The Manhattan Project

Julie Melton's Interview

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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.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
October 12, 2016
Location of the Interview: 
Santa Fe
Transcript: 

Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly. This is Santa Fe, New Mexico, Wednesday, October 12, 2016. I have with me Julie Melton. My first question for Julie is to say her name and spell it.

Julie Melton: I’ve been widowed twice, so I’ve had a lot of last names, but my maiden name was Hawkins. My father was at Los Alamos. Now my name is Melton, Julie Melton. Just to make it complicated, I’ve written books on democratization in the developing world, and I used my pen name Fisher for that. So it does get complicated.

Kelly: Okay. Let’s see, why don’t we start with you and then we’ll go to your dad. Just to get your basic information. Tell us about when you were born and where.

Melton: I was born at the end of July 1941 in San Francisco, California. My father at that time, I think he had just finished his dissertation. He was a graduate student of [J. Robert] Oppenheimer’s at Berkeley, so there’s the connection with the future job. When I was not yet two, in the spring of 1943, my father told my mother that he would be leaving, and he wouldn’t be able to be in touch with her for a while. But everything was okay. She knew it was something to do with the war, and that’s pretty much all she knew. Oppenheimer had already recruited him to come to Los Alamos. He came in the very first round of people who arrived here. Not as early as Oppenheimer, but pretty close thereafter. 

Kelly: So, it was spring—?

Melton: Spring of 1943, correct. I remember missing my father a lot. I think he was gone about two months, and I was not yet two. I would run outside with my mother and call for him to try to see where he was, why he wasn’t coming. One of my very early memories is—and again I’m not yet two at this point—is arriving in Lamy. I have a very vivid memory of that. Which was the train station that everybody came to. That was after my father sent for us, and said that there was a place to live and all that. I just remember my father meeting us, and I remember hanging on him, but not wanting to let go of my mother either. That’s just a personal story about my arrival in these parts.

We lived in a four-family, wartime—what would you call it—two apartments on top and two below, right near Bathtub Row at Los Alamos. There’s kind of an amazing thing that happened to me when they were filming “Manhattan,” the fictional series here. We were here renting before we bought this house. First of all, whatever you think of the script of that series, the set was remarkably accurate, so much so that it was like a jolt to my memory. It was amazing. We walked in one of the cottages and I couldn’t believe it. I said to the set designer, who was showing me around, “How did you get the kitchen cabinets the right color?” Because they were kind of an ugly green and I remembered that.

She said, “Well, the Army only issued three shades of paint during the war. One was white, and we knew it wasn’t that. One was black; we knew they wouldn’t have used that. And the other was green, so that’s the one we resurrected.” When I walked into that kitchen, I had a really dramatic flashback, which was—I’m skipping ahead now two years—1945, walking into our kitchen, which had those green cabinets. My mother being there with her closest friend Ellen Weisskopf, who lived in the same four-family. I’m still in touch with the kids, who are like a brother and sister to me. My mother and Ellen openly weeping, and I’d never seen my mother cry before, and it was the day that [Franklin D.] Roosevelt died. I had a vivid memory of it anyway. And of course, walking into this set, which was perfect, was just amazing.

I have some memories of Los Alamos, several. One was the time I ran away. I was three, and I vaguely remember this. My mother was frantic, even though she knew I couldn’t go too far with the fences there, and she looked all over for me. Finally, she went into the PX [Post Exchange] and found me sitting on a soda fountain stool between two soldiers who had bought me a Baby Ruth candy bar. I do remember that was a highlight of my early childhood. [Laughter] You know, it was that kind of place where it wasn’t dangerous if a child—but she was kind of nervous, as you can imagine—ran away.

Let’s see. What else would be interesting? Well, I told you about my babysitter, who is still alive. She’s now 95. She used to take me down to see her family in El Rancho, which is a Spanish village sort of below Los Alamos, but the other side of Española. I have early memories also of being with her down there. It wasn’t just up on The Hill [Los Alamos], but I had some memories of that. 

Kelly: Tell us her name.

Melton: Her name is Frances Quintana, and she’s still alive. Her husband was a technician for many years, and sadly died of radiation damage from having been part of the testing in the Pacific in the 1950s. But she has children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and she took care of me for several years.

My mother was the founder of the nursery school at Los Alamos, Frances Hawkins. When we first got there, she was given this job immediately, because she was a trained nursery school teacher from San Francisco. She immediately put me in the school with the kids, but I was a little bit young and she didn’t feel it was the best place for me. Then, Frances was hired. Apparently the recruiters at Los Alamos went down to El Rancho and other Spanish villages and asked how many young women would like to be babysitters on “The Hill,” as they called it.

So Frances came up and met my mother at the nursery school. This is what she told me the last time: my mother immediately saw that she was absolutely wonderful with children, just naturally, and said, “I don’t really want you here. I really want you to stay home with my little girl.” So that’s what happened. And she’s still alive.

I have not very happy memories of that nursery school. I wasn’t there very much, and I remember that we had to eat liver for lunch and I didn’t like liver and it was overcooked. [Laughter]

Mostly, we developed very long-term friendships with people who were there: the Weisskopfs, particularly. They remained lifelong friends of my parents. In fact, when I married my first husband many years ago, Viki, Victor Weisskopf, who I’m sure you’ve read about as being one of the scientists at Los Alamos, said, “Well, sometimes we thought our last name was Weisskins. The Hawkins and the Weisskopfs.” We forged very close friendships, and I am to this day very close to their daughter and son. Being an only child, it was very nice to be in that four-family housing. We had close relationships and children to play with.

Kelly: Tell us more about your father and his studies with Oppenheimer and any memories you might have.

Melton: Well, I have some stories that he told me.

Kelly: Stories that he told you.

Melton: Yeah, I wasn’t really old enough to know what he was doing. But one of the jobs he had – he sort of did odd jobs. He was like an administrator under Oppenheimer, and he told me about a couple of them. One was when Niels Bohr was visiting Los Alamos, and I think, for an extended period. He had a safe. He had to take a trip to Washington, and they had to find his papers that he’d been working on for some reason. The safe had a combination and nobody could reach him. This is the days before cellphones and email and all the rest, long before.

My father said, “Okay, he would’ve picked a mathematical constant as his combination, but it wouldn’t have been an obvious one. It would have been not pi, in other words. It would’ve been Euler’s constant, probably. Let’s try that.” He tried it and it worked, and Bohr was kind of mortified when he got back that it had been so easy to crack. Anyway, that was one of my father’s stories about being there.

He had enormous admiration for Oppenheimer as an administrator. Sometimes people write about Oppenheimer and they say things like, “Well, he was a brilliant scientist, but he didn’t make any earth-shattering discoveries in physics, for example.” But, as an administrator, he was a genius, according to my father. He kept all of these huge egos from destroying each other. It didn’t totally work. There were some that couldn’t be contained, as I’m sure you know. But he was very, very good at that, and my father did a lot of things to sort of ease that and help him and smooth things. Neither one of them had ever studied management work nor anything like that. 

About a year after he got there, Daddy was then given the assignment of writing the official history of Los Alamos, which I’m ashamed to say I can’t—it’s not that I don’t want to read it, it’s just that I can’t read it. I’m not scientifically literate enough to read it. I’ve read parts of it, but it’s a very technical history. Some of his other books are much more readable, the ones he wrote about philosophy of science later on in his life. That was his main assignment for the last, I think, two years that he was there, although he continued to do other things for Oppenheimer as well.

My mother, as I say, was the founder of the nursery school. She was very unhappy about being there. She made some good friends while she was there, but she didn’t like working on the war. She didn’t like weapons. She wanted to get out of there. She was uncomfortable there.

My father, on the other hand, had this—I don’t know how you would describe it. Humans have to understand how terrible these weapons are, and if we never build them they’ll never understand that, something like that. He and I used to talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He was one of those people who said it’s a terrible reality, but people had to know how bad these weapons were when it came to Hiroshima. When it came to Nagasaki, he was very bitterly against it, and very angry over the fact that they had had to do that second one. So, it was a kind of maybe nuanced view, I don’t know. 

I’ve had experiences in my life when people who weren’t there and didn’t understand, and I told them what my father had done. One friend of my husband’s in Ohio when we lived there, my present husband, said something about, “Well, your father was just like a war criminal.” So you get these things sometimes in your life from long ago.

Kelly: What do you say back to them?

Melton: I told them something about what I just told you, but I also said, being a philosopher, my father was someone who basically understood human beings as barely emerging from evolution. If we survive at all, then we will have to have learned that we will have to be morally superior to what we are now. 

Kelly: So that was puzzling to me. He was studying philosophy?

Melton: Yes. He was a philosophy graduate student. He took philosophy of science as his specialty. He also took one of Oppenheimer’s seminars when Oppenheimer was teaching at Berkeley, because he wanted to understand physics better. He told me once that when he was studying with Oppenheimer, “We used to stay up all night studying.” 

I said, “Really?”

He said, “Yeah. He was the kind of teacher who would inspire his students, because you were so ashamed if you couldn’t, if you didn’t know what he was talking about.”

That had a dramatic impact on my father. He was an amateur, but a fine scientist as well as being a philosopher. He wrote his dissertation on the theory of probability. He loved mathematics. He published in math, too. He published in econometrics. He was a kind of renaissance type, all different fields, something not so common today.

Kelly: Sounds like he was probably the perfect choice to write the history.

Melton: Yeah, I think that’s probably true. 

Kelly: Like Oppenheimer, he understood all the multiple parts.

Melton: Right, right. In his later career, he taught introductory physical science to freshmen at the University of Colorado and loved that. Like the basic science; he wasn’t going to teach advanced physics or something.

Kelly: Listening to his interview by Martin Sherwin, which we have online.

Melton: Yes, I’ve seen that.

Kelly: He expresses regret in part that his history of Los Alamos is much too—

Melton: Technical, I think.

Kelly: Technical and, and kind of play-by-play, written for the military, here’s what we did and then this and this and this. That he should’ve spiced it up with more of the personalities and the anecdotes.

Melton: But there’s so much of that that other people have done, you know.

Kelly: Exactly.

Melton: It’s interesting. My late father-in-law Ed, my husband’s father, he lived to 94 and was pretty healthy until the last six months. Well, he read my father’s complete history. He was an engineer, and he loved it. He loved it. So, I think somebody with technical background – and Herman happened to be very interested in history. My husband’s a historian. He passed that along to his sons. He absolutely loved the book. I wish that my father had still been alive, so that I could’ve told him how much Herman had enjoyed it.

Kelly: That’s interesting.

Melton: My cousin who just moved here, my first cousin, has a friend who’s retired and lives down in La Luz, where my father grew up. Armando was a science professor at New Mexico Military College Academy [misspoke: New Mexico Military Institute]. I don’t know. It’s college-level. He taught history, and he wanted a copy. I had three, so I gave him a complete copy. People are interested in it still, some people.

Kelly: Oh, definitely, definitely.

Melton: If you have that scientific, technical expertise, particularly.

Kelly: Which fills a niche.

Melton: Absolutely.

Kelly: Let’s see, going back to your mother for a minute. She was a nursery school teacher in San Francisco, you said.

Melton: Right. And kindergarten.

Kelly: Kindergarten, right. How did she feel about the duties of being in—there was a burgeoning number of children.

Melton: Yeah, it was a hard job for her, I think. She did get some help, though, along the way. I don’t know a lot about that. She wrote a book called Journey with Children and there’s almost nothing in it about Los Alamos, so I don’t know why that is. I don’t know whether the subject was too painful for her. Not the nursery school, but just having been there or what.

Kelly: Right.

Melton: There’s almost nothing about Los Alamos. Lots about her early work in the 1930s in San Francisco and lots about what she did later. But there’s this blank, which I noticed and I didn’t want to push her on it. It was published when she was still alive, and I didn’t want to push her on it, but maybe I should have. I’m not quite sure what that was about.

Kelly: Well, in terms of couples on The Hill, I think there was a lot of strain, given the—

Melton: Oh, yeah.

Kelly: Well, why don’t you tell me?

Melton: Well, I mean, I’m not sure it was like what the “Manhattan” series depicts, at least. I mean, that is pretty soap opera-ish, in a way. On the other hand, I saw a series, and actually my husband and I watched it fairly recently on Netflix, which was done with Sam Waterston as Oppenheimer. It was put out by the Brits in the 1980s, I think. You probably remember that. I can’t remember the name of it. Anyway, I found that worse, because it was trying to be accurate, but it wasn’t. At least, “Manhattan” was openly not trying to be accurate.

There was a scene in that earlier series where in Oppenheimer’s living room, a cocktail party, of course, in Berkeley, when he was still going back and forth, before the project was really set up. Somebody asked him openly, “Well, how’s the war project going down in New Mexico?” No one would ever have said that in a cocktail party in Berkeley in early 1943. I mean, there were just things in it like that that. So, from that point of view, I didn’t mind the “Manhattan” series so much. I think there were the usual sort of affairs and women feeling a lot of pressure to be sort of the perfect woman, as it was defined in those days.

Very few women really had good professional jobs on The Hill. Some of them who did made more of it than they—you think about someone like Dorothy McKibbin, who I absolutely loved when I was growing up, and saw many, many times after the war as well. She had a really incredible role in the whole enterprise. She was like the piece of the puzzle that helped it all fit together in a way. She was the keystone, if you will, or if you think of an analogy, of an arch.

I remember visiting her on East Palace many, many times, when she was still working for the project after the war. A lovely, lovely woman who had an absolutely blissful four-year marriage to Joseph McKibbin, who died of Hodgkin’s disease four years after they were married, leaving her with a young son. So, she was somebody that—gosh, you know, you should ask other people as well, their memories of her.

Her house here in Santa Fe, I used to go there and visit her as I was growing up in later years. I would walk in there, and I remember thinking, “If anything ever really terrible happened to me, this is where I would come.” And I came back after my first husband died out of the blue. He was 43. Just being in her house was absolutely remarkable. It was healing. She was still alive in 1981, and she’s somebody that was just absolutely essential to the positive side of personal relationships at Los Alamos. People got married in her living room a lot. I’m sure you know that.

Who else would be important to talk about? I remember Carson Mark pretty well. He was a Canadian physicist. And his wife Kay, they lived near us. They had lots of kids, so I remember playing with their kids a lot. I’m trying to think who else. Well, I know a lot of names, but if you wanted to ask me, it might prompt a memory.

Kelly: Did you remember Ellen Bradbury?

Melton: Not from those years, no. She came sort of toward the end of our stay, but I did meet her when they were filming “Manhattan” here. Of course, I remember once being at the Marks’ house in the 1960s, probably, and meeting Norris Bradbury at that time. But, no, that was much later, all of that.

Kelly: Did your parents socialize with the Oppenheimers?

Melton: That’s kind of a difficult question. I was sort of wondering whether I should get into this, but I’m sure you’ve heard it before. As you know, Kitty [Oppenheimer] was a very difficult person and an alcoholic, et cetera. Peter, her son, used to play with me a lot. We were the same age. When the Oppenheimers would go away, they would leave Peter. They used to leave his younger sister with someone else, I don’t know, but they always left Peter with us. Peter never wanted to go back when they’d come to pick him up. He wanted to stay with my mother, which is—I don’t know, maybe you don’t want to leave that in—but that was the truth. That was something that I remember very vividly. He would hang onto my mother screaming, not wanting to leave her, because he got something from my mother that he did not get from his own mother. That’s just what I remember.

Kelly: Well, it’s consistent with Marty Sherwin and Kai Bird’s depiction.

Melton: She was a very deeply troubled woman, incredibly talented and brilliant. I think sometimes when we talk about women in that generation, we have to acknowledge—I mean, my own grandmother, my mother’s mother, was unbelievably damaged by the fact that as a brilliant woman she had nowhere to go and nothing to do except to be a housewife and mother. The damage done by that to personality, to whatever. I think we have to acknowledge that when we think about Kitty, as well.

Of course, people drank in those days, it wasn’t just people who were—people drank much more than we do today. It was a kind of psychological lubricant that everybody sort of depended on, particularly at Los Alamos. There was a lot of drinking. I talked to my parents about it. It was the tension of what they were doing and all the rest.

Kelly: I don’t know how they got up in the morning though.

Melton: I don’t know. I couldn’t, but some people can do it.

Kelly: Were your parents sort of along with the rest of the folks there? I mean, a couple of martinis or whatever it was?

Melton: Yeah, I think they did. In later years, they weren’t that way at all, but that’s what, I think, everybody did. There was a lot of drinking there. Heavy drinking. I heard my parents talk about it in later years, so I know that was the way it was. But my mother wasn’t a heavy drinker and my father could drink a lot, but he didn’t do it routinely. I mean, neither of them were alcoholics or anything like that. Still, that was a lubricant there, that was something that kept things going, I think in a way that wasn’t always positive.

A lot of this is secondhand, as I’m saying. I was five when we left.

Kelly: Right. But you’ve sort of been a sponge.

Melton: I’ve been a sponge, yes.

Kelly: —for all these stories and that’s what oral history is.

Melton: Of course, we saw people from there a lot. We saw the Marks, we saw the Weisskopfs, we saw our friends over the years.

Kelly: Who was the first family you mentioned?

Melton: Well, I mentioned the Marks, but our closest friends were really the Weisskopfs, they are the people we stayed in touch with. Viki was a physicist from—you probably have lots of material about him. He was trained in Europe at Gottingen, which was famous, along with Oppenheimer and all that. His wife was a ballet dancer from Denmark, and they came to Rochester in 1940. From there, they were recruited to Los Alamos. They remained, as I said, very close our whole lives. They’re family to me. So there are some bonds that go way back.

Kelly: You mentioned that your father just admired Oppenheimer as an administrator.

Melton: Yes, yes. I have a vivid memory of Oppenheimer from 1961. I was 19, and he was visiting his brother Frank in Boulder, where I grew up. I was just back from Chile, where I had spent a semester studying the Chilean Christian Democratic Party. I was already into political science at a young age. He cornered me and he must’ve asked me 20 or 25 questions about Chile, what was going on there, what was happening. This was so – I was so flattered, you know. This great man. Here I am, 19 years old, and I’m the expert suddenly. That was Oppenheimer. He had that quality of charm, of being able to be really interested in someone else if they had something intelligent or important to say. He had, on the other hand, almost zero tolerance for somebody who said really stupid or wrong things, like Lewis Strauss. You know that story. But he was incredibly charming.

The only other famous person I’ve ever met who was like that was Robert Kennedy. I met him at a party in Washington, D.C., maybe five or six years after that. He had that same quality of, “Oh, you’re the Latin American analyst at the Library of Congress. Oh, I have some questions I want to ask you.” It’s interesting, because it’s a quality of charm almost, to be interested in another person in that intense way, especially on an intellectual level. My husband has that, too, actually. He’s a historian, but he’s always interested in what other people are studying or researching.

Kelly: Well, curiosity is a sign of intellect.

Melton: Yeah, yeah.

Kelly: So, these great intellects are very curious people.

Melton: Very curious. Freeman Dyson is another one like that.

Kelly: Yes, exactly, exactly.

Melton: Yeah.

Kelly: Right. That’s a charming story. Are there any other times that you might’ve encountered, say, Edward Teller?

Melton: No. I can’t say that I am sorry about that.

Kelly: Apparently, he played the piano?

Melton: Oh, yeah. He was a cultivated, educated, central European, like a lot of the other people there. The person I do remember very well was Leo Szilard.

Kelly: Tell us about that.

Melton: Oh, what a marvelous man. Again, long after the war. He was like a sort of giant charming elf. There was something almost fictional about him. He liked to eat a lot. Leo was an absolutely wonderful man. I mean, what he did for disarmament is just unparalleled, in terms of his commitment after the war to all of those issues.

I do have a couple of funny little stories about him. One was he came for Thanksgiving dinner to our house in Boulder when I was 16 or 17. My grandparents in California had sent us silver-wrapped cookie-candy things called tortalettes. They’re sort of hazelnut in the middle and dark chocolate on the outside and each one is individually wrapped in silver. And Leo kept eating them. But he didn’t want the wrappers to pile up, so he sort of put the wrappers down in his lap or on the floor. [Laughter] I remember seeing that. The other story about him was, he stayed at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs once. The story was, and this may be apocryphal, but he asked the waitress for jam and he said, “Bring me the jar and a spoon.” [Laughter] Leo liked his sweets.

But he was such a great man. Oh, my God. I mean, he, I think, more than any other single person, sort of mobilized the scientists who had been there to speak out, to talk about not just nuclear weapons, but also environmental issues. He was the first—he wrote a book about the dolphins and how important they were. A remarkable man, wonderful. I don’t him remember him from Los Alamos years, but I do remember him afterwards.

Teller, as you know, was difficult and his role in the Oppenheimer case, people never forgave him for that. The story goes—maybe you’ve heard this, stop me if you have, but you can always edit it out later if you have—Dorothy McKibbin had a party sometime after the Oppenheimer hearings in the 1950s, and there were a lot of people who were visiting. I don’t know the circumstance; it was some big event. Teller walked into her living room and everyone in the living room turned their backs on him and would not shake his hand. These were all veterans of the war years. Then Dorothy, which was so typical of her, walked right up to him, held out her hand and said, “Edward, why did you do it?”

Did you ever hear that story?

Kelly: No.

Melton: Well, I’m glad that I told you.

The other person I remember meeting in Dorothy’s living room was Martha Graham. Now, I was not at that first incident, but I heard about it from my parents.

Kelly: Let’s go back to your father again, because the oral history we have of him, which is really an interview by Marty Sherwin for his book about Oppenheimer, focuses on the so-called communists in Berkeley.

Melton: Right.

Kelly: Can you talk about that?

Melton: Sure, sure. Oppenheimer was never a party member. Whatever the right-wingers say, he just wasn’t. My father and my mother did join the party, but my mother never really liked it. The Nazis invaded the Low Countries in 1940, and the communists wouldn’t stand up against it. They didn’t fight with the underground against it. My father said he was really inactive by that point in the party, but that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and he quit.

Of course, the fact that he and many other people quit didn’t help them later when they all got hauled before the committees in the 1950s. One theory that my mother had, and I don’t know whether she was right, is that they went after my father, who was a philosophy professor at the University of Colorado, not somebody prominent in Washington—they went after him because of his connection with Oppenheimer. They were already laying the groundwork for the Oppenheimer hearings. They went after anyone who had been connected with him.

Oppenheimer, like many people at Berkeley before the war, was a sympathizer of loyalist Spain, and that was really the cause that got most people engaged in left-wing politics. Not just members, but non-members as well. I spent a number of years as a consultant in developing countries doing my pro-enterprise stuff in Latin America particularly. My mother said to me once, “You know, you have had such opportunities in your life to do something about poverty, to do something great.” She said, “In the 1930s, the communists were like the only people who even cared about poverty.”

The ranchers were burning down the tents of the Okies who got to California. There was such violence and such terrible stuff going on. So part of it was that. They were apparently doing something about the terrible violence and poverty that was happening as a result of the Depression in California.

Then the other part, of course, was the international part: that the communists were the only people standing up in Spain at one point against [General Francisco] Franco. I think a lot of people—they were all very young, of course. They got in in the way people get involved in movements now, political movements.

There’s a funny story about my father, though. Being an academic, he wrote an essay for a national communist journal or something in 1938 or 1939. It was making the point that Lenin – and the implication was unlike Stalin – really believed that the middle peasantry in Russia could be a positive force. At that time, Stalin was not only denouncing the kulaks, but even the middle peasantry was very suspect, you know, the ones who were in the middle of the income level.

My father wrote an article in which he sort of questioned this official wisdom of Stalin. It was a local California communist magazine, but it got the attention of Earl Browder, who was the national president or chairman of the Communist Party in the United States. It was a big party in those days, and it had millions of members. We forget that. You know, it wasn’t like afterwards when it became little tiny groups of people. But Earl Browder came down hard against this article, saying basically it was heresy. So that was probably the first step in getting him out. Then the invasion of the Low Countries was probably the final straw.

Kelly: Your father seems like a very independent thinker.

Melton: Oh, yeah. Always, always. No question about that. He was involved with the disarmament movement later as well, particularly in his retirement years. He and my mother also developed something called the Mountain View Center for Environmental Education in Boulder. They got Ford Foundation money to develop a science curriculum for elementary schools, and they were part of the whole alternative curriculum, hands-on stuff that occurred in the U.K. as well. So they had a whole movement of friends and associates who were involved in that in their later years, in their retirement years, which was great for them.

Kelly: That’s marvelous. It’s kind of like Frank Oppenheimer.

Melton: He was part of that, too.

Kelly: Oh, was he?

Melton: Oh, yeah. He lived in Boulder, yeah. He’s another one I could talk about.

Kelly: Sure. Please.

Melton: He was an amazing, amazing man. I mean, an entrepreneur in the best sense of the word. I remember him coming to Washington, D.C., when I was in grad school at Johns Hopkins SAIS [School of Advanced International Studies] and taking me out to dinner and saying, “Well, I’m going to start a science museum in San Francisco, the Exploratorium.” And he did it. He raised the money, he got it off the ground, and he was super. It’s still going strong as far as I know. It’s moved from its original headquarters.

Kelly: Yes.

Melton: I remember when I graduated from high school, the doorbell rang and there was Frank in Boulder with a beautiful, expensive leather briefcase for me to go to college with. That was just the sort of thing he did. He was very thoughtful, very charming, also like his brother. I don’t think Robert would’ve ever done anything like that though, somehow.

Kelly: Your family must’ve been very close to him.

Melton: They were living in Boulder as well, and to their kids. Mike has gone on to science education, too. Mike is his son.

Kelly: Was he about your age?

Melton: Two or three years younger. Judy is about a year older. She was a doctor for many years in California. Karen Weisskopf Worth went into my parents’ field, too, of early science education. She’s still working strong. She’s still working. She hasn’t retired. There’s kind of a network of people that my parents inspired when they were children in some ways. When they were young adults, I should say. Karen and Mike Oppenheimer. Well, their own father was also in that movement. So, that was a powerful thing for many, many decades. That elementary science stuff.

Kelly: That’s marvelous, that’s marvelous. That’s what we’re trying to resurrect today.

Melton: Yeah, sure.

Kelly: It’s early education, getting more children engaged.

Melton: You have a wonderful combination of science and history, of course. I gave a talk about Los Alamos to my husband’s history class at Wright State University before he retired. 

Kelly: How do you think being a child of Manhattan Project participants has affected your life?

Melton: That’s a really good question. I think it’s made me sensitive to moral nuance, aware of the complexity of questions that aren’t easily answered. But my father was that way. He would’ve been that way whether or not; I’m not sure it was his Los Alamos experience. But it certainly magnified that question in all of our lives. Of course, then there’s the New Mexico connection. You see, I started out my life at less than three living here and I am now in the last stage of my life living in Santa Fe.

Kelly: Full circle.

Melton: Full circle. Of course, my father’s ties to New Mexico go way, way back, as he grew up in La Luz down near Alamogordo. His father was a lawyer for the El Paso and Southwestern Railway. He was actually general counsel for the railway. That’s a whole other story.

Kelly: Okay. We’re going to pick up where we left off, and talk about Phil Morrison.

Melton: He and his first wife Emily were in Los Alamos and were very close friends of my parents. They did not have children, so I became a sort of unofficial goddaughter to them, I would say is the best description. I saw them with my parents very often as I was growing up, but I also remember them from Los Alamos, from early, early on. Phil was like my father. I think other than my father, I would say he’s the person that had the most dramatic sense of the moral ambiguity and horror of what they were actually doing there. But again, like my father, he was very sort of long-term philosophical about it. He went to Hiroshima, as you probably know, after the bombing. He was in the mission and saw the damage, actually saw it.

He went to Hiroshima with an official after-the-bomb mission. Sometimes he would talk about it, but I think it was a just searing experience for him. I don’t think any of us who haven’t seen it can imagine what that was like. He was always delighted with the complexities of science and the complexities of life. But sometimes I felt underneath that he was also angry at what had happened, and what was continuing to happen with the buildup of nuclear weapons. He was also very involved with anti-nuclear movement for many years, and his second wife got him into more of the science education stuff that I’ve mentioned that my father was involved with as well.

I don’t know a lot about what Phil actually did at Los Alamos. You probably have more information on that than I do. But he was a very key figure in the theory and the sharing of brilliant insight and technical information combined. He had, as you probably know, had polio as a child and had to spend something like a year in bed as a child. He taught himself to speed read long before there any such label for speed reading and became just a voracious intellect. I mean he was the closest thing to a genius I’ve ever known in my life. He wasn’t close to being a genius; he was a genius. No question about it.

I used to argue with him when I was growing up, and I think he liked that. I think he respected that. Sometimes he would make statements about politics or economic development. I mean, he was so widely read. Sometimes I would challenge him, because of my own interest in those topics, and I think he liked that very much. I never felt he was offended by it. He would be a little gruff, but he liked it, I think.

Emily was a very retiring—I think she had depression, but it wasn’t treated in those days. She was very sweet to me over many years, and only died a few years ago. They were divorced in the 1960s, and he married a woman who was a teacher and involved with science education as well.

Probably that’s the main thing about Phil. I’m glad we added that.

Kelly: Good. Just going through my mental Rolodex: Hans Bethe.

Melton: Yeah. I remember him, but not as well. He was very close to the Weisskopfs, though, and I heard stories about him. He was legendary for investing in the stock market, game theory, and making a lot of money in later years. Probably the richest of all of the people who had been in Los Alamos, and yet when they’d all go out to dinner in the 1960s or ‘70s, he would never pick up the bill. [Laughter] He was tight, that’s what I remember everybody saying about him, but charming and delightful, I remember that about him.

Like all of those people. What a generation they were. That was what was remarkable. It wasn’t just what Los Alamos did; it was the people that were there. As I say, I think the problems stemmed from the fact that other than Dixy Lee Ray, women were not given professional roles. They were fully capable. I mean there were women scientists there who did not get jobs there: kind of crazy when you think about it. That part of the “Manhattan” series is true: people who didn’t get jobs, because they were women. But then that was true of American society as a whole and we’re still dealing with it.