A Pall over Los Alamos: A Visit to the “Atomic City”

By Dr. Denise R. Ames 

photo: Denise Ames

What comes to your mind when you hear Los Alamos? I bet it is not cottonwood (poplar) trees, as the word means in Spanish, but something more ominous, perhaps the place where the great minds of the world feverishly worked to create such destructive energy that when unleashed on two Japanese cities it killed over 200,000 people.

The Manhattan Project was initiated between 1942 and 1946 at the height of World War II with the explicit purpose of producing nuclear weapons for use in the war against Germany and Japan. Government officials selected Los Alamos as the top-secret site of the Manhattan Project, largely because of its isolated location in the sparsely populated state of New Mexico. Surrounded by deep ravines, wide canyons, and bordering dense forests, its seclusion was an asset that changed Los Alamos’ future from a sleepy, provincial town to a renowned hub of international, scientific geniuses.

I am visiting Los Alamos for a three-night retreat in the fall of 2020. Even though I am traveling to the city for hiking and relaxation, and to enjoy the fall colors, it is hard to escape the palpable energy that still emanates from the Manhattan Project upon the city. The energy settles over like a mist over a meadow, enveloping the city that made its name in creating explosive energy almost 80 years ago.

Whether the U.S. decision to drop the atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was justifiable is debatable. At the time, those who were exhausted from war it was a welcomed way to end the war decisively. My father, a World War II veteran fighting the Japanese in the Pacific theater, thought is was the right decision, despite the loss of civilian life. He dreaded the prospect of invading Japan to end the war, one of the alternatives to dropping the bombs.

Even though you might be on the side of those who believe the bombings were justified, the making and use of the bombs has elicited profound thoughts about our human ability to create and destroy multitudes with a single object of our creation. Robert Oppenheimer, chief architect of the Manhattan Project, captured the profundity of his actions when he quoted a line from the Indian epic Bhagavad Gita at the time of the testing of the bomb in Alamogordo, NM, “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Robert Oppenheimer

I cannot stop thinking about the Manhattan Project and its ramifications when visiting Los Alamos. Even though the downtown streets are festooned with vibrant hanging baskets of flowers in the summer or Ashley Pond is a welcoming place for a relaxing picnic lunch, the pall of the Manhattan Project slips into the crevices of my mind and warns me about the destructive side of our human nature.

Like other animals, humans fight for territory, form hierarchies of authority, and coalesce around tribal loyalties. Although I believe we have done a reasonably good (although not perfect) job of curbing our natural and exploitive nature to fashion a smooth-running and orderly society, our destructive side is still with us. The Manhattan Project reflects this side. It shows that our amazingly imaginative minds often fashion creations that are two steps ahead of our nominal human ability to consider future consequences of our actions. Too often we need to step back and say “why are we doing this, perhaps more contemplation and reflection are needed.” But usually our impulsive side wins out and humans charge ahead without caution holding us back.  

Perhaps because of the reality that the atomic bomb could annihilate the human species, we have stepped back and contemplated its ramifications. Knowing that the bomb could become even more of a “destroyer of worlds,” we recognize its annihilative possibilities.

So, I can now better understand the pall that shrouds my visits to Los Alamos is actually a dire warning to me and others that we live on a razoor’s edge of human existence. A tip in the balance to one side of that edge could be doom for our species. It is a warning we must all heed despite our political and cultural differences.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. Ames’ varied life experiences— teaching, scholarly research, personal reflections, and extensive travels—have contributed to her balanced and thoughtful perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded the educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units, and conducted professional development workshops for the non-profit and its clients.

Dr. Ames is now developing her new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, and Reflection Nexus.  Turn encourages life-long learners to see things with new eyes, learn from the past, and understand the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five colliding worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Divided: Five Colliding Worldviews and How to Navigate Them has just been released!

Divided addresses the question on the lips of every American: why can’t we get along? The cultural divide is threatening our democracy and destabilizing our country. Divided looks at the deep cultural divide through the lens of five colliding worldviews—indigenous, traditional, progressive, globalized, and transformative. This approach helps us make sense of our deep divisions and suggests ways of bridging them.

It is urgent that we understand and bridge the cultural divide. Bridging the divide is dependent upon first understanding it. Gaining an understanding of the five worldviews enhances our success of arriving at sensible solutions and increasing civil conversations. If not, rancor and intractability ensue.

Divided is one of nine books written by Dr. Ames and the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books 

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