Why was Los Alamos created by the Manhattan Project?

Los Alamos Project Main Gate

Before World War II, Los Alamos, New Mexico was a Boys Ranch School and little else. Even though it was only 33 miles from Santa Fe (New Mexico's capital) it was extremely isolated. Nobody was going to accidentally go to Santa Fe. This made a perfect location for one of the key laboratories that built the atomic bomb during World War II.

Oppenheimer selects Los Alamos for nuclear labatory

The final link in the Manhattan Project's far-flung network was the bomb research and development laboratory at Los Alamos, located in the mountains of northern New Mexico. Codenamed "Project Y," the laboratory that designed and fabricated the first atomic bombs began to take shape in spring 1942 when James Conant suggested to Vannevar Bush that the Office of Scientific and Research Development and the Army form a committee to study bomb development. Bush agreed and forwarded the recommendation to Vice President Henry Wallace, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and General George Marshall (the Top Policy Group). By the time of his appointment in late September, Leslie Groves had orders to set up a committee to study military applications of the bomb.

Meanwhile, the sentiment was growing among the Manhattan Project scientists that research on the bomb project needed to be better coordinated. Robert Oppenheimer, among others, advocated a central facility where theoretical and experimental work could be conducted according to standard scientific protocols. This would ensure accuracy and speed progress. Oppenheimer suggested that the bomb design laboratory operate secretly in an isolated area but allow the free exchange of ideas among the scientists on the staff. Groves accepted Oppenheimer's suggestion and began seeking an appropriate location. By the end of the year, they had settled on an unlikely site for the laboratory: an isolated boys' school on a mesa high in the Jemez Mountains (map at left).

Oppenheimer picked to manage Los Alamos Laboratory

Groves selected Oppenheimer to head the new laboratory. He proved to be an excellent director despite initial concerns about his administrative inexperience, leftist political sympathies, and lack of a Nobel Prize when several scientists he would be directing were prizewinners. Oppenheimer insisted, with some success, that scientists at Los Alamos remain as much an academic community as possible, and he proved adept at satisfying the emotional and intellectual needs of his highly distinguished staff. Although Oppenheimer and Groves were of completely different temperaments, they worked well together. The Groves-Oppenheimer alliance, though not one of intimacy, was marked by mutual respect and was a major factor in the success of the Manhattan Project.

Oppenheimer recruits scientists to Los Alamos

Robert Oppenheimer 1946

Oppenheimer had a chance to display his persuasive abilities early when he had to convince scientists, many of them already deeply involved in war-related research in university laboratories, to join his new organization. Complicating his task were initial plans to operate Los Alamos as a military laboratory. Oppenheimer accepted Groves's rationale for this arrangement but feared that the military chain of command was ill-suited to scientific decision making and soon found that scientists objected to working as commissioned officers.

The issue came to a head when Oppenheimer tried to convince Robert F. Bacher and Isidor I. Rabi (far right in image at left) of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Radiation Laboratory to join the Los Alamos team. Neither thought a military environment was conducive to scientific research. At Oppenheimer's request, Conant and Groves wrote a letter explaining that the secret weapon-related research had presidential authority and was of the utmost national importance. The letter promised that the laboratory would remain civilian through 1943 when it was believed that heightened security needs would require militarization of the final stages of the project (in fact, militarization never took place). Oppenheimer would supervise all scientific work, and the military would maintain the post and provide security (below).

Oppenheimer spent the first three months of 1943 tirelessly crisscrossing the country in an attempt to put together a first-rate staff, an effort that proved highly successful. Even Bacher signed on, though he promised to resign the moment militarization occurred; Rabi, though he did not move to Los Alamos, became a valuable consultant. As soon as Oppenheimer arrived at Los Alamos in mid-March, recruits began arriving from universities across the United States, including California, Minnesota, Chicago, Princeton, Stanford, Purdue, Columbia, Iowa State, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while still others came from the Met Lab and the National Bureau of Standards.


Virtually overnight Los Alamos became an ivory tower frontier boomtown, as scientists and their families, along with particle accelerators and other experimental equipment, including two Van de Graaff generators, a Cockroft-Walton machine, and a cyclotron, arrived caravan fashion at the Santa Fe railroad station and then made their way up to the mesa along the single primitive road. The staff included many contemporary and future stars of the scientific community, including Luis Alvarez, Hans Bethe, Norris Bradbury, Enrico Fermi, Richard Feynman, Eric Jette, George Kistiakowsky, Seth Neddermeyer, John von Neumann, Emilio Segrè, Cyril Smith, Edward Teller, Victor Weisskopf, Robert Wilson, and many more. In the spring of 1943, a sizeable contingent of British scientists arrived at Los Alamos as well. It was an unimaginable collection of talent and machinery for a remote outpost in the mountains of New Mexico.