Too Dumb to Meter, Part 2

As the book title Too Dumb to Meter: Follies, Fiascoes, Dead Ends, and Duds on the U.S. Road to Atomic Energy implies, nuclear power has traveled a rough road. In this POWER exclusive, we present the second chapter, “Manhattan Transfer,” which covers the open fight for control of the development of nuclear power between the newly created Atomic Energy Commission and the military services, with the politicians playing both sides against each other.

Following the end of World War II, the victorious United States took as one of its first tasks asserting control over the atom: both the physical force unleashed by breaking its strong bonds and the institutional, business, bureaucratic, and political forces unleashed by mastering that physical force. The government had to turn the military rule of the jungle, which produced the bomb, into a rule of law, which would dictate the future refinement and production of nuclear power and weaponry. It is no accident that the official Atomic Energy Commission history of this immediate postwar period, written by George T. Mazuzan and J. Samuel Walker, published in 1984, is titled “Controlling the Atom, the Beginnings of Nuclear Regulation 1946–1962.” A volume covering the earlier period, written by Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson Jr., was aptly titled “The New World, 1939–1946.”

The issue facing the United States after the war was how to put civilians in control of what had been an entirely military program, without sapping the strengths of the military success. It was a bit like the task of taming a wild horse, where the ideal is to harness the strength and spirit of the mustang into a model saddle pony. Not an easy task.

Two characteristics dominated the United States government when it came to atomic energy during and after World War II: overwhelming reliance on secrecy and overweening technological hubris. The traits were well earned, as demonstrated by the success of the Manhattan Project. That endeavor and the resultant weapons not only ended the war against Japan but also altered the balance of power in the postwar period, and led to the Cold War nuclear equilibrium between the U.S. and the Soviet Union that lasted for more than 50 years. The Cold War competition to build more and better bombs and faster, smarter, and more deadly delivery and defense systems may have effectively spent the Soviet Union into oblivion.

The United States nuclear weapons program from 1942–1946 was the most secret large-scale military project in history. Most of the details, including the most mundane, were not made known until a major push by the Clinton administration in the early 1990s declassified much of the documentation. The pursuit of invisibility dominated the nuclear endeavor from its days as an entirely military mission through its transformation into a civilian enterprise, to the point of obsession.

The postwar period was also intensely, radioactively partisan, which affected the debate over what to do about the atom. Democrats had been in control in Washington since Roosevelt’s 1932 presidential election. The president had won unprecedented third (1940) and fourth (1944) terms. Vice President Truman continued the Democratic hegemony when he succeeded to the highest office in 1945. The Democratic Party controlled Congress, as well as the White House, during that thirteen-year period.

By 1946, American voters were understandably restive. The war was over, and it was time to return to a more normal existence. Truman tried, but failed, to continue wartime rationing of strategic commodities. Industries had tired of wartime production quotas and demands from Washington. Carmakers wanted to make cars, not tanks; and consumers wanted to buy cars and new tires and gasoline without needing government-allocated coupons or bypassing rationing for the black market.

Republicans sensed that they had an opportunity to make great political gains as the nation came out of its war environment. One of the first points of contention between the parties—a harbinger of political fights to come—was how to organize the nation’s nuclear energy research and development program. Republicans, with a tradition of fealty to military leadership and concepts and a desire to draw a favorable line in the shifting political sand, started pushing a civilian regime that retained most of the wartime military controls, including the dogma of intense inscrutability. For the most part, the military was perfectly happy with an arrangement that put civilians in charge of a weak institution that continued to respond primarily to military needs.

The Republican view of the postwar atomic venture resonated with many conservative, military-oriented Democrats, splitting the majority party. The Democratic Party also had a tradition that valued government control over market forces, a holdover from the Depression- and New Deal–era approach to creating large, government-controlled institutions to solve social problems, such as the Tennessee Valley Authority.

But the majority party was riven. Arrayed against the Southern dominated right wing of the Democrats were the internationalists, with a vision drawn in part from their fealty to the ideas of their icons, Woodrow Wilson and his failed League of Nations, and Roosevelt and his variant on the theme, the United Nations. Also dividing the Democrats were those in the Truman White House who wanted as much authority and flexibility located in the executive branch as possible and congressional Democrats, who wanted to exercise greater control over their rivals at the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Complicating the politics were the Manhattan Project scientists, many of whom felt drawn back to the academic life, where they exercised control over their research agendas without any direction from politicians and bureaucrats. Many of the scientists, Oppenheimer for example, were also staunch internationalists who wanted to see atomic energy put out of the reach of nationalist aims, whether those of Washington or Moscow.

The Manhattan Project flew in the face of the ethical and epistemological traditions of science in general and physics in particular. Traditionally, science had relied on open discussion, give-and-take, argument, and sharing experimental data and research results. But that ran counter to the needs of the military to compartmentalize data, restrict access to research, and stifle scientific debate. Many feared that open science would arm our enemies, initially the Germans, but increasingly the Soviet Union.

In the Manhattan Project, the Army created an open, but extremely limited, arena for physicists and other scientists to hash out their diverse views, in remote and completely controlled environments in the New Mexico wilderness, the wilds of Tennessee, the desert of eastern Washington, and elsewhere. Among the scientists who lived and worked in the endeavor, free scientific debate was the order of the day. But often, they couldn’t even discuss what they were working on with their families. The code of secrecy grated on many.

While the Manhattan Project scientists were few in number, they possessed considerable political power and were justly admired by the general public; they owned “the knowledge,” the expertise on how to make the bombs. The nation could ill-afford to lose the efforts of the atomic scientists—among the finest physicists, chemists, mathematicians, metallurgists, and technicians ever assembled.

The result of this brew of conflicting interests, desires, and political imperatives was the Atomic Energy Act of 1946. A fundamentally compromised and flawed piece of legislation, the 1946 law created an unaccountable administrative structure that would dominate the U.S. atomic energy program for thirty years. Its legacy is felt today. Produced by a special congressional committee assembled to paper over the schisms that divided Congress and the Truman administration, the act created a carefully balanced structure unique in the government. It possessed enormous responsibility and power with little external oversight and disregard for the Constitutional imperative of separation of powers.

For the first eight years, the AEC functioned essentially as a faux military agency. Congress mandated continued government ownership of nuclear materials, technology, and know-how. There was no civilian nuclear power industry in the United States in the first decade following the victory in World War II. Twenty years later, there were still only a handful of nuclear power plants in the United States. But billions had been spent on military and civilian schemes—many of them harebrained.

In turning the military program into nominally civilian hands, Congress created myriad institutional and bureaucratic problems. It built a structure that proved perfect for intrigue, politics, pork barrel spending, and low-level (and sometimes higher) bureaucratic warfare among competing power centers. The Atomic Energy Commission; the White House and its Bureau of the Budget; the Pentagon; industry lobbyists; and the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy all participated in a bureaucratic cotillion of program authorizations, funding, schedules, and allocations of resources. It provided an unfortunate model for congressional behavior continuing to the present.

While the 1946 law established the AEC to manage the weapons program, the military remained intimately involved. Military decisions drove the shape of the AEC program, in terms of the kinds of bombs, the numbers of warheads, and even major decisions on nuclear technology. Adm. Hyman Rickover, for example, the father of the nuclear submarine, kept both his military rank and a position as civilian head of an office at the AEC. The same dual military-civilian arrangement was established in the AEC–Air Force nuclear bomber program and other ventures.

A five-member commission, appointed by the president, governed the AEC. The chairman came to be considered the face of atomic energy in the United States. The AEC’s general manager, typically out of the limelight, ran the day-to-day activities of the agency. Depending on the strengths and wishes of the chairman, AEC general managers sometimes were important powers unto themselves under the light-handed and often heedless direction of the chairman and commission, sometimes partners linking the AEC staff and its policy and political overseers, sometimes simply spear-carriers for the commission and Congress.

Offering independent scientific advice to the commission, a nine-member General Advisory Committee (GAC) consisted of presidentially appointed civilians and important scientists charged with giving the commissioners— who often had little or no scientific background—the best technical advice available. The 1946 law gave the GAC the task to “advise the Commission on scientific and technical matters relating to materials, production, and research and development, to be composed of nine members, who shall be appointed from civilian life by the President.” As a practical matter, the AEC staff typically gave the White House the names of nominees to the GAC, effectively choosing who would oversee their operations. The GAC often turned out to be a critic and sometimes a scold and goad to AEC projects, particularly when Oppenheimer was its chairman.

A Military Liaison Committee (MLC)—created by Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, the respected Michigan Republican, during the congressional debate over the 1946 act—balanced the civilian views of the GAC. While dedicated to civilian control of nuclear energy, Vandenberg understood that the commission would continue to have close ties to the military, including developing, testing, and producing the nuclear weapons stockpile for the nation as well as research and development for a new generation of weapons. He believed the military, specifically the Army Chief of Staff, should continue to have input at the commission on military issues. Groves, who ran the Manhattan Project with intense personal interest and care, and who opposed turning the endeavor into a civilian satrapy, lobbied for a continued major military role.

Congress conceded that the MLC should provide military advice to the commission. The secretaries of War and the Navy, and later the Air Force, had the responsibility to name the military committee members. The first MLC was made up entirely of men chosen by Groves, positioning himself as first head of the committee. Groves never really accepted the idea that civilians should run his military offspring, which had done so well under his parentage.

Congress also kept military personnel in place in the civilian bureaucracy through the creation of an AEC staff office, the Director of Military Applications. Congress earmarked this slot for a military officer, and the office would effectively run the commission’s day-to-day military activities, reporting to the commission through the general manager.

David Lilienthal proved the dominant figure of the early days of the AEC. Named, by Truman, the first chairman of the new, civilian agency, his confirmation hearing before the nine Senate members of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy—created specifically to consider the 1946 Atomic Energy Act—turned into a classic partisan and ideological brawl that presaged some of the Red Scare years of the 1950s. It was not a good omen for the AEC’s future as an independent agency.

Republicans saw Lilienthal’s nomination as an opportunity to score hits on the Democrats and the Truman administration. Some of the GOP members of the Senate were carrying jurisdictional water for Groves, who remained a foe of the new AEC. Others wanted to use Lilienthal’s nomination as an opportunity to blast the creation and performance of the Tennessee Valley Authority, one of the New Deal’s signature accomplishments, which Lilienthal headed. Republican orthodoxy regarded TVA as at least the perfidious camel’s socialist nose under the tent of private-sector electric utilities. Sen. Styles Bridges, a New Hampshire Republican, criticized Lilienthal for leading the TVA, “a social experiment, which is a wide departure from the American system of private ownership of property.” Ohio Republican Bob Taft, whom the press branded “Mr. Republican,” and who was a potential Republican presidential candidate in 1948, opposed Lilienthal as “temperamentally unfitted to head any important executive agency in a democratic government and too ‘soft’ on issues connected with communism and Soviet Russia.”

The fiercest opposition to Lilienthal came from a fellow Democrat, albeit a conservative one, Sen. Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee. Having joined the Senate in 1917 and serving as the Senate president pro tempore until the GOP electoral success of 1946, McKellar loathed Lilienthal, largely because Lilienthal—as TVA board member since 1935 and chairman starting in 1941—had resisted McKellar’s efforts to turn the TVA into a patronage honeypot. One history of the period describes McKellar as possessing “a mind warped by age and a smoldering hatred.” In Lilienthal’s AEC confirmation hearings, McKellar resurrected bogus charges, rejected a decade before, that Lilienthal was a member of a TVA communist cell. McKellar also reportedly raised anti-Semitic arguments against Lilienthal behind the scenes.

The hearings so disturbed Lilienthal that, according to historians Richard Hewlett and Francis Duncan, he seriously considered withdrawing his name from the nomination. But Clark Clifford in the White House prevailed on Lilienthal, arguing that most of what had been occurring was just for show. Neither Taft nor McKellar, no matter how vitriolic their rhetoric, were members of the joint committee (they appeared at the hearings as a matter of Senate courtesy and custom), and would have to save their fire for a floor vote, a more difficult proposition.

Lilienthal and Clifford assiduously worked the committee and firmed up the votes. Neither McKellar nor Taft seemed to have much influence. Republican Bourke Hickenlooper of Iowa, the chairman, was a solid vote for Lilienthal, as was the revered Vandenberg. On March 10, 1947, the Senate component of the joint committee voted 8–1 to approve the nomination. The confirmation hearings had begun on January 27.

While Lilienthal’s opponents, led by Taft, tried to mount a Senate floor fight against the AEC nomination, that rear-guard action collapsed after Vandenberg, who succeeded McKellar as president pro tempore in the Eightieth Congress, delivered a strong rebuttal to his fellow Republicans on Lilienthal’s fitness to lead the AEC. The vote on Lilienthal was 52–38 in favor.

What Lilienthal inherited from a reluctant Leslie Groves represented an unprecedented administrative challenge. By the end of the war, the Manhattan Project was a vast enterprise, run from a remote site near Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which also housed a giant factory for separating uranium and drew large amounts of electricity from the government’s Tennessee Valley Authority. The nuclear weapons empire included New Mexico’s Los Alamos; a huge weapons factory in the desert on the Columbia River near Hanford, Washington; an assembly plant near Denver, Colorado; a plutonium fabrication factory in Texas; and a reactor testing station in the eastern Idaho desert.

Time magazine in 1947 described the scope of the endeavor that the AEC took over from the Manhattan Engineering District: “it was a maze of contracts, documents, libraries, factories, laboratories, whole towns. It was shrouded and obscured in the bright fog of military security. It was jealously guarded by the Army’s Major General Leslie Groves, then the District’s chief, now a disgruntled member of the Military Liaison Committee, embittered by the lack of kudos for his wartime stewardship.”

On the lists of land, men, and equipment the Army transferred to the AEC in 1947, were thirty-seven installations in nineteen states and Canada. The manpower included 254 military officers, 1,688 enlisted men, 3,950 government civil service workers, and some 38,000 contractor employees. At least, that’s what the Army listed on the material it provided to the AEC. Time noted, “Groves feared that civilian control would mean dissolving the security screen. AEC asked for a complete inventory; the Army refused it.”

In any case, it was an enormous undertaking. This mind-boggling venture represented an investment of over $2.2 billion, and the agency’s first-year budget was $300 million—a vast sum by 1946 standards.

Lilienthal was well suited to get the new agency moving under civilian control. He had shown in taking control of the newly created TVA that he could build a massive federal agency from scratch. Of course, the new problem he faced was not starting from nothing, but taking an enormous existing structure and getting it headed in a different direction. Lilienthal relished the task. He described himself as a “craftsman in public affairs.”

Time commented on Lilienthal: “To men like Bob Taft, he is the symbol of the New Deal, of Big Government, of hostility to business. To his friends, he is a public servant of the highest order. His ability is cited by his friends as an argument in his favor, by his enemies as a proof of his danger. On one point everyone is agreed: Lilienthal, who loves horses, is a hard rider of men and ideas.”

Born in a small Illinois town in 1899 to Jewish immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire, Lilienthal was largely raised in Valparaiso, Indiana, where his father was a small-town, marginally successful merchant. Lilienthal graduated from De Pauw University (a school associated with the Methodist Church) in Greencastle, Indiana, where he was school newspaper editor and twice elected student body president. He then attended Harvard Law, where he came under the tutelage of legendary lawyer Felix Frankfurter, who helped his career along the way.

Lilienthal settled into a career in law in Chicago, where he built a reputation as a fine lawyer and established a successful practice, which Time said was bringing him twenty thousand dollars a year. In 1931, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Phil La Follette named him to the five thousand dollar per year job on the state public service commission, which regulated utilities. In 1933, Roosevelt named him to the three-member TVA board. He became chairman in 1941, where he was serving when Truman picked him for the AEC chairmanship (a job paying $15,000 annually).

Despite the partisan attack against Lilienthal and his success with two Democratic presidents, he was not a traditional Democratic operative. He began his political life as a Progressive Republican, when he received the appointment from La Follett. Lilienthal described himself as an “independent” who loathed conventional politicians. As he gained experience regulating private businesses and running a larger government enterprise, Lilienthal’s view evolved such that his biographer refers to him as a “statist” but not as a partisan.

Truman, whose partisan juices often ran blood red and true blue, did not view the new atomic agency as a potential pot of patronage. The president paid no attention to party background when he picked the first commissioners for the new agency. Lewis Strauss was a well-known Republican who had been Herbert Hoover’s personal secretary after World War I (and had a distinguished Navy career in World War II). William Waymack, editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune newspaper, was a Republican and deputy chairman of the Federal Reserve of Chicago when Truman named him to the AEC. Sumner Pike of Maine, another Wall Street success story, had been a Republican member of the Securities and Exchange Commission, appointed by Roosevelt. Only nuclear physicist Robert Bacher, the youngest member of the commission at forty-one years old, identified himself as a Democrat. But Bacher had no political background to speak of, although he had advised Bernard Baruch on technical matters at the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission while serving on the Cornell faculty.

Of the five initial members of the AEC, only two, Lilienthal and Strauss, would significantly affect the future course of the agency. Lilienthal, who served until February 15, 1950, viewed himself primarily as a public administrator, a bureaucratic fixer who valued executive power and administrative efficiency. The assessment by biographer Steven M. Neuse of Lilienthal’s approach to management and administration at the TVA fit as well for his time at the AEC: “In spite of thinking administratively, Lilienthal had little inclination for, or interest in, traditional management. In 1937 he admitted being bored with detail and frustrated by slowness, both traits antithetical to day-to-day managerial practice.”

Lilienthal’s lasting legacy on the AEC was to get the organization upright, on its feet, and marching forward. He delegated the day-to-day operations of the atomic bureaucracy to an able hands-on administrator, Carroll Wilson, who served as general manager from 1946 to mid-1950, coinciding with Lilienthal’s tenure. Lilienthal was what one of his TVA subordinates aptly described as “a rhetorical administrative leader.” He and Wilson got the commission stumbling forward; where it went and what happened when it got there was often out of Lilienthal’s control—and that of the Truman administration—in part because of an additional governing structure Congress created in 1946.

Kennedy Maize is a POWER contributing editor and executive editor of MANAGING POWER. Too Dumb to Meter is available on and is serialized by permission.