Posts Tagged ‘David E. Lilienthal’


The Custody Dispute Over the Bomb

Monday, January 30th, 2012

The term “custody dispute” is one we usually associate with acrimonious divorce proceedings. But there was a very real nuclear custody dispute in the 1950s, one which I’ve often been surprised that even folks fairly well-versed in nuclear history weren’t aware of.1

Some fifty B61 bombs in a US Air Force base “igloo.” Courtesy Federation of American Scientists.

The issue in a nutshell: When Eisenhower took office in 1953, there were around 1,000 nuclear bombs in the US nuclear arsenal and all but a few dozen were in the hands of the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). When he left office in 1961, the nuclear stockpile contains some 18,000 weapons (of widely varying size, yield, and delivery mechanism), and 90% of them were under military control.2 That shifting of control — of whether it was a civilian or a military organization that physically had responsibility over the bombs — was the essence of the custody dispute.

The backstory to the dispute is rather simple. As part of the Congressional battle over postwar domestic legislation to regulate atomic energy, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 (the McMahon Act) assigned all control of the manufacture, development, and possession of nuclear weapons to the civilian Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). This was not accidental — the key push by Senator Brien McMahon was that this was “civilian control” of the atom, as opposed to “military control.” (The bill the McMahon Act was meant to replace, the May-Johnson Act, was castigated as a “military” bill, which was not entirely true.) The fear, in 1946, was that a military-controlled nuclear complex would result in an un-reflective arms race, preempt democracy, and make an unpleasant atmosphere for scientists. (Thank goodness civilian control resulted in none of those ills!)

The Atomic Energy Act allowed for the possibility that the President could, “from time to time,” direct the AEC to give the military access to fissile material and weapons “for such use as he deems necessary in the interest of national defense.” Otherwise, all weapons would be kept by the AEC.

Thus the custody dispute: the military was, over the course of the late 1940s and 1950s, meant to be ramping up its integration of nuclear weapons into its war plans. And yet, they did not physically have access to live nuclear weapons. In fact, they didn’t even have access to weapons casings to practice with, on account of the weapons casings being classified as “restricted data,” and required Q-clearances (with full FBI investigations) to even look at!

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  1. My source for this is a rather classic document for information about US nuclear deployments: History of the Custody and Deployment of Nuclear Weapons, July 1945 through September 1977 (8MB PDF here), prepared by the Office of the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense (Atomic Energy), in February 1978. What I mean by “classic,” here, is that lots of other folks seem to have known about this document for a long time, but I was only made aware of it when I asked a former Harvard colleague of mine, Dan Volmar, who is doing a dissertation on nuclear command and control systems, for something about the custody issue. []
  2. Peter J. Roman, “Ike’s Hair-Trigger: Nuclear Predelegation, 1953-60,” Security Studies 7, no. 4 (Summer 1998), 121-164, on 121. []

A Tale of Two Oppenheimers (1950)

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

It’s hard not to dramatize the relationship between J. Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, and Frank Oppenheimer, uncle of the atomic bomb. Their lives were entwined in ways that went beyond the merely filial. Frank’s interests in physics were always overshadowed by his brother’s prowess; Frank’s dalliances with Communism may have been at the seat of Robert’s own political undoing.1

Frank Oppenheimer, 1948.

Robert’s life is well known: three years at Harvard, then to Europe, then to California, then to Los Alamos, then to Princeton, then to ruin.2 Frank’s is less well-known, but perhaps even more fascinating. Frank followed in Robert’s footsteps: he studied physics; he took up horseback riding; he was drawn to left-wing causes; he eventually became a Communist Party member, to Robert’s apparent dismay. He worked at Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory during the war, and followed Robert to Los Alamos, helping to plan for the Trinity test. In 1947, he was outed as a Communist — a charge he initially denies. By 1949, though, he admitted being a member in the 1930s.

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  1. Has it truly been a decade since Brotherhood of the Bomb  was published? I saw Gregg Herken give a talk about it  — and his thesis that Frank was the unnamed contact in the Chevalier episode — back in 2002, at UC Berkeley, when I was an undergraduate. And through consultation with my wife, I find out she was at the same talk! It may have been the first talk we both attended simultaneously, long before we began dating. How time flies for two nuclear geeks. []
  2. Well, technically, then to the Virgin Islands, but from Sherwin and Bird’s description of how that was, it sounds pretty ruinous. []

J. Edgar Hoover on Fuchs and Lilienthal (1950)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2011

Last weekend I saw Clint Eastwood’s new film about the FBI’s first director, “J. Edgar.” I can’t say that I thought it was a great film. Aside from the question of its historical accuracy (which strikes me as, well, dodgy), it was too long, too plodding, and Leonardo DiCaprio, for all of his talents, is just not a very good Hoover. He’s miserable with accents, and just doesn’t ever cease being DiCaprio-playing-Hoover. I never felt like he “inhabited” Hoover, and I didn’t feel he had expanded my understanding of Hoover.

J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson lunching in their regular booth at the Mayflower Hotel, 1970. Source: Google LIFE archive.

My favorite fictional depiction of Hoover is, without a doubt, the J. Edgar who inhabits James Ellroy’s Underworld USA Trilogy of novels. The Hoover in Ellroy’s books has the same voice as the Hoover in the FBI files I’ve read: precise, curt, with contempt and threat just out of vision, but always present.

In honor of that mindset, and in a shameless movie tie-in, this Weekly Document is a February 1950 memo by J. Edgar Hoover to his Deputy Director, Clyde Tolson, and two other high-ranking FBI employees regarding a phone conversation Hoover had with David E. Lilienthal, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. The conversation’s topic: the imminent announcement of Klaus Fuchs’ role as atomic spy.

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