The Manhattan Project

Val Fitch's Interview

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Val Fitch is a Nobel-Prize-winning physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He was drafted into the Special Engineer Detachment, and remembers George Kistiakowsky getting the SED special exemptions from their military duties so they could work harder on the Project. He was sent to Wendover, UT to observe the dummy bomb tests. He worked on the detonation team for the Trinity test, and recalls witnessing the test. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1980. Fitch served on President Nixon’s Science Advisory Committee in the early ‘70s, and discusses the importance of ridding the world of nuclear weapons.
Date of Interview: 
March 26, 2008
Location of the Interview: 

Val Fitch: My name is Val Logsdon Fitch. It’s V-A-L L-O-G-S-D-O-N F-I-T-C-H. And the Logsdon is my mother’s maiden name. Where Val comes from, I have no idea. Except it was a favorite name of my mother’s.

Cindy Kelly: Tell us a little bit about your background and how you happened to end up at Los Alamos during the war.

Fitch: I was born on a cattle ranch in northwestern Nebraska, 1923. And actually born on the ranch. This was about five miles from the little town of Merriman, Nebraska. It’s in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. You probably don’t know anything about the Sand Hills, but they occupy about a fifth of the state. It’s prime cattle-raising country. They’re called the Sand Hills because the terrain is made out of sand, and the hills are the dunes. It’s almost pure sand, such as you find at the shore.

But the only thing that can be grown there, really, without destroying the terrain, is something that lives off the native grasses, and that is cattle. If you try turning the soil over to grow crops of any kind, then it simply blows away. So the Sand Hills are dedicated to growing cattle.

My father raised purebred Herefords on the little ranch he had. The ranch was really too small to be able to support a family on the basis of raising beef cattle, so he raised breeding stock, and that was the enterprise that I was born into.

I have an older brother and sister, both of them now dead. My brother was ten years older, and my sister six years older. But they both started school, and as long as we lived on the ranch, they attended a one-room schoolhouse up the valley that was about a mile and a half away. Most often the schoolteacher lived at our home. And all three of them would get on their horse in the morning and ride up the valley to go to school. I always thought that was a little ridiculous, but the important thing was to, of course, get out of the house.

So that’s how they lived the first few years of their life. Then when my brother came of age to go to high school, and I was just about ready to start school, we moved to Gordon, Nebraska, which is a town about twenty-five miles to the west. And so all of my K-12 education was in Gordon, Nebraska.

This part of the world is just south of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. So there are lots of Sioux Indians around. My father was always rather close to them. He understood them. As a young teenager, he had bothered to learn their language. So he was really a great friend of the Indians, which was very rare for white people in those days. And the net result of that was that in 1937, he became an honorary Sioux Indian chief, Chief Eagle Star. To my knowledge, he was the only non-politician who’s ever been recognized in such a way.

He received on that occasion a full headdress of eagle feathers—bonnet up here, then eagle feathers all the way to the ground behind him. I inherited that, and just a couple years ago I presented it to the local library. It’s part of their western United States collection. So it’s now out of my hands, but they take good care of these things.

Then after high school, I went to Chadron State College. There’s a geological formation called a Chadron Formation. Chadron is obviously a name for the formation. But it’s where the high plains start to break away into the lower country in South Dakota. That’s what forms the Pine Ridge escarpment, and hence the name Pine Ridge. Pine trees grow along that escarpment and Chadron is right on the escarpment also. So it was part of the Chadron Formation.

So I guess the only thing I emphasize here is that Indians were always very much present in my young life. I never learned the language, unfortunately. But that was an interesting thing to have about, interesting culture to have about.

In any event, I went to Chadron State College. I graduated from high school in 1940. Of course, in December ’41, you know what happened. And all of us who were eighteen years old knew precisely what was going to happen to us within a short period time. I did try to volunteer for the Air Force, but was turned down for being colorblind, of all things. And so I decided that I’d just wait it out and get as much college as I could before being drafted, and that’s what I did.

Eventually, in March of 1943, I was drafted. Fort Warren, Wyoming. Sent out to Kearns, Utah, for basic training. Then after that, after basic training, the Army was just starting their specialized training program, the ASTP program. And so I was taken out of regular Army units and sent to ASTP, the unit in Carnegie—what is it now? Carnegie Mellon. It was then Carnegie Tech, Pittsburgh.

I had the choice of going in to four different areas: chemical engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, civil engineering. Well, I’d concentrated very heavily in chemistry and physics and mathematics in my previous undergraduate work. And the one thing that I hadn’t really learned something in was electrical engineering, so I opted for that.

In January of ’44, the pressures for manpower were really being felt in the Army, and so they disbanded most of the ASTP units around the country. Most of my pals in that unit at Carnegie Mellon went off to the 95th Infantry, and then were subsequently part of the European enterprise. There were a number of us though that were left behind, and I was one that was just sort of plucked out and sent to Los Alamos to work basically as a technician. That was in December of 1944.

So there I was in the Army, and part of a unit called the Special Engineering Detachment, or SEDs. I was immediately assigned to work for Ernest Titterton, who was a member of the British Mission. very quickly, I sort of became his right- or left-hand man, however you want to describe it. Ernie had a flair for getting involved in interesting things, and I was always there. I don’t know if you’re interested in what I did at Los Alamos or not.

Kelly: Absolutely.

Fitch: When I arrived, they were just getting to be seriously involved in the implosion program. And there, as is well known, you’re detonating explosives in such a way as to produce a spherical shockwave going inward to compress, in this case, plutonium to a critical point. And timing of all these explosive lens was all-important. I was very much involved in developing the timing apparatus, measuring when the shockwave passes a certain point, and so on and so on. So that’s what I did. We developed the electronics for doing that and also made some of the measurements.

I should say, as an aside, that it was a time in my life when—well, obviously the SEDs are a very unusual unit. There was a lot of talent, and I made very, very good friends, just among the people at the one end of the barracks that I lived in. There was Gunnar Thornton, who had a college degree, who had immigrated. His parents had brought him from Norway when he was ten years old. There was Hans Courant, perhaps a name that rings a bell with you. He was the son of the famous mathematician. Hans and I are, after all these years, still communicating all the time. When he left Los Alamos to go to finish his college work at MIT after the war, why, he had a girlfriend at Los Alamos and he assigned me the job of taking care of his girlfriend. This I did, and we eventually were married, as a matter of fact. So that was a nice story.

But also, I learned to ski, with this Norwegian there. I had to learn to ski. And also, by the end of the barracks, there was Bill Davis, who had been a member of the Dartmouth ski team. So I had lots of good instruction on skiing. Every Sunday, why, we’d go out to Sawyer’s Hill for skiing. Fortunately, you know, many of the famous physicists were also skiers, like [Enrico] Fermi, [George] Kistiakowsky, you name them, they were probably on the ski slopes with us. I probably had more interaction with these famous people on the ski slopes than I did in the laboratory, as a matter of fact.

In the spring of ’45, elaborate testing was under way with dummy bombs, put in B-29s at Wendover Air Force Base, which is just on the Nevada-Utah border, directly west of Salt Lake City. The technique was to load the dummy bombs in the B-29s there, and then drop them over the Salton Sea, where telemetry would pick up the signals from these falling objects and tell people what was going on inside the dummy bomb as far as all the timing mechanisms were concerned, whether they were functioning correctly.

In the spring of ’45, I was one of those sent to Wendover. Another SED that I worked with—his name was Bud Lang—and I went out. We set up a little laboratory on the edge of the field to initiate this testing program and also to educate some of the Army officers there so that they could carry it on after we left. That was my first exposure to B-29s and bombs and all of that. In my memory, I went out to Wendover from Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, and riding in an old B-17 bomber. We were just over the Wasatch Mountains, and they weren’t far below, and the second engine went out. So we were all asked to get on parachutes, and so on and so on. It was quite a trip, in that respect.

But it was also characterized by the fact that, of course during World War II, if you were ever out of uniform, well, you were automatically thought to be a deserter. So you were absolutely required to wear a uniform at all times, all those in the military. But there was a special dispensation for us, this group of SEDs who went out to Wendover, because for secure purposes we had to play the role of “scientists from Washington.”

We were given money, and we went down to Santa Fe and bought civilian clothes, including shoes, in order to have something to wear at Wendover. So there we were, civilians. I still have this piece of paper that gave me permission to wear civilian clothes. One of these memos which mean so much at the time, and of course, wearing civilian clothes after all these years in military uniform.

In any event, it wasn’t long after we came back that we went to Trinity to start the testing program there. Initially, as you probably know, the first test was of setting off 100 tons of TNT. And with that, why, we tested all the firing mechanisms and so forth to make sure that signals were—the main control bunker was 10,000 yards, which is slightly less than six miles from the Gadget itself.

It was the job of Titterton’s group in the end to send out the signal to detonate the things at the appropriate time, but also to send out preliminary signals to various experimental groups that needed signals in anticipation of the thing going off. For example, photographers had to open their shutters, etcetera, etcetera, maybe a few milliseconds beforehand. So we did the fast timing. And actually, another name, Bill Elmore, his SED did the slow timing, which consisted of a rotating drum with electrodes in it picking up signals.

So we did the fast timing and sending out the main detonation pulse at the end of the timing interval. By “we” I mean in the main control bunker there was just Titterton and myself. We did have a technician down there—his name was Calvin Linton—who helped out hauling things around and so on, putting things together. The fourth member of the team, his name was Russ Lowry, and his prime concern was the apparatus that we used to measure the simultaneity at which all the detonators were fired around on the bomb itself. There were 32 of them. It was our job to measure the degree of simultaneity of those detonators firing. And of course that’s just where my previous experience had come in, and so on.

Russ was nominally in charge of the recording of that data, which was done in a bunker about half a mile west of the tower. And so we had put in all the apparatus to make those measurements, fast oscilloscopes and so on, and got all that stuff ready, and running cables up to the tower and up to the bomb to carry the signals back to the recording apparatus. So that was a secondary measurement that this little group of just four of us, including the technician, that’s what we were doing at the bomb testing.

Actually, it was two or three days after the test when Lowry made a very quick trip into the bunker to retrieve the film on which the data was recorded. And unfortunately, when it was developed, it was totally black. The radiation had just been too much for it. When the bomb when off, the blast had taken all of the earth that was piled over this bunker and just blew it back, and blew it off the bunker totally.

Then between that bunker, which was, as I said, half a mile west, and the tower, oh, maybe a third of the way up, why, the sand had all been turned to glass. You’ve probably seen trinitite. So when the time to set off the bomb approached, why, Titterton and I were at the main control bunker and Lowry was back at base camp, which was five miles further away. I don’t know if you’ve seen photographs of those places or not, but they’re rather interesting. I have some upstairs if you’d like to see them.

But as far as our timing measurements were concerned, that was all done automatically, of course. Since one is measuring times in milliseconds, why, there can’t be somebody throwing a switch, it all had to be automatic. So that was all on its automatic mode. And then Titterton suggested, well, maybe if I wanted to go and take a good look at what was going on, go ahead, because we couldn’t do anything about it.

So I went outside the bunker, and around to the east side. And there were two or three others. Kistiakowsky was another one who left the bunker and went out to get a good view of things. Of course, I had this piece of welding glass to cover my eyes with, which I’ve also kept as a memento of the occasion. Sprawled out on the ground, with the glass tightly cupped over my eyes. Of course, initially, I was looking away from the tower, but that enormous flash of light, of course, just overcomes any lack of transparency in that welding glass.

It’s the most surprising thing of all. is that fantastic flash of light. Then of course you see the dust cloud and the ball slowly rising off the ground in the famous mushroom cloud eventually. I got up off the ground to get a better view of that, and totally forgetting that the shockwave had yet to arrive. It might take only thirty microseconds for the light to arrive, but it takes about thirty seconds for the shockwave to arrive. So I had plenty of time once I realized the shockwave had yet to arrive, I had plenty of time to get back down on the ground and hear that fierce rumble. First that blast and then the rumble of the sound off the nearby mountains, going off the mountains.

It’s hard to overstate the impact on the senses of something like that. First the flash of light, that enormous fireball, the mushroom cloud rising thousands of feet in the sky, and then, a long time afterwards, the sound. The rumble, thunder in the mountains. Word’s haven’t been invented to describe it in any accurate way.

One thing you allude to and something I quoted when I wrote a little piece about these experiences, which you apparently read—as a matter of fact, you put in your book [The Manhattan Project] about the Manhattan Project. After it was over and people started milling about and coming in and out of the main control bunker and so on, there was an MP on duty at the door. Just a single MP. He was supposedly there to control access, even though it had to be mainly symbolism, because the security was just knowing each other, and of course, the MP didn’t know anyone. But in any event, I saw him with an absolutely ashen face and I simply remarked to him, “Oh, the war will soon be over.” That was my main reaction at the time. And of course, I was right, fortunately.

I stayed around for two or three days to—actually, Linton and I stayed around for two or three days to pack up equipment and take the stuff back to Los Alamos. We were driving an Army panel truck. Linton was driving, and as we were leaving the place, we were at South 10,000, but we had to go out past where the tower had been to leave the site. And so as we were passing by the tower—the road passed perhaps a mile west of where the tower had been—why, we turned up the road towards where the tower had been and passed that small bunker that we had instrumented at a half mile west. And there, the cables that we had so laboriously strung to the tower were just flung back over the bunker, and all the earth that had been piled on top of the bunker was gone. It was just sitting there, bare.

We drove on a bit further to the point where the sand had been turned to glass, and I pulled a little box out of the back that had contained a filament transformer, and I reached down with that box and scooped up some of the glassy material. We didn’t know what the radiation level was, but it was a good time to get out of there, so that we did. I still have some of that trinitite that I picked up myself.

It was a couple of years after that that I went back to Los Alamos to work for the summer and came across in the stockroom—the old stockroom where stuff was stored—the circuit that we’d used to put the signal on the line to trigger the bomb, the basic trigger circuit. It was a high voltage trigger circuit, we had, I don’t know, maybe 2,000 volts on the poles to make sure it got through. And so at the time I was wondering about, well maybe I should call that to somebody’s attention, because no one else, I’m sure, except me, knows what that is. But of course, I didn’t do it. It was undoubtedly scrapped with everything else at one time or another.

I was discharged almost exactly three years after I entered the Army, from Fort Bliss, Texas, and then went back and worked at Los Alamos to make some money, doing the same job I had before, but this time making a reasonable amount of money. I had none, so saving a little money for college was important. I worked there for another year and a half after being discharged.

Well, let me say a little more about the SEDs, because they’re not properly advertised. Richard Rhodes has virtually nothing to say about the SEDs in that otherwise fine book. But, by the end of the war, about fifty percent of the technical personnel at Los Alamos were SEDs. We lived in barracks, we ate in the mess hall, worked in something called the Technical Area for civilians. When we were in the Technical Area, military couldn’t touch us. But of course, we ate in the mess halls, and slept in the barracks. And any time you have sixty to 120 men collected, the Army’s pretty good at making sure that a certain amount of order is kept. There were Friday night scrub sessions, cleaning out down in the barracks, and Saturday morning inspections. When I first arrived there, there were also 6:00 calisthenics, but that aspect was discontinued after Kistiakowsky raised Cain with General [Leslie R.] Groves himself, thanks to Kistiakowsky.

His group, which was involved in producing the lenses for the implosion gadget, was staffed largely by SEDs. He was working probably more closely with more of them than anyone else in the whole project, and so he was terribly concerned about the way they were treated. He was expecting them to work, you know, twenty-four hours a day, but they had all this other nonsense. He complained about the rather spit-and-polish attitude of the military that was there, complained directly to General Groves, and as a matter of fact, threatened to leave the place if it wasn’t changed. And of course, Groves said, “Why, I can’t do that.”

But, in fact, in a week or so after Kistiakowsky complained, things were transformed around and it became a much easier life. We didn’t have to get up at 6:00 in the morning, and never did we have any KP or anything like that. The mess hall was staffed by indigenous labor, supervised by a mess sergeant. After the Kistiakowsky effect, we no longer had to clean the latrines. That was also our responsibility until he caused things to solve it.

One job we always had, and that was keeping the stoves going in the wintertime. In each barracks, there were, as I recall, three or four pot-bellied stoves in the center aisle—bunks on either side—in the center aisle of the barracks, and somebody had to keep those fires going in the wintertime. Los Alamos has a wonderful climate, but it does get a fair amount of snow in the wintertime, and it can get rather cool. In our barracks, why, we just hired one of our willing members to do the job and he was happy to do it, to have some more money to send home. So he took care of the stoves. We just all chipped in. And that individual, as a matter of fact, was Bill Davis, who I described earlier as having been a member of the Dartmouth ski team.

When you look at some of the alumni of the SEDs, probably you’ve met Ben Bederson. He was one. As a matter of fact, he lived in my barracks, but at the other end. And then there was Peter Lax, who became a very well known mathematician. As a matter of fact, the mathematicians finally have set up a prize that’s equivalent to the Nobel Prize, and he won the very first one.

Kelly: If you could talk about the role of the British, we’re seeing if there’s interest from British museums in having this exhibit come their way. We want to talk about how this really was an Anglo-American effort, what the British contributions were, how many of them there were, etc.

Fitch: Well, you know, I’m glad you asked that question, because there’s a great tendency in this country to forget out about that component and their contributions to the—there’s a book about it, though. A book that’s been written by a professor of history at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. He has a rather peculiar name [Ferenc Szasz] but it’s all about the role of the British Mission. But, well, one can tick off the names.

Of course, Niels Bohr was one of the members of the British Mission. And [James] Chadwick. Chadwick was the leader. There was Titterton. There was Tony French, who’s going to be speaking at St. Louis next month. He’s taking my place, as a matter of fact. Then, of course, there was Otto Frisch, one of the authors, along with [Rudolf] Peierls, of that original report that showed that in fact, it was possible to make a bomb. There was—oh, what was his name—the one who stayed on. But, of course, Peierls himself was a member. So both Peierls and Frisch, who had been instigators in the original report.

Interestingly enough, they were working on this because they couldn’t work on the really super-secret things going on in Britain at the time. They didn’t have clearance. So working on the ramifications of the fission process they did because it was totally unclassified and they could play around with it without having to—they couldn’t work on radar, which they should have been doing. So they had all this time available, and they chose to work on the ramifications of fission.

I once talked to [Robert] Serber about that report that they put together and they had calculated that the critical mass might be as little as one pound of U-235. And, as you know, the first weapon had something like 140 pounds of U-235. It was quite different from one pound. But Serber’s observation was, “Well, it’s a good thing they made that particular error.” It wasn’t an error, they simply didn’t have the correct cross section information, so they used the wrong cross section information. When that was updated, why, their calculations were correct. But Serber’s comment was, “Perhaps, if one was in favor of making the bomb, that was a good mistake to make, because if they’d said 130 pounds, no one would have ever tried to make it to begin with.” Which I thought was an interesting observation.

Well, both Frisch and Peierls were refugees from Hitler’s Germany. They were in England largely because of the efforts of Oliphant—Marc Oliphant—who made it his business to make sure that those people had some place to go to when they left Germany. And even though he didn’t have a real job for them, somehow he managed to create a job for them in his university environment.

Oliphant had been the director at the laboratory that had turned out the cavity magnetron, which had been instrumental in the development of radar for use in airplanes. We would not have had radar in airplanes without the cavity magnetron. And it was Oliphant who brought a sample over to the United States, I think in 1941, on that same trip when he was trying to sell the atom bomb project, brought the cavity magnetron to the United States. Oliphant was really a great man, and it turns out that Ernest Titterton, for whom I worked, had been a graduate student of Oliphant’s. So there’s that connection. Oliphant after the war went to Australia to found the science section of the Australian national university, and Titterton went along with him. That was roughly 1948, ‘49. He died at the ripe old age of ninety-six or so, just two or three years ago. And of course, he was an avid advocate of getting rid of weapons, of nuclear weapons altogether—worked very hard towards that end right to the end of his life. So in my book, Oliphant’s a great hero.

Kelly: Where were you and how did you learn about the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima? Did you support that at the time?

Fitch: Well, you have to understand, I was a GI and I had many friends in the military. Many of those friends, it turned out, were training for the invasion of Japan in the Philippines. They’ve told me all about this afterwards, thanking me for my participation in the original project. And I understand that totally. Somehow people who’ve never been shot at don’t appreciate what it’s all about. So just as another GI, in effect, wanting to get home, get this whole thing over with, I certainly could not be against it. As I told the MP outside the bunker door at Trinity, “The war will soon be over.” And it certainly was.

So I would have to say that I was in favor of it. I’m still in favor of it, there’s no doubt. There are any number of people walking around today who wouldn’t be walking around simply because their fathers or their grandfathers would have been killed in Japan, invading that island. I’m convinced of that.

In my own mind, just shutting down that war was in a sense worth it. But that’s not to say we shouldn’t do everything we can to put that genie back in the bottle and keep it there. And certainly my sentiments have been along those lines ever since. To have the military-industrial complex dictate the speed with which we arm ourselves or so on is totally wrong.

Somehow, we have to learn to turn off the influence of the hawks, the super hawks. And that turns out to be awfully hard, simply because they know how to spend their money to get the largest political support. Even things like the B-2 bomber, which you know, we have twenty-two or twenty-three of them. I noticed one of them crashed off Guam the other day—and of course, they only cost a couple of billion dollars apiece. But it’s a nonsense weapon. It has no utility whatsoever. In a serious war, they would be the first to go, without any impact whatsoever. I’m convinced of that.

Let me say, I have some additional qualifications when I make these statements. I mentioned to you at lunchtime that I’d been a member of JASON [science and technology advisory group] since its founding. And before that, part of the Project 137 group. Then later, in 1970, I became a member of the President’s Science Advisory Committee, PSAC. PSAC had a number of standing panels and happened to have become chairman of the Strategic Panel, which meant that we dealt with all the strategic forces in the military. So I became quite an expert on that and I know what’s involved.

I remember when the Minuteman was first being proposed, and the question was, “How many Minuteman do we need? How many Minutemen do we need?” You know those rockets, they’re an elegant design, but they have a single warhead at the top. And so it was calculated that it would take 400 to demolish absolutely any reasonable target in the Soviet Union—or, I should say, all reasonable targets. Four hundred of them. So they just automatically then more than doubled that and went to 1,000. And that’s the way things get escalated again and again and again.

The other thing as a member of PSAC that I was involved with, besides the Strategic Panel, was the so-called Safeguard Anti-Missile System. You’ve probably forgotten all about that—well, that was probably before you were born. Not quite, but. The Safeguard System was something that [President Richard] Nixon was pushing very hard. It involved constructing a big phased-array radar up in North Dakota and using Bomarc Missiles, which are nuclear-tipped, as a weapon, so you didn’t have to worry about precisely hitting a missile coming in. If you came close, why, it was good enough.

But this whole Safeguard System was funded. This enormous phased-array, hardened phased-array radar, was built in North Dakota. It’s the size of a Giza Pyramid, concrete, fully-equipped, and never staffed. And it cost twenty billion dollars in 1972 dollars. Just an enormous waste of resources. Well, we now know that the country doesn’t have them to throw away anymore, but we were certainly throwing them away then. I’m talking about the resources.

So much of what happens in the military is precisely along those lines, and it’s all, as near as I can tell, driven by those elements of the aerospace industries. They cleverly arrange for all the contracts—for example, the construction of the B-2 bomber—to be allocated on the basis of certain Congressional districts to satisfy the demands of the clients of the Congressmen in those particular districts. The Congressman can proudly point to the things he’s bringing into that district, point to these things from the government. Eisenhower had it right, the military-industrial complex is a very real and always present danger. And somehow we’ve never been able to handle it and deal with it, make sensible decisions. What other prejudices do I have?

Kelly: This is good, this is very good.

Fitch: Oh, the other thing that I guess I wanted to say is, PSAC was very much against the anti-missile system that I just described. But it was also very much against the SST, which was being considered, and this was during the Nixon administration. And some of the members of PSAC were quite—probably since they were members of PSAC, they shouldn’t have been so loud in their opposition, but the net result of this was that the Nixon administration fired us all. And there was no more PSAC.

So one of my prized possessions is a letter from Nixon saying, “PSAC no longer exists. You no longer have a job on PSAC.” But that was 1972 or so. Since then I’ve had very, very little to do with any—except for things having to do with say, the National Science Foundation—I’ve had nothing to do with any classified work since then, since I was fired from PSAC. So, that was a clean cut.

Kelly: In ’99, you and thirty-one other Nobel laureates in physics urged the Senate to approve the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. And then in 2000, you and forty-nine other Nobel laureates urged Clinton not to deploy an anti-ballistic missile system. Maybe you want to talk about these initiatives and how scientists have become politically active, like yourself, and what you hope to accomplish?

Fitch: Well, you’re quite right. I think, in your questions, you suggest that it all started in the Manhattan Project. Certainly, the evolvement of the Manhattan Project into something that was civilian-controlled, I think, was entirely due to the activism of scientists after World War II. Of course the military was keen on getting control. Fortunately, the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission]—well, you know that there was abortive efforts to give it international control, and so on and so on, but it all ended up with the Atomic Energy Commission, which I think was a pretty reasonable way of doing things. But that was, I would say, almost entirely due to the activism of scientists.

Of course there was the establishment of the Federation of American Scientists, and in Chicago the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists started to be published. And these, I think, have been very effective organizations, entirely inspired by physicists, by and large. Of course, as time went on, why, other scientists got involved, but the initial inspiration, I think, really came from physicists, almost entirely. Though there were some like Paul Doty, who was a chemist at Harvard, who was certainly very active. And Kistiakowsky, I always think of as a physicist, not a chemist. He would describe himself as a chemist.

And then there was just the establishment of PSAC, which originally consisted almost, I would say, entirely of physicists. It was during the Eisenhower administration, and [James] Killian, who had been the president of MIT, was the first chairman of PSAC. That was a very effective organization in advising the President, bringing scientific input to the forefront. I know when I first went on PSAC, Lee DuBridge, who had been head of the Radiation Lab at MIT during the war, had subsequently become president of Caltech and then became head of PSAC, the President’s Science Advisory Committee. It was just very active in advising executive policy.

I remember, in those days, when policy questions arose in the government, various departments of the government would have to sign off—State Department, CIA, and so on. Well, PSAC was another agency that had to sign off on these things, so they were privy to all these rather important decisions being made. It was a time when the chairman of PSAC had his office, it was in the Old Executive Office building, which up through World War II had been the State Department, as you know. As a matter of fact, Lee DuBridge’s office was that which had been inhabited by Cordell Hull during the war.

I say this to give you some idea of the high esteem with which science was held in the government up until, I’d say, the early 1970s. After Nixon got rid of PSAC, then everything pretty much fell apart. There’s something called the Science Advisor now, but it’s Office of Science and Technology and it’s off on 17th Street someplace in some obscure building. And near as I can tell, the chairman is pretty much a eunuch. I mean, I won’t mention his name. He’s a Princeton graduate. But as to having an effect, the answer is no. And of course, in this present administration, you can understand why, but any event. But originally, that was not the case and it all started to change in the early ’70s, I’d say. 

Kelly: Do you want to talk about secrecy at all? How Leo Szilard was very frustrated with the secrecy not just during the duration of the war, but afterwards, and how he felt that the biggest impact of the Manhattan Project was not the bomb, but the “secrecy” stamp? And I don’t know—maybe you didn’t experience this. He was frustrated the petition he started, you know, to try to get to Truman and persuade him, to have a test got stopped. And Groves did not—

Fitch: Well, certainly Groves was a strong one on compartmentalization and so on, but [J. Robert] Oppenheimer found a way around that. Certainly at Los Alamos, even for low-level people like me, we didn’t have any sense of compartmentalization. But that was Oppenheimer’s doing, not Groves.

Kelly: So did you see Groves at all? Did you have any interactions with him?

Fitch: No. Well, I mean, when he would come to Los Alamos, why, the SEDs would have to get out and parade, but I think that happened once. The only time I ever saw him—as a matter of fact, I think I mentioned someplace that in his book he never mentions the SEDs at all. Here, he was our commanding officer. On the other hand, he was an absolutely brilliant administrator, apparently. And how anyone in that position could have chosen Oppenheimer still amazes me. It was just a perfect choice.

That’s a separate and sad story of course, the Oppenheimer story. But he was certainly the perfect selection for that job. And Groves had to stick his neck out a long ways to make that happen. So I admire him very much for that.

Kelly: Do you want to talk about the Oppenheimer story?

Fitch: One of the great tragedies of our generation.

Well, with regard to the Oppenheimer affair, I consider that to be a real tragedy in the history of our country and it does not speak well for how the country sometimes operates. It was all because of the vindictive nature of a few people with high positions in Washington that Oppenheimer at one time or another had managed to insult. And they never forgot it. Oppenheimer was an incredible resource for this country and because of that, they threw that talent down the drain. I think it’s a crime. It shouldn’t be allowed to happen.

Priscilla McMillan wrote a wonderful book about the Oppenheimer case. It’s entitled something like The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Start of the Cold War, or words to that effect. I highly recommend it. It gives a very good account of the nasty doings of these people, these vindictive people, who did Oppenheimer in. Of course, this was not long after the McCarthy era. You would have thought that this kind of thing would have been impossible, just as a reaction to the miserable McCarthy period. But no, it just continued on, just personal nastiness. No, I have deep feelings about that. He was such a talented person, and to throw that talent down the drain is too much for me.

Kelly: One of the things in your autobiography. you say that “the Manhattan Project was a time when the mind was to wander freely and invent new ways of doing the job.”

Fitch: The Manhattan Project had an enormous effect on my own career. After being at Los Alamos, I knew precisely that I wanted to go into physics, and that was not so clear beforehand. But I liked what I saw of physicists at Los Alamos. I liked them very much as people, and I just came to anticipate having a collegial relationships with them with great joy. And that’s what’s happened. With respect to what I’d learned at Los Alamos, one thing I learned was that I became very skilled at electronics. And so in doing experimental physics, I was never limited by those instruments that were available and on the shelf and you could simply buy, but I could go out and invent my own. I knew how to do it.

And it gave me enormous freedom to tackle things which I would not otherwise have been able to tackle, addressing problems in physics. I had a very successful Ph.D. project, and a lot of the success came from just that kind of application of knowledge about all kinds of things which didn’t have any particular frontier, or at least a frontier that easily appeared. So I could always go beyond what seemed to be the limiting factors in devising new instruments and so on. So, for me that’s been an enormous advantage in doing experimental physics. I think that’s basically what I meant when I said that statement. I’ve not felt constrained by what I see directly in front of me.

Kelly: Maybe you can make a couple of sort of summary statements about how the Manhattan Project changed science, or physics?

Fitch: Well, as you know, before the Manhattan Project, the only sources of support for any kind of science were private. It was normally some well-to-do person having some extra cash to spend on something like the Palomar Telescope or whatever. It was all private money. And the Manhattan Project, then, showed the way for the government to spend money on science in a constructive way. And out of it, of course, the Office of Naval Research evolved, and that office did many constructive things in supporting science. Later, the Atomic Energy Commission picked up the reins, and then, as you know, the National Science Foundation was created as a direct result of things like the Manhattan Project. So the ramifications of the Manhattan Project have just been without bounds, near as I can tell.

Unfortunately, as time has gone on, the government funding has been so successful that private companies have tended to give up doing basic research. Prime example: Bell Labs no longer exists. And IBM, back in the ‘60s, ‘70s, used to spend something like half a billion dollars on their research laboratories. But no more. They’ve essentially left that for the government to do. I think that’s a tragedy. Gradually, we’re learning to deal with it, but at the same time Congress doesn’t really realize that this has happened, and that they now have a responsibility. Whereas before it was a shared responsibility, now it’s entirely a responsibility of the government to support basic research

As I said, I’m afraid most Congressmen don’t really appreciate that, as near as I can tell anyway. They have left the leadership in certain fields entirely to the Europeans—for example, high-energy physics. Congress killed the collider that was being built in Texas after two billion dollars had been spent on it. They simply cancelled it. All of that activity now is now taking place at CERN. CERN, Japan, Germany have all picked up where the United States has, by default, let it go. And I feel sad about that because it’s my own area of particle physics that is suffering the most, perhaps. And at the same time, we can spend enormous quantities of money on absolutely foolish wars, etcetera, etcetera.

Kelly: Let’s see, I think we’ve sort of gone over a lot of my questions. I’ll just ask one again, and maybe we’ve covered it, but you know, it’s okay for another shot at it. Basically, the, the presence of nuclear weapons today and what you think. Is there a possibility that we could eliminate nuclear weapons?

weapons from the world. Clearly, it has to be done incrementally. A certain amount of progress has been done, but compared to the total problem, what has been done is microscopic. Someone has to take the lead in and drastically cut numbers, and of course, the United States is the only—and the Soviet Union, I suppose—are the only ones who are really about to take the lead in this respect. The hawks in our society are not going to let that happen very easily anyway.

That’s just one heck of a way to control population, start a nuclear war. And it will eventually come to that, unless someone takes some action. Something is going to happen that’s going to be very, very catastrophic, unless we learn to cut those things, hopefully to zero. So what to do? All one can think of doing is whenever any opportunity arises to express contempt for the present situation, certainly contempt for the people who are responsible, and that I’m getting really good at.