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BOOK REVIEW: "Los Alamos 1943-1945: Beginning of an Era"

Los Alamos National Laboratory / Los Alamos Historical Society
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BOOK REVIEW: Los Alamos 1943-1945: Beginning of an Era (Los Alamos Historical Society) 2007

Back in March, my dad and I took a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a very old Spanish city that is not only the capital of the Land of Enchantment but is only 33 miles from the city of Los Alamos, the site of the super-secret Manhattan Project which led to the development of the atomic bomb – a weapon utilized in 1945 to usher in the end of World War II.

Having read a biography on J. Robert Oppenheimer, who led the Manhattan Project, as well as reading other books on the Trinity Test (the successful, first-ever atomic bomb test, held July 16, 1945 near the Jornado del Muerto, south of Albuquerque – check out Jim Eckles’ book Trinity via my review here), while also watching the terrific, short-lived series Manhattan, I wanted to go to Los Alamos and get a better understanding of the history there.

And so on the day we went to Los Alamos I was struck by the surprising lack of signage, which under normal circumstances would highlight the important role Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project played in the war effort.

And while we finally found the Los Alamos History Museum (with its statues of Oppenheimer and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Gen. Leslie Groves, who was behind the construction of the Pentagon, and was the military leader for the Manhattan Project while Oppenheimer was the civilian leader), finding it and getting around town proved confusing to this first-time visitor.

I later asked Heather McClenahan, the executive director of the Los Alamos Historical Society, about the odd lack of tourist trappings – signs, monuments and a sense of the city’s historical importance. Yes, there is the Los Alamos History Museum and a Manhattan Project National Historical Park, but you would not know it unless you were specifically seeking it out.

McClenahan explained to me, via email, that it is only recently that Los Alamos (home to the sprawling Los Alamos National Laboratory, which is still very much in operation today) only recently began working on projects that would attract tourists from helping tourists find their way around town, while implementing a plan in the coming year to attract better hotels, restaurants, and “better and more focused marketing than we are currently doing,” she said.

For obvious reasons, Los Alamos (Project Y or “The Hill”) was a secret city during the Manhattan Project years of 1943-45 and Maj. Gen. Groves wanted this site on the Pajarito Plateau to be hidden and difficult to find and access. That was the point. The scientists and their families along with military personnel could not talk about their work for fear of that information getting into the wrong hands. Developing an atomic bomb is serious work, especially in wartime.

McClenahan also said Los Alamos County is recognizing its importance in American history and seeking to tell its story. Added McClenahan: “It’s not a quick process, but we do believe we are taking steps in the right direction.”

And to me that is a positive development. Regardless of your thoughts on nuclear weapons and nuclear power, it is important to familiarize yourself with what really went on at this site which, in 1942 and earlier was the site of the Los Alamos Ranch School, which was adjacent to homesteading properties in the area.

So, while at the Los Alamos History Museum, which in itself is quite informative with friendly staff, I picked up this book, put together by the museum staff and titled Los Alamos 1943-1945: Beginning of an Era.

The cover features the famous orange glowing explosion of the “gadget” in those first seconds of the Trinity Test. In this 68-page book, full of easy-to-read, historical information and lots of photographs about the work done there and down at the Trinity Site near Alamogordo, where the device was ultimately detonated, changing forever the course of human history. I enjoyed reading about the large, metal bottle - nicknamed "Jumbo" - that was sent by rail from Ohio to the Trinity Site area to be used for atomic bomb testing purposes, although the true nature of why this was done seems hazy at best. Rumors fly.

The reactions from Oppenheimer and others, following the test, were varied, with Oppie famously quoting the Baghavad-Gita, the ancient Hindu scripture, where he recites "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."  

This is not a deep and scholarly book. It's more of a booklet highlighting important aspects of the Manhattan Project, the Trinity Test and the immense importance of what happened at Los Alamos. I only hope that Los Alamos County and city are successful in further sharing their story in the years to come.

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Andrew W. Griffin

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Andrew W. Griffin received his Bachelor of Science in Journalism from...

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Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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