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Priscilla McMillan’s Interview

Priscilla J. McMillan is an associate of the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasiana Studies at Harvard University and a former adjunct fellow of the Center for Science and International Affairs at the Kennedy School of Government. She is the bestselling author of “The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer” and “Marina and Lee.” Her articles have appeared in The New York Times, The Boston Globe and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, where she is a member of the editorial board.

Date of Interview:
June 6, 2013
Location of the Interview:


Cindy Kelly: I am Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation, and today’s date is June 6, 2013. And we’re in Cambridge, Massachusetts with Priscilla McMillan. And I have a very easy question to begin with, which is, could you say your name, and spell it?

Priscilla McMillan: My name is Priscilla, P-R-I-S-C-I-L-L-A McMillan, M-C-M-I-L-L-A-N.

Kelly: I think that it would be great if you started perhaps with telling us about J. Robert Oppenheimer, and what kind of scientist he was? And his role in the Manhattan Project?

McMillan: Robert Oppenheimer was, some say a protean figure. That he was good at everything. But I think of him as a rather Delphic personality, hard to read. He meant many things. When he said things, there were many layers to what he said. During the 1930s, he had made great contributions to science, which could not be tested experimentally at that time, and which would have been, perhaps, more recognized later. 

And he would have gone into the Manhattan Project with greater prestige had the depth and meaning of the work he had done in the ‘30s been already known and accepted. In the Manhattan Project, he had to direct many scientists of great distinction from Europe, who were accustomed to working for different purposes than the young American scientists who came to the project. By most accounts, many of the scientists who came from Europe were more interested in prestige and recognition and awards. 

Many of them had been very, very distinguished before they came to the United States during the 1930s. The Americans, on the other hand, had been trained in Berkeley by Oppenheimer, to some extent, at Cal Tech, Chicago, at Columbia, and they were young. They were not known at all. They were on the learning edge of their physical careers, and many of them didn’t have PhDs yet. And they were anxious to learn, and they worshipped Oppenheimer.

For a time at the beginning, I think it took him a while to establish his leadership with the European scientists, but I think the younger ones and the Americans accepted it very quickly.

Kelly: That’s great. What made General Groves—what did General Groves see in Oppenheimer that led him to choose him?

McMillan: Well, as Oppenheimer later modestly said, Groves—General Groves had an eye for quality. And he saw that Oppenheimer could do the job. That he was extremely smart. That he knew things way outside of what he was—of any specialty. And that his mind ranged over perhaps the whole field he would have to deal with. And that he was a quick learner. There are those who say that Groves chose Oppenheimer over, for example, Ernest Lawrence, who was a contender for the job, although the word “contender” is not quite right, because he thought he’d be easier to manage.

But Lawrence was the head of a great laboratory. He was used to running it. He would have been resistant perhaps to getting orders from above. And he was an experimentalist. Oppenheimer was very good at marrying experiment to theory, uniquely, or at least, distinctly excellent at that. And Groves just saw a talent there that he was determined to annex.

Kelly: This is a very important distinction you’ve made about theory and experimenter, theoretical physicist. Can you explain what Oppenheimer’s strengths were? What this marriage was, and why it was important?

McMillan: Oppenheimer taught at Berkeley and Cal Tech. He had some students who were so devoted to him that they would go back and forth between the two schools in order to be his students at both places. But when he was at Berkeley, as described by Robert Serber, who was very close to him always, his students would file into the classroom every day. There might have been about seventeen of them, some post-docs, some doctoral students. Oppenheimer would go around the room. He would talk to everybody there, each person, each day, about the project he—mostly he was working on. And the others would listen in, so they would be learning about that other student’s project. And in every case what the students were doing in a theoretical level, could be tested out experimentally. 

Lawrence was the great experimenter and they were at his lab. They were in Berkeley. And so there was a wonderful marriage of both types of physics there. Oppenheimer and Lawrence were personally very close, and it was a successful blending of expertise. And a successful way of teaching.

Kelly: How did that approach, or elements of it, how was that transported to Los Alamos? Or was it?

McMillan: At Los Alamos, they were flying blind, almost. They had to invent a bomb from nothing. The President of the United States had committed the country to building it. No one knew if it could be built. They had to try a lot of things. And as Enrico Fermi was famous for saying, a scientist does not learn anything from their successes. They were bound to have a lot of failures. 

So at Los Alamos, you’d have to try something. And it would fail, and you would think about how to adjust, what to do differently. And so it depended a lot on—the success of the building of the bomb depended on trying things, and then re-trying, and adjusting, and changing. And there were some big crises in the course of building that bomb, in the summer of ’44 particularly. And so experiment was a necessary part of it all the time. And although Oppenheimer was not an experimentalist, and had not been successful at all when he tried to be an experimentalist in Cambridge, England, very early in his career, he was very good at using it to prove theory.

Kelly: Some people have said that the atomic bomb project was ten percent science, i.e. physics, and ninety percent engineering. What do you think of that kind of characterization?

McMillan: I am not qualified to say. I am sure there was a great deal of engineering, metallurgy, many other sciences, many other—many applied sciences, as well as theory. It was the blend that created that bomb.

Kelly: Now, General Groves and Oppenheimer often clashed, on the military’s need for secrecy and control versus Oppenheimer’s penchant for this more open, collaborative approach. How was that resolved?

McMillan: Well, I think Oppenheimer won the argument with Groves over whether the scientists could communicate with one another. He did it by setting up Tuesday afternoon or evening colloquia at which all—anybody with a white badge could attend, and where all—everything that was going on everywhere in the lab could be discussed open—among themselves. Groves won the battle over secrecy in that he selected an isolated site, access very difficult, very few people allowed in. The people who were inside, their chances of leaving, say just on a day trip to Santa Fe, very limited.

Almost no one ever left the project for good. Some of the things that happened at the lab were resolved in such a way that no one would leave. One Swiss scientist, Felix Bloch, left very early, but there were really no departures that I know of until after it was known that the bomb would work in 1945. Oppenheimer ran it in such a way as to keep everybody there. Even Teller, who sometimes made for trouble. And so I think Groves won the larger argument in so far as it was an argument.

But he lost the ballgame because Klaus Fuchs was there, and Klaus Fuchs managed to pass important secrets of the atomic project, and even more important, secrets of the H-bomb project, to the Russians. So, he could not seal it off completely, and he did not. But the shortcomings, the penalties of secrecy, of very tight secrecy, were paid. But in the end, the worst thing Groves could conceive of happened.

Kelly: It’s interesting. There are many issues with secrecy today. We see much of the same thing, that it’s almost impossible to keep a secret. But many people also comment on the Manhattan Project overall with 130,000 people, that they did a pretty good job, even though it wasn’t watertight.

McMillan: They did an incredible job. The reason they did such a good job was—well, there was more than one reason. They had an object. When they’re working in their own labs in their universities, it’s not as clear. They were not working with other people to do something to save the country, as they felt. They felt it could win the war. They had every incentive to work together, not just to work for individual distinction. What they were working on, they might never be published. They might never get career credit for what they were doing. It was for an end larger than themselves. 

And perhaps there’s an innate shyness to many scientists that was overcome by the community aspect. They had to work with one another. Their families, their wives, had to be supportive, and had to befriend each other. And perhaps that is one of the reasons that survivors of the alumni of the Manhattan Project looked back all their lives at such—with such fondness on the experience, and why some of the most successful laboratories later on borrowed from the spirit, and the way that Oppenheimer ran the project. For example, Brookhaven on Long Island, probably Chicago. 

And where did Oppenheimer learn it? He probably learned it at Berkeley from Lawrence, from the way that Lawrence was always on hand when things were—when an experiment was going to the result, one way or the other. His omnipresence, his intense interest, his putting the object in view of whatever experiment was going on. I am speaking a lot, ahead of anything else in life, you know? And Oppenheimer saw that. And he had very little practical experience. So, it’s logical to think that he learned some of it just by being in the world of Ernest Lawrence.

Kelly: There’s a great picture of the two of them standing before an old sedan.

McMillan: Yes.

Kelly: In the desert. I think they had, you know, riding boots on, or jodhpurs or something, and checked jackets, and Oppenheimer almost looks like Bob Dylan, with his hair all curly.

McMillan: Right.

Kelly: And they were quite a duo?

McMillan: Absolutely. Ed McMillan—Edwin McMillan who was Lawrence’s brother-in-law, or became Lawrence’s brother-in-law, you know in Berkeley, commented later that he thought the reason Lawrence and Oppenheimer got along so well was that they didn’t understand each other. He was surprised. Eventually there was a break between them after the war, but he was surprised that they got along as well as they did for as long as they did. And he thought it was because they didn’t understand each other.

I have no idea. I did not know either one of them. But possibly the differences in the 1930s didn’t loom as large at all as they were to loom after the war. Of course, during the ‘30s, Lawrence was politically very conservative, and he didn’t like Oppenheimer’s leftism. But he, for the most part, was able to sweep it out of his mind. Everything about Oppenheimer must have become a great big issue with Lawrence when Oppenheimer became a world hero in 1945. Then I imagine that differences of character and attitude, worldview, would have come very much into view, and Lawrence was human like everybody else.

Kelly: For people who aren’t as familiar with their two worldviews, give a little synopsis? 

McMillan: Ernest Lawrence was from South Dakota, I believe. And he grew up in the American countryside, like many of the scientists who manned the Manhattan Project. They had been to the good American public schools of the 1920s and ‘30s. They had the good education. Lawrence was among them. He went to Yale. I do not know quite how that happened, but his university education was at Yale. But he never lost that conservatism of the American Midwest.

Whereas Oppenheimer grew up the son of an immigrant from Germany, Jewish, intellectual values. His mother was a painter. He had been to Germany as a small boy to visit his grandfather, who saved him stones for his rock collection. It was a different outlook. The West Side of New York between—he was born in 1904 during [misspoke: before] World War I. And in the early ‘20s, he grew up liberal. And he became more liberal during the 1930s, when he became more interested in politics. He was a different personality.

Kelly: Can you talk a little bit about how his wife, Kitty, might have influenced him in that respect? Or what she was like?

McMillan: I’d like to mention for a minute something that Oppenheimer wrote to Ernest Lawrence in 1945 in a correspondence they had, which may have really been over the question of whether Oppenheimer after the war would go back to Berkeley. A towering international figure going back into the bailiwick of Lawrence, who was king in his own domain, but one of the points Oppenheimer made to Lawrence was, I have always been more of an under-dogger than you, meaning sympathetic with the poor and the outcast.

Oppenheimer in ’36 became friendly with a woman who belonged to the Communist Party, Jean Tatlock. And in 1939, he became friendly and involved with Katherine Puening Harrison, who was also closely allied to the Communist Party through her first husband, Joe Dallet, who had fought in the Spanish Civil War. She had a number of friends who were very far to the left and who had known her husband Dallet. For example, she knew Steve Nelson who was head of the Communist Party in Alameda County. And he saw the Oppenheimers socially a few times.

He told me—he was not always truthful, but he told me that neither he, nor anyone that he knew had ever tried to recruit Oppenheimer, and he would have known it because of his position in the party in Alameda County. He told me this toward the end of his life. I do not know whether it was—whether he tried to recruit Oppenheimer. I have no idea about that. But I think Kitty was not a very serious party member, at least not as described by Oppenheimer in his security hearing in 1954. But her views were left-wing.

But it is hard—I do not know. I do not know how suggestible Oppenheimer was, and how totally independent he might have been in his political views. He was dismayed when his brother joined the party in 1936, or ’37, ’36, and his brother’s wife. I do not know what Kitty’s influence was politically. But socially for sure, she liked a wide swath of people, but I think he did too. One scientist told me that if you wanted to see Oppenheimer during the latter half of the ‘30s, he was busy at his lab, but the way to get to see him was to go to some fundraiser for Spanish War relief. He was very much into the Spanish side of things before he met Kitty.

Kelly: That’s great. 

McMillan: Like other left people in California at that time, he hoped, others hoped, to keep the New Deal, quote “honest.” FDR had come in, had done a number of things that were fairly left by American standards at the time, but then the New Deal went over a little bit towards the center in the mid-thirties, and they wanted to keep him to the left, keep his progressive policies to the left. 

They were influenced by the longshoremen’s strike in California at the time, and other workers movements, you know, the farmworkers. So there was a lot locally that influenced them all politically. But the Spanish War influenced all of them very much.

Kelly: How would you, just again for general audience, just describe what was at stake in the Spanish War?

McMillan: What was at stake? I wish I knew. It was a kind of a dry run for World War II as the scientists saw it, and as many people saw it. The royalists versus what they saw as the coming of fascism. And they wanted to show Hitler really, that if he took over Europe, he could not do it without a fight. And they felt that it was to deter World War II, that it was important that the royalists—loyalists put up a good fight. And I think that they saw that as an issue, although also they did not want to see fascism take over Spain, much less the rest of Europe.

Kelly: That is good. It might be good to kind of close on this Lawrence/Oppenheimer duality by maybe talking about what happened after the war? How the two of them went and diverged?

McMillan: Lawrence had not known when—before the war, when Oppenheimer was at his lab in Berkeley, I think he had not known, he had not really taken in how far to the left Oppenheimer was politically. But he was furious as he came to realize it. There was the case of Jean Tatlock, Oppenheimer’s woman friend, and perhaps his greatest love, whom he knew from 1936 to 1939, ’38 or ’39, and who was a Communist Party member. I think  fluenced his politics more than any other individual.

I do not know what Lawrence knew about her at the time, but he did hear at some point, but I think later, that Oppenheimer had had a romance with the wife of a mentor of his at Cal Tech [Dr. Richard Tolman]. And he was—condemned that totally. He thought Oppenheimer was, in his personal morals, immoral. And he condemned that very much. He himself was married, and he had six children. And he was the kind of husband who expected a great deal of his wife. An old-fashioned husband. He was a very old-fashioned person in his personal morals. 

And in political morals, Oppenheimer diverged from him, and perhaps in personal morals. Although once Oppenheimer was married, he stayed married in circumstances which would have driven many other people away.  

Kelly: Great. Where did Lawrence and Oppenheimer come out on the hydrogen bomb?

McMillan: Oppenheimer and Lawrence were in very different places on whether to go beyond the A-bomb, escalate American expertise in bomb-making. 

Lawrence had had a great deal of experience during the 1930s, a great deal of success raising money for his laboratory with foundations in New York, strangely enough, Rockefeller and other foundations. He had become friendly with Lewis Strauss, a banker at Kuhn Loeb, a big firm—banking firm in New York. And he raised money for the Berkeley lab and the cyclotrons that he built there. 

But in keeping with his Midwestern views and his conservatism, he certainly wanted the United States to stay ahead in the physical manifestations of power. The hydrogen bomb was a physical manifestation of power, if not necessarily a usable power. So he naturally wanted us to go to the next bigger and more powerful bomb. Furthermore, he had ties with the Air Force, which very, very much wanted the big bomb, although it did not understand it for a long time. It did not understand the atomic bomb in ’49 and ’50. When the Air Force leaders like Hoyt Vandenberg were already pushing for the hydrogen bomb, they did not even understand what the atomic bomb could do, I do not believe. 

Oppenheimer felt that enough was enough. But a very important feature of Oppenheimer’s view about the hydrogen bomb, first of all, he thought the A-bomb was enough. But when the hydrogen bomb became a subject for discussion, it was not because of any scientific breakthrough that was going to bring it closer. It was because the Russians exploded an A-bomb, and then the race was on in this country, or the argument was on as to whether to build still bigger bombs so as to stay, quote, “ahead of the Russians.” But the model, the concept that was being talked about, the Los Alamos Lab had tried from 1946 on, to create a fusion, or a hydrogen bomb. And everything they tried had fizzled. They had not been able to make—to initiate an explosion, so it had failed.

And the controversy, the discussion that developed in the fall of 1949 after the Russians tested their first bomb, the discussion in Washington and in this country among a very small group of people and in secret, was over a model that had not, as Oppenheimer put it, had been singularly proof against any form of experiment.

McMillan: Well, in 1949 the Russians tested an atomic bomb, which was very much like ours [00:36:00]. Not surprisingly, since they got the key ideas for it from Klaus Fuchs. I will leave that out for the moment. The Russians tested an atomic bomb, and both in Congress, and particularly in Congress, and in other branches of the government, there was interest. The Pentagon—let us say the Air Force—interest in developing a still more powerful weapon, and there was a secret discussion that went on from October 1949 until January 1950, very, very secret over whether to do this.

And of course, the people who were judging were mostly lay people, who would make the final decision—President Truman and members of Congress, and people in the Pentagon who did not know atomic physics. The scientists, the General Advisory Committee, the nine-member Committee of Scientists, which was supposed to advise the Atomic Energy Commission on this question, were uniformly against it because it had not been testable. There was no model in sight. In the end of the discussion, President Truman committed the country to build a bomb no one knew how to make. And that is not—was not good policy. 

Anyway, Lawrence was for it. Most of the scientistsall of the scientists who had worked on the A-bomb were against it, but that did not count when it—the political calculations of the time, and it was just at the beginning of the McCarthy era. It was impossible for Truman, kind of an accidental president, not to have made the decision he did.

Kelly: That was good. I do not know if you want to talk about this, or if there is something else you would rather, but this raised the issue of Truman’s decision on the atomic bomb—whether you want to weigh in on that?

McMillan: Truman was rather a visceral person. He reacted from the gut. He came to the presidency unprepared, not wanting the job very much. His distinction had been in investigating boondoggles and fraud in defense plants during World War II, and he had been highly effective at that. And that is why he was well enough known to be chosen by Franklin Roosevelt as his vice presidential candidate in 1944.

But FDR, having very serious illnesses, nevertheless, did not take Truman into his confidence about the fact that the American scientists were working on an atomic bomb that might end the war, and that Truman might have to make decisions about. Truman came to the presidency totally unknowing. Henry Stimson, the Secretary of Defense, made an appointment as early as he could with Truman after his accession, a few days later, and told Truman about this. And it was the first Truman knew about it, because his investigating committee during the war had been persuaded by General Groves not to look into the Manhattan Project, which was spending a great deal of money and would otherwise have been within the purview of the Truman Committee.

So Truman knew nothing about it. He had to make a decision off the cuff. The American public was tired of the war. They had troops, at first on two fronts, Europe and Japan. The European War ended in May of 1945, two months—one month after Truman became president. And very soon after that, he had to make a decision about whether to use the atomic bomb. All of the pressures on him were to end the war quickly, rather than go through an invasion of Japan in the fall, which it was expected would be extremely costly in American lives.

He did not know any of the things that we have had a chance to think about since: the implications of using a weapon of such destructive power, and such power to hurt people, and damage their lives at a great radius of destruction, and buildings. He had had no time, for example, to weigh what we were destroying every night in Tokyo, versus what we could destroy with one atomic bomb. All of those things, historians have been able to talk about since. 

But Truman was all by himself there with a few advisors. And he was an accidental president. He had not been elected in his own right. Even if he had, I believe he would have made the decision he did.

Kelly: That is good. That is good. Now you had mentioned—we have sort of—we have danced over the Manhattan Project. Are there things that you would like to talk about now about the Manhattan Project?

McMillan: Well, besides the enormous community spirit which those people who worked on it have certainly talked to you about, and everyone who worked there felt it, it seems. People who later went on to have diverse, and sometimes solitary careers. Everyone worked their best—did their very best. 

But the catalyst was Robert Oppenheimer. He was not the mover of the project. He did not think of it all together. He was in on the bottom floor. He was in on it from the beginning, but the mover was the war, and the federal government, and General Groves, or all of those. Oppenheimer was the catalyst, the person who brought it all together. And it is a remarkable thing, because as a human being, most people felt he was not altogether, that he was not a very unitary personality, composed of many, many parts. And there were times in his life when all of those parts worked together, and there were times when they did not.

The Manhattan Project miraculously was the time when everything worked. He lost all of his doubts about who he was as a person. That had haunted him all his life, and were to haunt him later. You would say existential doubt, but you could just say he did not know who he was during some of his life. And he had trouble reconciling who he seemed to be with other people around him. But during the Manhattan Project, it all worked. He came together. It was the first, probably the only time in his life when he was free of the existential doubt that had plagued him all his life.

And he simply knew how to do it. He knew how to deal with people he had never dealt with, types of people he had never dealt with before. Because there were many, many workmen on the project who did all kinds of things. He knew what all of them did. He could talk to them in their own language, take an interest and a knowledge—you know, totally commanding interest in what they were doing. He respected the people who worked there for their decisions. He listened to them. People have told me that he listened to people.

He took their views into account, and they all felt that. That they were being heard. So he was a miraculous director in a way that no one ever—who knew him earlier, ever thought he could be, ever foresaw. It was probably the happiest time of his life, although he had many, many things to be unhappy about in his personal life. Furthermore, he was being very heavily surveyed by government counterintelligence. And he knew that, and it impeded him at every step of the way.

But nevertheless, he functioned above all of that. Hans Bethe told me that he did not know how he did it, how he did it with the surveillance. So that in a way the secrecy we talked about before, in some ways was an impediment to the project. It certainly was a mental and emotional hazard for Oppenheimer, but he transcended all of the impediments that came in his way, and simply performed in a superb manner.

They must have been a piece of work, all of them. For instance, I interviewed Molly Lawrence in her house in Berkeley. It was on the side of practically a cliff. I do not know, but there were probably about six floors, and she had six children. And poor old Molly had to go running up and down with six children, you know? Lawrence would come home, tell her he was giving a party for thirty people. And she took it all. She did come from a faculty family in New Haven. But she blamed herself for everything. Said, “Oh, I was not a good wife,” or something like that. I mean Lawrence was—must have been pretty hard to work for and everything. 

And then Oppenheimer, there was this big house belonging to some woman who was very left. And Jean Tatlock, and that woman slept together sometimes. And this woman was a host to a lot of the lefties, people like Chevalier. It sounds kind of sad in a way, but I mean they certainly went up to—had a lot going on. I think, with Jean Tatlock, if you want to know, but I would not say it exactly, I think they were uncertain, both of them, of their sexual identity. And she particularly, and turned him down, and regretted it. And that is probably why she committed suicide. 

She committed suicide while he was at the project. He went to see her in San Francisco. She told him she needed him. He went. Kitty knew. A few months later, she killed herself. But I think it was a matter of sexual identity. And then Kitty came along just about that time, or right at, you know, no, even before. But anyway, Kitty came after Jean turned him off in ’38 or ’39 and made— [00:54:00] she may have been married two or three times, and she slept with everything that moved anyway.

And so she reassured him about his manhood. This is my conjecture. And his ability, and his desirability, and that is why—and then of course, she got pregnant. And then they married, but then they had Peter, and Kitty could never forgive Peter, and was terrible to Peter. So, anyway I think that was the story really, myself. But that is only my idea.

And some of it is not a matter of conjecture, but the part about both of them being unsure of their sexual identity, that is my conjecture. But probably it makes sense if you think about what people have told you.

Kelly: Interesting. So, a lot has been written in Kai Bird and Marty Sherwin’s book [American Prometheus] about how Kitty was lacking in maternal instincts, as they might put it.

McMillan: She hated Peter because she thought that was why Robert married her.

Kelly: Could you say that again with—starting with Kitty?

McMillan: She hated Peter because she thought that his impending birth was the reason Oppie married her. 

Kelly: Which then implies that she was insecure that Oppenheimer really loved her? 

McMillan: She never was sure, no. I think that is too simple. And also, one person I talked to a lot, Anne Marks, who became his secretary at Los Alamos, and then married a very close lawyer friend in Washington, and then who went on to do other things, Anne Marks. She does not think that. She saw a lot of them at Princeton. And she said Kitty was good to Peter. But I know he was not—she was not. I know that Peter grew up really with Frank, and he had great troubles.

Kelly: Well, should we talk a bit about—should we get into the opposition to the H-bomb? Maybe you can start with the fact that Oppenheimer did not want to even go look at the Bikini test after the war?

McMillan: In 1946, the Navy decided to test atomic weapons on ships, or one atomic, or two, on ships and see what damage they could do at sea. They had some ships they did not mind losing, and the fate of Los Alamos Lab had not yet been decided. And so as a kind of interim activity, it was decided to hold a test in the Pacific of an atomic bomb on ships. They had animals on the ships in question, and this test was to take place. 

And there was a small committee of people who were to go out there, observe the test and report back on the effect of the blast. And Oppenheimer, having been appointed to this committee that was to observe the test, wrote President Truman the most arrogant letter you have ever seen in your entire life. It was dated April 1946, listing the reasons why the test was a bad idea and would not prove anything, and exempting himself from being part of the experiment in any way.

And it has later been said that Truman took a dislike to Oppenheimer, and when introduced to him in 1949 by Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State said, “Do not bring that man in here ever again.” 

Well I think that was the occasion when Oppenheimer said to Truman, referring to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, “Mr. President, I have blood on my hands.” 

And Truman replied that “the blood was on his hands,” not Oppenheimer’s. 

But Truman had already had that letter, if he read it from 1946 from Oppenheimer. Was the very soul of arrogance. 

You have to laugh when you consider that it was this scientist, true, a national hero, but a scientist way outside the sphere of politics in a way, writing to the president. And telling him that this test he had authorized, and to which he had appointed Oppenheimer as an observer, was a very poor idea, would not prove anything, and he was not going to go. And he was not getting mixed up in reporting on it.

Kelly: So Oppenheimer sort of undid his welcome with Truman. How about with Lewis Strauss?

McMillan: Lewis Strauss was a self-made man. He came from Richmond, Virginia. He had gone to high school, but not college. In the college years, he had worked as a shoe salesman in Virginia. And in some way, he got signed up to go with war relief with Herbert Hoover to Europe. And Herbert Hoover, who later became a Republican president, was good to Strauss and became the patron of his life, for the rest of his—Hoover’s life, and he was like a father to Strauss.

Strauss was very loyal to the people he was loyal to. He was in the Navy. Strauss was in World War II. He did not see action, but after his retirement from the Navy, he became what is known as a reserve admiral. So he had a title, a Navy title. But he was, I think, perhaps not sure that he deserved it. There were times when he showed some sensitivity about the title of admiral, Strauss. He was a member of the New York banking community, and he worked for the bankers Kuhn Loeb and married the daughter of one of the bosses there. He had had a lot to do with funding, financing Ernest Lawrence’s work on the west coast, and other work on atomic laboratory experiment.

He had personal reasons for his interest in the progress of atomic medicine. His parents had died of cancer, and he wanted to see what could be done. Perhaps one of them was alive and he wanted to promote laboratory research on cancer. That was perhaps his way into the—that world in the 1930s. 

Not having been college trained and had that kind of education, he was sensitive about his learning. He was interested in science, very much a self-taught physicist. He also became chairman of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. And in that capacity, he relayed the invitation of the Board of Directors of the Institute for Advanced Study to Robert Oppenheimer in 1947 to become director of the institute, although I think he had had another candidate. But he relayed the invitation to Oppenheimer, who was a huge figure, and looked to be a very logical person to run the institute.

And Oppenheimer delayed somewhat in answering. He was back at Berkeley, living there, and he had trouble making up his mind. And the first Oppenheimer knew that he had actually been appointed and was to be director of the Institute for Advanced Study was, he heard it over his car radio. Apparently, Strauss released it to the press before Oppenheimer had formally accepted. After that, Strauss was a trustee and chairman, and Oppenheimer was director of the Institute for Advanced Study.

And just as it is a miracle that Oppenheimer and Ernest Lawrence got along as long as they did, it is an even bigger miracle that Oppenheimer and Lewis Strauss went along in tandem, with Strauss chairman and Oppenheimer director of the Institute for Advanced Study for two and a half years, before the question arose of whether the country should build the hydrogen bomb. 

Lewis Strauss was, besides being director==chairman of the Institute for Advanced Study, he was also a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, a group of three who were supposed to make the important—was it seven? How many again? It was three. And he was chairman. Oppenheimer was chairman of the General Advisory Committee, which was supposed to advise the Atomic Energy Commission on nuclear weapons policy. So when the Russian bomb was detected, the Soviet bomb, and diagnosed at the end of September in this country—was it the end of—it was the end of August, immediately—the Russian test was not announced to the American public until September 23. But it had taken place, I believe, on August 29. It did take place in August. The news was held back from the American public.

Once it was announced, there was this discussion, very intense, but within a small group: the Atomic Energy Commission, the General Advisory Committee to the Atomic Energy Commission, the White House and the Congressional—the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy, about whether to go ahead. Whether to issue an order to the scientists at Los Alamos, to go ahead with an attempt to build a hydrogen bomb on a crash basis. Which meant more intensely than before, although they had been doing the physics, the experiments, trying to build one with varying degrees of intensity already for three years.

So Strauss was, of course in favor of building the hydrogen bomb, and he had an ally. The only top-flight scientist who agreed with him was Edward Teller, who was not on any of the advisory committees or commissions. He had sympathizers in the Congressional committee, and he had a sympathizer in Admiral [Sidney] Souers, who was on Truman’s staff. A man from St. Louis, who had Truman’s trust. And Strauss was very good at cultivating the back door, and he talked with Souers about this question, and made sure that his version of the discussion, which followed, reached the president.Whereas it was not so easy for the General Advisory Committee, because they had no direct route to the president. They advised the commission. 

So the discussion was intensely secret, and the vote ultimately as to whether—how to advise the president came down to the Secretary of State, Dean Acheson, the Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, and the head of the Atomic Energy Commission, who was David Lilienthal. Lilienthal was against going ahead with the hydrogen bomb.

Louis Johnson, the Secretary of Defense whom Truman had appointed because he was very good at keeping down defense expenditures, and Truman did not want the Defense Department to spend more than $14 billion a year. That was very important to the president. Louis Johnson, who was a political supporter of Truman, David Lilienthal who was head of the Atomic Energy Commission, and Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State. It came down to Acheson whether it should—which way the decision on the hydrogen bomb should go. 

And Acheson listened to a lot of people, including George Kennan, who had been head of the Policy Planning Staff of the State Department and was a great expert on Russia, but whom Acheson did not think much of. And he decided to go with those who were in favor of developing the hydrogen bomb. So the advice to Truman was two to one, and on January 31, 1950, they went into Truman and told him that they favored the building of the hydrogen bomb.

Strauss had gotten a lot of his information from Edward Teller, a scientist who had been interested in building a hydrogen bomb, a bomb stronger than the atomic bomb, since 1942. And during the war, he had asked Oppenheimer—he pushed him to develop the hydrogen bomb then. Oppenheimer knew he could not do that. It was all the laboratory could do during the war to produce one bomb, the atomic bomb, with which they hoped to end the war—the lab hoped, and he hoped.

But he did allot an hour a week to listening to Teller and his ideas, and he allotted some mathematicians, a group of mathematicians to work with Teller on ideas about a fusion reaction, which could lead in time to the hydrogen bomb. The people he appointed to that group continued to work on the atomic bomb. He did not really take them off of a bomb work, perhaps to a small extent. But Oppenheimer did abide by Teller’s requests to the extent of giving him his own little group. He did not want to alienate Teller. He did not want anyone to walk off of the project. He could not afford it.

And he did, but there were people who say he did resent the hour he spent with Teller alone every week, and there are people who said, no, he did not mind. That he knew Teller had good ideas, as well as bad ones, and he was happy to listen to both. And by that token, they would have said he did not resent appointing that little group. But Teller in the immediate post-war years went back to the University of Chicago to teach. But he all the time had the idea of the H-bomb in his mind. And of course, when he heard about the Russian test, he knew that was the moment to push it again.

I would like to put in a tiny footnote. At the time news of the Russian test reached Washington, Teller and his wife were on a visit to England. And during that visit, he saw Klaus Fuchs at least twice. And he and Mrs. Teller, and possibly Teller also during the war years, or right afterward, had paid a visit to Mexico with Fuchs. They were personally close friends. By the time Teller was seeing Fuchs in England in August/September of 1949, Fuchs had already passed to a Soviet spy named [Aleksandr Semyonovich] Feklisov secrets of the atomic bomb, but also of the hydrogen bomb, which ultimately proved to be very helpful to both countries in building the hydrogen. 

He had already passed those secrets in March of ’48. However, Teller of course did not know that. But he was in England with Fuchs. I am not sure he did not take a train trip with him. He did not learn about the Soviet test until he got back to Washington and was in the Pentagon. But try to imagine, if that had been Robert Oppenheimer seeing Fuchs in England, or having made a trip to Mexico as a family group with Fuchs. Fuchs was babysitter for many of the families, including the Tellers. You can imagine what that would have done. But in any case, Teller was friendly with Fuchs, and this was never made a political issue in his career.

Kelly: Hard to believe.

McMillan: Ironic.

Kelly: Ironic. It is. I guess they must have arrested Fuchs in ’49, was it?

McMillan: Fuchs passed, of course, secrets of the Manhattan Project, but he also was at a conference in Los Alamos in 1946, May 1946. A conference was held in Los Alamos to discuss ideas and possibilities for the building of a hydrogen bomb. Both Fuchs and Teller were at the meeting. I think Philip Morrison was, who had previously been a Communist Party member, but certainly was not then.

A number of people of great interest were there, not Oppenheimer. And Fuchs had already passed—he was a brilliant theoretical physicist. Probably, Bethe said—Bethe told me would have been capable of thinking of the hydrogen bomb, the key element, by himself, that he was that good a physicist in his own right. But his role in this matter was different, it was as a courier of secrets, the passer of secrets. And of course, Oppenheimer had authorized his presence at meetings of people who had white badges, and of somebody else who passed information to the Russians.

But Fuchs, of course, was in the theory division. He belonged there. It is just that nobody knew what his extra role was. But the most important—well he passed both the secrets of the atomic bomb, and later the secret that something called radiation implosion was what would make the H-bomb work. But nobody knew what radiation implosion really was, or how it could be made to work.

Kelly: Very interesting. So, now where does that leave us? We’ve got [laughs] Strauss, and the decision to go ahead, right? We came down to, as you explained Acheson’s vote. So what happened next in terms of this movement to oust Oppenheimer?

McMillan: Could I talk about the work on the H-bomb briefly, and how it bore fruit?

Kelly: Sure. OK.

McMillan: Truman’s decision to go ahead with the hydrogen bomb was made, and declared to the American people at the end of January 1950. And work was stepped up at Los Alamos on how the theoretical problems could be solved in creating a fusion reaction, which would propagate—which would spread through other fuel and create a hydrogen explosion. At the end of 1950, the same year that Truman made his announcement, Stanislaus Ulam, a Polish-born mathematician who was working at Los Alamos and had been in Teller’s little group during World War II, came up with some ideas, some ideas.

He then worked with Edward Teller who was—came to Los Alamos Lab. And in March 1951, they wrote a joint paper, that is, there were sketches in the paper, probably by Ulam, and text, probably by Teller, as to how to create a fusion reaction that would propagate. And that was the paper of March 21, 1951 that is still classified, as far as I know, although it has appeared now. And no one is exactly certain who contributed what ideas, and so there was for a long time, a rather heated argument over the priority of invention. Because Teller considered himself—other people called him “the father of the H-bomb,” and he was happy enough to be called that. But he did not—is not the one who really did call—in any case, he wanted to see that Ulam did not get credit. Ulam was a mathematician. But Ulam deserved a great deal of credit and it is hard for a non-physicist, or even for a physicist, to say who deserves what. 

But the lab went to work on the concept. They summoned Hans Bethe, who after his school year at Cornell, came to Los Alamos and figured out that it would—that the March 21 paper, that the formula described there, would work. After that, Richard Garwin, in July of 1951, came to the lab and made a design at Teller’s request. Teller would not have done that kind of work, but Garwin, who was a student of Fermi’s in Chicago, came to Los Alamos, and made a sort of working design for how an H-bomb device might be put together. And just over a year—less—a year and a half less later, the first of November, 1952, that device, not a bomb, was tested in the Pacific. A few days later, Dwight Eisenhower was elected president of the United States. 

So he had on his plate, at the moment he was elected, this sign that a hydrogen bomb could be built. Although what had been exploded in the Pacific was a stationary device, very large, nothing that could ever be dropped from—and that was the MIKE Test, proved that the Ulam/Teller idea was doable, feasible. So, the Los Alamos Lab, it was always test-to-test, worked on the—on how to make this device work. And in March 1954, there were a series of tests in the Pacific called the Bravo tests, which were the American tests, which really showed the Americans had the bomb, could do it.

They were not bombs, they were bombs in—they were not droppable bombs, they were bombs exploded on the ground, or from a tower. Just as those tests would go underway, also the trial of the security hearing of Robert Oppenheimer was getting underway in Washington on the grounds that he had blocked development of the H-bomb, or tried to. The irony that the weapon was being proven, and he was effectively being tried at the same moment for having held up its development.

But, after the decision had been taken to go ahead with the hydrogen bomb, he was accused of having—kept people from working on it, kept young scientists who consulted him about their careers, or who were at the Institute for Advanced Study. He was accused of having discouraged them from going to work on the hydrogen bomb.

But on the contrary, there were a couple of them whom he encouraged to go and there is nobody on record as having been discouraged by him. The statement in which he joined other members of the General Advisory Committee advising the president not to go ahead with it, was a categorical statement, “It should not be done,” about a theoretical weapon, which had been proof against any form of experiment. There was no idea. But Fermi and Rabi, two other scientists, are often credited with having taken a more extreme position because they said that the H-bomb was a weapon of genocide, which should not be developed.

But they also said that there should be an effort to negotiate with the Russians. And if that failed, then, they called it, their language was strong, “Necessarily an evil thing in any light.” Stronger language than the majority statement of Oppenheimer and six others. But in fact, they seemed to be saying, we could go ahead with it, but only after an attempt had been made to negotiate it out of being with the Russians. 

Would you like me to say one more thing about ’52 when Eisenhower came in?

Kelly: Yeah. Sure.

McMillan: In the spring of 1952, there was a presidential election coming up between Adlai Stevenson on the Democratic side, and Dwight Eisenhower, great war hero, on the Republican side. And Dean Acheson, the Secretary of State, asked a group of scientists, a group of people, scientists, of whom Oppenheimer was one, the head of Dartmouth College, a couple of other public figures, and McGeorge Bundy who was then, I think, the Dean of Harvard, as rapporteur, to write a paper for the incoming administration, whoever it was, on where American research and development of nuclear weapons stood as of that time.

It was to update the new president, whoever—he was going to be a new president because it—no matter who won—so as to give him a quick picture of where the whole atomic enterprise in the United States stood. He appointed maybe six people? Something like that. The paper, the final paper they wrote was by Oppenheimer and McGeorge Bundy. It was written by the two of them. And it talked about our nuclear development, where it stood. It pled for much greater candor with the American people, with telling the American people openly where things stood with nuclear weapons, how destructive they were—the American people did not know—and much less secrecy. 

It was for particularly a policy of openness with regard to the American people, and education of the American people. But it also said that Stalin, who was then still living in the Soviet Union, would not live forever, and the incoming president and administration should keep his ear to the ground, and listen for any rumblings of possible change in Soviet positions on diplomatic, and above all, nuclear weapons.

It was very sensitively written, and almost prescient. It was at the end of the paper. While Stalin—somebody, I have forgotten who, told me that he put it on the incoming president’s desk so he would have it. Stalin died on March 5, or his death was announced on March 5, 1953. The new president was inaugurated either January 20, or—January 20 or March 20, but I think January 20, the dates of presidential. President Eisenhower was inaugurated in January and could have seen that paper, although I do not know that he did.

And Stalin died six weeks later. And pretty soon, the person who rose to the top of the Soviet leadership was Georgy Malenkov. And one of the planks on his platform as he tried to remain head of the Soviet state, was that there must be no thermonuclear war. And April 15, Eisenhower gave what is known as the Cross of Iron Speech in which he was quite receptive toward the Soviet Union, but particularly anti-war, pro-agreement on nuclear things. Very peaceful speech, seeking peace. Describing war in the twentieth century as a “cross of iron.” And the Russians published Eisenhower’s speech. A very, very unusual step for them to have taken. But ten days or so after Eisenhower’s speech, John Foster Dulles made a much tougher speech in which he reversed much of what Eisenhower had said. And Eisenhower never even reproached him for it, much less repudiate it in public. And of course, the Russians took that as really being American policy. And so an opportunity was lost. 

And Eisenhower later, or people around him, they had no idea what to do, that nobody had told him what to do with the change of Russian leadership. But in fact, a paper that the—it was called the Disarmament Committee, appointed by Acheson and headed by Oppenheimer, had told him exactly what to do. But it was discredited by the likes of Lewis Strauss because it wanted—it spoke for candor. And Strauss and the more tough line people wanted more secrecy. 

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