Manhattan project

Manhattan project

During the summer and autumn of 1942, Bush and Conant decided to reorganize the entire atomic project to centralize its direction under the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps appointed Brigadier General Leslie Groves to take charge of what was now code-named the Manhattan Engineering District–for short, MED or the Manhattan Project. At first, Groves, a career West Pointer who had up till then held only desk commands, approached his new assignment with little relish. He was hoping for a combat field command. Instead, his commanding officer asked him to stay on in Washington. Groves objected.

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Partly due to Groves’s forceful personality, and partly because the project was finally being supported by adequate funding, during 1942 the Manhattan Project leaped forward. Scientists, confident that they could achieve a chain reaction, were turning from pure science and the experimental, laboratory stages of research to a phase dominated by engineering considerations aimed at building a bomb. The attitude of Ernest O. Lawrence was typical.

The fundamental problem confronting scientists of the Manhattan Project was the separation of the fissile isotope U-235 from other uranium isotopes. The choice of separation techniques was narrowing to two: gaseous diffusion and electromagnetic separation. The Met Lab in Chicago could not be expanded to provide production facilities of the size required by either of those processes, so Groves sought a spacious site for a massive U-235 “factory.” He soon located one in a chronically depressed area of eastern Tennessee on the Clinch River twenty miles west of Knoxville, near a hamlet called Oak Ridge. One of the advantages of the Oak Ridge site was that it nestled down between parallel ridges, which might provide some containment for Knoxville in case of a catastrophic accident at the plant.

Groves hired the architectural firm of Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill to design an entirely new city there, and the Boston construction and engineering giant of Stone and Webster to build it. (Stone and Webster remains today one of the largest firms involved in building power plants, both conventional and nuclear.) Oak Ridge, destined to become the first of the National Laboratories, mushroomed in less than a year to an instant city with its own independent coal-fired power plant, sewage system, and housing for a wartime population of 13,000. Like so many later boomtowns spawned by nuclear power, Oak Ridge was a sprawl of bleak, barren trailer yards scattered around more conventional housing. Prefab plywood hutments and jerry-built cemesto houses went up atop the naked, scraped red earth. (Gerard H. Clarfield, pg 51-55)

Military counterintelligence was also worried, of course, about the possibility that America’s Axis enemies might learn about the bomb project. Manhattan Project scientists shared their anxiety. The Germans had begun the war with a lead in nuclear research, and had both the scientific expertise and the raw materials necessary to produce a nuclear weapon. The haunting fear of a Nazi bomb troubled scientists until early 1945. At first, the Americans’ fears were well founded. The German team of Hahn and Strassmann first knowingly achieved laboratory fission and thereby established what the Americans considered a head start in the nuclear race. After Munich, the Third Reich controlled one of the richest sources of uranium in the world, the Joachimsthal mines of Bohemia, and their occupation of Belgium in May 1940 gave them potential access to the output of the uranium mines of the Belgian Congo (modern Zaire). Despite the intellectual destruction of its universities, Germany retained a cadre of preeminent physicists, including men of the stature of Hahn, Werner Heisenberg, Walther Böthe, and Hans Geiger. Nazi Germany enthusiastically supported both basic and applied scientific research. The on-going work of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute remained a constant reminder of the central role of science in the German war effort. (Nuclear Weapon Archive)

On July 15, the day before Trinity, a group of leading Manhattan Project scientists began gathering at the site to witness the test shot next morning. Enrico Fermi brought up once again a point that had been troubling Los Alamos scientists for nearly two years: would the detonation of a fission bomb initiate a chain reaction in the earth’s atmosphere itself, possibly igniting it and incinerating life on the planet? Earlier, Arthur Compton had been so concerned about the possibility that he ordered a computation of the possibility of atmospheric ignition. Met Lab physicists decided the chance was three in a million, which they considered adequately improbable. Fermi remained coolly detached about the possibility of doomsday catastrophe. At Trinity, he took bets on whether atmospheric ignition, if it took place the next day, would destroy only New Mexico, or all the earth. Gazing reflectively at the mountains to the west, he mused aloud, “Ah, the earth on the eve of its disintegration.” (Robert Pool, pg 85)

The test shot occurred at dawn. Within the first second after detonation, it produced a light so intense it could have been seen by an observer on Venus. At the core of the explosion, temperatures reached a point never before attained on earth, ten thousand times the temperature at the surface of the sun. One hundred billion atmospheres of pressure hit the ground a hundred feet below the bomb. (Robert Pool, pg 83-89)

During the last stages of the war in Europe, the Allies succeeded in rounding up most of Germany’s nuclear scientists, interning them at a country estate in England. There, on the evening of August 6, they learned of Hiroshima. Amidst excited debates on whether the reports were true–the Germans had doubted that the United States could produce a bomb before the war’s end–they noted that some of their colleagues, most notably their leader Otto Hahn, were deeply distressed by the news. In fact the Nobel laureate Max von Laue insisted that some of them sit up with Hahn that evening to be sure he did not kill himself because of the news. The older internees concluded that it was just as well that they had not succeeded in building a bomb, for then they would have had to bear the guilt that now lay wholly on American shoulders.

But Americans did not feel much guilt. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was widely approved by the American people at the time. Ninety percent of the respondents to a Fortune magazine poll conducted in December 1945 supported the president’s decision to use the bomb. One reason for this widespread endorsement was the assumption that by using nuclear weapons Truman had shortened the war, forcing Japan to surrender. A less obvious reason was the result of the secrecy that enshrouded the Manhattan Project, was that the public was unaware of the possible ramifications of the president’s actions. Nor was there the slightest public hint that there had been any disagreement among those involved in the Manhattan Project over whether or not to use the bomb. Aware only that there was a war going on and convinced that the nuclear strikes had shortened it, most Americans quite naturally gave the president high marks.

By using the bomb, President Truman not only satisfied the widespread desire for revenge, but he also avoided a potentially serious political threat to his administration. Congress had blindly appropriated $2 billion to fund the Manhattan Project on assurances from administration officials that the project was essential to the war effort. But it was clear that sooner or later the executive branch would have to answer for this expenditure. Project leaders realized this and took pains to prepare for the congressional investigation they were certain would come after the war. Truman understood this better than most. While a senator, he himself had threatened an investigation into this large and mysterious expenditure, only to be deterred by the personal assurances of Secretary Stimson. The president did not have to be particularly astute to conclude that if the bomb became available in time, it was important from a domestic political standpoint to use it. How, he might have asked himself, would Congress, the public, and the Republicans have responded to the knowledge that the administration had spent billions on the Manhattan Project, built a potentially decisive super bomb, and then decided against employing it?

A variety of foreign policy considerations also reinforced the assumption that if the bomb became available before Japan surrendered, it should be used. The Allies were already badly divided over the future of Eastern Europe and Germany. The president realized that if the postwar settlement in Europe was to conform to American ambitions he would have to overcome strong Soviet objections. Truman and Secretary of State Byrnes both believed that an American nuclear monopoly, by virtue of its very existence, would force the Soviets into a more flexible position on issues of mutual interest. Somehow, both men believed, this enormous new force could be made to serve America’s diplomatic advantage. (Nuclear files)

In the short term, the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki had the heaviest impact not on the American public at large, but on two elites: political leaders in the executive branch entrusted with foreign and military policy, and the scientific community associated with the Manhattan Project. The reactions of these two groups have shaped American military and domestic nuclear policies ever since. Political leaders reaffirmed the 1945 decision to use nuclear weapons as a major instrument of our foreign policy; they determined to cling to the American nuclear monopoly; they adopted Churchill’s world view that saw the Soviet Union as America’s antagonist in an emerging bipolar division of the world; they both linked and subordinated nonmilitary applications of nuclear power to military demands, giving nuclear research an almost exclusively military orientation that lasted the better part of a decade.

The atomic age, born on August 6, 1945, created revolutions in war, politics, and science. But the new president of the United States, beset by enervating self-doubts, was poorly equipped to comprehend, let alone master, these revolutionary changes. He shrugged off the atomic bomb as “just another piece of artillery,” as if it were nothing more than a larger version of the shells he had handled as a captain in the field artillery during World War I. Yet, though he underestimated the revolutionary effects of nuclear weapons, he and his successors had to develop a strategy for survival in a world in which humanity had achieved the ability to destroy itself. Truman’s awesome task was complicated by the emergence of the Soviet Union as a potential adversary, and the growth of a conception of American national security that was global in nature and that defined any move by the Soviets outside their existing east European sphere as a threat to America’s vital interests. (Foerstel, Herbert N, pg 54-62)


Gerard H. Clarfield, Nuclear America: Military and Civilian Nuclear Power in the United States, 1940-1980. Publisher: Harper & Row. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1994. Page 51-55
·         Nuclear Weapon Archive, the Manhattan Project (and Before) 30 March 1999 Take  from on October 12th 2008
·         Robert Pool, Beyond Engineering: How Society Shapes Technology. Publisher: Oxford University Press. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1997. Page 81-89
Nuclear files, Manhattan Project, Taken from on October 12th, 2008
Foerstel, Herbert N. Secret Science: Federal Control of American Science and Technology. Publisher: Praeger Publishers. Place of Publication: Westport, CT. Publication Year: 1993. Page 49+

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