A History Lesson for Congress

By Bingaman, Jeff | Issues in Science and Technology, Winter 1995 | Go to article overview

A History Lesson for Congress


Bingaman, Jeff, Issues in Science and Technology


This summer the United States commemorated the success of the Manhattan Project in its ground-breaking effort to develop the first atomic bomb quickly enough for it to be a factor in Word War II. The Manhattan Project was not only a momentous scientific and technological achievement but also a model of effective government management of science and technology. I believe that some valuable lessons can be learned by comparing congressional management during Word War II and the immediate postwar period with the way that today's Congress is overseeing the Pentagon and the Department of Energy (DOE).

By 1945, the Manhattan Project was consuming taxpayer dollars at the rate of a billion dollars annually. That may not sound like much in the Washington of today, but then it was a significant fraction of our entire gross national product, which totaled about $220 billion that year. Yet references to the Congress are almost absent in the histories of the Manhattan Project that I have consulted. Congressional knowledge of the project apparently extended to a group of people who could be counted on the fingers of one hand. None of them knew, or demanded to know, any of the details. None were hounded by a press corps demanding to know what was going on at the newly created towns in Tennessee, Washington, and New Mexico.

That does not mean that there was no congressional influence on the project. My former colleague from Tennessee, Jim Sasser, has told me a story that rings true, although I have not found it written down. By 1942, Sen. Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee was in his 26th year in Congress and was de facto chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. From that position he had become President Roosevelt's chief ally on all federal expenditures. The story goes that in 1942 President Roosevelt invited McKellar to the White House and spoke to him about the fact that he was going to need a great deal of money for a secret project of great importance that would involve building some very large facilities around the country.

According to Jim Sasser, McKellar's response was "No problem, Mr. President. You'll get the money you need. By the way, where in Tennessee do you want to put those facilities?" Thus the Clinton Engineer Works (later to become Oak Ridge National Laboratory) came to be located in the ridges west of Knoxville in east Tennessee before that year was out.

What McKellar did not do was question Gen. Leslie Groves about the technologies he was pursuing to produce highly enriched uranium at the Oak Ridge facility. The idea of questioning Groves about the relative merits of calutrons compared to gaseous diffusion compared to centrifuges I am sure never occurred to McKellar. Nor did McKellar have staffers who felt qualified to question the judgment of Vannevar Bush or James Conant, let alone Enrico Fermi or Robert Oppenheimer or Ernest Lawrence, on technical matters. Nor did the General Accounting Office write reports questioning the degree of concurrency in the crash weapons program. Had the Congress of that day viewed its role in those terms, it is inconceivable that the project could have gone from laboratory research to design, construction, operation, testing, and product delivery in two and a half years.

Making the big decisions

This is not to say that the Congress of that day was providing insufficient oversight of executive branch activities. Far from it. The truly important issues were addressed and were not lost in a sea of detail. In 1945 and 1946, the postwar Congress came to grips with the fundamental issue of who would control the future of the nuclear weapons program, the military or civilians. The initial version of the bill would have kept the control of the program in the Army. That arrangement was initially endorsed by President Truman in 1945 and supported by Groves, Bush, and Conant and with some misgivings by Lawrence, Fermi, and Oppenheimer - all the giants of the Manhattan Project.

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A History Lesson for Congress
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