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  • Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community
  • Robert S. Norris
Jon Hunner , Inventing Los Alamos: The Growth of an Atomic Community. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004. xi + 288 pp. $29.95 cloth, $19.95 paper.

The book's seven chapters cover the time period from 1943 to 1957. The opening chapter recounts the often-told story of how Los Alamos became the central scientific laboratory of the Manhattan Project. Hunner, an associate professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, sets the scene describing the evolving community amidst the spectacular landscape of northern New Mexico. General Leslie R. Groves chose the site in November 1942, the first scientists began arriving in the spring of 1943, and by the end of the war the population had soared to nearly 6,000.

Hunner's contribution to the extensive literature about this unique place is to examine Los Alamos in broader terms than just the scientific ones that are at the center of most accounts. During the war years life was difficult. "Cramped quarters, electrical outages, water shortages, overcrowding, army regulations, censorship, stress, isolation from the outside world, secrecy, mud, cold, and wind all dampened enthusiasm for the project."

With the end of the war Los Alamos changed dramatically. While staff felt jubilation and pride that the bomb had helped end a horrible war, their feelings were mixed with concern about what sort of world the country was about to enter. Hunner describes [End Page 149] a tension that serves as his main theme. On the one hand is Los Alamos's struggle to become a normal community occupied by American families who, like their counterparts elsewhere, were searching for security and normalcy in an uncertain world. He describes how a school system was established, how they entertained themselves, practiced their religions, built suitable housing, and pursued the many other activities that constitute normal town life. Juxtaposed against this was the reality that Los Alamos was a unique and privileged enclave, funded by the federal government to fight the Cold War and build bombs that could, if ever used, end civilization, a haunting psychological weight for its inhabitants.

Hunner argues that somewhat unavoidably Los Alamos became the model community for the new atomic age. The media depicted it as a high-tech, Wild West boomtown on the frontlines of the Cold War that showcased the promise of nuclear energy while designing the weapons that supposedly offered security to the nation. In the aftermath of the first Soviet atomic explosion in August 1949 and the outbreak of the Korean War the following year, Los Alamos's funding and population grew significantly as Washington decided to develop the hydrogen bomb and mass-produce nuclear weapons of every sort.

Not everything was rosy on the mesa though. Hunner describes some of the dysfunctional elements that affected Los Alamos, such as extramarital affairs and alcoholism, the latter a commonplace among the bored housewives living in an isolated community in the early 1950s. Hunner also discusses topics such as class differences and ethnic diversity and the tensions they elicited. When the idea of opening the town was raised, an overwhelming majority wanted to keep the fences up in order to preserve the sense of safety and security. But the fences could not keep the world out. Hunner treats the impact the 1954 J. Robert Oppenheimer security affair had on Los Alamos as a case in point. Finally in 1957 the fences and guardhouses surrounding the residential areas did come down.

Hunner includes three dozen photographs, two maps, 40 pages of notes, and a bibliography that testify to a solidly researched book. A few final pages are spent on more recent events involving waste and abuse at the laboratory, the alleged espionage case of Wen Ho Lee, and a less-than-sterling environmental legacy. The careless environmental and safety practices began decades ago with the dumping of toxic and radioactive wastes in various canyons and open-air experiments involving the detonation of conventional explosives laced with radioactive substances.

As the laboratory enters the 21st century it faces profound challenges. Its main business, designing nuclear warheads is no longer a top priority, and the...


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pp. 149-151
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