Oral Histories Demonstrate The Limitations Of Memory

Heather McClenahan
Los Alamos Historical Society

“The older I get, the more clearly I remember things that never happened.” –Mark Twain

Modern day historians have developed a near reverence for “oral history interviews,” recordings of people who lived through a historic event or time period. Details that can be derived from such interviews add to the historical record and can enrich a narrative with otherwise unknown details.

Unfortunately, the interviews can also be wrong.

A graduate of the Los Alamos Ranch School stated in an oral history that J. Robert Oppenheimer, scientific director of the Manhattan Project, which lead to the closing of the school, attended the last graduation in January 1943 and handed out diplomas to the four graduating seniors. That interesting tidbit has made its way into subsequent books and articles.

However, working with award-winning biographers of Oppenheimer and Gen. Leslie Groves, along with other scholars, the Los Alamos Historical Society has determined that Oppenheimer was in California during the graduation ceremony. No other source, from those who were there or from those who wrote about it later, displays any evidence that Oppenheimer was in New Mexico at that time. In fact, with the exception of the interview, all evidence, from calendars to logged telephone calls, points to him being in California and not returning to New Mexico until March 1943.

More recently, an obituary for a woman in southern New Mexico reported that she had worked at a Belen café in her youth and that she remembered serving “Oppenheimer and his crew” when they rode the train between Trinity site and Los Alamos. In regard to this claim, we know that  there were no trains between Trinity and Los Alamos. Workers went by car between Trinity and Los Alamos, and those who made that trip were discouraged from stopping at public places along the route so as not to arouse curiosity about their trips. As well, Oppenheimer probably visited Trinity rarely between the site selection in September 1944 and the July 1945 test, as he was working feverishly to get the gadget ready for testing and made multiple visits to Washington, DC.

As most oral history interviews are conducted with older people, after the events they lived through became historic, their memories presents another problem. Science has shown that such memories are not just made up for self-aggrandizement. David Balota, professor of psychology at Washington University and lead author of a 1999 study on memory in older adults, says, “Our study reaffirms what Mark Twain said years ago—older adults do appear more likely to remember things that never happened.”

An article on the study in Science Daily pointed out, “Older people—and to a much greater extent those individuals struggling with Alzheimer’s—should also be somewhat skeptical about the accuracy of even those things that they think they remember quite well.”

Bolota commented, “Our findings, along with other studies, demonstrate that older people are very susceptible to the creation of false memories.”

Some might argue, then, that historians should not use oral history interviews, as they muddle the historical record and, as the Ranch School interview demonstrates, create untrue stories that get passed on. However, in spite of recall mistakes or false memories, oral history interviews do have value. They can provide context that other sources, such as newspaper articles from the time, might lack. 

More importantly, several interviews on the same topic can paint a more detailed picture for historians. For example, the collections in the Los Alamos Historical Society Archives of those who lived here during the Manhattan Project provide great examples of what daily live was like. Listeners can be transported through time with stories from those who lived it about mail censorship or parties in Fuller Lodge.

Take a listen for yourself to some of those wonderful stories at the Voices of the Manhattan Project website, a joint project between the Los Alamos Historical Society and the Atomic Heritage Foundation.