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Los Alamos: The Secret City

Why was Los Alamos kept so secretive? Were these secrecy measures effective?

Los Alamos was the third specialist plant constructed in the Manhattan Project. The first was the Uranium Separation plant at Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The second one built was constructed after the discovery by Fermi in Chicago, that Plutonium could be made from Uranium. A plutonium manufacturing plant was created by General Groves in Hanford, Washington. The third city, however, was constructed in order to be the site where the bomb was to be actually built- Los Alamos was the largest, most secretive and most controversial of the three sites, and it is for this reason that I will look at it in this assignment.

Groves decided that the next stage had been reached in the Manhattan project, and in early 1942 he appointed physicist Dr. Robert J. Oppenheimer as leader of fast neutron research. Oppenheimer's first step once he was given this position was to make his opinions heard regarding the nature of the Manhattan project at that current stage. He noted that the research and facilities were to wide spread over the country, and that the United States "needed a central laboratory devoted wholly to this purpose where people could talk freely with each other, where theoretical ideas and experimental findings could affect each other and where waste and error could be eliminated from research". Groves took this opinion on board and asked Oppenheimer to direct another new section of the project- the building of a central plant to be used as the research and construction site for the bomb itself. It is interesting to note that while Oppenheimer's brother and former fiancee were communists, Groves bestowed a lot of trust in Oppenheimer. This was not like Groves, who was at the best of times paranoid about security. Groves stated on several Occasions that he though Oppenheimer to be essential to the Project.

In late 1942, Oppenheimer showed Groves an isolated plateau in the Mexican desert, near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Groves thought that this was the ideal location for the new plant, and commissioned the immediate construction of facilities. The plateau was isolated, and gave plenty of room for expansion. The weather conditions were also a major factor: The project had to be located in a place that would allow work throughout the winter. Oppenheimer was set the task of finding scientists to work at the plant. However, finding scientists to work at the site proved to be no easy task. Because of the nature of the project, very little information could be given to scientists when they were decided whether to relocate to Los Alamos. Many felt threatened by the idea of working under such strict military supervision. There was also the time factor- no one knew how long the project would take, and once a scientist had moved to Los Alamos returning home prior to the completion of the project was out of the question. In Summary, scientists did not want to give up their public existence and move to the New Mexico desert for an indeterminate amount of time under the strictest security measures the world had ever seen.

Luckily for the project and for Oppenheimer, many scientists thought the matter through a bit more thoroughly. They realised how seemingly ridiculous the security was, and speculated - correctly- that there must be something very important going on down in the New Mexico desert. They knew that if whatever was being done was a success, it could very well change the course of the war, and they would become part of history. In March 1943 the first scientists arrived in New Mexico, and soon were joined by the British Scientists, once the Quebec Agreement was signed. They all arrived not having any clue what they would be working on, or for how many years they would remain in a city that didn't officially exist. They knew the security was tight- but the truth was even greater.

It is a credit to Groves that such a project of monolithic proportions was not revealed to the general population- but if one looks at the security measures that were in place, it is no wonder no one found out. All scientists, soldiers and construction workers were forbidden to tell family members who did not live in the complex where they were. All Incoming mail came through a single P.O. Box in Santa Fe, New Mexico. All outgoing mail was censored, and even details such as weather conditions and local wildlife was censored out. A guarded fence ran the entire perimeter of the city, and all scientists had bodyguards and were subject to curfews.

Yass, Marion, Hiroshima, (Wayland Publishing, East Sussex 1971) p. 42
Yass, Hiroshima, p. 34