How do you build a city? Well, usually they just build themselves—people come to an area for various reasons—geography, money, stake out homes, run some kind of business, and hopefully other people come. A city is a city when it’s outgrown being a camp, village, or town. It takes time.
When Robert Oppenheimer was chosen to work on the atomic bomb, he saw the scientists scattered all over the US, working on various aspects of the project, and decided that the most efficient, most secure, and quickest way to create the new weapon was to assemble everyone in a secret location where they could all work together. General Leslie R. Groves, the military overseer of the project, already nervous about scientists annoying tendency to talk amongst themselves and share ideas, agreed that this was a good plan. They looked at a number of sites, and Oppenheimer chose a location on a mesa in New Mexico, not far from Santa Fe. And like that, with the era of instant everything appropriately just on the horizon, Los Alamos, New Mexico, the instant city, appeared.
Or didn’t quite appear—the secrecy of the project meant that no one outside of the project ever got up to the mesa or knew much about it until after the bomb was dropped in August 1945. People in Santa Fe knew something was going on up there, but didn’t know what. It was wartime, and everyone seemed to be much more accepting of peculiar things and strange secrets than they would be otherwise.
One person who knew almost everything that was going on up at the mesa was Dorothy McKibbin, a Santa Fe resident who was there from the beginning. McKibbin was one of the first people hired by Oppenheimer in 1943 and stayed until 1963, acting as an administrator, secretary, travel planner, construction manager, resident advisor, confidante, and just about everything. It’s mostly through McKibbin’s eyes that Jennet Conant tells the story of Los Alamos and the development of the atomic bomb in 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos.
McKibbin came from a well-off Kansas City family. With immensely good taste in colleges, she headed east to attend Smith. After graduation, she traveled with her father, until on one of those trips she came down with tuberculosis. As was common at the time, she was sent to a warm, dry climate to convalesce. She fell in love with New Mexico while staying at a sanatorium in Santa Fe, and years later, after her husband died, leaving her with a young son, she decided to start over in Santa Fe.
McKibbin got a job, built a house, raised her son, and became one of Santa Fe’s own. She was looking for a new job in 1943 when a friend told her about a mysterious opening for a secretary. He refused to give her any details and she thought the whole thing was somewhat suspicious but she decided to meet with the prospective employer anyway.
Like many others, she fell for Oppenheimer at first sight and took the job without asking any details. She moved into an office at 109 East Palace Avenue and began to try to put together housing, equipment, and supplies for the scientists and support staff that was on the way to New Mexico.
Robert Oppenheimer tended to have a powerful effect on people--both positive and negative.
Oppenheimer had spent time in New Mexico as a young man, and owned a ranch in the area; when it came time to choose a site for his lab, he had quietly found ways to eliminate the other prospective sites until the only place left was the one he wanted. The military took over a boys school located on the mesa 35 miles from Santa Fe and turned to the task of turning it into a city. The boys’ dorms provided some initial housing, but much more would have to be built. Roads weren’t nearly ready for regular army traffic, and there wasn’t enough power and water.
Los Alamos wasn’t ready for inhabitants when the first scientists arrived; one of Dorothy’s first emergencies was finding housing in hotels and camps around Santa Fe for the new residents. Housing became a never solved problem—as soon as one group was settled, the project grew and a new group arrived looking for places to live. McKibbin spent the next few years shuffling around homes for the scientists and their families.
Even when they did have housing, life was never exactly comfortable at Los Alamos. Apartments were supplied with wood burning stoves that took forever to light in the thin air, and then when working heated rooms to burning 90-100 degree temperatures. Power shortages persisted. Water at times became so short that one woman recalled routinely using the same water to first boil her baby’s bottles, then wash the dishes, then finally wash the floors. Food was bland and it was always slow and difficult to get shipments of anything up the muddied roads. People fought over the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogues. But they put up with it, probably better than anyone today would. Again, they were aware it was war and things were different. The Depression wasn’t that long ago and having homes at all with regular food was better than what some had had as children a decade ago (only a decade for some—many of the Los Alamos residents were astonishingly young). When a contingent of British scientists arrived, the idea of sleeping through the night without listening for bombs or air raid sirens was astonishingly luxurious.
They could only complain to each other, though. Security was high. In Santa Fe, G-men patrolled the streets, looking for anyone who might be in the least suspicious. They constantly checked on Dorothy, keeping an eye on who went in and out of 109 East Palace. They listened for gossip that might indicate someone on the project was getting too careless. The city was veritably crawling with spooks, yet for all their snooping around they didn’t catch the spies who were working in Los Alamos, Klaus Fuchs and Ted Hall, and possibly others.
Scientists working on the project couldn’t tell their wives what they were working on, though they had their suspicions. Mail was read and censored. No one could tell family outside the project where they were or what they were doing. They disappeared from the world in many ways.
The tower at the Trinity test site where the first atomic bomb was detonated. No one outside the scientists involved knew what they were working on at Los Alamos.
The pressure of the job and the constant security wore on Los Alamos residents, as did the constant conflict with the military. The army wanted the place run like a barracks, while the scientists, engineers and other workers wanted lives that were as normal as possible. At one point a military overseer had a group of young engineers doing calisthenics every morning and made them spend time practicing marching and parading like a group of soldiers (this was thankfully abandoned after a change of command). McKibbin found herself organizing Sunday outings and coordinating restaurant reservations for scientists and their wives desperate to get off the mesa for at least a little while.
They didn’t need any help with the most popular form of recreation: parties with lots and lots and lots of drinking (yes, the atomic bomb was developed and built under one huge hangover, it seems). The demand for alcohol was constant and desperate. One scientist, able to leave for a short trip, took orders from many people to pick up their favorites. He dutifully shopped, packed his car with the many bottles, and headed back. Unfortunately he drove off the road into a small lake. He was retrieved with some injuries, but found to his chagrin that more people were concerned with the fate of their orders than him.
The other popular pastime was sex. Amongst the army personnel, there were scandalous whispers about WACs (Women’s Army Corps) turning tricks with the young soldiers stationed on the mesa (this was never proved but the rumors persisted). There weren’t many single women working on the project, but some of the unmarried young scientists managed to start romances with those that were part of the support staff. McKibbin’s home became the default marriage location for many couples.
Then there were the babies. Lots and lots of babies. With not much to do after dark, many young couples looking to start families got right to it, especially with the excellent medical care available at Los Alamos (word at one point that the obstetrician was going to be shipped out caused near hysteria). So many babies were born that the mesa hospital became overwhelmed. An irate General Groves ordered Oppeheimer to do something about it, but Oppenheimer couldn’t really say much, as his own wife was pregnant.
Pregnant or not, life was difficult for the wives of the scientists working on the atomic bomb project. Their husbands worked long hours and when they came home, couldn’t talk about their work. They didn’t have contact with their families or outside friends. They were stuck in a small town where it was easy to gossip and start small wars over things like supplies, who had a bathtub and who didn’t, who got a maid and who didn’t. There were cliques and a caste system, ruled by the wives of the higher ranking scientists and those who were in the first group to arrive at Los Alamos. Kitty Oppenheimer was particularly difficult to get along with—she was a snob, a terror, and a drinker, who would make friends with someone and then randomly drop that person from her set, leaving the latest victim cut out from parties and events. It was like junior high school but with liquid lunches and late afternoon cocktails (then again, maybe that’s exactly what junior highs are like now—who knows what those crazy kids are up to?). The wives who had skills that allowed them to work in the labs or administration were by far the luckiest ones.
Conant based her book on interviews, published materials, and McKibben’s unpublished memoir. The details from the participants about everyday life at Los Alamos make the most interesting parts of the book, and, as it happens, pretty much what I was looking for—I was actually sitting around thinking, “What was everyday life at Los Alamos like?”, did some searching, and found this book (that’s also how I found Conant’s other book, Tuxedo Park and read that—I am often overly enthusiastic, so when I reserved 109 East Palace, I impulsively reserved the other, thinking that it was always best to keep my reserve queue at the library filled as much as possible). In the whole story of the atomic bomb, all the science and innovation that went into its development, and the moral choices that were agonized over and made, questions about things like how did people do their laundry, and what was housing like are pretty small. Nevertheless, they are part of the picture, and of interest to those like me who always want to know what it was like to live in another place and time.
There is less in the way of full portraits of the participants—even those who are heavily quoted are just quoted with little information about their background, their lives, or how they got there. Many of those interviewed by Conant are the wives of scientists, who arrived at Los Alamos in the early years of their marriages. I would have like to know more about them in order to put their experiences into context. What kind of education did they have? How much did they know or understand about their husband’s work (after all, not everyone there had McKibbin’s Smith degree)? What were their expectations for their lives? How did they feel when their husband’s told them that they were moving to a mysterious place to take part in an undisclosed project? As for the scientists themselves, I suppose their stories are best found in the biographies that have been written about many of them (I have a Richard Feynman biography on deck; I snuck a look at the preface and didn’t much care for it, but I’ll stick with it and see what happens).
The two people who get the most attention are Dorothy McKibbin and Oppenheimer. McKibbin was undoubtedly an important figure in the history of Los Alamos (never, never, never underestimate the value of a good manager), but the quotes Conant gathers about her tend to be far too much of the “I don’t know how we ever got along without her,” “no one but Dorothy could do it,” “Thank god for Dorothy,” “We never would have made it without Dorothy” variety. I found myself longing for a story where McKibbin made a mistake or got in an argument with someone.
Oppenheimer gets the same worshipful treatment. He seemed to have had an enormously powerful effect on people, both positive and negative. Groves, when asked by his secretary what Oppenheimer was like after they first met, said, “He has the bluest eyes I’ve ever seen.” David Lilienthal, who was assigned after the war to work with Oppenheimer on the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission, said after meeting him: “He is worth living a lifetime just to know mankind has been able to produce such a being. We may have to wait another hundred years for the second one to come off the line.” Yikes. McKibbin, who may or may not have had a crush on him, or perhaps a maternal feeling for the always-frail looking Oppenheimer, wrote to him when he was being investigated as a security risk after the war: “There stand you, the beautiful Robert, the open mind, and your thoughts and suggestions which would quiet the din and still all hatred. Stand Robert, with the clarity and courage the world aches for. You speak, with the power of poetry and music.” Oh my. McKibbin’s musings on Oppenheimer from her unpublished memoir all tend to be in this vein, serves to remind us all of a valuable lesson: some things you feel should never be committed to print and crushes are one of them. Trust me on this.
The hagiography doesn’t do the complex Oppenheimer a great service, but a full biography of the man isn’t the intent of this book, so that’s to be forgiven. The biggest problem that this book suffers from, both when it comes to Oppenheimer and the big picture of the development of the atomic bomb, is the comparison to the Oppenheimer biography American Prometheus, by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, which is easily one of the best biographies I’ve ever read (throughout reading this book, I kept thinking how much I would like to re-read American Prometheus). Again, though, I understand that these two books (published unfortunately the same year) don’t have the same intent and shouldn’t be compared. 109 East Palace is valuable in the details it provides, and while it shouldn’t be relied on as a sole source of information to the topic of Los Alamos, it makes a nice addition to more expansive works, the story of the construction of a city devoted to the creation of tools to destroy others.