Los Alamos, New Mexico During World War II
Los Alamos, New Mexico
Even though the book covers events that happened all over the world, the vast majority of the important stuff happens in the remote desert town of Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Finding the perfect spot for super-top-secret scientific research was essential to Groves, and Oppenheimer had some ideas of what they needed, too:
The site had to be remote, so work could be kept secret. But it also had to be fairly close to railroad lines, so people and equipment could quickly move in and out. And, ideally, it would have some buildings already in place, so scientists could move right in and get to work. (Disappearing Scientists.(12).5)
The two men found the perfect place: the Los Alamos Ranch School, a boys school that had a few buildings, a dining lodge, log dormitories, and several small houses for teachers. They wasted no time in shutting down the school (see ya, students) and moving in.
However, the conditions were awful:
Outside the workrooms, Los Alamos was a disaster.
"The site itself was a mess," said Robert Serber.
"It was a shambles," agreed Hans Bethe. "It was a construction site. You stumbled over kegs of nails, over posts, over ladders."
Melting snow sank into the dirt roads, turning them to sticky black mud. And while views of the surrounding mountains and deserts were spectacular, the army built high fences around the entire lab—making the scientists feel like prisoners. (The Gadget.(17).14-17)
That's one of the drawbacks to needing isolation for security purposes: people feel, uh…isolated.
"The first thing I noticed," remembered Edward Teller, "was that we were all going to be locked up together for better or for worse."
"I was shocked by the isolation," Bethe said. "Clearly we were very far from anything, very far from anybody." (The Gadget.(17).18-19)
This sounds like the perfect formula for a horror movie, doesn't it? Spectacular desert views, killer intentions—dun dun dun…But really, despite all the top scientists in the nation living like they were attending a second-rate summer camp, everyone desperately wanted to be there:
"Living conditions are still poor here and will remain so," Hall wrote to his family, "but I would be willing to live on whale blubber alone in an igloo at the South Pole for a crack at the same job." (Born Rebel.(23).27)
These scientists weren't there for the luxury—no, they were there for the work. And as for why this work felt so compelling to them, well, this bring us to the second component of the setting: World War II.
World War II
We would be seriously remiss if we discussed the setting of Bomb without mentioning that the time period in which everything occurs plays a pretty large role.
Most of the story takes place right in the thick of World War II, a time when the U.S. was pulling together to try to defeat the overwhelmingly evil Nazis. Everyone was sacrificing something for "the cause" because people knew deep down that this was a war that had to be won. And this is part of what draws so many top-notch scientists to Los Alamos: They're eager to do their part to help.
Looking back on it, it almost seems like this was period characterized by naïve virtuousness, making the war a classic struggle of good versus evil.
On the other hand, war is a nasty business, and even U.S. allies weren't to be trusted. The whole time the U.S. was working with the Russians to defeat Hitler and Japan, the U.S. and Russia were also working against each other, trying to top each other (and doing anything required to do so) in the race to develop the atomic bomb:
Yes, the United States was helping the Soviet Union—but not out of the kindness of its heart. The United States and Soviet Union had never been friendly, and nothing had really changed. America's help to the Soviets was the product of cold logic. The Soviet Union was battling Germany. America badly wanted to see Germany beaten. So Americans were glad to have the Soviets do the bloody work of fighting Hitler. (Rapid Rupture.(5).5)
All of this leads up to the dark period just after World War II, ushering in McCarthyism, the nuclear arms race, and eventually the Cold War between the United States and the USSR. It was this era of distrust and unhealthy suspicion that led to the unfair persecution of Robert Oppenheimer when he decided to voice his concerns about nuclear proliferation. For more on that, though, you'll have to hop on over to his page in the "Characters" section.