jump to navigation

Hawks, Doves, and Various Avian Hybrids February 16, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: , , , , , ,

The earliest version of this post embarrassingly misrepresented the AEC General Advisory Committee’s 1949 position on hydrogen bomb developmentHaving 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.

Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, credit: AIP Emilio Segre Visual Archives, Gift of Carlo Wick

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.



1. Darin - February 16, 2010

Will, you are correct: Terry’s paper was an effort to explain why Wheeler is widely liked while Teller is reviled, when their politics and their relationship to nuclear armament and buildup was largely indistinguishable. If you are interested, I can forward a copy of the paper to you.


Will Thomas - February 17, 2010

I’d be very interested to see it. Please do send it along to my email address, which is under my mini-bio on the “about” page, suitably disguised against the spambots. Thanks!

2. Alex Wellerstein - February 19, 2010

Hi Will,

I have always been underwhelmed by the _content_ of Teller’s testimony against Oppenheimer. It is actually quite tame, read in its entirety, and he takes extreme measures to emphasize that he doesn’t think Oppenheimer is disloyal. He accuses Oppenheimer of being inconsistent, and expresses some very measured caution against someone who makes inconsistent decisions having a large degree of power.

The “damning” quote that is always printed is, by really any standards, extremely mealy-mouthed: “In this very limited sense I would like to express a feeling that I would feel personally more secure if public matters would rest in other hands.” I find it pretty interesting that historians always have to emphasize how “damning” and climactic this particular line is — in part because it is obviously not very strong on the face of it.

Now, we all know that this was not the extent of Teller’s opinions — his private communications with Borden and Strauss make it much more clear that he thought Oppenheimer was deliberately sabotaging him, Livermore, and the Super. But during the testimony he took pains to look considerate, impartial, mildly concerned. But somehow he crossed a major moral line for other members of his scientific “cohort.”

(By contrast, nobody seems to care too much that David Griggs, who was also a defense/academic scientist, went even further and accused Oppenheimer as being part of some sort of massive conspiracy, said he was basically disloyal, etc. He gets written off as an “air force scientist,” some sort of subspecies of lesser-man to begin with.)

It’s not as if Teller’s testimony was really the nail in Oppenheimer’s coffin, anyway. It is clear even from the transcripts, much less the really wonderful behind-the-scenes work on the Oppenheimer hearing by Priscilla McMillan and Martin Sherwin, that the most damning witness against Robert Oppenheimer was… Robert Oppenheimer, who admitted to lying to security officers, having extramarital affairs with a “fellow traveler” while running Los Alamos, and other “inconsistencies” that would certainly have gotten him denied a security clearance were he just another candidate as early as the late 1940s, much less the mid-1950s. The trend in AEC Q Clearances to be suspicious of lying and licentiousness (much less with “fellow travelers”) is marked even during Lilienthal’s tenure, much less Strauss’s.

It’s clearly not his political opinions that solo Teller out (Wheeler, Wigner, Lawrence, and many more well-respected and well-liked scientists of that time held extremely similar ones). Is it his style? His vanity? His relentless scheming? His place as the perfect foil/villain in our dramatic narrative? His general duplicity? I don’t know. Even from the archival documents he doesn’t come off as a terribly likable figure. (Neither does Oppenheimer, in my opinion, but that’s another story.) He’s the kind of person who seems to provoke people into wholly despising him or wholly embracing him — and not much in between.

I do wonder when historians will be able to tell a more objective story about Edward Teller, though, and not just re-fight the same old battles via the medium. (In this sense, it does not help that Teller lived a very long time, and was actively controversial through most of it.) Now that most of the characters in this story are some time gone, though, perhaps we can hope for it in the next generation of scholarship.

(My own stab at this is a paper on the history of the Teller-Ulam priority dispute that I gave at HSS in 2007, but I haven’t found time to do anything more with it since then.)

Will Thomas - February 19, 2010

Hi Alex, you wrote the above while I was writing the below, so that’s not any sort of response to you. Thanks for all of this, which is very useful to the discussion. I think it speaks well for itself, but I just wanted to chime in on Griggs, who is actually a reasonably important player in my own research. He wasn’t a PhD; he has a master’s from Ohio State, but was a junior fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows from 1934-1941 (later these fellowships were limited to three years). During the war he was an “expert consultant” to the Sec. of War, an office run by MIT electrical engineer Ed Bowles (it’s in Kevles’ The Physicists, but in the main it is a deeply under-studied wartime office, which deployed technical experts to field commands). He worked for RAND from ’46 to ’48, and was chief scientist at the Air Force from ’51 to ’52, but from ’48 to ’74 he was a professor of geophysics at UCLA. Before looking back at Galison & Bernstein, I didn’t realize he was so nasty to Oppenheimer, so clearly there’s much more to be learned. There are all these 2nd and 3rd tier people who need to be taken more seriously.

Alex Wellerstein - February 19, 2010

That’s interesting! Yes, there is an entire cadre of the military scientists (as I know you know better than probably anyone else!) who get written out of the stories, or dismissed because they aren’t “first class” in the sense of “Nobel-quality academic,” though they really ought to be included in the historians’ narratives a little more carefully, if we don’t want to just replicate the values of the academic status system.

One last little anecdote, on politics/scientists. In 1964, Linus Pauling proposed to the National Science Foundation to start a research institute that would somehow combine his interests in biology and politics. Oppenheimer was asked to be a peer-reviewers for the proposal. The entirety of Oppenheimer’s peer-review (which is in his papers at Library of Congress) is as follows: “Pauling needs no praise of mine as a molecular biologist. The institutional arrangements proposed seem idiotic.”

Will Thomas - February 19, 2010

Other people in the Harvard Society of Fellows with Griggs in this time period:

John Bardeen (transistor co-inventor, PSAC 1959-62)

James Fisk (Bell Labs bigwig and AEC Director of Research 1947-48, PSAC 57-60)

Stanislaw Ulam (mathematician and key H-bomb development figure)

Harvey Brooks (later well-known as a science-policy scholar, PSAC 1960-64).

3. Will Thomas - February 19, 2010

This post has inspired me to go back and review some of the secondary lit. Back in the late-’80s there was a lot of revisionary work on the politics of physics, which needs to be seen as historiographically indispensable, i.e. no historical analysis should proceed without taking seriously these pieces’ insights.

1) Peter Galison and Barton Bernstein, “In Any Light: Scientists and the Decision to Build the Superbomb, 1952-1954,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences (1989): 267-347.
2) Dan Kevles, “Cold War and Hot Physics: Science, Security, and the American State, 1945-56,” Historical Studies in the Physical and Biological Sciences (1990): 239-264.

Both pieces explicitly aim to undermine narratives that would posit a clear hawk-dove divide in postwar physics. (1) does so by examining the instability, and roots of instability, of individual scientists’ positions vis-a-vis H-bomb development between the war through the early 1950s. (2) offers a quick, and excellent overview of the realities of R&D for national defense in the postwar and early Cold War period, and academic scientists’ channels of involvement with it. Kevles’ analysis should have made clear that this involvement was not peculiar or requiring a special motivational analysis: while civilian scientists “might exercise [their new] influence to check the ambitions of the defense laboratories, they might equally well use it to represent the interests of the civilian defense-security enterprise, pressing the continuing pursuit of technological superiority as the key to national security.”

Finally, some complication and revisions of the case of Harold Urey, whom I lumped above with the pacifists. After the war Urey, like many pacifists, pressed for the abolition of war via the creation of world government, but, crucially for him, such a government had to be democratic in character. Thus: “undermining the totalitarian dictatorship that controls eastern Europe and much of Asia is necessary before we can expect to work with the important peoples dominated by that dictatorship at the present time. Eventually there is no satisfactory solution to modern military problems except a universal planetary government, and it is my contention that that cannot be secured until essentially representative and democratic institutions are established in those countries where tyranny now exists.” Accordingly, Urey supported development of the H-bomb. So, yes, parsing issues deeply is a good thing.

4. Thony C. - February 19, 2010

This discussion is so far outside of my normal place of residence in the Renaissance that I am not qualified to make an objective contribution. However, in my youth I listened, horrified, to a live interview with Teller on the BBC radio in which he calmly advocated bombing them before they bomb us and if turning Europe into a nuclear wasteland with neutron bombs is the price we have to pay to keep the youth of America from having to fight a war against the commies he can live with that and sleep peacefully at night. Since that day I have a (ir)rational intense dislike of Teller that I don’t have for any other physicist living or dead.

Will Thomas - February 19, 2010

But this is just the sort of thing that’s so very helpful. Alex works a lot on nuclear security issues, and I work a lot on bread and butter things like military R&D and tactical development, and we both spend a lot of time doing things like looking at official committee minutes. I don’t want to speak for Alex, but I’m reluctant to venture outside the evidence I regularly see, and the fact is we simply don’t have anything even approaching a full survey of scientist’s public statements. Usually it’s the case of the same sound bites that get recycled again and again in new analyses, which would make a rigorous study of Teller’s (and many, many others’) public interviews extremely useful, so we could more accurately judge just how intemperate he was in various settings, and what sorts of things the public was likely to hear and from whom.

5. Blogs - February 21, 2010

The Weekly Smörgåsbord #1…

Welcome to the first weekly selection of articles and posts that have attracted my attention over the past week. The only real criterion for inclusion is my own amusement. “The Giant’s Shoulders #20” — the latest history of scie…

6. Blogs - March 17, 2010

The Giant’s Shoulders #21—History of Science Blog Carnival…

This latest edition of The Giant’s Shoulders celebrates the birthday of Caroline Herschel who was born on 16 March 1750. In the early 1770s she moved to Bath to join her brother William. Initially she helped him teaching and performing music. On …

7. Det perfekta tomrummet › Vem skall vi skriva om? - March 17, 2010

[…] på Ether Wave Propagande har det dykt upp en liten observation i kommentarsflödet till ett inlägg som behandlar vikten av att hitta en rik uppsättning […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s