A Think Tank and a Bureaucracy

RAND Analyst Herman Kahn, author of On Thermonuclear War

First off, I think I deserve some kudos. I’ve worked on my website and made what I consider to be improvements in its presentation. I beg for recognition of this because I’ve never been good with electricity, which would include computer circuits, like websites. My electricity curse started at a young age when, every year, I managed to electrocute myself putting up Christmas lights on our family Christmas tree. Never failed—I’d touch some stupid single wire Christmas bulb and feel a jolt go through me. I was even once struck by lightning! No kidding, it was during a thunderstorm and I was at Coney Island.

The curse continued even when I was teaching physics at West Point, and I never failed to electrocute myself while demonstrating an electrical circuit in class. The cadets enjoyed my discomfit way too much. So, you can imagine that getting a website to obey my orders is quite an achievement for me. But I digress, so let’s get back to the story of how America’s thermonuclear age got started.

This blog is going to introduce to you the formation of a think tank and a bureaucracy. Why, you may ask, aren’t we talking about thermonuclear weapons? After all, that’s what I promised. It turns out when I was doing my research for this, I had no idea a think tank would have anything to do with physicists saving the world for democracy. Then I learned better. My “aha” moment came one day when I was interviewing Mike May, who you will soon see will play a big part in this story. Mike would refer to eminent RAND analysts as Herman or Bill or whatever; clearly, he kept a very close and personal relationship with these guys. When I went back and read some articles Mike had written in the 1980s, I couldn’t help but notice he used terms that came directly from RAND study papers on nuclear deterrence. Those guys were working with each other!!

The guys I am referring to had names like William Kaufmann, Bernard Brodie, Herman Kahn, Albert Wohlstetter, and Andrew Marshall, among others. Those guys were big time. I remember once, when reading a paper by William Kaufmann, that I was reminded of Kennedy’s campaign speeches when he was running for President. Kennedy had absorbed and accepted Kaufmann’s ideas hook, line, and sinker. That Kaufmann was good old “Bill” to Mike May, a thermonuclear warhead designer. What I hope to show you is that the physicists at Livermore and the political analysts at RAND grew up together, and formulated our national strategy. That’s a mouthful, isn’t it. Those ideas will have to come later.

For now, we’re going to see how RAND started, and while we’re at it, how the AEC, the forerunner of today’s Department of Energy started, and later we’ll see why those organizations were so important to our story. Please enjoy some more highlights from my upcoming book, From Berkeley to Berlin:

Just as the creation of the MIT Radiation Laboratory helped Lawrence promote a nuclear program during World War II, by uniting him with David Griggs and Johnny Foster, so too, the US Air Force created a think tank after the war that would help Lawrence promote a thermonuclear program, by uniting him and his Rad Lab physicists with prominent political scientists. That relationships starting in a research laboratory in Massachusetts should be somehow connected to an analytic center established by the Air Force was not a coincidence, but a natural outcome of Lawrence’s zeal to accomplish his goals. How did that happen?

For the first few years following World War II, the Air Force had a monopoly: nuclear weapons at the time were atomic bombs dropped from bombers. So, it seemed natural that the service should adopt a strategy on the use and deployment of nuclear weapons. Air Force strategy for dealing with nuclear weapons would have to evolve from its experiences with the massive bombing campaigns of the world war. 

Actually, the formation of a modern Air Force began when a promising Army Air Corps officer named Henry “Hap” Arnold was earning his PhD in aeronautical engineering at Caltech. During his graduate studies, Arnold met aeronautical pioneer Theodore von Kármán, and they became fast friends. By World War II, Arnold was General of the Army Air Forces, and he asked von Kármán, the man who had created Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in 1936, to be his chief scientific advisor. As the war was winding down, Arnold wrote von Kármán a memo asking him to form a committee, to be called the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board, that would study the Air Force’s possibilities for future wars. 

Von Kármán’s committee responded thirteen months later with a report titled Toward New Horizons, which began with the sentence, “The scientific discoveries in aerodynamics, electronics and nuclear physics open new horizons for the use of air power.” The report predicted the advent of the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and advised the Air Staff to maintain “a permanent interest of scientific workers in problems of the Air Forces.” To do that, von Kármán suggested the Air Force create a special organization that connected the service with the sciences.

Arnold made it a virtue to rely on engineers and scientists for advice—he kept ongoing relationships within the aeronautical industry throughout the war. Two of these were with Arthur Raymond, chief engineer of the Douglas Aircraft Company, and Raymond’s deputy, Frank Collbohm, who also served as a technical advisor on Arnold’s staff. Early in the war, Collbohm managed a contract with the Royal Air Force to design a radar set for the A-20 aircraft, called the Boston. The RAF wanted a plane with night flying capabilities and an ability to land in fog. 

While searching for technologies to help with his A-20 project, Collbohm investigated reports of a radar being developed at the MIT Radiation Laboratory that might meet British needs. It turned out to be Alvarez’s Ground Controlled Approach Radar project, and Collbohm went to MIT to see it. Impressed with the radar technology, he put it into the A-20 aircraft; he was impressed as well with the talents of Alvarez and the project’s pilot, David Griggs. 

Collbohm warned General Arnold the Air Staff was losing touch with its scientific advisors, something the service could ill afford to do. Arnold agreed and knew it was time to implement von Kármán’s recommendations in Toward New Horizons. He asked Collbohm for an estimate to create a facility for a group of scientists to support Air Force studies. [3]

On September 30, 1945, Collbohm presented Arnold with a proposal to create an analytic research facility, and he sweetened the proposal with an offer from Donald Douglas, the owner of Douglas Aircraft: Douglas agreed to provide a site in Santa Monica, California for the facility. The next day, Arnold accepted the proposal and awarded Collbohm $10 million to create the organization, called RAND, a name that was a takeoff from the phrase “research and development.” Organizational work started, and by March 1, 1946, Project RAND was born. Remembering how impressed he was with the two physicists he had met at the MIT Radiation Lab during the war, Collbohm made David Griggs the first head of the Physics Division, and he made Luis Alvarez his first consultant. 

Griggs and Alvarez maintained a close relationship following their stint together researching radar at the MIT laboratory. Through that relationship, Griggs also befriended Lawrence, and he was drawn into Lawrence’s passions, especially those dealing with the strategic defense of the country. In the coming years, the three physicists would continually support one another in a common campaign to defend the nation against Communist aggression.

* * *

Although not obvious at first, Lawrence’s relationship with Vannevar Bush during World War II was going to pay a healthy dividend that would benefit Lawrence’s passion to protect the country against Communism. With the end of the war, Bush knew organizations he had created to build an atomic program, including the Manhattan Project, were not sustainable in peacetime, and against bitter resistance, he fought to shut them down. However, Bush argued linking the best science to national goals had to endure, and new atomic organizations fitted to peacetime were needed. He met with officials of the Defense Department, and together they hatched a plan to create a nine-member commission to oversee atomic research. Four members of the commission would be military flag officers—generals and admirals.

Although he remained allied with the Defense Department plan, Bush was wary over the way the commission was organized. For instance, some legacies of the Manhattan Project persisted, like keeping atomic research secret. That would place restrictions on scientists who were pursuing research into nuclear physics. As plans for the new commission became known publicly, discontent arose. At the opening of his Institute of Nuclear Studies, Fermi expressed his concerns about the Defense Department plan, “It is not that we will not work for the government but rather that we cannot work for the government. Unless research is free and outside of control, the United States will lose its superiority in scientific pursuit.”

In October 1945, the new Secretary of War, Robert Patterson, lobbied sympathetic Congressmen in the House and Senate Military Affairs Committees to introduce legislation on the Defense Department plan to control atomic research. The result was the May-Johnson Bill, named after the chairmen of the two military committees. Once the public understood it, the bill aroused open opposition. The bill could be interpreted as enabling a commission to jail a scientist for ten years and fine him $10,000 for violating a security regulation he never knew existed. There was fear of an intrusion of martial law into higher academic institutions. 

. While Congressman May held hearings on the bill, Brien McMahon, a freshman senator from Connecticut, succeeded in getting an alternate bill passed by Congress to create an atomic energy control board strictly under civilian control. On August 1, 1946, President Truman signed the McMahon Act, better known as the Atomic Energy Act, into law.[5]

The McMahon Act established the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), composed of five fulltime commissioners, one chairman and four members, appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate. The AEC became the government agency responsible for the oversight of the nation’s nuclear weapons program, and it also had a mandate to foster research in nuclear science. The act established a General Advisory Committee (GAC), made up of experts in the field of nuclear science, to provide scientific advice to the commissioners. Oppenheimer was appointed to be the first chairman of the GAC. 

To keep at least a modicum of military involvement with nuclear weapons, a House amendment required the AEC’s Director of Military Applications had to be an active-duty military officer. Whoever held that position played a key role in how nuclear weapons were developed by the country. The act also established a Congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE), which was composed of Senators and Representatives who enacted laws dealing with nuclear weapons and atomic energy. McMahon became the first chairman of the JCAE.

To control the dissemination of atomic secrets, the act created a new classification category for information related to nuclear weapon designs— “RESTRICTED DATA.” With the creation of the AEC, the agency granted new security clearances for personnel who worked on nuclear weapons. To organize access on who could see atomic secrets, the bureaucrat responsible for establishing the security clearance system borrowed initials from a form each applicant had to fill out to receive a clearance, the Personnel Security Questionnaire. An applicant given a “P” clearance was not permitted access to classified information but was allowed to perform service duties at AEC facilities. Those given an “S” clearance were given access to secret government information related to general national security topics. A “Q” clearance was needed by anyone wishing to have access to secret or top-secret RESTRICTED DATA information. 

4 thoughts on “A Think Tank and a Bureaucracy

  1. Hugh Stirts

    I am quite amazed by Tom’s (Ramos) ability to present in such a cogent and fascinating fashion this history. He never demonstrated this ability at school :):)



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