D. Hawkins, 88; Atomic Bomb Historian


David Hawkins, a philosopher who became the official historian of the experiment that produced the atomic bomb, died of natural causes Feb. 24 in Boulder, Colo. He was 88.

Hawkins was teaching philosophy at UC Berkeley in 1943 when his friend J. Robert Oppenheimer invited him to join the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico. Oppenheimer was director of the Manhattan Project, the top-secret military experiment that produced the world’s first atomic explosion.

Hawkins was Oppenheimer’s troubleshooter, whose duties included inventing reasons to keep the project’s many young physicists from being drafted. As the program’s historian, he came to know the brilliant Edward Teller and other members of Oppenheimer’s team.


But Hawkins was so disturbed by the prospect of nuclear warfare that he refused to witness the project’s culminating moment: the test blast that lighted the sky over a New Mexico mesa in 1945.

“The climactic thing to me was my decision not to go see the test,” he said several years ago. “As the historian I could have demanded a grandstand seat, but I didn’t want to see it.”

Born in El Paso, Hawkins was raised in La Luz, N.M. His father was William Ashton Hawkins, a lawyer who gained prominence for his work on water law.

David Hawkins spent his youth roaming the desert on horseback and later in a Model A Ford pickup, hunting for minerals, rattlesnakes and adventure. His intimate knowledge of the terrain would be pivotal decades later when scientists were searching for a site for the first atomic blast.

He studied philosophy at Stanford University, graduating in 1934. Over the next six years he earned a master’s degree from Stanford and a doctorate from UC Berkeley.

While completing his thesis on mathematical probability at Berkeley, he met Oppenheimer, then a physics professor. They discovered that they had at least two common passions: New Mexico and leftist politics.


Oppenheimer had toured northern New Mexico on horseback before entering Harvard, a trip that took him to the Los Alamos Boys Ranch, later chosen as the site for his laboratory.

He and Hawkins helped organize a teachers union, an activity that would cost both of them their security clearances during the Communist-hunting 1950s.

Hawkins joined the UC Berkeley faculty in 1941, the year that President Franklin D. Roosevelt secretly established the Manhattan Project to beat Germany in the race to build an atomic bomb.

Oppenheimer by then was scarcely seen on campus. By 1942 he was director of the Manhattan Project, recruiting the best minds in physics for his new research center in Los Alamos.

He phoned Hawkins in 1943. “We need you,” he said, barely audible because of a bad connection.

Hawkins’ wife, Frances, was a longtime pacifist who opposed the building of the bomb. Hawkins, however, did not hesitate to answer his friend’s call.


“I knew it would be history,” he said years later. “And I wanted to be on the inside of history, not the outside.”

His first job was as a mediator between the civilian scientists, who believed in freely sharing information, and the Army, which had created Los Alamos as a military post and preferred to restrict communication to a “need to know” basis.

“The weakness of that,” Hawkins recalled, “was that in science you don’t always know what you need to know.” So he helped Oppenheimer establish an atmosphere of greater openness.

Later, when the Army was searching for a test site, Hawkins remembered from his childhood an isolated strip of the desert called Jornada del Muerto, or Journey of Death, the name given by Spanish explorers, some of whom died trying to cross it.

This remote patch became the so-called Trinity Site. Hawkins believed he was the first to suggest the general area that was the site of the historic first atomic explosion.

On the morning of July 16, 1945, the top members of Oppenheimer’s team assembled excitedly at Trinity Site. Hawkins, however, chose to remain miles away.


He was waiting solemnly by an office window when, at 5:29 a.m., a huge ball of white light filled the horizon. The atomic age had begun.

Later that morning, the scientists returning from the test site were “manic, joyous, delirious” with their success, Hawkins recalled. But he could not share their elation.

“I was disturbed by the enthusiasm many people seemed to have,” he remembered years later. “They seemed to have lost sight of the grave consequences of doing this job.”

He left Los Alamos after finishing his history of the project. The preface was dated Aug. 6, 1946, the first anniversary of the attack on Hiroshima, where the bomb was first used in war.

The history was classified secret for 15 years, and remained virtually unavailable for 20 more. When it was more widely issued in the early 1980s, Los Angeles Times reviewer Peter Wyden praised it as “considerably more literate and revealing than most of the genre.” Among its revelations was that the highest-ranking member of the Manhattan Project to die in a Los Alamos radiation accident had been officially responsible for safety.

Hawkins later regretted his involvement in the program. After the war, he lobbied in Washington, as Oppenheimer did, for international controls on the development of nuclear weapons.


In 1947 Hawkins joined the University of Colorado, where he taught philosophy and physical sciences and developed a strong interest in improving science education. He and his wife, a leader in early childhood education, founded the Mountain View Center for Environmental Education, which for many years provided advanced training for elementary and preschool teachers.

“David certainly realized the danger of what they had created at Los Alamos, and that people needed to be educated in science for its values but also for its dangers,” said University of Colorado political science professor Jim Scarritt.

Hawkins was described by colleagues as a modest man of immodest intellect. In 1981 he won a $300,000 MacArthur Foundation prize, more commonly called a “genius grant.” He hated the term.

“He laughed at the notion of it being a ‘genius grant,’ because he couldn’t be a genius,” said Polly Donald, a longtime friend and Boulder educator. “He was very humble.”

Hawkins is survived by his wife; a daughter, Julie Peck of Lebanon, Ohio; and two grandsons.