The case of Tom Grissom
The Case of Tom Grissom
Excerpt from the book The Great Divide
by Studs Terkel:
In 1985, he resigned from his job as nuclear physicist of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He had been there fifteen years and was regarded as among the most respected and promising. "I was promoted more quickly than usual, made head of a department and getting more money all the time."
Sandia is the largest of three national laboratories devoted to nuclear weaponry, the others being at Los Alamos and Livermore, California. Its annual budget is one billion dollars. "One out of every thousand tax dollars goes directly to our lab.
"It is wholly owned by the Department of Energy and managed by Western Electric. This helps confuse people. It's not listed in the military budget, so the Defense Department gets the warheads for free. Since the money is appropriated in strange bills like the Inland Waterways Act, it hardly gets any scrutiny from Congress. It's part of the secrecy of how much we invest in nuclear weapons."
He grew up in Mississippi, "not far from Senator Eastland's plantation in Sunflower county." Among the teachers he encountered at the University of Mississippi was James Silver, author of Mississippi: The closed Society. "He had to leave during the time of the civil rights unrest because his unpopular stance had become one of personal danger. He was a voice in the wilderness, but he made a lasting impression on me. When I began to reassess my life, I thought of him."
The seductiveness of technologically challenging work is something that consumes people entirely. We form a small society of people interested in the same challenge, competition, and success. I was consumed with living up to the goals I had set for myself and conforming to society's picture of what success is.
I agonized a little
bit, but I decided that after many years in school, in training myself in physics and research, I owed it to myself, my family, and society to do what was expected: good work, good science.
I always treated it as a basic research program, never really associating it with weapons. I could write and publish papers on it. It was exciting. There was a feeling of camaraderie among us here, talented people, all enthusiastic about their work. We were literate, well-trained, patriotic, tax-paying citizens, community, church leaders. Interested in the arts, opera. Little League baseball. Boy Scout troops...
What was frightening about all this is that I never encountered anyone among the eight thousand who worked here who raised the question of the end result of our work: nuclear weapons. Among all these bright, articulate people, I never ran into anyone
who raised the
Gordon McClure, who hired me, one of the best physicists I had ever worked with, was bothered. We hadn't ever talked about it, but I discovered one day that he was agonizing privately as I was. As he was about to retire, he confessed to me that he was terribly bothered by the mission of our laboratory and the direction of our national policy. This came up ten years after he and I had worked together.
I began to talk to other people with whom I felt comfortable. The concern was still nonexistent. It was reassuring to find one person who did
feel as I do, but that was a small comfort.
Western Electric had tried to play down its management role. The laboratory was afraid of drawing attention to its mission. In the sixties and early seventies, during the Vietnam War, there was quite a bit of concern about the protests.
We're on an air force base, Kirkland, so it's easy to deny access to protest groups. In the mid-seventies, a few lone protestors appeared outside the gates. One in particular, Chuck Hosking, a Quaker, began to show up every day. He would carry a sign, DON'T HUG YOUR CHILDREN WITH NUCLEAR ARMS. People would stop and talk to him. He'd share his views about Gandhi and nonviolence. We passed him every day.
He was always talked about as someone naive, whose view was of no consequence. A minority of one, sort of laughed at. But those who stopped and talked with him came to realize that for him it was no laughing matter. There was a curiosity. Why would he do this?
I was keeping doubts to myself, really afraid
to talk to anyone about it, even my family. I started to do a lot of reading, delving into things I had once been interested in. I had put them on the back burner in the interest of my career. Literature, history, poetry. I was looking for truths that were different from technical truths.
It was right at the time they were moving me up into the supervisory ranks. I was on the threshold of another promotion when these questions began to really torment me. I subverted these concerns, took the promotion, and once again became totally absorbed in my job.
I was now responsible for the actual devices that went in weapons. It had nothing to do any more with basic science. My specific job had to do with the trigger of the weapons. It was one of the most exciting technologies in the whole laboratory. I couldn't escape.
It was the gradual realization that you can't escape the consequences of your personal responsibility. It got to the point where I just didn't want to have a damn thing to do with it. I decided that if these weapons are ever used, the survivors would be totally justified in gathering up all the people like myself and trying us for crimes against humanity. It would be the same thing that happened in Nuremburg. Our crime would be staggering in proportion.
I began to see myself, not as one little cog out of eight thousand who wouldn't be singled out, but as someone personally
responsible for all this.
Never once, in my entire fifteen years here, at any management meeting, has anyone questioned the appropriateness of what the labs were doing. When every new weapon was proposed, no one ever stood up and said, Is this right?
Suddenly, Chuck Hosking, whom I'd pass every day, became not a symbol of foolishness and futility but a symbol of great courage. And I didn't have the courage to do what I felt really deep down inside me I should be doing.
I was suddenly not interested in material things anymore. This produced great tension in my marriage. I was trying to tell my wife of the values I'd come to believe in. She and all the others felt it was something caused not by introspection but by emotional stress. Perhaps I had mental problems, coming unglued. I began to wonder if there was something wrong with me. In 1985, I decided I had to be true to what I felt. I had to act on it. As I was walking from the parking lot to my office, I composed a letter of resignation in my head. I was going to tell them how I felt about the laboratory, nuclear weapons, and personal responsibility. When I got to my office, I wrote it down pretty much the way I composed it. I set it aside for a while. Perhaps I was a bit intemperate. A week later, I read it and decided I wouldn't change a word of it. It was exactly how I felt.
I called my entire department together, about seventy people. I knew them all and liked them all really well. I suspect they liked me. I told them I didn't want to be associated with nuclear weapons and was quitting. I had no other job. I had no idea what I was going to do. I made it clear to them it was a studied, reflective response. I handed them all copies of the letter.
Generally, the reaction was friendly. Some told me they disagreed, but there was no acrimony. There was one, an engineer, who happens to be my best friend at the lab. Privately, he told me he agreed, wished he couild do the same thing, but couldn't bring himself to it.
There's a feeling at the laboratories that things can't continue as they are forever. It's an amazingly stable institution, one of unbroken growth, always supported by Congress, by the country. Inwardly, they may feel uncomfortable, but they view each day, each year, pragmatically. Is the budget going to be as big next year? Will I get promoted? There is no long view. It's a matter of individual welfare in the short term. Most people who get into technology and engineering think that way.
The management started circulating copies of the letter. The director in charge of national security got it in his head that I was a security risk: overwrought, emotionally disturbed. It was required reading for all the directors. Yet, of all the managers I talked to, no one ever mentioned he has seen the letter. Or that it even existed. It was the policy to draw no attention to it at all or give anyone a forum to talk about it.
My resignation was treated by my colleagues as one thing and my personal relationship as something else. I was a person with two separate compartments. One, they would not acknowledge; the other, the personal, was something else.
My last act at the lab was a debriefing interview with my boss, one of the directors. His secretary asked me for a copy of the letter. She was crying. I was affected. I had no idea others may have felt that way.
I gave a copy to Chuck Hosking, of course. And to Gordon McClure. There are more people in our society who are concerned about this issue than I was ever aware of when I was in the laboratory. We're a closed society not much different than Jame's Silver's description of Mississippi. I was reminded of Silver. He was right then as I was right now.
I wanted to get into teaching, not just physics and math, but the other, bigger issues. I'm now beginning my third year at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. It's a liberal arts college, experimenting in education. I earn very little compared to my former salary, but I haven't been as contented in years.
I don't think my action and that of a few other individuals is going to have any great impact. I think it's going to take a more widespread change in basic values. I did what I did simply because it became terribly important to me
. If I can influence somebody else, that's a plus.
Created on 01/02/2011 10:22 PM by admin
Updated on 04/18/2015 06:46 PM by admin