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Chapter 28: The Army and the Atomic Energy Program, 1945–1947

In the months leading up to the end of the war, the Army’s involvement in the Manhattan Project had expanded rapidly as all of its efforts converged on completing its atomic mission and saving the lives of thousands of fighting men. With the attainment of the wartime objective, the project’s military leaders expected that the Army’s administration of the atomic energy program would be promptly terminated and strongly recommended that the government adopt this course of action. In October, while appearing before the House Military Affairs Committee, General Groves once again advanced this point of view, stressing that the Army’s “responsibility for directing all activities relating to the release and use of atomic energy ... should not be continued today.” Yet his solution of vesting control “in the most representative and able body our democratic society is capable of organizing” was not immediately possible, and the Army was left with no alternative but to continue in a prolonged and often frustrating caretaker role.1

A Postwar Trusteeship

In carrying out what Groves later termed its “trusteeship,” the Army not only would contribute significantly to preserving much of the wartime program but also, in spite of widespread opposition to its influence, would have an opportunity to leave its imprint on the character of the peacetime program. “The War Department will always have a vital interest ... in atomic energy,” Groves told the Senate’s Special Committee on Atomic Energy, and “in the field of practical administration and operation the Army can furnish invaluable assistance.”2

While Congress and the country debated the issue of a successor organization during late 1945 and early 1946, the Army experienced a difficult period of transition because of a number of critical operational and administrative problems at Manhattan’s production and research facilities. Especially

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challenging was the serious manpower problem that resulted from the process of postwar demobilization. “Because of the current uncertainty,” Groves had warned the Senate committee in November 1945, “we are losing key people whose services should be retained. Until that uncertainty is resolved by the establishment of a national policy, ... [the project will experience an] appreciable loss of the present efficiency of the vast combination of plants, scientific talent, and engineering skill.”3

Project Operations and Problems

In the weeks immediately after the surrender of Japan, while Manhattan District teams were collecting data on the effects of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings and tracing the progress of Japanese scientists in the field of atomic energy, General Groves and his staff were preparing to convert the atomic program to a peacetime status. As perceived by Groves, the Army’s responsibility during the transitional period would be keeping the wartime program functioning efficiently, closing down those elements that were no longer needed, completing construction projects already in progress, and maintaining as far as feasible an effective working organization in face of the eroding pressures of demobilization.

To facilitate the Army’s interim stewardship of the atomic program, Groves and his staff drafted a plan for postwar project operations.4 Under this plan, fissionable materials production at the Clinton and Hanford Engineer Works would be reduced by about 15 percent, thus cutting operating costs more than 30 percent and achieving an appreciable savings in uranium; weapons production at the Los Alamos Laboratory would continue, but at a somewhat lower rate, with the objective of building a stockpile of twenty bombs. Project operations, Groves emphasized, would proceed at this curtailed rate only until Congress reached a decision on America’s future atomic energy policy. In late August, following the Military Policy Committee’s approval of his plan, the Manhattan commander submitted it to the Secretary of War and the Chief of Staff for their endorsement. After a close review, Stimson and Marshall concurred with the provisions of the plan.

An obvious first step to implementing Groves’ plan was to close down less efficient production units, to achieve the most economical use of money, manpower, and materials. In early September, the District shut down the thermal diffusion plant at Clinton and placed the Alpha racetracks of the electromagnetic plant on standby. Additional Beta facilities under construction would be ready in November to provide much more efficient enrichment facilities than the unreliable Alpha calutrons. Furthermore, upper stages of the gaseous

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diffusion plant, which had proved to be the most efficient producer of partly processed uranium feed, had become operational in mid-August, making available higher assay feed for the Beta enrichment process. The District also decided to complete construction of the plant’s K-27 side-feed extension unit, scheduled to be ready for full operation by early 1946.

At Hanford, the District directed Du Pont to continue operation of all three production piles but to shut down one of the two chemical separation plants. It also closed the last of the three heavy water plants that the project had built in the United States; two had ceased operation before V-J Day. The plant at Trail (British Columbia) continued in operation, but the District recommended that by January 1946 partial control be turned over to the Canadian firm (Consolidated Mining and Smelting Company) operating it.

In contrast to Clinton and Hanford, the future of postwar operations at Los Alamos was more problematic because of the combination of production activities with an extensive research and development program. Under Groves’ plan, bomb production at Los Alamos was to continue at least until completion of an adequate stockpile of weapons. But the laboratory was no longer the base of operations for bomb production. Soon after the end of the war, the engineering group of the laboratory’s ordnance division had decided to consolidate much of its weapon assembly activities at Sandia Base, located directly east of Kirtland Field on the site of Albuquerque’s original airport at the southern edge of the city. Beginning in September 1945, to support bomb production activities at Sandia, essential technical and military personnel from Los Alamos and all project personnel and facilities from Wendover Field transferred to the Albuquerque site. Finally, in early 1946, most of the remaining members of the engineering group relocated there.5

Another problem in Los Alamos operations was the progressive erosion of its scientific and technical personnel. Because of the uncertainty of the laboratory’s future, many wartime scientists and technicians prepared to resign and return to civilian pursuits. Some, of course, would have departed under any circumstances; the war was over and they had jobs waiting in universities, scientific laboratories, or industry. Others were tired of the security restrictions or disliked the isolation and unfavorable living conditions.

To deal with this personnel problem, General Groves and Oppenheimer, who was himself returning to the University of California at Berkeley, met with the scientists and technicians in the weeks following the end of the war. During these meetings the

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Oppenheimer congratulating 
the troops

Oppenheimer congratulating the troops. In one of his last official acts, the laboratory director participated with Col. Gerald R. Tyler, post commander, in an awards ceremony at Los Alamos

two leaders assured the staff members that the laboratory would continue to be a center of weapons research, that security would be less strict, and that the work schedule would be more relaxed. Even the newly appointed interim laboratory director, Comdr. Norris Bradbury, joined in the efforts to arrest the outflow of personnel. At a briefing in October, he outlined a program of the activities he hoped would be sufficiently attractive to hold some of the scientific staff – reengineering implosion weapons, research on the feasibility of the hydrogen bomb, further Trinity-type tests, and study of constructive uses of atomic energy. But despite these efforts, the laboratory by early 1946 was seriously short of both scientific and technical personnel.6

Manhattan’s other research and development centers experienced difficulties similar to those at Los Alamos. Sensing that a time of uncertainty would follow employment of the bomb, project scientists had long been proposing possible areas for continued research and development in the field of atomic energy. They suggested, for example, exploring atomic energy as a source of power for both military and civilian applications, producing radioactive isotopes for scientific research and industrial uses, and improving devices to employ the tremendous explosive energy of fission. But the Army hesitated to start any research program that would constitute long-range commitments for the still to be established successor agency to the Manhattan Project.7

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Although most of the project’s research and development facilities had to devote their time to the generally less attractive and challenging business of winding up wartime research, some managed to launch their own investigations into aspects of atomic energy that held broader promise for the future. At the Clinton Laboratories, scientists continued wartime investigations into the effects of radiation on animals and undertook recovery of uranium from wastes held in storage solutions, but also began two new programs: the production of radioactive isotopes, and the design and development of a heterogeneous pile using enriched uranium. At the Metallurgical Laboratory, while operating under an interim organization, scientists kept busy supporting the Hanford project, but also were able to give some time to such programs as the development of a breeder reactor for producing nuclear fuel.8

Of all the project’s research and development centers, the Radiation Laboratory succeeded best in switching from wartime activities to fundamental scientific research. It had been a well-established research center before the war (since 1935) and could again take up suspended tasks (such as completing the 184-inch cyclotron, stopped in 1941) and new projects (such as building a synchrotron, an apparatus for imparting charged particles with, higher speeds than were possible in the cyclotron). Ernest Lawrence, continuing as director of the laboratory, even managed to persuade a reluctant General Groves to approve use of some government funds to carry on these scientific construction projects.9

As the Army was curtailing project operations and winding up its research and development programs, the process of postwar demobilization became a serious threat to its effective administration of the program during the interim period. In an effort to maintain present efficiency, the district engineer in October 1945 requested all organizations in the project to make a study of their anticipated personnel problems and to submit plans for making the necessary adjustments. In the next eight or nine months, he noted, many military personnel would become eligible for release. Some in this category could continue in a civilian capacity in their present assignments, while others

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would become available for reassignment to other installations. Planning well in advance of these inevitably disrupting shifts of personnel, the district engineer advised, was the only way to prevent a serious decline in the efficiency of project operations.10

Personnel attrition was especially heavy among Manhattan’s commissioned officers. During the war, the military officer complement was comprised almost exclusively of noncareer reservists; at the war’s end, most were eligible for immediate discharge. For replacements, Groves decided he would need about fifty regular officers. Under ordinary circumstances, a request for this number could readily be filled, but the Manhattan commander advanced special requirements that complicated the requisition. He specifically stipulated that only the most highly qualified officers meeting very strict selection standards be assigned to Manhattan as replacements, for officers of lesser capabilities could not work successfully with scientists and would not be able to acquire the technical knowledge needed to perform effectively on the project.

The replacements were needed quickly, and because there was little time for extensive investigation into their qualifications, Groves turned to graduates of the United States Military Academy as the most likely source of candidates. This policy soon brought protests from the War Department General Staff, which could see no reason why the Manhattan Project should have first choice of the best-qualified officers in the Army. General Groves sought the support of the new Chief of Staff, General Eisenhower, for this selection policy, but the latter sided with the General Staff. Groves then turned to Secretary of War Patterson, who finally resolved the matter in his favor. The Manhattan commander, Patterson directed, was “to have as many officers as he decided he needs and of the quality he thinks he needs, and I want him to have complete freedom of choice.”11

During the Army’s postwar stewardship, the number of commissioned officers fell from a September 1945 peak of more than 700 to a December 1946 low of 250. But the decline was generally proportionate to the overall reduction in employment on the project during the transition period (thus, contractor employment fell from eighty thousand to a little over forty thousand in the same months). Similarly, enlisted personnel declined from over five thousand to somewhat more than two thousand. While there was the anticipated turnover in officer personnel characteristic of any period of demobilization after a war, a surprisingly large percentage of the wartime officers in key positions stayed on until at least the latter part of 1946, and many of those who did

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Secretary of War Robert P

Secretary of War Robert P. Patterson (left) meeting with General Groves on postwar problems

resign continued with the atomic project in a civilian capacity.12

Serious losses of personnel also occurred among operational and research employees, including most of the nonmilitary scientists and technicians. From a total of ten thousand in September 1945, this group declined to under three thousand by December 1946. Other contract employees – chiefly those operating the production facilities and maintaining services at Clinton and Hanford – also fell in numbers, but at a somewhat slower rate. In the same period, the decline at Clinton was from about forty-five thousand to twenty-five thousand and at Hanford from ten thousand to less than five thousand. At the New Mexico site, the always small operating work force remained at a constant level of fifteen hundred to two thousand during late 1945 and most of 1946, then rose rapidly in November and December to over five thousand as the Sandia Base built up its personnel.13

Destruction of Japanese Cyclotrons

Illustrative of the serious breakdown in the operating efficiency of

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the Army in the first hectic months of its postwar trusteeship was the unfortunate decision to destroy the Japanese cyclotrons.14 With the war over, the process of demobilization began to diminish the ranks of the project’s key personnel. Despite concerted efforts to procure only highly competent men, the experienced were replaced in some instances by the inexperienced. This was the case at Groves’ personal headquarters in Washington, where the staff officer who prepared the directive to destroy the cyclotrons was, in Groves’ opinion, not sufficiently familiar with the project’s operating procedures.

Manhattan’s discovery of the Japanese cyclotrons in the weeks immediately following the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings was significant, for it confirmed the wartime judgment of project scientists that, in the area of atomic energy, Japan had not progressed beyond the stage of laboratory research. The country had too few scientists trained in nuclear physics and lacked both the sources of uranium and the necessary industrial capacity to produce fissionable materials for development of atomic weapons.

A project survey team had found cyclotrons at three of the major scientific research institutions in Japan: two at the Institute for Physical and Chemical Research in Tokyo, two at the Osaka Imperial University, and one at the Kyoto Imperial University. After Japan’s surrender, scientists at these institutions requested permission from the headquarters of General MacArthur, recently appointed Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers (SCAP), Japan, to resume operations of these cyclotrons for various research projects. SCAP authorities promptly granted a permit for operation of those at the Institute for Physical and Chemical Research, although they subsequently limited their employment to investigations in biology and medicine.

Meantime, in early September, the War Department General Staff had issued instructions directing destruction of all enemy war equipment, except that which was to be saved for examination because of its new or unique character. The instructions clearly stated that “equipment not essentially or exclusively for war which is suitable for peacetime civilian uses should be retained.”15 On 30 October, the Joint Chiefs of Staff expanded these instructions, directing commanders in the Pacific area and China to seize any facilities for research in

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atomic energy and related fields and to take into custody any individuals engaged in nuclear research.

When a copy of the 30 October directive reached General Groves, he called in an officer from his headquarters staff and went over its contents with him, with the objective of making certain that the five Japanese cyclotrons were brought under control. The Manhattan commander did not specify precisely how they were to be secured. The staff officer, interpreting his instructions from Groves to be that he was to take steps to have the cyclotrons destroyed, on 7 November prepared a message to General MacArthur ordering that this be done as soon as they were no longer needed by Allied scientific teams to obtain technical and experimental data. Because the message was to go out under the Secretary of War’s name, Groves’ office cleared it through John W. Martyn, Patterson’s administrative assistant, who, viewing it as concerned only with a routine matter, did not specifically call it to the Secretary’s attention.16

On 24 November, SCAP headquarters reported to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that it had started destruction of the cyclotrons, which it had seized on the twentieth, citing as authority only the 30 October directive. Although copies of the report went to the offices of nine different officials, including that of General Groves, apparently no one in authority actually saw it. In retrospect, Groves attributed the failure of policymaking officers in Washington to question the destruction on the widespread inexperience prevalent in subordinate staffs as a result of the postwar readjustment.17

SCAP headquarters first got an inkling that there was some confusion in policy within the War Department on the matter of the Japanese cyclotrons when it received a request on 28 November to send one of the cyclotrons to the United States for study. General MacArthur personally informed General Eisenhower of the conflicting instructions, but received no reply to his cable.

Meanwhile, the story of the destruction of the cyclotrons had come out in the American press. A dispatch from Tokyo carrying a date line of 24 November attributed the action to orders from General MacArthur. However, another story on 29 November, quoting sources in MacArthur’s headquarters, stated that the decision was not made by SCAP, but by a “higher authority” in Washington. The occupation government had reluctantly carried out these instructions.18

Faced with inquiries from the press, the War Department cabled MacArthur’s headquarters that it had never sent the instructions to destroy the cyclotrons. The department conceded, however, that its failure to comment on MacArthur’s message of

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24 November had contributed to the misunderstanding. MacArthur replied that the special instructions had come from the Secretary of War, pointing out that he had personally informed Eisenhower of their apparently conflicting nature but had never received a reply. MacArthur felt he had to answer the untrue charges, which continued to appear in the press, that the occupation government had made the decision to destroy the cyclotrons. The War Department immediately sent him assurances that he had acted correctly and the misunderstanding had occurred entirely because officials in Washington had not coordinated outgoing messages.

Having thus accepted full responsibility for mismanagement of the matter, the War Department had next to seek some way to allay the continuing widespread criticism in the press. Patterson and Groves finally agreed upon release of a frankly worded statement to the press, signed by the Secretary, accepting full responsibility for the unfortunate incident:–

General MacArthur was directed to destroy the Japanese cyclotrons in a radio message sent to him in my name. The message was dispatched without my having seen it and without its having been given the thorough consideration which the subject deserved. Among other things, the opinion of our scientific advisers should have been obtained before a decision was arrived at.

While the officer who originated it felt that the action was in accord with our established policy of destroying Japan’s war potential, the dispatch of such a message without first investigating the matter fully was a mistake. I regret this hasty action on the part of the War Department.19

The press, apparently not expecting such an open admission of error on the part of the War Department, soon lost interest in the matter of the Japanese cyclotrons. Unfortunately, however, the incident would provide additional fuel for the more vociferous critics of the department’s atomic policies in the immediate postwar period.

Reorganization and New Commitments

Faced with a continuing attrition in personnel, the need to prepare programs for fiscal year (FY) 1947, and other urgent administrative problems, the Army decided in early 1946 to abandon the “hold-the line” policy and make long-range commitments necessary to keep the project a viable and efficient operation. For example, Groves advised Bradbury at Los Alamos that “it has ... become necessary for me to make definite plans, despite the fact that this will commit to some extent at least any future control body.” Similarly, in a prepared brief for Groves, General Nichols warned that the Manhattan Project must begin making some firm commitments to avoid dissolution of its many research programs. Hence, a first order of business under the new policy was to make certain changes in the administrative organization of the project, to facilitate planning and to oversee the day-to-day operations.20

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The hold-the-line policy had occasioned very few changes in the internal administrative organization of the postwar Manhattan Project up until 1946. The relationship, too, with the War Department had continued more or less on the same basis as during the war, with Groves having a good deal of autonomy in his administration and having access to the department through the Chief of Staff and, when necessary, to the Secretary of War himself. The War Department, in consultation with Groves and Bush, had replaced the Military Policy Committee with a Military Advisory Board, comprised of three Army and three Navy officers responsible for coordinating activities of the War and Navy Departments with those of the Manhattan District. At the same time, the War Department had established an ad hoc reviewing committee to indoctrinate selected officers in the organization and work of the Manhattan Project and to submit recommendations for development of appropriate relationships between the project and the War Department. Groves served as a member of this last-named committee, which had met a number of times in late 1945.21

The wartime ad hoc reviewing committees and the Military Policy Committee had provided invaluable planning assistance to Manhattan, but project leaders soon realized that the new Military Advisory Board, with only military members, was hardly suitable for the task of preparing a viable atomic program for FY 1947.

To correct this deficiency, General Nichols in late January secured Groves’ approval for establishment of an Advisory Committee on Research and Development. He enlisted the aid of Richard Tolman and Ernest Lawrence, who soon formed a group consisting of Robert F. Bacher, Arthur H. Compton, Warren K. Lewis, John R. Ruhoff, Charles A. Thomas, John A. Wheeler, and Tolman himself.22

The new committee met for the first time in early March at the Manhattan Project office in Washington, joined by General Nichols and representatives of organizations wanting to secure sponsorship of programs. The committee proffered various research and development proposals, noting especially the need for expanding the number of agencies performing research in atomic energy. It recommended continued subsidization of the University of California program and emphasized that university laboratories should devote their efforts primarily to unclassified research but, where necessary, should also carry out classified research, with the basic objective of adding to scientific knowledge. For fundamental research requiring equipment too costly to be purchased by most university or private laboratories, the committee favored the establishment of national laboratories. Finally, it supported the

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development of high-temperature and fast-fission piles, as well as other reactor projects related to commercial aspects of atomic energy, at government-operated facilities, such as the Clinton Engineer Works and Argonne and Metallurgical laboratories.23

The Manhattan District’s strong endorsement of the committee’s recommendations is evident from the considerable amount of funding allotted for research and development in the FY 1947 budget. The committee had proposed expenditures from $20 to $40 million, but the District’s budget provided more than $72 million, divided between construction (68 percent) and operating expenses (32 percent). While the largest amounts went to the project’s laboratories at Argonne and Clinton, substantial funds were earmarked for programs at a number of universities. In July 1946, Congress voted the necessary funds to finance the research and development budget.24

Of the various proposals, Groves devoted his greatest effort to establishment of the national laboratories. The committee had suggested one laboratory in each major region of the country. Universities and other research organizations in the region would provide a board of directors to recommend research projects and prepare the annual budget. The committee proposed that the first of these laboratories should be the Argonne Laboratory at Chicago and another located somewhere in the northeast.

The University of Chicago in mid-April 1946 agreed to operate the soon to be established Argonne National Laboratory (1 July), which would be formed from the existing Metallurgical and Argonne laboratories, and representatives of twenty-four participating institutions in June submitted data pertinent to the policy to be followed in its organization and operation. The Manhattan District then announced that it would negotiate a formal contract with the University of Chicago. While the participating institutions secured security clearances for their scientists, what was left of the Metallurgical Project staff at Argonne initiated the research program for the new laboratory. Much of this program, of necessity, consisted of continuing projects already in progress at the old Argonne Laboratory, including design of a breeder reactor and investigation of graphite expansion in the piles at Hanford.25

In July 1946, nine universities in the northeastern part of the United States – Columbia, Cornell, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Pennsylvania, Princeton, Rochester, and Yale – banded together as the Associated Universities, Inc., to support a national laboratory in that region. Groves announced that this laboratory would be located at the site of the Army’s Camp Upton on Long Island, but disagreement among the universities as to the extent that the government

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should control research activities at the new institution, designated the Brookhaven National Laboratory, delayed a start in its program until early 1947.26

The committee also had recommended national laboratories elsewhere in the country, especially on the West Coast. But the heads of a group of universities in southern California did not take affirmative action on information forwarded to them by the District in November until the end of the year. Their proposal therefore became a matter for later decision by the new Atomic Energy Commission.27

A national laboratory in the southeastern region was unnecessary, because an organization had evolved at Clinton that, by early 1946, was serving a purpose similar to that of the other national laboratories. The Monsanto Chemical Company, the prime contractor for the Clinton Laboratories, had invited the University of Tennessee at Knoxville to conduct graduate courses for its employees as a means of securing and holding the technically trained personnel it needed for its operations. Expanding upon this plan, the University of Tennessee convened a meeting of representatives of other southeastern universities. Out of this conference came an agreement that personnel from these institutions could participate in the graduate training at Clinton and, in addition, make use of the research facilities there. During 1946, District officials and representatives of the various universities involved took steps to formalize the relationship. In October, the associated institutions received a charter from the state of Tennessee as the Oak Ridge Institute of Nuclear Studies, and in the last months of the year, they were proceeding with negotiations for a contract with the Manhattan District.28

In addition to providing for the continuation and expansion of the project’s research and development programs, Groves and his staff had to keep production operations functioning smoothly and efficiently. From an administrative standpoint, one of the first postwar problems they had to deal with was extending major operating contracts. Most of these contracts had been scheduled to terminate six months after the cessation of actual hostilities, but shortly thereafter Manhattan had secured supplemental agreements to fix the expiration date as 30 June 1946, with options for government renewal for one year. In March, Groves obtained approval from the Secretary of War to exercise these options and to negotiate the necessary contract extensions to 30 June 1947. He informed the Secretary that funds for this purpose were already available, but that additional appropriations would be necessary to prevent a cessation of production and research operations at some time before mid-1947. He also notified the Secretary that one major contractor, the Du Pont Company, had indicated an unwillingness to continue and would have to be replaced.29

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Subsequent efforts by Patterson and Groves to persuade Du Pont to continue at the Hanford Engineer Works failed. Groves then negotiated a contract with the General Electric Company, similar in most respects to Du Pont’s. The major exception was General Electric’s insistence that a provision be placed in the contract that would permit the company to be relieved of its obligation in the event that the atomic energy legislation enacted by Congress imposed conditions not acceptable to the firm. The new contract provided for the operation of Hanford, construction of certain new facilities there, and for construction and operation of a government-owned laboratory at the Knolls, some five miles distant from the company’s home plant at Schenectady, New York. This laboratory, which was separate from the new Brookhaven National Laboratory, would provide the company with facilities for pursuing its interest in the development of atomic power.30

The Hanford production facilities turned over to General Electric had major operational problems. The most serious was the expansion of the graphite moderators in the three production piles, the result of heavy neutron bombardment (the so-called Wigner Effect). Du Pont’s plant manager had called this phenomenon to the attention of the district engineer in February 1946, pointing out that there was visible bowing of the tubes containing the uranium slugs and predicting that, because no effective way had been discovered to combat this development, the operating life of the piles certainly was limited. Groves and Nichols had followed Du Pont’s suggestion to shut down one pile to ensure that, should the other two become inoperative, one would be available to maintain the essential production of polonium (used as a neutron source in atomic bombs), which could not be stored because of its short half-life. When General Electric took over, two piles were in operation and the oldest unit, the B Pile, was on standby.31

Deficiencies in the Hanford separation process were not as serious as those in the pile operation, and Du Pont, with assistance from the Metallurgical Project scientists, had made more progress in finding a solution for them. The drawback of the bismuth phosphate method was that, after extraction of the plutonium, it left the residue of uranium in a state from which it could not be readily recovered. Consequently, much valuable uranium suspended in the process solution was drained off to be stored unused in huge underground tanks. Chemists at the Metallurgical Laboratory had developed another separation process that promised not only to be a more efficient method of removing the plutonium from the process solution but also to leave the fission products and uranium in more easily recoverable states. In August 1946, after engineering and cost studies had demonstrated the feasibility of

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this process, Du Pont had begun development of a demonstration unit and pilot plant, with the goal of eventually testing the process in a semiworks.32

The K-25 and K-27 production units at Clinton were operating more successfully than anyone had anticipated. Plant engineers therefore concluded that the two diffusion units by themselves might achieve as high a concentration of U-235 as the Beta tracks of the electromagnetic plant. In May 1946, the Carbide and Carbon Chemicals Corporation made careful studies to ensure that there was no danger of the concentration level reaching a critical mass in the diffusion plant and that the corrosive effects of the feed material, uranium hexafluoride, were not soon going to destroy the operating surfaces of the process equipment. The Manhattan District then authorized Carbide and Carbon to raise product concentration on an experimental basis, with the objective of obtaining performance data that could be used to justify ultimately shutting down the relatively inefficient and hard-to-maintain Beta tracks of the electromagnetic process.33

By way of contrast to Clinton and Hanford, where none of the operating problems seriously interfered with continued production of fissionable materials, deteriorating conditions at Los Alamos during 1946 threatened to halt the continued stockpiling of atomic weapons.34 Poor morale was a major factor, caused by an uncertain future for the laboratory, a lack of even the basic amenities of a peacetime community, and an intolerance of the military and security aspects of community life.

Groves, determined to improve morale, directed that such measures as were necessary to keep Los Alamos active to meet the defense requirements of the country were to be taken as quickly as possible. “The transition from war to peacetime community conditions will start immediately,” he told Bradbury. He outlined a program for community development that became the blueprint for major improvements in the utilities, including a million-gallon steel storage tank to ensure an adequate supply of water at all times; for constructing three hundred permanent housing units; and for increasing recreational facilities to make life at the isolated site less irksome.35

While the community development program was being implemented, General Nichols worked on another program to improve and expedite stockpiling operations at Los Alamos. Concerned about the slow rate of weapons development, Nichols proposed to turn over to outside contractors full responsibility for fabrication of most bomb components, making

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Los Alamos responsible for only the development of new types of bombs. The district engineer also recommended creation of a special technical military unit in the Manhattan District to do the final assembly work on bombs.36

One activity diverting many senior staff members at Los Alamos from weapons development was Operation CROSSROADS, the test of atomic bombs against naval vessels scheduled to take place in the early summer of 1946 at Bikini Atoll. After devoting many months to assembling and testing the weapons components, preparing a technical handbook, and furnishing much additional technical data, laboratory staff members were detailed to the Bikini site to help prepare for and to observe the two tests undertaken – Test Able, 30 June, the explosion of a bomb over a group of ships at a considerable altitude; and Test Baker, 25 July, detonation of a bomb under water. During the tests Col. Stafford L. Warren of the District’s Medical Section supervised special radiation teams who – under the guidance of officers and men trained at the Clinton Laboratories, the Universities of Chicago and Rochester, the Philadelphia Navy Yard, and Los Alamos – carried out a variety of radiological safety procedures with radiation-detecting instruments.37

In the meantime, John H. Manley, a long-time and influential scientist on the laboratory staff, indicated to Groves and Nichols his support of the plan to relieve Los Alamos of most of the activities relating to actual weapons production. Manley objected to what he felt was a growing interference of the military with the program at Los Alamos. This, he thought, could be eliminated by turning over to a special military unit the production, stockpiling, and protection of atomic bombs, leaving to the civilian staff only bomb development. Groves had already organized a special Army battalion at Sandia Base to assume responsibility for surveillance, field tests, and weapons assembly. He also had worked out an agreement with Monsanto for development and fabrication of weapons components in a plant at Dayton, Ohio. Furthermore, he had started preliminary planning for the shift of uranium purification and its reduction to metal to Clinton and of similar operations on plutonium to Hanford. Thus, the way was almost clear for the scientists at Los Alamos to devote their full efforts to the design and development of new weapons.38

While attending to problems associated with postwar project operations, the Army inevitably became involved in a good many other administrative problems, some routine in nature. Illustrative of this type of activity was the settlement of various contractors’ war claims against the project. Typical was a suit brought in early 1946 by Clifton Products, Inc., a

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metal processing firm, for losses of about $18,000 it claimed to have incurred in construction and operation of a beryllium plant. The company, in filing its claim with the Appeal Board of the Office of Contract Settlement, stated that the Manhattan District was one of several wartime agencies that had encouraged it to undertake production of beryllium. The Manhattan District informed the Judge Advocate General attorneys preparing the government’s defense that the War Production Board, not Manhattan, had taken the initiative in persuading Clifton to build beryllium production facilities that were primarily for the benefit of other branches of the Army. The Appeal Board, nevertheless, decided in favor of Clifton. Consequently, in August 1946, the District’s Madison Square Area Engineers Office had to negotiate a final financial settlement with the firm, agreeing upon payment of some $5,000 “for losses sustained.”39

Disposition of surplus property was another routine activity that absorbed a good deal of time. Property disposal was a matter of considerable interest to the general public and therefore also to members of Congress. Typical of the problems that arose were those relating to the priority rights of veterans in the purchase of surplus government property. For example, Col. Elmer E. Kirkpatrick, Jr., now serving as deputy district engineer, had to assure Senator Edwin C. Johnson of Colorado that in the sale of Manhattan District materials and equipment at Grand Junction, where the project had secured uranium from vanadium tailings, “veterans are being given all possible consideration under the laws and regulations governing the sale of war contractor inventories ...” In another instance, Groves himself had to assure the two senators from Tennessee, Kenneth D. McKellar and Tom Stewart, that Roane-Anderson’s sale of surplus property at Clinton would take into account the special rights of veterans. Complaints from constituents claimed that the firm had been disposing of property to the highest bidder without reference to veterans’ rights. Groves pointed out that this disposition procedure was legal and had been done in the interest of expediting reduction of inventories as quickly as possible, but assured them that, in the future, every effort would be made to observe veterans’ rights.40

A crucially important function that devolved upon the Army was the technical information program for individuals and groups with a need-to-know about the new source of energy and its military and industrial applications. The secret circumstances under

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which atomic energy had developed, combined with its relative newness as a major field of scientific knowledge, placed upon a comparatively small group of military and technical experts the formidable task of educating and indoctrinating a vast number of military men, government officials, industrial engineers, business executives, scientists and technicians, medical personnel, and a great many other people. Groves was often called upon to brief the Secretary of War, Chief of Staff, and other officials in the military services, and to speak before conferences of military officers. Frequently, too, he and many project members were called to testify before the committees of Congress considering domestic legislative proposals and to assist those government officials charged with shaping postwar policies for the international control of atomic energy.41

The Final Act: Transfer to Civilian Control

With the President’s signing of the Atomic Energy Act on 1 August 1946, the United States Atomic Energy Commission was created as the civilian successor agency for the Army. This commission, to consist of five full-time presidential appointees, would oversee the domestic atomic energy program by assuming responsibility for most of the activities of the Manhattan District, including the production, ownership, and use of all fissionable materials in the United States; for sponsorship of the extensive research and development program in government laboratories, universities, and elsewhere; for control and release of restricted scientific information; for enforcement of security and safety; and for military application of atomic power.

Yet enactment of this long-awaited legislation did not immediately relieve the Army of its stewardship of the domestic program. The contributing factors were many. The President experienced extended delays in securing the individuals he wanted to serve as commissioners, whose names he did not announce until the end of October. Once appointed, the new commission requested General Groves to delay the official act of transfer until 1 January 1947. In retrospect, the Manhattan commander remembers the period from August through December 1946 as one of the most difficult of his entire time as head of the project, because “everyone knew that I was in a caretaker’s position, and they had no assurance that my views would be those of the Commission. After the commissioners were finally appointed, it was quite evident that my views would not be accepted without a long-drawn-out delay.”42

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During this difficult period, there was little the War Department and the Manhattan District could accomplish beyond making plans for transferring project control until the President appointed the new commissioners. Secretary Patterson, in particular, was anxious to have the transfer go smoothly and took steps to provide for continued Army liaison with the commission. At his request, General Groves and Maj. Gen. Henry S. Aurand, the General Staff’s director of research and development, discussed tentative measures for dealing with the problems that would arise when the military personnel assigned to the Manhattan District would have to be absorbed by the Army. From their discussions evolved the proposal to set up within the War Department an atomic energy committee, comprised at least in part of those Army officers who would also be assigned to the commission’s Military Liaison Committee.

The President announced the five members of the Atomic Energy Commission on 28 October. To the post of chairman, he named David E. Lilienthal who, as head of the Tennessee Valley Authority, had gained considerable knowledge of project activities at Clinton and had served as a member of the State Department panel on international control of atomic energy. For the other four positions, the President selected Robert F. Bacher, a Cornell physicist who had played a leading role at Los Alamos; Sumner T. Pike, editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune and a Pulitzer Prize winner; William W. Waymack, a former member of the Securities and Exchange Commission; and Lewis L. Strauss, a Navy reservist who had served during the war in the Bureau of Ordnance and as an assistant to the Secretary of the Navy.

While awaiting official announcement of his appointment, Lilienthal had formed a temporary administrative staff comprised of individuals that had worked together with him on atomic energy matters. He selected Herbert S. Marks, director (acting) of the War Production Board’s Power Division before becoming Dean Acheson’s assistant at the State Department; Joseph Volpe, Jr., a former military officer on the legal staff in General Groves’ Washington headquarters; and Carroll L. Wilson, a wartime assistant to Vannevar Bush at the Office of Scientific Research and Development. Myriad housekeeping arrangements for the new commission required the immediate attention of Marks, Volpe, and Wilson, who worked out most of the details with Lt. Col. Charles Vanden Buick, chief of the District’s Administrative Division. Pressed by the commissioners’ impending arrival in early November, Vanden Buick expedited all requests from the staff for funds, for office space in the New War Department Building, which was adjacent to

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Groves’ headquarters, and for clerical support.

In early November, after winding up personal affairs and relocating to Washington, the commissioners collectively channeled their energies and talents to prepare for the transfer of the atomic program from military to civilian control. As a first measure, they directed their staff to arrange briefings and inspection tours of the District’s various installations. Lilienthal, joined by Bacher and Pike, visited District headquarters at Oak Ridge on the fourth. Nine days later, accompanied by Marks, Volpe, and Wilson, all five commissioners undertook a tour of the major atomic reservations and research facilities. By the time they returned to Washington on the twentieth, they were considerably more familiar with the character and problems of the Manhattan Project and were ready to proceed with carrying out the formal transfer.

Meanwhile, the Army had moved ahead with steps to facilitate the transfer. From a list of candidates prepared largely by the Manhattan commander, the Secretaries of War and the Navy had selected three members for the commission’s Military Liaison Committee – Air Force Lt. Gen. Lewis H. Brereton, as chairman; Rear Adm. Thorvald A. Solberg, who had participated in the Operation CROSSROADS tests; and Rear Adm. William S. Parsons, who had seen long service on the atomic project’s Los Alamos technical staff – that would administer any military functions transferred from the Manhattan District.43 Groves, who had designated Nichols to function as his point of liaison with the commission, also attempted to secure the appointment of the district engineer to fill the commission post of director of the Division of Military Application.

But the commissioners expressed a desire for a clean break with the past military administration of the project. Moreover, because they disagreed with Nichols’s view that the division should function as a “line” rather than a “staff” organization, as well as with his strong advocacy of military custody of atomic weapons, they requested the Secretary of War to submit other nominees for the position. Their rejection of Nichols was evidence of an enduring suspicion that the Army was still trying to retain a dominant influence in the field. This mistrust, a legacy of the prolonged legislative fight over the issue of military versus civilian control, exacerbated what might otherwise have been essentially a formality.44

Consistent with provisions of the Atomic Energy Act, the commission in early December informed General Groves that it planned to take over full responsibility for the atomic project as of 1 January 1947. As of that date, the Manhattan District was, without exception, to transfer all

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property and functions of the project to the commission, which subsequently would retransfer such property and functions deemed more appropriate for armed services control. Groves and Nichols promptly and firmly objected to this proposed procedure. Their reasons were straightforward: Certain properties – for example, all ordnance works (except the heavy water facilities), Sandia Base at Albuquerque, and weapons storage sites – should not be transferred even temporarily; the raw materials function should remain under Army control until the commission became a member of the Combined Development Trust; and intelligence operations and records should be transferred directly to the new Central Intelligence Group, not via the commission.

In spite of Groves and Nichols’s objections, the commission indicated that it intended to adhere strictly to the concept of transfer and retransfer. Regardless of this resolute stance, Nichols met with the commission on several occasions in mid-December and sought – but without success – to secure a modification of its position, fighting particularly hard for military custody of atomic weapons. On the last-named issue, Nichols seems to have achieved some measure of success, for at the end of the month the commission informed the Secretary of War that, while it was not willing to give up its basic insistence on a simple, all-inclusive transfer, it would consider some concessions. As its concessions, the commission agreed to accept only nominal transfer of properties relating to weapons, ordnance parts, and fissionable materials; to consider arrangements for re- transfer of these properties to Army control not later than 1 March 1947; and to resolve the question of membership in the Combined Development Trust. On the issue of intelligence, it refused to take action until it had more information.

The last days of December were unbelievably hectic for the commission, which participated in a series of hurried conferences at the State and War Departments in an attempt to clear the way for agreement on the unresolved aspects of the raw materials and intelligence issues. At the State Department, it worked out an arrangement that involved eventual disbandment of the Combined Policy Committee (its continued existence appeared to be in serious conflict with provisions of the Atomic Energy Act) and membership in the Combined Development Trust, provided that Congress was informed of this hitherto secret wartime agency. At the War Department on the thirtieth, Lilienthal briefed the Secretary of War on the commission’s arrangement with the State Department. Patterson was satisfied and thereupon agreed to transfer the Army’s raw materials function. After discussing the remaining points in dispute on intelligence, Lilienthal determined the Secretary’s position was immutable. Pressed by the 1 January deadline, the commission chairman resorted to a compromise. He agreed that the function temporarily should remain with the Army, provided that the commission’s staff was given an opportunity to examine all the records.

The last formal procedure in the transfer occurred at the White House on the afternoon of 31 December.

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Transfer of control to the 
Atomic Energy Commission

Transfer of control to the Atomic Energy Commission

Seated, left to right: Carroll L Wilson, President Harry S. Truman, David E. Lilienthal. Standing, left to right: Sumner T Pike, Colonel Nichols, Secretary of War Patterson, General Groves, Lewis L. Strauss, William W Waymack.

Four of the five commissioners (Bacher was inventorying weapons at Los Alamos) and Carroll Wilson, recently appointed general manager of the commission, joined with Patterson, Groves, and Nichols in President Truman’s office to witness the final act: the signing of the executive order that legally ended the Army’s stewardship of the atomic energy program and turned over peacetime control and development of the atom to a commission of five men.45

For a period of sixteen months following the end of the war, the Army had carried out the often perplexing and thankless task of administering,

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on an interim basis, an atomic organization undergoing the severe stresses and strains of transition from a war to a peacetime status. Compounding the problems of what was inherently a difficult assignment was the widespread disagreement among the American people as to precisely what kind of organization was best suited to develop and control in peacetime so significant a new source of energy. By mid-1946, many Americans were disappointed and disillusioned because the “golden atomic age,” widely predicted when news of the wartime atomic energy program was first made public, had failed to materialize, and the tendency was to blame the Army for this. Yet, as General Groves pointed out in retrospect, the Army had accomplished during its trusteeship what was perhaps most essential to the long-range future of atomic energy in the United States. It had preserved and turned over to its new civilian administrators “a good organization – one ranked among the top industrial organizations of the country – and [achieved] the orderly demobilization of its forces to fit into the organization of the Atomic Energy Commission.”46