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1996 Distinguished Graduate Award

    Kenneth David Nichols '29

As a distinguished Army engineer whose brilliant leadership, outstanding knowledge, sound judgment, and daring imagination in the new and uncharted field of atomic energy and atomic weapons made possible the preeminence of the United States during the early years of the Cold War; as a widely respected expert in the field of hydraulic engineering; and as an internationally recognized authority on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, Kenneth David Nichols has served his country with distinction in a wide variety of endeavors during a career spanning seven decades.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1907, General Nichols graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1929. He was commissioned in the Corps of Engineers, and reported to Fort Humphreys (now Fort Belvoir) Virginia as a second lieutenant in September 1929. Lieutenant Nichols was immediately assigned to the Army Engineer battalion in Nicaragua for survey work on the proposed Nicaraguan Interoceanic Canal. For his efforts during and after the Managua earthquake in March 1931, he was awarded the Nicaraguan Medal of Merit.

From 1931 until 1933, General (then Lieutenant) Nichols attended Cornell University where he received the degree of Civil Engineer and a Master's degree in Civil Engineering. From 1933 until the summer of 1934 he was Assistant Director of the Waterways Experiment Station at Vicksburg, Mississippi. A year later, the War Department sent General Nichols to the Technische Hochschule in Berlin, Germany under a fellowship from the Institute of International Education for the purpose of studying European hydraulic research.

In the fall of 1937, Lieutenant Nichols was assigned to the Military Academy at West Point, where he served four years as an instructor in the Department of Civil and Military Engineering. During this tour he was promoted to Captain.

In July 1942, Colonel Nichols was selected for assignment to a new and highly secret organization established to develop and produce the atomic bomb -- the Manhattan Engineer District. Initially he was assigned as Deputy District Engineer, and a year later, as District Engineer. In this position he reported directly to General Leslie R. Groves, Commanding General of the Manhattan Project.

In his capacity as District Engineer, Colonel Nichols supervised the research and development connected with the design, construction, and operation of all facilities required for the production of weapon-grade plutonium and uranium-235. He was also tasked with the construction -- from the ground up -- of the towns of Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Richland, Washington. His office at Oak Ridge became the administrative headquarters for the wartime atomic energy activities. Colonel Nichols continued to serve with the Manhattan District until the responsibilities for atomic energy were turned over to the United States Atomic Energy Commission in 1947.

Appointed Professor of Mechanics at the United States Military Academy in 1947, Colonel Nichols found that his expertise and preeminent reputation in the field of atomic energy required nearly full-time duty as a consultant to the United States Delegation to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission and to the Military Liaison Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission.

Early in 1948, as international tensions mounted, Colonel Nichols was relieved from duty at West Point, promoted to major general, and assigned as Chief of the Armed Forces Special Weapons Project. Charged with the responsibility for atomic weapons logistics and training, General Nichols commanded this joint Army-Navy-Air Force organization for three years, until 1951.

During the same period, he was Deputy Director of Atomic Energy Matters, Plans and Operations Division of the General Staff U.S. Army and Senior Army Member of the Military Liaison Committee to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission. In 1950, General Nichols was handed an additional assignment of grave responsibility by President Truman. He was appointed deputy to Mr. K. T. Keller, Department of Defense Director of Guided Missiles. He continued as Mr. Keller's principal assistant until 1953, advising the Secretary of Defense on the research, development, and production of guided missiles.

In 1953, at the request of President Eisenhower, General Nichols retired from the Army and accepted an appointment as General Manager of the Atomic Energy Commission, with the mandate of improving the relations between the AEC and the Army and speeding the development of commercial Atomic Energy electric power. In both arenas he was successful, and in 1955 General Nichols retired from government service.

General Nichols is a member of the National Academy of Engineering, a Fellow of the American Nuclear Society, and an Honorary Member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

In addition to the Nicaraguan Medal of Merit, General Nichols has been awarded the Distinguished Service Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission Distinguished Service Award, the American Society of Civil Engineers Collinwood Prize, and the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (Degree of Commander). In 1984, he became only the fifth individual to be awarded the Chief of Engineers Award for Outstanding Public Service.

In 1987, General Nichols published a personal account of the making of America's nuclear policies, entitled: The Road to Trinity. A glowing review in the New York Times called it "…the best possible book on the subject."

Throughout a lifetime of service to his country, General Nichols made lasting and invaluable contributions to the national security of the United States during periods of great international tension; his brilliant leadership in the development of atomic weapons and later in President Eisenhower's Atoms-For-Peace program exemplified outstanding devotion to the principles expressed in the West Point motto: DUTY, HONOR, COUNTRY.

Accordingly, the Association of Graduates takes great pride in presenting the 1996 Distinguished Graduate Award to Kenneth David Nichols, USMA Class of 1929.