Anthony French: This Anthony French. I was born and raised in Brighton, England, south of London. I went to Cambridge as a student in Upping, which is more or less northeast of London in 1939, just a couple of weeks after the war was declared.
I’d just finished my secondary school, and helped in the reception of refugee kids from London who were being billeted in various supposed safer places around the south coast. It never made much sense to me that they would put billet kids more or less in the path between Germany and England, but it worked out; Brighton never suffered any serious damage. I did go through London in vacations between Brighton, or the reverse, so I had the occasion to stay nights in London, but never more than that. So I didn’t really experience the blitz in any direct way.
This was at the time when the V1 buzz bombs were coming over, and so there were alarms, and everybody would go into the basement until we heard them cut out and knew that they were about to fall somewhere, but it probably wasn’t going to be us.
Cambridge itself was almost immune from bombing. I don’t think it was ever deliberately bombed. The only occasion I remember—well a couple of instances: one was an incendiary bomb that accidentally came in through the lab that I worked in and ended up in a sink or something like that. It never created any fire.
There was one real casualty when a research man working with a cyclotron was actually killed. But again, that was not Cambridge being deliberately bombed. It would’ve been a German bomber that jettisoned its bombs on the way back to Germany. It had been attacked and was trying to escape.
Otherwise, Cambridge was very quiet. I think there was a tacit understanding that Heidelberg and Cambridge and Oxford were not going to be used as targets.
Cindy Kelly: Who did you study with?
French: At Cambridge there was a degree program called the Natural Sciences Tripos. The first part of it was mathematics, physics, chemistry, and usually some other subject. And I took mineralogy. Those first two years I was just following a standard undergraduate science program.
One thing of interest is that during my second year, C. P. Snow was a fellow of a Cambridge college, Christ’s College, and he was in charge of scientific manpower. During my second year, he came up to Cambridge and spent three days interviewing all of the science engineering undergraduates, to decide where they might go or work.
I remember very vividly Snow interviewed me and it turned out that he’d been an examiner for the entrance scholar exams to go to Cambridge. The first thing he said to me was: “Why didn’t you get a first class in your exams at the end of your first year?”
And I very arrogantly said to him, “I was bored.”
To get up to the level of the entrance exams, you’d gone a long way beyond normal high school work. It was, in a sense, true—that was my reason for not doing better. Anyway, I had to pull my socks up, and at the end of the second year I got a first alright.
He may have been at the base of deciding where anybody went when they got their degree. Perhaps I was beginning to be steered towards physics, and nuclear physics in particular. It really started seriously towards the end of my third and last year for the Bachelor’s degree.
A physics major friend of mine and I went to see Sir Lawrence Bragg, who was then head of the Cavendish Lab. We asked him about any possibility of a job when we graduated. He was completely non-committal. As I mentioned in my talk, I had this fellow Egon Bretscher, who I found a very interesting and exciting lecturer on basic nuclear physics. He knew that, and knew me personally, and may have helped to decide that I and this other fellow Michael Bull would join this group as soon as we graduated. That was the nearest to being directly drafted for the war that I ever knew about.
Kelly: Were you then invited to be part of the Manhattan Project?
French: As I mentioned in the talk, it was just a couple of weeks before the end of the term and the final exams that Bretscher had told me to please come and report to me a week or two after the graduate degree program had finished, and report to him at the Cavendish lab.
Tube Alloys was just a cover name of course for Britain’s atomic bomb program. It was meant to be as meaningless as possible, so as to not point to anything. It was the organization set up as a direct consequence of the key paper written by Rudolf Peierls and Otto Frisch, proposing that a bomb could be made out of separating uranium-235.
Peierls was not somebody I knew except by reputation at all. He was known as a distinguished theoretical physicist—German and a refugee. He had come to England in the mid 1930s I guess. I’m not sure where he was at the time—it might’ve been the University of Bristol. Anyway, he was certainly settled in England.
Otto Frisch is famous for the visit he made to his aunt [Lise Meitner] in Sweden, who was an Austrian refugee, who had been working with Hahn and Strassman in Berlin. After the Anschluss when Germany took over Austria, she felt very unsafe in Berlin. She was helped by a Dutch physicist friend, Dirk Koster I think it was, who enabled her to travel by train to Holland, and almost immediately to go over to Sweden, where she spent the rest of the war.
Frisch was visiting her at Christmastime in Sweden. Meitner had been in correspondence with Hahn and Strassman while they were trying to puzzle out the funny things they seemed to be finding through chemistry about the bombardment of uranium with neutrons. Hahn was an extremely good chemist and he finally insisted that what they had was not some nucleus heavier than uranium as a result of adding neutrons; this was plain barium in the middle of the periodic table, and it just had to be so.
Frisch and Meitner talked about this and came up with this notion, which in retrospect was maybe not all that surprising; that a uranium nucleus with an extra neutron added might be top-heavy and simply split in two. That was the origin of what was really happening, and it was Frisch himself who, through a biologist friend, decided to call this process “nuclear fission”, in an analogy with what happened in biology when cells split up. So Frisch and Meitner really started the whole fission business through their discovery.
There’s a famous story about this: Frisch having had this idea, went back to his lab in England—I guess by then it was in Liverpool—and he set up a very simple apparatus to observe fission happening, with the help of an ionization device known as an ionization chamber. And he measured the big electrical pulses that corresponded to the release of 200 million volts of energy when the uranium nucleus broke in half in that way.
There’s a famous story that Niels Bohr was about to go to Copenhagen—maybe Frisch himself was there at the time—and had sought refuge in Bohr’s institute. Anyways, Bohr was about to make a trip to the United States, but agreed with Frisch that he would hold off telling anybody in the United States about it until Frisch had a chance to submit a paper about his discoveries. This was before any plans to make a bomb—just the discovery of fission itself.
Bohr was going to a conference in USA and somehow he sort of forgot that he wasn’t supposed to tell anybody. As soon as he got to the States he mentioned it and then American physicists all raced to their labs to verify the phenomenon. So the cat was out of the bag, but Frisch did get his paper published as the first official report on the phenomenon.
So Frisch and Peierls then got together and wrote a report on the possibility of an explosive device made from uranium fission. There was another component to that which is not so well known, and that is that another essential element was that in fission, neutrons are released. That was discovered by [Frédéric and Irène] Joliot in France; that was until then a missing piece that made a chain reaction possible.
Kelly: Didn’t their paper also talk about the use of a weapon?
French: The original paper was just the sheer discovery of fission. That was an academic discovery. The next year, by then Britain was at war, and the possibility of making a fission weapon began to be seriously considered. So Peierls and Frisch wrote a two-part report. One was in general terms about the possibility of a weapon. The other was putting in some numbers to suggest that, yes, with a few kilograms of separated uranium-235, such a weapon could be made; it was not so huge that it was out of the question. That was the two parts: the first that in principle it would work, the second was putting in numbers to see what it would require.
Kelly: When you got to Cavendish Laboratory, was Sir James Chadwick at the lab when you got there?
French: After Frisch and Peierls submitted their report, perhaps to Chadwick, I’m not sure, it found its way into official circles in London. The decision was then made that this was something to follow up. A special committee, the MAUD committee, which one can read about in all histories of this atomic project, was set up to pursue the matter and develop definite plans for Britain to get into the business of trying to make an atomic bomb.
There were several universities involved in this way, so Cavendish lab at Cambridge was one, and Chadwick’s own institution at Liverpool was another. I don’t know how many others were involved—probably the University of Birmingham too, which had been significantly involved with the development of radar at the time. From this small beginning, the Tube Alloys organization developed plans to involve industry and to promote the development of a definite plan.
[The MAUD Report] was essentially a report for use by the British government, depending on what they wanted to do about it, if anything. I didn’t know about the MAUD Report at the time—it was all secret.
All I know from that time is that a project was formed, and that one aspect of it was the creation of two research groups at Cambridge University: one to work on the fission of uranium by fast neutrons, which would then be the basis for designing a bomb, and the other with slow neutrons to make possible the design of a nuclear reactor, the neutrons in which could be made to make plutonium out of uranium plus neutrons.
There was something very important here: the problem of separating the isotope of uranium-235 from the much more abundant uranium-238 is horrendously difficult because these nuclei are very similar in mass and identical electrically essentially, and to separate them just by projecting them into a magnetic field and having them follow slightly different semi-circular paths made for only a slight separation between them.
To get pure uranium-235 when there was seventy times as much uranium-238 was incredibly hard, whereas if uranium-238 captured one neutron, and became a chemically different substance, plutonium, once it entered the realm of chemistry, then the separation of the uranium from the plutonium was relatively very much easier.
My boss Egon Bretscher was the first person in Britain to realize the possibility that plutonium made in this way was a possible bomb material and might undergo fission itself. This led to the idea of making a major reactor to create plutonium and then chemically separate it from everything else.
There’s one intermediary there that I should mention for precision; namely, that the first thing you get after bombarding uranium with an extra neutron is that it forms the next element up in the periodic table beyond uranium, which is neptunium. And then after that, following the labeling of the planets, the next one after Neptune was Pluto, and that was relatively stable, whereas the Neptunium was quite short-lived. Plutonium has a lifetime of thousands of years, so it was essentially a durable material that could be the basis of a bomb.
Kelly: So you were now part of the Tube Alloys project?
French: Yes, as of June 1942. The man who tutored me in my last year at Cambridge— Egon Bretscher—and I’m being told to check in with him. I take a week off after getting my degree and then I join his group. I go to his office and he tells me about the existence of the project, because I had no idea that anything like this was going on behind the other door in his office that I hadn’t noticed before.
He immediately showed me into this large room with this elaborate contraption: a nuclear accelerator to go up to one million volts, which was going to be used to accelerate ions of heavy hydrogen, deuterium, to go down vertically through a hole into a research room underneath, where they would strike what was called a target. There was a magnet to bend the beam around so that it was now going horizontally. It would strike a target, which was no more than a thin plate of material inside the vacuum system.
The collision of the one deuterium ion with the deuterium atoms in the target would lead to a nuclear reaction that produced helium-3 and a neutron, or hydrogen-3 and a proton. The one that was of interest for those of us in nuclear physics was the one that made helium-3 and a neutron, with several million volts of energy, that could then be used to cause fission in a uranium sample that we had in a detector a few feet away from the target in the machine.
So the task was to get specific information about how these neutrons of different energies, ranging from about half a million electron volts to five million electron volts—how they would react with the uranium nuclei to cause fission in the uranium. That was really the essence of the project at the time, just to measure the probability that these fast neutrons would cause fission, or as measured in the more conventional terminology of nuclear physics, what was the effective cross-section for the collision of a fast neutron and a uranium nucleus that would result in another neutron coming out and enabling us to produce further fissions from the neutrons that came out in that way.
Kelly: This was before the first Chicago pile?
French: This was six months before the first Chicago pile, about which of course again we knew nothing. That was the mystery of it all. That’s why it seems so unreal; here we were at Cambridge, an ordinary lab, working with small amounts of materials, and having no sense that there was any practical likelihood that this would amount to anything. Some people who were more senior than us, like my tutor Egon Bretscher himself, clearly felt that that possibility existed, and they were fully engaged in working on it.
Kelly: When did your efforts come together with the United States?
French: It took a long time. There was this other group working at Cavendish, working on the production of fission by slow neutrons, and that was it, as far as people like myself were concerned. We didn’t know much about contact with other small research groups in England. There were hints that big industry might be involved, but we never saw anything directly about that. That would’ve been in the hands of the MAUD Committee and official groups like that who were seeing everything from the top down. Until I was sent up to meet with Chadwick in London, not too long before I was sent to the States, there was very little indeed I knew about the size of the project or where it was heading.
Kelly: What month was that?
French: I’d been working on the development of this apparatus of mine to measure more effectively the production of neutrons in the target of our machine. And so in this little research group that I was a member of—Bretscher himself and two other junior physicists at the time, shortly added to by one more young graduate and a couple of radiochemists, who were important for doing chemistry on the uranium and a technician and so on. Also a very valuable man who kept the one million volt set working and mending the components of it, which were not replaceable at all from the original manufacturers, because that was in Holland, and they were completely cut off from us now that the war was on.
It was only after a year or so of doing this kind of work that in February 1944, a year and a half later, Bretscher was informed about the fact that this work was going to be transferred to North America. All that we junior people knew about it was simply that; there had been some important changes and some members of these two groups at the Cavendish lab that were doing research on fission would be going to North America.
It was then that we learned that the slow neutron people, those who stayed with the project but didn’t stay in England, would be going to Canada and that Bretscher himself was going to go to North America in February of 1944 and that we would be due to follow him in due course.
It was not until about that time that my equally young colleague, Michael Poole and I, went up to London to be interviewed by Sir James Chadwick who would come down from Liverpool, which was his headquarters, to deal with the top officials at Tube Alloys, in London, and talk to us about what might be happening to us.
Kelly: How did this conversation go?
French: Chadwick was a very taciturn man, given to sitting for minutes puffing his pipe before saying anything. We didn’t learn much from him. One amusing thing that happened was he more or less told us that we were going to a place, in America, but said that “The winters are rather severe, and you’d better get yourself a really good overcoat.”
That was about the size of it. I followed his advice and bought an expensive tweed overcoat that I never actually wore. The New Mexico weather wasn’t quite that severe, even on the top of the mesa!
Chadwick told us about the project but not much. He knew what we’d been working on, but he didn’t go outside my own knowledge of what was going on at that point. He made it clear that things were being moved to North America and that was that. So he told us to go home and wait for further instructions. I went back to Cambridge and continued making these fission cross-section measurements for the next six months.
Kelly: When did you get further instructions?
French: It must’ve been just in early October 1944 when we were told, “Please come back to London as soon as possible, and you’ll be going to the USA.”
We took the train up there and were met by one of the medium-level officials in the Tube Alloys management. Passports were picked up for us and we took the train from London to southwest England to Poole Harbor where we reported in and were more or less immediately transferred to this flying boat, very much like the pan-American flying boats that had been used for transport of passengers for some years.
We were taken out by boat to the plane—you couldn’t just walk out onto an aircraft like that when it was a flying boat, it was just sitting in the water. We were shipped out to this thing, boarded it, and soon after took off from the harbor and were flown to the port for such aircraft on the Shannon River on the west of Ireland. That was the first stop.
Everybody got off at that point and we walked up the beach to a refreshment stand, saw some good cakes and food that we hadn’t seen for some time, and we were on the ground for an hour or so. Anyhow, we boarded the flying boat and started the trip across the Atlantic.
At a guess I’d say there were something like twenty or thirty people on board, I can’t remember. The plane was equipped with bunks. Part of the reason for the delay in our going was that there’d been a severe gale in the Atlantic, so we’d been holding ourselves ready for a week in London before we got the call to make this trip. Once it was underway, we were in the thick of it.
We took off one afternoon from Shannon and began this Atlantic crossing, which, in the headwind took seventeen hours to get to Newfoundland. There we arrived and went ashore for breakfast. One of those wonderful surprises: we got two eggs for breakfast. We’d been living on one egg a week in England with the rationing that went on, so everything was looking very luxurious for us.
After the breakfast there was one more flight down the southeast coast of the USA down to—it must’ve been close to Washington—I wouldn’t have known if it was north or south. Anyway, landing on the water there was a train ride up to Washington itself. There we were turned loose for a couple of hours before we had to report back for taking a train.
So here we were walking around in Washington and after five years of living with a blackout in England, it was amazing to see bright lights and shops. It was a different world altogether.
We then went to the station. We must have been met by another British government official providing us with instructions and tickets to take a train to Chicago. That was an overnight train. I should mention that by this time or even before we crossed the Atlantic we’d been joined by one of Sir James Chadwick’s own students from Liverpool, so we’d been together at the beginning of this journey down in southwest England.
The three of us then, James Poole, Michael Hughes and myself, we were now about to go on an overnight trip to Chicago. We arrived there the next morning and then we wandered around the city. We were taken by taxi to a different railway station, which was going to be our starting point for the trip out west.
It would’ve been late afternoon, I have the feeling it was beginning to get dark before we got well underway on the train, which was the California Limited train that went all the way to Los Angeles, I guess. We set out and the three of us now were in a compartment in the train—three bunks and toilet facilities with some assistant who set up our beds when it came time to sleep.
We had the interesting experience of dining on an American train, what seemed like terrific food, and we got ourselves organized for sleep. I seem to remember that before we went to bed we were simply observing the countryside as we rode along. After that it was the plains of Kansas that occupied an enormous amount of time.
I do remember one thing vividly and that was a farmer out on the field smoking a cigar. To me in England, anybody who smoked a cigar was a rich man, whereas here it was quite taken for granted, there was nothing very remarkable about it. Apart from that it was these endless prairies and enormous fields compared to anything I’d seen in England before. I wouldn’t know to say where it was that we stopped en route. The Californian Limited was not one of the crack trains, it was a good train, but I’m sure it had many more stops than the California Zephyr and others doing the same route.
Anyway, after two and a half days on the train we finally arrived at this station called Lamy in the middle of nowhere, and nothing more than what looked like a little shack and an army car with a driver waiting for us. And so that was the thing that took us into Santa Fe.
That was a trip of about fifteen miles I think, and took us to report in at the famous 109 East Palace Road in Santa Fe, where every new entrant to Santa Fe checked in. I read a lot about Dorothy McKibbon, who ran the office. I have no specific memory of meeting her, but I must have done so. Anyhow, we were not immediately whisked on the Hill; we were turned loose on Santa Fe for a couple of hours. I remember I saw this as a goodbye to civilization and took advantage of the freedom to send some postcards there in the middle of Santa Fe before we went up into the hills.
Then we arrived at Los Alamos and were met there by a senior member of the British Mission who’d already been there for some months. Philip Moon, who was a professor of physics in Birmingham, I believe, but who’d already been part of the work at Los Alamos for some months. So we arrived there and we must’ve been steered by him to the dormitory that we were going to be living in.
Kelly: Describe what that was like.
French: It was muddy and rainy, and not very pleasant at all that first night. But we must’ve had some sort of meal, I don’t remember, but we were ready next morning to begin our acquaintance with the place.
One of the first things was to reconnect with Egon Bretscher, who had been our boss in Cambridge. And so we met with him and then I got this huge surprise that he wasn’t working on nuclear fission anymore. He had joined forces with Edward Teller and was going to be working on the experimental process that Teller himself had been working on ever since he arrived at Los Alamos. Namely, to work towards the possibility of a fusion bomb, using not fission by the reactions of the very lightest elements, the hydrogen isotopes that might be the source of an even more powerful weapon, which would have to be ignited by the isotopes of a uranium bomb.
But Teller himself was not interested in working on fission itself. I think he considered himself a candidate to be the head of the theoretical division at Los Alamos, but Oppenheimer never seriously considered that. He chose Hans Bethe, which was by far the wisest choice, so Teller was sort of out on a limb, in a sense. Because he had not shown himself to be cooperative about working on the fission project, Oppenheimer simply let him go ahead and form his own little theoretical group, which he’d been doing for some months before I got there, but there was no experimental program to back it up.
And so Bretscher decided to attach himself to this thing, in Fermi’s F Division, as it was called, a special projects division. He began setting up, from scratch, an experimental program that would do some of the work to get the nuclear data that would be required to design a fusion weapon.
Kelly: Did you see the collaborative efforts with the United States were essential to make this happen?
French: There was no question about that. The condition of Britain during the war with the shortage of supplies, the bombing, everything else, would have militated against any full development of fission as a weapon I think. It became very clear to me beyond that, as soon as we set foot in Los Alamos, here was something, which was equipped to possibly make it work.
Whereas, in Britain with the fragmentation of the research efforts there, there was no real focus for it, just individual university departments doing their academic research and industrial firms with no particular background in the kind of engineering that would be required. I mean, I knew there were tentative efforts on the use of diffusion, for example, to separate the isotopes of uranium. But, there was nothing compelling or even big enough in scale to suggest that this would go anywhere.
I would say it was very evident once we got to the states, that this was an order of magnitude or several orders of magnitude bigger and that’s what you would need to get anywhere with it.
Kelly: Can you talk about a couple of things you saw at Los Alamos that were impressive?
French: Okay well, the quantity and quality of the technical development there was really remarkable—both the equipment itself and the personnel. The first visit to the labs at Los Alamos, there was the Harvard cyclotron. There were two Van de Graaff machines from the University of Wisconsin. There was a medium sized Cockcroft-Walton apparatus much scaled-up from the original Cockcroft-Walton machine that pioneered the study of nuclear reactions in 1932.
And there was evidence of a tremendous amount of material support for all of this stuff and the people. I mean the fact that here there were scientists in abundance—hundreds of them—all collected together to work on this one thing and that’s what it would have needed. It could never have happened in Britain in my opinion.
Kelly: That’s good. I think you talked about the colloquium. Tell us about how Robert Oppenheimer ran the laboratory.
French: Oppenheimer was a most interesting study, looking back especially, when you think that he was only thirty-eight when he became head of the Los Alamos lab. He was a theorist. He had no record in administering anything as far as I know. Yet, as it turned out, he couldn’t have been a better person for the job.
It is very amazing to me also—and this has been written about quite often I’m sure—that it was General Groves who chose him to do this particular job. Now Groves, the civilian scientists, they hated his guts generally speaking. Although, they didn’t really see that much of him but he was clearly very autocratic. But, when you look back at the project as a whole you have to admire him. He had responsibility not just for Los Alamos. That was a small component of it. He was in charge of this immense technical industrial development that led to the creation of the electromagnetic separation plant and the diffusion separation plants in Tennessee and of the reactors in Hanford and everything else connected with the project.
He was propelled into this somewhat against his will initially. Apparently he had greater ambitions at the time to get oversea service. He thought this was a bit of a downgrade for him. He was a very proficient organizer, as he had already shown I think in connection with non-military projects on behalf of the Army. He was clearly the right man for the job.
But also, it is very interesting indeed that he would have selected Oppenheimer to run the show, especially—as has been pointed out in many books—Oppenheimer’s political credentials were very questionable. He was definitely a communist sympathizer when he was younger anyway, and with no particular record of administration. Yet, he had a very quick apprehension of any new idea that came up and turned out to have remarkable personnel management skills, which he had never particularly practiced before. So, Oppenheimer himself was an essential component of the whole business as it turned out.
Then, to come to the particular vehicle that he used to share the knowledge about the project through the weekly colloquia, that was an absolutely essential piece of the action. Groves, with a typical need to know or limitation on need to know attitude to these things, wanted to compartmentalize the work and Oppenheimer said “No, that just won’t work. You’ve got to have the scientists talking to one another, scientists in different areas of research—physics, chemistry, explosives, so forth, metallurgy. These scientists are going to be mutually helpful.”
Groves finally accepted that and so here came these weekly colloquia at which somebody or other would report on some aspect of the research going on inviting comments, opinions, and suggestions from the audience. Without that, I really doubt that the project would have succeeded.
Kelly: Did you see any of the colloquia?
French: Oh yes.
Kelly: Tell me, how were they conducted? What was it like?
French: There was nothing particularly exciting about any particular colloquium I suppose. You went there and some person working on a specific field of the research would talk about it.
I particularly remember some of the discussion about the use of the development of the explosives once the idea of a gun type model for plutonium was not going to work because the firing of one lump of plutonium at another simply wasn’t fast enough with an ordinary gun. You had to have different ways altogether of dealing with the problem. Seth Neddermeyer initially had come up with the suggestion of an implosion in which you surrounded a sphere let’s say or a cylinder or something of plutonium and compressed it with a violent chemical explosion. As a result of being compressed, it was able to be pushed through into a super critical state that produced then the nuclear explosion. That all could happen within a very small fraction of a second—a thousandth of a second or less—and this was the only route that would allow plutonium to be used for making of a bomb.
So, one would go to a colloquium about this and somebody would be talking about how to produce a particular assembly of explosives that would do the trick. So, there were experiments going all the time on trying out different configurations of explosives together with electronic detonation that would have to be very accurate and very fast to make the explosion do what it was intended to. There were all sorts of problems that arose with that.
It was a long time before it was decided a simple solid sphere of plutonium was the way to do it. People initially thought of a hollow sphere, for example, which would be more easily compressed. But, there were all sorts of difficulties with that. It was very hard to make the implosion symmetrical and guaranteed. One here heard colloquia about this and once the decision to go with a simple solid sphere, and then well exactly how is that going to go? What degree of compression are you going to get? How can you study the implosion as it proceeded with the help of very fast electronics?
So, every aspect of the program had to be examined and experimented with. That’s the way these colloquia went. Somebody or other would be talking about some aspect and you’d be learning about it.
Kelly: These problems were also complex. What was the mood of Los Alamos? Were you nervous and anxious that it was going to come together?
French: Well, that’s right. Of course every group was doing its own thing as best it could. It was understood all along that it was important to do this fast. Initially, when the whole fission bomb program was started, it was thought that perhaps it would be completed in time to be used in Germany and it wasn’t. Time was continuing to pass and the Japanese were now in the war against the USA and again, the sooner the better that something what actually achieved. There was always the time pressure.
I suppose there was a lot of concern because I’m sure deadlines were set for every different aspect of this job. But, the most people would do is do their best. The resources were terrific. The logistics, the supplies problem was huge. There must have been a really superb logistical system at work. The atomic bomb project had top priority for the procurement of absolutely anything they decided they needed or wanted. Without that, it would have probably not have worked indeed. But, it was well coordinated as far as I could ever tell.
I know for our little project it was amazing. We would ask for something not necessarily very modest, but which we would always get. There were terrific machine shops, and that was of course a crucial part of the whole job—wonderful machine shops and really top-notch technicians. They wouldn’t call themselves technicians; they would call themselves instrument makers. Any level of top-notch engineering was available. When you look, it absorbed a significant fraction I would think of all the industrial productivity of the country.
Kelly: Maybe we should get your take on your fellow British mission colleague, Klaus Fuchs?
French: Oh yes, alright. Well, I had never met Fuchs before being at Los Alamos. I think it was Klaus Emil Julius Fuchs I believe. KEJ, that sounds right to me. So, here he was a German I suppose. The son of a Lutheran minister I believe. He became a communist at a quite young age in Germany and became an ardent anti-Nazi and he had a sister who was not exactly assassinated by the Nazis, but I think who was hounded by them and finally committed suicide. So, he had very strong political views and ideological sympathy with communism.
He was a member of active young communist leagues I think in Germany. He became, in fact, a target for people who wanted to get rid of the communists. He was in genuine danger for his own life. He escaped then from Germany to Britain. I’m not sure whether he spent any time elsewhere in between. But anyway, he ended up in England and went to work I guess with or for Peierls. He worked initially perhaps at the University of Bristol. I’m not sure about that either. But anyhow, there he was in Britain still harboring his strong communist sympathies.
The war was on and after the collapse of the Russo-German pact and when Russia simply became one of the allies, he evidently felt that it was entirely justified that he help the Russians in the war effort—the common effort against Germany. So, he had a strong ideological basis for doing what he did.
As I mentioned, I first met him fairly late in the war I suppose, but it would have been in occasional meetings among the British participants. So, I first met him probably through some social gathering at Los Alamos involving the Brits.
Although I went to Los Alamos as a bachelor, I met a woman—mathematician—who was working in the theoretical group under the immediate direction of Richard Feynman, but ultimately under Hans Bethe. She was doing computational work in connection of the theory of implosion. Fuchs was certainly known to her at that time already. I know there was an occasion—I should say next that this woman, Naomi Livesay, and I became engaged to be married in April of 1945 I think, before the war was over. Then after the war was over we got married in October of 1945.
She was already then somewhat acquainted with Fuchs. We were now living in a little prefabricated house at Los Alamos, no longer in the dormitory. There was an occasion I know when there was a visitor, one of the British mission officials who didn’t live at the Los Alamos but who was visiting Los Alamos. We had him and Fuchs to dinner one night. Fuchs hardly said a word all evening. He just sat there. Eugenia Peierls described him as “Penny in the slot Fuchs.” If you asked him a question you would get a monosyllabic kind of answer and then nothing would happen until you asked another question. Well, Fuchs was very much like that.
That was about the only interaction that I strongly remember directly with Fuchs. However, there came a later occasion. I guess it must have been at Los Alamos—some sort of a party or whatever. My wife started feeling faint. Fuchs noticed this and he immediately came over and helped her to sit down and get to be feeling better again. He was just very simpatico.
There was something else I remember vividly. As you know, [Richard] Feynman’s wife died of TB. I don’t think my future wife and I were yet married, but we had been out on a hike together or something and we were coming back into Los Alamos. We saw Fuchs driving Feynman around the town. Feynman was waving and smiling at people that he knew on the way. It wasn’t until later that we learned his wife had died just a few hours previously. Fuchs was taking care of Feynman in that way, to give him moral support. So, I had pretty positive feelings about him as a human being.
We continued to be acquainted with him and then came this thing which got into some reports on Los Alamos. When he was getting ready to make his final departure from Los Alamos he wanted to get rid of his car and we bought it—my wife and I. We then drove him down from Los Alamos to Santa Fe on his final departure.
Then, even beyond that, we were going to England. I was going back to England. My wife was going to be in England for the first time. Fuchs himself had already got back to England before we did because we took a tour in the westerly states before returning. Anyway, subsequently he had us as his guests to dinner at the boarding house where he lived in Abington near Oxford. He had, by that time then, become a senior official at the new atomic energy establishment near Oxford. The first two years back in England I went to that same atomic energy establishment. [John] Cockcroft had been recruiting people from Los Alamos from the moment that it became clear the war was going to be over. He was looking for personnel for his new establishment. We were able to continue seeing Fuchs, not very often. Anyway, it was a cordial, personal relationship.
Then Bretscher incidentally became head of the physics division at this atomic energy establishment. I had quite a bit of contact with Bretscher also. After two years at the Harwell establishment I was offered a teaching position back at Cambridge University where I had done my undergraduate work. So, I was now on the faculty at Cambridge. Although I didn’t have anything further to do with atomic bombs, my subject of research was nuclear physics.
So, I was now heading up a small succession of graduate students doing experimental nuclear physics. Bretscher would come across from Harwell from time to time. It was not a long train journey from Oxford to Cambridge. I know that one day in 1950 it must have been, I think he was visiting the lab and the news broke that Fuchs had been arrested as a spy. So, that came as a tremendous shock to everybody. Fuchs had been accepted as a very acceptable member of the community. Apparently the FBI and I guess the British secret service also had been trying to close in on him. Somebody had been giving nuclear secrets away. It turned out I think that Fuchs was indeed a major contributor, giving far more information than anybody else had done about what had really gone on at Los Alamos.
Anyway, Fuchs was newly arrested. I happened to be good friends with the chief of security at Harwell. A very nice man called Henry Arnold. He became essentially the one person that Fuchs was really willing to talk to as a friend. So, we got further information about Fuchs from him, even though we were no longer at Harwell. Henry Arnold said he was really overwhelmed by the discovery that he had this spy living next to him. But, he had been quite friendly with Fuchs up to that point. Fuchs would not willingly talk very freely with anybody else. But once he was convicted and jailed, I think Arnold continued to see him.
Kelly:The McMahon Act that congress passed disallowed exchanged of any atomic information, even with the allies.
French: Well, I think like most other people, I took a very dim view of it. But, I must ask you to remember that my direct connection with America and American politics essentially ended when I went back to England only a few months after I left Los Alamos, so there were only some things that I read about in the papers from time to time. But, it was not as prominent in my thinking or experience as for most of the American friends that I had in the project. It was something I followed with interest, but that was about all.
The one thing I followed avidly was what was done to Oppenheimer when he lost his status as head of the Atomic Energy Commission, or whatever it was then called, and then the really horrible treatment he got throughout that process. But, as for the McMahon Act and such, I knew of it but it was not a big thing in my own thoughts or experience.
Kelly: So you left the nuclear weapons war work? You no longer worked on nuclear weapons?
French: Absolutely not. I didn’t follow it in any way. I found it horrifying that bombs much larger than the ones used on Japan were now being produced and produced in huge numbers. I don’t think any of us at Los Alamos could have conceived of that mushrooming of the nuclear weapons business. It seems an incredible waste of resources for one thing, and it would have been inconceivable as somebody I think said at the discussion in the meeting here, that anybody would actually choose to engage in a nuclear war because it would be a guarantee of your own destruction almost certainly.
Kelly: How did you feel about the use of the atomic bomb on Japan?
French: Well, I would say that I thought the use of the first bomb was justified. I know that has been argued back and forth one way or another. But, I think anybody who had a relative or a friend serving in the Pacific would have been very concerned about what it would take to complete an invasion of Japan.
The Japanese military was certainly no friends of ours. Japan had been very aggressive and therefore any reasonable weapon of war was justified. Once Germany had already been defeated and Japan was the main enemy, the atomic bomb had not been used, I couldn’t see that it would be withheld after that tremendous development work. It would be used most likely on Japan and was very soon.
But, I think after the bombing of Hiroshima many people at Los Alamos, including me, were really aghast that another bomb should have been dropped so soon after the first one on Japan. I mean, that’s just my personal feeling about it. Japan was not given a chance to assimilate the importance and the nature of what had actually happened at Hiroshima. I didn’t feel that the dropping of a second bomb so soon was reasonable.
On the other hand, it seemed most likely to me, that in light of the immense effort that had gone to making the plutonium bomb as distinct from the uranium bomb that surely the military would want to use it just to see how it worked or to verify that it worked. It was a far more difficult and complicated thing than the original uranium-235 bomb. So, in practical terms it clearly made sense to the military but I think it was not right to have followed up so quickly.
Kelly: One of the things, since you worked closely with Edward Teller and you mentioned that you were sort of aghast that we went on and built such an arsenal of 1,000 times more destructive weapons. However, it was Edward Teller who was very much behind that and behind the creation of the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory and so forth. Do you see Teller’s hand in all of this? Can you make some comment about what it was like to work with Edward Teller?
French: Teller was a very interesting man and very aggressive I suppose you might say. At least his personal characteristics were kind of aggressive. He had this rasping voice. He had these bushy eyebrows. He was very emphatic in his opinions. He was single-minded in his desire to make fusion [bombs] and bombs generally I suppose.
But there was this other side of him. As you know, he loved music. He was an enthusiastic pianist. He made a point of having his piano hauled up to Los Alamos where he would play whenever he needed to. He was a curiously divided man. But, he was certainly, absolutely obsessed with the notion that it was necessary to develop these bombs.
Many people have commented that these Hungarians were, in particular, fiercely anti-ration. So, even beyond the end of World War II and Russia changed from being an ally to something very much to be feared, then that certainly helped to impel him to do everything he could to maintain the development of weapons like this. Of course he was very successful. After all, he had his own lab essentially developed—the Livermore Lab—so as to carry through what he thought needed to be done in the post-war world.
I saw him moderately frequently, I guess, when he and Bretscher were working together in this basic research. But, that was very different from what happened later in the sense that Teller took off by himself and with a lot of support I suppose for Ernest Lawrence too. I think they were very similarly minded about the need to develop atomic weapons further.
Cockcroft of course had made himself famous through his early research on nuclear physics. He played an important role, I think, in the development of radar in Britain during the war but then was clearly involved in the planning for post-war Britain and the use of nuclear energy there. He became head, I guess, of the atomic energy establishment at Harwell and quickly turned to recruiting people from Los Alamos to try and go and join him. So, several of us I know from the Los Alamos labs ended up in the Harwell establishment.
Cockcroft was a bit like [James] Chadwick in the sense that he was pretty taciturn. I didn’t get any strong impressions of his character I must say. He was benign I think, but that was about all I could say.