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 Gray Brechin refers to Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs as UC’s shadow campuses. - PHOTO BY ROSA FURNEAUX
  • Photo by Rosa Furneaux
  • Gray Brechin refers to Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore labs as UC’s shadow campuses.

In 1970, the UC's role in nuclear weapons development became the major focus of a group called the Berkeley War Crimes Commission, a project organized by students and members of several short-lived radical communes on Ashby Avenue. The weapons developed at Livermore and Los Alamos help maintain an international and domestic political order marked by gross inequities in wealth and power, the group posited, and are wielded in the same way a bank robber holds a gun to the head of a teller. At one event, the group conducted an on-campus "tribunal" in which four appointed "commissioners" pronounced a handful of UC faculty members and administrators, including Edward Teller, guilty of helping the United States engage in "nuclear blackmail."

Following the meeting, roughly 150 marchers set out for Edward Teller's house on Hawthorne Terrace. They were repelled by 200 police officers.

UC severance from the weapons labs seemed a strong possibility at the time. The Livermore laboratory's director, Michael May, wrote a memo to UC administrators with a gloomy prognosis of what may happen "if the university pulls out."

"It will be extremely difficult for the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] to find any replacement contractor and impossible to find one as satisfactory" as the UC, he wrote.

During a closed meeting, the minutes of which are housed at Bancroft Library, regent John Canaday likewise complained about the "confrontation with dissidents growing out of our management of the major AEC laboratories." Canaday, who chaired the regents' weapons lab oversight committee at the time, also had a business stake in the matter. He was a vice president of Lockheed Aircraft Corporation, later to become half of the consortium Lockheed-Martin, which had developed a missile to accompany a submarine-launched nuclear warhead — the Polaris warhead — developed at Livermore.

But amid the firestorm of student protests, the UC reduced the visibility of its links to nuclear weapons development. In 1971, Lawrence Livermore split off from Lawrence Berkeley, becoming its own independent laboratory. The federal agency that managed the nuclear weapons complex at the time, the Atomic Energy Commission, previously maintained an office on Oxford Street in Berkeley. During a riot in 1971, students attempted to burn it down. The office shuttered its doors, and its staff relocated across the bay to San Francisco.

The student protests eventually died down, and the UC's management of the labs persisted.

Opposition to UC management of the labs resurfaced in the late-'70s and into the early-'80s. Jerry Brown, then in his first term as governor, even briefly stepped forward as a critic of UC weapons lab management. "UC is profoundly compromising itself by becoming the intellectual home of nuclear weapons and participating in a runaway arms race," Brown stated at a 1979 regents meeting.

As the Cold War wound to a close, the regents faced renewed calls to sever ties with the labs. In a 1990 UC Academic Senate survey of faculty members at each of the university's campuses, 3,089 respondents (64.6 percent) favored UC severance from the weapons labs, with only 1,702 (34.6 percent) opposed.

The regents nonetheless voted in favor of renewing their management of the labs.

the university milieu, some longtime critics of weapons lab management remain. One is UC Berkeley geography instructor Gray Brechin, whose urban history classic, Imperial San Francisco, concludes with a groundbreaking essay on the UC's history.

"The Manhattan Project effectively began at UC Berkeley and has never ended, as UC's two shadow campuses at Los Alamos and Livermore have competed with one another, as they were designed to do, to produce and to promote the most efficient means of ending life on Earth when used," Brechin said in an interview.

But the university's contemporary portrayal of Ernest Lawrence, a man who did more than virtually any other to usher in the atomic age, reveals a convoluted attempt to embrace his legacy while simultaneously distancing itself from the work in which he was engaged for much of his professional career. The Lawrence Hall of Science, located across from the entrance to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was constructed in Lawrence's honor in 1968. Among its most visible displays is the Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial, which devotes only a handful of token sentences out of several paragraphs to Lawrence's involvement in nuclear weapons development.

"The contributions of Ernest Lawrence and his radiation laboratory to the war effort helped forge a new compact between science and the federal government and became the embodiment of Big Science," it reads. "Big Science radically changed the picture under the auspices of the Manhattan Project — the development and production of the atomic bomb during World War II. It pioneered the introduction of a system in which the government contracted for research and development services from university scientists and private industry."

In reality, Lawrence dedicated much of his life following World War II to furthering the development of nuclear weapons, including through lobbying in Washington, D.C. for bigger weapons programs and budgets. He died in 1958 after falling ill while assisting in the negotiation of a proposed Partial Nuclear Test Ban Treaty with the Soviet Union. He was the member of the American delegation who most strongly opposed the treaty's ratification.


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