From Berkeley to Berlin

How the Rad Lab Helped Avert Nuclear War

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In November 1960, bolstered by anti-Communist ideologies, John F. Kennedy was elected president of the United States. Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev brandished nuclear diplomacy to force the United States to abandon Berlin, setting the stage for a major nuclear confrontation over the fate of West Berlin. From Berkeley to Berlin explores how the United States had the wherewithal to stand up to Khrushchev’s attempts to expand Soviet influence around the globe. The story begins when a South Dakotan, Ernest Lawrence, the grandson of Norwegian immigrants, created a laboratory on the Berkeley campus of the University of California. The “Rad Lab” attracted some of the finest talent in America to pursue careers in nuclear physics including J. Robert Oppenheimer, who collaborated closely with Lawrence for more than a decade, culminating in their work together on the Manhattan Project.

When it was discovered that Nazi Germany had the means to build an atomic bomb, Lawrence threw all his energy into waking up the American government to act. Ten years later, when Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union became a nuclear power, Lawrence drove his students to take on the challenge to deter a Communist despot’s military ambitions. Their journey was not easy: they had to overcome ridicule over three successive failures, which led to calls to see them, and their laboratory, shut down. At the Nobska Conference in 1956, the Rad Lab physicists took up the daunting challenge to provide the Navy with a warhead for Polaris.  

The success of the Polaris missile, which could be carried by submarines, was a critical step in establishing nuclear deterrent capability and helped Kennedy stare down Khrushchev during the Berlin Crisis of 1961. Six months after the height of that crisis, Kennedy thought about how close the country had come to destruction, and he flew out to Berkeley to meet and thank a small group of Rad Lab physicists for helping the country avert a nuclear war.  

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Editorial Reviews

“This is a powerful and well-written story of a vital part of America’s effort to win the Cold War. A must-read for anyone interested in national security and the development of technology. It was inspirational to read about the immense challenges faced by the talented cast of characters at the Rad Lab and how they rose to the occasion.” —John F. Antal, author of 16 books, including his latest: Leadership Rising; 7 Leadership Lessons of the American Revolution, and 7 Leadership Lessons of D-Day
“This book should be required reading at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. One of its great strengths is the anecdotal content. It humanizes the story and reminds us these were real people with enormous responsibilities.” —James R. McDonough, editor-in-chief of the 1997 Report of the National Defense Panel
“The story of how Ernest Lawrence created a laboratory at Berkeley, recruited some of the top scientific talent in the country, and spurred them to develop the warhead for the Polaris missile is a model of American innovation. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about those dangerous early years of the Cold War.” —Kenneth W. Ford, author of  Building the H Bomb: A Personal History
“Ramos has brought to life the powerful personalities of Ernest Lawrence and many others whose technological skills and foresight helped shape—and ultimately win—the Cold War. In the process, he tells a compelling story of the men and women who went on to build one of the nation’s premier scientific and national security institutions.” —Chris Williams, former professional staff member of the House Armed Services Committee, former chairman of the Department of Defense Policy Board
“I found it impossible to put down this book, as I read late into the night. The depth of research Tom did to write this history is astounding; I learned about events of the Cold War that I had not a clue had happened.” —Gary Dolan, author of Of Their Own Accord, inductee U.S Army Ranger Hall of Fame 2011
“Ramos challenges longstanding popular views by dissecting how thermonuclear weapons were interwoven into the country’s strategic deterrent strategy—and what roles they played in nuclear confrontations in the Cold War. Tom’s intensive research emerges as a concisely written narrative that provides an insider’s knowledge of these historic events.” —Dr. Tom Reed, former secretary of the U.S. Air Force, author of  At the Abyss: An Insider's History of the Cold War  and  The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation
“This is a powerful story of a vital part of America’s challenges in the Cold War, and the role that the Navy’s submarine service played in it. It is a must-read for anyone interested in how national deterrent strategy developed to face an aggressive Soviet threat, and how young physicists at a national laboratory rose to the challenge. This book is a tribute to the roles jointly played by scientists and the military to preserve our freedom in a dangerous world.” —Adm. Richard W. Mies USN (Ret.)
“Ramos is a Brooklynite with degrees from West Point and MIT. His firsthand knowledge of the nuclear weapons projects at LLNL and of the important contributors allows insight and authority to inform the text of this book…. The book will appeal to a wide audience, including students of policy, history, nuclear technology, and arms control. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates. Graduate students, faculty, and professionals.” —CHOICE

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Table of Contents from From Berkeley to Berlin by Tom Ramos