Chernobyl was claimed by the Soviets and made famous by the atom; it could easily be argued that Los Alamos was the American version of the same city. Whereas Chernobyl carried an actual nuclear power plant, Los Alamos became the birth of atomic weaponry among other studies. While most of the world knows of Los Alamos, the information before and beyond the hatching of the atomic weapon isn’t nearly as popular. While this paper will definitely drive through the important 1930s and 1940s, it will also explore the more uncommon research both before and after those world-transformative years.
Going back too far into history is difficult primarily because of the Indians of the time didn’t keep many, if any, records. Evidence before 900 AD is very limited due to the abuses and erosion of time however after this date and up to 1200 AD, above ground pueblos began to be documented as far north as Taos. Particularly between the years 1100 to 1200 the region grew with heightened speed with immigration coming out of the Chaco Canyon near central New Mexico.1 Perhaps migrations had occurred in years past, but for certain we do know that at this time, a firm hold had finally been found within the region.
The region was difficult though. It was mountainous and arid and in the winters it would be cold and carrying snowfall. Within certain pueblos drought would occasionally force their evacuation due to the scarcity of the resources within the physical environment. Some were abandoned completely. Between 1200 and 1300 the growth or decline of any particular region was based almost solely on the weather.2 This would not only affect the new local inhabitants but also, quite naturally, their trade partners such as the Hohokam and the Casas Grandes people. At times, entire cultures could collapse which would then be replaced and the cycle repeated.
These radical changes would affect not only trade but also an exchange of ideas. Ritual items were commonly traded with the Anasazi but Indians from the plains preferred utilitarian goods. The pueblo people had less in common with those from the plains which resulted in less trade and therefore a smaller exchange of ideas. While an exchange of cultures would occur, much of the materials was related to only a food exchange.3 The regional people still had to contend with the weather and their effects.
This continuing battle with the region and it’s scarce resources seemed never-ending. When droughts became more dangerous and extended, leading into the Little Ice Age which lasted centuries, the newly migrated Indians had to travel to lower elevations so that by 1600 many of the larger pueblos had been abandoned.4 Any people who tried to move into the region were easily pushed around by the environment.
As colonies expanded and claims grew, the Spanish had established hold over this region of New Mexico. Still, a mass of people melded together from Indian, Hispanic and Anglo descent all fell upon the region. It wasn’t until 1746 that the Spanish permitted a grant to a family of Spanish settlers to the eastern slope of the Jemez Mountains. Just over one hundred years later, in 1851, Antonio Sanchez, an heir to the original grantee, sold the claim to Ramon Vigil for a yoke of oxen, thirty-six ewes, one ram, and twenty dollars.5 As time went on, numerous prehistoric dwellings of ancient Indians had been discovered in these surrounding areas showing that the region had been both habitable and inhabitable throughout human history.
The claim largely didn’t matter. The original home had actually been built just beyond the loosely defined borders and even with the claim, it was largely free to whomever sought to settle there up to the 1880s. It simply wasn’t a popular region for the natives after the effects of the Little Ice Age. While the plateau had held some spiritual importance, it was no longer a place to reside for the Indians.6 Again, the lacking resources had much to do with this as did the lacking streams and rivers which would permit mostly a summer-only inhabitance to those who sought to settle in the area at all. This left little for ranching or other activities. Hispanics mainly hovered around the areas of San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, and Pojoaque from an old Spanish policy.7
With the acquisition of the region after the Mexican-American War, the nation settling down with the conclusion of the American Civil War and the industrialization of America getting underway, the Americans were ready to lay down the rail. After a survey team sent out in 1877, it was decided that there was great commercial grazing and timber possibilities in the area.8 There had been efforts at timber harvesting in the past but it hard hardly turned into an industry.
During this time, the Spanish inhabitants had a difficult time proving that they owned the land they had settled upon. Between the upheaval of the Mexican break with Spain and then Mexico’s loss to the Americans with the additional issues of lazy and inaccurate maps, the Hispanics found incredible difficulty where as most natives aside from the Zuñi and Laguna had been approved by at least 1860. As a result, much of the Hispanic claimed land reverted to the newly arrived Americans. The grant passed again from Ramon Vigil who was in his seventies, to Thomas Aquinas Hayes for four thousand dollars.9
Just a few years later more people were beginning to arrive from Texas due to overgrazing cattle. As Texas legislation limited the amount of grazing, more Texans traveled west with W.C. Bishop leasing a plateau for three thousand cattle.10 At the same time, archaeology was growing in popularity and uneducated progressives of the likes of Edgar L. Hewett, who only had a masters in pedagogy, saw himself as above the law and knowing better than the others. Since he and his ilk believed that he knew best, then he would go ahead and do what he liked while getting support as he needed it along the way.
By 1900 Hewitt continued his efforts to remain the sole excavator in the region as he used his power to furnish laws which would prevent or hamper others from also excavating on public land. While there were already laws in place which made such competition permissible, Hewett hardly seemed to believe in playing fair.11 The age of the wild west, first come, first serve was dying.
On the settlement front, the homesteaders in the region were beginning to lose power after 1900. They were able to make some efforts growing food, but growing the same foods year after year was deteriorating the land, depriving it of necessary nutrients without the chance to rebuild itself. Farmers would often buy their seeds on credit and expect their harvest to pay for their planting which put them in a precarious position each and every year. The ebbing and flowing of these years would finally come to a tsunami-sized end when the end of World War I crushed the price of beans and other important regional crops.12 Homesteading was another word for poverty along the plateau. However, the crushing of the old economy was slowly ushering in the economy of the new.
The remainder of the 1920s and 1930s passed largely uneventfully until the time came to search for a place to establish a new laboratory. By spring of 1942 Oppenheimer was decided upon Berkely, California but ultimately changed his mind by the fall when he changed his mind. Having a love for New Mexico seemed to be enough of a reason for Oppenheimer. As the plan was already behind pace, Colonel Dudley and Groves met up where they had a meeting where Dudley spoke, “Let’s pick Los Alamos and get on with our other work.”13 The area along the Pajarito Plateau was largely already federally owned; 45,000 acres were owned by the government but 9,000 acres were held in private hands. The government bullied a private owner, A. J. Connell, who had a small school located on the land of which the government wanted to force Connell into selling.14 Connell thought the property was worth more than the government was offering. The military decided to take it anyway.
Settling for the school was impossible. The Army only sought to pay $275,000 but Connell believed it to be worth half a million. After time spent through court, Connell received $335,000 with $7,884 in interest. While he was given an allowance until mid-January 1943 to finish its year, the Army was busy awarding contracts and moving in bulldozers.15 Connell would eventually move to Santa Fe, becoming director of a local Boy’s Club but died due to complications of pneumonia on 11 February 1944.
Oppenheimer was sent to lead the secret weapon’s laboratory, an interesting choice considering Oppenheimer’s communist ties and previous enchantments with the Soviet Union. At the same time, he was incredibly advanced. By age eleven he had joined the New York Mineralogical Society, and later taught himself Sanskrit and knew a total of eight languages. But these communist ties would never really leave him. He had donated to the Republicans in Spain through the Communist Party and married Katherine Harrison who was also a Party member, her previous husband having died fighting with the Republicans in Spain. Oppenheimer eventually repudiated some of his beliefs in a statement, “Most of what I believed then now seems complete nonsense, but it was an essential part of becoming a whole man. If it hadn’t been for this late but indispensible education, I couldn’t have done the job at Los Alamos at all.”16 But there was incredible consternation over anyone with a Communist past, especially as the decades drafted forward.
Perhaps Oppenheimer seemed disingenuous. While he lost the allure with the Soviet Union, he certainly hadn’t to the Communist ideas. In the same month he began working on the secret project, he gave money to Steve Nelson, a Communist organizer, to aid striking farm workers.17 Such acts would continue into 1942 and Oppenheimer himself would receive a permanent security clearance until Groves demanded that Oppenheimer receive such clearance in July 1943.
Just as nefarious as having current or former Communists within the facility, so too were there Nazis even during the war. Many of the German émigrés knew German atomic scientists working for the Third Reich whom they believed were also working on a bomb.18
The site itself however, was rather barren. There were already fifty-four structures available but the area needed more buildings such as power plants, residences and other supporting and active structures. There were 334 apartment units established along with a water tower and a boiler-house which were efficiently constructed with varnished hardwood floors and fireplaces.19 Scientists and technicians began arriving soon after in April 1943.
Newly arrived personnel would be introduced with long lectures which soon became adapted to the Los Alamos Primer; a twenty-four page pamphlet of diagrams and graphs. The Primer told the new arrivals that the work to be done was work on a bomb and nuclear fission. However, due to worries over spies the word “bomb” was duly replaced by “the Gadget.” It would also be a great way to clear the conscience of those working on the weapon by using such a benign word.
Interestingly, a Los Alamos address didn’t exist to aid the secrecy. Instead mail was sent to P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe. There to receive letters and packages, it also became slang for the facility itself. For those who would be born in the area, their birth certificates read “Box 1663.” Or letters to loved ones would read, “Oh, how I wish you were here with me in Box 1663.”20 But the spot did have to become a home for moving-in families.
As the years drifted, the people remained self-isolated. But there were healthy activities. What was more pronounced were parties and plenty of alcohol. The tension and “the Project” caused the people to feel the need to set off steam. Elsie McMillian recorded, “We had parties, yes, once in a while, and I’ve never drunk so much as there at the few parties because you had to let off steam, you had to let off this feeling eating your soul, oh God, are we doing right?”21 This was apt because even by 1945 some of the staff would work away from home for weeks at a time.
As work on the gadget continued, so did the codes. Oppenheimer sent a message to Arthur Compton, director of the Met Lab in Chicago, “Anytime after the 15th [of July] would be good for our fishing trip. Because we are not certain of the weather, we may be delayed several days. As we do not have enough sleeping bags to go around, we ask you please not to bring anyone with you.”22 And it was time to go fishing.
There were questions about what would happen with the testing of the gadget. There were gambling pools about what exactly would happen once it was detonated. Ed McMillan told his wife, “We ourselves are not absolutely certain what will happen. In spite of calculations, we are going into the unknown. We know there area three possibilities. One, that we all [may] be blown to bits if it is more powerful than we expect. Two, it may be a complete dud. Three, it may, as we hope, be a success, we pray without loss of any life.”23 There were even those, such as Leon Fisher, who’ve heard of the other extreme possibility; an explosive and unstoppable chain reaction which could set the atmosphere on fire. The scientists were unsure about many potential possibilities and for that reason, acted incredibly dangerously and recklessly.
Luckily the bomb exploded appropriately. An observer said, “It was like being at the bottom of an ocean of light. We were bathed in it from all directions. The light withdrew into the bomb as if the bomb sucked it up. Then it turned purple and blue and went up and up and up. We were still talking in whispers when the cloud reached the level where it was struck by the rising sunlight so it cleared out the natural clouds. We saw a cloud that was dark and red at the bottom and daylight on the top. Then suddenly the sound reached us. It was very sharp and rumbled and all the mountains were rumbling with it.”24
After the surrender of the Japan there were questions on what to do with Los Alamos. It had achieved its main objective in successfully creating the gadget and ending the war with Japan early. This uncertainty bled from President Truman to the scientists which caused a flight from the area between 1945-1946. People had to find future stable work and the questions over Los Alamos lingered.
Beyond the wives, scientists also expressed skepticism. There were certainly those who would later rail against the weapons but there were other experts, such as Edward Teller, who warned against backing off of the weapon technology. When offered a job he said, “I shall make one condition – either work must start at full pressure on the thermo-nuclear bomb (the hydrogen bomb), or else at least a dozen uranium bomb tests must be carried out each year.”25 But this was certainly an uphill battle for people like Teller.
There were claims that Teller’s expectations were unrealistic. Perhaps due to his time-frame but certainly to begin work on another gadget wasn’t entirely unreasonable considering the rise of the Soviets and the brutish actions Stalin was taking.26
Aside from that, there was an intent to at least build up Los Alamos further. Over the next few years the government supplied and paid for landscaping, expanding a hotel and constructing an indoor swimming pool for the school. Some of these updates were important to keep the residents according to Bradbury, “It’s seldom that a man leaves our employ because he is unhappy with his job. My big worry is that his wife will be unhappy – because she is too far from the supermarkets or the movies, or because her home isn’t nice enough, or because she doesn’t think the school teahchers are any good.”27 He was hoping to make the site more than simply housing, liquor and research.
Los Alamos remained a dangerous place. An accident occurred on 21 May 1946 during a plutonium assembly experiment to determine how much plutonium was needed to reach critical mass. Placing the plutonium between two hemispheres of berillium, Dr. Louis Slotin’s screwdriver slipped which caused the two hemispheres to touch and blue light splashed across the room. Slotin immediately moved the fissioning mass apart with his bare hands to prevent a critical problem. All nine scientists in the room were immediately sent to the hospital. Most of the scientists recovered but Slotin died nine days later. The radiologist for Site Y stated that Slotin suffered what was equatable to, “…3-D sunburn… As the rays penetrate the body, they burn deep, resulting in injury and destruction of tissues and blood cells.”28 The Los Alamos scientists were always in some kind of danger.
Some scientists became introspective. Why would some work here when it was so dangerous? Why would they devote their minds to the work of bombs or other such research? Physicist Frederick Reines admitted, “I often ask myself why I’m here trying to figure new ways of killing people. I always arrive at the same conclusion: that making a nation strong means making it powerful for anything it wants to do, peaceful as well as warlike; that the information being uncovered here is fundamental, not only to destructive but also constructive uses of nuclear energy. In the final analysis, I realize we as a nation gain nothing by being weak, much by being strong… The people here are hoping desperate that discoveries incidental to the production of atomic weapons will yield more good than all the bad that may result from the sue of those bombs.”29 There’s little doubt that the threat of Hitler the previous years had incited some of these thoughts, the brutality of Stalin revealed even by sympathetic Communists, along with the potential future possibilities of what could happen and how to prevent it.
Aside from this, the scientists and overseers were incredibly dangerous while working at Los Alamos. Carelessness were the rules of the day even as early as 1943 with a chemical sewer line dumping its toxic and radioactive waste into Acid Canyon which was near Central School. This was roughly only 1500 feet away from the school which wasn’t even fenced off.30 It wouldn’t be until 1947 when a fence enclosed the area and the Health Division claimed that they would reject any future responsibility of future consequences.
Acid Canyon itself connected with Pueblo Canyon, a notable play area for some of Los Alamos’ children. There was enough money for a fence even during the war but it had delayed its use. Some of the grown children said they’d run to a fence where there were one and even climb over some until run off by an MP but this does not excuse the government’s carelessness when relating to radioactive waste.31 Even after the war and the fence, radioactive waste and its containment continued to be a problem for the area.
By 1950 the Hydrogen bomb had finally been approved by Truman. While Los Alamos had previously touched upon a “Super” weapon earlier, which was the hydrogen bomb, they would now begin working on it more directly. But there were misgivings about developing the weapon. Worry that the Soviets would potentially steal it or stating that nuclear weapons were sufficiently destructive. Still, the military-industrial complex was off and running with the head start they received due to World War II. Los Alamos was reinvigorated with even more funding.
The LASL (the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory) received $45.4 million in 1951 to be increased to $63.4 million in 1952 and $95.3 million in 1953.32 Not all of the numbers adequately add up due in part to the secrecy, the large amounts of money floating around, likely corruption and potential payoffs due to the high security nature of the area. Even taking these numbers at face value it can be observed how important Los Alamos and it’s work had been over the years and through presidencies. Even while other areas such as Oak Ridge and Hanford opened, Los Alamos remained a closed community.
The world within Los Alamos was changing. While the citizens claimed they were classless, this was hardly the case as class is a basic institution within all forms of government and society. It will never be possible to remove class from humanity and the elevated position of Los Alamos aids in offering more proof to this fact. Class structure within the area was always divided between the where one lived and what type of work one had.33 In spite of how it was throughout the rest of the world, this class structure wasn’t necessarily based around race but rather living positioning and work, the former more than the latter if only because the place where you lived had generally told on your occupation.
By the time of the mid 1950s Los Alamos was following its brethren and opening up more. Touring was permitted over two days in July 1955 with thousands of people touring the area, even viewing two top secret experiments at the time. By this time it does seem that more care was given to safety and being aware of the dangers of radioactivity. A reporter noted that they were largely impressed by, “…”the hugeness of the entire installation and the safety precautions taken.”34
The schools had also vastly improved. It was clear the government cared about these sets of people more than they did the rest of the country. Los Alamos offered High School four-year math programs, of which New Mexico only had 9% of it’s schools offering the same, and Los Alamos was the only school to offer four years of laboratory science beyond general science. They would also receive regular lectures multiple times a week on electron theories, plastics, inorganic chemistry and meet with distinguished chemists. These children would even conduct their own experiments within the year.35 While it is said that the intelligence of the average Los Alamos pupil was higher than those around the country, perhaps this had to do more with the advanced teaching and ability of the selected teachers than it had to do with a natural genetic trait.
While the school system was active, people had been invited and the area certainly seemed like a town, it wasn’t always safe. Plenty of safe guards were in place but there were still dangers due to exposure. In December 1958 a plutonium process operator had been exposed to plutonium through chronic low-level inhalation for 6 years and had suddenly received a critical dose in an accident. Through the autopsy it was found that most of the plutonium concentration showed up in pulmonary lymph nodes followed by liver, lungs and then bone. This is interesting to note as then it was decided to look into those who had died of natural causes. The results showed that plutonium concentration in those bodies which died of natural causes were in respiratory lymph nodes, lungs, liver and then bone.36 There were only a limited of number of people on which the autopsies could be conducted but this does show that even with all the precautions and care, the government found that it was an acceptable risk to expose certain people to these elements. Perhaps this was something these people knew; perhaps they simply wanted a job and signed a waiver without understanding or reading what they were signing away.
Physics and research continued to develop within Los Alamos through the decades. In Los Alamos: The Future Now, their own short booklet from 1979, they claim that their research extended through subnuclear physics to astrophysics with their primary goal to “enhance the technology base for national defense and for energy programs.”37 Geoscientists would also work with natural gas flow and understanding rock mechanics. Additionally they’d expand into military applications for fusion along with other nuclear weapon designs.
Los Alamos showed up in the news quite often in the latter part of the century with accusations of spying by the Chinese and later, issues of corruption and missing funds. A report by Gregory H. Friedman, an inspector general for the Department of Energy discovered there was over $3 million in lost equipment at LANL (Los Alamos National Laboratory) between 1999 and 2001. Losses of singular equipment worth less than $5,000 went unreported which would likely inflate the $3 million total number. Potential whistle blowers showing the problems would be absolutely destroyed for their honest work. One of the statements read, “There are horror stories all over the place where whistle blowers have all kinds of protections, allegedly, but man do they get creamed… Very, very few come out the other end half together, and that’s why these guys are hiding their identity…”38 While concerns have been expressed, this largely seems business as usual if going back to the unequal and disputed funds in the 1950s.
Los Alamos does have further recognition in being the last operation, general-purpose, critical-mass laboratory in the United States. It ultimately ended on 8 July 2004 when the last experiment was conducted.39
William Laurence, the official reporter for the Manhattan Project wrote of Los Alamos that, “This marks the first time in the history of man’s struggles to bend the forces of nature to his will that he is actually present at the birth of a new era on this planet, with full awareness of its titanic potentialities for good or evil.”40 It was most certainly this when it was settled by the American government just over one hundred and forty years ago.
Once a barren region which struggled to even hold onto its prehistoric inhabitants, wiping them out within swooping years of drought, Los Alamos had thrived. However, a mere seventy years is hardly enough to state that modern man has tamed this land. Even after settling in the region and removing the outward threats, it remained a dangerous position for everyone involved. With the amount of plutonium, radioactive waste, particles breathed in and accidents which occurred, Los Alamos, like the land it rests upon, is as vicious and dangerous as it ever has been.
1 Rims pp 6-7
2 ibid. p 7
3 ibid. p 7
4 ibid. pp 7-8
5 Inventing pp 13-14
6 Rims p 13
7 ibid. p 13
8 ibid. p 24
9 ibid. p 24
10 ibid. p 27
11 ibid. p 52
12 ibid. p 94
13 Inventing p 17
14 ibid. p 17
15 ibid. p 17
16 ibid. pp 20-1
17 ibid. p 21
18 City of Foreigners
19 Inventing p 32
20 ibid. p 41
21 ibid. pp 58-9
22 ibid. p 65
23 ibid. pp 66-7
24 ibid. pp 69-70
25 East Minus West p 302
26 Comments on H-Bomb p 45
27 Inventing p 98
28 ibid. pp 118-20
29 ibid. p 136
30 ibid. pp 140-1
31 ibid. p 140
32 ibid. p 165
33 ibid. pp 188-9
34 ibid. pp 197-8
35 ibid. pp 204-5
36 Plutonium in Man p 759
37 The Future Now p 11
38 Inventing p 229
39 End of Era
40 Mythical and Modern
“End of an Era for the Los Alamos Critical Experiments Facility: History of Critical Assemblies and Experiments (1946–2004).” Annals of Nuclear Energy, Pergamon, 4 Dec. 2006, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0306454906001939?via%3Dihub.
Bethe, Hans A. Comments On the History of the H-Bomb. Los Alamos Science, http://plosin.com/BeatBegins/pdf/BetheSuper.pdf.
Hendershot, Cyndy. “Mythical and Modern: Representations of Los Alamos.” Journal of the Southwest 41, no. 4 (1999): 477–85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40170122.
Hunner, Jon. Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community. University of Oklahoma Press, 2007.
Keller, Werner. East Minus West Equals Zero ; Russia’s Debt to the Western World, 862-1962. Translated and with an Introd. by Constantine Fitzgibbon. Putnam, 1962.
Langham, W. H., et al. The Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory’s Experience With Plutonium In Man. Pergamon Press, https://inldigitallibrary.inl.gov/PRR/89472.pdf.
Laucht, Cristoph. Los Alamos in a Way Was a City of Foreigners: German-Speaking Émigré Scientists and the Making of the Atom Bomb at Los Alamos, New Mexico, 1943-1946. New Mexico Historical Review, 1 Apr. 2011, https://digitalrepository.unm.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1194&context=nmhr.
Los Alamos: The Future Now. Dept. of Energy, Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, 1979.
Rothman, Hal. On Rims & Ridges: The Los Alamos Area since 1880. NetLibrary, Inc., 1999.