The Man Who Found Trinity Site

Remembering David Hawkins

February 21, 2003 in THE KITCHEN SINK,The Rockies | Comments (0)

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A friend in Colorado told me my favorite college professor, David Hawkins, had died in Boulder at the age of 88. I went to the Internet and found an obituary from the Washington Post. It looked familiar. As I read on I got the eerie feeling that. . . I had written it!

David HawkinsIt was not, however, one of those Santa Fe woo-woo moments. The obit was based almost entirely on quotes from my interivew with Hawkins on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Trinity test. He was a college friend of J. Robert Oppenheimer, who hired him as official historian of the Manhattan Project — and unofficially as his troubleshooter in dealings with the Army.

I did not like the obituary. What I had written was appropriate for the July 15, 1995, anniversary of the birth of the nuclear age, but certainly not as a summary of a great man’s life. He was a distinguished professor of philosophy, winner of a MacArthur Foundation award among other honors, author of a classic analysis of modern science called “The Language of Nature,” a beloved husband, father, teacher. Few people in Boulder even knew his association with the building of the first atomic bomb. His official history was classified for 15 years, and he seldom spoke of it.

Hawkins grew up in El Paso and LaLuz, near Alamogordo. His father was William Ashton Hawkins, a leader of the New Mexico Republican Party and a lawyer who wrote the book, as they say, on water law.Hawkins told me he had a wonderful youth. “I had horses to ride, and I had a Model A Ford pickup truck to drive. We wandered all over the Tularosa Basin, one way or another, looking for minerals, looking for excitement, looking for rattlesnakes, looking for adventure of the desert kind.”

Hawkins was probably the first to suggest the Jornada del Muerto for the first test of the atomic bomb. It was in that arid basin with the McDonald Ranch as headquarters that the Army built the world’s first Ground Zero, with its 20 miles of straight blacktop roads, thousands of miles of cables, rows of barracks, concrete bunkers and, dead center, a 10-story prefabricated steel tower.

Hawkins was one of the last remaining witnesses of Oppenheimer’s flirtation with the 1930’s radical left, which was the reason for cancellation of both their security clearances in the 1950’s. They met at the University of California in Berkeley, where Oppenheimer was teaching and Hawkins was completing his philosophy PhD with a doctoral thesis in the mathematical theory of probability.

“We were the self-appointed left-wing protectors of political wisdom on the campus,” said Hawkins, recalling their main leftist activity was forming a teacher’s union, which Oppenheimer supported. “He would speak at meetings. He was always very impressive.” They also tried to focus political attention on the Spanish Civil War and the Nazis. Hawkins said Oppenheimer’s family, as American Jews with relatives in Germany, “knew a lot more about Hitler than most Americans at that time.”

Oppenheimer was impressive in groups, Hawkins said, because “he had a high-powered intellect of a certain type that would grasp the essence of an argument or a situation and be able to describe it to great eloquence — in any field he turned his serious attention to.” As a young man Oppenheimer published poetry and essays in a literary magazine called Hound and Horn that was, Hawkins said, “very elite — poetry and prose of a rather precious kind.”

After his three-year blaze through Harvard with honors, Oppenheimer studied in Germany and Denmark. “He was one of the people who quickly assimilated the ideas of Niels Bohr, which were still new and still causing much distress to traditional-minded physicists.” When Oppenheimer returned, Hawkins said, “he was probably the only physicist in the United States for a while that was a real master of this developing discipline called quantum mechanics. What came out of it was the physics of the atom and in particular the turning of attention to the nucleus of the atom.”

Soon physicists were probing nuclei with high-energy particles. Enrico Fermi at the University of Chicago had what Hawkins called “an intuition about the heavy metals, particularly Uranium,” and Fermi accomplished the first controlled nuclear reaction. Leo Szilard had already conjectured that some heavy elements might fission in a chain reaction, creating a nuclear bomb. (The persuasive Hungarian who had barely escaped the Nazis persuaded the British Admiralty to take out a secret patent on his idea, Hawkins said. Acquiring the patent drove Manhattan Project officials nuts because Szilard insisted on giving it to them rather than taking the customary and legally binding $1.)

In late 1941, Oppenheimer became scarce at Berkeley, and early in 1943, Hawkins got a call from him on a bad circuit, saying, “We need you.”
“I knew immediately that this thing was on, and I didn’t want to be excluded from knowing about it. I was intrigued by the thought of being part of this extraordinary development. And it was still of course in those days entirely focused on the terrible thought that the Germans might get this weapon and win World War II.

“The spirit at Los Alamos was one of excitement about this extraordinary new technology. These were academic physicists, but they were on their way to becoming — we invented the word — weaponeers.” Hawkins’ first assignment from Oppenheimer was to mediate disputes between the Los Alamos scientists and the Army. “The military created the place as an Army post, and being in their own traditions accustomed to the fact that the military in such a place would be on top and the civilians would be under them, it was a hard struggle to accept the attitude of the scientists, which was that the military were their servants.”

Hawkins never had to mediate between the leaders of the two sides Í lab director Oppenheimer and Brigadier Gen. Leslie Groves, director of the Manhattan Project. “They were like this,” Hawkins said, holding together two fingers. “They needed no mediation.” The popular story has always been that Oppenheimer and Groves were natural-born adversaries, but Hawkins saw a deep mutual respect between the two men. “It is well known that Groves picked Oppenheimer against the advice of other physicists who considered themselves perhaps senior to Oppenheimer. But Groves had a belief that Oppenheimer was the man who could do this job, and he was right.

David Hawkins

“Oppenheimer had a kind of presence, a kind of style, that enabled quite senior physicist types to accept his leadership happily. It’s a remarkable talent. He could be quite obtuse about some things. That’s not too surprising.

“Many people with tremendously rapid intellectual qualifications can miss the boat,” Hawkins said. Groves, on the other hand, “wasn’t an ideologue. He had some kind of imagination. It didn’t make him more attractive, but it made him more respectable,” Hawkins said, adding: “Oppenheimer really did, I think, make a deal with Groves.”

The deal was Oppenheimer would be free to run the secret Los Alamos lab as he wished and Groves would protect him from the FBI and G-2 military intelligence. “They’d already reported to him about Oppenheimer’s left-wing activities, and of course this was a time when the anti-Communist scare wasn’t what it became later publicly, but it was very powerful then. Communists were demons, especially in the intelligence world,” Hawkins said. He acknowledged that he too, for a short time, was a member of the Berkeley Communist Party, a youthful mistake that the Rocky Mountain News mined endlessly for screaming Communist-At-Boulder headlines in the Sixties.

Hawkins was no fan of Edward Teller, whose secret testimony would be instrumental in removing Oppenheimer’s security clearance after the war. Teller, Hawkins told me, “belonged in the company of the engineer who wants to build the tallest building or the longest bridge. He wanted the biggest bang.” Oppenheimer had assigned Teller and his special theoretical group to investigate the question whether the atomic bomb might trigger a runaway nuclear reaction of nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere.

“Teller told me the chance of such a thing happening was one in a million,” Hawkins said. “I knew very well that was a figure of speech because you don’t calculate that kind of chance.” Hawkins wondered if the atmosphere of the earth actually might burn up. So he asked Teller. “He smiled at me and said, `Well, David, worse things could happen.’ And I knew then he had at least a strong bit of nihilism in his makeup.”
Teller’s response: “I would think Hawkins had a certain amount of nonsense in his makeup.”

Hawkins said Oppenheimer’s deal with the Army was not, as author John Freeman Dyson and others have said, a deal with the Devil.
“Oppenheimer and, indeed, all of us who knew what a factor of a million meant, knew that this was a change in the nature of world affairs and it couldn’t be blinked. It couldn’t be set aside. It was there and something would happen with it.” The binding energy of matter let loose in a nuclear reaction is millions of times greater than the energy released by the same mass in an explosive chemical reaction.

“If it wasn’t developed in World War II, it would appear secretly in the arsenals of nations after World War II during peace time. And the greatest hope for coping with this new development was to recognize and to persuade the world to recognize that this was not a military weapon. This destructive power was beyond anything that warfare itself as an institution could tolerate. If we’re going to continue to have wars, they can’t be this bad.”

Bohr was the first to propose international openness. The Danish physicist proposed it when he visited Los Alamos in 1944 under the code name Nicholas Baker.”Oppenheimer knew it already in some way. We all knew it in some way, and we had therefore this idealistic side to the contract with the Devil, if that’s what it was, that it would be necessary to develop the weapon to have it known to the whole world, in order that the world could protect itself.”

And Hawkins told me a story which he said was documented in a wartime memo he wrote, on request, from the notes of Oppenheimer’s secretary. The physicist Robert Wilson, who in recent years has expressed great regrets about failing to quit Los Alamos as soon as the Nazis were defeated, came to Oppenheimer some time in June 1945.

“Wilson among all that group was probably closest to being a real pacficist and was doing what he was doing with reluctance and had been persuaded by this argument: `If we don’t do it, the Nazis will.’ Now the war was over and therefore the Nazis wouldn’t and therefore, why shouldn’t we stop? He wanted a new argument.”

Oppenheimer provided it in a brilliant impromptu speech at a meeting of Wilson’s cyclotron group. “He spelled out his conviction that this weapon must be known to the world in World War II, must be used as a weapon of destruction in World War II, because that was the only way in which its potential destructiveness as a weapon would be understood world wide: that it must be known all over the world,” Hawkins said, adding, “Wilson was satisfied.”

Sacrifice Japanese cities for the good of the rest of the world?
“It wasn’t put in those words,” Hawkins said. “In that period of time everybody that was directly or indirectly involved after that long warfare got kind of bloodthirsty.”

Hawkins was essential enough in the Manhattan Project that he had held one of the plutonium hemispheres for the Trinity device. It was warm, like a living thing. “It warmed itself,” he said.

And he was essential enough as official historian to see its energy unbound in the desert at 5:30 a.m. mountain war time, July 15, 1945.
But Hawkins quietly boycotted Trinity. He said nothing at the time. He just didn’t go. “I didn’t want to see it,” he said. He finished his history and left Los Alamos, dating the preface Aug. 6, 1946, the first anniversary of Hiroshima.

Hawkins was not welcome at Los Alamos in the ensuing Cold War years, after the persecution of Oppenheimer. But soon after the Trinity anniversary it was announced that Hawkins was the winner of the annual J. Robert Oppenheimer award, given at the lab.

His return to the hill, and his warm welcome by the audience that night in the Los Alamos civic center, closed a circle. He told them how strange it was that they had spent their lives making things “that can never be used.”