At primary school in Melbourne in the mid 1950s I used to get annoyed when we were told to pour our third pints of morning recess milk down the gully trap. When I went home for lunch the ABC Country Hour was usually on the radio and on those no-milk days farmers would be warned that radioactive clouds were drifting eastward from the atomic test sites in Monte Bello and then Emu Field and then Maralinga. My dad—an ex US Navy officer—would be in to lunch too and, although the mildest of men most of the time, would swear (he had mastered the local vernacular) ‘Bloody drongoes. Why do they let the bastards nuke them in their own back yard?’ Decades later I found photos of anti-fallout drills onboard the ships in which he had served in the mid-forties.
It came to pass, perhaps not unrelatedly, that in the 1990s I began to study the long-term health effects on the men (no women were at the tests) who had served at British atomic and hydrogen bomb tests in Australia and then Christmas Island. I began by interviewing Sir Mark Oliphant in Canberra in 1993 when he was a deaf but sprightly 92-year old.
I was accompanied to the interview in Sir Mark’s bungalow in the suburbs of Canberra by my dear friend, the late Dave Aronson, a highly experienced Melbourne labour lawyer. Afterwards, I asked him what he made of Oliphant. ‘He was highly rehearsed and hiding something. He kept control of the conversation every minute of the way and was just stepping from one porky to another.’ Dave said instantly. I suggested it might have been his age and his deafness that made him, whilst very charming, also very domineering.
Twenty-five years later I have researched the UK archives relating to Mark Oliphant during the 1940s and 1950s. The most startling finding is that he was one of the strongest advocates for both a British nuclear arsenal and an independent Australian nuclear deterrent in the first decade after the Second World War. He energetically opposed American attempts to retain a monopoly of nuclear weapons rather than internationalising their control, even if that meant proliferation.
It was this problematique that he attempted to resolve by referring to himself for the next fifty years as a ‘belligerent pacifist’.
But he was also blackballed from participation in the British nuclear—not atomic—tests in Australia because of FBI suspicions about him in the wake of the Fuchs spy case of 1951. There is a sense in which he might be thought of as Australia’s—and Britain’s—J. Robert Oppenheimer.
In the first section below I have created a monologue that I might have elicited from Sir Mark if I had been a more experienced interviewer—and psychologist. All the language of this part can be found in the UK archival materials I have reported on my website.
The second section outlines the archival evidence that helps to explain why Oliphant was blackballed from participating in the tests for the development of the British H-bomb in Australia—in order to appease American concerns arising from the Fuchs spy case in 1951. It’s not clear whether Oliphant understood what had caused his exclusion.
In many ways this is the fascination of archival work sixty or more years after the events—making sense, joining up the dots that have lain disjointed for so long. In this case it should give historians and political scientists—and perhaps the Australian public who remember the public image of Sir Mark—cause to re-interpret both our nuclear history and the origins of our nuclear alliances today.
I was in my late thirties when the war started, head of the Physics department at Birmingham University. We had to take in as many of the refugee scientists as we could and two of them came to me from Germany and Austria. Frisch and Peierls were their names. Very bright boys they were but they couldn’t work on the top secret radar stuff I was doing because they weren’t yet British citizens. They were both physicists and spent a lot of time thinking about how to turn atomic energy into weapons that might shorten the war.
One moved over to Liverpool so they started writing letters—they used that blue Basildon Bond paper sometimes. It was amazing to see the first calculations for the bomb that we dropped on Hiroshima in plain and surprisingly good English. They called it ‘the jitterbug’.
When they showed me their calculation I realised at once that it was game-changing—we could build a weapon with just pounds and not tons of uranium extract and it could be delivered as they say by an aeroplane. But it would be hugely expensive and would require massive industrial capacity at a time when Britain was begging for war materials from across the Atlantic.
I spent a lot of time convincing the London blokes that it was viable and they set up a committee called MAUD to see if Britain could do it. MAUD was a code, you see—the name of Neils Bohr’s family governess. Bohr had made it to Britain and we worked together over the years. I went to a hell of a lot of meetings and got thoroughly fed up—I told them at one point that if they couldn’t get it together in Whitehall I would start a university consortium to do the research. That lit their fuse! (Joke.)
I was working on my own atomic research at Birmingham and wanted to build a cyclotron like Lawrence did in Berkeley, California. I was travelling a lot on the radar work so I went to the West Coast. I was incandescent when I realised that the memos we had sent over to Washington about the possibility of an atomic weapon that could be built in time to end the war hadn’t gone any further than some desk wallah’s office safe. I told Lawrence about it over coffee in his office—Oppenheimer happened to be there too, and I didn’t realise that he didn’t have a security clearance. He didn’t get one until 1943, by which time we were well on the way to building the uranium bomb at Los Alamos in New Mexico. Middle of the desert. Couldn’t do it in Britain because all the industries required to refine the uranium and so on were tied up in war work already. Not to mention no backyard in which to test it. Nobody thought of Australia’s deserts then.
The Whitehall and Washington blokes were really annoyed when they heard I’d spilled the beans, though I had been authorised to exchange information with the Yanks, admittedly only to those who were ‘initiated’, as they said then, into the discussions around atomic weapons.
Well, one thing led to another and by mid 1943 I had recruited two dozen scientists based in Britain—Poms, Australians, German and other refugees—and we’d gone to America to start to build the jitterbug. It ended up being two bombs—one uranium-based that was dropped on Hiroshima, and one plutonium, used on Nagasaki.
It wasn’t the scientists’ decision to drop the bomb on Japanese cities at 8am just as workers and kids were going out to the factories and schools. That was President Truman’s decision—he was a hit ‘em man. He didn’t even know there were atomic bombs being built until he was sworn in after Roosevelt died in April 1945.
I’d worked with Neils Bohr trying to get Roosevelt to understand the terrible capacity of the bombs, both the initial bang and the radioactive fallout. Bohr’s English wasn’t too good and I helped him to write his memoranda. Bohr tried to talk to Churchill too but he just got irritated, called him ‘the hairy one’. Other scientists such as Szilard were also trying to get the politicians to understand what the jitterbug would do if it wasn’t detonated on an uninhabited island, for instance, to show the Japs what we had. I had a big argument with the Yank scientists—actually Lawrence’s brother, a medical scientist, was one of them—about the fallout calculations, which didn’t make me any more popular. I was so horrified about the biological conclusions that I sent a copy by special courier to Chadwick, head of the British team, in Washington. He hadn’t been told.
We’d all started out thinking the Germans were possibly building a similar weapon. They were alerted to the fact that we probably were by the sudden disappearance of technical papers on atomic physics in the journals when war broke out. We used to meet up regularly at conferences all over Europe to share information! And we’d extricated the refugee physicists such as the two I was telling you about who figured out we could in principle build atom bombs in time to end the war. But Germany was defeated without the use of an atom bomb, though the Allies had to carpet bomb their cities.
There was still Japan and that, of course, is where the politicians used it. You can see from the official US Smyth report on the Manhattan Project that we scientists really weren’t expecting that.
Do I feel guilty about my part in building the atom bomb? Well I guess I would agree with Bomber Harris who recalled in 1947 that at the outset of the war he wasn’t allowed to bomb anything on land, only warships at sea, in case civilians were killed. By the end he was carpet bombing German cities while people slept. He was nervous about the lack of discussion of this in Parliament, just as there was no mention of the Manhattan Project in the US Congress throughout the war years. But it was a Just War against Nazism and Harris always maintained there was nothing to be ashamed of, except in the sense that everybody might be ashamed of the sort of thing that has to be done in war. And of having wars in the first place. I know a lot of the bomb scientists felt like that. But after Japan surrendered, as I later said, the atomic bomb was out of the hands of the scientists and in the hands of the fire eaters.
But things were never easy with the Yanks during our time with the Manhattan Project and I realised that they were intending to try to keep control of the atomic bomb after the war ended. I usually got along well with General Groves, who ran the non-science side of the Manhattan Project but I could see that his mission was to use British theoretical expertise to enable the Americans to use their huge industrial capacity to build the bombs—one from uranium and one with plutonium.
Churchill had sold us out to the Americans with the Quebec Agreement in August 1943 just as we were arriving in Los Alamos and Berkeley and other Manhattan Project sites. Churchill surrendered post-war development to the Americans then too. And Britain was forbidden from sharing any information with its own Dominions, such as Australia, although the USA was using Canadian uranium and processing sites such as Chalk River. Well, there was a war to be won. The Quebec Agreement remained a secret even from the British Parliament all through the war years. As of course the Congress knew nothing about the Manhattan Project until it ended the war against Japan.
I was always getting ticked off for security breaches when I was in America working on the engineering side of the bombs. The Yanks really didn’t want people to realise the level of British involvement in the Project. Less than a year working in Berkeley and travelling round the other sites made me see the writing on the wall—Britain would be cut out of any post-war work by the Americans.
In late 1944 I got back to London and spent six weeks talking to the major industrial leaders and the politicians about the need for Britain to start its own atomic and nuclear research as soon as possible or else the Americans would be left with a clear monopoly on military weapons, as well as industrial and medical uses. I wrote a long memo called Notes on Tube Alloys—I had to write it out in longhand, then it was cyclostyled and did the rounds of the senior boffins in Whitehall. The first sentence says that the first priority after the end of the war would be to develop ‘a military weapon of great power.’ And no Americans to be involved. We could go it alone.
The British, Australian and refugee scientists had done the initial theoretical work which was then refined in the USA as the engineering work was done to build the gadgets, as we called them. Once they were used in Japan, it would be a relatively simple business for any country with the scientific and industrial capacity to reverse-engineer their own atom, or nuclear bombs.
It took a lot of persistence and persuasion—the Chancellor, Sir John Anderson, told me he couldn’t believe that if there were any important industrial applications, any country would be able to adopt a selfish policy in regard to them! In April 1945 Sir Edward Appleton, Director of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, was still confident that collaboration with the USA might go on well after what he called ‘the big bang day’.
I went back to Birmingham well before the Trinity test in July 1945 and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed in the August. My work on the engineering side was done—the Yanks just had to get the uranium refined and the bomb components built. Even before that, in June, I was writing to colleagues all round Britain that I was convinced that the story of the Tube Alloys work in America was one of appeasement and a most undignified servility. I believed that Britain had been sold down the river by Churchill’s policies and edicts. Already I could see that this would have a most unfortunate effect on our future relations with the USSR. But more of that later.
I got into trouble for sharing my views with a British MP, Raymond Blackburn (and it was said that the journalist Chapman Pincher got a lot of his info from Blackburn). I was carpeted and reminded of my obligations under the Official Secrets Act. But I held on to my positions through the late 1940s on the committees looking for a site for the Atomic Energy Research Establishment that we eventually built at Harwell in Oxfordshire. And on the planning committees for the post-war British nuclear research agenda—I worked hard as the committee minutes will show you to put an independent British bomb at the top of that.
There was a lot of talk about an Empire defence policy—Churchill tried to save the alliance with the US in his Sinews of Peace speech in March 1946, but all he got for his pains was the McMahon Act precisely a year after the Trinity test. Britain was cut out of collaboration with the Yanks. Canada was still in good odour, because of its uranium supplies and the separation work going on at Chalk River.
I’d seen this coming for years. As far back as August 1941 I’d told the Aussie Ambassador in Washington about the importance of uranium to weapons research, and on a visit back home in early 1943 before I went over to the Manhattan Project I’d pushed the Australian government to protect our uranium from both the British and American attempts to snatch it.
And whenever I went home in the late 1940s, I went on prospecting trips looking for weapons-grade uranium in South Australia, such as to Mount Painter.
Sir Thomas Playford was Premier then, and as keen as I was to make South Australia the engine of industrial development for the whole country, using atomic energy. We even talked about building an atomic pile at Port Pirie or Whyalla, which would have been perfect because they had the smelting works and acid factories to purify and extract high-grade uranium.
I’m the oldest of five brothers, and three of them were lab technicians at Adelaide University and then in the Melbourne research labs and RAAF doing wartime research. My only full brother, Kenneth, spent time working at the Cavendish lab in Cambridge labs when he visited Britain in the 1930s. Harry and Nigel developed a business making a prospecting lamp and a sort of Geiger counter at the height of the uranium rush in the 1940s in South Australia—they incorporated themselves as Oliphant Laboratories Limited. I was never a director or anything, but I did advise them on occasion.
There was a lot of work going because the Woomera Rocket Range was being established, and the bomb tests would start at the Montebello Islands off Western Australia and then move to Emu Field and Maralinga in the mid 1950s. Even while I was at Berkeley W.S. Robinson, head of South Broken Hill and what became Conzinc Rio Tinto, phoned me. Uranium was a secret word which wasn’t mentioned in public by anybody and I was horrified—not least because the FBI eavesdropped on our phone conversations. I tried to shut him up but he said ‘It’s alright Mark, I know all about it. Winston’s told me all about it.’ That’s how things in Britain worked, of course.
In actual fact, the legislation setting up the Australian Security and Intelligence Agency in 1949 states its Main Tasks were ‘to ensure that the secret defence establishments being carried out in South Australia in co-operation with Britain, are screened from spies’ and ‘to prevent Communist infiltration of defence establishments.’
The Brits had decided to do their nuclear bomb testing in Australia. It’s wrong to call them atomic, by now it was a race to build a nuclear bomb, an H-bomb. The whole point was to get Britain back into bed with the Americans, who were testing off Bikini Island in the Pacific. The Yanks were being very holier-than-thou about the British spy scandals—Nunn-May for instance, and then Fuchs—even though they had their own Rosenbergs and similar.
Once the Americans realised the British bombs would be developed in Australia they insisted that no military information could be shared with us, even though we were, for instance, still supporting the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces in Japan at considerable cost. Attlee pressed Chifley to get tough on security, and ASIO was the result.
If you look into the setting up of ASIO in the late 1940s you’ll see that the Brits were telling the Australians what to do, and that the Americans were telling the Brits what to tell the Australians. No kidding. The Yanks had discovered the existence of a spy network in Australia and everyone from Doc Evatt—Leader of the Labor Opposition throughout the 1950s—was suspected of being at least sympathetic to the Soviet Union.
I went to Canberra to the new Australian National University because I shared a vision with Ben Chifley, the post-war Labor Prime Minister, about how Australia could become the arsenal of the Empire as we called it—a pivotal player in Britain’s post-war atomic research. ANU could be a major atomic energy research centre; I could build a cyclotron. And the payoff for letting the Poms test atomic bombs and ballistic missiles in the South Australian desert would be at least tactical weapons for our own defence. We all knew what had happened in 1942 in Singapore and Malaya, when the Brits couldn’t or wouldn’t come out to save our blokes. And it was said that when the third world war breaks out, each country will only have what it’s already got to fight with. As I said at the time, Australia might quickly come to be seen as expendable by its own allies if push came to shove. And I also said that if Australia had its own nuclear weapons invasion would be absolutely impossible.
People—not least the historians—don’t realise that there was a very blurred line between what was going on at the Woomera Rocket Range testing ballistic missiles and the developmental work for the British H-bomb that was done at Emu Field and Maralinga in the 1950s. And at the outset, I was very tangled up in it all, just back from Birmingham and having been so involved in the early planning.
But a lot of things happened just as I was getting into harness in Canberra. Chifley was no longer Prime Minister, and Menzies wasn’t committed to extracting an independent defence quid pro quo from the British.
And then there was the Fuchs case—arrested and tried for passing information to the Soviets ever since he arrived in my department at Birmingham in 1941 and all through the war years when he was with the Manhattan Project. I didn’t know for years, but there was also an FBI report saying that an Australian atomic scientist had passed on everything he knew to Communist Party officials in New York in the 1940s. I was one of the chief suspects, along with Eric Burhop who had come over from University of Melbourne to do a PhD with me before I’d recruited him to the US work.
There were other black marks against me right from that trip to the West Coast in 1941—arguments I had with Americans about fallout hazards through to my opposition to their attempt to monopolise nuclear weapons. The US Embassy in Canberra didn’t give me a visa in time to get to a nuclear conference in Chicago in late 1951, just as Burhop wasn’t allowed to travel to Russia on his British passport. Suddenly there I was in Canberra trying to build a cyclotron for Australia and no-one was calling me from London any more. The British way of doing things. They just cut me dead. It drove me crazy until I got the point.
I’d said that the ANU wouldn’t be involved in military research but that didn’t rule out individual scientists working across the border into South Australia. Enough said about that.
I’d recruited one of my former PhD students, Ernest Titterton, to a professorship at ANU. His speciality was implosion, central to the development of the H-bomb at Emu Field and Maralinga and Woomera. He wasn’t Australian, an Englishman, the last British scientist out of the US programme—he’d been allowed to attend the Crossroads tests, even did the countdown. He ended up chair of the Atomic Weapons Safety Committee for the Australian government—but the Royal Commission in 1985 said he was more loyal to the UK than Australia. Said he was Australia’s Dr Strangelove. He told the Royal Commission that I was a poor judge of people, easily taken in. The more I think about his roles in the atomic test years the more I begin to see he might have been right!
Looking back at the test programme, I still think at the time it was the right thing to do. It was impossible to leave the only nuclear weapons in the world in the hands of USA and USSR. It was an unstable situation that could not be allowed to go on.
But the Brits thought they could ensure any fallout or contamination was not too big. They were very pig headed about it. The people in control were very haphazard about the estimates. Even though I had warned about fallout ever since I wrote the cover note for the Frisch-Peirels Memorandum back in 1941, people seemed to have great faith in it. They were people whom I respected so I accepted it. Even when they went on testing in the weeks before the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 and later when Hedley Marston was trying publish his data showing eastern Australia, including Adelaide, had been repeatedly top dressed with radiation.
I didn’t speak out, even when I was Governor of South Australia. By that time the extent of contamination was revealed. You really can decontaminate Maralinga by just leaving it alone. Plutonium alpha particles contamination I think is grossly overplayed. The Aborigines are using it to the full. At the same time, it was very naughty of the British to leave it, and to think of spreading it that way in the first place was very nasty. The British people were very reticent about revealing contamination especially regarding food contamination. They hugged that to their chests very closely.
The British H-bomb was detonated off Malden Island in the Pacific in May 1957. Six months later the first serving British Prime Minister to visit Australia, Harold Macmillan, met the Australian Cabinet and pulled the plug on any hope of us getting even tactical nuclear missiles.
I couldn’t build a cyclotron in Canberra. I’d run out of fire, they said. Even Nugget Coombs decided I’d missed the bus, and the gamble should be written off.
I wouldn’t like somebody to dig up some dirt—and there might be some dirt in my past—that I’m unconscious of. Such as being concerned with the development of the nuclear weapon and I might be cursed for it. I hate that idea. I don’t want to be cursed by anybody.
SECURITY CONCERNS ABOUT ‘THE OLIPHANT GROUP’
Despite their differences, General Groves nominated Mark Oliphant for the US Medal of Freedom—the only one of the foreign scientists on the Manhattan Project to be proposed for the Gold Palm of this award. The Australian rules of the day did not permit civilians to accept such awards from foreign powers, even allies, for wartime work, so Oliphant couldn’t accept it. Six years later, Oliphant was refused a visa to attend a nuclear physics conference in Chicago—he had become persona non grata to the Americans.
And he was banned by the British from the atomic and nuclear weapons tests that began in October 1952 off the coast of Western Australia.
Why was Oliphant ‘Oppenheimered’? The answer lies in the following document:
In July 1951, Oliphant’s former graduate student Eric Burhop, an Australian who had accompanied him to Berkeley, was forbidden to leave Britain to travel to the Soviet Union. Oliphant said ‘If Dr. Eric Burhop has elected to announce himself as a Communist, he should elect to take the consequences in such times as these.’
In late 1951 Oliphant himself, now back in Australia at the ANU, was not given a visa to visit the USA to attend a nuclear physics conference in Chicago. The next month, he was reported as worrying that Australia ‘would be strategically “expendable” in the event of war.’
In February 1952 there was continued press speculation about ‘Britain’s new secret weapon’ and reports that ‘It seems certain that the test will take place in the vicinity of the Woomera Rocket Range, 350 miles north-west of Adelaide, and that it may involve a special type small atomic weapon’, noting also that ‘Australia’s top nuclear physicist, Professor Marcus Oliphant, is expected to play an important part in the tests. Professor Oliphant said to-night: ‘I am sorry I cannot say anything about this. I am tangled up in it.’ [emphasis added]
The ASIO file record of the Sydney Morning Herald version has Oliphant saying ‘For obvious reasons I cannot comment’, and notes that ‘Such a statement would indicate to any foreign intelligence agency that Professor OLIPHANT is associated with the testing of atomic weapons in Australia… They could perhaps target the School of Physical Sciences at the Australian National University as a likely source for further information.’
The Argus report in the ASIO file noted that ‘a doubt exists over the possibility of American scientists visiting the site. America’s refusal to share fully atom secrets with Britain and the recent exclusion of Professor Oliphant from America, may influence the decision, though it is unlikely that either Britain or Australia would wish take any action that would offend the U.S.’
In the event the USA aircraft took cloud samples from the British tests in Australia and the UK had to negotiate for access to them. The USA refused to reciprocate with samples from its tests in the Pacific.
But American security concerns about the ‘Oliphant Group’ were about to catch up with Professor Oliphant on the eve of the first British tests in Australia.
Six months after the detonation of the first Soviet nuclear bomb in August 1949, Klaus Fuchs was convicted in Britain of systematically passing atomic secrets to the Soviet Union since he had been recruited by Pierels and Oliphant to join them at the University of Birmingham in 1941.
Naturalised as a British citizen in 1942, Fuchs was one of the British Tube Alloys group who went to the USA, working in New York and Los Alamos. He was almost the last of the British scientists to return to Britain, and was present for the two American Operation Crossroads tests in the Pacific. In August 1946 he became head of Theoretical Physics at Harwell, at the heart of the post-war British atomic programme.
When the nuclear establishment in Britain became aware of Fuchs’ feeding of information from both the US and the UK programmes to the USSR, their first response was to accept that he couldn’t remain at Harwell and they started to look for a university post for him. Mark Oliphant was about to return to Australia and it was suggested that he might be able to place Fuchs at Adelaide University.
This did not come to pass as Fuchs was quickly prosecuted and after a 90-minute trial was sentenced to the maximum sentence—fourteen years, of which he served nine—for violations of the Official Secrets Act. He couldn’t be charged with treason because Russia was Britain’s ally for most of the years he had passed information.
‘Fuchs later stated that he had been motivated by a belief that the Soviets had a right to know about the atomic bomb project. Dick White, who became Director General of MI5 in the 1950s, contrasted Fuchs’ motives with the desire for money that motivated many other spies and concluded that his motives “were relatively speaking pure. A scientist who got cross at the Anglo-American ploy in withholding vital information from an ally fighting a common enemy.”’
The MI5 website also states that ‘When combined with information from other sources, this helped the Russians to make rapid progress in developing what was effectively a copy of the American atomic bomb design.’
Fuchs confessed in London in late January 1950. Within days a telephone tap was put on Dr Eric Burhop, the Australian scientist teaching at University College London. The warrant for the tap stated ‘It is desired for a temporary purpose* to investigate his activities and contacts more closely.’ A handwritten annotation states that the asterisk refers to the Fuchs Case.
Eric Burhop was a Tasmanian who had scholarship-ed his way to the University of Melbourne and then on to Rutherford’s Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University, where Oliphant supervised his doctorate. He returned to teach at Melbourne in 1936.
In 1941 he was asked to give a talk at the Army camp at Seymour and, somewhat surprisingly, offered one on Splitting the Atom. But when he got to the camp, there were no working projector lanterns available. Saying that trying to give his talk without his images would be like offering Hamlet without the prince, he offered to talk on his visit to Russia in the 1930s, and this was agreed. However, the warrant officers present took umbrage at his enthusiasm for many aspects of Soviet life.
‘His talk was definitely not suitable for troops undergoing compulsory training’, especially in regard to freedom of speech as Burhop reported it to be in the Soviet Union, wrote Captain Richardson in a memo that found its way into Burhop’s ASIO file. The next morning there were fisticuffs among the men over breakfast and Burhop left precipitately.
In a file created by British security on Burhop, now in the UK National Archives, there is a Secret telegram sent from London to Canberra in May 1944 stating:
‘Doctor E. Burhop, Lecturer Melbourne University Age approximately 33 nationality unknown believed left Australia for U.S.A. recently for work highest national importance stop our record indicate membership F.S.U. [Friends of the Soviet Union] stop anxious earliest confirmation and any information of security interest.’
Burhop’s ASIO file has a report dated 25 May 1944 from the Commonwealth Security Service (Victoria):
‘V. Stooke interviewed the Registrar of the Melbourne University, Mr FOSTER… Asked for his opinion as to Subject’s loyalty, Mr FOSTER stated that he knew BURHOP well, and although somewhat “pink”, he was intensely loyal, as evidenced by the energy which he applied to his researches, which, when associated with the other scientists at Berkeley, may quite likely, Mr FOSTER believes, considerably shorten the duration of the war. Foster thought him to be a socialist rather than a Communist ‘and in any case, very definitely anti-Nazi’ [Emphasis added].
On 30 May 1944 a telegram was sent from the London office of Tube Alloys to the head of the British Scientific Central Office in Washington assuring him that ‘As result of enquiries in Australia, U.K. Security report that Burhop is believed to be completely loyal.’
His membership of Communist front organisations ‘happened long before the war and there is no recent information of any activities in this direction on his part.’
It was left to the discretion of Chadwick ‘whether to disclose to Groves.’ A June 1944 letter from the Department of Scientific and Industrial research in London (recipient not clear) states ‘as for BURHOP, I have left it to the discretion of Professor Chadwick at the other side whether he should inform the Americans about BURHOP’s “misdemeanours” many years ago.’
There is a 1945 report from ‘Claude’ on the Australian Scientist Eric Burhop in the Venona files on Russian spy activity in Australia in the UK National Archives that states ‘On an assignment of the Party, he conducted great [1 word unrecovered] amongst scientific workers since 1937’ but the Canberra–based writer has no address for him since he left for America.
ASIO’s Director was advised on 14 October 1946:
‘Reported in Daily Telegraph 12 Oct 1946 that Oliphant, [Harrie] Massey and Burhop all Australian-born scientists at present in England, have expressed their dislike of certain aspects of the Atomic Energy Bill which was put through the House of Commons on 11th October, 1946.
Professor OLIPHANT is reported to have said that he felt so strongly about the matter that he may be forced to make a public demonstration of his feelings. According to reports, OLIPHANT was largely instrumental in having BURHOP included amongst the scientists engaged in special wartime projects. BURHOP is suspected a Communist.’
The next paragraph is redacted in heavy black ink.
An Atomic Scientists Association (ASA) was being formed in Birmingham, though both Burhop and Massey worked at University College London. On 12 June 1946 a memo to Director Attorney General’s Department, Investigation Branch from Deputy Director Sydney, headed Dr E.H. S. Burhop forming of ASA in Birmingham, stated
‘You will recall that Dr Nunn-May, an English Scientist (sic) [in text]working on a secret project in America during the War (sic) [in text](presumably in a similar capacity to Burhop) was later sentenced to ten years imprisonment for giving information to Russia. There is a campaign commencing in Sydney at the present time for the lifting of secrecy restrictions and the release of Nunn-May and the evidence suggests that this campaign is directed by the Australian Communist Party.’
In June 1946 the Attorney General’s Department Investigation Branch Sydney wrote to the ASIO Director in Canberra that it had been reported in the London Daily Mirror that Dr Burhop was Secretary ‘of a group now being formed in Birmingham, England, named Atomic Scientists Association which, the article infers, will in due course “demand” the lifting of the secrecy provisions in respect of the development of atomic energy.’
The Sydney office advised that ‘This man was reported here to be either a member of the Communist Party or a sympathiser who had worked for the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research from 1942 to 1944. Then as a result of representations made by Professor Oliphant, he proceeded to America under the British Department of Research on ‘most secret’ work at Berkeley.’
Burhop resigned from his post at Melbourne University to take up an appointment in England at the end of 1945. Dr Burhop had been associated with the League for Peace and Democracy and the Australia-Soviet Friendship Association in Victoria in 1939 through to 1941 and was active in the Australian Association of Scientific Workers.
Five years later, on 1 May 1951 a top secret memo stated ‘We have received from the F.B.I. a report which they think is reliable’ reporting that:
‘As late as 1945 an Australian atomic scientist, who worked on an Atomic Energy project was in close touch with Communist Party members in Brooklyn, New York, and through them with the highest Communist officials in the United States. This Australian atomic scientist passed on everything he knew about our Atomic Energy Programme, including “the setup in New Mexico”. The Australian scientist is no longer in the United States. He was in this country in 1943, 1944 and 1945.’
The memo identified Burhop as ‘the most probable suspect in the investigations which we now propose to make’ and asked the recipient to consult with ASIO about any information held on him.
On 3 May 1951 a top secret memo stated that ‘the real leader of the ‘progressive’ element’ at UCL [University College London] is ‘a comparatively unknown man called E.H.S.BURHOP ‘who has not an original mind’ but ‘is acquainted with practically everyone in Britain who is engaged on atomic research and similar subjects. There can be little doubt that he is a crypto-Communist.’ The memo states that ‘BURHOP has been careless on one or two occasions, and subsequently he was warned… and told to deny his political interests rather than get himself into trouble.’
A top secret memo originating in Washington on May 15, 1951 enquired ‘if anything was said to General Groves about BURHOP’ but there was no firm evidence that the ‘telegram which was sent from Tube Alloys to the Head of B.C.S.O [British Central Scientific Office in Washington]’ was seen by Groves or any of his colleagues, although they may have been warned informally.
On 23 May 1951, a UK memo stated that since he took up a lectureship at UCL after the war ‘it has become clear that BURHOP is a thorough-going Communist.’ He was subscribing to the funds of the Party branch at Surbiton ‘but is not thought to hold a Party Card.’ He was a member of the Association of Scientific Workers and participated in the activities of the British Soviet Friendship Society.
‘We have recently been informed that a scientist whose description appears to fit BURHOP and who was employed on the Atomic Energy project in 1944 and 1945 in the United States, passed information about this project to members of the Communist Party in New York. Although BURHOP no longer has access to classified information it is possible that he is in touch with persons who have such access. We are therefore investigating him as closely as possible to determine who his contacts are and what his present activities amount to.’
In July 1951 Sir Roger Makins, UK Deputy Under-Secretary of State, was informed ‘we are taking steps to intensify our investigation of Dr Burhop’s activities.’ Burhop was intending to travel to Moscow on a British passport on 22 July. Although ‘we had no knowledge of any classified information he might have acquired at Berkeley’, Lord Portal, head of atomic research at Harwell, was ‘strongly of the opinion’ that whatever the risk of Burhop passing classified information to the Russians, his visit to Moscow would create an unfavourable impression in the US. He ‘asks whether any action could be taken by way of any legal means to event (sic) Burhop from going to Russia.’
In the event the passports of Eric Burhop and all but six of the nineteen scientists who were planning to travel to the Soviet Union were withdrawn by the Home Office. In September 1951 Mark Oliphant, by now in Australia, failed to get a US visa to attend a nuclear physics conference in Chicago.
In November 1951, Burhop was seeking permission to visit colleagues at Harwell about unclassified particle work. A memo in the UK National Archives dated 29 November 1951 advises that:
‘the only danger which I could see was that BURHOP might try to make political capital if he were admitted to Harwell after having his passport withdrawn for security reasons in July this year. His argument might well be that the Government on the one hand refuses him permission to leave the country and on the other allows him to visit a top secret Atomic research Centre. Arnold replied that though this might be so, it was official policy to admit many kinds of persons under proper supervision and that a number of Soviet press representatives had been over Harwell in the past.’
A year later Burhop won a libel action against the Daily Telegraph for suggesting that he was planning to disappear into the Soviet Union and disclose atomic and nuclear research information. His passport was restored.
Nevertheless, the Legal Attache of the Foreign Service of the United States of America in London wrote in a memo dated December 4, 1951: ‘In view of the derogatory information developed to date’ concerning Marcus Oliphant, Harrie Massey and Maurice Wilkins, ‘these three individuals, together with BURHOP, appear to be the most likely suspects in this [the allegation that an Australian scientist had passed information to the Russians in New York in the mid 1940s] case.’
There are three ASIO files relating to Mark Oliphant available online from the National Archives of Australia. Two of the files consist of press cuttings and informants’ reports of meetings addressed by Oliphant. A 25 January 1947 Sydney Morning Herald account of his visit to the Mt Painter area of South Australia reported that
‘Professor Oliphant commented that indications were such that “it would be a bold man who would deny the probability that some hundreds of thousands of tons of materials exist from which quantities of uranium approaching a thousand tons might be obtained.’
Four days later an unidentified newspaper reported Oliphant worrying that ‘Without Freedom Science Might Perish’ because ‘Academic laboratories are accepting money from Government departments under conditions which often impose restrictions on free publication or discussion of the results obtained.’
Oliphant declared that:
‘This insidious growth of secrecy in pure science is a cancer which will kill it at the root unless drastic steps are taken to eliminate it at once.’ He insisted that ‘No secret work whatever should be allowed in academic research laboratories and no restrictions should be placed on the free movement of fundamental information between countries or between scientists within a country.’
The Bulletin of 29 January, 1947 reported a public lecture Oliphant gave at Melbourne University in which he said ‘that the bomb that fell on Hiroshima was a baby compared to the ones the scientists have up their sleeves at the present moment.’ The reporter commented that
‘just when the audience was getting bemused with the enormity of the figures the professor brought it up against the grim realities of his subject by remarking that if he added another letter or figure to the formula he was chalking on the blackboard he would land himself in jail.’
There was concern reported in the ASIO files that Oliphant was being ‘baited’ by being asked questions at his speaking engagements, the answers to which would aid and abet other aspirant nuclear powers by giving helpful information about techniques that were proving successful in the British project.
But the file also contains a clipping from the Sydney Morning Herald of 30 January 1947 reporting from Washington that the Chairman Designate of the US Atomic Energy Commission had said that ‘scientists had been responsible for many serious breaches of atomic secrecy… [he] wanted secret Senate hearings regarding bomb espionage by foreign agents in the United States but ‘he said that most of the leakages came from scientific publications open to public scrutiny.’
Further, the clipping notes that ‘The worst violation occurred in a Government report [the Smyth Report linked above] released shortly after the first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, in which four ways of splitting the atom were described.’
There were concerns about Oliphant’s willingness to speak at ‘communist front’ organisations and conferences as well as church and school groups on his hopes for international control of nuclear weapons even if that meant their proliferation. He argued for their banning, and when he recognised that would be unlikely to happen, the banning of war. He was considered indiscreet, irresponsible and injudicious in some of his statements and lacking in a sense of security or awareness of the possibility that he was being provoked into public statements that could help countries such as the Soviet Union confirm advances that were being made as weapons design moved from atomic to nuclear.
It was also pointed out in the ASIO files that he had recruited a dozen of his former Birmingham University employees to the ANU. The line wasn’t however explicitly drawn to the activities that had taken place at Birmingham, from the role of Fuchs to the formation of the Association of Scientific Workers.
Although reports were submitted from Tasmania and New South Wales suggesting that Oliphant was a Communist or at least a fellow traveller, ASIO’s Director Colonel Spry firmly overrode them. In early 1952 it was reported that Oliphant was angling to return to Birmingham. A report based on information from one of his ANU colleagues in the ASIO file says that he was very upset about the US failure to provide a visa to go to the physics conference in Chicago and no-one would give him any explanation for it.
He was losing authority as Head of School because ‘He gets all steamed up about something and then forgets all about it. Before he used to get things done and never rest until he got what he wanted, but now he has lost his fire.’ He was regarded as ‘a solid slugging type’ who built the machines that the new nuclear physics needed, although he wasn’t making way with the cyclotron he said he would build at the ANU.
The report says he had been persuaded to return to Australia ‘because England was vulnerable and he saw Australia as a vast shadow factory. Source thinks that OLIPHANT genuinely subscribed to that view.’ But Chifley was no longer in power and he was losing traction.
‘OLIPHANT has a great love for Australia and believes she should be building up her defences now. He cannot understand why he has not been asked to advise on defence.’
In March 1952 the Adelaide Advertiser reported on its front page that Oliphant had said at a public lecture at Sydney University that ‘if Australia had atomic weapons invasion would be absolutely impossible.’
Seven months later, in October 1952, the first British atomic nuclear detonation took place off the Monte Bello Islands in Western Australia. The ensuing tests took place in the deserts of South Australia and were development work for the first British nuclear H-bomb, detonated off Malden Island in the Pacific in May 1957.
Sue Rabbitt Roff’s studies of the long-term health effects of servicemen’s participation in the British nuclear tests in Australia helped to change veteran’s pensions entitlements in Australia, the UK and Fiji. More information is posted on her website http://rabbittreview.com
Follow us for more: