This article is based on the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s files of Dale Corson, the University’s eighth president, who died March 31.
The FBI was on him.
It was June 25, 1955, at the height of the second Red Scare, and Dale Raymond Corson, then a professor of physics and engineering physics at Cornell, was under investigation. He was hoping to be cleared for access to classified defense information to help aid American security efforts. But the FBI had found something it believed to be a credible threat — and brought Corson in for questioning.
“What is your full name?”
“Dale Raymond Corson,” he answered.
“When and where were you born?
“April 5, 1914 … [in] Pittsburg, Kansas,” he said.
They cut to the chase. Corson was under investigation in part because, from 1944 to 1946, his name had appeared on a list of members of the American Soviet Science Society, Inc. — an organization that had been deemed “subversive and Communist," according to the FBI files.
Corson had also been a subscriber to the Daily People’s World, a West Coast Communist newspaper, in September 1939.
For the FBI, seeing the name of an American physics protégé who had aided the Manhattan Project on such lists brought up several questions.
The FBI asked how long he had been a member of the American Soviet society. Why had he joined it? To what extent had he — versed in nuclear research aiding national security — participated in the society’s activities?
Corson, having no choice but to cooperate, responded to these questions, and others, according to FBI files.
“This is an organization which I had forgotten about until it was brought to my attention in the investigation involved for an [Atomic Energy Commission] clearance … [which was granted] in 1952,” he said, referring to the U.S. agency created after WWII to further atomic science in peace time.
But his intentions in joining the society were hardly malicious, he insisted. In fact, he said, “the statement in this interrogatory is the first suggestion I have ever had that it was in any way subversive.”
“The sole objective of the organization, as I recall it, was the exchange of published scientific literature with the Soviet Union. In a practical sense, this meant the translation of Russian scientific papers into English … I was convinced that this was a desirable thing,” he said.
It seems that Corson thought the paranoia around him impeded America’s scientific research.
Around 1945, when the U.S, created the synchrotron and synchro-cyclotron — machines on which most of the country’s high energy nuclear physics research depended — it had not realized that the technologies had already been invented one or two years earlier by the Russians, Corson said, because no one had read the relevant Russian scientific journals.
The Americans only realized the Russians had beat them to the invention when the Russian scientist who created the synchroton published a letter in an American journal “pointing out his earlier invention,” Corson said.
Such oversights convinced Corson that opening access to the Soviets’ scientific discoveries — even in the midst of an arms race — could only bolster the quality of American scientific research. He pointed out that, although American scientific literature was freely available to the Russians, few Russian journals were available to Americans.
“My interest in making Russian scientific literature available was with the idea of strengthening our own scientific effort,” he said.
Even when the Russian journals were delivered, “few people can read them because few people know Russian,” he said.
“In view of the fact that the organization seemed to be sponsored by reputable people, I considered it worthy of support,” he added.
As for the Communist newspaper? Corson said he could not recall ever subscribing to the paper — perhaps his name had appeared on the mailing list “through no volition of my own.” In fact, having lived on just $1,500 a year in 1939, he said he was reasonably sure he only held subscriptions to professional publications.
That was all, he said; he was no conspirator, no defector, no renegade physicist. A scientist, he wanted to be able to read his Russian peers’ discoveries only so he could advance the field as a whole.
That motive would continue spurring his scientific inquiry over the next few decades. Although, by 1959, Corson had become dean of Cornell’s College of Engineering and picked up new responsibilities at the University, he continued to engage in both science and international affairs –– and the sometimes murky intersection in between.
In Puerto Rico, he was instrumental in launching the University’s Arecibo Observatory in 1963. In China, he tried to improve the physics departments of 19 universities through the 80s and 90s, according to Prof. Emeritus Fred McLafferty, chemistry.
It was Corson’s drive to advance science on a global scale that contemporaries recalled this spring, after he died in Ithaca on March 31.
“[He] strengthened ties between our country and places around the world,” McLafferty said on April 2.
Prof. Emeritus Kurt Gottfried, physics, echoed his sentiments.
“I think Dale was a really exceptional leader within the American scientific community. He was a major player … and, of course, a great president of Cornell, but his importance went far beyond Cornell,” Gottfried said.