Interviewee: Dr. Herbert York

Interviewer: Mr. Martin Collins

Location: At Dr. York's office University of California,
San Diego

Date: June 29, 1988


MR. COLLINS: After reading your book, I want to start with a purely speculative question, which is a bit unorthodox for an oral history interview. I wonder whether you've ever thought about what the physics community in particular might look like if the need to bring into being a device like the nuclear weapon had never happened, if it had remained more of an academically oriented community without government connections. Has that thought ever occurred to you?

DR. YORK: No. But I could speculate about it. It certainly would have been different for a protracted period after 1945. Since 1945, other things have happened though, which have brought the physics community into bigger contact with the world at large. For instance, the development of transistors and then solid-state devices and now superconductivity, although they certainly weren't of the same kind and wouldn't have involved the same kind of interaction with the government. What I'm just wondering is whether you could find analogies with other academic departments which don't play such a great role. Astronomy might be something like that, although the astronomers have gotten mixed up with the government, too, in connection with space and also even in connection with nuclear weapons, because of certain analogies between nuclear explosions and the stars. Nevertheless, astronomy as a whole hasn't gotten sucked into the government's orbit in quite the same way as the nuclear physicists have. But I suppose the biggest difference, as far as academic physics is concerned, is it simply would be somewhat smaller. Maybe not terribly different otherwise, because on most of the campuses, the fact of nuclear weapons doesn't really enter into the lives of most of the people there.

COLLINS: As I said, it's rather unorthodox. We'll just leave it there.

YORK: Yes. If I thought, I might think of something, but I hadn't thought about the question. Certainly my life would have been enormously different, but that's more personal.

COLLINS: Let's go back and look at some of your early advisory activity. I think the first in-depth instance of this is the Air Force Scientific Advisory Board [SAB] Nuclear Panel activity.

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: In the book, you list the people who were part of that panel. As a first question, I wonder what the roles of the RAND representatives to that panel, David Griggs and Gene Root, were. I know Griggs was a physicist.

YORK: I think Griggs was a geophysicist actually, but maybe he was a physicist.

COLLINS: Do you recall what specific contributions they made to the panel's activities?

YORK: No, I don't remember them as being different either in being more or being less. The RAND people in that period of time were the only people who were calculating the effects of the hydrogen bomb, and there were also people at RAND who were doing work on long-range missiles. The others on the committee were either aware of the RAND work or had contacts with similar work themselves. My recollection would be that the RAND input was just one more input, neither extraordinarily special nor undervalued. Griggs was personally characterized then and always by being, in the simple terms we're all used to, very much of a hawk.

COLLINS: The panel was considering issues of determining appropriate payload and accuracy.

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: How did they go about informing themselves about what would be a good program for them?

YORK: Well, there are really three questions in a way, all intertwined. One of them is the characteristics of the nuclear payload. Second is the characteristics of the delivery system, and the third would be the characteristics of the guidance system. As far as the nuclear weapons are concerned, they didn't need any outside input. The committee consisted of the people who already knew better than anybody else what the prospects were, and the only question was of persuading the powers that be with regard to the reality of these prospects.

    Now, with regard to the construction of the missile generally, there I think we relied on briefings by other people. I don't remember so much how this went with the Air Force SAB. I remember it much more clearly with respect to the other [John] von Neumann committees which operated in parallel. But we probably had briefings from people in industry and also at RAND. A number of the persons, including myself, we each had our own contacts with RAND, and when we went down to Santa Monica we talked with people about what they were thinking. But probably the most important part, with regard to the missiles, was briefings of the group when it met by people who came in. I don't know who they were. I don't remember. I don't know whether there would be any records left. But some people at RAND--and probably not so much Griggs or Root as other people, [Bruno] Augenstein or something like that--may have briefed us with respect to their ideas about missiles.

    Now, with regard to guidance, again I remember less about the Air Force SAB than I remember about the von Neumann Committee. In the case of the von Neumann Committee, Stark Draper met with us frequently. In fact, maybe he was a member of related panels. I don't think he was a member of either of those committees, but he certainly was in very close contact with Air Force circles and ballistic missile circles and with these same people. Stark Draper was always way out in front with his predictions. I mean he always insisted that we could do very much better than whatever the then current situation was, and we tended to believe him, because again it's this question of credibility. Draper talked the same kind of language as the other people on the committees, had the same sort of adventurous mind, and when he talked about what the future of guidance was, we tended to believe him. He was way out ahead of most of his contemporaries in making estimates. When I say way out ahead of his contemporaries, I mean people who were around committees like these are vice presidents of research for industries. There may very well have been some young people in Draper's group that none of us ever heard of whose ideas were just as far out as Draper's, but of the people you might find around the Pentagon or some other place where there were high-level organizations, Draper was one of the people who made the grandest estimates, took the biggest leaps into the future with regard to making his estimates, you know, almost making promises about what his laboratory could do.

COLLINS: Your belief in his credibility, his ability to deliver, was based on his track record, his technical record?

YORK: Yes, his track record and his obvious mastery of the field. I think that virtually all of the members of that committee were good judges of who knows what they're talking about and who's just giving us secondary information--or even a blowhard. There are really those three classes of information. There's the horse's mouth, so to speak. Then there's the person who knows what he's talking about but he's not the fellow who made it up; it's a secondary. Then there are people who don't know what they're talking about at all. I think that particular group, those von Neumann committees, were especially good at distinguishing among those types, and I think all of us just automatically put Stark Draper in that first class.

COLLINS: Considering questions of accuracy and payload capability these touched very closely on questions of strategy, how you want to deploy this device. Did that come into play, do you recall?

YORK: Yes, we all thought of ourselves, maybe improperly, as knowing as much about nuclear strategy as anybody. Maybe that was ego and vanity, but I don't think any of us shied away from the notion that we ourselves were perfectly capable of making judgments about the role of nuclear weapons, and within that, the role of long-range missiles with nuclear warheads. You know, von Neumann is known as the inventor of game theory and so forth, and he certainly didn't shy away from any strategic estimates, although as I've said in the book and elsewhere, he never used any of the language that goes with game theory or that kind of formal analysis. He and all the rest of us, as I say, weren't at all shy about thinking that we knew as much about nuclear strategy as anybody.

COLLINS: I want to read part of a quote from page 92, and see how you interpret it. This is a remark of von Neumann's in which part of his conclusion at the end of this panel study is, that what's not as much in question is the technical development of the nuclear weapons themselves. "In other words, one must no longer consider the nuclear component as the hardest part of the problems involved in the weapons systems of which they form part. They are now among the least difficult and most flexible parts of the system." That seems to kind of be reaching beyond the technical considerations of the weapon and into a whole concept of how these weapons would be deployed, operational characteristics.

YORK: It's all of that, yes. It's even the availability, in terms both of numbers and in terms of command and control. Prior to that time, when the president of the United States was briefed on the stockpile, they brought him in a document which listed all the bombs by type and where and how many of them there were, but the numbers were all black because even when they came in to [Harry S.] Truman, it was such a terribly important secret, just the numbers, that they just didn't want it written down anywhere. Of course they told him, but I mean just in case somebody should snitch this paper, they gave him a paper with blanks where the numbers go. I cite that just as an example of how totally special people treated nuclear weapons.

    So commanders were not informed about them very well, in the early days. They weren't integrated into the thinking of the people who were making the war plans, or maybe they were at some special and high level, but in general they were not. The first few years, I mean, that's the numbers and use.

    The question of their design--there was a lot of question about how far one could go in making them lighter and smaller and more adaptable, and it took a number of years to discover that, you know, you tell us what the missile looks like, and we'll fit a weapon on there. In the early days it was the other way around: here's a weapon; you guys build the missile. Or even, here's a weapon, you figure out the strategy and the tactics. That's how it was in the forties and the very early fifties.

    Now it's the reverse. Somebody else invents a tactic or a strategy or a delivery system, goes to the laboratories and asks for a weapon. That's really what I think von Neumann was predicting in '53. It started coming true in the late fifties, because, for example, the Polaris system was designed that way. People started asking the question, "What kind of weapon would you like to go with the kind of rocket you'd like to have employed on a submarine? We'll build you that weapon." Even the very first ICBM--there, that's maybe the transition. I mean by that, that the estimate that a nuclear weapon could be made light enough for a ballistic missile, for the Atlas, that estimate came first. There were other people pushing for smaller missiles, but maybe even there the weapon came first, and the delivery system had to adapt to it. So I think that's what von Neumann is talking about. It's the attitude towards them, in which before, they were regarded as extremely rare, extremely precious, way outside the normal armament that's available, and furthermore they were take it or leave it. I mean, here's the weapon, now you figure out the strategy, the tactics, the delivery, and everything else. Whereas now it's the reverse of all that.

COLLINS: Were any considerations of cost for systems considered during this?

YORK: Yes. There were always estimates about the cost. Realization very early on that the Polaris was going to be much more expensive than missiles. There even were cost estimates made, not by our committee or anything, but estimates of what development programs would cost, and then what the procurement of large numbers would cost. I don't remember people in those days talking about what we now talk about, ten-year cost or ONM or anything like that, but we did talk about the cost of the systems, both the development and the unit costs.

COLLINS: I think probably it's appropriate to move on to the subsequent von Neumann Committee.

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: The Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee. I guess I would start with the same question there, and that is, how did the committee begin to go about its business? How did it inform itself?

YORK: By having people come in and give it briefings, and there were people from the missile industry, from RAND, in the later phases from the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and from the laboratories. Stark Draper, experts of various kinds would meet with the committee and brief it.

COLLINS: A similar format?

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: I wasn't clear from the discussion in your book whether you were a member of this particular committee.

YORK: I came in shortly after it was formed. I was a member, but not at the very beginning. There was an important meeting in June '54, I think, and I was there as a member. It's the committee meeting where it's finally and surely decided that we'll set up the Western Development Division of the Air Force with General [Bernard "Benny"] Schriever as the head of it, and with the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation providing them with briefings and so on. That's around June '54. There's another important meeting about February 1, '54, and I really don't know whether I was there or not, but the committee was formed I guess in late '53.

COLLINS: What was your sense at this time? You talk about some of these aspects later in the book--about the reliability or quality of the intelligence about Soviet capabilities?

YORK: Well, I was only then just being initiated into that sort of world, and not very deeply at first, either. I have to say I don't recall any formal intelligence briefings to that committee. What I recall is that certain people who seemed to be informed, like von Neumann himself or Trevor Gardner or someone like that, would make a general statement about the Russians. But by and large we didn't get much intelligence, and we didn't feel a need for it. The general fact that the Soviets were hostile and were moving ahead, you know, building airplanes and missiles and bombs, was all we needed to know in those early fifties.

COLLINS: Did this Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee and later the Advisory Committee on Ballistic Missiles, were those affiliated with the SAB in any way?

YORK: No, they were quite independent, but there was a substantial overlap in membership. But they were quite independent. At first they worked only with the Air Force and then eventually got into the programs of the other services as well. During that phase, to the extent they reported to somebody, they mainly worked with--when Trevor Gardner was assistant secretary or whatever his title was, they tied to Trevor and through him to the Secretary of the Air Force. That's at the beginning, in 1953-54.

    In 1955 and '56 the same committee now reports to the Secretary of Defense. Maybe it's got a new name, Ballistic Missile Advisory Committee instead of SMEC, Strategic Missile Evaluation Committee. We got into the Army programs and the Navy programs, so that by the time the committee was four or five years old, it was into all the big missile programs. It was not really into the space programs, except just very peripherally. We were not clued in to the SAMOS--what's the right name for that series of programs that Lockheed did? The Agena and all of the payloads, SAMOS, etc. But we were aware of them somehow. I knew about those programs, and I must have known about them through that Ballistic Missile Advisory Committee. But I didn't know much about them.

COLLINS: I believe those, as you mention, were formally initiated in 1956.

YORK: Yes. I didn't know anything about the U-2.

COLLINS: Yes, that suggests another question, and that is, around this time, '54, '55, there was a Killian Committee Technology capabilities panel.

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: Was there any awareness of that other activity?

YORK: There must have been on the part of some, but not really on my part. I don't remember knowing anything about Killian until '57. But von Neumann, for example, and perhaps [Jerome] Wiesner--there are several people. Again, there's some overlap between those in membership, maybe, but I'm not sure. You could find that out. But I was not particularly aware of the Killian Committee, no. I know a lot about it now, but I couldn't say honestly that anything I know today I learned before 1957.

COLLINS: I understand.

YORK: See, somebody like Pete Scoville, Herbert Scoville, who was then the deputy director for science over in CIA, he was connected with both of these groups. Maybe he was a briefer. He wasn't a member of the von Neumann Committee, but he was a member of some of the Air Force SAB panels, I think. They had a separate panel on intelligence all during those years. I don't remember when I first met him. I'd better just leave that.

COLLINS: Yes. You mentioned a job offer from Si Ramo in 1955.

YORK: The middle fifties, yes.

COLLINS: In passing you indicate that you were interested in guided missile work.

YORK: I was interested in space. I was interested in big rockets and space.

COLLINS: How did you see your particular talents applying to that different situation?

YORK: I don't remember in detail, but I was running the Livermore Laboratory relatively successfully, so I probably had a fairly good idea and positive view of what I could do. I believe that I saw that offer as providing a possibility to head up one of these big programs--or probably actually head one up, but if not head it up at least be very close to the top. Programs to develop the kinds of rockets that would be the basis, as was clear to me, were going to provide the basis for flight in space. So it was the spaceflight side of things that was the fascinating side of it. You didn't have to know about the Lockheed program and satellites in order to believe that. Well, that was not yet started in '55, but it was in the wind.

    I don't remember what Ramo offered me specifically, except I remember the financial side of it a little better. I don't remember what the salary was, but it was the stock option that would have been in the neighborhood of one percent of the company, something like that, so he was essentially offering me a very senior position, probably to run one of the programs. As I said, my stimulus was not missiles but space. It was the rockets I was interested in, and I was perfectly content with using them as missiles in support of American national security and for them to carry nuclear warheads. That's what I was already doing at the laboratory, was helping to provide those. But the big stimulus was the notion of space and spaceflight.

COLLINS: When you thought about spaceflight at that time, if you can characterize it, was it in terms of scientific activity from satellites? Manned space?

YORK: No, it was man in space, but with scientific activity, but only in the most general sense. I thought of it the way most other young people thought of it then: it's the exploration of space. The word exploration is more pointed than the word science in this regard. The science would be incidental. The object was to get to the moon and Mars and all of that, and yes, to get people there.

COLLINS: Was this a topic of discussion at any of the committee sessions?

YORK: I don't think there were any big discussions about that, no. There may very well have been corridor talk about it. I don't remember any of it. People stayed away from it, in a way, because it's like with Goddard years earlier. The object was not to appear silly by talking about going to the moon, you know. Everybody knew that's what the prospect was. You didn't have to talk about it. Beyond knowing that that was the ultimate prospect, there wasn't much to say about it, because it was perfectly clear that the driving force as far as the money and the government was concerned behind building these missiles, these big rockets, was their use as missiles, and talking about them as space boosters would simply have got in the way.

    I'm curious myself. You know, Charles Lindbergh was one of the people on there, and I've often wondered, without ever having a chance to talk with him about it, in retrospect I mean, as to whether that's what attracted him.

COLLINS: Yes, that's an interesting question.

YORK: Yes. I don't ever remember hearing John von Neumann or George Kistiakowsky or Jerry Wiesner ever talking about those things at that time. No. It was a private, it was a personal driving interest of my own. We pushed nuclear rockets at Livermore at that same time. We didn't get anywhere, but we did for several years look very hard into the possibility of using nuclear power for big rockets. There the idea indeed was the solar system, because you don't really need nuclear power to get the five miles per second which is necessary for your satellites or missiles. It's when you want to get even seven miles per second, which is escape velocity. You don't need it, but if you really want to get to Mars in anything less than nine months on a minimum energy trajectory, then you need something better than chemicals.

    So we all thought of nuclear, just the same as the people at General Atomics thought about [Project] Orion in that sense. When you start thinking nuclear, you're thinking about things that go a long way beyond missiles. Now, in the fifties the only place there was any money was in the missile program, and so people were perfectly content to relate all of these things to possible missile use.

COLLINS: One of the things that came out of the Ballistic Missile Advisory Committee was the suggestion to proceed with what came to be called Titan. Do you recall how that came about?

YORK: I don't remember for sure where the initiative was, but a number of people on the committee--and maybe myself, I'm not really sure about it, it's just too long ago--felt that this one and one-half stage design of the Atlas really wasn't the right way to do it. Multistage rockets are the right way to get high velocities, and as soon as you want velocities which are multiples of the exhaust velocity of the gasses, then the right way to do it is with staging, and Atlas was only partially staged. You dropped the engines but not the tanks. It's just not optimum, because the velocity you need for missiles or for satellites are typically more than twice the exhaust velocity, so it's just a natural for staging. That's the sort of thing I was just naturally aware of in those days. And today. Just being a physicist makes you aware of things like that--the fact that the Atlas was a thin shell and always had to be handled delicately and so forth. Those things seemed to interfere with deployment. It always had to be pressurized. If you didn't keep it pressurized, it would collapse. The reason it had such a thin shell and had to be pressurized is because one and one-half stages, which is the way we referred to this thing, just is too far off from optimum given the ratio of orbital velocities to exhaust velocity. For a smaller missile it was fine, for a Thor or a Jupiter, but not for Atlas.

    So from the beginning the notion was, the right way to do this is with multistage rockets. Two stages is plenty for that mission. But we had really no experience with igniting rockets in space, and so all sorts of hobgoblins were in people's minds. Speaking for what I remember, I don't know what bugged other people, once the thing is in free-fall, that is, once the engines of the first stage are turned off, the second stage now is in free-fall, the fuel in a sense floats in the tank. If there are any air bubbles in the tank, the air bubble can just as well be at the bottom where the outlet is, as be at the top where it would be when it's sitting on the ground or being accelerated. One of the things I remember clearly was this concern about you know, where exactly is the fuel, once this thing's in free-fall? Now you've got the pumps and so forth and can you really make that work? Because they were fairly complicated systems. Can you make it work reliably, is what I mean. One of the reasons that people didn't favor the multistage system at the beginning was this notion that we were just not sure about igniting systems in space under conditions of free-fall--liquid systems. Solids, there's no question, there's no problem, but liquid systems... Furthermore, there was no way to get experience. Before you could put things up that high, there was absolutely no way you could do the experiments on the ground, and we were having enough trouble with rocket engines as it is. To now add a new dimension, which is to ignite rocket engines in free-fall, zero gravity, and never be able to do the experiment, until you actually had the system.

    So two-stage systems were in the air. A lot of people including myself were convinced that that was the way you had to go, and that the one and one-half stage system was a cobbled up way of doing things, with severe limitations. It just barely worked. So the Titan, but not by that name was again one of those things that was in the air. It certainly was in my mind as the right way to go. You need three stages to get to the moon. There was no way you could do that with an Atlas-type design.

COLLINS: Were there firms coming in around this time saying we can do a two-stage rocket, give us a chance?

YORK: I don't recall. There probably were. I don't recall where the initiative actually came, where the first design for a Titan came from. It was built by Martin Marietta. See, there was an additional point which I haven't mentioned, and that is the desire to be absolutely sure that things were going to work out, so it was regarded as positive that this would allow us now to have a second source. Not only do we have a second rocket, but the fact that we have a second rocket means we have a second source for the engines and a second source for God knows what else. I mean the guidance systems, payloads, and everything else. We placed special value on the fact that this was a parallel course to a highly desired end and would help to assure the end, so there was that as well.

COLLINS: Yes. As the panel underwent its deliberations, what were the roles of Ben Schriever and Si Ramo as representative of Ramo-Wooldridge?

YORK: Well, they varied, because at the beginning Schriever was I guess still a colonel in the Pentagon and kind of in a staff position. I'm not sure who he was working for, chief of R & D or something, and it seems to me his staff position had to do with long-range planning for a while there, or very early. Then Ramo became a sort of a staff secretary for this group, because the group was all part-time people. Von Neumann and everybody and myself, and in between meetings, they needed somebody to go make calculations for them or do various kinds of chores, and Ramo offered the services of his new company for that purpose. I think it was never Ramo the person, it was always Ramo as part of Ramo-Wooldridge.

    But then later, in '54 after these studies were underway only about a year or less, the decision was made to set up an Air Force command in Los Angeles, the Western Development Division, and appoint him as head, and that the Ramo-Wooldridge Corporation would be hired by them to do this systems engineering, but they «MDUL»wouldn't«MDNM» do any hardware. That was always an issue right from the very beginning. Always an issue. And, be inserted in a hierarchical scheme at the top, with organizations like Convair and others in some sense below them.

    Now during the very early period, '54 and '55, everybody was so eager and intense to get ahead that I'm sure the literal way in which these people interacted with each other would, in 1988, be way outside of the norm or the law. You know, it was in no way a hands-off relationship. Everybody was just intimate with everybody else with regard to talking about proprietary secrets and national secrets, who can we get to do this, and so forth.


YORK: Frank Collbohm in fact objected to this sort of thing. He was the president of RAND at that time, and he resigned from the committee in a huff that included a lot of issues. One of them was the downgrading of Convair. I don't know why he felt the way he did but he did.

COLLINS: Downgrading in the sense of introducing competition?

YORK: The role. No. See, there was an Atlas program before any of these things happened in the early fifties, and they essentially were a prime contractor. These new arrangements with Benny Schriever, Ramo and others, put them into the role of an associate contractor. They were one of many contractors at the next level. Collbohm objected to that, and I think he also objected to the way things were working out. The main thing I remember is that he objected and resigned from the committee as a result.

    The meeting of June '54 at which the final decisions were made with respect to all these arrangements, where Ramo-Wooldridge would fit and so on, that's the famous meeting that is periodically honored. It took place in an old church in modern El Segundo, the other side of the airport--what's the town--beyond Manchester Avenue or something. But anyway, as I remarked earlier, the people who were there, you just can't have that group in the same room anymore, because it included, as I recollect--Don Quarles was there. He was secretary of the Air Force, and Trevor Gardner, who was Assistant Secretary, was there. Then this advisory committee was there, and Ramo was there, probably General Schriever was there. It was there and then that they cooked up this final arrangement for how they would do things. The special role of Ramo-Wooldridge was decided in this meeting.

COLLINS: The committee itself had a role in working through that arrangement?

YORK: Oh yes, was very much involved. That's an important point which might be missed. That's incidentally typical of committees like this. They're never satisfied just to talk about scientific and technical questions. They always get into the question of administration and strategy as well, and they may spend either all or most of their time talking about these things.

    I was just at a committee meeting three days ago in Los Alamos of a group called Scientific and Academic Advisory Committee. It advises the president of the university. We probably spent fully half of our time discussing the administrative relationships between the laboratories and the university management, with half the people making great, long, expanded speeches about how the whole thing should be administered. I mean, it had nothing whatsoever to do with questions of solely scientific or technical content.

    So that's the norm. In thinking about scientific advisory committees, you must realize that the people who make them up are usually not shy about what they know and what their talents are and what they know how to do. It's a very, very common practice for committees whose charge is science and technology to spend a great deal of their time talking about organization and administration, and we did.

COLLINS: During this June 1954 meeting, the approach that was finally settled on was an innovation, if you will, in terms of tackling one of these large projects.

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: Can you recall anything about how it was decided that one would take this innovative approach?

YORK: Well, the idea was already there. It wasn't that the June meeting happened and people invented this idea. What happened at the June meeting was the decision essentially to formalize what had sort of grown in. Ramo was already providing a lot of technical assistance and making calculations and doing other things that related to this program, and the appointment of Benny Schriever to run the program, that had to have been decided before that meeting by the Air Force. So what happened at that meeting really was that all of this became concrete, and the final conclusion that that's what we're going to do was made. Here I'm over my head again, but it may very well be that it took that meeting to persuade Don Quarles that this is what we're going to do. Quarles was a very competent but very cautious person.

COLLINS: Do you recall whether Frank Collbohm resigned before or after this meeting?

YORK: No, but the resignation is associated with that meeting. I don't know whether he was there, whether he wrote his letter. My recollection is that he resigned after it. But it's possible that he resigned after it but he didn't come to the meeting. I mean, there are all sorts of possibilities. The minutes of those meetings do exist somewhere. Now, how good they are... There's a person named Colonel Ford, have you ever met him or heard of him?


YORK: Vincent Ford. He's a colonel with a limp. He was always a close aide to Benny Schriever in those days. It's so long ago that nobody's memory is reliable, and he's probably quite a bit older than me, which adds another dimension to the question of reliability. He was crucial in all of this, in terms of the flow of paper, knowing what Schriever and other people in the Air Force were thinking. Colonel Vincent Ford. But the minutes from these meetings must exist somewhere. There may not be any minutes, that could be wrong. There are reports from these meetings. Have you seen them?

COLLINS: No, I haven't.

YORK: We have some of them here, but my associate director who is a historian is not here today. I could look under von Neumann in that file there, and I might find something. But we have a number of reports from that time declassified. Not many. Maybe we have that one. But then, the report simply says that we need a new approach to the organization. How far the report describes it or whether the report deliberately left that for someone else, we could try and find it. Want me to look now? Let me see. [Interruption]

COLLINS: Resuming after a brief pause, we're now looking at a document, a letter from Simon Ramo to Trevor Gardner dated February 10, 1954. You were offering some observations about it.

YORK: Well, the main observation is that a lot of what's in this document is based on the assumption that powerful drive, that is noncryogenic hydrogen bombs, are going to be available. Many people "remember"--remember in quotes--that that conclusion was reached after the first tests of these weapons, and in fact, this document is dated three weeks before the first test of such a bomb. The committee was just simply absolutely convinced that those March 1954 tests were going to work out, and so they made all kinds of recommendations without waiting for the actual tests themselves.

COLLINS: How did the Air Force utilize the advice, say from the June '54 meeting, and the end product of that whole panel activity? Clearly you were making suggestions that impinged on larger factors in the Air Force. You were looking at technical questions, and then you branched out into questions of adminstration, organization. How do you feel the Air Force utilized that?

YORK: The Air Force, meaning both in Washington and in Los Angeles, took very seriously the recommendations of von Neumann personally and von Neumann as chairman of this committee, and it was of course they who implemented them. Somehow either Gardner in Washington or Schriever in Los Angeles implemented those recommendations which they accepted. Of course the committee had no authority whatsoever, so they didn't have to do what the committee said, but they generally took the committee very seriously. There were a lot of private conversations at both ends, Schriever with the committee, Gardner with the committee, and then they reported to higher levels and ultimately things happened. As I said, the committee had no real power, but the committees worked closely with Gardner and Schriever. It wasn't as if the committee had its deliberations and then sent a letter to these people. It talked with them as they went along so the committee knew of the thinking of Gardner and Schriever and generally admired it. Schriever and Gardner knew of the committee's thinking and generally admired it, so that things flowed fairly smoothly because of this intimate relationship. It wasn't the formal facts. It was the de facto situation rather than the de jure situation that made things work.

COLLINS: Did you ever get a sense from either Schriever or Gardner what higher levels of the Air Force or DOD were thinking about these problems?

YORK: Yes, but I can't give you any specific cases. I'm sure that in a lot of instances the thrust of our report was adjusted so as to take into account problems or snags which might be happening at higher levels, and in many instances our reports were used either by Gardner or by Schriever to convince their superiors of something. That's a normal behavior for groups like this, in relationships like this. A lot of what we did I'm sure was what Benny Schriever and Trevor Gardner wanted to do anyhow, but the fact that we advised it, if they were having trouble with something, they used it.

COLLINS: Yes. So in a sense it's possible it was confirmatory rather than recommendatory.

YORK: Well, it was all of those things, depending on the question. I think that, for example, the move away from the big humongous missile, the original version of the Atlas with a requirement for a thousand feet or two thousand feet accuracy. There were a number of people who regarded that as a mistake, and this conclusion may very well have been arrived at independently, but it was the von Neumann Committee with its credibility that finally drove this point home. I doubt that either Gardner or Schriever had to be really persuaded of this, but in order to overturn a formal requirement, you know, takes a lot of weight, so the fact that the von Neumann Committee was agreed with--and you could probably legitimately say independently arrived at the same conclusion, was a very important matter.

    I think probably the most important thing the von Neumann Committee did technically, in its early days, was to first of all say that you don't need this extraordinary accuracy for these early versions, a. Then b--but I don't think you'll find b in the report--eventually we're going to get it anyway but insisting on it now is screwing up the program.

COLLINS: Did this lead to any larger analysis of how the military establishes requirements for some of these advanced weapons systems?

YORK: Did it lead to any re-analysis of that? Not that I'm aware of. The von Neumann Committee didn't always get its way. I'm not sure, you may even find in there some recommendations, negative recommendations with respect to Snark and Navajo. I remember the committee was generally more negative about those than the program would give evidence of.

COLLINS: I want to return to the issue of the bringing together of all these different groups, that now might be construed as conflict of interest. It seems to me that this question of how the government and industry develop their relationship is one we've had trouble sorting out ever since the inception of this kind of activity. I guess I wonder whether you've had any thoughts about the appropriate way in which it ought to be executed. I want to make an observation, from the period that you're talking about; there seems to be a great unanimity of purpose, a great deal of trust between the two sectors, that seems to make this kind of collaboration possible as well as ethically appropriate.

YORK: It was the feeling of necessity that ultimately justified doing it the way we did. The same thing years later when I was in ARPA [Advance Research Project Agency], four or five years later than the period we've been talking about, when we also did things in a way that would not be allowed today. But it was the feeling of urgency. Even then, it shows how Convair didn't like the fact that Ramo was in the room with the people who were deciding on what the structure would be, and a structure that downgraded Convair's prior position and upgraded Ramo's prior position. Convair sure didn't like that, and as a result of that, that relationship was always under fire, especially after Ramo and Wooldridge expanded their company and included a lot of hardware as well. They went through a number of intermediate phases trying to invent a way of continuing this intimate relation with the Air Force, of providing systems integration and technical direction and at the same time doing hardware and trying to create internal barriers between those.

    At one point they tried to create something called Space Technology Laboratories [STL] as a separate company with its own board. They made Jimmy Doolittle chairman of the board--or did they make him president of the company? I think they made him chairman of the board. They needed a guy with a very positive character, positive in every way--you know, honest, purposeful, loyal, etc., to somehow or other create this image that Space Technology Laboratories is one thing and the hardware side of Ramo-Wooldridge is another thing. But it really didn't work, and the creation of the Aerospace Corporation, which still exists to this day, in 1960, was the final answer to this problem. You know, that intimate relationship was never fully accepted, and even though in the period '53 to '60 they did what they could to introduce administrative structures designed to separate hardware from systems engineering, they never succeeded to the satisfaction of the aerospace industry generally. So the Aerospace Corporation was created, which had its 25th anniversary not very long ago.

COLLINS: I guess that kind of casts the question a little bit differently. To make these kinds of collaborative efforts work between industry and government and universities as well, some close interaction is required, some ability to--as happened in these meetings--sit down and talk with one another and make some of these kinds of decisions seems to be required. I guess I wonder how administratively you can preserve that, and yet maintain this--

YORK: I don't know the answer. It's not easy. The problems exist, you know. The problems and questions exist today, of which the Defense scandals that have just come out are really, so to speak, the criminal part of it. There's the civil part of that issue, which is always there. The Defense Science Board is made up largely of people who are the--I'm probably exaggerating--but the executive vice president for R & D of a large number of major corporations, and more than half the people on that group are industrial. The same thing is true for the modern Air Force SAB, which still exists. Now in recent years there's yet another group where this becomes a serious problem. There is the for-profit think tank, of which there are a large number around, and which work in various degrees of intimacy with Pentagon decision makers. They even work with auditors. Every time somebody reaches the conclusion that this problem needs to be studied further, they're augmenting the total funds which go to the totality of these for-profit think tanks. They are a new problem that didn't exist. Ramo-Wooldridge in one sense was closely related to that, but it was different in that it dealt with just this one problem. Its assignment was to work with the Air Force and get these missiles built, whereas the modern for-profit think tank works across the board and is always aggressively seeking new pastures, new business, new funds and so on. The leaders of these companies make their money not so much from their salaries as from stock options. You have to grow in order to get a stock option to be worth a lot, you have to grow, and so the growth is a very powerful motivating force inside of the for-profit think tanks, and not inside of the nonprofit think tanks.

COLLINS: Growth obviously would also be a motivating factor in the for-profit commercial enterprises.

YORK: Yes, and the stimulus for growth is the stock options that people at the top have. I mean there are other stimuli as well. One's personal position may improve in a bigger company rather than a small one.

COLLINS: Do you have any final observations about how to solve--

YORK: No. I regard the current situation as being a mess that I don't know how to get out of. I see quite opposite things about it. One of them is that there's more and more of these intimate--to a greater and greater extent these intimate relationships are being turned into personal profit, especially through the private consultant and private think tank route. On the other hand, the bureaucracy designed to make it difficult to do anything and to get your hands on the information you need has become so stifling that there's really even more of a need than there was 30 years ago to have these special relationships. How to make that come out, I really don't know. I do regard the current situation as a very bad mess, and I don't mean the Pentagon scandals. That's a trivial public handle on this problem. The problem is the shenanigans that go on with respect to getting information so that you can make more business and more money, on the one hand, and the need to have this information flow from the people who know what's needed to the people who know what can be built, has set up a conflict that I don't know how to resolve.

    The word that describes the problem is bureaucracy. It's just much bigger than it used to be, many more levels, many more rules and restrictions with regard to everything--how to handle classified information, what's classified. The creation of all these black programs is really a part of that. Sometimes they're created in order to avoid the bureaucracy but in fact they really reinforce it. People use the analogy with the U-2, which was one of the earliest black programs. But when you have as many of them as we do, they do not escape the bureaucracy. They just create another one.

COLLINS: I guess the next step in your career was to become associated with the [Rowland] Gaither Panel.

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: One question there, because this is the committee which in part reinforced this notion or helped to bring forward this notion of a missile gap.

YORK: It really wasn't their invention. That was more the Democrats in Congress, and the missile press, and so on, yes. But they were part of it.

COLLINS: But as you examined this question in detail, what was the kind of information one used to assess Soviet manufacturing capability?

YORK: I can't remember in detail, but we had a lot of information about floor space, or we thought we did, and then certain information about test programs. I was getting into the intelligence world at that time. So were others. It wasn't just me. There was more of it, and it was becoming more available, partly as a result of actions taken by the 1954 Killian Panel. We had information about Soviet tests. We had information about Soviet manufacturing, floor space, and some general things like that, and of course, just the popular information about Soviet intentions. It was only three years after Stalin died, and it's important to remember the role that Stalin really had, and furthermore the role that he had in the minds of us individuals who were working in those days.

    Estimates were made based on Soviet intentions, the little we had them, data that I wasn't privy to about Soviet rocket development programs, stuff that had come out from defectors and from emigrees. It wasn't very reliable. Some of it was. The Germans didn't know anything but thought they did, but there were a few Russians as well. Then the U-2, although when I was on the Gaither Panel, I didn't know about the U-2, but the U-2 was getting pictures. Then there were the radars in Turkey, which I think I did know about at that time, getting information on the Soviet missile sites, especially the one at Kapustin Yar. Other data about floor space, which I have no idea where it came from, still don't in that particular case. I don't know what they were working with. Some U-2 data but probably not very much because the U-2 didn't cover very much of the Soviet Union. There may have been some pretty wild estimates made in the main. Trying to make estimates about what they were doing, and then a certain amount of knowledge about their program. When they made those tests in the spring of '57, that's before the Gaither Panel was finished, we knew that. I don't remember how we knew. But we had an awareness of--I mentioned the floor space I guess in my book, but it wasn't just that. It was the general awareness of the fact that there was a program which seemed to be somewhat ahead of ours in terms of actual flight tests at any rate, and general perceptions about Soviet purposes and aggressiveness. That's what led to those conclusions. As general background, that's what led to them.

COLLINS: Right. This was something that was addressed earlier, I guess, in one of your discussions about Jerry Wiesner.

YORK: Yes. I mentioned specifically he and I making some kind of estimates of Soviet missile production.

COLLINS: Right. How do you handle it, when you've got a key decision like this to make, and you have only imperfect information on which to make a judgment? What's the approach one takes?

YORK: One approach is to try and get better information, and that we're always trying to do. We spend more and more money every year, I guess it's still going up, on the technical means for gathering intelligence. When you talk about treaties, you call national technical means. So one approach is to improve the information, and the other is to improve the methods for reducing it. You never achieve perfection, for two reasons.

    One of them is that the world gets more and more complicated and sophisticated. There's more to know. There's more going on in the Soviet Union than there used to be, and it's more complex. On the other hand, when you have a growing program of people making various kinds of decisions and analyzing data, you also have the new people who tend to be unsophisticated about it.

    Then you have the additional problem of politics. If the intelligence services conclude that the Soviets are not quite so aggressive as (in this case it would always be) certain influential right-wing people--they don't want to believe it, and there's enough doubt that they don't believe it, and they argue it must be wrong. You have all these people in the intelligence community who think that the top isn't making the right conclusions either, so intelligence has become politicized.

COLLINS: Were you aware of this dynamic at the time, or did that exist then?

YORK: It existed, yes, but it's probably gotten a lot worse. It existed then, yes, because for example, there were leaks from Air Force intelligence in particular to several people in the press. I don't remember the names at the moment, but they were important columnists. Designed to show that America was in much greater imminent peril than the professional intelligence analysts and so on were concluding. Because some of them did think so. In particular there was, I think his name was Walsh, a chief of Air Force intelligence who was way out by himself with regard to the situation, what the Russians were doing, what it meant, and he and his staff were regularly leaking information to the press. [Joseph] Alsop was the name of a particularly difficult man in the press. You know the man, General Keegan, who was behind a lot of these wild stories early in the Reagan Administration, about what the Russians were about to do in space. He was Major Keegan at that time working in the Air Force, and whether he was the source of the leaks, I don't know, but the views he holds today were formed then.

    So within the intelligence community there are people who feel that the net conclusions are way off. Now it's normal practice within the intelligence community, when they write their final reports, their net assessments, to put footnotes about the Air Force doesn't agree with this, the CIA has a different view, or something. But that's a mere shadow of it. Some of these guys are much more extreme than those footnotes would ever indicate, and determined to do something about it, and have their personal relationships with somebody in the Senate or somebody in the Congress. It may be somebody on the Intelligence Committee, in which case it's legitimate to talk to him, and it may be somebody who's not, in which case it's a violation of the security rules to talk to them, but they do it anyway. I don't know how we got off on that tangent, but the whole business of providing and analyzing intelligence has become highly politicized, as more and more people know that it's going on and understand the importance of the role it takes.

COLLINS: We got started on that by my asking about how it was in this period.

YORK: Yes, and there was some of that even then, but it's much much worse today. The pipelines from organizations like Aviation Week and so on to the intelligence community, there are many more of them than there were in those earlier days. It's a problem that was prefigured then, but it's gotten worse.

COLLINS: I don't think I want to dwell any longer on the Gaither Committee unless you have some further comments on it.

YORK: No. My role on the Gaither Committee was less than either on the von Neumann Committee or on the Killian Committee, which comes next.

COLLINS: Why don't we move on to that? I was interested by the Base Assessment Panel, on which you and George Kistiakowsky and Piore did this assessment. Here's a group of people who professionally are not affiliated with developments in the missile program but the advisory committees are actually very much aware of that.

YORK: And, we were aware of learning how high tech programs go, the dynamics of high tech programs, because we were all in them.

COLLINS: I guess that leads to my follow-on question, then. How comparable are nuclear weapons development compared to missile development, which has more of a systems quality to it?

YORK: Yes, there are certainly a lot of differences. But Piore was at IBM at that time. It's true that developing a missile is fairly different from developing a weapon, which is what Kistiakowsky and I had had our personal experience with, but I'vd had five years and George maybe a little bit more to relate to missiles through these advisory committees, and relate to the real world of getting something done through the laboratories. So we'd had a number of years to understand what the similarities and differences are. One can always question whether we really did have the right background, but we were as good as anybody. I don't know who would have done it better, who wasn't deeply involved.

    What we did then was just spend long hours interviewing the people from the programs. We worked mainly with two programs, the Vanguard Program and the [Wernher] von Braun Program. Less so the Air Force Program.

COLLINS: Did you get a sense that these people felt you were the appropriate people to do this sort of evaluation?

YORK: Well, nobody talks back to the White House, you know. I don't know for sure what they thought. Maybe they didn't. Maybe they didn't. But if they didn't, they covered it up.

COLLINS: Just a little aside from the book, which is on page 109. As you were going around and doing this evaluation, trying to determine what might be appropriately accelerated, you looked briefly at the reconnaissance programs.

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: I'm wondering, from the way it's phrased in the book here, "We concluded that nothing much could be done to advance its already long scheduled first launch, still over a year away."

YORK: Yes.

COLLINS: Was this a sense simply that things were going well, or that there was no useful way to--

YORK: Things were going well, and there was a certain sequence of events that had to take place, and there was no way to speed those up. They weren't ready. They were not at a point where you simply could have taken their launch system and used it for this purpose. They were based on the Thor and the Atlas in those days, and those programs were solidly underway. There were various events, tests, and milestones, and the manufacturer of this or the availability of this or that piece of equipment--the collection of those things already constituted a solid program that, as I recall, there was no useful way to speed it up.

    Even if you tried, you'd probably interfere with the main program, and Eisenhower's personal policy was the civilian space program is not going to interfere with the military space program, or vice versa. He didn't want the military co-opting any civilian space program. You know, in December '57 that's all still jelling but within six months those conclusions--but I think Eisenhower even from the beginning felt that way: these two things, we're not going to let them muck each other up. Probably Killian felt that way, too.


COLLINS: Just a concluding question about this particular activity. You came up with a recommendation that was sort of cast in terms of quantification, if you will, and I'm reading from the book here. In sum, you wrote that "the Vanguard had only a fifty-fifty chance of ever working successfully during the next year, or the Jupiter C had a fifty-fifty chance of working on the very first try, which we agreed could be made in about six weeks. "How did you come to be able to take the evaluation and put it into kind of a quantified form like that?

YORK: It had to do with judgments about the people running the program, how much they knew about it, the complexity of the program, the degree of experience with the particular rockets that were involved, and we simply concluded that there was a much more powerful base behind the Army program than there was behind the other one. None of us were friends of the Army or von Braun, you know. I think that we would have preferred it would come out the other way.

COLLINS: Was there any particular value in reducing it to those terms for presentation to Killian and the President?

YORK: Well, I think so. I mean the idea is to make it clear, concise and brief. I don't know what more to say. See, there were these tremendous disappointments. There were things that were failing, and so the question of the probability of success, the probabilities of near term success were on everybody's mind. Now, whether we used those figures for the President because we thought that would be the best for the President, or whether we did them for our own satisfaction, I'm not sure, but it was a day in which the question was not what can we do eventually. The question was what can we do about this business that the Russians have got these satellites up, that we've got these rockets falling off their launch pads. We've got people out there making promises that are not working out. What can we do?

    So the notion that the von Braun program was likely to work the first time, fifty-fifty, and that the Navy program was not likely to work the first time, that was the dimension that not only the President but the rest of us, that's what we cared about, was, how do we get out of this mess? When will we be able to do what we've been saying we're going to do, which is launch a satellite?

COLLINS: We'll leave it at that. Thanks very much.

YORK: Yes.

York 2 || Table of contents

Rev. 09/06/96

© 1996 National Air and Space Musuem