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Behind the FBI's search for the 'Manhattan 8'

caption: The Hanford site, seen from Washington State Route 240.
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The Hanford site, seen from Washington State Route 240.
KUOW Photo/Gracie Todd

“Oppenheimer” opened this weekend, Hollywood’s version of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb.”

While the movie paints a compelling picture of how the Manhattan Project came to be, it only gives a cursory look into the lives of the scientists who moved to the remote places involved in building the first nuclear weapons.

Thousands of workers relocated to Los Alamos, New Mexico; Oak Ridge, Tennessee; and Hanford, Washington, starting in 1943, part of the secret race to finish the bomb before the Nazis.

As Seattle Times investigative reporter Patrick Malone writes, some of those workers faced an elevated level of scrutiny because of who they were suspected to be — lesbians.

Malone chronicles the story of eight women whose lives were put under the microscope by the national security apparatus, as they worked to achieve America’s goals.

The Times has dubbed these women “The Manhattan Eight.”

"The 'Manhattan 8' were a group of women who worked at Los Alamos National Laboratory during the Manhattan Project, and at Hanford," Malone explained. "These were women who were recruited to this very elite project that was really a matter of desperation in a race to beat the Nazis to have the first nuclear bomb."

In 1943, as the Manhattan Project was getting started, being gay or lesbian was not a disqualifying factor, but it invited extra scrutiny as the FBI began investigating for any sort of behavior that could be used as blackmail by enemies of the United States.

Little is known about who the women actually are at this point. In documents obtained from the FBI and Atomic Energy Commission, they were merely identified as letters — "A" to "H." For clarity, The Times assigned them names based on their letter, using first names popular in the era.

The person known as "Annie" stands out as an important member of the Manhattan Eight, with Malone going so far as to say that she was "America's Most Wanted Lesbian."

"Annie was really someone who it appeared to me, was not afraid to live her authentic life when opportunity presented itself," Malone said. "When Annie first arrived at Los Alamos, she was an enlisted woman in the Army. And so immediately became a suspect, because that was where the initial FBI attention and energy was concentrated — on the women who were in the Army, and some of their goings on in their associations."

And while initially being gay or lesbian wasn't a disqualifying factor, that changed once the Cold War began in the years after World War II. The hunt for "subversives" included suspected Communists along with members of the LGBTQ community.

In 1953, then President Eisenhower issued an executive order that made it more difficult for gay and lesbian employees, and excluded them from certain aspects of federal employment.

Oppenheimer was blacklisted and stripped of his Q-level security clearance over suspicions that he was associated with the Communist Party, as part of the "red scare." Last year, Oppenheimer's clearance was reinstated posthumously by the Department of Energy.

While we don't know the true identities of the Manhattan Eight, there is a hope that the Department of Energy will conduct follow-up investigations.

You can read Patrick Malone's entire story at the Seattle Times, and you can listen to the entire conversation in the audio above.

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