From the Archives, September 2007: Living in “Atomic Spaces”


[Editor’s Note: With Mark Schiller’s review of Peter Bacon Hale’s book Atomic Spaces, Living on the Manhattan Project, we begin a new series “From the Archive,” articles from the 16-year run of La Jicarita News that we believe remain pertinent to contemporary issues we’re writing about in the new online La Jicarita. They may provide necessary background, help explain complicated issues, or, as in this review, demonstrate that while circumstances change the causal effects remain the same: from its very inception Los Alamos National Laboratory was and is willing to compromise the health and safety of the people caught up in the nuclear industrial complex.]

Last week, in the wake of an announcement by Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) that it may be laying off as many as 2,500 employees, many of whom live in Española and other parts of Rio Arriba County, Española mayor Richard Maestas called for the county to start diversifying its economy so that it wouldn’t be so dependent on the Lab. Maestas’ comments seemed particularly poignant, as I was in the midst of reading Peter Bacon Hales’ book Atomic Spaces, Living on the Manhattan Project, which discusses the strangle hold the Manhattan Project (MP) (responsible for the research and production of the first atomic bomb) established over the economies of northern New Mexico (LANL), eastern Tennessee (the site of the Oak Ridge production facility), and eastern Washington (the site of the Hanford production facility). The book also documents the many injustices perpetrated on the American people in the name of national security by the administrators of the MP, including knowingly exposing thousands of workers and military personnel to dangerous levels of radiation and other toxic chemicals and failing to adequately compensate hundreds of farmers who owned land condemned for the major production and research sites. Hale also traces the origins of the “military-industrial complex” (which President Eisenhower in his farewell address warned the country to be wary of) to the MP and discusses the effects the project has had on our social institutions and the advancement of scientific and technical research.

The MP, Hales asserts, drew “the scientific community into a new set of relations with government, industry, and each other.” Suggesting initially that representatives from the government, military, and scientific communities would share equally in the administration of a program to research the potential of atomic technology, the program quickly devolved into a hierarchical military-industrial bureaucracy, under the aegis of the National Defense Research Committee (NDRC), that treated the scientists as employees and restricted research to military goals rather than atomic energy’s broader potentials. According to Hales, “By the Fall of 1940 [over a year before Pearl Harbor], the NDRC had effectively taken over the world of experimental atomic physics” by signing contracts for the development of its programs with Columbia, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Johns Hopkins, the University of Minnesota, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. NDRC also enlisted the corporate elite by including members of Standard Oil, Kellogg, Union Carbide, Westinghouse, and others major corporations on its Planning Board. That board was appointed ostensibly to award production contracts to the technologically most advanced corporations, but as Hales notes, “quite naturally these corporate representatives recommended their own companies . . . [and] were accepted as prime contractors for the nascent production phase of the atomic enterprise.” Thus, the most advanced scientific research was commodified and limited to the agenda of the military-corporate decision makers. Moreover, the work and business arrangements of the MP were exempt from any kind of governmental or public oversight. As Hales points out, it was assumed “that all actions by the Project were necessary and right. Thus there would be no justifications, no investigations, no demands for statistics or reports . . . .”

This enormous project was ruthlessly and cunningly orchestrated by General Leslie R. Groves, who also directed the construction of the Pentagon and whom Hales refers to as “the invisible presence.” Hales notes, “. . . Groves did not appear on the bureaucratic maps of power, no matter how vast or complex they became over the years of the District’s [The Manhattan Project was originally referred to as the Manhattan Engineer District] history. At the top was always the district engineer-first [Colonel James C.] Marshall, then [Colonel K. D.] Nichols. Groves himself existed immaterially, at once everywhere and nowhere.” In other words, if Robert Oppenheimer was the so-called “father” of the atomic bomb, then Groves could aptly be called its “godfather.”

Although Groves insisted in his 1962 account of the MP, Now It Can Be Told, that the Project was governed by three guiding principals: “1, safety first against both known and unknown hazards; 2, certainty of operation-every possible chance of failure was guarded against; and 3, the utmost saving of time in achieving full production,” Hales asserts that the facts demonstrate Groves was a liar. He suggests that “The first priority lay with production, then with prevention of liability or bad publicity, and last of all with health or safety.” A chapter detailing the toxic hazards many MP workers were exposed to chillingly bears this out.

According to Hales, Groves sought to “supersede” medico-ethical concerns related to the production of the atomic bomb. To this end, Groves appointed Stafford Warren to head a medical program “owing unconditional allegiance to the military-industrial culture and to Groves.” Hales asserts that “Warren’s program left the doctors and researchers diffident servants to the contracting corporations and the district engineer’s office.” But apparently even Warren’s “draconian recommendations” were not enough for Groves. “He wanted further guarantees that the doctors . . . would not let humanitarian concerns get in the way of their duty [to the program]. He sought an authority that could supersede the Hippocratic oath. . . . “ He therefore demanded and ultimately succeeded in placing the entire medical program under military control which “assured that individual doctors would not concern themselves with ethical matters.”

Groves was also successful in placing strict limits on research into the effects of exposure to radiation and forced the medical program to embrace “a philosophy of purposeful ignorance, of knowledge control . . . in order to prevent revelations that might hamper the project.” Hales claims that “When it came to medical research, the prime focus was ‘medico-legal’—the function of research was to prevent, not injuries, but lawsuits resulting from injuries.” Warren’s own account of the project concedes “. . . the general attitude of the medicobiologic workers was ‘If this is all we need to know, we don’t want the responsibility of knowing any more.’”

As a result of this policy, work-related illness and injury proliferated throughout the Project. The Oak Ridge electromagnetic processing facility, Hales states, “used dangerous uranium hexafluoride gas and uranium oxyfluorine as well. Just how volatile these processes were is indicated by the [MP’s] official historian’s 1946 statement that Tennessee Eastman’s electromagnetic process resulted in ‘an average of 150 cases of occupational injury or illness . . . every 24 hours’ when the process was in full production. And these were only the cases treated by the Tennessee Eastman Corporation medical team; lower-level injuries, such as skin rashes from contact with radioactive and toxic materials, may have been much higher.”

Not until after the first bomb had been detonated at Alamogordo in late July of 1945 did the Medical and Insurance Sections of the Project acknowledge that proper safety procedures had not been followed and that the government could face legal consequences. At that point the Medical Section, according to Hales, fearing its own legal liability, insisted that “the employees must necessarily be rotated out, and not be permitted to resume further exposure.” Hales goes on to say, “For the doctors themselves, radiation injury provided a particularly troubling matter. On the one hand, they had no idea how to treat the disease; in fact, they might not even be able to make an informed diagnosis, thanks in part to the District’s orders limiting research. What were they to tell those patients who came to them with symptoms of severe radiation illness? According to the District: nothing.” In point of fact the District closed ranks, and in an effort to impose a policy to limit its liability, officially discouraged workers from consulting doctors outside the facilities by suggesting that the District’s own medical staff was “best equipped and trained to treat any cases arising out of the peculiar working conditions of the area.”

Although the federal government finally passed the Energy Employees Occupational Illness Compensation Program in 2000, which allows for limited financial compensation for workers who can “prove” they contracted occupational related diseases as a result of working for the Department of Energy, fewer than 8.5 percent of LANL employees’ claims have been awarded, clearly substantiating Hales’ assertion that “The campaign of duplicity concerning the dangers continues today.”

Atomic Spaces also presents a devastating critique of the rigid class, race, and gender biases that pervaded the MP and which current employment and wage statistics demonstrate continue today. Native Americans, African Americans, Hispanos, and women were all discriminated against and relegated to low paying, menial jobs.

While the intelligentsia at LANL tended to romanticize the Native American culture, they were also condescending and contemptuous of the hundreds of Native Americans who worked as construction and maintenance personnel as well as domestic servants. A 1944 letter, in which the wife of a LANL scientist discussed hiring a Native American woman to work as a domestic servant, is indicative of the prevailing sentiment: “I have household help today for the first time. She came to the house rolled up in a bright red blanket and smiles. She calls me “Meesie Feesha” [the woman’s name was Phyllis Fisher] and tells me her name is Apolonia. She is a short, middle-aged, stooped Indian woman from a nearby pueblo. She looks as though she couldn’t lift a feather. But whether or not she can clean the house is immaterial. I’m sure she’ll be worth her wages in entertainment value alone. She is sweet, picturesque, and I love to watch her. If she does nothing more than stand around, I’ll find my housework less boring.”

Ironically, within the patriarchal culture of the MP, even LANL wives who were well educated and sophisticated were marginalized. Isolated from their husbands who worked long hours and were given strict orders not to discuss their work with anyone, many of these women suffered severe depression. Laura Fermi, the wife of Nobel laureate Enrico Fermi, recalled that the MP encouraged scientists’ wives to take low-paying white-collar jobs, crunching numbers, collating data, typing, filing and organizing in order to “keep them out of mischief.” Hales notes that by August of 1944 three quarters of scientists’ wives were employed in what he calls “mind-numbing” work: “They sat in rooms filled with other women doing the same work, and they typed in the endless lists of numbers. They were hired not because they were intelligent, but because they were available. They were never told the rationale behind their work. When the calculations didn’t live up to the hopes of the scientists and mathematicians who devised the theories, they found themselves the butt of anger, contempt, blame. The assumption was: the failure was their fault, not the fault of the theory or the prediction. When they were vindicated, as they often were, they never found out.”

Employment of African Americans and Hispanos, who had been dispossessed by the MP from their homes and farms, amounted to a kind of forced servitude (they had nowhere to go and no marketable job skills) that included substandard wages and housing. At Los Alamos, for instance, Hispano workers were housed in uninsulated metal Quonset huts that were set-up as dormitories, providing little protection from the heat and cold and no privacy whatsoever.

As jaded as we’ve all become by more recent revelations regarding the government’s covert operations, reading Atomic Spaces is still a very disturbing experience: the litany of horrors associated with MP seems endless and overwhelming. More importantly, as Hales points out, “the systems of behavior and belief that guided the actors and participants of the District spread from the sites and spaces [of the MP] as the fences came down. The Manhattan District influenced the course of America and of international civilization in important ways . . .” As citizens of the most powerful nation in the world, whose domestic and foreign policies are shaped by a military-corporate elite, and as residents of New Mexico who live down wind, down stream and down trodden by LANL, the legacy of the Manhattan Project pervades our lives and, I suspect, our anatomies as well.


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