Memories of My Father’s Memories

A group of physicists at a 1946 Los Alamos colloquium. Front row, left to right: Norris Bradbury, John Manley, Enrico Fermi, J.M.B. Kellogg. Second row, left to right: Colonel Oliver G. Haywood, unknown, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Phil B. Porter. Third row, left to right: Edward Teller, Gregory Breit, Arthur Hemmendinger Arthur Schelberg.
A group of physicists at a 1946 Los Alamos colloquium. Front row, left to right: Norris Bradbury, John Manley, Enrico Fermi, J.M.B. Kellogg. Second row, left to right: Colonel Oliver G. Haywood, unknown, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Phil B. Porter. Third row, left to right: Edward Teller, Gregory Breit, Arthur Hemmendinger Arthur Schelberg.

The Humanity and Inhumanity of the Manhattan Project

The author's father, Ralph G. Steinhardt, Jr., 1979.
The author’s father, Ralph G. Steinhardt, Jr., 1979.

In sorting through my mother’s papers recently, I came across an old Virginia newspaper that she had saved, The Roanoke Times & World News from January 28, 1979. Under the headline “He Was There,” the reporter describes my father—then roughly my age now—“perched . . . like a shorebird” on his office chair and reflecting on the first explosion of an atomic bomb, code-named “Trinity,” at a site in a New Mexico desert in July 1945. The quotation accompanying the picture of this haunted man reads simply, “We realized it was going to work. And we realized what it was going to be used for.” By “we” he meant the scientists and engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico, the top-secret town built by the U.S. government during World War II. Eight thousand people essentially disappeared into Los Alamos during the war to develop the first atomic weapons, and my father, a member of the Army’s Special Engineer Detachment, was one of them, at 26 years old.

What the words on that yellowed page cannot convey is the mix of exhilaration and despair—of victory and tragedy—that became my father’s daily life as a result of his work on the bomb. He often said that everyone who lived through World War II was injured by it, but he would not have described himself as a victim: his understanding of the effects of the bomb on the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (or the experiences of soldiers in combat or the lived nightmares of concentration camp inmates) was both too scientific and too visceral to allow that. Without comparing injuries, I think he was simply traumatized in his own way, day after day for 50 years after the war, by his informed imagination and his innate empathy.

It took me a long time to understand his addictions to alcohol and nicotine and self-absorption and melodrama, the effects of which were all around us growing up. Here was a man who loved the music of Bach and Fats Waller, the writings of Melville and S.J. Perelman; who loved teaching chemistry and making people laugh; but who also looked with pride and shame at the things that he knew had most damaged him and imperiled the world. And now, as an aging Quaker, I am led to ask: what clarity, drawing on what spiritual resources, does it take to recognize and embrace the humanity of those who developed this machinery of inhumanity? How much like George Fox can we be, holding those whose behavior we most oppose in the Light?

This is not an abstraction for me. I am by profession an international human rights lawyer, representing the survivors of torture when they find their abusers in the United States. I have also taught international law and human rights for 30 years, and I routinely ask my law students to consider what legal scholar Richard Falk called “the irony of August 8, 1945.” On that day—two days after the destruction of Hiroshima and one day before the destruction of Nagasaki—the Allies in Europe signed the London Charter, which set up the Nuremberg tribunals for the trials of major war criminals in that theater. The London Charter became one pillar in the post-war development of an international legal regime protecting human rights and specifically establishing individual criminal responsibility for international atrocities, including war crimes, crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace.

I ask my students to consider a hypothetical in light of what was happening on August 8, 1945: what if Germany had developed the atomic bomb and destroyed New York with it? What if Germany went on—somehow—to lose the war? Can there be any doubt that the incineration of American civilians would have been count one in an indictment for war crimes or crimes against humanity? And given the successful prosecution of doctors and lawyers at Nuremberg, can there be any doubt that the German scientists and engineers who had developed this hypothetical bomb would have been proper defendants? Can there be any doubt what their sentence would have been? The reality is that the legality of the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima has never been formally tested because the weapons were used by the winners. My father knew and internalized this, right down to acknowledging his own role in aiding and abetting the atrocity. He also knew that the firebombing of Dresden and dozens of other cities in Europe and Japan was not somehow “better” for being relatively low tech.

J. Robert Oppenheimer and Lieutenant General Leslie Groves Jr. at the remains of the Trinity test in September 1945. The white canvas overshoes prevent fallout from sticking to the soles of their shoes.

The justifications for the Manhattan Project and the use of the bombs were well-rehearsed in his mind, but there’s nothing to suggest that he ever found clarity or peace in them. In the run-up to the war, for example, there was good reason to think that German scientists fully understood the potential for atomic weaponry and the principles along which it might be built. Albert Einstein had written to President Franklin D. Roosevelt one month before Germany invaded Poland in 1939, describing in broad terms what an atomic bomb might do and noting that Germany had already stopped the sale of uranium—a key ingredient in one version of the bomb—from the Czechoslovakian mines that Germany had seized. Within the scientific community, especially among American Jewish scientists like my father and the numerous scientists who had escaped fascism in Europe, the consequences of the Nazis winning that race were easy to imagine and terrifying. At Los Alamos, my father is quoted in the newspaper, “these minds knew two things: they knew physics, and they knew Hitler . . . How can you stop evil? In this instance, by doing something evil. It was a result of living in a world with Hitler.” He celebrated the Manhattan Project’s complicated marriage of theoretical physics and engineering (what he respectfully called “plumbing”), but, in his moral universe, evil begets evil. And, from that place, one of his many stations on the circular path to understanding was captured in American philosopher John Dewey’s observation, which my father quoted often: “While saints engage in introspection, burly sinners run the world.”

In 1944 and early 1945, the pace became frantic to build and test what they called “the gadget.” My father described exhaustion, the joy of working with other intense people on an urgent and difficult task at the cutting edge of physics and with the potential to end the war. He also described a fierce communal devotion to the arts—classical music coming out of the living quarters, often performed by the residents themselves, and theatrical productions like Arsenic and Old Lace, in which all of the ghosts in the famous curtain call were played by Nobel laureates in physics or chemistry.

But the job of “plumbing” dominated: he described taking risks with radioactive material that would never be tolerated in a laboratory today. He described having to throw away his clothes every day that he worked in the lab. He told the story of the agonizing deaths of two colleagues lost in accidents at Los Alamos, performing an experiment memorably called “tickling the dragon’s tail.” He described how he and his friends agreed not to introduce their yet-unborn children to one another for fear of concentrating in their grandchildren the genetic effects of exposure to radiation. He told the terrifying story of Hans Bethe, head of the Theoretical Division at Los Alamos, being asked if the test explosion of the bomb would set off a chain reaction that would inexorably incinerate the earth’s atmosphere and kill everything on the planet. When Bethe emerged from his quiet room having concluded that it would not, the gadget was exploded. My earliest connection to that test was holding some pieces of greenish glass—“trinitite”—that my father said had been created when the heat of the explosion melted the sand at the Trinity site in New Mexico. It was a while before I understood that the temperature at ground zero was ten thousand times hotter than the surface of the sun and that jewelry containing trinitite could be so radioactive as to damage the skin of those who wore it for a while.

My father spoke often of the enigmatic J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was the overall scientific director at Los Alamos; indeed, in later years, when I saw film of Oppenheimer, I thought I saw my father: the same gaunt frame, the same elegant movements, the same ever-present cigarette, the same hat. My father also internalized some of Oppenheimer’s complexities: his fragility and other-worldliness, his passion for science, his love of the arts and literature, his antipathy for the military and its ways. My father often quoted Oppenheimer, especially his observation after the Trinity test that “now the physicist has known sin.” In saltier terms, my father quoted Kenneth Bainbridge, director of the test: “Now we are all sons of bitches.”

In our family, it was a measure of Oppenheimer’s learning and humanity that, when asked about his thoughts at the time of the Trinity explosion, he invoked the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita, recalling Oppenheimer’s words: “Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” Oppenheimer’s post-war treatment at the hands of the national security state and McCarthyism confirmed my father’s conviction that one nation’s military should never have had exclusive control of the weapon. Oppenheimer and Edward Teller, the father of the even more powerful hydrogen bomb, became icons of two great opposing moral forces in my father’s Manichean view of the world: Oppenheimer represented civilized human beings doing necessary uncivilized things, and Teller represented rank brutality and xenophobia.

Germany surrendered in May 1945, removing the original rationale for the Manhattan Project, but the war with Japan continued, and the American military had come to view the atomic bomb as an alternative to the otherwise inevitable invasion of Japan. The working assumption seemed to be that such an invasion would cost a million American lives and many times that among the Japanese. Taking a smaller number of lives with the bomb to save a larger number of lives required a calculus that my father never embraced, even as he understood its attractions for some people of good will. Several members of the scientific community argued for a plan to demonstrate the bomb to Japanese officials, alerting them to the existence and power of the weapon and appealing to their rational assessment of their own vulnerability. In an early demonstration that the scientists had lost whatever control they thought they had, the bombs were dropped on the two Japanese cities three weeks after the Trinity test.

After the war, my father joined the Association of Los Alamos Scientists (known by its poignant acronym, ALAS) and lectured widely on the imperative of disarmament and nonproliferation. I remember him quoting Einstein to the effect that, if World War III were fought with atomic weapons, World War IV would be fought with bows and arrows. He jokingly wished the Manhattan Project had been ordered to develop a solar death ray, because then at least human beings would have had the technology for abandoning fossil fuels by the 1960s. Near the end of his life in 1994, he celebrated the fact that atomic weapons had not been used in war for nearly 50 years. On his retirement from a life of teaching and research, his friend Louis Rubin wrote a long appreciation, containing one epic, spot-on description of my dad: “professor of chemistry, musician extraordinaire, man of letters, humorist, bon vivant, who could and did lecture on the aesthetic properties of the Periodic Table of the Elements, who was not only devoted equally to the conversion of [his] students into professional chemists and to the promulgation of the Bach B Minor Mass, but indeed considered them twin manifestations of the same sensibility.” By then, my father had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals and detox for decades. It is of course impossible to determine how much of this was attributable to his experience on the Manhattan Project and how much was the result of his own internal being.

What does Quakerism require of us when we hold someone in the Light? It is easy enough for me to hold the people I love in the Light, and even to hold strangers in the Light when they encounter sorrows and challenges. But I think we are called to do something harder, and that is to search for the humanity of those we despise or whose conduct we deplore, to understand with Terence that “nothing human can be alien to me.” My prayer is that I will be able to hold the torturers in the Light, even as—especially as—I work to hold them accountable in court. I will hold my traumatized father in the Light and ask you to do the same, by connecting with the humanity he brought to the New Mexico desert in 1944 and then brought back out into a world he had helped to make more frightening.


Author video chat with Ralph:

Ralph G. Steinhardt

Ralph G. Steinhardt, who was named after his father, is a member of Bethesda (Md.) Meeting and co-clerk of its Ministry and Worship Committee. He is a professor of law at George Washington University Law School and co-founder of its joint human rights program at New College, Oxford University (UK).

4 thoughts on “Memories of My Father’s Memories

  1. There must have been another way , at least to try, to convince the Japanese government to surrender without dropping the Bombs on the 2 cities. However, I am the child of a paratrooper bound for the invasion of Japan. The chances of my father surviving the drop onto mainland Japan were not favorable. I am glad my father survived, that I am alive, and I can only grieve with the Japanese people – and continue to promote the Quaker testimony of peace.

  2. I have been contemplating on what it means to “hold someone in the light”, also. Especially since I have been reading and studying the Beatitudes. Maybe not with the discipline of Gandhi, but at least weekly. One evening as my wife and I were discussing the relevance of the Beatitudes in today’s world, she said something that I take as an epiphany. She told me that it is easy for me to visit and teach those in prison, or to feed or clothe the homeless. She suggested that the “least of these” for me were those at the other end of the political and theological spectrum from me.
    I am struggling with what that means and how I minister to these folks. As I hold them in the light I find my mind cluttered with their actions and words and it is difficult to center. But occasionally I am reminded or aware of something they have done or doing that is, in my mind “good” or “positive.” I think that the more I hold them in the light the way will be illuminated for me, especially if I can refrain from judgement and have patience that G-d will show me the way.

  3. Thank you for sharing these memories and history of your father. I never met your dad, but am an admirer and friend to your mom. We met back in 1994 and I have been deeply touched and honored to have had the opportunity to work with her in/on child development. She wrote many curricula for the Commonwealth of VA, most notably bringing brain research and new ideas to many individuals working directly with young children. Mary is everything I aspired to be and she is in my daily thoughts and prayers. I am sorry your father was so tortured by his work at ALAS.
    Again, thank you for the glimpse into the life of someone I so admire and love.
    Deb O’Neill

  4. I just wanted to say thank you for sharing your experiences and for the perspective. The Lawrence Livermore lab released a great deal of atmospheric test footage today. I grew up in the 80’s and saw ‘The Day After’ when I was 8. The possibility of nuclear war has been an ever-present fear of mine. I appreciate shared experiences like this because they give me hope that in some way maybe it will help lessen the chances of that grim future happening. I also appreciate your perspective on holding people up to the light. While I’m not religious it’s a concept I very much agree with and struggle to do myself.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Maximum of 400 words or 2000 characters.

Comments on may be used in the Forum of the print magazine and may be edited for length and clarity.