The Manhattan Project

Nancy Bartlit's Interview (2005)

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Nancy Bartlit's Interview (2005)

Nancy Bartlit is the former president of the Los Alamos Historical Society and the author of "Silent Voices of World War II: When Sons of the Land of Enchantment Met Sons of the Land of the Rising Sun." In this interview, she describes the Historical Society's efforts to preserve properties at Los Alamos. She also explains her support for the Manhattan Project National Historical Park and her vision for the park.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
November 16, 2005
Location of the Interview: 
Los Alamos

Nancy Bartlit: My name is Nancy R. Bartlit, B-A-R-T-L-I-T.

Cindy Kelly: Thank you. Why don’t we start with you telling us what is your role?

Bartlit: I’m president of the Los Alamos Historical Society, and I formerly was on the County Council.  I have been in Los Alamos for more than forty years as a volunteer activist and environmentalist. I also was on the National Lung Association, so I’m kind of interested in many things.

I studied history at Smith College and I went to Japan and taught for two years, so history is my largest interest. That understanding of Japan and understanding of Los Alamos and what went on here during the Manhattan Project is of interest of me, because I feel as though I am in both cultures. I feel that I have a role to play to bring Hiroshima and Los Alamos together ultimately. So that is my personal purpose.

I don’t know how this will happen, but that is one of the reasons why I give so much time to the Historical Society and to the history of Los Alamos, because it’s extremely significant in the future of the world. I think that Hiroshima and Los Alamos understand each other and talk to one another. So that’s the future.

The Historical Society began in 1967, when the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] was trying to find out what to do with Fuller Lodge. They asked people in the community, Beth Agnew, what to do. “Should we give this to the county? What should we do?”  They had torn down the Big House. There were people who were caring who wanted to preserve the history, and so we started the Museum, the Historical Museum.

Originally, it was going to be in Fuller Lodge, but it was moved over to where it is today in the little log cabin, which was the place where Leslie Groves stayed when he came to visit [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and see what was going on. So it has a special interest, as well as being an interesting log cabin where the history is kept that we maintain. We also have started an archives, being given artifacts, and we have maintained those for the town for almost forty years.

We have established interest in preserving the Manhattan Project as part of the history of Los Alamos, not only for Los Alamos but for the region outside of Los Alamos, which was affected by the Manhattan Project and the people coming through Lamy and Santa Fe, and coming up here through Espanola, maybe some staying at Bandelier. We see this as a regional history to be preserved, as well as the local history.

We have recently acquired the Oppenheimer House, which we will ultimately have as a museum for people to come to. This has changed us, the Society, the composition of the society to be landlords, if you will, and to take responsibility for preserving this history as a private corporation.

We are committed to preserving this kind of history. We also have been preserving Bathtub Row, helping to preserve Bathtub Row and give tours around the Historic District and publish public books about the Manhattan Project by many people who were here during those days. We keep the science alive through our publications. We have done oral histories. Many times, national media people will contact our Museum and our archives for information. ABC, when they put something on about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki days, will get in touch with us.

Now we have a website, and we have photographs that the [Los Alamos National] Laboratory has allowed us to scan and will put on the website. We will be a conduit to the public, so that more researchers and more people can have access to what went on during the Manhattan days.

Kelly: Can you talk about the preservation of the Manhattan Project properties? What is significant about preserving the place, for example, where the Oppenheimer family lived, or some of these places the scientist lived behind the fence? Why is that important?

Bartlit: As an author of a book on World War II and how New Mexico helped to shorten the war in the Pacific, the role of Oppenheimer—a man who was only forty years old when he started this laboratory, and had the network scientifically and economically to bring in the top scientists, whose average age was twenty-five—was extremely surprising, mysterious, almost inconceivable what they did in the twenty-seven months that these men were here. Men and women, but principally men were the scientists in those days. What they did to shorten the war was extremely significant, I think, to the world and to the saving of lives, both Japanese lives and the Allied lives.

The men from New Mexico who were in the Philippines, who were the first of the New Mexico National Guardsmen to be federalized, helped to keep the Japanese military from capturing Australia in the early months of the war, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and four other cities simultaneously.

Those men were imprisoned for the duration, three and half years, in Japanese camps. They were dying daily, because they were on quarter rations. The Navajo code talkers from New Mexico helped to shorten the war in the Pacific, because of their code that no one could break, the Japanese could not break. Their commander said that because of their role, as we took more Pacific islands that got closer and closer to Japan, they shortened the war by a year.

The atomic bombs that were developed here for use in Germany initially. People who have studied World War II history know that Germany surrendered before the bombs were ready to be used. The policy of FDR and [Winston] Churchill was to help recapture Europe first, and then they would turn their attention to the Pacific.

At that time, when the bombs were ready to be dropped, the men who were coming from Europe were ready to go over and have, I think, one of the worst battles of the whole world. If once they stepped on Kyushu, the POWs, 150,000 POWs, would be exterminated immediately. There were New Mexico POWs in Hiroshima who did die from the bomb. But the lives that were saved because of the bombs being dropped, I truly believe, ended the war and ended it quickly and saved those lives, the Japanese lives and the American lives.

Russia came in, of course, at the same time as the second bomb. That also influenced the decision of the Emperor to surrender. No one else could surrender but the Emperor, no one else.  The head of the military in Japan committed suicide after he acquiesced to the Emperor’s decision. The officers under him tried to have a coup to stop the surrender. Then when their coup failed, they committed suicide. The only way to stop that war and save lives was the use of the atomic bombs. 

The role of J. Robert Oppenheimer in working with [General Leslie R.] Groves to come to that conclusion, where the bombs could work and would work and did work—with the other men that were gathered to Los Alamos and were part of the project in Tinian, and the B-29 509th Composite group—as a big picture, really were significant to stop that war. The fact that J. Robert Oppenheimer and his family lived in that house gives us, the Historical Society, a chance to help people understand what happened and why it was significant and what we did here.

The Historical Society is thrilled about the idea of having a Manhattan Project National Park and having people understand the relationship between Los Alamos, Oak Ridge, and Hanford. Oak Ridge and Hanford have places that visitors, when they come to Oak Ridge or Hanford, can go to, to see the actual facility where the uranium and the plutonium were processed. We have a problem here in Los Alamos, because the facilities that were used to develop the bomb are what they are called “behind the fence.” At this time, the public does not have access to see these facilities, unless one has a clearance or some kind of a special pass.

When they come to Los Alamos, they are going to come and what will they see? They will see the Bradbury Science Museum, which is the laboratory’s museum that explains what kind of science is going on and how the bombs were developed. Then, they will come to our [Los Alamos Historical] Museum, our small museum. They will learn much more about what happened not only in the Manhattan Project, but the other history of Los Alamos. They will see Fuller Lodge, which was built during the Boy’s Ranch School by the famous architect John Gaw Meem, built in 1928. The spirit of those men that were here in the Manhattan Project still lives in that hall, in which we have our lectures.

Along Bathtub Row, there are five homes that are pretty much the same way they were during the Manhattan Project times and before. One, at this time, can walk around the houses and kind of get an idea of what it was like to live in these homes. This was the crème de crème during the Manhattan Project. If you were in a Bathtub Row house, you were one of the top, top scientists, and you were privileged because you had a bathtub, [laughter] if you value that.

Having the Oppenheimer home is another way of appreciating the way the people lived here. When we open the house, when we have ownership of the house in such a way that we can invite the public in daily, they will see pictures of the people who came to the house. Perhaps we will have a virtual history, where we can take people back to the days in ’43 to ’45. Hopefully, we will have some statues out in the lawn, life-size statues of Oppie and maybe some of the other scientists, that will also intrigue them and they will ask questions. They will see what they looked like, how they dressed. It will just be something that will draw people in, and they will want to know more and they will want to read more about this man who is a fascinating person. He was fascinating in his background, his connections, his understanding of what was happening in Europe when his relatives were being persecuted by Hitler.

[Enrico] Fermi who came here, as you know, was an enemy alien. His passport, according to his wife, was stamped “Enemy alien,” because he was from Italy. Our Japanese-Americans who were in the Santa Fe internment camp in Santa Fe were also enemy aliens, even though some of them were American-born.

There are so many ironies. There is so much to learn when you come to this house. Hopefully, the Historical Society, working with the National Park people, Bandelier, anyone else who is interested, will be able to explain more about the significance of what went on in Los Alamos.

One story is about George Kistiakowsky, who I am sure you are covering, about George, so you will have background about him. He liked to ride horses, and in doing research for our book, we found that he would go down and he would ride horses that were stabled in the New Mexico National Guard Stables. When you come up from Santa Fe across from the Radisson, which now is called the Lodge, on the right-hand side you’ll see the National Cemetery. You are driving right through where the horses were stabled, and where Kistiakowsky used to go down and ride horses. The road cuts through it, and it’s no longer there.

The men in the National Guard had to be able to shoot a target at a gallop between the ears of their horse. They were marvelous marksmen. They won usually all the competition when they were down in Fort Bliss, Texas, before they were sent over to the Philippines. That’s a little story.

The other little story is—I love serendipity. When my husband and I came here, we didn’t know anyone in New Mexico. We got active in air pollution control, when the Four Corners Power Plant was putting out more pollution than all of the sources in New York City and Los Angeles County put together. They were polluting our New Mexico skies, and the copper smelters were contributing as well.

My husband gave a talk down in Santa Fe, and Peggy Pond Church came up to him and said, “Do you really spell your name B-A-R-T-L-I-T?”

He said, “Yes.”

She said, “Well then, we are related.” Sure enough, John’s father and Peggy are third cousins, and her second son is named Alan Bartlit Church and her third son is Hugh Church. Hugh is a meteorologist. Well, Fermer [Church], who was retired at that time, Fermer was a Master at the boy’s school. He was from Harvard and he met Peggy who went to my same university, Smith College. He had all this network because of the Boy’s Ranch School, and he helped us to found New Mexico Citizens for Clean Air and Water.

We took the power plant to court, and we cleaned up the skies from the power plant. We took the copper smelters to court, and we cleaned up the copper smelters. So now we have the blue skies that were seen by the men who were here during the Manhattan Project. So you can say that the Churches and the Ponds and the Bartlits helped to preserve the environment in which the Manhattan Project happened.

That’s my interest in the Lung Association. We got Hugh Church on the board of the Lung Association, and he would come to hearings and a handful of us would testify. We cleaned up the skies in New Mexico. Most people don’t know that story; it’s yet to be written. 

I certainly support, and the Society supports, the efforts of the Atomic Heritage Foundation and our Senators Jeff Bingaman and Pete Domenici who have been spearheading the effort to save these properties and have put money behind the effort to save these properties. As someone who has not got a clearance, I have seen these properties when the Historical Society put on a conference, maybe eight years ago or so, we went through the properties, so I have an idea of what was there before the [Los Conchas] fire. Yes, indeed, if there is any way that those facilities can be opened up to the public, I think it would enhance the experience of people who come to Los Alamos.

If Los Alamos is the jewel in the crown, because of the fact that the scientists here were the theorists who tried to solve these problems, and then they were tested in our canyons by the SEDs [Special Engineer Detachment members] and the others who were brought here to work on that. If there is any way that we can have those open to the public, it will enhance the whole story.

But short of that, if we have virtual reality added to our museums or to the university in some way, that would enhance the experience of people coming to this triangle of the three main areas that would be in the Manhattan Project. I think that would be super. I just think it would be excellent. I encourage our Congressman, I encourage our lab leaders and preservationists to work with us on that.