The Bush Conant Files
The names of Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves are well known in connection to the first atomic bombs. But who was in charge of overseeing the secret Manhattan Project?
The secret was revealed in 1958. Richard G Hewlett, the official historian of the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) opened an old filing cabinet under a stairwell and pulled out a remarkable collection of wartime correspondence files of two men: Vannever Bush and James B. Conant.
The files are a record of the work of two of the major civilian political leaders involved in creating and overseeing the bomb project in the 1940s. Bush was an engineer and Conant was a chemist. Both men had been involved in military research during World War I and would go on to utilise their experience and management skills in shaping the Manhattan Project.
At the time, Vannever Bush was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Scientific Advisor. He had instigated the creation of the National Defence Resource Committee (NDRC) to advance military technology in preparation for the United States’ involvement in World War II.
The files reveal Bush and Conant wanted to forge close relationships between American research bodies, politics and the military to strengthen national security. They moved to absorb other military research committees into the umbrella of the NDRC, including the Uranium Committee, an existing body set up to research the creation of an atomic bomb. The atomic bomb project took on greater urgency when rumors of a rival German project surfaced.
Bush and Conant convinced President Roosevelt to limit collaboration with Britain, who had initially been leading the race to the bomb. This decision, coupled with increased commitment to the Manhattan Project, ensured that the United States leapfrogged their rivals and created a nuclear monopoly.
To organise military efforts a new federal agency was created to take the place of the NDRC: the Office of Scientific Research and Development. It was given almost unlimited access to funding and resources. Vannever Bush was instated as its Director and he reported only to President Roosevelt.
Bush and Conant continually worked to push the program forward. They lobbied for support and funds, and built a momentum that vaulted the United States ahead of their rivals in the arms race. Without their drive and passion, military research would have remained divided and isolated from politics and the United States would have been unprepared for war.
The work overseen by Bush and Conant was done under in absolute secrecy. Even Congress did not know about the Manhattan Project. It was not until President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program in the 1950s that nuclear secrets were revealed. However, to this day, the role of Bush and Conant is one of the lesser known stories of the nuclear arms race.