The Manhattan Project In Usa History Essay


The Manhattan Project is a name that is used to refer to a secret project by the United States government that led to the nuclear bomb development. This was a project that was started before the Second World War by a research team that was formed to develop a nuclear weapon following a letter written by Albert Einstein to the then United States president Franklin Roosevelt. In the letter Einstein informed Roosevelt a discovery of how Uranium could be utilized to produce power in large amounts and the power could be harnessed and used in producing very powerful bombs. Just about a year after the writing of this letter an economist and a close friend to the president, Alexander Sachs, held a discussion with him this issue and briefed him on the important contents of the letter. The president did not show commitment to it in the initial stages was more concerned about the necessary funds but this thought changed on a second meeting on the following day and felt the need for exploring atomic energy. Einstein's concern was that the German government was already supporting the research at the time and thus felt that it was necessary for the United States government to follow suit [1] .

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Einstein was not the only person that was advocating for the research towards bomb development but he was working together with a number of scientists from Europe most of whom had fled the Nazi and Fascist repression. One of the scientists, a Hungarian émigré physicist named Leo Szilard, actually assisted him in drafting the letter and was one of the vocal scientists who advocated for the nuclear bomb development following the findings in physics and chemistry. These scientists felt that they were obliged to warn the Americans of the possibility of the German scientists winning on this race and the probable intention of Hitler using the results of the research to his advantage in terms of weaponry. "Even after receiving the letter, Roosevelt took about two months to meet Sachs which made the scientists feel that he did not consider the nuclear warfare a serious issue that required urgency" [2] . By October 19, 1939 Roosevelt reacted by writing to Einstein letting him know of the already formed committee that was responsible for studying Uranium, the committee included Sachs and Army and Navy representatives, this step for the first time indicated the positive consideration that the president gave this idea. This decision was among the many that eventually led to the Manhattan Project, the only successful atomic bomb effort in the Second World War. This decision was largely driven by the fear of Hitler gaining possession of nuclear weapons and using them against his enemies. The British later agreed to send their scientists to every Manhattan Project facility, though reluctantly, since they could not afford a fully operational research program. Even though Germans created a lot of fear at the beginning of the research, they were still very far from success after the war [3] .

Stages in the Manhattan Project

Phase 1: Scientific discoveries

The year 1919 can be pointed as the year when the atomic bomb journey began through the works of Ernest Rutherford which involved the changing of several atoms of nitrogen into oxygen, this he did at the Cavendish Laboratory at Manchester University in England. In the process of this elemental artificial transmutation a high-energy positively charged particle that proved as a hydrogen nucleus was detected, this was named the proton and become part of the miniature solar system together with the electron. This was followed by the discovery of the neutron, the particle with no charge, thirteen years later by James Chadwick. During this period the atom was viewed as containing nucleus with positive charge made up of both protons and neutrons surrounded by electrons which were negatively charged and the same quantity as the protons within the nucleus. The atomic number of the element was determined using the number of protons it contained within the nucleus and since Hydrogen had one proton, it was placed first on the periodic table and Uranium with ninety-two protons was placed last. Initially it was such a simple scheme until chemists discovered the variation in weights of the elements and even on those that had similar chemical properties, this complicated the scheme and the mystery could not be explained instantly until the time the neutron was discovered [4] .

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It was found that the difference in the number of neutrons was the reason behind the weight discrepancy between the atoms of the same elements; this led to the name isotopes which was the designation of the different classes of the atoms of the same element having different neutrons. This classification resulted into three isotopes of uranium al of which had ninety-two protons and ninety-two electrons but different neutrons in the nucleus, the isotopes are Uranium-238, Uranium-235, and Uranium-235 having 146, 143, and 142 neutrons respectively. There is a small difference in the weight of atoms of Uranium-235 and Uranium-238 and this difference was very significantly in the nuclear physics of the 1930s and 1940s. Other significant events also took place in the year 1932 with regard to atomic physics such as the splitting of the atom and the operation of the first cyclotron [5] .

Phase 2: Beginning of government involvement

The involvement of the government was characterized by the formation of the Uranium committee and provision of the necessary support for this research. Though with a lot of caution, Roosevelt heeded to calls by the scientists for the government to support the research on uranium by forming this committee in the year 1939. The work of the committee that was composed of both the civilian and military representatives was coordination of the activities with Sachs and evaluation of the current state of the Uranium research. Through this the committee had to come up with a recommendation of how far the federal government was to be involved and the appropriate roles that the government had to take up.

Phase 3: Setting up of Manhattan Engineer District

The bomb project faced some trouble from the American island hopping campaign that took place in the 1942 summer. At the time Colonel James C. Marshall was given the mandate of directing the Laboratory that was responsible for the Development of Substitute Metals, he established the Manhattan Engineer District in New York City where he had moved to. Marshall was one of the army officers who had no nuclear physics knowledge and were ready to move with a lot of caution which at times brought conflict between the army and the scientists. An example was a case that involved buying of a production site in Tennessee, even though the site was excellent and the scientists wanted its immediate purchase Marshall delayed this purchase. At this stage it was necessary for a control mechanism to be developed to arbitrate such disagreements since this lack of coordination derailed a lot of positive attempts within the project [6] .

The Manhattan Engineer District was very busy and its operation could be compared to that of a large construction company, its functions included purchasing and preparing sites, handling contracts and hiring personnel, building and maintaining service facilities, placing material orders, developing administrative and accounting processes, and setting up communication networks. The unique feature of the Manhattan Project as compared to other similar companies was that it was secretive and things were done very fast, this led to the investment of a lot of money in projects that were neither known nor proven and in secret. The blessings that came with secrecy were not openly obvious even though they existed. The challenges with maintaining secrecy were in choosing site location, acquiring supplies, obtaining labor, and the inconvenience caused to the scientists. However, it had the incredible advantage of making decisions without regarding normal peacetime political considerations which was worth the cost of maintaining the secrecy. There was no doubt in the level of secrecy in the Manhattan Project, in fact, even most of those who were employed to work for the organization were not aware of what was being developed and only knew about it on radio after the Hiroshima bombing. Since speed was also a top requirement, priorities were clarified and decisions were made swiftly. This hastiness had some negative impacts with some stages being eliminated, and manufacturing practices being violated causing sporadic shutdowns and continuous troubleshooting [7] .

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Even though Bush and other key personalities in the project recognized how tough the task was, they still insisted that it was possible to produce a bomb by the year 1945. They only had two-and-a-half years to complete all the laboratory research, construct all required facilities, coordinate the operation, and deliver the product in its final form, beating this deadline would be an achievement worth mentioning in the industrial sector. It was not clear at the beginning of the Manhattan Project in 1943 if would have played a significant role in ending the conflict that was going on at the time and no one anticipated the year 1945 as the end time for the war.

Phase 4: The American Strategy

By the beginning of the year 1945 there were some signs of success of the project thus American strategy were centered on the atomic bomb. During this time there were hard decisions to be made not only on bringing the Pacific war to an end but also on taking international postwar positions. The same year May 7 was set as the date when Germany was to surrender unconditionally but about three weeks before this day President Roosevelt met his unexpected death bringing the then Vice President Truman to the president's seat. Since Roosevelt did not disclose a lot of information regarding the war efforts to his vice, Truman had to get extensive briefings concerning this in the initial weeks of taking over the office. These briefings involved tracing the history of the Manhattan Project, summarizing its status, and giving details on the time lines for testing and combat delivery. He proved very inquisitive during the briefings and indicated to have understood the significance of the atomic bomb and the part it will play. When Truman took over power, Japan was almost being subdued with Japanese cities being attacked by American aircraft at will, there were two attacks at Tokyo within three months killing almost 200,000. At the same time supply lines to the island had been cut by the United States Navy but since Japanese were viewed as unrelenting in their fight it was likely that an invasion of the home islands was the next step. However, a section of the American policy makers felt that the only way to stop further resistance from the Japanese was through a successful combat delivery of at least one atomic bomb [8] .

Phase 5: The Detonation

In the history of warfare, the use of atomic bomb has been recorded only twice and these two instances are very clear in the minds of many. The first use was at Hiroshima while the second use was at Nagasaki, both in Japan and by the same country, the United States of America. When the Manhattan Project had achieve its main objective, that of making an atomic bomb, and tested it only one thing was left; using it on the target. On the sixth day of the eighth month of August the year 1945 the first atomic bomb was used, a uranium bomb was dropped on Hiroshima; this bomb has been referred to as "Little Boy". Not even the weight of the bomb which was estimated at 4.5 tons came on the way of the Americans who were determined to see it explode in Japan. When it was dropped the target was Aioi Bridge and the bomb missed it by just 800 feet dropping a minute later than the time that was scheduled. The estimation of those who died at the instant the bomb was dropped is 66,000 and 69,000 people injured as a result of the atomic explosion that weighed 10 kiloton. The vaporization that resulted from the explosion covered an area measuring 1.5 mile in diameter, the area within 1 mile diameter was completely destroyed, and severe damage was experienced up to a 2 mile diameter. An area of 2.5 miles in diameter was a burning zone with the blaze stretching up to a 3 mile diameter [9] , the flashing of the explosion can only be imagined considering that during the testing a blind girl who was 120 miles away saw the flash.

Barely three days after this first explosion the second atomic bomb was used this time at Nagasaki, this one was made with Plutonium and was referred to as the "Fat Man". This time the target miss was over a mile but the city was still reduced into half its original size and the population reduced by about 10% the initial population with over 25,000 nursing injuries. As expected just a day after the second bomb Japan surrendered since it was an experience enough. As people still stay astonished at the magnitude of the atomic bombs that were used there are physicists who indicate that the atomic bomb capabilities utilization stands at 1/10th of 1% meaning that only 0.1% of the atomic bomb capacities were witnessed. The destructiveness of an atomic bomb does not stop at the deadliness of the explosion but this is followed by other hazards. The radioactive particles from the atomic explosion pollute rain and many of those who were lucky to survive the explosion were swept by the polluted rain that followed the explosion. As if that is not enough, even the future generations feel the effect f such a detonation by facing afflictions such as Leukemia which is passed on to them from the survivors.

Life during the Manhattan Project

There was a lot of political marginalization among the activist of the project especially the émigrés since they were foreign nationals; this greatly determined their level of success (or failure) in being heard and their opinions being considered. Since they were newly naturalized citizens and the wartime situation then made Americans very wary of foreigners it was not very easy for them to cope with the situation. Those who were better positioned to focus on the bigger political picture were the émigrés working at the Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago, thus, they did not get carried away by the scientific and engineering hurdles that faced other scientists who were working on the project. The life at Chicago was very different with that at Los Alamos since Chicago was a cosmopolitan urban and the academic environment was very different from the one at Los Alamos which was a military frontier and was in isolation in the wilderness. Oppenheimer, who was the head of the project and commonly referred to as the 'Father of the Atomic Bomb', was very comfortable with collaboration of the military and fully took part in the decision-making mechanisms of the government policies, these led to the successful ending of the project and he was considered to have taken a very great scientific responsibility. It was the Los Alamos-Oppenheimer scientific commitment that was attached to the Manhattan Project and its military outcome and not the Chicago émigré opposition, this made the atomic bomb story to be that of scientific achievement rather than that of the heroic resistance put by the foreigners.

The development of the atomic bomb had a sociological perspective that can be clearly revealed through two significant summers in which very crucial decisions were made and effective actions taken and those were the summers for the years 1939 and 1945. Atomic physics experienced a great twist in the year 1939 with the migration of top physicists from Europe to England and America. This migration brought very critical scientific intelligence as well as a sense of sensitive political emergency into America even though it has always been faulted as an error to mention that the rise of American physics had to wait for such a migration. There are revelations that Albert Einstein was not the one who did the actual writing of the letter but it was one of the physicists, Leo Szilard, and his colleague who wrote the letter and convinced Albert Einstein to assist them in delivering the letter to the president. The secrecy of the project was emphasized by Leo Szilard who felt the danger of the Germans developing the weapon before America, he urged his fellow scientists to contain their findings and not make them public immediately. In fact, when he sent his own findings about the release of neutrons through uranium fission to one of the journals, he made a request for the publication of that information to be delayed for some time and persuaded his colleagues to adopt the same strategy. Despite this the team in Paris published the findings they had in a journal on March 18, 1939 and in less than a two months time news had reached the Nazi War Office in Berlin how the physics findings could lead to the development of an explosive whose capability could not be matched by the existing ones. This made Szilard to be worried about the possibility of Germany acquiring the large supplies of Uranium in the Congo that were under the control of Belgians, he went ahead to push Einstein to approach the Belgians and encourage them to safeguard this valuable commodity.

When Szilard suspected that Germans could be undertaking the same project of making the bomb, he wrote to Roosevelt informing him of this just as a precaution. However, in mid-1945 Szilard felt the idea of dropping the atomic bombs on Japan cities was not a good one and wrote to the then President, Truman, urging him to consider stopping he idea but due to the different chain in command that existed the letter was never delivered to the president. This was a bit inconsistent of him since he had promoted the development of the bomb but was now criticizing its use. Just in the same way as his colleagues who had migrated to from Europe, Szilard had specific and critically defensive motives, they all had a motive of enabling the United States to develop an atomic bomb not to use it on anyone but to be in a position of countervailing the capability of Germany making the first nuclear strike. Adhering strictly to this logic then the relevance of the atomic bomb ended with the surrender of Germany and the scientists expressed concern that there was no more fear. While the Szilard and many of his émigré colleagues were politically committed to defending the United States from Germany, the support given by the American scientists encouraged war much more comprehensively, diffusely, and was not focused which brought much controversy. The émigrés viewed the front enemies as Germans while the Americans put Japan as the first enemy especially in the later years of the war. This made the émigrés to suspect the government so much that they wanted to be heard with regard to the process of making policies and started demanding for political expressions without which they would withdraw their cooperation. The other concern that scientists had was that their efforts in the project could make them accountable for any destruction, a fact that many scientists did not anticipate.

After the failure of the frantic efforts and petitions by Szilard and his fellow scientists, the atomic bomb was at last dropped on Japan's two major cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, within a three day span respectively. This event created a gap between the scientists sociologically and between the major leaders within the project, this was just an expansion of a gap that had started widening from the commencement of the project. There were a lot of jubilations at Los Alamos; the jubilations were only compared to those witnessed at sports and games victories. The head of the project, Oppenheimer, joined in these celebrations and never looked regretful of the event and it is reported that he died without regretting this event even in the slightest manner. Even though there are instances that he confessed guilt these were never sincere as he expressed through a letter written to a friend before his death indicating that he had never regretted the event. These confessions have however overridden the expressions of Szilard of willingness to be the conscious side of the Manhattan Project. There were different reactions to the news of the two bombings between the Metallurgical Laboratory and Los Alamos. The scientists at the laboratory who were opposed to these bombings were shocked and bitter at the news while those at Los Alamos went out to celebrate. Angered with this move, the scientists wrote a petition to the president urging him to stop any further attacks as it would go against their moral standards but this petition was never sent due to the surrender of the Japanese the following day after the second attack [10] . A day after the Hiroshima bombing, Szilard sent a request that his first petition to the president be revealed to the public but his effort was thwarted by the military threatening to charge him with treason since revealing such information violated the Espionage Act and the relevant agreements to the Manhattan Project. It did not stop at this since he was also threatened by termination of his contract with the University of Chicago; Szilard was however secretly vetoed for a "Certificate of Appreciation for Civilian War Service" by General Groves who was the one who issued the threat [11] .

It was not anticipate that Szilard could ever think of leaving the field of physics but, may be from disappointment, he left it altogether a few years later and went back to what he loved most previously; biology. By the time he was leaving the field of physics, the political and ideological views of physicists were already being looked for and some respect was accorded to such ideas. The leaders of the church also condemned the act of bombing Japan and termed it an immoral act, this happened as the military and the principals of the project were trying to cope with the public relations disaster they were facing after the bombings. Groves did anticipate that news about the effects of radiation would come up thus he was ill-prepared and could not account for this when it came out. The reason for this unpreparedness could not be understood since throughout the project there were safety regulations that were observed and insurance coverage was offered in the laboratories but it is funny that the radiation effects were never mentioned anywhere whether in scientific or political sphere of the Manhattan Project. The only time that a little consideration was given was with regard to the safety of the pilots who would be involved in dropping the bomb but not with regard to the victims. When General Groves received reports that there were possible effects that would be created by the radiations, he got so upset and contacted a physician at Oak Ridge over this but the physician denied the reports terming them as mere propaganda. These denials were carried on and on by Groves and even campaigns and press conferences were done to this respect, all with an aim of encouraging the future use of the atomic bomb, the first target being Korea.

Lessons from the Manhattan Project

The Manhattan Project was not just an industrial effort but also a military one involving a lot of secrecy and rapid accomplishments through unconventional means and involving undefined technologies. This project has always been cited as a perfect example for solving pressing problems that are technical or social in nature. The first aspect of the project was that of simultaneously pursuing ways of finding a fissile material for bomb manufacture which led to the development of two methods, that of enriching Uranium, and producing plutonium. All other factors notwithstanding, it can be argued that pursuing multiple lines in the development of any project is a perfect strategy to achieve success in a large scale endeavor. The other aspect witnessed at the Manhattan project was that of practicing unconventional methods without following a definite path or sequence. Since they could not afford to waste any minute during the project, the compression of steps was a normal tendency. Even though this led to a number of problems, these were immediately corrected and the process continued. Even though this worked for this project, it is common that such a practice leads to failure and its consideration for any future project should be done with caution. The success can also be attributed to the blend of the efforts of individuals and the group which gave the leader greatness. The setting of clear and definite objectives of the project was also a supporting factor that can be directly applied to future projects.

The project was divided into different compartments which brought focus of the people since each element performed a specific task and when each was summed up the overall mission of the project was achieved. Even though there were numerous command channels they were well distinct, comprehensible, and unambiguous. The delegation of authority was always done in accordance with authority thus no conflicts could arise. Communication within the project was near perfect with rare written communications for purposes of secrecy and efficiency.


The current social, economic, and political problems can be compared to the Second World War in terms of urgency and magnitude; in fact they can be rated to be of a higher magnitude since they are not just national concerns but universal. For instance, the climate change problem can not be stated to be an American problem but a universal one. Just as the Americans took a step towards organizing, funding, and implementing the Manhattan Project for the sake of ending the Second World War so should they or any other country take the initiative to solve the current crises and involve the rest of the world. The history of Manhattan Project should not be read for the sake of enjoying history but should serve to teach the world about ways of solving the current and future situations.