I wish I knew what this letter signified . . .

In 1969 Glenn Seaborg, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, faced not only an increasingly disenchanted public but also the coal industry, mobilising against nuclear energy in particular via the National Coal Association. I haven’t processed all my material on this struggle yet, but found this peripheral yet intriguing letter from Brice O’Brien of the NCA (I don’t as yet know what his role was). Brice writes:

I am writing you at your home, instead of your office, because this is a ‘person to person’ communication instead of a ‘business communication.’ I have just finished reading your speech to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association entitled ‘The Human Side of Energy.’ If I had written the speech, there are some things I would have added – from the standpoint of coal – such as the belief which I hold that the major benefits of atom power may take some years for achievement. Further, that perhaps some of the policies being pursued by our Government should be modified in the public interest. But nevertheless – I want to express my personal admiration for your integrity (regardless of all the pressures which must exist). It is my opinion that you are trying to give the public an honest picture of the future – we need coal, and we need atomic power (even though we may differ as to the timing with respect to when atomic power becomes urgent). Further, this speech represents what I consider to be an extremely good illustration of the fact that most scientists are inclined to ‘tell it like it is’ rather than knock the competition.

Thus far this letter might be a typical maneuver from the NCA, but listen to this:

I hope (not merely from the standpoint of coal, but primarily from the standpoint of the public interest) that you see fit to stay in your present position for a long time to come. One further point: I have never had the benefit of a formal education in liberal arts. I feel that I will gradually acquire, at least in part, the benefits thereof if I have the opportunity to keep reading your speeches in the years ahead. I rarely write fan letters. I guess this is one. I have turned your speech over to Steve Dunn for his pleasure in reading. He sends you his personal regards.

Sincerely, Brice O’Brien.

And this extraordinary coda:

P.S.: I believe it would save us both embarrassment if you do not acknowledge this letter. We probably will find ourselves in public disagreement over some atomic policy matters in the future, as we have at times in the past.

The NCA and the AEC were bitter enemies. What was going on here? Was O’Brien just playing games, trying to lull Seaborg into a false sense of security? Or did Seaborg, famed for his optimistic, semi-messianic speeches about the benefits of nuclear energy, capture the heart of one of his foes, if only for a moment?


O’Brien, Brice. 1969. O’Brien to Seaborg, Nov. 13, 1969. Volume “Journal of Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman, U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, 1961-1971: Vol. 20, September 1, 1969-December 31, 1969″, Box 26, Glenn T. Seaborg papers, 1866-1999, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.