The Family That Built The Bomb

Wartime nuclear work was sort of like falling in love


Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos

By Jennet Conant

Simon & Schuster -- 424pp -- $26.95

( below)

Editor's Review

Four Stars
Star Rating

The Good A vivid account of the U.S. community that developed the atomic bomb.

The Bad Amid details about living conditions and relationships, the science sometimes gets short shrift.

The Bottom Line A focus on Los Alamos via the eyes of some remarkable women makes this a truly worthy account.

I always imagined the Manhattan Project as a seething intellectual caldron, where the world's smartest physicists broke through scientific obstacles to turn the atom into a weapon of mass destruction. But it was far more than that. It was a chapter of history rich in the drama of human strengths and frailties, as Jennet Conant chronicles in her illuminating 109 East Palace. The players were the thousands of scientists, soldiers, construction workers, and their families who lived and toiled in secret on a remote New Mexico mesa. Who knew, for instance, that a baby boom strained the post's resources? Or that the women rebelled against the military project director, General Leslie R. Groves, forcing him to let them organize schools, churches, a library, and a radio station?

Dominating the book is enigmatic physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, "the endlessly intriguing and seductive leader who made it all possible," in Conant's words. Although there are a spate of new and more exhaustive books about Oppenheimer -- including American Prometheus by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin -- Conant offers a welcome perspective. It helps that her grandfather, James B. Conant, was the administrator of the Manhattan Project, and Los Alamos "the chief morality tale of my childhood." More important, the veteran magazine writer and author of the best-selling Tuxedo Park taps into the writings and recollections of some remarkable women. Oppenheimer's three wartime secretaries, in particular, "brought the contradictions and complex relationships of Los Alamos to life -- the altitude and awful mud, the exhilarating company, and insidious shadow of security," as Conant puts it.

A key figure is Dorothy McKibbin, who, as a widow of 45 meeting Oppenheimer for the first time, was captivated by his "startling blue eyes...Byronic looks, quick mind, and grave, courteous manner," Conant notes. Before the project began, he offered her a job, and she took it. "In less than a minute, she had agreed to go to work for a complete stranger, for some kind of government project no one...seemed to know a thing about, doing God only knew what."

The job was managing an office in Santa Fe, at 109 E. Palace Ave., which became the Los Alamos lab's gate to the outside world. McKibbin's role, however, was much larger. "Dorothy was in many ways the heart of the project," recalled one scientist's wife, who was married in McKibbin's garden. She was a surrogate mother to many scientists, secretaries, and other staff members -- many of them in their 20s. She stood by Oppenheimer's fragile and often cruel wife, Kitty. And she helped Oppenheimer defend himself in the troubling times after the war, when he was accused of aiding communists and was humiliatingly stripped of his security clearance. "He was the finest man she would meet, and she devoted herself to him," her son Kevin said.

Of course, the military tried to conceal the project's purpose and progress from anyone in a supporting role -- secretaries, scientists' wives, and even McKibbin. Not surprisingly, there were negative consequences. "Secrecy becomes a habit," observed Rose Bethe, wife of physicist Hans Bethe. "Hans stopped talking about his work. We just stopped talking." Between the primitive living conditions and the distrust that soldiers at Los Alamos felt toward the scientists, tensions often ran high. Conant brings the daily trials and clashes to life.

Conant also chronicles the larger conflicts and moral dilemmas. For physicist Emilio Segrè, Hitler was "the personification of evil and the primary justification for the atomic bomb work." Once the Germans surrendered, "doubts arose." When the scientists returned to Los Alamos after witnessing the first test of the bomb, many "were still badly shaken by the terrifying spectacle...and needed to talk," Conant writes. "They told of seeing the searing bright light and the churning mushroom cloud." And many felt profoundly conflicted by the bomb's use -- and by its passing out of their control, ultimately leading to today's worrisome nuclear proliferation.

Oppenheimer himself was deeply ambivalent, alternating "between taking credit for the bomb's creation and calling it 'an evil thing,"' writes Conant. Although there were plenty of villains -- from Senator Joe McCarthy to Oppenheimer's bitter rival, Edward Teller -- Conant argues that the scientist was much to blame for his own fate because of his mix of political naivete and arrogance. "After the war, Oppenheimer thought he was powerful," reflected physicist Philip Morrison. "But he was not as powerful as he thought."

Yet, for all the doubts and hardships, the scientists and workers at Los Alamos were part of something extraordinary. "It was sort of like falling in love," McKibbin said later. At Oppenheimer's memorial service in 1967, Hans Bethe observed that, for those who lived through it, there was "quite the feeling that this was really the great time of their lives." Thanks to Conant's vivid book, we understand why.

By John Carey

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.