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By Gina Channell Wilcox

How Livermore Lab helped avert a nuclear war

Uploaded: Apr 12, 2022

Much has been written about the similarities between Russia’s current war in Ukraine and past aggressive behavior.

“We’ve been through this before folks and there are lessons to be learned,” physicist and Livermore resident Tom Ramos said, comparing the invasion of Ukraine today to the Berlin Crisis of 1961.

Not many people know about Livermore’s laboratory's role in preventing the Berlin Crisis from escalating into a nuclear war, but Ramos wrote the book on the subject … literally.

Ramos’ book, “From Berkeley to Berlin,” details the history of the nuclear weapons program of what is now known as the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and how a group of physicists in Livermore helped avert a nuclear war in the ‘60s.

Ramos will share the knowledge he garnered from years of research and interviews with weapons designers, as well as an unfathomable amount of time combing the lab’s archives, during a program entitled “How the Livermore Lab Helped Avert a Nuclear War” on Tuesday, April 19. The program is part of the Livermore Public Library and the Livermore Heritage Guild Then & Now: Livermore Stories, a free local history lecture series.

Ramos will discuss the creation of the Berkeley and Livermore Radiation Laboratories and tell the story of how the Livermore laboratory created a national defense strategy to deter the Soviets. President John F. Kennedy adopted this strategy in time to face Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Berlin Crisis, in which the Soviet leader threatened to use nuclear weapons against the United States.

A brief and very elementary refresher on Cold War history might be beneficial here. At the end of World War II, Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. Berlin technically fell in the Soviet zone but was also split, with the Soviets taking the eastern part of the city.

Eventually, East Germans began escaping communism by simply moving to zones occupied by America, Britain or France – particularly West Berlin.

Khrushchev quickly became tired of this and wanted division of the city to end and for it to be completely under Soviet control. To this end, in June 1961, Khrushchev issued an ultimatum demanding the withdrawal of all armed forces from Berlin, including the U.S. armed forces in West Berlin, and threatened the use of nuclear weapons against the U.S.

“The nation needed to face up to communism,” Ramos said. “We had a real honest to God threat and we needed to face up and challenge it.”

Demands that the West withdraw from Berlin had been made during President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s term in office. In January 1961, just before JFK took office, Khrushchev again demanded the West end their “occupational regime” in West Berlin.

Within six months of taking office, Kennedy was put to the test.

“(Khrushchev) thought ‘now I can get your ass out of Berlin,’” Ramos said, adding Khrushchev gave Kennedy six months to get out of Berlin, “because the Red Army is coming in.”

“We had a Russian thug, Nikita Khrushchev, and Kennedy faced him down,” Ramos said, without weapons being fired or bloodshed.

What gave Kennedy and his administration confidence and wherewithal to stand up to a thug was a defense strategy and weapon created by a team known as the “Rad Lab physicists.”

Work on the Polaris nuclear warhead started in 1957 at what is now known as Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by a team led by John Foster and Harold Brown. In addition to both men eventually being named director at LLNL, Foster served as Director, Defense Research and Engineering under four Secretaries of Defense and two Presidents and Brown was the United States Secretary of Defense from 1977 to 1981, under President Jimmy Carter.

“In the 1950s, Livermore became an epicenter of intellects and they came up with a strategic defense that Kennedy used,” Ramos said.

“These guys were camping out here in the Tri-Valley,” Ramos said of America’s most talented nuclear physicists who came to work at the Livermore lab. ”These are not bush league people. They were coming up with a strategy to get us through the Cold War.”

Ramos has an impressive, consequential history of his own. He created several programs in the 1990s that served the Defense Department. Most notable among them, having started with a $200K grant, was the Counterproliferation Analysis and Planning System (CAPS), which helped military operators with missions against facilities linked to a hostile country’s manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. CAPS was effectively used in several conflicts including Operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom. The program grew into a $46M a year enterprise and was declared to be the Defense Department’s premier counterproliferation program by Secretary of Defense William Cohen.

Another significant program that Tom started was the Homeland Defense Operational Planning System (HOPS), a program like CAPS, but steered toward analyses to protect America’s critical infrastructure.

In the 1980s, Tom was a nuclear weapons designer in the LLNL X-Ray Laser Program, which supported the Strategic Defense Initiative, also referred to as “Star Wars.” President Ronald Reagan wanted a defensive weapon that would render nuclear weapons harmless should the Soviets decide to attack the U.S. One of the solutions was a space-based laser that could shoot down missiles.

In the program’s last nuclear test, Ramos led a team of physicists who designed the program’s brightest laser.

In 1989 he prepared a daily summary sheet for the Secretary of Energy to use at NSC meetings on the resumption of START Talks. In 1991, Tom was assigned to the Pentagon as a nuclear weapons advisor to the Secretary of Defense, with a primary role to prepare the Assistant to the Secretary of Defense for Atomic Energy for Congressional hearings.

Prior to joining the Laboratory, Tom was an associate professor of physics at West Point, New York, where he taught each of the physics department’s core courses, as well as electives in Quantum Mechanics and Nuclear Physics.

“Khrushchev tried to intimidate Kennedy,” Ramos said of the Soviets. “They underestimated him.”

Ramos will explain how the Polaris missile and national defense strategy created by a team of men in Livermore gave Kennedy the capability and confidence to stare down Khrushchev in 1961, how Kennedy was so grateful that he personally visited the team and shook the physicists’ hands and tell many stories of that time (like disclosing who the real “Dr. Strangelove” is and how an atomic bomb was driven to Novato in the back of a “woody” station wagon) at 7 p.m. April 19 via Zoom. No registration is required. The live program can be accessed here.