William T. Golden Oral History Interview

Oral History Interview with
William T. Golden

Securities analyst during the 1930s; officer in the United States Navy, 1941-46; Assistant to the Commissioner, Atomic Energy Commission (AEC), 1946-50; consultant to the AEC, 1950-58; Special consultant to the U.S. President to review organization of the Government's military-scientific activities incident to the Korean War, consultant to Director of the Budget, 1950-51; member of military procurement task force of the Commission on Organization of the Executive Branch of Government (Hoover Commission), 1954-55.

Washington, D.C.
June 24, 1989 and August 1, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson

[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendix | List of Subjects Discussed]


This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.

Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. [45]) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.

This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.

Opened November, 1992
Harry S. Truman Library
Independence, Missouri


[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | Appendix | List of Subjects Discussed]


Oral History Interview with
William T. Golden


Washington, D.C.
June 24, 1989
by Niel M. Johnson

Summary Description:

Topics discussed by Mr. Golden include the policy-making role of scientists in Government; Atomic Energy Act of 1946; the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC); Military Liaison Committee of the AEC; Research and Development Board of the Defense Department; civilian control of atomic energy; Steelman report; efforts to establish the position of science adviser to the President; National Science Foundation; Scientific Research Advisory Board of the Office of Defense Mobilization; decision to develop the hydrogen bomb; the breeder reactor; military procurement task force of the second Hoover Commission; and the President's Committee on Defense Scientific Research.

Names mentioned include Fred Lawton, Charles Stauffacher, Elmer Staats, Lewis Strauss, William Webster, Vannevar Bush, James B. Conant, Mervin Kelly, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leslie Groves, Edward Teller, Robert Bacher, John Steelman, Donald Dawson, Detlev Bronk, Lucius Clay, Oliver Buckley, Charles E. Wilson, George Merck, Sidney Souers, R. Gordon Arneson, McGeorge Bundy, William Waymack, Sumner Pike, and Alan Waterman.


JOHNSON: Since we are short on time, Mr. Golden, I'm not going into some of the background that I usually get. That, I think, is in the printed sources. But I will ask what were perhaps the most important influences prior to your service with the government, influences on your values and your career.

GOLDEN: Well, I had always been interested in science and technology from earliest childhood. I became a ham radio operator and got my radio transmitting license when I was just 13 years old. That was the greatest sense of achievement I've ever had. You had to take a test; go down to the Custom House and take a test on code and also on some technical matters. They were mostly simple, but not for a thirteen year old. I got my station, my call letters 2AEN, and I was very proud and pleased. I was always interested in science;


and I was encouraged by my parents.

JOHNSON: But you went into something else, investment banking?

GOLDEN: Yes, and I decided to go into investment banking. I was also interested in other things. But in college at the University of Pennsylvania, I had to make my mind up and I thought of going to law school, medical school, teaching English, literature, a number of other fields including being a biologist or a physicist. All these fields interested me. I finally decided in the second half of my senior year, I'd go to the Harvard Business School. I won't go into the somewhat romantic ideas I had about what you could do on Wall Street, which I knew nothing about other than having read a few stories. But I had the idea that if you go there and if you have the right turn of mind, you can get into and out of businesses, if your judgment is right. My father had been a small businessman, in the woolen business, and he was necessarily very strongly influenced by seasonal things beyond his control -- the weather, the climate, the general business situation, things like that. I saw that, and I thought well, in Wall Street if you have the judgment and foresight you can get out of one business and into another business, and you can do it with any amount of money. I had $400


saved up from my college allowances, and that was going to be my capital. And it was.

So I was accepted by the Harvard Business School and after one year there, 1930-31, I was fortunate to get a job with in Wall Street in the depths of the Depression. And I was able to make some money. By having some money, you can have the freedom of deciding what you want to do, if you want to do other things. Briefly, that's it. I was very fortunate that worked out that way. I got a good job with honorable and very able people, as a securities analyst. After ten years there I went into the Navy in the summer of 1941 as a civilian expert under contract until I was commissioned as a lieutenant after a waiver was granted for my nearsightedness (2/20 and 4/20) but fully corrected by glasses. The waiver was granted by request of the Chief of the Bureau or Ordnance after several attempts by me to improve my test score by exercises.

I stayed throughout the war as a Lieutenant Commander until the beginning of '46. I was in the Navy Department a large part of those four and a half years, including an aircraft at time, although I was also out at sea, in both oceans, on a wide variety of ships including an aircraft carrier and a submarine. I had an invention which the Navy later used (and after the war patented for me) that was incidental to my


work, and which also had a technical flavor and mechanical-electrical interest. It was a cyclic rate control device for antiaircraft machine guns. A U.S. patent is an impressive looking document, complete with gold seal and ribbon.

I got to know something about the Government by being in the Washington scene. I had never been interested in that before, so the exposure did a lot for me.

JOHNSON: You were stationed here in Washington, D.C.?

GOLDEN: I was stationed in Washington, in the Bureau of Ordnance. I had additional duty in the Chief of Naval Operations' office, on war plans, and then in the Secretary of the Navy's office for additional duty. Then, I was at sea from time to time on everything from aircraft carriers to submarines -- but not very long on any of them. And I got to know people who had been in the Government. Some of the people I met in the Navy Department then had previously been in the Bureau of the Budget, and other places in the Federal Government.

JOHNSON: Fred Lawton for instance? You got acquainted with Fred Lawton?

GOLDEN: Fred Lawton, yes. He was Director of the Bureau of the Budget around 1950. 1 met him primarily through


Stauffacher and through Elmer Staats. It was Charlie Stauffacher who was Assistant Director, and Elmer Staats, who I met through Charlie. I met Charlie in the Navy. And that's how these things kind of worked.

Well, I had decided in the Navy that after the war I was going to look toward spending maybe half my time on not-for-profit activities that would be interesting and useful. That had been my idea originally when I decided to work in Wall Street and it was working out and I was really going to stick to it. I didn't want to try to be the richest man on Wall Street, or the richest man in the graveyard as the saying goes. So I told lots of people I'm prepared to work on things, without getting paid, that will be interesting and useful.

To shorten this a bit, the most attractive thing that came along quite soon after the war was the Atomic Energy Commission. Lewis Strauss, whom I had met and got to know well in the Navy, and who had been in Wall Street (but I had not known him there), was asked to become a member of the Commission. He knew of my interest in science and technology and in doing some interesting and useful work. He asked if I would come down and help him get it organized. He was one of five commissioners. He asked if I would come down for maybe three months, back to Washington.


Well, I couldn't think of anything more exciting than the AEC. I was there from the first day, along with the five commissioners and three other staff members.

JOHNSON: The AEC, established by the Atomic Energy Act.

GOLDEN: The McMahon Act that was passed that summer of 1946. It was during that summer, while my wife and I were driving around seeing the USA, we decided that when I got out of the Navy the first thing we were going to do was see the country, before I got into any ruts, new or old. You name the place, and we've probably been there. It was not long, but it was a wonderful experience. We spent seven months driving around the country (and parts of Mexico and Canada). My wife kept a daily travel diary and I had it typewritten and bound: "A Happy Journey."

JOHNSON: What was your position, your role then, in the AEC?

GOLDEN: I was Assistant to Commissioner Lewis L. Strauss.

JOHNSON: All right.

GOLDEN: I was always an independent in politics by the way. He was a very "Republican" Republican as you may know, and Harry Truman was a very "Democratic" Democrat, and


I have been a very "Independent" Independent always.

JOHNSON: And, of course, you were supporting the civilian control of atomic energy, of atomic weapons.

GOLDEN: Right.

JOHNSON: Did you believe at that time that scientists should be given policy-making roles in the Government?

GOLDEN: Well, I think that I didn't think of it that way, but I think I would have thought so to a degree, yes, as one component of the orchestra. A lot of scientists are very bright people but not very practical. I think now, and would have thought then, they should be a component of the policy-making and I think very much so now.

JOHNSON: Was it necessary to clarify the role of the scientist and the military in the control of atomic energy before steps could be taken to establish a scientific adviser to the President?

GOLDEN: I don't think that had any direct relevance. I should say it had a relevance, but I don't think that was an important element in deciding that there ought to be a science adviser to the President, regardless of how the division of authority would go with military and civilian people.


JOHNSON: But you were thinking of a civilian scientist, as adviser, not a military scientist?

GOLDEN: Yes, very definitely. But the most important functions were things relating to military matters at that time. That's not so anymore. Now it's important but there are so many others. But then the focus of interest was on military aspects, military applications, and relevance, but not only that.

JOHNSON: Did you feel that the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 nationalized, or socialized, the production and use of atomic energy, and perhaps did this help prepare the way for an advisory committee to the President on science in general?

GOLDEN: Well, I think one thing it did, was to prepare my mind and acquaint me with a very wide range of the scientific community. I got to know them. So I think the answer is "yes," the existence of the AEC and the involvement of scientists in public affairs certainly did help. I hadn't thought of it, but yes, I would say it helped prepare the climate.

JOHNSON: The Military Liaison Committee, that was the contact between the AEC and the Defense Department was it not?

GOLDEN: Right.


JOHNSON: Did you have much interaction with the Military Liaison Committee?

GOLDEN: Yes, I did. As assistant to Lewis Strauss, I had a very broad charter. I was the only assistant; the other commissioners didn't have assistants, and I think I got along well with all of the commissioners, I think with mutual respect and friendship.

JOHNSON: The military was not lobbying for military control, none of the military people that you knew?

GOLDEN: No. The McMahon Act established civilian control. No, I never saw any signs of lobbying to undo what the Act had accomplished. But the Liaison Committee was very important, just as it sounds.

JOHNSON: In your interviews in 1950 the majority of your respondents seemed to feel the RDB, the Research and Development Board, in the Defense Department was not living up to expectations. But most of RDB's critics did not seem to have suggestions that would remedy the problem. Do you recall what might have accounted for this skepticism about the Research and Development Board? I think some of this does come out in the papers, but if you want to elaborate on it a little.

GOLDEN: Well, I think to give you a really thoughtful response to that would take some time. You stimulate


me to think back on those days when Bill Webster was the director, and I knew him well. I knew the cast of characters very well. You know, it's much easier to complain than it is to subscribe, so you've said that in other words, and that was true. I would just say that. There was room for improvement but it was a very useful entity and people wanted it to be more useful. Well, yes, it should have been.

JOHNSON: Sure. Apparently, there was some personality conflict between Vannevar Bush and the President, President Truman.

GOLDEN: Well, they were both very strong-willed people. I knew Van Bush; I got to know him quite well. He was very pleasant and helpful to me. I was quite a young man at the time (born in 1909), and he was helpful. He and Lewis Strauss were not the warmest of friends; they were polite and so on, but Van Bush was a very independent character. So was Harry Truman; and Lewis Strauss was, in a different way. So I think there were some, yes, personality tensions there.

JOHNSON: But did that retard progress toward important goals as far as you could see?

GOLDEN: I'm not mindful of that.

JOHNSON: Now Dr. [James B.] Conant, he appeared to favor a


very strong military role, if not control, in the AEC and he thought the "new OSRD" (Office of Scientific Research and Development) should be in the Department of Defense. Was that not an unusual position for a top-flight civilian scientist to take?

GOLDEN: I would really have to refresh my memory on Jim Conant's positions on these matters. In general, I think what you have said is consistent with my memory. As you stated it, if it's not overstated, and I'm not sure, he was unusual in that; yes, very much so.

JOHNSON: I notice you apparently were especially "sold" on Mervin Kelly, Assistant Director of Bell Laboratories?


JOHNSON: He was in industrial research, and not a university prof or a college president. Kelly recommended [J. Robert] Oppenheimer as an adviser. Was Oppenheimer under a cloud yet in December of 1950?

JOHNSON: No, but yes. Oppenheimer had always been suspect by General Groves, who had kept very close tabs on him and no doubt had him tapped and whatno