The Second Weapons Lab

Tom figuring out what to do next

Yes, that’s a photo of me—that’s all you get. No famous world-class physicists today, just me looking like I’m thinking, “Now what do I say?” I’m changing venues a bit. Instead of giving you a short preamble before giving highlights from my upcoming book, From Berkeley to Berlin, I’m going to jump right in to highlight the next part of the story about the onset of our country’s entry into the Cold War. Hey, you want more? Go convince a publisher to print the book, and you can read the whole enchilada at your leisure.

When we left off last blog, the US had conducted its first test of a hydrogen bomb in the Mike event; it was a device that was based on the Teller-Ulam paper of March 1951. The Soviets followed suit six months later with an H-bomb test. Apparently, despite arguments to the contrary, the Soviet Union had been pursuing a thermonuclear device for years. To continue the story, first let’s go back one year before the Mike event.

In October 1951, the General Advisory Committee (GAC), which was chaired by J. Robert Oppenheimer, reversed itself to recommend a test of a thermonuclear device. Nevertheless, the GAC remained opposed to further thermonuclear research. One would think that should have been resolved in January 1950, when President Truman literally ordered the AEC to develop a Super bomb, but it wasn’t. There was a feeling among many, especially in the Pentagon, that AEC thermonuclear research was lagging.

The military services were feeling the strains of the onset of the Cold War, and they wrestled with how a new and powerful weapon, the atomic bomb, should be deployed against the Soviets. Air Force officers, led by the dynamic General Curtis LeMay, wanted to keep to strategies they developed during World War II-massive bombing strikes deep into the industrial base of enemy country. So, they strongly favored developing a thermonuclear bomb with a one megaton (1MT) yield carried by a strategic long range bomber. All the bombers would attack simultaneously, where one bomber carrying an H-bomb would replace a fleet of bombers carrying conventional bombs. The Air Force created the Strategic Air Command (SAC) to carry out that mission, and a lot of pressure was placed on the AEC, and consequently Los Alamos, to produce the big bombs needed by SAC.

Meanwhile, the Army was given a rude awakening during the Korean War when “human wave” attacks by three Communist Chinese armies almost destroyed its 8th Army. Army strategists saw a need for small yield (tactical) atomic devices, say yields of one to ten kilotons (1-10kt), that could be used against enemy formations. The Navy wanted to play a role in this new atomic world too, by using tactical atomic bombs dropped from fighter bombers launched from aircraft carriers to supplement Army nuclear artillery. The Army and the Navy put pressure on Los Alamos to develop more tactical atomic weapons.

This pressure on Los Alamos taxed its resources, and the services began thinking another nuclear weapons design laboratory was needed to meet demands. Compounding troubles, Oppenheimer got himself involved with a study, called the Vista Study, that said it was tactical atomic weapons, not thermonuclear bombs, that were crucial to the defense of Europe against a Soviet invasion. The Air Force took that as a snub at their strategies, and in retaliation, the Air Force pulled Oppenheimer’s Secret Clearance so he could not see Air Force documents. Los Alamos, which still admired its former director, was considered guilty by association, and the Air Force tried to establish a second nuclear weapons laboratory near Chicago with the University of Illinois.

The chief scientist of the Air Force at the time was none other than David Griggs. Remember David? He worked with Luis Alvarez at the MIT Radiation on radar research, where he also met Ernest Lawrence. (I don’t think historians have made this connection among Griggs, Lawrence, and Alvarez, but it is important.) Griggs was not someone to sit aside during a serious debate; he defended the Air Force strategy, and advocated research should be sped up to develop a thermonuclear weapon, despite Oppenheimer’s objections. Things were coming to a head.

I’ve read a few history books of this period, written by some pretty popular authors (we’re not going to go into details here) that claim a second nuclear weapons laboratory really got its start when Edward Teller went in and briefed the Secretary of Defense and that’s why the AEC created a laboratory in Livermore, California six months later. And that’s that, according to those history books. I don’t know how many of you out there have worked at the Pentagon, but one does not simply walk into the Secretary’s office, say hello, and then give a briefing. Teller did indeed give the Secretary a briefing in March 1952, but you should ask, how on earth did a Hungarian born physicist marooned in Chicago get into the Secretary’s office? That’s where David Griggs steps in, and that’s how Lawrence was able to affect the creation of a second nuclear weapons laboratory.

Teller had attempted to convince Oppenheimer and the GAC back in December 1951 to create a new laboratory, but he was turned down. Disappointed at the negativity he watched coming from the GAC, an AEC commissioner, Thomas Murray, flew out to Berkeley and met with Lawrence to convince him to start a second laboratory. Lawrence was sympathetic, and admitted thermonuclear research was not going as fast as it should, so a second laboratory would be helpful.

There are no records of this that I am aware of, but since Griggs kept close contact with Alvarez and Lawrence, he could go to his two physicist friends to be kept apprised about thermonuclear issues facing the nation. So, it shouldn’t be too surprising that, out of the blue, Griggs invited Teller to join the Air Force Science Board, and introduced him to the Board’s chairman, General Jimmy Doolittle—who had a PhD from MIT, so he could intelligently converse with Teller about a thermonuclear device. A few months after Teller joined the Science Board, Griggs and Doolittle made arrangements for him to brief the Secretary of Defense with a RAND analyst at his side. That RAND analyst, Ernie Plesset, had been a member of Griggs’ physics division when Griggs was the division leader. Teller and Plesset laid out a convincing argument the government needed to emphasize thermonuclear research.

That briefing led to Teller being invited to brief a subcommittee of the President’s National Security Council, which included Gordon Dean, the Chairman of the AEC. Dean could read the handwriting on the wall; the Assistant Secretary of Defense said he was dissatisfied with the attention being given to thermonuclear research at Los Alamos and he wanted to see a second nuclear weapons laboratory, and Secretary of State Dean Acheson backed him up. AEC Chairman Gordon Dean committed himself to start a second laboratory, and he would go to Lawrence to create it.

Lawrence selected a physicist from the Rad Lab to lead the effort, a young man named Herb York, who had spent the war years working in the Manhattan Project on calutrons at Oak Ridge. One would think that Alvarez would have been the natural choice to lead the new laboratory, but Alvarez was burned out after leading the MTA effort and he wanted to get back to basic research—he did get back to basic physics research and won the Nobel prize in physics fifteen years later. Where to put the new laboratory? There was not enough space in Berkeley, but the Rad Lab had been running MTA operations for a year in Livermore, and that Naval Air Station offered a square mile of space. They put the nuclear weapons laboratory in Livermore.

Lawrence got York to enlist Teller to the laboratory. Teller was hesitant at first, but then he threw all of his energy into the enterprise. When Dean set up a role for the new laboratory to support Los Alamos nuclear tests, Teller balked. He thought the AEC was running a charade to make the Pentagon think there was a second nuclear weapons laboratory, when there really wasn’t. He wanted the new laboratory to have a clear charter to conduct thermonuclear research and design thermonuclear weapons. Teller threatened to quit, but Lawrence talked him out of it, and in any case, Dean relented and gave Teller what he wanted.

Chairman Dean did not want Teller excluded from the second laboratory; the process had moved too far, and Teller had grown a coterie of admirers within the Pentagon that Dean did not want to antagonize. That’s when he decided to allow UCRL, the Rad Lab, to participate in a thermonuclear program. The stage was set for the Regents of the University of California to amend their contract with the AEC, the same contract they had signed to join the Manhattan Project, to provide the nation with a second nuclear weapons laboratory.

Even then, there was no formal declaration about a role for the Livermore site, whether for instance, it would constitute a permanent weapons laboratory, or whether it would even conduct its own nuclear testing. “It would be impossible for the Commission to write out a specific charter for the Livermore Laboratory,” was Dean’s assessment on September 8,1952. However, within a short span of time, a general charter did take shape and the Livermore site emerged as a fully functional and independent laboratory. Dean’s concerns became the basis for an unwritten obligation for the Laboratory: Livermore should not compete with Los Alamos for staff and scarce material resources, and Livermore had to avoid duplicating Los Alamos designs.

The story told here about how Livermore became a nuclear weapons laboratory is different than most depictions I have read these past few years, and for that reason, when my story comes out it will be controversial. Yet, it’s my story and I’m sticking to it—I can back up everything I have said. One of the more exciting parts of researching this was when I tried to figure out how Teller was able to brief the Secretary of Defense. Undoubtedly, events moved quickly after Teller’s briefing, and as I said, some historians have concluded that was the whole story, and Teller created the new laboratory. But, we know it couldn’t be that simple, and that is when I first discovered David Griggs and his relationship with Alvarez and Lawrence. 

Tom’s garden of contemplation

In the coming blogs, you’ll have the opportunity to get acquainted with young people, I call them “upstarts,” who took on the challenges presented to them by Lawrence. We’ll see how Lawrence, and some other heroes like von Neumann and Wheeler, created legacies among the upstarts of Livermore. I’ll also leave you with this serene scene of my back yard, where I conjure up these blogs. The fountain, isn’t it nice, was a project accomplished during these stay-in-place times we live in. I find it gives a nice atmosphere for writing about atom bombs. Until the next blog, enjoy this portrayal of part of the From Berkeley to Berlin story.

2 thoughts on “The Second Weapons Lab

  1. TomHill

    Hmmmm, Tom…. I thought the fountain was a new addition to the back yard.
    Your story here creates a lot of new spin to the creation of LLNL that I’ve not heard or suspected. I’d still like to get you out here to talk about those things. A lot of good research here in this story.
    One thing you mention for LaMay’s desire for a 1 MT thermonuclear weapon: to be able to have one bomber execute a massive strike at the industrial/military heartland of the enemy. In the later part of the WWII, that strategy had been replaced, by and large, by a strategy of inflicting as much deaths to the civilian population as possible. Witness the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo. The damage to the enemy military capabilities was rather nominal there. Targeting Hiroshima and Nagasaki achieved little military-wise. I think the idea was to inflict as much civilian casualties as possible in the (remote) hope the civilians would rise up and overthrow their leaders. Wishful thinking I think. Had LeMay access to a 1 MT thermonuclear bomb, I expect he would have dropped it on Tokyo.


  2. Tom Ramos Post author

    Tom, LeMay’s ambitions were more complicated. He wanted nothing less than the complete annihilation of the Soviet Union in one fell swoop. He envisioned all of SAC attacking simultaneously. Sorry if I gave the impressiion only one bomber carrying one H-bomb would do the trick.



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