By Colin E. Babb
Nearly a year after the end of World War II, and only a few months after Winston Churchill had first used the term “iron curtain” to describe the new Soviet-dominated regimes of Eastern Europe, President Harry S. Truman established the Office of Naval Research (ONR). On Aug. 1, 1946, he signed Public Law 588, which created the first U.S. government agency that would fund and manage peacetime scientific research conducted mostly outside of the government for the purpose of military aims. The event was not just a milestone in the development of the Navy and Marines Corps, but also in the history of science and technology and how research is conducted in this country.
The Navy had long been in the business of investigating new science, from pioneering discoveries in navigation and meteorology in the 19th century to groundbreaking research in radar between the world wars. Most technology research, however, took place outside of government direction. World War II would change this dynamic. With the establishment of the National Defense Research Committee in 1940—and its wartime successor, the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD)—research in and out of the government was supported and directed from a national platform. Once the defeat of the Axis powers was in sight, many in the government, such as OSRD director Vannevar Bush, envisioned an organization that would carry on at least a part of the coordination of science and technology that had been accomplished during the war.
Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal would be the first to create such an organization that would endure in peacetime. The Office of Research and Invention (ORI), established in July 1945, was given the power to contract with industry and academic partners in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Missing from ORI was approval from Congress, since it was presumed that an organization created in wartime under the various war powers acts may not have had the authority to commit public funds in peacetime. The necessary sanction was codified on 1 August 1946 with the signing of Public Law 588, and ORI became ONR.
For the first half decade of its existence, ONR supported science and technology research not just for the Navy and Marine Corps, but for the nation at large. Until the establishment of the National Science Foundation, ONR was the only government agency with the power to contract for research at universities. Since the 1950s, numerous other agencies have grown up alongside ONR with similar business models and a variety of different missions, making government-supported research a vital core of U.S. and global science and technology. For over 70 years, ONR has led numerous innovations, from supporting the research that built some of the first computers, made satellite navigation possible, and took human beings to the deepest depths of the oceans. Today, ONR still provides the Navy and Marine Corps with the science and technology they need to accomplish their missions, from basic research in physics, chemistry, and biology to technology demonstrators that help make U.S. warfighters the most advanced in the world.
Editor’s Note: Colin Babb is a support contractor serving as the historian of the Office of Naval Research. He is a doctoral candidate in military history at the University of Maryland College Park.