This month, on September 2, 2015, marked the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. My book, A Patriot's A to Z of America: Things Every Good American Should Know, has several chapters on the war, including the D-Day invasion of France and the Pacific Ocean naval battle of Midway.
It also includes a chapter on the development of the device, the atomic bomb, which led to the end of the war through the use of the nuclear device on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan’s subsequent surrender. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan has always been controversial. Some argue that Japan in summer 1945 was already practically defeated, that most of its cities had already been destroyed by conventional bombing, and that the nuclear device was therefore unnecessary.
Others say that the government of Japan, and its very influential Emperor, showed little sign of surrendering at the time, and that an invasion of Japan with conventional weapons would have led to over a million casualties among Allied troops as well as Japanese soldiers and civilians.
One way to understand the attitude of the time among Americans is to examine the development of the bomb, by the war-time Manhattan Project.
An excerpt from the book’s chapter on that subject follows...
“…The smartest men in the world were about to test-fire a weapon that could end civilization--and they were acting silly. Enrico Fermi, the Nobel Prize-winning Italian physicist, jokingly bet on ‘whether the bomb would ignite the atmosphere.’ A nervous Robert Oppenheimer, the program’s lead scientist, wagered a colleague, an expert in plutonium, 10 dollars that the bomb would fizzle.
On July 16, 1945, the esteemed group of scientists, engineers, and government officials were gathered on a remote bombing range south of the town of Los Alamos, New Mexico--locally called La Jornada del Muerto, the Journey of Death. The test was code-named, with little pretention, Trinity.
At 5:30 A.M., their uranium device went off—with the force of 21,000 tons of TNT. For the first time, a giant mushroom-shaped cloud rose up from a nuclear blast. Oppenheimer’s colleague, five miles from the test site, was knocked off his feet. He cuffed his boss, exclaiming, ‘Oppie, you owe me ten dollars!’
More soberly, Oppenheimer reflected on the consequences of the program, code-named the Manhattan Project—Washington’s crash effort to construct an atomic weapon. He recalled an ancient Hindu text: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." More practically, the project’s military chief, Gen. Leslie Groves, stated the Second World War was now all but over—“after we drop two bombs on Japan.”
The genesis of the atomic bomb had been the growing power in the late 1930s of Japan’s ally, Nazi Germany, and the fear among European scientists opposed to the Adolph Hitler that the German dictator would be the first to build a nuclear bomb.
In December 1938, scientists in Berlin had managed to “split the atom,” dividing the nucleus of uranium atoms, and generating energy as a result. In theory, a chain reaction of such nuclear “fission” could generate enough energy for a great explosion. The following August, Albert Einstein--the renowned German-Jewish physicist who’d fled Hitler to teach at Princeton University--composed a letter for President Franklin Roosevelt. Citing the Nazi breakthrough, Einstein warned the President that “extremely powerful bombs of a new type may thus be constructed”.
After Japan’s December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, and Germany’s declaration of war on the U.S., the War Department mounted a gigantic effort to build such a bomb.
Leading the effort was Gen. Groves, an organizational genius who forced through the construction of the Pentagon, the world’s largest office building, in just 16 months. For the Manhattan Project, the no-nonsense Groves managed a workforce of 125,000, and the construction and operation of 30 far-flung sites, including four major facilities…”
The chapter shows that fears over Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan obtaining the bomb before the Allies fueled the mammoth American effort to develop it. Further, it suggests that having made such an effort, involving such a huge amount of resources and human talent, the United States would likely use such a weapon if the military found a need for it.
70 years on, with a number of nations having large stockpiles of nuclear weapons, and with fears of countries such as Iran or North Korea acquiring or adding to their own stockpiles, the Manhattan Project seems worthy of our attention more than ever.