Manhattan Project, National Historical Park, Los Alamos Site

Now, most people know scientists working on the Manhattan Project developed the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan to end World War II. But when the work was going on it was completely secret. Congress was not briefed. Soldiers protecting secret areas in the middle of nowhere had no idea why they were there or what they were protecting. Most of the scientists involved only knew about the particular problem they were working to solve and did not know the end goal.

In the 1930’s scientists had determined that splitting a uranium atom released an enormous amount of energy. Fearing the Germans may be working on developing such a bomb the US launched its own atomic research in 1941, with cooperation of the British and the Canadians. It was headed by General Leslie Groves of the Army Corps of Engineers. The US entered WWII following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941. Work on the project was originally headquartered at the Army Corps of Engineers Office in Manhattan but soon consisted of more than 30 sites in North America.

Los Alamos, New Mexico became the central site for the project and Robert Oppenheimer was appointed as the Director of the Los Alamos Laboratory. A site in Hanford, Washington produced fissionable plutonium for the bombs. A site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee enriched uranium to produce fissionable material for the bombs. The University of California at Berkeley, under the control of the Army, was home to early research on uranium production. The Metallurgical Lab of the University of Chicago did theoretical and experimental work on uranium and plutonium. The first sustainable chain reaction took place there in December 1942. Alamogordo, New Mexico, 200 miles south of Los Alamos, was the site of the first test of an atomic bomb on July 16, 1945.

Los Alamos, New Mexico was a good strategic location for a secret project. It did not exist on any map. The government evicted a boy’s school and used its buildings as laboratories and dormitories for the first scientists. The few homesteaders in the area where bought out and sent away. The location was far inland, too far for any enemy weapons to reach at that time.

Every person moving into Los Alamos passed through 109 East Palace in Santa Fe. This was the office of Dorothy McKibbin. Moving to Los Alamos meant cutting all ties. Scientist could bring their wife and children but no outside family knew where the were. Dorothy McKibbin was their liaison to the outside world.

Scientist began arriving in early 1943. No one who entered Los Alamos to work could tell their family, except those who came with them, where they were or what they were working on. Specific research could not be discussed even with family or other scientists. There were fences around the entire town. Anyone leaving or coming in had to pass through guarded gates and carry identification. The laboratories were even more secure, accessible only with special badges. The only address those inside Los Alamos could share with the outside world was P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe. All birth certificates for children born during this period would show that address. Military Police monitored all phone calls and censored mail.

The assumption was that Los Alamos would house about 300 people but by the end of 1945 more than 8000 people lived there. Living conditions were difficult. Workers and families lived in cramped quarters, dealt with water and electricity shortages, lived with constant construction work around them and the scientists had to deal with laboratory shortages. But most people stayed and 21 months after the start of the project the bomb was ready. On August 6, 1945 the bomb was used on Hiroshima in an effort to end the war quickly. When the Japanese refused to surrender a second bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The Manhattan Project was ended officially in January 1947.

Although World War II and the Manhattan Project was over the Cold War was just beginning. It was also important to see how the power of splitting the atom could be used for positive purposes. Work needed to continue in Los Alamos. After much discussion in Congress the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 put nuclear weapons and nuclear power under the control of the Atomic Energy Commission rather than the military beginning January 1, 1947.

During the Manhattan Project days all construction was done assuming Los Alamos would be temporary but when the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) took over everything in 1947 it began work on a permanent, planned community. The AEC provided a pharmacy, a hardware store, a jewelry store, a shoe store, a soda fountain and more – all these businesses were government concessions, operated through government contracts. No businesses could be established without consent of the AEC. The AEC also built a Community Center that included a cafeteria, a movie theater, a tailor shop, a photo shop. These businesses had no competition.

Through the 1950’s the AEC built and owned all the houses in Los Alamos. A point system based on job, salary, length of employment, size of family dictated the type of housing an employee was assigned to.

Until 1949 the residents of Los Alamos had no state rights. New Mexico did not recognize it as part of New Mexico. Residents could not divorce, adopt or even vote. New Mexican politicians did not want these “outsiders” influencing elections. [In 1960 only 33.2% of Los Alamos residents were born in New Mexico; whereas, in the rest of New Mexico 52.5% residents were born in New Mexico.] Finally a new county was created which contained Los Alamos and White Rock. There would be no mayor. The community would be governed by an elected council and an appointed county manager. The resolution required lawsuits, legislative action and two acts of Congress. Still today, Los Alamos has only a county government and not a city government.

The fences around Los Alamos did not come down until February 1957. All residents, even children, had to have identification to enter the security gates. Still today, the laboratory is gated and secured with guards and entry requires a pass.

The laboratory was having trouble attracting and keeping scientists because of the AEC’s policy of governmental ownership of all properties so the AEC finally began privatizing property ownership in February 1958. In September 1962 President Kennedy signed a bill authorizing privatization of all homes and commercial properties. All municipal facilities were transferred to Los Alamos County.

We had planned to visit both Bandelier National Monument and Los Alamos on the same day (Tuesday). They are within miles of each other but we just lost track of time. We did not have enough time to see the Norris Bradbury Museum in Los Alamos that deals with the science of atomic energy. Los Alamos is a pretty little town with several nice restaurants. We only had about 1.5 hours to explore it and could have used an entire day.