Martin Sherwin: Good afternoon, this is an interview with John Manley at the Red Onion restaurant, January 9th, 1985, Los Alamos, New Mexico.
John Manley: —whether you want to start that yet or not? I’m not at all sure in what way I can help you.
Sherwin: Well, I would like to write a book. [Laughter]
Manley: I would like somebody else to write a book with information I could supply.
Sherwin: Okay. Well, then we’re in business. [Laughter]
Manley: You want to do one on [J. Robert] Oppenheimer? Or is it that?
Sherwin: Yes. Well, I’m doing a book for Knopf. It’s basically a biography of Oppenheimer, but it’s not—
Manley: Don’t you think there are enough already?
Sherwin: No. Let me tell you what, I think there are a lot, and there’s only one that I think is any good at all.
Manley: Which one?
Sherwin: That’s Stern’s biography of the Oppenheimer case. Which isn’t to say the others aren’t—
Manley: That’s not a biography of Oppenheimer, exactly.
Sherwin: No, but I mean, the only book on Oppenheimer that I think is a serious, scholarly work. The others are—
Manley: Have you read the others?
Sherwin: Yeah, I have read them. I mean, I like them, but they are totally different than what an academic is interested in doing, which I hope doesn’t mean boring people.
Manley: At least it might have a reference or two in it.
Sherwin: That’s right. It will have a lot of references. But I’m interested in not only Oppenheimer as a person, but I’m interested in Oppenheimer as a figure around which several important parts of American history can be dealt with. One is the transformation of physics.
Manley: From European to American?
Sherwin: Well, no. From what it was in America before the war to what it became after the war. Nuclear physics especially.
Manley: Oh, I see, okay.
Sherwin: From the awesome advances during the war, especially with the bomb.
Manley: Why especially the bomb?
Sherwin: Well, simply because that’s where Oppenheimer—
Manley: Of course, if you want to tie it to Oppenheimer, but could argue that Oppenheimer didn’t have much influence on postwar physics.
Sherwin: I agree with that.
Sherwin: But I can talk about, at least, Oppenheimer—
Manley: If the central theme is Oppenheimer—
Sherwin: Yes. What I’m explaining is that it’s not every day in the life of [inaudible]. Obviously it also has to do with politics, and I’m interested in the Popular Front and the McCarthy reaction and all of that. Then I’m interested in the whole movement, especially in the early years of the Cold War, towards nuclear weapons as an important part of American foreign policy, etc.
Manley: I noticed that you didn’t mention, but I expect that you knew about [David] Lilienthal’s effort to have a complete reexamination of the dependence of the U.S. on weapons of mass destruction, which went nowhere.
Sherwin: Oh, yes.
Manley: But it was an effort.
Sherwin: Were you involved in that?
Manley: In a certain sense, yes. I was on—
Sherwin: —on the GAC [General Advisory Committee of the Atomic Energy Commisson].
Manley: I was the Executive Secretary of the GAC. But because I nosed around so much in the AEC, for the purpose of bringing things to the GAC. You see, I took the attitude—rationally or irrationally I’m not sure, but certainly with Oppenheimer’s support—that the AEC, structured as it was, with only [Robert] Bacher as the individual who had any connection with the Manhattan District. Well, there were staff people like Walt Williams and a few others, but on the commission, he was the only one. Therefore, I don’t want to say that the organization was incompetent at all, but they lacked the background. In contrast, every single member of the GAC had Manhattan District background. How could you beat that combination that was in the GAC? It was really just fantastic. It was the delight of my life, as a matter of fact, you see.
We took—I think I initiated this in a certain way, I certainly was the leg man—the attitude that the GAC should not sit back and depend on the AEC to bring questions to it for advice or whatever. But the GAC should in itself take some initiative. That initiative was largely in my hands, because what I would do—the actual operational technique was to go into Washington one or two weeks before every meeting, make the rounds, never leaving out a secretary of an important person, because you learn more from the secretaries than almost any other source. Then doing technical discussions with all of the different divisions, military applications, resource material and so on, to find out what was bothering them, whether there were any—you see, the GAC was not only an organization which could advise on matters of policy. But because of their background, they could advise very effectively on operational problems.
It wasn’t just the physics complement. See, there was Hartley Rowe, who was an engineer from United Fruit and was very much involved in Los Alamos and other aspects of the Manhattan business. So it was just, I thought, a fantastic combination. I still think that that would be a good story—the role of the GAC in the early years of the Oppenheimer years, four years or so plus—of the GAC in furthering the way in which the AEC developed in this country.
Sherwin: Well, what would you consider the sort of prime points at which it did that, make a contribution?
Manley: Well, the prime points, of course, I think were on matters of the immediate sort of down-to-earth things on matters of production and the encouragement—let me give you one particular example, because to say production is misleading.
I am quite sure that it was the first meeting, but if you get the minutes you’ll find out, that sort of general policy was discussed. One item of general policy, which I still remember is probably the only one, was the desirability for the United States to have production facilities capable of making a gram a day of neutrons. Now, that’s a nice general statement. The recognition was that you could use neutrons for producing radioactive materials, for plutonium production if you wish, or tritium production, if you’re in the weapons end of it exclusively. Especially it’s from the radioisotope production, all sort of support of basic research on materials and even in straight physics.
The goal of the United States possessing a bucket of neutrons every month or so, so to speak, was I thought a very sensible thing, and typical in a way of the way those guys would think. Again, under the leadership of Oppenheimer.
But I hope you don’t fall for [Edward] Teller’s trap of saying Oppenheimer dominated the committee and that all of the decisions were because Oppenheimer was so good at wheedling people and whatnot. If you know of anybody who ever dominated Jim Conant, you’re—
Sherwin: Yes. No, from what I have seen of this, Conant had very strong ideas and Oppenheimer had a good deal of respect for those ideas.
Manley: Very definitely. He was a sort of a father figure in a way to Oppenheimer.
Sherwin: In fact, my view of the H-bomb decision is that the person with the toughest view towards the resistance to the idea was Conant initially.
Manley: I think the difference really was that Conant was such a—I guess I would call him a pragmatic idealist, something like that, to convey it. Because he had great political experience and I don’t think—well, you probably know the Woodrow Wilson story in negotiating with some labor leaders when he was governor of New Jersey, I guess it was. Woodrow Wilson, and how come he was so good at it. He really wiped them out, essentially, as the labor leaders.
Sherwin: Conant was like that?
Manley: Wilson made the comment that, “Those fellows had never had any experience in the university senate,” or something like that.
Sherwin: Well, [Henry] Kissinger made that same remark in Washington. “No wonder I can rise to the top, haven’t had the academic—”
Sherwin: “Insight,” yeah. He said that Washington’s nothing compared—
Manley: Yeah, well, this is the same thing. I’m guessing that this was contributory to Conant’s background. On that basis, I think you’re quite correct that he was one of the—I’m not sure.
I’m very much interested in looking back at the degree to which I succeeded in the goal which I had set, namely, to try to reflect the nuances, the feelings, the personal attitudes, if you will, as expressed in the discussion on these questions of the various people. I felt at the time it was a fascinating business, and I felt that Oppenheimer’s summaries were just simply fantastic, in my view.
After three days of meetings, I finally found a secretary that could take dictation while he paced up and down the floor with a cigarette in his mouth, because it was his job. He would just pace and dictate a complete summary of those meetings. I don’t think there was ever any corrections of those. That was the letter that went to the chairman. That was the first sort of an informal or semiformal, whatever you want to call it, report on the proceedings of the GAC. Then that was followed by my more detailed minutes. That was the general procedure, which were always written up immediately afterward using sources of tape and my notes.
Sherwin: You did tape them? Well, I had heard that you taped them.
Manley: Yes, practically of them were taped.
Sherwin: Now, what happened to the tapes?
Manley: I have no idea. I didn’t even know what happened to the minutes after they left to go the AEC.
But one other step in this procedure, which may or may not be known to you, was that after doing the minutes and doing some checking—for instance, very frequently, there were guests of the GAC people from the AEC who would come in and report on topics and so on. So I would quite often make sure that I got the straight dope about what they said and the intent and so on, by going back and asking again if I had doubts about it. The final business would be to go to Princeton with those things and go over them with Oppenheimer.
Sherwin: So those were completed usually, what, within a week?
Manley: One to two weeks.
Sherwin: One to two weeks.
Manley: I think those, particularly one in October, the end of October, a Halloween series, let’s call it, was almost two weeks. There were interruptions and it was devilishly difficult, I thought, to try to do a fair job.
Sherwin: Who were the people that supported you, the names of the secretaries?
Manley: Well, there were different secretaries that took dictation in the early days. Then probably after the first year—I can’t be specific about it—I interviewed and hired a fellow named Tony Tomei, Anthony Tomei.
Sherwin: M-E-I, right. He worked at the AEC, right.
Manley: Well, he really worked as essentially my assistant. He was a stenographer, and he took dictation and he would do some transcription of the tapes. Usually, I would use the tapes by just listening, to provide the background for my own good.
Sherwin: Did he ever become an ally of [Lewis] Strauss?
Manley: Oh, I don’t think so. God, I hope not.
Manley: That’s a terrible thought.
Well, there are many mysteries that somebody needs to understand about internal, informal lines of communication.
Sherwin: Tomei was around Halloween meetings?
Manley: Definitely, yeah.
Sherwin: Okay. You never took any of these tapes home?
Manley: Absolutely not. Never even took them to Princeton.
Sherwin: And they were not—
Manley: They were considered AEC property.
Sherwin: —routinely erased or anything like that?x
Manley: I have no idea.
Sherwin: Now, how did you originally get involved with the GAC?
Manley: It was all Oppenheimer’s fault. In a way, there’s a certain kind of symmetry, because I got involved with some grave doubts, I confess, with Oppenheimer at the request of Arthur Compton. I think that is in the official history, that he wanted an experimental physicist to be his right-hand man. That was how I got in. I went, actually, to the Met Lab and was working on chain reaction, associated problems.
Sherwin: Back in ’42?
Manley: ’42, yes, right, January of ’42, actually, when the Columbia group was being shifted there from Columbia and so on. By May, this other event happened, in which I was asked by Compton to help Oppenheimer on rapid rupture.
Manley: So Compton got me into that one, and then it was Oppenheimer himself that got after me to be the secretary of the GAC. That happened at an extremely awkward time, as a matter of fact, and it shows something, I’m not sure quite what. I had already accepted a position as associate professor at Washington University in St. Louis, where Compton had gone as chancellor. I accepted a position in the physics department. I spent the fall quarter teaching, that was the fall of ’46, with the understanding that I would return to Los Alamos to finish up some research I had underway.
I left my family that semester in Los Alamos, because I was coming back. It was almost between semesters that Oppenheimer got ahold of me, so I resigned from Washington University, stayed on as a member of the Los Alamos staff. Sometime or other, I became an associate director of Los Alamos [National Laboratory], under [Norris Bradbury], and did the commuting job to Washington for the GAC meetings. It was sort of a hectic life for those four years.
Sherwin: Well, it must have been. I mean, plane travel was a different thing in those days. How long did it take?
Manley: Very frequently, I went by train.
Sherwin: By train. That’s actually good. I love to travel by train. Gives you time to think and breathe.
Manley: Not only that, but on the Santa Fe, as you probably don’t know, there’s a book which gives all the geological features between Los Angeles and Chicago. You can sit in your roomette with the book in hand and look out at the geological features. Being an amateur geologist, that was fun.
Sherwin: So with these meetings, the agenda, in other words, would be set at least in two ways. First way, were questions from the AEC. The second way, the questions that GAC through you would initiate.
Manley: Yes. Although the initiation was in no sense very formal. I couldn’t even be sure, for example, if I did not encourage people on the staff to approach Lilienthal to put those questions on the list of things that AEC wanted to do. See, I was working inside both ways, if you will. I don’t really remember anything on which I took such initiative on the basis of information I collected to propose that they discuss a particular topic.
Manley: It was more the business of making sure that nothing fell between stools.
Sherwin: In terms of the military issues involved, how would you describe the GAC’s role prior to the H-bomb and its relationship to the military? What it should do with nuclear weapons, how many it might need, what it needs it for? How would you think about using anything like that?
Manley: I think one would sort of have to divide that into two categories. This may be faulty memory, of course, but I have the impression that the sort of routine military affairs—for example, I remember quite precisely—I think that matters of weapons production were set primarily because the military found out what the production capability was and made the demand equal to that.
Sherwin: How did they find out? Formally, informally?
Manley: Probably—I think there was nothing informally illegal or undercover about it, because the military, of course, had their own representatives on the staff of the AEC in the Division of Military Application. So they had the knowledge of production capabilities and so on.
On the other hand, something like use of radioactive isotopes to inhibit territory—as military use of atomic energy, if you will, not weapon—that kind of a topic, which was semi-policy, sometimes did get discussed in the agenda of the GAC. You will find that in some meeting or other, I’m sure. There was a lot, of course, on reactors, indirectly because of production for the military, but in addition also trying to further the general development of atomic power.
Sherwin: Recently, the number of nuclear weapons available up to 1948 was released. The numbers are 1945, there were two, I guess that’s half the Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Manley: Well, it could have been either.
Sherwin: Yeah, right.
Manley: Before or after?
Sherwin: You know, they don’t explain it. It’s just a chart on a piece of paper that they sent out. In 1946, there were nine. In 1947, there were thirteen, and in 1948, there were fifty. With those small numbers up to 1948, and I imagine that it escalated considerably after 1948.
Manley: It seems to me I remember a joint, through [Gregg] Herken’s book—
Manley: A Joint Chiefs of Staff plan—I can’t remember the code name anymore—which was proposed to get—
Sherwin: [Inaudible], was it?
Manley: No, that wasn’t right. I would know it if I heard it, but it doesn’t matter. Anyway, I think it called for dropping 138 Hiroshima-type weapons on seventy Russian cities to cause their capitulation. But that must have been ’48 or ’49, so at least presumably there were 138 by then. Or at least that was a goal.
Sherwin: Well, it would have to be ’49.
It could be either way, because another point that Herken makes is that the military often—this might have been earlier in ’47—didn’t know how many were available. They just made plans, sort of what they needed, just assuming.
Manley: One possible discrepancy here about things we’re talking about is the difference between the production of fissionable material and the production of weapons.
Manley: You can’t just divide one by the other.
Sherwin: That’s right, yeah. Since the bombs were separate from the cores, it does have a breakdown also, but it’s pretty close. Most of them are also implosion-type, and I think there’s just one or two gun-types. In effect then, between the first meeting, which was early ’47 or late ’46—
Manley: January ’47.
Sherwin: —’47, and the hydrogen bomb decision, the main orientation of the GAC, in terms of advising on things nuclear, was not heavily in the weapons area at all.
Manley: Except for the fact that the laboratory—Los Alamos program, for example, was always discussed, as were programs in other of the laboratories, like Argonne and Oak Ridge. Those were perennial topics at sometime during the year, and sometimes they’d get really very, very hot. The whole reactor thing almost blew up one year. I can’t remember which one, but that was sort of a battle between Argonne and Oak Ridge, where the AEC would concentrate their reactor development work. That issue came to the GAC and the GAC got people mad at it, whatever recommendation.
Sherwin: What did they decide on?
Manley: I think at first they recommended concentration of the work at Oak Ridge, and that made [Walter] Zinn and company quite upset. It finally worked out more or less of a balance, I think. Those details have faded.
Sherwin: I mean, they will be in the minutes, I suppose.
Manley: Oh, yeah.
Sherwin: Do you recollect when you first heard about the hydrogen bomb, I mean, the Soviet atomic bomb explosion?
Manley: Sure. That was the meeting I hope you will send me minutes for.
Sherwin: Okay. But you must have heard about it before the meeting.
Manley: I’m not sure, because—see, Oppenheimer was on an evaluation committee, which you probably remember.
Sherwin: Right, yeah.
Manley: That could not have been appointed—gosh, it must have been in early September.
Manley: When did [Harry] Truman make the announcement, do you remember?
Sherwin: The announcement was late September.
Manley: Late September, yes, and I think that was after the GAC meeting, I’m quite sure, because my recollection is that it was very highly classified. Then Oppenheimer maybe—there was a guy named [inaudible] who was with the radiological business of the Air Force, and I think he came to a meeting to discuss also some of the evidence. Because the immediate question that came before the GAC was, what we do about it?
Sherwin: Well, the first question they had to decide was—
Manley: Was it real?
Sherwin: —what does it mean? Is it an accident, is it a bomb?
Manley: For that reason, of course, it was a great help that Oppenheimer had been in on the advisory. I think Bacher was too, but I’m not sure.
Sherwin: Now, how could they tell whether it was a bomb or an explosion of a testing device? By the ratio of different elements?
Manley: Well, I don’t know. See, your words don’t provide a precise indication of what you are trying to distinguish.
Sherwin: I’m trying to understand the problem as they would have received it when they were called together. These samples came back, and they were hot.
Manley: Right, sure.
Sherwin: The question is, what does that mean?
Manley: Well, the first thing is really the possible distinction between the fast and slow reaction, a power plant kind of, Three Mile Island business, one of those things, that the radioisotope ratios and so on will tell you that. Then whether it was a test explosion of a fast reaction or an actual bomb, I’m not even sure that there was enough information.
There could be, but what troubles me about it—I don’t know the answer, I’m speculating, in a sense—what troubles me about it is that the materials that might have been used either for a test or for an actual operable weapon, which I’m assuming you call a bomb. They could be so different that it might be very difficult to distinguish whether it was an actual laboratory field test, so to speak, or a droppable weapon.
Sherwin: Oh, that’s interesting. So, let me ask the question in an another way. If you had samples from the Trinity shot, July 16th, and samples from the Nagasaki bombing, would those samples indicate something different?
Manley: Oh, yes, sure. You could distinguish plutonium from uranium fission.
Sherwin: I know, but the Nagasaki bomb was a plutonium bomb.
Manley: Yes, and the other one, didn’t you say?
Sherwin: No, Trinity was—
Manley: Oh, was that—oh, I misunderstood you, I’m sorry.
Sherwin: No, in other words, I’m talking about a difference between the one on the tower and the one that was dropped.
Manley: I’m not sure. It seems to me I have seen someplace the claim that that was possible.
Manley: But, I don’t know where I saw it. I’m not the one to ask about that. You should ask George Cowan or Rod Spence or some of the people who were in the radioactive tracer kind of analysis and had collected so many samples during the atmospheric test series later.
Sherwin: I see. Christmas Island and all that. Okay. So these physicists and engineers, etc., got together and they decided this clearly was in the weapons section. It was not the equivalent of [Enrico] Fermi’s experiment exploding, or something like that.
Sherwin: At that point, the conclusion was reached that the Russians more or less had a bomb, or something very close to a bomb. Truman made the announcement. The GAC meeting, was that a routine meeting that was coming up anyway?
Manley: I think it was. As I recall, this is sort of happenstance that this other thing broke just before the meeting.
Sherwin: That’s the reason that a lot of you found out about it at the meeting?
Sherwin: Do you remember anything about the discussion?
Manley: No, I really don’t. I hadn’t particularly thought about it. That’s the difficulty with trying to reconstruct these things. You know, I could elaborate on some written material, probably, if I had read it.
Sherwin: Yes, I should have brought those with me.
Manley: I had read it, but that’s pretty old stuff.
Sherwin: Well, I understand. Sometimes, though, there are some things that sort of stick with you.
Manley: Well, one of the things that I tried to find out quite a number of years later and I never really got a satisfactory answer, and it indicates the kind of speculation at least that one physicist can do. I wanted to know, for example, if there was any evidence of a thermonuclear component in that first test. I don’t know. I see no reason whatsoever why it couldn’t have been noticed if it had been looked for or it might have, I don’t know.
Sherwin: Now, of course, all that stuff should also be in the AEC’s hands, where they essentially X-ray the film that they had in the airplane.
Manley: Well, mostly filter paper.
Sherwin: Filter paper.
Manley: They collect the [inaudible], sometimes the filter paper itself could be radio-autographed. Then there’s actual radiochemical analysis, in which you dissolve up the stuff.
Sherwin: But the reports of that should be available somewhere?
Manley: Yeah. I don’t think they would be destroyed.
Sherwin: No. The paper might.
Manley: I had a person just two days ago call something to my attention. It shows one of the things that you may be up against. I wanted to mention it and see whether you had any idea whether it happens or not. Because I got interested in electromagnetic pulse, you know what that is?
Manley: The thing that irritated me about it was that they had a big conference in Albuquerque, just maybe ten years ago or less, about it. The public account in Science magazine and such places was that this was something new, that the first attention had been 1960 or something, that this was a sort of a problem.
Well, my group was in charge of all the blast measurements at Trinity. Because of the characteristic of some of the gauges, which on the advice of the British we were using to measure a blast, we were very much worried about electromagnetic pulse from that test.
So we asked Fermi to make an estimate of the magnitude of the signal, which he did, and I wanted to prove that he had done it. So I asked [Samuel] Allison about the Fermi notebooks, and I was told there aren’t any.
I don’t know, I haven’t pursued this. But the suggestion just a few days ago came to me from a person who is still working in a lab and has worked there for quite a long time, a secretary, that it’s quite possible, she thinks, that there are in existence these notebooks in private hands that have not been turned in and that are being held for their capital appreciation. Have you ever heard of this sort of thing?
Manley: It’s not out of the realm of possibility.
Sherwin: It’s possible and people took their notebooks with them, especially the notebooks from the end of the war.
Manley: Or maybe somebody else’s notebook. Anybody might realize that Fermi’s notebook would be of considerable historical interest.
Sherwin: Well, there are Fermi collectors, a Fermi collection at the University of Chicago. Now, Laura Fermi is not alive anymore.
Manley: No, that’s right, just the two children.
Sherwin: Now, I’ll bet that she has a lot of Fermi’s stuff, and I don’t know what happened to that.
Manley: I don’t know either. I know of a case—Dick Doan may not mean a name to you, but Richard Doan, he was one of I would say two right-hand men that Compton had at Met Lab He kept very complete diaries of his activities and so on. He was right in the center of things [0:42:00] as far as Compton. I don’t think Compton ever did anything that Doan didn’t know about. I got wind that there was a whole closet full of notebooks in Tucson or Phoenix, I’m not sure which, that his wife had after he had died, and they were just tossed in there.
I sicced Allison on it to try to see if she could get ahold, because in pre-Los Alamos days, everything was at Chicago, so there would an interest. She did some exploring, and came to the conclusion that it was not possible to get ahold of them or something like that. The last I knew about it was that the son had been told of the utility and value of these things. He was going to try and take charge of them and see that they got into archive, either here or in Chicago.
Sherwin: Oh, he was going to try to see if they did.
Sherwin: Oh, that’s good, yeah.
Manley: But I don’t know what happened. Warren Nyer, who was the one that told me about it, was both at Chicago, I knew him there, and here in Los Alamos. He had been a consultant; he was with the regulatory branch and with the NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] for quite a number of years, and then he went into private practice.
The connection really was that after the war, Doan was on leave from Phillips. He was a student of Arthur Compton’s, and he was in charge of the work at the test site at Idaho Falls, or at Arco. He had a continuing background. Warren Nyer worked there in the postwar years for quite some period. I even worked there for a few summers myself.
Sherwin: Now, between that meeting in September and the meetings in October, there was a great deal of thinking on the part of individuals and some discussion between individuals, etc. Did you talk to—
Manley: I was not privy to very much of that, for the simple reason that I had the impression, at least, that most of it was on the Eastern Seaboard. I know that Oppenheimer and Conant and [Isador I.] Rabi, all close together, had talked about things, and I was out here when I wasn’t in Washington.
Sherwin: I see.
Manley: I don’t know. There was a discussion—I think there is a letter that you probably have read.
Sherwin: Yes, the one about—
Manley: —between Oppenheimer, right.
Sherwin: But beyond that?
Manley: I have no direct knowledge.
Sherwin: Now, you must have had something to do with preparing the meetings for October. Did you pick the people who were going to come in and testify?
Manley: It was combination. In fact, I think that Oppenheimer and [David] Lilienthal probably discussed the preparation for that meeting, maybe even before I was in Washington, for all I know.
Sherwin: Yeah. Now, when did you arrive in Washington?
Manley: I have no idea.
Sherwin: But it was before?
Manley: As I say, yes, usually I would come in a week or two weeks even before, and so it could have been anything between zero and fourteen days.
Sherwin: Yes, okay.