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Origins of Power: The Manhattan Project

Prepared for
Lora Roberts
HIS201 United States History

Prepared by
Dennis Williams

October 23, 2006

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Dennis Williams

Lora Roberts

HIS201 United States History

October 23, 2006

Origins of Power: The Manhattan Project

On January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy made his inaugural speech to accept the

presidency. He stated, “The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the

power to abolish all forms of human poverty, and all forms of human life.” A more true

statement has never been spoken. As I read this quote while working on another activity, I

realized that I had picked the correct topic for this report. I have always felt that mankind would

benefit more from directing their efforts to working together to rid the world of poverty, disease,

hunger, and strife. We have the power. Yet, sadly, we still proceed to build weapons of mass

destruction in the fear that one of our neighbors will build one more bomb, or a bigger bomb,

leaving us unprepared to defend ourselves. The origins of this power are quite fascinating, just as

the consequences are even more so disturbing.

In 1932, John Crocket and Ernest Walton confirmed the theory that had been postulated

by Albert Einstein that mass could be converted into energy. After nuclear fission was

discovered by two German scientists, Otto Hahn and Fritz Strassmann, in 1939, there were many

United States scientists that expressed the fear that Hitler would attempt to build a fission bomb.

A team of Hungarian-born physicists comprised of Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Edward

Teller approached Albert Einstein with a request to address a letter to President Roosevelt,
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pleading for support to further research the power of nuclear fission. Spurred on by the letter,

President Roosevelt ordered that an American effort begin to acquire an atomic weapon before

the Germans could perfect the process. These efforts gave birth to a top secret program that was

later to be named the Manhattan Project (Grolier 252).

The Manhattan Project received its name, appropriately so, from the Manhattan Engineer

District of the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers where control for the project was placed and much

of the early work was performed (Rhodes 450). Since 1939, many physicists had already

conducted a great amount of research to find answers to such questions as how many neutrons

were emitted in each fission, which elements would not capture the neutrons but would moderate

or reduce their velocity, and whether only the lighter and scarcer isotope of uranium, known as

uranium-235, fissioned, or if the common isotope, known as uranium-238, could be used. They

learned that each fission reaction released a few neutrons. A chain reaction, therefore, was

theoretically possible, if not too many neutrons escaped from the mass or were captured by

impurities (Rhodes 335). To create this chain reaction and turn it into a usable weapon was the

ultimate goal of the Manhattan Project.

General Brehon Somervel, who was in charge of the Army Services Supply and the

Army Corps of Engineers, was approached by Vannevar Bush to appoint someone to lead the

project. His choice was General Leslie Groves (Rhodes 424). One of the first acts he performed

was to purchase a site located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to use as storage facilities to keep the

uranium stores separated. During that time, the work to perfect the firing mechanism and

structure of the bomb was also swiftly underway.

General Groves then proceeded to his next task, to select a scientific director for the

bomb project. His first two choices, Ernest O. Lawrence, director of the electromagnetic
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separation project, and Arthur H. Compton, director of Chicago Metallurgical Laboratory, were

not available. Groves harbored doubts about the next available candidate, J. Robert

Oppenheimer. Finally, Groves gambled on Oppenheimer, a theoretical mathematician, as

director of the weapons laboratory which was built on an isolated mesa at Los Alamos, New

Mexico (Rhodes 449).

In late 1943, Kellex, one of the building and operating contractors, devised an absorbent

barrier that was suitable for separating isotopes of uranium and installed it in the Oak Ridge

gaseous diffusion plant (Rhodes 495). Then in 1945, uranium-235 of bomb purity was shipped to

Los Alamos, where it was fashioned into a gun-type weapon. One piece of uranium was fired at

another in a barrel causing the two to form a super-critical explosive mass. To achieve chain-

reaction fission, a certain amount of fissionable material, referred to as the critical mass, is

needed. The type of fissionable material used in the model detonated at Hiroshima was uranium-

235. The uranium in the bomb was separated into two parts, both of which were below critical

mass (Rhodes 466). The design of the bomb was such that one part would be slammed into the

other by an explosive device to achieve critical mass instantaneously. Once critical mass is

achieved then continuous fission, or a chain reaction, takes place very rapidly, releasing far more

energy than a gun-powder explosion and resulting in an implosion (Rhodes 467).

Under the direction of Enrico Fermi, another type of atomic bomb was built consisting of

the synthetic element plutonium. He constructed a reactor at Chicago in 1942 which was the

forerunner of five production reactors erected later at Hanford, Washington. Plutonium was

manufactured in these reactors by bombarding uranium-238 with neutrons. Later on when it was

used at Los Alamos, the plutonium was surrounded with high explosives to compress it into a

super-dense, super-critical mass at a much faster rate than could be accomplished in a gun barrel.
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The result, code named Trinity, was tested on July 16, 1945, and was the first explosion of an

atomic device (Rhodes 670).

Though many decisions were made regarding the atomic bomb by many important

individuals, deployment of this device was ultimately up to President Harry Truman. President

Roosevelt may have made all the decisions that brought about the Manhattan Project but, sadly

as it was, he died of a massive cerebral hemorrhage on April 12, 1945, three months before the

first successful test of the Trinity bomb (Rhodes 613). This placed the burden of responsibility

on Truman, who really had no inkling at this point as to the power and subsequent effects the

bomb was capable of. He discounted Germany’s position as a target because of the end of the

war in Europe and then just as hastily chose Japan. The use of the atomic bomb was intended to

make the Japanese see that the United States meant business. It was supposed to shock them to

surrender. But Leo Szilard, after considering all the moral implications of its use, initiated a

petition to offer the opinion that the use of the atomic bomb should only come into play if Japan

refused to surrender. In spite of this, the decision was made to use it until Japan did surrender

(Rhodes 697).

“Fat Man” was an implosion-type atomic bomb. It was about 5 feet in diameter, weighing

in at about 5,000 pounds. Instead of uranium-235, it contained plutonium-239 which was divided

into below-critical-mass units and packed within the large sphere. Detonation came about by way

of a gun powder explosion that would compress the units to the center of the sphere to achieve

fission (Rhodes 660). Though there was only slightly more than one kilogram of plutonium-239,

it was estimated to have the destructive power of approximately 20,000 pounds of TNT (Rhodes

677). It was decided that this device would be used on the Japanese city of Nagasaki (Rhodes

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A gun-barrel type atomic bomb was used at Hiroshima, the primary target selected.

Called “Thin Man” at first, due to its long and narrow design, later in the construction process it

was modified by shortening the length and being rechristened “Little Boy” (Rhodes 541). It was

10 ½ feet long, 29 inches in diameter, and weighed 9,700 pounds (Rhodes 701). Oppenheimer

estimated the blast yield to be anywhere from 2,000 to 20,000 pounds of TNT with less than one

kilogram of uranium-235 housed within the bomb (Rhodes 643).

On August 6, 1945, an American B-29 bomber named Enola Gay flew over the city of

Hiroshima, opening its bomb-bay doors and ejecting “Little Boy” to the sky. On that day, the

resident population of the city was believed to be approximately 290,000 civilians plus about

43,000 soldiers. At 8:16:02, only 43 seconds after leaving the plane, “Little Boy” exploded with

a vengeful yield equivalent to 12,500 pounds of TNT (Rhodes 711). The temperature of the

explosion reached over 5,400°. Birds literally ignited in the sky. Human beings within a half

mile of the fireball were seared to bundles of smoking black char, their internal organs boiled

away (Rhodes 715). Of over 76,000 buildings in Hiroshima, 70,000 were damaged or destroyed

with 48,000 completely demolished (Rhodes 729). By most recent estimates, the death toll in

1945 was over 140,000 people with a five-year death total, including those dying from radiation

and other injuries, of close to 200,000 men, women, and children (Rhodes 734).
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Yes, the war was ended quickly. The world had changed, for better or worse, and would

never be the same again. This marvelous scientific discovery, a truly awesome feat on the part of

the members of the Manhattan Project, changed the face of the world as we knew it. At the

Marquis Who’s Who® web site, Dr. Oppenheimer is quoted as saying, “We knew the world

could not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I

remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: "I am became Death, the

destroyers of worlds." I suppose we all thought that, one way or another.” These were his

thoughts after the Trinity test in July of 1945. Yes, we had the power…but at what cost? It is

truly a shame that the cost of peace and prosperity must always seem to be so high. One can

only wonder why it seems that progress such as this is only available at such a high cost of

human life. If we could find a way to turn all of this magnificent knowledge to ridding the world

of our sorrows, instead of each other, how far could the human race advance? I would hope one

day we may mature enough to find out.

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Works Cited

“J. Robert Oppenheimer.” Marquis Who’s Who®. 2006. Marquis Who’s Who LLC. 19 October

2006 <>

Grolier Encyclopedia of Knowledge. Danbury: Grolier Incorporated, 1991

Rhodes, Richard. The Making of the Atomic Bomb. New York: Simon and Schuster

Paperbacks®, 1986