The University of Nuclear Bombs 

The University of California is once again bidding to manage Los Alamos nuclear weapons lab at a time when the threat of nuclear war is rising.

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click to enlarge Edward Teller lived on Hawthorne Terrace in Berkeley for more than two decades. - LAWRENCE LIVERMORE NATIONAL LABORATORY
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
  • Edward Teller lived on Hawthorne Terrace in Berkeley for more than two decades.

Berkeley physicist Ernest Lawrence, who had played an instrumental role in the Manhattan Project, recruited the Hungarian-American physicist Edward Teller to join the UC's faculty and to serve as Lawrence Livermore's founding director. Celebrated in the press as the "Father of the Hydrogen Bomb," Teller was one of the inspirations for the title character in Stanley Kubrick's classic 1964 dark comedy Dr. Strangelove.

Teller was arguably the most effective salesperson for nuclear weapons development of the 20th century. And for more than two decades, he lived on Hawthorne Terrace just north of the Berkeley campus. His personal history also provides a stark illustration of the UC's central role in the Cold War. In May 1957, the weapons labs' funding and programs were threatened after the Soviet Union announced it was placing a moratorium on further weapons testing and proposed a comprehensive test ban treaty. Then-U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower endorsed the Soviet's idea. In response, Lawrence and Teller met with Eisenhower at the White House in 1957 in an effort to dissuade him. Lawrence asserted that Livermore scientists were on the verge of developing "clean bombs" that would be free of radioactive fallout and that it "could truly be a crime against humanity" if such weapons were not developed. Teller shared his ideas for developing "peaceful nuclear explosions" to mine harbors or tap deeply buried oil reserves.

Eisenhower subsequently agreed to postpone a moratorium to study these matters further. It was one of many cases across the years in which leaders of the labs have taken on U.S. presidents and effectively disempowered members of Congress by framing political discussions around possible scientific breakthroughs or obscure technical questions. Ultimately, the weapons labs' leaders and allied interests were able to prevent a full nuclear test ban from ever taking hold, ensuring the development of numerous nuclear weapons systems that otherwise never would have occurred.

Teller exerted an influence on matters of profound global significance for decades afterward. Another infamous project of Teller and other Livermore scientists was the Strategic Defense Initiative, which envisioned positioning anti-ballistic weapons in outer-space to shoot down Russian missiles in their boost phases. It came to be known as the "Star Wars" program.

One of the key turning points of the Cold War took place October 11-12, 1986, when U.S. President Ronald Reagan and General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavík, Iceland, to negotiate a reduction of nuclear arms. Each side initially proposed a 50-percent cut in strategic nuclear forces in five years, and the Soviet proposal also called for the elimination of all remaining nuclear weapons in each country's arsenals in the five years that followed.

Reagan stated that he would accept this proposal for the complete elimination of nuclear arms. He insisted, however, on continuing the development of Star Wars. For Gorbachev, the program upset the strategic balance between the two countries, making the possibility of U.S. offensive attacks more likely. Thus, a program that Livermore scientists had developed and promoted turned out to be a key factor in scuttling an agreement that could have resulted in both the U.S. and Russia eliminating their nuclear weaponry.

Since the UC Board of Regents' inception in 1877, it has operated as an independent agency appointed by the governor, thus helping insulate it from political pressures. In essence, the regents are the university's directors. The board has always been dominated by business, technical, and managerial leaders who put their power to use by shaping policies within the economic mill that is the university. Many of the firms controlled by members of the regents are transnational corporations worth billions of dollars.

During the mid-20th century, several regents were executives of military-industrial firms that relied, in part, on federal contracts to develop nuclear weapons. For the most part, however, the regents have not personally profited from their affiliation with the weapons labs. And the UC as an institution has typically plowed any profits it has earned from laboratory management back into its campuses. The national laboratories also bring the UC a measure of prestige, give its scientists access to vast resources, and provide a substantial chunk of the university's budget.

The regents maintain a five-member committee that oversees matters involving the nuclear weapons labs, as well as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Beyond hiring and firing the laboratory directors, however, the regents perform little in the way of actual oversight. A 1970s UC faculty committee wrote that the regents are akin to "a benevolent absentee landlord" with respect to the labs.

The UC does play a significant role, however, when it comes to recruiting scientists to work at the labs. Federal documents from the 2000s showed that one of the NNSA's 10 major benchmarks for evaluating the weapons labs' performance was to "utilize UC strengths to recruit, retain and develop" the labs' workforce. Previous NNSA "Performance Appraisals" for Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs noted that their "effort to incorporate the UC image in addressing pipeline recruitment needs" was an especially useful strategy in personnel recruitment. The weapons labs operate 12 academic institutes that help foster recruitment, of which 10 are affiliated with the University of California and five are located on UC campuses.

In recent years, the UC's affiliation with the labs has elicited little opposition. But in the 1960s and '70s, disarmament advocates protested heavily against the UC's involvement in nuclear arms. At the time, students throughout the country were in open revolt against universities' key role in the development of technologies of modern warfare. At UC Berkeley, it was a fixture of student movements. "The university is a vast public utility which turns out future workers in today's vineyard, the military-industrial complex," Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio told the San Francisco Examiner in 1964.


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