Global Risk

The Early FAS and the FBI

07.17.06 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

In preparation for the 60th anniversary of the Federation of American Scientists last autumn, I read several books on our early days. One of the best was Jessica Wang’s American Science in the Age of Anxiety. I got in contact with Professor Wang at UCLA (she is about to move to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver) and we discussed her sources. Seems that the FBI has quite a stack of folders from the early days of FAS that Professor Wang and others have collected through Freedom of Information Act requests. Rather than pack up her FAS files and haul them to Vancouver, Professor Wang sent them to the Federation.

The files are not at all what I expected. We have to remember that much of the early life of FAS overlapped with the Red scare and the McCarthy hearings. This was a time when the Consumers’ Union was labeled a communist organization, presumably because questioning the advertising claims of big corporations was considered subversive.

It is certainly true that many of those who worked on the Manhattan Project, hence some early members of Federation of Atomic Scientists and the Federation of American Scientists, had been left-leaning before the war. Even Oppenheimer had many communist friends whom the government knew about when he was asked to become director of the Manhattan Project. A few Manhattan Project scientists had been members of the Communist Party. These political affiliations had been acceptable during the war but became, retroactively, the kiss of death during the post-war Red scares.

So I opened the FBI files expecting to find lots of wild accusations about the Federation. And I did, but not from the FBI.

There were reports from people on FAS activities. The names have been deleted so they may have been FAS members or others sent to meetings to collect names of attendees. FAS never made any effort to keep anything secret so this must have been easy work.

An interesting set of correspondence comes from the Navy. It starts with a memo from the Chief of Naval Intelligence alerting several offices, including the FBI, that the Commander of the San Francisco branch of the Office of Naval Research was sending one of the Navy’s scientists to join the local FAS chapter to find out what he could. (Apparently the poor fellow only went reluctantly.) Then comes the informant’s report. There then must have a sharp letter from the FBI (but it is not included in the file) complaining that the Navy was getting into the FBI’s business because the next entry is a letter to “My dear Mr. Hoover” from Admiral Inglis, head of Naval Intelligence trying to calm the FBI director.

Several letters are to the FBI questioning the FAS. One internal FBI memo is a report from some agent (his name is redacted) reporting on conversations with Dr. Willard F. Libby, the Commissioner of the Atomic Energy Commission. It seems that Dr. Libby had been reading the FAS newsletter (I believe it was already called The Public Interest Report at the time) and “…it appeared to him that on several items concerning Atomic Energy, the organization opposed the U.S. Government.” [Emphasis added.] The memo goes on to say “Dr. Libby asked whether the FAS had ever been considered by the Attorney General for inclusion on the Attorney General’s list of subversive organizations.”

In outlining a reply to Dr. Libby, the FBI memo refers to an investigation of the FAS stating that “The investigation failed to reflect that the FAS was Communist dominated or that its policies were pro-Communist…” It turns out that the FBI was our friend defending us from slander!

Another heavily redacted memo concerns the National Committee for Atomic Information (NCAI), the public outreach and educational arm of the FAS. The memo reports an informer saying a group of scientists involved with the NCAI at the National Bureau of Standards “…has established a reputation for being close to each other in thoughts and opinions, and frequently giving voice to expression which appear to be at least on the fringe of pinkishness.”

There is a lot of correspondence about a questionnaire that the FAS sent out to scientists around the country. One of FAS’s first issues was problems with how security clearances were granted. Many scientists were denied clearances with no reason given and the procedures appeared to the FAS to be at least sometimes capricious. FAS sent a questionnaire out asking about problems with security clearances and how much classified work the scientists were doing. Many in the government thought the “how much” question was a violation of the security laws because it would reveal who was doing what in classified work. Many letters go back and forth wondering what to do about this questionnaire.

Many of the FAS recommendations about clearances were eventually accepted. But Dr. Libby’s letter shows that this was an era when just questioning the government could be construed as disloyalty. The security clearance process became a way to bring under suspicion someone who questioned government programs or policies. In general, right wing was good, left wing was bad. It was the beginning of the process of creating two politically distinct, and largely non-communicative, scientific cultures, one in academia and one in government laboratories.