The Bomb's Hometown
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.
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.