News and Notes

R.I.P.: Paul Doty and Lawrence H. Johnston

by Alex Wellerstein, published December 6th, 2011

This is just a small post to acknowledge the passing of two participants in the Manhattan Project this week.

Paul Doty (L) and Jerome Wiesner (R) with John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Paul M. Doty (1920-2011) passed away yesterday morning, according to a release from the Belfer Center at the Harvard Kennedy School. I had some chance to talk with Professor Doty last year when I was a Research Fellow at the Belfer Center. Professor Doty was crucial to the running of the Pugwash Conference in the early years, and gave me some opportunity to look at, and talk to him about the disposition of, many of his copious and well-kept volumes of Pugwash proceedings and ephemera. His opening address at the Sixth Pugwash Conference (1960), “Current Attitudes on Disarmament in America,”1 is an interesting read, and represents the mix of pragmatism and idealism that characterized Doty’s thinking:

Our job now in this meeting is not to pass resolutions stating the importance of disarmament. Our job is to get on with the task of finding realistic and more secure alternatives to the arms race. We must not misjudge the scope of this problem. For more than a generation the genius and labor treasure of the major powers have been concentrated in the most highly organized effort the world has ever known. This will not tumble and a peaceful world fitting each person’s desire will not appear by saying it should. If this enormous agglomeration of carefully counterpoised power is not dismantled with a skill at least equal to that which created it, we may invite the very catastrophe we seek to avoid.

These words seem as true to me today with regards to disarmament as they did in 1960. One more great Doty excerpt: “Fear is usually based not on what we know, but on what we do not know of others. Fear can only be driven from the relations among states by increasing openness among us — by a progressive reduction in the outmoded fog of secrecy which surrounds our national affairs.”

Lawrence H. Johnston (1918-2011) passed away yesterday as well. Johnston was featured in a previous post as one of the people involved with assembling the atomic bomb on Tinian, and posing with the plutonium core of the “Fat Man” bomb. I had been in touch with him over e-mail in 2006 regarding his patent on the Exploding-Bridgewire Detonator, a precise blasting cap that initiates by means of an electrical current, and was part of the instrumentation necessary to detonate the explosive lenses of the “Fat Man” and “Trinity” bombs.

He was, as far as I know, the only person to witness all three of the first atomic detonations firsthand — at only age 27 or so. (Aside from being present at the “Trinity” test, he was aboard an instrumentation plane for both of the Japanese bombing missions.)

Lawrence H. Johnston in a flack suit in front of "The Great Artiste," an instrument support plane that accompanied "Bockscar" on the Nagasaki bombing mission.

He gave a talk at Los Alamos in 2006 about the invention of the detonator, as well as his role in the bomb in general, which is still online. It’s an interesting little read, very defensive of the positions of Ernest Lawrence and Johnston’s mentor, Luis Alvarez:

Back at Los Alamos there was lots of rejoicing. “We won the War!”  But several important people were having pangs of conscience, most notably Oppenheimer.  Yes we had stopped the wartime killing, but we had killed a lot of people with our bombs, and worst of all we had let the genie out of the bottle, and now nuclear war would be a specter for the world to face.  … Oppie felt especially responsible for this nuclear worry, and he made public statements of remorse.  I think it was because of this that Oppie was forgiven by the 1945 Peace Activists in the Physics community.  Instead he became their hero. But Alvarez was not forgiven, and he suffered public insults as a warmonger.  The same for Ernest Lawrence.  The Peace activists sounded like they wished we had lost the war, or at least that it had ended in a bloody stalemate.

I don’t think that’s a totally accurate reading of the history, but within it you can see the conflict and frustration of a man who felt like he was doing the right thing — working to end World War II — and found himself seen as being part of something awful by a large proportion of his own scientific community.

  1. My copy of this was provided to me by Professor Doty, and was from his personal files. []

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