David lilienthal, the atomic energy commission, and the conflict over militarization during early cold war



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CONTENTS

1 Introduction 1


2 Pre-AEC 6
3 The Custody Battle 20
4 The Groves Battle 31
5 The Hydrogen Bomb Battle 47
6 Conclusion 66

Following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, the United States has evidently embarked on the road of militarization. Indications include ongoing military efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq, President Bush’s 2004 budget proposal seeking a seven percent increase in military spending, Time magazine naming the American soldier as its 2003 person of the year, and legislation like the Patriot Act that used national security to justify restrictions on civil liberties. The militarization of American society is not new, however. Historians such as Michael Sherry have long interpreted America’s past century as one dictated by militarization, a process in Sherry’s words, “by which war and the national security became consuming anxieties and provided the memories, models, and metaphors that shaped broad areas of national life.”1 Sherry’s twentieth-century definition of militarization remains an applicable description of the “process” again “consuming” the U.S. However, as protests against the Iraq war in the U.S. and abroad demonstrate, there are counter currents to militarization. And although the Beats and the Hippies fostered the nation’s most publicized twentieth-century counter cultures to militarization, there were also less-heralded attempts by scientists and those inside government. One of the most notable yet historically overlooked twentieth-century efforts against militarization was led by David E. Lilienthal, the famed New Deal director of the TVA and the first chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission.

When the gruesome details of the atomic carnage leveled on Hiroshima and Nagasaki first began emerging publicly, those fearing military control of the atom started speaking out. Already in early January of 1946 Washington Post reporter Marquis Childs had written a series of articles underscoring two sentiments concerning the atom: “One was the fear of military control; the other was a deep personal antagonism for General Groves,” director of the Manhattan Project that made the bomb.2 Few government officials better exemplified those with these twin concerns than Lilienthal. Beginning with his remarks against military secrecy of the atom at the Chicago conference in September of 1945, Lilienthal was determined to wrestle control of American nuclear policy from the military and General Groves. In 1946, he advocated the establishment of an international body to control the “dangerous atom” through the drafting of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report. Then, in 1947, when he became chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), he battled the military’s attempt to take over the custody of the atomic arsenal. He also played a leading role in forcing the resignation of General Leslie R. Groves and fought against the development of the hydrogen bomb. Even after he left the AEC in 1950, he continued to work for the prevention of nuclear proliferation.3

Despite the significance of Lilienthal in the fight against militarization (and of that cause in his life), many historians, including Sherry, have failed to appreciate Lilienthal’s role in their studies of American militarism.. Instead Sherry’s thesis on the militarization of U.S. society in the twentieth-century focuses on a symbiosis between civilian and military officials in the post-war period of 1945-1953: “Civilian leaders shared outlooks and duties with military leaders,” notes Sherry. “Few officers were more alarmed about the Soviets and the nation’s security than [James] Forrestal; few matched physicist Edward Teller’s zeal for nuclear weapons; few championed air power better than Secretary of the Air Force Stuart Symington.”4 And as historians have neglected Lilienthal in a more specific anti-militarization context, largely, that have also failed to chronicle his life.

The only comprehensive study of Lilienthal was written by political scientist Steven M. Neuse. Strongly influenced by Louis Hatz’s The Liberal Tradition in America, Neuse’s biography principally views Lilienthal as a “quintessential twentieth-century liberal moralist,” who as a New Dealer “epitomized…optimism, inventiveness, and pragmatic drive as he sought to enlarge and empower the public realm at the expense of narrow private interest.”5 Nowhere in his final analysis of Lilienthal’s legacy does Neuse make reference to his anti-militarization efforts and his only mention of the AEC concerns corporate attempts at privatizing the atom: “His confidence in the people’s judgment in the AEC days was an important counter in the battle against forces that sought to privatize discussion about the atom.”6 More important than Lilienthal as “counter” to the privatization of the atom was Lilienthal as “counter” to the militarization of the atom. Lilienthal’s anti-militarization labors deserve far more prominent billing on his historical epithet than Neuse or anyone has yet to acknowledge.

And, again, foremost motivating Lilienthal’s anti-militarization was his distrust of the atom being controlled by the “military mind.” Throughout Lilienthal’s second journal volume spanning 1945-1950, there are many references to his misgivings of the atom juxtaposed with the “military mind.” Of this dangerous mentality, in November of 1947, Lilienthal writes, “It is extraordinary, though, how freely the Armed Services make the most bloodthirsty statements about their preparations, with no one so much as raising an eyebrow.”7 Even better encapsulating Lilienthal’s worries is a journal entry in December of 1947, in which Lilienthal remarks, “I know it is better that one feels as I do should have a hand in this business [atomic energy], as a deterrent to the kind who rather likes the idea of the biggest act of killing in all time—making Attila the Hun seem like a piker.”8

Much of the evidence used to defend the thesis that Lilienthal was an eminent historical figure in the counter currents to U.S. militarization is supported by Lilienthal’s second journal volume titled The Journals of David E. Lilienthal: The Atomic Energy Years, 1945-1950. Autobiographical writings, as central sources, may not always be deemed credible by historians. Neuse, whose biography also chiefly uses Lilienthal’s journals as sources, believes that Lilienthal’s first four journals covering from 1919-1959 are dependable. “The first four volumes, covering his life through July 1959, are probably devoid of calculation as any public diaries, and certainly so than most autobiographies,” he argues.9 In defending the journals’ credibility Neuse points out that Lilienthal never discussed making the journals public until 1957: “Much of the credibility hinges on whether or not Lilienthal intended to make the work public. The record seems clear that he thought little until the late 1950s of doing anything with his secrets.”10 It wasn’t until 1957, at the urging of his son-in-law, that Lilienthal met with two Princeton historians and one librarian to talk about whether the journals were of public interest. And it wasn’t until 1959 that Lilienthal actually wrote a publisher about the possibility of publishing the journals.

Lastly, if historians have ignored his anti-militarization pains, primarily as AEC chairman, what did Lilienthal make of his efforts in battling the Pentagon? As early as July 1947, it was believed at the AEC the “peaceful” atom, that of alternative power source, was years or maybe even decades away from being realized. Therefore, much of the AEC’s energies were to be spent on military applications of the atom. Potential then existed for the military to run roughshod over the AEC. However, with Lilienthal at the AEC’s helm this proved not to be the case; as it did for succeeding chairmanships. In 1963, over a decade removed from his AEC chairmanship, Lilienthal wrote that the civilian AEC had been gobbled-up by militarization, that the AEC had become, basically, a military subsidiary:

The role of the AEC as a special civilian custodian and watchdog [of nuclear weapons] has evaporated. The AEC functions chiefly as a designer, developer, maker, and tester of atomic weaponry…As the reason for sharp separation between civilian and military atomic roles has faded, so the distinctive role of the AEC has changed. The AEC as weaponeer has in fact become very much part of the military establishment, serving the needs and goals of that military establishment as defined by the military.11
As much as the later literature of counter culturists like Theodore Roszak, Charles Reich or Herbert Marcuse denounced the military-industrial complex, it is doubtful whether anyone could have done more to restrain militarization than Lilienthal. More clear is that from 1946-1950, Lilienthal was determined to keep the AEC as independent from military influence as one could.
Pre-AEC

David E. Lilienthal was born July 8, 1899, in Morton, Illinois. He spent the majority of his childhood and adolescence in Indiana where he remained to attend DePauw College. After DePauw, Lilienthal entered Harvard Law School. While at Harvard, he was heavily influenced by law professor Felix Frankfurter who helped spark Lilienthal’s interest in labor law. Graduating from Harvard in 1923, Lilienthal joined the law firm of well-known Chicago labor attorney Donald R. Richberg. During his stint with Richberg, Lilienthal gained national attention for successfully arguing a utilities case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The case in turn attracted the interest of Progressive Wisconsin Governor Philip LaFollette who appointed Lilienthal to his state’s utilities commission in 1931. Lilienthal left the commission in 1933 when A. E. Morgan offered him one of three directorship positions at the newly created Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). From his position as director of dams, Lilienthal assumed chairmanship of the TVA in 1941.

Seeing firsthand how the TVA was able to transform the depressed Tennessee Valley, Lilienthal soon became an outspoken champion of teaming big government with technology. In 1944, he authored TVA: Democracy on the March which Neuse called “arguably the finest example of political rhetoric in the century.”12 With characteristic New Deal optimism, the book lauded the partnership of technology and democracy: “I believe that through the practice of democracy the world of technology holds out the greatest opportunity in all of history for the development of the individual, according to his talents, aspirations, and willingness to carry the responsibilities of a free man.”13 TVA also emphasized the need for internationalism in the post-war period and popularized the term “grass roots democracy.” With the ending of the war and the military continuing to shroud the atom in secrecy, Lilienthal drew on the themes from TVA, especially relative to “grass roots democracy”—that of an active and knowledgeable democratic citizenry—in advocating atomic openness.

Lilienthal’s first atomic grievance with the military came in late September of 1945, at a two-day conference he attended on atomic energy control, inspired by physicist Leo Szilard and hosted by the University of Chicago. By Lilienthal’s own account, his remarks at the conference were enthusiastically praised by other attendees. On September 21, 1945, the conference’s concluding day, Lilienthal commented in his journal that his words had “created quite a stir…I got fervent approval and handshakes from a curious assortment of men.”14 Lilienthal attributed the favorable response to his belief that atomic secrecy should not and could not be tolerated:

Toward the close of yesterday’s session I said I had the impression that intelligent discussion of these grave policy issues were inhibited by the Army’s restriction, exemplified by the Army’s effort to obstruct the holding of this very meeting; and I thought most of the efforts toward the censorship of the scientist is nonsense…Unless people are properly informed of the facts, the resulting public policy regarding the atomic bomb will neither be sound nor enduring.15
That Lilienthal insisted on atomic openness is not surprising. He had already spelled-out such themes in TVA. Neuse wrote that the conference was “the opening to the future he [Lilienthal] had been looking for.”16 With Chicago serving as the starting block, Lilienthal began a long career of challenging the military. And his Chicago argument against atomic secrecy transitioned into his next atomic endeavor, the Acheson-Lilienthal Report.

Pressured by Congress and an approaching June meeting of the United Nations Commission on Atomic Energy where the U.S. was to declare its official position regarding international atomic energy, on January 7, 1946, Secretary of State James F. Byrnes called Under Secretary of State Dean Acheson with an assignment. Byrnes informed Acheson that he was naming him to chair a committee which was responsible for preparing a report outlining the nation’s policy regarding the international control of atomic energy. Serving under Acheson on the committee included: General Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Engineer District (MED); Vannevar Bush, former Director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development; James B. Conant, President of Harvard; and James J. McCloy, former Assistant Secretary of War. Acheson was troubled by both the enormity of the assignment and his ignorance of the subject matter.

To calm his boss’s anxieties, Herbert Marks, Acheson’s assistant, recommended that the committee be supplemented by a consulting panel which could investigate and report all pertinent information to the committee on a more full-time basis. Marks, who had worked under Lilienthal at the TVA, suggested Acheson place Lilienthal as the panel’s chairman. Acheson agreed and after a short deliberation Lilienthal accepted. Other consulting panel members were: Chester I. Barnard, President of the New Jersey Bell Telephone Company; Robert J. Oppenheimer, the physicist who headed the Los Alamos laboratory that assembled atomic bombs during WWII and then a professor of physics at U.C. Berkeley; Harry A. Winne, Vice President of General Electric; and Charles A. Thomas, Vice President of Monsanto Chemical Company.17

From early conversations with Acheson, Lilienthal became aware that General Groves was still dictating the country’s atomic foreign policy: “The War Department, and really one man in the War Department, General Groves, by the power of veto on the grounds of ‘military security,’ has really been determining and almost running foreign policy.”18 Most troubling for Lilienthal about Groves was the general’s persistence that the atom be kept a secret. On January 16, the day he called Acheson to accept the consulting panel’s chairmanship, referencing the Chicago conference, Lilienthal again takes aim at Groves and military secrecy in his journal:

If my hunch, expressed in the opening hours of the Chicago conference, that in the real sense there are no secrets…would be supportable by facts, then real progress would be made. For then it would be clear that the basis of the present policy and commitments made on the Army-sponsored thesis that there are secrets. And since it is in the Army’s hands (or, literally, Gen. Groves) to deny access to the facts that would prove or disprove this vital thesis, there has been no way to examine the very foundation of our policies in the international field.19
Continuing his rant, Lilienthal asserts, “An amazing situation. For Gen. Groves determines whether a fact can be divulged, to anyone, by anyone.”20 Before even sitting down to begin work on the report it was obvious that Lilienthal had targeted Groves. To Lilienthal, the general’s great power in influencing atomic foreign policy and insistence on atomic secrecy personified everything that went against his grass roots democracy. However, the general had some of his own early qualms as well.

From the Acheson committee’s inception Groves had gripes. Gregg Herken pointed out that on the mission of the committee “The single prominent naysayer was Groves.”21 Groves’ first contention was over the committee’s decision to form a consulting panel. Of the panel’s creation, in his memoir, Groves’ argues, “I objected on the grounds that at least three of us—Conant, Bush and I—knew more about the broad aspects of the problem that the Secretary wanted us to study than any panel that could be assembled. Besides, I had access to all the scientific assistance that might be needed on any particular point.”22 Ultimately, Groves was overruled on the matter and the panel was formed. When later commenting on individual members of the consulting panel, Groves is noticeably cool in his analyses of Lilienthal and Barnard’s qualifications, claiming, “As far as I know Mr. Lilienthal and Mr. Barnard had little or no knowledge of the subject matter whatsoever.”23 Continuing in the vein that Lilienthal lacked an atomic background, Groves went even further in a later interview claiming the TVA chairman relied too heavily on Robert Oppenheimer for advice: “Lilienthal got so bad he would consult Oppie on what tie to wear in the morning.”24

The consulting panel began to seriously work on their report in late January. With consensus having been reached among panel members that an international agency should be responsible for controlling all atomic material which could produce weapons, the panel disbanded on February 1, Lilienthal assigning each panel member a different section to draft. Reconvening on February 12, the sections were molded together forming the basis of the panel’s future report. For Lilienthal, the most significant aspect of the preliminary report was the creation of a civilian international agency which was to govern both “dangerous” and “peaceful” atomic applications. Meeting again on February 25, the panel spent the next ten days shaping the report into something they felt was presentable to Acheson’s committee. Finally comfortable, Lilienthal’s panel submitted their report to Acheson and his committee on March 7. Describing the setting that day outside a window where the report was to be read, Lilienthal observed, “And moving by, from time to time, outside the garden terrace were workmen, the people who had the most at stake, and to little to say as to whether someday the order is given and an atomic bomb, perhaps a thousand times greater than Nagasaki, starts on its way against other workmen.”25 The report called for the establishment of a civilian international Atomic Development Authority (ADA) which was to control all “dangerous” applications of atomic energy. Likewise, all national work in these “dangerous” areas was to be banned. That a civilian-international ADA was to assume custody of the “dangerous” atom from the military was pleasing to Lilienthal but not to Groves.

After reading the report, according to Lilienthal, “General Groves made some shallow comments about how he could circumvent the plan, but he didn’t get very far—my fellow-members had at him with the facts in a vigorous way.”26 More serious was Bush’s concern that there wasn’t a transition plan for transferring domestic control to the ADA. Meeting again on March 16, having had time to amend the report to address the committee’s initial concerns, the panel was disheartened when learning that Bush and Groves still believed the report’s transition plan still not specific enough. Lilienthal was particularly distraught, writing, “I don’t know when I felt more miserable, all our work might be wasted, and some cheap alternatives offered, for reasons that would be cowardly and could only lead to the certainty of atomic warfare.”27 A stalemate persisted until the next day. Incredibly, Acheson attributed the eventual compromise to the intervention of his secretary. Sensing that tempers were reaching a breaking point, the secretary whispered to Acheson that perhaps he should have the group take a coffee break. Acheson later said that his secretary’s intervention was a “brilliant contribution.”28 The break afforded Acheson the opportunity to take the conflicting parties aside until agreement was finally reached and that afternoon a final draft was agreed to.

The report’s internationalism delighted Lilienthal. Its opening words stressed international cooperation, that the U. S. would “seek by all reasonable means to bring about international arrangements to prevent the use of atomic energy for destructive purposes.”29 Acheson was also happy with the report. After having read it for the first time, Acheson said aloud “This is a brilliant and profound document.”30 More importantly, the president was satisfied. Later in his memoirs he wrote that “The board [Acheson Committee] did an outstanding job.”31 Not sharing as much enthusiasm for the report was Groves who years afterward called it the “liberal position” and acerbically described it as an attempt by the “United States to proceed in full confidence in the Russians and with good toward mankind.”32 But for the time being the general was forced to concede defeat, as Lilienthal gloatingly notes, “And at four o’clock this afternoon the entire Acheson Committee (not excluding General Groves) had signed a letter of transmittal of the report to Secretary Byrnes.”33 Although the Acheson-Lilienthal Report was not a guarantee that international cooperation could be agreed to, it did give many hope, particularly Lilienthal, that at least the U.S. was starting on the right course: “Whatever happens, the misery and the exhausting work of the past two months could be counted as my contribution toward something better in the world than perhaps we must look forward to.”34

Unfortunately for Lilienthal, much of his optimism for international atomic cooperation was soon deflated by news that Byrnes had named Bernard Baruch, former chairman of the War Industries Board during WWI, to be the U.S. delegate serving on the U.N. Atomic Energy Commission. Indignant over Byrnes’ choice, Lilienthal asserted, “When I read this news last night, I was quite sick. We need a man who is young, vigorous, not vain, and whom the Russians would feel isn’t out simply to put them in a hole, not really caring about international cooperation. Baruch has none of these qualifications.”35 Acheson was equally displeased by the news. In his autobiography he wrote that Baruch’s major duty was “the task of translating the various proposals stimulated by the Acheson-Lilienthal report into a workable plan.”36 On the surface Baruch’s translation task seemed innocuous enough. Still, like Lilienthal, Acheson objected to Byrnes’ choice: “I protested, distrusting Mr. Baruch’s translation and dissenting from Mr. Byrnes and the generally held view that this so-called ‘adviser of me’ was a wise man.’ My own experience led me to believe that his reputation was without foundation and in fact entirely self-propagated.”37 According to Lilienthal, soon after his decision even Byrnes admitted that Baruch had been “the worst mistake I have ever made.”38 The New York Times disagreed with Lilienthal and Acheson calling Baruch “a good appointment…and the appropriate choice for this task which carries with it so heavy a responsibility.”39

Following the public announcement of Baruch’s appointment came more bad news for Lilienthal. Speaking about who he planned to consult with, Baruch told reporters that “On the manufacture we will look to General Groves and those in American industry who have made a huge success of the use of atomic energy.”40 Herken writes that Baruch looked to Groves for more than just manufacturing advice, that Baruch’s “principal ally…was Groves, whom the septuagenarian had appointed his ‘interpreter of military policy.’”41 Baruch presented his plan, which had a more assertive tone towards the Soviets than had the Acheson-Lilienthal Report, to the U.N. Commission on Atomic Energy June 14. The general was satisfied with the Baruch Plan’s tweaking of the Acheson-Lilienthal Report. When addressing the National Safety Council in October, Groves remarked, “The risk of living without this contract [Baruch plan] is greater than living by it…The safeguards which are proposed in the plan submitted by the United States are positive.”42 But they weren’t “positive” to the Soviets who rejected the plan on June 24.

Some historians have argued that American leaders were not surprised by the failure of the Baruch Plan and have even proposed that it was intended to fail. Both P.M.S. Blackett’s Fear, War, and the Bomb and Joseph Lieberman’s The Scorpion and the Tarantula “contended that American leaders never expected the Soviets to agree to an international agreement.”43 Barton Bernstein asserts that Groves thought the Baruch Plan was “properly tough-minded and likely to be unacceptable to the Soviets.”44 If American leaders truly intended the Baruch Plan to fail, would there have been a different scenario if the Acheson-Lilienthal Report had been presented instead? Or going back even further, as Neuse poses, what if there hadn’t been “restrictions added to the consultant’s report [Lilienthal’s consulting panel report] by the Acheson and Baruch’s groups”? Would the Soviets have been a tad more willing to open serious diplomatic dialogue?45 In the end, Neuse views Lilienthal’s consulting panel as overly optimistic internationalists and the Soviets as have been given no other option but to say no:

He [Lilienthal] and his fellow consultants were part of a large group of Americans who wanted to believe that cooperation would open the Soviet Union and reduce its isolationism. That, perhaps, was why the Acheson-Lilienthal Report seemed one of willing and hope—willing the creation of an international body to control the dreadful threat, and hoping the Soviets would accept a proposal that met U.S. security needs but neglected their own.46
Furthermore, compounding Lilienthal’s frustrations was word from Oppenheimer that Baruch was pushing Groves’ name for the new AEC. Although on most fronts the news was unwelcoming, not all was lost for Lilienthal. His internationalist ADA hopes had been vanquished by Baruch and Groves but there was still hope to be salvaged in Connecticut Senator Brien McMahon passage of the Atomic Energy Act (AEA) of 1946.

President Truman signed the AEA into law on August 1, 1946; the new law’s centerpiece being the AEC—a domestic ADA of sorts. On the one hand, it was to be a civilian agency to govern the nation’s atomic energy. On the other, it still sought military involvement by providing for a Military Liaison Committee (MLC) which was to bridge the Pentagon and civilian agency. Even before the law was signed into effect by the president, Lilienthal was eyeing the AEC’s chairmanship. In late July he writes, “My mind is now made up: If I am offered the chairmanship…I will accept; indeed, now I want the appointment.”47 However, his mood swung considerably a few days later after learning that Conant was the frontrunner, sourly remarking, “Conant is being pushed by the Army, particularly Groves, as he is very close to Groves, who is determined to continue to run things.”48

Lilienthal was ultimately the president’s third choice to head the AEC with Conant and Karl Compton, president of MIT, having already turning down Truman’s overtures. Lilienthal and his commissioners were first announced to the press on October 28, 1946.49 After the official press conference inside the White House had ended, the five men moved outside to answer questions. The mood was jovial: “Lilienthal light-heartedly jibed that they were the ‘homeless five’ and ‘the quintuplets in a quandary,’ and began talking about the great American problem—house-hunting.”50 All joking soon ended for Lilienthal in January with the start of his grueling confirmation hearings. Not only did congressional challenges quickly arise, but more serious to his AEC chairmanship was to be the challenge of militarization.




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