A People’s History of UC Weapons Lab Management
by Will Parrish, February 2006

Over the past several decades students and faculty of the University of California, often in tandem with nuclear disarmament NGOs in California and New Mexico, have conducted a series of campaigns to end the UC's involvement in nuclear weapons research, design, testing, and production at the Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore laboratories. These campaigns represent an important contribution to the global nuclear abolition movement, which University of Albany historian Lawrence Wittner has described as “the largest, most dynamic international citizens' movement of modern times.” (1)

This larger disarmament movement has always formed the context for these grassroots efforts to disassociate the UC with the labs. When the global nuclear abolition movement was at its pinnacle in the 1980s, the UC-labs severance movement likewise peaked, with literally thousands of students and faculty members participating in various rallies, sit-ins, petition drives, and other forms of (often highly-creative) protest. When the disarmament movement dwindled in the ‘90s, the UC severance movement fell from the radar of most students and other would-be disarmament activists.

Today, the UC severance movement is again on the rise, enlivened by a new generation of student activists who have injected it with a fresh analysis of how the campaign's goals might be achieved. This overview of the history of the UC's ties to the labs, written from the perspective of people who have mobilized to oppose it, aims to provide current UC peace activists with crucial insights to inform their efforts.

Los Alamos: "Born at the Crosshairs"

The first national nuclear weapons laboratory was built in 1943 in the high desert of Los Alamos, New Mexico, near where “the boundaries of Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico intersect like the crosshairs of a gunsight” (in the words of Grey Brechin, author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin). (2) Due to the involvement of UC scientists, the UC Regents agreed to manage the lab, in partnership with the federal government. The lab’s location in Los Alamos was specifically requested by UC Berkeley scientist and “Manhattan Project” research director J. Robert Oppenheimer. (3)

According to the standard historical record, most UC officials initially did not intend for the Los Alamos management contract to stay in their camp after the completion of the “Manhattan Project.” UC Treasurer Robert Underhill inserted a clause in the original contract whereby the UC would sever ties to the labs within 90 days after the end of World War II. After the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the UC’s role in their creation became publicly known, many UC Regents and administrators argued for this clause to be exercised with all due haste.(4)

But powerful forces within the UC scientific community and the university upper-administration strongly favored maintaining, formalizing, and even expanding the relationship. The Regents voted to sign a series of short-term contract extensions with the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC – later the Department of Energy) from 1945-47. At that point, UC scientist Ernest O. Lawrence successfully pressed the Regents to agree to a multi-year contract extension with the AEC.(5)

The Soviet Union’s first nuclear test in 1949 gave Lawrence the pretext to pursue his next bold move: lobbying the federal government to create a second nuclear weapons facility, this time in Livermore. The new lab was to be built ostensibly for the purpose of creating a fusion bomb. Influential University of Chicago physicist Edward Teller and other allies of Lawrence also lobbied heavily for the construction of the new facility. President Harry S. Truman approved the idea in relatively short order, and the “Livermore Site” of the UC Radiation Lab (now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) was completed in 1952, initially as a branch of the Berkley Radiation Lab at UC Berkeley.(6)

Despite the emergence of a powerful worldwide disarmament movement in the late-1950s, there was little documented opposition to the University of California 's weapons lab ties during this period, least of all at the UC itself. The disarmament movement, which claimed success after the United Nations' passage of the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty, was far and away largest in Europe.(7) Other than the southern universities that were strongholds of the African-American civil rights movement, American campuses were not significant sources of activism at this point.

Those circumstances changed dramatically in the mid-‘60s, though the nuclear arms build-up was not so much a focus as an overarching inspiration for most student activists of the time. In 1962, members of the newly-formed Students for a Democratic Society, a nationwide student group committed to non-violent revolution, published their seminal Port Huron Statement (written in part by current UC Santa Barbara sociology professor Dick Flacks), which attributed the growing politicization of their generation to two sources.

“First, the permeating and victimizing fact of human degradation, symbolized by the Southern struggle against racial bigotry, compelled most of us from silence to activism. Second, the enclosing fact of the Cold War, symbolized by the presence of the Bomb, brought awareness that we ourselves, and our friends, and millions of abstract ‘others' we knew more directly because of our common peril, might die at any time.”(8)

Thus, the Cold War was among the most influential factors in forming this generation of students' political consciousness. However, the primary vehicle of protest for most student peace activists in the ‘60s was the Vietnam War; large, documented campaigns and direct action against the arms race occurred only sporadically. For instance, it is known that UC Berkeley students organized at least a handful of sit-ins at the Livermore lab during the ‘60s,(9) but specific dates and locations are hard to come by, because they were not a primary focus of activists at the time.

However, as the Livermore lab website admits, "As the decade progressed, the laboratory became the object of growing criticism from the University of California community and from outside as well. It was also the scene of active demonstrations."(10)

The UC Berkeley War Crimes Committee formed in 1970, by far the most dramatic challenge to the UC's management of the weapons labs of its time. Its purpose was to mobilize radical direct actions against the UC's role in the US war effort, which included both the UC's role as weapons lab manager and the inordinate amount of military research conducted at UC campuses.(11)

In the fall of 1970, the group organized two “hearings” to examine the UC's role in the academic-military-industrial complex. Following the second, an angry crowd of several hundreds students tried to march on Edward Teller's house in Berkeley proper, only to be halted by a police barricade. In February 1971, the WCC organized a protest against the US invasion of Laos, the biggest of the year at Berkeley. The rally gave way to a march, with several thousands students storming the Atomic Energy Commission building on Bancroft Avenue to call for removal of US nuclear weapons from Thailand. Skirmishes soon broke out between police and the protestors, and an AEC car was burned.(12)

Largely as a means of quelling the protest, the AEC disassociated the Livermore from the Lawrence Berkeley facility in 1971, and all nuclear weapons-related research moved from Berkeley to Livermore, where it would be more effectively sheltered from student protest.(13)

Challenging the UC’s “Mantle of Legitimacy”

One of the first documented critical critiques of the UC’s involvement with the labs came in the form of the Zinner Report, commissioned by the UC Academic Senate in the late-‘60s. The report was requested during the height of the anti-Vietnam War movement, which was prominent at every UC campus with the exception of UC San Francisco.

Headed by UC Davis political science professor Paul Zinner, the report was published in May 1970. It found that “administrative interaction between the laboratories and the University is barely discernible” and that the lack of meaningful oversight on the part of UC officials makes the UC akin to a “benevolent absentee landlord” with respect to the labs. In fact, the report concluded, “The laboratories enjoy a delightful autonomy within the protective shelter of the University, so delightful as to border on the licentious.”

The report stopped short of calling for severance of UC lab management, instead ruling that "continuation of UC management would be appropriate only with substantial modifications." These modifications were to include greater administrative control, increased policy formulation powers, and expanded research/educational collaboration with the universities.(14)

While the Regents did carry out a few of the Zinner Committee’s recommendations, they largely ignored the more substantive recommendations. The UC continued in its role of largely rubber-stamping all weapons programs at the labs, yet shielding the labs from scrutiny by providing the illusion that oversight was taking place.(15)

Following the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, peace activism in the United States – and, by extension, peace activism at many universities – turned toward the gathering arms race.(16) It was at this point that the first large, multi-campus campaign to address the UC’s management of the weapons labs took shape, using the Zinner Committee report as a basis for many of its political positions.

In October 1976, the UC Nuclear Weapons Labs Conversion Project was founded, a joint project of Berkeley Students for Peace, the Bay Area office of the War Resisters’ League, and the Ecumenical Peace Institute. Affiliated student groups were located at various other UC campuses, including UC Santa Cruz, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Davis. The initial goals of the Project were to force greater disclosure and discussion of work in progress at the labs, stress public health dangers from plutonium leakage, and to persuade the Regents to make a shift to non-military research a part of the terms for renewal of their contract with the Department of Energy in 1977. These goals did not at first include severance; instead, the Project’s focus was “conversion” of the labs from nuclear weapons science to science for peace. The Project’s initial mission statement read:

"The UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project is part of a growing movement committed to reversing the momentum of an insane arms race that threatens, increasingly, to lead to nuclear holocaust.

We strive for an end to all nuclear weapons related work at both the Lawrence Livermore Lab and the Los Alamos Scientific Lab, where all nuclear weapons are designed and developed."(17)

The Project’s tactics and strategies evolved incrementally during its first few years. At first, the organization focused primarily on consciousness-raising activities – then, as now, surprisingly few students knew about the UC’s function as lab manager, nor understood the history and implications of its management. In the words of a 1978 information sheet put out by the Conversion Project, the group succeeded by “[reawakening] local public concern about the nuclear arms race.”(18)

Through petitions, meetings with officials, demonstrations, “die-ins,” teach-ins, testimony to legislators, and considerable media attention throughout California, the organization built a gathering awareness of the UC’s central role in the arms race heading into the Sept. 1977 Regents meeting. The Regents largely ignored the group’s efforts, voting 14-4 to retain the UC’s management affiliation despite the presence of over 100 Conversion Project members.(19)

The group’s frustration with this outcome was palpable. In 1978, Project members issued a statement reversing its position on lab conversion (though it retained its original name).

"For more than two years, the Labs Project pressured the University to take an active stand in favor of converting the labs… We resisted for that time calling for severance. Now we believe it is quite clear that the University will not exert even the most minimal amount of control or influence over the labs needed to make them accountable. Rather, the University appears interested only in maintaining the status quo at the labs under the guise of exercising some control.

We therefore are calling for the university to sever its connection with both labs! Such action will remove the benign, liberal image that the university lends to the horrors of the arms race. It will bring to public awareness the actual Strangelovian character of the labs. It will end the illusion that the scientific work and political lobbying of the labs is supervised by a publicly responsible and knowledgeable body of independent citizens. And it exposes, once again, the complicity of the university in the war machine…”(20)

The call for severance occurred in tandem with a radicalization of the group’s tactics. Anti-nuclear direct actions, including student takeovers of campus administration buildings, proliferated across the UC system. During the spring of 1979, 1,500 students and local community members protested at Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza. The protestors marched to the campus’ Camanile and held a “die-in” (a guerrilla theater tactic -- pretending to die in an explosion as a way to dramatize the effects of nuclear war), while a few people handcuffed themselves to the top of the building, later to be forcibly removed and arrested by police.(21)

A raucous student protest greeted the Regents at their February 1979 meeting at UC Los Angeles, the largest student anti-nuclear demonstration at a Regents meeting up to that point. Over 300 people attended. UCSC Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer, emboldened by the intense level of anti-nuclear activism taking place at his campus, took the opportunity to make known his opposition to the UC weapons ties, saying UC lab management “stands in inherent contradiction to the high and lofty principles” of the university.(22)

The movement had earlier scored a victory in the form of new Academic Senate report on the UC-lab management situation, ordered by UC President David Saxon under pressure from the Conversion Project and its new ally, CA Governor Jerry Brown.(23) Chaired by UC political scientist Dr. William Gerberding, the report was based on a series of visits to the weapons labs, meetings with lab and university officials, and public hearings featuring faculty members, nuclear weapons scientists, and outside experts as speakers.(24)

At one of these hearings, in late-1977, famed government whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg (author of the Pentagon Papers) summed up the UC’s role as weapons labs manager by pointing out that the UC’s objective function with respect to the labs was to bestow them a “mantle of legitimacy.”(25)

The Gerberding Report was released in 1978. Like the Zinner Report, it strongly recommended that the UC become involved in the day-to-day activities at the labs, rather than a veritable front organization for the Department of Energy. The UC was not in an adequate position to generate, direct, or object to lab research projects, the report concluded; most of these projects were being directed by program managers in Washington, D.C.(26)

UC President Saxon at first showed some willingness to carry out the Gerberding proposals, appointing UC Vice President William Fretter to try to put some of them into practice. As a consequence, the ugly nature of UC-government collaboration became apparent: The Department of Energy pressured Saxon into backing down from even the most moderate of these proposals, such as the creation of a committee of faculty members and administrators to monitor work at the labs. A letter to Saxon from Duane Sewell, DOE Assistant Secretary for Defense Programs, summed up the UC’s subservience in this way: “It is essential that DOE’s contractor for the weapons laboratories accept the contractual responsibilities to execute them, not to subject them to the crucible of public debate.”(27)

Meanwhile, establishment politicians were starting to take notice of the UC severance movement. Governor Brown stepped up his support of the Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project agenda following the release of the Gerberding Report. Prompted also by the growing disarmament movement on an international level, as well as the Conversion Project’s organizing and advocacy work within his own state, Brown issued the following statement to the press in 1979:

“UC is profoundly compromising itself by becoming the intellectual home of nuclear weapons and participating in a runaway arms race. The Board of Regents… act as a cover, giving the labs protection from the DOE bureaucracy. In the confusion of that management gap, the lab is free to act. If you believe we need more nuclear weapons, then this gap is creative. I intend to do everything in my power to separate the University of California from the nuclear weapons business.”(28)

Brown forced a historic resolution onto the ballot of the September 1979 Regents meeting which, if passed, would have forced the Regents to attempt to convert Lawrence Livemore into a non-weapons facility. Students and faculty members organized heavily in advance of the meeting. By the time the Regents meeting rolled around, over 800 UC faculty members had signed a petition supporting the Brown resolution.

As per their custom, the Regents ignored the call. They voted down the proposal, 15-7. (29)

The Early-‘80s: A Series of Radical and Creative Actions

The urgency of the nuclear abolition movement greatly increased in the late-‘70s and throughout the ‘80s. In 1979, tensions between the US and Soviet Union showed signs of boiling over, as the US opted to deploy new nuclear missiles and Moscow invaded Afghanistan.(30)

In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president. Although media pundits today memorialize Ronald Reagan's alleged fascination with bring the arms race to an end, Reagan's early term in office was marked by the brazen rhetoric of his administration's many war hawks, who openly discussed the possibility of “fighting and winning” a nuclear war with the USSR.(31) This talk clearly terrified government officials in Moscow, who responded by conducting a massive intelligence operation to detect US preparations for a first strike.(32)

It also terrified a great many of the world's citizens, who responded with the most visible and effective mass mobilizations for nuclear disarmament (or, in some cases, a “nuclear freeze”) in history. The biggest of these occurred in June 1982 in New York City, the largest political rally ever in the United States up to that point, with nearly one million people in attendance. The theme of the protest (depicted on the right side of the UC Nuclear Free banner above) was “Freeze the Arms Race – Fund Human Needs.” This massive action, combined with multiple others around the world (some of which preceded and inspired it), created the undeniable sense within the greater public of a global revolt against nuclear weapons.(33)

While students were, in the words of Lawrence Wittner, a “very sympathetic audience” for the disarmament movement, they were never the driving force behind it. Instead, the movement mostly consisted of people in an older age bracket (25-45), many of whom participated in the civil rights, anti-Vietnam, women's, and environmental movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s. According to Wittner:

“Hundreds of college and university campuses provided the sites for the fall convocations… drawing audiences of 100,000 in 1981 and 150,000 in 1982. United Campuses to Prevent Nuclear War (UCAM) grew out of the fall 1981 convocation and thereafter, promoted the [Nuclear] Freeze, opposed the MX missile, and condemned SDI. Students at the Berkeley campus of UC organized spirited sit-ins at the [Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory]. UCAM never managed to develop more than about 50 chapters and was swallowed up in a considerably larger movement.”(34)

Wittner's assessment of American students at large clearly did not apply to UC students, who were the heart of the movement in many communities in California. The disarmament movement was one of the most vibrant among several intense grassroots struggles waged by UC students during the ‘80s. And the tactics of the student disarmament activists were quickly evolving. By the start of the decade, the students and their community allies had largely concluded that institutional methods – petitions, phone calls, letters, public comment periods at Regents meetings, etc. – were an inadequate means of effecting change within the UC's top-down, virtually totalitarian decision-making structure.(35)

Several instances in the early-‘80s gave testament to that conclusion. In the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979, an accidental plutonium spill took place at Livermore in April 1980.(36) Reports of high incidence of skin cancer among Livermore lab employees also began to surface (although the DOE and the lab naturally denied any harm done by the lab's operations). Five Northern California Congressmen responded by demanding that all radioactive material be removed from the labs. Lab and university officials refused, insisting there was no danger.(37)

In another case, the Regents were scheduled to undergo their every-five-years ritual of voting on whether to renew their LANL and LLNL management contracts at a meeting in October 1980. Students began organizing for the meeting well in advance. In May, the Board decided instead to vote on the matter at their June meeting, when it would be summer, and mustered up only the barest explanation for the switch. The students responded angrily; at UCSB, for instance, 25 students were arrested during a sit-in of the campus' administration building, Cheadle Hall, to protest the Regents' lack of accountability.

“There's blood on the hands of the UC Regents, and they can't hide it,” one student told the UCSB Daily Nexus. According to another: “The University of California will be responsible if nuclear war occurs.”(38)

Despite the Regents' diversionary tactics, over 100 nuclear disarmament protesters turned out for the June meeting. At varying points during the proceedings, the students interrupted by breaking into chants such as “No Nukes!” and “Sever the Ties!,” standing on chairs and waving banners in the process. At one point, a group of the protestors attempted to approach the Regents' table but were tackled and evicted by university police.

Governor Jerry Brown, who also spoke out at the meeting, said of the students' efforts: “Their presence said something and made an impression.”(39)

The real hub for UC disarmament protestors during the early-‘80s, when it wasn't individual campuses, was the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL). The series of non-violent direct actions at Livermore from 1982-83, of which there were 40 in all,(40) were some of the most visible and impactful of the abolition movement at the time. In the first of these protests, in February 1982, roughly 170 people were arrested at the gates of the lab. Many UC students – mostly from Berkeley and Santa Cruz – took part.(41)

In August, a non-violently militant crowd of nearly 10,000 protested at the lab's gates; 1,475 were arrested, one of the largest mass arrests at a political protest in US history.(42)

In June 1983, over 3,000 people rallied and 1,028 were arrested (including 50 UC Berkeley students) at LLNL as part of a national day of action to "protest, halt, and disrupt the design, production, transport, and deployment of nuclear weapons worldwide for at least one working day." Those arrested were detained in tents for over a week, a saga described in detail by Jackie Cabasso and Susan Moon in their 1985 book Risking Peace: Why We Sat in the Road.(43) The mass action prompted Lab Director Roger E. Batzel to recommend that the DOE purchase a new 196-acre “security buffer zone” surrounding the lab property, and the DOE complied.(44)

Back on UC campuses, in January 1983, UC students held a large, coordinated UC-wide day of action, titled “Ban the Bomb – and Ron!” Protestors were arrested in acts of civil disobedience at nearly every UC campus, including over 100 at UC Berkeley and 57 at UC Santa Barbara.(45)

Besides all the dramatic and visible direct actions, students and community members took various other approaches to advance their cause. In 1982, students at multiple UC campuses sponsored appearances by three Japanese monks who were in the midst of a year-long walk from San Diego to Seattle to Washington D.C. to bring awareness to the dangers of the arms race. “One blinding flash will burst upon the earth and then the glory of the planet will be no more,” said Reverend Hiromitsu Kizu, during the monks' appearance at UCSB in January 1982. “Hiroshima and Nagasaki are dress rehearsals for the worldwide holocaust to come without our intervention.”(46)

A group called Student Alliance for Fallout Emergency (SAFE) formed at UCSC in the fall of 1984. The group intended to “personalize the possibility of a nuclear exchange." Inspired by a “suicide pill option” referendum passed at Brown University in October 1984, the group sponsored a similar resolution as part of UCSC's spring 1985 election. The resolution called for the campus health center to “stockpile suicide pills to be distributed on request to registered students in the event that the UCSC campus is exposed to lethal quantities of nuclear radiation.”

The proposal also requested that UCSC administrators provide transportation to local ground-zero sites, as well as construct Radiation Monitoring Stations at each college, “to remind students that our beautiful city on a hill could be subject to lethal levels of radiation exposure – that nuclear war may occur in our ‘backyard' at any time.” The fourth part of the resolution would have required the establishment of burial sites for members of the UCSC community in preparation for extreme radiation fallout.“ The sites would clearly be necessary to cope with such an emergency, and would serve as a constant reminder to the present UCSC community that we must never allow these sites to be used,” SAFE members wrote in an informational packet.

The SAFE resolution lost by less than one percent (60 votes), but it did help convince UCSC Chancellor Robert Sinsheimer to provide the students with funding to put out the above-mentioned information packet regarding the dangers of nuclear war, which was widely distributed.(47)

The Rise of Faculty Activism

By the mid-‘80s, the global disarmament movement was starting to chip away at the hawkish policies of the Reagan administration in the US and the Margaret Thatcher administration in the United Kingdom. It would later be cited by Soviet Union General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev as an inspiration for his efforts to negotiate an end to the arms race with the West.(48) Meanwhile, the student-led UC severance movement was making major inroads among the UC faculty body at large.

Clearly, the majority of students already supported the severance movement's agenda, and it was only a matter of time before the faculty caught up. By 1982, every student government at every UC campus had passed a resolution opposing UC ties to the labs.(49) Voters in UCSB's spring 1985 student election overwhelmingly respond “yes” to the question of whether they would like to see the UC end its relationship with the Los Alamos and Livermore labs (64.6 percent of 2,462 voters).(50)

Until the ‘80s, faculty members had, for the most part, been much less visible within the grassroots UC severance movement than had students and community organizations. Although numerous professors and lecturers were members of the UC Nuclear Weapons Labs Conversion Project, they largely played an ancillary role, not serving as movement spokespeople.

One exception (of several) was Berkeley Physics Professor Charles Schwartz, who began a campaign in 1970 to obtain the right to present a single lecture at the Livermore Lab. Schwartz' intention was to present an alternative viewpoint to lab employees, who were entirely shuttered away from any dissenting perspectives, as well as give lie to the labs' claim of being sites for open, objective research and inquiry. Schwartz took his case to court and won in 1980. The Regents delayed things for several more years, before Schwartz was finally able to present the lecture in 1985.(51)

The first major indication of growing faculty sentiment in favor of lab severance was registered by the UC Santa Cruz Academic Senate in 1983, which voted 48-2 in favor a resolution calling for the Regents to cut ties to both labs. “We do not believe that it is part of the University's mission to be involved in the design and development of weapons,” the resolution read, “nor do we believe that the University or any committee of the Faculty can realistically oversee and control what is done at these institutions.”(52)

Notably, when asked whether the UCSC faculty's decision would impact the UC's involvement with the facilities, UC President David Saxon replied: “I wouldn't predict it… the faculty has (sic) no control over the labs.”(53)

The combined pressure from both the student and faculty forces did prompt Saxon to make a concession, albeit a predictable one: In 1985, he commissioned another faculty report on the UC-weapons labs relationship. This time, the faculty committee was chaired by Malcolm Jendresen of UC San Francisco. It also included UCSB Physics Professor Walter Kohn (who later won a Nobel Prize, in 1998) and Professor Karl Hufbauer, both of whom were staunch advocates of lab severance.

Taking seriously the Regents' claim that they “manage” the labs to provide a “public service,” the committee defined five criteria for evaluating the UC's effectiveness in its purported “public service" role:

  1. The activity is supportive of the University’s primary missions of teaching and research.
  2. The activity is consistent with the University’s commitment to freedom of expression.
  3. The activity can be performed at least as effectively by the University as by other institutions.
  4. The activity has no serious adverse effects on the University.
  5. The activity contributes to human well-being.(54)

During the interim period of 1986-89, before the report was released, faculty members such as Kohn developed into primary movement spokespeople. This period coincided with a marked decline in student organizing and direct actions, perhaps because institutional leaders had started to adopt a modified version of the movement's agenda. In 1987, the California State Legislature adopted language in its annual education budget calling for greater oversight to take place at the labs. The language was authored by long-time activist and Los Angeles Assemblyman Tom Hayden.(55)

In December 1988, the CA Assembly Subcommittee on Higher Education, chaired by Hayden, conducted a legislative symposium at Berkeley. The symposium included testimonies by a number of UC faculty members, lab officials, lab whistleblower Dr. Ray Kidder, Jackie Cabasso of the Western States Legal Foundation, Marylia Kelley of Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment (CAREs), Dan Galpren of Sacramento Nuclear Weapons Freeze, Ephraim Kahn of the Bay Area chapter of Physicians for Social Responsibility, and student Damien Pierce of the group Lab Watch at Berkeley.(56)

The Livermore lab continued to be a major site for anti-nuclear resistance from 1986-89.  In fact, the largest of the series of Livermore direct actions occurred in 1987, when 2,000 people were arrested and subsequently jailed for 11 days.(57)

In November 1989, the Jendresen Report was released, and it breathed new life into the UC severance movement. All but one member of the committee concluded that the “public service” criteria had not been met. Six out of the eight committee members concluded that “the University should, in a timely and orderly manner, phase out its responsibility for operating the Laboratories while maintaining its cooperative relationship with them in teaching and research.”  In other words, the committee's overall recommendation was UC severance from the labs.(58)

UC faculty members, community groups, students, and even some state legislators quickly launched a 10-month campaign to publicize the report's findings in advance of the Regents' September 1990 meeting, where the Board would vote once again on a five-year renewal of its contract with the DOE. The NGOs that participated in the campaign included Physicians for Social Responsibility, Tri-Valley CAREs, Elders for Survival, and the Western States Legal Foundation.(59)

Meanwhile, the Cold War ended. On July 6, 1990 President George H.W. Bush, flanked by the leaders of the NATO Alliance, informed his former enemies in Moscow, “We are no longer adversaries.”(60)

In 1990, the UC Academic Senate conducted a UC-wide faculty survey on whether the UC Regents should implement the Jendresen Report's recommendations. The support for the severance proposal was overwhelming. 3,089 (64.6%) faculty members responded favorably, with 1,702 (34.6%) voting against. At UC Santa Cruz, the margin was enormous, 195 to 29; at UC Santa Barbara, 312 to 75. The campus with the smallest margin of victory was UC Irvine (204 to 201).(61)

Indeed, a tremendous amount of momentum seemed to be gathering in the severance movement's favor. In June, the Regents held a panel discussion with members of the Jendresen Committee to discuss their report. Walter Kohn and Mel Jendresen spoke on behalf of the faculty for close to 20 minutes.(62) On September 12, 1990, fourteen CA State Assemblymen wrote to the Regents, urging them not to renew the contact and instead “focus the University's work on building a peaceful and environmentally-secure world.”(63)

Meanwhile, the faculty and community groups conducted intense outreach efforts, garnering considerable media coverage throughout California and even nationwide. On July 31, 1990, the Los Angeles Times published an article by Robert Bellah (sociology professor at UC Berkeley ), Owen Chamberlain (professor of physics at Berkeley – worked on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos), and Walter Kohn.

“The state and the nation will be much better served if this great public university phases out an anachronistic management function and focuses its efforts on its primary missions of teaching and research, as well as on public service activities appropriate to a university,” the faculty members wrote. “Weapons in peacetime just do not qualify.”(64)

The confluence of faculty activism, the findings of the Jendresen Report, and the post-Cold War international climate convinced many members of the movement that success was within their grasp. Many faculty members, including Kohn, had gone on record saying they thought it likely the Regents would vote for severance.(65)

In the end, the Regents' decision was just as lopsided as ever: On Sept. 22, 1990, they voted 13-3-1 in favor of contract renewal.(66)  

Over the next decade, the severance movement almost completed dissolved, with the exception of a few core faculty members and community members. The Regents did grant one concession, which had been called for by both the Hayden-led State Legislature committee and the Jendresen Committee report: the formation of a “University Committee on Research Policy on the University's Relations with the Department of Energy Laboratories” (UCORP).(67)

The creation of UCORP proved to be little more than a token gesture, and the committee lacked any real power. It produced its first (and, to date, only) report in 1996, concluding that “the University's management of the LANL and LLNL does not, on balance, fulfill… conditions of appropriate public service,” while reiterating the Jendresen Report's call for severance.(68) The Regents ignored the advice.

All in all, disarmament activism as a whole barely registered a blip on the UC student radar in the 1990s. At any given point during the mid-late-‘90s, a detailed survey of UC campuses might not have turned up a single student actively working for UC-lab severance or nuclear disarmament.

A New Generation Emerges

"We are demanding an end to all weapons of mass destruction," Tara Dorabji, a UCSC graduate and Tri-Valley CARES staff member, told a crowd of 200 who had turned out for a “weapons inspection” at the gates of Livermore lab in September 2002, "whether developed in the suburbs by the University of California scientists or in Iraq.”(69)

In 2002, the fervor of the student movement against the current Iraq War, combined with the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s new UC Nuclear Free campaign and Tri-Valley CAREs’ Project Exodus, helped give rise to a new generation of student and alumni disarmament activists. The above-mentioned “weapons inspection” was one of the first events the newly-formed Coalition to Demilitarize the UC had a hand in organizing.

The coalition has gone on to organize a handful of notable actions, which you can read about on this site’s Coalition to Demilitarize page. At this point, our activities are mainly driven by a handful of core non-profits and students in Santa Cruz, Berkeley, and Santa Barbara. Our recent efforts to increase both the depth and breadth of the coalition, to expand to new campuses and increase the size of our constituencies at campuses where we already have a presence, have been highly successful, and we anticipate being able to significantly expand the scope of our activities in coming months.

The bid for the Los Alamos National Laboratory provides a new context for our efforts, making the campaign relevant on a nationwide scale for the first time. Our November 30 “Universities Out of Bed with Bombs” day of action was perhaps the largest single youth disarmament protest of the past 20 years.

The Coalition has big plans for 2006, many of which hinge on the outcome of the Department of Energy’s upcoming decision regarding the bid for the Los Alamos lab. Our primary immediate goal is to build a mass movement that wields the type of people power that can effect meaningful, long-term change.

Moving Forward

It would be easy to imply from this report that the previous iterations of the UC-labs severance movement were failures.  That is by no means the case, for several reasons.  First, these past movements created historic momentum that continues to benefit us today; for instance, some of the core members of the past campaigns continue to play a role in the Coalition to Demilitarize the UC.  In addition, the movements forced disclosure of information regarding the UC’s role at the labs, without which our understanding of UC “management” might be incomplete.

The past severance movements also provide numerous lessons that, if we heed them, may make all the difference in the success of our campaign.

The UC Regents have demonstrated over and over again that they will never relinquish their contract to manage Livermore and Los Alamos absent an overwhelming level of pressure from the grassroots.  During the late-‘70s and early-‘80s, the governor of California, several hundred faculty members, and a dedicated cadre of students lobbied intensely for the Regents to “convert” the labs to performing non-weapons work.  When that failed, this nascent grassroots movement began a new approach, lobbying the Regents to voluntarily sever their ties to the labs.  This strategy likewise failed, for much the same reason as the first.

As members of the US business elite, the Regents are invariably inclined ideologically to believe that nuclear weapons are justifiable to protect United States “interests.”  In addition, the Regents will forever be psychologically out of reach for anyone looking to change their views, given the vast power disparity between a typical Regent and a typical student, community member, or faculty member.  The problem is a structural one, stemming from a lack of democracy in UC decision-making.  These inequalities have perhaps never been more evident than during the faculty-led severance campaign of 1989 and 1990, when an overwhelming number of both faculty members and students at each UC campus indicated through formal polls and surveys that they favored an end to the UC-labs relationship.  The Regents entirely ignored this clear demonstration of popular will.

Here, it is important to understand another power disparity that has manifested numerous times in the more than five decades the UC has managed the nuclear weapons labs.  Within the context of the UC-labs relationship, the Regents are almost entirely subservient to other, much more powerful entities: the federal government, the Los Alamos National Laboratory, and the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Therefore, despite unprecedented support from the governor of California and other influential figures within the California political milieu, the UC Weapons Lab Conversion Project’s repeated attempts in the late-1970s and early-1980s to convince the Regents to convert the labs to non-weapons work was destined for failure.  Even if the Regents were inclined to initiate significant programmatic changes at the labs, the Energy Department would not permit them to do so. 

It is important to understand, as well, the institutional role that Los Alamos and Livermore play within the US nuclear weapons complex.  The Department of Energy, Los Alamos and Livermore officials, and top scientists at both labs have a major vested interest in maintaining substantial nuclear arms programs.  One of the major reasons the Cold War did not end sooner, and one of the major reasons the US still possesses so many nuclear weapons, is that these officials and scientists exercise their influence to the greatest degree possible in maintaining and expanding the US nuclear weapons stockpile, without which their jobs and social functions would become largely irrelevant.  The “Stockpile Stewardship Program,” for example, was largely fabricated by Los Alamos and Livermore officials who wanted to justify maintaining the US’ current arsenal of 10,500 nuclear warheads.(70)

In the case of Stockpile Stewardship, the machinations of Los Alamos and Livermore officials have been extremely successful.  Against all logic, the US nuclear weapons budget has ballooned from $3.5 billion in 1990, when the Cold War ended, to $6.7 billion today.

The struggle for UC lab severance is nevertheless a significant one, because the UC’s reputation has long given a fig leaf of academic legitimacy to the development of nuclear weapons.  Absent this false shield of credibility, nuclear weapons science would have lacked the “proper public relations” that so concerned the early planners of the arms race in 1945.(71)  As a general rule, decisions about nuclear weapons allocations are not made based on careful debate and reasoned calculations by legislators.  To a large degree, such allocations are based on proposals by officials at each lab, whose credibility rests on the images of the institutions they oversee.(72)  Therefore, any turn of events that undermines the credibility of the labs, or elevates the political cost for Congress of rubber-stamping the labs’ highly-influential policy proposals, will be a major step toward the ultimate goal of nuclear abolition.

As the UC severance movement moves forward, it faces a set of new challenges.  The UC is no longer the sole manager at Los Alamos.  The Regents have constituted a limited-liability corporation, “Los Alamos Security LLC,” with their primary partner, Bechtel Corporation (one of the most powerful and influential corporations in the world), and a roster of other corporations and universities.  Meanwhile, the Livermore lab management contract is scheduled to be put up for bid in 2007.  The labs have only grown more powerful in recent years, as Los Alamos is increasingly emerging as the primary site in the US nuclear complex for the production of plutonium pits, the cores of nuclear weapons.  Each labs’ budget continues to increase substantially with each passing year.

During this new phase of growth, during which it will invariably continue to encounter an enormously powerful degree of resistance to its efforts from both the Regents and officials at each lab, the UC severance movement can draw great inspiration from the larger disarmament movement Professor Lawrence Wittner describes so well in Toward Nuclear Abolition.  As Wittner notes, “Most government officials – and particularly those of major powers – had no intention of adopting nuclear arms control and disarmament policies.  Instead, they grudgingly accepted such policies thanks to the emergence of popular pressure.”(73)

Will Parrish is Youth Outreach Coordinator at the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation (www.wagingpeace.org) and coordinator of the UC Nuclear Free campaign (www.ucnuclearfree.org).

Thanks to Jackie Cabasso and Darwin BondGraham for their invaluable research contributions to this report. Thanks for the inspiration to Michael Coffey, Tara Dorabji, Chelsea Collonge, Josh Kearns, Sophia Ritchie, Erin Hamby, Steve Stormoen, Joanna Nobbe, all the other members of the Coalition to Demilitarize, and all past and present UC disarmament activists for the inspiration.

Works Cited

  1. Wittner, Lawrence. Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  2. Brechin, Gray. Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin. University of California Press: Berkeley, CA, 1999.
  3. Ibid
  4. Special Committee of the Academic Senate on the University’s Relations with the Department of Energy Laboratories. Report of the Special Committee of the Academic Senate on the University’s Relations with the Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratories.  November 21, 1989.
  5. Ibid
  6. Ibid
  7. Wittner, Lawrence. Resisting The Bomb: A History Of The World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1954-1970. Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA, 1998.
  8. Viet Nam Generation, Inc. The Port Huron Statement. Retrieved November 19, 2005. http://lists.village.virginia.edu/sixties/HTML_
  9. Goines, David Lance. The Free Speech Movement: Coming of Age in the 1960s. Ten Speed Press: Berkeley, CA, 1993.
  10. A Short History of the Laboratory at Livermore. Retrieved on December 7, 2005. <http://www.llnl.gov/str/Hacker.html>
  11. “The People’s History of Berkeley,” Cal Disorientation Guide 2003. Barrington Collective: Berkeley, CA, 2003.
  12. Ibid
  13. A Short History of the Laboratory at Livermore. Retrieved on December 7, 2005. <http://www.llnl.gov/str/Hacker.html>
  14. University of California Academic Senate. Report of the Special Committee of University Research at Livermore and Los Alamos. April 23, 1970.
  15. University of California Academic Senate. Report of the Committee to Examine the University’s Relationship with Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories. February 10, 1978.
  16. Wittner, Lawrence. Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  17. UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project. The University of California’s Operation of the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories – Analysis and Proposals. September 13, 1977.
  18. UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project. Severance and the Arms Race: How the UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project Views Severance. February 12, 1978.
  19. Salazar, Amanda. “Regents Vote to Continue Lab Relations.” UCSB Daily Nexus, 23 September 1977.
  20. UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project. Severance and the Arms Race: How the UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project Views Severance. February 12, 1978.
  21. “The People’s History of Berkeley,” Cal Disorientation Guide 2003. Barrington Collective: Berkeley, CA, 2003.
  22. Senate Policy Committee, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. “Background Paper: The University of California, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.” May 1984.
  23. UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project. The University of California’s Operation of the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos Scientific Laboratories – Analysis and Proposals. September 13, 1977.
  24. Committee to Examine the University’s Relationship with the Laboratories at Los Alamos and Livermore; General Committee Hearing Transcript; October 18, 1977.
  25. Ibid
  26. University of California Academic Senate. Report of the Committee to Examine the University’s Relationship with Los Alamos and Livermore Laboratories. February 10, 1978.
  27. Special Committee of the Academic Senate on the University’s Relations with the Department of Energy Laboratories. Report of the Special Committee of the Academic Senate on the University’s Relations with the Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratories.  November 21, 1989.
  28. Senate Policy Committee, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. “Background Paper: The University of California, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.” May 1984.
  29. Ibid
  30. “President Reagan Announces the Strategic Defense Initiative.” March 23, 1983. Viewed on 20 November, 2005. http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-
  31. Wittner, Lawrence. “Reagan and Nuclear Disarmament: How the Nuclear Freeze Movement Forced Reagan to Make Progress on Arms Control.” Viewed on 20 November 2005. <http://www.bostonreview.net/BR25.2/wittner.html>
  32. Kennedy, Bruce. “War Games: Soviets, Fearing Western Attack, Prepared for Worst in '83.” Viewed on 20 November, 2005. <http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/cold.war/episodes/22/spotlight/>
  33.  Wittner, Lawrence. Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  34. Ibid
  35. UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project. Severance and the Arms Race: How the UC Nuclear Weapons Lab Conversion Project Views Severance. February 12, 1978.
  36. “Accidents 1980's.” Viewed on 20 November 2005. http://www.nuclearfiles.org/menu/key-issues/nuclear-
  37. Senate Policy Committee, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. “Background Paper: The University of California, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.” May 1984.
  38. Kitzitz, Leanne. “Students Occupy Cheadle Hall; 25 Arrested,” 23 May 1980, UCSB Daily Nexus
  39. Anderson, Nick. “Regents Vote to Retain Lab Contracts,” 24 June 1980, UCSB Daily Nexus
  40. Beck, Sanderson. “Anti-Nuclear Protests.” Viewed on 19 November 2005 < http://www.san.beck.org/GPJ29-AntiNuclearProtests.html>
  41. Brackett, Melissa. “Hundreds Arrested at Livermore Lab,” 19 February 2005, UCSB Daily Nexus
  42. Trybom, Brian. “Thousands Blockade Road, Disrupt Livermore Lab ‘Business as Usual’,” 11 August 1982, UCSB Daily Nexus
  43. Beck, Sanderson. “Anti-Nuclear Protests.” Viewed on 19 November 2005 < http://www.san.beck.org/GPJ29-AntiNuclearProtests.html>
  44. Senate Policy Committee, Berkeley Division of the Academic Senate. “Background Paper: The University of California, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory.” May 1984.
  45. Rausch, Thomas, “Ban the Bomb! Protests Erupt Across UC,” 23 January 1983, UCSB Daily Nexus
  46. Allen, Joseph, “Walk for Peace Stops at Campbell Hall,” 29 January 1982, UCSB Daily Nexus
  47. Blackshaw, Peter; Gillis, Kevin; Satzman, Eric. Nuclear Information Handbook. UC Santa Cruz, Fall 1985.
  48. Wittner, Lawrence. Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
  49. Allen, Joseph, “Leg Committee Votes on Ending Lab Relationship,” 22 February 1982, UCSB Daily Nexus
  50. “Election Results: Neal Victorious,” 18 May 1985, UCSB Daily Nexus
  51. Archer, Dane. “Should UC Continue to Manage the Los Alamos and Livermore Labs?” Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, 28 September 1986
  52. Ibid
  53. Lawson, Nick. “The UC Nuclear Weapons Labs, Part II,” 8 April 1984, UCSB Daily Nexus
  54. Special Committee of the Academic Senate on the University’s Relations with the Department of Energy Laboratories. Report of the Special Committee of the Academic Senate on the University’s Relations with the Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratories.  November 21, 1989.
  55. Assembly Subcommittee on Higher Education, “Management of the University of California Nuclear Weapons Laboratories.” 12 December, 1988.
  56. Ibid
  57. “Women for Peace Photo Album.” Viewed on December 7, 2005. http://womenforpeace.org
  58. Special Committee of the Academic Senate on the University’s Relations with the Department of Energy Laboratories. Report of the Special Committee of the Academic Senate on the University’s Relations with the Department of Energy (DOE) Laboratories.  November 21, 1989.
  59. “Flunk the Labs – North: Minutes of Meeting #3: August 14, 1990”
  60. “London Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance.” Viewed on December 7, 2005 http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/research/papers/1990/90070600.html
  61. Davidson, Keay. “2 more Campuses Vote to Reject Weapons Labs Links.” San Francisco Chronicle, 24 May 1990.
  62. “Transcript of Panel on UC Management of Los Alamos and Livermore National Laboratories,” June 1990
  63. “Legislators Urge UC Regents to Cut Ties to Weapons Labs Vote Next Week,” From 12th District Member Tom Bates, California State Assembly; Press Release: 12 September 1990.
  64. Bellah, Robert; Chamberlain, Owen; Kohn, Walter. “Weapons Labs: Light-Years from the Teaching Mission.” Los Angeles Times, 1 August 1990.
  65. Ibid
  66. Curtis, Diane. “UC Regents Vote for Weapons Labs.” San Francisco Chronicle, 22 September 1990.
  67. http://scipp.ucsc.edu/~haber/UC_CORP/doelabs.html
  68. Ibid
  69. Hallinan, Conn. “Time to Inspect Bush’s Nuclear Program.” Foreign Policy in Focus, 6 December 2005.
  70. Kidder, Ray. “Problems with Stockpile Stewardship.” Nature, 17 April 1997.
  71. Civiak, Robert. “America’s One-Nation Arms Race: An Analysis of the DOE’s Fiscal Year 2006 Budget Request for Nuclear Activities.” Tri-Valley CAREs, 2005 April.
  72. Alliance for Nuclear Accountability. “The Nuclear Weapons Complex in the Year 2004.” 2003. <http://www.ananuclear.org/ANAmap.pdf>
  73. Wittner, Lawrence. Toward Nuclear Abolition: A History of the World Nuclear Disarmament Movement, 1971 to Present. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2003.
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