From Berkeley to Berlin: How the Rad Lab Helped Avert Nuclear War

  • Published

From Berkeley to Berlin: How the Rad Lab Helped Avert Nuclear War by Tom Ramos. Naval Institute Press, 2022, 209 pp.

While no longer owning a seat at the forefront of Americans’ minds as was the case during the Cold War, nuclear weapons still hold a commanding seat at the table as policymakers develop national defense policy. Dr. Tom Ramos delves into the history of the founding of Lawrence Livermore National Labs (LLNL), a decades-long employee there himself. Though the book is historical, a great effort was put forth in capturing the leadership and management necessary to bring the national lab from a University of California outpost to the institution it is today.

The book does a fantastic job of contextualizing events as they occur. Ramos does this from the genesis of the Manhattan Project to the need for a second nuclear weapons lab to the need for a submarine-launched ballistic missile—which led to the modern intercontinental ballistic missile—to Kennedy going to Berlin and giving his “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech. He works through these major events that he argues were enabled by the LLNL. But there is a bias toward the LLNL vice Los Alamos (LANL), given his background. Ramos is fair in his treatment of the other weapons lab, and he reasonably explains why the governing philosophies of the two labs deviated from the LLNL being able to expand into technology development. At the same time, the LANL remained focused on technology refinement.

Ramos spends most of the first half of the book building up to the first years of the LLNL, giving historical accounts focusing on E. O. Lawrence and the work needed to develop a fusion bomb. He sets the stage and gives treaties to the personalities of the various scientists involved. The second half of the book focuses on nuclear weapon testing. He goes into details about atomic device naming, why they were testing, and the struggles. While the chapters are discrete, each one builds upon the next, and the theme that resonates is the leadership that was required by each scientist, senior military officer, and engineer and the shear amount of willpower that was needed in the first two decades of the lab’s existence to bring it to the prominence it knows today.

This book is a must-read for any technical officer or government scientist/engineer who deals with nuclear weapons or manages highly technical problems. For anyone who has been able to visit the LLNL, you would undoubtedly recognize the names of his main characters who he puts into focus. Ramos keeps the book technical enough to keep the scientist reading while offering enough policy and Cold War history to keep everyone interested.

From Berkeley to Berlin would have made past visits to the lab more impactful and put the lab’s goals into great context. But the book only focuses on the infancy of the lab until about 1962. While that is the main intent, given how Ramos contextualized the first 20 years of the lab, writing a longer epilogue about its impacts would have added value. It was appreciated how he closed the loop on many of the characters in the epilogue, but he suggests things the lab contributed to throughout the 1970s and 19080s that leave the reader wanting slightly more.

Ramos’ effort is an overall, thorough, and quick read on the lives of the scientists and engineers who helped found the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and how they contributed to preventing nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Captain Glenn R. Peterson, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."