Scientific Discussion Groups and the May-Johnson Bill

Leslie R. Groves and J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1940s.

We are all very busy here working against the May-Johnson bill. The men are pretty well organized and all of us are asked to give a lot of talks over the radio and to various organizations in the city. I have already given two this week and have to give two more, but these efforts seem to be bearing some fruit because it appears now as though Congress will not railroad this bill at least as had been originally planned by the War Department.

-Thorfin Hogness, letter to Linus Pauling, October 24, 1945

Shortly after the end of World War II in 1945, the future of America’s atomic policy was in the midst of formulation. Though the fate of atomic weapons programs warranted substantial attention, the future of atomic energy and research proved to be a far more contentious issue. In order to address needs that were becoming increasingly apparent, General Leslie R. Groves, overseer of the Manhattan Project scientists, helped the War Department draft a bill.

Under this bill, which attempted to satisfy both scientists and the military, development of atomic energy was to be put under the jurisdiction of a nine member panel, made up of scientists and military men, which would report directly to a permanent and full-time administrator. The proposal, called May-Johnson after its co-sponsors, appeared to include adequate mechanisms for civilian involvement, and several influential scientists lent it their support. Accordingly the bill passed through the House Military Affairs Committee very quickly and without much debate.

However, the lack of more comprehensive discussion for such important legislation caused a wave of alarm among many in the scientific community, certain of whom felt the idea to be deeply flawed. It was argued that little would keep the military from taking control of the nine member panel if it wished to do so, and it appeared that General Groves was being groomed for the position of panel administrator. Dr. Harold Urey, a Nobel Prize recipient, had a particular lack of fondness for the legislation, referring to it in a New York Times article as  “the first totalitarian bill ever written by Congress. You can call it a Communist bill or a Nazi bill, whichever you think is worse.”

Harold Urey, 1930s

Scientific discussion groups that had formed at Caltech began considering the subject more earnestly. The Association of Pasadena Scientists was formed around this time, “to meet the increasingly apparent responsibility of scientists in promoting the welfare of mankind and the achievement of a stable world peace.” The leaders of the group, and a substantial portion of its membership, were opposed to the May-Johnson legislation. As time went on, similar groups began sprouting up in the area, including the Northern California Association of Scientists in Berkeley.

Around the time that May-Johnson was being debated, a number of incidences occurred which cast doubt upon the military’s capability to responsibly direct post-war, non-military, scientific activities. Of particular concern to the fledgling discussion groups and to scientists on either side of the Pacific, was the destruction of several Japanese cyclotrons by American occupation forces. The devices had been built for strictly peaceful research purposes, and the decision to dismantle the devices fueled flames that were already growing against the May-Johnson bill.

As consensus coalesced between the different scientific discussion groups, they merged together and formed the Federation of American Scientists. Members of the new organization, and many other scientists, traveled to Washington where they lobbied public officials to fight against the bill. Another bill, which received input from the Federation of American Scientists during its formation, added a fresh element to the growing maelstrom. The new legislation, named the McMahon Bill after its sponsor, outlined a proposal for an Atomic Energy Commission that would be led by a panel of full-time, presidentially appointed, civilian scientists. Fierce debate over the two bills created many deep divisions within the scientific community.

May-Johnson was supported primarily by scientists and civilians who thought that sharing responsibility for atomic decisions with the military, private industry and government officials was reasonable as well as necessary. They seemed to agree that the bill could benefit from revision, but that, as currently written, it included adequate safeguards and representation for the public and the scientific community.

Supporters of the McMahon Bill were much more skeptical of significant military influence over the future of atomic science. Bell Telephone Laboratories head and National Academy of Sciences President, Frank Jewett, supported McMahon, as did some of the atom bomb’s developers. Linus Pauling also lent the bill his support.

As time went on, and both bills maneuvered through congressional committees, support for McMahon began to grow as lobbying pressure and concerns from the electorate gradually swayed the opinions of important political leaders. In the end, the McMahon bill was revised to include language that gave the military some input in the proposed Atomic Energy Commission, and the bill was passed by Congress. Members of the FAS, the APS and all of the McMahon bill’s supporters rejoiced after their victory.

With the bill’s passing it seemed that political leaders who had supported the bill were also beginning to support further cooperation with the Soviet Union. To many involved with the process, world peace appeared eminent. However, new pressures and perspectives were beginning to take hold of public discourse, and a number of opposing interests began to emerge. The environment that had allowed for open debate and defeat of the May-Johnson bill would soon be subject to dramatic change.

For more on the scientific community’s response to May-Johnson, see the website Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: