The University of California at Berkeley is widely considered one of the most progressive and historically transformative universities in not only the United States, but the world. This is printed all over pamphlets written for prospective students and talked about endlessly by tour guides giving people the privilege to walk through such a prestigious site. What isn’t discussed, however, is the other side of that history, the one mired by involvement with the military industrial complex, with the conquest of indigenous lands and with the creation of the greatest mass murder weapon of all time.
Tony Platt, historian, author and former UC Berkeley professor, joins host Robert Scheer on this episode of Scheer Intelligence to discuss these inconvenient truths about one of the sweetheart American institutions of higher education. His book, “The Scandal of Cal: Land Grabs, White Supremacy, and Miseducation at UC Berkeley” dives into the deep and complex relationships a university like Berkeley has with the government, including the concessions and commitments it has to make in order to ensure funding and status.
Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer,” visually illustrated the means it took to build the atomic bomb and how much funding and support was necessary for such a project. The film paints J. Robert Oppenheimer as the mastermind behind it all, but what it also does is slyly strip away the complicity and responsibility of UC Berkeley in making it all happen.
“[Y]ou could walk through the campus and not know that the university was deeply involved in this extraordinary act, probably the greatest act of mass killing in three days in human history,” Platt said, referring to the creation of the atomic bomb.
This all points to the core idea of a university and what it means to be one. Scheer and Platt dig into this notion, especially given their extensive connections to the school itself and how on the surface, a lot gets covered up.
“[T]he university has a whole commemorative culture that puts a positive spin on its long history of land, occupation and exploitation of the gravesites of native people and accumulating hundreds of thousands of artifacts from people that were forced to sell them,” Platt said.
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This transcript was produced by an automated transcription service. Please refer to the audio interview to ensure accuracy.
Robert Scheer Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence. I am fascinated by the work of Tony Platt. I knew him as a very famous professor at the University of California in Criminology, oh God, 40 years ago or 50 years ago. And I followed his career, started out at Oxford, and he’s written really a number of important books, but he’s got a book coming out right now this week you’ll be able to get it, it’s called The Scandal of Cal. Cal being the University of California, Berkeley, probably the most admired public university in America. And the subtitle is Land Grabs, White Supremacy and Miseducation at UC Berkeley. But the reason I wanted to talk to Tony, I’ve talked to him on other occasions, is because the movie Oppenheimer is out and Oppenheimer is very much a UC Berkeley Cal story.
After all, Oppenheimer was doing his very important physics work there when he got involved with the whole development of the atomic bomb, his social life, his intellectual life, political life had a lot to do with the area. And the University of California, in addition to its fame in many areas academically, has also been running since that time the main atomic weapons, nuclear weapons laboratories, Los Alamos, where the original Fat Man, Little Boy bombs were redeveloped, and Livermore, where Edward Teller, who had worked on and wanted to go for a bigger hydrogen bomb at that time, managed to develop it over at Livermore, much closer to Berkeley. But the relation of the university to the development of weapons of mass destruction is this intimate as any other institution, perhaps other than literally the Pentagon.
So, Tony, I want to ask you about your book. And there’s a lot of other very interesting stuff about the whole and which you’ve written about before, and you go into it in greater depth now. The role of the university in desecrating indigenous life as well as occupying the land, the barbarism of that work of collecting bones and everything. And you go, you go through a lot of stuff. But what caught my attention in the new book is you raised some profound questions about, So why don’t you give me your take on it and Oppenheimer’s connection to Berkeley.
Tony Platt Well, for those of you that have seen the movie, it’s a biopic. It’s a Hollywood biopic. So movies like that, you know, focus on great individual people, usually men. And the film is built around that and built around his his anxiety and his angst about doing what he did in terms of killing 200,000 plus civilians during the war, being involved in that. And the film focuses on that. But the film does not look at the institution in which Oppenheimer worked and in which he developed his ideas about, first of all, the atomic bomb and then the nuclear bomb, and tends to emphasize his role as an individual rather than the role of the university as an institution involved in warfare.
So that was interesting to me, and particularly given that Berkeley has always been involved in warfare, it’s probably one of the major universities that benefits from militarism and war, and it did so from the beginning, from the 1860s, 1870s, when it was created to the present day, that that relationship with militarism has always changed. But I was surprised in researching this book to find how deeply and seriously integrated militarism is into the life of the university.
Scheer But Berkeley appears in the movie as kind of a setting for his sitting naked in his living room with his lover or chatting away or nice parties and so forth, but from my own, and I did a lot of reporting about Los Alamos and Livermore over the years, and my reading of the record, the actual some of the most profoundly disturbing aspects of the creation and use of the bomb, which was the deliberate targeting of civilians. After all, this bomb is some of the scientists maybe a majority wanted would have been exploded. Maybe if his views and some of them, many of them didn’t think it had to be used but it would be used in the ocean after Germany had been defeated.
The original reason for the bomb the Japanese were trying to hold on to their emperor is still being respected, but they certainly weren’t holding on to a vision of any kind of conquest of others. And so that war could have really been ended. I don’t think there’s much doubt about that. But even if you wanted to use the bomb, as Truman did, to justify its power and justify the cost, you didn’t have to pick a time, the time that was picked, when you would maximize the civilian death and particularly the deaths of school children. And this is why I can personally consider it the greatest act of terrorism, because of what you’re talking about is killing, terrorizing civilians in order to make some other larger political point.
If that’s terrorism, then Hiroshima and Nagasaki are really the most startling examples. And my understanding that planning and there is a reference to it in your book, the book Scandal, Cal, you actually have a scene where they are doing their work at Berkeley and they’re actually talking about targeting scenarios and so forth, and that makes the university really complicit in the most horrifying aspect of this, that they picked a time of day to drop the bomb when school children would be even outside the protection of their school.
Platt Yeah, well, you know, Berkeley physicists and staff met on the campus in 1942. They met secretly over the summer, and then they moved to Los Alamos and Berkeley, the institution and the University of California in general, the University of California at that time consisted of several campuses, not just Berkeley, but Berkeley was a leading campus in it because of Oppenheimer’s role. Oppenheimer played a key role in choosing the land that was going to be used for the laboratory to be developed on and for the families to live there. This was land that was historically and culturally indigenous land for thousands of years. The University and Oppenheimer were involved in talking about what cities to target, and the term that they used was the term effective damage.
Where could they show off the bomb by dropping it, making it explode in the sky rather than on the ground? And also, where would it show effective damage? Thus, where would it kill and ensure the maximum number of people that Oppenheimer and other people from Berkeley were were involved in, very practically involved in that. Berkeley was also very much involved in setting up a military museum in Los Alamos that still exists. It’s now called the Bradbury Museum. It’s administered by the university, and it’s a museum that basically takes a pro-war, pro-militarism, pro-atomic warfare position. So these are all the different ways that the university as an institution was that was involved in this process.
Scheer Right. And if you visit Los Alamos, there’s even an area where visiting school children can draw pictures of a facsimile of Fat Man and Little Boy, the bombs that were dropped, and there is no obviously no and deliberately so accountability of the deaths, the civilian deaths and, of course, the major criticism of the movie and I think a very valid one is that it hardly references the Japanese people who died and who were not, you know, certainly did not have power to declare war or peace to order war. Many of them were fishermen, you know, were working in local agriculture. And, you know, the idea that somehow all the drama was about Los Alamos and Berkeley and the anxiety of the scientists and their question and so forth, and that the obliteration of these people is not discussed in the movie, the more I think about it, it’s just appalling.
Platt Well, it’s not even really discussed publicly at the university either. I mean, the university has a whole commemorative culture that puts a positive spin on its long history of land, occupation and exploitation of the of the gravesites of native people and accumulating hundreds of thousands of artifacts from people that were forced to sell them. Many other aspects of the history of the university are not commemorated today. They’re not dealt with. And similarly, you could walk through the campus and not know that the university was deeply involved in this extraordinary act, probably the the greatest act of mass killing in three days in human history. If we if we look at both Hiroshima and Nagasaki and, you know, the US ambassador to Japan today participates in ceremonies of commemoration of the dead that took place in August of 1945. But there’s no similar ceremonies at Berkeley and there’s no public recognition of the 500 students and all their families that were expelled from the university during the war, ended up in concentration camps, euphemistically known as the relocation camps.
Scheer The Japanese-American students who were at Berkeley.
Platt Exactly the 500 Japanese-American students. And similarly, if you visit the physics building today, which doesn’t have a name, they just took off. The name of the building used to be called the Lecomte Building, named after two professors who were white supremacists and supporters of the Confederacy. One became the chancellor or president of Berkeley, and the other became a senior professor. They took down that name. But if you visit the building today, there are this recognition of the scientific breakthroughs of Oppenheimer and his team, but there’s no recognition of the practical damage and destruction that was done to hundreds of thousands of people.
Scheer You know, we know each other through Berkeley and I lived there, still have a base there. And across the street from actually where I live was of the military folks who were spying on Oppenheimer, Army intelligence. And it’s interesting because the movie kind of refers to the bohemianism of Berkeley. Yeah. Which is genuine and a protest culture that had been there. And after all, there’s a whole lot of discussion about Eisenhower’s political outlook. You have a very good exchange in your book and the Scandal of Cal presenting Oppenheimer actually in a very good light.
His testimony before a committee where he talks about why he wouldn’t use the H-bomb, why he had great concerns about both and so forth. You might want to talk about that a little bit. But it is very interesting that and it really goes to the question of what is a university education? If you don’t discuss something as significant as the introduction of these heinous weapons and their use in connection with your institution. I mean, after all, I know you’re a graduate of Oxford, right? Sometimes Berkeley claims to be competitive or in that tradition, that is considered to be a very high standard. And when I first met you, you were extremely popular teacher and you’re still connected with the university. What is your current position?
Platt I have retired from teaching, and though I’ve done some teaching in the last couple of years, mostly just doing research on this book and then writing the book and working with the Truth and Justice Project on the campus, which is a small group of faculty and staff and students trying to get the university to repatriate human remains and artifacts to tribes.
Scheer But you’re a person deeply committed to the educational enterprise. I hate to use the word enterprise, but that’s really what it is. And there’s a lot of argument sort of what does, why did we create these universities? What is their function? Was it to create a labor force for, you know, the old industrial revolution and now up through Silicon Valley? What is its purpose? And again, you know, I don’t know whether in a place like Oxford, there will be a deeper discussion. Maybe not. But your in your book, you describe sort of the deliberate mindlessness of the enterprise of running these machines of death. And it’s peculiar, isn’t it? I mean, doesn’t it requires sort of a profound, deliberate disconnect in one’s thought process.
Platt It does. You know, the the slogan of Berkeley, the Berkeley campus and the University of California is Fiat Lux. Let there be Light. That’s been the slogan since the late 19th century. And the slogan comes from, for those of you that read your Bible, it comes from Genesis in the Old Testament. There was darkness. And then God said, Let there be light. And Berkeley University regarded itself as bringing civilization and light to a backward part of the world, to a darkness, to a place that needed to be Europeanized and civilized. And without any serious recognition of what happened before they arrived or under what conditions the university arrived. And so the the the narrative that the university tells about itself is often a story about progress and shedding light.
But what’s interesting to me in taking up on your point is that it really was shedding light on itself. There was no critical histories of the university. My book begins to do that, begins to raise these issues and these questions. But when I went to read histories of the University of California, particularly Berkeley, all I could find was in-house, administrative, propagandistic kinds of histories. There’s no real grappling, like with issues. What should a university be? What’s the purpose of education? What moral obligations do we have? What political, social obligations? And, you know, that might not be such a big issue for most universities. But Berkeley claims to be a social justice university, a university of free speech, one of the great public universities of the world. That’s part of its self branding, it brands itself that way. So in order to take its branding seriously, it has to answer, I think, there has to be a reckoning, to why it’s failed to deal with its own history.
Scheer So let me play devil’s advocate here and say that the people who created Berkeley, the influential people that included actually the Hearst family and others who, as you discuss in your book, really got the university they wanted, one that would mint people in the STEM professions but elsewhere including training police. You had a very active military service branch on the Berkeley campus that you discuss in your book. And really, it was to serve empire in a way. And, you know, it’s kind of the, I don’t know, my I did graduate work there for about three years and everything. I was in the Center for Chinese Studies. There was actually a CIA division right under us there on Shattuck Avenue that I could go use their books every once in a while.
And it struck me even then, as a graduate student, that, yeah, we had our protests and demonstrations, civil rights and so forth and this is what Mario Savio, the great you know spokesperson hero of the FSM, we were really part of a machine that was going to operate ruthlessly to expand empire and train people for empire. And that is what America is now. It’s the grandest empire ever in human history with the most power. Right. And if you look at the impact at Berkeley, things that we care about now, climate change, Berkeley probably has contributed as much to climate change as any institution in the world, any educational institution or to militarism or to conquest.
And as I recall even most of the faculty at a time of protests was not in support of the protests, certainly not against war, but even on free speech and civil rights, they basically wanted to get the big government grants from the Pentagon. They wanted to be in play. Isn’t that the real contradiction That’s been true of that university and perhaps every other large one. They are dependent upon government funding. They want the jobs and they want to train people to serve in that capacity.
Platt That true. But the university also has a really interesting history of resistance and opposition. So I found examples of people in the 1890 students resisting and opposing required military training. Military training on the Berkeley campus was obligatory until the end of the 1950s. It went on forever, but there’s a long tradition of opposition to that. There was also tremendous political organizing on campus in the twenties and thirties, antiwar organizing that went on. There’s also been a long tradition of activism around free speech issues that went on for many, many decades before the Free Speech movement became successful. There was also a very successful movement to get the University of California regents to disinvest in apartheid South Africa.
That’s a long standing battle going on of a People’s Park and public space. So there’s that, too. I mean, it’s a very privileged place. It’s a place that churns out people to try to fit us into, you know, working for a system of power and privilege and so on. On the other hand, it has a very rich and varied political history. I mean, women’s studies, ethnic studies, the radical wing of criminology. That history needs to be written, too. I’ve mostly written about the other side, about the the repressive history of the institution, because I think most people don’t know that. But there’s also an extraordinary history of resistance. And it goes back far beyond the sixties. People tend to think of protests beginning in the sixties, but think about the opposition to the loyalty oath in the fifties and so on.
Scheer Yes, but that brings up, you know, I don’t know how much other people who aren’t connected with Berkeley care about this, but I think they should, because it’s really a story of what happens at every major university. And it’s about power and the idea that somehow the university is a center of critical thinking and opposition and thought. Yes, there are certainly manifestations of that. But the fact is the loyalty of I happened to arrive in Berkeley in ’59, and it was just I saw the ravage of the loyalty oath. Most of the professors I wanted to study with had been fired and pushed out. And, you know, it was an atmosphere of intimidation. It was ironic. It was not the Berkeley that one came to see pretty soon after because the students protested. You’re absolutely right.
But I’m trying to get at a larger picture here. What is the you know, in the movie on Oppenheimer, there’s a deception. And the deception is of the intellectual in a great moral struggle with himself and his society. But that fact didn’t happen. But those very bright scientists had a lot of doubts. But they went ahead and built the bomb and they went ahead and went along with using the bomb. And they ended up going along with blowing up all these innocent Japanese people and all these school children waiting to go to class and everything. And I must say, in all the time I was in Berkeley, I hardly ever heard any discussion about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, did you?
Platt Well, when I was teaching in criminology and in Berkeley in 1972, in a class in which you were a guest lecturer, Bob. Well, we talked about the crimes of imperialism, racism and sexism, where we’re trying to transform criminology. But one of the things we showed was a film made by the U.S. Air Force, I think it was. Excuse me, it was a film made by the U.S. Air Force to show the destruction and damage that was done in Hiroshima after the war, after the bombing. And it was suppressed until the 1960s when we showed that film, it’s a ten minute film, just the raw footage of going over the city and seeing what happened. And then we asked the students, Was this a crime against humanity? Was this a crime against international law? Was this something that the university was involved as an institution? We asked that question then, but back then I didn’t fully understand how deeply involved the institution was in the actual creativity that went into making the bomb and running the whole institution. Berkeley, University of California ran Los Alamos, they administered the whole lab.
They administered the village where all the families lived. They administered the museum that was set up to basically promote pro-nuclear ideas. So that was new to me. So when we knew about Hiroshima, we knew about the involvement of Oppenheimer and so on in the seventies. But the deep institutional involvement, or even before Oppenheimer was was involved in that team, there was a group at the Berkeley’s Radiation Laboratory. I’m just looking at my notes here that employed a staff of 1250 people at a cost of about half a million dollars per month. So this is a huge operation. This is early in 1942. This is before the summer of 1942, before Oppenheimer and his team meet to plot out the actual atomic bomb.
So the institutional responsibility is massive, and that’s where we have a total silence on the campus today and why I think in some ways, the University of California really like the movie Oppenheimer. In fact, you know, they invited the director and they and the actors to come on and they shot some scenes at Berkeley and they publicized that that was going on. I think the university liked that because, one, it made this out to be decisions made by an individual, not an institution. And secondly, there’s no understanding in the movie or nothing, despite in the movie about how people like Teller and Oppenheimer were part of a pretty large operation financially, economically, personnel wise, and that this was a major commitment by the university as a whole.
Scheer Well, I want to push it a little further. You know, I should mention you’re in a weakened state because of COVID, and I appreciate you talking to me, but I would like people to read your book. And it’s coming out this week. And, you know, again, I could show it if we use video. It’s here, the Scandal of Cal. I’ve got the galleys. So hopefully I’ll go out and buy a copy. It’s the least I can do.
And it’s Heyday Press that publishes a lot of really important books over the years on indigenous life and the destruction of indigenous life among everything else. And your books fit very well into that pattern. But I want to push this a little further. Watching the movie, I must say when I first saw it, I was impressed. At least there is a movie that gets into some of these issues. It’s a bit late, but still, and yet it doesn’t discuss what happened after. Because the fact of the matter is that Teller, who’s kind of presented as a bad guy in this movie, goes on to run the Livermore Lab and they do exactly what he thought he should do. And you have the testimony where Oppenheimer warned about not doing it. He goes on to develop the bigger bomb, the H-bomb, and he develops this whole notion that we can have a laser weapon, the ultimate weapon, and shoot down all the enemy planes and ours will get through. You can even have winnable war, nuclear war. And he gets Ronald Reagan to go along with Star Wars and all that sort of thing. So that university goes on to be the major advocate for using nuclear weapons and for the idea of winnable nuclear war.
That’s why I want you to do this interview with you, because I want to add a postscript to your excellent book, and that the responsibility of the university continues to the present because we’re now still talking about more than ever, actually the possibility of surviving nuclear war. And they’ve been working on modernizing the fleet. And I might add there’s another footnote. They had an incident that relates to the Oppenheimer one in more recent history regarding Wen Ho Lee, a physicist from Taiwan, not from mainland. China, who got marked by The New York Times, by the way, he led the attack on this guy and then he was kept in solitary in Los Alamos for nine months. And finally, when they, you know, a judge, a Reagan appointed judge cut him loose because there’s absolutely no evidence of having done anything. You know, and and yet the university really didn’t defend him. They were still administering the lab. And then the university acted as a ruthless, you know, engine for the military industrial complex. And the movie really doesn’t make that clear.
Platt The movie doesn’t make that clear, nor have we had any museum or any exhibitions in the United States that take on that issue. There was a chancellor at Berkeley, Michael Heymann, who was also the dean of the law school, and then went on to become chancellor and a very important educator, and then he became the secretary of the Smithsonian, the top position in the Hall of the Smithsonian. And when he went in there, he was he said he would have a exhibition at the Science Museum in the Science and Military Museum, the Smithsonian, an exhibition that would at least create some conversation about why the United States use the news atomic bombs against Japan at the end of the war, that there would be a debate about that.
And also he had plans to show not only pieces of the fuselage of the of the plane, the Enola Gay, that was used to drop the bomb, but he was also going to use artifacts from Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like food containers held by the small children where they couldn’t the parents couldn’t find anything left of the children, but they found the remains of their their lunches and these little containers. So it was going to it was going to at least begin a national conversation about about nuclear war and about the ethics of nuclear war and about what happened. And he was immediately attacked from the right and Republican Party and conservatives went after him immediately. And then he withdrew.
He withdrew the whole exhibition and changed his mind. And that sent a chill over American museums for about 20 years in terms of showing controversial issues and having debates about what happened. I mean, a museum like a university should be a place that we go into where we get different viewpoints, where we push to think about what we think about something. We’re not just fed a line or an argument, but we’re fed competing arguments and competing ideas. And a university certainly should be that. A university, you would think, would be a place where you’d have debates going on and so on. So in many ways, you know, it’s the silence of Berkeley that bothers me. Like you, I used to be much more of a radical in the old days and call for fundamental transformation of societies, which I still think is necessary, and I hope for that. But in the short term, I have some rather, you know, simple reformist liberal reforms like let’s break the silence, let’s have a conversation about this, the kind of things that you and I are having a discussion about, you know, that should be campus wide. It’s I mean, it should be trying to come to terms with a history of land grabs, being involved in eugenics, being involved in nuclear war and atomic warfare.
I mean, for an institution and educational institution to have that history and not discuss it and not debate it violates everything that we think and know about what education should be. So for me, I’ve sort of lowered my standards. I want conversation, debate, discussion. I want your show as part of sort of a national or campus wide discussion about these issues, where that shows how difficult it’s going to be to make this happen. And I’m hoping that this book will be will help activists who are trying to make this happen.
Scheer And that’s a noble thought. But I want to end the show by paying tribute to Mario Savio and his wisdom in that what he did was he cut through the mythology about Berkeley. And when I say mythology, I’m not going to deny what you said before. Berkeley probably has had more in the way of socially conscious protests and has been a leader on many issues, including, you know, diversification of faculty and representation. And we could go through a long list. Most of that I attribute to the spirit of the students and some faculty people who resisted, it’s certainly noble. The shocking thing is that Berkeley may be the most socially responsible, major academic institution in the United States. It certainly has the history. What is shocking that the most advanced, socially conscious institution could accept silence about nuclear death and destruction of hundreds of thousands of innocent people in Japan not even use it as a teaching moment to discuss the complexity of it, and can do that around the whole destruction of indigenous culture, which you’re writing has highlighted.
So I think the example and the value of your examining Berkeley as an example is you’re not examining the worst. You’re doing what Halberstam did in his book on the best and the brightest as being responsible for Vietnam. Vietnam War came about not because there were some right wingers who talked the news, but it was liberal Democrats and Lyndon Johnson who pushed this, the best and the brightest. That’s the value of that movie on Oppenheimer. Those guys were bright. They had a social conscience. They even were radicals. More so, I think, than you and I. I mean, they even flirted with the Communist Party. I don’t think we ever did that. We thought they were totalitarian and awful. So this was he was swimming in the best of Berkeley’s wild, imaginative political life and controversy. So it despite that, despite that, when the military industrial complex came calling, you know, when when the drums of war were beating, they signed up and they created the most horrible weapon, which at this moment in human history still threatens still maybe more than ever, threatens our existence. I’ll let you have the last word on it.
Platt Those are pretty good last words. But let’s try this. So when Oppenheimer selected Hiroshima to test out the bomb. Test out of the bomb is just such a morally repugnant way of talking about killing, you know, hundreds of thousands of people. But he knew that 150,000 tons of TNT, which is what an atomic bomb was equivalent to them, would kill at least 20,000 civilians if exploded in the air, that’s what he said and what he thought. When he was asked after the war if he had any regrets, especially given that he significantly undercounted the number of dead, he replied, quote, “I did my job, which was the job I was supposed to do.”
Scheer Well, that’s the good German.
Platt Yes, that’s the good German.
Scheer Right, on that note. Thank you, Tony. Hope you get better.
Platt Thank you.
Scheer And I want to urge people to get the book. It’s called The Scandal of Cal. And Tony Platt is a great writer. And, you know, this is a joy to read. And it’s not, I review quite a few important books on this show, but sometimes they take two weeks out of my life, and this is mercifully short. I’m not saying it’s not simplistic or anything. It’s a profound book. But it’s 200 pages. You spend an afternoon with it. It will alert you to all this stuff that unfortunately our universities want to blind you with. And so break the code of silence. I want to thank the people who helped me get this show up and the wonderful NPR station here in Santa Monica. Laura Kondourajian and Christopher Ho a whole posted at the station. Joshua Scheer, our executive producer, who insisted I get you on right now on this subject. Diego Ramos, who writes the wonderful introductions, Max Jones, who does the video, and the J.K.W. Foundation, the memory of Jean Stein for putting up some funding to make this happen. See you next week with another edition of Scheer Intelligence.