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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

Garret Martin’s Interview

Garret Martin is a professor at American University’s School of International Service and is the author of “General de Gaulle’s Cold War: Challenging American Hegemony, 1963-68.” In this interview, Martin discusses the rise of French President Charles de Gaulle and France’s decision to build an atomic bomb. He also elaborates on the Franco-American relationship, the changing role of France in NATO, and the impact of the Algerian War and the French nuclear tests in Algeria. Martin concludes with an evaluation of nuclear weapons and energy in France today.

Spencer Weart’s Interview

Spencer Weart is a historian of science. Originally trained as a physicist, Weart served for many years as director of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of Physics (AIP) in College Park, Maryland. In this interview, Weart discusses the French nuclear program, starting with its origins with Marie and Pierre Curie. He examines the prominent role of their daughter, Irene, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot, who together won a Nobel Prize in 1935 for their discovery of artificial radioactivity. Irene and Frédéric’s work made enormous contributions to the development of nuclear physics during the late 1930s. Weart goes on to explain how, during World War II, key members of the French program became part of the Manhattan Project, as well as Joliot’s role in the French Resistance. He concludes with a discussion of the postwar nuclear program in France.

Benjamin Bederson’s Interview (2018)

Benjamin Bederson worked at Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Wendover, and Tinian on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, Bederson describes his childhood in New York and in Russia, where he witnessed the impact of the famine in Ukraine, and his relief upon returning to the United States. He discusses his wartime work, including conducting experiments relating to Jumbo and the X unit switches for the Fat Man atomic bomb. He recalls some of the friends he made, including Peter Lax and William Spindel. During his time on the Manhattan Project, he also met Soviet spies Ted Hall and David Greenglass.

Rachel Erlanger’s Interview

Rachel Erlanger worked in a Kellex Corporation chemistry lab in New Jersey, where they researched gaseous diffusion barriers and other processes critical to the development of the K-25 plant. She got involved in the Manhattan Project when responding to an ad for Kellex. As a chemist, she recognized uranium-235 as the material used in an atomic bomb. In this interview, she describes how she got involved in the Manhattan Project, her excitement at contributing at that time, and how her attitude turned more negative after the war. She recalls her and her mother’s experiences during the prewar era and the pressure for women to marry and have children. She also briefly discusses her husband Bernard Erlanger, who also worked on the Manhattan Project.

David Hawkins’s Interview – Part 2

David Hawkins served as an administrative aide at the Los Alamos Laboratory in 1943 and as the Manhattan Project’s historian in 1945-46. In that role, he had free access to all the top people involved, including project director J. Robert Oppenheimer and physicist Edward Teller. In this interview, he discusses the nature of Communist activity among the intellectual community in Berkeley California—a community that included a number of future Manhattan Project scientists. He describes his experiences working directly under Oppenheimer during his stint at Los Alamos, noting his charisma as well as his hubris. He describes that work; the copious and all-encompassing research that was required from his position as project historian. Finally, he concludes by discussing the years after the war, and his and his wife’s relationships with Clifford and Virginia Durr.

David Hawkins’s Interview – Part 1

David Hawkins was a philosophy professor who became the administrative aide at the Los Alamos Laboratory in 1943 and the Manhattan Project’s historian in 1945-46. In that role, he had free access to all the top people involved, including project director J. Robert Oppenheimer and physicist Edward Teller. In this interview, Hawkins describes his encounters with lawyer Cliff Durr after the war, when he, like Oppenheimer, was facing suspicion from the U.S. government for his involvement with the Communist Party. The rest of the interview is a discussion of the nature of the Communist community in Berkeley before the war. Hawkins describes a familial group of intellectuals from a plethora of disciplines, and recalls some of his friends who were Communist Party members, including Frank Oppenheimer and Phillip Morrison. He recalls ideological debates and distinctions as well as the eclectic personalities of some of the era’s key players. Hawkins also describes Oppenheimer’s remarkable ability for getting people to agree with each other, as well as his wide-ranging interests and need for one-upmanship.

Robert Christy’s Interview

Robert Christy studied under J. Robert Oppenheimer at the University of California, Berkeley while earning his PhD in theoretical physics. He joined the Manhattan Project in February 1942 at the University of Chicago, and later relocated to Los Alamos when Oppenheimer personally recruited him on a visit to Chicago. At Los Alamos, Christy worked on the design of the water-boiler reactor. He was then recruited into the implosion group, where he designed the Christy gadget, the solid-core design of the plutonium bomb. He also witnessed the Trinity test. In this interview, he recalls what Oppenheimer was like as a professor and lecturer, his love for martinis, and his relations with graduate students. Christy discusses Oppenheimer’s role in the field of physics as a stimulator of ideas, and how it changed after his security trial. He also discusses Oppenheimer’s impact in emphasizing the value of theoretical physics in America. Christy remembers sharing a house with Edward Teller in Chicago and working with Klaus Fuchs and Rudolf Peierls.