growing up in los alamos, n.m., by g.s. williamson
My Nuclear Family
There's a state in this country that is a mystery to those outside its borders. Most U.S. citizens don't know whether or not it is a state. Mexican cops have been known to become distinctly agitated at its mention, as if treason were involved. Impoverished, living off tourists and other crawling creatures, New Mexico is often childish in its pretensions to independence.
The federal government owns some 10% of the state in the form of wilderness, military bases, monuments, forest lands— and a modern company town that looks like a cross between an army base and a university. Anglo, wealthy, and cosmopolitan, the town carries the state's contradictions to a feverish level: a pinnacle of western science and technology isolated in desolate mountains. It's a thoroughly modern world tinged with signs of the past—Indian ruins, brass plaques, museums. Its people, civilized and polite, may go down in history as mass murderers.
Los Alamos is located in the Jemez (pronounced hay-mess) mountains in northern New Mexico, rising more than six thousand feet above the Rio Grande. Pajarito Mesa, at some seven thousand feet above sea level, is cold and snowy in the winter, hot and dry in the summer. The small canyons have seasonal streams; the occasional permanent brooks support ferns and deciduous trees, including the cottonwoods from which Los Alamos takes its name. This withered landscape's browns and parched greens contrast sharply with a deep blue sky. Many people, accustomed to greener places, find it disturbing, even frightening, in its emptiness and and silence.
The first inhabitants, ancestors of the modern Pueblo Indians, left only silent ruins and bits of pottery and stone. The Spanish never settled in these mesas, preferring the more fertile river area, and the next permanent dwellers were the anglo small farmers in the 1870s. Around the turn of the century a small boarding school was founded, connected to Santa Fe by a tenuous road hacked out of the mesa. But it wasn't until WWII that Los Alamos developed its schizoid aspects, both brilliant and deadly dark. First the army took over the area and created a munitions range. Then came fences, guard posts, housing, and labs; a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans in Santa Fe was relocated, and by mid-July of 1945, the components of the world's first nuclear weapon were in the school's old icehouse. At dawn on July 23, 1945, the gaunt hills of the Oscura mountains were lit with a flash so bright that a blind girl many miles away asked her parents what the flash was. The Atomic Age had begun.
Los Alamos never lapsed into its pre-war lassitude. Within a few years the thermonuclear bomb had been created, and it was then that my father arrived. An astronomer from Toronto's David Dunlop Observatory, a Ph.D. student with the University of Chicago's Nobel prize-winning astrophysicist Chandrasekhara, my father came to Los Alamos to work in "T (for 'for Theoretical Physics) Division," a group that was responsible for the development of newer and more useful nuclear weapons.
We lived in company housing, although stores were privately owned. People who lived there were usually waved past the guard post on the outskirts of town, but outsiders were issued a temporary pass after the guards had called ahead and verified that they were expected. In places the only barrier was the natural world, often supplemented by high fences topped with barbed wire. We were about an hour's drive from Santa Fe, which at some twenty thousand people seemed a large city to me, and Albuquerque, an hour further, which was an unbelievably huge metropolis. This physical isolation was reflected by our own time zone, because we had daylight savings time in order to "keep up" with Washington. Whenever we left town we had to set our watches back.
At locations dictated by geography and wartime requirements there were yet more secure complexes surrounded by stout fences and armed guards. Close by the small manmade lake there was a series of low, olive-drab temporary or "T" buildings that housed the first labs and the monstrous computers. Nearer the end of the mesa was DP Site, the long buildings in which plutonium was refined. A beautiful bridge spanned a canyon, itself the home of a reactor and tunnels into the cliffs for nuclear weapons storage, beyond which lay the new buildings that housed the physicists and mathematicians. Beyond the burial ground (for radioactive garbage, not people) was 'S-Site," where the all-important explosives were milled and shaped. In distant canyons ingenious dwarves engaged in yet more arcane crafts. It was as if a giant had scattered random pieces of military bases and chemical factories over the rugged canyons and Indian ruins. The sites, like the work done there, were usually both visible and inaccessible.
The isolation undoubtedly drove some away, but the rest found other compensations: extreme dedication to work, enjoyment of the wilderness, study of the local anthropology. My father was interested in rocks and minerals, collected local artifacts (Kachina dolls, etc.), attended the open Indian dances, worked on his old Packard with his scientist buddies, and read voraciously. We would often take hikes, ignoring government signs, to explore ruins and caves. The best places were known by friends who lived on Bathtub Row (so named because the old school buildings were originally the only ones with bathtubs). There were familiar local sights, such as the director of the lab, Norris Bradbury, driving his immaculate Model T to work. There were good libraries, a radio station, churches, amateur performance groups. For those who stayed it was a very comfortable and safe environment, pleasantly elite and highly secure.
We lived in Western Area, a housing tract of one-story houses, mostly of the same design, set at slightly different angles to the street and painted in one of a few basic shades. The lawns made it look more like a normal suburb, in contrast to the city's concrete, barbed wire, and government color schemes. When the plumbing broke or the roof leaked, we called Zia, the government company that hired maintenance.
My horizons were bounded physically by two canyons, and organizationally by the AEC and LASL (the Atomic Energy Commission and the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory). In fact, the city has only one employer, The University of California, which has two subsidiaries: the professionals and the scientific elite (physicists, mathematicians, chemists, and so on) worked for LASL, while the people who did the grunt work, maintenance, and repairs all worked for Zia. Those people were often (surprise!) Hispanic or Indian. The salary levels determined where you lived: an efficiency, an apartment, a duplex, a single family dwelling, or privately built housing. The divisions on our playgrounds reflected who our parents worked for.
Government was omnipresent—on the sides of cars and trucks, on signs and on paper. In the Atomic City, as its boosters like to call it, all government things were labeled or designated. I thought that all places had this sort of relentless nomenklatura—"STRUCTURAL DESIGNATION TA-1130—MAN HOLE COVER"; a small rectangular white sign with neat black letters. All signs were standardized? ominous warnings (either red and black on white or the warmly familiar black and yellow trefoils) or outright prohibitions. My favorite sign prohibited not only trespassing but also cameras, recording devices, binoculars, firearms, and crossbows. The fences themselves were a code we could read, the tall chainlink fences with a "Y" of barbed wire at the top were no-go zones, while the fourstrand barbed-wire fences were just the government's way of announcing its friendly presence. The signs that said (in red on white): “DANGER! EXPLOSIVES! ¡PELIGRO! ¡EXPLOSIVOS!” were not to be trifled with. Some of them lay between Barranca Mesa (which became a fairly upscale housing area) and Rodeo Mesa; most of them were miles outside of town.
The hazards were both as hidden and as distant as the sites themselves, but inevitably the military and civilian worlds overlapped. A schoolmate of mine lost a few limbs to a relic of a simpler form of war. Someone had found an old bazooka shell in a remote range and had dropped it off a cliff a few times. It didn't explode, and thinking that it was a dud, he took it home, His kid found it in a closet and took it out to show friends. It was dropped on the sidewalk, and the detonation tore the arms and legs off of several children and killed a little tyke who was riding his brand-new birthday bicycle past the house.
The town's unique product was so common as to become normal. The only way I can remember its sinister aspect bothering me was in a recurring dream I had when I was about six years old. In it I am floating in outer space. Dimly seen against the stars are floating things, which I thought of at the time as resembling "tractor parts." They are drifting together in small clumps, and when two unknown pieces meet everything will end. I'm unable to stop any but a very few. I would awaken in panic, unable even to scream. These dreams faded away harmlessly in a year or so.
The nuclear world was mostly invisible to us—remember the fish's opinion on water? We used to play, like kids everywhere, in places where we weren't allowed to go. We stole lead bricks from behind the medical physics building near our houses and mailed them to Time/ Life Books. We teased the monkeys in the outdoor cages and prowled around the tech sites on our bicycles. We had encounters with patrols more than once, usually ending politely, but occasionally with the Guardians of Security trying to scare us (at least part of my hatred for cops comes from these goons). We found a way into a site that was being decommissioned and had great fun in the old basements. We found some stray hotbox gloves—heavy insulated rubber gloves as long as your arm which are normally sealed at the armpits into the walls of the "hot boxes" used for work on toxic chemicals and metals. I hope these gloves had no lingering contaminants, because we sure had a great time chasing each other with them.
Most of our search for entertainment, though, was of a traditional, non-dangerous sort, such as falling down cliffs and getting stuck in caves and the like. A lot of us, at least the males, were dedicated to pyrotechnics and flight, often with terrible consequences. One of my pals, DJ, was goofing around with gasoline and burned himself really badly. I blew off my father's eyebrows while making hydrogen gas for balloons. The Lab's surplus shop, which sold everything from old electronics to metal shavings and once-used glassware for twenty five cents a pound, was a major source of entertainment.
In later years we discovered drugs. My friend DJ overdosed on belladonna when we were about 10 and I never saw him again. The city has long had a notorious drug "problem" among its youth, which mirrors the alcoholism among its adults. The wife of one of the directors was a substitute teacher and a horrible alcoholic, embarrassing us with her simple tests (which she accused us of cheating on) and her incoherent singing in music class. Both of my parents were alcoholics, my father almost losing his clearance before he quit drinking with the aid of the Lab's alcoholism program. It may be that the isolation contributes to it, but it's also a sign of stress—the employees can't talk about their work, can't really question it, and can't escape from it.
The deadliest dangers within the labs are secreted away, approachable by only the select few. For the families of these few, the dangers are distant. I rarely got to visit my parents' offices. When I was very young, the guards would allow my parents to take me into the building where my mother worked. It was about 1957, in one of the old military T-buildings near Ashley's Pond, that I first saw a computer. It was an entire wall of dials and lights in an overheated, funny-smelling room, which was filled with the clicking of thousands of circuits opening and closing. The computer was one of the first digital computers, probably MANIAC (for Multiple Algorithmic Numeric Integrator And Calculator). Once I erased an entire chalkboard of apparently useful information, and I don't recall ever being allowed back in.
Both my parents had what is known as "Q-Clearance," meaning that they were cleared for access to information tagged "Top-Secret" and below. Although there are some special categories that are more restricted ("ROYAL" in the Carter administration, or various NSA classifications), the Q-Clearance is the highest level. These people all undergo periodic checks, and the files include their relatives; my FBI file (with footprints) was started at birth.
The security is strict, humorless, occasionally absurd. Years after I left, when I subscribed to a left-wing rag at college, a local FBI agent approached my father, wanting to know if he was aware of this; my father told the guy to get out of his office. The security regulations may not stop espionage, but they certainly stunt conversation. My father couldn't discuss his work (weapons physics) with my mother (who worked in the Central Computing Facility). Cocktail parties would be filled with people who couldn't talk about the one thing that they had in common—work. This atmosphere shrouded the city from its perimeter inward: in workplaces, inside families, and in people's minds.
The lab took precautions to maintain the Ph.D.s in excellent physical, if not mental, health. The safety record at Los Alamos is good, but when playing with materials like plutonium, a single mistake can be memorable; Sloatin Street in Los Alamos is named after one such. Sloatin, a physicist, was demonstrating a "critical assembly" to a group of visitors back in the 1950s. The process, nicknamed "tickling the dragon," amounts to playing with three variously shaped pieces of plutonium, bringing them slowly together to observe conditions immediately before critical mass. Sloatin was trying to end the demonstration when something went wrong. He ordered the visitors from the room; then he took a huge wrench, broke open the lead-glass-and-oil hot box, smashed the sphere of plutonium inside, and spread the pieces apart by hand. He took thirteen days to die of radiation poisoning, conscious for most of it. His case was talked about, although that may be because he had not been authorized to give the demonstration. In general, however, the workers of Los Alamos are better protected than the poor bastards in the military who they test the things on, or the people at the Savannah River Plant that produces plutonium for warheads.
There were also political dangers. The fate of the lab's founder, Oppenheimer, was a warning to all. He had been blackballed in the McCarthy period, losing his clearance in 1954. Other people occasionally vanished; having lost their clearances, they were as unemployable as a labor agitator in any company town. Although Oppenheimer was eventually rehabilitated (the scientific community had never been impressed by the charges against him), the threat was obvious: Don't let there be even a hint of disloyalty. The purge had ruined his life, and the rehabilitation was not much use to him. The city tore out a perfectly functional one-block-long street and put in a 6-lane road that was christened Oppenheimer Drive. Most who lost their clearance were not so lucky.
After the city was opened to the public, despite a vote by the populace to keep it closed, many employees moved off the Hill. Some went to the new "suburbs" of White Rock and Pajarito Acres, others to the Valley: Pojuaque, Tesuque, Espanola or Santa Fe. The Indians lived in the local pueblos—Jemez, Santa Domingo, San Ildefonso, or Cochiti. The still close-knit community was slowly opening up to the world, but it remained inwardly focused: employees' spouses were often hired in various capacities, which later led to charges of nepotism and racism.
At one time, the lab had an "Open House" policy. Every four years, workers' families were permitted to tour most of the tech areas. My father was allowed to bring me into the inner sanctum of his personal office, but only after he had taken all the documents in his office (the calendar, the type ribbons, the memo pad, the contents of the double safe) and locked them in the main vault downstairs. The offices were mostly like his—uncomfortable and somewhat antiquated, with a desk, a couple of chairs, a few prints on the walls, and an open safe. The windows were covered with venetian blinds. These were not his idea, he claimed, but that of some fearful security agent who envisioned Russian spies climbing one of the pine trees on the slope a few miles away and peering through binoculars in the hope of getting a glimpse of the paperwork. My mother had a partitioned cubicle overlooking a large room filled with the humming giants that were the core of the lab—the computers.
Open House also included (via remote camera) the chambers where the critical assemblies were used, and we were shown the SCRAM emergency systems. We were allowed into Ancho Canyon to see the buried quonset hut filled with electronic instruments; they fired the resident ordnance (I think a 150mm self-propelled cannon) and demonstrated the uncanny speed of their photo machines. We were taken to see the health sciences buildings, which had far more mice than the city had people, along with hundreds of dogs and monkeys. Everywhere, except for relatives' offices, we were carefully chaperoned; guards, dour-faced and armed, blocked off doors and corridors. With the budget cuts of the '60s the Open House was discontinued.
I returned in 1971 with a high-school science class. We again toured the medical physics buildings and this time were introduced to a friendly beagle who had been repeatedly irradiated in a canisterlike device, absorbing many times the lethal level of radiation. We were also taken to the Meson Physics Facility, a linear accelerator then under construction. One area was off limits to us, being dedicated to neutron research. We went to Project Sherwood, located in a deceptively small-looking annex that juts out from one of the wings of the administration building. This is the home of one of Los Alamos' oldest projects—the search for controlled nuclear fusion. We also visited another old friend, one that had made an enormous impression when I first saw it as a child: the Omega Water Reactor. Looking down through the deep pool that blocks the radiation and cools the pile, I saw at the bottom a honeycomb pattern of fuel rods and moderator rods, illuminated with an unearthly blue glow (known as the Cherenkov Effect) caused by the scattering of particles in the water.
For scientists, the work in Los Alamos is not limited to the local labs. My father visited Sandia Labs in Albuquerque and frequently traveled to the Livermore Labs in California, Los Alamos' sister facility, for conferences and work sessions. In the early sixties he went regularly to Britain to work on their weapons program for weeks at a time. Before the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. signed the Test Ban Treaty in 1963, he was also a regular visitor to the Nevada test range and to Eniwetok. The postcards and occasional gifts from the distant places captured my imagination; I was fascinated by the piece of Trinitite he gave me—the glass-like substance formed when the heat of a nuclear weapon fuses the silicon in sand.
He wouldn't talk about what he did in Britain, but was slightly more forthcoming about the Pacific. One story illustrated the security mentality there. He had been working on the shot tower, calibrating some instruments on the "device," when nature called. He climbed down and told the army guard at the gate not to let anyone disturb the tower. Moments later, the guard was writing him up for a security infraction: He had left the site in the custody of a person not authorized to have custody (i.e. the guard). Although an infraction is a serious matter, and my father took his oaths seriously, he was really pissed at this doublethink. He stormed into the project office waving the infraction over his head and threatening to resign 'RIGHT NOW!" Given his seniority, and the trouble of transporting him back to the U.S., the security chief tore up the infraction.
My father mistrusted the secrecy, once asking me, "Do you think that physics or math is different on the other side of the border? Do you think the Russians are any less competent at math?" He felt that 90% of the staff he dealt with could be declassified without imperiling any legitimate national security interest, and that most of the secrecy was a bureaucratic dodge, or laziness, or one-upmanship. In fact, it could even be damaging. A short-cut he had developed in some statistical procedure saved hundreds of hours. But it was a couple of years before his group told Livermore about it, and he felt that nobody outside of the labs will ever see it, despite its applications in other fields. Part of the delay in telling Livermore might also spring from the long-standing rivalry between the two labs.
Those of us who grew up in such families tended, as a game, to try to penetrate the walls of secrecy. I would talk with my father about his work, trying to pose slanted or revealing questions. He might answer obliquely, or, if the question was too direct, he would simply give a polite non-answer. If pressed, his response was a simple "I can't answer that." Recently I went to a talk by former CIA analyst Ralph McGee, who used precisely the same words in the same tone. His questioner obviously didn't understand the ground rules, and rephrased the question, forcing McGee to state explicitly that he couldn't answer that question in any form because of security restrictions. In Los Alamos it was considered bad form to push someone, even a parent, hard enough to get that sort of response.
Despite the elaborate security (fences, guards, numbered copies, badges, and so forth) the code words and euphemisms, the inhabitants of this unique village were not ignorant of what they did. The machinists, computer techs, secretaries, and the like may not have "the big picture," but the physicists and mathematicians in the weapons groups, as well as the administration types, saw it well enough. They, probably more than anyone else, know what nuclear weapons can do. The original scientists were very concerned about the role of the bomb, discussing it in political terms, not just technical ones. The questions raised were often profoundly disturbing to them. The later scientists saw themselves as distinct from the military on one hand, and from the policy makers on the other. They rationalized that they were not responsible for the final decisions. My father made an illuminating reference to this view of the lab's position when he said of the Pentagon, "Don't confuse us with those bastards."
There is an inherent schizophrenia in this position. My father pointed out that the various directors of the lab (Oppenheimer, Norris Bradbury and Harold Agnew) would say, in effect, "Nuclear weapons are one of the greatest threats to the planet today. A solution must be found or we will perish." Then, without a perceptible shifting of mental gears, they would add, "It is our mission here at the lab to develop the best and most useful weapons." From one side of the mouth speaks the humanist, and from the other the company man.
Another example of this contradiction was my father's fondness for Bertolt Brecht, particularly his play Galileo which examines the scientist's relationship to the state. Galileo was written when Brecht heard about the splitting of the atom. This pattern is not unusual in Los Alamos—an intellectual openness counterbalanced by a deeply ingrained conformity to the ideology of the day.
My father explained that when he had first come to the labs, and earlier when he did some very mysterious work at Princeton, there had been a different feeling about patriotism. Nuclear weapons were (to them) unquestionably necessary in the face of an "obvious threat" from a powerful and "aggressive" Soviet Union. He was also aware that almost every major escalation in the arms race had been initiated by the U.S. (the fission bomb, the fusion bomb, delivery systems such as submarines, MIRVs, etc.). It is this "peaceful coexistence" of contradictory beliefs that is at the core of this state of mind.
There were no "Atomic City Burgers" at Los Alamos, not much glorification of the bomb or loud patriotism. Although, or perhaps because, these people worked with radiation in all its forms, there was not much mythology about it, and certainly not an unquestioning acceptance. My father, for instance, was against commercial nuclear power, feeling that a safe plant could perhaps be built, but that there was no credible plan to deal with the amazing amounts of waste. Burial was absurd, he said, if nothing else because the government can't plan rationally for five years, let alone for five thousand. This characterizes the denizens of Los Alamos: they are not jingoes, and they don't want to see the bombs used (Teller, at least in those days, was seen as something of a freak).
Civil defense, very much in style in those days, also came in for some criticism. The horrible joke of the "shelters" was explained to me at an early age. The reason for having us hide under the school desks I figured out by myself: it was to keep us under control, with the added benefit of letting us die in a humiliating position. Los Alamos once had a practice evacuation that was planned and announced for months in advance. Certain roads were designated as one-way, signs were set up, maps mailed. When the glorious Saturday came, half the citizens followed the evacuation plans when the sirens began to howl and the other half didn't. There was a tremendous traffic jam that took hours to unsnarl.
Los Alamos is a coldly cerebral community when at work, and my parents at least were that way at home as well. My peers and I grew up as miniature adults: verbally sophisticated, reasonable and outwardly oriented. I didn't know many families that were close; my friends were quite as remote from their parents as I was from mine. Perhaps warmth and love are corroded by the town's moral tension, secrecy, unemotional routines, and relentless intellectualism. My half-sister, who visited occasionally, said that as a child I was extremely "clingy.' (This came back to her when she read a Time article about a Los Alamos girl who was asked what she would be if she could be anything in the world; she replied that she wanted to be a teddy bear, so that she would always be hugged.) Not a very warm community, but one that undoubtedly produces a lot of academically proficient kids determined to win acceptance.
Although there were some very religious people there, I was raised by determined agnostics. We attended services at the Unitarian church (a converted army barracks), which were more of a social event than a religious one. Despite my fathers antireligious background (a product of his strict Christian upbringing in Tulsa) he developed an interest in Buddhism. With Paul Stein, the local genius, he learned to read Tibetan. He had a substantial collection of books and Tibetan artifacts; there was a prayer wheel on his desk and demon masks looked down on him as he worked. As I grew older I wondered where this interest came from ... Some sort of hangover from Oppenheimer at Trinity? Latent brain damage? The mystery of distant places? An attempt to inject spirit into this most unspiritual world?
The morality of the weapons research was not openly discussed, as everyone understood why it was done. The labs were a self-contained world, filled with people of similar backgrounds and ideas, who had grown up at a time and place when you just didn't question your country. Such issues (which weren't really questions but curiosities) were secondary. There were probably some who questioned the work, but for the most part it was taken as a postulate. Strange contradictions abounded—praise for peace combined with hostility to the Test Ban Treaty. One man who worked at the lab was a total vegetarian—no milk, no leather, nothing. Others were merely anti-social and eccentric, such as one mathmatician who disliked his office and had a janitor clear out a broom closet and install his desk, lamp, and chair in it. My father knew him for twenty years and only occasionally got a "Hi, Ralph" out of him.
When the outside world brought its concerns to the lab, it was usually received politely. In one demonstration in the late '70s, a peace group had gotten permission to stage a rally in the administration parking lot. Several of the physicists in my father's group talked to the demonstrators through a high fence. They disagreed with the demonstrators, but felt that they had a right to protest (just as the workers had a right to work). The protestors planted a small tree in the dirt of the parking lot as a memento of peace. The next day the security people dug up the tree, prompting my father to make sarcastic remarks about unauthorized trees and being "bugged." The Los Alamos city council actually considered a Freeze resolution a few years ago, but narrowly failed to pass it.
Los Alamos has some strong appeals for those who like mathmatical games and technical toys. They are seduced by the dance of equations—a very elegant world, quantifiable, controlled, and self-contained. To them, the final application is less important than the development, the pursuit of knowledge. Los Alamos is one of the few places where they are able to work in such fields as solar physics (not only do they get paid, but they get to be patriots). Only the very best solar physicists land jobs in universities; the rest end up at various government and private labs. As my father explained once, the hydrogen bomb is really just like the sun, except of a somewhat shorter duration. (I reminded him that it was also a little bit closer to the Earth.)
As the years went on, my father became increasingly disaffected with the lab and with the country as a whole. He felt the labs were becoming more self-serving, and were now less a tool to carry out policy than active advocates of certain policies and strategies. The name of the labs changed from the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory to the Los Alamos National Laboratories, reflecting a different set of requirements. Specifically, the focus changed from roughly half military to more like 70% military. The new people there were also different. When my father semi-retired in 1981, he had been there for thirty years; the next longest anyone else in his group had been there was seven years. He came to feel quite alienated from these colleagues, the technically polished short-timers who wouldn't be at the lab for life. They didn't ask the same questions, either practical or moral. Those who had been adults when the bomb arrived had to think about it in hard terms; those who had grown up with it accepted it fatalistically. The company news magazine, The Atom, which he took to referring to as "Pravda," had had a question-and-answer column, which had at least some questions that were germane (though somewhat fewer answers). As time went on, there were fewer and fewer questions, and even fewer answers.
The lab was not his only source of dissatisfaction. Both he and my mother, once Goldwater Republicans, turned against the Vietnam war (but voted for Nixon twice!). My father hated to see the environment destroyed, and was appalled at Watergate. The overthrow of Allende in 1973 in Chile was a crime that my father as a "democrat"—a partisan of peaceful electoral change—could not forgive. Shortly before he died, he signed a petition against U.S. aid to El Salvador.
The factors that led to his disenchantment were not obvious. Although I may have played a part, it was a change (or a perceived change) in his beloved institutions that made him begin to question the system. He had always been analytically inclined, and irrational policy (such as ICBM defense systems) irritated him. It wasn't somebody explaining what nuclear weapons could do or lecturing him on his lack of morality that brought changes, but rather the system he believed in revealing itself as hypocritical and empty.
For me it is all long past, and I know only a few retired people at Los Alamos. When I went to get my father's possessions from his office at the time of his death in 1982, Imet his group leader, Dave, who talked about my father. Ralph, said Dave, could tell you that somebody had tried something years before and why it hadn't worked; he was superb at math and statistics, and was generally a good guy, well liked by them all. I gave them his yard-long slide rule, the German books on differential equations (published by the Custodian of Alien Property in WWII because of national need). I left with bittersweet recollections of those days, and some small mementos, such as a yellow button proclaiming that "Uncle Stan Is Always Right" (a mysterious reference to Stan Ulam, a famous mathmatician). There are some certificates for participation at various shots, photographs, a few Indian relics—and ambivalent memories of a kind man who designed thermonuclear weapons.
—by G. S. Williamson