Motherboard Homepage

The Totally Normal Town Where Everyone Worked on Weapons of Mass Destruction

A 1954 report from the birthplace of the atomic bomb wants you to know that everything is totally “normal” in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

by Daniel Oberhaus
12 May 2017, 11:00pm

In the early 1940s, the United States made its nuclear weapons program a priority with the establishment of the Manhattan Project, a top secret research initiative that would eventually yield the world's first atomic bomb. Despite its moniker, the Manhattan Project wasn't undertaken in New York City, but was carried out at top secret research facilities around the United States. The most famous of these was Los Alamos National Laboratory (nee Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory), a compound tucked away in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, where Robert Oppenheimer and his handpicked team of top physicists worked in utter secrecy and isolation to develop the most powerful weapon in history.

But as a recently released 1954 memo drafted for PR purposes wants you to know, there's more to Los Alamos than its top secret atomic weapons program. Like the Jeb Bush of travel brochures, this document wants you to know that Los Alamos is completely "normal" and to please stop pretending like it's not. Please.

The site of Los Alamos was recommended by Oppenheimer, in part because it was close to his own New Mexico ranch and also for its isolation. So the US government took over a local school to use as its laboratory and set to work developing a bomb…and a community.

Totally normal, not weird housing in early Los Alamos. Image: LANL

As detailed in the report, "it was considered essential in 1942 to establish a nuclear weapons laboratory [at Los Alamos], and it was of course considered equally essential to provide living quarters and mess halls for the crew and to maintain and supply the project." The US government intended to demolish the lab after the war, so all facilities were considered temporary and generally made from cheap wood. At most, the government reckoned it'd only have to account for 150 scientists, military personnel and their families during Los Alamos' existence, but by the end of its first operational year there were more than 1,500 people inhabiting this shanty town. By the end of the war, Los Alamos boasted a population of over 8,000.

Fortunately for the new emigres to scenic Los Alamos (and unfortunately for the rest of the world), the US government decided it really liked to make nuclear weapons. So rather than tear down the Los Alamos facilities after the war, it began to develop a full-blown community around the lab, replete with "houses, schools, stores, utilities, warehouses" and churches representing 14 different denominations.

Read the full story on Motherboard.