Top banner


The Bomb's Hometown

Val Fitch

109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos. Jennet Conant. xx + 425 pp. Simon and Schuster, 2005. $26.96.

Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community. Jon Hunner. xii + 288 pp. University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. $29.95.

For many years I have saved the October 10, 1949, issue of Life magazine. On the cover is a marvelous photograph of Robert Oppenheimer, and inside is a profile of him, along with a discussion of what was then known about elementary particles. At the time, Oppenheimer was as much a celebrity as most movie stars. Curious to see whether young people today would recognize him, I masked his name and showed the cover photo to a couple of Princeton physics students who happened by. Neither could tell me who he was! Needless to say, I was surprised. Over the years, Oppenheimer has been a subject of galvanizing interest; many biographical accounts have appeared, and a spate of new ones are coming out this year. Perhaps the renewed attention will render him recognizable to a new generation.

Robert OppenheimerClick to Enlarge Image

The most recent account, 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos, was written by Jennet Conant, who is the author of the well-received Tuxedo Park (another book about World War II) and the granddaughter of James B. Conant (a distinguished organic chemist who was president of Harvard from 1933 to 1953 and a high-level science advisor to the U.S. government during World War II). What fresh insights does she bring to the somewhat complicated story of Oppenheimer's life? Certainly, growing up in proximity to her grandfather gave the author special access to certain material. More interesting to me was the fact that she is the first to have delved into the papers and correspondence of Dorothy McKibbin, who was one of the first employees hired for the Los Alamos project and who became a loyal friend and confidante of the Oppenheimer family.

Los Alamos is situated on a series of mesas jutting out from the Jemez mountains, across the Rio Grande river from, and about 25 miles northwest of, Santa Fe. Los Alamos was the ultimate gated community, and in her tiny office at 109 East Palace Avenue in Santa Fe, McKibbin was the gatekeeper. During World War II anyone coming to Los Alamos for the first time had to pass through her office beforehand to obtain the necessary credentials. An extremely bright and gracious woman, she was the perfect interface between Los Alamos and the outside world.

How did she come to occupy that post? Born into a well-to-do family in Kansas City, Dorothy Ann Scarritt graduated from Smith College in 1919. A few years later the vivacious, highly attractive young woman met and became engaged to the light of her life, Joseph McKibbin, a Princeton graduate and an investment banker. Then she contracted tuberculosis and broke the engagement. Like many people of means, she went to the dry Southwest to take the cure, at a sanatorium near Santa Fe. Miraculously, after only 11 months she was pronounced recovered. Joe McKibbin resumed his attentions and they were married and settled in St. Paul. But within a few years he died from Hodgkin's disease, leaving Dorothy with an 11-month-old son. Having been totally captivated by the climate and lifestyle of Santa Fe during her previous stay, in 1932 Dorothy returned there with her young son to start life anew.

She found work as a bookkeeper in a trading company and built a house on the outskirts of town. The trading company eventually went bottoms up on account of the war, and she was looking for a job in early 1943 when she learned of a new enterprise coming to town. After a very brief meeting with Oppenheimer (who was traveling under an assumed name), she was offered a position as secretary to something or other—it was not clear what—and despite the uncertainty, she was so taken with the handsome, urbane gentleman that she immediately accepted the job.

Like Dorothy McKibbin, Oppenheimer had originally visited the Southwest for his health and had come to love it deeply. He had purchased some property along the Pecos River east of Santa Fe. (When he first heard that it was for sale, he reportedly exclaimed "hot dog!"—which, translated into Spanish, became the name of his ranch: Perro Caliente.) He spent many summers at the ranch, and because of his familiarity with the area he was able to direct General Leslie R. Groves to the nearby Los Alamos Ranch School (a school for boys) as a possible site for the new laboratory. Oppenheimer may not have looked like a cowboy, but he enjoyed riding and was a more-than-adequate horseman. After the war, when he was director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, he stabled riding horses on the grounds.

109 East Palace gives a charming account of the life of Dorothy McKibbin and her role at Los Alamos. Conant also describes the experiences of another important member of the staff, Priscilla Greene Duffield, who was Oppenheimer's personal secretary. One gets a good feeling for what it must have been like to work for that elegant man, who spoke without hesitation and with syntactical perfection. Clearly, both of these talented women absolutely adored Oppie, as he was known to his friends.

Conant's portrayal of Oppenheimer's life after Los Alamos is somewhat uneven. By happenstance, I know, or knew, most of the principals in the story, and the author occasionally shows a careless disregard for the facts. For example, two close friends of Oppie and his wife, Kitty, were Bob and Charlotte Serber. Bob Serber had taken his Ph.D. in 1934 at the University of Wisconsin with the great John H. van Vleck, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1977. Serber then received a National Research Council Fellowship, which he chose to spend working in the Oppenheimer group at Berkeley. But, contrary to what Conant says, he was never Oppie's student. Serber went on to establish an enviable reputation in theoretical physics, as a professor first at the University of California, Berkeley, and then, after 1952, at Columbia University. After Oppie's death in 1967, Serber (whom Conant persists in describing as "Oppenheimer's most faithful student") and Kitty started sharing their lives. Conant says that Serber at this point was estranged from his wife, Charlotte. Estranged? He was a widower—Charlotte had died shortly after Oppie.

Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community,by Jon Hunner, covers quite different ground. The book opens with the usual account of the beginnings of the laboratory and the role of Oppenheimer in the selection of the Los Alamos Ranch School site. I have some quarrel with the title: I would say that how the town developed subsequently was not an invention, which I think of as a creation of the mind; rather, it simply evolved, always to meet new needs.

Hunner, a historian, is interested in the sociology of the town, which began as a community closed to the outside, with all services provided by the government (it was an army base largely inhabited by civilians), but today is very similar to any other town in the United States, except that it is still dominated by one industry. I read this book, and Conant's, with special interest because I was in Los Alamos during the war. I have returned for overnight visits twice in the last 60 years, but I had difficulty comprehending the magnitude of the changes until I read Inventing Los Alamos.

The book is largely the result of numerous interviews with people who have lived at Los Alamos, many of whom were born and grew up there. The net result is not so much a sociological study as a series of anecdotes, which are interesting but hardly the stuff from which definite conclusions can be drawn.

Immediately after the war there was a massive exodus of the people who had designed and built the first bombs. The professors went back to their universities, taking young people like myself along as graduate students. Hunner remarks that, by and large, those who departed were much more liberal politically than the people who replaced them. I was fascinated by this observation, but unfortunately Hunner presents no evidence to support it. It would have been interesting to see how the people in the town have voted—data that could have been easily acquired and might have given some basis for the speculation.

Hunner avows that at one point in the development of the town, while it was still a highly restricted, gated community, many residents escaped their humdrum domestic life through alcoholism and extramarital affairs. Were the "moral values" of the townspeople any different from those in any other relatively affluent community? How does one know, when all the evidence is anecdotal—and was perhaps provided by prudish gossips.

There are some hard facts: Los Alamos became an open city in 1957, but not without strenuous objection from some. During the war, church services were conducted by an army chaplain in the base movie house. Today the population is about 12,000, and Protestants of nearly every denomination, as well as Catholics and Jews, have their own places of worship. The town even has a cemetery, perhaps the strongest evidence for its permanence.

The text of the book appears to be well copyedited, but the index has a reference to Einstein, Alfred. I wonder who he might be.

comments powered by Disqus


Bottom Banner