"Military laboratory" evolves into academic outpost

In early 1943, J. Robert Oppenheimer, the newly named director of the as-yet-unbuilt nuclear weapons design laboratory at Los Alamos, had to recruit a scientific staff for a purpose he could not disclose, at a place he could not specify, for a period he could not predict. Adding to these ambiguities was that of the status of the staff - Brig. Gen. Leslie Groves wanted a military laboratory where scientists served in uniform, a stipulation to which Oppenheimer originally agreed.

Most of the scientists who had been recruited to work on defense projects, however, worked for universities under contract to the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) and they were reluctant to don uniforms.

Another difficulty arose from the fact that many nuclear physicists had already been absorbed by the Radiation Laboratory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which was developing radar; the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago, which was working on ways of producing and purifying the new element plutonium that was expected to be one of the nuclear explosives; and Ernest Lawrence's electromagnetic uranium isotope separation project at the University of California Radiation Laboratory in Berkeley.

The teams that had been working on the measurement of nuclear constants and theoretical calculations at scattered university sites under Oppenheimer's direction would form the nucleus of the new laboratory. But it soon became clear that this was not enough. With Robert Serber, who had returned to the University of California to help Oppenheimer with the theoretical calculations, Oppenheimer discussed "whom it might be lovely to have in the team and how one man's brilliance might mobilize another's rather more pedestrian abilities," Oppenheimer's secretary, Priscilla Duffield, recalled. Oppenheimer wrote James Conant, the head of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), at the end of November 1942, "The job we have to do will not be possible without personnel substantially greater than we now have available, and I should only be misleading you and all others concerned with the project if I were to promise to get the work done without this help."

In an early recruiting effort, Oppenheimer drafted the team led by Robert Wilson at Princeton that had been working on an electromagnetic isotope separation scheme called the isotron. This team was under the direction of Henry Smyth, a physics professor at Princeton. Lawrence, convinced that his calutron electromagnetic separation system would be more successful, had closed down the project. Wilson recalled, "We became then what I suppose is the worst of all possible things, a research team without a problem, a group with lots of spirit and technique, but nothing to do. Like a bunch of professional soldiers, we signed up, en masse, to go to Los Alamos."

Unfortunately, no one had told their former commander. Smyth protested to Conant about the highjacking of his best physicists, and Conant told Oppenheimer that henceforth he would approach department heads and laboratory directors before Oppenheimer made his raids. "Once we got the clearance from the top man in each organization who was likely to kick," Conant recalled, "then Oppenheimer would approach the man directly and try to sell him on the idea. If there was reluctance, Groves or I or both of us would then write a letter to the man in question, telling him just how important it was for him to make this sacrifice for the war effort."

This appeal was not always successful. As Oppenheimer told Conant in January 1943, of the men he had approached, only Robert Bacher, a Cornell physicist on leave to the MIT Radiation Laboratory, had agreed to come. Bacher and I.I. Rabi, originally from Columbia but on loan to the MIT Radiation Laboratory where he was serving as deputy director, met with Oppenheimer, Edwin McMillan, a physics professor at UC working at the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, and Luis Alvarez, a physics professor at UC on loan to the MIT Radiation Laboratory, in the Biltmore Hotel in New York City on Jan. 30, 1943, to discuss the problem. When Bacher asked Oppenheimer who would have final authority over the laboratory, "it took some time to get it out of him. When we did, when we found out that lab was to be military, with scientists taking commissions in the Army, we were horrified," said Bacher.

Rabi and the others agreed that the Laboratory must demilitarize if the project were to be successful. As Oppenheimer reported to Conant, they argued that military control would lead to friction, loss of morale and "more important, that in any issue in which we were instructed by our military superiors, the whole Laboratory would be forced to follow their instructions, and thus in effect lose its scientific autonomy."

Oppenheimer was alarmed that he would not be able to recruit the men he needed if he ran a militarized laboratory. "In a tight isolated group such as we are now planning, some warmth and trust in personal relations is an indispensable prerequisite, and we are, of course, able to ensure this only in the case of men whom we have known in the past."

Hans Bethe, Bacher's colleague at Cornell University, whose summary of nuclear physics in the Review of Modern Physics had become known as the "Bethe Bible," was one such person. Like Bacher, Bethe had worked with Army officers at MIT on radar projects, and both believed that a military regime would be too inflexible for the work at hand.

Oppenheimer believed that "the solidarity of the physicists is such, that if these conditions are not met, we will not only fail to have the men from MIT with us, but that many men who have already planned to join the new laboratory will reconsider their commitments."

Groves and Conant were faced with an impasse. Groves would not entirely relinquish Army control, but a compromise was reached: Oppenheimer could tell potential staff that Los Alamos "would be concerned with the development and final manufacture of an instrument of war," including "certain experimental studies in science, engineering and ordnance." However, "at a later date large-scale experiments involving difficult ordnance procedures and the handling of highly dangerous material" would be involved, and this would be a turning point. "During the first period, the laboratory will be on a strictly civilian basis," it was agreed. However, "when the second division of the work is entered upon, which will not be earlier than Jan. 1, 1944, the scientific and engineering staff will be composed of commissioned officers." The ultimate authority over the laboratory would be the Military Policy Committee, composed of Vannevar Bush, head of OSRD; Conant; Groves; Rear Adm. William Purnell of the Pentagon's Joint Committee on New Weapons and Equipment; and Gen. Wilhelm Styer, chief of staff of the Army's services of supply.

Groves would represent the committee at Los Alamos, but Oppenheimer was responsible to Conant as well, and placed in charge of all scientific work as well as "the maintenance of secrecy by the civilian personnel under his control."

The compromise mollified the scientists. Bacher agreed to come and head the Experimental Physics Division of the laboratory, and simultaneously submitted his resignation, which would be effective when the laboratory was militarized. Rabi refused to leave the Radiation Laboratory but served as a consultant to the Los Alamos laboratory. Bethe came to head the Theoretical Division.

Delayed by his work at Chicago, Fermi did not arrive until 1944, when he became head of the new Fermi (F) Division.

The challenge of recruiting these senior scientists prepared Oppenheimer for the task of staffing the Laboratory.

Armed with the Groves-Conant letter, Oppenheimer crisscrossed the country adding to his team. To Serber, McMillan and the Berkeley theorists were added Emilio Segre and J.W. Kennedy and their experimental groups from the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory. Felix Bloch and Hans Staub and their group came from Stanford; Marshall Holloway and his group from Purdue University; Victor Weisskopf from the University of Rochester; Donald Kerst from the University of Illinois; and E.A. Long from Columbia University. Conant expedited the transfer of Edward Teller, Robert Christy, Darol Froman and Alvin Graves from the Metallurgical Laboratory at Columbia.

Government research laboratories also contributed key personnel: Seth Neddermeyer came from the National Bureau of Standards and D.R. Inglis came from the Ballistic Research Laboratory at Aberdeen, Md.

Among those recruited from private laboratories were Edward Condon from Westinghouse Research Laboratories, Cyril Stanley Smith from the National Research Council and Charles Critchfield from the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Physicians Louis Hempelmann from Barnes Hospital in St. Louis, Mo., and J.F. Nolan from New York's Memorial Hospital provided medical expertise.

Despite these successes, of the 33 physicists Oppenheimer set out to recruit, only 15 came to Los Alamos. John van Vleck, who had served on the summer study at Berkeley in 1942, when it was determined that a fission bomb was feasible and a thermonuclear bomb possible, could not be pried loose from Harvard, despite the fact that Conant was its president. Franz Kurie of the UC Radiation Laboratory was not released by Lawrence. Carl Anderson and Wolfgang Panofsky of the California Institute of Technology were among others who could not be recruited.

Some refused to remain at Los Alamos. Felix Bloch resigned to work on radar; E.U. Condon, who came to Los Alamos to serve as Oppenheimer's deputy, resigned in disagreement with Groves's compartmentalization policy.

None of these recruits would put on a uniform at Los Alamos, and although soldiers would play a role in its work, the laboratory was never militarized.

Groves never raised the issue of converting the Laboratory to a military organization again. Instead, it was to become an outpost of academia.

- Bob Seidel

Next: Oppenheimer and his staff arrive at Los Alamos.