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

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The Custody Battle

As they did Baruch, generally, newspapers greeted Lilienthal’s appointment favorably. The New York Times called Lilienthal an “admirable selection” believing him to be a man of “ability, integrity, clear vision and quick imagination, excellently prepared by years of distinguished public service for this important new role.”51 When power was officially transferred from Groves and the military to Lilienthal and the civilian AEC on midnight of January 1, 1947, an editorial in the New York Times used the occasion to laud civilian and democratic principles, noting, “Surely we are not behaving like a Government or a nation which wishes to terrorize mankind…We believe the quality of its operations [AEC] will be such as to create confidence, not merely among Americans, but among citizens of other countries who do not willfully bind themselves.”52 The niceties were to end with Lilienthal’s confirmation hearings.

What originally appeared to be a quick confirmation for Lilienthal soon became bogged-down by Republican attacks which branded Lilienthal as a Communist and New Dealer. The New York Times reported, “Two weeks ago it was believed generally at the Capitol that, while there would be opposition [to Lilienthal], it would be overridden swiftly. The issues in the fight have swung largely from ‘the Communist line’ to ‘New Dealism.’”53 Lilienthal briefly considered resigning but was buoyed by the steadfast support of the president who called the Communist charges “absolutely unfounded.”54 More serious than the Communist or New Deal charges was Arthur H. Vandenberg’s, powerful Republican Senator from Michigan, challenge to the AEC that the MLC be given open access to the AEC. At a January 27 hearing Vandenberg said to Lilienthal, “It won’t be satisfactory if a single door is closed to the Military Liaison Committee—the responsibility is too great.”55 Republican Senator Eugene D. Milkin then asked Lilienthal whether the MLC would be present at all AEC meetings, “that it was the intent of Congress that this be done.”56 If there were any initial hopes that the AEC might be able to bypass heavy military participation concerning the atom, then the hopes had been premature and overzealous.

Even before the confirmation hearings became more spirited there was already evidence which suggested that the military hadn’t planned to roll over to the AEC. On December 4, 1946, Bill Waymack, newly nominated member of the AEC, met with Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson and Groves. Following the meeting, Waymack alerted his colleague and AEC chairman-designate David E. Lilienthal about his unease for future relations of the civilian AEC with the military. “We pull at a worm, like a robin, and the whole earth explodes and out comes a two-headed elephant,” he told Lilienthal. “This gives a fellow a case of cerebral hernia.”57 Articulating Waymack’s sense that the military issues were perplexing for the civilian mindset was Neuse’s observation that “Appointed by the president to a civilian agency, they [AEC commissioners] found themselves overwhelmed by military issues.”58

That military issues were to predominate the AEC was further driven home to the commissioners by the AEC’s General Advisory Committee (GAC)—a group of scientific experts formed to assist the commissioners with scientific and technologic issues. On July 29, 1947, the GAC informed the commissioners that atomic power was years away from being realized. Lilienthal’s response to the news was heartfelt: “Had quite a blow today. The GAC drafted a statement that, as written, not only discouraged hope of atomic power in any substantial way for decades, but put it in such a way as to question whether it would ever be a consequence. This pessimism didn’t come from nobodies, but from a top group—Oppenheimer, Conant, Rabi, Seaborg, etc. I can’t believe it’s true.”59 Fairly early on in his AEC chairmanship, Lilienthal was well aware that many of his AEC duties were to focus on military applications of the atom.

Meanwhile, across the Potomac, there was increasing momentum among Pentagon officials that the military, not the AEC, should re-assume custody of the country’s atomic arsenal—in contrast to the practice then prevailing. In doing so, they made use of section 6 (a) (2) of the AEA which stated, “The President from time to time may direct the Commission [AEC] (1) to deliver such quantities of fissionable materials or weapons to the armed forces for such as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense or (2) to authorize the armed forces to manufacture, produce, or acquire any equipment or device utilizing fissionable material or atomic energy as a military weapon.”60 Not surprisingly, before the AEA had even been passed, it was Groves who was busy scheming in favor of military custody. In a January 1946 memo the general “argued that the military could not rely on civilian scientists when it came to preparing bombs for possible use.”61 Also not surprisingly, Groves was the first to suggest that the military ask the president to place all weapons under the custody of the armed forces during an August 13, 1947, meeting of the MLC. “The trouble with Groves’ suggestion was that it threatened to raise all the old clichés about civilian or military control of atomic energy,” wrote Hewlett and Duncan.62 The suggestion soon became the military’s official position but Groves resigned months before the issue was settled.

Lilienthal and the AEC formally learned of the military’s challenge on November 12, 1947, when General Lewis H. Brereton, chairman of the MLC, sent Lilienthal a proposal that “in order to insure all interested agencies of the Armed Forces are prepared to use the available bombs, it is necessary that they have actual custody of the completed weapons.”63 Brereton invited the AEC to comment on the proposal but Lilienthal’s only comments were to his journal: “The notion that the military vs. civilian issue is settled grows more and more untenable. Groves is hard at it, of course, but it goes way beyond him. My feeling is that somehow we had better postpone and temporize, avoid a big row for a time at least, but we may not be able to. The ‘custody’ [of weapons] issue may be the detonator.”64 Lilienthal’s tactic of not commenting on the custody issue lasted only one week when Admiral Thornwald A. Solberg, member of the MLC, broached the topic with the AEC chairman. Lilienthal told Solberg that he did not give credence to the military’s argument that it would not have instant access to nuclear weapons in a time of emergency or adequate experience handling them.65

Although the military challenge was a serious one, Lilienthal had a potent ally in the president. In a New York Times paraphrased article of a 1946 presidential press conference, Truman said that “he felt the Manhattan Project…should be turned over to a civilian control when Congress fixed the necessary responsibility for the control of the new force.”66 At another press conference on March 14 the president again expressed his confidence in a civilian agency: “It is a mistake to believe that only the military can guard national security. The full responsibility for a balanced and forceful development of atomic energy…should rest with the civilian group directly responsible to the President.”67

After Brereton’s letter and the Solberg discussion, the custodial issue seemed to be placed on the backburner. The GAC talked about the matter in early February of 1948, and concluded, because of technical issues, that the AEC retain custody. Not until early March, when Lilienthal was startled by comments made by the president during a White House meeting, did the topic garner his more serious attention. After mentioning the custodial matter to Truman, the president answered, “Yes…the military had spoken to him about it; looked as if they had a point...He said we would talk about it some other time, and agreed that before we acted we would talk to him further.”68 The remarks caught Lilienthal off-guard. Nothing said by the president in the past indicated that he seriously considered transferring custody to the military. The president’s comments coupled with events two weeks later greatly discouraged Lilienthal.

While vacationing in Captiva, Florida, listening to a March 25 Edward R. Murrow broadcast, Lilienthal learned that the custodial issue was being raised in the Senate. Murrow reported that “Senator Bridges said today that the country should return atomic energy to the military, this was one of the most important issues facing the country.”69 This hit Lilienthal particularly hard. That night he “slept badly…Bridges and all the rest paraded through my dreams.”70 Bridges’ report was followed by even more dreadful news. On April 9, he learned that an actual legislative bill was being introduced by Senator Wherry to return custody to the military. However, lacking sufficient support, Wherry backtracked. Calling Lilienthal’s secretary, Wherry said the bill “was not intended to be a reflection on the commission…He told Miss Henderson [Lilienthal’s secretary] he certainly didn’t want to get into another fight with David Lilienthal.”71

In his next meeting with the president on May 17, Lilienthal and Truman didn’t speak specifically about the topic it seemed to be on both men’s minds. When the subject of atomic weapons was brought up by the president, Lilienthal reassuringly told him “Mr. President, you couldn’t have picked a less bloodthirsty six men if you tried for a long time.” “That’s why I believe in a civilian Commission,” responded Truman.72 The statement came at a critical juncture for Lilienthal. Only one month later, seemingly having the president’s support, Lilienthal and the military’s long-overdue custody meeting took place. In the discussion, Lilienthal made it apparent to the military that the AEC “would not agree to a joint recommendation [by the AEC and MLC that weapons be transferred] to the President…This was done very solemnly indeed, but without heated exchanges of any kind, and with expressions in my part of respect for their opinions and motives.”73 With no consensus having been reached the two groups decided to have the issue arbitrated by the president.

In the period leading up to the White House meeting, all signs pointed to civilian control. A day after the AEC and MLC had met on June 18, the president told Secretary of Defense James Forrestal that “As long as I am in the White House I will be opposed to taking atomic weapons away from the hands they are now in, and they will only be delivered to the military by particular order of the President issued at a time they are needed.”74 And on July 10, Lilienthal discovered from AEC Director of Budget Jim Webb that Secretary of State George Marshall was against military custody. About Marshall’s position, Webb alerted Lilienthal “Don’t tell anyone this, because his military friends don’t like the idea, but he is against it, and especially is against it now. And I don’t believe the President will approve it.”75 Even with these encouraging developments, Lilienthal took no chances and remained resolute in his opposition to the military. At a June 30 meeting with new MLC chairman Donald F. Carpenter and other military officials, Lilienthal argued that “the military would continue to push for a shifting of the line, saying next that it would be better if those who had to use the weapons designed them, then when they got that, they should make them, etc.”76

With Lilienthal and the military not budging an inch in their positions, a meeting between the two parties was scheduled for July 21 at the White House which Lilienthal dubbed the “showdown” in his journal.77 Detailing the momentous atmosphere of the meeting, Lilienthal noted, “It was an important session, and a kind of seriousness hung over it that wasn’t relieved a bit, needless to say, by the nature of the subject…I rather think it was one of the most important meetings I ever attended.”78 The president nodded at Forrestal to begin the discussion. With the military well represented, Forrestal invited Lilienthal to first begin stating his case but the AEC chairman declined the offer believing the military should start because they were the party advocating the change. With the meeting’s protocol settled, MLC chairman Carpenter read a letter prepared by the military which was followed by additional letter readings by the Secretaries of the Army, Navy and Air Force, along with the Joint Chiefs. Lilienthal glanced at the president and noticed he wasn’t responding at all well to the readings. When Carpenter began reading additional viewpoints, the president interrupted him, saying, “curtly and not pleasantly, ‘I can read.’”79

After the military had finished, sensing the president’s agitation at the letter reading, Lilienthal spoke succinctly and extemporaneously, first citing section 6 (a) (2) of the AEA and then emphasizing that “the division of responsibility between civilian and military provided for under the existing arrangement had worked in the past; that it was working now.”80 When Lilienthal concluded, the military picked up where they had left off. Secretary of the Air Force Stewart Symington told the president the he had just visited Los Alamos and Sandi and observed that “Our fellas at Sandia think they ought to have the bomb. They feel they get them when they needed them and they might not work…Our fellas need to get used to handling it.”81 Then Forrestal interjected, adding, “You know how important it is to get used to handling a new weapon.”82 Lilienthal saw Army Secretary Kenneth C. Royall “looking glummer and glummer.”83 Finally breaking into the conversation, Royall argued, “We have been spending 98 percent of all money for atomic energy for weapons. Now if we aren’t going to use them, that doesn’t make any sense.”84 But the president “had more than enough” of the meeting and told both parties that he needed more time to deliberate on the matter.85 Commenting on the military’s presentation of its case in his journal, Lilienthal wrote, “If what worried the President, in part, was whether he could trust these terrible forces in the hands of the military establishment, the performance these men gave certainly could not have been reassuring.”86

The president’s deliberation was short. Only two days after the White House discussion, during a Cabinet meeting, the president announced that the AEC was to retain custody of the nation’s atomic weapons. The next day the White House announced in a public statement: “Since a free society places the civil authority above military power, the control of atomic energy properly belongs in civilian hands.”87 Although his international aspirations for civilian control of the “dangerous” atom had ended in defeat, he could find solace in this victory which upheld a main tenant of the AEA—civilian custody of the country’s “dangerous” atom. Lilienthal could have catered to Brereton’s November 12, 1947 proposal, choosing not to stand in the way of the nation’s militarization. But he accepted the additional and immense burden of taking on the military establishment because in his own words: “This is a very important event.”88

Returning to the two themes of Childs’ articles, not only was there fear of military control of the atom, there also loomed General Groves. Like he was to Lilienthal on the Acheson-Lilienthal Report and Baruch Plan, the general remained a thorn in Lilienthal’s side during his AEC chairmanship. Both Lilienthal and Groves’ idea of the atom’s Cold War role for the U.S. starkly contrasted. While Groves advocated isolationism, atomic secrecy and military custody of the atomic arsenal, Lilienthal favored internationalism, atomic openness and civilian custody of the nation’s nuclear weapons. Yet there was one similarity that linked each man: both Lilienthal and Groves possessed large egos. In the end, even in Washington where there are large egos aplenty, there wasn’t room enough for both men to cohabitate. As Groves’ biographer William Lawren asserts, “The general was in large part a victim of his ego.”89

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