June 20, 2015

1957. The Smugness of Government Secrecy

The Atomic Energy Commission Responds to Downs' Criticism
"A Soviet R-7 rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, sending Sputnik into orbit and kicking off the space age" (source)

United States Atomic Energy Commission

Washington, D.C.

November 6, 1957

Dear Bill:

I listened to your 9:25 p.m. show on Thursday, October 31, when you were subbing for Eric—the one referring to the "cosmic brain shrinker."

I think there is no doubt that Sputnik has induced some very widespread soul-searching around Washington. For that we probably should be grateful to the Russians.

However, in speaking of the Eisenhower-Macmillan plan for a greater exchange of scientific information, you said (in reference to Sputnik):
"For the most part it knocked some of the smugness out of such super secret operations as the Atomic Energy Commission."
You also said:
"If President Eisenhower's plans go through and Congress approves, then AEC's Admiral Strauss is going to have to cull molecules with NATO scientists."
There has been no "smugness" on the part of Admiral Strauss toward Soviet scientific capabilities. Quite the contrary, he was one of the first to call attention to the very grim facts. (See Scotty Reston's story on page 13 of today's New York Times.) I enclose a copy of a speech made by Mr. Strauss before the Edison Foundation two years ago warning of the situation.

As to the second quote which I have cited from your broadcast, it might interest you to know that was Mr. Strauss who proposed Macmillan's trip to Washington for the discussion of a wider exchange of scientific information.

Admiral Strauss met with the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street on October 9 and again at dinner that evening. From their discussions at that time—following Sputnik No. 1—Macmillan's visit came about. (I know because I was there with Mr. Strauss, en route home from the first General Conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency at Vienna.)

I thought you might be interested in having this background in the event you talk again on this subject.

Otherwise, I love you dearly.

Best regards,

Everett Holles

Special Assistant to the Chairman


Bill Downs

CBS Washington

November 7, 1957

Dear Ev,

Your critique of the broadcast is most welcome...if only that it proves that someone besides a relative is listening. Believe me, I intended no personal attack on the Admiral or anyone else and hope that impression was not given.

I'll re-quote, as you did, to make my point:
"For the most part, it knocked some of the smugness out of such super secret operations as the AEC..."
I could have said the National Security Council or the CIA or even the FBI. But the fact is, I believe you'll agree, that our "anything you can do I can do better" attitude has caught us with our rockets down.

And for whatever reason, the past record of the AEC on information exchange policy was hardly justifiable. For confirmation of this, ask Teller or (pardon the expression) Oppenheimer or just about any other physicist in the field. The outstanding example of the aridity of our information exchange policy was the first international atomic conference in Geneva a couple of years ago. The Russians showed up with such a fund of information that we had to declassify and fly over documents and reports to keep from looking ridiculous.

Also I have learned completely by accident that the progress we are making in the fusion field has produced some startling results—to the extent that three scientists have recently been secretly honors for discoveries in this area. Yet the British and the Russians only last week made announcements about harnessing the hydrogen atom that received wide attention.

The secrecy picture in the domestic operation of AEC does not appear much better. I do not know, of course, about the number of good men and women who are disengaging themselves from various AEC installations and projects. But the complaints of bureaucratic autocracy—little "dukedoms"—set up by various individual scientific chiefs have been leaking out bit by bit. And this type of thing grows—or is allowed to grow—under the same cloak of secrecy. That is why at about any meeting of physicists or their ilk there are so many outright expressions such as: "Just who the hell would work for the government under those circumstances."

I didn't mean this reply to turn into an attack. And I don't intend in that way. But like sin, secrecy breeds secrecy...which in turn nurtures inefficiency, injustice, fear, conformity—and yes, smugness, goddammit.

I'm glad to know that Admiral Strauss was on the lever which pushed Macmillan and the President together on this problem.

Believe it or not, I'm an admirer of the Commissioner—which stirs me to also be critical.

Otherwise, I love you too dearly.


Bill Downs