Since the recent release of Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer, there has been much talk about atomic weapons and their initial inception. Google Analytics shows a spike in search terms related to the Manhattan Project. Today’s article talks about the project as a whole and everything that it encompasses.
Background and Ideation
In 1930s Germany, the Nazi party came to power under the leadership of Adolf Hitler. Initially promising to return the German state and its economy to great levels, Hitler’s actions soon made it clear to the people that the new German state would be dystopian rather than utopian.
In terms of science, however, the German state was a powerhouse. Many prominent scientists of this time were either German themselves, or had studied in Germany. In the arena of nuclear physics and chemistry, German scientists Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann achieved nuclear fission for the first time. This made an atomic bomb possible, at least in theory. There was much fear that the Germans would be the first ones to develop such a destructive weapon.
Owing to this fear, scientists Leo Szilard and Eugene Wigner drafted an alarm siren letter of sorts. They had it signed by Einstein and sent it to U.S. President Franklin D Roosevelt.
Fast forward to a couple years later, when it was clear that the chemical element uranium could be used as fuel for atomic weapons, President Roosevelt officially signed off on the American atomic program.
The Manhattan Project
Top scientists were soon recruited for the project from all over the world. Most notably, theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer was selected as the director of Los Alamos, the laboratory where the bomb was eventually designed and tested. Other notable scientists also included Ernest Lawrence, a Nobel Prize winner, and Edward Teller, who would later go on to create the hydrogen bomb.
At its peak, over 129,000 people worked for the Manhattan Project and, during the entire course of the project, 500,000 people were in some way employed in it. The Manhattan Project has numerous sites, including the famous Los Alamos laboratory, a uranium-enriching site at Oak Ridge, a radiation laboratory at Berkeley, a metallurgical laboratory at Chicago, etc.
The project also included immense personnel from the military, both to maintain security and root out the possibility of espionage.
When the Manhattan Project was ongoing, it was believed that the Japanese could not develop an atomic bomb, for they lacked the required uranium ore, but it was held that the Germans were very close to their own bomb, owing to their immense scientific capability and resources.
Eventually, the United States, with its immense resources and scientific manpower, and its industrial might, reigned supreme. The United States developed a viable atomic bomb before its rivals.
The scientists believed that the best weather for the test was available somewhere between July 18-July 21. However, President Harry S Truman wanted the test to be conducted before the Potsdam Conference, where he would inform the other Allies about the weapon. The Potsdam Conference was to be held on July 17, therefore the test had to be conducted before then.
The world was now ready for its first ever nuclear test. Codenamed Operation Trinity, the test went live at approximately 5:29 a.m. on July 16, 1945. The test turned out to be a success. It was observed by a number of prominent people such as Vannevar Bush, James Chadwick, James Conant, Thomas Farrell, Enrico Fermi, Hans Bethe, Richard Feynman, Leslie Groves, Robert Oppenheimer, Frank Oppenheimer, Geoffrey Taylor, Richard Tolman, Edward Teller, and John von Neumann.
President Truman was briskly informed of the test’s success. He would then inform Stalin about the weapon at the Potsdam Conference, which was convened to discuss the post-war peace preparations. Truman did this quite cryptically, only referring to the bomb as a new superweapon, but Stalin already knew about it through the intensive Soviet spy network.
Hiroshima and Nagasaki Bombings
By the time the bombs were ready for use, Nazi Germany had already been defeated and had announced its surrender. The only Axis power still remaining was Japan.
President Harry S Truman decided to use a show of force, which ended up serving more than one purpose. Firstly, it led to the surrender of the Japanese. Secondly, it showed the dominance and superiority of the United States. And finally, it served as a kickstarter for the Cold War.
It was decided by the U.S. that two Japanese cities would be bombed, in order to ensure their surrender. The decision to use atomic weapons was taken after carefully assessing all other possibilities and comparing the estimated casualties and economic loss for each course of action.
On August 6, 1945, the U.S. bombed the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and on August 9, it bombed Nagasaki. Combined, the two bombings killed 129,000-226,000 people, the majority of whom were civilians. The horrors of the bombings are still felt today, almost 80 years later.
The bombings, combined with the Soviet declaration of war on Japan, led to the surrender of the Japanese on August 15. This marked the end of World War Two.
The Manhattan Project turned out to be a success, and the bombs it created directly led to the end of the Second World War. However, it launched the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviets, due to mistrust between the two. A subsequent arms race would lead to the creation of the hydrogen bomb, and many wars across the world which claimed the lives of billions. The Japanese morale was devastated by the inhumane weapon and its effects are still felt today.
At the same time, the Manhattan project proved useful in starting a global standard of deterrence during wartime, and general disdain towards nuclear weapons. The use of nuclear weapons turned out to be essential for future agreements limiting their use and production. Some observers argue that the scenario of mutually assured destruction made possible by nuclear weapons prevented a third world war between the Soviets and the Americans.
All in all, the project had far-reaching impact on the course of human history and the conditions it created remain vital in geopolitics today, whenever the issue at hand is of the nuclear nature.
Note: I have taken the photographs/illustrations from internet. They belong to the author/photographer/designer of the original article/s.