"You know what they're doing down in Los Alamos?"

UC's first contract to operate the Laboratory

Norris Bradbury watches as Robert Underhill, secretary of the regents of the University of California, signs the contract to operate the Laboratory Feb. 1, 1952.

The contract between the University of California and the Manhattan District of the Corps of Engineers (MED) to operate Project Y, Los Alamos Laboratory, was not signed until April 15, 1943, after the project was already under way. It was the first such contract between them.

A rudimentary agreement was first laid out in a letter from Irwin Stewart on Jan. 23, 1943, and called for an Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) contract with the University of California for "certain investigations to be directed by Dr. J. R. Oppenheimer," at a cost of $150,000 covering the period Jan. 1, 1943, to July 31, 1943.

Such contracts had been the standard means of mobilizing university researchers to work in installations such as the radiation laboratory at the University of California, its namesake at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Chicago's metallurgical laboratory. Several such contracts had been established between the University of California and the OSRD.

Robert M. Underhill, the secretary of the regents of the University of California, understood that the contract would be similar to the other OSRD contracts at Berkeley and, on that basis, agreed with UC President Robert Gordon Sproul to accept the letter of intent on Feb. 10, 1943.

"There was some very informal discussion after that with Dr. Oppenheimer," Underhill later wrote, "and it is my understanding that as a preliminary matter we were to provide personnel service, traveling expenses and to cover charges then being expensed by Princeton University under a similar letter of intent. It was some time later before permission was granted to inform me as to where this project would be located. My only knowledge up to that time being that it would not be in the State of California. It very definitely seemed to be that the University, as a corporation, was to be almost a straw man in the proceedings, but to this the University never agreed."

Enter the MED. The decision to transfer work on the atomic bomb from the OSRD to the MED had been made by OSRD head Vannevar Bush and James Bryant Conant, Harvard University president and chairman of the S-1 committee (the committee that oversaw all phases of work on nuclear weapons) of the OSRD early in 1942, and the district was organized in the summer of that year to take charge of the developmental aspects of the project, especially the manufacture of Uranium 235 and plutonium. Gradually, the MED took over those contracts relating to the bomb.

On Feb. 13, 1943, Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves met with Underhill to negotiate a long-term contract to operate Los Alamos Laboratory.

The fact that this occurred after the site, equipment and men for the project had been selected suggests that the contract was an afterthought. Indeed, Underhill found that Oppenheimer had already hired D. P. Mitchell from Columbia University to take charge of purchasing at Los Alamos and that he was arranging to hire a business manager.

Underhill rejected the business manager proposed by Oppenheimer because, he felt, "it would be better to have someone who knew something about University organization and its general business arrangements." In his discussion with Mitchell, Underhill got the impression that "the University was to be more or less in the position of banker and officially little more." It was in fact, a pact between those who would only work for a civilian project and Groves, who wished the bomb design to be done under military auspices.

Bringing in the University of California in 1943 made recruiting for the work of the Laboratory easier. Underhill, however, insisted on more UC involvement. The regents of the University of California were concerned that the project was located outside the state of California. Underhill approached the finance committee of the regents who instructed him to investigate the liabilities to which that might expose them. Underhill was told only that the Los Alamos project would never include more than 250 people and that it would have an annual budget not exceeding $7,500,000. Groves convinced Sproul that the contract was "the best solution to a crucial problem."

UC was experienced in research and could do the job. As Groves later admitted, he had a "big problem in getting good people" because "the scientific resources of the country, particularly in this general area, were already fully engaged in important war work. Because they were civilians, the scientists had complete freedom in their choice of jobs." A university employer would be more acceptable than the military or industry.

Nevertheless, Groves clung to the notion of military control, and insisted that once development was begun, the military would take over the project. At least one scientist, Robert Bacher, who headed the physics division at Los Alamos Laboratory, submitted a resignation that would be effective upon that transition.

On Feb. 20, in a meeting in the Biltmore Hotel in New York with Conant and Groves; Groves' deputy, Col. Kenneth D. Nichols; I. I. Rabi of Columbia and the M.I.T. Radiation Laboratory; Samuel Allison of the metallurgical laboratory of the University of Chicago; and Robert Wilson of Princeton University who would lead the cyclotron group at Los Alamos, Underhill learned that the Army, not the OSRD, would be the agency that would oversee the Los Alamos contract. He was no more pleased to learn this than the scientists had been. "I suggested that some other university might be found to carry on the activity.

"There was some slight discussion of California Institute of Technology," said Underhill, because Oppenheimer had served there as well as at UC, the University of New Mexico and the University of Chicago. "However, there seemed to be no general desire on the part of the Army that any institution but the University of California be requested to do the work," continued Underhill, because Oppenheimer and other scientists had worked at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory and because UC was already receiving many contracts worth millions of dollars for related work on electromagnetic separation.

Underhill left the meeting after telling those present that UC would be perfectly satisfied to have any other university handle the contract.

The next day, Oppenheimer approached him outside Grand Central Station in New York, told him that everyone concerned still wanted UC to have the contract and asked him to meet with Groves in Washington. On Feb. 22, he met with Groves and agreed.

A letter of intent was drafted by the Army and signed by Underhill March 3, 1943. The detailed contract required five days to negotiate, from April 15 to April 20, 1943. Underhill succeeded in obtaining the conditions traditional in OSRD contracts. Because the work at Los Alamos had already started, Underhill and the Army gave up the attempt to include an agreement for negotiation with the Army in the contract, and although the main part of the contact was signed on April 20, the negotiation agreement was not added until a year later.

For reasons of security, UC had no representative at Los Alamos with authority comparable to Oppenheimer or the military commander. Only Oppenheimer, Lawrence, McMillan and other members of the University of California faculty recruited for "Project Y" understood the true implications of the work. Neither Underhill nor the regents were told the true purpose of the project. It was not until November of 1943 that Ernest Lawrence, the director of the University of California Radiation Laboratory who had helped to organize Los Alamos, came into Underhill's office, shut the door and asked: "You know what they're doing down in Los Alamos?" When Underhill confessed he did not, Lawrence told him that an atomic bomb was being designed there. Underhill was forbidden, however, to tell the regents.

To ensure UC control and protect the secrecy of Los Alamos, material for the Laboratory was routed through UC's purchasing office in Los Angeles, which shipped it on to Los Alamos, where Mitchell ran the procurement office.

The purchasing office was organized March 16, 1943, and branch offices were set up in April 1943 in New York and Chicago to handle emergency requests. Eventually, some 300 UC employees staffed these offices, including 32 buyers and 22 expediters. They purchased approximately $400,000 worth of items (about 6,000) per month during the war.

The arrangement created difficulties and delays that did not diminish as the Laboratory expanded. Orders sent to the Los Angeles office had to be carefully written, because the employees of the purchasing office had no direct contact with the user groups at the Laboratory, no knowledge of its work and therefore could not understand its significance or urgency.

Oppenheimer and his staff occasionally complained about inefficient and inexperienced buyers, but as these offices were seriously understaffed and deliberately kept ignorant of the purpose of their work, the inefficiency was probably inherent in the circumstances.

The University of California connection also helped stock the shelves of the Laboratory's library, which was organized and catalogued by Charlotte Serber, the wife of Robert Serber, the theorist who gave the first set of lectures at Los Alamos in April 1943. UC lent 1,200 books and 50 journals to start the library. New books were purchased through Los Angeles, which placed the orders through the library at the University of California. During the course of the war, the number of books rose to 3,000, journals to 160 and 1,500 microfilm reproductions were made.

Although the University of California was kept largely in ignorance about the nature of the project at Los Alamos until after the war, at which time it tried to terminate the contract, Lawrence, Sproul and Underhill finally agreed to continue to operate the Laboratory for the MED's successor, the Atomic Energy Commission, in 1947. The contract, although born and swaddled in secrecy, was adequate to operate the Laboratory and to complete its wartime mission.

- Robert Seidel

Next: .Beginnings of research at Los Alamos