A Look Back: Governor Ronald Reagan visits LLNL

In 1967, Ronald Reagan, former movie star and then newly-elected governor of California, visited the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory in Livermore, California to tour the facility and become more informed about major ongoing projects, including work on national defense. While the Laboratory had received a number of distinguished visitors during its first 15 years of operations, it had never hosted a governor of California. As such, on Nov. 22, 1967, Ronald Reagan officially became the first governor of California to visit the Livermore site.

Ronald Reagan first emerged unto the national political scene in 1964, with an impassioned speech in support of the Republican presidential candidate, Senator Barry Goldwater. Before that, he had a Hollywood career spanning more than 25 years with appearances in more than 50 films. Reagan’s Goldwater speech brought him national attention from the Republican party and, in 1966, he ran for governor of California, defeating the incumbent Democrat, Edmund G. (Pat) Brown, Sr., by almost a million votes.

In his memoir, Livermore’s Edward Teller recalled first meeting the former movie star and rising politician in the mid-1960s. After Reagan won the governorship in November 1966, Teller relates that he went to Sacramento to personally invite Reagan to be the first governor of California to visit the Livermore Laboratory — an invitation formally extended in October 1967 by Lab Director Mike May.

Ronald Reagan arrived at the Livermore Laboratory on the morning of Nov. 22, 1967. In addition to holding a press briefing, Reagan’s agenda for the day included tours, a luncheon and presentations by Laboratory scientists and managers. Lab briefings covered a wide range of topics, including Lab size, organization and personnel, as well as various weapons program efforts. According to Edward Teller, one such presentation was a lengthy briefing on anti-ballistic missile defense systems — “what we told the governor was not simple, but he listened carefully and asked perhaps a dozen salient questions. Those questions made two points clear: the topic was quite new to the governor, and he understood the essence and importance of what we were discussing…but I had no idea whether he approved of the work or not.”

After the briefings, a luncheon was held, and talk shifted from Lab programs to the attention and criticisms that Governor Reagan was experiencing for a comment he made during the campaign about California’s redwood trees. During a talk on natural resources, Reagan had stated, “you know, a tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?” — which morphed into the “if you’ve seen one redwood, you’ve seen them all” phrase picked up and circulated the rest of his campaign.

According to Edward Teller, Reagan’s easy-going nature and style made for a relaxed atmosphere and, by the end of the lunch, the governor had made more friends than he had at the start. While no further discussion on defensive systems was raised during the visit, Teller noted that Reagan had indeed been listening and 15 years later, Teller discovered “that he had been very interested in those ideas.”

Gov. Ronald Reagan and Lab Director Mike May at a press briefing in 1967.

On March 23, 1983, President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), commonly referred to as “Star Wars,” in a nationwide address on national security. The president directed that a comprehensive and intensive effort be made to define a research and development program to achieve the United States’ goal of eliminating the threat of strategic nuclear weapons. For Livermore, over the next decade, this meant intensive work in a variety of programmatic areas, including Brilliant Pebbles — an orbital constellation of small defenders based on advanced technologies that saw ultimate realization with the Clementine moon mapping project in 1994.