Last updated May 15, 2018 at 9:48 am
A new history reveals the turbulent politics of the Manhattan project
Famous physicist and one-time Governor of South Australia Sir Mark Oliphant turned from top secret atomic bomb researcher to whistle-blower when he learned of American plans to sequester nuclear weapons research, a new history reveals.
In a paper published in the CSIRO journal Historical Records of Australian Science, Darren Holden from the University of Notre Dame Australia in Fremantle, Western Australia, provides fresh evidence detailing Oliphant’s often fraught relationship with the military side of the Manhattan Project – the UK-US collaboration that led to the development of the atomic bomb.
Oliphant was one of the primary drivers for the creation of the project, after deducing while at the University of Birmingham – following research by Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls – that a comparatively small amount of an isotope known as uranium-235 could be made into an almighty bomb.
Involved officially in the British war effort, he urged the UK and US to cooperate on developing the new weapon, but was disappointed by the lukewarm response he received from the Americans – so much so that in 1941 he flew across the Atlantic in a bomber to meet with scientists and policy-makers in an effort to ramp things up.
He was successful, and in due course the Manhattan project was born, the whole endeavour predicated upon a formal understanding, known as the Quebec Agreement, that the two nations would share resources and results.
It has previously been documented that Oliphant didn’t much like the culture of secrecy and research compartmentalisation that characterised the project. He was a scientist, not a military officer, and thus culturally inclined to share rather than hoard results.
Previous research – and Oliphant himself – revealed that on a couple of occasions he was the subject of FBI interrogation after breaking security protocols.
Holden, however, cranks the whole story up a notch by recounting a 1944 meeting at Berkeley, California, between Oliphant, Nobel laureate Ernest Lawrence and the military man in charge of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie Groves. At the fiery meeting, Groves – usually a very discreet operator – let it slip that there were some parts of the research that were not being shared with the British.
Furthermore, a forthcoming visit to Washington DC by one of Churchill’s closest advisors, Lord Cherwell, was to be stage-managed to prevent him seeing certain things. Lastly, Groves said that his US masters were planning to double-cross the British after the war, by restricting the manufacture and storage of nuclear material to continental North America.
Oliphant, it seems, was appalled. Anxious to avoid FBI scrutiny, he travelled from California to the US capital – taking three days, probably by train – and there sent a memo from inside the secure confines of the British Embassy.
Discreet furore in London
The message, recounting the meeting with Groves, caused a very discreet furore in London – although some of the fallout was directed at persuading Oliphant himself to keep quiet. There was a war on, after all.
Within a very short time after two Manhattan Project atomic bombs provided a devastating end to conflict, Oliphant’s warning to the British was proved correct. The US effectively nullified the Quebec Agreement and chose to keep many aspects of nuclear weapons research top secret.
Was Oliphant a hero, or just a man unable to keep a secret? In telling the story, Holden is ambivalent in his conclusions.
He concedes that the physicist was aware that the information blurted out by Groves carried serious implications for Britain’s ability to defend itself in the future, and that he thus ensured the UK government was aware of the situation.
Holden also accords him a more noble motivation: that of “a duty-bound requirement to serve the science and protect scientific freedoms — that knowledge be the preserve of no single state or person.”
However, he adds that the scientist also sent secret information to the Australian government. “This suggests a different motivation at play,” he notes, “in that Oliphant was thinking, possibly selfishly, about his own post-war research.”