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J.R. Oppenheimer and General Groves

VANNEVAR BUSH

Vannevar Bush (Director, NDRC, 1940-1941, and OSRD, 1941-1945)
People > Administrators

Vannevar Bush was born in Everett, Massachusetts, on March 11, 1890. He received his Bachelor's degree from Tufts University and a doctorate in electrical engineering jointly from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University in 1916. During the First World War, Bush worked on the magnetic detection of submarines for the Navy. After the war, he worked as an engineer and professor of engineering at MIT, yet demonstrated his prowess for administration by eventually rising to Dean of Engineering and vice-president of the university. In 1939 he stepped down from his post as vice-president of MIT and assumed the presidency of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. While in Washington, he entered government service by joining the federal National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), rising quickly to become its director. NACA's mission was to advise government and direct aeronautics research.

Letter from Franklin Roosevelt to Vannevar Bush

Bush envisioned a broader federal institution empowered to do the same type of work for war-related research across the government. With the deteriorating situation in Europe, Bush believed that science and engineering would play a critical role in the American war effort. He lobbied President Roosevelt on behalf of government coordination of scientific research for the war, and, in June 1940, Roosevelt approved the establishment of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), with Bush as director. The NDRC was a centralized institution for mobilizing scientific talent for research into war-related problems.

Roosevelt also transferred the Advisory Committee on Uranium to the newly-created NDRC, with the committee reporting directly to Bush. The committee had been set up in fall 1939 by Roosevelt following receipt of Albert Einstein's letter warning of the military implications of atomic energy. Bush reorganized the Uranium Committee into a scientific body and eliminated military membership. Not dependent on the military for funds, as the Uranium Committee had been, the NDRC would have more influence and more direct access to money for nuclear research. In the interest of security, Bush barred foreign-born scientists from committee membership and blocked the further publication of articles on uranium research. Further reading on events defining early government support for the project can be found here.

Bush's NDRC identified areas of research of potential national security interest, mobilized scientific talent from around the country to work on war-related projects, and advised the government on the nation's research needs. But by June 1941, the war needs had outgrown the authority of the NDRC. Many observers worried that the NDRC lacked the teeth necessary to move ideas from the shop floor to the battlefield. Bush again lobbied hard for a more strongly empowered scientific presence in the federal government. Roosevelt responded by establishing the Office for Scientific Research and Development (OSRD) directly responsible to the White House, with Bush at its helm. Bush viewed the new Office as a necessary step to bridge the divide between the research overseen by the NDRC and the development and procurement of new technologies needed for war. As head of the OSRD, Bush advised Roosevelt on the progress and potential of the uranium research program and was a member of the Top Policy Group consisting of the President, Vice President Henry Wallace, James Conant, who had worked with Bush on the NDRC and was now director of the organization, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Army Chief of Staff George Marshall. By January 19, 1942, Bush received approval from the President to move the program from the research stage on to the development stage. The President's famous note to Bush, viewed above, says "V.B. OK-returned-I think you had best keep this in your own safe." With that, the Manhattan Project was set in motion.

From mid-1940 to mid-1942, Bush was the key government official guiding atomic energy research. In the summer and fall of 1942, as research moved toward development, he carefully managed the transition to the Manhattan Engineer District and Army control of the construction and operation of a nation-wide scientific and industrial complex to build the atomic bomb. Bush became chairman of the new Military Policy Committee, with Conant as his alternate and General Wilhelm Styer representing the Army and Admiral William Purnell the Navy. The resulting organization resembled a large corporation, with the Military Policy Committee as a board of directors and General Leslie Groves, head of the Manhattan Engineer District, as vice president in charge of operations.

For the remainder of the war--and afterwards--Bush played a critical role, working closely with Conant, in the development, use, and attempted control of atomic energy. He served as a primary conduit to the President, providing information and obtaining approval for next steps. He was a leading figure in the diplomatic discussions with the British on development of the bomb. He initiated the first consideration of post-war control of the atom, both domestically and internationally.

Vannevar Bush and Arthur Compton 1940

From the late 1940s onwards, Bush continued to be involved at the intersection of science and government. He moved within the elite of the emerging "industrial-academic complex," serving as a top-level administrator for private and public institutions. He is widely noted as a leading advocate not only for making the federal government the patron for science in times of war, but also for his efforts at carving out a place for basic research within the federal government during peacetime. His important 1945 manifesto, Science-the Endless Frontier called on government to institutionalize science and make it a national priority in peacetime. His vision came to fruition with the creation of a National Science Foundation, in 1950. He is also regarded today as one of the pioneering thinkers presaging the Internet for his visionary 1945 article "As We May Think." Vannevar Bush died of a stroke on June 28, 1974.


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Sources and notes for this page

The text for this page is original to the Department of Energy's Office of History and Heritage Resources. A useful resource for learning about Bush's career and involvement in the Manhattan Project is, Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The New World, 1939-1946: Volume I, A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission (Washington: U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1972), especially pp. 24-25, 81-83, and 325-31. A full text version of Bush's famous Science: the Endless Frontier appears at, http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/vbush1945.htm. A copy of Bush's "As We May Think" is available at http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/194507/bush. The portrait of Bush is courtesy the Library of Congress. The note from Roosevelt to Bush is available on the National Archives microfilm collection M1392, Bush-Conant File Relating to the Development of the Atomic Bomb, 1940-1945 (Washington: National Archives and Records Administration, 1990), reel #1/14. The photograph of Vannevar Bush and Arthur Compton is courtesy of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.