Engineering Victory at Los Alamos; under University's Control, Lab Helped America Win Cold War

Article excerpt


The leadership of the University of California in managing the nation's nuclear weapons design laboratories is being questioned. I believe there are strong reasons to continue the current arrangement.

To an outsider, discontinuation of this arrangement might appear to be attractive, but such a decision must be considered in the context of the historical role the university has achieved over the past 60 years. The University of California has been in charge of the Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories throughout their successful development of nuclear weapons. For more than half a century, they have contributed strongly to winning the Cold War.

The first phase of the university's involvement consisted of the establishment of the Los Alamos National Laboratory and resulted in the development of the atomic bomb, which ended the war with Japan without additional bloodshed of American soldiers. The financial cost was high: $2 billion, including some work for which the University of California was not directly responsible. But even this amount was negligible compared to the cost of conducting a full-scale war.

Following the "hot war" against Japan came the subsequent Cold War against the Soviet Union. This second war is most remarkable in part because of the absence of bloodshed on both sides.

During this Cold War, the University of California played a most important role because, for the first time, the war was conducted in the labs rather than on the battlefield. A fundamentally important part of this war was a deep controversy between those scientists who were convinced that scientific progress is essential and others who were opposed to the development of powerful weapons whose ultimate destiny could have hardly been foreseen. This controversy was, furthermore, coupled with broadly applied secrecy which regretfully weakened international cooperation, but which at least in part was absolutely necessary.

I am emphasizing this point because here, the administration of the University of California played a most important part, which was very effective, although to a great extent it was silent.

One of the most important points is the attraction and retention of first-rate scientists, all of whom have a great affection for peaceful work. Another important point is the circumstance that, together with work on weapons, work on pure science did proceed. The prime example of this is the development of computer technology in which the second weapons lab, Livermore, played a leading role. …