Oppenheimer put New Mexico on the map, for good or ill

Many in New Mexico take pride in the state's link with the 'father of the atomic bomb'. Others, not so much
Still from Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb Movie. The Trinity test in New Mexico was the first detonation of a nuclear device. Photo: United States Department of Energy Public Domain

Travelling through New Mexico barely two months ago, I found locals all atwitter about Oppenheimer, the movie. It was with pride and pleasure that people spoke about a film in which New Mexico, notably Los Alamos, has a starring role.

In reel and real life. New Mexico has a starring role in the movie because quite a bit of the filming was conducted at Los Alamos, Ghost Ranch and Santa Fe, all in the state.

Off-screen, New Mexico played a significant role in America’s secretive project to build the world’s first atomic bomb. By some accounts, had the project been headquartered anywhere else, J Robert Oppenheimer and his team may not have been able to swiftly and smoothly pull together all the disparate threads in just 27 months. As  an official account explains, Los Alamos met all the criteria: Inaccessibility, some road and not-too-distant rail facilities but primarily, a remote inland site where the army could apply the most rigid of external security measures. The project needed somewhere the climate would permit year-round construction; the site needed to provide access to power and water; it had to be big enough to allow for testing, sparsely populated for reasons of safety and security.

Los Alamos ticked all those boxes and Oppenheimer, who owned a ranch east of Santa Fe and was familiar with the area, approved. So, Los Alamos became the chosen site. Soon enough, the area was on the map for military industry and with leading scientists from around the world arriving in Los Alamos, New Mexico acquired an air of discreet cosmopolitanism and for years, a tourism trail revolving around labs, test sites and others connected to Oppenheimer and the atomic bomb.

Unsurprisingly, many in New Mexico take pride in Oppenheimer’s connection to the state. A Lyft driver who plays bit parts in films told me how excited he was the film would soon be out. Santa Fe residents mentioned the forthcoming movie release as a defining moment for the state. A 10-day Oppenheimer Festival runs till July 30 in Los Alamos.

But now, it turns out, not everyone is so pleased Oppenheimer chose Los Alamos to execute his great and awful task. Axios has reported that “Oppenheimer isn’t revered among some Hispanic residents and Mescalero Apache members, whose families lived near the site of the Trinity Test. They’ve suffered from generations of rare cancers after debris from the blast fell onto homes and livestock”.

Axios goes into some detail about the doleful trail in uranium mining etc left in New Mexico by the bomb project. (The full piece is here.) Suffice it to say this remains a live issue in New Mexico. One of the state’s senators, Ben Ray Luján, has long sought to expand the federal Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to include New Mexico downwinders or those who lived and worked closest to the test sites. Axios quotes him to say: “This is an issue of justice, and the federal government must do right by New Mexicans who played a role in our national security. They paid a price that can never be repaid”.

Clearly, Oppenheimer’s legacy is controversial.