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  • The American Lab: An Insider's History of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory by C. Bruce Tarter
  • Benjamin Sims (bio)
The American Lab: An Insider's History of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory
By C. Bruce Tarter. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018. Pp. 472.

In The American Lab, former Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory director C. Bruce Tarter provides a detailed history of the laboratory from its origins in the 1950s through 2009. Tarter has done his homework; this is a carefully researched account, citing many primary sources and oral history interviews. While large portions of the book are devoted to administrative details and quick glosses on a plethora of minor projects likely to interest insiders, it nonetheless provides a useful record of an important and understudied institution (Livermore) and time (the late- and post-Cold War periods). While Tarter's early history of the laboratory is comprehensive, the book really comes to life with his account of the political and technical maneuvering that enabled the weapons laboratories to continue to thrive under the rubric of stockpile stewardship following the end of the Cold War. His observations on the transition of nuclear weapons work to a routine and bureaucratic enterprise and the cultural differences between Livermore and Los Alamos laboratories also illuminate the changing roles and influence of these two laboratories between the Cold War era and the present.

Tarter characterizes the relationship between the laboratories as one between an older, established, conservative institution (Los Alamos) and a brash start-up company eager to innovate and make a name for itself (Livermore). Unlike Los Alamos, which emerged out of urgent efforts at a time of national emergency, Livermore's existence was the result of hard-fought [End Page 1238] political and technical battles going back to its main founders, E.O. Lawrence and Edward Teller. In Tarter's account, Livermore was a driver of innovation through the 1960s and 1970s and quickly staked its claim in the nuclear weapons business as an equal partner with Los Alamos, which was largely content to work within existing constraints. Livermore continued to display greater willingness than Los Alamos to engage in political and technical maneuvering to push new and risky projects and concepts, even where technical feasibility had not quite been established. Although this strategy enabled the laboratory to grow, in some cases it led to technical and administrative difficulties. It also contributed to the laboratory's reputation for actively pushing a militaristic, "hardline, anticommunist point of view" that led to public criticism—particularly in relation to missile defense.

Tarter led Livermore from 1994 through 2002, a time period that encompasses the core of the difficult transition of the United States nuclear weapons complex from a Cold War footing, focused on development and testing of nuclear weapons, to a post-Cold War era of diversifying missions and increased bureaucratic oversight. The American Lab provides an engaging account of this period, partly from Tarter's own perspective. It also highlights the role of Assistant Secretary of Energy for Defense Programs Vic Reis in the development of the Stockpile Stewardship Program, which enabled the weapons laboratories to survive and even prosper after the Cold War. Although Tarter covers many of the other players, Reis appears as an energetic and charismatic force who broke the laboratories' post-Cold War sense of malaise, encouraged new ideas, and laid the groundwork for the future. Tarter might have written a more focused and accessible (if less comprehensive) book had he chosen to cover this period in detail rather than the entire history of the laboratory.

Much of the scholarly work on the nuclear weapons laboratories in the post-Cold War period has been by sociologists and anthropologists, including Donald MacKenzie and Graham Spinardi, Hugh Gusterson, Joseph Masco, Laura McNamara, and the author of this review in collaboration with Christopher Henke. Gusterson's work is particularly relevant here because of its focus on Livermore scientists. While these authors cover key events and delve deeply into the mindset and experiences of weapons scientists, they do not provide a comprehensive institutional perspective or historical timeline for the weapons laboratories. The collection Doomed to Cooperate, compiled by Siegfried Hecker, Tarter's...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 1238-1240
Launched on MUSE
2021-01-07
Open Access
No
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