The Legacy of the Children of the Manhattan Project
In 1982 I attended an anti-nuclear march in Manhattan. For me, it was part political statement, part personal milestone. My father, Ellis P. Steinberg, and uncle, Bernard Abraham were both scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, and I’d struggled to reconcile my personal anti-nuclear convictions with a sense of loyalty to my father, especially. As a teen and a young person I was active in the anti-war movement of the 1960s and worked for Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for president. But when it came to taking a stand against nuclear proliferation it took some time for me to participate without feeling at least a twinge of guilt.
That march would prove pivotal in another way. I walked that day with my cousin, who lived in New York at the time. When we returned to his apartment afterward he took out his drawing pad and drew a fetus inside an atom bomb and wrote “Children of the Manhattan Project.” He tore it off his pad, handed it to me and said, “We could have had our own group at the march.” That got me thinking about the legacy of growing up with fathers who contributed to what was both one of the greatest intellectual achievements and horrifying acts of war of the 20th century. That concept stayed with me for over a decade until I eventually decided I would write a book about the children of Manhattan Project scientists. In 2016, I published “Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project,” and in interviewing other adult children it became clear that this unofficial siblinghood shared a legacy that ranged from the quirky to the profound.
PO Box 1663
For children of the Manhattan Project, PO Box 1663 isn’t just an address. It’s a reminder of how deeply their fathers’ work was shrouded in secrecy. The clandestine lab at Los Alamos had no official address. It didn’t matter what you did or why you were at Los Alamos during the war years—whether you were born or married there, whether you sent letters or received them—the only address for the secret lab at Los Alamos—a place that did not officially exist during the war years—was P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Kenneth Englar, the father of a woman I interviewed, was recruited to the project while he was in basic training. His transfer order simply said to go to P.O. Box 1663 in Santa Fe. His daughter, Barbara Engler recalled him saying that he pictured himself standing in a post office, staring at a wall. Any children born or marriages that took place during this time had P.O. Box 1663 on their official documents as their place of birth or wedding.
“I think there is going to be a nuclear war and (Australia is) the last place it is going to come.”
All of the people I interviewed had a heightened awareness of the nuclear danger. David Seaborg, the son of Manhattan Project chemist and Nobel Prize winner Glenn T. Seaborg, was convinced that a nuclear war was imminent and almost fled to Australia when he was in college in 1972. He recalls: “I went to the student ticket window where they sold airline tickets and decided right then to buy a ticket to Australia. The agent looked at me strangely and said, “’Why do you want to go to Australia?’” I told him, “’I think there is going to be a nuclear war and that’s the last place it is going to come.’” … (T)he ticket agent said to me, “’Buddy, if that happens, it isn’t going to make any difference where you are.’” I knew he was right. The radiation would be in the food, air, and water, and everyone would die. It would just be a matter of time. So I stayed …”
Seaborg also remembered a vivid nightmare. In the dream, he looked out the window from Berkeley and couldn’t see San Francisco across the Bay. He awoke terrified and called the operator to see if everything was normal. He didn’t want to ask directly if there had been a nuclear bomb dropped on San Francisco.
Almost everyone who grew up during the Cold War remembers duck and cover drills at school and the constant fear of the unthinkable happening. Carol Caruthers, the daughter of Manhattan Project engineer Stanley Blazyk, was skeptical that the plan to avert disaster would work. In sixth grade she informed her teacher that “getting under the stairwell won’t protect us from a nuclear bomb.” Her teacher told her to be quiet because she was scaring the daylights out of everyone. When Carol told her father about it he echoed her teacher: “Just keep quiet and don’t say anything more about it to anyone.”
“The FBI was just here.”
Later, when Caruthers was at college she had another signature “children of the Manhattan Project” experience. The FBI visited her dorm and asked her dorm mother about her activities – whether she was enrolled at school there, what kind of car she drove, etc. When she returned home the panicked dorm mother asked, “What did you do anyway?” She tried to downplay it with, “Oh, it’s probably something to do with my dad and his work.” “It unnerved me, though,” Carol recalled, “I believe they followed a lot of the older children around during that time.”
Many of the scientists were under FBI surveillance after the war and it could be unsettling for them and their families. They saw what happened to J. Robert Oppenheimer, the greatly admired director of the Project. Many viewed his surveillance as what led to his personal and professional ruin. A few of the people I interviewed remembered how being shadowed impacted their fathers; one couldn’t travel freely until the late 60s because the government would not give him permission to leave the country.
My family was not under any kind of surveillance that I know of, although I think my father often censored himself regarding politics because he knew that even if he wasn’t being officially tracked, he was being watched. I always wanted my father to put a bumper sticker on his car against the Vietnam War or in support of McCarthy for President, but he always refused. Now I see why. Having been a part of Manhattan Project, it was unwise to advertise your politics. In a somewhat ironic twist, when I started researching my father—who was tightlipped about his work—I found that he had been a signatory to the Szilard petition, which urged Truman to not use nuclear weapons in the wake of Germany’s defeat in 1945.
A Long Shadow
The shadow cast by the Manhattan Project is long politically and personally. Each year as the anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki approach I renew my hope for peace. The children of the Manhattan Project, like their parents, tend to be high-achievers, value intellectual pursuits, and have worked in many fields of science, medicine, psychology, education, and the arts to help create a better world. I hope to see a world in which the products of minds like these continue to be used toward the benefit of all living things.
D. Leah Steinberg is the daughter of Manhattan Project scientist Ellis P. Steinberg and the author of “Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project.” Learn more about the Manhattan Project and the Atomic Age in BackStory’s “In the Shadow of the Mushroom Cloud.”