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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Early Government Support – 1939

History Page Type:
Thursday, June 5, 2014
E. O. Lawrence, A. H. Compton, V. Bush, J. B. Conant, K. Compton, and A. Loomis in March 1940 at UC Berkeley meeting.

By late 1939, several independent investigations into the “uranium question” were being conducted by laboratories across the United States including Berkeley, Columbia, Princeton, and the University of Minnesota. There was no question that the United States Government would have to get involved in order to coordinate and fund the “project” if it were to have any chance of succeeding.  However, there was still a lack of an overall “sense of urgency” amongst Briggs’ committee and other government officials. Several factors were impeding a decisive move forward:

Isolationism – There was still a strong influence in the U.S. at the time to “not get involved” in world problems.

Little Likelihood of Success – Many leading scientists remained adamant that the likelihood of producing a “nuclear weapon,” especially in time to make a difference in the outcome of the “European” war, would be nearly impossible to attain. Backing this claim were early calculations by Edward Teller that as much as 30 tons of uranium would be required for a critical mass, deemed much too heavy for a bomb.

Competing Theories – Various labs around the country were advocating different approaches to separating U-235 from U-238, each involving tremendous costs and several unknowns.

Counteracting this “thread of negativity” was a strong group of scientists who had fled Nazi Germany and left behind several able colleagues. They felt that Germany had a two year head start and could very well be on their way to producing a usable weapon by as early as 1942 – 1943.

Although America would commit millions of dollars to research in the ensuing few months, it was not until a group of British scientists issued the MAUD Report – outlining the feasibility of producing a nuclear weapon – that the United States finally “stepped up to the plate” and took charge through the creation of government committees and departments to support the United States’ goal of creating an atomic weapon.


The Uranium CommitteeLyman Briggs

In October of 1939, as he had promised Albert Einstein, President Roosevelt established the Uranium Committee, which met for the first time on October 21st. Lyman Briggs, director of the National Bureau of Standards, was chosen to head this important advisory committee on uranium.

This committee, which included both civilian and military representation, took up the task of evaluating where the United States stood with regards to uranium research and to, more importantly, recommend an appropriate role for the federal government.

In one of its first, and most important actions, the Committee recommended that limited funding be authorized for research on uranium isotope separation as well as Enrico Fermi’s and Leo Szilard’s work on nuclear chain reactions at Columbia University in New York City.

The work of the committee gained momentum in April of 1940 when it was discovered that the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Germany had undertaken an extensive research program involving uranium.

The first meeting of the Advisory Committee on Uranium met on October 21, 1939 – a Saturday. In attendance were Lyman Briggs, Briggs’ assistant, Adamson for the Army, Hoover for the Navy, Alexander Sachs, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, Edward Teller, and Richard Roberts. Teller represented Enrico Fermi who refused to attend because of a dispute with the Navy Department.

A little more than week later, on November 1st, the Uranium Committee issued a report to President Roosevelt, stating among other things: “If the reaction turns out to be explosive in character, it would provide a possible source of bombs with a destructiveness vastly greater than anything now known” and “we recommend adequate support for a thorough investigation.”

As verified by Roosevelt’s aide, “Pa” Watson, the President read the report and “wished to keep it on file.” There it remained for several months, well into 1940.


Vannevar Bush

The National Defense Research Committee

June 1940
“It was during the period of the ‘phony war’. We were agreed that the war was bound to break out into an intense struggle, that America was sure to get into it in one way or another, sooner or later – that it would be a highly technical struggle, that we were by no means prepared in this regard, and finally and most importantly, that the military system as it existed, would never fully produce the new instrumentalities which we would certainly need”. – Vannevar Bush; President – Carnegie Institution; 1940

Shortly after World War II began with the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Vannevar Bush, president of the Carnegie Foundation, became convinced of the need for the government to marshal the forces of science for a war that would inevitably involve the United States.

With the imminent fall of France undoubtedly on Roosevelt’s mind, it only took a short time for Bush to obtain the President’s approval for the establishment of a national science organization.

In June of 1940, the National Defense Research Committee, with Bush as its head, reorganized The Uranium Committee into a scientific body and eliminated military membership. Not dependent on the military for funds, as the Uranium Committee had been, the National Defense Research Committee had more influence and more direct access to money for nuclear research.

In the interest of national security, Bush barred foreign-born scientists from committee membership and blocked the further publication of articles on uranium research. In addition, funding for continued research into uranium isotope separation and chain reactions was approved for the remainder of 1940.

May 1941
In May 1941, after months of growing pressure from scientists in Britain and the U.S. (particularly University of California at Berkeley’s Ernest O. Lawrence), Bush decided to review the prospects of nuclear energy further and engaged Arthur H. Compton and the National Academy of Sciences for the task. They issued a report on May 17 treating military prospects favorably for power production, but the report did not address the design or manufacture of a bomb in any detail. At this same time, Bush created the larger and more powerful Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), which was empowered to engage in large engineering projects in addition to research, and became its director.


The Office of Scientific Research and Development

Vannevar Bush and Arthur Compton

“Whenever the U. S. program bogs down in bureaucratic doubt, Hitler and his war machine rescue it.” – Unknown

By the time that Vannevar Bush received the second of three reports issued by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), he had assumed the position of director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Established by an executive order from the President, the OSRD strengthened scientific presence in the federal government.

Bush, who had lobbied hard for the new setup, now reported directly to President Roosevelt and could evoke the prestige of the White House in his dealings with other federal agencies.

The National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), now headed by James B. Conant, president of Harvard University, became an advisory body responsible for making research and development recommendations to the OSRD. The Uranium Committee, still under Lyman Briggs, was renamed The Office of Scientific Research and Development Section on Uranium and was codenamed “S-1.”

Note: The National Academy of Sciences was a well-established organization that had been the “center of scientific thought” in the United States for many years. It was headed at the time by Frank Jewett, President of Bell Telephone Labs. The NAS issued three reports between May 17, 1941 and November 9, 1941 dealing with the “uranium question.” The third and final report to the OSRD “agreed with the essence of The MAUD Report from Britain that an atomic bomb WAS feasible.” This 3rd NAS report was forwarded to President Roosevelt on November 27, 1941.


U.S. Army Corps of EngineersArmy Corps of Engineers medallion

“Only about six men in the U. S. Army are permitted to know what is going on, including Secretary of War Stimson!” – Arthur Compton; Met Lab; June 1942 

The decision to proceed with production planning led directly to the involvement of the Army, specifically the Corps of Engineers. Roosevelt had approved Army involvement on October 9, 1941, and Bush had arranged for Army participation at the S-1 meeting in March of 1942. The need for secrecy suggested placing the S-1 program within one of the armed forces, and the construction experience of the Corps of Engineers made it the logical choice to build the production facilities envisioned in the Conant report of May 23.

By orchestrating some delicate negotiations between the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) and the Army, Bush was able to transfer the responsibility for process development, materials procurement, engineering design, and site selection to the Corps of Engineers and to earmark approximately sixty percent of the proposed 1943 budget, or $54 million, for these functions. An Army officer would be in overall command of the entire project. This new arrangement left S-1, with a budget of approximately $30 million, in charge of only university research and pilot plant studies.

Additional reorganization created a new S-1 Executive Committee, composed of James Conant, Lyman Briggs, Arthur Compton, Ernest Lawrence, Edgar Murphree, and Harold Urey. This group would oversee all OSRD work and keep abreast of technical developments that might influence engineering considerations or plant design. With this reorganization in place, the nature of the American atomic bomb effort changed from one dominated by research scientists to one in which scientists played a supporting role in the construction enterprise run by the United States Army Corps of Engineers.

[The text for this page is taken and adapted from from the U.S. Department of Energy’s official Manhattan Project history: F. G. Gosling, The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb (DOE/MA-0001; Washington: History Division, Department of Energy, January 1999), 6-12.]