Oppenheimer's better idea

Ranch School becomes arsenal of democracy

When Gen. Leslie Groves, J. Robert Oppenheimer and Edwin McMillan first arrived at Los Alamos, a light snow was falling, and the students and their teachers were on the playing field in shorts. Groves thought that the Ranch School, shown in schematic at upper right, had a number of buildings that might do for housing scientists.

In November 1942, the United States and the Allies landed more than 100,000 troops in North Africa to support British forces that had just defeated the German armored corps under Gen. Erwin Rommel at Al Alamein. In another desert far away, the Manhattan Engineer District (MED) was looking for a suitable site for a new laboratory to design weapons that drew their energy from the fission of uranium and plutonium atoms. By early November, Jemez Springs had been selected by the Army officer entrusted with the search, Maj. John Dudley.

It remained to get agreement from the MED commander, Gen. Leslie Groves, and the man he selected to head the new laboratory, University of California physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.

While the MED surveyed the west to find a suitable site for the new laboratory, Oppenheimer was seeking a commission in the U.S. Army. In his meeting with Groves in the middle of October, he had been told that the new laboratory would be under military control, directly responsible to the MED commander.

Upon returning to Berkeley, he went to the Presidio Army base in San Francisco and took an enlistment physical. He hoped to be appointed a lieutenant colonel in the Corps of Engineers.

On Nov. 16, Oppenheimer flew to Albuquerque, where he joined Groves, Edwin McMillan of the University of California Radiation Laboratory,and Dudley.

Dudley showed them Jemez Springs, the site he had selected for the new weapons design laboratory. Oppenheimer took one look at the site and told Groves that it would not do.

While Dudley had been told to look for a site enclosed by hills, Oppenheimer wanted an expansive setting. While Dudley wanted good access roads, Oppenheimer only wanted one adequate to haul two heavy howitzers (that would be used to test methods of assembling critical materials) to the site.

McMillan thought that there would not be room enough in the narrow valley for the laboratory he and Oppenheimer wanted, and Groves disliked the site as well.

Groves asked Oppenheimer if he had a better idea. "Oppenheimer proposed Los Alamos as though it was a brand new idea," Dudley recalled. In fact, Percival Keith, a senior manager for the M. K. Kellogg Corporation, had proposed the site for another MED project six months before. At that time, it had been surveyed by military plane. In his own search, Dudley had visited Los Alamos but thought it was unsuitable because the water supply was inadequate.

Although he was unhappy with Oppenheimer's suggestion, Dudley drove the trio over primitive trails to Los Alamos.

At Los Alamos, they found the Los Alamos Ranch School, a residential boys' school that emphasized outdoor education for children of parents who could afford to give them the experience.

A light snow was falling, and the students and their teachers were on the playing fields in shorts. The school had a number of buildings that might be suitable for housing scientists, and generous views to the east and of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. This, Oppenheimer thought, would provide inspiration to the scientists. Groves, who liked Los Alamos immediately, saw that access to the mesa could easily be controlled by shutting off the main entry road, and the road could be widened to accommodate trucks and heavy machinery. Canyons surrounding the site could be used for explosives tests. As Dudley warned, the water supply was marginal, but Groves thought it might do for the 450 scientists and technicians he believed would be needed. At dinner in Santa Fe that evening, he decided to acquire the site.

Groves asked Oppenheimer and McMillan to revisit the site a week later with Ernest Lawrence, who had helped organize a number of Office of Scientific Research and Development laboratories, to confirm its suitability. During this visit, McMillan gathered that Oppenheimer had wanted the site before the initial visit but had not been bold enough to say so.

McMillan and Oppenheimer returned to Berkeley to begin the job of planning the laboratory and recruiting a staff while the MED took steps to acquire the site.

A. J. Connell, the school director, was notified on Nov. 20 that the school was to be surveyed by the MED. Connell wrote Secretary of War Henry Stimson on Nov. 23 that he would cooperate with condemnation proceedings if possession could be postponed until Feb. 8, 1943, so that students could complete their term. Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson approved of the acquisition of Los Alamos on Nov. 25, 1942, and Connell learned from Stimson that the property would be condemned pursuant to purchase for military purposes in a letter of Dec. 1, 1942. Stimson allowed the Ranch School until February 8, 1943, to vacate the premises.

Los Alamos, previously a school for boys, would now become a arsenal of democracy.

- Bob Seidel

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