AVS Historical Persons | John Vossen - 1994

John Vossen - 1994

Oral History Interview with John Vossen

[John Vossen won the initial Albert Nerken Award in 1985]
Interviewed by Dorothy Hoffman, October, 1994

HOFFMAN: I'm Dorothy Hoffman, a former president of the American Vacuum Society. I'm the long-time colleague of John Vossen, both at RCA and at the Society. We have had in the past almost a tradition that every year there is one major upheaval in the Society that causes the President considerably more gray hairs. [Laughter] I remember very distinctly that you had a beaut.

vossen.JPGVOSSEN: I sure did. It was 1980, and early on in that year, there were numerous people, including the late Senator Henry Jackson, who were complaining bitterly in the Congress of the United States that there was hemorrhage of technical information out of this country into the Soviet block and other Cold War-type unfriendly nations. He, among others, was castigating the Commerce Department up one side and down the other for not enforcing some of their regulations on export of technical data from the country. We, the American Vacuum Society, were unlucky enough to have the next meeting that came up, so they, I guess, decided to land on us. 

I was informed by phone by the compliance officer, the cop of the Commerce Department, that this meeting was in violation of technical data export regulations, and that we would have to either get a validated export license to conduct a meeting - [the meeting was being held in Santa Barbara in the style of a Gordon Research Conference; the topic was bubble memories] - we would either have to get a validated export license for the meeting to continue, or we would have to exclude from the meeting anybody from a list of some 18 nations considered unfriendly by the Commerce Department, and that anybody else from any other nation, friendly nations - Canada, Britain, and so forth - would have to sign, as a condition for admission, something called a Letter of Assurance, which is an assurance not to the U.S. government, but to the American Vacuum Society, that they would not divulge any unpublished information that they gleaned from this conference. When I was first called, I said to the lady who called, "You've got to be kidding. This is the United States. We have a Constitution. First Amendment, even." But she was deadly serious about all of this. 

To make a very long story very short, I tried, through various means, to get this decision reversed. We finally got through to someone in the State Department who said that they didn't care about excluding most of the people that were on these various lists, but they did not want the people from the People's Republic of China excluded because on the State Department's list, they were on the "Most Favored Nation" list. Furthermore, they did not want people from friendly nations to have to sign a document-- 

HOFFMAN: An unfriendly document? [Laughs]

VOSSEN: "An unfriendly document" is right. As a condition for admission to the meeting on the grounds that it was an insult, which I certainly agreed with. So at that point, I just said, "Okay, I'm not going to try to adjudicate a dispute between two Cabinet-level departments of the federal government. You guys fight it out, and when you're all done, tell me what you want to do." 

Well, presumably, at the 11th hour, the Commerce Department prevailed. Initially, at least. FBI agents were sent to the meeting in Santa Barbara, California to monitor who was getting in and who wasn't. The form of a Letter of Assurance was dictated to me over the telephone by the compliance director of the Commerce Department. I was threatened with jail, fines, and all kinds of things. The Society was threatened with a $100,000 fine, and all things like that. This gal was going to send an agent to my house to pick me up. So anyway, I re-dictated the letter to the people in Santa Barbara who were running the meeting. They tried to make light of these Letters of Assurance with most of the people from the friendly nation list.
Prior to this, we had cabled all of the prospective participants in the meeting who were on this list of 18 nations, and all got these cables except for the representatives of the People's Republic of China, who were already in transit. They showed up innocently enough, wanting to get into the meeting. The FBI barred them from entry into the meeting, and they were summarily sent off with the Companions Program to some artist colony. Then later, the first day of the meeting, presumably because of intervention by the State Department, I received notification that we could let the Chinese in after all, but they too had to sign one of these Letters of Assurance. Now, the catch was that one of the countries on the list was the People's Republic of China. Their nation was stricken from the list that they signed, but there were some erroneous newspaper reports that said that these Chinese had signed one of these Letters of Assurance with their country's name still on the list. So, the head of the Chinese U.N. mission in New York sent agents to California, arrested these three Chinese, brought them to New York, and held them in the mission for treason until I sent a letter to the head of the mission saying that they didn't do that. 

Now, this would have been funny if it hadn't been so serious at the time. They don't fool around in those countries. This was just the tip of the iceberg. Subsequently, a lot of other technical societies were harassed in similar, very threatening ways - the Optical Society, SPIE, the CLEOS Conference, and a variety of others. Also subsequently, just because of this experience, it was necessary for me to spend a great deal of time trying to find out what all these various sundry regulations regarding transfer of information were. It turns out that the government has an enormous arsenal of laws and regulations and so on that could, if used, restrict that kind of information. However, had I known then what I know now, I would have refused to agree to it because if any of them had ever really been enforced, they'd probably all be declared unconstitutional. That's the word I got from various lawyers. Anyway, that particular flap took up an enormous amount of time, to say nothing of a great deal of emotional energy. 

On another unpleasant/pleasant note, another major thing that occurred during 1980 was the establishment of the Peter Mark Memorial Award, which you and I both had something to do with, as did Charlie Duke. Peter was the editor of the Journal of Vacuum Science and Technology, and died very prematurely at age 49 of lung cancer. The Mark family and the Greater New York Chapter, the Society, and several other individuals set up an original fund to start the Award that we now present annually to this day. The Award was first presented at the 1980 Symposium. It was presented by Hans Mark, Peter's brother, who was then secretary of the United States Air Force. In attendance were also Herman Mark, his father, who's a Nobel laureate in chemistry, the inventor of polymers, and his wife and his daughter. The first recipient of the award was Dick Brundle. He set an outstanding initial example for what kind of individual that award should be given to. About the only other really major thing of any note was that during that period, we also decided that the AVS Board of Directors just really didn't have enough time at its meetings to worry about the long-range future of the Society, so we appointed then as an ad hoc committee, the first of the Long Range Planning Committees. 

Those are the highlights or the lowlights, depending upon your viewpoint.

HOFFMAN: We're just lucky that John escaped jail that time because it would have been very difficult corresponding with him in some federal penitentiary. Thanks, John, for being here and for contributing to the American Vacuum Society's historical archives.

VOSSEN: Thank you, Dorothy.

return to top