Home / General / Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 926

Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 926


This is the grave of Vannevar Bush.

Born in 1890 in Everett, Massachusetts, Bush grew up in a pretty well-off family. His father was a prominent local minister who had gone to Tufts for college, which is where Vannevar would also attend. He received both his BA and MA in 1913–Tufts had an accelerated master’s program which is something becoming more common again today in higher education. He became an engineer with General Electric. Didn’t work out. He was suspended after a fire broke out in a plant where he was working. He left and went into teaching for awhile. He then enrolled at MIT for his PhD and very quickly submitted some work for a dissertation, which made his advisor mad since much of that was done before he started there and the advisor wanted more from him. But he had a young family to support and so appealed over the advisor’s head and got the degree.

Bush then took a job as a professor at Tufts. He didn’t stay long. His skills made the private sector come a-callin’. He worked with American Radio and Research Corporation (AMRAD) and then took a job at MIT in 1922 where he still worked with AMRAD. Radio technology became his specialty. Soon, he and his fellow engineers created a little company they named Raytheon. Nothing bad has ever happened with that company since. Bush became rich, as their work had enormous value to both the private sector and the defense industry, as it began to develop some years later. Bush also became involved in early computing, constructing a differential analyzer that could solve complex equations. GE quickly bought rights to it, making Bush even wealthier. For this, Bush won the Franklin Institute’s Louis E. Levy Medal in 1928. Bush became the dean of MIT’s School of Engineering in 1932. By this time, he was one of the elite engineers in the nation.

In 1938, Bush left MIT for the Carnegie Institute of Washington. This placed him in a powerful position in Washington as World War II preparations began. He was almost immediately appointed to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was the precursor to NASA. When its chairman became ill, Bush stepped in and ran the thing. He rapidly had to learn to lobby skeptical politicians on the value of building up the defense industry but he learned how to do it, even though he hated speaking to lowly non-scientists like politicians. In 1940, he got a meeting with FDR to propose the National Defense Research Committee, which Roosevelt immediately approved, laying the groundwork for more collaboration between the military and civilian engineers. The Navy hated Bush, thinking he was an interloper, though the Army was OK with him. He did make one big mistake here, which was turning down the initial funding request for digital computing, which became EINAC after the Army finally did fund it in 1943. Basically, Bush didn’t think it could get done in time to play a role in winning the war. Understandable, but also a bit short-sighted. On the other hand, when the British approached Bush with a powerful radar system, he used his authority to create a whole laboratory for radar research, which later gave the Allies a huge advantage in detecting German submarines and played a big role in busting the German blockade of Britain.

The next year, Roosevelt created the Office of Scientific Research and Development and named Bush its head. He agreed and left the NDRC. He was very skilled at avoiding bureaucratic entanglements, which probably meant he was ideal for the job. One of the biggest challenges was getting draft deferments for employees of top scientific and engineering agencies. They couldn’t just issue a blanket deferral. So this became a major part of the OSRD’s mission early in World War II, and well over 95% of the request deferrals were granted. This became a powerful agency, with 6,000 researchers by 1945.

Now, through all of this, Bush had the worst possible attitude that is all too common with engineers–that all other fields of inquiry are completely worthless. At CIW, he decimated what had been the leading archaeology program in the nation, thinking it had no value. It was the home of Isis, which is today still a leading journal in the history of science. But Bush thought history had no value either, including the history of science. He slashed funding for the journal. Simply put, he had no interest and in fact complete contempt for any form of knowledge that was not applicable to private industry or the government. Alas, people like Bush rule the university systems these days.

But there’s no question that Bush was a key figure in both winning the war and creating the military-industrial complex that would explode after the war. Bush was critical in convincing the government to create the Manhattan Project. Bush then became part of the Top Policy Group to oversee the project. It also Bush who convinced Roosevelt to let the Army run it because the relationship between him and the Navy was so bad. Bush was highly dissatisfied with the disorganized way it was run in its early days and so he maneuvered to get someone real to oversee it on a daily basis. That was Leslie Groves. Bush was far more satisfied after this, if Oppenheimer wasn’t.

As the war was about to end, Bush was concerned about a nuclear arms race, but when Truman became president, his ability to shape policy with the more hawkish president was pretty limited and Truman didn’t pay him much attention. So Bush started pushing for a more official peacetime role for scientific-government cooperation. This became the National Science Foundation in 1950, but only after five years of insider politics delaying Congress from passing the bill to create it. Bush wrote Science, the Endless Frontier, a report urging long-term government investment in science as a way to create military preparedness and national greatness, which helped get the agency created. Again, he played a critical role in developing the military-industrial complex.

By 1952, Bush was really out with Truman, who had gone all in on an aggressive militarism against the Soviets. For instance, he and other top scientists urged Truman hold off on testing the hydrogen bomb in hopes that a deal could be made with the Soviets that would limit the inevitable arms race to follow. Truman completely rejected their advice. When Oppenheimer had his security clearance stripped in 1954 due to ridiculous right-wing accusations that the father of the Manhattan Project being unpatriotic, Bush took to the pages of the New York Times to rip the federal government a new one. This was bold, but also ensured he would remain on the outs in Washington. Politicians and Bush never did really get along. His position on government funding of science was that government should fund science and then just stay out of the way. This did not go well with the egos of senators, nor the desire to get defense plants placed in particular states and districts to get jobs. So they did not appreciate being told to stick it by a scientist who also demanded money.

So Bush spent the last years of his working life in private industry. It’s not as if every big company with a foot in the defense industry didn’t want him around. He joined the board of AT&T in 1947 and stayed there for fifteen years. He became chairman of the board at Merck in 1957 and continued at that until 1962. He was a trustee of various colleges, etc. He was doing the rich old guy thing. He won all the big awards. Truman gave him the Medal of Merit in 1948 (regardless of how little they thought of each other). LBJ gave him the National Medal of Science in 1963. Nixon created an Atomic Pioneers Award in 1970 so he could give it to Bush, Groves, and James Conant. The French also named him to the Legion of Honor in 1955. He also published a couple of books later in life, Science is Not Enough in 1967 and Pieces of the Action in 1970.

Bush mostly retired in 1962. He lived in Massachusetts after that, dying after a stroke in 1974. He was 84 years old.

Vannevar Bush is buried in South Dennis Cemetery, South Dennis, Massachusetts.

If you would like this series to visit other people associated with the Manhattan Project, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. James Conant is in Cambridge, Massachusetts and James C. Marshall is at West Point. Also Leo Szilard is in Budapest if you want to send me there. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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