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Golis: Visiting a place alive with echoes of the Cold War

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

LOS ALAMOS, New Mexico

J. Robert Oppenheimer is about to become famous again. The father of the atomic bomb will be the subject of a new movie now in production and scheduled for release in 2023.

A southwest road trip has brought us to this remote mountaintop, 33 miles northwest of Santa Fe, where Oppenheimer led the secret project that developed, built and tested the first atomic bomb.

Pete Golis
Pete Golis

A visit here inevitably brings back the usual questions: Was the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki necessary to bring an end to the war with Japan? Given all he had done for his country, did Oppenheimer deserve the ignominy of later having his security clearance revoked?

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine plays back echoes of the Cold War, we are reminded, too, of a nuclear arms race that Oppenheimer and many of the scientists at Los Alamos hoped could be avoided.

Variety reported that Christopher Nolan (of “The Dark Knight” and “Dunkirk” fame) is writing and directing the film, simply titled “Oppenheimer.” It’s based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, “American Prometheus, the Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer” by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin.

Oppenheimer and his military counterpart, Gen. Leslie Groves, chose this site atop the Pajarito Plateau because it was away from the coasts and away from people.

They were an unlikely team. Oppenheimer, who grew up in a well-to-do New York City family, knew northern New Mexico because he had leased a small ranch nearby. Groves had recently supervised construction of the Pentagon. But the two of them — one a scientist and intellectual, the other a hard-nosed military man — made it work.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves in Almagordo, New Mexico, on Sept. 9, 1945. (Associated Press)
J. Robert Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves in Almagordo, New Mexico, on Sept. 9, 1945. (Associated Press)

At the Bradbury Science Museum, operated by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, you will see cartoon-colored replicas of the original atomic bombs. “Little Boy” and “Fat Man.” (In the gift shop, you can buy Fat Man lapel pens, plus earrings and keychains with tiny facsimiles of the bombs.)

Each bomb delivered the same impact as 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT. At Hiroshima and three days later at Nagasaki, a combined total of 200,000 people were killed on impact, and thousands more died from the effects of radiation.

Ever since, people have argued whether the attacks brought the war with Japan to an end, or whether they simply branded the United States as the only country to use nuclear weapons against an enemy.

Oppenheimer and his associates were reluctant bomb builders, but they believed it was essential that the United States finish the job before Nazi Germany secured its own nuclear arsenal. In the small world of theoretical physics at the time, many of these rival physicists knew each other.

It was no small irony that the American bomb wasn’t ready until Germany had surrendered and attention had turned to Japan.

After the bombs were dropped, many of the same scientists here urged President Harry Truman to seek international treaties to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons.

Oppenheimer would warn: “If atomic bombs are to be added to the arsenals of a warring world … then the time will come when mankind will curse the names of Los Alamos and Hiroshima. The people of this world must unite or they will perish.”

But Truman was persuaded that nuclear weapons development was required to offset the Soviet Union’s pursuit of an atomic arsenal.

Thus was joined the Cold War, a costly arms race and tensions that feel familiar again following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

After World War II, Oppenheimer enjoyed great renown, only to be brought down by the Red Scare of the 1950s. He would have his security clearance revoked in 1954 because he knew people who were communists during his time as a physics professor at UC Berkeley in the 1930s.

At Los Alamos, he would guide the development of the first atomic bomb, overcoming obstacles of time, logistics and science. After the war, he would become a preeminent consultant to the government on nuclear issues.

“He had led the effort to unleash the power of the atom,” wrote Bird and Sherwin, “but when he sought to warn his countrymen of its dangers, to constrain America’s reliance on nuclear weapons, the government questioned his loyalty and put him on trial.”

His accomplishments didn’t matter. His rivals pressed to have his security clearance denied, and in the end, they won out.

Under Oppenheimer’s direction, what happened here between 1943 and 1945 was nothing less than astonishing. In a short time, 8,000 people — physicists, engineers, craftsmen, chemist, metallurgists and more, plus their families — came to live and work at this secret location.

The Manhattan Project was commissioned after physicist Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1939, warning that nuclear reactions could be used “in extremely powerful bombs of a new type.”

At the local history museum you can hear Truman’s voice in celebration: “We have spent $2 billion on the greatest scientific gamble in history, and we won!”

At the Bradbury Science Museum, a mother was telling her children that some fear Russia now will use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

At Los Alamos, we are reminded that the shadow of a nuclear disaster remains, even if we manage to forget about it now and again.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. Email him at golispd@gmail.com.

You can send letters to the editor to letters@pressdemocrat.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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