The Manhattan Project

Oral Histories

Louis Hempelmann Interview - Part 1

Louis Hempelmann was a doctor and radiologist who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. He was a close friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his wife Kitty, and their children. In this interview, Hempelmann explains how and why he was recruited for the Manhattan Project. He recalls an early conference there on the bomb at which Edward Teller was criticized for his obsession with the hydrogen bomb. Hempelmann remembers going horseback riding with Oppenheimer and Kitty, and watching their children during the Atomic Energy Commission hearing that resulted in Oppie’s security clearance being revoked.

Roslyn Robinson's Interview

Roslyn D. Robinson worked as a driver and in the administration office for the Chicago Met Lab. Her husband, Sidney, was an engineer who worked on the Manhattan Project. In this interview, she talks about her early life, as well as her duties in Chicago and the omnipresent emphasis on secrecy. She recalls her husband’s hospitalization and quarantine after a mysterious “spill” in his laboratory at the New Chem Building. She also remembers learning about the project’s true purpose when Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima, her reaction to that event, and how the Project continued to affect their lives after the war.

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.

Ted Taylor's Interview - Part 4

From 1948-1956, Taylor worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, developing fission bombs of minimal size and maximal capacity. Later in life, while working for the Defense Department, Taylor began to realize the real-world implications and consequences of the bombs he developed. In this interview, he discusses the effect of the Korean War and the pressure to produce atomic weapons. Taylor elaborates on how he developed a great distrust of the nuclear industry, the politics of it, and way the process overstressed secrecy and lying. Finally, Taylor explains how he initially came to be a designer of nuclear weapons, and how he believes that fascination with nuclear weapons is like a disease.

Siegfried Hecker's Interview - Part 3

Siegfried (“Sig”) Hecker is an American scientist who served as the director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1986 to 1997. He is currently Professor (Research) of Management Science and Engineering and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. In this interview, Hecker discusses the 1990s debate over the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and how it affected his responsibilities as Los Alamos Lab director. He analyzes the results of the treaty, which calls for zero yield from nuclear weapons and no testing, and reflects on the global impact of the treaty.

Ted Taylor's Interview - Part 3

In this interview, physicist Ted Taylor discusses how technology developments today will impact farming and energy in the future. He elaborates on his time working at Los Alamos on nuclear weapons and the hydrogen bomb, recalling Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Norris Bradbury’s emotional response to the first successful hydrogen bomb test. He recalls the social life at the laboratory and the scientists he worked with, including Darol Froman, Robert Serber, and George Gamow, and how secrecy impacted their work.

Alice Kimball Smith's Interview

Historian and educator Alice Kimball Smith moved to Los Alamos in 1943 after her husband Cyril, a British metallurgist, joined the Manhattan Project. Alice took a job as a schoolteacher at Los Alamos. She later became the assistant editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists and wrote "A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists’ Movement in America, 1945-1947." She also co-edited a collection of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s letters. In this interview, Kimball Smith describes her impressions of Oppenheimer during the Manhattan Project. She discusses Oppenheimer and other atomic scientists’ efforts to ensure international control of the bomb after World War II, as well as her memories of other scientists such as Niels Bohr.

J. Samuel Walker's Interview

J. Samuel (“Sam”) Walker is the former historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the author of "Prompt and Utter Destruction: Truman and the Use of Atomic Bombs against Japan." In this interview, he describes the motivations behind President Truman’s decision to authorize the use of the atomic bombs. He explains the key differences between “traditionalist” and “revisionist” interpretations, and identifies weaknesses in each perspective’s argument. He also assesses the role of the Soviet declaration of war against Japan, whether the Japanese were ready to surrender before the bombs were dropped, and American plans for an invasion of mainland Japan. Walker concludes by recalling President Truman’s reaction to the human impact of the bomb.

The Search for Atomic Power

This 1954 radio program traces the development of nuclear energy from the discovery of the atomic nucleus to the launch of the USS "Nautilus," the first nuclear submarine. It includes narration, dramatizations with actors playing physicists Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr, and interviews with Arthur H. Compton and Westinghouse Electric Corporation scientists. The program celebrates Westinghouse’s role in producing uranium for the Manhattan Project and details the challenges behind powering the Nautilus.

Hanford 25th Anniversary Celebration

This program was recorded at the 25th anniversary of the construction of the B Reactor, the world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor, in Hanford, WA. Leading Manhattan Project scientists, including Glenn Seaborg, John Wheeler, Lombard Squires, and Norman Hilberry, as well as its military leaders, General Leslie R. Groves and Colonel Franklin Matthias, participated in the ceremony. They discussed the start of the Manhattan Project, how the reactor’s site was chosen, the challenges of building the reactor and the chemical separations plant, and the different processes that were considered to separate plutonium. They also recalled the relationship between the military and civilian scientists and why they became involved in the Manhattan Project to help win World War II. They philosophized on the significance of nuclear power and its potential for future projects, from agriculture to space exploration.

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