Wizards of Oz

"Life is fraughtless ... when you're thoughtless."

11.3.09

Civilian Control of Nuclear Weapons

Oak Ridge National Laboratory's "History Room" is a veritable treasure trove of insights into the early days of the Cold War and the transition from the Manhattan Project to a civilian-led Atomic Energy Commission. Since 60% of the entire Manhattan Project budget was spent here in east Tennessee, it's a fitting and appropriate role for the lab (formerly known as "X-10") to play.

Last year a retired lab chemist named Ellison Taylor passed away at the age of 94. The executors of his estate provided the History Room with a box of his personal papers. Buried within his research notes was a carbon copy of a letter dated 18 March 1946, signed by fifteen Division-level managers from X-10 (including future Laboratory Director Alvin Weinberg, who would later chair a commission for President Kennedy that sowed the seeds for increased transparency in government).

This letter was addressed to Sen. Brian McMahon, Chair of the Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy and author of the forthcoming Atomic Energy Act of 1946. At issue was the manner by which nuclear weapons research would be managed within the federal government.

On the one hand, MG Leslie Groves deftly left the Manhattan Project to a swift and favorable conclusion of World War II. The "establishment" logic, embodied in the Vandenberg Amendment to the proposed Atomic Energy Act, which would have created a governing military board with "veto" authority over the proceedings of the Atomic Energy Commission.

The scientists had work
ed side-by-side with soldiers for more than four years. Their opinion was that "... that military control would ... increase immeasurably the very dangers that we wish to avoid."

This paragraph summarizes the civilian scientists' sentiment for "The Army Way":
The delays produced by the army system of compartmentalization, denying the research men on the atomic energy project access to facts that are necessary for their work, the procrastination in releasing results of highest value to the medical and biological sciences though these results are of no military importance, show that it is only detrimental to place the power of censorship into the hands of persons who are in no position to judge the facts.
The Atomic Energy Act of 1946 was passed -- without the Vandenberg Amendment. And civilian control of our nuclear arsenal, a model complementary to our nation's civilian control of its military forces, was assured.


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