From the End to the Beginning

Oppenheimer and Groves Statues at Los Alamos
J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves, immortalized in bronze

Part of the reason for our trip through the American Southwest was for the opportunity to visit Los Alamos National Labs. As I’ve written about before, the wife, Cruella’s, mother worked there in the early 1950’s, past the time of the Manhattan Project, but at the time when computers were new, filled entire rooms, and had to be hand programmed by “mathematicians” as computer programmers were then called. She was one of those mathematicians.

It’s now a national park, called the Manhattan Project National Park. Unlike the wonders of nature that are Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches that we had just been through, this national park is a monument to the minds and imaginations of the men and women who labored under the strictest of national security in the midst of a world war to develop (before the other guys did) a weapon unprecedented in the history of man. A weapon that turned the very building blocks of existence into a destructive force few could imagine and even fewer could comprehend.

Four and a half years ago we stood where the end result of that work was demonstrated for the second, and to date the last, time. The Nagasaki Peace Park is a monument of a different kind, a reminder to all that what those hundreds of men and women in Los Alamos created is something never to be wished upon anyone, anywhere, on Earth.

While my heart broke in Nagasaki, my mind understood, standing on a wind swept mesa miles from anywhere else, what those scientists and technicians did and why they did it. Perhaps for the first time.

Look, I’m a history nut. I knew who those two guys shown above were just from their attire and stances. I knew all the players, all the dates, all the minutia of the Manhattan Project before we even left home. On the other hand for Cruella this was a chance to make real what till then was just family lore, a chance for the stories her mother told to come alive. At least the stories her mother was allowed to tell.

Yeah, even after the war what went on at Los Alamos National Labs was top secret. Most of what her mother worked on was only declassified a few years ago and only lately has been available on the internet. For that reason the phrase “my mother worked here in the ’50’s” drew immediate attention from the park’s historians and archivists. She now has an ongoing email relationship with two of them (both female) in an attempt to fill in many of the holes in the history of the women who worked there.

But for me wandering around the barracks and lab buildings, past the few remaining structures from the 1940’s, I got a true sense of what it must have been like to be standing on the edge of discovery, to be a part of something far greater than yourself. These were young men deemed unfit for the physical wear of war, but recruited nevertheless for their minds and their imaginations. Deprived of the heroism they might have striven for on the battlefield, they instead became the men who saved the lives of countless numbers of other men by developing a weapon that killed countless numbers of men and women.

And would forever hang like the Sword of Damocles over humanity.

The park is a tribute to the development of the atomic bomb, but to the National Park Service’s credit they don’t shy away from the reality of the angst many of those working there felt about the bomb. Many wanted to scrap the project after the German surrender only to have to be reminded that Japan was still at war with the US. And after the war, many of those who were there were the first to warn of the potential for the misuse of atomic energy and to demonstrate for it’s elimination. Famously their leader, the “father of the atomic bomb”, J. Robert Oppenheimer, was one of them. He was called a traitor for it and removed from any further governmental work on atomic energy.

So there I was, as conflicted as I’m sure so many of those who stood in that exact spot seventy odd years ago felt. I hated what they created, but I am so very glad they created it. You see my father was one of those soldiers who would have been redeployed from Germany to Japan had those two bombs, Fat Man and Little Boy, not been dropped. If so it could have been him who was killed instead of those citizens of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

History is never as neat as we would like to think it is. It’s not black and white, hell it’s not even gray. It’s a murky darkness that continually needs to have light shined on it again and again. It is necessary for everyone to examine it, to live in it, walk around in it, see how and where they fit into it. It is, if I may be so bold as to rewrite the Bard, a tale told by ourselves, full of sound and fury, signifying everything.

They say this song is about nuclear war, but I think the hard rain that falls is the rain of history

Shapiro Out

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