Wednesday, July 10, 2013
July 10, 2013: Southwest Stories: Los Alamos
[This week, a series on some of the many AmericanStudies stories that can be found in the Southwest—in addition to those included, for example, in this prior series on Mexican American histories. Leading up to a special post on folk heroes!]
Three ways to AmericanStudy one of the world’s most important and controversial laboratories.
The central laboratory in the Manhattan Project, the World War II program through which the United States developed the first atomic bombs, was located in Los Alamos, New Mexico for a very specific reason: J. Robert Oppenheimer loved the area. Oppenheimer, the physicist who would become the laboratory’s first director and the so-called “father of the atomic bomb,” had traveled to New Mexico at the age of 18 to recover from a devastating illness and had, like yesterday’s artists and so many other visitors (including a certain 13 year old AmericanStudier during his family’s national park vacation) fallen in love with the place. By 1942, when he was selected to head the Manhattan Project, Oppenheimer owned a horse ranch near Los Alamos, and his familiarity with the area, coupled no doubt with his sense of how conducive it would be to privacy and secrecy, led him to recommend it as the laboratory’s site. So on one key level, Los Alamos reflects the complex and often contradictory personality of its first and most famous director.
The selection of Los Alamos and New Mexico for that site also engendered at least one more deeply ironic contradiction. Oppenheimer’s love for the area was due in no small measure to its spectacular landscapes; the Southwest is like nothing else in America, and, as Willa Cather captures so perfectly in her historical novel Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927), its mesas and canyons can capture for life the heart and soul of any visitor. Yet it was precisely that wild and open landscape that made the area ideal for not only the Los Alamos laboratory but also its culminating moment: the Trinity test, the July 16th, 1945 first explosion of an atomic bomb. Perhaps the test site near Alamagordo, in the Jornada del Muerto Valley, was indeed uninhabited and available for such an explosion—but even if that were the case, the denotation without question destroyed thousands of square miles of Southwestern landscape, flora, and fauna, and permanently affected and altered whatever was left behind. I don’t believe the cliché that we always hurt the ones we love, but in Oppenheimer’s case, his choice certainly damaged the place he loved.
Moreover, I’m not entirely convinced that the Trinity site was as uninhabited as the Manhattan Project’s planners believed. In the climactic section of her novel Ceremony (1977), just a few pages from the amazing conclusion about which I have blogged before, Leslie Marmon Silko locates her protagonist Tayo close enough to the Trinity site (in not only geography but also, as a World War II veteran, chronology and experienc) that he can reflect on its status as yet another theft and destruction of sacred tribal lands by the U.S. government. To be clear, the Jornada del Muerto Valley had not belonged to Tayo’s Laguna Pueblo people, nor any other Native American tribe, for some time, making that theft and destruction more metaphorical and overarching than immediate or legal. But as each of my posts this week have highlighted, the simple fact is that Southwestern land has been contested and cohabitated for centuries, and certainly remained that way into the era of the Trinity test. Los Alamos, that is, is as Mexican American as its name suggests and as Native American as all of New Mexico, making the Manhattan Project likewise emblematic of the American project at its worst and best.
Next Southwest story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Southwest stories or histories you’d highlight?