Well, to my oh so many loyal friends who steadfastly read through the six blogs I wrote a year or so ago, I have good news. Naval Institute Press has taken my manuscript and is going to publish it as a book and release it in two weeks!! Already Amazon and some bookstores have purchased the books, which are titled From Berkeley to Berlin: How the Rad Lab Helped Avert Nuclear War, and have agreed to sell them. The book is now ready for preorder.
Now I know some of you out there were cadets in my physics classes back at the Academy, and I know I used to give out writs in class on Saturday mornings, which might have been disturbing to you, but hey, let’s let bygones be bygones. I think you’ll enjoy reading this history. For one thing, it is truly revisionist history, I mean, I found I had to contradict some historical works based on what I learned after reading through hundreds of highly classified documents that were written at the time events were occurring. My story of happenings at the beginning of the Cold War is astounding; it ends when President Kennedy met and thanked a small group of physicists for helping the country avert a nuclear war. What had they done to earn the president’s gratitude? My book tells their story.
Imagine this scenario. Russia possesses lethal weapons like hypersonic aircraft. And there is a suggestion in Russian military journals that using a tactical nuclear weapon wouldn’t necessarily start a world war. Worse, hundreds of thousands of soldiers amass along the Russian border in an area just miles away from Kaliningrad, the major base for Russia’s Baltic fleet. Russian premiere Putin demands NATO expel Lithuania. There are five Russian armored divisions stationed less than one hour from the capitol city of Vilnius. A threat of invasion is in the air. Think this sounds like a crisis that could easily take place today?
In June 1961 President Kennedy met with Soviet Premier Khrushchev in the city of Vienna to discuss the status of Berlin. The summit meeting occurred a few months after a fiasco of a military operation called the Bay of Pigs, in which Kennedy’s administration had backed a brigade of Cuban expatriates to invade Cuba and replace the regime of Fidel Castro. The invasion failed. Khrushchev and his advisors felt Kennedy had lost his nerve during the operation and they could play on that perceived weakness against the young Irish American president. Khrushchev did, and he demanded West Berlin and its two and a half million residents become part of communist East Germany. The Russian was adamant he was losing patience and the Red Army would occupy Berlin in six months.
Kennedy would not submit to Khrushchev’s bullying attack. He had been elected president by strenuously arguing during his election campaign that the nation had to face and resist communist aggression. When he returned to Washington, DC, he told his national security staff he was not going to have a quiet presidency. He said he expected there would be a thermonuclear war within a year. He went to the Pentagon and received a grim appraisal. US forces in Europe were vastly outnumbered by the Warsaw Pact and tactical nuclear weapons were the only weapons available to avoid a slaughter.
Khrushchev added to the pressure. He announced the Soviets would begin nuclear testing again, and the Soviet Union executed forty five nuclear tests over the next two months. Kennedy had to respond and he ordered the Atomic Energy Commission to resume nuclear tests in Nevada. Nevertheless, he had to face down a thug. Kennedy pursued a strategy of convincing the Soviets the US would not abandon Berlin without a fight, but he had to keep Khrushchev from acting irrationally. How he did that was remarkable – he was indeed a leader.
Kennedy stood up to Khrushchev and Khrushchev blinked. The crisis ended with the Soviets building the Berlin Wall. How we were able to stand down a thug determined to jam his ideology into a free city did not happen easily, it took a decade of hard work and good luck. This success didn’t just fall into our laps, and Kennedy knew it. Six months after the height of the crisis he flew out to Berkeley because he said he wanted to meet the team that had gotten him through the crisis. I asked Mike May, a member of the team, what it was like meeting the president, and he told me, “I saw the president walk across the lobby then he smiled, shook my hand, and said thank you. It was the proudest day of my life.” I knew then I had to tell Mike’s story to the world.