It was during the Second World War that the United States became a world power, thanks in a large part to its monopoly on atomic weapons. The atomic bomb is a weapon with great explosive power that results form the sudden release of energy upon the splitting, or fission of the nuclei of such heavy elements as plutonium or uranium. This new destructive force wrecked havoc on two Japanese cities and caused the end of World War II.
It also saved thousands of American lives because a ground invasion of Japan was no longer necessary. The decision to create the bombs was that of United States President Franklin D. Roosevelt under a secret military project that was called The Manhattan Project. The Beginnings of the Manhattan ProjectIn 1939, after German dictator Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, German scientists shocked the scientific world when they announced that they had split uranium atoms by man-made means for the first time. Upon hearing this news, a nuclear physicist, Leo Szilard, was convinced that a chain reaction of this process could be used as a weapon to release an awesome burst of power.
Szilard knew that this knowledge was now in the wrong hands of the enemy Germans. On a July day in 1939 Szilard and his associate, Edward Teller, drove to the Long Island home of Albert Einstein to alert him of their findings. Einstein used his political influence by immediately writing a letter to President Roosevelt explaining the consequences of the Germans creating an atomic bomb. His letter read, “I believe, therefore, that is my duty to bring to your attention that it may become possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium by which vast amounts of power and large quantities of new-like elements would be generated.
A single bomb of this type, carried by a boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port, together with some of the surrounding territory.”Two months passed before Roosevelt finally read the letter. He ordered a committee of scientists and military officers to meet Szilard and Teller to determine whether America was capable of building a nuclear bomb. In 1940, Szilard and Teller were granted a mere $6,000 to begin experiments in nuclear fission.
The duo enlisted the help of the winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1938, Enrico Fermi.Since much of the United States early nuclear research been conducted at New York’s Columbia University, the federal government assigned the Manhattan District of the Army Corps of Engineers to construct the primary research and production facilities for the project. Hence the “Manhattan Project” became the code name for the atomic-bomb development program. Success under the StandsIn early 1942, the Manhattan Project moved its headquarters to Chicago. There the scientists set up a laboratory under the stands of the University of Chicago football stadium. It was there that the turning point of the project occurred; the first nuclear chain reaction was created. On December 2, 1942, to conduct the test, the three brilliant men built a graphite nuclear reactor the size of a house. By the pulling of a rod attached to the reactor the experiment began.
The meter on the counting machine ascended to the highest point and stayed there. “Gentlemen, the pile has gone critical,” Fermi announced, signaling that it was a success. Fermi then ordered the control rod to be pushed back before the reactor exploded and perhaps taking a large part of Chicago with it.
The chain reaction was the evidence that proved that an atom bomb could be made. Most of the scientists were overjoyed, but Szilard said to Fermi, “This is a black day for mankind.”Confidence in the projectThe success in Chicago prompted Roosevelt to give top priority to the creation of a nuclear bomb.
The focus of the project shifted from research to the actual production of the bomb. More than $2,000,000,000 was now being pumped into the project. The Manhattan Project’s team was allowed to employ the country’s brightest mathematicians and its most highly trained technical people. Twelve Nobel Prize winners were also enlisted in the undertaking. Highly skilled men and women were in short supply in wartime, but they were routinely snatched off their jobs and set to work building the bomb. Roosevelt believed he was in a race with Hitler to develop this ultimate weapon. In the early 1940’s rumors has gotten to Washington that Germany was building its own nuclear weapon. The Germans had taken over a heavy water plant in Norway.
Heavy water is water that contains deuterium, a crucial ingredient in making the atomic bomb. American spies reported that Germans were mining uranium in occupied Czechoslovakia. All this evidence added up to a nightmare scenario. No one wanted to imagine what might happen of an atomic bomb fell into the hands of a madman such as Hitler.
The Manhattan Project was the most ambitious scientific undertaking ever launched in American History. Rare uranium had to be processed. Giant machinery need for the bomb’s development was designed and built on a piece-by-piece basis. Work on the project was conducted in thirty-seven installations spread over thirteen different states.
Two new towns, Hanford, Washington; and Oak Ridge, Tennessee were created just to produce the material that would fuel the bomb. By 1945 Oak Ridge had been transformed from an isolated valley holding a few farms into the fifth largest city in Tennessee. The actual design and construction of the bomb was carried out at another new town: Los Alamos, New Mexico. Before the war Los Alamos had been a tiny ranch used as a boy’s school. With breathtaking speed, houses and buildings were erected at Los Alamos.
Soon the town had its own newspaper, schools and a population of four thousand. Most Los Alamos residents were scientists and their families. The head of the Los Alamos project was the brilliant but stern J. Robert Oppenheimer. After Oppenheimer worked on some nuclear research at Berkley he was assigned to direct Project Y, the actual designers of the bomb inside the Manhattan Project. It was his idea for the Los Alamos location as the design laboratory. During this time General Leslie Groves had taken over general military command of the Manhattan Project. Keeping the project’s work a secret was an obsession with him.
A small army of security guards stood watch over all the plants and laboratories. Although more than a hundred thousand men and women took part in the project, only a handful of them knew they were making an atomic bomb. The few who did know the goal of the project were careful to call the bomb a “gadget” or a “gizmo” in casual conversation. The war in Europe took a dramatic turn in June 1944, when allied armies stormed the beaches of France and began a long march to Germany. Traveling with the frontline forces was a top-secret unit code named ALSOS.
The ALSOS team investigated research sites in Europe where American scientists believed Germans were making nuclear weapons. The ALSOS investigation discovered shocking evidence that Germany was not actively working on a bomb at all. Early in the war Germany had shown interest in nuclear bombs, but it later shifted its goals toward making rockets and jet aircraft.
Hitler himself led his country away from atomic weaponry by denouncing nuclear physics as a “Jewish Science.”Germany surrendered to the Allies on May 8, 1945. A week earlier, Hitler had committed suicide in a Berlin bunker.
With the war in Europe over, Japan stood as America’s only enemy. Since Japan was a nation near defeat in 1945 many Manhattan Project scientists thought it would be inhumane to drop the bomb on a helpless nation. Leo Szilard wrote a letter to now president Truman, begging him not to use the weapon he helped create on Japan. Truman rejected his pleas by pointing out that the battle at Okinawa cost the U.S. fifty thousand men killed or wounded.
Military experts estimated that an invasion of Japan would result in a million United States casualties. Dropping the bomb would most likely force a Japanese surrender and prevent such an invasion. The Desert TestBy July, 1945 the Manhattan Project work was almost completed; they had developed a working nuclear bomb. The only obstacle that stood in their way is the actual testing of the bomb. The test, code name “Trinity” occurred on July 16, 1945 in the New Mexico desert town of Alamogordo. In a concrete bunker, a group of scientists and high-ranking military officials waited tensely. Many of them glanced at the clock, which was almost toward five in the morning.
It was still to dark to see the hundred foot tall steel tower that housed the world’s first atomic bomb nicknamed “Fat Man.”Scientist Isidor Rabi wrote as the countdown came to a close and the bomb exploded. “It was the brightest light I have ever seen or that I think anyone has ever seen.
It blasted; it pounced; it bored its way right through you. It was a vision, which was seen with more than the eye. It was seen to last forever. You wished it would stop..
.. There was an enormous ball of fire, which grew, and it rolled as it grew: it went up in the air in yellow flashes and into scarlet green. It looked menacing. I seemed to come toward me.” Finally, the tremendous ball of fire reached its height and diminished to reveal a mushroom-shaped cloud rising from the desert floor.
In the bunker the men displayed mixed reactions. Some congratulated each other with slaps on the back and others sat in silence. Robert Oppenheimer spoke a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita an ancient book of Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds”After receiving a full report of the test, President Truman decided that dropping the bomb would be the only way to save American blood.
Although some historians believe that an ulterior motive was to impress the Soviets; Truman claimed he was looking out for the future of the United States.The BombingBefore dawn on August 6, 1945, a single B-29 named Enola Gay took off from Tinian Island, about fifteen hundred miles south of Japan. The bomber was loaded with one whale-shaped bomb that weighed about nine-thousand pounds and nicknamed “little boy.” Far ahead of the Enola Gay, a scout plane reported that there was little cloud cover over the primary target, the Japanese city of Hiroshima. In the city men and women jammed the streets for work and school children scampered to school. At precisely 8:15 A.M. the B-29 dropped its bomb.
Seven hundred yards above Hiroshima, the bomb exploded like a huge flashlight. The blast killed seventy thousand residents, many of whom were instantly incinerated. Three days later, a second atomic bomb was dropped on Nagasaki, killing forty thousand more people. In the months following the deaths tolls from the two cities continued to climb. The bombs released poisonous radiation that caused leukemia and other diseases. Not even the Manhattan Project scientists could have foreseen that their creation would have deadly- long-term effects.
Even today Hiroshima and Nagasaki residents are dying of sickness caused from the blasts of 1945. On August 14, 1945, just five days after the Nagasaki blast, Japan agrees to American terms of surrender. The atomic bombs manufactured by the crash program called the Manhattan Project had helped to win World War II. However, the bombs ushered the world into a nuclear age.
Since the first test millions of people have wondered whether nuclear weapons will spell the end of life on our planet. That question was first raised on the New Mexico desert in 1945 when a scientist remarked, ” Am sure that at the end of the world- at the last millisecond of the world’s existence-the last man will see something very familiar to what we have seen today.”