Herbert York Interview (1988): Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Reminiscences from a Career in Science, National Security, and the University: Conversation with Herbert York, Director of the Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation; 2/6/88 by Harry Kreisler

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The Birth of the Livermore National Weapons Laboratory

After the war the question arose, should there be a second weapons lab? I would like you to discuss that debate, because that's the next turning point in your life.

That arose quite a bit later. It didn't arise out of World War II; it arose out of the Korean War. There really are two quite separate tracks leading to the establishment of the second laboratory. One of those is, essentially, Edward Teller, who was a physicist at Los Alamos during the war. He worked there as a consultant [during the war] and full-time afterwards. He felt that the hydrogen bomb needed to be pressed urgently. Even during the war, he pressed for it, and then after the war, he continued to. Finally, in the beginning of 1950, as a result of the Soviet atomic bomb, Truman authorized pressing ahead. But Teller always wanted more and felt that even with presidential decisions and with the laboratory director assuring him that's what we were going to do, there wasn't really enough happening. So he was always dissatisfied from the early wartime period when it was Oppenheimer, he felt, who was frustrating him, to the later period when he thought it was politics ... and when he thought Director Norris Bradley wasn't doing enough. So, he was always dissatisfied. And so, somewhere in there, in 1950 or so, he developed a view that the only solution to this was a second laboratory where they would do things right.

And he wanted something. We should explain that. He wanted to build a weapon that ...

His focus was the hydrogen bomb, which everyone conceived of in those days as being a thousand times as big as the atomic bomb, and therefore, as big a step up as the last step had been -- the step to the atomic bomb. So, one route for all of this was Teller's dissatisfaction with the American program, the way it was being run; and his conclusion was that the only way to fix what was wrong was to start over with a new laboratory.

The other route involves Ernest Lawrence and some of the young people who were associated with him, including myself; and the Korean War. The Soviet atomic bomb in the fall of 1949, just as it had re-stimulated Teller's views, broadly affected people and brought a lot of people to thinking "What does it mean? And what should we do? What should our response be?" Since it was a technical event, it was natural to think of technical answers. So Lawrence, also, began looking for ways to re-involve himself and the laboratory in the national defense. He explored a number of possibilities, like building reactors for making tritium, and building a big, huge accelerator for making plutonium or tritium -- a number of channels. But at the same time, as he was exploring these things himself, he was aware of what Teller was thinking, and so he also chose to explore that same question: would a second laboratory be a good idea? But by the time he got to this question, several of us here -- most importantly Hugh Bradner and myself -- had gone down to Los Alamos on a visiting basis to help them out with some of the experiments for their first test relating to thermonuclear processes, tests which were conducted in the Pacific in 1951. So I knew something about what was going on at Los Alamos, about the program, generally.

So for that reason or for whatever other reasons -- I'd just finished my Ph.D. in '49 -- Lawrence asked me what I thought about it. Should there be a second laboratory? He said that some of his friends in the Atomic Energy Commission had asked him. So I began exploring that particular question in earnest. And that involved going to Los Alamos, talking with Teller and the people there, going to Washington, talking with the people there, the Defense Department and the Atomic Energy Commission, and other interested parties -- other knowledgeable parties.

My conclusion, finally, was that there was room for a second laboratory. Whether there was a need for one, I wasn't quite so sure, but there was a place for one. And it could make a positive contribution in the sense of expanding our programs in high-tech national security; in particular, in this thermonuclear hydrogen bomb area. That was in the spring of 1952. And Lawrence became convinced that that was the right thing to do. I think, maybe, he was convinced before I reached my conclusions, but I certainly reinforced them. And so he then proposed to start a second laboratory. And that's what changed everything. When only Teller was pushing for a second laboratory, it was easy for Washington to reach the conclusion that it was not a good idea, that it would divert talent and resources from Los Alamos, that the people weren't there, that it would just be too big a job. When Lawrence said, "I'll do it and I'll find the people, namely, people I've already got" -- me and others at the laboratory in Berkeley -- that changed everything. And so the opposition to the establishment of the second laboratory tended to evaporate. In that summer, 1952, we opened up the Livermore Laboratory.

But key stimuli then, as far as the outside world is concerned, were the Soviet atomic bomb in '49, and then the creation of the Sino-Soviet bloc, and then the invasion of South Korea in 1950. Those three major events all happened within ten months, and they stimulated all sorts of things. They brought about the election of Eisenhower and the new look and the idea of massive retaliation. They brought about the establishment of other laboratories devoted to air defense. They brought about, eventually, the establishment of the large programs whose purpose was to build the long-range, intercontinental rockets. And they brought about the establishment of the Livermore Laboratory.

How old were you at this point when they sent you to Livermore?

I was thirty.

Thirty. And Lawrence's leverage here, was it his reputation or the fact that he had his own lab, which he could control?

Well, those go together. He had a reputation among the nuclear establishment in Washington and elsewhere as being a person who could organize or accomplish most anything. And so it was his reputation for getting things done quickly and under difficult circumstances; the fact that he already had this laboratory [at Berkeley] was the concrete evidence of that.

What was your biggest challenge in going out there and setting up this operation?

Getting things going. Getting the people.

You were able to draw primarily on the group around Lawrence's students?

Yes. As far as physicists and scientists are concerned, to the level of 95 percent, they all came from Berkeley. Some of them have had interesting careers subsequently. One of them was Harold Brown, who had recently come as a post-doc. Another was John Foster, who had been there as a student as a post-doc. The present director, whom I expect will be retiring shortly, Roger Batzel, was also one of them. One of the interesting things about the Livermore Laboratory is that from 1952 until now, 1988, all of the directors have been people who were there at the very beginning.

Has that been useful for maintaining the identity and integrity of the place?

Yes, I think so. On the other hand, it probably has its negative side; it brings a certain amount of intellectual baggage. So I'm glad that there's about to be a real break, a real change in that.

How would you characterize your leadership style there? With all this talent around it, did it make it easier for you?

Yes. And the fact we were all young and naïve also made it easier. I simply followed what I understood to be Lawrence's way of doing things, which was to be really quite free wheeling and with minimal organization. And it worked fairly well. Also, to keep the place interesting, to keep the work interesting. As a substitute for the kind of interest that goes with basic research, we practice the philosophy of always pushing against the technological margins, trying to make the biggest, the smallest, the lightest -- always probing the technological extremes.

Is that an operating philosophy that works when an institution gets mature, like Livermore?

Oh, it works to a degree. On the other hand, there certainly are changes that go with maturity. And the laboratory is, as your question implies, now thirty-six years old.

How important in setting this up was the relationship to the university? Obviously, Lawrence was a link here, but would this have been possible had it not been a part of the University of California?

It would not have been possible with the same speed. And it would not have been possible for me to have done it. It was the fact that Lawrence and the Lawrence Laboratory [at Berkeley] were behind me that made it possible for me to do it. It was the fact that Lawrence and the Lawrence Laboratory was behind it that made it easy for this group of young scientists, including the ones I named, to go out there. We all knew that if things didn't work out, there was that much larger institution, of which we were a part, standing behind us that we could go back to or whatever. I don't know what was in the minds of everybody, but that kind of thinking. And the fact that the University of California was a great institution that one could take pride in being a part of meant that it was easier to recruit other people to come.

So it was easier for those of us who started the laboratory to make the transition out to Livermore, which was out in the boonies at that time. We saw it, I saw it, as being a great recruiting aid for getting other people, so that was essential. In my view, we could not have done what we did, I could not have done what I did, in some other way. Essentially, moving a bunch of young people from Berkeley out to Livermore was the way we did it, and the only way I could have done it.

This suggests a prerequisite for establishment of the institution, but we're constantly presented with the issue of whether the relationship should be continued. Is that something you would like to offer some thoughts on? Is the relationship still as important as it was?

It is still important. It's probably nowhere near as important as it was. But it couldn't have been done any other way, and there is, in my view, not adequate reason for changing it. The historical fact is that the Los Alamos Laboratory came out of World War II, and the Livermore Laboratory came out of the Korean War; both periods in which there was a wide degree of unanimity among the American people with respect to the notion there was an external threat that had to be faced. So it came from that kind of a broadly based notion that something was needed. Each of these laboratories was part of the response in each of those two cases.

At the present time, a lot of water over the dam, a lot of changes; the laboratory could, perfectly well, be operated in some other way. I couldn't help but be aware of the fact that this has been an issue over a long time and within the university. And I've recommended to the laboratory that they themselves consider it: is this really what you think today is the right way to do things? My own conclusion is that on balance, things are better continued as they are.

How has the university benefited from the relationship?

Well, the university has not been the main beneficiary. I think the university has benefited in certain ways, and it's probably been damaged in certain ways as well. I think the net is favorable, but it's very much an argument. The beneficiary has been the country. That is to say, the United States gets a better program in this area from this arrangement than it would from any other arrangement that I know about. And I have experience with a number of alternative ways of doing things. There are freestanding, nonprofit corporations like Rand or Aerospace. There are wholly-owned subsidiaries of large corporations like Sandia. So there are other ways of doing it. But I think that this one provides the government with the best programs. And when I say "provides the government with the best program," it's clear that, despite the fact that there's a lot of dispute and argument and opposition, nevertheless, the overwhelming consensus of the American people as represented by what the Congress does, as well as what the president proposes, has been that it wants to continue with a nuclear component to our national preparedness.

In your book, you talk about the implications of your philosophy of pushing technology to the limits. You say:

This approach meant that the laboratory leadership had to engage in a continual effort to sell its ideas to anticipate military requirements and to suggest to the U.S. military ways in which its new designs could be used to enhance preparedness and better support our general nuclear strategy.
Is that a result that was appropriate for that time, and does that approach still continue?

It probably still continues, and it's still valid to a degree, but not to the same degree. That's an area where there really has been a large change. In the forties and fifties, which is what we're talking about, nuclear weapons were still new. The question of what they could do and what varieties they could come in, and how they might be delivered, and how they might be used -- everything was uncertain and fluid: tactic, strategy, hardware, delivery systems, military organizations. Everything was fluid. And therefore there was room for all sorts of new ideas, and there was a certain necessity to explore all the possibilities and eliminate some and adopt others and so forth, according to the national interest and whatever.

Nowadays, it's a maturer technology. And so the relative position of the laboratories, and, you might say, the rest of the world, has changed. Whereas, in the forties and fifties they took the lead, and strategy, tactics, delivery systems and so on followed; that hasn't been true for twenty-five years. In the last quarter century what has happened is that the strategists think of something, the tacticians think of something, the rocket people invent a new delivery system or something, and then they ask the laboratory to provide an optimum package to go onboard or to satisfy that purpose. The total situation has changed, and the role of the laboratories, the question of whether the laboratories are or are not in a leading role, is completely changed. As I see it, the laboratories were in a leading role with determining what was happening up until about 1960. And since 1960, '65, the initiative has been elsewhere.

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