The Atomic City: Los Alamos, New Mexico

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, a very wise man wrote to his king with a warning: “an evil empire is trying to take over the world and they are building a bomb that will kill lots of people”. The king, being no fool, listened to the wise man and decided to build the bomb quicker. The king recruited the best physicists in the land, swore them to secrecy and herded them all to a former boy’s school in the mountains where they toiled endlessly through the nights, solving vexing scientific questions, overcoming clandestine meetings with the Russians, but finally succeeding in building two highly destructive bombs. And everyone lived happily ever after except for the 100,000 or so citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki who were obliterated by the bombs and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for their roles in passing secrets to the Russians (is there a reason Donald Trump Jr. cannot be similarly executed)?

Of course, this is all true and told in various degrees of details in 3 separate  museums located in Los Alamos, aka The Atomic City. Why 3 I ask,  but there is no obvious answer and, in reality, it is 4 if I include the exhibit at the New Mexico History Museum in Santa Fe. But I digress.

The wise man is Albert Einstein, the President is F.D. Roosevelt and the evil empire is the Nazis. Upon realizing the seriousness of the threat (which took FDR 2 years), the US Army Corps. of Engineers (primarily Lieutenant General L.R. Groves Jr. who had just finished the Pentagon) started developing a nuclear weapon. The operation became known as the Manhattan Project, after  Manhattan in New York where some early work had been undertaken on nuclear fission. Einstein himself was not allowed to work on the bomb since he lacked the necessary US security clearance (more echoes of Trump here). Instead, that task was given to Robert Oppenheimer, a physicist professor at Berkley, California. Oppenheimer fondly recalled the summers he had spent as a youth in the mountains near Santa Fe and thought the location would be ideal for building a bomb. There was slightly more  to it – it was away from either coast (the less likely to be attacked), fairly remote and had decent infrastructure. The only problem was there was no town there.

The hills near Los Alamos

Enter the army, which created Los Alamos out of an expropriated boy’s school (The Los Alamos Ranch School) and hundreds of temporary houses, laboratories and warehouses. It was all top secret – people were transported to Santa Fe, then disappeared. The people in Santa Fe knew something was going on up in the hills, but not exactly what. For those living in Los Alamos, it was akin to being in a prison. Security gates marked the entrances, mail was heavily censured and leaving the town was not permitted. People worked long days, all with a single -minded devotion to creating THE BOMB.

Exhibit showing one security gate

There were, in fact, two bombs. The smaller, less destructive uranium bomb called Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima. Fat Man was the more powerful bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Fat Man relied on plutonium and, since plutonium is less stable than uranium, implosion technology rather than explosion technology was necessary. Implosion was first tested on July 16, 1945 at the Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range in southern New Mexico, providing videos of the mushroom cloud shown at every Los Alamos sight. While we had driven through Alamogordo, visitors to the detonation sight are permitted only on a single day per year (usually in April) which was not the day we were there.

The problem for Los Alamos is, shortly after the end of World War II, the army dismantled and destroyed most of the city, leaving only the Ranch School. What remained of the town was largely abandoned until 1963, although the Los Alamos National Laboratory continued research on the hydrogen bomb and the stockpiling nuclear weapons.

Today, Los Alamos is a pretty town of about 12,000 people, most of whom are engaged in either scientific research or tourism. Three museums there are devoted to retelling the story of the creation of the atomic bomb: the Bradbury Science Museum, the Los Alamos Historical Museum and the National Parks Manhattan Project Memorial. Each recounts the same history with similar videos, exhibits and commentary.

Me with statute of Oppenheimer and Army LG Groves,, overseer of Los Alamos

The narrative is told in an informative, just the facts, sort of way. There is little to no debate about the moral propriety of the project and, other than reciting the number of people the bombs killed, no mention of the victims with a single exception. A US physicist, Harry Daghlian, accidently put his hand into a stack of radioactive tungsten at Los Alamos in August 1945 and radiated himself, dying a month later. Photos of the devastation in Japan or mention of the suffering of the Japanese victims is noticeably absent. Trump would likely declare is fake news.

Twwo last pieces of trivia learned at Los Alamos. The largest spill of radioactive material did not occur at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in 1979. That honour belongs to the rupture of a dam on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico a few months after the Three Mile Island spill. But the press largely ignored it. Similarly there was another catastrophic explosion at the New Mexico underground nuclear waste dumping facility in 2014. Estimates of the clean up for that spill are about $2 billion but scant media attention was paid to this disaster.

Finally, the spy part. Julius Rosenberg was a US engineer and member of the communist party. As a communist party sympathizer, he recruited other Americans with access to classified information. One of those was David Greenglass, Julius’ wife Ethel’s brother, who was working on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos in 1944. Greenglass testifed against his sister and brother-in-law at their 1951 trial in return for a reduced prison sentence. The Rosenbergs were found guilty and executed in 1955.

My visit to Los Alamos left me with ambiguous feelings.  There is an interesting story to tell, but the multiple museums suggest some backstage infighting about who will tell it. Also, while I am not immune to the logic that it was necessary to develop, test and drop the bombs, I was  disappointed at the complete lack of discussion about the consequences of building the bombs. Similarly, although the deterrent effect of maintaining a nuclear arsenal is mentioned briefly in one of the museum, the impact the test explosion had on the people of New Mexico and the future of nuclear bomb research is ignored. If Donald Trump was visiting, he would probably rightly come away thinking  “Los Alamos’s legacy is very, very good and made America great.”