Examining The Wartime Residents Of Los Alamos English Literature Essay

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For the wartime residents of Los Alamos, the landscape frequently represented a mythical and ancient space, one that was sometimes at odds with the scientific work being done there and sometimes an appropriate setting for what seemed to be a mythological act in itself, the creation of the most powerful weapon in human history. In the collection of essays Reminiscences of Los Alamos, John H. Dudley relates that when he first encountered Los Alamos the landscape struck him as something out of the mythic Western imagination: "At dawn we were driving up wild canyon country and passed through a crevice in the rocks very similar to those described in some of Zane Grey's stories" (7). For Dudley the unspoiled land of the American Western clashed with the appearance of the city itself filled with army barracks (7). In the same collection of essays John H. Manley also notes the clash between the remote New Mexico landscape and the up-to-date scientific equipment needed to create an atomic bomb: "What we were trying to do was build a new laboratory in the wilds of New Mexico with no initial equipment except the library of Horatio Alger books or whatever it was that those boys in the Ranch School read, and the pack equipment that they used going horseback riding, none of which helped us very much in getting neutron producing accelerators" (28).

One perception of the mythical and modern in wartime Los Alamos was the perception that the creation of the Los Alamos scientific community represented an imposition on a beautiful, idyllic natural world. In this scenario the New Mexico landscape represents an unfallen world that is tainted by the scientific experimentation conducted there. The unspoiled, mythical world finds itself forever altered by modern science. Joseph O. Hirschfelder describes an incident he witnessed after the Trinity Test in these terms:

About 25 miles from ground zero, we came upon a mule who must have looked

directly at the explosion, his jaws were wide open, his tongue hanging out,

and he was completely paralyzed. When we passed the same spot in the

afternoon, the mule was gone so he must have recovered. Then we came to a

small store at the crossing of two dirt roads. [We] rang the door bell and

an old man came out. He looked quizzically at us. Then he laughed and said,

"You boys must have been up to something this morning. The sun came up in

the west and went on down again." (77)

Hirshfelder's account of the aftermath of the Trinity Test striking illustrates a world in which the natural world has become unnatural due to the explosion of the atomic bomb. The mule's paralysis and the innocent old man's comments about two sunrises demonstrate how the Manhattan Project intrusively imposed a new world on the unchanging landscape of the New Mexico desert.

Yet another perception, however, of how the mythical and modern coexisted at Los Alamos was that the mythic, ancient landscape of New Mexico was the most appropriate site for the creation of the atomic bomb. Manley notes that Los Alamos could be seen as representing "a new civilization colonizing ... Northern New Mexico, some 800 years after the first known permanent residents, the Keres people, came to this plateau about 1150" (32). Manley views the new colonizers as settling the area for a mythical purpose: "to pursue a development to resolve a conflict of half the world" (32). William Laurence, the official reporter for the Manhattan Project, echoed this feeling of Los Alamos being the appropriate setting for the creation of such a new and mysterious weapon. In Dawn Over Zero Laurence compares Los Alamos to "Never-Never Land" and "Shangri-La" and sees the ancient beauty of Los Alamos as a fitting setting for the creation of a new age, an age Laurence describes thus: "This marks the first time in the history of man's struggles to bend the forces of nature to his will that he is actually present at the birth of a new era on this planet, with full awareness of its titanic potentialities for good or evil" (164). Laurence sees the Atomic Age as a new Genesis beginning in the unfallen world of the New Mexico landscape. He emphasizes the harmony that he believed was part of the scientific endeavor at Los Alamos, stating, "one of the significant outcomes of the Atomic Bomb Project and particularly the Los Alamos branch was the bringing together into a smoothly functioning team of the long-hairs and the short-hairs, who in normal peacetime used to growl at each other from a safe distance. Each learned to respect and admire the other" (183).

For some observers of the creation of the bomb, then, Los Alamos was the ideal setting because it evoked a mythical timelessness that helped frame the creation of the bomb in those terms. As Bryan C. Taylor has argued, one implication of the mythologizing of the Manhattan Project present in many first-hand accounts of the experience at Los Alamos is that "asserting a miracle at Los Alamos invokes a transcendental sponsorship for organizational practice that simultaneously inflates--or mystifies--the accountability of human practitioners" (434). Thus the mytholozing of Los Alamos and the bomb was one manner of psychically dealing with the radical destruction being planned in unspoiled New Mexico. If the bomb is outside history, then belief in the positivist notion of history, so dear to wartime and postwar America, could continue. As Georg Lukacs argues, nineteenth-century positivism worked to ahistoricize events while it simultaneously purported to offer a new theory of history. Lukacs argues that in positivism, "history is negated in a reactionary fashion and dissolved partly into an ahistorical system of sociological `laws,' partly into a mystified philosophy of history, in essence just as ahistorical" (176). How can a weapon that may destroy the earth be assimilated into a positivist notion of American history? Only by culturally removing it from a notion of historical progress can the nuclear be represented. Thus a setting perceived as timeless was appropriate for casting the atomic bomb as something timeless as well.

Jerry Hopper's 1952 film The Atomic City portrays the tension between up-to-date scientific discovery--here manifested in the development of the H-Bomb--and the ancient that is part of the physical world in and around the Atomic City. In this film the top nuclear scientist at Los Alamos, Dr. Frank Addison, finds his world turned upside down when his son Tommy is kidnapped by a fellow scientist who is working for the Soviet Union. In collaboration with the FBI Addison passes phony information relating to the H-bomb to the contact. Working against the FBI's wishes, Addison physically beats a contact in order to discover Tommy's whereabouts. Tommy is being held in the ancient Indian cliff dwellings outside of Los Alamos. The traitor is caught and Tommy is saved after dangling in extreme danger outside one of the caves.

Immediately in the film we see the supposedly normal domestic life at Los Alamos as one that has been altered frighteningly by the scientific work occurring there. The film shows us the Addisons' irregular domestic life at Los Alamos and how that irregular life has come to be perceived as normal by the family. Over lunch, Tommy says to his mother, Martha Addison, "If I grow up, do you know what I'm going to do?" Martha is horrified by his use of the word "if." As Eleanor Jette's account of life at Los Alamos maintains, this was a common expression used by the children who grew up there. She relates that a friend of hers is horrified by her son's expression when he says to her, "If I grow up ..." (82). The children who lived there openly expressed the uncertainty of the world's future due to the radical scientific changes created at Los Alamos. Tommy, however, is unruffled by this uncertainty and repeats the phrase to his friend Peggy. A man who is installing the Addisons' new television overhears this conversation and witnesses Martha, Tommy, and Peggy being unmoved by a routine test that shakes the entire house. The television man registers shock at what is perceived as normal at Los Alamos.

When Addison returns home after an ordinary day of work at the lab, which has included a colleague of his being burned by overexposure to radiation, Martha expresses anxieties about life at Los Alamos. Martha shows discontent with the barbed wire, FBI, and secrecy that make up routine Los Alamos life.

Yet, her discontent is quelled by the casting of the atomic scientist as a savior figure, a move that serves further to conflate the mythical and the modern. One figure that stood as a savior figure in postwar American society was the atomic scientist. Postwar perceptions of the atomic scientist saw him as one at whom the sites of moral considerations of the atomic age were located. On the one hand, the atomic scientist was perceived as the culprit behind the anxieties introduced into American society via nuclear weapons. On the other hand, the scientist stood as the new moralist who could help Americans come to terms with the new postwar world. As accounts of the Manhattan Project make clear, after the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, scientists began to perceive themselves as potential savior figures. This image was largely fashioned by I. Robert Oppenehiemer and the scientists' movement that he led. The bible of the scientists' movement, One World or None, best expressed the urgent need that Americans had to look to atomic scientists for moral guidance. The scientists contributing to the volume fashion themselves as the promoters of a peaceful atom, and portray the nation-state as the demonic force that may bring about world destruction.

This perception of the atomic scientist as the upholder of a new morality and justice outside the traditional channels of authority links the atomic scientist with the figure of the detective. As Sherlock Holmes attests to Victorian England's need for a new justice apart from Scotland Yard, and as Philip Marlowe indicates weaknesses in the LAPD that must be answered by a knight-detective who polices the mean streets, the atomic scientist serves as savior/detective figure in much postwar popular culture. One film that brings together explicitly the atomic scientist and detective fiction is The Atomic City. In this film Dr. Addison, the top scientist at Los Alamos, must work outside the traditional channels of authority in order to save his kidnapped son, Tommy. The Atomic City deals with ethical complexities of the atomic age by portraying Addison as both the cause of the crime and the solution to it. Further, the film works to reduce postwar anxieties about nuclear weapons to a kidnapping scenario that has a positive outcome.

In the film the strange newness of life at Los Alamos is played out against a backdrop of the older traditions of New Mexico life. At one point the film cuts directly from Addison's radically new work at the lab as he works on the H-bomb project to a scene of the Santa Fe Fiesta. Tommy is kidnapped at the fiesta and the Addisons attend a square dance that evening to await word from the kidnappers. The kidnappers ask Martha to meet them near the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe church in order to receive a phone message. The climactic scene is played out in Frijoles Canyon, home to twelfth-century Indian cliff dwellings and surface villages. Here--as the representatives of the modern world, Soviet agents, attempt to kill Tommy after discovering the passed information was false--the ruins themselves seem to come to the aid of the child and allow him to escape. Because he can fit in a small crevice in one of the caves he eludes the attempt on his life. Even as he dangles from one of the caves the landscape seems to take mercy on him and allows him to hang on until he can be rescued by the FBI. If the modern dangerous world of Los Alamos, a world in which Tommy can become a pawn in a Cold War game of espionage endangers, the natural landscape protects and saves the child.

Joseph Kanon's 1997 novel Los Alamos, while embodying a post--Cold War perspective on Los Alamos and the Manhattan Project, draws on the same tension between the mythic and the modern to paint its version of espionage in New Mexico. Kanon's novel focuses on Michael Connolly, an intelligence officer brought to Los Alamos to investigate the murder of Karl Bruner, a Manhattan Project security officer. The local police and the military have written off the murder as a homosexual slaying, but Connolly, with the help of a Project scientist's wife, Emma, with whom he has fallen in love, begins to uncover espionage writ large at the Project. Eventually a prominent emigre scientist and a local personality are discovered to be involved in passing information to the Soviets. Connolly solves the case and becomes engaged to Emma, convincing her husband to annul their marriage.

From the opening of the novel, the modernity of the Project is set in juxtaposition to the traditions of New Mexico. In the opening scene in Santa Fe, Mrs. Ortiz discovers Karl's body and is horrified. Her shock at the intrusion into her peaceful world is contrasted with the unchanging processes of nature that Kanon locates in the New Mexico landscape. Mrs. Ortiz sees the body and realizes that "this was what evil felt like; you could feel it around you, taste it in the air" (2). Even though evil has intruded on the peacefulness of Santa Fe, the natural world continues: "So it was another hour before Mrs. Ortiz approached the priest with her story and another hour after that before he telephoned the police, in English, and a car was dispatched. By that time the dew had dried along the Alameda and the day was hot" (3).

The Santa Fe police are shocked that a murder would occur in their peaceful community, especially a murder in which an intelligence officer becomes embroiled. Connolly's first perceptions of both Santa Fe and Los Alamos establish a contrast between the work of the Project and the almost unspoiled beauty of New Mexico. Connolly perceives that "Santa Fe, however, was pretty. The adobes, which Connolly had never seen, seemed to draw in the sun, holding its light and color like dull penumbras of a flame. The narrow streets leading to the plaza were filled with American stores--a Woolworth's, a Rexall Drugs that had been dropped into a foreign city" (8). If Connolly perceives Santa Fe in idealized terms, as something old and at odds with modern consumerism, he views Los Alamos in Edenic terms: "Connolly liked the remoteness of Los Alamos, the clean, high air away from files and reports of the world destroying itself" (27). Yet, the tension lies in the fact that in Edenic Los Alamos the world is discovering a new and insidious way of destroying itself. Yet the mythological continually reasserts itself even in the midst of the development of the bomb. In the novel as the scientists near the Trinity Test, a funeral stops work on the Hill and Connolly "could actually hear the wind blow across the mesa, a character in the creation myth" (286).

While Connolly becomes embroiled in the secrecy and espionage that is part of the Manhattan Project, the landscape in and around Los Alamos continues to offer him Edenic possibilities. Early in their affair Connolly and Emma visit the Anasazi ruins. This episode culminates with their falling in love irrevocably. His exploration of the ruins allows him to put the Manhattan Project in proper archaeological perspective: "As they walked from room to room, the place began to make sense, there was an order to things, and he wondered suddenly if years from now people would walk like this on the Hill, picking their way through its buildings and rituals and puzzles until they arranged themselves in the simple pattern of a town. Maybe it would keep its mysteries too, and maybe they would seem as inconsequential" (178-79). Here, as opposed to the personal accounts of Los Alamos discussed earlier, the use of mythology to understand the Project ultimately shows its unimportance for the future, its possibility of being eclipsed in time and understood only very partially, as the Anasazi people are now understood.

Yet, Kanon also uses the New Mexico landscape as an appropriate setting for the secrecy and espionage that made up the Manhattan Project. Just as Connolly cannot understand the Anasazi people due to lack of knowledge, as he explores the ruins he finds himself in a deadly world. He comes across a rattlesnake and fears encountering it again, but Emma assures him that he is safe: "What if it hadn't gone away? He saw himself holding an ankle full of poison, miles from anywhere, any cry for help muted by the wind. He had thought they had got away, that all this bright, uncomplicated space was theirs, and now he saw that he had merely intruded in it, made unsafe by what he couldn't see" (182). As in the personal accounts discussed earlier, Kanon uses the landscape to allegorize the Manhattan Project and its dangers. However, even if Connolly and Emma find a snake in their Garden of Eden, ultimately they end up together. At the end of the novel Emma even convinces Connolly to purchase the enemy agent Hannah's ranch so they can set up housekeeping there. The novel suggests that even if the Manhattan Project has intruded upon New Mexico and its unspoiled beauty, it still is the closest thing to Eden on earth.

Representations of Los Alamos from the late 1940s to the present day operate within the framework of the mythological in tension with modern science and its startling discoveries. Our attempts to represent Los Alamos are implicated with our attempts to understand the most shockingly destructive weapon in human history. The Atomic Age immediately perceived itself as a new historical epoch, as Laurence's account makes clear when he states that the invention of the atomic bomb "marks the first time in the history of man's struggle ... that he is actually present at the birth of a new era on this planet" (164). The Manhattan Project scientists themselves echo this self-conscious awareness of a new historical age beginning. In an essay written for One World or None, J. R. Oppenheimer labels the release of atomic energy as "revolutionary" (22). Yet, at the same time that postwar thinkers appeared to be periodizing the bomb as something new, they simultaneously worked to take it and its implications out of historical time and place them in mythological and eschatological time. New Mexico with its heritage of Native American and Spanish traditions and startling landscape became and still is the appropriate cultural setting for the ongoing tension between modern science and the timelessness of the natural and the ancient.