In the northern part of the state of New Mexico there is the city of Los Alamos, birthplace of the atomic bomb and a place that makes up a significant part of the military colonization in the state.
What makes Los Alamos and what guides its history is that it is the home of Los Alamos National Laboratories, the birthplace of the Manhattan Project. In fact this is the only reason that this town even exists today. Back in 1942, the government needed an isolated place to do research and development on the atomic bomb. Robert Oppenheimer was familiar with land around Los Alamos at the time, so the government chose this scarcely populated place that was also known as The Hill because of its geographic location.
The acquisition of the land is another episode of Anglo colonization. The federal government needed 54,000 acres for the project, and while most of this was taken from nearby national forests another 8,900 was in private hands. It was owned mostly by Hispano homesteaders and tow Anglo-owned enterprises, the Los Alamos Ranch School and the Anchor Ranch. The government compensated the School for $225 an acre, the Ranch for $43 an acre, but the Hispano homesteaders got an average of $7 an acre. This was when they got any payment at all. Some received no payment, others were promised the land back after the war ended (didn’t happen) and others were forced off their land at gunpoint. (1) Los Alamos was a microcosm of what happened to the rest of New Mexico, land forcibly taken to be used for tools of militarism.
After World War II the Lab, one of only two national laboratories conducting classified nuclear weapons work, continued to be utilized. It’s main focus being nuclear weapons, the town thrived through the Cold War. Today this city of 18,000 people has the highest per capita income in the state, and New Mexico as a whole often competes for top position in poverty in the country. So without Los Alamos, New Mexico as a whole would not only be last but dead last in terms of poverty. So the economic impact of Los Alamos is significant. With most of its employment from the laboratories employing scientists receiving six-figure salaries, Los Alamos is also known for having the highest number of millionaires per capita in the country. (2) (3) Life in Los Alamos is very different than average. Daily life in Los Alamos revolved around the lab. Along with the direct employees were the indirect employees who were dependent on serving the people from the labs.
Here’s a profile of Los Alamos in Mother Jones magazine.
The end of the Cold War produced a shakeup in its purpose. While this was happening, the nineties had Los Alamos producing a lot of one product: scandals.
First was Wen Ho Lee. A naturalized American citizen, Lee worked at Los Alamos Labs for 20 years in the supersecret X Division, where he and other top scientists handle the physics of the American nuclear stockpile. In 1999 he was accused of espionage on behalf of the Chinese. He was subjected to a witchhunt and anti-Asian racism. The abusive jailhouse tactics even made a federal judge apologize to Lee. The federal government found no evidence of espionage through the whole ordeal, and Lee ultimately pleaded guilty to a lesser and trifling misdemeanor for mishandling classified data, and sentenced to 278 days, which was time served while he was in solitary confinement. (4)
It turns out that hard drives with classified nformation went missing more than once at the labs. One time one was found behind a copier. Another incident of missing data drives found out those drives didn’t even exist but were the result of a clerical error.
Another scandal was one was equipment theft and credit card abuse by lab employees. A government report documented 263 computers missing from the lab, likely from theft. This was part of $2.7 million of unaccounted equipment. Employees abused purchasing orders to acquire personal items, another used a government issued credit card to buy a customized car. (5)
These incidents seemed to bring out cracks in the pristine reputation of Los Alamos and it community of scientists and engineers working on some of the most deadly weapons of modern times. Institutions are made up of people, and in the case of Los Alamos an uncertainty of its direction in the post Cold War era brought laxity among its people.
Today Los Alamos is still operating, having new missions of stockpile stewardship and developing tactical nuclear weapons. The legacy of Los Alamos is one not only of the pollution from its nuclear bomb development but of its entrenched life dependent on militarism. The future of Los Alamos is linked to past. Demilitarization will affect it, but for the good.
1. Yardley, Jim. “Land for Los Alamos Lab Taken Unfairly, Heirs Say.” New York Times. August 27, 2001. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2001/08/27/national/27LAND.html
2. Parsons, Chris. “Millionaire meltdown in Los Alamos: Nuke lab town has highest concentration of rich in America.” Daily Mail (UK). November 4, 2011. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2057586/Los-Alamos-millionaire-meltdown-Nuke-lab-town-highest-concentration-US-rich.htm
3. Parker, Phil. “Los Alamos Tops Nation in Millionaires.” Albuquerque Journal. November 4, 2011. http://www.abqjournal.com/67326/news/los-alamos-tops-nation-in-millionaires.html
4. Hanuka, Asif. “The Worst Jobs in Science: No. 44: Nuclear Weapons Scientist.” Popular Science. January 26, 2009. http://www.popsci.com/scitech/gallery/2009-01/worst-jobs-science?image=43
5.Gehrke, Robert. “Panel Expands Inquiry of Fraud at Los Alamos Lab.” Los Angeles Times. December 15, 2002. http://articles.latimes.com/2002/dec/15/news/adna-losalamos15