Milestones of Innovation 8: Ten Minutes in White House Shapes World War II

Opinion

Seventy-five years ago today, science took a seat next to the American presidency. It was a move of immense and continuing consequences for innovation in this country and across the world, not only in a war to the death but in the decades of uneasy peace that followed.

The actual event on June 12, 1940 was a 10-minute conversation between a flinty, decisive Yankee admirer of Herbert Hoover, electrical engineer Vannevar Bush, and the sunny Hudson Valley grand seigneur, Franklin Roosevelt. Bush, who became head of the Carnegie Institution of Washington in 1939, had sought the meeting from the President’s uncle Frederic Delano, Carnegie trustee and veteran of a 1930s effort to assess America’s resources for economic growth and military strength.

This gutsy, heart-in-mouth swing for the fences triggered a preparatory meeting with Roosevelt’s closest counselor, the relentlessly practical Iowan, Harry Hopkins, whom Winston Churchill was soon to call “Lord Root of the Matter.” And now Hopkins escorted Bush in to see the Boss.

Robert Sherwood, the playwright and Roosevelt speech-writer, wrote in his biography of Hopkins: “Always receptive to new ideas that were both daring and big, Hopkins was immediately impressed with Bush’s proposal and with Bush himself. There were certain points of resemblance between the two men. Bush was also thin, quick, sharp, and untrammeled in his thinking. He knew what he was talking about and he stated it with brevity, and, like Hopkins, with a good sprinkling of salt.”

Bush had polished his stiff-necked, take-charge confidence in such roles as founder of high-technology companies like Raytheon, inventor of large-scale analog calculators, a powerful member of MIT’s electrical engineering department, and then MIT’s vice president and dean of engineering.

In the late 1930s, indeed, MIT’s president since 1929, Karl Compton, was so eager to keep Bush that he offered to yield him the presidency and step up to chairman of the trustees. But Bush, sensing the war that would soon break out, was determined to get to Washington, bond with key players, and thrash out with other scientific leaders like James Conant of Harvard a plan to avoid the mistakes on mobilizing science that had exasperated them in World War I.

Around 4:30 p.m. on the day that Paris, about to fall to the Nazis, was declared an Open City, Bush presented a six-point, one-page blueprint for a new relationship between science and the state. The idea was to set up a scientist-run National Defense Research Committee with its own money to supplement and goad military research by pushing development of new weapons to be used as fast as possible in the present war. The committee would mobilize the nation’s scientific talent, including many refugees, largely through research contracts that would be carried out in the scientists’ usual surroundings on university campuses—not in the ineffective arsenal set-up of the previous war.

The plan expressed Bush’s impatience with military men who had done little to grasp how new technology, like the tanks and planes and submarines of World War I, kept revolutionizing warfare. He put it bluntly, “If we had been on our toes in war technology ten years ago, we would probably not have had this damn war.” The military couldn’t even agree on the shopping list of how much of what they needed and when. It would be a tall order to establish close collaboration with them. So Bush’s NDRC would have to be seen clearly to have the ear of the President.

Bush’s brief memorandum excited Xconomy’s founder Bob Buderi when many years later he came across it at the FDR Library in Hyde Park as he researched his history of radar, The Invention That Changed the World. Bush expected tough questions and a longer meeting, but after about 10 minutes, the President said, “You can write, ‘OK, FDR,’ on it.” Bush was back in the corridor with the authority he wanted. The deal was formalized three days later in a letter Bush wrote for Roosevelt.

The results of Bush’s plan were phenomenal. Over the next five years, he and his outfit, which expanded a year later into the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD), sparked a war-winning array of developments. Here are four of them: the radar that drove Hitler’s submarines away from the bridge of ships to England, the proximity fuse that multiplied the punch of artillery on sea and land, the mass manufacture of penicillin that slashed the infections that once  devastated armies, and the atomic bomb that suddenly ended the war against Japan far earlier than expected.

This demonstration of the power of scientific research as the equalizer in a desperate struggle between democracies and dictatorships revolutionized people’s respect for science. It certainly helped boost beyond 2 percent the share of research into life sciences and physical sciences alike, in the gross product of advanced economies. The lessons in how to swiftly turn fundamental research into practical systems undoubtedly spurred the innovative instinct and the economic growth that the human population has required as it grew threefold since 1945.

Bush was grateful to Roosevelt for his momentous assignment in June 1940: “I don’t think anyone could possibly have had a better boss than Franklin D. Roosevelt. He gave me a job to do, he backed me up completely, and he left me alone. You certainly can’t ask more than that from any man.”

[Editor’s Note: This is the eighth of an envisioned series of notes about major anniversaries in innovation and what they teach us. You’re invited to suggest other milestones of innovation for in the Xconomy Forum. Example: This year will mark the 50th anniversary of Intelsat communications satellites stationed above the Equator, linking all the continents.]

Further Reading:

G. Pascal Zachary, Endless Frontier: Vannevar Bush, Engineer of the American Century, The Free Press (1997)

Vannevar Bush, Modern Arms and Free Men: A Discussion of the Role of Science in Preserving Democracy, Simon and Schuster, 1949

Vannevar Bush, Pieces of the Action, William Morrow (1970)

James Phinney Baxter, Scientists Against Time, Little, Brown, 1946

Robert E. Sherwood, Roosevelt and Hopkins, Harper, 1948.

Daniel S. Greenberg, The Politics of Pure Science, University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Daniel Kevles, The Physicists, Harvard University Press, 1971.

Xconomist and science reporter Victor McElheny of MIT is author of Watson and DNA: Making a Scientific Revolution (2003) and Drawing the Map of Life: Inside the Human Genome Project (2010) Follow @

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