Eyewitness Reports in History Los Alamos and the Atomic Bomb Part 1

An eyewitness account of Los Alamos and the atomic bomb during World War II.

Los Alamos and the Atomic Bomb

When: 1942-1945

How: By 1942, when the first self-sustaining atomic chain reaction was produced, most physicists accepted the theoretical plausibility of an explosive with an almost unimaginable destructive potential. German scientists had made many major breakthroughs in nuclear physics, and the thought of the Nazis holding such a weapon was what finally motivated physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer to accept Gen. Leslie Groves's offer to head the Manhattan Project, an atomic bomb research program. Often described as a "queer duck," Oppenheimer was versed in Latin, Greek, and Sanskrit, had studied Oriental philosophy, and wrote poetry. But if some wondered at his eccentric interests, all conceded that he was a brilliant scientist and teacher and a source of inspiration for the best young physicists of his day. Oppenheimer was also a very politically conscious man. He had sided with the republicans during the Spanish Civil War, and when his father bequeathed him a sizable fortune, he devoted much of it to financing antifascist organizations. Oppenheimer had once been a communist sympathizer, but Stalin's ruthless dictatorship disillusioned him completely. Thereafter he espoused a liberal-democratic philosophy.

Although Oppenheimer's central reason for assuming the Los Alamos post was concern over a possible Nazi victory, when Allied Intelligence uncovered a large cache of enemy documents in November, 1944, they discovered that the Nazis were hopelessly far behind in nuclear technology and had no chance of developing the bomb on their own. By that time, the Manhattan Project had nearly achieved its end.

As Oppenheimer combed American universities in the fall of 1942 for a team of scientists, he discussed the challenge and prestige involved in fission research and stressed its importance as an essential contribution to the war effort. Few scientists turned down Oppenheimer's invitation, and by the summer of 1943 hundreds of physicists and engineers were arriving at the project site, a converted boys' school in the small New Mexico town of Los Alamos, 30 mi. northwest of Santa Fe.

Situated in the desolate Sangre de Cristo Mountains, Los Alamos had been selected for its relative isolation and inland location-a difficult target for potential enemy air attacks. Although the desert landscape was magnificent, living conditions were austere, even by military standards. The scientists and their families had to adjust to crude barrack-style quarters, poorly ventilated coal-burning stoves, and an inevitable two-to three-day wait for even the simplest household items to arrive from Santa Fe. Security precautions were not unlike those at the Japanese-American internment camps in operation at the time.

General Groves, who oversaw the entire Manhattan Project, had originally wanted all the scientists at Los Alamos to be inducted into the army. However, such a fuss was raised by the "longhairs," as the scientists were called by the GIs on the site, that the idea was immediately scrapped. From the start, relations between the two groups were cool at best.

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