Scientific nature of work needed

Groves, scientists disagree over selection of director

J.Robert Oppenheimer. His selection as the head of the new weapons laboratory outraged Ernest O. Lawrence.

Ernest O. Lawrence, (left), Enrico Fermi (center) and I.I. Rabi chat at a party in the Big House, part of the old Los Alamos Ranch School. Lawrence directed the project to separate uranium-235 from uranium-238 electromagnetically. Fermi dierected the pile project at Chicago and, later, F-Division at Los Alamos. Rabi directed the Columbia Laboratory which contributed to the development of radar during world War II and was a Los Alamos consultant.

Theoretical work on a nuclear weapon was well advanced by September 1942, but a complete understanding of bomb design required the measurement of a number of experimental constants related to the behavior of fast neutrons in various materials. Experiments to make these measurements at private research institutes and academic laboratories were hampered by security and by the difficulty of coordinating work in widely scattered locations.

A central weapons laboratory was needed.

Gen. Leslie Groves and the Manhattan Engineer District had taken charge of the construction of production plants, but no provision had been made for a laboratory for bomb design.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and John Manley took the problem to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). The occasion was a meeting of its section charged with the development of nuclear weapons, the S-1 Committee, at Bohemian Grove in northern California. The host was Ernest Lawrence, director of the University of California Radiation Laboratory.

As a result of that meeting, Arthur Compton of the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, who was in charge of plutonium and bomb design work, called another meeting in Chicago. He invited Edwin McMillan, the co-discoverer of the first transuranium elements, neptunium and plutonium.

McMillan, who had been sent by Lawrence to organize work at the Naval Underwater Sound Laboratory at Point Loma, Calif., had also helped Lawrence organize the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Radiation Laboratory. Although named after Lawrence's laboratory in California, the MIT lab was to develop radar. Lawrence also had recruited the director, Lee DuBridge, who came from the cyclotron laboratory at the University of Rochester. Apparently, Lawrence intended to recruit the director for the new design laboratory as well.

In Chicago on Sept. 19, McMillan met with Oppenheimer, Manley, Enrico Fermi, Lawrence and Compton to plan the new laboratory. They decided that equipment would be purchased, leased or borrowed to set up a fast-neutron laboratory in a remote location where they would move the theoretical and experimental studies Oppenheimer and Manley had been overseeing.

At the end of the meeting, Lawrence took McMillan aside and said, "We'll make you director of that place." Compton wrote John Tate, the vice chairman of the OSRD division for which McMillan was working at San Diego, that McMillan was "urgently needed to take charge of an important division of our project," suggesting he, too, felt McMillan was a candidate for director. Closely associated with Lawrence at the University of California Radiation Laboratory, McMillan would later succeed him as director there. But Lawrence would not succeed in having him named to head the new laboratory, which would be run by the Manhattan District not OSRD.

The selection of a director for the new laboratory was made by Groves. The idea for a new laboratory was presented to him early in October and he took charge of it as he had the construction of production plants for uranium and plutonium. Because the scientific nature of the new laboratory would require civilian rather than military leadership, Groves was determined to select someone who had sufficient prestige to command the allegiance of the scientists recruited for the project. Most of all, he wanted a Nobel Prize winner, which he equated to a general in the army of scientists.

Groves later wrote that Lawrence would have been an excellent choice for director if he could have been spared from the electromagnetic separation project. The best bomb design in the world would be worthless without sufficient nuclear explosive and Lawrence was ahead of others in developing a means for making it. Other Nobel laureates already were engaged in war projects and were unavailable or unwilling to move to the new laboratory.

Oppenheimer, who had led the weapons theoretical design project for some months, was another possibility. Groves was impressed with the theorist when they met in October 1942. Oppenheimer had built a strong school of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology and the University of California, and at that time, it was thought that the new laboratory would be chiefly concerned with theory.

Groves, how-ever, found little enthusiasm for Oppenheimer among OSRD scientists. But because most other scientists of comparable stature were tied up in other war projects, no one could suggest a better choice.

The Military Policy Committee that governed the Manhattan District also was unable to suggest an alternative. So, after several weeks, Groves decided on Oppenheimer.

Lawrence was outraged by Groves' choice.

As a colleague of the theorist at Berkeley in the 1930s, he had no faith that Oppenheimer could run a laboratory. Although they had been fast friends after coming to the University of California in 1928, Oppenheimer's left-wing politics had offended Lawrence, and Oppenheimer's attempt to organize a union at the UC Radiation Laboratory had infuriated him.

When Lawrence learned of Groves' choice, he suggested that a laboratory not be built at all. To DuBridge, Lawrence expressed his conviction that Oppenheimer would fail. Perhaps for this reason, McMillan was brought back to Berkeley to assist Oppenheimer in planning the new laboratory. He led the early research on the gun and implosion techniques for assembling a critical mass at Los Alamos.

In one of his earliest acts as the Manhattan District commander, Groves overrode scientific judgment and asserted his authority. It was one of the very few times that he and Lawrence disagreed. Here, however, the general was right. He had found the man who would lead the new laboratory to success in less than three years.

- Robert Seidel

Next installment: As plans for a new laboratory mature, the Manhattan Engineer District surveys the west for a suitable site.