James T. Ramey, 95

James T. Ramey, Atomic Energy Commission expert on nuclear technology, dies at 95

President John F. Kennedy appointed Mr. . Ramey, second from right, to the Atomic Energy Commission.
President John F. Kennedy appointed Mr. . Ramey, second from right, to the Atomic Energy Commission. (1962 Photo Courtesy Of Dr. James T. Ramey Ii)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Thursday, September 2, 2010

James T. Ramey, 95, a lawyer and expert on nuclear technology who became one of the most powerful members of the old Atomic Energy Commission, died Aug. 28 at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda of complications from pneumonia.

Mr. Ramey served as one of five commissioners on the AEC from 1962 to 1973 and became an advocate for peaceful uses of nuclear energy, such as desalinization of sea water.

He was described in a 1974 New York Times article as the "single most influential member of the commission in the past decade," who for many years was the "power behind the throne" of the AEC's chairmen.

One of the leading historians of the AEC, Richard G. Hewlett, said in an interview that Mr. Ramey had a "very important role" with the commission, because he "knew the subjects, knew the background."

In 1946, Mr. Ramey was a lawyer for the Tennessee Valley Authority when his boss, David Lilienthal, became chairman of the new Atomic Energy Commission. Shortly after, Lilienthal recruited Mr. Ramey to join him at the government agency as an assistant general counsel.

Mr. Ramey later transferred to the AEC's Chicago office, where he worked alongside Adm. Hyman Rickover to draft the contract for the world's first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus.

In 1956, Mr. Ramey was named executive director of the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, a congressional body that oversaw the AEC.

During the next few years, Mr. Ramey had a role providing intelligence that proved useful to President John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

According to journalist Stephen I. Schwartz's 1998 book, "Atomic Audit: The Costs and Consequences of U.S. Nuclear Weapons Since 1940," Mr. Ramey was on a team of inspectors sent to Europe and the Near East in 1961 to make unannounced visits to U.S. military installations that secretly held U.S. nuclear warheads. Mr. Ramey discovered many of the facilities had lax security.

At one air base in Italy, Mr. Ramey found a U.S. bomber on the tarmac with a live nuclear warhead under its wing being guarded by an 18 year-old-soldier armed with a carbine. At a Turkish missile silo 12 miles from the Russian border, Mr. Ramey saw a ballistic missile standing vertical and exposed, visible to anyone -- including Soviet spies.

According to "Atomic Audit," Mr. Ramey helped write a summary of the inspectors' findings and handed it into Kennedy, who used that intelligence to come to a secret agreement during the 1962 standoff with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev to remove U.S. warheads from Turkey in exchange for Soviet withdrawal of missiles from Cuba.

Kennedy appointed Mr. Ramey as a commissioner to the AEC, and he was subsequently reappointed twice by President Lyndon B. Johnson. He later spent several years as vice president of the Massachusetts engineering firm Stone and Webster.

James Thomas Ramey was born Dec. 5, 1914, in Eddyville, Ky. He was a 1937 graduate of Amherst College, where he was a forward on the basketball team and was elected to the Phi Beta Kappa honor society.

While attending law school at Columbia University, he met his future wife of 65 years, Estelle Rubin Ramey, who became a nationally known endocrinologist, and they were married in the apartment of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

Dr. Estelle Ramey died in 2006. Survivors include two children, Dr. James N. Ramey of Bethesda and Drucilla Stender Ramey of San Francisco; and five grandchildren.

According to his grandson Dr. James T. Ramey II, Mr. Ramey was part of a long-running, top-secret AEC program that investigated public claims involving extraterrestrial spacecraft landing on Earth.

Mr. Ramey said the reason that the AEC followed up on these claims -- as far-fetched as they may have been -- was because the Americans feared that if such advanced technology on Earth did exist and was discovered by the Russians, it could be adapted as an advantage in the nuclear arms race.

Mr. Ramey was happy to report to his grandson, however, that while his team investigated many claims involving UFOs and extraterrestrial visitors, they found none of the evidence to be remotely credible.

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