Los Alamos

The Growth of
An Atomic Community

Jon Hunner
The best kept secret of WWII was not the development of the atomic bomb (even the Russians knew about that), but the place it was put together, Los Alamos. It was the brain-child of General Leslie R. Groves of the U. S. Army and J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientific director.

Los Alamos was a strange joining of scientists and military and other service personnel. It was located in the Pajarito Plateau, in north-central New Mexico, and did not even exist at the beginning of 1943. By the summer of 1945, it had houses, trailers, shops, and laboratories and over 6,000 people.

The bomb was never called the "bomb," only the "gadget." Los Alamos did not appear on maps. At a meeting of the military personnel there, Groves reported, "At great expense we have gathered on this mesa the largest collection of crackpots ever seen." The day of the explosion at Hiroshima, the people who lived at "Site Y" celebrated by forming a conga line at the local community center, dancing and chanting. "This is the Atomic Age --- this is the Atomic Age," they chanted while they danced.

200,000 people died at Hiroshima, 130,000 within four months, another 70,000 between 1945 and 1950. These figures are from the official U. S. government report, called The Effect of the Atomic Bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was released to the public in 1973, twenty-eight years after the fact.

According to Groves, one of the biggest problems at Los Alamos was the production of the scientists. And their wives. Not of bombs, but of babies. "Groves protested to Oppenheimer about the birthrate" and asked Oppenheimer if he could "influence his colleagues." He replied that "this hardly seems to be the responsibility of a scientific director." A limerick appeared,

    The General's in a stew
    He trusted you and you
    He thought you'd be scientific
    instead you're just prolific
    And what is he to do...

Most of the people at Los Alamos didn't care for the military (the U. S. Army had been in charge of the entire operation). A questionnaire was sent out to laboratory workers in 1946 asking about the future of the town. 99% of the 287 respondents said that "the army should not run the lab; 98% wanted the project to be a civilian operation."

Hunner observes, "The federal government financed Los Alamos, creating a community devoid of private property, and serviced by one company that provided a complete range of services for all the residents without charge."

    To some residents, Los Alamos ironically resembled a socialist town more than a scientific one.

Inventing Los Alamos is interesting reading and even provides a few surprises. Most Americans saw it as the ideal city. Publicity came immediately after the bombings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world was given an snow-job on the danger (or lack of it) of radiation.

Two weeks after the end of the war, a Lt. Colonel Rea of Oak Ridge Hospital told General Groves that the Japanese had only gotten "a good thermal burn." He said: "Those Jap scientists over there aren't so dumb either and are making a play on this." Even Oppenheimer reported,

    There is every reason to believe that there was no appreciable radioactivity on the ground at Hiroshima and what little was decayed very rapidly.

--- Richard Saturday
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