First Person: William McMillan

William McMillan at UCLA in 1952. CHF Collections.

World War II changed the lives of many of CHF’s oral history interviewees. For William McMillan, the war shaped his career, creating a relationship with government work that would continue until his retirement.

While a Ph.D. student at Columbia University McMillan was recruited to become part of the Manhattan Project, under physical chemist and future Nobel Prize winner Willard Libby. Libby’s group was developing the gaseous diffusion method of separating and enriching the isotope of uranium required for an atomic bomb.

In the interest of history, McMillan wrote two volumes reflecting on his work in the Manhattan Project. But as of the date of his oral history—1999—those documents were still classified. In that 1999 interview with Jim Bohning, he lamented the closed nature of government research:

The government hasn’t solved the problem of classification. Right now, I’m interested in a study that was done for the Army back in 1970. . . . Well, that would be very useful to something I’m doing now for the B-2 problem, but that stuff is still classified “secret.” What’s worse, if we’re going to get something declassified, we’ve got to go to the originator. But there aren’t any originators left. That agency is long gone, all dispersed, so it’s just on hold. There’s no way of breaking that out. I think that’s what’s happening with a lot of stuff.

To McMillan, there are lessons to be learned within those records. He recalled:

Those guys, Bill Libby and company, really had courage because they designed that whole K-25 diffusion plant before they had any diffusion barrier. In other words, they took a gamble that they were going to be able to develop that barrier. In fact, about three months before it was due, we had three different kinds of barriers, all of which would work.

What’s more, he emphasized that “there’s a lesson there in that business of doing the research simultaneously with the plant design. You know, today it takes ten years to get any weapon system in operation, but, by God, we had stuff coming the top end of that K-25 plant in about three years.” But the actual processes are still hidden, in many cases, within government archives.

After the war, McMillan joined the faculty at UCLA. But he remained committed to government research his entire career, becoming a consultant to the military via the RAND Corporation:

I noticed over the years, in all of these committees, there were always the same people. In other words, although we had thousands of academic personnel involved in World War II…most of these birds dropped everything and went back to their ivory towers after the war. It seemed to me that that was a real loss to the military. The military should have the best scientific advice.

McMillan formed the Group on Weapons Effects, as well as his own research regarding artillery and military reconnaissance, during the Vietnam War. For him, government research was not just a career—it was part of his scientific identity.

Sarah Hunter-Lascoskie is a program associate in oral history at CHF. First Person, which highlights one of CHF's over 400 oral histories, appears the third Tuesday of every month.

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