Hawks, Doves, and Various Avian Hybrids February 16, 2010Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: Albert Einstein, Edward Teller, George Kistiakowsky, Harold Brown, J. Robert Oppenheimer, John Wheeler, Leo Szilard
The earliest version of this post embarrassingly misrepresented the AEC General Advisory Committee’s 1949 position on hydrogen bomb development. Having caught out my error, I have inserted a correction below. —Will
There is an interesting post by Darin over at PACHSmörgåsbord discussing a recent PACHS colloquium given by Terry Christensen on physicists and Cold War politics, with commentary by Erik Rau (one of the few other historians who has written much about the history of operations research). I’m a little bummed not to have seen the talk. I obviously can’t comment on specific points. But I gather from Darin’s summary that it had mainly to do with why Edward Teller (1908-2003) has a bad historical reputation, where fellow Cold War hawk John Wheeler (1911-2008) (about whom Christensen has written) does not. The postwar government activities of physicists is a frequently-visited topic, but it has not been systematically addressed, and, in all but the most sophisticated accounts, it is still rather coarsely-parsed. I’ve been gathering information on it lately, and thought I would offer a few preliminary thoughts about the complex relationship between physicists and American Cold War militarism.
First off, as we know, a very large portion of physics’ greatly-expanded postwar funding came from the military (especially the Office of Naval Research), and the civilian Atomic Energy Commission. A lot of this research, such as work on experimental nuclear reactors, had direct implications for atomic weapons and energy, but it also aided physicists in extending the gains of low-budget pre-fission research programs directed at the atomic nucleus (i.e., “nuclear” physics in its original connotation). Other work had less obvious or immediate technological implications (say, work on high-energy synchrotron accelerators), but was nevertheless supported in anticipation of unanticipated applications. In the 1960s Congress demanded that the military curtail its blue-sky research spending.
The University of California at Berkeley provides a key case example. Prior to World War II, Berkeley’s Ernest Lawrence had already expanded the horizons of big-budget physics. After the war, Lawrence (a hawk) was able to directly exploit his connections to Gen. Leslie Groves to secure surplus Manhattan Project funding for accelerator development before any other agencies had yet settled how they would disperse funds. Lawrence was also unsympathetic to those who did not sign the University of California’s 1950 loyalty oath. In the broader Berkeley department, Italian immigrant professor Gian Carlo Wick and Prof. Harold Lewis did not sign and were fired. The same with postdoc Jack Steinberger. Geoffrey Chew, Bob Serber (who had already been investigated in connection with his security clearance), Howard Wilcox, and Pief Panofsky did sign, but they were soured on Berkeley and soon left. But there were a number who were in Lawrence’s camp. Luis Alvarez (“a lifelong Republican” according to his NAS biographer) became the doyen of “big science” at Berkeley after Lawrence’s death in 1957.
The relationship between postwar physics and the military certainly deepened their political ties, but I’d be very reluctant to ascribe the relationship to “vested interests”, because that would imply that pacifism was a default intellectual position, and that an active interest in national security issues is something that must be explained away. (Here, actually, is where I find Steven Shapin’s Scientific Life to be salubrious, since one of his main theses is that scholars of science still take the academically “pure” position to be a default, and take any deviation from it, such as toward industrial work, to require special explanation.)
Pacifist scientists worked very hard to present their position as the only possible rational stance a scientist could take (see, for instance, this 1947 advertisement which presents a position alleged to be “accepted by all scientists”). There were a number of physical scientists who lobbied hard for pacifist politics: Albert Einstein (the granddaddy of physicist-pacifist activism), Harold Urey, Linus Pauling (who would win the Nobel Peace Prize), Leo Szilard, and Philip Morrison, for a few examples.
Active engagement with the national security state was probably much more common than pacifism among academics. The first three directors of the Defense Department’s Weapons Systems Evaluation Group (WSEG) were all academics: MIT theorist Philip Morse (who was on the committee that put out the aforementioned ad), Caltech general relativity specialist Bob Robertson (who later became scientific adviser to the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe), and Harvard chemist Bright Wilson; the fourth and last was transistor inventor William Shockley. In my research on the topic, all seem to have viewed their work for WSEG as a civic duty. In the mid-1950s, WSEG was supplemented by the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA), which was in large part supported by younger physicists such as maser inventor Charles Townes (he talks about leaving laser work for Washington here) and particle theorist Keith Brueckner.
IDA was also first sponsor/administrator of the summer study group JASON, founded in 1959, which engaged mainly younger academics with military and other national problems on a limited basis, and is still active today. Cutting edge theorists Murph Goldberger and Murray Gell-Mann were, among many others, active participants. Steven Weinberg, one of the architects of physics’ Standard Model, was also a member (last year I picked out a nice audio clip where he discusses how JASON work expanded his physics horizons.)
So was Freeman Dyson. Dyson is probably best known as a science popularizer, and second-best-known as one of the architects of quantum electrodynamics. As a young pacifist mathematician, Dyson was much disillusioned by his experiences as an operations researcher in RAF Bomber Command during World War II. However, aside from being in JASON, he also advocated with Edward Teller for R&D on the Strategic Defense Initiative (as he notes in his biographical memoir for Teller), and for security restrictions around SDI to be relaxed to improve the quality of work on it.
Even physicists who struck a conscience-racked note (see the above video for Oppenheimer’s quintessential example) were usually not divided between pro-military and anti-military stances. As a member of the Atomic Energy Commission’s General Advisory Committee, Oppenheimer wavered back and forth on the question of whether to build the hydrogen bomb. Physicists tended to divide over specific issues such as the h-bomb issue, and, later, the ban on nuclear testing, R&D on anti-ballistic missile technologies, and involvement in Vietnam. Most academic physicists who worked with the military seem to have been in favor of pragmatic diplomacy to curtail nuclear proliferation. Some, such as Sidney Drell and Richard Garwin, have made second careers out of it. Other physicists, such as Jerry Wiesner (electrical engineering prof. to be precise, as well as science adviser to the President, 1961-64; and MIT President 1971-1980) became increasingly public-oriented in their advocacy on not only nuclear issues, but for other causes as well.
The question that came up in colloquium, “bad reputation in the eyes of whom?” is an important one. Many government-associated physicists, such as the above-named diplomatic pragmatists, were targeted for opprobrium, and often harassment by 1960s radicals. Physics departments were in some cases barricaded because “physics”, full stop, was taken to be aligned with the military. However, apart from mass denunciation, it has been otherwise extremely difficult for physicists to acquire a malign reputation on account of their politics. In the 1950s, physicist Harold Brown (Sec. of the Air Force 1965-69, President of Caltech 1969-1976, and Jimmy Carter’s Sec. of Defense) was opposed to ceasing nuclear tests (with Teller, but in contrast to most physicists). Brown comes up relatively rarely in historians’ accounts, despite being a very high-level figure.
According to the diaries of Eisenhower adviser George Kistiakowsky, in 1960, at least, Brown was much disliked by I. I. Rabi (who, with Enrico Fermi, had been a dissenter from [ed. argued for] the AEC General Advisory Committee’s 1949 recommendation in favor of [ed., against!] hydrogen bomb construction [ed. but only provided the Soviets also renounced development]). But for his part Kistiakowsky distinguished Brown from Teller: “I asked Brown to state to me whether his aim was preservation of peace or destruction of the Soviet Union, and he emphatically chose the first objective. I said I had that feeling about him and so asked him to join our meetings, whereas I didn’t ask Teller, who is considerably more bloodthirsty. Brown agreed that Teller isn’t uniquely concerned with preservation of peace” (Kistiakowsky, A Scientist in the White House, p. 411).
Not everyone dislikes Edward Teller. He is still highly respected in many circles for his work against communism (see Lawrence Livermore National Lab’s memorial page). He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003. You can also find many cases of individuals who might not align themselves with Teller, but still had respect for his talents and acknowledged a certain charisma. Nevertheless, Christensen is correct: Teller is almost uniquely loathed among large segments of the physics community and beyond.
Teller’s militant politics surely had something to do with it, since he held adamant views that went well beyond those of diplomatic pragmatists. Likely more important, though, was the way he went about pursuing his goals, for which his testimony against Oppenheimer in the latter’s 1954 security clearance hearings serves as an exemplar. In a 2001 interview with historian Patrick McCray, Garwin compared Teller to peace advocate Szilard: “But Szilard, he certainly had ideas of things that he wanted to get done or things that he didn’t want to get done, but he would never attack a persons character or positions or have whispering campaigns or whatever. Teller, in the past, has not been inhibited to do such things.”
In a 2008 interview with historian Alex Wellerstein, weaponeer and diplomatic pragmatist Herbert York discussed Teller’s stubbornness in pushing technical ideas : “A lot of people get a bad idea and then sort of are amused by it and drop it. Teller’s bad ideas he kept persisting, for ten, twenty, thirty years, in bad ideas, it’s always bad ideas. And at least in nuclear technology he didn’t have a lot of good ideas. He’s famous for the breakthrough on the hydrogen bomb, but that’s it! It’s hard to name another idea that really mattered.”
To describe the politics and interpersonal relations of physicists and other politically or militarily active scientists in the 20th century, we need to deal from a thick deck of biographical cards. We historians must parse issues more sharply than they often are. The above should be taken as a sampler, rather than a fully worked-out attempt.