Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. It’s October 12th, 2017. I’m in Santa Fe, New Mexico. With me is Jennet Conant. My first question for Jennet is to tell me your name and spell it.
Jennet Conant: My name is Jennet Conant, J-E-N-N-E-T C-O-N-A-N-T.
Kelly: Perfect. Now, we’re here in what used to be Dorothy McKibbin’s office. You wrote the most marvelous book about her and her role in the Manhattan Project in 109 East Palace. I’m just going to open this up and ask you to tell us who she was and what she did. What you can remember from 109 East Palace?
Conant: Well, Dorothy McKibbin was a widow. She had lost her husband and she had moved to Santa Fe with her young son to make a fresh start. She was, as she liked to say, a little girl from Kansas City. She had first come to this part of the world when she had contracted tuberculosis in her twenties. She had to put her wedding on hold and come back here and hope to recover. They had told her she wouldn’t live to 30. It was a bit of a death sentence. People in her family had died of TB, so she came here in a pretty desperate frame of mind with her fiancé and her engagement broken.
She came here to recover and she did. She regained her strength, but she also was introduced to this whole artistic community that lived here. She loved Santa Fe. Not only the wide-open spaces, the vistas, and the clean air, which gave her back her health and her strength, but the people.
When she found herself, again I think, in a very low state after her very young husband’s tragic death, she moved back. I think with the same mission to regain her strength and zest for life. She had been living here and she’d gotten just a sort of a clerical job in a store, a venerable old trading post. She’d worked there for ten years. She was raising this little boy on her own. But with the war a lot of companies closed. So many people in this area moved to the big wartime factories. All the men were leaving. Her store closed. She was out of a job. So she was hunting for work.
Someone mentioned to her that a secretarial job might be available. It sounded promising, but they were mysteriously vague about it. She kept saying, “What kind of job? Who am I working for?”
They just kept saying “A secretary. Don’t you know what a secretary is?”
She was a smart woman. She felt something was up. It was the wartime, so her alarm bells were already going off, but she didn’t know what to think. She came to the meeting as appointed at the La Fonda Hotel. She met with some of the local businessmen that she’d been told to meet with in the lobby of the hotel.
While she was talking to them and they were saying, “Well, you’d have to start immediately and it’s a secretarial job,” they were still being kind of vague. This very tall, well dressed, angular fellow sauntered over. He did not fit in with the La Fonda crowd. He was wearing a silk gabardine suit. He has shiny shoes. He was wearing this pork pie hat, at which she said was a very rakish angle. He had these absolutely penetrating, intense eyes. He kind of looked her over and said, “Well, nice to meet you” and sauntered away.
He’d left. He hadn’t gotten ten feet away and they said to her, “Well, what do you think, Dorothy? Do you think you’ll take this job?”
She said, “I’ll take it,” before she even knew what she was saying.
She said as the words left her mouth, she was astonished that she was saying it, because she’d come over with a lot of reservations. But she said there was something about that fellow. She figured he was an East Coast fellow that just was magnetic. Seemed to her full of possibilities. She thought she just wanted to work for someone of that kind of personality. She just said yes. She had no idea she signed on to work for the massive secret Manhattan Project and a secret bomb laboratory that would be on a mesa 35 miles out of town. She had no idea, but she was about to find out.
Kelly: What was her introduction like?
Conant: She reported to 109 East Palace the next day. She walked in this old, ancient adobe structure. The screen door was crumbling and half off of its hinges. She comes into the main room and it is complete bedlam. There are boxes everywhere. There are piles of equipment everywhere. There are desks askew, chairs piled up. More people than these tiny old rooms can hold. She said it looked more like a store room for luggage at a train station than an office.
But she soon found out that she was to be Oppenheimer’s—J. Robert Oppenheimer, Berkeley physicist, famous physicist from California—she was to be his assistant. Sort of his eyes and ears in town and help him establish his office, because they were going to be building a military base, some sort of military base, up on a plateau at Los Alamos where the all-boys Los Alamos Ranch School have been headquartered. They’d taken it over, requisitioned it and they were building some kind of military facility.
She knew that that they were building some kind of military base up on the mesa where the old Los Alamos Boys Ranch School had been. She didn’t know really what they were doing up there, but it was wartime and it was going to be some kind of military laboratory. That’s all she knew. She was told it was top secret, and when she asked the first guy that was in the office, “What should I do? What am I supposed to do?”
He said, “Don’t repeat any names and don’t ask any questions.” That was her introduction to the secret Manhattan Project.
It was absolute chaos from day one. Oppenheimer had arrived with about a dozen of his fellow physicists. His young secretary came with his wife and his baby son a few days later. They were staying at the La Fonda Hotel. The physicists were arriving from all over the United States. There was really no room for them at the La Fonda Hotel after the first gang had arrived, so they had to parse them out at nearby ranches and inns. Dorothy, who had been there for ten years, knew everybody.
First, she’d filled up all the little guest houses and inns. Then, she started calling ranchers and she would just say, “Hi, this is Dorothy McKibbin. We need your ranch.” She wouldn’t explain why.
When they said, “Why?” she’d say, “We need it now. They’re arriving this evening. We’re going to put ten at your place.” She was just very brisk and efficient. Within a matter of days, they were all completely devoted to her and referring to her as their angel of mercy and their savior, because they were strangers here. They didn’t know anybody. They didn’t know how to get anything done. They were overwhelmed by the amount of things that they had to arrange. They were overwhelmed by how primitive the facilities were.
In these old little offices that they had taken over at 109 East Palace, there was one phone. It was an ancient old forest line. It went up to the Los Alamos School. It had been put down by the Forest Service years earlier. It was made out of iron. It had been nibbled away by chipmunks over the years and bad weather had affected it. You had to turn it to crank it up. The reception was so poor that they had to scream their instructions back and forth. Which meant that they regularly misunderstood what the other party was saying. It was a very difficult way to communicate. Other people could hop on the line. Which made it a long tedious process to kick everybody else off the lines, so you could have a private line.
It’s really hard to describe the level of shock of these physicists coming from Berkeley, coming from MIT, coming from Princeton, coming here. They just didn’t know what hit them. From the moment they got off the train at Lamy and they saw the dust bowls blowing over the track and nothing else. They thought Oppenheimer had lost his mind.
They didn’t feel any better, as Dorothy said, when they got to 109 East Palace. It was so primitive. They had no equipment. They had two typewriters, one that Oppenheimer’s assistant had brought with her from Berkeley and one that they bought in the local store and it was the last one. That was all they had. They had to type everything on these manual typewriters. There were only two, so everything took forever. They had to type these lengthy passes that Oppenheimer had to sign. She said that the dismay on the young physicists’ faces was just priceless.
She had this wonderful personality. She was a sort of eternally optimistic, buoyant woman. Very upbeat. Somebody described as having kind of the efficient no-nonsense girl guide personality. She had a natural take-charge demeanor. She would just not let them get dismayed, not let them get depressed. She would reassure them that everything was going to be fine. She couldn’t tell them that they had everything under control, because it was patently obvious they did not. But she reassured them that they would have a bed, they would have a hot meal and the next day would be better. So she really got them through those very tough, early weeks, which were really indescribable.
One of my favorite stories, which I think Priscilla Green, Oppenheimer’s secretary from Berkeley, tells about her, is that in the early days the men had to go up to the laboratory. They had nothing. They didn’t even have transportation for these poor guys. In the morning, they had come to 109 East Palace and they requisitioned sort of an army of some taxis and different kinds of vans and buses. It was just a horrible group of rusted out old Chevys and cars. The men would all have to pile in these things and go up to the ranch.
Well, there was no power up there. Yet it was just a massive construction site. Mud, timber, buckets of nails, workmen, just its own kind of chaos. There was no food. Dorothy was responsible for getting meals to all these guys, because they were working very long hours up there and there was nothing. She would have to call up and find out how many lunches. One day, I guess they had the number wrong. They phone down that they had eight men fainting of hunger. They said, “We need eight extra-large lunches.” The Forest Service line was so bad that with all the screaming, they thought that the order was for eight extra-large trucks. They got that wrong that day.
But that gives you an idea of—when you think of a massive military project to build the most advanced piece of weaponry ever made in a deadly race against the Germans. In which every day counted, because they thought they were 18 months behind the Germans. Who were already so far advanced, had the best laboratories in the world, the best military technology in the world. If you think that this was how it began you would never think that in 27 months that they would not only succeed, but beat the Germans far beyond their expectations to complete this weapon under these circumstances. It was really nothing the short of a miracle.
Kelly: That’s terrific. I love that telephone story of the extra-large trucks.
Conant: I think it’s funny.
Kelly: My goodness. In your book, you describe some machines that made primitive badges. Have you ever seen such a machine? What was it like?
Conant: Those old laminates where you pressed everything down. They were terrible. They were very shoddy. They would make these badges. Sometimes they would work and sometimes they wouldn’t. Sometimes they’d be legible; sometimes they wouldn’t. Again, it was deadly serious business. If they weren’t presentable, if they fell apart in a few days, the security guards around Los Alamos would not let the physicists in or they wouldn’t let the physicists out. So, these badges, these security passes were all-important. They were your only way to move about the laboratory. Your only way to access your office, if your office was up at the laboratory. And yet they constantly fell apart. They were very poor quality. It was an ongoing nightmare.
The other thing that was very funny about it was that they all had these codenames, because General [Leslie] Groves was very concerned about security, almost paranoid about security. Some of the scientists were very famous. So if Enrico Fermi came to consult, if I. I. Rabi was here consulting, they had these made up code names. Enrico Fermi would be “Henry Farmer,” for example. They would put these on the passes, but the next time they came they might have a different code name on the passes. So when they presented it to the guard, they’d forget. Enrico Fermi would give the wrong code name. It wouldn’t be the same codename as his security pass and they still wouldn’t let him in.
Anyway, Dorothy McKibbin used to constantly have to run to the rescue, intervene, save these poor physicists who were being turned away at gunpoint. The armed guards, many of them were Army boys. A lot of them were from the Midwest or Utah. They’ve never heard foreign accents before. They thought all of these German, Italian, and Hungarian physicists sounded very suspect. Even though they were the heroes of the hour, they fell under suspicion very quickly from the military guard. There are many, many funny stories about that. They relied on Dorothy McKibbin all the time to come to the rescue, vouch for them, give them new passes and get them in.
Kelly: Can you get us some sense of the total volume of people and phone calls that she had to deal with?
Conant: As bad as she thought those early days were, it just steadily increased. As the laboratory geared up, they started arriving, sometimes dozens in one day. There weren’t cars to take them up. They would wait hours at 109 East Palace. No car and driver would return for them. She’d have to find them hotels. If nobody came for them, sometimes she took them home with her. Because there were so many of them and they didn’t get them all up to “The Hill,” as they called the Los Alamos site, on time. It got dark. The roads were very treacherous. So the volume was just enormous. Then, they started coming in by the dozens and then by the hundreds. You are just talking about herding. She said it was like herding cattle up there. They just had such a large number of people to process, register, get them to sign all these papers, get them security passes, and then get them up there.
That was the least of it. In addition to the physicists, they need all kinds of workmen up there. They needed electricians. They needed carpenters. They needed people to provide all manner of services. So, she had to start interviewing and processing workers. These workers came from all over the state. They drove hours and hours and hours, because this was a military job. It was well paid, but they still had to get security clearance.
She had to put them through these multi-page interviews about their previous employment, their family history, get people that could recommend them, take down all their information. Then, because many of them had no place to stay, they were sleeping in their cars. They would come every day to ask her, “Have I been approved? Can I start work?”
As she said, it was a rather desperate situation, because many of them were really going through the little money they had living out of their cars in Santa Fe hoping that they’d get this well-paid military job. That was a very difficult job and turning them away was, she said, often heartbreaking, but the military had very strict rules about who they could clear. When they said no, there was no talking them out of it. She had to turn many people away, which, she said, was absolutely almost tragic at times and very hard.
Kelly: I read a lot about how she wasn’t just important to the military and scientific personnel, per se, but to their family members, as well. Can you talk about her relationship to the broader family of the Manhattan Project?
Conant: Well, if General Groves had this way, it would have just been men in barracks. As he said, “no fuss and feathers.” But as soon as they started talking about this laboratory and teasing out what it would look like and how long it would take, it immediately became apparent to Oppenheimer and the group of physicists that were in on the early planning stages that this was going to be a multi-year effort. Two years or more. Now the average age of a physicist is something like 24, 25 at that point. They’re brilliant when they’re young. These were going to be young men. The vast majority of these young men, at this time, were newly married or they had one baby and another baby on the way.
There was simply no way they were going to be able to convince this top-tier talent, the best physicists in the country, to come to the middle of nowhere. They weren’t even telling them where, so they didn’t even know where they were going, but they were supposed to leave their friends, their family, everyone they knew. Cut every tie. Tell no one where they were going. Disappear off the face of the earth for something like two years.
That’s asking a lot, especially when they can go work in major wartime laboratories. For example, the Radar Laboratory, which many physicists regarded as the most important of the Manhattan Project laboratories at that point in time. That was comfortably located right in the middle of MIT’s campus. They had all the modern conveniences of Cambridge at their disposal.
But no, this Oppenheimer special project was in the middle of nowhere. They would have to say goodbye to all their loved ones, everything they knew. Now asking them to say goodbye to their families, as well, was impossible. Oppenheimer realized that. He realized that they wanted these men to come and devote all their energies. They were going to have to invite the families along. Groves grudgingly went along with it, but he made virtually no accommodations for this.
As the families started arriving, the men had arrived first, but as the women and children started arriving, they arrived at what was essentially like a frontier boomtown. It was a mess, a God-awful mess. It was a construction site full of raw timber buildings that have been hastily slapped together. There were no finished roads, no sidewalks. If it rained you were five inches deep in the mud. It was a dreadful place really, to be honest.
What had once been a lovely bucolic setting next to a very pretty little pond was just a muddy construction site by the time the families were arriving. They were pretty miserable. There was nothing. There had been no planning done by these brilliant men who were fantastic physicists and never meant to be storekeepers or city planners.
They had not really thought about toddlers, diapers, medical care, pediatricians, formula, fresh milk and all kinds of basics like hot water and laundry. You name it, they didn’t have it. They had nothing.
Right from the beginning these women were quite desperate for everything and they relied on Dorothy McKibbin. She helped them get everything from bassinets, strollers and clothes. She helped get food and medicine. She made recommendations. She cajoled Oppenheimer to hire somebody to requisition supplies. She was a shoulder to cry on. She was a local. She had all kinds of resources at her fingertips. All kinds of people she could turn to for help. I think, that really many, many of these young women would have been at their wits’ ends without her. They just say that she came to their rescue in so many ways. I think they were overwhelmed by the challenges that this location and this assignment presented. She was the friendly face that got them through.
Kelly: If you think about your description of Oppenheimer’s encounter with her, which was obviously very brief and a cursory once look over. How in the world did they know, or did they not know, that she was going to be so phenomenal?
Conant: Well, as she pointed out herself, she had probably been thoroughly vetted long before that meeting was arranged. The two men that Oppenheimer had already been working with and requisitioning buildings and properties, they knew who she was. They had known her for more than a decade. They knew that she was a very reputable widow, that she was considered to be a very upstanding member of the community. Everybody knew her; everybody could vouch for her. They certainly knew that she was well-educated, that she was from the East Coast, that she’d gone to Smith College. She’d been a bookkeeper, so she was very good with accounts, with money, very responsible.
So they were able to give her a very high recommendation. Remember that was not a common thing in a small town like Santa Fe in 1943 to find a Smith graduate. She was an anomaly. I think they knew she was perfect for the job. They probably wouldn’t find anyone better. I’m sure they told that to Oppenheimer, which is why he immediately gave her the nod. But certainly, as everybody in the project said, it was the luckiest day of the Project’s early days that he managed to get Dorothy McKibbin on his side. Because really so many of the scientists told me that they literally could not imagine what that first month would have been like without her.
One of the funny things is they didn’t have high regard for Oppenheimer’s organizational skills before this. Even before the project began, he was everybody’s last choice to lead the Los Alamos bomb laboratory. Oppenheimer was a theoretical physicist and this was going to be an experimental physics laboratory. I think, as the physicist Phil Morrison told me once – he said had Oppenheimer known really anything about experimental physics and how much actual equipment you need for experimental physics, he probably never would have put the laboratory up there. But he was a theoretician. He only thought in theoretical terms. All he needed was a blackboard and chalk.
The problem with Oppenheimer was he was a bit spacey. He was a little ethereal. He wasn’t the most practical of men. He was famous on Berkeley’s campus for parking his car and losing it. Walking all over looking for it. This did not inspire, even in his closest colleagues who thought he was brilliant, great confidence in terms of his administrative ability.
When they got here and saw that it was absolute chaos and no arrangements had been made – there was no power, no food, no water, no place to stay, no transportation – panic started to set in. I think, that had it not been for Dorothy McKibbin quickly coming to the rescue and getting them housing and making sure they were fed and really smoothing over some very difficult days, Oppenheimer might well have been faced with sort of a little mini rebellion on his hands. Because they were very nervous. They were very honest about it. They really were dismayed, many of them, when they arrived.
Kelly: So she was a bit of a miracle worker.
Conant: She was. It’s simple. One asks how could this woman been so important? But in the early days of the laboratory, it was really a construction business. They were really setting up. It took weeks and weeks and weeks and weeks to set up this boomtown and this laboratory. It was all a matter of just hundreds and hundreds of trucks and boxes and boxes of supplies: beakers, thermometers, electrical equipment and every kind of testing equipment. All coming by box, all having to be sorted, all having to be passed up. It was really a massive organizational task, post office task, personnel department. She just became a jack-of-all-trades. One can imagine how she was able to step in and become such a vital part of the operation so quickly. As result of that, making herself so indispensable.
She really became quite an important personage by the third month of the laboratory. Everybody thought of her as indispensable. Oppenheimer, in fact, tried desperately to convince her to be his assistant and move up to Los Alamos. But her house was here and she had this young son in school here. She didn’t want to uproot herself. She also said, which I sort of love and shows you a little bit of the mischievousness of her personality, she liked being queen bee of 109 East Palace and running her whole operation. She had a pretty keen sense that being in charge here and, as she put it, being the gatekeeper to the laboratory was the job that she wanted to keep. So she turned Oppenheimer down and she became really their lifeline here in Santa Fe. That really, I think, makes her story all the more extraordinary.
Kelly: Now she had been widowed a dozen years before this. But she was still very attractive at 43 and obviously high-energy. But she didn’t marry. She seemed to be totally married to the job and to the whole community. Is that a correct impression?
Conant: It is. I interviewed a number of women that became very close friends with her. I thought Betty Lilienthal put it best. There were a number of men that courted her here in Santa Fe. One who had proposed to her, a painter. But her husband had been a Princeton graduate, a brilliant fellow, a wonderful athlete, really the love of her life. When he became ill and died, it had really crushed her. I think for a number of years she just focused on her young son. I think that when she started to look around and think about marrying in her late thirties, there really wasn’t anyone in Santa Fe that was suitable. Betty thought that she was open to it and might have married. But really there just wasn’t anyone here. It was a small town. She didn’t leave. She spent all of her free time with her young son. Really, she was content with that life and was happy.
But there was a side of her that wanted more, that was restless. When Oppenheimer stepped into her life, this filled the void. This was a man on a mission. Someone that she could devote all of this intelligence, pent-up energy, all these skills, curiosity, excitement and things that were not being fulfilled by her quiet life in Santa Fe. This just summoned all of that up. I think that she just threw herself into the project. She worked really seven days a week. She opened her home to them. On weekends, all of the young physicists and their young wives, who desperately wanted to get away from that dreary factory town, would come down, and they would sleep in sleeping bags in her garden, on her porch. Fill every square foot of the house to get a break, to come into town, to buy food, to do errands and just have a little respite from the terrible grind of work up there.
I think myself that she had a crush on Oppenheimer. I think it grew into a very serious attachment on both their sides. He was a lady killer. All women fell in love with him. His secretaries were all in love with him. He was wonderfully charismatic and charming and could be very courtly. As Priscilla Green said, what young secretary wouldn’t swoon when in the middle of dictation, he would light a cigarette and light another for his secretary and pass it to her. That kind of courtly manners.
But he was in many ways a very unhappy, moody, lonely man privately. He was in an unhappy, difficult marriage. I think in Dorothy he found a very loyal friend, someone he could count on, a bit of a shoulder to cry on, a support system, a mother figure all rolled into one. I think she became the nearest thing he had to family in Santa Fe. They became very, very close. Really, by the later years, they were inseparable. She traveled with him. She was really his hostess later in life. So she really became part of his life and his family. He became everything to her.
Kelly: Did she have a relationship with his children?
Conant: Yes. She had a very close relationship with Oppenheimer’s children. Peter was two years old when he arrived with his nanny. Kitty Oppenheimer was a very troubled woman. Also very unhappy. She had lost her first [misspoke: second] husband under tragic circumstances in the Spanish American [misspoke: Spanish Civil] War. Theirs had been hasty marriage, what might have been called in the old days a shotgun marriage.
Moving up to an army town, a military town, under strict supervision with strict rules was the last place that someone like Kitty Oppenheimer belonged. She had been very left-wing. She had been married to a communist. She had joined the Communist Party. She had been a picketer. She had been on strikes. She had spent months and years leafleting people on streets next to her Communist Party worker husband’s side. She was a very volatile personality. She was way too big a personality for little Los Alamos.
She was very unhappy. Sadly, really went from being, I think, quite a vivacious woman and the kind of woman that was very bright and the center of attention at parties to becoming increasingly withdrawn. She drank too much, which was not uncommon in the war years. He was gone day and night. He was never home. She was always alone. She had a baby up at Los Alamos, so she had two toddlers.
Domesticity didn’t come naturally to her. The children were not being properly looked after. They got a nanny in, and really Oppenheimer began to rely increasingly on Dorothy, who was a mother and had a son of her own, to really make sure that his household was running properly. It wasn’t, so Dorothy just took the Oppenheimer household in hand. I think she really ran it. She made sure the kids were properly looked after. She became very much a surrogate mother to Peter, who really regarded her, I think, very much that way and loved her very much.
Kelly: Of all the weddings she had at her home, it also included one of Peter’s.
Conant: Yes. Peter was married at her home. After the war, Peter stayed in Santa Fe and really, I think, in many ways was Dorothy’s youngest son. I think he viewed Santa Fe as home. Her house as the warmest, safest place, happiest place he knew. He stayed in town and stayed with her right to the end.
Kelly: There are so many pieces of the book that relate to the progression of the war. Actually, if you could talk about another woman that Oppenheimer identified early on who’d became a very important mainstay for people’s sanity, Edith Warner.
Conant: Oh, and her wonderful restaurant, you mean. It’s difficult for people to imagine how grim working seven days a week for the Los Alamos scientists were. They rose at seven and they were in the laboratories often until seven or eight at night. They went home to very, very tiny primitive apartments. They weren’t terribly comfortable and they were overcrowded. They had very little privacy. They were exhausted. The work was strenuous. It was very tense times. The disagreements could be bitter. Resources were short. Every decision was crucial. There were all kinds of tensions between the scientists about what to do, how to devote their time and what direction the research should take. This was just exhausting, emotionally draining work. Oppenheimer very quickly realized that they would need some forms of relaxation, some escape. Or they would just drop on their feet.
Really it turned out that his madness was a kind of brilliance in picking Los Alamos. He had privately always wanted the laboratory to be here and he maneuvered Groves into placing it here. Because he loved it. He had always felt this was one of the most magnificent locations. He owned a ranch nearby in the Pecos Valley. He had been coming here himself since his youth, because he had tuberculosis and had come here to recover. It had always reinvigorated him and inspired him. So he’d come back. I think, every year in the 1930s he and his brother, who was also a physicist, came back, rode horses, and spent time here talking physics and enjoying their surroundings.
He had thought wisely that being able to ride horses, climb the mountains and enjoy the valleys would be wonderful for the physicists. But they needed more than just that. When they discovered Edith Warner’s wonderful restaurant, they had a place to go that was old, charming, and civilized with wonderful food. It just became this fabulous escape. Oppenheimer would take all of his top physicists there.
My grandfather, James B. Conant, was one of the men who was head of the Manhattan Project, and along with Groves, was really the man who helped set the agenda for Oppenheimer and supervise the entire progress of the Los Alamos bomb laboratory. Whenever he visited, he always requested that they go to Edith Warner’s restaurant, that it was very special. They would have these wonderful dinners there. They would talk business and it was very serious business, but to be able to do it in such a magical setting made it much easier and much more fulfilling experience. So it was key.
Kelly: Talking about escapes and watering holes, would you like to talk about La Fonda?
Conant: The La Fonda Hotel, another refuge. The wonderful La Fonda Hotel. People who grow up in small towns in America know this, but the city people have probably forgotten it. Wonderful classic hotels in small towns are much more than hotels. They are the meeting spot. They’re the heartbeat of town. It’s where everybody important does business, has meetings, has conferences in their ballrooms. It’s where everybody important stays when they’re in town.
They’re well-known watering holes. It’s where you go to get all the information and the gossip. They are really the center of the town. La Fonda was that already before the scientists started coming. But once they started coming, this was where they all stayed before they went up the hill. It was this little oasis of civilization, of amenities, of a bathtub, hot water, and a good meal. The very words “La Fonda” had a magical quality to them. When they’d really gotten fed up, the physicists would arrange passes, and they and their wives would come to Santa Fe for two or three days and just check into the La Fonda and try to recover.
Kelly: Can you talk a little bit about the Trinity Site and what was entailed and setting up this place, deciding on why to move the test for the bomb 210 miles away?
Conant: They already had been doing all their ordnance testing, that is, the explosive testing, in the empty canyons and valleys around Los Alamos. Because you needed an isolated spot to do these explosions. They were big explosions, so the repercussions were huge. They shook everything in the immediate area. They had to be isolated. As it was, you can hear these booming sounds in the latter months of the Los Alamos project as they neared completion. The booms would be going off, echoing in the canyons left and right.
But when it came time to test this first experimental weapon, they needed a very large amount of acreage and a very remote site. It was a classified weapon. Nobody could know about this test. This was going to be the largest explosion ever conducted by mankind. This was going to be a fearsome thing. They had to start looking for a site that was within commuting distance from Los Alamos, because they were going to have to truck the finished weapon, parts, men, and materials. They started hunting around the desert and they found this very remote spot in Alamogordo, just outside Alamogordo, New Mexico. They started building what they call the Trinity Test base camp.
Remarkably, it made Los Alamos look like the Four Seasons. It was really primitive. First, they lived in tents, then in little huts. It was really, really rough. It was all men. They just went in there and hunkered down, and they had to build and complete the weapon there. They then hung it from the steel tower, from which it would be exploded. They built the bunkers and observation buildings where they put all the equipment, very sophisticated equipment, that would measure the force of the explosion and all the different gauges that would do all the different readings for them. The radiation fallout and all of that. Then, bunkers which the scientists could crouch behind for safety.
Looking back, given what we know now, it was horrifyingly close and horrifyingly inadequate protection. Had the wind been blowing the wrong way, they all would have been showered in a fair amount of radioactive dust. But fortune smiled on them that day. Even though it had been a very stormy night and rainy, and it had looked like they might have to cancel the test, the skies cleared at the last minute and they were able to conduct the test in the pre-dawn hours without incident. That really was a remarkably fortunate thing.
Kelly: I know we are running out of time. What haven’t I asked about that you think everybody ought to know?
Conant: Well, everybody always says, “Did Dorothy McKibbin know they were building the bomb?” The answer to that is technically she would have told you that she didn’t know, but of course she knew. As did many, many, many of the wives. Technically, no one was supposed to know except the men with top security clearance. There were many levels of clearance. There were many, many people, many engineers, many people working on different aspects of the weapon who worked at Los Alamos who didn’t really exactly know what they were doing.
But Dorothy McKibbin knew exactly what they were doing. She had actually one of the highest security clearances you could have, because she was so indispensable and because, I think, Oppenheimer knew that she knew everything anyway from the early days.
Kelly: One more question about – you talk about security, espionage, and everybody’s favorite spy Klaus Fuchs.
Conant: The subject of security, I think, is the most fascinating to me in this digital age. I don’t think we can even begin to conceive of how you could have a secret project in our present world. But they pulled it off quite remarkably. They thought they had pulled it off entirely. The secrecy was so intense. The guards, the barbed wire; as we talked about, the passes, all the precautions that were taken. They had hundreds of FBI agents, G-2 men stationed all around Albuquerque and Santa Fe. They were in cars. They just hung out in bars. They were there to see if the scientists got drunk and said too much. They picked up strangers who got off the train who might not have any business in this town.
It was crawling with FBI. So the security precautions were enormous and yet, as we later discovered, a very shy, self-effacing, bespectacled, young physicist named Klaus Fuchs. Who was very brilliant and sat on some of the most classified meetings, including discussions of a futuristic bomb called the hydrogen bomb which were held up at Los Alamos by Edward Teller. He managed to come down every week and pass secrets to the Russians without the feds ever finding him or cottoning on to the fact that he was betraying Los Alamos bomb secrets to the enemy. That turned out to be a very, very tragic thing. When they discovered it my grandfather and Oppenheimer were literally, I think, quite sick.
Kelly: Indeed. Of course, they found two others and the story isn’t finished yet.
Conant: No. I think one of the most fascinating things about the Klaus Fuchs story is that he went after the war and became a top nuclear scientist in England. He knew everything about post-war Britain’s nuclear plans, facilities. He was a top, top man there. When he confessed to MI5, the whole thing was immediately taken under wraps by British intelligence. There was a very hasty ten-day trial. The whole thing was hushed up and classified. So very little is known about the larger elements of the Klaus Fuchs story. How much he gave. Who he gave it to. How long he continued spying. There are many, many questions about Klaus Fuchs and how much information he betrayed that scholars really haven’t been able to answer to their satisfaction.
Kelly: Your next book.
Conant: The British have those secrets.
Conant: And they’re not declassified.
Kelly: Right. One question – and I know you are running out of time – but about the women, the psychology of being married in this hyper, pressure cooker type of environment. Where you’re cut out of the knowledge, or at least you’re supposed to be cut out of what your husband is so stressed about.
Conant: It was terribly difficult to be married to a wartime physicist. Technically, they were honor bound to say nothing. A great many of the physicists that worked on the bomb honored that commitment. They felt absolutely that secrecy was paramount. Groves drilled it into them day and night. They would say nothing of their work. Remember they were gone often ten hours a day. They worked six days a week with Sundays off. They were really barely home. Then, when they were home they had very little to say. It was very stressful for these marriages. As I said, these were young couples. These were young marriages and it was very alienating.
I know from my own family directly: my grandfather said nothing to my grandmother. She had no idea that he was working on the bomb project. He never spoke of it. In fact, he never told her that he came out to Santa Fe. He would always say that he was going west. He was based in Washington where the Manhattan Project was being run out of a series of Washington offices. One day she found a book of Santa Fe train matches in his coat pocket. Then when she questioned him about it, he just said, “Oh, no. I was never there. I was just in Chicago in meetings.” When she found a book of matches again some month later, she began to suspect that he was having an affair. I think it drove quite a wedge between them.
When the bomb was finally dropped and the war was over, he walked into the living room and said to her, “I can finally tell you where I’ve been and what I’ve been doing all these months.”
She said, “Do you think I care?” and walked out of the room and slammed the door because she was angry.
As he wrote in this memoir, there was a lot of anger and there was a lot of distrust, because all these men had to tell so many lies. Not only to their wives, but to their friends and their family about what they were doing and where they were. Because to say nothing was so difficult. It was easier to tell a bland lie, but when you lie for years it catches up for you. It was very difficult. It was very stressful for the young wives and for their marriages and families. It was a difficult time.