A Real Profile in Courage

President Kennedy facing a Russian thug

West Berlin had a status all its own. Was it a member of NATO that we needed to safeguard by that treaty? Not really. But we had a president who was determined not to submit to a communist thug and instead stand behind the two and a half million citizens of West Berlin and not subject them to be taken over by the Soviet Union. When Kennedy said in his inauguration to we Americans that we needn’t ask what our country can do for us, rather we should ask what we can do for our country. He wasn’t phony. He meant every word, and he was truly a leader we could follow.

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Dealing with Russian thugs

Khrushchev giving Kennedy an ultimatum

In June 1961, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev demanded American soldiers get out of the city of Berlin, or else. He said he was losing his patience and the Red Army would be released in six months to invade the city. This sound familiar coming from a Russian thug? Khrushchev had been the political commissar of the Soviet army besieging Stalingrad, and he had threatened to shoot Soviet soldiers if they retreated. Kennedy, a veteran of World War II, knew perfectly well what this Russian thug was capable of doing.

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Think this is a dangerous world now?

Cover to Tom’s new book

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.

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Harold Brown and the Linda

#defense #nationalsecurity

Harold Brown

As I hope we’re beginning to see, over the past few blogs including those entitled Legacies and Mr. Innovation, there was a passing of the baton from Lawrence to upstarts of the next generation, physicists like Mike May and Johnny Foster. In this blog, we’re going to see up close one more upstart, and that is Harold Brown. He would become the Secretary of Defense in the Jimmy Carter Administration, but here we’ll be looking at Brown not as a politician, but at what he accomplished as a genuine physicist. Here’s the next blog to highlight a “hopefully” upcoming book From Berkeley to Berlin.

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Mr. Innovation

Johnny Foster when he was DDR&E

It would be easy to imagine that anyone working at the Laboratory in the fall of 1954 would feel depressed. (Just read the previous two blogs to understand this.) Yet, the Laboratory’s upstarts were anything but. Despite having fielded three successive absolute failures in Nevada and the Pacific, they dove into their work with energy. This is where the upstarts, followers of Lawrence, enter center stage into this story.

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Koon: Just when you thought things couldn’t get worse

Ernest Orlando Lawrence

Well, when we left off last blog (see list of blogs in menu), the young upstarts of Livermore had just conducted their first two nuclear tests, the Ruth and Rae events, and they were a bust—fizzles. The physicists had to endure some expected ridicule, mostly because arguments had been made while getting the Laboratory started that the nuclear weapons program of the nation needed new blood, new ideas. After two successive fizzles, LASL director Bradbury quipped, “Where are the new ideas?”


Oops, Livermore fizzles

Tower holding the Ruth device following the Ruth event

The creation of the Laboratory had been hard-fought in Washington; now it was time to deliver. It was time to show the Washington bureaucracy what Lawrence’s cyclotroneers from Berkeley could do. When Herb York set up the Laboratory’s organization, he put Edward Teller in charge of nuclear weapons design and development. Since Teller was a veteran atomic bomb designer from the Manhattan Project days, this seemed like a logical thing for York to do. (Under this organization, Teller could veto any nuclear design he didn’t like, but it is a blessing of Teller’s personality that he never once exercised his authority to use his veto power.)



Sign posted at the front gate of the nuclear weapons laboratory in Livermore.

The Legacies of Lawrence, von Neumann, and Wheeler

In this next blog, we’re going to see how Lawrence’s passion, combined with a series of events occurring first with the discovery of nuclear fission and culminating with a Soviet test of an atomic bomb, led to the founding of a second nuclear weapons laboratory for the country. If you’re interested, you’ll have to reach back to previous blogs to understand why the laboratory ended up in Livermore. I understand what you’re about to read may differ from histories you may have read before, which makes this blog somewhat controversial, but it is what it is. Here, I am going to highlight just a few of the points I bring out in my “hopefully” upcoming book, From Berkeley to Berlin:


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.


The New Super – the Mike event

The Mike event, the world’s first test of a thermonuclear device

Well, when we left off last blog, Teller and Ulam wrote a physics paper that laid down the foundation for the hydrogen bomb. It was March 1951. What is painfully obvious to many of us involved in research, it’s one thing to write a theoretical paper; it’s quite another thing to turn theory into reality. To make that happen you need first class people, so we’re going to see John Wheeler pop up again in this story; didn’t I tell you so four or five blogs ago? And now, a word about a man I call Wheeler’s assistant—Ken Ford. 

Ford worked closely with Wheeler through their years at Princeton, and later at the University of Texas. He did the hardcore calculations for the design of the Mike device—the world’s first hydrogen bomb. He wrote his code and did calculations on “antique” computers that looked like something out of the props for the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey—well, lots of buttons and blinking lights but maybe not as sophisticated as Hal. He had to do his calculations at night at IBM headquarters in New York, after IBM closed its offices to its regular employees. Ken is an exceptional world-class physicist, and human being. He won the Oersted Award in 2006 from the Association of American Science Teachers. He’s in his nineties, and he’s still working!