Great Books KC is a group that meets monthly in the Plaza Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. June and I sometimes attend those meetings, but we were in Arizona and missed the October gathering.
Those present at that meeting discussed the Bhagavad Gita, one of the main Hindu Scriptures. That same week I was reading a book which told about the test explosion of the first atomic bomb, which was 70 years ago on July 16, 1945.
The brilliant scientist who led in the creation of the first atomic bomb was Robert Oppenheimer. When he witnessed that first atomic explosion in the central New Mexico desert, Oppenheimer quoted these words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
On the second day of our car trip to Arizona in late September, June and I visited Los Alamos, which is about 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe. It was a short, but interesting, visit.
Following our visit to Los Alamos, I read Jennet Conant’s 2005 book 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. Everyone going to Los Alamos in those critical years of 1943 to 1945 had to pass through the office located at 109 East Palace Avenue, about a half mile north of the Capitol building in Santa Fe.
Dorothy McKibbin, a close friend and confidante of Oppenheimer, became indispensable as the “Gatekeeper” at 109 East Palace. Conant’s book is partly McKibbin’s story as well as Oppenheimer’s. It is also about the author’s grandfather, James H. Conant.
The dedication page of the book says, simply, “For Grandpa.”
President of Harvard University from 1933 to 1953, Grandpa Conant was also a member of the important National Defense Research Committee in the early 1940s. As such, he was directly involved in the Manhattan Project, the official name for the research and development project that produced the first atomic bombs.
Beginning in the fall of 1942, the Manhattan Project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In October of that year, Groves selected Oppenheimer to be the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Commissioned to design and produce atomic bombs, it formally opened on April 15, 1943. Exactly one week later Oppenheimer celebrated his 40th birthday.
From the beginning of the Manhattan Project, there was considerable drama at Los Alamos because they knew that Germany was also working on atomic bomb. Much the drama was because of the strong perception that the side succeeding in developing the bomb first would win the war.
The production itself was very difficult, and the whole thing had to be done with complete secrecy. There was also considerable tension between the military men and the scientists at Los Alamos.
By the time the first bomb was ready, Germany had already surrendered. But many thought that all of the time and effort and expense shouldn’t go to waste, so plans were made to drop the two different types of bombs produced on Japan—and they were, of course.
Seventy years ago this month, in November 1945, Oppenheimer left Los Alamos, where he had been at the center of great drama for more than 30 months.
He left, though, with a troubled conscience because of the devastation caused by the atomic bombs, and he was determined to do what he could to keep them from ever being used again.
And, certainly, we can be most grateful that atomic weapons have not been used again in these 70 years since 1945.