Openheimer, Los Alamos and Summer Camp for Physicists

The Manhattan Project is well-known to even the most history illiterate.  The general story is that $2 Billion (1940’s) dollars were spent on secret facilities (including one in New Mexico, Los Alamos) to beat the Nazis to building the bomb.  A German surrender meant that the bomb was dropped on Japan ending the hostilities of the Second World War.

Traditional history is that the two bombs saved about 500,000 allied soldiers from death and dismemberment and many fold more Japanese military and civilians.  Revisionist history suggests that Japan was on the state of surrender anyway and the bombings (in particular the second one on Nagasaki) were unnecessary.

Los Alamos National Laboratory; “Jumbo”, a 200 ton container, was originally intended to be a part of the Trinity test, but was eliminated in final planning. Credit: Digital Photo Archive, Department of Energy (DOE), courtesy AIP Emilio Segrè Visual Archives.

Before the bombs, there was the effort to create the bombs.  In perfect hindsight, it is generally acknowledged that the Germans had no hope of ever developing a similar device. They had neither the treasure, time or talent to do so (on the talent front, their policies encouraged many of the central players such as Teller, a refuge from Hungary, to be available for the British and American efforts).  Nevertheless, in the dark days of the early 1940’s such knowledge was not available and the assumption was that London or New York could become a smoking pile of radioactive waste.  And thus the most American effort to the build the bomb.

Jennet Conant explores this effort in her book, “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos”.  Conant is an excellent story-teller and this is a great read for the history or leadership buff.  There are two central figures in the book.  The first, well-known to history, Dr. Robert Oppenheimer and the second largely unknown, Mrs. Dorothy McKibbin.  Dorothy was Los Alamos’ first employee and she manned the Santa Fe address that was the front for the laboratory many miles away.  More than simply a functionary, she was the sole contact for hundreds and then thousands of scientists, engineers, contractors and their families while they were in virtual lock down for nearly two years.  She located hard to find and rationed supplies, was a confidant, tireless worker and supplied her home for a number of marriages amongst the inhabitants Los Alamos (due to war-time secrecy only their first names appeared on the marriage license).  Down to earth, practical and a friend to all she was the perfect foil for Oppenheimer who was brilliant and could be arrogant and oblivious to social niceties.

The book rounds out an understanding of Oppenheimer.  For example, he was an avid outdoors man who would spent days trail riding or hiking in the desert.  This was an aspect of his personality that I would have not have guessed.  As the Director of Los Alamos, Oppenheimer had every reason to fail as a leader of the Los Alamos project because of his temperament and political past.  In the end, he commanded respect and loyalty amongst those who stayed and toiled – or hatred and loathing amongst those who left.  The leadership lessons focus on the establishment of a clear objective (building the bomb) and learning how to reach out to those who look to you for your leadership.

109 East Palace is a great companion read about the history of the project.  Ms. Conant brings a female perspective to the book telling the stories of wives, secretaries and families locked behind the secure gates and fences.  Conant does this without losing site of the technical and scientific achievement of the two years in Los Alamos.

In the end, a highly recommended book for those interest in history and leadership from a military, scientific, and female perspective.