The mysterious sanctuary hidden away in the Jemez mountains was known only as Box 1663 in the mid 1950s. The mission of its 13,000 residents was to create “the gadget.” Living there was a challenge. “It’s a prison camp for eggheads,” whispered one scientist.
As a young newsman, I decided I had to find a way to visit Los Alamos, even though I knew it would take time — perhaps years. I finally made it in 1956 (details below). And I re-visited it this week when I viewed Christopher Nolan’s new epic Oppenheimer, a brilliantly engrossing movie receiving unstinting raves from the critics.
Audiences worldwide will discover not one movie but two with contrasting themes – one a gripping heroic thriller about the dawn of a troubled nuclear age, the other an absorbing, if talky, political drama steeped in Cold War politics.
Cinephiles will be thrilled with Nolan’s succinct, if choppy, scenes depicting the intrigues facing a pioneering quantum physicist. Some will exult in the performance of Cillian Murphy as the “most important man in the world,” an intellectual who reads T.S. Eliot, listens to Stravinsky, learns Sanskrit in two weeks and hovers worshipfully before Picasso paintings.
Others may be baffled by the unexpected appearances of Rami Malek and Josh Hartnett, cast among these science wizards, or of the stalwart Robert Downey Jr as a conniving bureaucrat or Matt Damon as the general in charge of it all. Emily Blunt and Florence Pugh are excellent in supporting roles.
Viewing the three-hour movie, I found myself inevitably tugged by my recollections of my own contemporaneous visit to Los Alamos and my encounters with its haunted and self-doubting denizens.
As a neophyte reporter for the Wall Street Journal, I had heard rumors that Los Alamos was quietly opening up to outsiders who offered nonpolitical credentials. My editors at the Journal were skeptical about my mission. “No one will talk with you,” they advised. “Besides, what’s the story?”
They relented. The guards manning the gates seemed friendly, if puzzled. “I don’t understand why’re you’re visiting,” one explained.
”It’s not a very interesting community.”
But within hours I knew he was wrong. Virtually everyone I encountered held a PhD or its equivalent. They were young and talkative – but cautious about my using their names.
“We are basically government peons,” one young scientist explained. “They took care of us during the difficult wartime period but offered us austere housing doled out in accordance with status. You had to be lucky to meet their idea of a big shot.”
Most apartments were dormitory style. Senior scientists were assigned homes, but fireplaces or carports were available to only the most important. Many of the homes lacked kitchens.
“I love my customers but hate my business,” explained one young women who ran a clothing store. “It’s impossible to get credit because the bankers know that a single misstep can get you tossed out of town.”
Secrecy was pervasive. “Before the bomb was dropped in 1945 there were constant rumors about spies,” said one resident. “Some locals suspected that ‘the gadget’ was really the bomb, but what sort of bomb?” said one denizen. “Only Oppenheimer himself seemed to acknowledge that Los Alamos was playing with the future of mankind. But everyone was going along with the dirty little secret.”
During the war years, a quiet debate had raged among scientists in the community as to whether the bomb should ever be dropped. The war with Germany was over. Would Japan surrender anyway — a debate scrupulously set forth in Nolan’s movie.
A few of the top scientists believed that Los Alamos should have been shut down for symbolic reasons after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but the Atomic Energy Commission and its allies insisted that there were more important missions to accomplish.
As Nolan’s movie makes clear, Oppenheimer himself was dedicated to goals of nuclear controls and cooperation. He envisioned a worldwide movement toward peace.
As a reward for his extraordinary achievement and loyalty, his security clearances were withdrawn. He would no longer have access to the universe he’d created – an absurd ruling later to be reversed.
Oppenheimer realized, mid-career, that he had helped create, not mere battlefield weapons, but instruments of terror and mass destruction.
Had Openheimer’s colleague Albert Einstein created the movie, it would likely have argued that Oppenheimer lost his soul when he first locked the tools of quantum physics to the ominous politics of the weapons race.
“The tragic mistake of Los Alamos was to misguide scientists into thinking they could play god,” as one physicist told me at the time.
The film draws much of its information from American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a book by Kai Bird and Walter J. Sherwin.