have on the record a little bit about the authorship of the Brian McMahon Bill, even though I don't have as detailed knowledge as I should have—I mentioned, just because you hear different stories about it and there is also a sort of amusing anecdote about how Washington works sometimes... James Newman was a lawyer by profession, but he had an unusual amount of scientific knowledge, and he was attached to an agency for war work, and later called the OWMR, Office of War Mobilization and Reconversion, and that was headed by John Snyder who later became Truman's Secretary of the Treasury, and it was also the White House agency to take care of postwar problems, think about them and make policy.
But of course, the Chicago group was particularly active, and I don't mean just the scientists but also the social scientists and Law School group, and they began to draft a bill, now you get different accounts from different people—some who make it sound as if the Chicago group really wrote the McMahon Bill. Ed Levi, who's president of Chicago now but was then a professor in the Law School, certainly played a great role in what they did. Then in addition, Newman's immediate boss in the OWMR was Tom Emerson, who's now professor of law at Yale, but then was there, and they of course made a contribution. And I can't say how much of this—if you were really trying to fairly give credit, or discredit as the case may be, how much of the authorship of that bill came from the Chicago source and how much from the Washington agency source. But finally—now, you see, Truman of course had to kind of be politically smooth about it. He had after all transmitted the May-Johnson Bill to the Hill, in a rush rush sort of way. He'd hardly given it any thought. And then as soon as it was pointed out to him by Newman and Emerson that it was really a bad bill, in the opinion of the scientists, etc., he began to withdraw his support from it and be more inclined to support the McMahon type of bill.
So when we finally got it drafted, it too was approved by Truman, and Newman carried it in his pocket for a couple of weeks before we even showed it to McMahon. Newman was a sort of a prankster and joker. He used to say, "Do you think today's a good day to show McMahon his bill?" We'd talk about it and tried to decide. So the bill was introduced finally by McMahon, and he hadn't read it before he introduced it. He was a politician type who said to Newman, squinting his eyes, "This is it, is it?" meaning, this is what the President wants. And Newman assured him it was, and he introduced it.
Then I remember a famous occasion—this was just before the Christmas holidays, and McMahon was going to take his gorgeous beautiful blonde wife down to Bermuda for a vacation and lie on the sand and get sun. And I of course had quite a—had very little knowledge of Washington, except high school civics which is a very deceptive subject. So I was surprised at James Newman, because he says, "Now, listen, God damn it, Brian, we're going to carry on a national publicity campaign about this bill and how wonderful it is, and so for Christ's sake be sure you read it while you're down at Bermuda. Because when you get back to Washington, people will expect you to know what's in it. Because you wrote it, see?" So McMahon said he would, but I don't think he did, because he never was very familiar with the specifics, you know, the structure of the Bill—if somebody suddenly asked, "What does the Bill say about so and so?" he didn't know what page to turn to, to tell them. So he gradually got familiar with it. So its genesis was sort of a joint product of eager fellows in the social sciences and law at Chicago, plus the people around OWMR, and I don't know how— I've seen accounts from different partisans that want to give different amounts of credit, and I don't know how to do that. My role was merely to make sure they used words correctly, physics words, and tend to the terminology.
I think the in between details we haven't talked about are covered in the autobiography. There are a few things I'd like to talk about in 1946. For instance this is the year that in addition to winding up these things for the McMahon Bill, you're thinking by that time more seriously about the Bureau, and I want to get into that as a whole separate unit. You're also president of the APS. You watched the Bikini tests. There was a Princeton conference on physics in the postwar world, something like that, a big conference for the 200th anniversary of Princeton. I would like to talk about those things. First, let's talk about the APS for a while. That was the year of your presidency. Does that mean you took office et the January meeting—the big New York meeting at the end of January?
Yes, I think so. I think it goes by the calendar year. Actually, I didn't do much as president. Those were the days when Karl Darrow ran everything pretty much single handedly, and the president was kind of a figurehead. In any case, I was so damn busy that I couldn't do much on it.
Do you recall any discussions? It seems to me this was one of the few times that the official societies were discussing public questions in terms of postwar physics. There was some concern about restoring the freedom of science, in terms of the flow of information, feeling that secrecy was interfering with it. This is one of the few times know of that the AIP itself made a statement on that same issue.
I'd forgotten that.
Barton made a public statement on it on behalf of the ALP in '45, '46. Do you recall any discussions within...
No, I'm afraid I don't. I was a poor president. I was so busy, I just sort of neglected things. In fact, there was a meeting about October of '46.I was president. And this was still when there was a great hotel shortage, and I was supposed to have a reservation in the Hotel New Yorker for myself and my wife, and they didn't follow it up and I didn't have anything, and having a short fuse, I got so damn mad that I just didn't go to the meeting. They had to put the vice president in the chair and so on.
That was more than an honorary thing.
Yes, by the way it was done—of course it would have been a much better thing if the president were really active and constructive, but I just had too much to do and didn't give much thought to that.
Well, when did the Princeton Conference take place? Was that a summer conference, a June conference? I have the date somewhere.
I don't remember. It was one of those more general things that covered other subjects. There was just one session devoted—I think it was called "The Future of Nuclear Science," and it published a little pamphlet. I can't recall anything extraordinary about that, except that there were some Europeans present. It kind of slips my mind, which ones were there.
Bohr was there certainly, he made one of the addresses, which could not be understood or heard very well.
Yes, that's right.
There was a wire recording made of that but I've never been able to track it down. People at Princeton had it. We were speculating whether it had been preserved. It would be interesting perhaps.
Because it was used as the basis for writing the piece in that little pamphlet.
Oh, I see. Well, I never really knew about that.
But that didn't represent any significant effort in the atomic energy legislation or anything like that—there was no caucus—
No, that was much more—except insofar as people being together to kind of exchange views informally, but the program certainly was... [off tape]
...but I don't know.
Well, what about the Bikini tests? Now, the stories that are written about it—you were in Chicago for an APS meeting in your role as president.
Yes, summer meeting.
And a group had been arranged to visit Argonne, and you were at the last minute—in a public and perhaps deliberately embarrassing way—you were denied access to go along with the group; there was some problem about you, the implication was...
All that was said was that I was not cleared for the trip. And so I was yanked off the bus. Well, not yanked physically, but mean—so I left the bus and didn't go, and the rest went. And people recognized that this was some dirty pool. And so as I was getting off the bus, all the people on the bus gave me a big hand, and so on. But that in fact did happen, and it happened that I went to—having an afternoon with nothing else going on, I went just to the Quadrangle Club and sat around and read journals. And it was during that afternoon that the White House called up and asked me to go to the Bikini test.
Now, the group that I was to join, this was a kind of a belated appointment, and it was because Robert Oppenheimer had dropped out. There were about 10 or 12 people. That particular group was called the President's Evaluation Board, which was a pompous sounding thing. We never did anything, except go and see it and enjoy ourselves. There was another top-level military evaluation board that was sort of in parallel. The group that I was on, the President's Evaluation Board, the chairman of it was Senator Carl Hatch who was famous for the Hatch Act about civil servants and politics. And it included Senator Saltonstall, and, I can't remember, there were a dozen of us, ten or twelve. And we didn't really have anything to do. We were treated royally. A lot of the scientific stuff was on a Navy hospital ship that had been converted for this use, so we each of us had a cabin in the nurses' quarters. No nurses were there. Senator Hatch had the cabin of the chief nurse. But then there were a lot of scientific guys like Rudolph Langer and all, who were—that's kind of the place where they serviced and calibrated and got organized. There was a vast amount of Geiger counter equipment that they had, and telemetering equipment. But we didn't have anything to do. Actually, because I got appointed later as a substitute for Oppenheimer, the others had preceded me by about a week in getting out there. I flew out and got there just the afternoon of the day before the first test.
Well, General Joe Stillwell was one of that group, Vinegar Joe, as they called him. He was a very nice fellow. We got to like each other. Spent a lot of time together. Roger Revelle—well, he was not a member of those boards; he was a real working guy. He was at that time head of Scripps Oceanography Institute, and he was concerned with some phases about the water, the effect of the bomb on the water pollution and so on. At any rate, it was a nice group. The ship was the HAVEN.It later sank in just an ordinary civilian accident off Golden Gate somewhere, some years later. But we certainly had a pleasant time, and it was a great thing for me, because when I went to the first test -I started to say it was a great thing for me because I'd been working so hard that it was really like a vacation. I had no duties, except to just look at the two tests and walk around a little bit, and they had an officers' club on the lagoon. Gamow invented the triple Scotch and soda, which cost 45 cents at Navy commissary prices.
Was there much room for soda by the time you...
Not much. We'd go over in an official launch from our ship, over to the club in the afternoon, and have a nice swim and sun ourselves on the beach and have a drink or two, then come back and have dinner. But this was between the tests. There was almost a month I believe between the tests. And it was very pleasant. Actually, the Navy was so conservative, I think it was almost 20 miles that they put the ship out to sea before the first test, so all you saw was a little dinky mushroom cloud on the distant horizon. It was nothing. And there was quite a blast of the shock wave, of the sound, when it came later. But I remember the newspapermen all looking disappointed and saying, "Is that it? Is that all? Did it go off?" and "Was it a dud?" and all that.
So the actual seeing of the test, in that sense, was nothing very sensational. However, then as soon as it was over, the ship steamed back to the Lagoon, and then you could see all kinds of damage and ships sunk and ships sinking, so that it was a very impressive sight as to the damage that had been done. But then various of us, equipped with Geiger counters, would walk around and explore the decks of various ships that weren't sunk. I remember—of course it's characteristic of the military that everybody, when some big show is going on, everybody wants to get into the act, whether he's got any real function there or not, and on these ships—well, in the first place, a ship that was close was sunk. A ship that was far was maybe scorched, the paint a little bit, so that wasn't much. But in between you had varying amounts of damage, and fire that were started and things.
But the Quartermaster Corps wanted to be in the act, and on the decks of these ships they had great big cartons of quatermaster's stuff strapped to the deck with steel strapping, you know, to find the effect of atomic radiation on this, that and the other thing, and I was walking around with Joe Stillwell—he of course being a big shot himself, was less inhibited than I would have been about monkeying with the stuff. He pulled out a big jack knife and said, "I wonder what the hell's in here?" and tried to open one of these cartons that was just crushed a little bit. It was full of long woolen underwear. Effects of atomic radiation on long woolen underwear.
So then he slashed open another one, and this one, so help me, was filled with those marvelously expensive red morocco leather boxing gloves—effect of atomic radiation on red morocco leather boxing gloves. So he'd been an old hand at battle scenes of the military. He said, "These are pretty nice. I'm going to take some home to my grandchildren." So he strung about three or four pairs on his swagger stick and took them along with him. So then we all got together and sent Truman a message, but it didn't—and it was sent in the highest codes and things, but all it said was, the test went off and it was quite a nice test. You see, that was more of a political group. I suppose, I never saw their report, but that parallel military mission must have summarized it all and gathered up a lot of military records of detailed damage.
here was another piece of nonsense that went with that. Actually, our side, the Americans, had a real elaborate bunch of acoustics and seismic instruments scattered all around the atoll and connected with wires to a central recording place, to measure the explosive damage. And the whole damn thing didn't work, somehow or other. There was a power failure and so we got nothing. But William Penny, who is now Lord Penny, big shot in the British atomic energy, he had done something that I think produced the only data they really got on explosive effect, and it's amusing, because his concept was to, just all over the places where you wanted a pressure way of measurement, to spread hundreds of beer cans, and then the thing would crumple them. Then as a quick measure of the compressiveness of the can, you would fill it with water and weigh it. Of course that sort of indicated—you know, the volume of a partially smashed can. And there were hundreds of them and a lot of statistical treatment, and then they could take these beer cans and calibrate them on an ordinary proving ground with artillery up much closer, and that was what the main dope was. Of course that was kind of a shameful story on the Americans, and so it was never published.
In fact, there was very little publicity. There was a big self-serving Chamber of Commerce sort of a document called "Bombs at Bikini" that the Navy put out, and it's full of mushroom cloud pictures. Then after that—well, a lot of big shots of the President's Commission, there was about a month as I say between tests. There was a lot of work for the guys that were working. They had to fit in—their water test had to be arranged and set up, and all that stuff tested and so forth. But we didn't have anything to do. So they sort of scattered various—of course, there was military plane service running in the Pacific at that time, and various people went various places, some to Australia and New Zealand, just on sight-seeing trips, and came back. I thought I wouldn't go for a while, but—and neither did Carl Hatch—but we both got kind of bored, being alone pretty much, so we at the last minute went over to Guam and up to Saipan, just on a sight-seeing trip, and then came back for the second test.
Now, the second test was a good deal more spectacular sight. It's the one that you see those pictures of, with a big column of water rushing up and the ship sort of standing on end on the column. Partly it was more spectacular because now the Navy wasn't as conservative and we were considerably closer. I don't remember the distance. And partly I think it was because the nature of the radioactive contamination was quite different, because this great column of water got radioactive and fell all over the ships, and in the tropical sun it dried, and so it was all encrusted everywhere with radioactivity, and so there was less walking around just on deck. It wasn't safe to do.
Then they started a big program of experimentally trying to swab the decks with special kinds of detergents and soapy solutions, and sailors to push it, just to see how encrusted this was. Those ships were later towed up mostly, the ones that didn't sink, to that Navy Radiological Laboratory at Hunter's Point, San Francisco Bay, and studied there. But very little of that stuff has been published and very little did I ever see, because you see, this was the summer of '46, and well, at any rate, I didn't have any great interest in it and I didn't see it, so that's about all I know.
There were a lot of silly incidents—one in particular I remember. You see, we'd been up there about a month, one way and another, and this big shot commission, instead of coming back from Bikini—Enewetok was the sort of airport terminal, airport landing place of the Pacific military air service, where we would take the plane back to Honolulu and home, so we had to get about 200 miles from Bikini south to Enewetok, and so we were guests of the Navy and rode on a destroyer, and they put on some demonstrations, dropping ash cans of explosives off the end of the destroyer and having fun that way. I went to—we all were guests then of the naval officer who was governor of the Marshall Islands. I don t remember his name but he was a commodore. It's a kind of an uncommon rank in the Navy nowadays. And he had a very nice beach home, nice wife, Filipino servants. We were having drinks, when all of a sudden an Air Force colonel came and saluted Carl Hatch and said, "The pictures are ready, sir." God, if there was anything we didn't want to see, it was any more pictures. See, the Navy had had its own photographic units on some of the ships at Bikini, and so as soon as the tests were over they were showing us pictures and movies like mad that they had taken, so we were sick to the gills of all that crap about mushroom clouds. But the Air Force's photographic service was based on Enewetok, and so this guy wanted to show us, we thought, their pictures. I remember being very annoyed. So, although it was a hell of a hot tropical day and here we were having a wonderful time drinking drinks served by the Filipino mess boy, by the beach at Enewetok, we felt duty called and so we loaded in jeeps and went to a quonset hut to see their pictures, we thought. And lo and behold, it turned out that this colonel was an absolute nut. What he had, instead of pictures of the test, he had a whole lot of religious movies he wanted to show us, saying that now we were about to go home, we ought to see what life at home was like, and they were things about youths being careless and bumping into old ladies on the sidewalk—until finally some of them found Christ and then they didn't bump into the old ladies any more. My God, it was roasting hot in there. It was Stillwell and Karl Compton and Hatch, all sweating it out. I stood it a little while and then got up and went out and sat under a cocoanut palm. This guy when was over came out and said he was sorry I couldn't stay, and I said, "Look, man, if you were under my command you'd be busted so God damn fast it wouldn't be funny." He retained his composure and said, "Sorry, Sir, and all that. Let's see-
Then essentially you were there sort of to represent some official evaluation group, and you weren't aware of what the evaluation was. It was just personal evaluation?
Yes. We were just supposed to just sort of report.It was just sort of showmanship. It was reporting to Truman personally. But we didn't do anything except tell him that the bombs went off, and about what I've told you here. We went and called on him. Oh, there's an incident that perhaps is worth mentioning. You see, this Bikini had several hundred natives on it, and the Navy had evacuated them to a similar sort of place some distance away, so one time between tests, we went over there by plane, the President commission plus a few others, Navy officials. Admiral Blandy was the commanding officer of the entire operation. To visit the natives and see how they were and so on. That was rather interesting. They were—it was sort of a fishing economy. They had been moved over there, and the Navy, whereas normally they sort of build their thatched huts right on sand, the Navy had built some heavy planking platforms to put their thatched huts on, and that was interesting. You could look in. I remember looking in their chapel where you could see things of our ordinary Protestant Christian art, but also spades, diamonds, hearts and clubs, so apparently they had kind of amalgamated playing cards with Christianity. They were nice enough people. Of course they didn't speak, but— then we had a meeting and Admiral Blandy made a speech. This commodore who was the governor of the Marshall Islands (sorry I can't remember his name) I had the greatest respect for him because he was a really constructive social worker type, he had already established a school at Einewetok for training nurses in elementary nursing, and was trying to do things to improve the health of the natives, and other schools too. You know, he wouldn't have needed to do it. He could have sat there doing nothing. But he was a very nice fellow, and he had learned their language, so he acted as interpreter. It was a very pleasant thing. So that was about the end of that trip.
Well, it seems that about this time, you had to get back to the National Bureau of Standards on a more direct basis.
Yes, I did. See, coming back from that, I had—in the meantime, while we were out there is when the bill went through the House, and I had no more to do. I was still on friendly terms with McMahon and checked with him once in a while, but I mean, it wasn't taking my time and energy. So it wasn't you might say till a year later after I became Director and was really putting in regular hours in my own office and facing up to problems and studying them and things of that sort. So that went on in the fall of '46 and spring of '47, and from then on.
Let's talk about the problems as you saw them. It seems one category that you mentioned would be the reconversion from war work. And also the changing role of the Bureau because of the changing role of science in general in the country and its relations to government as a result of the war. I know several things that were introduced during your regime there, and we should get into them, about the graduate instruction program and the branches that came up later, the work on-
Have you seen that book that was sort of an official history of the Bureau that was written—Measures for Progress?
Yes, it's been a long time. I was trying to find it just before this trip and I couldn't. It's in the library but someone has it, so it's been a while. But I wanted to talk to you first about the way you viewed the situation, what kind of an opportunity. Here you had been in the academic business. You had been head of an industrial research laboratory. Then you had the wartime experience. Now this was something new. It was a government agency and at that time, the only one specifically charged with scientific research, although the Department of Agriculture I'm sure had its...
Yes, it was the only one on the physical sciences, but it was beginning to have its rivals. You see, especially the big Navy lab at Anacostia, and they also had built up a wartime lab that was at the Naval Gun Factory that became the Naval Ordnance Laboratory out at White Oak, near the University of Maryland. And then of course the AEC had its own labs that it inherited from the war project. So you might say that from the point of view of trying to make something out of the Bureau, its whole relationship to the government began to shift enormously just because it wasn't able to grow fast enough and because of the skills of the bureaucrats that were trying to have labs of their own. One way or another, a bunch of rival labs that actually were more generously supported than the Bureau. See, there's always a faction in Congress that never—the Bureau sort of suffered from that name. People thought of it as nothing but the custodian of weights and measures—even though they learned otherwise, they—there are many of those who don't want bureaus to expand too much, who took that approach.
I did a lot of snorting around trying to get very early a reactor for the Bureau, so we could do better radioactivity measurements, neutron measurements and so on, but I never had much success at it. A little, but not nearly as much as I'd hoped for.
On this subject of people's misconceptions about the Bureau, what it does—once at a cocktail party in Washington soon after I went there, I met a young Navy wife who had had an office job in Washington during the war, while her husband was in the South Pacific, and she drove every day down Connecticut Avenue to her job in downtown Washington, right past the Bureau. So the situation developed that when her husband came back, she was the person who was knowledgeable about Washington. He was the newcomer. Both of them were from somewhere else. So one day when they were driving by the Bureau of Standards, he said to her, "What is that place?" And she was ashamed to admit that she didn't have the slightest idea, except from the sign. She said, "Oh, that's the National Bureau of Standards." Whereupon the husband says, "What do they do?" She says quick as a flash, "That's where they candle eggs for the government." She knew it was some kind of a quality control thing.
Of course there were a lot of things that were not nearly as much in the forefront of real science that occupied a good deal of my time. There was an ex officio job being chairman of the Federal Specifications Board that wrote up all of the specs for purchases of paper and paint and God knows what-all that the government uses. See, there's nothing that you can think of, I don't think, of which the government isn't the biggest purchaser—toilet paper, paint, everything. There's so much federal stuff. And of course things like automobile tires and cars. And since they're very much committed to the idea of formal competitive bidding, you have to have definite specifications on what people are supposed to supply. Otherwise it doesn't make any sense to compete, if one guy provides you with one thing and another with another. So that took up—that had a big structure of about 100 technical committees on different things, and there were other things like that that are not as close to real science, but represent the old traditional functions of the Bureau. But they took a lot of my time. Then there's another thing, they had—at that time, you see, that was before NASA had been founded, and the predecessor agency that dated from World War I was called National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NACA, and that ran a big program, and the director of the Bureau was ex officio one of those guys, and that took about a day a month for a board meeting of the committee. So it was a busy life.
When you came there, did you have any expectations regarding what new lines of research you might be able to introduce, and what function the Bureau should play in the postwar period?
Yes. Mostly of course nuclear physics. I thought we could play a bigger role than we were ever allowed to. And we did play some role. There was a big X-ray lab there, and the setting of standards for radiation dosage and the technical work back of that, we did a good deal of. And also cryogenics. We built that up quite a bit. No, it all happened so suddenly about coming there that I hadn't had much chance to think about it.
How successful were you on the nuclear physics side? You say you wanted a reactor but you couldn't get it. This was because the AEC wanted this in its own domain?
Yes, that kind of thing, and there were all kinds of excuses about lack of money and what not, but it was quite evident that the big labs like Oak Ridge, Brookhaven and Argonne were going to do everything in their power to keep hold of that, and they were directly under the AEC guys who had to decide, so that they weren't giving anything away at that time.
What about accelerators for example? Did you try to get any?
Not immediately. Later we bought one of those big General Electric betatrons for high energy, it went up to 100 MEV, and good work has been done with it. Of course, partly we were hemmed in there. At that time nobody thought of putting the Bureau anywhere except that place on Connecticut Avenue and that was pretty full, and some of these things that might be said to be slightly hazardous, they didn't want in the city. There were various things like that. Then, that's kind of emphasized, perhaps over-emphasized, in the...
Yes, that's his name, Measures for Progress. John Rooney, who's a very nasty conservative Brooklyn Democrat, he was head of our appropriations group. The biggest thing I guess—but there again, that just sort of fell into our lap as a continuation, and one of these things that represented a sort of an uneasy compromise between the three military services was the Central Radio Propagation Laboratory. You see, the whole game of predicting conditions for radio transmission over long distances, bouncing off the ionosphere and studying solar-terrestrial relations to find out how the ionosphere was changing, all that was—had sort of just got started. It was a sort of thing, a joint utility, to Army, Navy and Air Force, so instead of their going separate ways and having each their own radio propagation study, they centralized that at the Bureau and that became a rather big component of the activity that added extra amounts to the budget.
How did that relate to the work going on at the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism?
Well, it just Flappers that DTM had kind of gone nuclear, and even biological, and the old traditional line of terrestrial magnetism had sort of—wasn't followed up in a big way. Of course, actually the whole first discovery of the ionosphere, the experimental discovery as contrasted with theoretical hypothesis was Breit and Tuve, when Tuve was a big shot at DTM and Breit worked there too. And that was trivial stuff in the sense of just sort of taking a sailboat out and having just a little low powered thing that sent small signals up and just barely got them back. That was considerably before the war.
1925 I think.
Yes. So there wasn't much continuity. See, the old days of really studying compass variations and having a ship that went around—there was a director named L. A. Bauer. He was about retired by that time. So actually DTM is a sort of a misnomer now. It hasn't been—I don't think it's done anything to speak of in terrestrial magnetism for years and years. I think Tuve and Hafsted had gotten into that as early as about '35 and built a very good Van de Graaff machine for those days, and that's what provided the proton-proton scattering that Breit and I wrote a paper about from Princeton in '37. But no, they weren't in—in wartime you see they had gone into the proximity fuse business. Now, there were two types of proximity fuses, and so there were two major labs that developed them. Tuve's group at DTM did the ones for the Navy, which were for use in rotating projectiles, and meant two things. One is that they had to be sturdy enough that even though the thing was spinning like hell, the mechanism of the fuse wouldn't be distorted. But also that provided the power supply. They were on a weight that tended to go out under centrifugal force and that made the generation and operated the fuse. Then the Bureau had built up a group more under Army jurisdiction, and that was for bombs that were just sort of dropped and not spinning. So they had a lot in common, but—things about miniaturization—but they were separate. And that's why it's hard for me to remember precisely because, as everybody knows, truly immediately after the war, the first year or two, there was a very great demobilization and cutting back on military things. Then they started to build up again, especially by the Korean War.
How did this affect the recruitment pattern? When you came in, you brought in a few Westinghouse people with you?
Yes, I brought in—the principal one was Johnny Hipple who was a mass spectrograph man. We started to do some good precision mass spectrograph work. He stayed there till maybe about a year after I left, and then became Dean of the School of Mineral Industries at Penn State. Now, he's Director of Research for North American Phillips, and is in New York City somewhere.
Did you have difficulty in recruiting people?
I don't recall that it was so difficult. We didn't have money to get very many. Fano came about that time and was a great addition to the strength of theoretical atomic physics. Who else? On the other hand, there were—it just happened—see, the Bureau was founded in '01 and just sort of grew from then on, slowly but steadily, so a number of the division chiefs were quite elderly. So there was quite a turnover of such positions just in the first couple of years I was there. And—but mostly that was kind of promotion from within. Of course—see, Larry Taylor was head of radiation physics, and he got Bill Koch there from Illinois. Koch ran the big 100 million volt betatron for a while and got it installed and things of that sort.
Well, another one who came in the early period was Plyler.
Yes. Somebody else recruited him.I liked him very much but I don't recall that I had much to do with bringing him there. Of course, the other thing that we did that was postwar expansion, or new functions, was the computer business, both ways. John Curtis was a young mathematician who had been in the Navy during the war. And he was interested in computational mathematics as such. And there was another group headed by Sam Alexander—you see, this was before there was any computer industry at all—Sam Alexander put together (who had been with the proximity fuse business)—he and a dozen or so guys were making—made a computer. That's the famous SEAC it was called—Standard Eastern Automatic Computer. And it was good for its time and did a lot of useful things. Then we had—of course; the Census Bureau bought a computer. I guess it was the very first Univac from Remington Rand. But since there was nobody in the Census Bureau that had any technical background, they sort of had us monitor the contract from a technical point of view and make sure that the computer was really working. We could have done a great deal more with that if we'd had the support, but by that time various industries, especially IBM, were going like mad with it, so—there was always a big computer group at the Bureau, of course, just like everywhere else, but I don't think there's any activity in the making of computers or even computer components.
Well, something like that requires a little money. Everything requires money of course in the budget, but any new thing seems to have been somewhat difficult.
It was difficult.
Who did you have to deal with mostly in terms of getting funds?
Well, you see, the Bureau gets money two ways. Actually it gets more from military transfers or it did in those days than it ever got from Congress, because Rooney was a tough guy and it's always been a small thing. I guess we got in those days about five or six million a year from Congress. Maybe it got up as high as eight or so. But when I left the Bureau to go to Corning, and we were spending at the rate of about 60 million, and the rest was DOD money, practically all. There was some AEC and even some token money from other things. But the only money that really did anything like computers or anything that was novel—there were little things. We made a money counting device for the Treasury Department. See, the worn out bills that are dirty and stinky and very flabby are turned in by banks, and they used to have about 100 Negro girls that sat in a big room and just verified that there were 100 bills in each package. And of course they had a hell of a labor turnover. The girls got tired and didn't do much and so on. So we made a thing where a bundle was put on a spindle, and that turned them out and then a photo counter would count the number of bills—service jobs like that. They were development jobs that anybody could do, but we did them. Generally speaking industry didn't want that kind of thing because there was no market for it, except a few of the machines and so on.
How would you justify specific basic research within the role of the Bureau? How did those issues come up during your time there?
Well, it was mostly kind of hidden. We didn't talk about it, we just did it. See, the money wasn't appropriated right down to this and that and the other thing, as exactly that. You got sums for various fields of work, like electricity and mechanics and so on, and if the director was so inclined, he might squirrel some away. That's about the way it was.
There was never any need then to make the argument that basic research was providing support for something else you were doing, or ultimately had some payoff?
Well, we would try from time to time. It may be my own negativism on it, is why I wasn't better atI don't know, but you see, here was the appropriations committee with Rooney acting gruff as hell and three or four other guys that were sitting there mostly asleep. And it was just a waste of time to think you were reaching them with any kind of a rational argument.
Do you recall any specific fights with them on the issues?
Oh, yes. Some of that stuff is told in Cochran's book. There are anecdotes. See, what happens is, the appropriations committee holds hearings, and you don't know till later, when they mark up the bill, if you've got it. So often they just quietly slit your throat without saying anything. You know. And you do have an opportunity to make another presentation to the Senate, trying to get more, and sometimes that yields a little bit. Of course, it used to be aggravating, you see. Naturally a person who's director of a bureau reads the hearings of other bureaus to see if he can get some tips on how to do his job better. But this same Rooney that was so nasty to us, that subcommittee had State, Commerce, Justice and the Judiciary. I remember one time reading the last year's hearings of the FBI, and it started off by Rooney saying, "Well, Mr. Hoover, see you're asking for 85 million dollars. You're sure that's enough, Mr. Hoover?" 85 million bucks was more than Congress had appropriated for the Bureau of Standards in its entire history. So that gives you some idea of the disparity. But, so it goes. Say, I think we'll have to.... [Interruption]
We're resuming after a lunch break. So we started to talk about the first involvement with J. Parnell Thomas and the House Un-American Activities Committee.
Yes. Well, I was just starting to think about it a little bit. That committee was chaired by Martin Dies before Parnell Thomas, and—let's see, that was the 80th Congress, wasn't it, anyway 79 or 80. Well, as we've alluded to in other respects, like Truman getting rid of Wallace and the whole cold war idea was sort of shaping up, and there were people trying to cash in on Red-baiting hysteria and help eliminate anybody that was temperate about the cold war and who wanted to get along with Russia, and portray all that as treason. Same sort of treason that Nixon is engaged in right now, for improving relations with Russia and China.
So that was beginning to take hold, and it took hold in various forms, people being fired. Now, actually the Un-American Activities Committee started with some State Department people. There were about half a dozen that they persecuted and State Department I believe dropped them all in a cowardly way. And that happened about the spring of '47. The first inkling I had that they were going to be nasty to me occurred in the summer of '47, when, you know, Congressmen write articles for magazines or probably have them ghost written and take the profits—the old Liberty Magazine had an article about how they were going to put a stop to this business of publication of patents, because that meant that the Russians got all our secrets and so on, and somehow I was worked into that for two or three paragraphs, even though I had nothing to do with patents and so on, but I was supposed to be pro-Russian. You see, of course there are all kinds of political dishonest or stupid distortions. I had frequently said that we couldn't have an atomic bomb monopoly very long, because anybody could do it that was well trained in physics. A lot of people then distort such a statement into, as if you're wishing they wouldn't have a monopoly, as if you're predicting that which you hope will happen, rather than what you're convinced will happen irrespective of hopes. So there were cracks made about that.
Then there was another similar sort of journalistic newsstand magazine article, in the American Magazine, and both of them said flatly that the Un-American Activities Committee was going to investigate me, among other activities.
This was the first I'd ever had any inkling of that kind of thing coming up, and in fact I'd never met or spoken to any member of the committee prior to that, so I just had no hint of it. But just prior to that, as I say, they had cost the jobs of several State Department people, and the firm of Arnold, Fortas and Porter had represented those people, and in fact, they felt so indignant about all of this Red-baiting kind of dirty pool that I think in regard to those people, they represented them without fees. At any rate, they helped me a great deal with no fee whatever. I've been very fortunate that way, in that although a lot of people lost jobs and were without any income and tried to fight legally and then had to pay lawyers, I never had to pay anything.
So, now it was about that time, see, as a sort of a backfire to this Red-baiting sort of stuff that was coming up in Congress—that after all, there might be something to it, that some people in the government service were disloyal or some hidden stuff—that Truman set up what was called his loyalty program, with a provision for having formal charges given to the accused person and then a hearing before a small board and a determination. Now, I'd like to just say that I've always felt that though in operation the thing was abused, and a lot of evil things were done, I think what Truman did was absolutely right, because in the absence of that, these accusations were made sort of behind the scene and it was just sort of up to the head of each agency to make a determination as to whether he believed that such and such an employee ought to be fired or not, and often this was done without really laying open the facts. Anyway it was just one man's judgment and so on.
All right, in the fall of '47, those two articles having appeared, the first thing I did was to write a letter to Parnell Thomas, with copies to each member of the Committee. Oh yes, about that same time also, there was evidently an organized campaign. There was—God, I've forgotten his name now, I hope he's burning in hell—anyway, a reporter for the old Washington Times Herald, which was a kind of a sensation paper and extreme rightists—it had the same management pretty much as the Chicago Tribune— they had a big front page article about all of the horrible things. See, when you're crazy you can make anything sound horrible. Like for example they made a whole paragraph out of the fact that my wife was a Czech. Well, she was a Chicago-born Czech and I think there are thousands of them in this country, probably more of them than there are Japanese. So if you're going to make an issue out of that—but this was, you see—well, it was all that sort of stuff.
Hadn't you had contact with Parnell Thomas in Congress when the debates on the McMahon
He wasn't on that committee and didn't show any interest.I don't think there was. It's conceivable. It certainly was very minor if I had.
You did have some trouble—you told the story in this autobiography about McMahon being visited, security men or FBI men, in his office. He was walking out and they tried to warn him away from you.
Yes, well, I think those were more military characters, some of those. But I never knew for sure just who they were. If I've said it as being that, at that time, I'd better correct that.
I'll have to check it out. "Two colonels came out and told me, 'Those two fellows are from the Manhattan District, and they've been telling me to lay off you because..'" and so forth.
Now, as to the motivations, you see, as to how this came about—in the first place, you had a general atmosphere where guys who wanted to build a political reputation on their astuteness in this game, sort of like Richard Nixon, they didn't give a damn who they hit. They just wanted to hit somebody. They weren't personally involved. Just because it was fashionable and it made a good political play. Then, I've always felt that some of those older establishment guys didn't welcome Wallace's choice of me as Director of the Bureau of Standards. Partly their noses were bent because you see they were members of a statutory advisory committee on the Bureau of Standards. Wallace had his nose a little bent too. I didn't find out all this till months later, as you often do, but it had always been the custom for the Secretary of Commerce to consult that advisory committee of distinguished scientists or big shots—industrialists mostly—on the choice of a director, and he had consulted them, but several months had gone by and they hadn't said a damn word to him. In any case they were sort of conservative businessmen types who looked down their nose at Henry Wallace, an extreme left wing New Dealer. So I think they were a little sore at each other, sore at Wallace's choice, in addition to that sore at Wallace having gone ahead and made a choice before they spoke up.
This would be Vannevar Bush and Karl Compton in particular.
Yes, and I've forgotten, I think W. D. Coolidge...
He was from GE.
There were five altogether. I don't remember—Vannevar Bush never welcomes me to Washington, or acted as if he knew I existed, practically. Of course, he was a very busy man, but on the other hand, if I'm not mistaken, he was chairman of that board. Then there's an old industrial engineer from Philadelphia whose name I've forgotten. But these fellows had sort of, not major politics, axes to grind. One axe that they ground—you see, they had a private group called the American Standards Association that was also engaged in drawing up specifications for manufactured commodities and things, and they seemed to think the government ought to delegate all that to that group, both pay them to do it and also thereby they could make their industry representations the way they wanted them and get no argument from government people. Whereas the old line Bureau people felt that they were really protecting the public treasury by doing this. Writing these specs. Of course later they established the General Services Administration, but they had the most elaborate specs by which the competitive bidding was done. It was done on a formal basis. Actually, the whole thing was a farce because there was damn near no police work as to whether the material submitted really conformed to the specs so carefully written, and a hell of a lot of money got wasted, remember, there was one instance where, oh, some big new veterans' hospital where the paint alone of the whole damn hospital, inside and out, cost several hundred thousand dollars. And it was a gyp. It just started peeling and falling off the walls in a very short time after it had been applied. Not only the cost of the paint was wasted but the labor of putting it on. Then they had the labor of scraping it off.
So you think that...
Well, I don't think—it's hard for me to know. I guess those fellows had—at any rate, they were not supporters of my side in any quarrel., I never got any even sympathetic comments from them. I don't mean that they—there was a formal politeness, if you met in the Cosmos Club, why, you'd smile and exchange a few pleasantries, but it was of no help.
So at any rate, after those two articles, there were sort of three things in the fall of '47. By that time, I sat down and wrote to Parnell Thomas saying, "There's no need to subpoena me, I'll be glad to come and tell you anything I know, any time you want to set up a meeting, formally or informally." And by this time I'd heard from various people that he was a dirty bastard anyway, so just as extra protection I sent carbon copies of that to every member of the committee, and I got no reply from any of them except a very perfunctory one from Karl Mundt, who is now dead, but at that time he was a Congressman from one of the Dakotas and on the committee. But that was nothing other than, he knew of no plan to do anything and he would be in touch with me if there were—you know, that sort of thing. Parnell Thomas didn't reply at all.
But about that time Truman had set up the loyalty oath business—the loyalty hearings—and since it looked as though the Un-Americans were just going to continue fighting by making nasty press releases—sort of hit and run, never do anything—I got worried about it and thought...well, I was really innocent in those days. I thought—it just never occurred to me that they were really (I'm not sure they were) really out to get me, as me. They had dope on me that they didn't like. I'm sure it was part of the general Republican crookedness of trying to portray Truman as soft on Communism, and therefore he was careless about who he appoints and so on and so on. And I just fall by the wayside as an example of the aforesaid carelessness.
I remember, at that time, Averell Harriman was Secretary of Commerce, and I went down and told him, reviewed for him what had happened about these magazine articles and writing to the committee and getting no answer, etc., and provided him with this interpretation of mine, that I was sure that this was sort of getting ready for the '48 campaign.
Let's see, this by now was late fall of '47, might even have been January of '48, I've forgotten. At any rate, what I wanted Harriman to do was to hold a loyalty hearing under Truman's order in the Department of Commerce. He pooh-poohed the whole business and thought I was unduly nervous about it and so on. Finally in the manner of the man who was sort of humoring a guy, he agreed to do it. They hadn't set up this machinery in the Department of Commerce anyway, so they had to appoint a loyalty board and work out some procedures, under the general executive order. So that was the first hearing that was held in the Department of Commerce.
At that time the solicitor of the Department of Commerce was Adrian Fisher, who is now dean of the Georgetown Law School but at that time was counselor to or solicitor of the Department of Commerce. Very nice fellow. As a matter of fact, he was a Princeton undergraduate when I was on the faculty. I don't think he took any courses from me, but he was a math major, which is kind of unusual for a lawyer. Anyway, so such a hearing was held, but it was a little on the perfunctory side. I don't mean that there wasn't anything to cover that wasn't covered, but it wasn't very tense or asking hard questions like a cross-examining district attorney.
Did they have allegations or files?
Yes. I've got the transcript of that somewhere.
It would be interesting to see.
I had three of those all together. Well, that's stepping ahead. That must have been about the last month of '47. At any rate, the big, first, public, direct out and out attack, formal attack, by the Un-American Committee was on my birthday, March 2 of '48, and so careless was the loyalty board of the Department of Commerce about this hearing that they hadn't actually sat down and determined the verdict and entered it in the record. So here was this hearing that had just ended, and everybody had gone about his affairs and so on. When I was attacked, those guys hastily got together and rendered a verdict that I was OK, and pre-dated it by about a month, so's to look as though it had been done at the time. It wasn't. It wasn't done until— And the Un-American people, I think they had sort of faulty intelligence sources within government, I think they sort of found out somehow that that had happened, but they didn't have it for sure, and they kind of growled and hinted about exposing that as having happened, but they never did.
I have a date here of February 24, of the date of the Commerce Committee decision. Then their date was March 2nd. In other words, you're saying, some time after March 2nd...
About the 3rd or 4th, they wrote something up and dated February 24. They didn't have the nerve to date it too far back. Unless they could pretend that—I don't know, do you have the date of the hearings?
This is from notes.
The date of the hearings must have been a couple of months earlier. So it was an open and shut case that these guys were—and they sort of participated in Harriman's attitude. Harriman thought it was a lot of crap and regarded it as an exercise that had to be done, partly for my morale, but didn't really think of it as important, and in a larger sense it wasn't. Anyway, —
So the House committee never had any real hearings on you.
No. Now ensued a period that lasted all through spring and summer of—I should say that—well, let me give a little picture of the exact way, because there was a lot of phony melodrama about it. Parnell Thomas had ulcers and was in the Walter Reed Hospital on March 1st, guess, because it was released to the press for March 2nd, and called a press conference at his bedside and handed out this report at his bedside at Walter Reed, as though this guy with bleeding ulcers was saving the nation from this horrible guy. Everything possible in a cheap melodramatic way was done to make it sound ultra-ultra. And the crudest and most disgraceful kind of behavior—for example, the first I knew about it was all of a sudden about 4:30 p.m. on March 1 the phones at the Bureau were just saturated with press calls wanting comment. I didn't even know what I was supposed to comment on. And so we called up the committee's office. It was getting close to 5 but it wasn't 5 yet. To ask for a copy of the statement for ourselves, and offered to send a guy down by car and get it at the House, and the guy says, "The office is closed. We can't give it to you till tomorrow." So I was in the role of having to comment on something that hadn't even seen, when all I knew was what the reporters told me. Then that was when the famous phrase "one of the weakest links in our atomic security" was coined. That was the press release. I put out a canned comment that I said; I hoped it was true because if it was true, then nobody had anything to worry about.
You were "the weakest link."
Yes. Because I'm strong enough myself and others are still stronger. That was all right as a quip, but- Well, so that occurred. Now, actually I had a very good friend from early days in this business, Chet Hollifield, who's had a long history of being chairman of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy at various times in the postwar period, but was then just a Congressman just starting to be interested in the subject. And he offered to be helpful by giving a speech defending me on the floor of the House, which he did, in a few days. That speech was largely written by Hugh Odishaw, who was my personal assistant then, and that was a big resounding attack and criticism, paragraph by paragraph, of the foolishness of their allegations and a ringing defense of Condon and so on. Then, there were things like coming out dramatically with the press, even with cameras, to my house one evening to serve a subpoena on me for hearings—ridiculous dramas, because in the executive branch unless there's some real fight on, like Nixon trying to conceal these (Watergate) tapes or something, ordinarily they just call up. They even ask you, what would be a convenient time for you to work out a hearing? But no, this was part of their showmanship.
So I was subpoenaed. But now, you know the way the press operates on a story that kind of continues and recurs. They, every time they reprint it they have to tell it all over again so the readers will know what they're talking about. So what now ensued, all through the whole spring of '48, they just postponed the hearing for a couple of weeks, and every time the papers carried a notice that it was postponed, they'd put it in again about Dr. Condon who was called the weakest link in our security chain. So they got a hell of a lot of play over and over again just on the same thing, and never did anything. Now, along about this time I remember, the AEC got nervous, because their clearance system was separate, and they suspended my clearance, but politely, saying it was necessary and they would independently of the HUAC investigate and make a determination, which they did, in a very nice public statement—said that 300 FBI guys had worked on my record and they could find nothing, etc. So that was a good vindication and got some publicity. Then that spring, a lot of my friends, especially the Chicago group and various FAS types, took the initiative. Harrison Brown was quite a guy on it. He threw a big testimonial dinner about what a fine fellow I am, at the Hotel Biltmore. See, it was getting to be a kind of cause celebre for scientists' freedom, especially in a major job in the government. So, as I say, it kind of went around indecisively like that, the whole of the spring and summer of '48, with repeated postponements, and never any reason given why, just postponements.
Then there was an incident that's worth recording as showing the asininity of the way things worked. I think the committee soon found that it didn't have anything really that it could make a very splashy hearing on, but were desperate to try to get something, so they demanded of Truman that he give my FBI file to them. And Truman rejected that on the standard grounds of separation of powers. And that was all right except that all these flathead commentators, especially the right wing kind, were writing columns about, "Well, what is Truman concealing?"— Just like Nixon and the tapes now. There may not be a damn thing on the tapes, but if Nixon won't give them up, why—But there was an amusing incident. Anyway, what tickled me though—this was Brian McMahon's first term as Senator, and prior to that he was a regular Democratic politician, he had been Assistant Attorney General on the executive branch and as such knew a lot of guys in the FBI. So right while all the papers were full of Truman's refusal to give this to the Congress, and separation of powers and Constitutional doctrine, McMahon one afternoon called up a friend in the FBI and said, "Send over the file on Condon. He was never particularly worried about Condon as such, but it might boomerang on him, the fact that he had used Condon as scientific advisor.
Well, I never saw the file, but James Newman saw it and was with him when it came over. A little man came over carrying a great big stack. And it was there on that afternoon, and they took it back. McMahon started reading it by just glancing at pages and turning them over, every once in a while, according to Newman, saying, "A lot of crap." But then finally, this is an anecdote that I think you'll find amusing—they came to a sheet—these were like individual sheets from operatives with code names like X-81—and stuff like that. And one that said, and here McMahon and Newman are looking at the file, "He is a close associate of one James R. Newman who, during the war, transmitted secret data to the Russians." Period. No details, what data? So McMahon said, "Jim, what in the hell were you doing?" Well, what had happened, Jim was in some of that operations research kind of stuff, stationed in London during the war itself, and he had one of those ideas, perfectly good operations research I guess, to gather statistics on the captured, on the serial numbers on tires and engines and things, automotive equipment, German automotive equipment that would be captured, and then try to code, figure that was coded as to which factory made it, and the factory that made the most ought to be the most important target.
But the trouble with that grand idea, we weren't capturing any German equipment at that time. Rommel was still chasing the British around North Africa, and—but the Russians were capturing a lot of stuff. On the other hand, the Russians were never chummy with us on detailed operations. Harriman by this time was ambassador to Moscow, so they had a meeting at the London embassy when John Winant was our ambassador to London, with Newman, to—with the idea that Harriman would try to get the Russians to cooperate by giving us the data. Well, of course, the plan, the whole plan was secret, so the secret data transmission to the Russians was transmitted in the first place by Harriman, not by Newman, and the whole thing— Well, nothing ever—Harriman predicted, just from other experience, that the Russians wouldn't cooperate, and they didn't. Nothing ever came of it that I know of except this entry in my file. Of course, a lot of people become victims of this same sort of thing that don't get the benefit of hearings, and you never know, because you see, take for example Jim Newman. He had worked hard on this and he was a very able guy, and think he hoped very much that Truman would put him on the commission, this group of five, but he didn't. I think they were beginning to make nasty cracks. He was probably considered dangerous because he associated with me. I was dangerous because I associated with him. But you can't prove anything and he never gets any hearing or anything because he was with an agency that was being discontinued at the end of the war, and you just hope for a job.
Nobody has the obligation of explaining why they didn't give it to you. At any rate, so Newman went into writing. He was a very talented guy, and worked for a while for the New Republic, was editor of the book review section of the Scientific American. He's one of these fellows that died in his fifties from a heart attack. Been dead about ten years, I guess.
Let's see, where were we? Yes, then the Department of Commerce by this time was taking things a little more seriously, and they realized that the first hearing that I had stimulated was somewhat superficial, not as thorough as it might have been for the purpose of making a backfire. And so they prepared a new set of charges. So I had a second Commerce hearing, that time in September of '48. That was sort of cute, because I had the hearing, and there again they delayed reaching a verdict, but not nearly as long. But in the interval, was the centennial meeting of the AAAS, which was held largely, or at least the big general sessions were in Constitution Hall in Washington, and Harlow Shapley was president of the AAAS that year, and as an old Missouri boy and admirer of Truman, he wanted Truman to address the crowd. But he never got past some political advisors. They just turned him down; they weren't going to be bothered with a bunch of Goddamn scientists and so on. And just within days before the meeting, Shapley came to me—he was in town anyway for preliminary arrangements for the meeting—and told me what a shame he thought this was, especially with Truman about to go into an election campaign, and here were some thousands of scientists from all over the country and so forth. That was the campaign when they talked about whistle stops and so on. So he said, "Isn't there anything you can do?"
Well, I'd met Truman a few times, but at that level you don't have much time with the President, but Truman had an assistant named John Steelman with whom I became pretty good friends. So we sat down, Odishaw and I, and prepared a speech for him, figuring he's more likely to make a speech if he's got it prepared than if he hasn't, and then when we came to try to take it to the White House, it turned out it was getting towards the weekend and Truman, Steelman and other cronies were on the Presidential yacht down the Potomac, but Truman's secretary was a good sport. She said that there's a mail pouch goes down on a helicopter about once an hour, "I'll put it on that for you if you want." So she did. That was a Saturday I think or maybe it was still Friday, and the speech was to be the following Monday. I put in a note to Steelman, "Tell the boss there's a damn good whistle stop right in his own backyard!" Steelman reported that Truman laughed at this quip, and decided him to give the speech for the AAAS.
At any rate, I remember writing a note to Steelman to go with this script, and this was a big attack on the Un-American Activities Committee and how badly they were doing. I'd like to get that speech but I don't have it. It must have been written up at the time.
Well, let me make a note of that. The Truman Library may in fact have it.
Yes. You see, it took the following form. We wrote a draft, and laying it on because they were beginning to talk about Truman having spunk and "Give 'em hell, Harry," that sort of thing, and the response that we got was, yes, he would do it. And it was just the following Monday, following that weekend—a very sudden shift in plans for him. And of course Shapley was delighted and made the necessary AAAS changes in their program, and then Truman had a speech writer named George Elsey who was a young naval lieutenant, whom he sent out to the Bureau to work with me—he had penciled comments on the draft, but his were all in the direction of beefing up the attack on the HUAC and giving them more hell. So then when it finally came off, I sat on the stage with other functionaries and Truman made a great point of coming over and shaking hands with me very cordially so the whole audience would see that he was friendly to me. Then, what tickled me, the third time through, when he read the speech, he departed from the text and gave the HUAC committee a little more hell! He was in fine form that night. What would be amusing is, if the library does it that completely, is to see my draft, his revised draft with Elsey and what he actually said, because it kept getting stronger and stronger.
I want to do that. Shapley himself was under attack by the House Un-American Activities Committee at that time.
Well, his was earlier. He had it under Martin Dies. But they were down on him for a long time.
The presidency of the AAAS was a kind of a vindication by the scientific community.
That's right. Then when that happened in September?
By this time Shapley was working for Henry Wallace in the Presidential campaign. That didn't seem to bother Truman?
Well, you read the dates on that, because I don't know when all this was going on.
The Progressive Party convention—I can't say, I really don't know. I was assuming it was some time in the late spring or early summer but maybe not.
Well, I don't remember that thing. Of course, I was always very friendly with Wallace. Of course you know a federal employee living in Washington doesn't vote anyway. I don't know whether I would have voted for Wallace or Truman, but I didn't vote.
You weren't involved in the Arts, Sciences and Professions group?
That's what Shapley was involved in.
Yes, that was a much denounced "left wing" thing. No, I hadn't ever been involved with that. Let's see-then about October, there was a meeting in Paris of the International Conference on Weights and Measures that I went to. Now you see, if you really make a comparison of dates right down to the days or certain weeks, the Un-American Committee had been postponing and postponing, thrashing around, trying to get that FBI file and hoping to do something, but just about this time they discovered Alger Hiss and went hollering after him, and I always think he sort of did me a lot of good, because thereafter that was the thing they could get the most use out of, and they must have decided that he was juicier than I was, because I didn't hear another word from them. Not anything about further postponements, just, that was the end of it. And of course you see the election was the end of that Congress, in November. I was in Paris about a week or so at this conference, and was a couple of days in London and then came back. I remember coming back on the Queen Elizabeth and I was actually on the high seas on election day, and so, you know, British ship's newspaper was pushed under my door, something about Truman leading. I saved it, a big joke to show my friends. But he really was leading as we found out, as the day wore on. That's how I got that news.
Well, so, somehow or other I hadn't given much thought—to—I thought it was quite likely, if Dewey won, that I would be bounced, although not necessarily. Again, it's a mixture of what's science and what's dirty politics, and generally speaking, the heads of these professional agencies don't change even when the party changes with a new administration, The Geological Survey and Weather Bureau guys—and my predecessors at the Bureau, all had long terms spanning different administrations. So I might be bounced or I might not, I just didn't know, but I didn't give it much thought at the time. Not much I could so about it. Then of course when Truman won, I knew I was in. Well, I might say that—oh, just another anecdote that I left out that's sort of amusing. Early in the year, January of '48, I was making a trip anyway out to the Pacific Coast, and Felix Bloch and Bill Hansen took me to lunch and wanted me to be a candidate to be Dean of the Graduate School at Stanford. They were looking for me to leave the government then. I was much attracted to it, and by sheer coincidence, the fellow who was pretty much running Stanford, number 2 man then, was this Alvin Eurich who later became a big staff man at Ford Foundation, now retired.
But by sheer coincidence we had a breakfast date to talk about this in New York on the very morning that the papers were full of my being the "weakest link." I got this dope on the afternoon of March 1, and wondered, shall I go up to New York or shall I not, or just cancel the date by phone? I finally decided to go on up, and we had breakfast together, but both of us were kind of innocent in the dirty ways-I think we both felt there was no sense talking about my coming out there under a cloud. But we also were wrong in thinking that it would be settled very promptly. We thought it was nonsense, they'd look into it, and that would be the end of it, and then we'd talk more about my coming to Stanford. But of course with them having dragged it on and on, and then about that time Eurich left Stanford, so that's the end of my Stanford career.
Was that the time when Terman came in?
Well, no, Terman was pretty important there....
He was probably provost at the time.
Provost, and this—Dean of the Graduate School—in a way Dean of the Graduate School doesn't have much power usually in most places, because the budget is largely determined by the undergraduate teaching needs and the Dean of the Graduate School can just sort of set policies. In other words, the Dean of the Graduate School doesn't have much power in building up the faculty and dictating the appointments, except as he influences the other guy. But I would have been interested in it anyway. I like California, and was feeling pretty uncertain about the way I was being treated in Washington, although at that time, nothing had happened except those early articles in Liberty and American Magazine.
Wouldn't it interfere with your ability to get the appropriations you wanted for the Bureau?
Which? Being called the "weakest link?"
Well, I think so, but it's awfully hard to pinpoint that, you know. If somebody is suspicious of you and doesn't like you, why, you kind of—he doesn't make a great big open challenge of it with a sword. He just kind of sidesteps seeing you, and is negative in what decisions he gives you, you know, treats you a little more coldly. I think it did work that way, but you can't prove it. I don't remember anything as overt ever coming out as the guys in the Appropriations Committee talking about my troubles. They have as individuals, talking in the hall, but I mean, it's not part of the record anywhere.
Now, there's a quotation from Newsweek, May 1949, which relates to one of the accusations that HUAC had mentioned about you, and the quotation is, "you have been highly critical of the older ideas in physics."
This is the Newsweek report. I don't know whether it came from your reading of the FBI file.
No, that was brought up as a question for me to comment on.
But you didn't appear before HUAC?
No, I never did while still in Washington. Anyway, I remember that very vividly. That came up in the second of those two Department of Commerce hearings. And I never did know—you know, a lot of old line Democrats are wonderful at this talking in a deadpan way and you don't know what their own attitude is, they're just talking. Whether this guy really had a twinkle in his eye and was thinking of it as a silly question—but they asked it. So I went into a stirring defense of Galileo and all that and said, "No, I'm not highly critical of what those fellows did. They were straight guys who laid the foundation of science," and so forth. It didn't take long but it was about like that.
Newsweek quoted you—of course this is your account to the Newsweek reporter who wasn't present at the hearings. This was some time later. The hearing was in the fall, the article in May. Anyway, this is what you're supposed to have said, "When I heard that, I could hardly believe my ears. However, there is one thing that one must not do with inquisitors, and that is to appear not to take them seriously. So I went into an impassioned affirmation of faith in Archimedes' principle and the general correctness of Newton's law of gravitation. It must have satisfied them."
Yes. I think that's more accurate than what I just now said. I don't remember. Of course, you see, there's another thing that's unsatisfactory in an intellectual way about these hearings. They ask you questions, and you answer them, and they sit there deadpan, and they deliberate about whether to pass you or not. So you don't have any feeling at all as to whether a thing like that helps you, or whether I'd been flippant to them and they hated me for that or anything. You just don't know.
They don't want to be put down intellectually, it's important.
So you didn't appear in this period before HUAC.
What about the relationship of colleagues in the field in this period, when there were several hearings and HUAC was trying you in the press?
Well, of course, there were an awful lot of sympathetic letters and friendliness, and the biggest tangible thing was that big testimonial dinner at the Biltmore in the spring of '43, which was rather fully reported in the papers, and that must have had some influence on these political HUAC characters.
That NEWSWEEK story must have been in connection with that dinner, spring of '48.
No, the second Commerce hearing was in the fall of '48, no, fall of '47 — it could be. But I don't know. I don't remember the NEWSWEEK thing. I don't remember talking to a NEWSWEEK man. They may have gotten it indirectly, because I was telling this anecdote to a lot of friends about that time. But I just literally don't know.
What about negative response from the scientific community? Any individuals who stayed away from you or caused you some difficulty?
Not that I'm conscious of, but of course you're not—nobody was outspokenly negative that I remember. There may have been some that were playing it cautiously, and because I didn't see them I didn't particularly notice that. I was too busy to be taking censuses of people's thinking that way.
It was pretty dormant for a while, anyway, from '48 on.
Oh, it was. And then you see, the next Congress, there was a fellow named John Woods — well, of course you don't want to have in this story what happened to Parnell Thomas. You see, Parnell Thomas was exposed by Drew Pearson as having taken petty salary kickbacks from all the girls in his office, and he was prosecuted in the federal court and served a term in Danbury Prison, federal prison, and thoroughly disgraced and out of Congress. Of course, politics being what it is, several years later Truman gave him a pardon so he could vote again and all that stuff. But he got — that juicy stuff, showing the character of that man — particularly I remember, he must have had a staff of about half a dozen girls in his own Congress office, and was collecting tribute from them every payday. But the girl who was the head of the office, who had to do this collection for him, she had to go down to the bank and deposit this to Parnell Thomas's account every payday. And I always remember, there was a particularly heartrending bit of testimony that she gave, that Parnell Thomas wouldn't even pay her taxi fare. That too came out of her pocket rather than his. And so on. So he was — that sort of showed him up for the 500 percent American that he was. And was the end of him. Now, actually, the last guy on earth that I'd want to see get a fair deal is Richard Nixon, but in that particular business, which was his first term, he didn't take any initiative particularly. But he wasn't decent, either. See, he's always had this fake pretense of being a Quaker, so several of my Quaker friends went to see him one time in the fall of '48, to try to get him to do something on my behalf. At that time, doing something would have been just saying, "Let's quit all these postponements and get it over with, hold a fair hearing" and so forth. And Nixon wouldn't do anything. I remember a friend telling me he went over and stood by the window and played with the window cord and said, "Condon's been getting a very good press lately, don't you think?" Showing that even then Nixon was only thinking in terms of public advantage and press reputation type of advantage. But he wouldn't promise to do anything and he didn't do anything, except when he tried to do something that would make his record look individually a little better — because right at the end of '48, end of that Congress, he issued a brief statement saying that he thought the committee had made some mistakes, particularly in not giving Condon a hearing. But that was designed to make him look good to one faction without losing out with the other. You know, I've never met the guy. I've never spoken to him or he to me, so I don't know anything about his charm.
Wasn't there a time later when he entered your life?
Oh yes, much later, about '54, but that's considerably later. Well, so, as I say, there was a letter exchanged I think with Woods who was Thomas's successor, Congressman from Georgia, but they were sort of bored and they didn't follow up. See, it was their tactic, so that the person who was under attack that way would not ever get a verdict. It was as if you had a big hearing in a court and the judge said nothing, after a hell of a lot of publicity of the attacks on you.
And the preparation that you'd done, too.
But well, so that was that. That was really the end of the direct interaction with the committee as such.
Was there much newspaper play beyond that?
No. No, it sort of petered out. It wasn't noted any more. And of course, there was so much other stuff about Hiss and so on. Now, there were other indirect involvements that must have irritated the committee, in that in '49, spring and summer, they began to persecute a whole bunch, I guess there must have been about ten of them, of Oppenheimer's former students at Berkeley-Bernard Peters and Frank Oppenheimer and David Bohm, Rossi Lomanitz, I don't remember all of them —
Joe Weinberg, he became Scientist X, and was much dramatized. And I used to extend hospitality to those guys and friendliness, put them up at my house. And things of that sort, help them with advice about lawyers, when they would be summoned down. Bernard Peters has a very interesting story that ought to be somewhere in the archives, just as itself, and maybe if it's nowhere else I'll put a little in about it. And also it reflects in a derogatory way on Robert Oppenheimer's character, in my view.
Let's see. Bernard Peters was a first year student, he's a German-Jewish boy from Munich, first year student at the University of Munich at the time of the very year, '32, '33, when Hitler came to power. The students were rioting around and being — and of course, if you were anti-Hitler you were pro-Communist, there was not much else to be, so he was a Communist in that sense, in Germany, in opposing Hitler, as a youngster. Very early in the game he was arrested and sent to Dachau, at a time when there was no Dachau, when they were just establishing it, so he used to have to work as a laborer digging postholes to make the fence that would hold him in and things like that.
Then — but there was some arrangement which I am sure must have involved some kind of bribery — his mother got him transferred back to the Munich city jail, and from the Munich city jail he escaped and came to this country. So then he had no means, and worked during the war — during those years, it was prewar, I should say, mid-thirties — in some business office of a German importing house in New York. His girl friend, the girl he was engaged to, came over and they were married. She went to Long Island University Medical School while Bernard worked to support them, with the agreement between them that when she got her medical degree she would support him while he got his university education.
So that happened, and then some time presumably like '38 or so, they moved out to Berkeley, because she now had her doctorate and was working for that Kaiser Permanente Health Plan in Oakland, as a staff physician. They were bright young Jewish people, and Robert was a great iconoclast, so he sort of took up the Peterses and they became close friends. He was a great one to break university rules and get away with it, so though Peters had never really had any undergraduate university work when he went to Dachau in the middle of his first year, Oppenheimer enrolled him as a graduate student. He was a brilliant fellow, so he took the graduate courses and passed the exams and did a thesis under Oppenheimer and was a PhD.
So by this time, it's about the time that the Manhattan District Project was beginning to flourish, he was given a job in the — you know — Radiation Lab, isotope separation. Oppenheimer was there for a while, because this was just a little before Los Alamos. That's where I got to know him, when I was out there. But Peters was one of that approximately ten that they began to badger. But they did a peculiar thing, the Un-Americans, in the late spring of '49. They finally got around to subpoenaing him to come for a supposedly executive session. But in the meantime he'd become appointed to the faculty at Rochester. He came all the way down to Washington, and they went through the business of assembling and rapping the gavel and asking perfunctory identification questions like what's your name and where do you live and stuff — and then dismissed him. Didn't bother with any real substantive questions, although they had preceded this with a number of newspaper articles about how they were going to show what a traitor he was. And they didn't.
Now, somewhere along the line, Peters had found out that Robert Oppenheimer had been in executive session a few days or a week earlier, and anyway he hadn't seen Robert, his old professor, for a while, so in going back to Rochester he stopped off at Princeton, and told him what had happened, and asked Robert if they had asked about him, during the time that he was there in executive session. And Robert gave him some of that fancy double talk that Robert was so famous for. He said, "Yes, they asked me about you, but God guided their questions and so I said nothing derogatory." God guided their questions! Peters was a little highstrung, of course, and a little annoyed at this, and said, "Well, what derogatory thing would you have said if God hadn't guided the questions? Nothing derogatory about me," and so on, and they had a kind of unpleasant set-to.
So, Peters went on back to Rochester, but being sort of tense about all this thing, he did something which I think was foolish, and I can say that because I've done foolish things in my life. He sat down and wrote to the chairman of the committee, who I think was Woods at this time but it doesn't matter, a letter sort of complaining about what had happened to him — "Now, see here, you've said bad things about me and I've made a trip down there and you didn't ask me anything and nothing is clarified, and I want to come down again and really do this right", instead of letting well enough alone. He should have just gone away and been thankful that it turned out the way it did. There he was in an old-fashioned way, trying to get things to make sense.
They never replied to that letter, but a few days later a Rochester paper had two or three columns in it — and that's worth trying to get into your files — of quotes of Robert Oppenheimer's testimony, where God had guided the questions, and it was all extremely anti-Peters, and you could tell it was genuine Oppenheimer because it had that goofy poetic English that he went in for. But the thing that horrified me most was, he, a Jewish boy, so soon after the six million had been cremated, and this was his personal protÃ©gÃ©, also a Jewish boy — he said to this scoundrelly committee, "I'm not sure how far I would trust Peters, because he resorted to guile in escaping from Dachau." (His mother bribed his way out, I think.)
Anyway, so it was the dirtiest two-faced thing I ever saw, and Peters — well, the first time I knew that was in June of '49. There was a cosmic ray conference out here at Idaho Springs that I came to, and he came to it, so did Frank Oppenheimer, and Peters had the Rochester clipping. You could read it. This was a Rochester newspaper story based on "Now it can be revealed that Robert Oppenheimer said" and so forth. This was their reply to his effort to try to get it clarified. It was particularly touchy because Peters was sort of at the end of a term appointment as assistant professor and it would have been easy for them to in effect bounce him by not saying they bounced him but just that they had no position or something. I'll say this for Rochester, they did promote him and kept him, so their behavior was fine.
Robert Marshak was at that meeting out there and he talked to me about the response. Apparently there was quite a bit of turmoil at the meeting because of this incident.
Yes, quite right, more in a sense of all talk. Nothing came up on the program.
I'd like to —I spoke with Peters when I was in Copenhagen.
Oh, did you? He was here just a few weeks ago — there was a Denver cosmic ray conference, and he's a wonderful guy, I think very able. Well, I sort of lost —
I'll tell you where you were. You were talking about that whole period where the Berkeley people were sort of paraded before the committee, and you told this detailed thing on Peters.
Yes. Well, Peters then left this country, but I don't think it was because he didn't have a job. Rochester took care of him. But he got acquainted with Bhabha and went to India to do cosmic ray work there, and then later came from India up to Copenhagen, and I don't know the dates of all his job changes. He's now head of the Danish Space Committee, space research, whatever. And so on.
What was the reaction to Oppenheimer at the time? Was there a great deal of shock and dismay?
Yes. Well, of course, this stuff was not printed that I know of anywhere except in Rochester, so of course Marshak would have known and then there are others that Peters told. All I'm aware of was that I sat down that spring and used a typewriter and wrote a letter to Oppenheimer giving him hell and saying he ought to try to make amends. At that time the principal concern was maybe the Rochester authorities would just drop him. I urged him to write a strong recommendation for Peters and say this was all a mistake etc. and urge them to re-appoint him. And I was told, Hans Bethe wrote a strong letter too. I wrote a strong letter that was just a personal letter to my wife. She was back in Washington. Both of those were stolen from the mails and photostated by the, I suppose, FBI. They were delivered all right, but what I mean is, they were intercepted. And then —
How do you know that?
Yes, well rather quickly after that, something came up by — an Un-American Committee guy spoke to me about my letter to Robert Oppenheimer and spoke about the content of it and so on. So I knew he had — well, it's conceivable somebody opened it. But in the case of the letter to my wife, which I probably did a foolish thing, I wasn't thinking I was doing it that way — I made it conspicuous by sending it special delivery and registered, and then I didn't know that until several years later. But they at one time — well, that was in the spring of '54 when both of us had our last hearings. He had his big famous one that was published, and I had a private one in New York. Robert came to me and told me the story that an Un-American Activities guy had come to him, had shown him the letter that I had written to my wife, which was very impassioned in saying that I thought Robert was going crazy and in any case he was crawling on his belly trying to save his own skin — because, I was just laying it on emotionally. It was a pretty strong letter. But it was just for my wife. So this Un-American creature, creep, came and showed it to Robert, and his pitch was, "You see Condon is your enemy, so why don't you come clean and help us to get the guy?" This was in '54, long after five years later, see. That was the first I realized that they still remembered me or were thinking about me at all. I suppose they keep track if they get things. They have staff, you know, that can dig into the files and sort of see what they can do. So that had to be the result of a genuine theft, because my wife had received it and she was so kind of shocked by it, at the extremity, that she hid it in the bottom of her dresser drawer and may still have it — never been out of our possession —and yet he knew all about it and actually showed his copy to Robert. I remember Robert telling me he'd seen it. It was so much stronger than the letter I'd sent Robert. I said, "It's quite a letter, what did you think of it?" It was not a comforting letter. But you see, they were still trying to drive a wedge between us. So then at that time, which was in the spring of '54, was when the military were trying to do a job on me by holding a hearing here in New York, and when they did do a job on Robert. And the Un-Americans released this to the press. I don't think they were published in any reputable papers, but the DAILY NEWS of New York published them in full —
Yes, and said that Condon accuses Oppenheimer of being an informer, or some inflammatory thing that was supposed to make it as though we weren't friends.
That raises an interesting question, because you obviously felt that he had played a role, which could be characterized as an informer's role.
Well, it is, and I did, with this story. You see, Robert — there's nothing wrong with Robert either except, well, — see, the girl who married him is the widow of a guy who was killed in the Spanish Civil War. That was consorting with Communists, as they represented it. That was a very curious problem that Robert had. I don't know whether you know about it. His wife was the widow of this man, but she was also something like a niece of one of the big German field marshals. So he was sort of suspect two ways, both as a Communist possibly and of course, in that pre-war period of sort of Spanish Civil War liberalism and things, he'd been kind of an active parlor pink, and that's how all these other boys who were his students and were great imitators of him in every way, they too got involved with various left wing labor business. I know Robert himself, he used to embarrass the university by going over and being a picket in Longshoremen's strikes, that Harry Bridges would have on the San Francisco waterfront. So he played around with that left wing stuff. I never did, more I guess through laziness than - I was interested in a way but not an active guy. So they had things that they could distort and twist, and made him sound like he was leftist, and he was for a time. I never knew whether he was literally himself a member of the Communist Party. Frank was, for a time. But anyway, what I think was that he knew he was in jeopardy. What you now know, if you read the transcript of his hearing and so forth, was that a good deal of this stuff was reported and in his file when he was given the job of heading Los Alamos, and it's now represented as a bold and daring thing that General Groves rode over that and ignored it and appointed him anyway. But it wasn't as if there weren't forces at work at that time that were trying to tear him down. These security nuts. So, I think what happened, as he saw things happening to me and to his students, he became a kind of a frightened man. I wouldn't have wanted to have lived the way I surmise was the way he lived, because see, with me, I had the great advantage that the axe fell very quickly and I could start praying, but he lived for years in suspense of thinking they might go after him any time, and finally they did.
You talk about your 1954 conversation with him, and you were so—friendly?
Well, sort of. In the first place, I wasn't in touch with him very much and didn't have a great deal to do with him, but meetings — we met at professional meetings and so on. As a matter of fact, it was funny, you see, I left the government in September or October of '51 to go up to Corning. Corning was a kind of a remote place, and I wasn't in the circle of always going to physical society meetings and loafing around with the university gossip, so when — and you may remember that Eisenhower and Nixon in that election that they won in 1952, one of the big hoopla dishonesties was that Truman was soft on Communism and they were going to change the loyalty hearing procedure so as to tighten it up and so on. They began to apply it to industrial employees as well as governmental employees, — industrial employees that were doing any classified work — and so on. So it became clear, soon after I went to Corning, after the election, fall of '52 that I'd be in for more trouble, not necessarily Un-American Committee but from Eisenhower and Nixon.
You went before the election?
Yes, I went in '51. But in the campaign there was a tremendous amount made about tightening up security and doing it right and this crap about not being soft on Communism the way Truman was, and all that kind of dishonesty. So I sort of knew what was coming. Then — well, it took practically all of '53 for a group of lawyers to go to work to write these new procedures which Eisenhower promised, and they invented a new kind of hearing procedure and a new set of criteria and a lot of things. So I remember, t was around — well in the first place, the whole thing was a hollow piece of ridiculous prosecution, in that Corning wasn't doing any classified work. It had done some. It was at that time making the optical glass for those U-2 lenses, and that was classified, confidential, but that was over in the optical part of the factory and had nothing to do with it anyway. It was just ridiculous, unless you're to argue that you want to have the directors of research of all these major technical companies cleared so in case of emergency you don't have to worry. But it wasn't such a point. Anyway, what with all this writing of new regulations, it took most of '53, and I finally got a set of charges, under the new procedure, delivered to me right around Thanksgiving of '53. I remember, I had been invited to dinner down at Mrs. Pinchot's house in Milford, Pennsylvania, and I took my typewriter and spent most of the time down there, you know, making a first draft of my reply to those things.
Well, what I started to say about Oppenheimer — Oppenheimer was beginning to get his too at that time, but I didn't know it. I saw so little of him. Then the attorney that had this time was this fellow Henry Fowler who later became LBJ's Secretary of the Treasury, but then was just a general Democratic lawyer in Washington. He wanted to do a really thorough job, so he had me — well, there were about 20 guys, important people like Rabi and Oppie and Bethe, I don't know, probably Vicki Weisskopf, I've forgotten — that I was supposed to write to and get them to write in testimonial letters about me being OK and worthwhile and all that. And everybody did in a very nice way, except in Oppie's case there was quite a delay, and then finally there came from him a typical Oppenheimer letter. See, my letter was straightforward. It said that I was in this trouble again and would they please write me a letter of recommendation, so to speak. Oppie says, "I'd be glad to write such a letter, if you want me to."
Well, this was his oblique way of letting me know that he was in trouble himself, but I didn't tumble. I wrote back a little bit impatiently, I was tense about this, I said, "Look, Robert, read my postcard, it asks you to, so I do want you to, so do it." I had no way of knowing how quickly I had to be prepared for this thing, and so the sooner I could get all this stuff together, the better. No reply came. Some weeks later — this would have gotten into March or April of '54, maybe earlier, anyway, working with a lawyer down in Washington, I said — I was pressing about Robert, Robert, this dirty sonuvabitch, why didn't he do what he said he'd do? Whereupon my lawyer said, "You know, I'm not supposed to tell you this, but Robert's in trouble too. His lawyer and I got together and we agreed that it would not help either of you guys to recommend each other. But they don't want you to know that Robert's in trouble." This was before it became public.
So that made that all right, and I accepted it. If Robert had only had a more straightforward personality, he would have let me know, saved a lot of damn nervousness. Anyway, of course, nominally he was a big shot. He was chairman of the General Advisory Committee of the AEC and all that stuff — some of those actions of suspending his connections, I didn't even know about. So that went on.
Wasn't your hearing in '54?
'54. That was about April maybe, I've forgotten. The Oppenheimer hearing of course in the meantime became public — anyway it went on for days and days. Mine just took two days. And this was a — the name of the group was the Eastern Industrial Personnel Security Board. They were an Army, a Navy and an Air Force guy. Officers, and a civilian. And we presented this very full presentation of everything. But to give a feeling for the emptiness of the charges, and the fright that existed at that time — there used to be an organization called the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, and these people were with Eleanor Roosevelt and Truman — and Senator Graham of North Carolina, etc. One time in about '47 — I never had anything to do with it, was never a member, but a woman called up from there, because they were having one of their kind of fund-raising dinners and they wanted to have a list of prominent government names as sponsors, and so would I let my name be used as a sponsor? And I said, "Well, I don't - I don't like to do that for an outfit that I have no acquaintance with, and she cajoled me into agreeing, mentioning Mrs. J. Borden Harriman and Mrs. Pinchot, various prominent names that had already consented, and so I did.
Well, this was brought up in every one of my hearings as being a horrible thing. As far as I know Eleanor Roosevelt never had any trouble for being a member or any of those other people, but I did. And I would always answer with this little verbal story about like I've given you. But Henry Fowler was keen to have a copy of that printed program to introduce in evidence and show what it was, and that there were all these other distinguished names, not just mine. So in the meantime the organization had gone out of existence, the Washington chapter, and Clark Foreman who had been the national secretary of it had shifted over to be national secretary of the National Emergency Civil Liberties Committee up in New York, so I wrote to him. See, I'd never gone. I wasn't even invited to the dinner. I gave my name, I was a sponsor. So I wrote to him to see if he knew, and he gave me the name of a fellow who I presume was black, professor at Howard University who had all the records of the Washington thing stored in a couple of cartons in his house. So I wrote to this fellow. Never got an answer. You can imagine, he was hiding under the bed for fear he'd get involved and lose his job.
But then one day when we were working with the lawyers in the lawyer's office in Washington, with a big mass of papers spread all out, there was a photostat of this dinner menu. And I started in to be curious, "Where did this come from, did the professor send it to you?" No, he couldn't, because I didn't tell him who my lawyers are. He would have had to send to me. And it was all on the table. There must have been a half a dozen lawyers, as well as head of the firm, Fowler. And there was a long distance call — Fowler called out of the room — and the young guys said to me, "Doc, you better not try to find out where that program came from. You see, Henry Fowler was Virginia state chairman of that organization and he had the program in his file, but he doesn't want you to know where it came from." He was frightened for fear he'd get in trouble. So you see, this just shows what fear can do, fear and uncertainty and not wanting to have trouble. So anyway, that occurred, that hearing.
Was it just a day of hearings?
I think there were two days of it, two sort of short court day type of things, and then I went back to Corning. So, we skipped something — that was my Chicago hearing. I was involved with the Un-American Committee. You must have some data on that. That was around Labor Day of '52.
You didn't get an opportunity to testify until September '52.
'52? Yes, '52, because it was an election year. See, this thing, if you had to make a serious study of it, you'd find that Un-American Activities and attacks on people because they're soft on Communism always peaked around election time. In between, nobody gave a damn. But the peak period, that was '52.
There's a book, a historical study on the committee itself called THE UN-AMERICANS.
I ought to get it.
I don't know the exact title; maybe I can get it for you.
Anyway, I'd forgotten — that was after I went to Corning. Let's see. Let's talk a little about that and get it over with. That will help a little on the chronology. They subpoenaed me for that.
Were you surprised? It had been dormant for so long.
Yes. It was a complete surprise. I didn't expect it. Likewise it was a complete piece of dirty pool, in the sense that it was a subcommittee of the main committee, to hold a hearing in Chicago, where three members — the subcommittee consisted of three members, two of whom were candidates for office from Chicago districts. It was quite evident they wanted to put on a show favorable to their campaign. And that subpoena came, as I recall it, just a few days before Labor Day, for a hearing of about a week later, early in September, and at that time, it had all been so dormant that I didn't have an attorney. I was out of touch with Washington, with Abe Fortas, and we had quite a time, because of course Corning had an interesting position. They were perfectly willing to support me in all kinds of ways, except publicly. They had a public statement — they paid this attorney's fee, but they insisted on my getting an attorney who wasn't even a member of a firm that served Corning, friend of theirs.
Of course, his name is somewhere, he's dead now — he was a Columbia lawyer, elderly man, mostly doing financial stuff. He had an office on Wall St. And it was a hell of a difficult thing, because being a financial lawyer on Wall St., he didn't know anything about any of this loyalty junk, except the Un-American Committee — in fact, I don't think he'd ever had any dealings with a Congressional committee. He did court work and straight office law work. So I had to spend the whole damn Labor Day weekend educating him, by going over these transcripts of previous hearings, and he was kind of the old gentleman type that really believed in fair play and thought that, you know, if you didn't think your hearing was fair, therefore you were paranoid. I had a lot of trouble with him. I think he learned a lot from the hearing himself.
Of course, a lawyer can't do a great deal for you, nothing in fact, really, because he isn't allowed to take part in the hearing. He can help you organize your material ahead of time. That was the way it was at that time. Later, in my last hearing, Fowler did a lot of the business of making little connecting speeches to that board, but — so, it was very much like the coach of a prizefighter. He pushes you into the ring and sits there and gives you advice on, during the recesses, but nothing — fans you with a towel and pushes you back in the ring again. So that lasted just a day. We were guests at Harold Urey's home at that time. And of course it was indecisive. There was nothing — they were finding out information — pompous asses. So there was nothing ever really came of it. I remember being very annoyed because months later I had got up my nerve to ask the president of Corning what they had to pay that guy, and he charged us $10,000 for that one day's work. And he didn't do anything.
But there was another thing that showed the manner in which they — the committee behaved. The only time that the lawyer spoke up at all was right at the tail end, when I was getting pretty tired and groggy anyway at the end of the day, and of course they always put on —. If you read the printed transcript, it isn't so bad, because the Congressmen have a talent for saying things with nasty insinuations and tones of voice which, when you just take it as straight verbiage and don't know how it was said, doesn't sound so bad. So at the end they were very courteous to me and gave me the privilege of filing an additional statement with them, if I had any further material that I thought ought to be on the record. So of course what I did was to go back — this was a Friday — and spend Saturday and Sunday writing a splendid document about what a great guy I am. And then went down to New York on Monday to see my lawyer with this as a draft typed up, just by me. And I wanted him to get it down to the committee right away. I said, "I know those dirty bastards, they'll rush into print with the transcript of the hearing, and my statement won't be there, with them having the valid excuse that I didn't get in in time."
Sure enough, that's what happened, but the attorney — I can't remember his name, — he thought that was sort of paranoid behavior on my part, and he called up the committee to ask him about the time, and they gave him a line about, "Oh, we're short on printing money, there'll be plenty of time, we don't know when we'll print it." The next week, it was out, and in the meantime, he held it back because he wanted to polish up the English in parts. So it was never published. Therefore it looks funny because it ends with them giving me the privilege of filing a statement, and then there is no statement. So that's the dirty pool. There are all kinds of little dirty pool tricks they pull. That was that. That didn't amount to much, except for being a damn nuisance. Getting back to '54 —
Just on that, how long after the hearing was the decision made revoking your clearance? This time it was revoked.
This was September '52, then it was February '53, that it was revoked.
Well, you must have the data. The chances are that's right. I don't remember, and partly I don't because it was pure symbolism. There wasn't any work that I needed it for. It just meant that I couldn't go on any, if some came along. And so, I don't remember all that they did. And of course, they were just sort of advisory. I guess they advised the Defense Department that I shouldn't be trusted and then the Defense Department took their advice. They themselves can't revoke a clearance. But they can scare somebody off into doing it.
Anyway, — but as I say, that particular part wasn't very important, and anyway it was Thanksgiving of '53 when I got the charges and started preparing for the hearing, which was done with a great deal of thoroughness of digging up things. And I don't have that transcript. The sonofabitch never returned it. The second volume of it is all the various exhibits in the way of letters and this dinner program and so forth, but not the hearing itself. Anyway, that was held along about April '54 and I guess it was about July that they gave me a clearance, said it was all right and everything was dandy. I remember going back to Corning and saying, "OK, boys, open up the safes and show me the secrets," and the other guy said, "Well, you know, there aren't any, we aren't doing anything," and we celebrated with a little champagne supper.
This would have been in July '54. Then, just about a week before the election, October of '54, maybe two weeks, the WASHINGTON POST — remember that guy that covered sort of civil service news for them, Jerry Klutz? He somehow found out that I'd been cleared some time ago, and this was big news. And Al Friendly called me up to confirm it, you know, that business of getting the other side. And I pled with him not to print anything about it. It would just stir up the animals and make a lot of trouble, God knows what. But it won't do any good. And I'm sure Al was always friendly to me, because he said, "Oh, we've had to print so much bad stuff about you, it'll be wonderful to print that it finally turned out that you're OK."
So I couldn't stop him, even though we sent Henry Fowler over to see the publisher of the POST and try to persuade them not to print anything on it, but they did. And the next thing that happened, the Secretary of the Navy called a special press conference, with television cameras and radio and all that, to announce that he was suspending my clearance as requiring further consideration, not saying why it needed it. Then, it was right at the end of the campaign, right at the end of October of '54. Nixon was out lying his way around the country, and he gave a speech — you probably know about this from reading about it — one in Cheyenne and one in Helena, Montana, in which he kind of acted as if it were he who suspended the clearance, or prodded the Secretary of the Navy to do it. Later the Secretary of the Navy denied that Nixon had anything to do with it. These two guys squabbling over who should get the credit for this horrible thing! Well, we all knew of course it was just election politics, so there wasn't anything to do anyway right then and there. But after the election Fowler went to see the Secretary of the Navy and said, "You say this wants further consideration. We want to cooperate in every way possible. What do you — what do we do next? What form does the further consideration take?"
Well, the Navy Secretary was about to go to Europe, so he said, "Well" — Wilbur Brucker was then counsel for the Department of Defense. He said, "You take it up with Brucker and anything he agrees to is OK with me." It was quite evident that he really didn't give a damn, he was just — wasn't too deeply involved. So Fowler went to see Brucker. Brucker outlined his plan of doing the whole thing all over again before a new board. And Fowler got kind of sore at this and started talking about it being a kangaroo court. "You can't possibly appoint any military officers to a new board that don't know what kind of verdict you're fishing for," and so on. So Fowler strongly advised against going through it again, and I didn't want to, so I withdrew the application for clearance, and that was the end of it. Then, just to finish the clearance story, so there was a long period — then when I came out here, to Boulder, in 1966, Lew Branscomb seemed to think it was awful. The period was long since passed and JILA was supposed to be doing some stuff to help ARPA, and — but you know, you can't>
You were talking about Lew Branscomb.
He came to me one day and said, "Don't you think you ought to be cleared." He said, "It would be nice, and I kind of think things have changed enough at the Defense Department, there wouldn't be any trouble, but the procedure is such that you have to be willing to fill out the application form and send it in, and I want you to be willing to do that." I said, "Well, Lew, I'll do it because you're recommending it, and I'll do it with the clear understanding in advance that if there's any funny business and they don't grant, to hell with it. I'll just withdraw it. I'm not going to go through another fight." So we did, and I was cleared. So I'm cleared. On the other hand, I don't know that it's anything but pro forma, because I've never in fact done anything classified. That was about '66, I guess. In the past ten years I haven't in fact done anything classified. Oh, in a silly sort of a way, there were some things in the UFO project where they showed me movies of various advanced model planes that the public might confuse with UFO's, but which were also classified planes. So to that extent I've used it, but I've never worked on any classified material.
Would you have needed the clearance in order to take on the Air Force project, UFO project?
Only in case they insisted. I was in no sense hampered in the doing of it by lack of access — I don't recall — except that one little business of one day seeing a movie of some advanced development planes, and that was not vital. It didn't matter.
The thing that you mentioned before about Nixon's possible role, you said the only evidence on that was the newspaper story you had. Taking credit for the final revocation in '54.
But there were a few different NEW YORK TIMES stories, quoting...
We'd come to the end of the stories about HUAC.
Well, just sort of showing vindictiveness on the part of the Eisenhower-Nixon Administration, you had raised the question, what other evidence do I have about Nixon? Just those two NEW YORK TIMES articles that were presumably written by some reporter that was following him around on that campaign trip. It seems to stick in my mind that the wording of the articles implied that he talked that way to the reporters. It wasn't part of the content of his public speeches, but it was reported under bylines or datelines from those two places.
Well, after thinking it over a bit, and all this business about a kangaroo court, and so on, it just didn't seem worthwhile to go through it again. Corning on the other hand felt, in a larger policy way, that their director of research ought to be cleared. And since I wasn't going to be, why, I got out. But they offered me a very good consulting contract, and in fact I've been working for them ever since. I go up there about four weeks a year, and so on. But it was one of these contracts that kind of ran for five years at a time. I had no way of knowing that they'd keep it up as long as they have. If I had, I think I'd just have settled down and concentrated on their work and so on, but I began to flounder around a bit, thinking I ought to have a university connection as an income in the event they didn't extend this. So it was a kind of a mixed up thing.
Well, the only thing that's relevant to the vindictiveness bit is, I then returned back East at the time of the January meetings of '55, AIP and APS and what not, and Dickie Courant of NYU (I knew him from Germany) was keen to propose me as chairman of the physics department at NYU, that happened to be vacant at the time. Also, they had had two departments, one uptown and one downtown, but they wanted to consolidate them and bring in a new head.
So he took me over to be interviewed by Henry Heald, the chancellor, and I was essentially offered the job, and it was supposed to be settled at the March meeting of their trustees, again on my birthday, March 2nd. On the evening of March 2nd he called me up in a terribly embarrassed way because one of the trustees who was, I believe vice president of the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. heard about it, and had been told by a government guy that the University would lose all its federal support if they took me on. Whether it's true or not — I mean, I'm sure he said but that may have been an empty boast. This upset Heald, coming just minutes before the meeting was supposed to come to order, so he just didn't bring it up. Well, anyway, about that time he left to go to the Ford Foundation, so that was the end of my NYU career.
That was lack of courage of NYU.
Yeah. Then the boys in the physics department at Penn invited me to be a visiting professor that spring, which I did, although a little late. I was in fact only there about half a semester. And since they only paid me for about half a semester, they invited me back for the other half in the spring of '56, so I had two different spring jobs, and they tried to get me offered a professorship, but the new Secretary of the Navy, who was a trustee of Penn, Tom Gates, made some threats that government would take it out of their hides if they got me, so that never came through. That was in the spring of '56. Then also in the spring of '56 George Pake was leaving Washington U. in St. Louis to go to Stanford, and they picked me to be his successor as chairman at St. Louis. I don't know whether anybody ever tried to interfere with that appointment and the university went ahead with it anyway, or — they're a pretty independent crowd out there at St. Louis, and it could have been that, or it could have been that Washington by that time didn't bother, figured if I was West of the Mississippi it's all right. Anyway there was no more trouble. But it is interesting that there were two major positions that were squelched by underhanded methods.
Did Arthur Compton play any role in your coming there? Was he on the scene?
At St. Louis? Yes, he was, but he was —
—chancellor, I guess.
No. No, he had retired as chancellor and was kind of an honorary professor. Still he was an influential guy around, but the actual working chancellor was a man named Ethan Shepley who was a kind of a distinguished old St. Louis family and a lawyer, and had been on the board of trustees. Oh, it was amusing; he was sort of an interim chancellor and chairman of the search committee. He was so — they practically talked him into taking the job, not having to search — he was a very first rate man. Yes, Compton was there most of the time I was there. You know he then went out and was going to do some work at Berkeley and he died out there.>
But it came through Pake and so forth and through the department directly.
Yes. First I knew about it is, Pake sought me out and we had a drink together at the APS meeting in Washington in April of '56. So I accepted, and in the meantime I also had a teaching job for the summer of '56 at Madison, and so we moved to St. Louis and were there until '63 when we came out here — except I had a sabbatical leave and went to Oberlin for a year.
What did you do in the in-between period during those two years right after you left Corning? I know you worked the spring semester each year, and one summer at Madison. What about the fall semesters?
Well, nothing. I was unemployed, except the Corning thing.
Did you live up there?
No — no, you see, I have always been, always had been, I'm not any more, — crazy about Berkeley. About half my life I've eaten my heart out hoping they'd call me out there. And so when I first went to Corning, my daughter hadn't been married very long, and so we bought a rather nice house in Berkeley, big enough for both families, and so we went out and lived out there, and I was a consulting physicist, only nobody consulted me, except Corning, but I did a certain amount of making industrial contacts, hoping to pick up odd jobs. But that was partly limited by fear about clearance and also partly limited by, you know, conflict of interest. All these electronic firms and things have glass interests that overlap with Corning. So you can't go on — you can't work for both of them. So in fact I didn't really do much of anything.
We have skipped over a couple of things that I wanted to ask about. You can put them in perspective and tell me how we should take them up. One is, just to summarize a little bit more about the work at the Bureau, the research itself, cryogenics and so forth. And then to talk about your decision to leave there. We didn't talk about that at all.
Yes. Well, the decision to leave was very simple. I was offered a job at Corning that paid three times as much, and I had two boys that were going to be college freshmen next year, so — besides, I had all those unpleasant experiences, and so to hell with it. Let's see, going back a bit
— you felt if you stayed there, there'd be uncertainty with the new administration, plus the off and on harassment you were getting.
No, I didn't — I don't care much really for administrative work. Even being chairman of a small physics department doesn't appeal to me. You have to do a lot of clerical work for other guys, and no matter how much you get them, they always think if you were any damn good you would have got them more, and all that. So I didn't particularly enjoy the directorship aspect of being director, because for me it meant that I didn't have very much time to think about anything scientific. I was constantly fighting budgets and personnel problems, that's all that Bill Koch did. And so I wasn't terribly unhappy, I don't want to give that impression, but I was very pleased when this (Corning) came along, because, as I say — see, a man is a fool — of course, the prices have kind of changed, there's been so much inflation that the figures sound ridiculous. I left Westinghouse at $15,000 a year, to take the directorship of the National Bureau of Standards at a little bit under $10,000, about 98 or something. That was a one-third cut right there. Just out of patriotism and a starry-eyed belief that I was "doing something for my country." And all I got was pissed on.
And so on. So later, gradually my salary was pepped up till it was about $15,000. But Corning gave me a salary of $35,000 and a bonus of 10. And it was nice. Everything was nice. It's a — well, I have no complaints about Westinghouse, but Corning's much more of a little smaller family affair, and just a splendid group of people to work for. I remember, we used to have in the Bureau six or eight guys that did nothing but prepare the budget all year round, because you see, we had to prepare one for Commerce Department. They'd hack it a bit, and then we'd have to rewrite the whole thing for the Budget Bureau. They'd hack it a bit. We'd rewrite the whole thing for the House Committee, after that, the Senate, and all these things were a tremendous amount of trite verbiage, just repeated, but it had to be typed up neatly and organized and the figures had to balance. That was a pain in the ass, to do that all the time.
I remember, I'd only been in Corning about a week, and the president of the company, to whom I reported, said, "Oh, by the way, could you in a few days give me a budget for next year?" I had visions of — I said, "How much detail do you want?" He said, "Oh, just write me two or three pages, how it seems to you, what you think you need." What a difference!!
So then you discovered after you got there, it seemed attractive enough to you, aside from the money offer?
Well, it was interesting. I could tell, even though I knew nothing about glass, I had no qualifications, they kind of wanted to branch out into other lines anyway, especially electronic things that I'd had war-time experience in. But it was small enough that I could sort of be in touch in detail with what was going on in the lab. It just seemed attractive. So I did.
Did you see in it some more opportunity for personal research?
Well, just in the sense of opportunity, being closer to what was going on.
What about at the Bureau? Did you have much chance to get in close with the research?
Well, it all depends. If you mean sitting down and taking some data, or applying it, talking about interpretations, I guess the answer is really no. Of course, we talked to all the various guys and got a pretty good idea of what they were doing and what results they were getting and what they wanted to do next. So there was a lot of physics conversation. It wasn't just all bureaucratic bullshit. But it wasn't — I myself there was a period of about a year when I had a hideaway room separate from my office, with a drafting board and pencil and no telephone, and I'd go and hide in that once in a while. But I got to go so seldom that I couldn't really remember what I was doing from one week to another.
But you did some work on superconductivity there at the Bureau.
Yes. There were two fellows that were very good - Emmanuel Maxwell, — of course, you remember that isotope effect. It was kind of a simultaneous discovery of a Rutgers group and Maxwell and a couple of fellows. I took a great interest in that, and talked a lot with them about it, and John Pelham was more of a superfluid helium guy. He's down at Irvine now. He's moved around, a number of jobs. That was my favorite thing. Of course, I guess we haven't really talked about the fact — it's more managerial than otherwise — but you see, with that big expansion in the radio propogation work, we needed better lab space to accommodate that. Also, in '49, Truman had had a sort of private executive order to the government bureaus that there would be no more major government building programs in Washington, D.C. — which has long since been abrogated and they have built them — but this was an atomic bomb attack fear. That's why the AEC itself was way out in the country and the CIA. So that was fresh in our minds at that time.
I came out anyway as I said earlier to the Idaho Springs cosmic ray meeting, and I love the country out here, and then Walter Roberts had his high altitude observatory out here, watching for sun flares and sunspots, and they were related to the radio work, so I said, "Hell, let's just put it out here and build a radio lab," which we did. That's how it happens to be here.
Of course, there's no trace of my name on it because I'd left the government when Eisenhower was president, at the time it got dedicated, so it's got all those Republican names on it, but I started it, planned it, somewhere in 1950. By this time we had—Well, that's jumping ahead a little too much. Remember, the Russians got the atom bomb in '49, and that's when Teller took advantage of the excitement, the country being weak, to push the H-bomb. Finally in January of '50, Truman did give him the go-ahead to make an H-bomb. Well, the kind of scheme for it that they had at that time involved having large quantities of liquid hydrogen. So we designed and built — I did a certain amount of designing calculations on that personally a very large hydrogen liquifier. It's 10 times bigger than any that had been built up till then. It's out here. That was put on the ground actually and built, with the sort of war powers of Truman, Korean War, before the Radio Lab could get through Congress. These things were built, and so there's kind of a big double program here, the radio work, and the cryogenics work. With the cryogenics thing, that was a very good hydrogen liquifier, but that approach to the hydrogen bomb became obsolete about that time, so it wasn't much used. We operated it for just getting low temperature engineering properties of metals and things. But it had quite a lease on life when liquid hydrogen became a fuel for ICBMs. So it had quite a distinguished record as a pioneering center of large-scale cryogenics. We haven't done anything in the way of fundamental physics work much, but engineering cryogenics.
Didn't the Bureau establish a branch on the West Coast during your period?
Yes. Yes, we took over a surplus naval hospital for a while at Corona, California. It's out near Riverside. We were doing Navy guided missile work. It's hard to realize how early that started and how primitive it was at first. The Bureau had a guided missile that sank a Japanese freighter in the latter part of the war. It was really just a glider with a big bomb in it that was released. But it had also radar-controlled steering, so one could release it and have it glide on ahead, and the plane would see it and steer it, and it could hit the target. The guys tried this again, and they thought something had gone wrong, because instead of staying on the course like it ought to, it veered off. But what it did was just getting a bigger reflection signal from a great big oil storage tank that the Japs had over on an island, so it bombed that. So you couldn't lose, or didn't lose. So we had an early history on that stuff. That was largely Hugh Dryden's doing, his contribution as a civilian temporarily converted to war. And then the Navy wanted us to keep it up after the war. But there again, we were too crowded for it, in Washington, and we got this surplus hospital out there. In addition, we also had that applied math and computation businesses, because we had a small, one of these wartime buildings on the UCLA campus, and had a Western mathematics center. Two things — there again, it had two strings to its bow; a certain amount of it was just straight, pure math computation business, and the other was developing another computer, SWAC, Standard Western Automatic Computer. And they worked for a while but quickly became obsolete.
At the same time you developed this graduate instruction program at the Bureau. Was that modeled after your Washington fellowship program?
No, no it was really more of an imitation — for years there had been a similar sort of thing, a lot of courses and things, run by the Department of Agriculture. So it wasn't very original, to just decide that for the physical scientists something similar was useful — and it was, because we had — well, aside from the fact that a place of that sort takes on an awful lot of bachelor's degree men that want to have some graduate work, and it's inconvenient any other way. We had quite a few veterans. See, the universities were so crowded then — the veterans had Bill of Rights, so we took in quite a few of them, too — oh, when I say that, I mean a hundred or so, as part of relieving the pressure on the universities. And there was quite a tendency with foreign students. At one time, we had 20 or 30 Indians on Indian government fellowships scattered around the lab, getting practical experience.
How much of the lab's work was classified, as compared to non-classified?
Well, let's see. The guided missile stuff was a major part of most of it wasn't. That's different from during the war, but when I was there — of course, there was a fair amount of work during the war, that changed about the time of the end of the war, in which the chemists of the Bureau made quite a contribution to analytical methods on chemicals, on uranium compounds, and of course that being under Manhattan District stuff, it was classified, and the guided missile stuff was classified, and the proximity fuse. It had a separate building, so it didn't make any great problem. You could just kind of have guards, guarded entrance to that. And so also did the guided missile work. So it didn't in fact loom as a thing causing any difficulty. Its presence didn't mean that you had to do a lot of things. There were all kind of damn fool things that happened, of course. You see, when they began to fire people for allegedly being Communists and so on, thank God they never — that was done by a group in the Department of Commerce, and I didn't have anything to do with making any decisions about it. We'd get instructions from downtown that said that so and so had to be separated by such and such a date. But of course, since I'd had a lot of trouble, a lot of these distressed people would come and see me more as an individual or as a friend, to find out what they might be able to do or something. I myself didn't know much then about left wing factionalism. A great big guy came in who'd been given a bounce notice. He's now engaged in highly classified work in a private business. But he'd gotten a notice that he was being bounced for being a Communist. He was in a towering rage, and he said, "I'm not a Communist, I'm not a Communist, I'm a Trotskyite!" I said, "That'll get you nowhere".
What would you characterize, if you can, as your most important accomplishment of your years at the Bureau?
Oh Lord, I don't know. None of it seemed very important to me for a time. It did at the time. The work was carried on. It was transformed. There was a big component of military stuff that lasted. I remember, it kind of went down and then it came back again because of the Korean War. And well, I guess getting the math and the computers established is the most noteworthy thing that I myself particularly did. You know, when you're director of something, you can sort of — they pretend to give you credit for doing something if you didn't stop it. All that radio propagation work, which I think was very important, I was all for it, but the initiative wasn't mine, it was something that the radio people of the service, or the Bureau's radio people, sort of put together and got it up, and I was for it so I didn't stop it. See, the total time wasn't so very great. They were hectic years, but it was just '45 to '51.
It was the end of '45 — most of '46 —
— yes, it was a month or two short of six years.
And some of that was taken up with — back in that period, you were on the Brookhaven Advisory Committee — this was the first year anyway, from 1947 on. You and Detlev Bronk were put on it together.
Yes. Must have been purely a figurehead kind of thing.
You don't recall discussions with Phil Morse or anything?
No. I told you about all that trouble that Phil Morse had trying to get clearance for Ronald Gurney, so as to get him a job. But in a larger sense — and I visited Brookhaven several times in that connection — but they were very much in the spirit of outsiders just looking over the place. We didn't play a role that really affected anything.
Then I see that in '53 you were president of AAAS. Now, how did that come about? I know there's a stage when you become vice president -
It's less elaborate now. They've changed it. At that time, you know, the AAAS has really a kind of a body of affiliated societies, and besides having a board of directors that really looks after things, there's an intermediate gang called council, with a representative or two from every one of the affiliated societies. Yeah — well — so that tends to be a very big group. But in any case, my recollection is that at that time, the council — there was very little in the way of advance stuff. The council I think just plain took nominations from the floor of those that were present, and thus they got candidates, and then they voted on them right then and there, and that was it. It was some very simple process like that. It doesn't mean there wasn't a certain amount of talking among the people, but now they've got the business of sending out ballots and asking for nominating suggestions, and all the rest of it. And that was put in soon after. There was a sort of a little unpleasant chapter associated with that. I don't know as it pays to stress it very much, but I had a big run-in with Howard Meyerhof. Meyerhof was at that time the working executive secretary of the AAAS.
It's necessary to bear in mind that the Association, along with everything else, had a tremendous growth, and outgrew its building, so it was much more than if it had just been of those Washington houses that had to be demolished. And so Meyerhof was a geologist, and he was doing this, and he was everything. There were a half a dozen there, but he was editor of SCIENCE as well as executive secretary, and God knows how he did it all — I guess just the fact that it was much smaller. Anyway, I got sore at him because — remember, you're elected vice president for a year and then the next year you're president. That part was still in effect. It's just that the nomination procedures were simpler. So it was at the Philadelphia meeting in '51 around Christmas when I was elected as vice president, which meant that I would be president next year. I wasn't even at that meeting. As a matter of fact, as I remember, I was pretty fed up with the AAAS. I thought they were a pretty dull outfit, and especially I didn't like the old SCIENCE, it was so shallow and had nothing in it.
I remember, I had probably not gone just because this was our first Christmas in Corning, and therefore also the first Christmas that both boys were home from college, and it seemed more sensible to stick around and visit with them. And so I was lying on the sofa looking at the current SCIENCE and thinking how lousy it is, how boring it is, and I said, "I'm going to quit paying dues to this outfit." Just then the phone rang and I had been elected vice president, so I was hooked.
Then the following year was presidential year, and, when I was installed at the meeting in St. Louis, of course some of the newspapermen wanted to revive this junk about my being a weak link and all that. They were looking for stuff, and asked Meyerhof what did the membership think of this. And he ventured some statement like thinking perhaps a third of them were opposed to me. So I was sore at this, because it was a tactless thing to say, and secondly it was a pure off-the-cuff guess. There was no election in the sense that a third of them had voted for some other candidate. It was one of those one-candidate deals. And he just pulled that out of the air. But it seemed unfriendly, and I got mad at him and he got mad at me, so he quit, and that's how Dael Wolfle got in as Executive Secretary. I think Meyerhof is head of geology at Penn now. He's a geology professor. He's done quite a lot of geology in Puerto Rico. He's in other respects not a bad guy, and I was perhaps a little sensitive and hot-headed about this, but see, I knew that it — it was '53 and it was when I was preparing for my last hearing, as it turns out, and was fed up with all this shit, but — by this guy who should be, well, supporter of his president, he just pulls some damn statement out of the air and gives it to the press. Made me sore.
Were there any special issues that came up during your presidency?
The biggest thing we did was to build the new headquarters for AAAS on Scott Circle in Washington. Well, I guess that one was the most, because, like always happens, in the first place, it's sort of ambiguous, you know — the president, even he is junior to the chairman of the board, the first past president. That was Detlev Bronk. So as things got more and more at swords points between me and Meyerhof, and Meyerhof quit, poor Det — it was Det really who thought of and recruited Dael Wolfle into the job. He of course did a splendid job. And Meyerhof sort of disappeared from the scene. I've forgotten, he's — I've forgotten whether he got a job with it or whether he was just something or other, that thing that they called the Scientific Manpower Commission was one of his enterprises.
Merle Trytten was connected with that.
He at that time had some kind of a scientific manpower statistics, national roster kind of thing, in the government. I think it was the National Research Council. And he undoubtedly was on some kind of an advisory board, but my recollection is that Meyerhof started it. I don't know that it's ever amounted to much or what it could do.
Well, I don't know how much longer you want to go.
Oh, say another half hour.... Is this getting pretty much what you want?
Yes, right. Some of the things are not really — because there's not much to say on them — but l don't know until we start on them.
That's true. You take the period at St. Louis, that was kind of uneventful. Just a guy being chairman of a small time physics department and helping them get their annual grants from the Air Force and things. We had a kind of a rundown pre-war cyclotron.
The one built with medical money? I know the story of that.
Yes, that's right. It did some plutonium work for Manhattan District, Compton's recruiting them in. But it was — oh; they were doing a certain amount of that older type cyclotron work when I was there.
Was Feenberg there during that period?
Yes, and Primakoff also. They were the two good theoretical fellows.
That's a very strong theoretical core, I would think.
Yes. Yes, very good. Very good. They were very nice people, and Primakoff got taken away to Penn. Feenberg's still there.
I met him and did an interview with him, specially talking about the work that he'd done in the thirties with Wigner. We have Wigner's letters in his files, his correspondence, and now Feenberg gave me the other part of the correspondence, so it's a pretty good collection. Let me just see what we missed in the intervening period. The AAAS thing, what you're saying is that there's no particular public issue that came up, other than the fact that you're a public figure. Was there any question that came up in AAAS discussions about this loyalty business?
No, it was never mentioned there. That one thing about Meyerhof just officiously talking that way to the newspapermen. I probably made more of a fuss about that than should have, but remember, this thing had been badgering me for five years and it was still badgering me, although they didn't know it. And so I was kind of fed up with it, and when the son of a bitch, I read on the front page of the St. Louis POST-DISPATCH that probably one-third of the membership is opposed to me, I got sore.
This is like one out of every three neighbors doesn't like you.
Yes, that's right. And it had no basis in fact; if he'd actually polled them and found some such figure it would have been interesting. But he hadn't. He'd just pulled it out of the air...he didn't particularly think about it as being unfriendly...
This is September 12 and we're resuming in Dr. Condon's house. We covered pretty much — when we left off yesterday, we were talking about the AAAS presidency and things like that. We had backtracked a little bit. But we also mentioned that you were at Washington University and you didn't think there was anything very special to say there. You talked about the cyclotron.
Yes. I don't want to downgrade it. It was a very nice university and people were very nice to me, and it was a pleasant thing to have all that fighting over with. At that time or even in '54 I'd made up my mind that I just wouldn't have anything more to do with the Defense Department unless they asked me to. I wasn't going to look for that kind of thing. I never cared much — I was a strong believer in the peace movement anyway, believing we were spending too much on armaments, so I had no political or technical enthusiasm for all of that electronic arsenal that so many physicists helped build.
So it was just a job of teaching. And I did a little stuff about atomic structures, even then thinking I'd revise Condon and Shortley, but never seemed to get onto it very much. It was a good department. They didn't have very many graduate students, and I didn't have any personally working for me. They were assigned to various members of the staff. And so there was a relatively calm life. Of course, during those years I was consultant for Corning, going up — that settled into a pattern of spending about four weeks a year, scattered out over the quarters, on visits up there, and also reading and commenting on research reports on their lab. It was a great period of growth for Corning glassworks and I had some part in it, but after all, these corporate efforts, a lot of people contributed to it so I don't claim credit for their growth. I guess I claim credit for not interfering with their growth.
So that was that. Now, since St. Louis has such a stinking hot summer climate, and since I was very fond of Colorado, my wife and I bought a little house out here and used to spend all our summers out here, and then rent the house in the academic year. And that was pleasant. So that way I kind of deepened my contacts here, and also the NSE had supported for quite a number of years a Summer Institute of Theoretical Physics here that brought students and faculty from other places. And so the summer was a kind of a lively place. And then in addition of course there was the Bureau group here, and NCAR. So it was nice place to be in the summer, climate-wise and also in terms of research and subject matter. And, well, then I was due for sabbatical leave, the year '62-'63, and at first had intended to go to University of London and work with Harrie Massey's group, and I really think on second thought that I should have done that, but I didn't, because —. Also I had developed rather strong interests in the efforts to modernize teaching, the sort of thing that was represented by the Commission on College Physics, and the people at Oberlin asked me to come there as a visiting professor, which I did, and that was the fall of '62.
I went and worked with them. I was sort of interested in it, because all of my experience had been with full-sized universities, different sizes but ones that included graduate work, and one hears so much about the cultural advantages and merits of the four year colleges, the better independent ones. So I thought it would be interesting to get some experience of that sort. And Oberlin was nice enough, I think, but not knowing otherwise, I think London would have been more interesting and more valuable. Well, that was a kind of a mixed up year because of course I got involved with quite a bit of peace movement kind of politics, because that was the time of the Cuban missile confrontation in the fall of '62. And then a curious coincidence happened, in that there was a Physical Society solid state meeting in March which was held in St. Louis, and my wife and I went to that, although it was our home that we were on leave from. Our home was rented so we were staying with friends. And it was during that period that I had my first heart trouble and had to be in the hospital for a couple of weeks, and never got back to Oberlin. So from Oberlin's point of view and mine, it was a kind of a mixed up year.
Now, it was during that year that the JILA got organized here, the Joint Institute for Laboratory Astrophysics, joint meeting, National Bureau of Standards and the university, and they wanted me to leave St. Louis and join the faculty here. As a matter of fact, they pushed me on it before I went to Oberlin, that spring of '62. But I was committed to Oberlin so I had to put it off for a year. So I came out here in the fall of '63 and have been here since. Supported with JILA funds. Actually it was military money but not classified. JILA was. So I had funds from various sources, but I was supported on ARPA, DOD money, and well, I've been teaching, teaching atomic spectra and trying to rewrite the book but not very successfully. So it's been very enjoyable too, that decade. Curious thing —I moved so much both as a kid and also as a grownup that this ten years here is the longest I've ever lived in any one place, so — that's that.
What about the research work here? You don't get a chance to work with many students.
No. I had one degree student, a Turkish boy named Halis Odabasi. He was a very able fellow. He's now on the faculty of Bosporus University in Istanbul, and he was — sort of worked with me, to be a joint author of the new Condon and Shortley had we finished it. He wrote several research papers and I did too. He was the only student with whom I had direct responsibility. I knew a lot of the students and worked with them on their things, but they were other people's students really so far as degree granting and all that. Of course, that cut into the period of the last few years when there's been a great curtailment of funds and practically no job opportunities, so Odabasi was around a little longer than I'd thought because he couldn't get a job, and I had to scrounge around to get post-doc money to keep him going. He just left for Turkey last summer and got this job over there. But that was about all you can say about that. The rest of it was just doing a certain share of teaching, various classes and things, some undergraduate and some graduate.
Going back to Washington University, did you develop any ties with any of your students working there? Or with Feenberg, Primakoff?
I can't say it in the sense of tangible production of papers and so on. We were close friends. I had a seminar and we did a lot of talking together and so on. But they both had their own lines of work that were more modern that I was. You see, you can't have it both ways. I had done this work at Princeton and Westinghouse, and then the war work was an interruption, then the Bureau of Standards was an interruption, the glass business was an interruption — I mean, an interruption from the production of papers for the PHYS REV. So that I was — then there were whole new fields came in. Primakoff was largely concerned with radiation and collision theory at higher energies and so forth, beginnings of the theoretical basis of high-energy particle physics. And Feenberg was always more interested in condensed matter like liquid helium and things of that sort, and I didn't know much about those things, so we talked and visited much but we never did anything jointly.
During that period just after you arrived at Washington University, you took over the editorship of REVIEWS OF MODERN PHYSICS. How did that come about?
I don't know the process of choosing me. Actually that year was the year that Wigner was president of the American Physical Society, and he wrote me a letter saying they were looking for an editor and would like me to do it if I was willing. And so I said I would. And that was about all that was done in negotiation on it. I suppose it had been discussed, it probably wasn't just Wigner alone; it was probably a consultation. But I never asked, and so on. It's sort of a curious business because later, you know, I was bounced from that job by forces within the Society.
After 11 years, though — you started in '57, then went to '68 — that's a long time.
Oh yes, and I didn't mind, if they'd been a little politer about it I wouldn't have minded, but I think they acted in a very rash and inexcusable way. I was getting kind of tired of it anyway. But what I started to say was, just to show how unsystematic a lot of the Physical Society business was, my original appointment was for three years and never heard again from anybody about extending the appointment. I just went on because nobody stopped me, until finally they did after 11 years. Then of course the ridiculous thing was, having bounced me in a very impolite way, they had a search committee to find a successor, and asked me to help them. Which I did. We tried to get Leonard Schiff to take the job, but he was busy and didn't want to. I've forgotten, there were two or three other attempts, and finally Lew Branscomb, who was at the time right here at JILA, he took it over for a while. Then he went to the Bureau of Standards, now he's at IBM, so he's out of that and David Pines has the job now.
What was your procedure as editor? Was it a passive role or did you actively solicit articles?
Well, I did a lot of soliciting. You see, the best source of ideas about people and so forth I found was when one goes to the major meetings of the Physical Society — they have a great many of those longer invited papers on the program, and I'd listen to those, and something that seemed particularly good or timely, I would then speak to the guy and invite him to write. The difficulty with the job, of course, is that physicists are long on promises and poor on performance. They would — the guy would be kind of flattered and he'd say, "Yes, sure, I'll be glad to," and he'd never come through. And this was doubly bad because not only do you not get the article, which makes it bad enough, but you sort of assigned that topic to him so you don't feel — you don't know that he isn't going to come through sometimes, and so you don't feel free any longer to invite somebody else to do what he let you down on. It's a thankless sort of a job. I don't know, it was smaller, somewhat smaller. They inflated the RMP bureaucracy, you see. I did the whole damn job for $3000 a year plus an $80 a month for a quarter time secretary, and they started out paying Lew Branscomb $10,000 a year, and then he had an editorial assistant at some salary, and an editorial board of five guys that I think were each getting $1600 a year, and the magazine looks like about it ... used to under me — that's the way I feel about it. So I don't know. Of course, it's been a period of contraction. I mean, you know, for money support for physicists. But in a way, it would be a period in which you'd think they'd do a better job of writing papers because many of them aren't burdened by the need of spending large federal grants.
Right, and it's a time perhaps of consolidation and re-assessment of certain views, of what physics is about.
Yes. I'm afraid that there are very few people in America that are capable of writing good reviews. Of course, one of the things that one had to guard against, and I didn't do it with perfect success, probably because I was usually in a condition of being hungry for articles with which to fill the magazine, and of course all of the wise guys in the Society quickly discovered the fact that there was no sharp boundary between what's a review and what's a research paper — they'd sort of review their own research and sneak in some new research, so a paper that was more appropriate for the PHYS REV would be put in RMP — they'd rather put it in RMP because they didn't have a page charge, and so they were all eager to save page charges, so if they could slip a research paper into the RMP, — So one had to kind of fight that tendency and so on.
How would you assess the relative significance of one field as opposed to another, and say that the time is right now for a review? Was there any systematic appraisal?
Yes, I tried to keep it in mind and have a tentative schedule. But truly I was very much at the mercy of what I could get. You could plan and all that, but it wasn't — now, maybe some people are better at cajolery than me. Maybe, having asked these guys, I could have written more formal letters saying, "Look, I'm dependent on this, I need it, it's important," and keep after them. But I didn't do much of that. I'd write them and they'd say, "Yes" and then I'd let them go. So I don't think — I don't know, it wasn't a very satisfactory thing, from my point of view. I'm glad to have other people finding out that it's not so easy.
They're going through the same trouble. Do you recall any specific field that seemed to be really coming into its own during that period, you know, as reflected in some good reviews?
I'd have to kind of refresh my memory, because the RMP was all over the whole subject. Of course, another characteristic of physics, as we all know, in that decade, has been just a tremendous amount of increase of specialization, so that it's harder to have a review that appeals to a wide range of readers, and also I think physicists have developed habits of not feeling responsible for knowing anything except the narrow specialty they're working in. That's a consequence of the large amount of support they've had, and a guy gets into something and he's an omega minus man and doesn't even know the rest of high-energy physics, let alone knowing anything about solid state or semi-conductors. So that the whole concept is — I don't want to be too negative about it. In stating these difficulties, I am just putting down some of my experience. I don't mean that the whole damn thing should be given up as a bad job or anything like that. But there was a big shift in the character and outlook of physics research. You see it at the meetings, how fragmented they are into sections. That made necessary just by the bulk of papers to be handled, and if a guy listens in one section he's precluded from listening in the other, and he feels he has to listen in to the section that he's officially working in, so it goes farther. Now, that's the reason why a really good RMP would have a greater function to play, because the meetings don't broaden you very much, like they used to. But it's hard to get it to do that.
What was the effort during your tenure as editor to get people to write by offering them a premium?
That was talked about a good deal, but we never in point of fact did that. I don't think we did. We might have done one or two. No —Yes, there was a good deal of talk, as officials of the Physical Society and with Sam Goudsmit — you remember Sam of course was managing editor of all the journals, and therefore he had a certain amount of jurisdiction over me, but he didn't exercise it in an impressive way. But I think the feeling was that we just didn't have the money, and especially it didn't seem very sensible or fair to pay certain people and not pay others, or even if you tried to get away with it, why, if people found they could be paid by hanging back, they'd hang back even more, and we'd have to pay for everything rather than just some. And various objections and things of that sort were raised. And so on. Now, I believe that the successor groups, Branscomb and nowadays Pines, are paying for some of it, but I haven't been close to it at all, and I'm not sure that they are, or to what extent or how it's worked out. But that's the way the issue seemed during my time.
Let me get on then to something else, while we're talking about professional activities. In 1964 you were president of the AAPT. That's unusual, to have someone who was president of APS and then also of AAPT, and then of course within the same decade, practically, president of AAAS.
The AAAS was earlier.
Yes, the AAAS — let's see, APS was '46, AAAS, '53, then AAPT '64.
That was a reflection of this interest that you'd been developing in teaching and the Commission on College Physics?
Yes, that's right. Then there was a short period — see, the Commission on College Physics thought that they could get some supplementary teaching material in the form of small paperback books that were printed by Van Nostrand, and I edited that series for a while, about the first half dozen titles.
The Momentum series?
Yes, the Momentum books, they were called. Then Walter Michaels took that over when I decided I had too much on my hands. I don't recall anything very remarkable about being president that year. I presided at meetings, and there was an interesting activity in teaching programs, but — and I was around the Commission on College Physics itself for two or three years about that time.
I notice also that you were president of the Philosophical Society of Washington.
Yes, you know what this is? That's pretty much like a municipal or local physical society, very much. It's just one of these things — it's good, I'm not running it down, but it's one of these things that sort of runs a monthly seminar for the physics community of Washington, which is a very varied one, with so many different government agencies. I think that was in my last year at Washington.
Well, the draft was published in '60.
Well, there was a long lag.
It was published in '62 but it was delivered in '60, so for some reason you —
Oh yes, I remember now. That's right. I was president - I may have been president and then run out on them to Corning. But at any rate, there was a long period when I just couldn't do it, and then I did it in a sort of a delayed sort of way — some years, I don't remember. Went down and gave a talk.
Well, one of the things I wanted to talk about with presidencies, and that is in '68, '69, you were president of the Society for Social Responsibility in Science.
Yes. There were two years of that.
Both '68 and '69.
Yes, it wasn't hyphenated, but '68, comma, '69.
How did you get involved in that?
Well, I've always been — I was a member from way, way back — it's a relatively small group. They're dedicated people, Philadelphia Quaker people that are anti-war and anti-big armaments program, and primarily that's what's occupied their attention, but they're also interested in other social aspects of physics. They're not a very active or big group. They try their best, but they're like a very small minority, trying to have some influence with Congress and opinion-making kind of thing. They just have, aside from board meetings and putting out one of their little four page leaflets once a month to members of Washington and international news on such questions, just one meeting a year, one in early October at the college at New Rochelle in New York, on "Food and People" — they usually pick some theme. Now, they've had some — it's difficult, considering what a small membership and what a small budget — they are on paper international in character, and there's a fair number of German and Scandinavian members. They had a meeting in Sweden just a year or two ago, in Lund, I think it was, and one of the — I think the current president or at least last year was Carl Beckert, a German professor of physics who also happens to be in - I don't know what the Germans call it now, their Reichstag, parliament in the Bonn government, and is a professor in one of the universities. So that's one of those more or less honorary jobs that doesn't involve a great deal.
Who would be a good person for me to talk to if I wanted to go back into the whole history of it?
SSRS? Well, I think perhaps there's a fellow named Malvern Benjamin, in Philadelphia. He's got a little electronics business of his own. He's been president a number of years.
Philadelphia, I can look him up.
Yes. He has a small electronics company of his own that kind of goes in for the medical electronics stuff. Let's see, who else? Fellow named Franklin Miller used to be quite active in it and perhaps still is. He's a professor of physics at Kenyon College in Ohio. That name I know. I'd like to get some of their mailings too. Let's see, another fellow who's interested in it is Ed Ramberg, he's retired now. I don't know where he's living but he's the fellow that for years worked at RCA on photocell development and things of that sort.
I can look him up.
Yeah. They've got an office address out there in one of those suburbs of Philadelphia.
Let me go on then to one other thing before we outline the UFO story, and that is, you told about coming to Colorado and one of the things that you got involved in within a few years was what we call the Scientific Development Commission or something like that.
Well, yes. You see, at the time the accelerator — which is now you know the National Accelerator Lab, Bob Wilson and all that, built in Batavia near Chicago — at the time that I came out here, there was a design contract for such a machine that had been given by the AEC to the Rad Lab in Berkeley, and it was just all sort of, at that time, taken for granted that, with Berkeley's past tradition and them having a design contract, that they interpreted it so that a site near Berkeley would be picked out and that's where it would be — the next step in their evolution. And I think, as far as I know, see the same time that I came out in the fall of '63, Leona Marshall came here too. She was a high-energy physicist who was at NYU and Brookhaven. And she came out here as a full professor and moved out a lot of equipment for measuring bubble chamber plates and all that, and she was more in touch with the machine work than I was. I never did any of that work. But she was a booster type and she said, "Eddie, why don't we get that machine?" and so the two of us started to plot to do it. I suppose I didn't make myself very popular with the Berkeleyites for doing it, because as I say — well, you never know how things would have been, had they been otherwise, but I think we were the ones that brought the pressure on to bring it right into the open, the issue of location as distinct from the issue of design. And so we got busy, and got to the governor, and he was all for it, and some state land and federal land east of Denver seemed like a good place. He pledged that would be available. And so we went to it and put out a brochure, you may have seen it — we perhaps over did it because the thing had a several color cover on it showing beautiful Colorado Mountains, you know, although the text of it was a perfectly serious and sober statement of our advantages, why it would be good to be here.
Do you have an extra copy of that?
No, they've all been dissipated. There were 1500 of them or so, probably, spread around. Then, well, we received a polite reception from the AEC people. They would see us. We'd go — Paul McDaniel was the one that we dealt with mostly. And the thing became more and more open. In fact, it became too open, because the reaction of a great many physicists all over the country when they saw our lovely brochure was to get one out of their own. I think there were something like 80 different places ultimately that were trying to get it.
You said the Colorado entry was the first challenge to Berkeley, or perhaps Brookhaven was a challenge?
I think so. At least the first that I know of, and the first that was ever open about it with a brochure. Of course an awful lot of stuff goes on behind the scenes, just talking with friends and letter writing, and so on. But as you know, what happened was that they ultimately decided on that site at Chicago, and then when Bob Wilson came in, he pretty much discarded Berkeley's plan, so Berkeley really was out of it from both points of view. That is, the machine that was built was quite a departure from the specifics that Berkeley was planning, and besides it wasn't in their part of the country. So that was that. Now, that was called the Colorado Scientific Development Commission. It was just five members, Leona and myself and three businessmen, three — see, Dan Thornton, former governor of the state, was a kind of a wealthy rancher, and Walter Koch, who was the president of Mountainville Telephone Co., and — the name slips my mind now, but a man who was a big shot of the Sterns-Rogers Co., which is a big building construction firm in Denver. I mean it's more than local, it was international business, but it's part of the Denver - You see, it wasn't as if we were trying to be one of these state science advisory commissions that studies all sorts of science questions. We were pretty much ad hoc, just trying to get this. And the AEC treated us nicely. They came out for a site visit, including Glenn Seaborg and various other fellows, Gerry Tape and so on. And so I still think Denver would have been a better place than Chicago. I guess they had to balance a lot of factors.
That was April '65, is that right?
Really? Where did you get that date? I would have thought earlier, but —
— well, wasn't there a thing called the Scientific Advisory Commission? That was April '65, but I don't know if I'm confusing —
Oh yes, come to think about it, yes. That just shows how formal things assume more importance than they really have. We were starting to do this, the business really started in the fall of '63 when I first came here and Leona first came here, and we both started the scheme, and we got the governor in on it from the beginning in a friendly personal way. But I guess there was a lag that might have extended up to '65 before it actually was called a Commission. It was just citizens working up to that time. Then somehow or other, Governor Love got the idea that it would be good to bring in some businessmen and call it a commission so it had official status. So that would account for that date discrepancy. I know it started, activity started a lot earlier, very soon after I came here, about a year and a half later. But I've forgotten myself when the decision was made. When it was made, of course we were through. There was nothing more to do.
Maybe it was '67, I'm not sure.
There are a good many states you know that have these science advisory commissions. And I did a little thing talking to (Governor) Love to try to interest him in sort of converting this into a general state PSAC, you might say. But he wasn't much interested and nothing was done along that line. I'm just as pleased it didn't because it would have been a lot of work. As a matter of fact, right now, in the last few months, — you know, Love's gone off to work for Nixon on the energy shortage, and the present governor is named Vanderhoof. He was appointed such a thing, with Wes Britten as chairman and I'm a member. It's a bigger group, maybe 15 or 20. Just got started this fall. Monday I was at the second meeting. That's why I couldn't see you Monday. Well, I don't know how that's going to work, because what you find is that, it's all very well, a certain gloss about things, it's hard to know what to do, you know, because on the one hand, God knows there are plenty of problems involving science, or at least engineering—water resources and pollution and all that. But the other side of the coin is that in a certain sense every one of those problems are kind of assigned to and the responsibility of existing state agencies. So it's hard to know just how you're going to work with them, and supplement what they do, without stepping on their toes and stuff. So we're just feeling our way. I'll try to put a little time in on that too.
I'm not clear on that development commission which was set up on an ad hoc basis for the accelerator. Did it go out of business as soon as the decision was made?
Yes. There wasn't anything — it had never been intended — see, the composition was such, it wasn't — Leona and I were the only scientists, and we only represented this interest in the accelerator, and the other guys in it had a kind of a financial, commercial, Chamber of Commerce outlook towards some big thing for Denver. So it didn't have a composition or an intention of doing science problems more broadly.
Was there support from the university of its people for the project?
Oh yes. The whole university gang of course supports all — it would have a great influence. We tried awful hard to find a suitable site really close to the university, but though the land out this way relative to the mountains looks pretty flat, it's really got small hills in it and it wasn't good, and the water drainage condition wasn't good. But this other site, you see, was about — oh, not as far as we are from Denver, but a little east of Denver, and it was much more level and dry and so on.
The governor must have invested some money, not only in the publication but in making these feasibility studies.
Yes. I'm not sure whether that was state money or whether some of those businessmen kicked through with a bit. It was a small amount, like three or four thousand dollars. We didn't — part of it was done by Sterns-Rogers and I think they probably did it on a courtesy basis, the true engineering, and then the sort of Chamber of Commerce local type stuff — see, we got out two brochures. We got out that first one that was the flashy thing on our own initiative. Then the other one was much more — after it became a public issue and a lot of sites were in contest, the AEC sort of laid down an outline of what they wanted covered in the proposal, and so we wrote a much more formal data-filled, engineering kind of proposal. And so that was a lot of work.
Let me then ask about some other involvements in state politics, and that was in 1966 when you ran for the state regents.
What prompted you to do that, and what were the issues in the campaign as you saw them?
Oh well, I was just interested in the welfare of the university as it would be advanced by having me on the board. There weren't any really sharp issues. You know, in most states, the regents or trustees or whatever they're called are appointed by the governor. In this state however and Michigan and two or three others that I know of, they're by popular election. Well, it's a kind of a joke because most people in the state don't even know what a regent is. It's one of those things that are way down on the ballot, and it sort of goes by party lines too, which is probably not a good thing. And a friend of mine who had been a regent, a lawyer in Denver who lived in Boulder, Phil Danielson, his term was expiring and he didn't want to run again, and he said, "Why don't you run?" So I said "Sure" and that was it. Every two years, two openings come up, it's been changed a little bit because it was very awkward there for a while. The board being six, it meant that in the case of a tie the president had to cast the deciding vote, which made him very conspicuous and very vulnerable to criticism. Now, then they changed the rules in the last year or two to build it up to nine, so that every two years they'll elect three. The other Democratic incumbent did run, a fellow whose name was Richard Bernick. Bernick and I were the Democrats and the Republicans were Joe Coors, the beer manufacturer, and a fellow named Harry Carlsen who was retired but a former faculty member, sort of dean of athletics and dean of men type. Very nice fellow. Coors is quite a right-winger. I think he's slated to be on the board of the Teller Institute. In fact, the Republicans, when the term was up — see, just in '72 was when the six years were up, so — they repudiated him. They didn't give him their nomination again because he was too liberal for them.
No, no, Harry Carlsen. He was really a first rate nice university type, even though his subject wasn't very intellectual. It was that dean of men kind of stuff. But they repudiated him. So I worked hard on that, by all the traditional methods, had a big sign on my car and drove all over the state attending political meetings. Of course as I say it's not, from the general public's point of view it's not one of the important positions. I'm not at all convinced that selecting regents by popular election is a good thing, because the general population of the state can't get interested in it. They're interested in the top candidates. You go around to these political meetings where they have short speeches by a whole bunch of candidates, and I'd be toward the tail end and everybody'd be tired. But I didn't do so badly. Well, you're not matched up. It's two against two. But the Democrats got over 300,000 votes and the Republicans only got about 10 percent more, and that's pretty much of a — it's a state that swings. It's pretty much of a Republican state but it's not 100 percent Republican. There are Democrats from time to time.
That was '66.
That was my second effort. One time during the war when I was still at Westinghouse, a lady came around — I lived in a little suburb of Pittsburgh called Edgewood — a lady came around and wanted me to run for school board locally, you know, and I started muttering excuses about traveling a great deal and not being around. And she in a very sweet feminine way said, "Oh, that's all right, Dr. Condon, you see, there's never been a Democrat elected in Edgewood, but we like to have a full ticket." So I ran. That was my only other experience.
And you didn't break the precedent.
No. Well, I in a way did because I got something like four times as many votes as any other Democrat, but even that was only about a tenth as many as the Republicans got. This was really a Republican community.
Not only satisfying for the ego but safe regarding your responsibility.
Yes. I remember next day at the lunch table at the executive dining room in Westinghouse, one of the engineers saying, "Condon's not such a bad guy. Tell him if he runs, to run as a Republican."
In the remaining little time, I would like to begin the UFO story by asking about what was your first involvement, just how you got involved, factors you considered in accepting it, and what the immediate response was of your colleagues, whether this response was similar to what you expected starting from the beginning, just the first involvement.
You know what you would expect? I don't know. Anyway, there was a young fellow whose name was Tom Ratchford, PhD, on the staff of the Air Force Office of Scientific Research.
I think he was at the Alta, (Utah) meeting.
I wouldn't be surprised. He's now on the House Science and Astronautics Committee as a staff man. He was a PhD from Virginia, solid state thesis, but he somehow got into this government contract administration game and hasn't done any academic work since then. I would guess he's about ten years beyond the PhD. I'm not sure. Anyway, the head of that office was Bill Price. Well, of course, on our report you can see, we give a lot of the prior history so there's no point in repeating it here, but the Air Force had this sort of a 20 year involvement with this, and you know, they're very cautious at the Air Force. You see, it started out with mysterious sensational reports of funny things seen in the sky, and it was the time of the cold war and after all, they have to defend us against air attack, so they paid attention to it. But they quickly sort of came to the conclusion, I mean after two or three years, in the late forties, that it wasn't a defense problem really... There was no hazard there, no indication of any hazard. But by that time, all kinds of science fiction buffs and nuts and extreme journalists had whopped it up about visitors from outer space and important signs. At any rate, they had a committee headed by Brian O'Brien that was a sort of advisory committee that gave them a report on this, and the way they sort of phrased the question was not that you were to necessarily dispose of the question thoroughly, scientifically, but just, they had come to the conclusion that there was no sense doing anything more on as defense, their specialty. But people were giving them a big line, that they ought in their support of science to support study of this subject for its value to science. And they were kind of skeptical about that, but thought that ought to be studied. So the question that was really put to us was kind of lost sight of in most public discussion of this thing. It was just that now our question was, ought they or ought they not to be willing to support projects in this field? We were more therefore to study the subject as it stood from that point of view. Of course obviously if we'd gone much farther and really found little green men, why, that would have been one answer to the question. But it wasn't as if we were supposed to have a long-continuing job and really track down every report and all this and that. Well, Ratchford came here about, oh, a couple of months before that famous meeting of AIP. I think that was about August of '66. And he and Price both, and they, I think — now, there's all kinds of insinuations that are supposed to make me feel bad, that this had been presented to other universities and turned down by them because they were smart enough to lay off of it, like MIT and so on. I just don't know that. I never tried to find out or anything. But they did come, and Will Kellogg, who was associate director of NCAR, was the guy that kind of sic'd them onto me, and they came and talked about it — would I be willing to help and so forth. Well, we talked about it a good deal among the university people. Now, the JILA people were absolutely adamant against it. They thought it was outrageously silly and wouldn't have anything to do with it, and so I was in JILA — we had to carefully house all the activities in a different building, and the damn fools, they lost out because Wes Britten took it on then as a physics department project, which meant that he got the overhead money, which JILA could have had if they hadn't been so high-toned about it. But so then I tried to put a little staff together, and tried to be general about it, some psychologists and some radio people and astronomers, and it was aimed at about ten people.
Once you had decided to accept this, had you considered that many of your scientific colleagues would not take too kindly to it?
Oh yes. Yes, I did, and probably even if I hadn't thought of it on my own, I could generalize it from the attitude of the JILA people right here. Of course, that kind of a — in a certain sense, kind of pushed me into it even more, because I'm the kind of guy that doesn't like opposition of that sort. And besides, I thought it was a silly attitude, because it should be looked into. On the other hand, it's extraordinarily difficult to look into because all the phenomena are of such short duration, so that you don't really get any direct physical observation yourself. You just are reduced to interviewing at random people who have seen things, most of whom are pretty ignorant and hysterical and one thing and another, so that it's — Of course, there have been things like that. You know, there was a history of ball lightning, when meteorologists for years argued on that as to whether those weren't hysterical reports, or whether there was something called ball lightning, simply because they couldn't make their observations. And this had very much that character, which I didn't fully realize at first. Perhaps if I'd understood it better I would have seen the futility at first. Perhaps if I'd understood it better I would have seen the futility of trying to do this, but I didn't, and I didn't realize at first the intensity and passion and fervor of the true believers, how much they were out to push it. See, there are dozens of varieties. There are some that are extremely religious nuts who believe that Jesus is on Venus and that their members go to Venus to see Jesus and come back and so on, all the way to really quite fairly sophisticated pseudo-science addicts, who don't mix religion with it. So you get a tremendous variety of people that are pushing. Of course, there are the people that are sort of making something out of it by writing books and giving lectures and what not. As a matter of fact, I didn't find that the people who actually saw things and made reports, generally speaking, were so nutty. A great many of these people who were firm believers from reading books on it were just sort of wistful about never having seen anything - just hoping they would. And the people who had seen things were just — there's a curiosity about, what is this funny light that I saw? But of course I had a lot of trouble. I've often said, I'll put it on this tape too, that it's the only subject I've ever been mixed in where you ought to be suspicious of hiring somebody that's interested in the subject, because interest usually means fanatic belief, and fanatic belief doesn't give you very good scientific judgment. So I had a lot of trouble with a couple of staff members who were of that type, and in fact had to fire them. And that was made into a sort of a public scandal. This is — (it) shows in my view, a very unbalanced and unclear attitude on Phil Abelson's part. They had quite a lot of the other side in Science, and never printed my side.
You mean while the study was going on, toward the end of the study.
Yes. Yes, that was spring of '68. See, the thing was set up that we were supposed to take a little bit more than a year. That would have been to the end of '67. Well, we kind of fell behind and needed more time to tidy things up, so they gave us an extension, and we kind of kept on doing a certain amount of field work, sending people out to investigate reports, till about the summer of '68. Then all of the fall of '68 was pulling all that stuff together and writing a report. And then it was published in January '69. That was the timetable of it. Well, of course, aside from whether it's a sound decision or anything, the Air Force sort of used that as their justification for discontinuing work in that, so now there's nothing that they do at all. It's important to realize that they never did do much. I don't mean by that that I see clearly what they should have done, considerably more. But what would happen, every Air Force base had an officer, sometimes just a sergeant but sometimes a colonel, designated UFO officer, and so phone calls when people in the neighborhood reported seeing funny things would be routed to him, and he was supposed to go out and interview them and get more detail and fill out a lot of forms. So thousands of such forms were accumulated, perhaps 10,000. It was all at Wright Patterson, but now that it's been — see, Maxwell Air Force Base down at Montgomery, Alabama, is sort of the Air Force archives, so all that stuff was transferred down there. That's where it is now.
Did the materials that you developed in the course of the project end up back down there, or were they kept around here?
No, we've actually disposed of all of that. I took the position that we had distilled all that was worth distilling, for this long report. Actually it's been a damn nuisance to me, because of course it's terminated, I get nothing out of it, and I don't even have a secretary now. I got a few letters from kooks — it's amazing how nobody ever gets the idea that a project ever terminates. Years later you get letters addressed to the UFO Project, you know, University of Colorado. And schoolteachers are particularly bad. They let kids write term papers on this subject, and nowadays kids are supposed to do research by writing to people, and so I get letters from — I've since given up on that. I throw them away. I don't answer them. I tried for a while. For a while, you see, had a little form letter that would tell them who were the publishers of the report and so on, but there isn't much point in doing that any more since the report's not available.
It might be good to put pressure on the publishers so maybe it would get back in print.
You say it's out of print now?
Yes. Yes, I've forgotten how long it's been. There were, as I say, about 100,000 sold as a paperback and maybe 10 or 15 thousand as a hardback. The hardback — it was kind of an inverted order of printing. It was believed that there would be such a great rush demand and so forth that they rushed through the printing of the paperback, at one of those big factories in Chicago, in about two weeks' time and I never got to read proof on it, so it's full of typos and some things are kind of silly, in that they have a section of plates of photographs of UFO's in the sky, and the printers making those plates would crop the picture and cut out the UFO, so they're just landscapes — some of them — with an empty sky. The UFO was up higher an inch or two. But they were working fast and didn't know what they were supposed to show. Dutton put out the hardback, and I was very shocked at their behavior. They came along later but they too were in a hell of a rush, and the hardback was nothing but a photographic enlargement of the paperback type, then a hardback cover on it, $12.95 instead of $1.95, and well, by God, they were going to run into print with their photographic enlargements, a couple of weeks later, without even letting me see proof on that, I put my foot down, and had a hell of a quarrel with them. Then there must have been about 100 pages where it had to be related, corrected typos. The mean bastards tried to charge the university for the editorial corrections. So there was a lot of unpleasantness about the mechanics of the report. I'd say it was the biggest waste of time that I ever had in my life. And so on.
Let me ask, on the basis of that statement, if you looked back on your entire career, let's assume you do mean what you say about its being the biggest waste of time, what do you think was the most useful thing you did, the most productive and satisfying?
Well, there were three things — that thing that grew out of my thesis that's known as the Branck-Condon principle, it's thoroughly embedded in chemical physics and is still a subject of fruitful research. Then of course the work with Gurney on radioact that Gamow did the selectivity was an important discovery. Of course it was somewhat diminished by the thing independently at the same time, and somehow the Europeans recognized Gamow more than they ever recognized us, so, most references just say that Gamow did it, and then a few of the better books will give Gamow and Gurney and Condon. But it nevertheless was an important thing. Then finally, the success and influence of the Condon-Shortley book over the years. There are a lot of other things I've done, but those were in physics. Of course, I think I did creditable work in the Bureau of Standards and in Corning, and the war work, but that was sort of administrative work.
Thinking of personal satisfaction as you look back, can you think of any particular period you'd distinguish from the others?
As a time of being extra happy? Oh, I was much more in the graduate student years and the student years. I — my life has been characterized by flipping around a lot, not only to different employers, but to different subject matter. Well, that's kind of interesting but it's not an efficient way to work. Contrast me with a guy like say Robert Mulliken. What the hell, he stayed narrowly on electronic structure of molecules all his life, and he's done excellent work. But that doesn't appeal to me. I'm not that much interested in the electronic states of nitrogen. He worked on that for years. So, I don't know ...
Well, I think that's a pretty fair summary.
Yeah. Of course, I've wasted an awful lot of time and energy. It's been wasted for me by these political attacks, and they take an awful lot out of you because, you know, the knives are whirling around your balls and you haven't the slightest idea when they're going to snip them out, and you have to be sidestepping and playing. It's a dirty game. I'm sorry I ever had anything to do with the government.
At the same time, that didn't prevent you from taking political steps in the public arena when you felt it was necessary, even now with the co-chairmanship of SANE.
Oh yes. Yes. You have no idea how delighted I was this spring to watch the unfolding of the whole Nixon debacle. The only thing I'm afraid of is that memories are so short that nothing much will come of it. Nixon will go on being a stinker for his full term.
Well, maybe we should end on that despairing note. Thank you very much.