In 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt received a letter, the contents of which would send the United States government into a scientific frenzy. The letter was from Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard, warning the president that the Nazis were working toward building an atomic bomb, the likes of which had never been seen before. So, in late 1941, the Manhattan Project was born.
Life in Los Alamos
Einstein himself was denied security clearance to work on the project, but 6,000 other scientists including Richard Feynman, Niels Bohr, Edward Teller and Enrico Fermi, and headed by J. Robert Oppenheimer. Together with their spouses and children, the scientists and many military personnel lived in seclusion in Los Alamos.
The Manhattan project was extremely secretive. Mail was censored, long distance phone calls were monitored, and no one living on the premises was allowed to travel farther than 100 miles off-site. The scientists were not allowed to discuss any details of their work with any non-scientists, including their families.
The Trinity Test: The first atomic bomb detonates
Scientists and engineers worked on designing and building the bomb for nearly four years. Many of the scientists started a betting pool on the expected yield of the test. Bets ranged from zero to 45,000 tons of TNT.
The night of July 15, 1945 it began to rain and many scientists wants to postpone the test. However, the rain let up around 4 a.m. and the test was pushed to 5:30 a.m. Tensions were high. Some thought it wouldn't work and others thought it would destroy the entire state of New Mexico.
The bomb dropped from a 100-foot tall tower and detonated. The blast was unfathomable. The light from the explosion could be seen from 160 miles away. The yield of the bomb was an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 tons of TNT. The 100-foot tower had completely disappeared. In its place was a crater about 2,400 feet wide and 6 feet deep in the middle.
Brigadier General Thomas F. Farrell said afterwards, "It was a great new force to be used for good or for evil . . . As to the present war, there was a feeling that no matter what else might happen, we now had the means to insure its speedy conclusion and save thousands of American lives. As to the future, there had been brought into being something big and something new that would prove to be immeasurably more important than the discovery of electricity or any of the other great discoveries which have so affected our existence.”
Immediate controversy over use of atomic weapons
The proof that the atomic bomb could work was not enough. Even though the Germans were no longer active in battle, war still raged on with Japan. The United States government planned to bomb two cities—Nagasaki and Hiroshima—three weeks after the Trinity test.
Some scientists objected, saying the bomb was meant as a measure against the Nazis. Leo Szilard, who helped write that led to the creation of the Manhattan Project, urged other scientists to sign a petition. He wanted to demonstrate the power of the bomb to the Japanese instead of obliterating them. Despite the 155 signatures the petition garnered, the U.S. went ahead with their plans.
Five days after the attack on Nagasaki, World War II came to a close. Some say it was a necessary evil—that the war would have been dragged out and many more people would have died anyway. Others think that Szilard was right in wanting to demonstrate rather than demolish.
Whatever the outcome could have been, the actual effects were tremendous. The scientists involved in the Manhattan Project pushed the world into an era of incredible potential and incredible danger—the Atomic Age.