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National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Oral Histories

John Adams’s Lecture

John Adams is a Pulitzer Prize-winning American composer of contemporary classical music. Known for his operas Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer, as well as for multiple orchestral works, Adams speaks here about Doctor Atomic, his 2005 opera set at Los Alamos in the weeks leading up to the Trinity Test. He describes the creation of the work and why he was initially hesitant to develop an opera around J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. He discusses its unusual libretto, which uses only words actually spoken or written by the people depicted in the opera, such as J. Robert Oppenheimer, General Leslie Groves, Leo Szilard, and Edward Teller.

Jon Hunner’s Interview

Dr. Jon Hunner is a Professor of History at New Mexico State University, the author of “Inventing Los Alamos” and “J. Robert Oppenheimer, the Cold War and the Atomic West,” and a former director of the New Mexico History Museum. In this interview, Hunner provides an overview of life at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, including its takeover of the Los Alamos Ranch School and its relationship with Hispanos and Pueblos in the area. He talks about how Manhattan Project scientists and their family members would arrive in Santa Fe, and the sites in Santa Fe that are linked to the project. Hunner also discusses J. Robert Oppenheimer and his family, and Oppenheimer’s security hearing that revoked his security clearance. He describes the devastating effects of the atomic bombs on the Japanese who lived in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and discusses his thoughts on the influence of the atomic bombs on Japan’s decision to surrender.

Jennet Conant’s Interview

Jennet Conant is an author who has written extensively on the Manhattan Project and some of its most prominent figures. Some of her books include “The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington” and “Man of the Hour: James B. Conant, Warrior Scientist.” In this interview, Conant describes some of the stories she writes about in her book “109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos.” Specifically, she focuses on the life of Dorothy McKibbin, the “Gatekeeper to Los Alamos,” and her contributions to the Los Alamos laboratory during the war. She also discusses the Trinity Site, Klaus Fuchs’s espionage, and the stresses the Manhattan Project put on relationships between scientists and their families.

Martin J. Sherwin’s Interview

Martin J. Sherwin is a historian and professor at George Mason University, specializing in the development of atomic weapons and nuclear policy. With Kai Bird, Sherwin co-authored “American Prometheus,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, Sherwin discusses Oppenheimer’s childhood, family life, and personality, including his love of the mountains of New Mexico, and his leadership at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. He also discusses why Oppenheimer did not support building the hydrogen bomb. Sherwin reflects on the decision to drop the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, arguing that the atomic bombs were not necessary to end the war with Japan.

Stanley Hall’s Interview

W. Stanley Hall was eighteen years old when he was recruited to work as a machinist on the cyclotron, first at Princeton University and later at the Los Alamos Laboratory. He worked at Los Alamos as a civilian, then later was drafted and worked as part of the Special Engineer Detachment (SED). In this interview, he describes both his work and recreational experiences during the Manhattan Project. He witnessed the Trinity Test from a location ten miles away. Hall describes hearing “The Star Spangled Banner” play over the radio at the moment of the Trinity Test and the color and the noise of the explosion. Hall also talks about taking advantage of the hiking, fishing, and horseback riding opportunities around him, including some trouble he encountered walking Kitty Oppenheimer’s horse. He provides an overview of his forty-year-long career at Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he worked for the computing group.

Julie Melton’s Interview

Julie Melton is an author and expert on civil society, development, and democratization. She is the daughter of Manhattan Project historian David Hawkins and Frances Hawkins, the founder of the nursery school at Los Alamos. During the Manhattan Project, her family lived in the same four-family house as Victor and Ellen Weisskopf, who became some of their closest friends. In this interview, she shares her childhood memories of Los Alamos and anecdotes about prominent Manhattan Project scientists. She also describes her parents’ involvement in the Communist Party at Berkeley, where her father met J. Robert Oppenheimer. She concludes with a brief reflection on the frustrations of being a woman at Los Alamos.

Louis Hempelmann’s Interview – Part 4

Louis Hempelmann worked as a doctor at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project and was close friends with J. Robert Oppenheimer. In this interview, he discusses the other doctors at Los Alamos and their roles, including his own occasional role as anesthetist. He recalls visiting a radium dial plant in Boston to observe how the company protected its workers from radiation, and how they adopted similar practices at Los Alamos.

Louis Hempelmann’s Interview – Part 3

Louis Hempelmann was J. Robert Oppenheimer’s physician and close friend. In this interview, he discusses the hierarchy at Los Alamos, what it was like to work with Kitty Oppenheimer, and Kitty and Robert’s relationship. He recalls his interactions with Oppie, Enrico and Laura Fermi, and Edward Teller, and the parties that Oppenheimer and others used to throw at Los Alamos. Hempelmann remembers driving to Trinity Site with George Kistiakowsky and the high explosives—on Friday the 13th.

Verna Hobson’s Interview – Part 3

Verna Hobson worked as a secretary for J. Robert Oppenheimer at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. Her tenure as his secretary coincided with Oppenheimer’s investigation by the Atomic Energy Commission. In this interview, she shares her interactions with the Oppenheimer family. As Robert Oppenheimer’s personal secretary, she maintained close relationships with him, his wife, and his children. She provides insight into Kitty Oppenheimer’s personality, and how Kitty and Robert interacted with each other and their children, Peter and Toni. She recalls what Peter and Toni were like as children, and how she cared for Peter when Kitty and Robert were abroad. Hobson gives particular insight to her relationship with Kitty Oppenheimer, whose struggles with alcoholism and depression were exacerbated by Robert’s death. She recalls some of the stories that Kitty shared with her during this period, as well as her own personal recollections about Robert’s bout with cancer.

Elsie McMillan’s Lecture

Elsie McMillan was the wife of Nobel Prize winner Edwin McMillan and sister-in-law of another Nobel Prize winner, Ernest Lawrence. She came to Los Alamos in 1943 with Edwin and their baby Ann. In this speech, she takes the audience on an imaginary tour of Los Alamos, complete with detailed descriptions of various buildings and their home, today known as the Hans Bethe House. Her speech characterizes what civilian life was like at Los Alamos for the wives of many scientists, including the challenges of shopping with ration cards and dealing with the tight security. She fondly recalls Pascualita, a Pueblo woman who helped her around her home and invited the McMillans to her home in the Pueblo. Elsie dramatically recalls the tension of the Trinity Test, waiting to find out whether the test was a success and that all the scientists were uninjured.