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On the Origins of the Relationship between Military and Universities

Quote from Jungk, Robert. Brighter than a Thousand Suns: A Personal History of the Atomic Scientists. (San Diego CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1958)

By the spring of 1947, it had become clear to everyone that the scientists’ crusade [against the bomb] had failed. The atomic-armaments race was in full swing. The new scientists’ organizations had been definitely thrown on the defensive. The return journey to the armaments laboratories had begun.

General Groves had been right. He humorously remarked later about the rebels: ‘What happened is what I expected, that after they had this extreme freedom for about six months their feet began to itch, and as you know, almost every one of them has come back into government research, because it was just too exciting.’

Actually General Groves simplified the true situation. Only a minority of American atomic scientists were perfectly free agents in deciding to resume participation in government-sponsored research. Most were compelled to take this stop, because they would have had no choice, otherwise, but to change their profession. They could not help noticing that while they had been engaged in promoting civil control of atomic energy, the military men had cleverly turned their flank by infiltration into the strongholds of the scientists themselves, the universities.

The universities during the war had found a new and extremely wealthy patron in the Armed Forces. Although they were bound to regard these funds for weapons research as merely temporary until the war was over, the scientists had greatly expanded their departments of physics, chemistry, technology and biology because of military financial support. After the war university presidents, occupied with their peacetime budgets, were visited by representatives of the Office of Naval Research or G6 (for research) of the War Department. They explained: ‘We are ready to go on financing you. There is no need for you to close any of your expanded laboratories or dismiss any of your staff. We shan’t even ask you to work on inventions we can use immediately. You may devote yourselves to theory. We want to promote a flourishing school of research. In this century the strength of a nation is measured not only by reference to its arsenals but also by its laboratories. Go quietly ahead with your peacetime tasks.

Thus by the end of 1946 the Armed Forces had already spent many millions of dollars financing not only their own research organizations but also the university laboratories. As early as the end of October 1946 Philip Morrison indicated his anxiety about the situation during the annual forum on public affairs conducted by the New York Herald Tribune:

‘At the last Berkeley meeting of the American Physical Society just half the delivered papers were supported in whole or in part by one of the services some schools derive ninety per cent of their research support from Navy funds the Navy contracts are catholic. They are written for all kinds of work. Some of the apprehension that workers in science feel about this war-born inflation comes from their fear of its collapse. They fear these things: the backers Army and Navy will go along for a while. Results, in the shape of new and fearful weapons, will not justify the expenses and their own funds will begin to dwindle. The now amicable contracts will tighten up and the fine print will start to contain talk about results and specific weapon problems. And science itself will have been bought by war on the installment plan.

‘The physicist knows the situation is a wrong and dangerous one. He is impelled to go along because he really needs the money. It is not only that the war had taught him how a well-supported effort can greatly increase his effectiveness, but also that his field is no longer encompassed by what is possible for small groups of men. There is a real need for large machines the nuclear chain reactors and the many cyclo-, synchro- and beta-trons to do the work of the future. He needs support beyond the capabilities of the university. If the O.N.R. or the new Army equivalent, G6, comes with a nice contract, he would be more than human to refuse.’

The situation foreseen by Morrison came about more swiftly and completely than the most pessimistic observers could have anticipated. In the universities, once the homes of free speech throughout the world, the spirit of secrecy took possession. Some of their research was under military safeguards and law. Invisible barriers and trenches were placed around them. Professors began to have secrets and could only talk to one another, like priests of some peculiar religion, in a special language, when they wished to discuss their affairs. Since but a few people knew what they were really doing, even those who could only with difficulty have reconciled their work with their consciences, remained at their posts. For when secrecy about armaments governs, one need fear no other censure but the military. (pp. 252-54)

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