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View from the Mesa

A scientist and pacifist looks back at what Los Alamos has wrought

By Jeffrey Kovac | March 12, 2022
General Leslie Groves (center), head of the Manhattan Project, presents the Army-Navy
General Leslie Groves (center), head of the Manhattan Project, presents the Army-Navy "E" Award flag to the Los Alamos National Laboratory, October 16, 1945. Lab Director J. Robert Oppenheimer (left) and University of California President Robert Sproul (right) look on. (Flickr/Los Alamos National Laboratory)

It takes about an hour to drive from Santa Fe to Los Alamos. As my wife and I made our way up the mesa in a rental car on August 5, 2015, I thought about those men and women who made this trip in 1943, when they traveled up a winding dirt road.  Recruited for a secret project in a remote location with an indeterminate timetable, they had boarded trains in Princeton, Cambridge, Chicago, Berkeley, and many other places and traveled to Santa Fe. The nearest railroad station was in Lamy, 10 miles from Santa Fe. They were met there by military transport vehicles and taken to 109 East Palace Avenue, where Dorothy McKibbin, the “gatekeeper to Los Alamos,” issued their ID cards and temporary passes and arranged for transportation to Site Y on Pajarito Plateau, the former location of the Los Alamos Ranch School. Laboratory Director J. Robert Oppenheimer had chosen this site for the new laboratory in the New Mexico desert he had loved since childhood. Here these men and women would create the first atomic bomb.

While in Santa Fe, my wife and I had gone in search of 109 East Palace Avenue. The address was easy enough to find, but the old office is off the street at the rear of a small courtyard and the plaque that commemorates the site was hidden behind tables piled with New Mexico souvenirs. The young woman minding the tables helped us find the plaque. The quiet of that summer morning contrasted sharply with the bedlam of 1943, when an average of 65 people, the famous and the obscure, passed through the office every day. If I closed my eyes, I could imagine figures such as Hans Bethe or Enrico Fermi coming in from the street to begin their historic work.

As a scientist and historian, I wanted to see Los Alamos. Born in 1948, I felt the threat of nuclear war looming over my childhood. I remember the “duck and cover” drills we had in elementary school. As a high school student interested in a career in science, I began to think seriously about the ethical questions related to the development and use of nuclear weapons, beginning a journey to pacifism and conscientious objection.

Most of the buildings hurriedly thrown up during the project at Los Alamos are gone, but you can still visit Fuller Lodge. The three-story log structure had been the main building for the school, then served as a dining hall and guest house for the laboratory. You can walk along Bathtub Row past the houses where Oppenheimer and other top administrators lived. The houses on that street had been residences for the teachers at the school and were the only houses that had bathtubs. I could picture Oppenheimer, a tall wraithlike figure in his iconic broad-brimmed Stetson, walking from his house toward the restricted area, the ubiquitous cigarette in hand, to preside over the amazing array of scientific and engineering talent he had assembled.

Few people today can imagine the intensity of those days. The Manhattan Project scientists, some of whom had escaped Nazi Germany, felt they were racing against time, so they worked furiously, putting in long hours in the laboratory and library. They knew that a talented group of German scientists, led by Nobel Laureate Werner Heisenberg, was also pursuing the fission bomb. For the younger people, those German scientists had been their teachers; for the older men, they had been colleagues. The scientists and engineers at Los Alamos were mostly very young. The average age was 25, so they had the energy and enthusiasm to put in six long days of work every week. As the test date for Trinity (the code name for the first detonation of an atomic bomb) approached, the workdays lengthened to 18 or sometimes 24 hours.

One of the things that drew me to Los Alamos was that the Manhattan Project has legendary status among my scientific peers. The young men who gathered there, and at the other Manhattan Project sites, went on to develop much of modern physics and radiochemistry. They were our teachers or the teachers of our teachers. They wrote the books and articles from which we learned, books that I still have on my shelf. For example, George Kistiakowsky, who designed the explosive charges that compressed the core of the plutonium bomb, was the PhD adviser of Fred Tabbutt, one of my professors and my academic advisor at Reed College. I learned quantum mechanics from a textbook by Leonard Schiff, which was based on the graduate course that Oppenheimer taught at Berkeley. During my days at MIT, I could see Philip Morrison, who helped assemble the Nagasaki bomb on Tinian Island, walking the halls near my office. I had read Oppenheimer’s lucid essays, and I wanted to get a sense of the place, to walk among the spirits of the founders, and to just breathe the air and see the magnificent scenery that Oppenheimer thought would refresh and inspire his crew. As a reminder of that day, I have a photo of myself standing between the statues of Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves that stand in front of Fuller Lodge.

Susan Davis Kovac

The original technical buildings are no longer there, having been replaced by the modern national laboratory outside of town. I had to use my imagination—in my mind perhaps listening in at one of the weekly colloquia where all the scientists gathered to hear reports of recent progress and to make suggestions. General Groves, who was director of the entire Manhattan Project, had wanted strict compartmentalization. People were only supposed to have access to information regarding their own part of the project, but when Bethe suggested that there be a regular open colloquium, Oppenheimer embraced the idea, overruling Groves. As the participants have recalled, the discussions at those meetings were spirited and intense. Fermi, who came to Los Alamos after building his famous “pile” in Chicago, the experiment showing that uranium would undergo a chain reaction, was impressed with the enthusiasm of the Los Alamos staff. He commented to Oppenheimer, “Your men really do want to make a bomb.”

On the morning of July 16, 1945, the first nuclear explosion occurred at the Trinity test site in the aptly named Jornado del Muerto (Dead Man’s Route) region of New Mexico about 200 miles from Los Alamos. The flash of light was bright enough to be seen in Albuquerque and El Paso. For the scientists, the first emotion was that of relief; the “gadget,” as they called it, had worked. But Oppenheimer presaged the future, remembering the ancient Hindu quotation, “I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.”

After our day at Los Alamos, we returned to Santa Fe and attended the world premiere of Jennifer Higdon’s opera Cold Mountain, based on the Civil War novel by Charles Frazier. Cold Mountain itself is not far from where I have lived in Tennessee for the past four decades, so the language and culture of the characters were familiar. But the carnage of that war, vividly portrayed in the opera as a chorus of dead soldiers singing of their “beautiful country,” is also unimaginable today. At least 620,000 soldiers died, as many casualties as in all other wars fought by American troops from the Revolutionary War through the Korean War. Add to that an estimated 50,000 civilian casualties. This was a war fought across farms and fields, mostly in the South, and those civilians not killed by bullets or accidents starved to death or succumbed to the epidemic diseases spread by the encampments of troops. More than two percent of the U.S. population died as a direct result of the war, more than the population of some states. The Civil War transformed America’s relationship to death, both the scale of the carnage and the loss of such a large number of young men. Many of the dead were never identified.

As one of the principal characters in the opera, W. P. Inman, a Confederate deserter returning home, learned, it was also a war where guerrillas sought revenge against supposed traitors and deserters. Units of the North Carolina Home Guard, formed to protect communities against invading Union troops, often became marauding terrorists. In a final confrontation, Inman is fatally shot. Some of these revenge killings are still remembered by the families, 150 years later.

The two experiences came together the next day when I realized that August 6, 2015 was the 70th anniversary of the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The uranium bomb, “Little Boy,” dropped by the B-29 Enola Gay, destroyed the central city and killed some 70,000 people and injured an equal number. This early bomb was quite inefficient; less than two percent of the fissile material detonated. A more efficient device would have created unimaginable damage. “Fat Man,” the plutonium bomb, was dropped on Nagasaki three days later with a similar number of immediate casualties. There were many more deaths in both cities over time from the aftereffects of radiation exposure. Less well remembered are the fire bombings of Tokyo and other Japanese cities. American bombers dropped napalm on the mainly wooden cities, incinerating both buildings and people. The fire bombings killed many more civilians than the atomic attacks. The two events, visiting Los Alamos and seeing Cold Mountain, vividly reminded me how horribly we can treat other humans who are temporarily our enemies.

We returned to Santa Fe in the summer of 2018, this time to see a performance of Dr. Atomic, the opera written by American composer John Adams with a libretto by Peter Sellars. The open-air Santa Fe Opera House looks out over the desert, so one could imagine the Trinity test on the horizon. The stage was dominated by a huge shiny sphere representing the gadget. The plutonium core of the actual Trinity device was plated in bright nickel, but it was only the size of a small orange. The assembled bomb was about five feet in diameter, and the surface was a maze of wires connecting the detonators to the timing circuits, hardly a shiny sphere.

The opera recounts the few hours preceding the Trinity test, using words from the historical record and poetry. Critics disagree as to whether it succeeds as an opera, but in Santa Fe it evoked some of the feeling of the times, particularly the anxiety that the scientists felt prior to the test. Would the gadget work, or would it fizzle? After all the intense effort, a failure would have been emotionally devastating. Edward Teller had a different fear. Would the heat generated by the bomb ignite the atmosphere? The ethical questions about the use of the bomb are presaged by Robert R. Wilson, a project scientist who became the architect of the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, who tried to circulate a petition to be sent to President Harry Truman but was stopped by Oppenheimer because the decision to drop on Japan had already been made. The opera ends with an eerie silence as the countdown to the test goes to zero; a new era has begun, the era into which I was born and raised.

The scientists and engineers who worked at Los Alamos probably had no clear idea of the destructive power of the weapon they were creating. They could make calculations based on Einstein’s formula relating mass to energy, assuming that all the fuel was detonated, but the real-world consequences of an atomic explosion were difficult to foresee, particularly the effects of radiation, which were only beginning to be understood. Only after the bombs were tested and then used was their true nature revealed.

For many years, I have wondered about what the Los Alamos workers were thinking. One of their motivations was to develop a bomb before Nazi Germany could. But even after it became clear that the German bomb program would not succeed, only one man quit, Joseph Rotblat, who became an important figure in the antinuclear movement, was the founding secretary-general of the Pugwash Conferences devoted to nuclear disarmament, and won the Nobel Prize for Peace for his efforts. I am certain that whatever their reservations might have been, the other scientists stayed on largely because they wanted to finish the job, to see if all their efforts could be brought to a successful conclusion. As a scientist, I understand this completely. Research projects become intoxicating.

After the war, the project scientists took different paths. Some, Edward Teller, for example, became enthusiastic supporters of nuclear weapons development. Others, such as Philip Morrison, like Rotblat became leaders in the nuclear nonproliferation movement. Most went back to doing science and were not involved in policy discussions.

I suspect that another reason I wanted to visit Los Alamos was to try to answer the question of what I would have done if I had been a young scientist in 1942 and been invited to join the project. Would I have been persuaded by a combination of patriotism, fear of a Nazi victory, and the excitement of creating something new? Of course, this is a question that cannot be answered, but I have thought deeply about the ethics of war-related scientific research. In the wake of Hiroshima and the development of other horrific weapons, this is a complex issue. My personal position as a pacifist and conscientious objector is not to engage in weapons research, but, partly because of my visit to Los Alamos, I understand why others have made a different decision. I became a pacifist in high school in response to the threat of nuclear war. Like many people of my generation, I was stimulated by Vietnam and the draft to think deeply about whether I was willing to participate in warfare. My answer was no, and I applied for status as a conscientious objector during college. Fortunately, the draft ended before I was called up. At the beginning of my scientific career, I made the decision that I would not accept research funding from the Department of Defense. As a theorist interested in fundamental science, I was able to obtain funding from other sources and succeeded at working in areas of no interest to the military.

Last August was the 76th anniversary of the atomic bomb attacks. These events are always commemorated in Japan, but in the United States, only a few people other than some dedicated antinuclear activists took notice. In Oak Ridge, one of the Manhattan Project sites where research and development on nuclear weapons continues, there are always commemorations and demonstrations, but they rarely make the news. Unless you read publications such as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, founded by Albert Einstein and scientists from the University of Chicago in 1945, you probably don’t know that the nations that possess nuclear weapons are modernizing their stockpiles and developing sophisticated new delivery systems and that the threat of nuclear war has been increasing over the last several years. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists introduced its “Doomsday Clock” in 1947 to show its estimate of the probability of nuclear war. In 2020 the clock was set at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest to disaster we have ever been. And that was before Vladimir Putin’s alarming saber rattling as part of his Ukraine invasion.

In 2021, the Bulletin kept the clock at 100 seconds to midnight, pointing out that there were two additional threats to our survival: climate change and the COVID 19 pandemic. With the development of effective vaccines and treatments, it is likely that the virus will eventually be overcome, but nuclear war and climate change are existential threats. Sadly, the international response to all three problems has been inadequate. What the response to the pandemic has shown us is that we also face an epidemic of misinformation, particularly on the Internet. Information has become politicized, and rational discourse and policy making have been undermined. Without a shared set of reliable facts, an intelligent discussion about scientific questions is impossible. Without an understanding of the underlying science, an intelligent discussion about public policies to address climate change and the pandemic is also impossible.

I first began to think about ethical questions in science in high school after reading Science and Human Values, by Jacob Bronowski. Bronowski was part of the team that went into Nagasaki after the atomic bombing. The book was his attempt to come to terms with the horrors he had seen. In the mid-1960s, when I first read the book, we were still in the midst of the Cold War and the nuclear arms race, so Bronowski’s message was quite pertinent. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the threat of disaster diminished for a while, but with more countries obtaining nuclear weapons and the other existential threats that have arisen, it is hard to be optimistic about the future. Bronowski gave us a reason to be hopeful. He identified a moral ideal for science, and for life, the habit of truth, trying to evaluate the evidence as objectively and critically as possible. It is an ideal that can save us—if we have the wisdom and moral courage to embrace it.

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