History's Coils: The UC Nuclear Weapons Laboratories by Patricia A. Pelfrey


Early in the Second World War, Franklin Roosevelt appealed to the nation’s elite universities to join in the quest for powerful new technological weapons to counter the Nazi threat.  Urged on by Nobelist Ernest O. Lawrence, inventor of the cyclotron and director of the Berkeley Radiation Laboratory, the University of California responded to Roosevelt’s call in 1943 by lending its scientific leadership to the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico.  The goal: to design and build the world’s first atomic bomb.  UC president Robert Gordon Sproul intended from the outset that the University’s involvement in secret weapons research would end with the conflict itself.  In the end, an engagement entered into as an act of wartime service became a more or less permanent marriage that was controversial from the start.  What justification could a public university—any university—offer for conducting research on weapons of mass destruction?  Decades of public protest and faculty criticism did not end UC’s involvement in the weapons laboratories it managed for the federal government, first at Los Alamos and later at Livermore, California.  What almost did was a series of sensational events that began in 1999 with charges that a spy was at work in Los Alamos’s X Division, responsible for the design of nuclear weapons.  The ensuing espionage trial and its aftermath sent shock waves that spread far beyond the specific details of the case. They precipitated a series of events involving national security, US nuclear policy, and politics within the Department of Energy and the Congress that cast a shadow over UC’s stewardship.  The University and its president, Richard Atkinson (1995-2003), faced fundamental questions about the direction and future of an increasingly contentious partnership.  This paper discusses the University’s evolving relationship with the federal government and how the debate over the nuclear weapons laboratories ultimately shifted from morality to management.

Keywords: University of California, nuclear weapons research, university service, national interest

Publication date: 
April 22, 2018
Publication type: 
Research and Occasional Papers Series (ROPS)