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Polemical Structures: Enthusiasm, Delay, and the Frustration of Bureaucracy June 21, 2010

Posted by Will Thomas in 20th-Century-Science Historiography, British Science-Society Critiques.
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Enthusiast or gadfly?  Frederick Lindemann, Lord Cherwell in 1948; photograph by William J. Sumits, from the LIFE photo archive

In Paul Lucier’s article on science and the professions in 19th-century America, one point relating to the California oil controversy caught my eye.  In discussing the controversy’s historiography, Lucier observed that one interpretation “popular among business historians and modern scientists” seemed to support a “delay” thesis.  Since chemistry professor Benjamin Silliman, Jr., working on a sizable capitalist contract, was ultimately proven correct that oil would be discovered in California, his science was “vindicated”.  Meanwhile, Josiah Whitney, who criticized Silliman “with all the power of a government position behind him” had his “vindictiveness” revealed.  As Lucier explains, Whitney’s attitude could thus be taken to explain “why California, with its rich oil fields, did not take off sooner.”

I do not think it’s inappropriate to retroactively judge whether one side or another was justified in their claims, either by contemporaneous or later standards, and regardless of later discoveries.  I would, however, like to leave the issue aside here.  (Personally, I have no idea who, if anyone, was justified in the Silliman-Whitney case.)  I also don’t want to make a warmed-over point about the relationship between scientific credibility and political interests.  Instead, I want to concentrate on just how common the polemics of obstruction and delay, and a counter-polemic of enthusiasm, are in history and historiography.  To talk about the issue, I want to move to a territory I know a bit better: World War II.

In the years prior to his becoming Prime Minister in 1940, Winston Churchill positioned himself as a robust opponent of Nazism.  His friend, adviser, and the director of Oxford’s Clarendon Laboratory, physicist Frederick Lindemann (1886-1957), was of like mind.  Both were wary of bureaucratic mediocrity, and they understood it as their duty to awaken the state apparatus from its sloth in order to combat the Nazi threat.  Churchill routinely inserted himself into the details of military planning, and both he and Lindemann were aggressive proponents of technological game-changers.

When the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Defence (CSSAD) was established in late 1934 to consider possible technological responses to a bombing campaign against Britain, Churchill and Lindemann were disappointed that it was created within, rather than above, the Air Ministry.  Churchill maneuvered Lindemann onto the committee, where he promptly pushed for an aggressive, multifaceted research and development effort, and reported on committee activities to Churchill, much to the aggravation of the committee’s other members.  They objected to Lindemann’s indefatigable enthusiasm for what they viewed as pet programs, such as the development of aerial mines, which had been deemed infeasible by members of the Air Ministry’s research establishments.  They saw such programs as necessarily detracting from promising technologies, especially radar (then called “RDF”).  Lindemann was duly maneuvered off the CSSAD, only to gain lasting influence once Churchill was named Prime Minister.

Lindemann’s wartime advocacy gained an iconic significance in 1960, when scientist-turned-novelist C. P. Snow (1905-1980)—fresh off his “Two Cultures” lectures decrying stagnation in the British state bureaucracy—contrasted him to the CSSAD’s chair, Henry Tizard (1885-1959).  Tizard’s insistence on using bureaucracy to marshal professional opinion into workable research and development priorities was portrayed favorably to Lindemann’s uninformed interventions and snide attitude toward civil service researchers.

The lessons of the Lindemann-Tizard dispute contrast with the historiography surrounding the atomic bomb, which tends to emphasize delay, particularly in the early phases of the project, and frustration with bureaucratic response to scientists’ overtures for prompt action.  Interestingly, one finds mention of these frustrations in the official American (Hewlett & Anderson 1962) and British (Gowing 1964) histories, generally tempered, especially with Gowing, by a sort of even-handedness along the lines of “as bureaucratic delays go, it wasn’t really so bad”.

The current most-comprehensive study of early fission research is (I believe) still the journalistic account, Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986).  Rhodes dispensed with even-handed postures in favor of frequent criticism of the sloth of the pre-Manhattan Project Uranium Committee, and its chair, National Bureau of Standards director Lyman Briggs (1874-1963).  The 1940-41 period seems to be the focus of most criticism when work in Britain under the auspices of the MAUD Committee was deemed much more energetic.  Here step-by-step examinations of the feasibility of chain reactions prior to the investment of substantial funds is portrayed as obstructive to the rapid progress demanded by visionaries, especially Leo Szilard (1898-1964).

On the British end, although neither Tizard nor Lindemann were immediate proponents of the development of fission energy or weapons, Lindemann emerged as the more forceful proponent, while Tizard continued to doubt, following the favorable 1941 MAUD report, whether it would result in a workable technology during the war (though Tizard was responsible for setting up the MAUD Committee in the first place under the successor organization to his CSSAD, the Committee for the Scientific Survey of Air Warfare).  In the bomb literature, Tizard tends to emerge as more of a curmudgeon than as the dynamic-but-sound leader he is in the radar literature.

The historiographical problems of enthusiasm, delay, and bureaucracy are usually deeply embedded in past polemics, which were often heavily personalized, attributing bad habits and bad reason to opponents.  The historical significance of particular incidents, and the aptness of certain anecdotes, is often exaggerated for the sake of raising certain episodes to the level of lesson-bearing, and often deeply moralized, exemplars.

The atomic bomb history is a highly visible case-in-point of the structures that take place where polemics and historiography meet.  Scientific contributions to the war were good, but the bomb, of course, is evil, but, then,  so is bureaucratic sloth, so bureaucratic obstruction to the bomb ends up coming off badly.  Thus, during the war, the bomb only becomes evil when inserted into the evil strategy of strategic bombing (which, by the way, is also often associated with the enthusiasm of Lindemann).  Enthusiasm for bomb development only itself becomes evil in the wake of the immediate postwar failure to advance international control of atomic weapons, whereupon it is associated with suspect characters, notably Edward Teller (1908-2003), even though further development was much more widely supported.

The ultimate success of the Manhattan Project makes the idea that wartime development of the bomb was an unnecessary diversion of resources into a non-serious perspective, but it is important to remember that America’s diversion of resources into the bomb project was extraordinary, and even then the bomb was not finished until after the defeat of one of the Axis powers.  However incorrect it proved, pessimism about the bomb contributing to the war was certainly sensible.

As an example of this perspective, the Carnegie Institution of Washington’s Merle Tuve (1901-1982) left the uranium project in 1941 to work on the proximity fuse, satisfied that the construction effort found to be required made Axis development of it unlikely.  In a later interview, he continued to express the view that the Manhattan Project had been a diversion of resources, and attributed the scaling up of the American project to enthusiasts such as Marcus Oliphant, Ernest Lawrence, and Arthur Compton.

Coming to a proper historiographical posture with respect to these issues is difficult.  On the one hand, it would be not only trite, but incorrect simply to say that enthusiasm and delay are always in the eye of the beholder.  Sometimes enthusiasm does blind to obvious difficulties, and sometimes clearly beneficial ideas are obstructed for poor reasons.  On the other hand, accusations of enthusiasm and delay are part and parcel of historical polemics in the modern era, and can create the impression that scientific research and technological development had a natural rate at which they should have proceeded.

Finally, historians enjoy narrating historical controversies, and are good at not being taken in by historical polemics when resort to a he-said/she-said format is possible.  However, I want to surmise that the historiography of bureaucracy may remain unusually distorted by historical polemics, because “bureaucracy” is seldom in a position to fight back against the polemics constantly thrown against it.

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