Wednesday, March 23, 2005

The End of the Frontier: Vannevar Bush & Harry S. Truman

I have made the case elsewhere (Oh Canada! Wilbert Smith & The UFOs) that Vannevar Bush was an extremely unlikely choice to be tapped by President Truman for anything to do with a crashed flying saucer, whether it was the supposed MJ-12 group or the committee referred to by Smith in his famous (or, in my opinion, infamous) "Top Secret" memo which , among other things, detailed his conversation with American scientist Dr. Robert Sarbacher.

Why? Because, to put it in the vernacular, the two were on the "outs" - Bush was Rossevelt's man. With the ascension of Truman to the Presidency, Bush's spot at the top of the scientific establishment in Washington was effectively finished.

In my MJ-12 Mea Culpa, I raised four points for Stan Friedman to answer with respect to MJ-12, one of which was the unlikelihood that Bush would be tapped by Truman for any such project. To his credit, Stan responded to this particular point by sending me the relevant excerpt from Bush's memorandum of his meeting with Truman and Secretary of Defence James Forrestal on 24 September, 1947. It was at this meeting that MJ-12 was supposedly established by Truman, with Forrestal and Bush as key members.

The problem for Stan and other MJ-12 defenders is that Bush's memo of the conference, far from demonstrating that Truman considered Bush a trusted advisor (the kind you would put on a project like MJ-12), reveals the opposite.

Bush was there to discuss with Truman the prospect of Bush taking on the chairman's job at the newly formed Research and Development Board. It was not the job that Bush had been angling for - he wanted the post of Secretary of Defense, as noted by historian Pascal Zachary in Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century (at pp. 322-323). Still, Bush was willing to take the RDB position for a year or so, but only on one condition - if the scientists in the country felt that he had the confidence of the President.

According to Bush, Truman replied that he did not see how they could think otherwise, and that Bush "certainly had his confidence."

That was not enough for Bush, however, who knew better. He told Truman that "inasmuch as he had not called me in for anything for a year, and since the last report that was made on the future of science in this country was made by someone else [PK note - Bush's rival John Steelman], scientists naturally gathered that I was not in his confidence."

This is a remarkable moment for anyone who thinks that Bush had retained any influence in the Truman administration. In the first place, he was being given a consolation job. In the second, he was not willing to take it unless Truman specifically expressed his confidence in him - twice! A man who knew he had the President's confidence would not have had to ask at all.

Truman again assured Bush that he had his confidence, and that Truman had not really realised that Bush had not had anything to do with the preparation of the Steelman report. He then told Bush that, "if it had not been true in the past, I would rather be frequently in contact and that if there was an impression that [Bush] did not have [Truman's] confidence that that impression would soon be corrected by future relations."

Bush took the job. He lasted, as he had predicted that day, less than a year, leaving the RDB in a mess after failing to secure Truman's confidence in his ongoing battles with the Joint Chiefs (see letter from V. Bush to James Forrestal, 8 September 1948 - NARA, RG 218, CDF 1948 - 1950, 334 RDB, 102). In 1948 Bush was specifically excluded from Truman's special advisory committee for an appraisal of progress in atomic research, a final snub to the man who had been instrumental in the creation of the atomic bomb in the first place (see Truman's Memoirs: Years of Trial and Hope, pp. 298 - 303; it is one of the few references he makes to scientific issues, indicating its importance).

In 1950, William Golden, Truman's science advisor, noted after a conversation with Bush that "Bush is now on the outside so far as Government scientific matters are concerned, a position of which he is very conscious and to which he referred time and time again. Though President Truman is very cordial to him he does not call upon him for advice, though Dr. Bush has pointed this out to him on a number of occasions. It is very evident that Dr. Bush, who had a very close working relationship with President Roosevelt, does not approve of the current state of affairs." (See the American Association for the Advancement of Science archives, Memoranda of William T. Golden, "Memorandum to File: Conversation with Dr. Vannevar Bush")

None of this should come as a surprise to anyone who has studied the totality of Bush's government service, in particular the rapid decline in his influence once Truman suddenly came to power. Take the New York Times obituary for Bush (30 June 1974, pp. 1 and 36), for example. The Times devoted six columns to Bush's life, but only two paragraphs to his work after the end of the Second World War. Similarly, Physics Today (September 1974, pp. 71 - 72) observed that Bush would be "chiefly remembered for his leadership of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II" and the twenty years prior to 1938, when "he attained great distinction as a professor of electrical engineering at MIT."

Of course, all of this was painfully obvious to Bush, who had discovered the true nature of his relationship with Truman on 14 June, 1945. Truman, in a 15 minute meeting that day, told Bush that he "liked" Bush's Endless Frontier report, which Bush saw as the blueprint for the future of science in the United States (a future that would have Bush at the helm). It was eerily similar to Truman's expression of "confidence" in Bush at the 24 September, 1947 meeting.

Bush left the June 1945 meeting no doubt feeling good about his prospects.

Later that day, a presidential aide told him that Truman had rejected "Endless Frontier."

Not the president himself; an aide.

It is a snub that is indicative of what Truman really thought of Vannevar Bush, a man who, as he got the news, must have realised that he had reached the beginning of the end of his own, once seemingly endless, frontier in government service.

Paul Kimball


RRRGroup said...


This is very interesting, and I accept your conclusion(s) that Bush and Truman were not as close as Friedman and MJ-12 intimate.


Supposing that Truman, a practical, mundane man, a politician who was politcally astute but not intellectual by a long shot, confronted by the "reality" that flying saucers had crashed (or existed) decided to set up an operation or secret group (MJ-12 for instance) because it would be judicious to do so...

But suppose further that Truman's heart wasn't in the "reality" and his directives were pro forma more than sincere...

Then he would put in place persons he trusted (perhaps -- Truman was wary of those who had positions of power and place in Roosevelt's administration) and persons whom he just didn't care about, one way or the other....Bush, for instance,
and this to just fill seats, which is exactly what happened when members left the MJ-12 group (because of death, retirement, or other considerations).

Truman was a practical man. UFOs or flying saucers wouldn't impact the man. They were arcane, not a viable reality for a politician, and Truman wasn't anything if he wasn't a politician through and through....and while bright as a politician in the era of the 40s, he was, after all, an ignorant man.

(I cite his use of the atom bomb on Japan and his treatment of General MacArthur, the brightest military man of his time.)

MJ-12, if it truly existed -- and I don't think it did -- was a hand-off, a sop to those who gave credence to alien aircraft or even had access to one such vehicle, from Roswell or somewhere else.

The point is that one can't argue the issue of MJ-12 without taking into account that Truman was not a President who would deal with the topic of flying saucers intellectually.

Truman was incapable of such ratiocination. That's why Alger Hiss was able to continue his nefarious U.N./Department of State treason, and Dean Acheson was able to undercut America vis a vis the U.S.S.R.

MJ-12 and Truman are oil and water. Much more has to be garnered before either gets any credibility from me.

But Paul, this is excellent historical rumination [sic].

Rich Reynolds

Paul Kimball said...


I have amuch higher regard for Truman than you do, apparently. But then I would have dropped the bomb, and then dropped it again, given the circumstances; I also would have fired MacArthur sooner than Truman did.

Truman took national security very seriously - indeed, it was the primary focus for much of his administration. Flying saucers - no matter what the likes of Adamski, or Greer, or Salla, would have us believe - would have been a threat if they had existed. I have no doubt that Truman would have placed the his most trusted, and talented, people in charge of the problem / investigation, even as I acknowledge that it is quite possible he would not have spent a great deal of time thinking about the more intellectual or existential components of the UFO phenomenon.


RRRGroup said...


Truman had no idea what national security meant. Check what happened at Potsdam.

The guy didn't know what was going on in his own State Department.

Whittaker Chambers (and Nixon) confirmed that. And Joe McCarthy, no matter what revisionist history tells us, also opened our eyes to the shortcomings of Truman (and Eisenhower of course).

National Security was a joke. We didn't contain the Russians and we lost the atom bomb to them.

So "flying saucers" -- being an esoteric phenomenon -- would, in no way, have impacted Truman or anyone in his administration.

These men were worldly not imaginative.

MJ-12 is out of place for Truman and his thought (or lack of same) processes.

Truman is thought of as daring and strong, mostly because of the Japanese bombing. But that foul act was unimaginative and morally deficient.

But this is about UFOs and MJ-12, both not clearly delineated. And I can't imagine Truman having any part of such a group. It (MJ-12) was too specific.

The Robertson Panel represents the thinking of the time. MJ-12 is too forward-looking -- too 1980ish.

MJ-12 is anachronistic; that's its main flaw....then there are all those other queer elements, which you've addressed and will address.

(And I know most probably agree with your assessment of Truman, but I am a total contrarian when it comes to the man. He was a total buffoon as far as I'm concerned, but that doesn't mean I don't appreciate or respect your views, which are as valid, or moreso than mine.)

Rich Reynolds