Monday, November 30, 2015

The Drama of Los Alamos

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.


  1. The book published in 2007, American Prometheus, is a well written biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. He ended up being a victim of the postwar anti-Communist hysteria, and he lost his security clearance as a result.

    Another interesting book on a related subject, Girls of Atomic City, tells the story of Oak Ridge, Tennessee which was a secret city with a population of nearly 80,000 built within a year (1942-1943), and almost nobody working there knew what they were working on. The uranium concentrated by the Oak Ridge facility was used in the Hiroshima Bomb. The plutonium used in the Nagasaki bomb was provided by another quickly constructed facility at Hanford, Washington. The planners for making the bomb weren’t sure which type of bomb (uranium fission and plutonium fusion) would be best or if making them was even possible. Thus they decided to do both.

    1. Thanks, Clif, for making reference to two books related to my blog article. I have not seen the first one. The book I referred to, though, also talks about the right-wing opposition to Oppenheimer after the war, but since I limit my blog articles to 600 words I didn't mention that significant part of the story. Of course, that was all after he left Los Alamos.

      Earlier this year June and I went to the Truman library to hear the author of "Girls of Atomic City" talk about her book. June also read it and found it fascinating. There were are lot of similarities at Oak Ridge and Los Alamos.

      I have long thought that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Nagasaki was far more for scientific (and psychological) reasons than for military purposes. As you indicated, the scientists wanted to know if the other kind of bomb would work also.

  2. I read the Bhagavad Gita a very long time ago, in college. I vaguely remember a discussion of why a warrior should go to war against people with whom he personally had no issue. As I remember, the question was better than the answer, which was along the lines of "that's what warriors do." I guess this means it is about time to read it again!

    My relationship with Los Alamos is more complicated. My uncle worked there as a nuclear engineer for a few years around 1960. I remember visiting there as a child, seeing rock pillars in a nearby canyon, and touring nearby pueblos in Taos. At the time I had only a vague idea of what he did, I just knew he was my uncle, the scientist. I got to play with my cousins while we visited. It was years later when I learned of Oppenheimer and his famous quote.

    Which is worse, what we did to the Indians, that we dropped the atomic bomb, or that we are in the process of dropping the global warming bomb? How will future generations look back at us? Will there be future generations? Are we all Shiva now?

  3. Your last paragraph is quite powerful, Craig! Linking the global warming crisis to our collective lack of dealing adequately with the climate crisis is, perhaps, us all becoming Shiva, the destroyer.

    Here is the link an interesting article about "Oppenheimer and the Gita":

    1. Thank you. That was a fascinating link, as was a link in that article to James Hijiya's article in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society. They went a long ways towards clarifying the ambiguity I remembered.

      Doing one's duty is a great thing, until it is not. In the western world we have religious prophets and secular inventors who disrupt the status quo, and we celebrate what they do. The Gita ignores this line of thought. Yet, there is power in it's line of argument, doing one's duty often is the better route. Just think about that county clerk in Kentucky who is too good to do her job of issuing marriage licenses. In America, we constantly flirt with anarchy. Still, we all know that as citizens we have a duty to second guess the the very leaders whom Oppenheimer so dutifully supported. We call that elections.

      The very line of reasoning Oppenheimer used in building the atomic bomb was the same line rejected at the Nuremberg trials. "I was only following orders." Indeed, his whole intellectual process strangely reminds me of the book my Sunday school class is now reading, Peter Brown's "Augustine of Hippo." Augustine himself became something of a destroyer of worlds as he came to support the violent suppression of the Donatist heresy in North Africa. He laid out a path that lead straight to the Spanish Inquisition. The danger of a powerful mind is that it can rationalize just about anything. We cannot afford absolute allegiance to any earthly power, even as we must also recognize our limited duties.

  4. Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson send me an email with these comments:

    "One of history’s awful moments! Like you, Leroy, I’m thankful the bomb has never fallen on another city. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki should have made all of us in the United States permanent penitents."

  5. I remember from my youth a detour through Carlsbad Caverns and Los Alamos on our way to Glorieta. Good memories of them all, and sorry at the loss of the latter (thankfully Philmont is still nearby). We all make tragic decisions in life which likely cause disruptions in the long run. Religious and political leaders with good motives are especially good at leadership which develops evil disciples. I worry more about the disciples than the leaders. Atomic energy was coming anyway, even if Oppenheimer had not lead the US team. So many tragic outcomes by the "good guys" as well as the "bad guys" through the years. I am sure I have a negative legacy as well, but hopefully there is also some good that has/will come from my life...

  6. Leroy. I wish that debate moderators would ask the Presidential candidates about under what conditions they would use nuclear weapons. The bombastic, chest-thumping GOP rhetoric about the easy and massive use of military force is discomforting. We function under the carefree and naive assumption that since nuclear weapons have not be used since WWII they will likely never be deployed again. The prevalent American belief that all problems can be solved with bombs and military action is a constant threat to the world’s welfare. The impatient disdain for diplomatic solutions that were evidenced in the negotiations with Iran was an indication about how far we as a nation may move away from a preference for reason and negotiation if the radicalized GOP gains control of the White House and the public consciousness..

    The problem of what to do with a global mountain of nuclear waste continues to go unsolved. It seems we will leave this and many other of the unsolvable problems we have created for future generations to manage.

    I agree that the collapse of the environment due to human activity is as great a threat as a global nuclear conflagration. I wish I could go to sleep at night with the conviction that the human race is sane and wise enough to not bring about its own demise. Not tonight.

  7. Mike, I found on Facebook that you are the "Unknown" person who posted this. I appreciate the significant comments you made and the issues you raised. The problems of nuclear waste and, of course, of environmental destruction are huge problems.

    And I, too, wonder if the human race is sane enough and wise enough to solve those problems.

  8. Characterizing the basis for the decison to drop atomic bombs on Japan as an attempt to keep expended time and expense from going to waste is historically inaccurate. I would challenge you to come up with any official documentation supporting this assertion.

  9. @Craig Dempsey Robert Oppenhiemer never used the reasoning "I was only following orders." Oppenheimer was not a member of the armed forces , but worked on the Manhatten Project on a voluntary basis and had the freedom to resign from it any time, as was the case of all the other scientists from academia involved in the project.