The Manhattan Project
Written by: Edward G. Lengel, The National World War II Museum
By the end of this section, you will:.
- Explain the causes and effects of the victory of the United States and its allies over the Axis Powers
Use this narrative with the Dropping the Atomic Bomb Decision Point and the Was the Use of the Atomic Bomb Justified? DBQ Lesson to show the development of the United States’ nuclear program and subsequent use in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Fundamental discoveries about the nature of the atom took place during the most war-torn century in human history. By the 1920s and 1930s, scientists were intensively studying the military ramifications of atomic power. In 1938, German chemist Otto Hahn scored a breakthrough by not only splitting the uranium atom but also discovering the immense explosive potential of the process. He and other German scientists immediately moved on to focus their research on creating an atomic bomb for the Nazi state.
Scientists in other nations quickly became aware of the German work in this field and initiated atomic programs of their own. Nuclear research in Britain, led by German scientists who had fled the Nazi regime, surged ahead with the discovery that it would be possible to build a bomb with only small quantities of the rare isotope uranium-235. Lacking this knowledge, and assuming it would take many years to acquire the supplies necessary to build a bomb, German scientists had slowed their work by the early 1940s. But other scientists did not know this. On August 2, 1939, famed scientist Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt urging him to accelerate his country’s atomic program to ensure that the Germans did not develop the bomb first.
An alarmed Roosevelt responded energetically, especially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the American entry into World War II in Europe and Asia. Led by his scientific advisors to believe that, with great effort, an atomic weapon could be developed by 1944, on June 17, 1942, the president initiated the atomic program that came to be called the Manhattan Project. Unlike the Germans, who assumed they would win the war quickly and that continuing their atomic program was thus not worth the trouble, the Americans and British anticipated a long conflict and so were deeply committed to their projects. They shared information with each other along the way, but not with the Soviet Union. Soviet espionage nevertheless monitored the Anglo-American programs with a degree of success that was not known until many years later.
The Manhattan Project, named after a supervisory district of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Manhattan, New York, oversaw the U.S. atomic program. It was headed by General Leslie R. Groves and carried out its work at facilities in Illinois, Tennessee, Washington state, and New Mexico ([link]Figure_12_03_ManProjMap[/link]). Progress was rapid, thanks not just to scientific work but to America’s vast industrial capacity. In December 1942, scientists Enrico Fermi and Arthur Compton created the first-ever uranium chain reaction in the basement of the University of Chicago’s football stadium. In a facility built the following year on a mesa at Los Alamos, New Mexico, meanwhile, scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team worked to create the first atomic bomb.
(a) Enrico Fermi, one of the Manhattan Project scientists, created the first nuclear reactor, the Chicago Pile-1. (b) Important sites associated with the Manhattan Project were scattered across the country.
The expenses of the top-secret Manhattan Project were concealed from Congress, subsumed in appropriations for the War Department. By the time the war ended, they totaled approximately $2 billion, dwarfing every other wartime military project except the creation of the B-29 Superfortress bomber. Roosevelt ensured that his atomic scientists were never short of funds, however, knowing that if the project succeeded, no one would question the cost.
The first bomb was nearly complete at the time of President Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945. New president Harry S. Truman ordered the program to move forward despite Germany’s impending surrender, with a view toward possibly using the weapon against Japan. While the interim committee Truman created considered the military, political, and moral advisability of using the bomb, Oppenheimer’s team completed the first-ever atomic weapon and prepared it for testing.
The test, codenamed “Trinity,” took place on July 16, 1945, in the desert at Alamogordo, New Mexico, 200 miles south of Los Alamos. The device, mounted on a metal tower, consisted of just 13.5 pounds of plutonium encased in two-and-a-half tons of explosives. It exploded at 5:29 a.m. to devastating effect, equal to the detonation of almost 20,000 tons of TNT. Groves and Oppenheimer witnessed the atomic fireball expand into a mushroom cloud visible 60 miles away. Horrified by what he saw, Oppenheimer called to mind words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” But it was too late to turn back. The world had entered the nuclear age.
(a) In 1945, the mushroom cloud from the first atomic weapon test, “Trinity,” could be seen as far as 60 miles away. (b) J. Robert Oppenheimer and General Leslie Groves inspect the aftermath of the explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, in July 1945.
On August 6, the Enola Gay , a B-29 Superfortress, dropped the uranium bomb nicknamed Little Boy, which exploded with the force of 12,500 tons of TNT 1,900 feet above the Japanese city of Hiroshima. With a blinding flash and rising mushroom cloud, the blast and resulting firestorm obliterated the city and destroyed 70,000 buildings. People were vaporized from the blast and their shadows imprinted on walls. An estimated 70,000 to 80,000 civilians and soldiers were immediately killed, and thousands later died of radiation poisoning and burns. Tormented survivors were disfigured with hanging skin and burns. President Truman sent public messages announcing the dropping of an atomic bomb and threatened more if Japan refused to surrender. Still, the Japanese government fought on.
On August 9, another B-29 bomber dropped a plutonium bomb called Fat Man on Nagasaki, with an even larger blast equivalent to 22,000 tons of TNT. Due to significant cloud cover this second bomb missed its target by a wide margin, somewhat limiting its destructive impact. Nevertheless, it killed at least 30,000 people and caused suffering for thousands of survivors. Over the next five days, conventional bombings of other major cities killed an additional 15,000 Japanese. Finally, on August 14, Japan surrendered and World War II ended.
The development of the atomic bomb and the ensuing arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union, along with their allies, ushered in the nuclear age and imperiled all humanity. Although the only atomic bombs ever used were those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II, the Cold War led to the credible threat of their additional use and the fear of widespread destruction.
1. The costs associated with the Manhattan Project did not lead to protest primarily because
- Congress considered the costs to be justified
- President Roosevelt overruled any objections
- atomic bombs were inexpensive to build
- they were concealed from Congress
2. The atomic explosion at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945
- failed to produce the desired results
- ended World War II
- proved the success of the Manhattan Project
- convinced President Truman the atomic bomb was too powerful to use
3. Development of the atomic bomb in the United States during the 1940s occurred
- at various locations throughout the United States
- primarily in Manhattan, New York
- exclusively under civilian leadership
- primarily using the research generated by American scientists
4. The American scientist who oversaw the Manhattan Project was
- Leslie Groves
- Robert Oppenheimer
- Enrico Fermi
5. The scientific advances behind the Manhattan Project primarily benefited from
- the work of émigré scientists from totalitarian regimes
- Anglo-American military cooperation
- American anticipation of a short military conflict
- exchange of nuclear scientific knowledge between the United States and the Soviet Union
Free Response Questions
- Analyze the factors that led the United States to build the first atomic bomb.
- Describe the organization of the Manhattan Project.
AP Practice Questions
“Sir: Some recent work by E. Fermi and L. Szilard . . . leads me to expect that the element uranium may be turned into a new and important source of energy in the immediate future. . . . I believe therefore that it is my duty to bring to your attention the following facts and recommendations. . . . It may be possible to set up a nuclear chain reaction in a large mass of uranium . . . This new phenomenon would also lead to the construction of bombs . . . A single bomb of this type, carried by boat and exploded in a port, might very well destroy the whole port together with some of the surrounding territory. However, such bombs might very well prove too heavy for transportation by air. . . . In view of this situation you may think it desirable to have some permanent contact maintained between the Administration and the group of physicists working on chain reactions in America.”
Albert Einstein, Letter to President Franklin Roosevelt, August 2, 1939
1. The sentiments expressed in the excerpt most directly led to the
- creation of the Manhattan Project
- implementation of the island-hopping strategy
- D-Day invasion
- defeat of Nazi Germany
2. Which group would most likely support the argument made in the excerpt?
- Critics of the military-industrial complex
- Opponents of the Treaty of Versailles
- Proponents of the Lend-Lease Act
- Isolationists such as the America First group
3. This excerpt was written in response to the
- federal programs created by the New Deal
- rise of fascism in Europe
- debates about the morality of using atomic weapons
- expansion of communist ideology in Southeast Asia
Einstein, Albert. 1939 letter to President Roosevelt. http://www.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/archives/pdfs/docsworldwar.pdf
“Trinity Test Eyewitnesses.” Atomic Heritage Foundation . https://www.atomicheritage.org/key-documents/trinity-test-eyewitnesses
Bird, Kai, and Martin J. Sherwin. American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer . New York: Knopf, 2005.
Chambers, John Whiteclay, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History . Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Conant, Jennet. 109 East Palace: Robert Oppenheimer and the Secret City of Los Alamos . New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005.
Kelly, Cynthia C., ed. Manhattan Project: The Birth of the Atomic Bomb in the Words of its Creators, Eyewitnesses, and Historians . New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2009.
Kunetka, James. The General and the Genius: Groves and Oppenheimer – The Unlikely Partnership that Built the Atom Bomb . New York: Regnery, 2015.
Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb . New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987.
Weinberg, Gerhard L. A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II . Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994.
Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness
In our resource history is presented through a series of narratives, primary sources, and point-counterpoint debates that invites students to participate in the ongoing conversation about the American experiment.
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- Race and Ethnicity
The Manhattan Project and atomic bomb creation
Updated 10 April 2021
Subject Race and Ethnicity
Category Sociology , War
Topic Albert Einstein , Atomic Bomb , German , Nuclear Weapon
The global science community heard early in 1939 that German physicists had discovered the splitting of a uranium atom; there was concern about the possibility that Nazi scientists could cause widespread destruction by using the energy to produce explosives. Scientists Albert Einstein, who survived Nazi persecution, and Enrico Fermi, who also escaped Fascist Italy, are now living in the United States. They agreed that the President should be aware of the risks to atomic energy in the hands of the Axis Authority. In March, Fermi went to Washington to express his dissatisfaction with federal administrators (Kelly 5-8). Einstein did write a memo to President Roosevelt that initiating the formation of atomic research project. Roosevelt, however, saw no need to such project but stated that he would proceed slowly. In 1941, the American attempt to devise and construct an atomic bomb caught its name- the Manhattan Project.A break took place in December 1942 when Fermi led a team of physicists to generate an atomic controlled nuclear chain reaction in the University of Chicago. Other processes have taken place (Kelly 6-9). In 1945, the world got into the nuclear age following the setting off of the initial atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project generated 3 bombs; the 1st bomb called the gadget and was utilized as an experimental model. Because of the huge costs and slow creation rates for explosive material, no additional assessments were carried out (Alexieff 181-184). The second bomb known as little boy which was detonated in the Hiroshima town and the last one was known as fat man which got detonated in Nagasaki city.Nuclear development went on all through the war. The danger of a German bomb was not a actuality and as Nazis got defeated in 1945, none of the sides had manufactured functional bombs. Nonetheless, pressure to finish the weapons was huge. An atomic bomb was regarded as a main substitute to the feared land raid of the Japanese land. Numerous scientists who had manufactured these bombs were in opposition to its usage and asserted that the bombs ought not to be utilized for moral grounds (Alexieff 186). They additionally cautioned of a weapon battle that may come up after the war. Others, nonetheless, believe US did not attack Japan in contrast it was defending its country because Japan attacked them first.The history of Manhattan Project stayed confidential for a long time. Harry S. Truman, who was the vice president then, was not even aware of the project up until the demise of President Roosevelt in 1945. The Manhattan Project permitted the US to unchain the obscurities of atom; however, it additionally brought about the greatest vicious conception of warfare known to humanity (Fehner, and Gosling 6). The project was the precursor in nuclear expansion and power and symbolized the start of a period of nuclear weaponry and scientific innovation.The rationalization for the utilization of atomic bombs during the World War II was deliberated upon, the people against the idea blaming the scientists and military operators for not responsibly using the scientific discovery. As the Manhattan project continued, scientists became more centered on the outstanding discoveries than the implications. In due time, they got to know that the bomb was going to be employed. A few wanted to quit the project for ethical reasons; they refused to contribute to the annihilation of humanity (Bernstein 30-35). Numerous populaces presented their viewpoints against the utilizing off atomic weapons, stating that other nations could soon be atomic powers as well and the peace and safety of the world could be at risk. In spite of objection, the US chose to go ahead with the employment of atomic bombs. The government and its proponents thought that they were doing the right thing and it was the only means to end the war. They were afraid that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) could attempt to widen communism if the war continue.Following the announcement of the Manhattan project, the use of bombs in Hiroshima which lead to the loss of lives made some scientists felt guilty. Scientist and director of Manhattan project J. Robert Oppenheimer once stated that when one sees something that is technically sweet, he or she goes ahead and does it. When at first the bomb never exploded, some scientists felt relieved. However, when there was a successful employment of the bomb in Nagasaki, many scientists felt it was not necessary and there was no moral justification for it. Numerous scientists were happy with their accomplishment and discoveries, however, the use of bombs was what disturbed many (Bernstein 42). They felt that it was reckless and uncalled for. Other means could have been employed. Some felt that the public should have been informed of the effects of the bomb.In the battle of the war, President Truman, the then president of the United States noted that the Japanese did not surrender easily in spite of their defeat Japanese was already wounded and their defeat was just imminent. The employment of atomic bombs by President Truman was deemed unnecessary by many historians who believed that Japan had already been defeated (Stimson and Harry 50). By utilizing the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US showed their power. After its use, many historians have seen the US from battling the Japanese to fighting the Soviet Union. Realizing that following admit defeat of Germany, the soviets were promised to be warfare against Japan, the US decided to stop the warfare first prior to Soviet Forces moving to East Asia. The bomb was intended to stop soviet spreading out to the pacific and to show Joseph Stalin that United States had weapon that can wipe out any country globally.President Harry S Truman and his advisors were preoccupied with the atomic bomb since it assured the US a situation as the definite winner of the war, independent of soviet aid (Fehner, and Gosling 8). This was important since President Roosevelt’s and Truman were unwilling to acknowledge the support from Russia. Additionally, they did not agree to give Russia postwar acknowledgments that could have come with the wartime aid.The US and Russia alliance were not good to say the least. The two presidents together with other lawmakers dreaded the prevalence of communism especially in the Eastern Europe and Asia; the places assumed that Soviet premier Joseph Stalin could opt to govern since because he supported the allies win the warfare. Roosevelt had a working relationship with Stalin; however Truman disregarded it when he took office (Fehner, and Gosling 12). He preferred a hard line approach toward communism. This was seen towards the end of the war. While Roosevelt may have given Stalin some influence in the Eastern Europe so as to uphold amicable foreign relations, Truman was adamant. Therefore for Truman the atomic bomb offered a perfect excuse to keep Russia and communism away from Europe and Asia hence eliminating any acknowledgments owed to Stalin for Russian involvement (Stimson and Harry 50). Truman’s intention of using the bomb was seen soon after completion since he never informed Stalin about it; rather he just stated he had a weapon of immense vicious force. Truman was guarded in order to shock the Russians and Japanese.Truman was draw to the efficacy of the bomb. It replaced the sluggish and pricey utilization of armies that had to move across Asia and eradicated the complex harmonization needed of tactical military plans. It also substituted the complexities present in Russian contribution in the pacific. Even though Stalin had pledged to fight war in august 1945, the bomb was easier and beneficial military substitute for the US. Additionally, it was powerful to eliminate a whole civilization and beat Japan to surrender. Truman opted to use this powerful weapon, bomb as a sign of power with the intention that Americans can share the credit for ending the war. Truman applied what historian is known as atomic diplomacy, i.e. he employed the bomb as an alternative to negotiation with Stalin (Stimson and Harry 52). For Truman, the bomb displayed many things to Stalin. One the US had triumphed over Japan devoid of Soviet Assistance and henceforth would not grant Stalin post war acknowledgements, secondly United States was leading in atomic pursuit and lastly that Truman had a harmful weapon and was ready to employ it if need be.The bomb gave Truman confidence which can be said bordered arrogance and a sense of independence and control. Bombs were dropped precisely before Russia began the war so that the US has undisputed power of the peace process. The US ended the war independently and managed to save millions of lives therefore the world was indebted to its achievements (Hubbard 362). The bomb was a remarkable demonstration of technological expertise and military approach, both a milestone in technological field and brave choice making.Moral and Ethics of Atomic WeaponsAtomic weapons have the capacity to wipe out a complete civilization. It has proven to be very dangerous and very destructive that its ethically in employment has been debated upon severally. As discussed earlier, President Truman use of atomic bomb raised many concerns among the scientific, historians, law makers as well as the general public. A country possessing a destructive weapon poses a huge fear as it can fall to the hands of a vile dictator who might exploit their powers to oppress the poor nations (Finnis, Joseph and Germain 10) . Note in the bombing of Japan, the most victims were actually innocent civilians. Legal and ethical issues continue to plague humanity. What the world is confronted with is the nuclear deterrence with its dependence on the horrific destruction of large numbers of innocent individuals, devastation of the environment rendering it inhabitable to generations to come (Granoff 11).With the power struggles amongst the superpowers in the world, that is the United States, China, Russia and currently the North Korea, there a massive world war III is imminent. And with the advent and advancement of technology, these nations are equipped with powerful nuclear weapons capable of destroying the entire humanity in the world (Granoff 13). International laws do not entirely prohibit the use of nuclear weapons so it can be started that the world has minimal legal protection. Deterrence proponents assert that atomic bombs are not tools for waging war but rather political instruments aimed at preventing war by depriving it of any possible rationale. This theory can be seen by the use of President Truman where he employed atomic bombs to show supremacy and power.The key issues in nuclear weapons are the loss of innocent lives and the destruction of the environment thus becoming detrimental to human kind. This often has begged the advocacy establishment of laws by the international community from many human rights groups (Menu et al. 8). The five nuclear declared stated actually happen to be the super powers who are currently fighting. These states are United States, France, China, Russia, and United Kingdom.ConclusionNuclear weapons may seem necessary when the security of a country has been threatened, however, the aftereffects is what has been ethically debated upon. How would its employment be done without causing unnecessary implications on the innocent lives and environments. The international community is tasked with a lot of issue in regards to the laws governing the the nuclear weapon use. With the pudding world war III, it is faced with the challenge of safeguarding the safety of the world.Works CitedAlexieff, A. "The Manhattan project." Defense Nationale et Securite Collective (2010): 181-186.Bernstein, Barton J. "Roosevelt, Truman, and the atomic bomb, 1941-1945: a reinterpretation." Political Science Quarterly 90.1 (1975): 23-69.Fehner, Terrence R., and F. G. Gosling. "The Manhattan Project." (2012).Finnis, John, Joseph Boyle, and Germain Grisez. "Nuclear deterrence, morality and realism." (1988).Granoff, Jonathan. "Nuclear weapons, ethics, morals, and law." BYU L. Rev. (2000): 1413.Hubbard, Bryan. "Reassessing Truman, the bomb, and revisionism: The burlesque frame and entelechy in the decision to use atomic weapons against Japan." Western Journal of Communication (includes Communication Reports) 62.3 (1998): 348-385.Kelly, Cynthia C. "The Manhattan Project." Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, New York Google Scholar (2007).Menu, Main, et al. "Deterrence or Disarmament?: The Ethics of Nuclear Warfare February 4, 2016."Stimson, Henry L., and Harry S. Truman. "The decision to use the atomic bomb." Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 3.2 (1947): 37-67.
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It was a day in the eyes of Americans as a day to remember. A day that our country was caught off-guard by the Japanese, in what brought us into the WWII. On December 7, 1941, the U.S. crawled out of isolation and declared war on Japan after it's devastating attack on Pearl Harbor. . In 1939, the Nazis were rumored to be developing an atomic bomb. The United States announced its own program under the Army Corps of Engineers in June 1942. The United States needed to build an atomic weapon before Germany or Japan did. It began with a letter to President Roosevelt by Albert Einstein. (Copy of this doc. at end of report). With the help of Leo Szilard, Einstein convinced President Roosevelt that Germany might just be using uranium and fission research to create a new type of super bomb. Einstein helped the United States start the same research of uranium and fission that was taking place in Germany. This new project was called the Manhattan project. It was called this because of the previous research that was done at Columbia University located on the Manhattan Island in New York. But it was not until the day after the Pearl Harbor attack, on December 6, 1941, that the necessary funds were given to begin the project. These funds gave Enrico Fermi the opportunity to achieve the first controllable chain reaction which he successfully did on December 2, 1942. Einstein was never officially part of the Manhattan Project, but he took the important role in getting it started. In the summer of 1942, Oppenhemier a highly renounced physicist put together a conference in Berkeley, California where top physicist discussed the possibility of an atomic bomb. In 1943, Oppenheimer became the scientific director for the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer was involved through every step of the project. . There were two different facilities that were built for the Manhattan Project to produce the needed elements-uranium and plutonium.
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