Uncovering Secrets and Spies in “Atomic City,” New Mexico

Outsiders weren’t supposed to know about Los Alamos during World War II. Now the remote town offers guided tours of this unique battlefront.

Los_Alamos_New_Mexico_Unsplash_Tim Mossholder

An old midcentury gas pump in Los Alamos, New Mexico

Explore U.S. atomic history in the New Mexico town of Los Alamos.

Historic Santa Fe, a hub of creative arts, is well situated for day trips: Taos, Chimayo, Bandelier National Monument. Often overlooked is a nearby small town with a very different history worth exploring: Los Alamos.

At 7,350 feet above sea level with a population that’s only barely bigger (12,978), this remote town on the Pajarito Plateau is where the atomic bomb was secretly developed in the mid-1940s. Its remote location was deliberate. If you lived and worked in Los Alamos, that was not information you shared. You used a Santa Fe address to receive mail. Officially, Los Alamos did not exist.

Today, Los Alamos is an easy 45-minute drive from Santa Fe. During World War II, that was a challenging two-hour trip on narrow dirt roads. Scientists began arriving here in April 1943 as part of the Manhattan Project, with the mission of developing the first atomic weapons. The team effort included top researchers from Europe as well as emergng bright minds, like Richard Feynman, recruited while a PhD student at Princeton. As the number of people involved grew from a few hundred to several thousand, a sort of 20th-century frontier town was hastily built and security became an increasing concern. (Because of his leftist politics, Einstein was denied security clearance and did not work on the project.) It became a hush-hush, rush, rush project filled with drama.

With General Leslie Groves as the director of the entire Manhattan Project, this instant “Atomic City” was under the watch of the U.S. Army. Despite a common goal of winning the war, a few civilian men working on the project shared highly classified information with the Soviet Union. During the 27 months of work that culminated in bombing Japan in August 1945, the high-pressure environment of Los Alamos meant leaks were almost inevitable. With secrets and lies come spies.

Los_Alamos, New Mexico aerial view of the Rio Grande

Atop the plateau, nuclear research took place. Below, the Rio Grande cuts through the New Mexico scrubland.

Oppenheimer, the new film by Christopher Nolan, was largely shot on location in Los Alamos during the spring of 2022. Its focus is on the scientific leader of what was known as “Project Y,” J. Robert Oppenheimer. As director of the Los Alamos Laboratory he was responsible for the development of the bomb. His work included recruiting top research scientists to leave their comfortable university settings for the middle of nowhere.

Although the wartime town of prefab, semicircular Quonset huts is long gone, you can still get a sense of the place through two small but mighty collections at the Bradbury Science Museum (free) and the Los Alamos History Museum ($5). Imagine the stress: trying to build a new weapon of astonishing power with volatile elements like uranium. A mistake in the lab could be fatal. The Bradbury museum does a compelling presentation of the sophisticated task through dozens of interactive exhibits; two short videos there also set the scene, providing a useful introduction to the mission.

A few blocks away, the history museum also does a stellar job of giving an overview of the project through a video that includes commentary by people involved in making the bomb, interesting placards summarizing key participants and events, photos of the town during the war, and historic items ranging from household to laboratory. (Among them is a facsimile of Einstein’s letter to FDR in 1939, warning of Nazi Germany’s possible development of atomic weapons.) For $25, you can take its guided walking tour, 90 minutes (twice daily) to gain a greater appreciation of Los Alamos. The history museum formerly served as a guest cottage for General Groves.

The walking tour includes a visit to nearby Bathtub Row, so named because these were the only houses in town with the luxury of bathtubs. The top scientists, such as Hans Bethe, a physicist later awarded the Nobel Prize, lived on this street of still-standing wooden houses (part of the former Los Alamos Ranch School, an outdoors-oriented prep school for boys). Oppenheimer’s house is on the same street (though it’s currently under renovation—no entry yet).

Both the history museum and its tour supply insight to a key element of the top-secret project: the spies among the staff who were passing along information to the Soviet Union.

Learn about a young recruit, Harvard physicist Ted Hall, who used Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a code book to share secrets with the Soviets and escaped detection until after the war. (He was not put on trial because the federal government did not want his work made public.) The other known spies were Klaus Fuchs, a German British physicist; Oscar Seborer, an American electrical engineer; and David Greenglass, a U.S. Army machinist.

Spies actually used this clock in Santa Fe's plaza to synchronize their watches for meet-ups.

Spies actually used this clock in Santa Fe’s plaza to synchronize their watches for meet-ups.

Photo by Pat Tompkins

Take a self-guided tour of spy-related sites in Los Alamos and Santa Fe. Of note: In Santa Fe’s central plaza, at 109 E. Palace Avenue—hidden in plain sight at the back of the Rainbow Man shop—is a plaque commemorating this as the office for processing newcomers before they were sent to “the Hill” (Los Alamos). Nearby art-filled, historic La Fonda Hotel was an R&R escape for those sequestered at Los Alamos (and is still a top getaway for visitors). Then-sleepy Santa Fe was also a prime spot for the exchange of info among spies.

Today, Los Alamos is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory and may have the highest proportion of PhDs in its general population of any non-university town. If you stop at the modest Manhattan Project National Historical Park, next to Ashley Pond, you can view more historic photos and pick up a handy brochure for a DIY walking tour of central Los Alamos buildings and locations related to the Manhattan Project. (This National Historical Park also encompasses two other locations: Site X in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Site W at Hanford, Washington.)

The Manhattan Project NHP gives restricted entry “behind-the-fence” tours only twice a year. The next and last dates for 2023 are in October. Similarly, access to the Trinity bomb detonation site near Alamogordo, some 200 miles south, is possible the first Saturday of April and October. The heat from the explosions at Trinity fused sand into glass, known as trinitite. And for a truly deep dive into the subject, Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours visits all three sites of the Manhattan Project—Hanford, Los Alamos, and Oak Ridge—in October 2024.

On the drive to or from Los Alamos, take a short detour to White Rock’s Overlook Point. The memorable view, which includes the Rio Grande, offers a sense of how isolated the area once was.

Pat Tompkins has written for Afar about movies, books, art, UNESCO World Heritage sites, and other topics.
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