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

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The Hydrogen Bomb Battle

In March of 1949, Lilienthal wrote an op-ed in the New York Times which continued his campaign, begun at the Chicago conference, for atomic openness. Stressing democratic values, Lilienthal asserts:

It is important for us to recognize that neither the atomic weapon nor any other form of power and force constitutes the true source of American strength…That source is our ethical and moral standards of percepts, and our democratic faith in man. This faith is the chief armament of our democracy. It is the most potent weapon ever devised. Compared with it, the atomic bomb is a firecracker.130
Little did Lilienthal realize that the firecracker was about to get a whole lot larger.

His final battle, as AEC chairman, with the military was precipitated by distant events. On the evening of September 19, 1949, during an extended vacation on Martha’s Vineyard, while driving home after a dinner-out with friends, Lilienthal’s car was unexpectedly stopped short of its destination. His depiction of the event has a Hollywood movie feel:

11 P.M. Monday night, Sept. 19. Driving up to Norton Circle, returning with Pat Hough and Helen, from dinner with the Henry Houghs and Bob Duffuses in Edgartown. A heavy ground-fog. Just at the Circle (the Wuthering Heights background of the goat field and its boulders faintly visible), the headlights pick out the figure of a man, hatless, squinting into the lights, looking bemused, hooking his thumb in the hitchhiker’s gesture (though, of course, there’s nothing beyond to hitch to but the gate). I said quietly, It’s Jim McCormack (being Brigadier General James McCormack, AUS, Director of the Division of Military Applications of the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission). As I frequently found him on a windswept moor, in the dead of night, on an island, outside a goat field. It was he. No questions; said he had lights a candle in our house. Had he parachuted; what was this?131
Over two beers from Lilienthal’s icebox, McCormack proceeded to tell Lilienthal the startling news of a successful Russian atomic test and that the AEC chairman was immediately needed in Washington the following day. The pair boarded an Army C-47 the next morning and headed to Washington.

When Lilienthal discussed the matter with the president later that afternoon there was disagreement concerning a public statement. The president appeared apprehensive to issue a statement fearing it would result in public paranoia but Lilienthal disagreed. He believed that a statement would reassure the public that the president was abreast of Russian events; second, the announcement would show the American people that the president was not afraid of the Russians; and third, Lilienthal hoped, it would reassure the President that he could level with the citizenry without him having to fear that widespread panic would ensue. Two days later, on September 23, 1949, the president released a statement concerning the Russian test which concluded by saying, “This recent development emphasizes once again, if indeed such emphasis were needed, the necessity for that truly effective enforceable international control of atomic energy which this Government and the large majority of the member of the United Nations support.”132

National magazine publications interpreted the statement’s significance differently. Newsweek elected to put an ominous looking picture of Joseph Stalin on its October 3 issue accompanied by a caption asking, “Atom War, Cold War, or Peace Through Fear?” An editorial inside Life warned “As Marxists they do not prefer war, but as totalitarians self-doomed to expansive power they are remorselessly driven toward war.”133 Time had a more hopeful tone, noting, “By & large, the U.S. accepted the fact with grim concern but with no panic.”134 Life concurred a week later: “People aren’t even talking about it...Personally we are glad that there is more wailing over the Yankees than over the bomb.”135 But many inside the Pentagon, Congress and the nation’s universities were talking about “it.” As for Lilienthal, surprisingly, his journal entries don’t reveal an immediate and heightened sense of excitement over the developments. The first time he seriously referenced the Russian bomb relative to his AEC duties was over one month after the McCormack visit.

Word of the Russian test came at an especially bad time for Lilienthal. Earlier in August, he had hoped that a vacation to Martha’s Vineyard would mend some of the lingering Hickenlooper hearing lethargy: “Everything looks set for a departure next Thursday morning for the Vineyard, and six weeks of rest and vacation. I’m pretty tired, though far better than I’d have hoped for.”136 Before leaving, he met one last time with the president at the White House on August 15. The first subject the two spoke about was the hearings:

After greetings-the President seemed quite relaxed and happy, though worn-told him I had been in to see him the morning the roof fell in-the Monday when Hickenlooper’s blast appeared-and he had sent me out of his office rarin’ to go. “Well, you’ve survived, I see,” he said, grinning from ear to ear. “I told you what you were up against: a couple fellows” (he held up two fingers) “up for re-election” (meaning McMahon and H.) “And that it wouldn’t turn up a thing-and it didn’t. You came out of it better than ever.”137
Lilienthal hadn’t come “out of it better than ever” and his time-off at Martha’s Vineyard was not a cure-all. As Hewlett and Duncan note, “Somehow, the weeks of seclusion had failed to restore the energy and taste for challenge which had always marked Lilienthal’s career.”138

One month into their Martha’s Vineyard vacation, Lilienthal came to the conclusion that he should leave the AEC. “I’m not a ‘new man’ and never will be; but I’m no longer acutely weary, and certainly this is a place to develop some perspective. Right now it seems clear: get out of Government service no later than the end of this term,” he confided to his journal.139 Clearly still haunted by the hearings, Lilienthal and his wife used a portion of the vacation to discuss potential careers after his stint as AEC chairman was slated to end June 30, 1950. However, before he would leave his post, the beleaguered Lilienthal, once again, faced-off with the military. But this time his opposition was much broader, including members of Congress, AEC commissioners and accomplished physicists.

Responding to mounting pressure from those inside the AEC, back at Martha’s Vineyard, Lilienthal sent a letter to Oppenheimer on October 11 requesting that the GAC chairman convene his committee for a special meeting to discuss how the AEC should react to the news of a Russian bomb. Oppenheimer scheduled the meeting for the weekend of October 29-30, the first available dates that Conant and Enrico Fermi were able to attend.140

As he had spearheaded the campaign to force Groves’ resignation, according to Hershberg, Conant led the opposition against the hydrogen bomb during the meetings. While Hershberg remarked, “Conant emerged as the leader who built the consensus against the H-bomb,” Richard Rhodes described Conant’s arguments more as “contentious moralizing.”141 With committee members having had not reached a unified position on Saturday, by Sunday consensus was reached against development of the H-bomb. Of the Sunday swing, Lilienthal who agreed with the GAC’s final recommendation, noted, “Yesterday it appeared that less than half of the eight [GAC members], never more than five, would be for going ahead all-out; today they were in full agreement: that they would not be for it.”142 But the GAC’s unanimous verdict on Sunday was not cause for celebration. Instead, those within the AEC who agreed with the GAC now worried about Lilienthal’s fortitude in facing another conflict of his life.

On Sunday evening after the GAC’s weekend meetings had concluded, it seemed as though Lilienthal was prepared for yet another tough fight. Commenting on his opposition to the hydrogen bomb, Lilienthal’s Sunday night journal entry revealed nothing atypical about his resolve to see the issue through: “At present the issue seems to me fairly simple, and fairly conclusive: this [hydrogen bomb] would not further the common defense, and it might harm us, by making the prospects of the other course–toward peace–even less good than they are now...Things are certainly coming to the showdown stage and fast.”143 But those close to him were beginning to doubt whether he was indeed ready for another “showdown.” Many in the AEC had noticed a change in Lilienthal since the Hickenlooper hearings. Of the difference, Hewlett and Duncan wrote:

Manley, sensing the danger of indecision within the Commission, heard Oppenheimer confirm his fears in a telephone conversation on Monday morning, October 31. Oppenheimer’s description of his talk with Lilienthal convinced Manley that he should stay in Washington for a few days to see that the committee’s report was not lost in the confusion of other matters. He found that Pike shared some of his impressions of Lilienthal’s fatigue. Pike saw a striking contrast to the courageous leadership Lilienthal had exhibited at the confirmation hearings in 1947, and some of the headquarters staff were nervous that Lilienthal would see that others had noticed the change in his demeanor.144

Despite their concerns, like the Sunday night journal entry, Lilienthal seemed to be giving the issue his full attention a few days afterward. During a November 3 flight from Chicago to Washington, for approximately an hour, Lilienthal wrote notes pertaining to his feelings relative to the hydrogen bomb. The final section of the notes is devoted to his thoughts, still internationalist in nature, on the Cold War titled “alternative to H-bomb program” :

To maintain the opportunity to take advantage of every [chance] to develop a situation in which the U.S.S.R.-U.S. relations will simmer down to less than boiling, and then gradually be accepted as rivalry and opposition, but not enmity that verges daily on war; to persist in efforts to the Cold War by a stalemate at about the present stage (add and subtract a bit from year to year) or to win it, by Russian inability to make further net inroads, or win it by the Russian Politburo’s unwilling but pragmatic acceptance of her own internal strengthening as her measure of her own political success. This projected on a 20- to 25-year time segment. But what happens then? Well, let some other, perhaps wiser men try to solve that one then.145

Like he and his wife had discussed earlier at Martha’s Vineyard, soon the enlisting of “wiser men” was to be necessary because only days after writing down these thoughts, on November 7, still having not fully recuperated from his Hickenlooper wounds, Lilienthal met with the president to inform him of his plans to resign. Paraphrasing the encounter in his journal, Lilienthal writes, “So I went into my story, with no frills. I had been in public service for 19 consecutive years, come next Feb., always in a controversial field. I have to move on, and I’ve come in to talk it over with him, not only as the President but also on a personal basis, as my friend.”146 Lilienthal told the president that he only planned to serve until January or February, time enough to make his successor’s transition smoother. The talk mostly centered on the resignation, with the president adding that he didn’t want a “military-minded civilian, he must be someone who sees the necessary military setting, how it fits in, but he must be someone who doesn’t regard that as our objective.”147 Only at the end of the discussion was the hydrogen bomb briefly referenced, with the president adding, “I’ve got a serious—a very serious—problem about this to decide before long.”148

Lilienthal found himself back inside the Oval Office just two days later, this time to deliver the president a report listing the summaries of each AEC commissioner’s position relative to the H-bomb.149 Thinking it especially appealed to the president’s “sanguine temperament,” Lilienthal told the president that his primary objection to the hydrogen bomb was that it would ruin the president’s “program for peace.”150 To Lilienthal’s amazement, the president had already read defense secretary Johnson’s copy of the report AEC report. Like he had been two days earlier, the president seemed more interested in speaking about Lilienthal’s replacement than of the H-bomb.

The topic apparently drew little more interest from new MLC chairman Robert LeBaron.151 Days after the White House meeting, LeBaron told Lilienthal that the DOD “had not even gotten under way with much of a staff study in the Joint Chiefs” over the hydrogen bomb.152 Even though LeBaron had said to Lilienthal that the Pentagon wasn’t seriously addressing the H-bomb issue, some historians have argued that the decision had already been made by the military to make the atom the centerpiece of its defense. One such historian is David Rosenberg who contends that “Truman himself initiated a process that would finalize American dependence on the atomic air offensive...The president’s continuing refusal to budget adequate conventional alternatives thus made the United States virtually dependent on the atomic bomb.”153 Rosenberg cites Truman’s fears of spiraling inflation for his May 13, 1948, placement of a $14.4 billion ceiling on the 1950 defense budget. The Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) estimated that for the U.S. to continue supporting “adequate” conventional forces in Europe and, in the case of war, for the navy to be able to carry out operations in the Mediterranean, a defense budget of $21-31 billion was required. Even a compromise of 16.9 billion might have been acceptable. The military argued that the only offensive operation the president’s $14.4 billion budget permitted was an atomic air offensive from the British Isles and Cairo-Suez region.154 In the end, according to Rosenberg: “After four years of planning, the military’s perception of Soviet strength and American weakness, and the need to rely on atomic weapons in ever greater numbers to restore the balance, was so deeply entrenched that it could not be undone.”155

Even if military policy hadn’t been handcuffed by budget constraints, it seems unlikely that there existed willingness by the military to seriously listen to opposing viewpoints regarding the H-bomb. According to Hewlett and Duncan, Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson had little sympathy for the concerns of other government agencies: “Secretary Johnson clearly had no intention of admitting State Department or Commission officials to the inner circles of military planning,” telling one AEC official that “he would not permit the Commission, as the ‘producer’ of nuclear weapons, to participate with the military, as the ‘consumer,’ in determining weapon needs for the same reason that he was opposed to having the Department of Defense certify the need for additional Commission facilities.”156 If Johnson believed development of the hydrogen bomb prudent, there seemed little chance that his opinion could be swayed from those outside the agency.

And at least some serving under Johnson in the Pentagon were in inclined to favor the H-bomb. On November 15 Manley met with Brien McMahon and William Borden of the Joint Committee.157 According to the official history of the AEC, when LeBaron and General George F. Schlatter joined the threesome for lunch “Manley’s spirits sank as McMahon and LeBaron found themselves in general agreement on the potential value of the Super.”158 And four days after telling Lilienthal that the Pentagon was not seriously considering the hydrogen bomb, LeBaron, himself, and the entire MLC also became supportive of development. Shortly thereafter on November 23, the JCS forwarded a report to Johnson, largely based on MLC positions, which stated that “Soviet possession of the weapon ‘without possession by the United States would be intolerable’”…“If the Super was feasible, it seemed evident to the Joint Chiefs that the weapon might act as a deterrent to war and would provide an offensive weapon ‘of the greatest known power possibilities.’”159 But the MLC and the JCS were not the only H-bomb proponents. Cracks of dissent were starting to appear from within the AEC itself with some of the most vehement support for the hydrogen bomb coming from one of Lilienthal’s very own commission members.

When contemplating his resignation during his Martha’s Vineyard vacation, one reason cited by Lilienthal was AEC commissioner Lewis L. Strauss. On September 19 Lilienthal writes, “Then there are selfish reasons: Lewis has made it almost impossible to enjoy the Commission as a family, as we did when we started out, something I worked hard to develop.”160 As early as late September, Strauss had already been trying to persuade two of his fellow AEC “family” members, Gordon Dean and Sumner T. Pike, to join him in advocating the hydrogen bomb. Knowing that neither Lilienthal nor Henry Smyth were sympathetic to his position, Strauss only chose to show a memorandum he had written in defense of the development of the H-bomb to Dean and Pike. On November 25 Strauss wrote the president recommending “that the president should direct the Atomic Energy Commission to proceed with all possible expedition to develop the thermonuclear weapon.”161 This time the military wasn’t the only challenge to Lilienthal. Now the dissent was much closer to home, coming from inside the AEC. Also joining H-bomb proponents were prominent voices from within the scientific community, namely Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller, challenged Lilienthal as well.

While en-route to Washington for a radiological conference, on October 7, Berkeley physicists Ernest Lawrence and Luis Alvarez decided to make one stop in New Mexico at Los Alamos laboratory to speak with physicist Edward Teller about the hydrogen bomb.162 After they arrived at Los Alamos, Teller, Manley and physicist-mathematicians George Gamow and Stan Ulman briefed Lawrence and Alvarez on recent developments concerning the Super. Teller was encouraged by Lawrence’s optimism regarding the H-bomb and decided to accompany Lawrence and Alvarez back to the Albuquerque Hilton, “where the trio talked into the early morning about the newly improved political prospects for the Super.”163

After arriving in Washington the following day, Lawrence and Alvarez met with Lilienthal on October 9. The meeting went badly. Lilienthal describes the day as being full of “talk about supers, single weapons capable of desolating a vast area. Ernest Lawrence and Luis Alvarez in here drooling over the same. Is this all we have to offer?”164 Alvarez later wrote of the discussion that “Lilienthal wordlessly swiveled in his chair and stared silently out the window.”165 But Lawrence and Alvarez had a more receptive audience the next day at the Pentagon with AFSWP chairman Nichols. During the meeting, Lawrence proposed that the JCS make the Super a military requirement.” Nichols told Lawrence he would share the physicist’s position with General Hoyt Vandenberg, Air Force Chief of Staff. Days later at a JCAE meeting on October 14, Vandenberg announced that it was the Air Force’s firm contention that the hydrogen bomb be completed as quickly as possible.

Another potent voice advocating the development of a hydrogen bomb came from Senator Brien McMahon. Together with the hawkish Borden, the pair passionately lobbied Washington in favor of development. Herken describes the two as hopeful of “ensuring that the nation achieved what Borden called ‘atomic abundance.’”166 Lilienthal was quite aware of McMahon and Borden’s campaign. During his November 7 meeting with the President, Lilienthal expressed reservations at the efforts of the physicists and McMahon in supporting the Super: “I told him our concern was that this would get up a head of steam from some of the scientists and from McMahon and his Committee to try to put on a blitz to get a quick decision.”167 Although the Lawrences, Strausses and McMahons of the world posed significant troubles, Lilienthal’s main foe continued to be the military.

When the GAC issued a report on December 3 reaffirming their earlier October position, it did not take long for the military to respond. On January 13, 1950, the JCS sent Johnson a paper which was specifically intended to counter the second GAC report. Johnson immediately forwarded the JCS paper onto the president. Paraphrasing the JCS’s position, Hewlett and Duncan noted:

The Super, in the chief’s opinion, would serve as a deterrent against Soviet aggression and to that extent would strengthen the defenses of the nation. Production of the Super would place additional burdens on material and manpower resources, but would be within the nation’s capability without dislocating the existing defense effort. The Joint Chiefs opposed forswearing or renouncing the Super. The American people of the free world expected the United States to develop the most effective weapons against communist aggression. As for moral issues, the chiefs voiced the responsibility of the United States to assert its moral and physical leadership. It was folly to argue in war that one weapon was more moral than another.168
The report found a sympathetic reader in the president. On January 19 he told Sidney Souers, National Security Council executive secretary, that the report “made a lot of sense and that he was inclined to think that was what we should do.”169 McMahon also thought the JCS report to be sound. When the JCS’s position was summarized to McMahon and the JCAE on January 20, McMahon was moved to suggest that the GAC had now been “effectively removed from further considerations of the Super.”170 Still, Lilienthal persisted in fighting McMahon’s notion that the GAC was no longer relevant.

After reading the JCS position, Lilienthal’s first impulse was to send it to the GAC so that the committee could issue a rebuttal. When he called James S. Lay seeking permission to forward the report to the GAC, Lay told Lilienthal that he would confer with the president and then get back to Lilienthal with an answer.171 The answer was a disappointing one for Lilienthal: “Lay called back to report that Truman considered the report ‘confidential advice to the President.’ Lilienthal was allowed to show the report to his fellow commissioners, but then no further.”172 McMahon’s observation now seemed correct. Time had run out on the GAC and time was quickly running out on Lilienthal to stop the Super’s momentum. He next set his sights on Acheson.

In December when the president had called for a special subcommittee of his National Security Council, composed of Johnson, Acheson and Lilienthal, to convene and debate the H-bomb issue, it appeared that Acheson’s was to be the swing vote. However, after stringent lobbying efforts by Lilienthal and Conant had failed to persuade Acheson, the issue seemed all but decided. When the NSC subcommittee met one final time on January 31, Acheson, siding with Johnson, voted in favor of development. Finding his viewpoint the lone one in the discussion, frustrated, Lilienthal fired this statement at Johnson and Acheson concerning the “Military Establishment”:

The proposal for accelerated research and development toward a thermonuclear weapon, however, presented a clear case where the underlying assumptions, policies and plans of the Military Establishment to provide for our defense needed to be examined independently if there was to be substance to the principle of civilian control of atomic weapons by the Commission. If a military conclusion could not be examined into and was not examined into independently by the Secretary of State, the Atomic Energy Commission, and of course by the President, but was regarded as the whole answer to the ultimate question, then this definitely removes any notion of civilian participation in a fundamental policy question.173

To Lilienthal, the hydrogen bomb debate was far more than just a discussion of thermonuclear weapons or Cold War strategy. As in his earlier battles with Groves and the military, Lilienthal was deeply fearful of a “Military Establishment,” Sherry’s “militarization,” Waymack’s “two-headed elephant,” and this fear drove him to protest many decisions which he perceived could strengthen the military’s scope.

Ultimately, Lilienthal lost his final battle with the military over the H-bomb. After Johnson, Acheson and he went to the White House to inform the president of the group’s decision, the president issued a public statement: “It is my responsibility as Commander and Chief of the Armed Forces to see to it that our country is able to defend itself against any possible aggressor. I have directed the Atomic Energy Commission to continue its work on all forms of atomic weapons, including the so-called hydrogen or superbomb.”174

Lilienthal solemnly took the news to the GAC. Among other developments of the day, the president also decided to gag GAC members from taking the debate public. The gag-order effectively ended public discussion. “It was like a funeral party--especially when I said we were all gagged. Should they resign? I said definitely not, on the contrary. This would be very bad,” writes Lilienthal of the GAC’s reaction.175 But it was Lilienthal who was to resign. That same day, describing his emotional defeat and hopes for the nation, he remarked:

No denying, this is a night of heartache. But there is some personal satisfaction, where there is nothing but pain for the decision made today. For I have found my manhood sufficient for one of the hardest tests I’ve ever had: to stand up in the meeting and say No to a steamroller, knowing it would be easy to equivocate, or to acquiesce silently, be a good sport, etc...It was a hard experience, and my views didn’t prevail. I hope I was wrong, and that somehow I’ll be proved wrong. We have to leave many things to God; this one He will have to get us out of, if we are to get out.176

Nearly three weeks before Groves’ jurisdiction over the MED was set to be transferred to the AEC on midnight of December 31, 1946, Lilienthal met with the president on December 11. During the discussion Lilienthal casually mentioned to the president that there existed the distinct possibility that relations between the AEC and military may experience troubles in the future. The president reassuringly replied, “I expect that. The Army will never give up without a fight, and they will fight you on this from here on out, and be working at it in all sorts of places...I know how they are, they are trained never to give up. I know because I am one of them.”177 The president’s forecast had been precise and the military had vociferously fought. The battle to shape the nation’s evolving atomic policy was not without its share of casualties. Groves’ pressured resignation, Hickenlooper’s tarnished reputation resulting from his unsuccessful hearings and Oppenheimer’s rescinded security clearance in 1954 were among the wounded. As for Lilienthal, after a seventeen-year stint in public office, his resignation as AEC chairman can also be tallied on the casualty list. If it not for the deep wounds inflicted from the Hickenlooper hearings, Lilienthal might have gone on standing in the steamroller’s path.

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