It was 1939 and U.S. intelligence operatives had just informed President Franklin D. Roosevelt that Adolf Hitler’s scientists were working on a nuclear weapon. Roosevelt then formed the Advisory Committee on Uranium. Comprised of military officials and scientists, the committee was tasked to research the possibility of weaponizing uranium.
The research proved successful and soon the government began funding two scientists from Columbia University, Enrico Fermi and Leo Szilard. Their research delved into radioactive isotope separation, or uranium enrichment, and nuclear chain reactions.
During a span of two years, the committee went through numerous name changes. In 1940, the committee was called the National Defense Research Committee, and then, in 1941, it became the Office of Scientific Research and Development (OSRD). Enrico Fermi, the scientist from Columbia University, was also added to the office’s roster of members.
As the OSRD was beginning to form, WWII continued to devastate the country and inch closer to the United States. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. entered the war, aligning with Russia, France, and Great Britain to fight the Germans and the Japanese. The alignment put pressure on the OSRD. In 1942, the Army Corps of Engineers joined the project, officially making it a military initiative.
The OSRD had increased its size and scope, and therefore needed a space that could contain their research and all the hands involved in it. They moved their operation into New York in 1942 and formed the Manhattan Engineer District. Spearheaded by U.S. Army Colonel Leslie R. Groves, the operation soon became known as the Manhattan Project, which was the name that stuck.
Though based in a borough of New York City, work on the project soon spanned the country and continent. Roosevelt authorized the Project to combine all of the various research that was being conducted on nuclear energy. Remote facilities were then built in Tennessee, Washington, New Mexico, and Canada. The Manhattan Project had the best minds the country possessed working to develop and test their creations.
One of those minds was the now-infamous J. Robert Oppenheimer who had been researching the concept of nuclear fission. In 1943, Oppenheimer had just been named director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, also known as Project Y, in New Mexico.
Two years later, on July 16, 1945, an enormous mushroom cloud of red desert sand erupted nearby the Project Y complex. The first atomic bomb had been detonated—and it was successful, reaching a height of approximately 40,000 feet.
Oppenheimer’s team was able to develop two types of atomic bombs. One, named “the Little Boy” was uranium-based and had never officially been tested. The other, known as “the Fat Man” was plutonium-based. Despite their silly names, these two bombs became a key factor in the United States’s strategy to bring an end to WWII.
To say the least, the creation and detonation of atomic bombs was, and still is, quite the controversial subject. With the devastating effects of WWII seeming to never end, military officials were eager to put a stop to the terror and destruction. At the 1945 Potsdam Conference in Potsdam, Germany, the U.S. warned the Japanese to surrender under the terms of the conference’s declaration or face “prompt and utter destruction.”
Suffice to say, the Japanese did not heed the warning. On August 6, 1945, a bomber plane known as the Enola Gay dropped the untested “Little Boy” bomb over Hiroshima. On August 9, after three days of no surrender, the “Fat Boy” was dropped over Nagasaki. Together, the bombs killed over 100,000 people and completely annihilated two cities.
On August 10, 1945, the Japanese informed the newly appointed President, Harry Truman, that they were seeking to surrender. Four days later the surrender was official.
The U.S. backed research did not end in 1945, even after public backlash and worldwide outrage over the devastation of nuclear weapons. Fear of the technology grew rapidly. Despite this, the United States formed the Atomic Energy Commission to carry on the research efforts and technologies created by the Manhattan Project.
As fear continued to mount, in 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson ended the U.S. government’s monopoly of nuclear energy. From that point forward, private ownership of nuclear materials was legal.
Fear of the technologies created by the Manhattan Project can still be felt today. Weapons of such scope and power have the ability to wipe out a city, a culture, and a way of life in mere seconds. All wars fought since WWII have brought along the mere possibility of another nuclear attack, and nuclear wars are feared by every country in the world.
Though the Manhattan Project was able to effectively end WWII, did it perhaps create an even more devastating future?