Lawrence in the Cold War

"As long as our nation requires strong armed forces we must stockpile and continue intensive development of atomic weapons."

—Lawrence in mid-August 1945

As relations between the U.S. and the Soviet Union chilled into the Cold War, national security loomed ever larger. The U.S. government continued to support Lawrence's Radiation Laboratory, because science seemed vital for national security. Although much of the laboratory demobilized at the end of the war, more than a quarter of its contracted work related directly to military problems, especially biological studies connected with possible uses of radioactive substances in warfare. Beyond that, atomic bombs and nuclear reactors showed how fundamental research might lead to crucial new military and industrial applications. In addition, the Rad Lab trained young scientists, which the nation needed.

  Ernest Lawrence believed that nuclear weapons should be central to U.S. military strategy. He supported the AEC's studies of warfare with radioactive materials, and backed plans to develop submarines propelled by nuclear reactors for the Navy. With his characteristic drive and enthusiasm, he argued in favor of a crash program for naval reactors.

Lawrence propagated these views not from official advisory positions but as a nuclear physicist of high reputation. He developed personal connections with members of the AEC, military leaders, and congressmen, and sat on the board of directors for several large corporations. He proved adept at maneuvering in Washington, sometimes bypassing the AEC and going straight to the congressional Joint Committee on Atomic Energy for approval of pet projects. His multiple obligations and repeated trips to Washington and New York made his frequent illnesses worse and gave him chronic ulcerative colitis.

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Although in 1946 Lawrence said, "I endeavor to remain completely non-political," his ascent into influential circles sharpened his political views. A nominal Republican (although he voted for Roosevelt through the 1930s), Lawrence had disapproved of union-organizing activities at the Rad Lab before the war by J. Robert Oppenheimer and other "leftwandering" scientists. The two scientists took opposing positions after the Soviet Union tested its first fission device in August 1949. Lawrence abandoned his earlier opposition to the hydrogen bomb and called for an all-out effort to beat the Soviets to it. He pressed the issue in person with congressmen and generals on a visit to Washington. The AEC's General Advisory Committee, a group of nine scientists with Oppenheimer as chair, counseled against developing H-bombs on both technical and moral grounds, but President Truman decided to commit the U.S. to a crash program.

"A very great change has taken place in the climate of opinion...two experienced promoters have been at work, i.e., Ernest Lawrence and Edward Teller."

—Oppenheimer to James Conant,
21 October 1949, on the H-bomb debate

Lawrence knew a powerful source of neutrons was needed to produce plutonium for A-bombs and tritium for H-bombs. Playing to his strengths, he proposed building a linear accelerator to produce the neutrons. As usual, Lawrence thought big. A prototype, called Mark I, would deliver high intensity 25-MeV deuterons followed by a full-scale Mark II for 350-MeV deuterons. The beam current in Mark II would be one ampere, a million times that of the 184-inch synchrocyclotron. The device was planned to stretch over 1,500 feet. A site for the Mark I, code-named the Materials Testing Accelerator (MTA), was found at the Livermore Auxiliary Naval Air Station about 45 miles from Berkeley. However, as the costs of Mark I mounted to $21 million by mid-1952, the AEC canceled plans for Mark II in favor of cheaper neutron sources.

Although the MTA project died, it gave the Rad Lab valuable experience with high-volume vacuums and exotic electrical engineering. A more concrete legacy was the Livermore site. The H-bomb program was taxing the capabilities of Los Alamos, where the staff was working overtime. Edward Teller agitated for a still stronger effort, and proposed the establishment of a second weapons lab to take the load off Los Alamos and apply a competitive spur. The idea, backed by Teller's allies in Congress and the military, found a strong supporter in Lawrence. In June 1952, the AEC approved Lawrence's proposal to establish a second nuclear weapons lab at Livermore. By mid-1954, the Livermore lab had over 1,000 total staff, including more than 400 scientists and engineers. It remained an adjunct of the Berkeley Rad Lab until 1971, when anti-war protests resulted in institutional separation and a new name, the Lawrence Livermore Laboratory.

Lawrence's increasing hawkishness ended what remained of his friendship with Oppenheimer. The final break came in 1954 as McCarthyism — the persecution of real and perceived Communist sympathizers in the U.S.reached its climax. When the AEC held a hearing to determine whether to renew Oppenheimer's security clearance, Oppenheimer's opponents attacked him. In their eyes, his earlier opposition to the hydrogen bomb and his pre-war contacts with Communists made him a security risk. A bout of colitis prevented Lawrence from testifying in the hearing, but in interviews with Oppenheimer's prosecutors he concluded that Oppenheimer "should never again have anything to do with the forming of policy." Lawrence's position and the testimony of Teller and others helped convince the AEC to withdraw Oppenheimer's security clearance, ending his long service to the American atomic energy program.

"Doctor [Oppenheimer], is it true that from 1943 until recently, at least, you were the most influential scientist in the atomic energy field in this country?" "I think Lawrence probably had in many ways more influence."

—Roger Robb, counsel for the personnel security board,
questioning Oppenheimer during the 1954 hearing

In 1954 the U.S. tested a thermonuclear device in the South Pacific. It produced an unexpectedly powerful explosion and strewed radioactive fallout beyond the boundaries of the test site. A long-running controversy ensued over the dangers of fallout from nuclear bomb tests. Lawrence argued for continued testing. He thought it was a moral imperative to develop "clean" bombs that could be used in a nuclear war without producing much deadly fallout. Failure to develop such weapons, he told President Eisenhower, "could truly be a ‘crime against humanity.'"

"If we stop testing...we will have to use weapons that kill 50 million people that need not have been killed."

Lawrence also argued against a test ban on technical grounds, pointing to the difficulty of detecting hidden tests. His advocacy earned him an appointment as an American delegate to an international "Conference of Experts" in Geneva in the summer of 1958, where scientists discussed the technical aspects of monitoring a test ban. Lawrence accepted the duty reluctantly, for he feared the stress of the trip would worsen his frequent flare-ups of colitis. Midway through the conference he fell ill and was rushed back to the U.S. Lawrence died following surgery for colitis on August 27, 1958, at the age of fifty-seven. A few days before Lawrence's death, and in part as a result of the work of the American delegation in Geneva, Eisenhower announced a moratorium on nuclear weapons testing by the U.S., which the Soviet Union joined. The international moratorium on nuclear explosions lasted only to 1961 when the French broke it. An international treaty of 1963 allowed nuclear tests only underground, thus putting an end to fallout but not weapons development.

Lawrence left a large legacy. The development of the cyclotron helped change our understanding of nature, from the microscopic structure of matter to human metabolism, from the process of photosynthesis to the creation of new chemical elements. One of these elements is number 103, lawrencium, named after the inventor of the cyclotron. No less important, Lawrence created the model of the big-science laboratory, which spread through the Manhattan Project to the national laboratories in the U.S. and thence to other countries. Two of these labs, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, bear his name. Lawrence's labs have pushed the interdisciplinary approach into such fruitful new fields as environmental research, alternative energy sources, astrophysics, and molecular biology. For the last field, the Berkeley and Livermore labs served as two of the main centers of the Human Genome Project. The Lawrence labs helped build the first atomic bombs and then drove ahead into a dangerous arms race with the Soviet Union, but firmly believed that they thus prevented a nuclear war. The Atomic Energy Commission recognized Lawrence's central role in the development of atomic energy by establishing annual Lawrence Awards to honor the work of young scientists. The awards are still given annually by the Department of Energy.

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