New Mexico's Role in World War II

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New Mexico's Role in World War II

New Mexico played a key role in World War II. The state had the highest proportion of servicemen deaths during the war. The US government opened at least 50 federal military installations within the state's boundaries. The resulting employment of New Mexico residents improved the state's economic situation, which had deteriorated after the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Most importantly, New Mexico was chosen as the site for the development of the top secret Manhattan Project. The Manhattan Project was first conceived in 1938 after German scientists discovered that it would be possible to power a nuclear device through atomic fission. America didn't want to be left behind in the race for an atomic bomb. Albert Einstein encouraged President Franklin D. Roosevelt to support nuclear research.

Los Alamos Research Center was established in 1943 and within a few short years, scientists were running nuclear tests in the region, specifically in the area now known as the White Sands Missile Range. Even after World War II, New Mexico continued to be a focal site for nuclear research in the US.

Developing the Atomic Bomb at Los Alamos

John Robert Oppenheimer was the head of the Los Alamos research team. He supervised the nuclear weapons laboratory known only as "Project Y". The laboratory was located on 800 acres of land in New Mexico. The US Army sent troops to secure the lab, along with physicists and explosive experts to support the researchers.

Two bombs were developed at the Los Alamos lab: the Little Boy atomic bomb and the Fat Boy atomic bomb. The Little Boy atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, and the Fat Boy bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945 in the first large-scale nuclear attack in global history. Their predecessor was the "Thin Man" bomb, which relied unsuccessfully on plutonium-239 fission.

In contrast, the Little Boy bomb was successful, but it was inefficient, so the design was not reproduced. The Fat Man bomb, like the Thin Man, was based on plutonium.

Atomic Bomb Testing in New Mexico

The first nuclear bomb test was codenamed "Trinity" in honor of John Donne's poetry. The nuclear bomb tested was similar in design and make to the Fat Man bomb that was eventually dropped on Nagasaki. 45 people were on-site to observe the result of the nuclear test. Other isotopes in development were based on Uranium-235. Uranium enrichment didn't happen on site in New Mexico; rather, it was carried out in Tennessee. Testing was important to make sure that the bomb would explode instead of fizzle. When a bomb fizzled, the fission produced a nuclear event exponentially smaller than the desired result.

Scientists at Los Alamos started discussing the possibility of testing the bomb in 19444. Norman Ramsey proposed testing the nuclear bomb within a contained chamber to minimize the risk to the environment and to bystanders. However, only a full-scale explosion could provide the scientists with the data they needed to ascertain the effectiveness of the nuclear device.

Kenneth Bainbridge, a Harvard University physicist, was put in charge of planning the Trinity Test in New Mexico. The test needed to be run in an isolated, unpopulated area. The area also needed to be in a place without wind, to minimize the amount of nuclear fallout.

In 1965, the testing site was registered as National Historic Landmark.

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