Scientists At War


Blackett and some colleagues discovered from combat data that the command’s assumptions were true on average , but not nearly all the time. Furthermore, in those cases where the U-boat dived one hundred feet, the airplane pilot could no longer tell just where the submarine was and would, therefore, almost certainly miss. In some cases, however, the warning time was much less than two minutes, and the U-boat could descend only about twenty-five feet before the aircraft dropped its load: in those cases, the sub could still be located and hit. Therefore, if the depth charges were set at twenty-five feet instead of one hundred, the percentage of submarines actually damaged or destroyed would be much higher.

The coastal command followed the recommendations, and results were so spectacular that captured German Uboat crews thought that the British had started using a powerful new explosive. But of course the cause was simply a slight change in tactics, systematically calculated by OR scientists engaged in nothing more complicated than standard scientific methods of investigation—with the difference that they were being applied to military tactics in wartime.

Similar techniques were developed to show that, contrary to conventional military wisdom, large naval convoys are safer than small ones, that fighter planes should fly every day they are serviceable regardless of whether enough can be put up in the air to fly in large formations.

By the end of the war, every U.S. Army Air Force unit had its own operational analysis division. The scientists not only worked on calculations in the home office but also went out to the fronts to gather data and make suggestions on how new tactics might be applied to the new weapons. Toward the latter part of the war, scientists were not just asked for advice; they were invited to sit alongside the generals and colonels in Washington headquarters and to participate directly in war planning.


AKEY PLAYER in this new phase of civilian involvement was Edward Bowles. Bowles had come to the Office of Scientific Research and Development from the MIT Radiation Lab at the start of the war, then transferred to the War Department to serve as special consultant to the secretary of war, Henry Stimson, and to Gen. George Marshall. Starting in 1943 he worked on adapting techniques of air warfare to the possibilities offered by the new scientific devices. Bowles had a tremendous faith in the power that comes from the fusion of military might with scientific brilliance.


But Bowles was practically a skeptic in this faith compared with Gen. Henry Harley Arnold. Everyone called Arnold “Hap” because he was steadily amiable and nearly always wore a broad smile. Yet behind the smile was a mind obsessed with destructive power and with the role that scientists might play in making future weapons still more destructive. When he heard that Secretary of War Stimson had doubts about the bombing of Dresden, Arnold wrote a memorandum: “We must not get soft. War must be destructive and to a certain extent inhuman and ruthless.” He wanted his scientists to invent “explosives more terrible and more horrible than anyone has any idea of. ”

Arnold considered himself a visionary. Four months before Germany was defeated, seven months before Japan surrendered, he called in his top officers and said: “We’ve got to think of what we’ll need in terms of twenty years from now. For the last twenty years we have built and run the Air Force on pilots. But we can’t do that anymore.” Arnold said he foresaw an age when intercontinental missiles would dominate warfare and that the Air Force would have to change radically to confront the challenges of this new age. His small audience sat in stunned silence. Every man in the room was a pilot.

Hap Arnold was worried. He was fifty-five when the war began. He was among those responsible for making something of air power, and he wanted to leave a legacy. The future he saw would be an age of intercontinental missiles, robots, super destructiveness; but what would happen, he wondered, to all the scientists who were proving so valuable to the present war effort? After the war, peacetime demobilization would quickly spread to their ranks as well; they would go back to lucrative jobs in universities and industry; certainly the meager salaries of civil service would hardly serve as incentive for them to stay in and help their country prepare for World War III.

On November 7, 1944, Arnold wrote a memo to his chief scientific adviser, a brilliant Hungarian refugee named Theodor Von Kármán. “I believe,” it began, “the security of the United States of America will continue to rest in part in developments instituted by our educational and professional scientists. I am anxious that the Air Force’s post war and next war research and development programs be placed on a sound and continuing basis …

“I am asking you and your associates to divorce yourselves from the present war in order to investigate all the possibilities and desirabilities for post war and future war’s development.”