Manhattan Project child’s book examines conflicted morality
By Lou Fancher
Approaching the anniversary of the 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on Aug. 6 and 9 respectively, a timely memoir by D. Leah Steinberg measures nuclear weaponry’s generational aftermath.
The El Sobrante writer’s well-researched book, “Raised in the Shadow of the Bomb: Children of the Manhattan Project,” offers personal stories from her memories and those of other people she interviewed during a more than 20-year span. Along with concise chapters on the secret and public history of the scientists whose work split the atom and included her father, Ellis P. Steinberg, and uncle, Bernard Abraham, archival photos add dimension to the voices of family and others related by association with the project’s legacy.
“I felt conflicted about doing this book,” says Steinberg. “I’d get away from it and come back to it for many years. But when I talked to the other children like me who are now adults, I felt there was understanding about what we went through, even if they had different political thoughts from me.”
Steinberg, at 65 and retired from work in sleep medicine, had found her tribe. After decades of struggle with resolving internal conflict about the role her father played with others in developing a weapon of mass destruction, she discovered long-sought clarity if not complete peace.
“There was a validation in finding other people who grew up in a family where perfection was a goal. It was a hard thing to grow up under.”
Steinberg’s adolescent dreams of becoming the first woman astronaut or symphony conductor bent under the pressure of anti-nuclear Vietnam-era sentiments. She earned a degree in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and a masters in counseling psychology through long-distance learning.
Escaping the grounded world of physical science and the violence of America’s ending of World War II with nuclear weapons, Steinberg pursued humanitarianism. Internally, turmoil that led to depression and startling revelations from family members forced an ongoing cycle of unsettling self-examination.
“One time I was visiting my mother after my father died. We went to the Holocaust museum. She was rushing through it very fast. I asked her to slow down. She said, ‘My cousin died there.’ I had no idea. (Earlier,) during the McCarthy era, people didn’t want to talk about things. It was about trying to not think about it, not confront it.”
The Manhattan Project required extreme levels of secrecy. Begun in 1939 and eventually located at numerous sites in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, babies born during the Manhattan Project at the Los Alamos, New Mexico, location had “P.O. Box 1663” listed as their birthplace on their birth certificates, for just one example. Steinberg says the people she interviewed varied not only in their political views but in their childhood experiences related to secrecy and trust issues.
“Their parents who were conflicted or still worked in nuclear or war research — they didn’t talk about it as much as the ones who had opinions about it one way or the other,” she says.
Most people wanted to participate, perhaps to get their stories out on a larger stage, she suggests. Walnut Creek resident David Seaborg is an evolutionary biologist, author and director of the World Rainforest Fund. His father, Nobel Laureate Glenn Seaborg, was the principal discoverer of plutonium, among other elements, and for many years held positions at UC Berkeley.
Asked about participating in Steinberg’s book, David Seaborg says, “The point of the book to me is that anything to keep in the forefront of people’s minds the danger of nuclear war is a good thing. They need this book to wake up.”
Destruction in Seaborg’s definition extends beyond lives lost when the bombs dropped on Japan. He says an inter-relatedness between world peace, sound environmental practices and lifestyles must be communicated to younger generations through “facts instead of nonsense” and adults who live by example: “Drive less, recycle, support environmental organizations and legislators, switch from fossil fuels to solar, cut back on nuclear weapons,” he says.
Steinberg is no less active. She places hope for something beyond the “cold peace” the world precariously maintains now in sharing her book. “In 2018, it’s like A Tale of Two Cities: the best and worst of times. Will the human race continue to live on planet Earth in 50 years? That’s a critical question now. During my parents time there was the Depression, World War II, the Holocaust, being a Jew in America. The difficulties change from generation to generation. Children now have to worry about being shot when they go to school.”
Reflecting on the book’s 20-year process, Steinberg has an amended perspective on history.
“You can’t put yourself in the times and know what explains people’s decisions. I can’t judge them, even though I’m now against nuclear weapons. They had a way to use their brilliance that they thought would end the war with Hitler. Even so, I have felt the futility of trying to heal the world. Getting involved with others, listening and working beyond politics, doing this book, I did feel relief. I jumped over a hurdle. Now I go day to day, trying to find beautiful things. People brought together and solving problems — that’s the antidote to futility.”