Atomic Heritage Foundation

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Selecting the Site

Selecting the Site

Aerial view of Los Alamos road on mesa

Choosing Los Alamos

Dorothy McKibbin, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Victor Weisskopf at a party

Oppenheimer's Choice

  • Choosing Los Alamos

    Choosing Los Alamos

    Physicist Edwin McMillan recalls accompanying J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Groves to select a site for the Manhattan Project’s top-secret scientific laboratory.

    Narrator: Physicist Edwin McMillan and his wife Elsie once lived in Master Cottage Number One. In 1942, McMillan was working at the Radiation Laboratory at Berkeley, when J. Robert Oppenheimer invited him along on a trip to select a site for the Manhattan Project’s top-secret scientific laboratory.

    Edwin McMillan: There were certain requirements for a site. It had to be far from the borders of the United States, and it had to be in an area not close to highly built-up areas, mainly for security reasons. Didn’t want to have the scientists mingling with a lot of townspeople and gossiping about what they were doing.

    Many places were looked at. Colonel [John H.] Dudley said that he visited most of the small towns in the Southwest. He said he traveled thousands of miles on two-lane roads—one lane for the left wheels and one lane for the right wheels.

    Well, this site search headed up. Colonel Dudley had decided, on the basis of the criteria and what he had seen, that the best site was Jemez Springs, New Mexico. So, it was arranged that Oppenheimer and I were to go to Jemez Springs.

    Well, soon as [General Leslie] Groves saw it he didn’t like it. There was no argument there. Groves said, “This will never do.”

    At that point, Oppenheimer spoke up and said, “If you go on up the canyon, it comes out on top of the mesa and there’s a boys’ school there, which might be a useful site.”

    We all got in cars and went up to Los Alamos Ranch School. I remember arriving there. It was late in the afternoon. There was a slight snow falling, just a tiny drizzly type of snow. It was cold. And there were the boys and their masters out on the playing fields in shorts. This is really a place for hardening up the youth.

    Soon as Groves saw it, Groves said, “This is it.” 

  • Oppenheimer's Choice

    Oppenheimer’s Choice

    J. Robert Oppenheimer explains why he selected Los Alamos to be the site of the top-secret Manhattan Project weapons laboratory.

    Narrator: Los Alamos laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer believed that if you had to confine people in an isolated place, you needed to provide them with an inspiring view.

    J. Robert Oppenheimer: My feeling was that if you are going to ask people to be essentially confined, you must not put them in the bottom of a canyon. You have to put them on the top of a mesa. It was not a place where you felt locked up.

    I will quote Emilio Segrè. When he first came there in April of ’43, he stood by this building that is still there called Fuller Lodge, a sort of hotel. At that time, there was nothing in front of it and you looked out over the desert and to the Sangre de Cristo, which were covered with snow. It was extremely beautiful.

    And Segrè said, “We are going to get to hate this view.”

Quick Fact:
In 1942, the Manhattan Project selected Los Alamos, NM, to be the site of the atomic bomb project's top-secret weapons laboratory. The government requisitioned the area, providing some small compensation to the Los Alamos Ranch School, homesteaders, and others who lived on the site.