Posts Tagged ‘Joint Committee on Atomic Energy’


Archives Week, Day 5: The Lost JCAE Hearings

Friday, December 23rd, 2011

On my post for Day 1 of this week's archival trip, I noted that the Lexis Nexis database of Executive hearings of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE) was empty after 1962. I wondered if that could possibly be accurate or not.

The answer, after fishing around for a week, is clearly no. There are a bunch of Executive sessions that are not in the Lexis Nexis database, especially from the 1960s and a few from the 1970s. Some of these have been only very recently declassified — in 2005, 2007, and 2010. There are probably others still classified. (You can't FOIA Congressional records, but you can request a Mandatory Declassification Review, which accomplishes similar ends.)

So I've been diving into these. The ones I have looked at so far cover:

  • Hyman Rickover testifying about the first nuclear submarine plans in 1951. This contained an interesting discussion about how many bombs you stockpiled per so many nautical miles traveled. I hadn't thought of that way of thinking about it; nuclear submarines usually run on highly-enriched uranium (HEU), because it gives better power output for the size constraints. Of course, in 1951, when they were planning the U.S.S. Nautilus, they were eagerly trying to expand the nuclear stockpile. Putting HEU into a submarine meant you couldn't put it into an actual bomb. So there was an interesting trade-off going on then. Of course, the actual numbers are blacked out. Or, more appropriately, whited out. Today's redactors use Adobe Acrobat to make their deletions:

    The USS Nautilus with a nice blob of redaction. No core for you!

  • Discussions with General McCormack about the goals of Operation Ranger (1951), the first continental nuclear test series since "Trinity." This includes McCormack trying to explain what the purpose of nuclear artillery would be to the JCAE, and why it required (at the time) strictly gun-type weapon designs (which use up a lot of HEU relative to implosion weapons). It also discusses their early plans for making nuclear bunker-buster weapons. One nice exchange:

Brien McMahon "... according to the staff's report to me,... the Air Forces are going to do a test called Windstorm up in Kamchatka or Kiska or something."
Gen. McCormack: "Amchitka."
McMahon: "Kamchatka?"
McCormack: "Amchitka. Kamchatka is over the border in Russia."
McMahon: "That wouldn't be a bad idea."

  • There's also some interesting remarks in that one by McCormack about why he'd want any use of tactical nuclear weapons in Western Europe to be completely American-controlled:

McCormack: " send American airplanes with American bombs to support foreign troops, I am afraid, would lead you into a most horrible sort of disaster because of the tie-in and coordination between air and ground forces is difficult enough at best if you all came out of the same school. It is very tough indeed when you come from different schools and if you pull a boner with an atomic bomb, as has been pulled with ordinary ammunition in Korea, if you pull one with an atomic bomb, I feel you will put back atomic support for ground troops by years." [Fair enough — if you accidentally nuke your allies, they probably won't want you playing with nukes again.]

  • Also now declassified is the first JCAE briefing on the Castle Bravo accident. As you might expect, there's some awful stuff here:

 Chairman Cole: "I understand even after they [the natives of Rongelap] are taken back you plan to have medical people in attendance."
Dr. Bugher: "I think we will have to have a continuing study program for an indefinite time."
Rep. James Van Zandt: "The natives ought to benefit — they got a couple of good baths." [Seriously?]

  • A rather interesting session from 1965, where the JCAE was introduced to the idea of MIRVing for the first time by Livermore scientists. One lovely exchange:

Rep. Holifield: "Dr. Foster, did this general idea [MIRVing] originate in the laboratory or was it a matter of requirement by the DoD?"
Dr. Foster: "I am not exactly sure how it originated. It came up, I think, three years ago in connection with our concern over what capability might be achieved by the Soviet missiles."
Rep. Holifield: "You didn't go ahead with this without a formal requirement, I hope."
Dr. Foster: "Yes, I am afraid we did. (Laughter) Let me be specific —"
Rep. Holifield: "You will be condemned by the Budget Bureau for that."

All in all, it was a good week at the archives. (As I post this, they are literally kicking me out of the reading room. Something about going home to their families for the holidays?)

Next week I'll post a bit more about my post-processing techniques for my files, since there has been some interest in that, and I hadn't quite gotten them all written up in a sensible way.


Archives Week, Day 4: Conspiring for Livermore (1952)

Thursday, December 22nd, 2011

Just a quick document for you today from the Legislative Archives: John Walker and Bill Borden, staff members on the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, conspiring about creating a "second laboratory": what would become the Livermore laboratory.1

Click image for the full PDF.

It's a short piece, from early 1952, but I find it pretty revealing about the "second laboratory" mindset at the time. It's desperation is what appeals to me: Walker is fed up with the Atomic Energy Commission and the General Advisory Committee, and have basically concluded that the only way forward would be to give a bunch of cash to "an eminent scientist" who would round up patriotic colleagues and start their own lab, independent of the AEC or GAC. Walker believes that this "non-government and non-military establishment" impetus "would be important from a moral standpoint."

Where the cash would come from, and who the scientist would be, is left unconsidered.

It's kind of a mad scheme, given that the AEC had a total legal monopoly on this kind of research. It also show the lengths these particular Congressional staffers were willing to go — they were aiming to play a hugely active role in national policy.

I want to give a hat-tip to a former student of mine from Harvard, Eli Jacobs, who is interning at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He has a number of great posts up on the CSIS blog, but my favorite so far is a discussion of a 1978 Defense Nuclear Agency report where they recommended nuking the Chinese-Soviet border in the case of war, with the hope that this would encourage China to invade the USSR. It's an impressively bad idea for a lot of reasons, and you know how much I like collecting impressively bad ideas.

  1. Source: John Walker to Bill Borden, "Second Laboratory," (21 February 1952), in Records of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, RG 128, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C., Series 2: General Subject Files, Box 60, "Thermonuclear Program: Second Laboratory." []

Archives Week: Day 3, Edward Teller on the Early History of the “Super”

Wednesday, December 21st, 2011

Studying the past is important. Don't believe me? Well, check this guy out:

Study the Past. Or else this guy's going to be very disapproving.

This guy sits outside the researcher entrance to the National Archives in DC, where I'm still camping out. Apparently he is just meant to be "the past," and not any particular ancient historian. This is probably for the best, because let's be honest — some of those guys were a little sketchy by modern standards.

Anyway, I'm still looking through the Legislative Archives. My little document-of-the-day relates to our good buddy, Edward Teller. If there's one thing I've learned from looking at my blog statistics, it's that the world is still pretty interested in Edward Teller. Gotta give the people what they want, eh? Well, why not — he's always good for something unusual.

"From the Desk of Edward Teller." Did he pre-apply the "SECRET" stamps? It probably would have saved a lot of time.

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Meditations | Redactions

Archives Week: Day 2, Notes on Technique, and the “Second Fuchs”

Tuesday, December 20th, 2011

It's Archive Week still, and I'm having a good time in the Legislative Archives, in downtown Washington, DC. I thought I would share an interesting document I came across today, with a few notes about my archive technique, along with an interesting document about the possibility of a "second Fuchs" at Los Alamos, from 1954.

The Legislative Archives are in a relatively old part of the National Archives. Lots of fancy chandeliers and wood panels and blocks of stone. It's a pretty place to do research. They don't make research rooms like this anymore:

A surreptitiously snapped photo of the main room. Faces blurred to protect the innocent.

My general archives setup is my laptop, my camera (a relatively unexciting Canon PowerShot SD450 Digital Elph), an extra battery (an absolute must), and the battery charger. I'm a minimalist when it comes to snapping photos of documents — I have a "just good enough" approach to it, which means I'm willing to sacrifice quality for speed. So I don't use tripods, I don't use fancy lighting, I don't use a fancy camera, and I don't use a scanner. I just snap them quickly and try to keep the lighting uniform. It's probably not good enough to reprint in a book or article, but it works for research. My whole game plan is getting lots and lots of documents and reading them somewhere other than an archive, so when I'm in the archive, I'm just trying to vacuum up the entire thing into JPGs (which I late run some simple filters on and turn into PDFs). If I ever really need a better quality version of a document, I'll have to get it when I'm back another time, but that has (so far) been extremely rare (at least in contrast to the volume of documents I process).

My basic technique, as taken with my cell phone camera.

The whole trick is to just make sure that the document more or less fits the frame and is in focus. The lighting just needs to be uniform — it doesn't need to be bright (in fact, low contrast lighting is best). It's easy to normalize a uniformly-lit document to reduce the grays and bring out the blacks. What's hard is if you have lots of variation in the lighting — bright spots, or dark shadows, make normalization tough, and you end up with bad looking photos. You get better at holding your hand "just steady enough for the sensor" with practice.

If I'm really cooking, I can photograph a document every second or two. So when I know I want a whole folder of things, I can really get a lot. I shoot first, ask historiographic questions later.

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Archives Week: Day 1, Legislative Archives

Monday, December 19th, 2011

This week is an Archives Week! Which means I'll be spending the whole week in an archive, doing research, with the aim of posting something amusing for you, dear reader, each and every day of the week. This might seem ambitious, but the best part about working on nuclear history is that each and every archival box contains something so surreal it would knock Dali's socks off. No doubt every giant bureaucracy produces its Kafkaesque moments, but mixing them with the potential to wipe out entire nations makes them into something sublime.

I'm camping out all week in the Legislative Archives, which are housed in the downtown DC National Archives building. Veteran researchers know that the downtown National Archives are not where most of the research records are kept (most were moved, some time back, to the Archives II facility in College Park). But the Legislative Archives are one of the exceptions, so I get to spend the week in the same building that the tourists all go to when they want to see original copies of the Constitution.

I'll be looking primarily at the records of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (JCAE). The JCAE was created in the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 to serve as the Congressional oversight committee for the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). What this means, in a nutshell, is that the JCAE was a group of Senators and Representatives who spent most of their time being very unhappy with the AEC, with the ability to make life difficult for the AEC. They were immensely powerful, as Congressional committees go, and, because of the national security implications, incredibly secretive. They were also, on the whole, neither scientists, professional bureaucrats, or military men, so they often provided a, shall we say, "unique" take on the major nuclear issues of the day.

The LIFE archive's caption for this photo is amusingly bad: "The whole entire room listening to David E. Lilienthal (bald man at table on R) testify." Poor Lilienthal, he never caught a break... this is Lilienthal appearing in front of the JCAE during the "incredible mismanagement" hearings of 1949.

So keep an eye on this spot, and you're sure to be rewarded with some amusing archival finds, just in time for the holidays!

Incidentally — so today's post isn't just a total bore — I tried to come up with some quantitative data on how secret the JCAE really was. (Though the heavy presence of graphs might indeed make it even more of a bore...)

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