Foreign Affairs

Cold War International History Conference: Paper by Terrence R. Fehner

Session V

The U.S. Department of Energy and the Cold War
Terrence R. Fehner

History Division
Executive Secretariat
U.S. Department of Energy

Paper Presented at the Conference on
The Power of Free Inquiry and Cold War International History
at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland
on September 26, 1998

During the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan criticized Jimmy Carter's energy policy and advocated abolishing the Department of Energy. Free enterprise, Reagan declared, could do a better job of production than the government. The Department of Energy, with its multi billion-dollar budget, had not "produced a quart of oil or a lump of coal or anything else in the line of energy." Following the election, however, when Reagan's advisors began to take a closer look at the department, the story goes that they were surprised to find that the Department of Energy actually designed and built the nation's nuclear weapons. As a result of this discovery, the Reagan administration's ardor for eliminating the department was somewhat diminished.

When the average person, or the average scholar, or even the average presidential adviser ponders international relations, national security, and the Cold War, thoughts do not necessarily turn to the Department of Energy. The Central Intelligence Agency and the Departments of State and Defense come readily to mind, for example, but not the Department of Energy. The department and its predecessor agencies nonetheless played a significant if a somewhat narrowly focused Cold War role. Nuclear weapons, as the Reagan advisors realized, were very important. Arguably, no other factor so shaped the way the Cold War developed and played out and kept the Cold War from developing into a full-fledged "hot" war. The department and its predecessor agencies not only designed and built the nation's nuclear arsenal but were also key players at the highest levels of government in the policy debates concerning that arsenal.

This paper looks at the Department of Energy in terms of researching and writing the history of the Cold War. During the past ten years, the department has made great strides in making documentary materials more accessible. Gone is what was one of the most closed of governmental agencies, at least on the nuclear side. In its place is an agency genuinely moving toward openness. More, of course, needs to be done, but the current nature of budget constraints has been a limiting factor. The paper fleshes out a bit more broadly the department's place in Cold War history as far as predecessor agencies and organization structure, examines the declassification of records of interest for Cold War research and discusses how these records can be accessed, looks at the various data bases and reading rooms that the department has set up, and finally and briefly suggests a few potential topics for scholarly and other pursuit.

The Department's Predecessor Agencies and Organization Structure

In 1977, Congress, in response to the ongoing energy crisis and at the instigation of the Carter administration, created the Department of Energy. The new department incorporated a score of organizational entities from a dozen departments and agencies, each with its own history and traditions. Basically, however, the department brought together two separate programmatic areas. The first consisted of the agencies, offices, and commissions dealing with various aspects of non-nuclear federal energy policy and programs. This was a loosely knit amalgamation until December 1973 when President Nixon brought oil and gas pricing and allocation together within the Federal Energy Office, which five months later became the Federal Energy Agency.

The second area consisted of the federal government's activities in the field of nuclear energy. These dated back to the Manhattan Project and the effort to build the atomic bomb. During the Second World War, the Army Corp of Engineer's Manhattan Engineer District (MED) established a nuclear weapons production complex consisting of research facilities, company towns, and production facilities scattered across the country. Oak Ridge, Tennessee; Hanford, Washington; and Los Alamos, New Mexico, were the most prominent sites. Following the war, the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 transferred the nuclear weapons complex from the army to the civilian U.S. Atomic Energy Commission (AEC). Onset of the Cold War brought about expansion of the complex, with new facilities at Savannah River, South Carolina; Rocky Flats, Colorado, and elsewhere. Beginning in the mid-1950s with President Eisenhower's Atoms-for-Peace initiative, the AEC became involved with promoting the peaceful use of nuclear energy, both at home and overseas. In late 1974, Congress abolished the AEC, subsuming most of its functions within the broader-based Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA). ERDA and the Federal Energy Agency were the major components that went into the Department of Energy in 1977.

Organizational structure of the department and its predecessor agencies largely determined what Cold War historical records would be located where. The records of the Federal Energy Agency, which was highly centralized, are in Washington. The Manhattan Engineer District, despite its far flung research and production sites and the use of contractors to run those sites, was also highly centralized, but with a twist. General Leslie Groves and a few of his staff were in Washington, but MED headquarters was actually in Oak Ridge and the central mail and records files were located there. The AEC took over the MED's structure and decentralized it, transferring headquarters, which dealt with overall policy, to Washington, and setting up semi-autonomous field offices at Oak Ridge, Albuquerque, Chicago, and other locations. Field offices directed the contractors, which in turn were given a great deal of latitude in operating the facilities and to a certain extent were also semi-autonomous. At Savannah River, for example, government officials during certain periods had to ask permission from the contractor to visit the site. ERDA and the Department of Energy largely continued the policy of decentralization. As a result, much significant Cold War documentation, especially concerning weapons design and production, was generated by and remains at the field sites.

Declassification of Records

As with much Cold War documentation, the first hurdle faced when dealing with Department of Energy records concerns classification. Most DOE collections relevant to Cold War issues contain classified materials. Much of this is standard National Security Information (NSI). But the department also has its own distinct category of classified information know as Restricted Data (RD), which is regulated by the Atomic Energy Act of 1954 as amended. This is information concerning the design and manufacture of nuclear weapons and the production of "special nuclear material." A special clearance, known as a "Q" clearance, is needed to look at Restricted Data, and DOE authority is required to declassify it.

Declassification of Restricted Data does not necessarily follow the same logic as declassification of National Security Information. For example, a rule of thumb with most NSI materials is that the older they are the less likely opening them to public scrutiny will compromise national security. Revelation of candid forty or fifty-year-old policy discussions for the most part have little import for current security affairs. Restricted Data is different. It is largely of a scientific and technical nature. Some of the oldest Restricted Data is some of the most sensitive. Information on the relatively simpler weapon designs and processes from the 1940s and 1950s would be more useful to a terrorist group or want-to-be-nuclear nation than the more complex, and therefore harder to achieve, designs of the last couple of decades.

Departmental sensitivity to Restricted Data has shaped declassification efforts and the accessibility of records. During the Cold War period, declassification was never a priority. Funds were limited, and available resources went to responding to Freedom of Information Act Requests. Not until late 1994 did the department's Office of Declassification initiate a systematic declassification program, entering into a cooperative effort with the National Archives and Records Administration to review Department of Energy collections that had been transferred to the archives but not declassified. The Office of Declassification entered into a similar cooperative arrangement with the department's History Division, which as custodian of the department's archives controlled the bulk of headquarters historical records still held by the department. Both NSI and RD materials were reviewed in the systematic declassification process.

President Clinton's signing on April 17, 1995, of Executive Order 12958 mandating automatic declassification of Executive Branch NSI documents twenty-five years or older of historical value by the year 2000 redirected the short-lived systematic declassification effort. The Office of Declassification determined that over the next five years it would be necessary to review all department records subject to the Executive Order so that no information that remained classified--particularly unidentified or mismarked Restricted Data information--would be automatically released. Department officials were also concerned with departmental equities in other agency files, which might be rendered more vulnerable by bulk declassification. Because of time constraints, however, the Office of Declassification is currently only identifying RD documents while proceeding with the declassification of NSI materials.

This all happened at headquarters. Field offices and contractor-operated facilities, while subject to the Executive Order, each responded to the Executive Order as they saw fit. Some decided, for example, to review individual historical documents instead of collections.

Accessing Records

Although the Department of Energy's declassification effort continues and much more needs to be done, many significant collections relating to Cold War issues have been made available, or at least partially available, to researchers. The vast majority of these are AEC collections, most of which, as far as headquarters records, are accessible either at the National Archives in College Park or at the History Division's archives at the department's facility in Germantown, Maryland. Note 1

Nearly all research into headquarters AEC records begins with the Secretariat files. These files were maintained for the five commissioners, and contain correspondence, memos, staff papers, and other materials that went to or were sent out from the Commission. Most of the agency's top-level documentation is in the Secretariat files. Organized by subject, the files are actually a series of distinct collections broken down chronologically. The first collection contains materials from 1947 to 1951, the second from 1951 to 1958, and so on. These first two collections are at the National Archives. A full-scale declassification review--both NSI and RD--is nearing completion and about three-fourths of the material in these collections is open to researchers.

The six remaining collections making up the Secretariat files and running from 1958 to 1975 are maintained by the History Division. These collections are currently going through an NSI review under the Executive Order. Over the next several years as the NSI review is completed, the History Division intends to transfer the collections to the National Archives; but, in the interim, research access to the Secretariat files is available through the History Division. Large portions of the files, mostly those dealing with non-national security issues, are unclassified. Access to weapons-related files, though, remains somewhat limited. The History Division maintains a research room in Germantown, open by appointment. A folder title index is available or all of the Secretariat collections. The History Division also has a card catalog indexing significant documents in the Secretariat collections. The catalog is classified, however, and because of its complexity has thus far resisted efforts by the Office of Declassification to declassify it.

Other AEC headquarters collections are accessible either at the National Archives or through the History Division. Most of the materials collected by individual commissioners have been saved. The records of David Lilienthal, first chairman of the AEC, are at the National Archives. Others, such as those of Lewis Strauss and John McCone, are on their way. Some, such as Glenn T. Seaborg's office collection of over 250 cubic feet, have yet to go through declassification review. The AEC General Manager's files, which duplicates some of the Secretariat material but also contains documentation not found in the Secretariat files, is going through a declassification review. As with the later Secretariat files, limited access to the General Manager's files is available through the History Division. Unfortunately, headquarters programmatic records at the next level down--at the office or division level--generally no longer exist. These records were scheduled for destruction and, for the most part, were destroyed. Over the years, the History Division, precluded from saving everything because of limited space and resources, has attempted to rescue some of the more significant collections. An example would be the AEC Division of Biology and Medicine subject files--containing critical policy documents on exposures, human radiation experimentation, and the like--which are now at the National Archives. Another would be a portion of the records of the AEC Division of Military Application, which was responsible for weapon design and assembly. These records, located in Germantown, are heavily classified and generally are not yet open to researchers. But office and division records that have been saved are the exception rather than the rule.

Researching field records from the AEC period is much more problematic. At most departmental field sites, getting access to records collections is difficult if not impossible. Sites like Los Alamos and Hanford have voluminous collections on weapon design and materials production, but most of these collections are classified. In addition, field records offices are not set up to deal with outside researchers. Field records officers are trained to store and retrieve, when needed, collections for field program offices. They do not, for the most part, possess the capability to research topics across collections. Some field sites have sent collections to the National Archives, mostly to the various regional offices. Some field records, such as the early records of the Argonne National Laboratory are at College Park. Currently, the Office of Declassification is reviewing, at headquarters, hundreds of cubic feet of records from the Oak Ridge records center. Although this has slowed down the review of headquarters collections, declassified collections containing significant Oak Ridge historical materials are making their way to the National Archives regional office in Atlanta.Note 2

Access to ERDA and Department of Energy Cold War records remains limited. Declassification under the Executive Order has focused almost exclusively on AEC, and, for the most part, records generated since 1977 remain in the custody of the program offices.

Document Collections, Data Bases, and Reading Rooms

In an effort to facilitate openness and provide information to the public, the Department of Energy has created various document collections, finding aids, and data bases and set up reading rooms at sites across the country. Their utility for the researcher is often mixed, usually because the types and amounts of materials available are limited or the systems are not as user friendly as they might be. Part of the problem has been a certain lack of coordination at the department between those offices dealing with records issues. Also, the department, early on, decided to make materials available on the basis of individual documents and not by collections.

First and foremost among the document collections/reading rooms is the Coordination and Information Center, known as the CIC, located at the department's Nevada Operations Office in Las Vegas. Set up in the early 1980s in response to litigation pressures and increasingly vocal nuclear weapons testing down winders, the CIC's mandate was to collect and make available "all" documents and data dealing with radioactive fallout. To date, the CIC has collected over 270,000 documents on the testing program, broadly construed. From the beginning, information on each document was included on a searchable data base. Documents can be reviewed at the CIC, or "proxy research" can be done by the CIC staff. Note 3

Several years ago, the department launched OpenNet, a searchable data base on the Web sponsored by the Office of Declassification. OpenNet includes bibliographical references to all documents declassified under the Freedom of Information Act and released to the public after October 1, 1994. OpenNet also includes information from other, older data bases, such as the one for the CIC. A relatively small number of documents can be viewed on OpenNet full text. OpenNet can be a useful tool for locating specific documents on specific topics, but it can prove cumbersome and frustrating when dealing with broad topics and is no substitute for hands-on research in records collections. Note 4

Declassified documents referred to on OpenNet generally are located either at the CIC or at one of the department's public reading rooms set up to provide the public with access to information and documents on departmental programs. Researchers looking at specific field sites would do well to start at the field site's public reading room. They contain a wealth of information about the site, much of it dealing with the environment and site cleanup--issues that are important to the local community. Again, reading rooms contain reports and declassified documents but no records collections. Some have their own web page and searchable data bases. Not all sites have reading rooms.Note 5

Researchers interested in departmental records also might want to look at the documents collection/data base created several years ago by the now-defunct Office of Human Radiation Experimentation. Extraordinary amounts of time and effort were devoted to scouring departmental records and extracting documents relevant to human radiation experimentation. Some 40,000 documents were collected. Hard copies are available at the National Archives and at the CIC. A searchable data base on the Web contains most of the 40,000 documents full text. This document collection in theory focuses on an extremely narrow niche of Cold War history, but in fact many of the documents have nothing to do with human radiation experimentation and are on other subjects such as waste management. Still, the data base is of somewhat limited use to anyone researching other topics. Perhaps of more utility, the Office of Human Radiation Experimentation put out a finding guide to departmental records collections. It is far from complete, focusing only on collections that might have some relevance to human radiation experimentation, but it is the best--if only--guide to field records currently available. In addition, the remnants of the Office of Human Radiation Experimentation, located in DOE's Office of Environment, Safety and Health, is setting up a "researcher's workstation" on the Web that will offer finding guides and research aids, primarily on environmental and health records but also on other "historically significant" materials.Note 6

Finally, the Office of Declassification has a searchable Historical Records Review data base on the Web. The data base provides information at the box level on materials that have gone through or are currently going through declassification under the Executive Order. The data base can be searched on the basis of 258 key words. While easy to access, the data base is of negligible value. Results of a search are not easy to comprehend or all that useful, and researchers would be better advised to consult a folder title index.Note 7

As for the future, discussions are currently ongoing at the department on better coordinating Web sites, finding aids, and other tools for researchers. The History Division is working, with the cooperation of Records Management and the Office of Declassification, in putting together a Guide to Headquarters Historical Records. This will go on the Web, as will various folder title indexes. Preliminary discussions have also been held on producing a cooperative Guide to Field Historical Records.

Potential Research Areas

Researchers interested in getting a feel for potential areas of study for the period from 1940 to 1960 should first of all look at the three volume official History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission. Volume I, which covers the Manhattan Project, and Volume II, which covers the early years of the Cold War, are more encyclopedic in nature, dealing with policies, processes, and production. Volume III on the Eisenhower years focuses more on overall policy. Coverage of the Atoms-for-Peace initiative and the beginnings of the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in this volume is quite extensive. No Volume IV in the series for the years after 1960 is forthcoming, but researchers can consult the AEC's published annual reports, which are generally quite informative.Note 8

The History Division also has published shorter "institutional" histories. The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb is the best overview of the project available. The Department of Energy, 1977-1994: A Summary History provides a useful look at the various policies and programs that make up the department. Note 9

Certain research topics have proved more popular than others. The decision to build the hydrogen bomb continues to attract research attention. So do the national laboratories. Partly this is due to the fact that each laboratory has wanted its own history, which have varied in quality, but specific activities at the labs and labs taken as a whole also have sparked outside research interest. In addition, some of the department's more esoteric projects--such as the nuclear rocket and the nuclear airplane--have been the subject of recent or ongoing research.

Other topics have been somewhat neglected. Nonproliferation, for example, which has become an even more critical issue in the post-Cold War world and in light of the recent tests by India and Pakistan, has been virtually ignored. No doubt there is ground breaking work to be done in this area, particularly with regards to bilateral agreements, EURATOM, and the IAEA.

With the end of the Cold War, interest in the social and environmental consequences of nuclear weapon production has increased markedly--especially since the Department of Energy now heads up the largest environmental remediation effort in the world. The History Division, at the request of the department's Office of Environmental Management, is working on a headquarters-focused policy study of how the department got to where it is on environmental issues. Note 10 Outside researchers also have turned their attention to waste and risk issues.

Much more could be done by historians, however, on and at the various field sites--and not just from a scholarship perspective, narrowly interpreted. One historian has termed the nuclear weapons complex field sites as the "battlegrounds of the Cold War." There is more than a little truth in this, considering the centrality of nuclear weapons in shaping the nature of the struggle and the incredible amounts of money that were expended, as the recent Brookings Institution study, Atomic Audit, has pointed out, on nuclear weaponry. Many of the sites, and the facilities on the sites, are unique, one-of-a-kind legacies of the Manhattan Project and the Cold War. Much is being irretrievably lost in the department's priority cleanup effort. Historic preservation and cultural resources may not sound glamorous to scholars trying to make their mark in the academic world, but the department employs dozens of people in the field working these issues. The overwhelming majority have archaeological and anthropological backgrounds--and they have not always appreciated the Cold War significance of the sites. Historians and other scholars have largely ignored historic preservation, but there are opportunities here for both scholarship and employment.


  1. Questions concerning access to AEC materials should be directed to Marjorie Ciarlante at the National Archives at (301) 837-3510 and Marie Hallion in the DOE History Division at (301) 903-4135; (301) 903-9673, fax;, e-mail. [Back]

  2. The Oak Ridge records are being sent to the National Archives regional archives in East Point, Georgia: 1557 St. Joseph Avenue, 30344; (404) 763-7477. Questions concerning the declassification and transfer of the records should be directed to Roger Anders, (301) 903-0127;, e-mail. [Back]

  3. The Coordination and Information Center is located at 2621 Losee Road, Bldg. B-3, North Las Vegas, NV; mailing address: Coordination and Information Center, Bechtel Nevada, P.O. Box 98521, Las Vegas, NV 89193-8521; (702) 295-1628; (702) 295-1624, fax;, e-mail;, web address. [Back]

  4. OpenNet can be reached at [Back]

  5. Following are public reading rooms at some of the major sites: Hanford: DOE PublicReading Room, P.O. Box 999 - Mail Stop H2-53, Richland, WA 99352; (509) 376-8583. The reading room is located in the library at Washington State University - Tri-Cities Campus, 100 Sprout Road, Richland, WA. Los Alamos: Public Reading Room, 1350 Central Avenue - Suite 101, Los Alamos, NM 87544; (505) 665-2127 or (800) 343-2342. Idaho National Engineering Laboratory: DOE Idaho Operations Public Reading Room, 1776 Science Center Drive, Idaho Falls, ID 83415-2300; (208) 526-9162. Oak Ridge: Oak Ridge Operations (ORO) Public Reading Room, 55 Jefferson Circle, Oak Ridge, TN 37831; (615) 241-4780. [Back]

  6. The Human Radiation Experiments Database can be reached at The listings and descriptions of records collections can be found in U.S. Department of Energy, Assistant Secretary for Environment, Safety, and Health, Human Radiation Experiments: The Department of Energy Roadmap to the Story and the Records, DOE/EH-0445, February 1995. [Back]

  7. The Historical Records Review database can be accessed through the OpenNet web page or at [Back]

  8. The three volume A History of the United States Atomic Energy Commission consists of Richard G. Hewlett and Oscar E. Anderson, Jr., The New World, 1939-1946 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University, 1962); Hewlett and Francis Duncan, Atomic Shield, 1947-1952 (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1969); and Hewlett and Jack M. Holl, Atoms for Peace and War, 1953-1961 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989). [Back]

  9. F.G. Gosling, The Manhattan Project: Making the Atomic Bomb, DOE/HR-0096 (Washington: U.S. Department of Energy, September 1994 edition); Terrence R. Fehner and Jack M. Holl, Department of Energy, 1977-1994: A Summary History, DOE/HR-0098 (Washington: U.S. Department of Energy, November 1994). Both works are available,available, free of charge, from the Department's Office of Scientific and Technical Information in Oak Ridge. address and telephone: Office of Scientific and Technical Information, P.O. Box 62, Oak Ridge, TN 37831; (615) 576-8401. [Back]

  10. A brief overview of the origins of the Department of Energy's environmental problems can be found in Fehner and Gosling, "Coming in From the Cold: Regulating U.S. Department of Energy Nuclear Facilities, 1942-96," Environmental History 1, no. 2 (April 1996): 5-33. [Back]