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Borderlands: Atomic Bomb Developed In Southwest 13 (1995)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Atomic Bomb Developed In Southwest

Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.

By Raymund Vieritz

Uranium-235.  The Manhattan Project .  Albert Einstein and J. Robert Oppenheimer . Los Alamos, N.M. A student of history will know that all these names are associated with nuclear testing, but some Southwesterners may not realize that the first atomic bomb was tested right in our backyard, close to Alamogordo, N.M. With this first explosion, the nuclear age was born in the deserts of western New Mexico and Texas.

""Image caption: "Fat Man" atomic bomb casing is similar to the actual "Fat Man" atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, on August 8, 1945. Photo by Leigh E. Smith

On May 8, 1945, V-E Day was proclaimed, ending World War II in Europe. The Allies were still in the Pacific, battling Japan, a strong adversary, and the American government was searching for ways to force the Japanese to surrender as soon as possible.

In 1942, the U.S. government had authorized J. Robert Oppenheimer to conduct research on radioactive material for military use. Oppenheimer, the son of a German immigrant, was America’s leading nuclear scientist in the 1930s and 1940s. When Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard left Nazi Germany in 1939, they offered the U.S. government their knowledge of splitting atoms.  Oppenheimer used their knowledge to experiment with the separation of uranium-235.

In August 1942, under the direction of the U.S. Army, United States and British physicists gathered to find a way to use nuclear energy for military purposes. The effort and organization was code named the “Manhattan Project,” and Oppenheimer directed it. He was responsible for carrying out top secret experiments to develop the world’s first atomic bomb.

In  1943, Oppenheimer chose the Pajarito Plateau in New Mexico, a wilderness area surrounding Los Alamos, for the secret laboratory. Michel Rouze, Oppenheimer’s biographer, says the scientist remembered Los Alamos from his childhood, part of which he spent in a boarding school there. Because Los Alamos was one of the least developed areas in the region close to Santa Fe, it was easy to keep civilians and the press away from the laboratory. Los Alamos became home for Oppenheimer, his staff and “The Gadget,” the nickname given to the atomic bomb.

On July 16, 1945, at 5:45 a.m. MST at Trinity Site inside White Stands Proving Ground, the first nuclear bomb was tested. Both military representatives and Oppenheimer’s staff were astounded by the powerful energy released by the bomb.

Norman Polmar and Thomas B. Allen in their book World War II: America at War 1941-1945 quote Oppenheimer as saying at the moment of detonation, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” a line from the sacred Hindu text, the “Bhagavad-Gita.”

 Headlines in the July 16, 1945, edition of the El Paso Herald Post read “Army Ammunition Explosion Rocks Southwest Area.”  The El Paso Times reported the “ammunition explosion” on July 17, 1945, on page three, in a short, ten-line article.

Three weeks later, on August 8, 1945, the El Paso Herald Post headlines reported “Atomic Bomb Dropped on Japs,” with the subtitle revealing the earlier explosion had really been the first test of the atomic bomb.  By then, El Pasoans had discovered that the ammunition dump story was a cover up by the army and the government to keep the atomic bomb project secret.

In the first war use of the atomic bomb, the United States dropped it on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, quickly bringing about the unconditional surrender of Japan and the end of World War II.

As a result of the atomic bomb and later rocket projects, the Southwest became the birthplace of many of the high-tech weapons stored in military arsenals today.  The U.S. and its allies are still trying to keep other nations from acquiring the knowledge and materials to make nuclear weapons.

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