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Norris Bradbury’s Interview – Part 2

Manhattan Project Locations:

Norris Bradbury worked as a physicist on the Manhattan Project and served as director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1945-1970. In this interview, he recalls the challenges of running LANL and how he admired the way J. Robert Oppenheimer had managed it during the war. He explains the decision behind moving ahead with developing the hydrogen bomb, and why Oppenheimer opposed it. Bradbury recalls how the transfer of nuclear weapons control from military to civilian hands went, and how he and his staff interfaced with the Atomic Energy Commission. He also discusses the personality and legacy of Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, and Edward Teller.

Date of Interview:
January 10, 1985
Location of the Interview:


Martin Sherwin: Okay, this is the middle of an interview with Norris Bradbury.

Norris Bradbury: The fact that I wasn’t particularly involved in these discussions, of the type which the Federation of Atomic Scientists started—they started here, of course. I suppose I was committed to running a laboratory and trying to get people to stay here, while I was not uncommitted to international control of nuclear weapons, for heaven’s sakes. No one could be.

Nevertheless, I had a task of more immediate priority. They were not doing me, as I think I said, the slightest harm. They weren’t doing any good, really. We got through Bikini. Eventually after Bikini, I was troubled a little bit by people hanging around who were looking for better jobs, and not doing a stroke of work and just bitching. Bitching is probably too strong a word.

Sherwin: Good military term.

Bradbury: Good military term, I guess. But not much help. I needed a bunch of people that believed in the place, believed in its job. I didn’t need to provide a rest home for people who were looking for full professors when they were only associate professorships, and so on.

So what I finally had to do is, I shook the tree, as I called it. I said, “I will pay your way home according to Oppie’s commitments up until the first of September.”

Sherwin: ’46?

Bradbury: ’46, after that summer. We were through with Bikini. “I will pay your way home up to that time. After that, no more home. I will bring people in, but I won’t send you home.” So the people then stayed. I think this came of course [inaudible]. People stayed out of necessity. They stayed because, to some extent, they shared my opinions of what the laboratory was supposed to do. Now, sure there were different opinions, and some people were more interested in research. Some people felt the lab would have to have a variety of things, but at least I had a group of people who were as committed as I was to staying there.

But at least they had stayed when they could have gotten a job someplace else. So in that sense, they had some loyalty to the place and some personal interest in trying to make it a success, if you understand what I am saying.

Then I started the business of recruiting where I was weak, setting up a new divisional structure and doing all the things that one has to do to run a laboratory.

Sherwin: Okay, now about two years ago, DOE [Department of Energy] released the number of bombs that were available in ’45, ’46, ’47, and ’48. The numbers were two in ’45, and I assume that’s after Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nine in ’46, thirteen in ’47, and fifty in ’48. So between ’45 and ’47 and a half or whatever, there weren’t many bombs.

Bradbury: There weren’t many wars.

Sherwin: There weren’t many what?

Bradbury: There weren’t many wars. [Laughs]

Sherwin: Was that because it was just so difficult to produce this stuff, or there was no requirement to do it or personnel?

Bradbury: You are getting me slightly off base here. The trouble with classification is, that it is a life work, keeping up with it. Long ago, I said I wasn’t going to make it a life work to keep up with the classification secrets in talking to people. When I last was aware of classifications problems and the number of bombs after August 1945, it was classified. Now, you tell me it’s not classified. I am sure you are telling the truth.

Sherwin: I should have brought the letter.

Bradbury: I am sure it’s right, but as I say, I would like to answer this as diffidently as I can. General [Leslie] Groves was my immediate boss for quite a while. General Groves was my only boss until the Atomic Energy Commission was set up.

They kept all the Army personnel, including Groves, intact, until they could set up a civilian staff. They came here and paid a quick visit, I think, in January of ’47 or February of ‘47, but all the existing in place administration was working.

Groves wanted, and let us say correctly, to make use of all material that was coming out of Hanford. He didn’t want it sitting around. The techniques for utilizing it as Hanford got more and more into production and better and better production. They had their own set of troubles. I don’t know anything about that except by [inaudible], their own set of troubles, but their production gradually increased. We were facing all kinds of technical problems. Assuming the fact that the first bomb—I am talking now only about implosion bombs, of course—the first bomb—

Sherwin: Yes, of course. Out of all those bombs, there were only one or two that were not implosion. All the number figures, I have given you.

Bradbury: Yeah, right, probably. I think there were more than one. There was Hiroshima. They had barely enough material to make the Hiroshima bomb.

Sherwin: Uranium, yeah. For some reason, there was listed one gun-type, and gun-type could only be uranium.

Bradbury: Of course, but I don’t know. My concern was never with the gun-type weapons. That happened many years later. Groves wanted to make sure all the available material was put into the form of nuclear weapons. There were obstacles to doing this as fast as he wanted it, the first obstacle being—the bomb we made for Nagasaki, of course, it only had to last for a week.

There comes the kinds of problems with plutonium. It’s the world’s nastiest, most ugly, most viscous material, that has to be solved because you can make a bomb, or it can be stockpiled. I don’t want to go into those, because I think that is still classified. There are all kinds of vicious problems that have to be dealt with, metallurgical nature and other nature, but to deal with this very nasty material.

Sherwin: Those bombs, by the way, were not assembled, when I gave you those figures.

Bradbury: The uranium was not a problem, the high explosive was not a problem particularly. [Captain William “Deak”] Parsons had set up a high explosive plant out at Salt Wells by China Lake to help out with the problem of making explosives. They did not all have to be here. There was a subsidiary of sorts of supply out there.

Anyway, we had to report to Groves. I forget how often it was. I think it was once a month, but it might have been every two weeks. I had to report to Groves personally how many bombs there were available, how many cores there were available. Every so often, it would go down. I mean the next bomb, the next minus one.

Pour Groves couldn’t understand it. He would call me up frantically, “What the hell goes on here? [Laughs] How come the bombs go down?”

I said, “Well, sir, we are having a little difficulty. We had to take a couple out and rework them,” and so on.

He got so he finally understood that. But he had a mystic number, which I won’t give, which he wanted to get to. “When you get to thirty, the world will be safe now.” We got the new cores. Then he kind of relaxed. Weekly telephone calls to Bradbury to see why the number didn’t always go up. Sometimes it went down a little bit.

Yes, there was a great concern. He had a great concern. More power to him. It’s too classified to go back into it, of course, but those bombs were awful damn primitive, just terribly primitive. The stockpiling was incredibly difficult. The caring for the stockpile was incredibly difficult. Everything was wrong about them. It was some years before we managed to get them to what I would call a sensible situation with respect to components and stockpiling and things like that.

Sherwin: That was about ’49, with the booster and all of that?

Bradbury: Yes, it was getting better about the time the Russians got [inaudible].

Sherwin: Well, that’s the next subject. The Russian bomb and the hydrogen bomb decision and all of that. Did you come back to Washington to speak to the GAC [General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission]?

Bradbury: Oh, yes. Here and there, and there was the one time it was a big shot meeting in [President Harry] Truman’s office. I was there. [Edward] Teller was there. A whole lot of people were there in the Oval Office.

Sherwin: Do you remember who else? Teller?

Bradbury: Teller and I were certainly there. I don’t remember now who else was there. The table was kind of surrounded with people. I am sure there were generals there and so on.

Sherwin: But no members of the GAC?

Bradbury: I wouldn’t want to promise that even. See, we dealt with a number of communities. We dealt with the GAC. They would be here. We would come here. We dealt with the Joint Congressional Committee, Tom Dinger.

Sherwin: [Senator Brien] McMahon.

Bradbury: McMahon, that was an excellent, first-rate committee [United States Senate Special Committee on Atomic Energy]. The GAC was very good. It was composed of very knowledgeable people. We dealt with the MLC.

Sherwin: Liaison?

Bradbury: Military Liaison Committee. We dealt with everybody. My time was spent going back and forth to Washington briefing, or they would come out here. It wasn’t a one-way street. They would come out here with their staff. I and my staff would spend a day lecturing them on this subject, and answering these questions and so on. There was somewhat [inaudible] contact.

The decision—which I think you are heading up to, so I will speed on—to go ahead on the H bomb was sort of an odd one. As you were aware, Oppie was opposed to this. He, I think, fundamentally hoped it wouldn’t work, very much hoped it wouldn’t work. One certain thing that developed in the course of the process—he was pretty sure Edward’s way of going about the Superbomb, if it worked, it wouldn’t be useful. He was pretty sure, and he was probably pretty right.

But when things began to clarify a bit, somewhere in the middle ‘40s after the Russian bomb—we were working very hard on it here, six days week and that sort of thing. Nobody told us to do it, so we did it on our own. Things began to fall in line. It became at that point fairly certain that you would make something. The Teller-Ulam ideas had something to do with this. The availability of new materials that would be very helpful. Tritium had always been available with some difficulty, but tritium was, of course, very helpful, and some others that I can’t discuss.

So it would be helpful in this sort of thing. It led one to believe that one could eventually do this. Of course, the Mike shot was the first time that this was proven. Mike was, of course, used as a weapon, but it was obvious it was going to be like the first implosion bomb. Here is the idea. Here is how you make it work. The rest is the job for the engineers to make it a useful carryable weapon.

Sherwin: Was the idea of employing the X-rays to ignite, etc., was that [Stanislaus] Ulam’s?

Bradbury: Well, you can’t get Ulam now because he’s dead, but you know the famous story about the patent?

Sherwin: I know it, but I don’t know it.

Bradbury: The basic idea is, the patent has one signature on it, Ulam’s and no Teller’s signature, but made out in the name of both of them. Edward always claimed it was his idea. Stan claims it was a joint idea. Edward never signed the patent for that technique. I don’t know what good the patent is anyway. What do you sell it for?

Sherwin: That I have heard. I thought there was even more. There is a Teller story there.

Bradbury: There are plenty of Teller stories. He had always been unhappy with Oppenheimer, and Oppenheimer has always been unhappy with him. He didn’t do a stroke of work on nuclear weapons during the whole war. A total loss, as far as Oppenheimer was concerned. He was a brilliant man.

He wouldn’t do anything except theoretical calculations on the “Super.” We were sweating blood to get this damn thing done, and here is Edward doing nothing. [Inaudible] That’s the way he worked. He was hurt by two things, one of which was that Oppie wasn’t going to devote any time to Super until he got an implosion bomb going. That was absolutely the right decision. He wasn’t going to use his limited efforts for that.

Bradbury: I had essentially nothing to do with Edward during my time here. He left immediately after the war to go to Chicago. He never played any role here in terms of developing the bomb. In fact, when the first big bomb went off, he left because I wouldn’t put him in charge of the project.

He came back for summer after the Russian bomb. I wouldn’t put him in charge.

But I had holes, [inaudible] division, put Edward in charge. “I won’t work on it. I’ll do it for you. I’ll do it for the job. But I will not work for Edward. He cannot keep going on a straight line five seconds. I won’t work if Edward is in charge.”

Sherwin: This was several of your people?

Bradbury: My senior staff. We had a special committee set up. I forget, we gave it a bad name. I think it was Mother Committee or something.

Sherwin: Family Committee?

Bradbury: Family Committee, you are right. Family Committee. A bad name, but nevertheless. I don’t know why we did it. But they would have quit the body if I put him in charge of the body. I would have quit the body, too.

Sherwin: That’s a little bit ahead of where I wanted to be. At some point in time, you don’t remember exactly when, you were in Truman’s office along with a bunch of other people?

Bradbury: Oh, yeah.

Sherwin: What would you be called there for?

Bradbury: We were called there to discuss the H-bomb program.

Sherwin: This is after the H-bomb decision was made?

Bradbury: No, it hadn’t been made officially. There was a great deal of yakking going on. Oppenheimer was, of course, opposed to going ahead with a program. Edward and I were very much in favor of it.

Sherwin: Let me remind you of the chronology.

Bradbury: Yeah, I have forgotten.

Sherwin: Basically, the Russian bomb was exploded probably at the end of August or early September. We found out probably in early September. By the middle of September, it was analyzed that it was a bomb. The Truman announcement was in some time in middle to late September. The famous General Advisory Committee meeting was the 28, 29, 30th of October. Truman’s decision to continue work on a hydrogen bomb was the end of January.

Bradbury: Well, so many times, these things get somewhat out of context. We would have worked on the hydrogen bomb whether or not Truman had said yes or no. What he could stop was dollars, which he wouldn’t, or testing. Now, if he said no to testing, our efforts would have come to a—but [inaudible] stop us testing.

Oppenheimer was opposed to it, for reasons that I never really understood. Maybe it was just regret over the whole state of international affairs, lack of international control. He hoped it wouldn’t work, I think. He never really came to the party. He was very, of course, persuasive of GAC. The GAC took a pretty negative, because he kind of ran the GAC. [Inaudible] He was so articulate and so powerful. GAC didn’t have a thought of its own—it isn’t quite true.

Sherwin: Well, there were different views on that.

Bradbury: Sure, I don’t want to go into that because I never sat in the GAC. Well, I have been to GAC meetings, but only to present the laboratory program, not to be arguing.

Oppenheimer never really believed it could be done. He hoped it couldn’t be done, until there was a famous meeting at Princeton. I don’t remember the date of it at all. I was there, of course. Edward was there. Oppenheimer was somewhere in there. I think Oppenheimer essentially came, “I think it will work. It can be made to work.”

Sherwin: [Hans] Bethe presented it, right?

Bradbury: I think Bethe presented it, but Edward was in on the act because part of it was Edward’s idea.

Sherwin: Yeah, Edward, as I understand, asked Bethe to present it because he felt that—

Bradbury: He would get a bias, yeah. Bethe is, of course, very, very precise, methodical, and so on. Yeah, Bethe did present it. There was a lot of pacing on the lawns afterwards. But that’s when the thing really got under way. I think they decided to go ahead with the program.

If you will translate to mean go ahead with the program of testing, real honest-to-God testing, because the program would have gone on here anyway. We would have said, “The hell with it” here, but that’s the sort of thing you can’t study to your satisfaction on paper. You may prove it will work on paper, but you will never believe it will work, in terms of a component of the national stockpile, until you have seen it work.

Sherwin: At that meeting in Truman’s office, do you remember anything that Truman said in terms of your impressions?

Bradbury: Not that would do you any good. He was very quiet. I suppose that Edward and I did most of the talking. This time, we were kind of talking the same tune. Edward was very persuasive. There were several generals were there. Of course, the generals always loved to listen to Edward. So they were on our side.

Sherwin: Was he a wonderful speaker?

Bradbury: Sure, he is. He was a very, very charming speaker. But I don’t remember it. All I remember is a hellish long afternoon, and what I wanted in the worst way was a martini and all they had got was a cup of tea.

Sherwin: The last thing that I wanted to ask you about is the Oppenheimer hearings. Let me just ask you about it.

Bradbury: I, of course, was invited to come and present my testimony, which took about ten minutes, which I did. You can read that anyplace you want to. Oppenheimer afterwards thanked me. It was a sad occasion, because it was quite clear that the thing was going against him, even then. I mean the only person on his side was Harry Smyth. I am afraid that’s the way it went. Oppie was kind of very downcast. I was downcast. So we shook hands. He thanked me and so on. I wished him luck, and parted at that time.

My own guess is that the early antagonisms between [Lewis] Strauss and Oppenheimer, stemming from all kinds of two-bit things, the most two-bit of which was probably arguing about the isotopes of something or other to Norway. What a thing to get uptight about, on either side. I mean it shouldn’t have been [inaudible]. Oppenheimer, in my opinion, was totally right. Strauss was totally wrong.

Nevertheless, it set the stage for X years of constant animosity, culminating, I suppose, in the hearings. [Inaudible] I just read this last book on the day before Hiroshima or something.

Sherwin: Oh, Day One. [Peter] Wyden’s book?

Bradbury: Wyden’s, yeah. Of course, he goes into the Oppenheimer background into perhaps more detail than is necessary. Oppie got kind of cut off base a number of times when we were never into always telling the truth. Sometimes he had to admit it. His girlfriends were perhaps more numerous than one might reasonably expect in a person of his position.

He did a beautiful job. He did a beautiful job in this place. I have never seen a guy with his background do it so well. I can’t imagine—in fact, half of the things I tried to do, I was copying Oppie. If Oppie had made that work, I will try to make that work. This business of having a colloquium every week, and keeping all his staff and not compartmentalizing them. He just knew what he was doing in running a laboratory, which is something you would never have guessed.

I took a course from him once. He was the world’s worst lecturer.

Sherwin: When did you take the course?

Bradbury: When I was a graduate student at Berkeley.

Sherwin: What year?

Bradbury: Well, let’s see. I got my PhD in ’32, so it must have been ’31, ’32, probably.

Sherwin: I did not realized that. Let me take a little more of your time then, because I am going to write about that period, too. You were probably around then, when Uehling was around, or did he come after you?

Bradbury: Uehling?

Sherwin: Yeah. Edwin Uehling.

Bradbury: I think he was afterwards.

Sherwin: So you must have been one of the first students that—

Bradbury: Yeah, he hadn’t been there very long. Oppie went through a sort of, I would say a summit. There was a time when he was a great American scientist, genius, this, that, and the other thing. He was commuting back and forth between Berkeley and Caltech, in this diffident manner and this comprehensible speech that got to people. He was the man who knows everything.

Now, this is unfortunately an exaggeration. He didn’t. He was not a very good lecturer. If you asked the ugly question, what did Oppie do for science? Damned little, except run this laboratory. He ran this laboratory. That’s for the country, not necessarily for science.

He had perhaps two students that one has heard of since, Bob Serber and Melba Phillips. The number of papers that he published was extremely small.

Sherwin: Philip Morrison? Wasn’t Philip Morrison—

Bradbury: Phil Morrison, yes. Why don’t you include Phil Morrison on that list, yeah. But Phil Morrison, I don’t think, was a student of his, was he? Phil Morrison got through him here.

Sherwin: Oh, no.

Bradbury: No? Was it Berkeley?

Sherwin: Yeah, when he had to do his PhD with Oppenheimer, because Oppenheimer was the theorist.

 Bradbury: In the ‘30s, he was the theorist.

Sherwin: Morrison was Oppenheimer’s student.

Bradbury: I should take back what I said, because I was thinking of Serber and Melba Philips.

His own students were rather limited. Unlike Bethe, whose own papers and students that go into the hundreds, I suppose, up to thousands. Oppie’s papers weren’t that great. There weren’t that many. Now Phil Morrison, he is a good exception. I am glad you pointed it out, because he has done a lot and had a lot of good, active students. Serber hasn’t done terribly much.

So by the standards by which you judge him, if you judge Bethe, he is way up here, and Oppie is not. But if you judge him by what he did here, I don’t think anybody else could have done it.

Sherwin: That seems to be universal.

Bradbury: After that, I don’t know what went wrong. His health was going downhill, of course. Maybe he was dismayed having done it or something.

The antagonism between him and Strauss was always painful. This accusation that he ran the GAC—of course, the GAC itself, some of the members of it, tend to give a voice to. It wasn’t very good for him. The loss of clearance engineered who knows why or by whom.

Sherwin: Did you know [inaudible] very well?

Bradbury: No. I mean, I met him, sure, but to say know him, no. He was not in my league.

Sherwin: [Colonel John] Lansdale?

Bradbury: Sure, I knew him, but again, in passing.

 Sherwin: He left right after the war.

Bradbury: Yeah, he was out here occasionally. I would meet him here occasionally. I would meet him there. Again, not necessarily one of my favorite people, but a perfectly respectable military officer.

Sherwin: He was a lawyer who then went into—

Bradbury: Yes, I guess so. I have forgotten. He was more military.

Sherwin: I guess there was De Silva.

Bradbury: Oh, Peer De Silva. Yes, I remember Peer fairly well. He was not necessarily one of my favorite people. He was a perfectly good guy, but the job of security people is never necessarily very pleasant. It is a miracle if they can keep friends with everybody. Not that these guys weren’t friends of mine, in that sense, but I had better friends than that.

Sherwin: Okay.

Bradbury: Some of the people that Groves sent out here were first rate. All the people he sent out here. Herb G, Colonel G. I think he was the first commanding officer here. Colonel Mike Stewart, of course, he came here from the war. He was the first commanding officer. He was first rate, just absolutely first rate. Captain Tyler was also a first rate guy.

Sherwin: Was that a submariner out here?

Bradbury: Yeah, the first commanding officer. Not the first. I mean, the second or third or fourth, but he was a submariner. Captain, USN, Retired. I give Groves credit—he called me into Washington to meet this guy. We had dinner or something together, because he wanted to get my—this guy be satisfied to me. Now, that’s something that Groves doesn’t always get too much credit, but he wanted me to meet him before he appointed him.

Sherwin: Groves certainly knew how to pick people, too. Credit where credit is due.

Bradbury: I don’t think that Groves had got publicly as much credit as he really deserved. He wasn’t a scientist. He was only a third-rate engineer. But he made damn few wrong decisions. When you think of what that guy managed and ran, what did he do wrong? He only backed one wrong project, and that was because some guy told him it was a good idea. [Inaudible]

Sherwin: What project was that?

Bradbury: Oh, it was this for separating uranium isotope by distillation or something. Thermal diffusion plant.

Sherwin: Did [Harold] Urey bring it?

Bradbury: It was the thermal diffusion plant. It was just not good. Not thermal. It was distillation. They built a small plant. It was always not going to work very well.

But Oak Ridge worked like a charm once they found out how to do it by diffusion. The thing that [inaudible] looked to make and separate was kind of a pain, but it worked. Groves didn’t make very many bad mistakes. He managed to get along quite well with Oppenheimer, a mild triumph.

Sherwin: Well, the fact that those two different personalities were able to mesh—

Bradbury: It’s a tribute to both of them, I think. It must have been very hard on Groves. I got along all right with Groves, but we never had too much contact. Groves’s greatest problem was he didn’t know how to talk to civilians. He wanted to be hailed [inaudible], so he tried to say something nice or something funny. Inevitably, it was the wrong thing.

Sherwin: That is what others have told me. He could just never say the right things.

Bradbury: He never said the right, but it wasn’t because he was being ugly. It was because he was trying to be [inaudible] or just trying be funny. [Inaudible] say something nice.

Sherwin: Come off sounding completely the opposite.

Bradbury: It just comes out, “That SOB Groves.” 

Copyright 2005 Martin J. Sherwin. This transcript may not be quoted, reproduced, or redistributed in whole or in part by any means except with the written permission of Martin J. Sherwin. Rights granted to Atomic Heritage Foundation.