In the middle of New Mexico, David Whitley discovers the secrets of the hilltop town that created the most fearsome monster ever used
The road up to the top of the mountain – a mesa, realistically – is packed with espionage thriller-style drama. It snakes up the canyon wall before morphing into a town that, at one point, didn’t officially exist.
During the Second World War, this was simply “PO Box 1663, Santa Fe”. Yet, high on the hill, many of the world’s top scientists were gathering to create something that would change the world forever – and in the darkest of ways.
In 1943, Los Alamos – once home to just a ranch school for shy, sickly boys – became the top secret home to the Manhattan Project. The military moved in to create a town from nothing. The scientists moved in to create the deadliest weapon ever used in battle.
The story of the atomic bomb – part of it, anyway – is told inside the Bradbury Science Center. And it’s full of surprises. For example, Vice President Harry Truman – who would eventually give the order to drop the bomb on Hiroshima – didn’t know the project existed until the second week after he took over the presidency.
I also didn’t know that the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were different types. When the project started, they didn’t know which would work (one used the uranium-235 isotope, the other plutonium-239), so they worked on both in tandem.
The copies of once-classified documents are utterly grossing. There’s Albert Einstein’s letter to President Roosevelt warning him of the possibility of nuclear chain reactions being used to make bombs – and that the Germans may have been working on such weapons. There’s also physicist Enrico Fermi’s dry, descriptive reaction to the first ever atomic bomb detonation – at the Trinity site in the White Sands Missile Range, around 200 miles south.
Just about everything to do with that Trinity test sends shivers down the spine. The video of the original mushroom cloud going up is terrifying, as are the reactions to it. A voice of a witness gasps: “What have we done?” Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist in charge of the Manhattan Project, recalled a line from the Bhagavad Gita – “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
The devastating impact was enough to move some scientists who worked on the bomb to write to the President, begging him never to let the bomb be used.
Less chilling, but fascinating in a different way, are the tales of everyday life on The Hill. Some are told in the Bradbury Center, others in the Los Alamos Historical Museum – once the guest cottage for the ranch school that was appropriated by the military for the secret mission. It wasn’t just a hidden-away lab – it was a town, and one with a very young, lively population. A maternity wing had to be built onto the hospital as so many children were born there. Their birth certificates don’t say Los Alamos though – just PO Box 1663, Santa Fe. Imagine trying to explain that to an employer.
Equally stunning are the testimonies from the people who worked at Los Alamos, without ever knowing what they were working on. A lab technician who worked on the detonators says that he only worked it out after reading the papers following the Hiroshima bombing.
It’s a place where you could spend days happily reading the letters home to parents, where the moral quandaries over whether to drop the bomb are not glossed over, and the realities of keeping something so monstrous so secret hit home.
But it’s all a slice of the past until you drive out of town. On the main road out, there’s a security checkpoint, and all cars are thoroughly checked out. They still do nuclear research here. A lot of it. And much of it is highly classified.