Smyth, Henry de Wolf 1898-1986

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1898-05-01
Death 1986-09-11
US
English

Biographical notes:

Henry D. Smyth was the chairman of the Physics Dept. at Princeton University, who prepared a full official report on the Manhattan Project at the direction of Gen. Leslie R. Groves.

From the description of Atomic energy for military purposes, 1945 [typescript]. (Hagley Museum & Library). WorldCat record id: 122516281

Henry De Wolf Smyth was a physicist.

From the description of Papers, [ca. 1939]-1986. (American Philosophical Society Library). WorldCat record id: 122347521

Henry DeWolf Smyth (1898-1986) was a physicist and diplomat who figured prominently in the development of atomic energy in the United States through his contributions as scientist, instructor, policy maker, administrator, and author. He is perhaps best known for writing the official government report on the development of the atomic bomb in the U.S., Atomic Energy for Military Purposes (1945). Smyth's other important contributions to the field of atomic science were made while a commissioner on the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), from 1949 to 1954, and subsequently as the U.S. Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), from 1961 to 1970. These include his dissenting opinion in the AEC's security clearance case for J. Robert Oppenheimer, and his influential work with the IAEA on nonproliferation of nuclear weapons, and the peaceful use of atomic energy.

Henry DeWolf Smyth was born in Clinton, New York on 1 May 1898 to Charles Henry Smyth, Jr. and Ruth Anne Phelps. In 1905 the family moved to Princeton when Henry's father was appointed professor of geology. Henry attended Miss Fine's School, and the Lawrenceville School from which he was graduated in 1914. He went on to Princeton University graduating in 1918, and then pursued an independent research project with Karl Taylor Compton until 1919. His first paper, "Tyndall beam and size of particles," was published in July, 1919. Smyth worked in the chemical warfare laboratory in Washington, D.C. and at the Aberdeen Proving Ground until the end of World War I. He received his master's degree and Ph.D., both in physics, in quick succession at Princeton, 1920 and 1921 respectively. The faculty at Princeton made a special resolution to allow him to take his two examinations for the Ph.D. in one term.

As a National Research Council Fellow, he studied at the Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge University, England, from 1921 to 1923, and at Princeton from 1923 to 1924. After his studies under Ernest Rutherford at the Cavendish, and a second doctorate, Smyth returned to Princeton where, in 1924, he became an instructor. He was named assistant professor in 1925, associate professor in 1929, professor in 1936. In 1935, he was named chairman of the physics department. Smyth married Mary de Coningh on 30 June 1936.

Smyth's primary research interests between 1919 and 1935 were the study of ionization of gases by electron impact and critical potentials, positive ray analysis, molecular structure, matter, motion and electricity, and atomic energy. He spent 1931-32 as a Guggenheim Fellow at the University of GC6ttingen. After 1934, his interests changed to nuclear physics with James Chadwick's discovery of the neutron, and the accelerator developments made by John Cockcroft and Ernest Walton, and by Ernest O. Lawrence. 1 The majority of his research papers were published between 1919 and 1945.

Following his appointment as chairman of the department in 1935, Smyth's administrative duties took precedence over his research. His colleague Val Fitch said of him, "he was unflappable and simply bristled with integrity. I have seen him on a number of occasions, by his presence alone, bring dignity to meetings which had all the ingredients of impending chaos." 2 Among Smyth's accomplishments at Princeton while he was chair of the physics department were the two cyclotrons which were both built by Milton G. White and his associates, the first in 1935, and the second in 1946.

In addition, Smyth devoted much effort to reorganizing the large introductory physics courses. He understood the importance of integrating teaching and research and, to this end, introduced the extensive use of lecture demonstrations. In 1939, his book Matter, Motion and Electricity was published. Co-written with Charles W. Ufford, it was "perhaps the first beginning text that attempted to cover the most recent physics in addition to the classical material." 3

Smyth's early career was primarily concerned with research on atomic structure. In 1940, before the Manhattan District was brought into being, he began his war work as a consultant on research programs for the National Research Council and the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). He continued this work until 1945.

Smyth was a member of the Uranium Committee which was a subcommittee of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC). The NDRC, chaired by Vannevar Bush, was established 15 July 1940 to direct, coordinate and carry out a national program of military research and development. Its membership was drawn from the National Academy of Sciences. In June 1941, President Roosevelt established the OSRD with the NDRC as one of its subordinate agencies. Bush was made director of the OSRD and James B. Conant became chairman of the NDRC. The OSRD's aim was to mobilize American scientists for war. The Committee on Uranium, somewhat enlarged, remained under the NDRC but was renamed the Section on Uranium. 4

In order to maximize the effort to develop the atomic bomb, the atomic energy program was divorced from the NDRC in December 1941, and placed under the immediate supervision of Bush and the OSRD. This scientific group, now called the OSRD S-1 Section (the word "uranium" was dropped for security reasons), was to recommend and coordinate action on nuclear research and ensure that authorized assignments were carried out and, within 6 months, prepare a final report on the feasibility of building atomic bombs. In June 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers was directed to construct an atomic bomb with the OSRD retaining responsibility for scientific research and pilot plant experimentation for producing fissionable materials to be used in the manufacture of atomic bombs. 5

A member of the Uranium Committee under the National Defense Research Council, Smyth worked in the Uranium Section, the Power Production Subsection and the Theoretical Subsection which included Fermi, Szilard and J.A. Wheeler. "At that time he directed work at Princeton on resonance absorption of neutrons by U-238. In the fall of 1941 it was Smyth who suggested the use of large-scale electromagnetic methods to separate uranium isotopes, and by 1943 the first large amounts of U-235 had been separated by this method. As administrator, following the reorganization of the Uranium Committee of the NDRC under the Office of Scientific Research and Development in 1941, Smyth was appointed by the OSRD Uranium Committee Executive Group, which was to report on the program and budget for an eighteen-month period, `to prepare recommendations as to how many programs should be continued, and to prepare recommendations as to what parts of the program should be eliminated.'" 6

Between 1943 and 1945, he served as consultant to the Manhattan Engineer District, which produced the atomic bomb. From 1943-44 he was Assistant Director of, later consultant to, the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago. There Arthur Compton's group worked on the production of the heavy water necessary to regulate the speed of neutrons in the chain reaction. Smyth, it should be remembered, continued to run Princeton's under-staffed physics department during the war.

In 1944, Lt. General Leslie Groves appointed Smyth to the Richard C. Tolman Committee to make recommendations for the post-war development of atomic energy. In spring of that year, Smyth suggested the need for an official report on the scientific and administrative operations of the atomic bomb project. In April, Groves asked Smyth to proceed with the report. He was permitted free access to all pertinent information, which meant that he was exempted from all normal compartmental rules, and visited each of the various departments of the Manhattan Engineering District, where he conferred with key people and collected data. He wrote the report in fifteen months under conditions of utmost secrecy. The official government report on the project was released on August 12th, 1945.

Made public after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, popularly known as the Smyth Report, was the first source of information on the atomic age for many Americans. The report was subsequently published in September 1945 by Princeton University Press, and sold more than 160,000 copies. Smyth had relinquished the copyright and received none of the royalties. The document itself was placed in the public domain, in accordance with Smyth's belief that "the ultimate responsibility for our nation's policy rests on its citizens and they can discharge such responsibilities wisely only if they are informed." 7

Between 1945 and 1949, Smyth, as Chairman, worked on strengthening the physics department. He was named the Joseph Henry Professor of Physics in 1946. In addition, from 1946 to 1949, he was a trustee to the Associated Universities Inc. which operated Brookhaven National Laboratory and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory. After 1945, his speeches and articles addressed the relation of science to government and to society, and three aspects of atomic energy: its historical development, its potential uses in peacetime, and the need for international control of future atomic energy development, since other nations had the capability to make atomic bombs.

In May 1949, he became a member of the Atomic Energy Commission, and gave up the chairmanship of the Princeton Physics Department the following year. Smyth was the only member of the AEC with a scientific background. President Truman appointed Smyth to a five-year term on the AEC in 1951. Smyth's duties while on the commission were to promote U.S. research in nuclear energy, and to plan U.S. development of peacetime nuclear power.

While on the AEC there were two notable events in which Smyth played an important role: the hydrogen bomb decision and the Oppenheimer case. Prior to 1949, although aware of the possibility of a fusion bomb (the H-bomb, or `Super'), the AEC had determined not to proceed with a full-scale development program. There was, however, a small research group working on the project. "The Soviet atomic bomb detonation in August 1949 brought pressure on the commission to commence such a program to ensure the U.S.'s military advantage. The AEC requested the opinion of the General Advisory Committee (consisting of 9 scientists and engineers with Oppenheimer as chairman), which in October 1949 unanimously opposed a crash program.

"On 1 November 1949 Senator Edwin Johnson stirred up the debate with his public announcement of the possibility of an H-bomb program." The AEC decided to let President Truman make the decision and submitted to the President the GAC recommendation and an opinion of each of the five AEC commissioners. "Chairman David E. Lilienthal, and Commissioners Sumner T. Pike and Smyth opposed a crash program; Commissioners Lewis L. Strauss and Gordon E. Dean favored it. Smyth saw this as an opportunity to open discussions on international control of atomic weapons, but on 31 January 1950, influenced by the reports of the departments of Defense and of State, Truman announced his decision to go ahead with the fusion bomb program." 8

J. Robert Oppenheimer, the chairman of the General Advisory Committee to the AEC, had headed the team that assembled and exploded the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos. During the height of the McCarthy era, Lewis Strauss, the Chairman of the AEC, expressed doubts about Oppenheimer's loyalty to the country and urged President Eisenhower to restrict his access to secret information. After Eisenhower had this "blank wall" erected, a Personnel Security Board hearing followed.

The hearing was conducted between April 12th and May 6th by Mr. Gordon Gray, Mr. Thomas Morgan, and Dr. Ward V. Evans. On May 27, 1954 the "Gray Board" recommended against Oppenheimer's reinstatement; Dr. Evans dissented. The Board also censured Oppenheimer for opposing the H-bomb program initially and for lacking enthusiasm for it afterwards. On May 28th Oppenheimer was notified of the board's decision, and on June 1st he waived his right to a Personnel Security Review. At this time he requested immediate consideration of his case by the Atomic Energy Commission. On June 12th, the General Manager reviewed the "Gray Board" testimony and submitted his conclusion to the Commission that Oppenheimer's clearance should not be reinstated.

Smyth writes, "In the first six months of 1954, I examined and evaluated the total evidence in the Oppenheimer Case. Allegations questioning the loyalty of Robert Oppenheimer were made in a letter to the FBI in the Fall of 1953. These allegations were made known by Lewis Strauss, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, to his four fellow Commissioners for the first time on December 1, 1953. The matter occupied the Commission from that date until June 29, 1954 when the opinions of the five Commissioners were handed down. I was the sole Commissioner to vote in favor of restoring clearance to Robert Oppenheimer for reasons stated in my dissenting opinion of June 29, 1954" (See Series II, General Subject Files under B iographical information, June 1968, p.2).

The 1954 Oppenheimer clearance hearing resulted in a four-to-one vote against his reinstatement. Commissioners Strauss, Murray, Zuckert, and Campbell voted to revoke his clearance due to "defects of character." Smyth alone dissented from this opinion. He argued that the "defects," six instances in which Oppenheimer's statements and testimony over a period of years had been contradictory, were trivial if not contrived and that Oppenheimer's contributions to the atomic energy program were far greater than any potential security risk he was alleged to pose. At Smyth's memorial service, I.I. Rabi noted that this was Smyth's finest hour, "one thinks of a supreme moment in a person's life when he stood against odds and did the right thing. That was Harry Smyth's fortune and Harry Smyth's greatness" (See Series VIb, Speeches and Testimonies by Colleagues under Memorial service in thanksgiving for the life of Henry Dewolf Smyth 1898-1986, p.7).

Smyth's term as a commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission ended in 1954 with his voluntary resignation. His resignation was not due to, or in direct answer to, the Commission's final recommendation in the Oppenheimer case. Rather, he found it difficult to work effectively with the chairman Lewis Strauss for personal reasons.

After his resignation from the AEC, Smyth returned to Princeton where he became chairman of the Board of Scientific and Engineering Research, known after May 1959 as the University Research Board. He acted in this capacity until 1966. The board's concerns were developing policies and practices related to Federal support of research, to advise the President of the University, advising on major research projects (especially, the construction of the Princeton-University of Pennsylvania 3-GeV accelerator), and expansion of research on control for peaceful uses of the thermonuclear reaction of the H-bomb. In addition, the Board of Scientific and Engineering Research was interested in developing and promoting the concept of a new University Research Board to be drawn from all divisions of the University so as to assure wide faculty responsibility for acceptance and administration of all major grants and contracts. The University Research Board also oversaw the development of the Plasma Physics Laboratory and the cyclotron laboratory.

Other Princeton activities included serving as chairman of the Faculty Committee on the choice of a new president from 1956-57. He was also chairman of the Committee on Project Research and Inventions, the Higgins and Scientific Research Committees, and the Matterhorn Review Committee. Smyth was particularly interested in the goals and magnitude of the Matterhorn Project which sought to release the nuclear energy locked in the deuterium (heavy hydrogen) in the oceans. In order to release this energy, the deuterium gas must be raised to a temperature of a hundred million degrees. The Matterhorn Project's objectives were to heat deuterium gas to such a temperature, to contain it at that temperature, and to extract energy from it. Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory (LASL) and the Livermore Laboratory also worked on this project. Other Princeton concerns were the accelerator project and the problem of computing facilities for the university. Smyth's service to Princeton University ended in 1966 with his retirement as Professor of Physics, Emeritus.

Between 1957 and 1958, Smyth acted as a consultant to the Bank of New York and other manufacturing firms on nuclear power development in the U.S. In addition, Smyth was a member of the Technical Appraisal Task Force of the Edison Electric Institute which studied the status of the technology of nuclear power, October 1956-1960. Its principal report was published in August 1958: "Status and Prospects of Nuclear Power." During this period he continued to speak and write on the relation of science to government and society, and on nuclear power development in this country.

He also served as a consultant to the Joint Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy from 1957 to 1958 to develop a federal program for the promotion of U.S. nuclear reactors. Its principal report was published in August 1958: "Proposed Expanded Nuclear Power Program." As a consultant to the Atomic Energy Commission, he was vice-chairman of an Ad Hoc Committee on Reactor Policies and Programs appointed in 1958 by the chairman of the Commission to review the nuclear power situation. The final Committee report was published on December 14, 1959.

In 1961, President Kennedy appointed Smyth the U.S. Representative to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), a position which had ambassadorial rank. The Senate confirmed his appointment on June 13, 1961. His efforts in the IAEA contributed to the development of nuclear safeguards and, in 1970, to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The IAEA had been established in 1957 with the objective to accelerate and enlarge the contribution of atomic energy to peace, health and prosperity throughout the world; Smyth shared this aim. The agency was primarily concerned with the regulation and advance of atomic and nuclear technology for peacetime uses. It was not a political organization in intent, but rather defined its mission as the desire to educate and assist in the advance of this technology.

After Smyth's death, Glenn Seaborg commented on his role in the IAEA: "[Smyth] came into his assignment during the cold war. Through his superior statesmanship and personal relationships with the Soviet representatives Harry brought a calming influence which achieved an unprecedented atmosphere of rapport within the Agency. In particular Harry Smyth played a key role in the realization of the nonproliferation treaty, one of the two most important arms control agreements ever achieved. Harry's personal diplomacy, sincerity and commitment were paramount in this accomplishment" (See Series VIb, Speeches and Testimonies by Colleagues under M emorial service in thanksgiving for the life of Henry DeWolf Smyth 1898-1986, p. 10).

Smyth's duties while Representative to the IAEA included attendance at IAEA meetings in Vienna several times a year, which lasted from three to six weeks each time. The major meetings were: the Board of Governors of the IAEA, composed of 25 nations, which met regularly each February, June and September; and the annual General Conference of the full membership (99 nations) which lasted for a week to ten days. When not in Vienna, his IAEA responsibilities involved bi-weekly consultations in Washington with officials of the State Department and the U.S. AEC on IAEA matters. During his absence from Vienna, the permanent staff of five were headed by Smyth's deputy, a U.S. Foreign service officer with the rank of minister; all five members of his staff were residents year-round in Vienna.

During Smyth's service to the IAEA, his efforts were primarily directed toward two goals: to limit international recriminations in the meetings of the IAEA Board of Governors and the annual General Conference; and to strengthen and promote the IAEA system of safeguards which meant inspection by this international body, which in turn reported to the United Nations, of peaceful atomic energy facilities so as to prevent possible diversion of nuclear material to military use.

In September 1961, he was appointed by Harlan Cleveland, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations, as chairman of a committee to review the activities of the IAEA and the U.S. policy toward it. The Committee's report was released to the press June 4, 1962. The report concluded that it was in the interests of the U.S. to promote world use of nuclear power, at the same time take measures to prevent the diversion of nuclear power plants to the manufacture of nuclear weapons. These are the primary objectives of the IAEA as set forth in its statute of 1956.

In October 1962, Smyth was appointed by Harlan Cleveland as advisor to the State Department on matters relating to the IAEA. This involved several months in Washington (on leave from Princeton University) to formulate further U.S. policy toward the IAEA, particularly for the gradual transfer of U.S. safeguards to the IAEA. Such a policy of gradual transfer of safeguards (i.e. measures to prevent diversion of material in peacetime nuclear facilities to military use) from control by the U.S. to control by the IAEA was approved on January 18, 1963 by U. Alexis Johnson, Deputy Under-Secretary of State, in an Action Memorandum.

Smyth was a member of the U.S. delegation to the second and third Atoms for Peace International conferences in 1958 and in 1964 respectively. From 1965 to 1970 he was Chairman of the Board of the Universities Research Association (URA) which was a consortium of forty-eight universities incorporated to serve as contractor with the U.S. Atomic Energy Agency to build a national accelerator at Weston, Illinois. URA saw to the establishment of Fermilab, the U.S. high energy physics laboratory. After 1970 he was a member-at-large for the Association. Even after his mandatory retirement from Princeton in 1966, and from the IAEA in 1970, Smyth remained interested in the progress of nuclear research and nuclear policy. In 1985, he issued a statement in support of bilateral reduction of nuclear weapons.

Throughout his career, Smyth received numerous awards. The first of these was Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson Award which was given in 1964. In 1967 he received an Atomic Energy Citation for outstanding service in the nation's atomic energy program. The following year he received the Atoms for Peace Award for his contributions in promoting international cooperation in the non-military development of nuclear energy. In 1970 he received the Department of State's "Distinguished Honor Award" for outstanding service. In 1972 he was the first recipient of the "nuclear statesmanship" award which was established jointly by the American Nuclear Society and the Atomic Industrial Forum; in 1974 the award was named in his honor the Henry DeWolf Smyth Nuclear Statesman Award. In 1977, he received a special award for distinguished service from the IAEA. Smyth's activities with other institutions included service as an associate editor for the Physical Review from 1927-30; a member of the subcommittee on physics of the National Research Council from 1928-35; and, a member of the Editorial Board of the Princeton University Press for the periods 1946-1949, and 1959-1961. He was also on the Board of Directors of the Atomic Industrial Forum, and a member of the Executive Committee, as well as a vice-president. He served a three-year term, 1955-58, as a member of the Governing Board of the American Institute of Physics.

Smyth was a fellow of the American Physical Society (elected vice-president 1956, and president 1957), and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (elected 1956), the American Philosophical Society (elected 1947), Council on Foreign Relations (N.Y.), Phi Beta Kappa and Sigma Xi. He received honorary degrees from Drexel Institute (D.Sc., 1950), Case Institute of Technology (D.Sc., 1953), Hamilton College (D.Sc., 1965), Rutgers University (LL.D., 1968), and Princeton University (D.Sc., 1977).

Smyth wrote that "the possible uses of nuclear energy are not all destructive. The second direction in which technical development can be expected is along the paths of peace.... [T]he future possibilities of such explosives are appalling and their effects on future wars and international affairs are of fundamental importance. Here is a new tool for mankind, a tool of unimaginable destructive power. Its development raises many questions that must be answered in the near future....These questions are not technical questions; they are political and social questions, and the answers given to them may affect all mankind for generations." 9 . When he wrote this he could not have been aware of how significant a role he was to play in determining the direction of atomic energy development.

After a long bout with cancer, Smyth died on 11 September 1986 of cardiac arrest. He was 88 years old.

Notes For biographical information see Physics Today, May 1989, p.98. American Philosophical Society. Yearbook, 1987, p.214. Physics Today, May 1989, p.98. Vincent C. Jones. Manhattan: the Army and the Atomic Bomb, (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U.S. Army, 1985), pp.26-40. Ibid. Henry DeWolf Smyth case file in APS Library. Bill Forbush memorandum, 7 June 1982, p. 3. Henry DeWolf Smyth. Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1945), 1 Jul. 1945 preface, p.vi. Henry DeWolf Smyth case file in APS Library. Bill Forbush memorandum, 7 June 1982, p.4-5. Atomic Energy for Military Purposes, p.224-26.

From the guide to the Henry DeWolf Smyth Papers, 1885-1987, (American Philosophical Society)



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Subjects:

  • Atomic bomb--History
  • Nuclear reactors
  • Physics
  • Physicists--20th century
  • Plutonium
  • Uranium
  • Atomic bomb--History--20th century--Sources
  • Nuclear energy--Research--Laboratories
  • Atomic bomb
  • Nuclear physics
  • Hydrogen bomb
  • Radioactive fallout
  • Nuclear weapons
  • Plutonium--Metallurgy
  • Nuclear energy--History--20th century--Sources
  • Atomic theory
  • Chemistry, Physical and theoretical

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  • Europe (as recorded)
  • United States (as recorded)