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Making the Jitterbug Work--Marcus Oliphant and the Manhattan Project

Making the Jitterbug Work--Marcus Oliphant and the Manhattan Project

History Page Type: 
Mark Oliphant

By Sue Rabbitt Roff

It was the Australian scientist Marcus Oliphant who told J. Robert Oppenheimer that an atom bomb could be made in time to end the Second World War. Suddenly, the use of atomic fire power wasn’t for the next war, as James Bryant Conant, chairman of the US National Defense Research Committee, still thought in 1941.

Oliphant was at the forefront of the development of radar in the early 1940s. As a professor of physics at the University of Birmingham in England, he recruited two refugee scientists, Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, though they were not cleared to work on the top secret radar project. These two scientists wrote a groundbreaking memorandum in 1940.[1] They calculated that a much smaller amount of fissile uranium-235 that would be needed to make an atom bomb--what they referred to in their correspondence as "the jitterbug"--than previously thought. In March 1941, Peierls wrote to Frisch, who had moved to work with James Chadwick at the University of Liverpool, in a letter now at Trinity College, Cambridge’s Wren Library that he:

“showed it [the latest calculation about ‘the spontaneous effect’] to Oliphant who thought it was almost hopeless to try and convince the Authorities that we had, in fact, sufficient proof now. He thinks, in fact, that one will never get sufficient support for a large-scale scheme before anybody has ever seen the heat produced by the chain reaction.” [2]

Eventually, Oliphant’s advocacy led to the creation of the MAUD Committee. One theory states that the committee was named after a governess who worked in Niels Bohr’s household. The committee was tasked to investigate the military and industrial uses of uranium. Fifteen months later, the development of a British atom bomb began in a project code-named Tube Alloys (TA).

The Frisch-Peierls Memorandum was also sent to Washington but was not circulated among the American physicists to Oliphant's frustration. In August 1941, he visited Berkeley to see the cyclotron Ernest Lawrence was building. As a representative of the Department of Scientific Research & Experiment, Oliphant was instructed to collect as much information as he could from the Americans and “[t]o pass over freely to those people with whom you make contact similar information in your own possession...provided, of course, that such persons are already ‘initiated’ and under bond of secrecy.”[3]

Oliphant discussed the MAUD Report and the Memorandum with Lawrence in the presence of Oppenheimer.[4] He did not realize that the latter knew nothing about the project to build an atomic bomb. “Oliphant’s behaviour does not help the cause of secrecy!” Conant wrote to Vannevar Bush.[5] This was not the last time such a complaint would be made.

After he returned to Britain, Oliphant remarked on the disconnect between the levels of secrecy about topics that were being openly discussed and published in scientific circles. He pointed out that the US Navy was trying to develop atomic power for submarines while, at the same time, university scientists were openly discussing nuclear fission. For instance, Enrico Fermi, who worked at Columbia University, discussed in detail the fast-neutron bombs that used uranium-235 at an open scientific meeting. In the early stages of the Second World War, papers surrounding these topics suddenly stopped being published. However, Oliphant was criticised for assuming that British atomic research could be discussed so informally. For example, he was told he was out of order in talking so frankly with the National Defense Research Committee.[6]

Because of these criticisms and treatment, Oliphant resigned in a huff from the MAUD Technical Committee. Although he had been personally responsible for “the recrudescence”[7] of the feasibility of making an atom bomb, he had been left out of the Policy Committee when MAUD was reorganized. He told James Chadwick that he was thinking of setting up “a rival show” to MAUD in two or three university physics departments and get out from under the “busybodies” of committee politics.[8]

It’s not clear if Oliphant’s British or American colleagues knew that in August 1941, he also informed the Australian Ambassador in Washington, R.G. Casey, about British research in uranium and his concern that this research was being rapidly patented. He also urged Australia to do similar work “so that if and when she wishes to exploit it, she will have something with which to bargain.”[9]

Oliphant’s intervention jump-started US commitment to develop an atom bomb to end the Second World War. The British Tube Alloys project merged with American efforts and became the Manhattan Project.

Like other Australians, Oliphant was deeply shocked by the fall of Malaya and Singapore to the Japanese in January 1942 and urged the lead scientist of Tube Alloys, Chadwick, to help him break through the complacency and lack of will or spirit to risk commitment to a big venture such as would be involved in making an atomic weapon in time to end the Second World War.[10]

He could be charming (as I found when I interviewed him in 1993) but also irascible.

He could also be devious to win an argument. In 1944, one colleague on the Manhattan Project, physicist Norman Feather, described Oliphant’s behaviour in a dispute that was “rather that of the agent provocateur!”[11] In the same year, Chadwick noted that Oliphant could be “sometimes incautious and injudicious in his statements.”[12]

But Oliphant had been eased off MAUD’s major committees and thought his period of usefulness had ended. This was not the case. In fact, Oliphant’s experimental and engineering brilliance ensured him a place on the team of British and British-based physicists who joined the Manhattan Project in 1943 who argued that Oliphant’s many high virtues made him worth putting up with and that he had to be handled gently because he reacted badly to high-handedness.[13]

Oliphant spent several months in Australia before he went to the United States to join the Manhattan Project. He told fellow physicist Egon Bretscher in March 1942 that the Admiralty allowed him to take a break from his work on developing short wave radars and to go home to help Australia confront some of its own defence problems.[14] He later told Chadwick that during that trip he ensured that the government sequestered the exploitation of Australia’s uranium resources in order to keep them available for Australia's own use – medical or military – after the end of the war.[15]

In June 1943, the Tube Alloys senior scientists and administrators said that they wanted Oliphant to commit full time to the Manhattan Project because they knew that he could be impetuous and indiscreet. They did not want to let him in on all the secrets of their work unless he was properly tied to the project. It was noted too that Oliphant was “suspicious of the commercial element in the work.”[16]

From the outset of the British and American atomic weapons research merger, there were tensions in the bilateral relationship. A June 2, 1943 letter to Oliphant urged him to go to the United States to work with Lawrence at Berkeley, because it would be good for him to work alongside Lawrence’s project that was “being kept especially secret” even before “relations with the Americans had become difficult.”[17]

The British Tube Alloys scientists joined the US Manhattan Project shortly after the Quebec Agreement between Britain and the United States was signed in August 1943. This was a top secret agreement that was signed in Canada, where Canadian uranium for the bombs were being enriched at Chalk River.

The Agreement declared that:

“[I]n view of the heavy burden of production falling upon the United States as the result of a wise division of war effort, the British Government recognize that any post-war advantages of an industrial or commercial character shall be dealt with as between the United States and Great Britain on terms to be specified by the President of the United States to the Prime Minister of Great Britain. The Prime Minister expressly disclaims any interest in these industrial and commercial aspects beyond what may be considered by the President of the United States to be fair and just and in harmony with the economic welfare of the world.”

This gave the United States primacy over postwar commercial and industrial development of atomic energy. Both countries also agreed that “we will not either of us communicate any information about Tube Alloys to third parties except by mutual consent.”

‘Great Britain’ was not held to include its Dominions – such as Australia or indeed Canada, which was integral to the Manhattan Project. Britain had handed over its Tube Alloys research in the hope that the United States would be able to manufacture atomic bombs to end the war. This was the deal that Oliphant – an Australian working on the British scientific team - had to work within when he joined Lawrence’s laboratory at Berkeley in late 1943.

The United States government was very concerned to downplay the level of input to the development of the atomic weapons by Britain because it wanted to achieve post-war monopoly of the new weaponry. The poor prospects for continued British-American collaboration after the detonations at Hiroshima and Nagasaki were apparent when General Leslie Groves declined to answer when asked in Washington DC on January 9, 1946 what part Canada and Great Britain played in the development of the atom bomb.[18]

For example, in March 1944, Oliphant was cautioned for letting “a British officer in uniform, who is believed to have been a New Zealander,” visit him in his office, because “this happening is considered to be one of those items which could emphasise too much the existence of a British link with the American office and activity on our project in Berkeley.”[19]

Within six months of arriving in the United States, the British scientists on the Manhattan Project were beginning to contemplate the postwar future. Meetings were held in Washington and London, but it was hard to get the main players--Chadwick, Sir John Cockcroft, and Oliphant-- together in any one place.

Chadwick advocated a ‘frank discussion’[20] with the Americans about postwar industrial and military development. Furthermore, relations with the scientists had to be kept on an even-keel so that the British contingent could learn as much as it could before leaving to start its own development. Oliphant always said that the Manhattan Project was basically an engineering project. Once the theoretical work that started in Britain was complete, all it took was building and combining the components of the uranium and plutonium bombs.

Oliphant believed that Britain could make its own nuclear weapons once the war was over, and its industrial capacity was available again. Already by February 1944, there was talk of some of the British scientists returning to England to begin postwar planning and fill the many vacancies in university science teaching and research. There were also discussions about possible tripartite partnership among the Americans, the British and the Canadians who were active in the Manhattan Project.

Oliphant was expected to visit Britain in July 1944 but he couldn’t leave Berkeley then. In September 1944, he was enraged by General Groves’ confirmation of American intentions to control postwar development and to retain a monopoly over nuclear technology that was being developed with critical British theoretical and engineering input.

The Tube Alloys planning group, which was under the control of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, called Oliphant to London in November 1944 to talk to industrial leaders about the work that would be needed for Britain to build its own nuclear weapons after the war. In early January 1945, Oliphant circulated ‘Notes on T.A.,’ of which handwritten and cyclostyled copies are available in the UK National Archives.[21]

The Chancellor, in turn, met with Oliphant on January 9, 1945 and told him “that he could not believe that, if T.A. were to have important industrial applications, any country would be able to adopt a selfish policy in regard to its exploitation.”[22] He also reminded Oliphant that the first priority was to build the bombs to end the war and therefore secured him a priority seat on a bomber to return to Berkeley.

Oliphant and several of his team returned Britain by April 1945 and actively planned the establishment of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell in Oxfordshire. Some senior British scientists, such as Sir Edward Appleton, still believed in April 1945 that Britain “might expect collaboration [with the United States] might go on well after the big bang day.”[23]

Oliphant was equally sure that the British would be cut out--as they were by the McMahon Act of 1946.[24]

Despite these issues, Oliphant’s work was publicly acknowledged in the United States as soon as the war ended, beginning with the official report commissioned by General Leslie Groves Atomic Energy for Military Purposes that was published in the American Physics Society’s journal Reviews of Modern Physics.

Many documents in the UK National Archives indicate that Oliphant was at the centre of planning for postwar British atomic research through the late 1940s. However, he was sidelined from the testing of the independent British nuclear bombs in his native Australia in the 1950s because of the fallout from the Klaus Fuchs spy case in 1951.[25] An FBI report cast suspicion on Oliphant and another Australian scientist, Eric Burhop, as having possibly conveyed information about the Manhattan Project to Soviet agents in New York throughout their time in the United States.[26] This accusation was never legally pursued because it relied on the highly secret Venona transcripts.[27] But because Britain was working frantically to make an H-bomb and to negotiate a way back into a nuclear alliance with the United States both Britain and the United States deemed the accusation enough to blackball Oliphant for his association with Burhop. Washington even declared him persona non grata because of it.

This was a complete change in how Oliphant had been previously treated. Oliphant largely recruited the team of British physicists and went to America to join the Manhattan Project in 1943. He was the third most highly paid scientist from the British team on the  Manhattan Project.  For his contributions to the development of the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima, he was nominated by General Groves for the US Medal of Honor with Gold Palm. Oliphant was the only foreign scientist to be nominated. But Australian civilians were not allowed to accept such honors in wartime, so he did not receive it.

It is notable that Oppenheimer himself did not get a full security clearance to work on the Manhattan Project until July 1943 but only because of pressure from General Groves. Neither Oliphant nor Oppenheimer gained the trust of all their colleagues because of their concerns about how the USA would seek to control the new weaponry, and both would be excluded from post-war nuclear development once the bombs they built ended the Second World War.  In this sense it might be said that Oliphant became Australia’s Oppenheimer.[28] 

 

Sue Rabbitt Roff is a researcher and has written over 60 peer-reviewed articles on political, educational and medical topics. She previously conducted research on the health effects of participants in UK nuclear testings from 1952 to 1991. She currently works as a tutor at Centre for Medical Education, University of Dundee. A member of the Australian Society of Authors, she runs and writes for her website, The Rabbitt Review, in which she uses archival evidence to feature forgotten history.

 

[1] Otto Frisch and Rudolf Peierls, “Frisch-Peierls Memorandum” (Report, London, 1940, http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/Begin/FrischPeierls.shtml).

[2] Rudolf Peierls to Otto Frisch, March 25, 1941, Frisch B126, Wren Library of Trinity College Cambridge UK.

[3] Unknown to Marcus Oliphant, July 29, 1941, Department of Scientific Research & Experiment, CADBURY US1.6 PB Moon F 21.

[4] “THE MAUD REPORT,” US Department of Energy, https://www.osti.gov/opennet/manhattan-project-history/Events/1939-1942/maud.htm.

[5] Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1986), 373.

[6] Marcus Oliphant to Sir Edward Appleton, October 27, 1941, CHAD I 19/3 CAC.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Marcus Oliphant to James Chadwick, October, 27 1941, CHAD 1 CAC.

[9] Marcus Oliphant to The Australian Minister in Washington, August 26, 1941, CADBURY US1.6 PB Moon F 21.

[10] Marcus Oliphant to James Chadwick, January, 14 1942, CHAD 1 CAC.

[11] Norman Feather to James Chadwick, March 12, 1944, CHAD 1.25 CAC.

[12] James Chadwick to Wallace A. Akers, June, 24 1944, AB 1.615 UKNA.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Marcus Oliphant to Egon Brescher, March 12, 1942, CHAD 1.19 AC.

[15] Marcus Oliphant to James Chadwick, October 10, 1943, CHAD 1.19 CAC.

[16] Wallace A. Akers to Sir Edward Appleton, June 2, 1943, CAB 21/3152 UKNA.

[17] Wallace K. Akers to Marcus Oliphant, June 2, 1943, CAB 21/3152 UKNA.

[18] Major General Leslie R. Groves, “Notes on Public Address by Major General L.R.Groves” (Public Address, Washington DC, 1946 CHAD 1.25 Churchill Archives Centre, University of Cambridge, UK).

[19] W.L. Webster to Marcus Oliphant, March 11, 1944, AB1/485 UKNA.

[20] Rhodes, 17.

[21] M.L.E. Oliphant, “Notes on T.A.” (Government Document, London, 1945, AB 1/581 National Archives, London UK)

[22] Note for Record. 9 January 1945 CAB126/18.

[23] Edward Victor Appleton to James Chadwick, April 12, 1945 ABI/581 UKNA.

[24] “Cooperation, competition and testing,” The British National Archives, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/cabinetpapers/themes/co-operation-competition-testing.htm.

[25] “Klaus Fuchs,” The Atomic Heritage Foundation, https://www.atomicheritage.org/profile/klaus-fuchs.

[26]  Sue Rabbitt Roff, “Sir Mark Oliphant – Australia’s – and Britain’s – J. Robert Oppenheimer?” Rabbitt Review, updated October 2018, http://www.rabbittreview.com/articles/sir-mark-oliphant-australias-and-britains-j-robert-oppenheimer/.

[27] James Griffiths, “Peace activist or atomic spy? The curious case of a Cold War nuclear scientist,” CNN International, published April 6, 2019, https://edition.cnn.com/2019/04/05/uk/uk-atomic-spy-australia-intl-gbr/index.htm.

[28] Sue Rabbitt Roff, “Sir Mark Oliphant – Australia’s – and Britain’s – J. Robert Oppenheimer?” The Rabbitt Review, updated October 2018,

http://www.rabbittreview.com/articles/sir-mark-oliphant-australias-and-britains-j-robert-oppenheimer/.