No. 27, August 4, 1999
Editor: Soshichi Uchii
Book Review by Soshichi Uchii
Glenn T. Seaborg, A Chemist in the White House, American Chemical Society, 1998.
Do you know Glenn Seaborg? Many will answer "No, who is he?"; and some will answer "Yes, he discovered Plutonium, and received the Nobel Prize"; still some other, with better knowledge, will answer "He worked in the Metallurgical Laboratory in the University of Chicago, on the Manhattan Project, and he is one of the seven signatories of the Franck Report which advised not to use the atomic bomb against Japan". Yes, more or less correct, but what else?
If you are interested in knowing more about Seaborg, his newest book A Chemist in the White House (1998) may be recommended. Seaborg was born in 1912, and is still alive; he is less known than such prominent figures as Szilard or Oppenheimer or Lawrence, but he served as a scientific advisor for a long time, to ten presidents. "Beginning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, I have served, in one capacity or another, the past 10 presidents (before our current president, Bill Clinton, whom I have also met)" (p.xi).
The book consists of 11 chapters each of which has the name of the presidents (including that of Clinton), and each chapter contains Seaborg's recollections and extract from relevant documents, notably his own diary, which he keeps writing from his boyhood (when he was 14 years old).
Chapter 1 (Roosevelt) contains valuable accounts of the discovery of Plutonium and of his role in the Manhattan Project (see also my Nuclear Physics). He was mainly responsible for the Plutonium Project for large scale production. "Would it be possible to devise, in a reasonable period of time, a chemical means for separating this 239 PU from the uranium and from the tremendous fission product radioactivities attributable to the many fission product elements that would be present with it?" (p.7).
A huge production complex was constructed at Hanford, Washington in 1943. Let's have a glimpse of a dramatic turn of matter during the wartime:
From summer 1942 until fall 1943, cyclotron bombardments were the sole source of plutonium, and during this period of time about 2000Ęg, or 2mg, of plutonium was prepared. (p.10)
I want to emphrasize that the scale-up between the ultramicro-chemical experiments to the final Hanford plant amounts to a factor of about [10 to the 9, 10~10~10~10~10~10~10~10~10], surely the greatest scale-up factor ever attempted. (p.10)
Chapter 2 (Truman) describes a hard time for the world history, the beginning of the cold war and nuclear armaments race, from Seaborg's personal point of view, with many items from his diary and other documents (which are quite useful for historians). Seaborg was appointed to a member of the General Advisory Committee (GAC) of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), in December 1946. Its chairman was Oppenheimer.
An action that gained the most publicity was the recommendation, at a meeting in October 1949 (which I missed because of a visit to Sweden), that AEC not proceed with a high-priority program to develop the hydrogen bomb. I had sent a letter to J. Robert Oppenheimer sayihg that I had reluctantly come to the conclusion that the United States should proceed with such a program because it was certain that the Soviet Union would do so. (p.18)
Recall that the Soviet Union had succeeded in its first atomic bomb test on August 29, 1949.
Chapter 3 (Eisenhower) is mainly concerned with the Presidents's Science Advisory Committee (PSAC), to which Seaborg was appointed in 1959. This committee was very influential, and advised the president on such matters as antisubmarine warfare, missile and anti-intercontinental ballistic missile programs, and arms limitation and control. However, Seaborg's major contribution was made as chairman of the Panel on Basic Research and Graduate Education; he completed the report "Scientific Progress, the Universities, and the Federal Government" (1960) which is known as the Seaborg Report. This had an impact on federal support of graduate education and science.
Perhaps the report's most famous recommendation was the statement that the basis of general policy should be that basic research and the education of scientists go best together as inseparable functions of universities. Furthermore, the report stated that federal support for basic research and graduate education in the sciences should be continued and flexibly increased, ... .(pp.69-70)
We should remember that Americans were shocked by the Russian "Sputnik" (October 1957) which opened the cosmic era.
Chapter 4 (Kennedy) is the longest, because now John F. Kennedy enters the scene, and Seaborg himself begins to play a more important role, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC).
A telephone call that changed my life came on Jan. 9, 1961. ... The call came from President-elect Kennedy. He asked me to accept the job of chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). When I asked him how much time I had to make up my mind, he said, "Take your time. You don't have to let me know until tomorrow morning." (p.78)
Seaborg accepted the position, despite the objections made by his family, then living in California (near Berkeley); eventually he held this position until 1971.
Kennedy is known, among others, for "Moon Shot" decision and a nuclear test ban treaty with the Soviet Union. As you may recall, Yuri Gagarin of the Soviet Union stunned the world by becoming the first man in space, and that was on April 12, 1961; Soviet Union was again ahead of the United States. Thus on May 25, Kennedy gave his message "Urgent National Needs" to Congress, which included the following:
Now it is time to take longer strides---time for a great new American enterprise---time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth. (p.101)
Then came the Cuban Missile Crisis, and here are some excerpts.
In fall 1962 came the Cuban Missile Crisis, which played a crucial role in the test ban story. Periodic intelligence reports since late August of 1962 revealed the offloading of military equipment from Soviet ships and an increase in military construction activity at several locations in Cuba. ...
The president's address to the nation on radio and television, which revealed the extent of the crisis to the world for the first time, took place on Monday evening, Oct. 22. ...
Fortunately, after an historic exchange of messages between Kennedy and Khrushchev, a message came from the Soviet government on Sunday, Oct. 28, agreeing to remove the missiles under UN inspection. ...
This brush with disaster brought President Kennedy and Chairman Khrushchev closer together, a prelude to the successful attainment of the Limited Test Ban Treaty less than one year later. (pp.128-9)
And Seaborg himself helped to pave the way for the move toward a test ban. In May 1963, Seaborg led a scientific delegation to the Soviet Union; and he and the chairman of USSR State Committee on Atomic Energy signed the memorandum on Cooperation in the Field of Utilization of Atomic Energy for Peaceful Purposes. And Seaborg recalls that "the cordial treatment we received helped to affirm my belief that science can successfully serve as a common meeting ground and a common language between the East and West" (p.110). Seaborg also met Brezhnev (who was to replace Khrushchev in less than two years), and he was later told that he was the first non-communist American to meet Brezhnev.
Thus, the negotiations for a test ban began on July 15, 1963 in Moscow (12 days). Despite W. Averell Harriman's masterful work, however, only a limited test ban, not a comprehensive test ban was agreed. The Treaty was signed on August 5 in Moscow. Seaborg comments: "Although I regard the achievement of a Limited Test Ban Treaty as a great achievement, I also regard the failure to achieve a comprehensive test ban as a world tragedy of the first magnitude" (p. 131).
However, toward the end of this chapter, Seaborg also discloses his own belief: "I believe that if Kennedy had lived and served out a second term, and if Nikita Khrushchev had survived in office, significant further steps in arms control, including a comprehensive test ban, would have ensued. The resolve of both Kennedy and Khrushchev to make progress on arms control was strengthened greatly by the searing experience of the Cuban Missile Crisis. ... They began to consult each other more frequently and work together on problems of common interest. This was done in large part through their private correspondence, the pace of which quickened after the Missile Crisis" (p.141).
Since I have already spent a large space for a brief review, I will quickly touch on the rest of Seaborg's book; as the time comes closer to us, our memory may be recovered soon so that no lengthy description should be necessary.
Chapter 5 (Johnson) has a subtitle "An Overwhelming Personality supports the Nonproliferation Treaty". Lyndon Johnson succeeded Kennedy as the president; Jonson is known for his promotion of his concept of The Great Society, and also as a leader in the Vietnam War.
Chapter 6 (Nixon) has a subtitle "Adjusting to Troubled Times". Although Seaborg was still the chairman of AEC for the first two and a half years of the Nixon administration, Nixon chose to exclude AEC from the problem of arms control development. In general, Seaborg seems to have been not in good terms with Nixon. During the Nixon administration, American astronauts landed on the moon from Apollo 11 (July 1969), thus fulfilling Kennedy's 1961 dream. Nixon continued the Vietnam war, but all US troops were finally out of Vietnam by March 1973, and Nixon resigned the presidency in 1974 because of the Watergate affair.
Gerald Ford succeeded him, but Chapter 7 on Ford is the shortest. Ford contributed to the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) I (1974). Chapter 8 (Carter) is also brief. Seaborg was not formally involved in this administration.
Chapter 9 (Reagan) has a subtitle "An Amiable Fellow". Seaborg writes:
The high points of my contacts with the Reagan administration were my participation with the National Commission on Excellence in Education (NCEE) on the preparation of the famous report "A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform", the "cleansing" of my journals, and my unsuccessful attempts to obtain U.S. support for a comprehensive test ban (CTB). (p. 271)
NCEE has the following background.
after Neil Armstrong's dramatic moon landing on July 20, 1969, a sense of "mission accomplished" infused the country, and the nation began to turn its attention to other issues .... Public Education was pushed off center stage of the national agenda. (p.272)
On the second high point (the "cleansing" of my journals), the reader will need an explanation. Seaborg is a meticulous person, and has kept diary with relevant documents; he says "rigorous attention was given to excluding any subject matter that could be considered classified information under the standards of the day" (p. 281). He left AEC in 1971 with the journals checked by the AEC Division of Classification. But problems arose in 1983. A historian of the Department of Energy borrowed Seaborg's copy, and Seaborg was informed in 1985 that the journal had been found to contain classified information. Successive reviews were made and many deletions were made, but the results were widely varying depending on a review. Thus Seaborg claims:
One conclusion I have reached is that security classification of information became in the 1980s an arbitrary, capricious, and frivolous process, almost devoid of objective criteria. (p. 283)
This incident indicates the kind of dangers any civil scientists or scientific administrators have to face; one of the most serious instances was, of course, Robert Oppenheimer.
Chapter 10 (Bush) has a subtitle "Continued Opposition to a Comprehensive Test Ban", and that may be indicative of the nuclear policy of the Bush administration. Seaborg writes in a letter of August 1988 to Bush (then Vice president) as follows: "The lesson that our political leaders must learn is that it is not necessary to improve our weapons in order to field a survivable and effective deterrent" (p.298). But Seaborg was unable to convince Bush to support a Comprehensive Test Ban treaty. Finally, Chapter 11 (Clinton), with a subtitle "Renewed Hope for a Comprehensive Test Ban", concludes Seaborg's long career and hope.
This book is very interesting for anyone interested in scientific administration, and valuable for many historians studying nuclear policy and diplomacy. Besides, many photos illustrate historic scenes as well as personal scenes. Above all, one may be impressed by meticulous character of Seaborg, and that must have made him an able administrator as well as a good scientist.
Last modified Nov. 30, 2008. (c) Soshichi Uchii